On duty

It happens the day I get my hair cut.

I look at the brown locks lying forlornly on the salon floor and swallow, still uncertain this is really happening. I leave the place on shaky legs, taking a deep breath and looking around me, before I decide that I need a walk – to think, to…

Breathe, I suppose.

I don’t know how I find myself on the park bench, idly people-watching, playing with the neat ends of my newly-cut hair; I do know, however, that the guy on the bench isn’t human.

Since when have humans ever appeared out of thin air?

He watches me levelly; he looks older than me, maybe early twenties. Or nineteen. Or eternal, ageless. It really is difficult to tell.

It takes me a moment to place him – really, the white horse suddenly grazing on the park grass, apparently invisible to all passers-by, the way the day suddenly seems ever-so-slightly more grey, and the impossible paleness of his skin should’ve given it away. Or the black hoodie. Or the fact that, when I ask him what his name is, he replies, “I’ve got a few.” His voice has all accents and none, impossible to place, but it’s as familiar as a half-remembered lullaby. Safe. He smiles, looking to the clouds, and then back to me. “Try Azrael. It’d probably be a bit better on your tongue.”

I admit, I’m slow on my mythology, and I’ve certainly never known much Hebrew, but it floats back to me then. When I find my voice, it’s small and rough. “Am I… am I dead? Or… dying?”

He shakes his head, with the hint of a laugh. “Nope. Not you.”

I don’t quite know what to say to that. What does one say to Death? “Oh. Off-duty?”

He shakes his head again. “Trust me, it’d be pleasant.”

I nearly forget then, nearly get sucked into the easy, less scary illusion he’s provided me with – then I fight, make myself remember that he’s not a uni student in a hoodie, not even human. He smiles. “Ah.” He cocks his head and meets my eye. His own are amused, I note, and it’s impossible to tell what colour they are. Many and none; the grey of a cloudy day (and now I think about it, I swear I can see sky in them), or maybe it’s simply that they have no colour. I look away, a shiver running through me. He… shrugs, a scarily human gesture, and says, in a way that tells me he’s explained this many times before, “I’m whatever you want to see. You expect the Grim Reaper, you will find him.” For a moment, there’s a tall skeleton in a simple black robe seated next to me, a scythe propped up on the edge of the bench, just like the picture books. Then the image flickers and is gone, and he’s back in the just-about-human form.

His eyes stray to a young woman; she’s pretty, red hair cut fashionably short, wearing the floaty look of summer. Bright pink high heels and a short floral dress. She walks tall, confidently, comfortably. I wonder briefly if not even Death is immune to human charms.

He turns to me, and his voice has an edge to it I haven’t heard before. “‘Human charms’ are irrelevant. In case you’re wondering…” He reaches into a pocket and takes out a small glass bottle. A few grains of something that looks like red sand are at the bottom of it. “A hit-and-run, as you’d call it. Five past three, the twenty-second of April, 2012.”

Not me. Her.

He looks at her again, and there’s something almost sad in his eyes, then stands. Those strange, colourless eyes meet mine, and he touches my arm briefly. His fingers are impossibly cold, and my skin turns grey where he touches me, the blood leaving it. His voice has a strange, echoing timbre to it, like more than one person speaking, as he says to me, “When we meet again, we will both be different. You have more time than she’ll ever have. Don’t waste it.” He sighs, and his parting words send a chill down my spine. “Let us meet next as friends.”

He steps back, and my skin turns pink again as the effects of his touch fade. He walks across the grass to her, a hand lifted and then let fall in goodbye, and I see his form begin to shift and change as he becomes her Death.

I look at my knees, debate with myself, and decide. I stand and leave the park, not wanting to see the accident, or what her Death is.

I wonder if Death is ever off-duty.

Originally written in April of last year.

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