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All In Good Time
Death watched me quietly, waiting. I took a deep, slow breath—and lifted my chin for the blade.
"It's all ceremonial, right?" i said, trying and failing to keep a tremor out of my voice. "This isn't going to hurt or anything."
Death lifted the ancient scythe and stepped towards me, shrugging. "It depends on whether you fight. Would you like it to hurt?" I laughed disbelievingly, then stopped because it sounded false.
"Do you enjoy asking rhetorical questions?"
"I am Death, Victor. I am a rhetorical question." The scythe touched my neck. It was half as long as me and razor sharp. The metal was old, very old, older than humanity itself. I stood very still. My hands twitched. Death looked at me for a long moment with those weirdly pale eyes. They seemed familiar, as though I’d looked into them before. Maybe I had...I’d brushed death many times, as the saying went. In life I’d been forced into the army, forced to fight and kill until I ran from the battlefield, and before that I’d been a kid on the streets—I’d run so far so fast to escape so many deaths, but now...it seemed there was nowhere else to run.
"I think I've seen you before," Death mused. "Weren't you the street kid who robbed me of that peasant girl?" I nodded shakily. Before the war, out on the streets, I’d saved a girl no older than six from being run down by a street car. It had hit me instead, breaking my leg. The girl’s father was a healer, and he had taken me in for as long as it took for my leg to heal. I’d seen Death that day, in the eyes of his daughter.
"You were laughing at me," I remembered.
"Yes. Your heroics were futile." Death nodded. "She's dead now. I caught her with sickness. Terribly slow, but then she was so headstrong." he shook his head, seeming regretful. "It hurt, for her. She fought to the very end." he sighed. The scythe rested heavily on my shoulder, drawing blood. It was the same place I had been shot. I winced, watching it drip slowly down the blade...the handle, I noted, was a dark, ocher wood that seemed specifically colored to crush a mortal soul. I used to think only beige could do that...beige and kaki, the color of my military uniform.
"I'm sorry," Death said suddenly. "I've kept you waiting." He lifted the scythe, eyes flashing, and brought it down on my neck. I gasped and tried to pull away. It sank straight through flesh and bone, all the way to the hilt, penetrating my heart. There was surprisingly little blood. But the pain...Death was pulling my soul from my chest. And it hurt like hell.
"You're fighting me, Victor." Death's voice was calm, unhurried. He knew he had all the time in the world. I could barely hear him; I was trying to hold on—but I was slipping, slipping out of my body and into the ether of Death's realm. Then…it was over.
My physical form crumpled. I tried to go back to it, but it was wounded; there was a gaping wound in its neck, a bullet wound. All I could do was watch as it began to decay..."Don't be alarmed. You’re in my kingdom now. Time moves slowly here." Death took me by the shoulder and guided me away from the body. I can't say I wasn't relived. The maggots had just begun to peel away the flesh.
"To fight me? Yes. Most people do. It’s instinctive." Death laughed. We were floating away from the earth now, and colors were fading away. "You never would have won. Really, Victor, you have nothing to fear. Try to relax." I tried, but it was impossible. I was dead...and yet I wasn't really dead, if I was still here, still thinking. I thought about this, confused. Maybe dead only meant you had no physical presence...I wasn't a philosopher. I let it alone and tried to relax.
"Where are we going?"
Death glanced at me. "To Oblivion, of course. I suppose they taught you there was something after me. some...God, that's what they called it." he laughed again and pulled back his hood. He was young, somewhere in mid-twenties, and his hair was as black as his robe. Color was entirely gone now. The sky was a monotone grey. Only Death hadn't changed; his pale eyes almost seemed to brighten, as though he were coming home.
I watched him with a sort of amazement. "Actually, no," I admitted. "I’ve never set foot in a church."
"That's good," Death said. "The Christians get rather difficult around this point." We were nearing ground again, but it was like no ground I’d ever seen. "This," Death waved his arm, "is Oblivion. No Gods, no heaven, no beach...most people hate it. I usually have to bottle them. That’s why it’s so empty."
I frowned. "Bottle them?" Death reached into his pocket and pulled out a small vile, no bigger than my fingernail. It glowed with an inner light. For a moment I felt a rage so powerful it threatened to knock me off my feet. Then I remembered I didn't have feet, and it lost its grip. Death smiled.
"This," he said, "is William Blake. Did you read poetry, Victor?" I shook my head. "Pity. Crotchety old man. He didn't even believe in heaven when I took him. You’d think atheists are better at accepting oblivion, but they're not...pessimistic bunch of loonies. Poor old Blake lost his head a while ago, started screaming and raving and trying to jump back to earth, so I put him here for safekeeping." Death must have seen the look on my face, because after a pause he reassured me; "he'll get out when the ship comes, don't worry about him. And if you're good and don't make a fuss, you can wander around. There’s nowhere else to go until the ship arrives. Shakespeare is over there, if you'd like to talk to him." he gestured in a random direction, smiling, so I wasn't sure of he was serious. Then he turned to go.
"Wait. What ship?" he smiled again, and this time it wasn't a nice smile.
"The ship to Nowhere and Nothing, of course."
"Where's Nowhere and Nothing?"
"Oh, it's somewhat of a joke with us. Earth is Nowhere, because you'll just end up back here sooner or later. After two or three lifefulls of all the pointless drama of Nowhere, plus meeting me at the end of each term," he twirled his blade mockingly and glanced at my neck, "you get sick of Nowhere and we send you to Nothing. Nothing is exactly what it sounds like. You get to choose where you go each time, if you're good, and the only rule to being good is don't annoy me. This is my home too, you know. I don't care what you did on earth." He frowned. "And on second thought, don't annoy anyone else, either...they'll end up complaining to me, and then I’ll bottle you both and send you to Nothing when the ship comes."
I nodded, trying to absorb everything. "So this is it? This is death?"
"No, Victor. This is Oblivion. I am Death. You're a first life, aren't you?" At my uncomprehending look, Death sighed. "First life. Never died before. Come on, kid. Infer." he rolled his colorless eyes and rose into the air, scythe in one hand. I watched him go, unable to think of something to say.
"Well, have fun in Oblivion, Victor," he called, rising quickly out of sight. "Remember, Shakespeare is that way!" he pointed in a different direction than before. Then he was gone...and I was alone and in Oblivion. For a long time I stared after him, wondering what to do.
Abruptly I noticed someone coming towards me. He walked unhurriedly, as though he knew he had all the time in the world. When he got close I could see his
Hair was bushy and white, and he had a matching colored mustache that made him look rather flustered.
"Shakespeare?" I asked awkwardly. He burst out laughing.
"I thought I heard a newly dead arrive! Wonderful, wonderful! Most of them get bottled on the way here. Hysterical wrecks of humanity. Nobody interesting dies anymore. No, no, I’m not Shakespeare. He’s over there." the man gestured vaguely in a third direction, and I decided to let it go. "I'm Samuel Clemens. I don't suppose you've read my books?" I shook my head regretfully.
He frowned. "Anything by Twain?"
"I’m not very well read, sir."
"Well then, you'll have to talk to Shakespeare. Death brought him copies." he laughed again. "If there is one man who could argue life out of Death, it would be William. Come along, boy. He’s thisaway."
I shook my head and followed, wishing I had a mirror. Mr. Clemens led me off in to one direction nobody had pointed to yet.
"So...when's the ship coming, Mr. Clemens?"
"The ship? Oh, that ship." Mr. Clemens smiled. His eyes were a startling blue, the only splash of color in a colorless landscape. I felt a sudden desire to learn from him—maybe it wouldn't be so bad here, with company like this. "All in good time, my boy," he said warmly. "All in good time."
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"laugh, and the world laughs with you. laugh hysterically, and for no apparent reason, and they will leave you alone." anonymous
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