I knocked gently on the huge wooden door. It didn’t matter how softly I did it, the air still shook with loud booms every time my knuckles tapped against the timber, as if I had pounded upon it with giant fists, but I was used to it now.
I tried again, and again three deep, loud sounds echoed from within, but still there were no coming footsteps, and the door didn’t open.
“Dee?” I called, “Are you home?” I tried the handle and found it opened easily. Out, but expecting me. That would do.
I pushed the door open with my shoulder as I backed into his home. As expected, it was bleak and dirty, heavy curtains closed, candles burning low in their holds. The stone walls were filthy and damp, and the only thing saving the floor from being worse was that it was still dry somehow. The table was covered in debris: scrolls and books, mostly, but there was also a variety of bowls, glasses and flasks half full of unknown mixtures; liquids and solids. Thankfully, I knew the bedroom would be mostly untouched from my last visit, the perks of having a friend who doesn’t tend to use it very much. The smell was immense, but not as overpowering as usual, which was a relief. I could see that he was trying, at least, unless this visit was sooner than usual. Time is a confusing concept when it comes to our friendship. It was the main reason I was there and he wasn’t. The other reason was that he was almost always away with his work, but we always did our best to catch each other when we could.
I laid down my bucket of cleaning gear beside the table, plucked the bottle of flowers from its place on top, and cleared a spot in the centre of the table where I could place it. Then, to the curtains, which I threw open to let the morning sunlight in. Illuminating the room immediately made the state of things clear, but it also made it seem a lot more manageable. Opening the windows helped dispel the stink somewhat, and would keep the smell of chemicals down once I started scrubbing.
I started by clearing the tables, moving all the books and scrolls back to their place in the bookcases in the study, giving the shelves and desk a quick dust as I went. Once that was done, I made my way through the house, plucking the dying candle stumps from their places one by one, dropping them into my bucket; later, I would melt them down to make new ones, infused with the smell of parchment and sandalwood, so that they would cover the inevitable smell of damp that came with living in a cottage that was a running water connection away from being a cave. It’s the little things that make all the difference, I think.
Then came the rubber gloves, the mask and the scrubbing. Usually, I tend to find cleaning vaguely therapeutic, but when it takes as long as it does to do this job, I need a little something to keep me going, so I put a podcast on my phone and got into it. We both love The Blindboy Podcast. He was the one who found it, but we got hooked together. Something about the massive swings of light and shade between Blindboy’s opening banter and some of the bleakest of his short stories really tickled us. We compare notes every week via email – it’s the only means of communication that doesn’t get messed up in the time continuum conundrum.
The first time we met was as client and service provider, so to speak. I’d been seriously ill for weeks with a really bad case of pneumonia, brought about in part by an ill-advised drunken dance in the rain in the middle of a Canadian November. When they realised it was starting to look like I was on my final countdown, they medevac’d me back home to Sydney so my ninety-six year old great grandmother could see me one last time. I was barely conscious most of the time, something I was later incredibly grateful for, yet for some reason I was totally lucid when Dee came into the room. He says otherwise, but I don’t think I’d remember it as clearly as I do if I wasn’t.
I watched him as he pulled out his pen and clipboard – he’s super old school like that – flipping through the pages with a concerned look on his face, which given his features was quite the feat. When people who’ve met him are asked to describe him, they always come up blank, because he’s always shifting it around, a blur of eye colours and hair and genders and cheekbones, but always strangely comforting in that inconsistency. He told me once it’s because he’s always trying to find the most appropriate appearance to calm his client, but he’s seen so many faces across the years and had so many different reactions to his arrival that he can never be sure which one is right. So he phases through all of them, because he figures that way the client will see who they want to see, or more importantly, who they need to see. It could be a friend, or a family member, a doctor, or a long lost love. The last time we talked about it, he told me a story about how one woman was convinced he was Keanu Reeves. He said he did his best to roll with it, but felt like he hadn’t seen enough of his movies to do the star justice.
As he flipped through to the last page, he sighed the most gentle sigh I’ve ever heard. (Again, his voice is never the same twice, though I know it well these days.) It was a happy sigh, one of relief. He sat down on the chair next to the bed, and took my hand, squeezing it slightly.
“Casey,” he said. “I don’t get to say this very often, but today, you get a choice.” He picked up the chart and showed it to me. The first few pages contained my full name, my date of birth, a selection of pictures from the last year and information about the hospital, my family and friends, and various other assorted facts and figures about my life.
On the last page was the current date, a cause of death, and a subheading above two check boxes.
The top line said “optional”, and the boxes were marked “accepted” and “postponed”.
He stayed with me as we talked about what it meant. He said that he lived in an eternal present, so he couldn’t tell me how long I would keep going if I chose to stick around, just that he would be seeing me again in what was the same instant for him, but a different time for me. He told me that he couldn’t say if there was something beyond life, again because he had never lived beyond the realm of now. Most importantly, he told me that the choice meant one thing: not between life or death, but between two Great Possibilities, and he couldn’t tell me which was greater. Each would be painful in their own way, but each also promised relief. I had to choose which one I wanted to take.
Obviously, I postponed. And he left.
He was right. The pain of recovery was excruciating, not just physically but emotionally, watching my parents and brothers fretting every day, all the while wondering if I was ever going to get strong enough to be a functioning member of society again. He was also right about the relief, as every day I found it easier to breathe, and every day my family and friends breathed easier too.
Three years later, the accident happened. Head on collision at an intersection near my flat, all noise and metal and blood. I’d been walking home from work, and was lucky that I hadn’t left five minutes earlier, or I could have been in the middle of the carnage too. Two drivers dead, one drunk, one kid in the back of the car screaming, one mother in the passenger seat trying to calm her as they waited to be wrenched from the twisted wrecks, their fronts crumpled and mashed together to the point where they were nearly indistinguishable from each other.
He hadn’t expected to see me, and I hadn’t expected to see him. But there he was, two places at once, filling out his paperwork. I noticed that he wasn’t showing it to them like he had to me. I guess they didn’t get to make the choice I did.
Once one of him was done and gone, and the other seemed almost finished, I raced over to the one left and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned, startled, eyes wide. “You!” he cried. “You… no, no, no, no, this isn’t right. You don’t get to do that! Nobody gets to do that!”
“And yet,” I said, gesturing to each of us in turn, “here we are. Doing that.”
He let out a little squeak of panic, not knowing which way to look. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit…”
And then he was gone. Not in a puff of smoke, though. Just gone, not even leaving the sense that something had been there before.
And the world moved on.
The water in the bucket is black with grime now, so I get up and empty it into the sink before refilling it, silently thanking past me for convincing him to hook up some decent plumbing. It was really no surprise that he hadn’t got it done before. Have you ever tried to get a tradesperson to come to a house that exists outside the conventional understanding of time and space? It’s an absolute nightmare. Thankfully, I managed to get my hands on some decent books on the subject from the local library, and it turns out that when timelines aren’t a factor in your existence, it’s very easy to get those little DIY jobs done around the house. Given that he doesn’t use it, he did an incredible job on the toilet too.
The walls were leaning a little more towards grey than greenish-black by this point, and were completely dry. I double checked the bedroom almost needlessly – everything was in its place, the bed made perfectly just the way I taught him – then started on the floor, scrubbing then mopping, then a quick final spray of cockroach killer in all the nooks and crannies I could find, and I was satisfied I had done enough. It was far from perfect, but it was presentable enough for me.
I pulled out my phone and typed out an email. “Swung by, but you weren’t in. Then again, you probably already know that…!”
My great grandmother died when she was 102, with the whole family around the bed. I wondered if I would get another chance to talk to him, this face-changing, voice-shifting mystery Death man-woman-both-neither. This time, he surprised me.
I nearly jumped a foot in the air. His voice was lower this time (or was it higher?) and breathier (or maybe just thinner?), but I knew it instantly. “Argh! Fuck!” I shrieked, before I suddenly realised that the whole family was looking at me with disapproval. “Sorry. I think something landed on me,” I said, sheepishly, swatting at my forearms in an attempt to persuade them of the existence of an imaginary insect assailant.
He chuckled, walking past me to sit with Gran-Gran. Once again, he pulled out his clipboard and flipped through it. Unlike the accident, I was closer this time, so I could see what was in it. It was just like mine – the details, the photos, the stories – but this time, he leaned in and whispered something to her. I saw Gran-Gran sit up, but not sit up, like she was out of focus with herself, as she listened to his murmurings. She smiled, and I think she winked at me. Then she patted his hand gently, like she did to all of us when she wanted to congratulate us on a job well done, and lay back down into herself.
Suddenly, my aunts began to wail.
And the next day, I found a post-it note with an email address in the back pocket of my jeans. On the other side it said, “Shit timing, I know. But… friends?”
As I’m packing up my cleaning gear and getting ready to head out, I heard a key scratching in the lock. I called out, “You left it open!” but it’s too late; he’d already locked it again.
“Shit, shit, shit…” I heard him mutter through the door. I stopped questioning how it’s even possible to do so through wood that thick long ago.
When he finally unlocked it again and swept in, I laughed at him. “I don’t know why you even bother with opening the door, let alone a lock. You’re a potentially incorporeal being. You could just pass through it, surely,” I said.
He shrugged. “It helps me stay down to earth?” he grinned. “Good to see you,” he said, hugging me. “I’d say it’s been too long, but you know…”
“Yeah, yeah. You tell both of those jokes literally every time. You really need to get some new material.”
The reply came back almost immediately, which I couldn’t help feeling was weird as hell. Then again, so was the idea of becoming friends with Death, but in for a penny, in for a pound.
Most of our early conversations were had through email. We discussed his gender (fluid for work, but he tended to roll with male pronouns since it was what most people were comfortable with), compared jobs (turns out being the Grim Reaper requires both more and less effort to achieve work/life balance than being a marketing coordinator) and talked about his most recent clients. He said that he didn’t know when he’d started calling them that (conversations about the past were particularly frustrating at first) but he felt that it gave him the right balance of connection and professional distance.
Since we hadn’t needed them in our conversations, we didn’t use names, but eventually I realised I wanted to know what I should call him. “Death” sounded like a job description now, not a name. He said he’d always just gone with what everyone else called him, so he answered to heaps of different things, but I insisted he have a name just for me, just for friends. And so, I christened him Dee, because I am not a particularly imaginative person.
After what was a few months for me, I asked him about where one lives when one isn’t living on the mortal plane. He told me it was complicated. And it is. It really, really is. I don’t even know how it works, and he’s explained it to me at least a dozen times. But he showed me how to access where he lives, and now I can do it.
Just don’t ask me how I do it, or we’re both going to end up confused.
We spent the rest of the afternoon looking at his experiments and reading stupid stuff off the internet to each other. I suggested he should come meet my friends some time, but he wasn’t up for it. He said it would be too much commitment and he’d be afraid of scaring them. Most people don’t like to think about their own mortality, let alone be faced with the supposedly mythical physical manifestation of the concept. I said he was probably right, but I did add that my friend Belinda had worked with some pretty terrifying animals back when she worked at a zoo, but he just went quiet. I hated when he did that, but I let myself figure that he was just thinking about all the cute animals he had to guide through the death process. Did he even do animal deaths? I decided it was better not to ask.
Then, in one of our more comfortable silences, I asked him, “Hey, I’ve been wondering: Am I your first friend?”
He scrunched his ever-changing mouth in unease. “No. I’ve had plenty of friends. It’s just…” He sighed, reminding me of the first time we met, only this time there was no relief in it. “Eventually, I have to take them as a client. And it hurts. All the time, because for me it is happening all the time.” He looked at me. “So please, don’t ask me again,” he said, softly.
“But this is important to me,” I said. “I need to know that when I eventually go, you’ll be okay.”
He smiled slightly, ripples dancing through his features as his eyes changed from blue to green to brown to hazel to purple to white to black and beyond. “I’m always okay. That’s the other side of the coin. While it’s true that I’m always saying goodbye, I’m also always saying hello. And ‘thank you’. And ‘I love you’. And laughing and hugging and kissing and playing and joking,” he said, wistfully. “Because such is existence, if not life. It’s just now, the moment. It’s the Greatest Possibility there is, and I get to live it all at once.”
He laughed, or maybe sobbed.
“I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”
The illustrations accompanying this story were created by the delightful Daisy Mak, who lives on Instagram here.