((This is a story I’d like to eventually expand and explore in more depth. But for now, I hope you enjoy this odd little one shot. It has an interesting personification of Death, coffee, and maybe even a mind-blowing beat box solo to the chorus of “Highway to Hell”. What more can you ask for in a story?))
It wasn’t every day that Constance awoke to Death sitting at her kitchen table first thing in the morning. Or at least, the disturbingly pale child with the pulsating scythe whom she could only assume to be Death. To her credit, she handled her impending demise rather well. Constance remained rooted in the hallway for several silent minutes, brain desperately struggling to force the square peg of rationality into a circle hole of reality. And when that didn’t work, she ultimately decided that it was just too damn early to wrap her head around her own mortality. At least, not without coffee.
Stifling back what may have been the most poorly timed yawn ever, Constance stepped into the kitchen and started the coffee maker. Going through the motions prevented her from giving in to that instinctual, knee-jerk drive for survival and self-preservation, from plumbing every reservoir of magic to the last spark for just one more beat of her heart. If Death was kind enough to make himself comfortable at her kitchen table and wait on her to make the most out of her final moments, who was she to kick up a fuss about it?
There were worse ways to die. And considering she had seen every episode of 1,000 Ways To Die, she tried to consider herself lucky. With that thought rotating on the hot dog grill roller of her mind, Constance focused on the task at hand, disregarding the fact that every last muscle in her body felt like guitar strings about to snap and her heart was doing laps in her stomach acid. Once the coffee was ready, she reached for her favorite mug and filled it to the brim, forgoing her usual daily overdose of sugar and creamer.
She wanted that bitter elixir in its purest form. Every swallow would be like a punch to the throat and, all things considered, it was exactly what she needed. The thought to make eggs and bacon–a fitting last meal as she could only hope to die with her stomach full of cholesterol–crossed Constance’s mind, but she decided against it since she couldn’t be sure of how long Kindergarten Death was just going to sit there and watch her pitiful attempt to deny his existence.
Instead, she opted for Lucky Charms. While grabbing the milk from the fridge, Constance was struck by a sudden whim, and decided to make a second bowl. Without even a sideways glace at the ruler of the Underworld patiently biding his time at her table or the eight foot tall, soul rending nightmare blade propped up against his chair, Constance set one of the bowls of cereal and a spoon in front of Death, and the other bowl and spoon at the opposite end of the table. There were several lighting bugs hovering listlessly around Death, like moths drawn to light, and Constance had to marvel at the fact that her denial was so thorough that she had only just noticed them.
Fully intending to burrow even deeper into that warm cocoon of denial for as long as necessary, she picked up her coffee mug from the counter before carefully sitting down at the table. When nothing happened, or at least when her first sip of coffee didn’t include a mouthful of scythe, Constance began to eat. Death hadn’t moved, which she figured was a good thing, but the fixated intensity of his stare was giving her soul goosebumps. Constance stubbornly ignored it. Pulling her smartphone out of her pocket, she checked her emails and skimmed a few news articles.
Sometime in between reading about depressing world news and depressing local news, she noticed that Death had picked up the spoon and was eating his cereal. Granted, that was only her presumption; she hadn’t actually seen him chewing but she was no expert on the mastication practices of Death.
Constance finished her first cup of coffee, got up and made a second, purposefully scalding the roof of her mouth in lieu of pinching herself. The lingering throb of pain in her mouth had her at least half-convinced that no, she was not dreaming, and yes, she was having breakfast with Death.
It was possible that even Death agreed that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. Or perhaps he just couldn’t pass up on a cereal that boasted to be magically delicious. Either way, it wasn’t until after Constance had savored the last drop of her second cup of coffee that she finally had enough caffeine in her bloodstream to deal with the scary thing masquerading as a human kid breaking bread with her.
With her coffee fueled brain easily hurdling over the absurdity of the situation and soberly resigning itself to the cruelty of fate, Constance placed her right hand on her forehead and peered at Death through the spaces between her fingers. If she squinted a bit or had poor eyesight, she might have taken him to be to a child of about five or six. A child whose presence somehow made even the ingrown hairs on her legs stand up.
However, any half-hearted attempt at appearing human ended there. His skin was the palest Constance had ever seen as it was all but translucent, making it seem more like a thin membrane than actual epidermis. The kohl black hair that skimmed his neck and shoulders was nothing but blurry wisps, as if it were made entirely of smoke and shadows. But it was his eyes that truly screamed ‘otherwordly’. They were black where the white was supposed to be, as if stained by ink, and the pupils were the color of milk with a curious dappling of gray spots. His gaze had a faint, unsettling glow, which gave his eyes the appearance of two full moons on a clear, starless night.
“I knew this day would come,” Constance admitted with an inspired nod. “Live a violent life, get a house call from Death. Makes sense. Getting escorted to the afterlife by a tiny mime wasn’t how I wanted to go out but I guess we all can’t go peacefully in our sleep now, can we?”
She lowered her hands and stood slowly, leaning heavily on the table for both physical and emotional support.
“Alright, let’s get this show on the road. I hope you like the song ‘Highway to Hell’ because I’ll be singing it the entire way. I only know the chorus but it’s the mind-blowing beat box solo that’ll really sell you on it, I promise. Plus, it’ll warm up my vocal chords for the eternity of screaming and sobbing later on.”
Death was stirring the remaining milk in his bowl with deliberate concentration, but his eyes were on Constance.
“I’m not here for that.”
Constance had been expecting somewhere in between Cobra Commander and an angry Liam Neeson but, much to her disappointed surprise, he sounded more like a pre-pubescent college professor. But the good news was, her one way ticket to the Underworld was cancelled. It was a shame that the world had come to this: Death being the only source of news that wasn’t depressing or meant to create mass panic. What a world.
“Is that what you were thinking?” he continued, still stirring. “How presumptuous. Death doesn’t wait on anyone and he has Reapers to do that kind of thing anyway. Speaking of which, your other assumption was also off the mark. I’m not Death.”
Dropping back into her chair, Constance laid her head on the table, keeping her head turned to the side so that the creepy little bastard couldn’t see the relief on her face.
“Well, this is embarrassing,” she apologized, her wavering sanity allowing a hint of crankiness to creep into her tone. “I automatically assume that when the toy poodle version of the Grim Reaper breaks into my house carrying his glowy stick of instant death, it’s not to chitchat and bum a meal off me. My mistake. But you can see why I might be a tad confused.”
The ringing echo of the spoon circling the bowl abruptly stopped.
“I need your help,” the boy said flatly, with all the emotion of cold oatmeal. “And Death does too, for that matter.”
Constance lifted her head from the table and sat up unnaturally straight, that painful tightening in her chest momentarily causing her lungs to calcify and crumble all in one breath.
“I can’t help you.”
She shoved her chair behind her and stood, beginning to clear away the dishes. “I’m not… look, kid, you’ve got the wrong person.”
Reaching for the boy’s bowl, Constance added, “Sorry to waste your time but hey, I got to keep my soul and you got sugary cereal with marshmallows. I’d say that’s a win for both of us. So, thanks for the visit and don’t forget your murder-stick on your way out.”
The boy did not reply but slowly held out the spoon to her. And without thinking, Constance took it, accidentally brushing fingers with the moon-eyed child. The sensation of every inch of her skin fizzling into pure TV static overwhelmed her all in an instant, and she was at once empty and full, there and nowhere. Every blink she lived and died, endlessly, eternally, until it was all one and the same.
Then the boy let go of the spoon. It clattered to the table and Constance was once again simply and only Constance. Her legs wilted beneath her and she collapsed to the floor, patting herself down police search style just to make sure her skin was where it should be and was all accounted for. After a quick inspection of her person and several quivering breaths, she tilted her head back to look up at the boy who had not moved an inch from his chair.
“What are you?” she whispered, regretting the words even as they came tumbling out of her mouth.
“Plainly speaking, I’m Death’s heart. The very core of his existence.”
It was in this moment that Constance realized, as she desperately searched for just the tiniest spark of humanity in those cold, pale eyes that the boy did not blink. But she saw what she needed to see. Just a glimpse of something recognizably mortal. That primal look of someone willing to survive at all costs. It was a look she knew well.
“What do you want from me?”
“There was a coup in Underworld,” the boy explained. “Some of the Reapers tried to overpower Death and claim his scythe. He managed to tear out his heart before they could capture him and as soon as I was separated from Death, I grabbed the scythe and escaped.”
His eyes drifted down to just below her neck, where her Talisman was embedded in her chest.
“The longer I remain apart from Death, the weaker he becomes. The weaker I become. I don’t have the power to save him.”
He lifted his hand and pointed at her Talisman, the magic she had vowed never to touch again.
“But you do, Constance.”
Turning his hand over, the boy held it aloft in the air until a firefly landed in his open palm. His fingers gently curled inward until both the light and the insect were smothered by the boy’s cruel fist. Opening his hand, he paused to study the crushed remains of the firefly briefly before balling his fist once again.
“If you choose to assist us in this matter,” he continued, “we’ll give you something in return. Something of equal value to the service that you’re doing us.”
Now. She had to walk away right now. Simply get up, turn, and leave before this boy that wasn’t a boy said something that she wouldn’t be able to walk away from. But she stayed. And he spoke the words she thought were not possible. Words that threated to tear her soul apart all over again.
“Life,” he said, opening his hand.
The firefly floated into the air, alive and whole, to join the others as if nothing had happened at all.
“One life, to be exact.”
Constance watched that tiny, insignificant light twinkle and die over and over again but it wasn’t the firefly she was seeing in her mind’s eye.
Steadily, carefully, she rose to her feet, her solemn mask cracking into a wide grin. There was a monster lurking in the corners of her smile but if the boy saw it, he didn’t seem to mind.
“Okay, kid. Deal. I’ll help you.”
Constance plucked her mug off the table and headed for the coffee maker.
Facing her own mortality across the breakfast table had required two cups of coffee. Rescuing Death warranted three at the very least.
“So what do I call you?” she asked as she filled her mug. “Do you have a name?”
The boy stared into nothingness for a moment, then turned to look at Constance.
“I’m a part of Death that was never intended to separate from him. I don’t think my existence has a name of its own.”
“Names are important,” Constance insisted. “Sometimes they’re all that’s left of us when we’re gone. Sometimes they’re all we’ve got in this world to call our own. You need a name that represents you as a strong, independent existence that don’t need no Death.”
She gave the pale-skinned, black-haired child with the creepy, glowing eyes a good head-to-toe visual assessment.
“How about ‘Sunny’?”
Constance could have sworn she saw one of his eyes twitch but to her surprise, he didn’t say a word.
Taking his lack of complaints as agreement, she rewarded herself with a sip of coffee and said, “Alright. Now that all the formalities are out of the way, I’m going to go pee a Starbucks Venti worth of instant coffee down the crapper and then we can go.”
“Fine, but make it quick.” Sunny slid out of his chair, using Death’s scythe to ease himself to the floor. “We have a few stops to make.”
Constance froze mid-gulp.
“What do you mean ‘stops’?”
“There may yet be a few Reapers still loyal to Death and I intend to enlist their help as well,” he said. “The odds are against us and time is running out but I refuse to go gentle into that good night.”
Sunny smiled with just the minutest curl of his lips. A sad attempt at displaying emotion. A mockery of human expression.
“You’ve cheated death all these years solely because you lost the only thing you thought was worth dying for. Even I admit that’s impressive. But I’m curious if you’ll be just as stubbornly committed to staying alive now that you actually have something worth living for.”
She didn’t care to explain to someone who was probably literally born yesterday that staying alive had never been a problem for her. That dying didn’t scare her. That even though she had narrowly avoided death on so many occasions, it was hands down the easier task compared to living with herself.
So instead, Constance finished her coffee in one, scalding swig. She never would have guessed that, after so long, it would only take 3 simple things for her to feel alive again:
An unhealthy amount of caffeine.
A deal too good to be true.
And a little brush with Death.