He arrives empty-handed, but he carries his past in his eyes. His past, yours, theirs, everyone’s but mine. With a nod of recognition, I welcome him by name. “Been a while, Time.”
He returns the gesture. “Busy days, Death. Busy days.”
We face each other, a foot apart, watching, catching up silently at first. We used to need words for this, but not anymore. We’ve been around each other enough by now just to know, to see everything. Sometimes it feels like we’re the only ones who really see each other. Inevitable and invisible. They look at anything but us. We have those kinds of faces. The face of a clock, the face of the light they see at the end. Or what they imagine is the end. Whatever.
It’s unusual for us both to arrive at once, and we know what it means when we do. This is going to be a tough one. Part of me wants to be there early, to stand close by, arms outstretched, until. Another part of me knows there’s no point. He knows too.
“Just wait,” he says.
“I hate these ones.”
“Me too, sweetness, me too. But at least the music’s good.” He looks around, appraising, appreciating. “And the scenery’s not bad either.”
“I can’t think of them like that anymore. I used to be able to, but it got too fucked up. We keep coming back and they don’t.”
“You’re stunning again, though,” he says. “No matter what face you get, you’re always fucking stunning.”
“Makes it easier, I guess.”
“For them. They get to see what they need to see, when it happens. You’re not so bad yourself.”
“I know, right?”
We stop talking and let it all sink in, the recognition, the meaning, the understanding and the cold necessity. I don’t know what it would look like to anyone else, if they were looking, which they aren’t. They don’t see us in the corner, his back against the sweating wall, me leaning into him, arms around each other, barely inches between our unblinking eyes.
He tilts his head into the space over my shoulder. “Don’t look now,” he says, “but that’s her.”
And I feel it. The shiver sweeps across the back of my neck, under the collar of my jacket, settling into leather-wrapped vertebrae. I always feel it there. No matter what, that’s where it lands. I wait a moment, then look round and there she is. What’s left of my heart trails itself inside out. “She’s so young.”
“Not as young as she looks.”
“But still. I hate it when I get these ones on my own, but I hate it even more when you’re here too.”
“You need to toughen up, gorgeous. You’re getting sentimental again.” He pushes a lock of hair back from my face, tucks it behind my ear and lets his fingertips rest against my cheek. “Remember what happened last time you did that?”
“I know, it’s just… you’re right. But sometimes it starts getting to me. It shouldn’t, but it does.”
His hand slides from my face to my collar, down my chest to my waist. “You,” he whispers against my lips, “need to embrace your true nature.”
I whisper back, “You and your fucking clichés,” then I let myself fall into him because it’s good. It’s always good. It’s always what I need. The music pulses through the floor, through the walls, through us. Music does that. It gets into everything.
We stop for a breath and he half-smiles. He only ever half-smiles. He says, “Better now?”
“I want to dance.”
“Seriously. I need to get through this.”
“What’s dancing got to do with it?”
“Just that maybe I’ll never do it again. Dance, I mean. I don’t know.”
“What did you expect?”
“Exactly that. Always that, from you. It’s the sweetest part of these bittersweet reunions.”
I turn and pull him with me. Arms draped across each other’s shoulders, singing the wrong words to a song we don’t know anymore, we collapse from one step to the next until we get to the dance floor. With the noise, the heat, the sheer volume and intensity of life around us, I can almost forget who we are, why we’re here.
We feel her move towards the door, and we know. Quietly, respectfully, we follow. No-one notices her leaving. No-one notices us either. I think maybe she’s had that in common with us for a long time and something inside of me reaches for her.
We walk a few paces behind, out the door, down the street, around the corner to a small city park. It’s just a square of lazily turfed wasteland with a swing-set and when it gets too dark for play, in-between souls find themselves drawn to the cold mirage of nostalgia-by-proxy.
Waiting in the shadows, we bear witness as she takes the pills, the whole bottle, one by one, washed down with something from a silver hip-flask that shudders her eyes closed with each bitter swallow. Then she sits on a swing and kicks into motion, leaning back, laughing her last.
I bury my head in his shoulder. “Couldn’t we… not? Just this once?”
He strokes my hair. “You know it doesn’t work that way, lovely. It’s not up to us.”
“It’s a fucking waste.”
“Oh, sweetheart. No anger. Not now.”
We feel the shift when it happens, so we approach, hand in hand, and she sees us for the first time. She stops and staggers with shaking steps from the swing to the ground, resting against a bench where parents sit by daylight to watch their children being children. “Are you here for me?” Her voice slurs and she sounds so young. Too young.
He sits at her left and I sit at her right, each of her hands in one of ours, holding space. She looks from one of us to the other, dizzying waves flickering across her face. The last thing she says is, “But you’re both so beautiful.”
And we wait.
And it happens.
“I DON’T GIVE A SHIT. I DON’T CARE ANYMORE.”
“You should. You’re going to screw everything up again. You can’t do this.”
“I can do whatever the fuck I want!” I stand in the middle of the road, eyes closed, arms out-stretched. Of course no-one sees me, not like this, not now, not yet. Not until I decide they’re going to.
“You know this isn’t how it works.”
“It’s how it works today. You want death? You’ve got death.”
“But you don’t get to decide!”
“I DO NOW,” and this is it. This is the moment everything changes, and I don’t even care anymore. One driver sees me, then another, and another. But it’s too late. Too late for them, I mean, not for me. It’s perfect for me. The violent crush of metal into metal is sweet music, sweeter than the music in the club, but not as sweet as her last laugh.
Hope. She was called Hope. Not that it matters.
I choose one vehicle from the three that currently contains people inching towards their final breath. It’s a random choice, or as random as any choice ever is. I should know better than to throw around words like random so casually. Sitting cross-legged on the ground beside the shattered window of the mess of a car, I rest a hand gently against the quietly stopping heart of a man whose last thought is of the father he wishes he’d killed when he had the opportunity.
Again, I am nothing, no-one, as I pick my way through the carnage to where he—my calm companion with his empty hands—waits at the side of the road.
“I can’t be here for this, not again,” he says, and we stand forehead to forehead as the sirens get closer.
“I love you,” I tell him, and I mean it.
“But enough. And you’ll stay.”
For another second, a minute, an hour—he plays those to perfection every time—we hold each other. There are no goodbyes here, not for us. There’s always another again.
We give each other our freedom and he turns away. I say nothing as I watch him go, as I feel him become a stranger.
For all his earlier protest, he lives further into his purpose every day, fingers made for pulling triggers and the kind of face people should remember, but no-one ever does. He knows how to be invisible when it suits him. Being seen is a hell of a thing to give up, but he has his reasons. Don’t we all?
I followed him to work one night, and he was so elegant, so efficient about it. There was no reluctance, not anymore. There was nothing at all. He just did it, like breathing. Something in the tension of his forearms, in the veins on the backs of his hands, made me stop in my tracks and everything slowed down. Maybe no-one else noticed, but he did. I know he did. I felt it.
Honestly, this is not how I thought he was going to turn out. I mean, I knew what he was getting into when he stayed. So did he. But this full-circle business? This, I did not expect. At least he still has that face. It would be a tragedy if anything happened to that.
So he does what he does, and sometimes I find him, but he never acknowledges it first. Or at least he hasn’t before and I don’t feel like tonight’s going to be any different. It’s just how we’ve been, wandering wide circles around each other, trailing fingertips softly along boundaries. Respectful. Occasional. Things get shaky when we don’t keep enough distance, but it is what it is. What we are.
And now, here. “Oh, sweetness, you’ve become quite the professional.”
He doesn’t turn towards me yet, but we can see each other in the mirrored wall behind the bar. “And you’re still showing up in places you’re not meant to be. You get too close. You’re too close now.”
“So move.” I stare at him in the mirror and our reflections cut through the grease of strangers’ fingerprints, all those smudged identities, dispensing pints of comfort and shots of courage, knowing when to look away.
He stares back, full force, and someone at the table behind us clutches their chest for an irregular heartbeat until the pain subsides. “I was here first.”
“But you’re the one it bothers. I’m fine with it.”
Outside, both sets of traffic lights turn green at the same time and the only two vehicles at the junction collide in a place they weren’t supposed to occupy simultaneously. People panic. We don’t. He turns to face me now. No words needed. And my god, he is a sculpture.
I give in to what he wants though, because of course I do. Getting up to leave, I pause, just for a moment, just for long enough to touch him. A few feet away, a glass falls from the bar.
He almost leans into my hand, almost, but he blinks the impulse away like an echo. “Why now?”
“Because I had a dream about you, gorgeous. Something about the ocean and your arms. I don’t remember what, but you were beautiful, and it made me need you. You are, I mean. And I do. Still.”
He looks me up and down, an icy sliver slicing the space between us. “It’s pointless, though.”
“This. You finding me. Us being here, being anywhere, together. You can’t stay and as soon as you leave, I forget again.”
“But as soon as I come back, you remember.”
There’s a tender stillness, a blessed inertia, as we watch each other. Again, he tries to make himself remember something he’ll inevitably forget. Again, I try to believe that this time, he’ll manage it. We both know we’re lying to ourselves, but we let it happen. If I try hard enough, I can make this last. I can stretch it out almost enough to get us through the unavoidable loss that always follows. He knows what I’m doing, and he stops me from doing it. Again.
“I’m sorry, Time.” He bows his head away from me so I don’t even get to see how my name looks in his eyes.
My fingers hang in the air where they rested against his face a fraction of a second ago. Maybe we both deserve recognition. It’s a cold gift, but it’s a gift all the same. “Me too, Death.”
Across the bar, the glass hits the floor.