“Franklin, just hand me the toaster already.”
Franklin considered James his closest friend, as well as the most levelheaded man he had ever met; this consideration faltered before the inescapable fact that his friend stood ankle-deep in a bathtub full of water, otherwise dressed in his finest suit-jacket, crimson silk necktie, and slacks neatly rolled up to avoid the wet.
With an impatient sigh, James glanced at the silver Esplenade timepiece on his wrist. “We shall be late otherwise!” His brow furrowed over his pale lime-colored eyes.
“James,” raising his hands, Franklin stepped toward his friend, “James, do you know where you are?” He forced a casual tone into his voice, avoiding a soothing tone so as not to seem condescending. “I think the stress has gotten to you. C’mon out and let’s go out to eat.” He extended his hand and clasped James’s shoulder. “I hear Dominicus is getting rave reviews-“
“Franklin, trust me!” Batting his hand away with a huff, James leaned past Franklin, straining to reach the appliance on the counter. “I know how it works!”
“Uh huh, uh huh.” Edging around, Franklin nudged his friend’s hands aside and stood between him and the toaster. “Anyone can figure out how, but the why is never as good a reason for doing it. You’ve got a full life-“
“You won’t believe me if I tell you,” the other retorted. Stepping out of the tub, James sidestepped Franklin, caught up the toaster, and leaped back in the water with a splash. Franklin yanked the plug out just in time. “Will you stop that?”
“James, you are frightening me. Tell me what the hell you are doing right now?” A pulling, wrenching sensation queased in Franklin’s stomach. He identified a terrible, focused look in James’s eyes, one he had seen only once before. After he had witnessed it, Franklin had to bail James out of jail and stand character witness during three weeks of trial proceedings. “This isn’t Elizabeth all over again is it?” At times other than this, Franklin would not dare to raise that particular subject but now as James’s actions careened once more toward the drastic…
“No, no, no.” For a moment, the crazy little gleam in James’s eyes softened and Franklin’s skin chilled even more. If it was not Elizabeth causing these actions, then he knew not what had driven James to this point. The light of madness returned and James crammed the plug back into the outlet. “Trust me, you’ll enjoy this.”
Too late, Franklin leaped forward, a cry of despair on his lips, but someone shouldered him aside and caught the toaster before it reached the surface of the water. “What-“ looking behind himself, Franklin had no words beyond disjointed amazement. The bathroom door was still closed and the stranger who now tore the cord from the socket and tossed the toaster aside had made no sound upon his sudden appearance. “Who are you?”
Ignoring him, the stranger glared at James who broke out in a wide, pleased grin. “You’re here! Wonderful! Let’s eat.” Motioning to the counter, he stepped out of the tub. “Be a good friend and toss me that towel.”
Making no move to comply, the stranger adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses. “Do you mind?” he growled. The echo-y quality of his voice sent tickling prickles down Franklin’s ear canal. “I was busy.”
“You’re always busy.” With a dismissive tut, James snagged the towel and sat on the edge of the bath to dry his feet. “Someone in your position is rarely at rest, given your eternal line of work.”
“What the hell is going on here?” Slamming his fist on the wall, Franklin felt a fierce joy as James started in surprise and almost slipped backwards into the water. The sudden transition from suicide attempt to casual conversation with the stranger stirred severe confusion within him. “Who are you?” he directed toward the strange man who kept an annoyed gaze on James.
Bending over, James dried between his toes with a corner of the towel. “Franklin Demerill Walters, meet Death. Death, I’m sure you’ve heard of Franklin?”
At last the stranger turned to face Franklin. All of five foot nine, bald head with neat goatee, and clad in shirt sleeves under an argyle vest over grey tweed trousers and penny loafers, Death appeared no different from any average man. Save for his eyes. Pure ebon roiling with different shades of black, they held the slightest suggestion of silver pinpoints in arrayed circles near the lids. As he blinked, Franklin found his head turned his face away, unable to meet Death’s gaze for more than a few seconds. “The Death? As in, ‘end of life?’” Franklin’s voice cracked as he turned to meet James’s eager expression; he knew the answer just by the sight of the eyes, but the question demanded release, the damnable logic side refusing to believe. “Doesn’t he usually walk around in billowing robes wielding antiquated farm equipment?”
In answer, Death turned his hand over, revealing a simple tattoo on his inner forearm. The ink writhed the longer Franklin stared at it. “Okay,” he muttered, snapping his eyes shut. “Creepy.”
“Franklin!” Scolding, James shook out the towel with a flourish and hung it up on the dull copper rack. “That is no way to talk to a guest of mine. Now, come along, both of you. Dinner awaits us on the balcony.” Despite his air of confidence and demonstrated aplomb, Franklin noticed James stayed behind Death rather than lead them to the meal.
The evening could not have presented a more glorious ambience in the city environ. James’s penthouse overlooked the park on main and Sunday afternoon mean the foot traffic was plentiful and the wheel traffic was low. The hustle and bustle twenty floors below was a distant hum, and Chopin provided an excellent counterpoint to every white noise.
Despite Franklin’s initial misgivings, knowing James’s mixed success with culinary endeavors, he found himself pleasantly surprised. Flat iron steaks, medium rare with broiled green beans and garlic butter, and a spinach, blue cheese, and pear salad accompanied by champagne dressing did much to put previous awkward memories of wilted cuisine out of Franklin’s mind.
James’s second guest ate as well, lingering over some bites, while gulping down others whole. Out of the corner of his eye, Franklin observed Death spear a pea-sized chunk of steak, bring it up to study and then pluck it off the gleaming fork tines to roll it around his mouth for two minutes and then chew with great care, almost tenderly, reverently. Logic continued to insist upon itself and Franklin, while avoiding eye contact, wondered if their meeting was some sort of prank. Granted, James had never before gone to such an extent as this one, but when it came to distracting Franklin from his woes, his friend tried more than a few oddball schemes.
Especially with Zoey leaving him. Franklin toyed with a pair of green beans, his appetite diminishing with the sudden memories.
Recognizing the look on Franklin’s face, James cleared his throat. “A merchant walked the streets of Florence,” he announced, brushing his lips with the linen napkin from his lap. “A wealthy man, he traveled with his servant Stolto. As they arrived at an open market, Stolto turned to his master and begged leave to purchase the household goods for the week ahead while his master browsed the bazaar.”
Death set down his knife and fork, his steak finished. Reaching for his glass of Bleu ’91, he gave his head a little shake. “This one again?”
“Now, now!” Waving an expansive palm, James tutted. “Franklin has yet to hear this story. Pray wait and allow me to spin it.” With a sip of his Pinot Noir, he leaned forward, his voice dropping several octaves into foreboding. Franklin rolled his eyes and pushed a half-eaten potato wedge over a corner of the meat. “The servant had not been gone ten minutes before he returned, breathless, empty-handed, and terrified. ‘Stolto!’ said the merchant, ‘What ails you?’” Gripping his steak knife and leaning forward still further, James caught Franklin’s eye and tilted his head toward his other guest. “’Death!’ said Stolto. ‘I saw Death and Death saw me! He stretched out his strong hand toward me in a menacing gesture!’ Stolto clutched his master’s sleeve, frantic. ‘Please, Master! He comes for me, I know it! Allow me to flee him and go to Ravenna – he shall not seek me there.’ After much pleading, the man allowed his servant to go, granting him his best horse for he was not an unkind man, nor Stolto a liar unsteady.”
A queer light entered Death’s eyes, his chin resting upon his laced fingers as he gazed unblinking off the balcony over the city. Faint curling sensations of unease squirmed in Franklin’s stomach, what little he had nibbled off the food turning to grit between his teeth.
James continued, oblivious. “Stolto fled with profuse thanks and haste. His master wandered the bazaar until he himself encountered Death. ‘Tut!’ the merchant scolded, shaking a beringed finger at the imposing figure before him. ‘You have driven my Stolto to fear and retreat! It is not gentle manners to gesture or threaten against any man, my lord. Poor Stolto was quite beside himself.’
“Death inclined his head in gracious apology. ‘I apologize, good merchant. It was a moment of surprise when I saw him and I could scarce contain it.’” Tapping the point of the steak knife in the middle of the steak platter, James made ripples in the scarlet fluid seeping from the seared chunks of flesh. “’For you see,’ said he. ‘I wondered at the sight of Stolto before me here in Florence when I expected to meet him in Ravenna this evening.’”
For a moment, the three at dinner remained silent. Even the streets below them seemed stilled. Then, a fire truck siren screamed through the silence. Franklin jumped in his chair, spilling his glass of wine. Embarrassed, he grunted, mopping it up and making a mocking ghost noise. “And Stolto was never seen nor heard from again.” Rolling his eyes, he turned to Death who had pushed back his own chair and risen to his feet. “Did that actually happen?”
“Perhaps. There were many.” Tossing his napkin on his half-finished meal, Death bestowed a polite bow upon James. “Much obliged for the meal and hospitality. That,” he tilted his head in the direction of the siren, eyes glimmering with the silver dots twirling around the ebon pupils and irises, “is for me. I must take my leave.”
“Come, come!” James raised his glass, eyes unfocusing for a brief moment. “I just started the game of stories! You must tell one before you forfeit!”
“Death is not bound by rules.” Franklin shook a finger at Death as he hesitated. “If you are death.”
“The rules of punctuality lead to a certain etiquette,” nodding his head, Death passed a hand over his bald pate. “Very well – I propose to tell a story of a man’s life. Follow.” From his pants pocket, he withdrew a tall role of carpet which should not have fit in there. Casting it before him, it unrolled, the edge bumping into the wall below the balcony railing. Franklin could see it was a welcome mat, massive, homemade, and well-worn.
With an excited noise, James leaped to his feet and clasped Frankin’s arm. “Come!” he ordered. “This should be most interesting. No, shush! Let him work.” He motioned for Franklin to remain silent, fingers digging into his arm.
Stretching out his hands, Death curled his fingers around an invisible something and pulled, standing on the mat. Lines of webby sapphire split the air in ordered form, outlining a door that swung open under his touch. Around the frame, the cityscape stayed the same, but the door peered into the inside of a small apartment, not the view across a green park and surrounding skyscrapers. By this time, James’s fingers gripped Franklin’s arm so tight it was growing numb.
Before he could protest, deny his eyes, refuse to believe, Franklin felt his own limbs raise him up and feet carry him through the impossible door.
They stepped into inferno. Pure orange and red of twenty-foot flame screamed around them. Throwing up his hands, Franklin shrieked back in panic but James clenched his arm tighter. “It is all right!” he bellowed. “Stay still.”
Raw smoke bombarded his sinuses; Franklin’s throat clenched, the smell lashing away oxygen and compacting his lungs deep in his chest and then he could breathe again as everything stilled. The towering fire paused in its rage, a beam loosened in the heat frozen in midair above the three. “Do not touch it,” Death cautioned Franklin as he reached out a trembling hand toward a tongue of flame consuming a charred end table. Death lead the way, stepping over the birth of an explosion centered over a gas grating.
“How did this all start?” James ducked under the collapse in progress of a trio of bookshelves. He halted next to a tween girl pulling two smaller boys out of the way of the destruction. “Will they make it?”
“I am not here for them.”
Trading glances with James, Franklin shivered, the chill in the air dusty and pervasive and spiting the flames. He trailed after Death, James lagging behind, a concerned look cast back over his shoulder at the three frozen children.
“Here.” Death halted in front of a man caught in the motion of running. Raising his hand, he brushed the man’s forehead with his fingertips. “His time is come.”
To Franklin, the man did not appear on the brink of death. The still blue eyes sunken in the chiseled face glared with fierce purpose toward an illuminated exit sign ten feet away. “He won’t make it?” Scratching his head, Franklin studied the area, confused and a sharp feeling of resentment rising at death’s matter-of-fact revelation. “How? He has a clear run to the exit.” And so the man did. No falling pillars or flames blocked his path and even the smoke curled away from him, gossamer threads immaterial and ebon and stationary.
To Franklin, the man appeared more likely to survive than the children.
“He will fall through that floor onto a janitorial cart with an unsheathed art knife.” Dipping his hand into the man’s breast pocket of his grey suit, Death plucked a pack of cigarettes. With the action, the man’s form darken, faded, the light from the stationary flames unable to outline his features. Death tapped a lightning-blue colored tube from the pack and placed it between his teeth.
A sinking sensation twisted Franklin’s stomach. “What-what did you-“
“This man’s greatest regret was never giving up smoking.” Flicking the spectral cigarette, Death squinted as it lit itself, the end glowing azure. “In time, regret overcomes the soul, pervading it, until it takes the utter away.”
“The last breath of life.” No smoke rings issued from Death’s lips, the blue light brightening and dimming, the intake of smoke an afterthought to each breath as well as the exhalations. “in your last moments, you are forced to consider all that you have done and all that you have done it for. The last emotion is either contentment or regret.”
Franklin turned back to the man frozen in time, attempting to make sense of it all. True, he did appear…less than he had. Franklin furrowed his brow. The man’s form had turned blurry, almost as a computer monitor is turned to a lower resolution. No longer able to see the clear definition of his face’s lines or the edges of his pupils, Franklin drew back.
“He entered this place, intent on robbing the man on the thirty-ninth floor. Three hundred thousand dollars of gold coins in his basement storage. Locked by a single, solitary key, concealed by his persona of World War II hero living off his pension pittance.” A smoke ring the size of a Christmas wreath floated over to the frozen man and evaporated around his neck. “But to his dearest friend and then to his friend’s living assistant who discovered it in passing, the secret was not.” Drawing another breath, Death sent a second smoke ring spiraling around the man’s head. “It was the result of one month’s planning, two minutes cutting, and-“ Death’s eyes turned to the clock half-covered by the flames upon the cracking sheetrock. “four and a half minutes of running. And two seconds of realization it had gone wrong.”
“And the worst regret he had was that he failed to quit smoking?” Disgust twisting his lips, James crossed his arms and glowered at the faded man. “Good grief.”
“Right. Great story. Can we go?” Unable to look at the man anymore, Franklin shivered. The dry winter cold increased and he rubbed his bare arms in an attempt to warm them, a faint tingle of irony rising in his mind with all the frozen fire around them. “Can we…help them?” Nodding toward the shadows that concealed the children, Franklin took a breath. He knew the answer before Death shook his head.
“Not in the way you are wanting,” shrugging, Death flipped aside the cigarette. “It is your turn to tell us a tale, Franklin.”
“I am not a storyteller.”
“You are a man. Your stories are many.”
“And your experiences varied.” James agreed. “You have many stories to tell.”
“Tell us what comes naturally,” James pressed, “Tell us about Zoey.”
“Okay, we are definitely not talking-”
“Zorea M Banning?”
Flinching, James and Franklin exchanged glances and then peered at Death. “You know her?”
“Obviously he does.” James drew the corners of his mouth into a flat line. “He knows everyone. But the way he said it…”
Fire vanished. Shadow turned clinical, white and sterile. The room shrunk and the three stood before a hospital bed.
“No.” Covering his eyes, Frank gritted his teeth. “I don’t want to see this. It can’t be her. Tell me it isn’t her. No.”
They met a year ago. She sold flowers and vegetables in the street market. He took the right turn to be five minutes late for work and smitten for the next five months until they were married and she vanished in the same week.
“Why did she go?” Still not looking, Franklin stared hard at the blurring patient chart on the door.
“She had cancer. Too advanced to bring your son to full term.” Death said simply.
“My what?” Invisible knives trailed up and down his spine and James took a tactful step to one side as Franklin tore over to the bedside, leaning down to stare into Zoey’s face.
Gaunt, her skin stretched tight across her face and bones. Zoey’s glittering green and silver-tinted eyes had dimmed half-shut. A doctor in ivory coat and stethoscope leaned over the other side of her bed, finality and resignation riding familiar roads on his countenance. Still, the curl to her pale lips reminded Franklin of a fine rain. The fine rain at the end of the picnic where she smiled at the frantic attempts to keep her, the basket, the roses, the tandem bike, and himself dry.
When Death reached for her face, Franklin lashed out but the eyes flickered, drawing his gaze again. His arm froze and he could not move as Death plucked a framed photograph from her soul. The photograph was of two figures, one familiar, the other small and with his mother’s eyes.
Zoey’s eyes shifted and met Franklin’s stunned gaze. “Your son, Franklin,” she whispered. “I can’t move my head. He’s your son. Our son.” Tear leaking from the corner of her eye, she continued to stare into his.
Tucking his hand into hers, Franklin struggled to speak.
“See, now I-”
“Enough.” Death extended his hand to rest it on James’s shoulder. “It is their story.”
James shut up.
“Franklin, her story is over.” Death reached out and shut Zoey’s eyes. He strode to the door, Zoey’s form fading like the thief’s in the apartment buildings.
“That’s it?” James snapped, eyes growing cold as he glared at Death’s back. “That is all? They finally meet and she dies? What kind of story is that?”
“A real one. A true one.” His left shoulder circulating in a shrug, Death opened the door into the hall, also frozen with people in paralysis. A nurse wheeled a patient in mid-laugh, angling the chair in between gurneys, one empty, the other the focus of a doctors’ gathering. “There are billions of stories. I told you a true one. I do not necessarily tell happy stories.” Death lead them down the hall, pausing when Franklin’s knees gave out and he pressed his forehead to the worn and gleaming linoleum to sob. Wrapping his arms around his torso, James rocked him back and forth, saying nothing, brows still inclined over his eyes as he continued his accusatory glare at Death.
“People spend their lives avoiding me, ignoring me, burying me. Burying. Me. Some, when they are shown me as reality, flee and shovel more earth over me, drowning their experience or running on the treadmill away.” Raising the picture to his eyes, Death shook his head. “A few try to accomplish events that they think are meaningful and more lifelike than others. Zorea had one event she sought never to bring about – your heartbreak.” He bent down and set the photograph before Franklin’s head. “Diagnosed and found to be with child at the same time, she sought to spare you pain and left in a careless manner.”
Choking something out, Franklin continued to cry. James tilted his head, unable to hear. “What, Franklin?”
“She still broke it.”
“She would have no matter what, I think.” James looked to Death’s face for affirmation but found none.
“Probability is not the concern. Only the end result.” Death turned his head to peer through the glass of the hospital nursery. Bassinets sat in neat rows, occupants all frozen in slumber. A nurse, cradling a newborn in her arms, had been in the motion of tucking the tiny form into an empty bed. “I am at the end of life. Very few points do I find myself at the beginning.” Eyes glinting, Death squinted down at Franklin, tapping the glass window. “That is reserved for mothers…and fathers, should they so choose.”
Sobbing subsiding to fitful starts of his shoulders, Franklin Demerill Walters rose to his feet, straightened his tie, and hiccupped. “Which one?” he managed.
Death indicated the bassinet closest to the wall. A cloud blue tube snaked from a large incubator into the nostrils of a tiny baby. A plastic bubble kept the world at bay and the warmth around the maroon-colored form. The chart hanging from the end of the bassinet had a virulent red and yellow swath across the axis.
As Franklin entered the time-frozen nursery, Death restrained James from following. “What did you do?”
“One story ends. Another begins. Story time is done.”
“What about his regret?”
“It is up to him.” Death touched James’s chest over his heart, tapped once, and nodded. “And yours is vanished.”
Color seeping from his face, James nodded and groped for a nearby chair. “Thank you,” he gasped. Fingers fluttering at his neck, James rasped in a shaky giggle. “Just in time.” He dropped his face into hands. “So what happens now?”
“Life.” Knocking a final time on the glass, Death’s nostrils twitched. “Death. Love. Regret. The usual.” Extending his hand, he watched his tattoo slither into his palm, increase, materialize, and then he swung. “Always more tales.”