"The Gift of Death" is original fiction from the anthology Speculative Story Bites. Get the whole anthology from Amazon, Kobo, or World Weaver Press.
Death snipped the last tsunami victim’s life thread and sheathed her golden shears. That made fifty thousand, five hundred and thirty-six acquisitions along Miami Beach tonight.
“So many,” Death whispered. She had been human once, a long time ago. The memories were like wisps of a dream. She had been thinking about that time more and more recently, trying to remember if she had been generous enough in life to compensate for what she was doing now.
Cold, musty air passed over her, making her shiver. The Overseer’s hand fell upon her shoulder.
Death stiffened. She brushed a red curl behind one ear, hoping he wouldn’t notice the slight tremble in her hand. When she had accepted this role, she had taken the form of a young woman in the hopes it would ease some of the anxiety that mortals felt at her presence.
“You pulled this off without a hitch,” the Overseer said, his voice like the autumn wind rattling dead leaves on trees. “It was beautifully orchestrated. Do you want to know the final death toll?”
Not really, she wanted to say.
The Overseer moved in front of her. He was a swirling darkness that oozed in and out of humanoid form. Hovering over her, he blotted out some of the stars.
“Nearly three hundred thousand,” he said. “And that doesn’t include all the other fatalities that will be associated with this from looting, illness, sheer panic.”
The Overseer solidified, placing his hands on Death’s shoulders, a hint of a face beneath his black cowl. “You have earned yourself an advancement. After tonight, you will no longer be Death, but an Overseer.”
She took a step back, easing from his hold. “I—” The words of acceptance stuck in her throat. “I…can’t.”
“What do you mean, you can’t?”
“I can’t do this anymore. Any of this.”
The Overseer receded into swirling darkness again. “I’ve pushed you too hard. Why don’t you take some time off, get your thoughts back together, and then come back? This can wait a little while.”
Death removed her golden shears and held them toward the Overseer.
His eyes became twin red orbs, a gaping hole where his nose should have been, his mouth filled with rotten teeth. He towered over Death. When he spoke, the smell of the grave washed over her.
“You will become mortal,” he said, “subject to misery, disease, and eventually, the victim of your successor. Do you really want that?”
She opened her hands, letting the shears fall into the swirling waters of the Atlantic.
The Overseer howled, erupting into a dark maelstrom. The air pressed in on Death, crushing her. She tried to scream, but couldn’t. Then everything went black.
Death gasped, struggling to fill her lungs. The brininess of the sea, the stench of early decomposition, and her own sweat assaulted her nostrils. Gulls cawed nearby, one right beside her face. She shooed the bird away. Sand made her skin itch. She tried to brush it off, but only managed to spread it around.
She squinted against the sun. It peeked over the eastern horizon, illuminating bodies strewn across the beach, mixed in with mattresses, uprooted palm trees, and even an orange Lamborghini, sticking at an angle out of the sand as if it was a flying car that had come in for a rough landing.
Beside Death lay a dead woman. The water had washed most of the make-up off her face, leaving streaks of mascara. She wore one of those short dresses with the elastic bottom that barely covered the wearer’s buttocks, the kind that made it look like girls had forgotten to wear pants. Only now, that dress rode up, revealing the girl’s lacy panties. Death tugged the hem down.
She rose to her feet, naked herself. She crossed her arms over her breasts, shivering despite the warmth.
She had kept the form of a youthful redhead that she’d had as Death. But something of her immortal self remained. It lay curled in a small, tight ball inside her, a knot of darkness.
She wanted to find a way to give. She’d taken enough. And given how fleeting life could be, she didn’t want to waste any time. She had a lot to make up for.
Death walked toward Ocean Drive, the street that lined the western edge of the beach. On the other side rose the nightclubs and restaurants and hotels where most of the victims had been last night, around 2:00 am when the tsunami struck. In the distance, sirens wailed. An alarm blared. Death couldn’t tell if it belonged to a vehicle or a business, but it sounded tired, as if it had been going off all night and was on the verge of quitting.
“Hey. Hey, there,” called a man.
Death covered herself as best as she could and turned.
A deeply tanned, bearded man moved toward her across the sand. His hair and clothes were scruffy. His eyes, icy blue and vibrant amidst all the brown, were feverish and not quite right. His gaze took in her naked form.
Death backed away, wanting to run, but something about this man made it seem like a bad idea, in the same way that running from a cougar or a bear would invite trouble. She squeezed her arms against her body.
“I saw you from back there,” he said. “My wife had nipples like yours. So big.” He reached a hand toward her breast.
Death slapped his hand away.
The man’s eyes narrowed. He bared his teeth, a line of sharp white nestled within his beard. “Nobody hits me.” His elbows flexed, his hands curled into fists. “Especially not you.”
That small, hard ball of darkness uncurled within Death, expanding until her fingers and toes tingled with it. The urge to take this man’s life consumed her. She had no powers, no golden shears, but she could--
No. She pulled her thoughts back. Taking this man’s life was not the answer.
He leaped forward. Death sidestepped, grabbed a handful of sand, and tossed it at his face. He cried out and fell to his knees, his hands scrabbling at his eyes.
She fled, leaving the beach for the street, dodging broken chairs, battered bodies, bits of lumber, a twisted bicycle. She ducked down a narrow street, lined with shops and restaurants, and devoid of people.
Leaning against a wall, Death waited for her breathing to slow. The darkness within her curled up again as if slumbering, but she knew better. Shaking her old self was not going to be easy.
Across the street was a boutique named Second Chance. On the door, a sign read Gently Used Fashionable Clothes. A metal table from the restaurant next door had shattered the display window, toppling mannequins. After glancing around to make sure she was alone, Death crossed the street and ducked into the store.
The clothes were wet, but they would suffice. Death put on a white skirt and tank top, then added a green tank top over that. She shivered as the clothes’ damp chill touched her skin. A pair of low-heeled sandals completed the outfit.
She hurried down the street. At the intersection, she paused. Everybody on the beach was dead, and besides, that man was in that direction. She’d head east, away from the beach, and see if there was some way she could help. She started walking down 12th street.
Ahead, a woman wearing a dark uniform turned a corner. When she spotted Death, she jogged toward her. Death’s heart sped up, and she took a couple of steps backwards.
“Wait, wait!” the woman called. Her voice did not carry any threat.
Death paused. As the woman drew closer, the patch on the sleeve of her uniform grew clear. She was a paramedic. The name embroidered above the breast pocket read Ruby.
“Are you all right?” Ruby asked as she stopped before Death. “Are you alone?”
“I’m fine. I’m alone.”
“What’s your name?”
She blinked. “Name?” She’d been Death for so long. But she certainly couldn’t use that. “Um…” She struggled to remember the name she’d used before she was Death. It hung tantalizingly out of reach.
“Come with me.” Ruby took her hand, leading her as if she were five years old.
Death tried to pull free, but Ruby’s grip held firm. She didn’t want to go anywhere with this woman. “I’m fine, really.”
The paramedic led her a few blocks at a brisk pace while Death insisted she was fine. The street ended at an expansive park. Manicured grass met several buildings in the distance, and tennis courts took up the far right. A fenced-in area held dog agility equipment.
The tsunami’s debris ended just before the park. A multitude of emergency vehicles took up the parking lot, and some had found space on the grass, their lights whirling in reds and whites and blues. It made Death dizzy.
People dodged in between the vehicles. Victims sat, lay down, or stood, all in various stages of triage. A middle-aged man moaned, holding an ice pack to his head. Blood trickled down his face. On the ground sat a woman holding a boy. A makeshift splint kept his right leg straight. He stared at Death with doleful eyes.
Ruby sat her in the back of an ambulance. She then proceeded to poke around Death’s head, pushing aside hair.
“What day is it?” Ruby asked.
“Who’s the president?”
Ruby paused. “The United States.”
“Oh.” She would have paid more attention if she had known there was going to be a quiz.
Ruby stepped back. “I can’t find where you hit your head. Do you have any I.D. on you?”
Death gestured at her damp clothes. “All I have is what you see here.”
“Some help over here!” a man called from down the street. He was running toward the emergency vehicles, waving his arms in the air. “People are trapped down here!”
Ruby said, “Stay here. I’ve got to see to these other people and I’ll be right back. Okay?”
The paramedic joined others running down the street toward the man. He led them away.
As soon as they disappeared, Death hopped from the ambulance and jogged away. A new, painful sensation gripped her abdomen. What was this? Was she sick? Her belly growled.
Hunger. She’d forgotten what it felt like. It hurt.
She could think of nothing else but food. She turned down a side street.
A small restaurant nestled between a dry cleaner and a furniture store in a strip mall. A sign over the door read Diego’s. Death wiggled the doorknob to no avail.
Her stomach grumbled insistently. She cupped her hands around her face and peered through the window.
A figure rushed at her. She yelped and jumped back. The door flew open, and a man filled the frame. He stood with his hands curled into fists at his side.
“What do you want?” he said.
“I’m—I was hoping for something to eat.”
Dark stubble dotted the lower half of his face, and thick, disheveled hair covered his head. He had the lined face of a person who spent a lot of time outdoors. He could have been anywhere from twenty-five years old to forty.
His face softened. “Are you all right?” he asked.
Death nodded. That seemed to be the popular question of the day.
“I’m sorry.” He looked up and down the street. Then he stepped back. “It’s not safe out there. Come in.”
Death stepped into the restaurant and the man locked the door behind them. Tables covered with white cloth dotted a small space. A counter in the back acted as a bar, able to seat a few people. Beyond that was the kitchen. The place smelled delightful. Death couldn’t pinpoint the different odors, but they made her stomach growl loudly.
The man grinned. “You really are hungry, aren’t you?”
“It’s been a while since I’ve eaten.”
He gestured at one of the bar stools. “I’ll whip up some breakfast for us.” He disappeared through a swinging door. Then his shoulders and head reappeared in the pass-through. “You want anything in particular?”
“Whatever you’re having.” Death fidgeted with a rolled napkin on the counter, unraveling it to free a fork, knife, and spoon. Then she hopped up and stepped into the kitchen.
The man moved about the room as if going through the steps of a dance long familiar to him. Death could have watched him for hours.
He pulled out eggs, thick slabs of ham, and potatoes from the walk-in refrigerator. The griddle sizzled, dewdrops of grease popping on its surface.
“I’m Diego,” the man said as he cracked eggs into a large bowl.
Death was prepared this time. “I’m Ruby.” She didn’t think the paramedic would mind if Death borrowed her name.
“You from here?”
Diego paused, apparently waiting for more of an answer.
“Vancouver.” It was the last place she’d been before coming to Miami Beach.
Diego smiled, and the lines crinkled deeply around his eyes. So, he was closer to forty than twenty-five. “A tourist. Some vacation, huh?”
Death’s face and neck warmed in response to his smile. “It’s actually my first. Ever.”
Diego let out a low whistle. He diced the potatoes into cubes, the knife moving in a blur, then dropped them onto the griddle. “What do you do that you’ve never had a vacation?”
“I’m in acquisitions.” Before he could ask her to elaborate, she said, “How long have you run this place?”
Diego told her about the restaurant, which he had inherited from his parents. The griddle hissed and gave off aromas that made Death salivate. A few minutes later, Diego heaped food onto two plates and carried them to the counter. He set two large glasses of orange juice beside them.
Death couldn’t shovel the food into her mouth fast enough. The flavors burst on her palate, salty and sweet, starchy and meaty. When she cleaned off her plate, Diego brought her another, piled just as high as the first. She took her time with this one, savoring each bite. Diego watched her with a fascinated expression. At last she pushed the empty plate away, sat back with her hands over her distended belly, and sighed.
“That was the best meal I ever had.”
Diego gestured toward her plate. “Was it enough?”
“No. I mean, I’m not hungry, but I still feel…I don’t know.”
“You’re shaken by what’s happened. You had a near brush with death.”
She laughed. “You have no idea.”
Diego took the dishes to the kitchen. He had fed her, made her laugh, provided her shelter when it seemed everybody else wanted to hurt or trap her. Warmth spread through her body. Old memories flashed before her: spooned in bed with a loving man, soft kisses, arms around her. The longing ache that followed took her breath away.
When Diego came back, Death grabbed the waistband of his jeans and drew him close. She brought her other hand to his cheek, his stubble scratching her palm, then slid her hand to the back of his neck and pulled him down until their lips touched. She closed her eyes, breathed in his smell, a mixture of the kitchen and soap.
They melded and melted together, the heat of their bodies softening them and reshaping them. Death wanted to consume Diego, take his entirety of being into her. Maybe this was what she’d really been looking for. Her legs trembled, her fingers dug into his back. And then she shook all over as waves of pleasure passed through her.
Sweat covered both of them. It soaked through her tank tops, making them cling to her back, her breasts.
Diego clutched her to him, gasping. “Oh, my God,” he kept saying.
The heat that had filled Death only a moment before quickly dissipated, leaving her shivering as the sweat cooled her. The experience had been wonderful, had filled her for a moment, but it wasn’t what she’d come back for.
She’d taken much from Diego, but she had nothing meaningful to reciprocate with. Again, she’d taken what she wanted without giving back. The ball of darkness inside her seemed to gloat.
Diego adjusted his pants. The restaurant keys fell out of a pocket, landing on the floor with a jingle, but he ignored them. He wiped sweat off his forehead.
“Water?” he asked.
Death nodded. She pulled her skirt back down. As soon as Diego pushed through the kitchen door, she snatched up the keys. She unlocked the door, left the keys inside on a table, and stepped, blinking, into the midday sunlight. Then she ran down the street and turned toward the ocean. The chaos she’d created called to her.
Civilians mixed with emergency personnel on the streets. They worked together to clear the debris, allowing for vehicles to get closer to the beach and the destruction’s apex. Others stood, arms crossed, watching everything with empty eyes. A man, a New York tourist by the sound of it, joked with his adolescent kids as he video-taped a couple of firemen placing somebody in a body bag. The kids, both boys, stood behind him and looked as if they wanted to be anywhere but there. As Death passed him, he turned the camera on her. “Hey, honey.”
The darkness within her unfurled, wanting to lash out at the man. If only Death could have been selective with the tsunami, she would have made sure he was standing on the beach when the wave came in.
She took a deep breath and walked past him. She weaved through the crowd until she reached Ocean Street. The stench of rotting flesh filled the air. Death’s stomach made a slow flip.
What if she was wrong, and she just had nothing to give? Maybe she should have just become an Overseer. Maybe taking was all she was capable of now.
“Hey!” The shout came from Death’s left. An older woman stood in front of a hotel, waving her arms. “My husband. He had a heart attack.” Nobody paid attention to her.
Here was a chance to help. Death weaved through the crowd. She laid a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Where is he?”
The woman’s face crumpled in relief. She pulled Death into the hotel lobby. Death had a brief impression of wicker furniture and lumpy cushions tossed about, and lots of potted tropical plants, most of which lay on their sides. A few piles of seaweed dotted the floor. Nobody manned the front desk.
An elderly man sprawled on the floor. Death kneeled beside him.
The woman hovered, wringing her hands. “Do you know CPR?”
Death had been at enough scenes like this to have picked up the method. “Yes.”
Finally, she could give somebody a second chance at life, rather than snatch it from them. Adrenaline rushed through her. This was what she had been searching for, this opportunity to give rather than take, the chance to balance her existence.
Death touched two fingers to the man’s neck. No pulse, and he wasn’t breathing. She leaned forward, hands clasped together on the man’s chest, ready to push, ready to give. She began chest compressions.
The knot of darkness exploded within her, flowing through her until it was everywhere. Death could faintly see the man’s life thread now, rising from the area of his navel. Her hand reached automatically for golden shears, but they no longer hung from her waist.
She was trying to save his life, not take it. She resumed compressions, but every movement was like trying to push her way through mud. It grew difficult to breathe. Sweat broke out along her forehead. Her stomach cramped. She turned aside and retched, her breakfast spilling on the floor, the acid taste filling her mouth.
She wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “I can’t do this.” She staggered to her feet.
“What do you mean?” the woman said. “You’re just going to let him die?”
“I’m sorry.” Hot tears rimmed her eyes.
The woman punched her arms, her shoulders. “How could you, how could you!”
Death ran out of the lobby. Even with the doors shut behind her, the woman’s screams came through. “Go to hell,” she yelled.
Death stumbled down the crowded street, bouncing off people, keeping her head down, clutching her arms to herself. Who was she kidding? She was Death, the taker of life. She gave nothing. She was the ultimate selfish being. The ball of darkness within her, slowly shrinking back into itself, seemed triumphant.
The tears brimmed over and trailed down her cheeks. She wiped her nose and kept moving, not looking where she was going. She had to get out of here, get away from all these people.
Then the crowd thinned. She stood in between an ambulance and a fire engine a couple of blocks from the beach. She leaned against the ambulance, taking deep breaths. The air still stunk of death, although less so here.
Something inside the vehicle fell with a thud, and it rocked. A scream, cut off quickly, came from inside.
“Nobody hits me,” came a muffled yet familiar male voice.
Death flung the ambulance door open. The crazy beach man had Ruby pinned against a counter. He held a broken glass bottle to her neck. Tiny streams of blood rolled down. He pressed harder. Ruby winced and shut her eyes tight.
“Hey,” Death said.
The man turned, eyes narrowing. “You.”
“Get all the sand out of your eyes?”
He leapt out of the vehicle with a yowl, swiping the broken glass at her face. Death ducked out of the way. The bottle whistled past her. She took a few running steps backwards, making sure he was going to follow, then ran away from the beach and the crowds.
His bare feet padded the pavement behind her, a little closer with each step. She pushed her legs to move faster. She imagined herself light as a feather, flying along. And yet he still caught up to her.
He grabbed her hair and yanked. Her feet flew up, and her bottom hit the ground. The man straddled her. He held the broken bottle to her chin and leaned in close. The stench of a long-unwashed body rolled off him in waves. Death gagged.
“I’ll teach you once and for all,” he said, “that I’m the boss of you.”
He ran the ragged edge down one of her cheeks, leaving a burning line of pain. Death bucked and kicked against him, but he didn’t flinch. He raised his arm, the bottle glinting in the sun. A drop of blood hung from one point. Then he buried that point in her chest. Hot, wet pain exploded there. He pulled it free and plunged it in her again.
A male figure loomed over the man and yanked him off. Ruby knelt beside Death, her brows furrowed, a line of drying blood on the right side of her neck.
Death tried to see what was going on. “Is he—”
“Shh,” Ruby said. “He’s taken care of.”
She pressed something to Death’s chest. Another paramedic joined her and began rummaging through a large case. They worked over her.
Death closed her eyes. The paramedics mumbled to one another, their voices reassuring.
Then Ruby whispered in Death’s ear. “You saved my life, you know. Thank you.” She squeezed Death’s hand.
One life, one fewer victim of this tsunami. The first time Death had given, rather than taken.
The male figure knelt next to Ruby. Diego. “Will she be okay?”
“She will,” Ruby said. “I’ll make sure of that.”
The knot of darkness inside Death was gone.
Rebecca Roland is the author of the Shards of History series, The Necromancer’s Inheritance series, and The King of Ash and Bones, and Other Stories. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Nature, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Stupefying Stories, Plasma Frequency, and Every Day Fiction, and she is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. You can find out more about her and her work at rebeccaroland.net, her blog Spice of Life, or follow her on Twitter @rebecca_roland.
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