A Late Appearance by Death

Reading Time: 5 minutes
(Image created by Anais Aguilera using Firefly.)

Death was late.

The rhythmic beeping of the EKG monitor had flatlined nearly an hour ago, yet Death had not come.

I sat next to my corpse, lying motionless in the hospital cot, and waited, not knowing what to do.

I was sure he should be here. My suitcase was packed, resting at my feet. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but I was ready for it.

I waited for a while longer, but Death still did not arrive. After glancing at the clock on the wall for what felt like the hundredth time, I decided to go find Death myself. It was 2023, and a lady could do that. I didn’t need to wait around for someone to fetch me. I could do the fetching.

My walker was nowhere to be seen, but I got to my feet anyway, finding the movement surprisingly easy—although I shouldn’t have been surprised. My poor cancer-ridden body lay in the cot, unable to give me problems anymore. I picked up my suitcase, which felt feather light, and walked through the door—the closed door, mind you—and out into the hall.

I nearly walked straight into Sarah, my eldest daughter, who was standing in the hallway. Her eyes were red and puffy, and her hair was a mess, which was unlike her. She was particular about her curly hair.

I was surprised that she was still here. She’d spent so much time here with me. It seemed like she should be going home now to be with her own children, but instead she was talking to a doctor in wrinkled blue scrubs who looked as exhausted as Sarah did.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Their words were strangely muted, as if someone had turned down the volume, but I assumed there was paperwork of some kind that needed to be sorted. Next-of-kin obligations, perhaps. There was always so much paperwork, and when I became too ill to manage it, it had all fallen onto her tired shoulders.

Eventually I tore my eyes away from her and continued wandering the hospital, looking for Death. I made my way down the hallway, occasionally poking into patient rooms.

It didn’t take long to find him.

Death was a distinguished fellow. He was impeccably dressed in a pinstriped black suit and wore a top hat over dark curls. His features were all knife-sharp, and his skin was either pure white or pure black. Somehow, that was impossible to tell.

He was with another man, an elderly bald fellow. I kept my distance, not wanting to intrude.

The two talked for a while before Death hugged the man and handed him something, a ticket perhaps. And then, as quick as a light flickering out, the man vanished.

Death turned to leave, not noticing me waiting there so patiently.

“Excuse me,” I called, and he finally looked at me. There was a knowing in his gaze as his dark eyes fell over me. I’d never felt so seen. It made me freeze and fumble my words. It took me several seconds to find them again. “I’m sorry, but I think you may have forgotten me.”

His expression was sympathetic, but he shook his head. “I’m sorry, my dear, but it’s not your time yet.”

I blinked, taken aback. “But I’m dead.”

“No,” Death said gently. “You’re not.”

“Yes, I am,” I said. It felt absurd to be arguing about this. “I flatlined over an hour ago.”

He inclined his head. “Yes, Betty, but they resuscitated you. You’re on life support.”

“Oh,” I said. “Oh. But then . . .” I trailed off, frowning. “But why?” The cancer, which had started in my pancreas, had spread to my liver and lungs. I wasn’t going to get better.

He didn’t answer. He just looked at me with those strange eyes. But I knew the answer.

“Oh, Sarah,” I whispered. “You’ve got to let me go.” I had the urge to run after her, but she wouldn’t be able to hear me. It was too late. Far too late.

Death offered me a soft smile. “I promise that I’ll come when it’s your time. I haven’t forgotten anyone yet.”

“Do you know how long it will be?” I asked, suddenly feeling small. Lost. I was not quite alive. Not quite dead. I was stranded somewhere in between.

“Until you’re taken off life support.” His voice was soothing, but the words were not.

I had no idea how long that might be. Hours? Days? Weeks? Months? “But are you certain—certain that you can’t send me off now?”

“I cannot,” he said. “I’m sorry, Betty.”

I looked down, catching sight of the suitcase still clutched in my hand. “But I was ready to go,” I whispered. I was all packed and ready to go.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “But I must be off now.”

“And I’m just supposed to stay here?”

He nodded and turned away, touching the brim of his hat as he did so.

“But,” I said, unwilling to accept that all I could do was wait. “There must be something I could do. Could I help you, perhaps?”

He seemed surprised by my request. He was silent for a moment, considering it. “I think you could help someone. Not me, but someone else.”

I felt a flicker of hope. “Oh? Who? How?”

“Come,” he said, motioning me to follow, and I eagerly did. We walked to a different section of the hospital. From the cartoonish animal figures painted on the wall, I knew we were in the pediatric unit. From the elaborate equipment, I knew we were in the ICU. The pediatric ICU. I braced myself for what he’d show me.

He led me into a room where a boy lay in a bed that was far too big for his tiny form. The boy was covered in such a spider web of wires and tubes that I could see little of him beyond the top of his bald head.

Death looked around. “Mickey,” he called. “I have a visitor for you.”

A little boy bounced through the colorful wall and into the room. He couldn’t be older than five. I knew he must be the boy in the bed, yet it was almost impossible to reconcile that child with this one with his mane of dark hair and big brown eyes.

“A visitor!” the boy yelled, sounding almost outraged at the idea. It would have been amusing under other circumstances, but under these circumstances, it grabbed my heart in a chokehold. He jabbed a finger at me. “Can she see me?”

“I can see you,” I said.

His eyes widened, and his finger dropped. “You can?”

“I can,” I repeated. “It’s nice to meet you, Mickey. My name is Ms. Betty.”

“Do you want to play with me?” His voice now held an almost intense desperation.

“I would love that,” I said. I set my suitcase down and knelt to his level, delighted to discover that my old knees could indeed do that. “What would you like to play?”

Mickey smiled at me, and I didn’t even notice when Death slipped out the door.


Edited by a Fallon Clark and Sophie Gorjance.

Victoria Brun is a writer and project manager at a national laboratory. When not bugging hard-working scientists about budget reports and service agreements, she is writing stories you can find at Factor Four Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Little Blue Marble, Nature Futures, and beyond. Find her on Twitter at @VictoriaLBrun or at victorialbrun.wordpress.com/.