I don’t hear the car. The storm has swallowed the world in a white noise that bites at my ears. It pulls up ahead. Silent. Expectant. Home is a 3k walk away, and a slick trip down the mountain. A beautiful vista on a mild day, tortuous when a storm came to town.
It’s a hearse. I ignore the symbolism, for now. I haven’t committed to anything, yet. The passenger seat is on my side; I can’t see the driver. The window rolls down, and Hall and Oates floats out. The warmth licks my face clean like a familiar dog. I look towards the town. From here I can’t even make out the road past five meters or so. I finger my phone in my pocket, my safety net. Briefly, an image of a man buried alive flashes across my mind. They were worried about burying people alive then. They’d install levers into coffins to raise flags and awareness above ground.
Inside the car is warm, smells of cigarettes.
You make my dreams come true,
You hoo, you, you-hoo, hoo, ooh, hooT
The lock on the door clicks down, and I tighten my grip on my phone as I turn to face the driver. He or she is wearing a dark black cloak. The hood is wide and rests on their shoulders, which are bobbing up and down as they sing along to the music.
“On a night when bad dreams become a screamer, when they’re messin’ with the dreamer, I can laugh it in the face!” They sing, before bellowing a forced laugh and turning to face me.
I am about to laugh at the absurdity of this. And then I realise – he/she doesn’t have a face. Not just a face, there’s no blank canvas onto one which could be drawn, or painted, or tattooed, perhaps. There’s no head. No neck. Nothing. And yet the hood moved as though it was embodied by someone.
“Welcome,” says the voice. I feel like it’s smiling at me. I squeal, the pinch I’d delivered to my thigh failing to wake me. But I must have passed out. How long does it take for a body to freeze? I probably wouldn’t freeze in this weather. Hypothermia, though. Why didn’t I get the bus? I think. Then the angry flashes of their glares arrest me, and I pinch myself again, lighter this time.
‘Cos I ain’t the way you found me
And I’ll never be the same, oh yeah
Ooh hoo hoooo.
“You too cold?” the voice asks, concerned. “Too hot? Fiddle away with the thermostat there. I’m easy.” I say nothing. What can I say? Excuse me, but is it true you haven’t got a head? If I’m not passed out on a road somewhere I’m hallucinating. I can’t ask someone why they haven’t got a head. After a time I lick my lips, trying to capture a few drops of rain. My tongue is stuck to the top of my mouth.
“I’m good, thanks.” I croak.
“You make my dreams come true hoo hoo shoo boobedeedooo,” the voice improvised, scatting. “There’s water in the glove compartment.” He said, nodding towards it. “Help yourself.” I’m pretty sure the voice is male. I take a water, the cap’s still sealed. I drink. Once replenished:
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Death,” Death says. There’s a pause, while I expect him to laugh or slap his knee or nudge me. He doesn’t. Merely continues humming along to the music. We hit a pothole and his hood falls to his shoulders, exposing his lack of head for the world to see. “Oops, apologies.” Death says, pulling the hood back over his head. “Sorry about that,” he says, once he is covered. “Cloak’s less alarming.”
“You’ve got no head,” I say. The hood sways from left to right as if to imply I might be wrong.
“I do, maybe just not visible to you,” he says. There is a laugh in his voice.
“I need to wake up,” I say, turning to the windows and looking for a lever to open it. It opens a crack.
“Yeah, get some air,” says Death. The windows are frosted and I can’t see the rain.
“Can you open the window a little more?” I ask.
“Of course,” he obliges, and the window opens fully.
The vortex is simultaneously licking the bridge of my nose and crawling in towards us from twenty feet away. It’s a swirling mass of every colour, but how every colour looks when you’ve poured them all into a pot and are starting to stir. Not yet a tub of globulous brown, but colours swirling inwards. It sounds like peristalsis feels. I am sick. What doesn’t land on me disappears out into the non-place. I drag my head back into the car, Neil Young’s Heart of Gold seeping towards me. Death was cooing at me, one eye presumably on the road as he handed me some tissues from a packet in the cup holder.
“There, there,” said Death. “Don’t worry, most people do that. Some people do other stuff. That’s why the cover’s on your chair now.”
“I’m dead?” I ask.
“Yeah, sorry.” Says Death. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news but, it’s kind of in the job description.”
“Not hallucinating?” By now this feels pretty real.
“I don’t know about that.” Death shruggs. “You might be. Can’t speak for your mind.”
And suddenly I know. That this is it. The awareness, faith in it crawls over my body. I’m freezing. I turn the temperature to full blast. It barely registers.
“That happens,” Death nods. And I’m crying, big empty heaving sobs. And I can feel Death’s discomfort. You’d think he of all people would be used to the horror that accompanies the realisation that you’re about to be no more.
“What, huh, happens, huh, next?” I manage in between heaves.
“Don’t know. Not been through that end.” Death taps along to the music on the steering wheel.
“I don’t want to die!” I wail, grabbing his arm and kneeling on the seat. He swerves.
“Whoa, there! Settle down!” He barks. His sternness almost calms me, as if as long as one of us is in control I know I can somehow escape my doom. This is where I beg. I always knew I’d be a beggar, in what-if fantasies where the world ends, and you’re the hero, or you’re a spy, and perhaps you’re about to be tortured for information. While I liked to think I’d stay schtum, resolute, deep down I knew I’d always give in. Always beg for my life.
“Please. Anything. There must be something you want.” My voice is a cracked whisper. I swallow and push on, my hand on his leg. It feels like a leg. I wonder if there’s anything under there. “Something you need.” He swerves, and I fall into the foothold in front of the seat. Strangely, though I know I’m dying, the smack hurts my head. I notice my hands. They’re grey. I prod the skin and it adheres. It’s hard, and doesn’t fall back into shape.
“A person has learned much who has learned how to die.” Death grumbles. I clamber back onto the seat, the monstrosity outside hidden by the frosted windows.
“Then I’ve learnt nothing,” I growl back. “Because I’m not ready to go yet.” And then, quieter, “Anything. Surely there’s been a deal made before?”
“Death takes no bribes.”
“So out of the billions of people you’ve… picked up, not one of them has tried to barter for their life, or succeeded?” And then a thought, an irrelevant one, but I ask nonetheless, “Do you pick up animals, too?” Death’s cowl turns to face me, and despite the lack of visible expression, I’m certain he’s wearing one of disdain.
“Death takes no bribes.” He repeats. I sink back into the chair. Sunk. That is what I am. We travel in silence for a few moments. People say that when you die, your life flashes before your eyes. That’s certainly not what was flashing past us outside. The memories were there. The whole carousel of them, but what I thought more about were the things I hadn’t done, hadn’t eaten, hadn’t seen, hadn’t tried to do or eat or see because I’d assumed it would come later. I’d not even been on a plane before. Never left Colorado. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Death sighs.
“I’m not sure about animals,” he mutters. “They might have their own people.” He’s glancing nervously at a little red light above the wing mirror. In two quick, practiced movements he pauses the song and flicks a switch above my head. The light disappears and Death nudges me.
“Death takes some bribes.”
The chance is like someone’s poked a little hole in my toe, stuck a bicycle pump in there and pumped. Only once, only briefly, but it was enough.
“What would you like?” I ask, hushed, breathless.
“There’s only one thing of yours I’d like.” Said Death.
“And I’ll live?” I ask.
“For now.” said Death. “I’ll see you again, eventually.”
“And my skin,” I look at it. It’s blotchy yellow and green now. A maggot wiggles its way out of the cavity where my thumbnail was a moment ago. I spot it on the floor.
“Back to perfect.”
“What is it?”
“My – what?” His answer has floored me. “What are you going to do with my memories?”
“Watch them, of course. Relive them. It gets boring on the road.” Said Death. He presses another button and a small screen descends from in front of me. “I’ve got loads back there.” He nods towards the back of the hearse, hidden behind folds of heavy black fabric. “You could say I’m a connoisseur. A collector.”
I knew already that I’d give him them. Whatever it takes. But would I still be me without my memories?
“I met your Mom, you know.” he says.
“What did she choose?”
“Oh she went. Very fatalistic. Didn’t want to give you up, either. Said she wouldn’t be the same.”
She was a smell to me. Incense. Milk. A brief feeling and an ill defined face worn from memory. That was all I’d be losing of her. But what would I lose of me? Less than the other option allowed.
Got me searching for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old.
“Deal.” I am resolute.
“Great,” says Death. He sounds happy. I am glad. “There’s a pen and a release form beside the water.” He has resumed his humming. I sign on the line and hand Death the paper. He slips it beneath his cowl.
“Oh I love this one.” He thumbs the volume up, and a song I don’t recognise trickles out of the speakers.
The wetness shocks me to life. Where am I? I? Who am I? I stumble up, holding onto the tree trunk beside me for balance. It is light. The sun is bright. In the distance I can see a small town. I take a few steps towards it.