Death was always accurate; not a moment too soon and not a minute too late. He kept a stopwatch, and always minded the hour. He held himself presentably; nothing less than a three-piece suit, shoes always polished, and an overcoat for chilly weather. He needed to be efficient, but pleasant.
Some protested his arrival, though he never understood why. He always saw the furrowed brows of people rushing by, the arguing, the pain, the famine, the fog. Nevertheless, he ever made his executions punctually.
Just after his latest appointment, he found a young girl staring up at him, her wide eyes reflecting the rectangular fluorescent light of the hospital corridor.
“Is that gold?” she asked, looking at the stopwatch in his hand.
“Yes dear,” he replied, replacing the cold metal to the pocket of his waistcoat.
“I don’t know how to tell time yet,” she stated matter-of-factly, “my Mum and Dad are always rushing about, talking about time. They say one day I’ll learn how to tell it. I always wonder what they would want me to say.”
Death’s face felt strange.
“Your smiling,” she stated, in response to a question that he had not yet asked, even to himself. “You seemed confused about it, so I thought I would clarify.”
Death puzzled at the young girl, her head tilted, eyes still shining.
“What’s your name?”
“Aviva, but everyone calls me Vivy.”
“May I call you Vivy?”
She thought about it for a moment. Death did not realize that she had never been asked her permission on how she would like to be addressed.
“Yes, you may.”
“Where are your parents?”
“They’re at work. They’ll be along afterward.”
Death looked around at the nurses and doctors, their whites and powder blues in sharp contrast to his rich black suit.
“Are you alright Vivy?” A nurse with a concerned look moved to stand behind the girl, unknowingly giving Death a warning glare.
“It’s alright Elvy, he’s a friend of the family.”
The nurse, Elvy, looked the pair of them over once more before relaxing. “Alright, well you should probably move along. New admissions are coming through.”
“Want me out of the way then?”
“Never, just need to make sure you’re safe.” Elvy cupped Vivy under the chin briefly before returning to her work.
“Come on, unless you want your gravestone to read ‘run over by a gurney.'”
Vivy placed her hand within Death’s cold and clammy grip and pulled him along the corridor.
“Vivy, I think I should be going.”
Vivy stopped briefly, looking up at the man. “Do you have somewhere more important to be.”
Death removed the small leatherbound book from his pocket, all the names of his appointments saved in disappearing ink. The last person’s name barely lingered on the page, and another had not yet taken its place. “No, it seems not.”
“Well, come on then.”
She seemed to emanate energy all her own as he watched her maneuvering him through crowds and halls until they reached double doors.
“The sun is out,” Vivy squeaked.
Before Death could protest, she burst through the doors, pulling him steadily along. Death squinted against the harsh light, using his free hand on his forehead to shield his face.
The square space in the middle of the building held a small garden. Death looked around as his eyes adjusted and they filled with delights he never indulged in before. Rich earth tones springing forth while pastels dotted trees and bushes, all of it eagerly budding. Benches lined the narrow walkways, and a fountain with cherubs sat in the center of it all. Death tore his eyes away from their frenzied observance to check on Vivy. He did not realize when she let go of his hand to go lay on a patch of grass beneath a short willow tree.
Death sauntered up, fiddling nervously with his cuffs as he watched the girl’s face.
“What is that look called?” Death asked quietly.
“Umm. Describe it to me.”
Death stepped closer, taking in her features to give an accurate description. “Well. Your eyes are closed, and your eyebrows are relaxed. Your mouth has an upward curve.”
“A smile. You did it as well just a few minutes ago.”
Death shifted uncomfortably. “So, what is that look called?”
Death’s brows drew together as he considered her answer, then he noticed her moving her head back and forth on the ground.
“Why are you doing that?”
“It feels good on my head, reminds me of when I had hair.”
“How long has it been since you’ve not had hair.”
“Two years. It came back for a little while, but then I needed more treatment.”
For the first time, Death considered the girl and where they were. “Are you sick?”
“No,” she stated simply. “My body is, but otherwise, I’m just fine.”
“How could you be just fine?”
“How could I not be? Most days I can breathe alright, and I like the sunshine.”
“Is that what it’s like to live?”
“Don’t you know sir?”
“Afraid not, I have a purpose dedicated to duty.”
“You’re right. That’s not living, that’s work.”
Death moved to lay down a few feet away, beneath low hanging branches of a weeping cherry, fresh with bright pink buds.
“Describe it for me then.”
“What it’s like to live.”
Death shifted his head to look at Vivy as her mouth twisted with the effort to come up with an answer.
“Well, its a lot of early mornings especially with school time. It’s being excited to play with your toys or go on adventures. It’s moments when you laugh so hard that it hurts, but you can’t help but keep laughing anyway.”
Death listened quietly, closing his eyes.
“It’s surprises too. Some of them are good, and some of them are sad, but somehow they are all necessary.”
Death did not see when Vivy lifted her hands to start counting off the rest.
“It’s knowing that you’ll have your favorite cake again someday. It’s barking dogs, and rain in the summertime. It’s the times that Mum and Dad smile without sad eyes.”
“Chocolate. Can’t forget chocolate.”
Death chuckled. Then his chuckled extended into a laugh, so hard that he had to sit up and clutch his hands to his belly.
“See,” Vivy exclaimed, “Just like that. It will hurt, but you’ll keep going, and it will still be alright,” she giggled.
“There you are Vivy! Your next treatment is starting soon!”
Elvy stood there trying to look less worried than her tone suggested.
Vivy sprung to her feet and bounced on her toes a bit before turning to look at Death where he sat.
“I guess this is goodbye then.”
“I suppose so.”
She turned to leave, but remembered something and abruptly turned back, making a full circle.
“I told you my name, but you never told me yours.”
Death tensed his jaw, but couldn’t deny the innocence in her pleading eyes. “Mortem. But you can call me Mort.”
“My friend, Mort.”
With a giggle and a wave she caught up with Elvy, and the nurse took the girls hand to lead her inside.
“Aviva wait!” Death jogged to where they stopped for him. “You’re a bright girl. How come you have so much trouble telling time?”
“It’s the numbers I think,” she said looking at Elvy and Mort. “Numbers, simple as they may seem, are tied to troublesome things. Especially time. Everyone around me is always saying it’s running out. So besides my dislike for numbers, I think, why bother?”
Vivy smiled and waved once again, and she and Elvy disappeared into the building, only partially visible through the glass as they walked down the corridor.
Suddenly, Death heard the stopwatch in his pocket start to tick, the indicator that his book held another name. He reached into his pocket, opened to the first page where the last appointment’s name was replaced by another. Death dropped to his knees.
Death felt strange; his insides twisted, his chest burned and heaved, his face seemed wet though it had not rained. He removed the watch from his waistcoat pocket to see the numbers, her time, ticking away.
He imagined it, as he had seen it many times before. Vivy’s mother would cradle her to her chest, weeping for a life gone too soon, her father crying helplessly waiting his turn to hold her next, and one last time. Then the stopwatch would begin again, and he would be off to his next appointment. He operated efficiently, always accurate, always punctual, but he froze there in the grass hoping for an error. His head felt fit to burst.
He riddled his mind and thought of what to do.
Death looked for longer than he should have, for she never should have woken up to find him standing there. He couldn’t help but think how his tardiness would affect her, how it would change everything. To him, it felt right.
“Is it morning?” Vivy’s voice rasped from the hospital bed.
“It is,” Death replied, tugging at the bottom of his jacket.
“I’m supposed to be going with you then?”
“Not this time.”
She chuckled as best she could. “Time,” she whispered.
Stirring to sit up, she looked around the room through narrowed eyes. On the small table near her bed, she saw a tray of chocolates, tied up in plastic with a pink ribbon.
“For me?” she squeaked.
“Musn’t forget chocolate. That’s what you said, isn’t it?”
Vivy nodded her head furiously as Death started to leave.
“Wait! Won’t you share them with me?”
“I’m afraid I can’t.”
“Do you have somewhere more important to be?”
“Yes, unfortunately. You enjoy them, Vivy. Enjoy everything.”
With that, Death left the room.
Vivy felt strange in the quiet after her friend had gone, but she also had a feeling she would be seeing him again. She decided then to save two chocolates, one for herself, and one for him, for the moment when they would get to share it.
Death walked down the corridor, his watch quiet for the time being, his book empty, and what he imagined would be a content look on his face.
“How is that possible!” he heard Elvy exclaim at the nurse’s station.
“It seems her scans from last night all show the same thing. All of them are gone,” said the doctor standing next to her
“All her other tests came back normal as well. We made sure there was no mix-up. They were checked five times.”
Death reached his fingers to his lips to find his mouth was indeed curved upward.