It had come to this. Azazal was here to take her. Dee was here to stop him by attempting to take her first. And I was here in the middle of it all, as only a witness to what would be. As if in response to my thoughts, there appeared a golden chord around my mother’s neck now, winking merrily in the suspension of all motion.
Everything was still for the moment. I kept one eye on Azazal, prepared to throw myself at him if he took a single step. I allowed my other eye to find Dee and piece him with a gaze, similarly rooting him with this I hoped as I attempted to buy time.
Dee was looking at Azazal as he directed his words to me: “She dies instantly on impact. No pain at all,” he said.
“The other car is going to pass almost completely through your mother’s car. You are thrown free of the vehicle. It will be the one in a million chance where not wearing a seatbelt actually saves your life…if you could die this way that is. The woman in the car will lose her leg. Her child in the back seat will be safe…this time,” he finished, still standing still on that side of the road.
Another voice spoke, this one from the opposite side of the road: “Your mother had an abortion two cycles prior to this one. I was not able to get her that time and take her out of the rotation, but I can this time.”
Azazal continued: “Unless that is you would like to consider my offer I made before. Still on the table…” he finished in sing song tone.
I looked through the broken glass of the window I had just crawled through at my mother sitting there. She’d never looked so frail as she did now. She could protest that she still felt vital and willing to undergo the fight that was ahead, but I wondered if a quick end of certainty was better than a long struggle that might very well end in the same place after much pain between now and then. But it was not my life, and therefore not my choice to keep her here. Just as Azazal had no right to choose to keep someone from life because of past mistakes or future probabilities.
“As long as I am able to hold you off, and keep you from taking even the most vile of criminals, hardened with not a shred of remorse in their current shell, I will. They deserve the freedom to their journey and the choice to make decisions that validate the entire process of existence. Is there is no choice to any of it, and it’s decided by some smiling god or demon, then what would be the point of existence at all?”
As I said it, it felt like something internally had slid into place. I’m not sure where exactly or what the thing was, but it felt like the outline on the puzzle Dee and I had been trying to solve since the beginning of time and being itself.
Azazal made a raspberry sounding noise.
“Fine answer to a question that no one ever asked,” he said. “Good luck solving existence in this cycle. Although I guess I can’t blame you for sounding like a first year philosophy student when you’ve got a crumbling old professor that’s been giving you lessons.”
He jerked a thumb at Dee, and I slid my eyes from Azazal to fully rest on Dee. Dee was carrying the weight of all the emotions. His look was tragic for my mother’s loss. His look was jubilant because he knew as well as I did that we’d found a clue to solving our puzzle of why the living lived. And he was terrified because he realized, at the same time that I did, that the moment I had allowed my eyes to slide from Azazal, had given him a moment of opportunity to uproot himself from the prison of my gaze and transport himself to my mother’s side of the car.
Before I could fling myself at him, he had already reached through the closed window glass as if it were merely surface tension on a puddle. He hooked a finger in claw-like fashion beneath her necklace and pulled it up so that the knock-off scythe he carried in his other hand could accept its bounty. The blade was through the window and against the chord at her throat.
I knew, more than I’d known anything, feeling it to the very deep center that was what I called “me,” that it was too late for me to save her from Azazal’s blade. But, by George, I could still try and make Azazal regret cutting this chord. I rolled across the hood of the car, and threw myself upon Azazal’s back as he yanked his blade hard against her chord, a move that should have snapped it cleanly by all accounts.
But it didn’t.
Azazal screamed in frustration, and in pain as my hands burned every inch of skin of his that I was clinging and tearing into with my own numb and throbbing palms and fingertips. I would have continued to rip at him until he was burned alive or whatever it was I could do with the fiery pain I inflicted upon him in this way, but Dee said very clearly, in a strange sort of tone I’d never heard before: “No.”
The tone of the single word stopped me in my fury. Azazal was stopped too in his effort to cut and devour the chord around my mother’s neck, but his halt came more from the fact that there was no longer a chord around her neck which to cut.
Nothing else had changed. The cars were still in the process of dismantling one another. My mother’s form was still steeled as she braced herself against the impact. The woman in the other car was still gripping the wheel with knuckles displaying hard white caps upon them. Yet, there was no longer any golden chord here to cut on any of these necks. There was no death here at this scene.
Dee hadn’t moved from the other side of the road. He still stood there, the wind slightly fanning out his trenchcoat from the back of his thighs. Above his head, he held in his clenched fist a gleaming chord of a color so gold, bright and clean of impurities that it made the scene of the car crash dim in its horrible too real colors that had been the competition for all eyes.
It was not the chord I had seen about my Mamma’s neck. The chord he held was not one so easily snapped. It was not merely a single strand, but a layering of chords that created a necklace as thick as the width of my thumb. This was Dee’s life strand. Maybe I’d never noticed it because it never had glowed before like this.
“She wants to stay and fight. She’s not done yet, and I think her fight will help give our work perspective for you. It could even help the conundrum of existence you are starting to tap into,” Dee said, still holding the chord up. “I’m using my final pass for her. She’s earned it. And you have too, Jorge.”
I still had hold of Azazal’s collar, but released it at Dee’s words, and took the weak-kneed steps it took to get to him.
“You’re giving up your final pass to save her life? I’m grateful, Dee. But are you sure? What if we meet someone who needs it more?”
I couldn’t believe I was saying this, but I didn’t want Dee feeling like he had to use his one precious last pass for someone already knocking on his door.
“Not in this lifetime, I won’t,” he said, and pulled his scythe out.
The one he had given me was nice, and served its purpose, but it was nothing compared with the sharp, gleaming specimen that Death’s scythe was. He put the blade against the knot of chords that was his multiple lives; all thousand years of them, but he did not cut them. The scythe and the chord disappeared in his grip and reappeared in mine.
“You’re cycling, already?” I said. “But where is your new form going?”
“Already?” he said with a laugh. “It’s been a thousand years, buddy. I’m due for a break, and I finally feel that you are capable enough to hold down the position until I return. I’ve already taken care of my new form. Sheena’s not going to be exceptionally thrilled that I have disappeared when the takes the pregnancy test later this month, but I’m hoping my tragic death in this car accident that happened while I was picking up your aged mother for you will be enough of a hero’s death to ease her ire. Besides, I’m not leaving her really.”
“This is too much,” I said. “I’m not ready to be you. There’s more I’ve got to learn right? Powers and stuff?”
“I agree,” Azazal broke in. “He’ll never be ready to take over. And also, this scene is too much. Give me the chord, Lord Death. I’ll cut it, and hold your place until you return with a level of dignity that he certainly won’t provide.”
Dee ignored him.
“You’re ready, Jorge. As soon as you cut my chain, all the memories return to you. All the powers will be transferred. You will be, for all intents and purposes, the picture of Death that you imagine me to be. Take care of your mother, Jorge, and I’ll see you in about 30 years.”
Azazal was not one for being ignored. He began to move towards Dee and I, and I knew hesitation was no longer an option. I didn’t break eye contact with Dee’s smiling face as I sliced his chord with the scythe, the blade cutting through it as though it were warmed butter.
Azazal howled with fury in a rage so ferocious that he disappeared on the spot; no longer willing to be party to his own defeat. Dee was as still as marble, with a smile so content that I had no trouble in my second motion to push his hunk of chord into my mouth.
I could feel the individual chains between my tongue as I chewed. They lightly dissolved into a mixture of sweet, sour, bitter, savory, and chalky tastes that were only there briefly before the chord was gone. Dee took the vaporous route, vanishing into a cloud of smoke that blew away his features until only his smile lingered. Then, it too was gone.
There a tiny beat of silence as I looked into the space where he had once stood and saw only dead winter grass on a roadside, and then there was a wall of sound that scraped the very soul as the cars behind me resumed their crash.
There was twisting metal, and screams from both cars. I knew that my mother would survive it. I knew the woman in the other car would only lose a leg and not a child. I knew the driver of my mother’s car would be pronounced DOA once the paramedics and the rest of the emergency workers showed up. But in the midst of life, there was a death, and I felt it inside of me, making me stronger and into the things that had made Dee so strong and worthy of not only respect, but fear.
I turned away, and turned inside myself, and as the world moved on at its own resumed pace, I helped Dee move along to his next place.
I remember…I think I remember as everything swirls around me in colors I have no words for. I remember when there was a different kind of death for me. We laid out on rooftops as the last embers of a dying sun faded below the red-glowing horizon. He was with me to the end. He always is. Angst ridden thoughts dissipate as the amorism of the dark night takes hold in the pits of our hearts. We are neither slaves nor employed servants; we are only free in love, light and laughter. It is love, light and laughter, however that we employ as weapons in the wards of the daytime. By these weapons and creeds, shall we live to fight, resting not before every heart is free and every shackle broken.
Today was beautiful. I had had many beautiful days with my mother since Dee had given her a pass on the car crash, and sent us with a fighting chance into the battle with her invisible cancerous foe. We had been given the chance to fight over lunch options almost everyday. We had been able to tell each other goodnight as we retired to our separate rooms in the house every single night. (Although I didn’t sleep anymore with my full schedule) We had been able to spoil Orpheus together with canned food, a revolving door of toy options, treats and cat nip dustings that we gave him together. We’d been able to cry together when there had been those bad days I’d fantasized about before it all truly began. Today included none of these yet, but was especially beautiful.
Mamma was tired, thinner, and the thick black onyx hair she had prized her entire life was almost gone (what was left of it hidden beneath a red hat she’d recently taken to wearing). This was true. But she was alive, and on the other side of her last chemotherapy treatment for a long while; perhaps forever if the cancer did not return.
She had a lunch date with her group of friends she had met at the hospital in a class for those fighting cancer. I had taken her to a deli where the back patio overlooked the beach, and she’d waved lightly as she went to join the older ladies already assembled at a table and awaiting her arrival. The laughter from the group started before I could even leave the patio deck.
While she dined, I returned to the hospital to attend to my other joy that today had brought.
Landing, I walked, slowly up to the hospital, enjoying the heat and the light breeze that New Jersey offered today. I was wearing all black, and had adopted a black trenchcoat into my attire that no amount of maternal nagging or summer heat could make me discard. When people saw me, they might have thought my attire odd, but people didn’t see me very often. I was thinner, and had grown somewhat more attractive with my self imposed air of mystery, and I was happy. If anyone from my former life saw me, they wouldn’t recognize me with these changes that had flourished since Dee’s absence.
Dee was right when he said I could have a life, any life I wanted, and still fulfill the role that was required of me as Death’s assistant, and as Death himself when he was away I had come to find out. I was living, and loving every moment of it. I was free of the bonds of what everyone thought was required to survive, and with the ferrying of souls to their new existence I was finally begining to consider what it meant to be alive.
Sometimes I visited Jersey on my rounds, and I saw how the world kept moving without me there in that small sphere of existence those people knew. Sometimes I even had moments of nostalgia for the person I had been in my small apartment, with a normal job, and that life I’d accepted then. But a return to that time was not an option I allowed myself to entertain, and I was not sad about it. I still had coffee every morning in the cafe Dee and I had shared, but my relationship with the barista Sheena was different now that our shared connection was somewhat severed.
But we had a new connection now, and I’d been dubbed godfather to the new addition to both our lives that lay swaddled, pink faced and fragilely sleeping in the bassinet in Sheena’s room in the maternity ward.
I looked at the baby lying there, and took in the small features that my new friend had adopted. Because the baby would take Sheena’s last name, Sheena said she wanted to pay tribute to “the father” as well when naming the baby. She had known Dee as Dennis, and so the small index card on the bassinet read “Dennis Sharron.”
It seemed to fit him already. I could dig it.
“Go on,” Sheena said, adjusting herself in the bed, and gratefully accepting the box of chocolates I’d brought her, and the stuffed giraffe I’d brought Dennis. “I know you want to hold him.”
It was true. I did. I leaned down and scooped my employer and best friend for all eternity into my arms. As I did, I remembered how he had done the same for me multiple times and I for him as we had cycled the many times before.
Dennis woke up with a fussy grunt, but didn’t cry as I held him against my chest and gently rubbed his back that was only the size of a small shoebox. He was warm, and healthy, and so new it was hard not to get excited just that he was real. Sheena smiled at us, as she chewed slowly on a chocolate.
I brought my lips to Dennis’s ear, and said so low that only he could hear, “Enjoy the holiday, buddy. It’ll be no time before you’re back on the clock…and then we’ll really tear up the town.”
Dennis cooed at my voice in his ear. Sheena had caught the lilting musical quality of my words if not the words themselves and laughed as she said: “He already loves your lullabies.”