Elle was five years old when she first met Death. They crept up one night, like a monstrous Santa Claus, and stole away her pet rabbit Lofty. His soul growing colder by the second while he was carried off, without so much as a goodbye.
She swore she saw the black smoke of their breath whistle against her bedroom window while she lay awake, restless. Her Father told her it was just the wind, and shadows behind the curtain, playing tricks with her mind.
She almost believed him.
And then she found Lofty’s fluffy body, stiff and stone cold in his closed hutch, and screamed.
She was 15 when she first got a glimpse of Death. Her best friend, Tom, had hung himself in the forest behind their school. Elle found him, worried about his vacant stare and the way he just bled sadness into the air that morning, like a virus escaping, weeping from an open wound.
When she did, she fainted away. But right before she did, she saw them fly past in a cloud of thick black smoke, a strange fog.
Death spread across the blue sky like spilt ink – carrying the ghost of her best friend with them.
Her Father’s was quicker, and she was only able to get a quick snatch of Death even then. She heard them over the phone – in the solemn crackling voice telling her that he’d been hit by a car that afternoon. She couldn’t remember anything else after that, because she fell to her knees, and screamed, and screamed, until the burning in her lungs matched that in her heart.
She cried into her pillow that night until she felt the sadness fade from her. Alongside everything else, until it was all gone. Until she was all gone, and emptied, scooped out – a lonely husk of a person, half-dead.
Just her, and Death – who’d drained the life out of her, slowly, like they’d negligently refused to fix a dripping tap.
She couldn’t face them for years after, though, too afraid – speeding up past cemeteries and changing the channel whenever someone’s passing was mentioned on the news.
It dug too much into her sunken flesh, pulled out her stitches, made her bleed afresh. So instead just lived a painful ignorant existence.
Until that night.
Elle lay on her sofa, eyes closed, feeling a dull numbness spread through her in place of sleep, as it always did.
She felt their presence, watching her, not even needing to open her eyes. She could smell them, dark and damp and rotten, their scent filling her nostrils and making her feel even more empty than before.
‘Why do you do it?’ She asked Death, lips trembling, as they stood over her.
‘Don’t shoot the messenger,’ Death replied, their voice low, measured, and hungry. ‘I’m just sent to carry you all home.’
‘But it’s not fair,’ said Elle, as she tasted salt on her lips and realised that she was openly weeping. She felt her cheeks grow wetter and wetter as she cried for them – Lofty, Tom, and her Father, until Death up and shushed her. A soft, low, timeless whistle reached Elle’s ears, and she shivered.
‘Don’t cry, child.’ They said, and Elle shook, but obeyed, wiping the evidence of feeling from her face. ‘There you go. All better.’
But it wasn’t, and they both knew it. ‘When?’ She asked, her voice steady. Not scared a bit. ‘When can I see them?’
‘Not yet.’ Death said, gravely, after a moment of thought.
‘But what do I do until then?’ Elle asked, feeling tears well up in her closed eyes again, as she lay there, all alone.
‘Remember them, I suppose,’ said Death, as they went to make their leave, and headed towards the door, smoke swirling behind them like someone had lit a live fire. She could tell because she could taste it. It filled up her lungs, clogging them with its thickness, with pain, with loss, almost making her gag. But she soon coughed it out.
Then as she thought about their reply, Elle nodded, wondering if that same fire had started to spread to her, too. She felt it burn inside her, cook her organs one by one until it reached her heart, bubbling her blood until it reached the boil until she felt strong enough to open her eyes.
She sighed, feeling lighter, somehow, and looked around, the dim light in the room making her eyes ache, but Death had gone. Dissipated. Without so much as a goodbye.
Elle wondered whether she had been dreaming – but no. She could still taste the ghost of them, escaping from her lungs with every shallow breath.
The next day, she got dressed and fetched three bouquets of simple garden flowers. Not much, but it was a start.
She laid one on the small vegetable patch in her garden, so that the petals tickled the tops of the carrots. Another was placed carefully in the forest where she found him, so long ago. Under a tall arching tree, whose dancing leaves were green, like his eyes. That posy the most well-watered, wet with teardrops even as she lay them onto the soft grass. The last was rested next to her Father’s grave, guards of green and soft blues and pinks, keeping him safe until she could visit again. And she would. She promised him that.
That night she lay in bed – not happy, but content. She could’ve sworn that she heard the whistle of a familiar breath on her window as she drifted off to sleep – a phantom goodbye.
Until the next time, it said, without words. And if she was lucky, she thought, she could leave with them.
But until then, she needed to live. If only for the dead.
– Chloe Smith
Chloe Smith is a disabled writer and poet from the UK. She is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2015, and her poetry has been featured in numerous Young Writers anthologies, as well as the Great British Write Off: Whispering Words anthology. Her short story, ‘Plenty of Fish’, was published in ‘Harmonious Hearts 2016’ by Harmony Ink Press. She also has publication of her flash fiction forthcoming in an issue of Three Drops From a Cauldron. For more about her writing visit her website. You can also find her on Twitter, @ch1oewrites.