The man in the booth thumbed the small box in his pocket. He’d left it out on his desk the night before, and his girlfriend of a year and a half had certainly seen it, as she’d been looking there for a book he borrowed from her earlier in the week. Of course, this ruined any plans he may have had – he was not sure how he wanted to ask her, but now knew whatever he chose would have to be special and truly unexpected.
He’d gone out to treat himself to dinner, in hopes of clearing his mind. But, as that venture fell short, it was time to go home. He paid his bill and hopped in his car, highway-bound.
He drove onward, eyes gradually unfocusing and fixating on some unseen point well beyond the road, beyond the grasp of his headlights. Soon there was just his car floating down the highway, only his car and the rapidly approaching vehicle zooming up behind him. A horn blared and he returned to earth, turning his head to watch the disgruntled driver pass. He looked back to the road just in time to see the deer.
His hands wrenched the wheel. The car, as though yanked on a string, pulled sharply to the left, losing its grip and sliding sideways for just the briefest of moments. Then the tires caught and the wayward traveler flipped up into the air, hovering for a small eternity. Before the car touched the pavement once more, he closed his eyes.
First was the acrid smell of heat and carnage. It wrenched his eyes open, and let him hear the hissing of steam and smoke, feel the queasy vertigo of being suspended upside down inside his car. He unbuckled and suffered a short fall from his seat to the ceiling, which now touched the asphalt. The driver’s side window had already shattered, so with a brief struggle he wriggled his way out of his now-totaled car. A glance betrayed that the upended scrap-heap was a lost cause, so he did not linger at the scene – he simply turned and walked up the road, the way he knew to be toward home.
Though the moon barely shone that night, he did not feel in danger, as the road was well-lit and no cars passed by. The stars did not move and the wind did not blow. Only he moved through the dark, jumping like a child playing hopscotch from streetlight to streetlight, until finally he arrived at home.
The lights on the front porch were off, and when he entered the house was still. Every light inside was also off, but some hidden glow drew his eyes to the table in the dining room, where a note lay. He picked it up, then walked over to his lamp to read.
“I hate to do this to you, but return the ring. I can’t see you anymore. I don’t know if I’m ready to start a family, and I’m not going to make you a part of that dilemma. It’s hardly fair. Maybe, if I figure myself out, we can try again. But for now,
He read it twice, three, four times. The note slid from his stiff hands down to the floor. He did not remember then dragging himself up the stairs, cold and quiet, nor did he remember the fire burning behind his eyes as he tried in vain to drift away. He simply awoke the next morning, knowing he had a different day ahead.
She would never call him back. He waited, waited, waited, did not date for months, years, decades. He felt much more content and comfortable as one who waited. When he would go out, he would not speak, and to him nobody spoke. He lived at home, alone and unbothered. Sometimes, a lonely glum feeling would seep into the edges of his vision, a deep, inky blue, midnight blue, leaking from some inkwell he could not see, but the blotches faded and life would carry on. Nobody knew how he lived, for nobody took enough notice to ask.
One day, he was older, much older, perhaps sixty or sixty-five years, and a knock at the door echoed around his hollow house. His ears were first unresponsive – they had not heard a knock for ages – but slowly, surely, he understood that someone had come to his door. With relief, with apprehension, with the most excitement he had felt for dozens of years, the man got up from his rocker in the living room and checked the door.
He opened it to find an ageless face in an amorphous coat of indistinguishable color. The shimmery guest hardly looked real. He asked the visitor for a name.
“Death”, it replied.
“…Death?” the man rasped, voice suddenly stale, mind connecting one hundred dots in one million ways. He had so many questions, so many answers, and was unbelievably confused.
“May I enter?” asked Death, to which the man silently, still stunned, stepped aside and let the spectre into his home.
Though his thoughts were awhirl, racing about in panic, one stood out as a mountain peak in fog. “I still have years ahead of me. I feel healthy. It’s not my time.”
Death sighed. “I wander always, and eventually find those whose time has come. I always know. Though about you, I must admit,” it said, hand at chin, “something is not right. I still cannot tell.”
At Death’s hesitation, the man continued to protest, in hopes of convincing the spectre to grant him more time, but time for what? Death heard his words but listened to his thoughts, and interrupted him to ask a question.
“Why do you so urgently wish to live? What would be the difference if I came back ten years from now, or ten years before? What would you do? What would you see? Who would you be?”
He stopped short. He racked his mind, searching for the magic words to stave off the visitor, yet nothing, nothing, nothing. There was nothing. But he was not sad. Instead, his now-blank face, suddenly devoid of feeling, showed only that he was lost.
It was then that Death realized its mistake.
The man did not stir as Death arose from its seat and moved to the door. It looked back to ensure that yes, the mistake had been caught, for the man was still bone-stiff and staring blankly into nothing. The visitor nodded, then passed through the door and left the house behind, which dissolved into a dark and smoky cloud in the distance.
It approached the vehicle, upturned and violently steaming. The spectre wiped a tear.
“Come, and I will show you something different.”
Death reached into the car and gently pulled out the dead man, cradling him in its arms, then took a deep breath before floating off toward something different.