Sanatorium

The doctor's office was relatively quiet for a Thursday. The chairs were laid out in a square W, one U per door, reception desk, and doctor. Mr. and Mrs. Tyler, an elderly couple, sat together on the right-most side of the room, huddled together with nervous actions. They looked around the office for distractions, checked the time, wrung their hands, complained about the temperature, checked the time again, and whispered snippets of worried conversation.

On the left-most side of the office, a woman in a white dress with black flowers named Theda held a bandaged arm above her head as she read through some sort of celebrity dribble magazine. Save for the line of blood down her arm that bled through the snow white bandaging, she was the most immaculate aspect of the room, her dress crisp and clean, lips bright red, eyelashes strikingly black to match the thin eyeliner, and dark brown hair perfectly curled. Her injury failed to faze her in the slightest.

Sitting in a corner of Theda's U was a man with greasy brown hair in a hooded black cloak, clearly handmade with mismatched thread and crooked stitches. Directly on his right was his caretaker, a black man in blue scrubs, who kept a close eye on his patient. Every time the man in black shifted, the man in blue would turn his head to watch for potential trouble.

The room moved in time to the oversized clock in the center of the room. The couple checked the time at the bottom half of the minute. The woman in black and white turned a page every twenty seconds. The man in black tapped his feet in rhythm to the clock. The man in blue looked up from his novel every ten seconds. Check the time, turn a page, tap, tap, tap, check the patient. Repeat.

Right at the zero second mark, the door opened. Mrs. Irvine, a mother with two teenaged boys entered the room. She stopped at the right-most receptionist's desk and was promptly handed some paperwork. The boys, Jason and Jasper, sat down on the left row of chairs on the right-most circle and proceeded to quietly poke and tease each other. They each had a row of stitches on their foreheads, one on the left, one on the right, like they had hit their heads together.

"So what do I put down for 'reason of visit'?" Mrs. Irvine asked, breaking the silence. "Kung fu fiasco? Live Action Role Play gone too far? Sibling rivalry turned murder?"

"How about, 'checkup'?" the older one, Jason, said in a patronizing manner.

"You couldn't have picked a better time to get stitches," she continued. "Right in the middle of finals. So, Halo reenactment?"

"It was a week ago, Mom," Jasper whined. "Let it go."

She did and continued her paperwork, signing her name with a flourish. Fiona Irvine.

The man in black chuckled at their exchange. The woman in black and white cracked a smile, but returned her face to its normal stoicism. The boys rolled their eyes, trying to shake off the embarrassment. "So, uh, what – " he started.

"Don't ask," Jason said.

"Hey, I know how it goes," he said, turning around in his seat. "I once had to explain how I blew myself up when I was twelve."

"What?" Jasper asked. "How?"

"Well, there was an empty gas can in the backyard. I was jumped off the swings one day and it just exploded. Burnt my hand and forehead pretty bad."

"Really?" he said skeptically.

"Really. Well, there may have been a couple matches involved."

He had their full attention now. They were completely turned around in their seats. "Did you ever get caught?"

"Maybe, but my parents figured that my burns were a sufficient punishment. Your turn."

"Nuh-uh. Nothing happened."

"Right. You were just doing homework and your heads collided. Or were you sleep fighting? Or was it something else quite innocent?"

"It's none of your business," Mrs. Irvine cut in, deliberately sitting in between her sons.

"And yet you don't seem to mind announcing it to the entire office," Jason reminded her.

The man in the cloak just laughed. "You know, you two are far from the worst of the embarrassing injuries I've seen. I see a lot of those with my job. I'm Death, by the way. Pleased to meet you." He reached over and shook their hands.

"Is that really your name?" Jasper asked before his mother pulled them away.

"No," said Death's caretaker. "He's suffering from delusions of grandeur."

He rolled his eyes. "What's so grand about telling someone they're going to die?"

"We agreed that you wouldn't make a scene if I took you in for a checkup," he whispered.

"I'm not scaring anyone," Death whispered back. The waiting patients leaned in just a half inch to hear him better. "I just need to tell Mr. Tyler his heart's going to burst and kill him before he leaves the office."

"Excuse me!" Mr. Tyler jumped out of his seat.

"Mr. Tyler?" a nurse announced from the hall to the exam rooms. "Could you come with me please?"

"Please don't pay attention to him," the caretaker said, quickly intervening. "He doesn't mean anything. He says this kind of stuff all the time."

"And I'm always right," Death piped up.

"Those were flukes. Coincidences. You're not going to die today."

The man sputtered for three seconds, unsure of whether to follow the nurse or strangle the impertinent man named Death. The Irvine boys looked back and forth between Death and Mr. Tyler, eager to watch the fight. Mrs. Irvine who had snapped her head around see if she had heard correctly, turned back to Mr. Tyler to gage his reaction. Mrs. Tyler looked up at her husband. "How did he know your name?" she whispered.

Mr. Tyler sent Death a glare before turning to his wife. "Let's get this over with."

She stood and the Tylers disappeared into the hall. Death's caretaker groaned, closed his eyes, and rubbed the bridge of his nose with two fingers. "See what I mean?" Death said, tossing his hand for emphasis. "Nothing grand about it."

"I thought we agreed ..." The caretaker trailed off, giving up on reason.

The room returned to silence and rhythm. Mrs. Irvine tapped her nails on a thin wooden armrest, Jason poked Jasper, Jasper kicked Jason, Death rotated his head and popped his neck, his caretaker raised an eyebrow, and the minute hand of the clock tick-tocked along. But at the appropriate interval, Theda did not turn the page of her celebrity dribble magazine. She stared at the page, but the words were scribbles on paper. The page crumpled in her hand.

"How did you know his name?" she said, looking up at him. Her lips were set in a tense, thin line. "I don't understand. He never said his name aloud. No one did."

Death turned pink at her sudden attention. "I'm Death. It's what I do."

"You know the names of the pre-deceased?"

"I guess you could say that."

"Ma'am, please don't egg him on," his caretaker said, not even looking up at her.

Her lip raised slightly in annoyance, but she smoothed her face back into a neutral emotion. She slowly lowered her raised arm. "I just want to talk to him. That's alright, isn't it?"

"I won't do anything," Death reassured.

"Besides killing Mr. Tyler," Theda taunted. "That is what you do, isn't it?"

"I'm here to make sure he dies like he's supposed to."

"What happens if he doesn't?"

"That would be bad." Death smiled. "I don't know really. I've always done my job. While I've been Death, no one's died when they're not supposed to, and everyone's died when their time's up.."

Jasper turned around in his chair to talk to Death. "Hey, do you have one of those big knife things?" His mother tried to subtly get him to turn back around, but he ignored her.

"A scythe? Sure. It's at home, though."

"Why? What's it for?"

"Looks, mostly. It represents reaping or collecting souls. I don't really need it."

"You probably shouldn't use it anyway," Death's caretaker interjected. "You tend to have accidents."

Death unconsciously ran his hand across a scar down his left cheek. "I'm not that bad."

"Why is Mr. Tyler supposed to die today?" Theda asked.

"He's had a heart problem that's been waiting to explode for years. He's going to find out he's got two weeks to live and then he'll have a heart attack right in the office."

"His wife doesn't look like she's in the best of health –"

"She'll be fine."

"I don't know. She looked a little –"

"She's fine," he insisted. "She'll be a little shaken up, but she'll be fine."

"Alright. I suppose Death would know." She smiled, clearly just entertaining him.

"I do know. I know exactly who is supposed to die and why and when and where."

"So do you know when Elvis Presley died?" said Jason.

"Three years, seven months, two weeks, and four days ago, died of a heart attack in a back alley in Vegas. No one's found the body yet.

"Yeah right. You won't know this one. Errol Daniels."

"Six months, one week, three days ago, died of liver failure in a hospital in Albany, New York."

"No way!" Jasper exclaimed. "Is that right, mom?"

Mrs. Irvine, just to humor her son, did the math on a scrap of paper she found in her purse. She completed it, and stared at it. Then she did it again, slowing towards the end. "He's right. That's exactly when Grandpa died. You can't possibly know that." She turned to Death. "What are you, a stalker?" she hissed.

"I've never seen you before in my life. It's just what I do."

"Hey, when am I going to die?" Jasper cut in.

"Jason!" his mother chided. "Sit down. He only saw an obituary and made a good guess."

The brothers weren't teasing each other anymore. They were facing Death, intensely curious. "Can't you tell us?" said Jasper.

"No."

"So you don't know," Jason said triumphantly.

"I do know, I'm just not supposed to tell you, but you've still got several more years on you."

"Not even a hint?" Jasper pleaded.

"Nope. If I told you you're going to die in your thirties, you'd start worrying as soon as you turn thirty-two even though you wouldn't die until you were thirty-nine. That's seven years wasted on worrying, and that's not what life's about."

"What do you know about life?" Mrs. Irvine grumbled. "You just kill people."

"No. I like being around to help them with the transition. Sometimes they fight too much, so I convince them to leave. Other times, especially with accidents, I make sure that they're actually killed. If you don't die when you're supposed to, it screws up the grand plans of the world."

"Don't you get to choose?" Theda's eyebrows came together in confusion. Death shook his head. "But you're Death. You should be the one that's in charge."

"You'd think. I've actually got a boss that tells me what to do."

"Who?" Jasper asked.

"I've never actually met him before. I don't even know if it's a he or a she. I just do what they tell me. If I don't, I get in trouble."

"What kind of trouble?"

"I haven't gotten in trouble yet."

"How long have you worked for this mysterious boss?" Theda asked. She leaned forward, just as curious as the Irvine boys.

"Fifteen years."

"That's good tenure. What do you get paid?"

"I don't." Death twisted a bit of his greasy hair. "I made the mistake of telling someone I was Death and I got thrown in the loony bin."

"But now you feel free to tell everyone the truth."

"What more can they do to me?" he laughed.

"So you're doing glorified volunteer work."

"It's worth it. It really is. I get to play a big part in the world – bigger than you might think."

"Oh, I think it's definitely a large part. Delusions of grandeur indeed."

"But shouldn't you be immortal or something?" said Jasper, poking him in the shoulder.

He recoiled from the touch. "What do you mean?"

"Well, there's always been a Grim Reaper or something. Like, the Angel of Death in Egypt. I mean, people have always been dying."

"Oh, this is job that's passed from one person to another."

"Did you know the Death before you?" Theda asked.

"Well, not really. He's dead. Have any of you ever read Piers Anthony's On a Pale Horse?"

The boys shook their heads. Theda's nostril's flared. She knew the book, and what it meant.

"Well, it basically says that you have to kill Death to be Death. Same deal with me."

"What do you mean?" Jasper pulled away from the curious man. His brother was glad he was far enough away. Mrs. Irvine stiffened in fear. Death's caretaker lifted his head up.

"He murdered Death," Theda explained.

"Alright, boys," Mrs. Irvine said, standing up. "We're going to come back later." Her sons were only too eager to follow. They raced each other out the door. Mrs. Irvine talked with the receptionist for a moment before following them. The door closed silently just as the second hand hit the zero mark.

"Is this true?" the caretaker asked.

"I didn't murder him. He wanted to quit. He hated being Death," he explained.

"And you like it?" Theda asked.

"Well ... not really. It's difficult, but I needed the job."

"For what? There's no money in it. So, survival?"

"That's exactly what it was. I didn't have a choice."

Death's caretaker finally looked concerned. "What do you mean?"

"I don't want to talk about it. Why does everyone care?"

"Because we are intensely curious creatures," Theda replied. "Did Death make you kill him?"

"No, it wasn't like that." Death bowed his head, putting it in his hands. He swallowed. "Mom was sick."

Theda smiled wickedly. She'd broken through. "Ah. You would have been about fifteen at the time, wouldn't you?"

"Sixteen."

"Very young. Most teenagers at that age start to drift away from their parents. Not you. You wanted to help."

"Yeah. I just wanted her to get better. I think that's when I found Piers Anthony's book. I thought it was just fiction at first. I mean, it was placed in the future with magic and stuff. Death was just a character. But I kept reading it, and it was so real. Death had to be based on a real person. And I knew that Death was real."

"This is amazing," the caretaker said. "I have to call his psychiatrist. Will you keep him talking for me?"

"Of course," said Theda. "Go on, I'll keep him out of trouble."

The caretaker pulled a cell phone out of his pocket as he stood and strode out of the office. He stood just outside the door, watching the two through the window.

"How did you find Death?" Theda continued.

His voice was much more solemn. "Mom wasn't doing well. I tried to do everything I could, but it didn't work. Dad found her doctors from all over the world, but no one could figure out what was wrong with her. For a whole year, we looked for a cure, but came up empty. But that's when I realized I had it all the time. Right in my hands. Piers Anthony was writing about someone that was real, but in a futuristic setting. Death was real, and I had to find him."

"How did you?"

"Mom found him. Mom was getting worse. She was dying. Every day, she got greyer and greyer. Dad cried more. Mom just quit breathing as much. All of us knew it was her time to go, but I wasn't going to let it happen. Dad called people. Letting them know Mom was going to go. Our house was always full of Mom's friends and Dad's friends come to cry. And her family flew in and cried too. Strangers came over to take care of things. I didn't know what they wanted. That's when Death came."

"How did you know it was him?"

"He dressed in black. Death always dresses in black. He told me that he was there to save Mom's soul."

One of Theda's eyebrows raised in suspicion. "Save it or reap it?"

"Does it matter? I saw the way he looked at her. He was going to kill her, and he didn't care where she went. He was heartless. Even if he gave her the dignity of showing up for her final minutes, I wouldn't let him disgrace her by rushing her out. He was so tired and angry. Said he wanted to quit."

"Did you kill him then?"

"No. I was just going to let him go. I only wanted him to treat her right. He didn't care at all."

"What did you do then?"

"Well, Dad had to leave for a bit. He couldn't stand watching Mom leave him. It was just me and Mom and Death. Death was talking to her, and she was crying. I don't know what he was saying, but right then and there, I knew that Mom didn't have to go if I didn't want her to."

"Did you ask him to leave her alone and let her live?"

"Yeah. He told me to go away. I had to do something. I made sure he wouldn't see it coming or he would have stopped me. Dad always kept his shotgun in the closet, but he never left it loaded. Took me a few minutes to find the ammo in the garage."

"So you shot Death. Just on a whim. Interesting. I am curious about something, though."

"About what?" he snapped. His head shot out of his hands. His face was red and tear-streaked, and he glared at Theda. "How did I get rid of the body? I wrapped him up in plastic and hid him in the canal behind the house. Did the police catch me? No, because Death doesn't have an identity. Nobody cared that he was gone. Did Mom know what I'd done? No. I shot him when he left. Was I traumatized? No. I was fine."

Her face was set in a cold smile, undisturbed by Death's sudden, furious rant. "Did Death carry a cross?" she asked slowly.

He was confused. "What?"

"Did he wear a white collar?"

"I don't think so ... Maybe ..." He wiped away the tears on his homemade black cloak.

"Did he carry a cross?"

He thought for a second. "Yes. He had a cross. It was on a necklace thing."

"Did he have any rosary beads?"

Death's eyes glazed over. He went over the scene in his head. "The necklace broke," he said in a hollow voice. "The beads scattered all over the driveway. I couldn't pick them up fast enough."

Theda leaned back, having gotten to the point she wanted. "You killed a priest."

"No I didn't."

"Someone must have noticed a priest missing. You couldn't have gotten away with it."

"I killed Death. I know I did. Right after I killed him, I got the job. I got the implant and made Mom get better and everything."

Theda frowned. "What implant?"

"When I started, They put a radio receiver in my ear so They could tell me who They wanted to die. I just had to watch my clients to make sure nothing went wrong."

"What if something did go wrong?"

"Nothing ever has. I just concentrate on wanting that person to die, which usually works."

"Usually?"

"I only had one incident a few weeks after I got the job. Some robbers were supposed to break into our house and kill my Dad. I waited all night for them, but they never showed. Instead, they broke in next door. They were not happy about that.

"He didn't die under the right circumstances. It wasn't your fault. You saved his life."

"They were not happy. They screamed at me. I had to do what They wanted. Dad had to die. He had fallen asleep in the living room after he came home from work. He hadn't even taken off his tie. So I just pulled. As hard as I could."

Theda winced. "Your mother must have noticed something amiss."

"No. He didn't scream."

"What did you tell her?"

"I staged the break-in like it was supposed to happen. Everything happened like it was supposed to. Everything was just fine and dandy."

"Why didn't you just ignore the voices in your head?" she asked desperately.

"I know how it sounds, but They're there. They don't just shut up because I want Them to."

"Nobody's voices do. You have to learn which ones are real and which ones are yours."

"You would know, wouldn't you," he said sarcastically.

"There's no way you got away with murdering your father."

"It wasn't murder. I was doing my job."

"The judge must not have seen it that way. All he saw was a petty teenage boy that murdered his father and tried to cover it up with a fake break-in and an insanity plea."

"They thought I was dangerous for a while. Not anymore. They all think I was a petty teenager and I've gotten over it."

"Have you?"

"There's nothing to get over."

"Because you are not Death. You didn't kill Death. You killed a priest!"

"Stop it," he snapped. "You don't know anything."

Theda swallowed her next sentence. The office went back to the rhythmic silence of the clock ticking its minutes away. Theda tossed Death a magazine to keep him occupied, then went back to her own celebrity dribble. Twenty-three seconds later, Death's caretaker reentered the room and sat next to him. "Your psychiatrist wants to talk to you later today. He's excited that you're finally making progress."

"Okay," Death said quietly.

Two minutes and fourteen seconds later, the Tylers walked out of their exam room and into the waiting room. Mrs. Tyler was crying and hanging onto her husband. The blood had drained from his face. The nurse followed soon after and called, "Theda? You're up."

Theda tossed her magazine back onto the table, which landed squarely on the stack. She and Death stood and walked in the direction of the exam rooms. Death stood before the couple. Theda slid past and stopped just behind them.

"Mr. Tyler," said Death, "I am so very sorry, but your time is up."

"How dare you!" Mr. Tyler snapped.

"Mrs. Tyler," whispered Theda, "You're going to be alright."

Mrs. Tyler could not speak.

"There's no need to worry," Death continued. "The Afterlife is a wonderful place."

"You should be the one worried about your life," Mr. Tyler growled, baring his teeth.

"Death isn't painful at all. It's just the transition that's difficult."

Mr. Tyler let go of his wife to get in Death's greasy face. "Listen to me, young man. You have no right to go around scaring people to death, especially not my wife!"

"I'm sorry sir, but I can't just lie to you," said Death. "I'm just doing my job."

"Good luck, Mrs. Tyler," said Theda, touching her shoulder in comfort.

"Stay out of my business!" Mr. Tyler roared.

Mrs. Tyler let out a small shudder, and fell. Theda caught her smoothly and set her on the ground, feeling for a pulse. "She has no heartbeat. Where is the doctor?"

Death's caretaker rushed to Mrs. Tyler, felt her pulse, checked her breathing, and tossed Mr. Tyler his cell phone before beginning CPR. Mr. Tyler, taken quite off guard, struggled to open the phone and dial the correct numbers. His hands shook so hard that he barely had enough strength to press the buttons.

Death reeled back, away from the scene of the emergency. Theda extricated herself out of the action to watch everything.

One of the doctors attached the AED pads to Mrs. Tyler's chest. "Clear!" he yelled, and pressed the button. Mrs. Tyler's body arched, and relaxed. The AED's beeps indicated there was no heartbeat. The doctor began CPR for another two minutes.

Death's face turned paler in panic. He covered his ears, desperately trying to to block out the voices, but not those of the doctors that rushed in or Mr. Tyler's tear strained call for help or the receptionists' sobs of terror. "What's going on?" he muttered. "I wasn't supposed to kill the old lady, I was supposed to kill – no! I didn't fail! It was the doctor, the bad news. Leave me alone! Go away! Please! I'm Death. I don't have to if I don't want to."

But the voices didn't listen. The voices had never shut up, and they would not be accused without fighting back. And they fought. They told Death of nightmares that would cause him everlasting, excruciating pain. They reminded him of how he was Their servant and his title was still Death, no matter what the Black and White Woman said. They sang songs of how They would prey on everyone else that he loved until They found a suitable Death, and when They had him or her, They would –

"Stop it!" he screamed. "STOP!"

Then he realized the answer was right in front of him. The window on the fifth floor. Someone had left it unlocked, unbarred, and the screen was torn. It was only a matter of seconds to get it open, rip out the screen, climb onto the ledge, and dive into the concrete below.

"Clear!" the doctor said while the machine checked for a heartbeat. None. He pressed the button again. Mrs. Tyler's body hardly reacted.

Theda watched for another minute before going to the window and looking down at the mess on the pavement. She cringed at the sight, as did the people down below who couldn't help but look.

"We've done all we can," the second doctor said. "I'm so sorry Mr. Tyler. She'd gone."

"She's not the only one," said Theda, pointing to the window. "Death's committed suicide."