“I’m sorry we don’t have anything but Quizno’s.” Mandy crossed the living room at a fast clip to hand Death a metal tray holding a roast beef sub, chips, and napkins. “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have been happy to cook something—”
“Stuff and nonsense.” Death leaned his scythe against the floral wallpaper, accepted the tray in one skeletal hand, and settled into the leather recliner, adjusting his black robe under him. “I only asked to use the phone. Allowing me to wait here until they fix my…vehicle…is more than generous.”
“You don’t have a cellphone?” Charlotte asked, unwrapping her veggie sub. “Not that we don’t have plenty of food, we have more friends coming—” Mandy shot her a warning glare; Charlotte fell silent.
“Normally, there’s no one I need to call.” Death picked up the sandwich, finger bones digging into the bread. “And it’s not as if I deal with breakdowns that often.”
“Well, Charlotte’s right, I’m always glad to have unexpected company. Really, really glad.” Mandy rubbed her nose stud for a second as Death ate, then yanked her hand down when she realized she was doing it. “You could stay and watch the movie if you like! We’d be fine with that…really, really fine.”
“Mandy, he may not be into chick flicks.” Charlotte carried her sub over to the couch, eyes fixed on Death. “But, of course, if you are, we’d be happy to have you around, just like Mandy says…I mean, we were so relieved when—”
“Well, when you showed up at the door, we assumed…” Charlotte’s voice trailed off as Death turned his face towards her. She wondered how anyone with empty eye sockets could frown. “Mandy smokes too much!”
“I’m quitting soon!” Mandy snapped. Death’s gaze swung her way. “Put that in your records, Mr. Death, I’m going to—”
“Just Death, please.” Death set down the sub and wiped his hands on a napkin. “‘Mr. Death’ makes me look around for my father.”
“You have a father?” Charlotte said. “Who?”
“That was a joke.” Death picked up the sandwich again and sighed. “No one ever gets me.” He chewed for a second as both women assured him it had been very funny and tried to laugh. “So when will the others arrive?”
“Why do you ask?” Mandy handed Death a Coke, then moved away quickly to set another by her plate and a Coors by Charlotte’s. “Are you saying you are here to meet someone?”
“My presence is pure coincidence, I assure you.” He popped the tab on the Coke. “I really shouldn’t be drinking this. Dissolves bone, you know.”
“Uh…really?” Mandy said. “Well, as a nurse, I think it’s good you’re thinking about…health.”
“And may I say, Mandy, not one woman in a hundred could pull off that buzz-cut of yours?”
“You like it?” Mandy smiled and ran a hand over her close-cropped brown hair. “I did it mostly because my husband said not to, but it looked so great—”
“Everything looks great on Mandy,” Charlotte said. “She should have gone into modeling with those cheekbones, Mr.—er, Death?”
“The CPA is giving me advice on career fulfillment?” Mandy said.
“I like numbers. They make sense!” Charlotte held out a hand to Death for support. “Life’s too short, right? Not to do what we love, I mean?”
“Absolutely.” Death popped the last bit of beef into his mouth. “Of course, that’s not always an option, but I’m quite envious of people who have a passion for their work. So, the movie is…?”
“Affair to Remember,” Mandy said. “Erica brings that one over every six months or so. Then if we want a second, I have Charade.”
“Cary Grant’s with you now, isn’t he?” Charlotte said. “Does he look good? I mean, Affair to Remember good?”
“He’s not actually with me,” Death said. “I don’t run the hotel, so to speak, I’m merely the taxi service.”
“Oh.” Charlotte slid down the couch, leaning over the arm, closer to Death. “So…who does run the hotel?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“Oh, come on.” Charlotte smiled. “You can tell us.”
“I’m not one of the people who knows the big picture, Charlotte.” A small sigh slipped out. “On bad days, I’m not even sure there is a big picture.”
“That’s damn depressing.” Mandy pulled a Marlborough Light out of the pack, crossed to the French doors and cracked them open before lighting up. “I know I smoke too much, but I am quitting. I’m not just saying that.”
“Smoke too much.” Death set down the Coke can. “As if there’s a healthy level of smoking.”
“I have told her the same thing,” Charlotte said.
“Those pointy boots of yours aren’t doing your podiatric health any good, may I point out?” Mandy said.
“Death, isn’t comparing smoking to wearing—”
“So, what movies do you like, Death?” Mandy asked. “I mean, I imagine you don’t go to the movies much—”
“Actually, I was at a multiplex last week. Work-related, of course.” The women stood, silent. “Heart attack, is that what you want to know?”
“Sorry.” Mandy smiled sheepishly. “I suppose Death’s like being a celebrity, everyone wants to know everything.”
“Yes, I’m constantly hounded by the paparazzi.” They couldn’t quite decide whether to laugh or not. “It certainly would be simpler to deal with people if I didn’t have the dress code. The robe, the scythe, they make it hard to connect.”
“Well, even in regular clothes, you’d still be—” Charlotte caught herself and forced a smile. “How did you like the film? When you were in the multiplex, I mean?”
“Sexploitative and sleazy. To be fair, I only caught a few minutes. I never have time to sit through features. Just cartoons, shorts, comedy sketches.”
“Is waiting here putting you off schedule?” Mandy asked. “Don’t feel you have to…I mean, not that you’re not welcome—”
“Excuse me, but how do you eat that?” Charlotte pointed to the chips Death was raising to his nonexistent lips. “Without it falling through your bones and into your robe, I mean? How do you digest it with no stomach?”
“Charlotte!” Mandy folded her arms and turned to her.
“Are you going to tell me you’re not thinking about it?”
“How many times has David told you not to interrogate people?” Mandy unconsciously squeezed sandwich remnants into a small glob. “Particularly not…someone we don’t know well.”
“I’ve heard worse questions.” Death laughed slightly. “By the way, did I hear you say you had cheesecake in there, Mandy?”
“It’s store-bought, I’m afraid.” Mandy headed back into the kitchen. “Big piece? I mean, you’re not worried about cholesterol, right?”
“‘Eat dessert first, life is so uncertain.’” Both women stared at him. “It’s not foreshadowing, I just think it’s good advice.”
“Is it that old fat guy two doors down?” Charlotte said. “I mean, if you’re really not here for us, or Erica, or Melanie, who?”
“Even admitting it isn’t you was bending the rules. Of course, as Mandy’s guest, common politeness…but that’s the most you’ll learn, I’m afraid.”
“That’s what obits are for, Charlie.” Mandy rushed back in with a slice of cheesecake and strawberry topping. “I apologize again for her boundary issues.”
“Not at all.” Death picked up the fork and cut a chunk out of the cheesecake. “You are an exemplary hostess.”
“Italian.” Mandy said. “Feeding guests is a requirement. My husband complains the freezer ends up too full of leftovers—”
“Married life.” Death sighed as he picked up the fork. “I don’t even have the time to date.”
“Who would you date?” Charlotte’s gaze drifted down to Death’s crotch. “Life? Fate?”
“Did you ever read Sandman comics?” Blank looks. “I’d love to meet a girl like Death in that book, someone upbeat. Opposites do attract…. Of course, if she were in my line of work, I doubt she would be. Upbeat, I mean.”
“Have you ever considered quitting?” Charlotte took a drink of beer. “I mean, no personal life, no passion for the job, always on call…that’s why Erica quit her job, and she’s much less stressed.”
“Erica managed a Burger King,” Mandy said. “He’s Death!”
“Even if quitting were an option, what would I do instead? I don’t think I’d be very effective in sales, I’m terrible with computers—”
“Back office?” Mandy said. “Filing, maybe middle management?”
“I feel claustrophobic every time work sends me into one of those cubicle warrens…not that I make many calls to cubicles.”
“Oh, thank God,” Charlotte said. “That is, I mean—”
“Charlotte, shut the hell up.” Mandy turned and faced Death, rubbing her nose stud again. “Is it me, Death? I mean, is that lump in my breast worse than they said?”
“What lump?” Charlotte jumped up. “You never told me—”
“It’s probably nothing. At least, that’s what Dr. Pauls said.” Mandy looked Death squarely in the eye sockets. “Charlotte’s in great health, but her family has a history of heart disease.”
“I exercise!” Charlotte protested. “I eat low-fat—”
“And it shows, Charlotte, you’re in great shape,” Death said. “Buff, even. Mandy—” He reached out to pat her hand, but she flinched and stepped back. “All right, fine, I guess I can’t hide the truth, you’re both dead. It was the salmon.”
“Oh, dear God—” Mandy clasped her hand over her mouth, lowered it almost at once. “Wait, we haven’t been eating salmon, you have the wrong house!”
“It’s a joke!” Charlotte said, stepping between them. “A really shitty joke. Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, Death shows up at this party—”
“I’m sorry!” Death said, holding up his hands apologetically. “I thought you’d both recognize it.”
“I’m more of a Saturday Night Live girl,” Mandy said.
“Hasn’t been funny since the original cast left. Monty Python, they’re classic.” Death stared down at the hardwood floor. “I apologize. You’re quite right, Charlotte, that was…shitty.”
“Don’t be silly, it was fine. No big.” Mandy reached forward, almost patted his shoulder, drew back. “Meaning of Life. Good movie, huh?”
“Not their best, but it captured me better than most films. The clips I’ve seen of that Meet Joe Black, Death as a romantic figure? There’s nothing romantic about what I have to do.”
“You bring peace to people.” Mandy managed a smile. “When my mother finally died, it was a blessing.”
“This morning, I took a 10-year-old in screaming pain from cancer and a rape victim someone had beaten to death. Last night, I took a lonely old woman who’s no longer alone and a three-year-old hit by a DUI. Among others.” Neither woman spoke as he finished his cheesecake. “I bring peace, I bring relief, but I also bring pain, despair, the loss of hope…I also talk too much. You don’t need to hear me whine.”
“You really don’t think there’s a big picture?” Charlotte said gently. “Some scheme where what you’re doing all makes sense?”
“Charlotte, the one thing you don’t understand, the one thing nobody understands—” The phone rang. Death’s hand froze in mid-gesture. “That’s for me.”
“You can tell?” Mandy stared from him to the phone and back as it kept ringing. “Shouldn’t I—”
“Please don’t answer it, Mandy.” Death rose from the chair, handing her his tray. “You’re tense enough already.” He picked up the phone, holding it beneath his cowl. “Yes, it’s me…so soon? Wonderful.” He hung up. “Well, I’m afraid I have to go.”
Mandy and Charlotte started to smile, stopped, tried to look sorry.
“See, Charlotte?” Mandy pulled another cigarette out of the pack. “Smoking hasn’t killed me yet.”
“But you are quitting, I hope,” Death said. Mandy froze on her way back to the ashtray. “Remember, it’s in my records now.”
“You really weren’t here for us?” Mandy said.
“I did say so, didn’t I?” Death picked up his scythe. “I never sugarcoat what I do. It’s disrespectful. But, thank you, ladies.” As Mandy escorted him to the door, Death turned and bowed. “I don’t think I’ve had a more enjoyable quarter-hour in a very long time.”
“You’re welcome any time.” Mandy stepped forward, smiling very broadly. “Ah, that is—”
“Yes, I know.” Death started to offer his hand, sighed, and put it back on the handle of his scythe. “Enjoy the film. I’ve heard many women speak of it highly.”
He opened the door, stepped out into the light of the setting sun. Mandy shut the door; after a second, she locked it.
“He wasn’t bullshitting,” she said slowly. “Honest to God, I thought we were toast.” Then she frowned. “Poor guy. We didn’t trust him, did we?”
“You still have to quit smoking.” Charlotte jabbed her finger at Mandy. “Remember, it’s in his files. And you have to check that lump out.”
“It’s getting checked, I just said so.” She slumped against the door, frowning. “We just met Death. Shouldn’t we be…I don’t know, thinking of something more meaningful?”
“Than staying alive?” Charlotte glanced at the kitchen. “‘Eat dessert first’? He said it was good advice.”
“That’s still not much of an insight. Can’t you think of anything deeper?”
“If Death doesn’t see the big picture, what makes you think we can figure it out?” Charlotte got out a spoon and dug into one slice. “If he did come back, it would be a shame if we didn’t eat it first, wouldn’t it?”
Mandy glanced at the door and picked up a fork. Then the doorbell rang. For a long minute, neither of them moved until Emily asked what the hell they were waiting for.
The next morning, Mandy got the prescription for the patch.
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