Death tucked her hair back into her hairnet. For this occasion, she had decided a matronly form was the most appropriate. Her reflection in the mirror showed her a pleasant woman in a tidy nursing uniform, including the upside-down watch face in her brooch and severe, sensible shoes.
Death gave the shoes her consideration. Even though the shoes did match, she found them dull and rather too respectable. Maybe a pair of ankle boots with a little heel might be better … and rainbow socks instead of white ones, even if they were hidden by her slacks. Her client was a quiet rebel at heart.
Of course, God was in the details, thought Death, or in this case, a small god. Death allowed herself a small smile.
Then she took herself to the deathbed.
It was a hospital room just like any other, smelling of illness and disinfectant, stale water and rotting flowers. On the bed was a very old man, hooked up to a dozen different tubes and electronic sensors. They were all quietly humming, dinging and beeping the tunes of a fading life. Beside sat a tiny, frail old lady, holding his hand and muttering endearments to him.
The old lady took one look at Death and gasped. She jumped to her feet and moved her own body between her husband and Death. In her hand was a walking stick, and she held it like a softball bat.
“You stay away from him,” said the old lady. Her expression spoke of her resolution.
“Don’t be silly,” said Death.
“I mean it. If you come any closer I’ll knock your block off.”
Death sighed. “How did you even know who I was, Veronica?”
“I’ve been keeping an eye out for you for the past three days,” said the old lady.
“Yes. I know. You’ve never left Jasper’s side. You haven’t eaten or slept.”
“And I wasn’t completely sure until now,” said Veronica. “But you’ve just confirmed who you are.”
“How? I’m not carrying a scythe or in the form of a skeleton.”
“That is old hat anyway,” said Veronica. She took a firmer grip of her cane. “I imagine you, of all people, would move with the times. I’ve never even seen a scythe in real life. It would be too showy. And death is subtle, if it is anything.”
“It?” asked Death, gently. “Isn’t that rather rude?”
Veronica’s shoulders slumped. She lowered the walking stick until it was resting on the floor, but she didn’t let go of it. “I don’t want to be rude. But you are my enemy,” she said.
“Why? Death is a part of the cycle of life. If you like, I can have Life come and explain it to you.” Death eyed off Veronica’s shillelagh.
Veronica glanced back at Jasper. “I can remember when he was young and handsome. I couldn’t believe my luck when he told me he loved me. I will not be parted from him.”
“It won’t be for long. I promise,” said Death.
“No. I remember my wedding vows. We are married only until death parts us. I want to remain married for an eternity.”
“Love is the commitment. Love remains, even after your life is over,” said Death.
Death looked at Jasper. She could see the man he must have been; tall and strong and vital. His illness had robbed him of everything but his height. His skin was pale and blue, and even in his coma the lines of pain tightened his features. “He is a fine man,” she said. “He is suffering. But I think you have this situation all wrong. Why do you think I’ve come for Jasper?”
Veronica looked uncertain. “You haven’t? But he is dying. The doctors have all said he can’t last another week.”
“Oh dear. Listen to the machines … Jasper is still alive for the moment. None of his alarms have gone off.”
Death pointed to the armchair pulled up beside the bed.
“Look at the chair, Veronica.”
The old lady looked. Her body was still sitting in it.
“Oh.” The ghost of Veronica started to cry.
Death looked sympathetic. “My dearest Veronica. Little brave heart. You were very tired. You hadn’t eaten properly for months and nothing at all for the past three days. A body needs fuel.” Death reached out and patted the little ghost’s hand. “Didn’t you guess why you knew who I was? Or even why you could see me?”
“So you were here for me all along?” Veronica sobbed even harder. “So Jasper is going to die alone? Without me beside him?”
“Maybe not,” said Death.
Veronica sobbing became a sniffle. “How?”
Death smiled. She said, “Look at Jasper.”
Veronica spun around, much too fast for a frail old woman. As her ghostly form adjusted to the afterlife, it stopped reacting like it still inhabited her frail old body. Her hair was turning from grey to chestnut even as she turned.
On the bed, Jasper was growing younger. His wrinkles smoothed themselves away, his knobby bones hid behind panels of firm flesh. His bald pate sprouted a thicket of dark hair.
He opened his eyes, and they were bright and clear.
“Veronica?” he called out. He sat up in bed. His wife ran to his arms. They kissed.
The hospital room faded away, as alarms sounded and screamed and displays flashed into red.
Jasper couldn’t stop kissing Veronica, only pausing to look at her and grin. Finally, he noticed Death watching them.
“Oops. Hello there,” he said. “I feel I should know you.” He still kept his arms wrapped around Veronica.
“It’s Lady Death, darling,” said Veronica.
“Really?” He didn’t doubt his wife’s statement. He had faced death more than once during his life, and he had a good idea of what she looked like. He pushed Veronica behind him. He said, “You can’t have her. Take me instead.”
Death threw back her head and laughed. Once she was able to catch her breath she said, “Oh, I can see you two were made for each other.”
“You’re too late, Jasper,” explained Veronica.
Veronica continued on, “We are already dead, my love.”
“We are? But I don’t feel dead. I don’t remember dying.”
Death grinned. “Good. If I ever need I reference, I’ll be sure to ask for one from you.”
Jasper grinned back. “Well, I guess the worst is over then. So what is next?”
Death shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I never get to see what comes next,” she said and she smiled. “It was nice meeting you. Briefly…”