Henry rode with Death his entire life, but it never really cramped his style.
For the most part, other people couldn’t see Death, hanging on his coat-tails wherever he went, and whatever he did. It was usually the very old and the terminally ill, and Henry learned not to frequent hospitals and old folk’s homes after a (bad) decision to entertain his grandmother and all her friends in the Gentle Repose Rest Home. (There was nothing gentle or restful about the walker-enabled slow stampede away from the Henry’s constant companion.) In the early 70s, Henry had an intense relationship with a sensual hippy who was into transcendental meditation and tantric sex. The latter, especially, seemed to help her pierce the veil, and during an hour-long climax she spotted Death, hanging around in their bedroom.
“He looks bored,” Jenny had said.
“Yes. I think Death is bored much of the time. You’d think there would be a more efficient way to do it.”
“To do what?” she’d asked, and then adjusted her position a bit. “There. That’ll keep it going.”
“Well, everyone has their own Death. I can see them all.”
“Oh, me too?”
“Everyone. Your’s looks more bored than mine.”
“Hmm. Let’s ignore them, then.”
But for the most part, human beings were unable to see Death, hovering around them at all times. For Henry, it made the world seem a bit crowded. For every person, there was a dark doppelganger. A cloaked figure with that signature scythe.
It always seemed a bit cliché to him, that Death would represent itself in such a hackneyed way, and one day, Henry asked his Death about it. This would have been years before the incident.
“So, what’s with the scythe. Why do you all have them?”
Death was speechless. It had never realized that Henry could see it. “You’re aware of me? Like, my physical presence?”
“Sure,” Henry said. “I can see all you guys. Or whatever. It’s hard to tell with those cloaks and masks.”
“It’s not a mask! It’s my face, man.”
“Oh. Sorry. Well, what is the deal? Why the outfits.”
“We thought it would be helpful branding. You know, so when you’re supposed to see us, you know what’s about to happen. That way we get fewer ghosts. Most people become ghosts because they don’t see us coming, or the just don’t believe it’s us.”
“So what happens after?” Henry, like all humans, always wondered.
“I can’t tell you that! Who says anything happens?” Death said.
“Fair enough. You’ve got to keep the mystery alive. All part of the brand, right?”
“I suppose so. You have no idea what happens to me if I tell you anything about what happens after.”
“It makes me seem like a pussycat. Now, let’s go back to me pretending you don’t see me, okay?”
“So you did know?”
“Of course. I was there when you were doing your tantric thing with Jenny, you know.”
“Right. I wonder whatever happened to Jenny?”
“Died of a heroin overdose in 1977.”
“Bummer,” Henry said. “She was one of the good ones.”
Death was non-committal.
After that conversation, Henry got back to the job of living his life. After Jenny he’d met and married Diane, and they’d had two kids. He worked in a large corporation, building a career that eventually led to upper management. He was the kind of boss that everyone liked, even the shareholders. He had a joy in living, in engaging with people, helping them when he could, that was infectious. He lived every moment as fully as he could
Then one day Death spoke to him again. He was at the carnival with his kids — it was a spur of the moment kind of thing. He’d taken the afternoon off from work, and pulled his son and daughter out of school, and they’d spent hours riding the rides, playing the games. The rollercoaster looked too scary for the children, so Henry said he’d ride it first, to show them it was okay. That’s when Death said:
“I’m really not suppose to do this, but I have to warn you not to get onto that rollercoaster.”
“Oh?” Henry said.
“Yes. Because, you know, there are many times when you could die and this is most assuredly one of them. Definitely one of them.”
“So you’re saying I’ll die if I get on the rollercoaster?”
“Well, all the probabilities say that. I don’t make the final decision,” Death said, and then added. “Shit, I’m really not supposed to tell you that.”
“But you have an impact.”
“Of course. I have some impact. In fact, I’m the guy who pulls the trigger, so to speak.”
“So it is up to you?”
“Ultimately. But I have to have really good reasons to not . . . follow orders.”
“Understood,” Henry said. “Now, let’s go show my kids there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
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Alltop laughs at death. Photograph via Twisted Vintage.