From the author: A woman walks the streets of a town. Once, she was a mother. She is something else now.
What does Death look like?
Abby used to ask me that. She’d sit there in her hospital bed, seven years old, with tubes snaking in and out of her, and ask me that.
I think about her as I’m standing on the road this January morning, the sky a shimmer of light over the snow and withered grass and rippling water of the estuary. I know the water is cold. I know that further out, once the tide moves in, it will be deep. I know that whatever ice there is will be treacherous, and I know that if you go in, you won’t come out again.
Turning around, I head back into town, walking the alleys and backstreets like I always do in the mornings.
I find Emilia first. She’s laying under a jumble of newspaper, cardboard, and ragged blankets outside the bank. You might almost think she’s sleeping, but there’s a shiver of breath to mar the clarity of the dawn air around her.
I’ve seen her before. I’ve seen her scrounging cans from the garbage bins, seen her try to warm herself with a cup of coffee or a cigarette, lined up at the soup kitchen.
I touch her cheek, gently, almost a caress, and feel her go still beneath my hand. Her dog is curled up at her feet, a grey tousle of fur beneath the blankets, and I touch him too, before he has a chance to stir.
There, that’s better.
Death is like this sometimes, Abby. Falling asleep, not waking.
Paul is on the next street corner, a liquid gleam in his pale eyes. The drugs he’s just injected are rushing through him, slithering and grasping at his heart and lungs, but he’s not quite gone yet.
He sees me, and he reaches for me. Foolish, beautiful boy. I hesitate. How old is he? Sixteen, barely.
“Come on, bitch.”
His voice is no more than a gasp, but it’s enough. I reach out, grasping hold of his fingers, gentle but firm, before I let go.
By the time I hear the ambulance, I’m already blocks away.
Soon he’ll be ash and dust, just like he wanted. That’s what he’d whisper to me every morning when I passed him on that corner with his hand out, reaching for me, begging, pleading for my touch.
I keep walking, still thinking of Abby. Abby used to love our weekend walks together when I wasn’t working. We’d sit down by the water and watch the sun come up sometimes.
What does Death look like, mom, when it takes you?
A reaper with a scythe, I thought, skull peeking out from beneath his hood. A hungry ghoul. A grasping wraith. But I couldn’t tell her that.
“Death looks like an angel or a bird,” I said instead. “And when she flies away, you fly with her.”
Abby liked that. She liked flying.
It was just another lie. Like: “you’ll get better”, or “we’ll go to Disneyland”.
It was the same when she asked about her dad. I’d tell her he was tall, dark and handsome. That he loved us. That he’d come see her one day.
He was seventeen when she was born, just like I was. So damn scared he couldn’t even look me in the eye. How could I tell her that he left? That he shipped out to a war and never came back?
When I stop walking, I’m at the hospital. That’s where I usually find myself in the end. I walk through the familiar doors, up the stairs, to Abby’s old room.
She died here on a Monday in January. A year ago, I guess. Or maybe more than that. I don’t keep track anymore.
Another mom, another child, are in the room. I can see them through the door. The boy has the same look Abby had, like he’s almost spent. The mom is sleeping, slumped over in her chair.
I was asleep when Abby died. I’d stayed awake so long, and then, as soon as I closed my eyes, she slipped away and left.
Afterwards, after I’d had her burned, I carried her urn with me down to the water. The tide was in. I walked farther and farther until I knew there was no way back. Until the cold, eternal weight of the sea and sky and winter and memory froze my limbs and paralyzed my heart and filled my lungs.
When I opened my eyes I lay in the mud in the estuary. I knew I was dead, but even so, I got up and walked away before they zipped my body into a bag and hauled it into the ambulance.
Everyone I’ve touched since then, they all leave. I don’t know why or how, but I know they go wherever Abby went, wherever I can’t go: because part of me is still here in this room, is still under the water, was left behind in the dirty snow and mud.
What does Death look like?
Sometimes, Abby, it looks like me.
I’m inside the room now. The mom still sleeps, but the boy sees me. What do I look like to him? Hooded and cloaked? A drowned ghoul? A reaper or a wraith? I don’t know. No mirror can hold my image anymore.
The boy’s breathing is shallow, and the part of him that has almost let go quivers like a frightened hatchling in the amber glow coming through the curtains.
I could touch his hand right now. I could take him, like I’ve taken the others. Afterwards, the mother would wake, and he’d be gone. Ash and dust.
We look at each other, but he doesn’t speak or reach out, and I don’t reach for him either. Not today.
As I pass through the door into the corridor again, I hear his small voice behind me:
“Mom. I think I saw an angel.”
This story originally appeared in R.B. Wood's Word Count Podcast.