Eight years old
He towered over the young couple, his velvet cape not stirring in the breeze, his doublet’s buttons not shining in the sun. Delilah waved at him. He rolled his iris-less eyes as he usually did when she saw him. There he was again, Mr. Death lurking, and she saw him: the mark of death on the young couple. Their laughter, their dreams would be cut short tonight, snuffed out in a car crash. The man and woman did not see him. As they twirled and danced with each other, Delilah saw the babies they had been, their lives’ end, and the old couple that would have become. Mr. Death caught her glance and glared. She cringed, but not at his glare. What would happen to the couple?
She dashed to them and spontaneously hugged the woman, making the man stagger. A hole, a black hole of nothingness, opened around her. Delilah squeezed her eyes shut and reached into the couple’s future. A flick of a wrist, unraveling skeins of life, and she saw them: reincarnated as siblings, several hundred years in the future. She grasped the skeins and imprinted her wish, her destiny for them. When she let go, the woman looked down on her awkwardly, sunglasses slipping down her nose. Her companion edged her away, and they left. Mr. Death watched them go, face tense.
“What did you do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Delilah. Who are you?”
“I have many names.”
“Ok. I’ll call you Mr. Death.”
The man’s sturdy face paled. “You shouldn’t be able to see—”
“But I do! All the time. You are everywhere.”
But she skipped away, laughing, knowing she had to be home for lunch or her foster parents would get mad.
Eleven years old
Delilah sulked through her dinner that night. She picked at her mashed potatoes and roast chicken, observing her foster parents, heart clenched. They would die tonight. She didn’t know how; her vision was clouded tonight. She had seen Mr. Death earlier in the day, as her parents made coffee. He’d made coffee with them, brooding quietly, avoiding her gaze.
She smelled his cologne now, a musky scent that let her know he was coming. She listened robotically as her parents talked about the new middle school, the one she’d be going to. They asked her about her wishes, what backpack she wanted, what books she needed. She answered dutifully, trying not to soak in their mannerisms, their voices, the scent of the house around them. Soon, it would all be gone. She went to bed and tossed and turned, toiling laboriously to fall asleep.
She stayed awake instead, foreboding feeling compelling her to not sleep. She crossed her arms and read, reading the same page over and over. Sure enough, Mr. Death came for her, a few seconds before her alarm went off. He stood over her, arms crossed.
“Waiting for me?”
“Yes,” she said quietly. “I’ve been dreading it all day.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Delilah. You keep asking this.”
He threw up his hands, his business suit crinkling. This was the first time he wore a suit.
“My parents!” she cried, and rushed out of her bedroom to theirs. They lay in each other’s arms, unmoving. Delilah shook them, crying, yelling, but they did not move. She touched her dad’s bare arm and she felt the residue of his passing into death through carbon monoxide poisoning. She traced it to the gas heater, its signature a flare in her mind.
“Why am I not dead?” she murmured.
“Why do you always show up?” she asked Mr. Death, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Why do you always see me? No one else can.”
Delilah didn’t know.
“Why am I not dead?”
Mr. Death adjusted his silk tie, buttoned up his blazer.
“You were supposed to die too tonight. But you saw me before I could sneak up on you.”
Delilah turned towards her parents and kissed them on the cheek like she did every night. As her lips touched their skin, she fell into that abyss of existence, saw their souls departing. The house around them fell into a cycle of abandon, until her aunt, her foster mom’s sister, came and created a foster home for children, a few years in the future. Delilah will be there too; but how, she did not know. As ever, she could never see her own fate. The house will be one of the main refuges for children in the nation.
Mr. Death observed her, conjuring a cup of coffee.
“What are you?”
She didn’t answer. She numbly went to the phone to call 911. Mr. Death lunged to touch her, and Delilah gasped. Her hand wrinkled and shriveled where his fingers touched her. A creeping sensation of numbness radiated from his touch. But she fought it, she grasped him back, and Mr. Death bowed down in pain, golden light searing him where she touched him. They both let go. After some panting, he crouched at her eye level.
“You are not human. You are something else. Why do I feel like we know each other?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m tired of seeing you.”
“I’m tired of seeing you.”
She ran away with a cell phone, dialing 911, alerting the paramedics to her parents’ fate.
“What will become of me?” she asked plaintively.
Mr. Death shrugged. “You will keep persisting. I will be seeing you again. When you want me to.”
He gave her his cup of coffee. When she drank, it was warm milk. When the paramedics came, Delilah knew she would go through a few more foster families by the time she was 18.
Fifteen years old
Delilah was tired. The teacher’s lecture went on and on, grating every pore of her soul. Her friend Camila rocked beside her, fidgeting, dark bags under her eyes. Things had been rocky in her family for weeks—siblings moving out, one in jail for drugs, her father feeling weaker and weaker. Delilah started to snore, then hissed as through her eyelids the shadow of Mr. Death passed. He bent over Camila and crossed his arms. Her friend took out her phone and keened. Delilah jumped as her friend dashed from the room without asking for a pass. Mr. Death followed, slowly, languidly, and he rubbed his arms as he walked, tracing the veins under his skin. It was her first time seeing him in a polo shirt. And with a twisting of her heart, she knew her friend would slit her wrists. Would die for sure, since Mr. Death was here. Delilah darted out of her chair and followed her friend. Mr. Death turned around and sighed.
“You again. Unlike me, you can’t be everywhere. But you do a pretty good job of being in my way. You can’t stop this.”
“Yes, I can. Death doesn’t always have to happen.”
“Silly child. Death always happens. You cannot stop the cycle of life.”
The fabric of time rustled, a pinprick of light glimmered and beckoned to Delilah. She touched it, with her Vision. It gave her an opening, a slight change.
“There is a way for it to happen. You always swoop in, unwanted. I’m here to stop that,” Delilah growled. “You have no bedside manners.”
She pushed past him, gasping as even that touch, fleeting as a ghost, made her hand tingle painfully. Mr. Death gasped too.
She dashed to the bathroom, hearing her friend hiss under her breath, sobbing uncontrollably. Mr. Death whirled around her, gesturing her away, his red cape swirling, a black flare in the anemic walls, lights flickering.
Delilah froze, bombarded by images of death, of Camila’s father passing away, in only a few weeks, from stage IV pancreatic cancer. Of her mother pining away, a thread’s breath away from ending her own life. And Camila herself, now digging sloppily at her veins, trying to open them with a switchblade knife. Usually Delilah needed to touch someone for this to happen. Erasing the stray thought, she shouted, “Camila! Stop!”
Mr. Death threw up his hands, leaning against the wall petulantly.
“I can’t!” her friend screamed, tears blurring her vision, as she stabbed a grotesque gouache of reds and browns in her wrists.
Delilah reached over and touched her arm. Sorrow and rage a toxic helix of doom threatening to overwhelm her. Delilah swallowed and pushed the dark threads away from her soul, trying to find the snag she always found when she touched people affected by Mr. Death. A snag there: Camila’s mom rubbing her belly, her belly growing with the seed of a little girl. Delilah laughed through her tears.
“You are going to be a big sister.”
Camila stopped, the knife poised like a hawk.
“You are joking.”
“No. She will grow up to be a spitfire. Like you. Her name will be Kate.”
Delilah staggered back, gold threads from her mental fingers fusing with the dark threads of Mr. Death.
“Whoa,” her friend breathed. “Your eyes are gold.”
Camila threw herself at Delilah and hugged her. Her friend knew of her strange power. What that power was exactly, Delilah wasn’t sure. She wondered if she would ever know.
“You did it again,” Mr. Death said, and this time awe tinged his voice.
Twenty-four years old
“Come on Delilah, let’s go party! We’ve been cooped up here far too long!” Roberto, her roommate, said, juggling his beer bottles.
Delilah sat on the sofa, eyeing the remnants of their Monopoly game, toys strewn about like dead children. Her senses shivered with foreboding; a shadow of a familiar presence in the future. A presence touching her friend, shattering his life and extinguishing it; not mercilessly, but because it had to be.
“We should stay home,” she whispered, wrapping a blanket around herself. “Nothing good will come tonight.”
“You’re too serious,” Roberto said.
Delilah shook her head. His dreams of becoming an engineer, starting a large family, his triumph over drug addiction, his success over his dyslexia, all coalesced into a dead end tonight. She just didn’t know how yet, because she hadn’t touched him.
She couldn’t stop him. Her mind cast out and she sensed others with the mark of Mr. Death, most a natural ending, some not. She bore her fingers on her skull, the pain stopping the curse, the expanse of her Vision.
“Here, have some chocolate.” He handed it to her and his knuckles brushed hers. He would die by motorcycle accident tonight. She shuddered. She tried her usual move, pushing aside the threads of death and inserting her own. But he pulled back and she lost her connection. How much had she been able to actually change?
“Come. I will drive you to and back,” she said.
“Really? Thanks. You may as well come to the party too,” he said.
“No thanks,” she smiled tremulously.
She drove him and stopped one possibility of death. But another came. A few days later, she received a call. Roberto had gone to see his estranged dad to make amends. They hadn’t spoken in years. Roberto had reached out to apologize for his behavior during his drug years. His father accepted, forgiving him on the phone, asking him to come visit.
And along the way Roberto had gotten in a deadly motorcycle accident.
Delilah sobbed, striking at the sofa with her fists, wishing it were Mr. Death’s face.
“No matter what I do, it doesn’t matter,” she cried angrily. “I am bad luck. Wherever I go, I see death.”
She jerked, Mr. Death strolling into her living room. Today he wore a purple, sleeved, collared shirt with black cufflinks and black slacks. Slender and affable as ever, he said, “Wherever I go, I see the effects of your touch. You may not be able to physically be everywhere. But your ideal is universal.”
“What ideal is that?” she asked.
He looked down. “You have to find that out. And your power might change.”
She had lost the ability to see people at all stages of their past, current and future lives. But the ability to see him, and her ability to do… whatever it was she could do had not died.
“I want to have a normal life. To not be able to see anything.”
Mr. Death laughed.
“Have some more chocolate,” he offered, being careful not to touch her.
“You know, you don’t have to hate me. Death is a part of life. I am as natural as the sun, the earth, the air that surrounds us.”
“I know, I know,” she grumbled. “I just wish I didn’t have my Vision.”
“You’ve always had it. But something is new this time. It’s up to you to find out what it is. Your Vision will never go away. So you can mope about it, or bear it.”
He bit into a piece of chocolate. “You’re starting to grow on me. It’d be a shame to give up now.”
Delilah reached out to whack him, but Mr. Death had disappeared.
Thirty-six years old
She knew before any of them that her mother-in-law was going to die from a heart attack. But she pretended that it came as a surprise, she endured her husband’s grief as if it were new. Even he didn’t know of her strange gift, her Vision. In fact, she’d known as soon as she’d met her mother-in-law, nine years ago, that she would die like this: suddenly, dramatically, in her kitchen, alone. That is, until Delilah decided to keep her company. She proposed they make pies together. They’d spent the afternoon making various jams, then had moved on to making pies. The sunlight filtered through, a green haze of springtime bouncing around the kitchen.
“You make my son so happy,” Leilani said, smiling as she crimped the pie crust.
“I try my best,” Delilah said.
When they moved onto the baking part, Leilani spoke again, her silver ringlets swaying as she rolled out the dough.
“I wish he had more ambition. He has always spoken about following his dreams. Being a world renowned musician.”
“He is working on it,” Delilah said, fingers stained with elderberry jam, dark spatters under her fingernails, in the ridges of her skin. “He will be a famous singer and guitarist, touring around the world, Gold and Platinum albums selling tons. He will be known as The Child, for reinventing famous tunes from childhood and making them new.”
“You sound so sure,” Leilani said, beaming. “You have this way of stating things.”
Delilah had almost told her about her gift. The woman was open to a great many things. She might have understood. But having nearly gotten killed by an abusive boyfriend after Camila let slip about her Vision, Delilah had never told anybody else about it. Her friend had died a few months later, after hooking up with said boyfriend.
Delilah was ready when her mother-in-law collapsed. She gave her CPR, called 911 despite knowing it would make no difference. Mr. Death watched her give CPR, smoking a cigarette, wearing a wrinkled black wifebeater. Delilah worked hard, instilling threads of hope in Leilani’s departing soul: the knowledge that her son would become famous, the knowledge that her husband would die a natural death, overcoming his alcoholism down the line. Delilah tried to see when and who she would be reborn as, but she scrambled against the tenacious wall of time. She sagged back and watched Mr. Death through lidded eyes.
“You have stopped fighting against me,” he observed, sitting down next to her. The holes in his jeans gaped, like open wounds.
“I know you’re inevitable. But that doesn’t mean I’ll let people die without some peace.”
She stopped talking as the paramedics burst in. She and Mr. Death watched passively, as the medics searched and failed to find a heartbeat.
Forty-four years old
Delilah learned to be in several places at the same time, dividing her consciousness into people’s slices of despair, impending deaths connecting similar fates. She first learned to do it when she met the homeless man teetering on the bridge, his red beanie a match for his red nose, rendered so by alcohol. He stood there shakily, knobby knees and hopes clattering around. He hadn’t even seen her, swinging her legs on the bridge, reading a book. This close, she didn’t need to touch him. Despair, desolation, warred inside of him. He had lost his wife, his sons and his dog in the same month. He had spiraled and destroyed his friendships, refused to continue working, and he had started an addiction to alcohol. All those patches of misery, of anguish had made him think of suicide. There was no way out. There was nothing to live for.
“Hey,” she said softly.
He turned his head, face livid, Delilah an unwelcome spectator to his brash decision.
“Sorry. I was already here,” she whispered.
He teetered and she grabbed him. His life wobbled, quite literally. In one reality, he threw himself off. In another, he walked away. In yet another, he yelled at her but walked away.
She really did want to go back to her book. She had already seen Mr. Death a dozen times that week and he paced behind her now. She settled on the easiest route. For good measure she concentrated, and saw him marrying again, and becoming a math teacher; a dream he’d never admitted, even to himself.
“When you think there is nothing… Remember that death is the ultimate nothing. There is no going back from that.”
“What would you know? You are young. You can’t preach to me that life will get better,” his voice shook, sorrow vibrating him.
“It certainly won’t get better if you die now. Besides, who will be left, once you die? You’ve lost everyone. If you die, your wife and son’s memory dies with you. Your love, your dedication to them will be forgotten.”
“Who are you? How do you know about them?”
“I just do.”
He reared back, ready to launch into a tirade. She had talked too much.
“You know nothing about losing people. You’re here reading a damn book! You know nothing about my struggles, about grief, about wanting to give up. Life is hard. Existing is pain.”
She considered this, remembering what happened when she’d told her secret to someone she thought she could trust. But now she was stronger. If something happened, she could defend herself.
“You have their memory in your hands. You give up living and your tribute to them dies. If you live, you can continue honoring them. You can make them proud.”
A deep breath and she continued.
“I have seen death come and take strangers, family, friends. I know it happens. I know how it happens, when it happens. There is nothing I can do.” A small lie. “I have lost people close to me more than your years and mine combined. But I do know that when you stop your life, there is no going back. There is no possibility to make it better. You will find new friends. A new wife. A new hobby. Life is like the seasons. This is your winter. You have to find springtime again. You have to not die.”
Delilah injected her willpower, pushing the possibility of his death away, shoving aside the other eventualities. Mr. Death stopped pacing and teetered over the bridge. Not tonight. She didn’t want a death tonight. She was tired. This man would survive. And he would live to see hope again, to see love and joy.
The man, Roque, stared at her, lips working. His eyes welled but he did not cry. He glared at her, desperately wanting to believe her but still skeptical. Delilah concentrated, and the dark thoughts shrunk to a ball of shivering skeins. Mr. Death muttered, “Thanks,” as he plunged into the river. All she saw was a blur of silk and satin. Was he wearing a tunic? Roque nodded his head and walked away without a backward glance.
She sighed, long and deep, breath misting in front of her. Then she almost fell over as she was hit with others like him, across the country, across the world, with those same suicidal thoughts. She inhaled and accidentally wound up next to a young woman, shaking as she hung a noose around her neck. Delilah inhaled again and she blinked into existence next to a teenage boy adjusting a shotgun to his face. The world spun around her, dizzying fractions of humanity calling at her, tugging her every which way. Delilah gasped and focused on the bridge she’d been on. She collapsed, quivering and curled up on the asphalt. Too much. One day she could help them all at once. But right now, it was too much.
“You will learn to master your power,” Mr. Death’s voice floated in the wind. Delilah didn’t have the energy to respond.
Fifty-two years old
Delilah had a knack for saving the children. A lot of them still got snatched up by Mr. Death. But she empathized and connected immediately with children in need. And she started recognizing when they would die anyway. But she was always there to give what they needed. Now, she stood in a dilapidated home, a drunk, angry father beating his seven-year-old, the child’s eyes already swelling shut. Bruises littered the boy’s body and his father struck into his chest and stomach, a litany of abuse of love and trust. Mr. Death stood behind the boy, chewing his lip.
“I wish you wouldn’t do this,” she said automatically to him. But it was a tired farce; a memory replayed over and over. He didn’t do this on purpose. He came because it was time. Humanity managed to inflict the worst on itself. Death would always come. How depended on everything else. She just couldn’t stomach when children died, no matter the circumstances. She’d touched with her gift countless children: sick, dying, accidents, natural deaths. But those that were caused by their parents… She couldn’t.
The father hadn’t seen her yet. He should have. But every year she became more and more like Mr. Death. Transient in space and time.
Delilah walked through his blows and touched the child, Ray. A wriggling mass of darkness pulled at him; he was moments from death from one more blow. The father swung and Delilah scooped up the child, wrapping her arms around him, aggressively shoving away the skeins of death that yearned for him. He would live. She blinked her eyes and she was at her aunt’s house, the foster center she’d created years ago. Delilah set the boy down and reeled back. He sat up, smiling, bruises fading, eyes opening fully again. Mr. Death popped up next to him, shaking his head.
“You don’t do half measures, do you?”
Delilah didn’t know what to say.
“You are the other half of me. The one that gives hope, joy, all the positive things to them as they die. But they must still die. You are disturbing the cycle of life and death.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose!”
“Well, you need to learn to control it. Honestly, woman. You’ve had over half your life to learn!”
“I can’t help what my power does. It keeps changing.”
Mr. Death pointed a finger at her, his blank eyes accusing. He wore black overalls, with a red bandanna wrapped around his throat. It positively bobbed with anger.
“Without you, I die. Without me, you die. Do not undo the work of time itself. Something has changed this time around. Now instead of painting Grim Reapers, people are drawing a haloed woman surrounded by light. That light is a friendly death. How ridiculous is that?”
“I think it’s wonderful,” she intoned, looking at the boy she’d saved. “If people learn to not fear death, if more hope is given to them, where is the harm in that?”
Mr. Death sputtered. She had a talent for rendering him like this.
“It sounds like you’re jealous. My power is starting to match yours. Maybe that’s why you sermon me all the time. Trying to make me give up,” she winked.
“Save the flirting for your husband,” Mr. Death tried and failed to stop grinning.
Sixty-seven years old
Delilah tried to not stop death. But as she got older, so did her power grow. She had to pull back when she touched people and instead gently tug at the skeins of death instead of shoving them aside. That way people died, but a positivity in the universe happened as an equal reaction. Delilah was the balance. She didn’t run away anymore. She knew what and how to do it. People blurred in her memory; she saw Mr. Death every day and exchanged jibes with him. But he was no longer her enemy. She flitted through the instant before death, heartbeats counting to finality, every second, every moment, sometimes at the same time.
She considered telling Harold about her power. They’d been together long enough for him to earn her trust. But these days he toured with his band, earning the fame she’d predicted so long ago.
Delilah hummed along to Harold’s hit single as it played on her phone. He was radiant, beaming at his fans, strumming the melody he’d so laboriously worked on at home, as she watched, silently encouraging him.
The frenetic splashing of her neighbor stopped as he hauled himself on an inflatable yellow raft in the pool.
“Michael’s music is one of a kind,” he said.
His Alzheimer’s. It wasn’t too advanced yet. But enough to swap people’s names. Delilah enjoyed these Sunday afternoons with Paul. They played table tennis and then swam. These days, they fawned over her husband’s music. Paul’s family was out shopping and they’d be back in the evening.
She might have fallen asleep or been lulled by the music. A thrum in reality snapped her awake. Paul. He wasn’t on the raft. He was sinking in the pool. His reality surrounded him, a death by drowning, alone and silent, an aura around the entire pool. She set her lips. No. She was here. She dissolved this reality where he died alone.
Paul, with his Alzheimer’s, had forgotten how to swim. He sank helplessly, limbs akimbo. Delilah jumped after him, and tugged him onto the deck, giving him CPR. With every thrust, she pushed away the horrible eventuality of his death. He would die, yes, but he would die at home, surrounded by family, before the Alzheimer’s claimed his brain and his soul. In five years. Water burst out from his mouth, a fountain of vitality.
As she waited for him to recover, Mr. Death emerged from the pool, dry as a bone. He wore a wetsuit this time, black like the pool deck itself.
“Delilah, Delilah. Saving someone from me yet again. You know he is still going to die, correct?”
“Yes. But in a better way, eventually.”
He tugged at the wet suit and peeked at Paul.
“It is not natural, what you do. Pushing me back.”
“You need to make up your mind. I thought pushing you away entirely was a no-no. But this, what I do now… it is natural. Some people’s lives swing from death to life, the deciding factor is arbitrary. If my presence swings the pendulum towards them living, then so be it.”
Mr. Death shook his head but did not rebut her.
“You have thought this through,” he finally said.
“A lifetime’s worth of experience will do that.”
They smiled at each other.
Eighty-one years old
It was her time to die. She knew it. Even without touching her heart and sensing that familiar ball of death inside her soul, she knew it. She sat on the veranda, knitting in her lap, her cats playing with a toy behind her. Her husband would come home to find her gone. She’d left him a lengthy note, a profuse thank you letter for helping her find her confidence. He knew that for a long time, she’d kept something significant from him. But he’d just held her quietly and reassured her when she came home, crying over yet another loss. He’d told her over many, many years that she could handle whatever was thrown at her.
She’d also left her wish to continue the foster shelter to her aunt’s daughter. A lovely woman, full of promise like her mother had been. Delilah had said goodbye to the kids, hugging them profusely. They knew of her Vision, without her telling them.
Delilah got up and greeted Mr. Death just as he materialized in front of her. He wore a bathrobe, black and fluffy, and he smoked a pipe. He shuffled his slippered feet and puffed out smoke. Even with his blank eyes, he radiated a fatherly pride.
“Well?” he asked.
“It is my time.”
“Your time,” he laughed and put a hand out. She took it, her strength siphoning out. Mr. Death grabbed Delilah, almost in an embrace, and smiled.
“You die only in the physical sense. You will lose this body. But you will be reborn. You are hope personified, if you hadn’t realized it already.”
Delilah heard him, though his voice came from everywhere, a chamber of echoes in infinity.
“Your persistence in living in the mortal world, of living like them, of looking like them, is what is holding you back. You didn’t have to age.”
Delilah watched her physical body fall, snow white long hair trailing down a curved back, all her parts worn with the passage of time.
“Or me. You’ve always seen me as an average man with blank eyes.”
Delilah chuckled. “Yes.”
“Look at me.”
She could stand now, and his true form erupted, into wings of black and silver, a char black fog where his body should be. His eyes two pits she could fall into for eternity, a pit of emptiness, of non-existence. He towered over her.
“No reaper or scythe?” she whispered, refusing to show how awed she was.
“Reveal yourself,” Death boomed.
Delilah scintillated, flexing out in a shower of dazzling light, golden and black. She couldn’t look at herself. She was light, the pure embodiment of it. Webs of light appeared and disappeared around her fingers.
“You have evolved. Like me.”
“Hmm, I don’t know. One constant is you’ve always scowled at me.” She laughed. “We have evolved. Like humanity itself. You need to accept that humanity expects different things from death. And hope. Stop being a curmudgeon about it.”
Mr. Death grunted. “Fine. You have your job to do. I have mine. But we work together.”
“I plan to. I will be a burr in your side no matter what form I take.”
Mr. Death looked pained as he replied, “I don’t know what happened that you forgot who you were. I don’t know why I couldn’t recognize you for such a long time. But we are partners. Death and hope and life mixed together. Next time, try to stay focused and learn more quickly, will you?”
Delilah laughed, and the golden being that was her erupted in an explosion of sparks. She forced herself back into a human form, a little girl, like when she’d first seen Mr. Death. She took his hand and he took it back.
“Let’s keep going. And this time, I lead.”