Better than Starbucks Fiction
She was at Bob’s Burger Joint. Cynthia tapped her fingers against the tabletop impatiently. She stopped when she realized how greasy it was. Didn’t they ever clean this place? No she decided from the stains on all the wait staff uniforms and the unspeakable grey accumulating between the floor tiles.
She glanced at her watch. He was late. Heh. Who had ever heard of Death being late to an
appointment? She casually looked at the individuals that had collected at the various tables or in the lines at the counter, but she wasn’t sure what he looked like. She wasn’t even sure that he would turn up.
Just then a young girl with strawberry red hair wandered into the restaurant. Cynthia di
dn’t think much of it until the girl slid into the seat directly in front of her. “Hi” said the girl, “sorry I’m late.”
She was dressed simply. A black t-shirt with a skull embroidered onto it in black sequence and a pair of jeans. Her hair was cut short, falling just below her chin. It was all red except for a single lock of black hair hanging over her face, which she was playing with idly. For all intents and purposes she looked like an ordinary middle school girl. She even had a backpack.
“You’re Death,” said Cynthia skeptically.
“Yup that’s my name. Don’t wear it out.”
“like actual Death?”
“Yeah I’m Death. The end of lives, the reaping of souls. You called and here I am.” The girl had picked up a menu and was browsing through it. “Hey, how’re their milkshakes?”
Cynthia had made the request perfectly. She was certain of that. She was also relatively sure that no one besides her secretary and herself knew about this meeting. Stephanie wouldn’t tell anyone. The girl was an impenetrable vault. But this kid... “It’s just that you look different from how I imagined.”
“Really? What were you expecting? Anubis, Thantos, a black Ox, a raven? Wait. Lemme guess. Were you expecting the Grim Reaper?” Cynthia wasn’t sure what she had expected to show up at the restaurant, but she had to admit that a hooded figure was sort of in line with her thinking. The girl snickered. “I like to change forms every couple of centuries. You know to keep things fresh. The whole scythe and hood thing went out of style like two centuries ago. Besides could you imagine me running around in a black hood, carrying a scythe down Michigan avenue? It’s not exactly inconspicuous in the internet age.”
“Yeah I suppose,” replied Cynthia, though she really had no idea.
“Hey” said Death. “How are the burgers in this joint? Do you think you could get me a burger? Oh! And a chocolate shake!”
“and a chocolate shake.” Death pointed at the picture of it in the menu. “My ‘rents don’t give me an allowance or else I wouldn’t ask.”
“You have parents?” Cynthia asked incredulously.
“Yeah. Foster parents.” Death didn’t feel like elaborating.
Cynthia looked down at her own menu. It was ridiculous that she’d come to this place hoping to meet with Death. She knew it was ridiculous. But she did it anyway. It was her habit to explore all options. More than that, it was a compulsion. It’s what made her the top business consultant in the Midwest. She’d take a look at a problem and think up solutions to it and if something came up that could provide an answer, she couldn’t just dismiss it arbitrarily. Doing that would hamper the innovativeness of the company she was working for. So carefully, systematically she explored all possible solutions to her client’s quandaries. She’d start from the most probable and steadily make her way down to the least, but she’d never exclude an option simply because she didn’t understand its methodology. This was why she had risen to the ranks of senior consultant at her firm so quickly, and was making six figures even though she was barely 29. Currently she was representing Trimco Solar, which was facing serious competition from Eco-N-ergy and was looking to buying them out. The problem was that their major shareholder wasn’t willing to sell for any amount of money. The man was 124 years old and as stubborn an old man as any. Cynthia had tried negotiating with him for sometime but to no avail. She had, however, manage to find out that the man’s shares would go to his grandson upon his death. On top of that, the grandson wasn’t interested in the company at all. His heart was set on the ownership and management of the Detroit Pistons. A feat Cynthia could, with some finagling, manage quite easily. In short, the whole situation would resolve itself if the old man just popped off.
After all he’s a hundred and twenty-four. It was about damn time. On a lark, she’d asked Stephanie to find the best way to make this happen. Cynthia hadn’t expected her to bring her an old dusty book from the public library with instructions on how to contact Death. She had expected Stephanie to procure a list of assassins for hire. Still, the book being in front of her, she felt obliged to follow through with it. She hadn’t really expected this girl, or anyone really, to show up. “Look I’m sorry honey, but I don’t think this is going to work out.”
“What’s not gonna work out?” asked Death curiously, “If you aren’t willing to spring for the burger, how about just the milkshake then?”
“No,” she sighed, “I mean I don’t think you’re Death.”
“Really?” said the girl, quite surprised. “That’s weird. If you don’t think I’m me then who do you think I am?”
“Hey kid. Don’t get me wrong, I think you’re a girl who thinks she’s Death. Maybe even your name might be Death on your birth certificate. I don’t know. People have strange names. I once met someone named Super Battle Star Galactica Bruce Springsteen, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much. I just don’t believe you’re actually Death. There probably isn’t even an actual Death with a capital D. People just die, and that’s all there is to it.” The girl looked at Cynthia long and hard, as if she was processing everything that had been said.
“Well,” she shrugged, “you don’t have to believe me. People are entitled to their own opinions about stuff. But I think the very least you could do is buy me a burger and a shake, seeing as I came all this way.”
“Fine.” sighed Cynthia. She smiled at a waiter to grab his attention.
“So you really don’t believe I’m Death, huh?” said the girl through mouthfuls of her burger. It was the first thing she had said since her food had arrived, which she had proceeded to attack with all the voraciousness of a hungry adolescent.
“No” Cynthia replied. She took a sip of the milkshake she had ordered for herself at the insistence of the girl. It was strawberry and it was good.
“Well, why not?”
“It’s like this,” Cynthia paused to think up a suitable metaphor, “Say I went to the supermarket and some salesman hands me a thing that looks like an orange, feels like an orange and smells like an orange. Then the guy tells me it’s an orange. It’s pretty easy for me to take his word on that. But say that same guy hands me something that feels, tastes and looks like an orange but then tells me it’s a banana. I think I’m allowed to be a little skeptical of that information.” Cynthia snatched a fry from the girl’s plate and dipped it into her milkshake. “You kid, look, feel and act like a normal middle school girl.”
“So what you’re saying,” said the girl, “is you’d believe me if I looked and acted like Death was supposed to look and act like?” She’d finished devouring her burger and was working on her fries. “What exactly is Death supposed to look and act like?”
Cynthia shook her head. “I don’t know, but I know a little girl when I see one and until you give me a reason to think otherwise, I’m liable to believe that’s what you are.”
Death scratched her head. “So let me get this straight. The fact that I showed up when you called me isn’t enough. You want proof.”
“Yup,” nodded Cynthia, “that would be the gist of it.”
“You’d believe me if I offed someone, that guy working the cash register for example, right now in front of you?”
“I imagine I would,” replied Cynthia
Death glared at Cynthia incredulously. “You some kind of sadist or something lady?”
“What? No!” Cynthia replied, quite taken aback.
“Then why the hell would you think I’d do something like that?”
“Well I don’t know. If you’re Death isn’t that what you do?”
“Hey!” yelled the girl furiously, “I’m not some psychopath who gets off on killing people. I got a job. I get my orders just like everybody else and then I follow through. Frankly I take pride in my work! If I just killed any old person I wanted to, what kind of employee would that make me? Not a very good one!”
“Well” said Cynthia, getting up. “I suppose it doesn’t matter then.”
“What doesn’t matter?”
“Whatever you are. It doesn’t matter. See, I called you hoping I could convince you to kill a man I needed dead, but it seems that Death doesn’t work that way or if he does, you aren’t him. As achieving the purpose of this meeting is futile, the question of whether or not you’re Death becomes moot. I will have to find another way to achieve my business goals.” Cynthia straightened her jacket and grabbed her purse. “It was nice having lunch with you though.” She smiled at the girl in front of her, left a sizeable tip beneath her plate and headed out of the restaurant.
It didn’t take her long to realize that she was being followed.
Her hotel was only a couple of blocks away, so she had decided to walk. Almost immediately, she started to notice the sound of footsteps creeping up behind her. She caught glimpses of shadows on adjacent walls, heard the overwhelmingly loud crash of dumpsters being turned over, and heard people honking loudly at some pedestrian behind her who kept crossing the street too late. There were other signs as well. Almost too many signs. In fact, the evidence that she was being followed was quite substantial and mounting with each step she made towards her hotel. “Kid, why exactly are you following me?” she announced when she had finally had enough.
The girl came out from behind the corner of an alleyway Cynthia had seen her duck into just moments before. “So I’m guessing it was really obvious huh?” she said sheepishly.
“God, you make more noise than a herd of New Yorkers at Macy’s on Black Friday.”
“Yeah well, I’m not usually in the business of tailing people,” Death smiled weakly.
“That’s oddly uncharacteristic of you.” Cynthia put her hands on her hips and let out an exasperated sigh. “So hon, um don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m really not in the business of taking in strays. I’m only in Chicago for the day, so why don’t you be a good girl and head home.”
Death ran her fingers through her hair nervously. “Well, see I have a confession to make. I kind of think I should let you know —”
“That you’re just a regular school girl who was trying to con me out of a free meal?”
“Heh, heh,” the girl smiled, “still don’t believe me huh? I suppose I didn’t really offer any proof like you said so why would you? Here.” She unzipped her backpack. After rummaging through it a bit, she procured a school notebook with Tame Impala’s Inner Speaker album art on the cover.
“I thought all you kids were into was shit like Hannah Montana and One Direction.”
Death gave her a withering look “I listen to real music,” she replied. “You wanted proof of who I am? Here.” She tossed the notebook at Cynthia who barely managed to catch it by juggling it between her hands.
“A school notebook. Wow you’re right you’ve convinced me.”
She did. There was a heart drawn on the first page. “D loves CM. Who’s CM?”
“Not that page!” said Death, her cheeks turning as red as her strawberry hair. Cynthia turned the page, to find a list of names running down the page. Each name was accompanied by a date and a time. Some dates were from years long past and others had yet to come. Beside those dates that had passed was a remark “Cooperative” or “Uncooperative” that ran under the heading of “Soul Status.” Cynthia turned the page again. More of the same. With each turn of the page, there were more names with more dates and times beside them and more Cooperative/Uncooperative designations. The names were listed in no particular order, nor were the dates chronological. Theodore James Griffen 9/23/1945 4:15 Uncooperative was followed by Zainab Al Kindri 7/14/1742 13:30 Uncooperative, followed by Mikasa Fukamoto 12/30/2023 2:30. It seemed to go on endlessly as she flipped through the notebook. As though the book contained far more pages than it ought to contain.
“Turn to page 334” said the girl. Cynthia looked at the corner of the page and saw that page numbers had been scrawled by hand with a green glitter pen. “You’re tenth up from the bottom.” And indeed when she turned to the page and looked she found her name Cynthia Eleanor Collins 7/20/2014 19:55. It was today’s date. Cynthia looked up at the girl. She was standing in the middle of the street, just as she had been a moment ago - her backpack open hanging off her right shoulder; the tips of her fingers pushed into the pockets of her jeans.
“What the fuck is this?” yelled Cynthia angrily. Death however was unfazed.
“Sorry I haven’t been completely honest with you.” She spoke calmly, but with a hint of remorse in her voice. “See I don’t usually show up when people try and get in contact with me. You’d be surprised how many people try and do that. I swear you give one person your direct line back in the 1350s and people are calling you your whole life and they’re all asking for the same thing. Please kill this guy, or that girl or that king or that lord or priest or criminal or that major shareholder for that competing company.” She glanced at Cynthia pointedly. “I always told em I’d get to it eventually, because you know I would, but you all are so impatient. Anyways, I just stopped answering cuz it got really annoying having to tell people the same thing over and over. I wouldn’t have shown up for our meeting at all but well we were due for another appointment later that evening, so I figured what the hell. Sorry I should have told you earlier. Happy Death Day.” The girl smiled.
“H-happy Death Day!” yelled Cynthia, “if this your idea of a joke then you’re a twisted little shit.”
“What? No!” said Death taken aback, “It’s the truth Cynthia. I swear.”
“Look kid, just do me a favor and stay the fuck away from me.” said Cynthia backing away. “I don’t have the time or patience to deal with you and your little Punked Halloween special, so just leave me alone and go home.” She tossed the notebook onto the ground and turned left onto the adjoining street. The girl did not follow.
Cynthia thought about it the whole way back to her hotel. She hadn’t thought about it for a long time, but it was on her mind and for some reason she couldn’t put it out of her mind. When she w
as ten years old, her father had taken her to an amusement park in Ohio. It was a huge park, the biggest she had ever seen. Hundreds of rides racing, flipping, whirling like colorful Chinese dragons all around her. Enormous living beasts screaming and laughing with a kind of vital energy that comprises the chemical structure of joy. She would have loved it. But her father had decided to leave her there. They both knew it. “I’ll be right back hon,” he had said and they both knew it. She screamed, and cried, and begged him not to go, but each time he would smile goofily, stroke her hair and tell her he would “be right back, hon” until at last she had found herself alone. The cantankerous mechanical beasts, turned sinister as the sun fell out of the sky and all her happiness seeped into the space around her. She could still see it in the passing crowds - the animated expressions of kids as their parents herded them toward the parking
lots, and in the glances and private whispers between pairs of teenagers. She could see it around her, but she could not understand it. All she understood was fear and heartbreak and the worst part of it was that she had known, but couldn’t stop him from leaving her.
Her keycard slipped from her hands as she tried to bring it out of her purse. The memory must have left something residual because her palms were wet and a tightness had formed around her stomach and heart. It’s just a memory now. You lived through it, it’s over. Calm down. Please calm down. But her heart was beating faster now, and although she could not explain it, she felt like she did when she was ten years old.
She ran her key card through the slot and watched the light turn green and a lock click open. Thank God. Cynthia did not have the stamina to go down to the lobby and ask for another one. What she needed now was a drink. And a Tylenol, she added rubbing her temples. She entered her room and threw her purse onto her bed. Her watch read 6:45pm. If that crazy girl happens to be right, I’ll be dead in an hour! It was a morbid joke and it did little to lighten her spirits. She still could not shake the uneasiness she was feeling, nor could she say precisely why she was feeling it so suddenly. She and her mom had made their peace with her father’s departure years ago by burning everything he’d left back at the house in a spectacular bonfire. In fact she hadn’t even thought about the incident in years. A part of her wanted to blame the kid, but she couldn’t think of a reason to pin it on her. She rummaged through the mini fridge and pulled out a handful of those sweet little hotel bottles of alcohol. The meeting was a bust so there was no real reason to stay sober for the rest of her time here in Chicago. She was half way through her third bottle before she noticed the redheaded girl sitting at the table.
“You! What the hell are you doing in my hotel room?!” Cynthia yelled.
“Homework,” replied Death. She held up her math book, revealing a series of word problems.
“Get out!” She grabbed the girl by her shirt’s collar and drove her towards the door. “Leave me alone, or I’m calling the cops.” Cynthia threw the girl out into the lobby and slammed the door.
Half a second later she heard the door lock click open and the girl walked back into the room.
Death waved the plastic key card in her hand. “I told the guy at the counter I was your daughter and he gave me this. That’s how I got in in the first place.”
“What did I ever do to deserve a pest like you?” she pleaded, “why can’t you just leave me alone
and go home?”
“Cuz I have a job to do,” replied Death, she picked up her math book off the floor where it had fallen and placed it back into her backpack.
“The joke is dead, kid. Come on, please leave my room. I have a flight to catch tomorrow.”
Death gave Cynthia a hard look. There was something about her stare that made Cynthia feel
“You can’t fool yourself,” said Death, “I know you believe me now, even if you don’t want to
admit it. I can see it all over your face, just like I’ve seen it on so many other faces. The thing you’ve been feeling all this time. It’s despair.” That one word bore in Cynthia, the terrifying realization that perhaps the girl had not been lying after all and an immediate rejection of that realization for fear of it.
“No.” It came out as a whisper scraping against her dry lips. “No!” she yelled it this time. “No, no you can’t be. No it’s impossible, you can’t be. No! I can’t belie...”
“I don’t want to die.” The words spilled from her lips and were suddenly and irreversibly material.
The girl nodded understandingly. “Most people aren’t very welcoming of me. They fight me to their last breath, but they always end up breathing it all the same.”
“It’s not fair,” cried Cynthia, “I’m still in my twenties for fucks sake. I haven’t done a
nything. You can’t just...I’m not finished living yet.”
Death sighed. “You’re not seeing it. People never see it. This is it. This is the end of your story. There’s nothing else you would have done. There’s nothing left for you to experience. It was always just gonna be this. The rest of it, all those expectations, dreams you had of growing up, they’re just that. Dreams. They aren’t your life. You aren’t being cheated out of anything. It’s just the end. This was always gonna be the end.”
Death opened the minifridge and fished out a can of Coke and a small bottle of water. She tossed the bottle onto the bed near Cynthia. “Drink that. Dying’s thirsty work.” Death pulled the ring on the can. Cynthia listened to it click and sigh. It was the only sound in the room. For all she knew it was the only sound in the whole world. She felt like she needed to say something, but her mind had gone numb. “Drink it Cynthia,” urged Death, motioning at the bottle. Cynthia grabbed it, removed the cap and sipped it. It had that bitter medicinal taste that bottled water sometimes has.
“You know,” continued Death as she walked over to look out the window, “dying might be the end of life, but it isn’t the end of you. It’s a soul reaping not a soul extermination. Think of it as a transition.” She looked back at Cynthia. “Hey you fire people right? It’s sort of like that! I’m sorry but your contract with us here has expired and we aren’t looking to re-sign. You’ve been laid off, but don’t take it too hard. I’m sure there’s still something out there for you somewhere!”
“w-where?” Cynthia’s voice came out raspy. Her throat was dry. She sipped from the water bottle.
“Hmm,” Death pondered, “that’s an interesting question. I don’t know exactly.”
“You don’t know?”
“Well see, I haven’t ever died before.”
“But if you’re Death, what do you do with the souls you take?”
Death shook her head. “I don’t take souls. That’s the Angel of Death. He’s the one who reaps souls.”
This was getting to be too much for Cynthia. Just yesterday, everything was making sense. She had a stable career where she was moving up the ranks. Sure, she didn’t have much of a social life but she was working on that. There was this guy at work that she was interested in and he was definitely interested in her too. And oh man, her sister was getting married! She had promised her mother that she’d take time off to be there at the wedding. Now, though nothing made sense. Her world had turned to chaos and she was standing in the midst of it watching it rip
apart and scatter all around her like scraps in a heavy wind. “If you’re not the Angel of Death. What are you?” She wasn’t particularly interested but she felt obliged to ask.
“I’m Death,” replied Death, “I’m more like the act of reaping.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
A buzzing sound emanated from Death’s backpack. Cynthia watched the little redheaded girl scamper towards it and pull out her phone. Death read something that made her smile, and then spent the next couple of minutes texting someone on the other end. Probably CM, Cynthia guessed. Death took a snapchat of herself posing in front of the hotel room window and sent it off. “Oh sorry,” she said when she finally realized that Cynthia had asked a question. “It’s kind of complicated. I don’t really know how else to explain it. You’ll find out soon enough though. You’re about to go through it.”
Cynthia could feel the tightness spreading in her chest again, like her lungs and heart were being
wrapped in cellophane. “How can you expect me to be okay with all of this, when you don’t even know what’s happening?” Despair. She knew that was what she was feeling now.
Despair. “Kid, I don’t want to die. I’ll do anything to not die. Fuck, I’m not even sick or anything. How does this even happen?” She sat down on the bed and reached for the remaining fun-sized bottle of whiskey on her bedside table.
“What’s so bad about dying?” asked Death. Cynthia turned to see her sitting on the windowsill,
absentmindedly kicking her legs off the side of the wall. Her phone was in her hands. “So maybe I don’t know where you go afterwards, but isn’t that how life is most of the time? I mean when you were a kid, did you think you’d be I dunno whatever the hell you are now? I doubt it. Your job’s pretty boring sounding. I bet when you were a kid, you wanted to be a princess or an astronaut or a videogame tester. Life turned out different from the way you thought it would though. Cuz you don’t go into anything knowing what’ll happen. Dying’s the same way.” Death jumped off the windowsill. “I’m gonna go see if I can get some ice cream from the dessert bar in the lobby. Do you want anything? A last meal? I’m charging it to the room if you don’t mind. I mean its not like you’ll be using the money for anything. Oh and Cynthia, please just try and accept your fate. If you do dying goes a lot easier, otherwise it can be pretty painful. Like super painful. So please don’t try and fight it. Kay well, be right back!” She headed out the door leaving Cynthia alone in the room she was destined to die in.
She had wanted kids. Ever since she had been one herself, it was the thing around which the whole of her imagination circumambulated. It was more than a dream. It was an inalienable right to her - a pivotal point in her life so set in stone that she had simply taken for granted that it would happen when it happened. It would never happen.
I don’t want to die. Cynthia heard the electric lock click open and waited as the handle turned. “Hey, you never told me if you wanted anything but I brought you this strawberry shortcake just in case you —“ It was then that the girl noticed the pistol pointed at her forehead. “I’m sorry,” Cynthia sobbed, “please understand. I just don’t want to die.” Death backed away towards the window, the plate with the strawberry shortcake quivering slightly in her hands. There was a look of confusion on her face.
“Cynthia, what are you doing?”
Cynthia rubbed the tears off her cheeks with her free hand. She loaded the gun. “I don’t want to have to do this!” she yelled.
“Then don’t do it!” Death retorted frantically. “Why can’t you just cooperate?”
Cynthia shook her head. “I can’t. I can’t die. I’m not ready.”
“Please Cynthia.” Tears welled up in Death’s eyes. “Please don’t shoot me,” she begged.
This was wrong a voice in her head whispered, but it was drowned out among the others, the
thousands, millions, all of them screaming at her. I want to live! I don’t want to die! Please don’t let me die. Not now! Not yet. She clenched the handle of the gun. “Tell me it’s a lie,” she said, “That you’re not really Death. Please just tell me this isn’t happening. How could this be happening?”
Death looked at Cynthia painfully like she was being ripped apart. “I can’t change who I am.” She sobbed.
Cynthia regretted her decision even as she pulled the trigger, but by then it was too late. The girl
mouthed “wait” before crumpling to the floor – shattering the plate in her hands. Her blood was
spattered over the window and gushed out of her skull into her red hair.
Cynthia found herself screaming. Death? She had murdered a little girl. There was her body lying in a huddled mass, silent still like the voices in her head. Where were they now? Deadened by the sound of gunfire as it echoed through the bedroom; as it still rang in her ears. “Wait” she had said.
“Oh God.” Cynthia couldn’t make it to a bathroom. She threw up on the carpet. The smell of spoilt milk, blood and urine had saturated the hotel room. She threw up again. “Oh God, what the hell have I done?” Something was clawing at her chest and pulling it inward. She felt like she was imploding. Over and over Cynthia gasped for breath, trying to fill her lungs with air, but it was as though she could no longer pull the oxygen from it. Air had no substance anymore. She was drowning in it. “I can’t, I can’t WHAT THE FUCK? What did I do?” People must have heard it. “Oh God please, I don’t know why? What the fuck?” What do I tell them? I just..
“I - I’m sorry” I didn’t want to die. No one would believe her. She was drunk and she had murdered an unarmed child. There was no danger out there in the world of facts. It was only in her mind that terror had revealed itself. How could her parents, her sister, anyone live with her after this? How could she live with herself? What could love her now? The room was
spinning, black hazy lines began to appear in the corners of her eyes. She would lose her job. They would imprison her for life. “Wait” she had said. Cynthia felt pain. More pain then she had ever felt in her entire life. Pain upon pain as though every atom in her being was ripping itself apart trying to escape her form. Her abhorred existence. “I can’t believe I...” There was knocking on the door. “This is the Chicago PD, we need you to open this door. Hello Ma’am, we need you to open this door right now.” Cynthia could not hear them. There was nothing to be heard now. Nothing to be seen or felt. Her life was over.
On page 334 of a school notebook with far too many pages, ten from the bottom reads:
Cynthia Eleanor Collins 7/20/2014 19:55 Uncooperative
by Sameer Belgaumi