Carissa first sees Death at the Panhellenic Graffiti mixer where he is circled by the guys from Sigma Rho. They can’t seem to help crowding him even though they clearly don’t want to be near him. She has gone with several of the Sig-Rho boys. All of them have. But she has never gone with anyone like Death before.
Death is wearing a black track jacket, with a black t-shirt on beneath and faded black jeans. Carissa, like all the other girls, is wearing a pink cashmere sweater with the letters Pi Delta Zeta embroidered in darker pink and a white cotton tank top. She is also carrying a marker. The boys from Sig-Rho have already begun to make use of the marker to write things around her breasts and stomach and neck, things like Sig-Rho 4Evr and Love your body and Kevin likes it with mittens on.
The guy with the black t-shirt and black jeans doesn’t call himself Death though. This is what he says:
“Hi,” says Death. “My name is David.”
“Hi,” says Carissa. She wants to say more but Logan Frees has grabbed her in a big, meaty, underarm embrace so that he can write Occupy my crotch on the small of her back, except he is drunk so it comes out as Occupy my crouch, which doesn’t make any sense.
It is only later that Marelaine points him out to her.
“There,” says Marelaine. “On the couch. That’s Death.”
“Oh,” says Carissa. “He said his name was David. How do you know that’s really Death?”
“Death is like a movie star: he can’t just tell you his real name. He has to go incognito. But you can tell anyway.” Marelaine punctuates this with a sniff. Marelaine is the former Miss Texas Polestar. Her talents include trick-shooting, world change through bake sales, and getting what she wants. She has mastered the sniff. She has also mastered the pony-tail flip, the high gloss lipstick pout, and the cross-body cleavage thrust. Only Sydney, from the third floor, has a better cross-body cleave thrust.
Carissa is concentrating on the pitch and execution of Marelaine’s sniff. She misses what she is saying.
“What?” asks Carissa.
“You know, when that Phi Lamb girl died last term. Staci. Or Traci. Or Christy. Whatever. He was there. When you’ve seen him once, you always recognize him. He’s Death.”
“I think he’s kind of cute,” says Carissa.
“If you like that type,” says Marelaine. This time, her sniff is deadly.
Death’s face is smooth and white as marble. His eyes are the colour of pigeon feathers. His smile has many teeth to it and some of them are baby teeth, which are less frightening, and some of them are shark’s teeth, which are more frightening.
This is what Death looks like, except Death looks nothing like this at all.
His hair is cowlicked, brown with flecks of gold at the temples. His chin has a stylishly faint shadow of stubble. His cheeks curve into dimples when he smiles, which he does often, and it is not frightening at all.
Marelaine is watching as Carissa approaches Death, and Carissa knows that Marelaine is watching. She wonders if she should attempt the three-ounce vodka flounce or try for something more subtle. She has an apple-flavoured cooler beading droplets of water in one hand. She taps Death on the shoulder with the other.
“Have we met?” asks Carissa.
“Not the way you mean,” says Death. He is smiling at her with that dimpled smile. “I don’t come out to these things very much.”
“Why is that?” asks Carissa.
“People make me nervous,” Death answers. “I’m only here for work.” He laughs at this, and his laughter is not what she expects it to be. It is cool and soft. It has the texture of velvet. It is intelligent laughter, and Carissa feels charmed by it, by its simplicity, its brevity, the way it sounds nothing like church gates yawning, the way it doesn’t smack of eternity. She decides she likes talking to someone as famous as Death.
“That’s a pity,” says Carissa, and her fingers brush her pink cashmere sweater, pulling it tighter around her breasts. “Would you like to give it a go?” She hands him the marker.
“What do you want me to write?”
“Write me a magic word,” says Carissa.
Death’s writing is easy and graceful. There are many loops to it. He chooses a place somewhere near her left shoulder blade, and when he bends over to do it Carissa can feel the warmth of him, even though his skin is so white it is bloodless. He writes, Abracadabra first, and then Open up and then I know you’re in there and signs it with a D.
Carissa smiles at him.
Later they play Spin the Bottle and every time Death sends the vodka twenty-sixer whirling it points at Carissa. Carissa wonders if she should try the closed-mouth kiss, the single-lip kiss or the tongue-flick kiss. She knows she is best at the tongue-flick kiss, or at least that is what she has been told by the Sig-Rho boys. She tries the tongue-flick kiss but finds, unexpectedly, that she has transitioned first into a bottom-lip nibble and next into the deeper and more complex one-inch tongue glide.
At the end, Carissa smiles at Death, and Death smiles back at Carissa.
“Don’t eat the lemon squares,” he whispers with a wink. And then he carefully writes his number on the hem of her tank top.
Carissa thinks Marelaine would be proud of her for this, but then, reconsidering, thinks she probably wouldn’t be after all. Soon she stops thinking about Marelaine, and instead thinks about the feel of Death’s teeth, both the smoothed, tiny pearls and the sharp, jagged ones.
Carissa waits a week after Sydney’s funeral before she gets up the nerve to call.
Death takes Carissa to a fancy restaurant, somewhere where they serve French food and French wine and all the entrees have French names that she can’t pronounce. Death has a certain celebrity status, and they are shown to the table immediately.
At one point one of the other diners comes to their table. Carissa is eating the poulet à la provençale, which is delicious, and Death is most of the way through his filet de boeuf sauce au poivre.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” The man is sweating. Damp patches have bloomed at his armpits.
“Yes,” says Death.
“I bet you don’t remember, but you were there when my wife died.” The man pauses. “I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you so much. She was in such pain.” He plucks at his mustache nervously. “Could I get an autograph?”
Death is gracious. He signs the napkin in large, looping letters.
“Thank you,” the man says. “Thank you for taking such good care of her.”
Afterwards, Death walks Carissa back to the house, and they laugh about it. “Does that really happen all the time?”
“All the time,” Death says, and he slips his arm around her.
Carissa wonders what Death’s Johnson will look like. Does Death have a Johnson? Will he put it inside her, and what will happen when he does? Does Death have a mother? Does he call her on Sundays and on her birthday, or is he too busy with being famous and being Death to remember the people who were there before he was Death?
As it turns out Death does have a Johnson after all.
He is a gentle lover unlike the many lovers Carissa has had in the past, most of whom tasted of stale beer; most of whom smelled like old socks. But Death is sweet and attentive and polite.
He brings her flowers first. These flowers are not ironic. They are not lilies. They are not roses with petals dyed to black velvet. They are not grave myrtle, cut-finger, vervain, deadnettle or sorcerer’s violets. They are not death camus or flower-of-death. Death hates irony.
Instead, Death brings her a bouquet of yellow and deep orange celandines, which he says are named after the Greek word for swallow, and will bring her pleasant dreams.
Marelaine and the other Pi Delta Zeta girls are jealous of the flowers, and they slip into Carissa’s room when she has gone to class and cut away some of the blossoms for themselves. In the morning at the breakfast table they talk in hushed whispers about their dreams.
They dream of Death, but the death they dream of is the death of sorority girls: they dream of killers with long, hooked knives and fraying ski masks; they dream of sizzling in superhot tanning beds; they dream endless shower scenes in which they discover their names written in fogged mirrors and their blood on the white porcelain tiling.
But when Carissa breathes in the blossoms, she dreams about Knick-knack, the shepherd mutt she got when she was eight. Knick-knack who waited patiently for her to come home for Christmas break before he collapsed that first evening home on her bedroom carpet unable to move his legs, waiting noiseless, not a whimper, until she woke up and held him. Carissa dreams that Knick-knack is a puppy, and she holds his velveteen muzzle close to her cheek while his tail ricochets back and forth like a live wire. She dreams about him nuzzling her under the blankets with his cold, wet nose.
Their wedding is the September following graduation, and it is a surprise to everyone.
“You’re so young,” her mother coos.
“Will he be able to support you?” her father demands.
Carissa sends out invitations to all the girls from Pi Delta Zeta: You are cordially invited to witness the union of Carissa and Death. They have not included last names because Death does not have a last name. All the girls send their RSVPs immediately. Marelaine is her maid of honour.
It is a celebrity wedding. Carissa wears a beautiful wedding dress with a chapel train and the bridesmaids wear taffeta. Death wears black.
Carissa and Death have decided on a simple double-lip graze and peck kiss for the ceremony because Carissa’s parents are both religious. Even though it is not entirely proper she ends up halfway into a tongue glide anyway, but she remembers where she is and what she is doing. When they pull away from each other, they are both a bit embarrassed, but nevertheless they smile as if they have both gotten away with something.
Later, as they are standing in the receiving line, Death introduces his brother, Dennis. Death has never mentioned that he has a brother, and so there is some initial awkwardness, but Carissa is a Pi Delta Zeta and so she is good at recovering. She takes his hand, and it is warm and slightly damp. There are fine golden hairs on his fingers, and he has long eyelashes. He looks the way that Death sometimes looks when he is not being Death.
“I’m so pleased to meet you, Dennis,” Carissa says. “Death talks about you all the time.” Carissa wonders why he doesn’t.
Dennis smiles, and he has the same dimples that Death has. He holds her hand for too long. She lets go first.
“Welcome to the family,” he says.
Later, after the cake has been cut, Marelaine pulls Carissa aside.
“Who’s he?” she asks. She is pointing at Dennis, who is trying to teach her mother how to foxtrot.
“That’s Dennis,” Carissa says. “Death’s brother.”
“Oh,” says Marelaine. “He’s quite a looker, isn’t he? I mean, he’s not Death. But.”
In a year, she receives an invitation that says You are cordially invited to the union of Marelaine and Dennis. She wonders if she should RSVP.
They lived happily ever after.
When Death dies it is very sudden.
Neither of them planned for this, and so Carissa is caught off-guard when she hears the news. She thought they would have more time. She thought she would die first, and Death would be there for it, to help her through.
At the funeral Carissa wears black. Death is also wearing black. Death is lying in a coffin, and make-up has been applied to his skin to give it a deep, bronze tan that makes him into a stranger.
Carissa secretly hopes that Death will attend the funeral, and she is disappointed when he does not. She wants to see him one last time.
Marelaine hosts the post-funeral reception. At first Carissa thinks she has gotten fat, but then Carissa realizes she has gotten pregnant. Dennis is there as well. He pats her hand, and he fetches her cocktail shrimp, which Carissa doesn’t even like.
“How are you holding up?” Dennis asks. He smiles, and his cheeks are still dimpled.
“Don’t ask her that,” says Marelaine. “How do you think she’s holding up? Just look at her.”
Carissa finds herself thinking that Death must have been so mindlessly bored if this was what he did all day at work.
Carissa is lonely.
She tries Ouija boards, but she can never get anyone on the other line.
Sometimes Dennis comes over.
At first he is purely solicitous. He brings over frozen lasagnas that Marelaine has prepared meticulously. He brings over casseroles. He brings over pies. And then he collects the baking pans, and the casserole dishes, and the pie plates, only so that he and Marelaine can fill them all over again.
After the first month Carissa wonders if she is pregnant, but then she realizes she is only getting fat.
One time when Dennis comes over, his hand accidentally grazes against her ass as he washes a two-quart dish that previously contained a tuna casserole.
“Oops,” he says, smiling. His hands are dripping water and soap onto the kitchen floor. Carissa doesn’t say anything.
The next time he comes over, he brings a bottle of cabernet sauvignon along with a black cherry pie that Marelaine just baked this morning. She has crisscrossed the top with strips of dough with scalloped edges the way that pies always look when they are on television.
“How are you getting on today?” Dennis asks, and his voice sounds to Carissa like a famous person’s voice. It is smooth and cool and easy to listen to, but it is not Death’s voice.
“I’m fine,” she says, and she takes a sip of her wine. It tastes better than the pie. “I’m fine,” she says again.
They finish the bottle of wine quickly. Carissa suggests that they play Ouija because there are two of them, and Dennis agrees. Carissa has lost the pointer so they use an ace of hearts instead, and it circles and circles and circles but it only ever stops on the picture of the crescent moon. Dennis suggests that they play Spin the Bottle, and Carissa feels like it’s only polite so she agrees.
The bottle spins and spins and spins, but there are only the two of them so no matter where it ends up pointing, she still has to kiss Dennis. His teeth are entirely smooth.
Carissa wakes in the middle of the night, and Dennis is still beside her. The sheets are all askew and somehow she has ended up on the wrong side of the bed. From this side, the bedroom seems strange, like it could be another place. Like she could be another person sleeping in it.
Dennis is beautiful. She cannot tell whether his hair is blond or grey in the moonlight, and so she decides that it must be both at the same time. She decides she likes to look at him while he is sleeping.
She takes the marker from the bedside table and she writes on Dennis’ perfect, moon-white skin.
Abracadabra, she writes.
Open up, she writes.
I know you’re in there.
“Did he tell you he was going to die?” asks Carissa.
“I never asked him,” Dennis answers. “We didn’t talk that much. He was Death.”
Carissa is quiet for a while.
“Do you want to run away with me?” Carissa asks.
“Yes,” says Dennis.
Dennis decides that they must tell Marelaine in person. Carissa wonders if she is nervous, but she decides that, in the end, she isn’t. But when Dennis opens the door, Death is sitting at the table with Marelaine.
“Darling,” says Dennis.
“I knew it,” says Marelaine. “And with her too. I knew it would be with her.”
“No,” says Dennis. “It’s not like that. We’re in love.”
“We’re not in love,” says Carissa. “I don’t love you.”
They both look at her.
“I knew it,” says Marelaine once more, and she rushes out of the room. Dennis follows after her. Carissa wonders if she is supposed to go as well, but decides that she probably shouldn’t. Sometimes it seems as if real life is exactly like sorority life.
“Why didn’t you ever come to see me?” asks Carissa.
“That’s not how it works,” Death says at last. “I’m Death. I couldn’t be David forever.”
“I’ve missed you,” says Carissa.
Death says nothing. He is still handsome, although Carissa can see the glint of a few threads of silver near his temples. He looks older. He looks tired. She wonders what she must look like to him.
“What are you doing here?” Carissa asks at last.
“Triple homicide,” says Death.
BANG goes Marelaine’s gun somewhere upstairs. And BANG again. There is a sound as bodies hit the floor.
“Oh,” says Carissa. She considers this. “Oh.”
They sit together in silence, and, for the first time since the funeral, Carissa feels happy again. She decides that Death does not look that old. He looks good. Death is supposed to have some grey to him. It makes him look distinguished.
“That was only two gunshots,” she says.
“I know,” Death says. After a moment, he says, “It was arsenic in the pies. You know. Marelaine always was such a bitch.” He pauses, and pours a glass of wine for her. “I think we’ll both have to wait for a bit.”
“It’s good to see you,” Carissa says.
“I’ve been waiting for such a long time,” says Death. “I’ve brought you flowers.” He removes a single, yellow celandine blossom from his jacket pocket. Carissa smiles. She takes it from him gently, afraid to crush the petals. Their fingers touch, and his hand is warm, familiar.
“Where are we going?” she asks.
“You’ll see,” Death says. “Don’t worry, Darling. We’ll go together.”
She breathes in the scent.
When she dreams it is of Death, and she is happy.
This tale will appear in Helen’s second short story collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, due out this September from ChiZine Publications. —RR
Story copyright © 2014 by Helen Marshall
Artwork copyright © 2014 by Alfred Klosterman
Helen Marshall is an award-winning Canadian author, editor, and doctor of medieval studies. Her debut collection of short stories, Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine Publications, 2012), was named one of the top ten books of 2012 by January Magazine and was short-listed for an Aurora Award. It won the 2013 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer.
Alfred Klosterman (artwork) lives in Philadelphia and has long worked as a graphic artist for printing firms. He’s read and collected fantasy and science fiction most of his life. He has contributed artwork to many genre small press publications for many years. These include Cemetery Dance, The Horror Show, Eldritch Tales, Space & Time, and Dark Horizons. He’s devoted to black & white work, inspired by the many fine illustrators he’s enjoyed in vintage magazines.