She caught my eye the moment she was born. Rosalie Matthews was a tiny baby, barely the length of her father’s forearm.
I think many in the room expected that I had come for her. I could feel the determination woven into the air, it was palpable. They were fighting hard to keep Rosalie breathing, to keep her living, to keep her away from me.
So many humans have the misconception that I'm cruel. It is true that I am inescapable but I’m not bad nor good. I’m just something that happens to everyone. I’m not malicious in the way I come for some earlier than others; I appear only when it’s the right time.
Besides, the nurses shouldn’t have worried, I was not there for Rosalie. It was her mother, Sarah, that I had come for. Sarah was a very stubborn soul. Even until the last seconds, she was clinging to the final wisps of her life, grasping at the smoke even as it floated further and further away.
Her life, melting in the distance before her eyes, was rose pink, tinged with the cobalt blue of regret. It smelled like the sheltered coffee shop she had first met Rosalie’s father, her husband. The vanilla frosting they had smeared on each other’s face at their wedding. The mugs of hot chocolate they had shared every week over their tiny wooden table, discussing their glowing future with their baby girl.
Please. I want to grow up with her. My Rosalie. Sarah was begging me.
I waited patiently, coaxing her with tender words. Most young mothers were unaccepting of their fate, I was used to it by now. It always took a little time.
I spent that time watching Rosalie. Curiously enough, she was not crying. Instead, she was staring straight into me, but I was certain that she could not see anything except the white walls behind me.
Still, I gave a small wave.
The corners of her lips tilted up in an endearingly crooked smile, it was probably coincidence. But I knew instantly that hers would be one I remembered among the countless of faces I saw each day. She would be the one who looked at Death straight in the face and smiled. I chuckled softly before tearing my eyes away from Rosalie’s beautiful grey ones.
Sarah had lost her energy to keep fighting. By now, the nurses and doctors had noticed. The life of baby Rosalie was momentarily forgotten and it was now Sarah’s they were trying to save.
It was too late though, I could feel it. She was so close to me.
I reached out my fingertips to Sarah and she sighed, placing her cold hands in mine. She glanced wistfully at a now sleeping Rosalie. Sarah’s eyes were full of regret and the years of memories she would be losing with her daughter.
I looked with her, memorizing this peculiar human. The faint freckles sprinkled across her white, porcelain skin. The long, dark lashes framing her closed eyelids. The barest trace of chocolate curls on her head. Even I could appreciate Rosalie’s innocent, enrapturing beauty.
I was intrigued but I had a job to do. With Sarah Matthews’ hand in mine, I glided out soundlessly of the hospital room as the heart monitor changed from a rhythmical beeping to a piercing, flat sound and the sobs began to puncture the air.
I happened on the a second encounter with Rosalie when she was five years old.
It was her grandfather this time. His life was the ashy brown of content; it smelled like the comforting curls of cigarette smoke after a long day of work.
This one was an easy soul, he took my hand even before I had offered it to him. The older ones are wiser, they know that I am not one to fear and only someone to accept.
But I admit, I was more focused on the skinny doe-eyed girl standing beside the deathbed, staring contemplatively at her grandfather’s peacefully dying body.
“Bye-bye, Grandpa.” her voice was soft, almost musical.
It surprised me that Rosalie understood what happened to her grandfather. That she understood me. She was much wiser than her five years, maybe it was growing up without maternal love that did this to her. I wondered if she resented me for taking her mother away from her.
It was strictly against my rules to pay close attention to one particular human. They were supposed to be just a part of my job, nothing of true significance.
But Rosalie was someone I held an interest in. Perhaps the memory of her slight smile that compelled me to stay.
I crept closer to her, still holding the hand of the old man. Against my own conscience, if I even had one, I held out my fingers to touch her face. Her skin was warm, full of life. The contrast of her skin against my transparency was startling. I shuddered, feeling some of her heat seep into me.
The feeling was strange, unprecedented. It felt...nice. The warmth stirred something deep in my chest.
Rosalie shivered slightly before looking around, confusion was clear in her eyes. I longed to know what I felt like to her.
My own innocent curiosity was growing dangerously into something more.
Before, I had prided myself in remaining callously neutral in the work I did. When humans died, I went and collected their souls. I guided them to where they were supposed to go.
I was not wicked in the way I did my job. I was patient, giving them all the time they needed to accept me. Yet, I never let any of them go. I didn’t show mercy. And once I did what I needed to do, I left them.
With Rosalie, the strict routine I had created crumbled down. The indifferent view I had always held towards humans vanished. Never before had such a small, trivial soul captured my attention and emotions in this way.
I wondered how she could have such a powerful hold on me. I knew that she was different from the others yet, why? I could not decipher my own mind.
It was pure curiosity that had driven me to pay closer attention to her but now...now, it was something else.
It wasn’t love, no. It couldn’t be love. Death wasn’t capable of love.
But I could not deny it.
She was riveting.
Rosalie was ten years old and she was walking home from school. It was a short walk and I allowed myself the pleasure of spending those few minutes with her.
I was her friend, her companion even when she thought she was alone.
Her footsteps were loud, crunching each leaf on the concrete. They was light, the way that all footsteps of ten year olds are. I stood next to her on the sidewalk.
The grey ground was littered with October’s colors: Yellow, orange, red, brown.
I was silent as I always was, watching her.
She stopped mid-crunch, her foot held high in the air. Then, the pattern she had followed for the past few minutes (Lift the foot high, slam it on the ground, crunch goes the leaves) was broken. Her foot was lowered onto the ground soundlessly. Something had changed.
Suddenly, she knelt on the ground without another word. Her eyes were a tempest of swirling emotions that I could not understand.
What is it? I wanted to ask her.
Rosalie held something in her trembling hands.
It was a small bird. It wasn’t dead, not yet. But I could tell that its wings were broken, contorted at an awkward angle. Maybe its time was soon but it was difficult to distinguish. Animals have less soul than humans.
Her hands, cupped together, were barely big enough even to hold the tiny bird.
She carried it all the way back to her house. Her fingers never stopped shaking.
Were all ten year olds capable of such care? Such love?
Maybe all humans were much more enchanting than I gave them credit for.
Rosalie was thirteen when I came for her father.
It was a cold December day, maybe a week before Christmas. I remember it was snowing outside. Her father’s dark hair was dotted with pure white snowflakes that still hadn’t completely melted in the warmth of the ambulance.
Even though I knew that it would have had to happen, my hand was weighed down with sorrow when I offered it to him as a certain stormy eyed girl flashed in my mind.
The impact of the car should have been quick, painless. If he had just accepted it, it would have been over soon.
But he put up a good fight. He grappled at the last tendrils of his life, determined to resist me, determined to outlast the inevitable.
His rapidly dwindling life was a deep crimson of the time lost with his precious Rosalie. It smelled of the cinnamon candles she kept burning around the house during the winter, the rich mug of coffee he drank every morning while she enjoyed a cup of milk, the Saturday morning blueberry pancakes that had become a tradition.
I can’t leave her alone. Not now, it’s too soon. I could feel his thoughts, his soul gravitate towards her even through all the pain.
My heart was heavy when he finally succumbed to me. In the depths of my mind, maybe I had hoped that I was wrong this time. I didn’t want Rosalie to be alone. But he took my hand and clenched it like a lifeline and so I held solace in knowing that the pain was gone once he touched me.
I was gentle with him, holding his hand which was still warm but quickly becoming frigid, tightly in my grasp. He followed me easily enough, he knew when it was time to give up.
Rosalie’s father exhaled one last time in the ambulance, through the wailing sirens and desperate commands of the paramedics.
If I remember correctly, although my hearing may be flawed, his last breath formed the name of his cherished daughter.
It was three years later when Rosalie started to think of me, reaching into the darkest depths of her mind.
She was alone, she didn’t have anyone.
I listened to her quiet confessions when no one else did.
By now, her warmth was gone. It was replaced with the harsh, jagged cold such loss could bring to a small girl like her.
Hold on a little longer. I wanted to comfort her but all I could do was stand by and watch.
And so I watched as she went through her days with a veil of hopelessness covering her eyes, dimming the light.
Her eyes were hollow, vacant. They were more black than grey.
They used to remind me of vivid stormclouds, brimming with lightning bolts and life. Now, they reminded me only of dull emptiness, of everything she was lacking.
Her father’s death had done this to her. It had sent her spiraling into the darkness, it had made her feel so, unbearably alone.
I had done this to her. I had thought that I was not bad nor good because I only did my job, I only did what I was supposed to.
But no...I ruined humans. I was not cruel. I was not wicked. I was not malicious.
But I was devastating. How could I not be bad when I caused this much pain?
I was faced with this simple question as I watched Rosalie drag herself through life in slow motion, like she was moving underwater.
She no longer smiled the small, crooked smile that had captured my attention since her beginning.
Rosalie spent her nights in the company of only pillows wet with her salty tears and the memories reminding her of what she had lost.
The memories were the worst, from what I could tell. They clawed at her bleak heart, tormenting her with everything she did not possess anymore.
The memories were what the dreams are derived from. They were not nightmares. They were recreations of her time spent with her father, before I took him. There were many times when I witnessed as she woke up, disoriented, before the realization that she was alone hit her again, ten times more painful than before.
The dreams were tantalizing what-ifs.
What if he hadn’t ventured out to the pharmacy to buy Rosalie cough medicine? What if it hadn’t been snowing that day and the car hadn’t skidded on ice? What if…?
Sometimes, it gets too painful to watch her.
And so I leave.
A year later I watched, stricken in place with horror, as Rosalie grasped in her trembling hands an orange bottle of pure-white pills with as much care as she had held a broken winged bird all those years ago.
I reached out my own shaking fingers to trace the tears that were steadily streaming down her cheeks. I knew she couldn’t feel me. It had been long, too long, before she had felt any real contact.
Her eyes were strangely glassy, devoid of life. Her skin was no longer vibrant and warm, it was so pale it almost resembled my own.
Throwing her head back so that the her dark messy hair formed a waterfall down her back, she tipped the contents of the orange bottle into her mouth.
She swallowed without hesitation although the tears didn’t stop. This was what she wanted.
It was too soon before I could feel her soul. She was so close to me, the closest she had ever been. Without meaning to, I relished the feeling of her so tangible at last.
Rosalie closed her eyes, swaying on her feet before crumpling on the ground next to me.
I crouched down, stroking her hair. I held her in my arms. She was convulsing and I could see her life slowly fading away. The remnants of her existence, her memories were beginning to dissolve in delicate threads, vanishing into the air.
It was a foggy dark grey, the color of her eyes. There were streaks of black, the loss and pain she had endured in her short life. It smelled of her father’s morning aftershave, the soothing scent of her bedsheets, the pungent grass of her lazy childhood summers, her mother’s famous apple cinnamon pie that she had tried to recreate so many times.
Rosalie started to relax and I knew that the time was close. Would she be with me after this? Would her suffering be over soon?
I felt something dripping down my cheeks as I gazed at her memories, the scents of her childhood disintegrating before my eyes.
I tasted salt. Huh. I didn’t know that I could cry. I guess even Death could feel.
But how truly horrible these feelings were... how could humans endure it? How could they be so brave to cope with such loss, such pain?
How could they be so brave to cope with me?
Right then, Rosalie’s body twitched in my arms.
Was she still alive? Impossible. She was so close to me it couldn’t have been.
Yet...I watched as Rosalie’s eyes fluttered open. Her eyes were glazed but they were open.
“No...no...no…” Rosalie gasped out the words, “I won’t let you take me. You took Mom. You took Dad. But not me. I won’t let that happen.” her voice was so quiet.
I knew she couldn’t see me but with a jolt of shock, I realized she was talking directly to me. She was talking to me without knowing I was there.
And she wasn’t going to give up.
I should have expected it, considering how much both her mother and father had resisted. But something was different. This time, I was hoping that Rosalie would win this fight against me. She deserved it.
Rosalie pushed herself out of my arms, I let her go, and reached into her pocket, pulling out a phone.
She dialed the familiar three digits, her fingers were shaking uncontrollably.
“Hello? Please help me. I took too many pills. I need help.” Rosalie cried into her phone, her voice was too weak.
She didn’t have a lot of time.
“Yes. You know my address. Thank you. Please hurry. I don’t want to die.” Rosalie whispered, “I don’t want to die.”
Rosalie was ninety two years old when I finally saw her for the right reason. She was finally happy and accepting of me. Unlike her parents, she had led a satisfying, content life.
Now, she was ready.
She gripped my hand tightly, “Is it really as painless as they all say?” she peered into my eyes for the first time.
I looked into her grey eyes, reflecting all of her wisdom, and the new wrinkles that had appeared on her face.
She didn’t realize, but I had known her for a very, very long time.
I nodded silently and she followed me with no hesitation.
Her hand was warm and my heart trembled as I realized this would be the last time I would ever see beautiful, tender Rosalie.
I held onto the tips of her fingers before it was time to let her go because you see, I realized something: even Death can love.
And Death did love.
He loved a girl named Rosalie Matthews.
Dang. This is a seriously good story.
This is a VERY good story! I loved it.