Nobody seems to like my fiction very much — “unfortunate” and “strange” are the words that I’ve most often heard describe it. I don’t say this to sulk or to complain, and I don’t mean to imply that my non-fiction posts are especially well-received either. I’m just relating the reactions as they’ve come in.

Undeterred as I am by constructive feedback, I have nevertheless continued to publish the occasional work of short fiction. The last short story that I published was posted here on this very blog (that link also has links to the other short fiction I’ve published on the web).

Therefore, I present this latest story of mine, if not for your enjoyment, then at least to satisfy your morbid curiosity. It is entitled:

Death between Friends

I’ll never forget the night that Death came to me. His teeth were awful. They were rotting out of his skull. I squared off with him, clasped his shoulders, and I looked him straight in the eyes. “Death, my good man,” I said. “This job will be the end of you. You mustn’t always be breaking your back for everybody else’s sake. Give yourself a rest, already. Take some time off. It’s OK to look after yourself once in a while, you know.” He turned around, and he left as suddenly as he came.

I like to think that we reached an understanding, Death and I. But it’s difficult to talk about, because it seems that nobody will believe me.

Still, it’s not as though I haven’t tried. Years ago, Charles came to visit. One evening before bed we retired to the library to talk about life over a cigar and some brandy. Emboldened as I was by the slight haze of strong drink, it seemed a perfectly natural opportunity to broach the topic. After all, I’d known him since childhood.

“Charles,” I said, “People are dropping off like flies, you know.”

Charles looked up from where he sat on the sofa and drew his cigar from his mouth. “You don’t say. Is there a plague?” he asked.

“No, no, no, Charles. I mean in general. People in general. They die at an alarming rate.”

“It’s always just one death per person, old chap,” reassured Charles. “I don’t see anything very alarming about that.”

“Oh, goodness, Charles,” I responded in exasperation. “I don’t mean rate as in deaths per person. I mean over time. Deaths per week. Deaths per day. Deaths per hour. Deaths per minute. It’s a constant flow. One wonders if our increased life span is simply the result of the fact that Death can’t keep up.”

“Can’t keep up with what?” asked Charles.

“All the death, of course.”

Charles squinted as he sniffed his brandy. “I think that perhaps it’s all the births that are putting him behind,” mused Charles, before he took a small sip.

I arose from my armchair and began pacing back and forth. “Well you can call it birth if you’re looking for root causes, if you’re concerned with the long-term. I’m talking about the here-and-now, Charlie. The already living.” I took a few puffs of my cigar, stopped pacing for a moment, turned toward Charles, and took the plunge: “Did I tell you about the time I saw Death?”

“Pah!” Charles exclaimed. “A fine time to tell me, now that you’ve already met him. You might have told me beforehand. If you’re going to have a congress with Death, I should like to know about it.”

“Why? What business could you possibly have with Death?”

“I wrote him a letter, but I haven’t the faintest idea how to get it to him. I think it’s quite a good one, too.”

“A letter?” I asked.

“Yes. That’s what I said. A letter,” Charles responded, leaning forward to tap the ashes off his cigar into the large crystal ashtray that sat atop the coffee table.

“To whom?”

“Why, to Death, of course. I wrote a letter to Death.” And he sat back and resumed sipping on his brandy.

“When?”

“I’m not sure why that matters, but if you must know,” Charles started, before he stopped to clear his throat. “It was several years ago,” he resumed. “Just before Agatha was born.”

“What does it say?” I asked.

“It’s difficult to explain. I’ll have to show it to you sometime. Anyway, you were saying about the time that you saw Death. How was he?”

“He was in terrible straits, Charles. He looked perfectly awful. Ghastly, I tell you. Death looked quite ghastly,” I said as I resumed pacing.

“Must be all the births, I suppose,” said Charles, rolling his brandy beneath his nose to sniff at it once again.

I stopped pacing at the end of the room, turned to face Charles, and leaned my elbow on the mantle by the clock. “That’s exactly the point, Charles. He’s got to be terribly overworked. And when I saw Death standing there, looking so pathetic and in such dire need of basic dental work — well you know what I did, don’t you?”

“I think I can guess, my friend. You and I, we are men of action!” declared Charles.

“Quite right,” I agreed.

“So you took the bull by the horns, and you told it to Death just as he needed telling,” said Charles, waving his cigar in the air.

“Yes, indeed. That’s exactly what I did. And do you know what happened?”

“I don’t.”

“He went away,” I said.

“Went away?” Charles looked up. “You don’t say?”

“Yes. I do. He went away,” I reiterated.

“You don’t suppose he’ll be coming back, do you?” asked Charles.

“That’s just the thing, my dear boy. I don’t think that he will be. I find myself to be surprisingly certain that he plans never to come for me again.”

“Remarkable!” mused Charles. “Do you think you could call him, or somehow intimate to him that you’d like to see him again?”

“Why on Earth would I want to do that?” I implored.

“Well, there’s the matter of my letter, you know. You’d do me quite a favor to deliver it.”

“Charles, are you listening to me?”

“Of course I’m listening to you. You’ve seen Death, and you’re afraid you’ll never see him again.”

“Yes. Quite right,” I responded.

“Do you miss him?” he asked.

“Well, no. It’s not like I was friends with him. I mean, it’s not like you and me.”

“You’re not going to take out a life insurance policy on me, are you?” Charles asked thoughtfully, rubbing his chin.

“Heavens, no. Why would I do that?”

“Just checking,” responded Charles, drinking the last sip of his brandy. He arose to say goodnight. “I suppose it’s time I went to bed, old friend. Let me know if you have any insights on my letter.”

“Of course I will, Charles. Goodnight.”

I walked over to the cabinet to retrieve the brandy decanter. I refilled my brandy, and reflected on the conversation.

It occurred to me that our discussion, despite all the posing and the joshing and the posturing that went on, had some kernel of earnestness. But we both seem to have allowed the other to conclude that neither of us was serious. And if we were wrong, if Charles and I were both serious, then we lacked the courage to clarify this — either because we simply couldn’t bear to subject the reality of it to the each other’s scrutiny, or because we both feared losing some standing in the other’s eyes. “Poor dear Charles,” I thought as I began to realize this. “How on Earth could my closest friend worry about losing standing in my eyes.” And I got up and went to bed.

I never did deliver Charles’ letter. In fact, I never saw it. The topic of letters to or meetings with Death never arose again between him and me. And I never broached the topic with anyone else.