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Death was late again for lunch. Or, it had already happened for him. Skipping as he did along time like it was an elastic band stretching and contracting to his amused will. He laughed at the linear chains, the straight lines, the inability to flow backwards, and the constant of decomposition.
When death arrives it is without hesitation or hurriedness, always at the proper moment, the proper frequency. Sea and air, fire and ice. The bloodied dirt, the soft sheets, the chill wind and the warm heart. The one constant. The only audience that could understand and grasp the waiting hand to take the rested soul along the final road.
He remained on one side when he led them through the gate, the veil taking them, because there was always more, a ceaseless tide of mortality. Looked upon with fear. Cloaked, a myth, the bony hands, a touch and drift from the corporeal life. Conjured as the reaper. He was natural, what all discovered before the end. A vast cycle, countless billions preceding and proceeding. Death attended to all.
Except for Richard who waited in a cramped coffee shop deep in the sprawl of a young city.
Death was a trickster, a joker, a friend, a god, the opposite, the outsider, the face that was forever turned away until the moment it chose to reveal itself. The blinding light. Death was there amongst loved ones, in the lonely dark. The witness to each and all. Death understood comfort. Understood the caring hand and firm embrace.
Except for Richard who studied his uneaten club sandwich and the half-full glass of water next to it, the condensation at the mercy of the room. Droplets of water, barely perceptible, unknown and uncared for. The natural order, slow decay, march on without pause, crash through each resistant force. The universe only knows one direction.
"Look at this, lamenting over moisture. It doesn’t care for me, I shouldn’t care for it. Where’s that man? He forgot. Maybe he’s not as smart as he thinks. Just ticks off a list. Can’t be that hard now, could it?" The musings continued.
Dark side was it? Brought about in a haze. Stink of oil and salt. Had seconds, deadly concoction. Heart attack should hit one of these patrons. Death will have to come then. Only if they don’t last until the hospital. Don’t say that. They’ll be fine. Out of it. The food’s just going to sit there. Well, of course.
Richard took a large bite out of the sandwich. As he chewed, he noticed many things in passing. The spectrum of all that life is picked out in the minuscule flashes that barely register to most people. He noticed a woman reading a book, the pattern of words sequenced to elicit a withheld breath, a widening of the eyes, a twitch and a frown.
He noticed a group of school kids with shakes laughing with vaguely malicious joy. Tyrants they are. He noticed a man finishing his meal with such acute satisfaction that Richard could swear a bloom of warm light emanated from the man. He noticed the man smoking outside the coffee shop, looking up and down the snow filled street, wandering without moving. His eyes desperate for a familiar sight.
He noticed the change in music, from pop to disco revival. He wasn’t sure about having those musically minded memories rustled into cognisant function. He noticed a woman with a young child, a pram, a mess, but a smile that never left her face. Her husband returned to their table, all that is his and her life encapsulated in their child. A sad smile crossed Richard’s face.
An alien thing, the mind froze at this cracked intrusion. He noticed the wait staff making clear, tactical manoeuvres through the restaurant with military precision. Service at a premium. He noticed the incoherent yelling from the kitchen, the crash of plates and glasses against a wall, the chaotic melange of scents that battled above the patrons, the loose hum of the city traffic, the splotches that populated the greasy floor, the whirring fans.
He noticed the clock hanging opposite him confidently ticking off each second. He noticed the minute flick to twelve past the hour and then the second hand dutifully following twelve seconds later. It hit the twelfth. And paused. The second dragged, the hand defying its purpose, its very existence. It sat there in rebellion looking down upon the world. Richard thought he heard laughter.
He did hear it. From the door, reverberating through the cluttered coffee shop. Two tones. Chill, then welcoming. The light dimmed and then fragmented, the slash from an invisible sword. Between two tables – the family and the reading woman – the air shimmered, the light danced, inspired by the second hand’s pause.
The light coalesced, forming around the shimmer. It approached Richard as it continued to solidify. Substance wrought from the unseen paths hidden from the eyes of mortals. As if sweeping through a portal into reality, the figure emerged. A man, tall and lean. An ease to his posture belying the eons that it had glided through. A constant, knowing smirk. Richard sighed.
Death had finally come with a handshake in waiting.
‘Where have you been,’ Richard asked, ignoring the outstretched hand.
‘Here and there, as always,’ Death said with the most obnoxious wink. Richard shook his head and returned to his meal. Death took a seat, vaguely disenchanted by Richard’s muted reaction.
Richard looked up to see the second hand resuming its arc around the face of the clock. Always one for a little flair, no matter the venue. Death noticed the glance.
"You liked that one, didn’t you," he said.
"You did that last time," said Richard.
"Never fails to impress," said Death who cast his eyes, the colours ever changing, over the coffee shop and its denizens who were suitably ignorant of his presence. Richard allowed himself a small grin.
"Did you find them," Richard asked.
"Must you persist with this? A fool’s errand sounds smarter than what you continue to pursue. They are as they always are. Damn elusive."
"Even for you?"
"Yes, even for me, as insurmountable as my vast abilities may be, those cursed Sisters always are one step ahead. Though, considering what they are, if they lagged at any point we’d all be in a whole heap of bother. Ever consider that, Richard? We all play in the same sandbox even if it’s sometimes upside down or in 15 places at once. There’s always boundaries. The Sisters simply know how to play it best," Death let out a frustrated sigh as the waitress arrived with a cupcake with pink and white icing and placed it in front of Death who smiled languorously at it for several moments, as if savouring every morsel without touching it.
A caramel milkshake arrived shortly after and Death resumed his avarice gazing. A trait at once endearing and maddening to Richard who resumed eating his sandwich.
The two men sat in silence, one contemplated the fleet of foot that comprised a life and the whim of elemental forces that ruled over that life, while the other devoured his cupcake and milkshake with his eyes.
Around them, a steady procession of patrons arrived and departed, born, lived and died in the coffee shop. They had their moment’s respite, drawn into comfort. Or they drowned in bland routine. Morning, noon and night, morning, noon and night. Forever onwards to the great diner in the sky. A constant rearrangement of food, people, tables, lights and songs. An eternity on repeat.