The TV in the room blared. Annie sat down on her worn, brown leather armchair, awaiting Death. He was meant to be here three hours ago and Annie had done much to prepare. She had found the strength to lift her old bones from her crickety bed and clean her small home. She swept the floor and dusted her furniture, even taking the time to reorganize her collection of postcards.
Annie had done a lot of traveling in her day. When she was only eighteen years old she decided to travel cross-country. She hadn’t had much money or many connections, but she was filled with charm and a free spirit. She hitchhiked from Connecticut to California and slept on dirty mattresses in strange houses. Annie was never one to stay in one place for very long and indeed she moved constantly throughout her twenties and thirties, working waitressing jobs to support herself and living in tiny, barely furnished apartments, or sometimes even out of her own beat-up, ancient car. But Annie didn't mind the unusual living circumstances. In fact, she thrived off of them. Her life consisted of spontaneous jumps from one city to another and one culture to the next. By the time she’d settled down in a small Massachusetts town, she was forty-six years old and had lived in every state in the contiguous United States plus a brief stint in Hawaii. Every new location brought with it a new attitude, a new interest, and a new life and Annie lived to soak in each experience.
She was now seventy-six years old, and while she had loved every moment of her young life, Annie didn’t love her current state of affairs. As a young adult, she’d had no interest in marriage or children, brushing off the idea of a family until it was too late. It seemed now that everywhere she turned there was a reminder of the life she could have lived. As she gazed out her window, which she often did while sitting in that worn, leather armchair, she saw young mothers with their babies in tow. When she sat to watch her favorite show, which began promptly at 8 PM, it seemed that every commercial revolved around a happy couple. Annie couldn’t help but smile wistfully at the screen, wondering what her life could have been had she not been so consumed by her travels and adventures. Every piece of her longed to have a family, people to fill her lonely nights with laughter. She often imagined that they would spend their time visiting old museums and playing poker with their crazy neighbors.
But now, Annie would die. The digital clock beside her TV blinked 8:57. She was supposed to be dead three hours ago, but apparently Death had other ideas. He had told her 5:38 PM. Exactly. She could vividly remember receiving her Death Notice and the somber look that the young mailman had given her.
Annie looked around at the living room she sat in. In one corner was her TV, with that clock blinking at her, a constant reminder of what was to come. In another was her coveted postcard collection, neatly arranged by date visited. Each postcard was in pristine condition, as if old Annie had traveled to all those places within the last few days, and not the last few decades. The other corner contained a small table with a radio on top. Annie would sometimes turn the radio on and listen to music while she cleaned or cooked. Today, she did not do that. Today, Annie sat in her worn, brown leather armchair and awaited Death. She thought about the state of her home and all of the time and great effort that she’d put into ensuring that it was clean before Death arrived. This certainly was not how she wanted to die, but at least it was how she was prepared to die.
"Alright, Annabelle Foster, you’re next.” Annie looked up and saw Death sitting on her couch. He didn't look like she expected him to. He held a clipboard and looked far more like a businessman than he did a Grim Reaper. Death was dressed in a lavender button down shirt and black pants. His hair was perfectly slicked, not a strand out of place, yet his tie was an ugly green color and hung crookedly from his neck. Looking up from his clipboard, Annie could see into his eyes. They somehow had no color to them, or whatever color they did have had no name to it. His facial features seemed out of place on his small, pointed face, and Annie noticed as she stared at him that he was rather ugly. She’d had no idea what to expect, and what she discovered was certainly not what she’d imagined, but somehow Death looked exactly how Death should look.
“Here,” he said handing her the clipboard. “I need you to fill out this paperwork. And would you mind answering a few questions in our Final Survey so we can work to improve the quality of death world-wide?”
Annie nodded and took hold of the clipboard, her hands shaking.
There were twenty questions in all. They were straightforward and simple, again not at all what Annie was expecting.
What is your full, legal name? Annabelle Marie Foster. Do you have a living spouse? No. Do you have a living child or children? No. Who shall we contact to inform of your death? Annie hesitated. Death looked back to her and snapped his fingers.
“Hurry up lady, I’m already behind schedule today.”
“Well, that’s not my fault, no need to get so snippy with me.” Annie sighed and thought for a bit before she looked back up at Death. “I have no one to write down.”
“Oh, c’mon, a sibling, an aunt, a cousin, an old coworker? Just write down anyone at all so that I can move on with my day. The death business isn’t as easy at it looks you know,” Death said.
“Well, I’m sorry that you’re in a hurry but that’s not my fault. You should have planned your day better,” Annie said indignantly. “Now be quiet so I can think about this.”
Death glanced at his watch. 9:12.
“Alright, look lady, I’ll level with you. I’ll give you one extra day to figure it out and then I’ll be back here tomorrow to collect.”
“What good is one day supposed to do me? I have nobody to write down. How could I form a meaningful relationship in one day!?” At this question, Death’s ears perked up.
With a glimmer in his eye he said, “Well, I do have an idea actually. It’s a bit of a social experiment, really. I can make you young again if you want, but I have one condition.”
Annie squinted at him. She was skeptical, yet she felt a rush of excitement run through her. There were a hundred thoughts running through her mind, but one stood out to her. A chance to relive her life. She could get married. She could have the family she wished she’d had.
“I’ll do it. Whatever it is, I’ll do it,” she said.
“Wonderful.” Death reached into his pocket and pulled out a pen. It was the darkest shade of black that Annie had ever seen. He handed it to her and smiled. “If you want to be young again, find someone young and get them to sign their name with this pen. Then, you can have their life.”
Annie nodded slowly. Find someone young. Steal their life?
“What happens to the person whose life I take?” Annie asked. Death smirked at her.
“Well, I don’t know,” he said, “No one has ever done it before.”
With that, Death slipped through the floorboards and disappeared. Annie held the pen in her hand. It was incredibly heavy, and Annie needed to find a strength deep within her to grasp it. Just holding it was beginning to give her a headache, and so she placed the strange object down on the table beside her and looked out her window.
It was a lot to consider. She wasn’t sure what stealing someone’s life would be like, but she knew that she wanted the opportunity. She just wasn’t sure that she would take it. Annie thought about all of her missed chances. She thought of the family she never got to have and the memories that were never formed. Annie had longed for these things for years. She couldn’t help but imagine it now, how she could raise her daughter. She would teach her to be adventurous and to take chances. She would travel the country again, but this time with her family by her side. She imagined teaching her son how to drive, and laughing as he struggled to make a left turn. She imagined having a husband to turn to when her children moved out and went on with their own lives. They would turn on her small radio and he would hold her hand and they would waltz around the kitchen together. She could see them all now, her husband and two kids, sitting on the small couch beside her, while she rested in the very same brown, leather armchair she was sat in now. The clock beside her TV would read 7:59 PM and they would wait in anticipation for their favorite game show to come on.
Annie was nearly completely lost in thought when she saw her. A young girl stood outside in the cold, crying hysterically. She was petite with short, straight, black hair and couldn’t have been older than eighteen. The girl wore an oversized gray hoodie and beat-up blue jeans. If there were ever a damsel in distress to be saved, this was the girl. Annie watched as she sat down on the curb, burying her head in her sleeve.
It was at this moment that Annie made a decision. She lifted herself from her chair and headed towards the door, but not before grabbing a pad of paper and the strange black pen from her table and placing them in her pocket. She walked to her door as quickly as her frail bones would allow and turned the knob, stepping out into the brisk, December air. Annie looked down at the girl sat in front of her and felt a pang of jealousy. Oh, how she wished to be young again. Oh, how glad she was to have the opportunity. She took three small steps over to the girl and slowly lowered herself down to the curb.
“Hello,” she said. “Are you alright, dear? I couldn’t help but notice you from my living room couch. What seems to be the issue?”
The girl looked up at Annie with surprise. She wondered why a stranger would leave the comfort of her own home to talk to her, but for some reason she trusted the old woman. Maybe it was just that she needed someone to talk to, or maybe it was some of that leftover charisma from Annie’s youth that got the girl to open up, but whatever it was, she began to pour out her heart to the old woman beside her.
“Well…,” she said looking back down at her lap, “I just have a bit of an issue to deal with.”
“And what would that be?” Annie attempted to make her voice sound as caring and good-natured as she could. The girl hesitated a bit. She wasn’t sure that she should be telling this stranger about her problems, but she decided that there could be no harm in it.
“I’m pregnant,” the girl said and again broke out into sobs. Annie looked at her, shocked. A thousand thoughts ran through her mind. She’ll have to raise a child on her own. This must be so frightening. It will be so hard for her. Then finally, old Annie thought to herself, This is perfect. It was all she had wanted — to be young, to have a family. She was willing to raise a child at eighteen if it meant she had a chance to start over. Annie smiled softly at the girl.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” She asked.
Again, the girl hesitated, but then replied, “Maggie.”
“Well, Maggie, you know what always makes me feel better?” She asked, pulling the pad of paper and the pen out of her pocket. This time, as she held the pen, she felt a power rush through her. It didn’t feel heavy anymore. It felt like vitality and life. It felt like a fresh start. Annie looked down at the pen and noticed that it had changed colors. Now, the barrel of the pen was lavender. “Whenever I’m upset, I like to write letters. I write to whoever is hurting me. I sometimes write to my past. Why don’t you try?”
Annie handed the girl the paper and then carefully placed the pen in her palm. Maggie held the pen and examined it closely.
“Kind of a weird pen,” she said, then shrugged. “I guess I’ll write to myself.”
Old Annie smiled at her.
“Don’t forget to sign your name.”