Story by Ville Meriläinen
Illustration by Cesar Valtierra
Margaret proposed to Samuel Elway on the roof of the cathedral, when the sun had set but the horizon still burned. The library was aflame again, and people screamed on the street below.
Neither Maggie nor the weepy-eyed Samuel paid any mind to the hubbub. So far into winter, few cared about trying to douse the book-trove anymore—no, whenever a fire sparked, they’d gather to bask in the warmth and feed the flames with spills from their flasks. Now, however, the pair ought to have glanced down. People screamed and ran down the streets because of the lone silent, walking creature. Death had come to town.
He wasn’t yet the image of Death he would become—the grim reaper, taker of souls, what have you—though his tasks were much the same as his later incarnations. Death-as-human wore a hood and carried a scythe, but his face wasn’t skeletal, nor were his eyes hollow sockets full of white worms (though some had already settled in his belly, and would play a part in his becoming Death-the-reaper at a later point of his peculiar existence).
He stopped before turning to the cathedral street. From the corner, past the gaslights and clouds of dragonflies, he saw Maggie’s ring gleaming on Samuel’s finger. He gripped the shaft of his scythe so hard it cracked and splinters dug into sun-missed palms.
Sam’s head snapped westward towards a booming sound. Steel Horse galloped towards the city, striding across the plains at a terrifying pace. It stomped through the ice of frozen lakes. Its eyes lit the wasteland with the glare of Pharoses. On the wind wafted the miasma of breath spurred by oil-driven lungs and toxic fumes from its bellows diaphragm.
Sam faced Maggie with fright. She had turned away, as furious as Sam was fearful, glowering down at Death.
“Go away, you bastard!” she shouted, waving a fist at him. “I’m never coming with you! I’m Sam’s woman, now!”
She grabbed Sam by the wrist, yanking him forward with such force he would’ve fallen down to spatter on the street were it not for her grip. Pointing at his ring, she yelled, “There you have it! Give up already.”
Death snatched one of the dragonflies buzzing overhead, bit off its head with a crunch, sucked its wings into his mouth one by one. “Not until you and I are in one another’s arms.”
Maggie groaned. “There was never a ‘you and I’!”
“Mags, maybe we should—” Sam said, wringing in her grasp. Steel Horse was almost upon them. Maggie silenced him with a tsst!
“You take your self-esteem issues in equine form and piss off!” Maggie went on, with a wave that forced Sam into the anchor’s role. He flicked a glance at Steel Horse, pulling Maggie away from the edge of the roof.
Death had no time to respond. The giant steed crashed against the cathedral and continued through to the city. Bricks, concrete and burning planks from the library rained in its wake.
Dragonflies swarmed around Death, retreating to the safety of gutter swamps. He launched himself up Steel Horse’s leg, caught onto its razor wire tail and swung through the shower of stained glass and statues’ marble. He caught Maggie under his arm before she was impaled on the railing around the falling cathedral. As for Sam, well… Sam’s dad was never one to stray from corporal punishment, so he was used to taking falls and got up like every other time. He watched Steel Horse finish clearing a swath through the city and run off into the distance, Maggie’s curses shrill over its hoof beat.
Sam trembled in place until he could no longer see starlight glittering on a steel rump, then grabbed his hat and threw it on the ground. “That does it! Someone needs to put Death in his place!”
“Now, now, young Samuel,” said the mayor, hurrying over. The town blazed around them. People wept over bodies and helped survivors to the doctor and medics, rushed pails of water to control the flames (but not quell—it was still rather cold). The mayor dabbed sweat with a handkerchief before going on. “You can’t say you didn’t expect this. Margaret has been flirting with Death quite a bit lately.”
Sam’s brows lifted with outrage. “She has done no such thing,” he growled.
“Well, see now,” the mayor said, tenting his fingers. “I’m not taking any sides, mind, just pointing out that making a home in a reptile house, sleeping with a loaded firearm under her pillow and smoking more than the crematorium could make Death think she’s expressing interest in him. Not to mention all her crazy stunts, delving into dungeons, hunting for treasure in trap-filled tombs and whatnot.”
“She’s an adventurer! A certified one!”
“She broke her leg leaping from the belfry last year.”
“Okay, she was trying to get his attention then, but only so she could whoop his ass for taking her parents.”
“All I’m saying,” the mayor said, in his most diplomatic tone, “is that maybe it’s time we let her go. We’ve been through this too many times.”
Sam narrowed his eyes. “Unbelievable. Do you think he’ll stop coming and making a mess if we give Maggie to him? He’ll just fall for someone new. We have to stand up to him, for once in our lives!”
“But he’s Death!” said one of the bystanders eavesdropping on the conversation.
“The terrible!” said a waif.
“The inexorable!” said the librarian.
“The handsome,” purred Maude, in her veil and dark attire, mourning makeup and feathered hair; Maude, who had buried eight husbands in her twenty-five years and would likely bury another lot, unless Death finally confessed her feelings for him went unrequited.
They gave her odd looks, and the mayor cleared his throat. “Fitting epithets, mostly—”
“Death is an authority who only answers to himself! That’s the definition of a corrupt entity!” Sam shouted.
“He… he is Death, though.” The mayor grabbed Sam’s shoulder and shook it. “Be reasonable, Samuel. She’s in a better place now. Death’s hall is a glorious golden castle, where she feels no sorrow or longing. Let her stay there. Please—for our sake as much as hers.”
Sam pushed his hand away. “I am getting her back.”
Maude beamed. “You’re going to Death’s hall? Can I come?”
“Get help, Maude,” the mayor muttered. Sam gave him a nasty smirk.
“I’d be delighted for the company, Maude.”
“Um,” said the librarian. He’d been gesturing throughout the discourse, but only now caught Sam’s attention. Pushing his spectacles up his nose, he said, “I don’t mean to be a bother, but, erm, Miss Margaret has been snatched by Death a dozen times already, and she always manages to find her way back on her own.”
“And?” Sam said.
The librarian flinched at his tone. “It’s… well, I was wondering if it’s a bad idea for you to head towards danger, seeing how she is perfectly capable of rescuing herself.”
Sam’s gray eyes hardened to iron. He swung his gaze between the mayor and the librarian. “Oh, now you’re both against me? One or all, it works no better. Come, Maude!” he snapped, wheeling around and jabbing a finger in the air. “We are going after Death!”
“Yay!” Maude said with a clap and a jump. Sam stormed off, and Maude skipped after him.
“Sam, I’m telling you! She’ll be back in town long before you get there!” the librarian yelled. Sam responded with only an obscene gesture and continued storming.
— ♦♦♦ —
Maggie sat facing Steel Horse’s tail, so tense her shivering hardly showed. Her clothes were damp with rain the steed drew from lakes, but her thoughts were hot with anger. Death paced about behind her, surprisingly surefooted on the slick metal back.
“I don’t think I’m being unreasonable,” Death said with a huff. “Why do you keep smoking in bed if you don’t want me?”
“It drives the dragonflies out,” she groused. “You try sleeping with the damn things sitting on your nose all the time.”
“Still. Can’t you at least acknowledge all the mixed signals you’re giving me?”
She spun, eyes flaring. “‘Mixed signals’?” Maggie bounced to her feet and prodded Death’s chest. “I’ve told you time and time again I want nothing to do with you! There’s nothing mixed about it!”
“You keep saying it, but your actions are contrary,” Death argued, but backed away from her pokes. “There comes a point where you go too far and force me to act!”
“And your answer to a puerile crush is to wreck the city?”
“Half the people had more smoke than oxygen in their veins.”
She snorted, folded her arms. “And last time? Not about me either?”
“It had more to do with the plague sweeping—”
“People get sick, Death! It’s normal!”
“Listen now, darn it,” Death said, wagging a finger at her. “There are certain rules to what I do. When a person spews bile from every orifice, they become mine. When a pretty young thing like you tries to learn knife juggling, swallowing fire, and tightrope walking at the same time; that is a direct, unambiguous confession of love.”
Maggie’s features grew so dark that, had her complexion responded to her swelling wrath, she would have blended in with the night. “‘Pretty young thing’?”
Death swallowed hard. His conviction wavered against her stare.
“Maude Fincher-Kinley-Henricks-O’Toole-River-Goldman-Freudenberger-Smith spends all day wandering around the graveyard. She has a death’s head tattooed on her lower back. She jumped with me when I issued a challenge for a duel with you! Why haven’t you come for her?”
“It’s complicated,” Death said. She scowled; he languished.
“She carved your name on her breast,” she grated, “with a knife dipped in rat poison.”
“A powerful gesture, but there are factors… Genetics, overall health, life expectancy… Luck gets a say, too… Besides, she doesn’t want me, just attention, and I feel she should get it from a preacher.”
“Genetics?” Maggie went on, harsh tone grinding against her teeth. “Like high cheekbones and full lips, which I have and she doesn’t? Like my glossy locks against the crow’s nest on her pate?”
“Death,” Maggie said, voice falling as quiet and cold as the air around them. She spoke deliberately, with weighted pauses. “Do you seek me out because of my precarious ways, or because you’re in love with me?”
Death, once more, swallowed hard.
— ♦♦♦ —
Two mornings after the incident, when the sun was a pearl on a grey silk bed, Sam and Maude reached the mountains at the edge of the plain. Their pace had slowed down after Sam had realized they had no supplies, but was too proud to return for any. It had picked up after a pack of coyotes had laid eyes on them.
“They are scavengers, and more scared of us than we need be of them,” he’d assured Maude. They had run all the way since.
The beasts stopped giving chase at the foot of the mountains. Sam slumped against the trunk of a pine tree, chest heaving, and face red. Maude regarded him with vexation, rubbing the soles of her feet.
He noticed her glare. “I really thought they were coyotes!”
“Do you think we ought to turn back?” Maude said drily.
“The hard part of the journey is over. All we need to do is—” He tried to stand, but found his legs enervated and fell back, knocking the air out of his lungs. “…Catch our breath and consider our approach. After that, we’re moving!”
“We have no food or water, nor anything for a fire.”
“Hm.” Sam noticed a berry bush nearby and rose on wobbling legs.
“You’ll have to let me treat the bites, at least,” she continued.
“Bah! I’m fine. Little scratches, is all.” He scooped up a handful of berries, took a whiff of them and popped one in his mouth. He ate another one, savouring them thoughtfully. “These solve our food problem, and they’re juicy.”
Maude stared at him blankly while he shoveled in more berries. “Maude? Aren’t you having any?” he finally asked. She only shook her head.
“I think not. They’re ghost berries.”
Sam gagged, the last handful falling from a petrified palm before he toppled. “A-it, Aude. You shouda thod me,” he mumbled, tongue stiff and face against dirt. Maude gave him a patient smile while lacing up her shoes, then searched her purse for bandages and a flask.
“Oh, shush. They’ll just keep you in place for a minute.” She poured alcohol on her handkerchief and set to cleaning his wounds. Once she was done, she unstopped a small vial from a hidden pocket in her sleeve and helped Sam drink it.
“A panacea for common poisons,” she said when his limbs suddenly moved. “I have the apothecary sneak me a vial or two from every shipment.”
Sam stretched his neck, poked at the bandage until she slapped his hand away. “Why? You don’t work with venomous things.”
Maude shrugged. “A lady’s heart is a fickle thing. One moment you’re writing a love letter, the next you remember there’s a darling new show opening in the theatre you simply mustn’t miss.”
“Get help, Maude.”
She pulled him to his feet, dusted his front and gave a cherub’s smile. “You’re helping me get to my sweetheart, aren’t you?”
Sam returned a flat stare. “Why are you so obsessed with Death?”
“How could I not be?” she said, twirling away. “He’s so dreamy and romantic! So dark and mysterious! Oh, I am aquiver just thinking about him, atop Steel Horse, coming to find me…” She folded her arms with a pout. “But he only has eyes for Maggie. She doesn’t even want him!”
Sam arched his mouth. “Can’t say I want to see you die, but I guess it’s your call.”
She whirled around. “Die? Who said anything about dying?”
“Maude, are we talking about the same guy?”
“You silly thing. I don’t want to die! I love being alive! I just want to be with him.”
“I feel like I should explain something.”
“Save your breath! You’ll need it along the way.” She started skipping uphill and turned to him with a confused look when she noticed him standing still. “Are you coming? You’re the one who said we should hurry.”
“Uh, yeah,” Sam said and limped after her. “Guess we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” he muttered.
— ♦♦♦ —
Death descended the stairs outside his lair, bearing a tray with lemon juice and sandwiches. Steel Horse grazed on the slope of a lesser mountain, as it had been doing for the past four days after grinding to a halt outside Death’s palace.
Maggie lay on the lowest step of the slabs carved on the mountain’s skin. Evening had brought mist to the palace. The sun was a red shimmer beyond the cloud.
Death padded out of the cover. “I take it you’re still not talking to me,” he said. He frowned at the dinner tray he’d left earlier. It was swarming with flies. “I wish you’d sulk in the foyer. Do you want a blanket? It gets cold during the night.”
She only replied with a high-pitched hmph! and wrapped her arms tighter, head rolled to the side.
Death hemmed, sat by her legs and set the tray down. He glanced at her, dropped his gaze to his thumbs. “Do you want a foot massage?”
“Maggie, I’m not going to force you to come up, but I will say this. If you don’t belong here, why haven’t you left?”
“I’m not feeling good,” she muttered. “I’ll go as soon as I’m well again.”
“You haven’t eaten in days. Don’t you think it would help you recover your strength if you did?”
“I don’t trust you. You’re trying to poison me.”
Death sighed. “Look, I’m not perfect. I admit it. Sometimes my emotions get the best of me. I—I may have let my affections influence some of my choices.”
He turned to her with a frown. “But I’d never try to intentionally hurt you. I just… think it’s your time. I know you don’t agree with me—”
“I nearly died when Steel Horse ran down the cathedral!”
“At least it would’ve driven my point though!” Death said with a huff. “I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. Sleeping with a loaded gun, Maggie? It’s gone off so many times it’s a miracle you hear anything. Even once would’ve been enough for me to bring you here.”
She scoffed. “Oh, so now we’re blaming the victim?”
“No! No, goodness—” Death bit his tongue. “Victim of what?”
“Circumstances! I live in a shady neighbourhood. It’s necessary for the safety of my property.”
“You live in a house filled with snakes and lizards. What is there to steal?”
Death took a deep breath, rubbing the bridge of his nose. Exhaling, he said, “You’ve also been bitten a fair few times.”
“So what? I have the apothecary hold a few panaceas for me when he gets a shipment.”
“If I hadn’t made exceptions for you,” Death said sternly, “you wouldn’t have had the time to pop off the cork once.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have. I never asked for any favours.”
Death’s mouth drew into a thin line. He shot to his feet, leaned over and picked her up.
“Hey!” she shrieked. Death flung her over his shoulder and began his ascent.
“I’ve tried to be patient with you. I’ve treated you with nothing but kindness and you keep spurning me. No more! I’m putting my foot down, and you’re coming up.”
“Let me go this instant before I kick your ass! Who the hell do you think you are?” Maggie snarled, hammering his back.
“I AM DEATH, GOSH DARN IT!” Death snapped, with so much frustration Maggie was momentarily startled into stopping.
— ♦♦♦ —
Sam pulled himself onto the slate atop a scree with a grunt, then leaned over to help Maude up. She let her legs hang off the edge, shoulders slumped.
“This doesn’t seem worth it anymore,” she mumbled. Her lips were chapped and bleeding, arms covered with more cuts than skin. “I’m starting to think we should’ve waited for Maggie to save herself.”
Sam groaned. “Dammit, Maude, you can be progressive once we get back home.”
Maude whipped around with an arched brow. “Say what?”
“This is the real world. Women don’t save themselves.”
Maude took a deep breath, smacked her mouth. “Are you… not aware of whom you were planning to marry?”
“Sure, but I’m here to keep her safe now. Mags only had to go on all her escapades because she had no man to take care of stuff for her.”
“Do you really see her as a damsel-in-distress kind of damsel?”
He shrugged. “Death’s palace has hundreds of towers. Given he has Steel Horse, he’s bound to have a dragon or two lurking at his beck.”
“That wasn’t my point. Do you think Maggie is going to sit around in a tower and wait for you to save her?”
“I’m not saying it’s her fault. You don’t go cleaning your chimney, do you? No, you wait for the chimney sweep who’s trained for it.”
“But it is. It’s a well-known fact knights are trained to kill dragons. Princesses are not. Heck, if I were a princess I’d sit tight and wait as well.”
Maude’s brows knitted. “Maggie’s not a princess, she’s a professional adventurer. It’s literally her job to get herself out of jams.”
“She’s my princess.”
“You’re not a knight!”
“I’m as brave as one. Training has nothing on attitude.”
Maude sucked her teeth, regarding him with distaste. “Maggie’s way better equipped for killing a dragon than either of us. I think she might have. I’ve seen the trophy mounted in her bedroom.”
“It’s a juvenile. Doesn’t count.” Sam got on his feet. “Me? I once caught a fish with my bare hands. Out-fished a bear on the other shore.” He pointed two fingers at his eyes, pointed them out, as though there was an invisible nemesis hiding in the mountain mists. “He knew I was making a challenge and waded into the river. I did the same. We started swinging salmon out. I caught one this big.” He stretched out his arms. “Bigger than me! And the damn bear, he was a sore loser, tried to go for my catch. Had to wrestle it down. Drowned it in that same river.”
Maude nodded patiently, cleared her throat. “I seem to recall Maggie was the one who did the bear-drowning.”
Sam puffed out his chest, adjusted his belt buckle. “That’s what she thinks, too. ‘Course, I had the situation under control, but I wanted to let her feel good about herself.” A sombre look overcame him. He brushed his nose and said, “’Till we found the bear was a ‘she’ and her wee cubs were nestled nearby.”
Maude blanched, slowly lowered her gaze to Sam’s furry shoes. “You didn’t—”
He nodded gravely, twisting his heel. “Ain’t even ashamed. Comfy like little clouds around my feet.” He walked off and waved her to follow. “We need to discuss our plan of infiltration. I doubt Death will just let us waltz in.”
Maude stood, dusted herself and frowned at the tattered hem of her dress. “If Maggie still is there—which I doubt—Death had better have gifted her with dresses so I can borrow one.”
Before them stretched a flat field in the midst of the mountain range. Where Steel Horse had stomped, the rocks had been ground flat. As Sam and Maude stepped onto the plateau, frost withdrew to let grass and flowers blossom in the hoof prints. The morning fog cleared, revealing the creature’s head beyond the peaks—and Death’s golden castle directly before them.
“Well, good buddy,” Sam said arms akimbo. “It took us a week to get here, but I’ll be a son of a gun if I’m not proud of us. This is the farthest anyone has traveled from the city! We might be at the very edge of the world.”
Maude’s stomach responded with a grumble. “Small world, and I’m glad it is. I don’t think I’ve felt this empty since Death failed to show up after my and Maggie’s tandem jump.”
Sam winced. “A disappointment, I’m sure.”
Maude spread her hands. “Eh, more because they had to remove my stomach while they patched me up. Busted myself up good that time.”
Halfway across the plain, Steel Horse noticed the pair. It leaped over the castle, landing with a crash that sent cracks streaking every which way. Sam and Maude were tossed in the air when the earth became rubber, reshaped by the stamping mechanimal. They flew so high the fall would’ve surely killed them had trees not sprung from the cracks. Suddenly released, seeds trapped eons ago seized the opportunity to grow to the size Death had promised them when they were first sown. Evergreens as tall as Steel Horse first caught the tumbling two, then raised them higher.
Maude caught Sam by the wrist before he fell off the branches then helped him swing onto a bough. The glare of the headlight-eyes spread over the treetops and blinded the pair. Steel Horse snorted a noxious breath rolling over and rustling the leaves.
“I wonder,” Maude said, straddling a thin offshoot as she climbed down towards Sam, “if Steel Horse is more than Death’s steed and companion, just as he is more a force than a meagre man—a living metaphor on the destructive effect technology has on our way of life, if you will—”
“Dammit, Maude, have you set your eyes on the librarian?”
Sam looked up. It was difficult to tell with the light upon them, but he thought Maude blushed when she said, “You mind your own business, mister.”
They descended into the new-born forest, Steel Horse’s light dying in its depths. It was too dark to go on, and Sam pondered if they should have tried jumping from tree to tree instead. Sounds of Maude digging through her purse followed, then the clicks of a lighter. Sam turned to find Maude beaming behind the globe of a fledgling flame. She stepped past him and Sam followed.
“Did you start the fire?” he asked after a moment.
“Get help, Maude.”
She gave her a leer. “I wasn’t doing it for Death. It was too dark to read.”
“You thought a lighter was a smart idea in a building dedicated to collecting paper?”
“You thought wolves were coyotes.”
“Don’t change the subject.”
She simpered. “Beg your pardon. I thought the subject was crappy hindsight.”
At the edge of the forest, Steel Horse lowered its head upon the pair, gave a snort that left both coughing from the fumes. That was all it did. After a minute of hesitation, Maude carried on, under its muzzle and past its hoof. Sam gave the sun-shimmery metal legs a wary glance and called after Maude, “You reckon it’s safe to walk under it?”
“How should I know? You’re the hero.”
Sam’s brows knitted, but the woman only kept walking. Steel Horse gave them no trouble; when he was out of its line of sight, it reared its head and began grazing on treetops. It still fed, uncaring of the intruders when they came to the house of its master.
“Last stretch. You ready?” Sam asked at the bottom of the stairs. The palace glittered overhead like a blazing wall.
“Gosh, my stomach’s full of dragonflies,” Maude said. “I’ll need a few deep breaths first.”
“Well, I’m going,” Sam said, stomping upstairs.
“Weren’t we supposed to sneak in?”
“Screw that,” he growled. “My stomach is about to collapse upon itself from hunger. I have exactly one waltz in me, and it’s danced to the kick-punch-punch of a whooped ass.”
Sam threw open the doors to the inner sanctum. Death sat on his throne, hood over his face, one hand lazily on the seat’s armrest, the other gripping his scythe.
He flinched at the sound of cracking knuckles, wiped his nose with a sleeve. “H-hey, Samuel. I wasn’t expecting you. What can I do you for?”
“You can fight me, you woman-stealing rat!” Sam snapped, winding up a punch. He was stunned into stopping upon noticing Death’s black eye. “Are you… are you crying?”
“Allergies give you bruises?”
Death sniveled. “It’s nothing. Really.”
“Uh-huh,” Sam muttered, looking around. “Where’s Maggie?”
“She’s, um… she left. We had a talk. I won’t bother her anymore, or the city.” He cleared his throat. “Congratulations on your engagement. Treat her well, you hear?”
Sam blinked. “Okay then. I will.” He spun on his heels, gave Death one more look over his shoulder, and made to leave.
Death’s face fell into his hand with a great sob, and Sam sighed through his teeth. “Is everything okay?”
Death, swallowing tears, said, “I’m not a bad guy, am I, Sam?”
Sam returned to him, stopped before the throne. He gave a hum, placed a hand on Death’s shoulder. “You’re not a bad guy, just a little… excitable. Yeah, excitable. There’s a good word.” He offered Death a handkerchief and waited for him to blow his nose. “You don’t always have to cause such a ruckus. Have you thought of coming over without Steel Horse? At least now and then? People might be less scared of you if you visited them as a guest instead of always trampling everyone down. Who knows, some might even invite you in, given time.”
“Invite me?” Death’s mouth arched. “Sam, I’m Death! No one wants to die, but if I don’t do my job—”
“Sometimes you have to ask for permission. Consent is key, you know?”
“But I’ve never done that! I’m Death!”
“Just use your head. If you think there’s any chance you’re reading the situation wrong, it’s always best to ask.”
“I AM DEATH!”
Death gave an exasperated moan, rubbed his face, and finally nodded in defeat. “Okay. Fine. I’ll think about it.”
Sam patted his shoulder. “Glad that’s sorted. See you around, Death—but not too soon.”
Death looked up. “What? Sam, I can’t let you leave.”
Death gestured at his wounds. “I mean, besides those, you haven’t eaten anything or had a drink in days and your brain is fried with fever. Not to mention your shoes are full of fleas.”
Sam gave him a look of outrage. “Screw you, Death. I feel fine.”
“You’ve literally been chasing me for the past week.”
“What did we just talk about?”
“And I think the wolves gave you rabies.”
“I’ll stay with you!” Maude cried. The men wheeled towards the entrance. She came running in. Sam sidestepped to let her wrap herself around Death’s neck and stormed out.
“You’re fine, Maude,” Death said, extracting the woman. “You can leave at your earliest convenience.”
Maude’s brows lifted with perplexity. “I’m just as hurt as he is!”
“I don’t make the rules. Sam! Sam, stop right there.”
Sam responded with only an obscene gesture and continued storming.
— ♦♦♦ —
Another week later, Sam lay in bed under a pile of blankets and with a wetted piece of cloth on his forehead. His breath wheezed and rasped down his throat with every feeble inhale. Now and then he’d reach for Maggie’s offered spoon of soup like a blind cub for its mother’s teat.
“I was very brave,” Sam murmured, “going after Death like that.”
“Yes, Sam,” Maggie said, smiling as he licked soup off his lips. “Very brave.”
“I saved you, you know. And the city.”
She chuckled, removed the rag and plunged it in a basin. “Now, we both know that’s the fever talking.”
“I told Death I’d kick his ass if he came down here again. He’s too scared to try me. He said I’m the biggest hero he knows.”
Just then came a rap on the door. Maggie wrung the rag and placed it back on Sam’s forehead before letting the visitor in.
“Hey, you!” Maude said, poking her head in. Maggie stepped back to let her pass, then noticed Death waiting outside with an awkward air. She gave him a flat stare.
“Thought we’d check on you. See if you made it home safely,” Maude said, took a stool by Sam and tutted. “Damn, son. You look awful.”
“What do you want, Death?” Maggie said lowly.
“Oh, he’s with me!” Maude said. “We’re a couple now.”
“We’re not a couple. She’s a medical marvel—practically immortal, were it up to me,” Death whispered, then raised his voice. “I’m here on business. Sam, don’t you think—”
“I’m not coming with you!” Sam moaned.
“He’s not coming with you!” Maggie yelled.
Sam sat up as far as he could to give Death a glower, retched and coughed blood on the covers. He fell back against the pillow, black bile running from his nostrils. He began to shake, and Maggie jumped to his side to force medicine down his throat. Once he calmed, he croaked, “Try me, Death. I’ll show you what’s what.”
Death made to argue, but Maggie folded her arms and grated, “How’s the eye?”
He cringed, took a reflexive step back. “My mistake, Sam,” he said airily. “You’re the very picture of health. Come, Maude. We’re leaving.”
Maude stood, straightened her dress and gave Sam a peck on the cheek. “You’ll have to visit us sometime,” she gushed to Maggie on her way out, leaned closer and whispered, “I need some help to liven up the place. All his friends are veritable zombies.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Sam got better, and he and Maggie lived happily for a long while yet. Others lived long whiles too, much longer than they had a right to, and that brought its own host of problems until Death-as-human became Death-the-reaper and gained the confidence to stand up to them. Grudgingly, even old Maggie and old Sam understood they’d defied him long enough.
Death came to town, and Steel Horse followed. He came invited, strode through the city with a rictus smile and a gleeful spark in his white-maggot-eyes. Maude hung onto his arm, as pretty on her 125th birthday as she’d been on her twenty-fifth (and would be for another long, long while).
There were no screams or panic when he left—only people gathering to watch the leaving of old friends and how stars glittering on a steel rump vanished in the dark.
— ♦♦♦ —
Pax in Virtute . By David Bruns, Art by John Waltrip
Raymond Henderson had waited 30 years to get answers to questions surrounding his father’s death. Finally, a phone call from the President of the United States told him he’d get those answers. He knew that his father had worked with a robotic “partner” in a missile silo back during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Hell…he’d become friends with the robot, ironically named “Robbie”. But Raymond would soon find out the connection between his father’s death and Robbie. He’d also find out how close the U.S. actually came to war.