The rain fell gently from the heavens to the asphalt as cars whizzed past. It fell so slowly, in such a feather-like motion that someone who wasn’t paying too much attention would have thought it was snow. Was it called sleet, then? Sleet is such an ugly word. The rain was so beautiful, dusting the grass with only a light layer of dew, not at all heavy or overbearing.
Perhaps that is why Ellie woke up with a smile on her face.
The rain had fallen all at once the past few nights after the storm clouds hung in the sky for weeks on end, finally letting out all their pent-up tears. Ellie did not perceive this delicate rain as tears but more of a gentle nourishment to the plants after being overflooded with water and to the bugs who have lost hundreds of their tribes to flash floods.
She rose from the hospital bed, the mattress creaking under the applied weight and tugged her IV stand along with her to the bathroom. No morning nausea today. Today is a good day, thought Ellie. Any day without nausea is a good day.
The rain pattered against the windows, getting lighter and lighter as the clouds departed back into the atmosphere after their month-long temper tantrum. Sunlight streamed into the bathroom and onto the floor, illuminating the stains that came as a result of Ellie’s cancer.
It was an aggressive form, one that refused to go away no matter how many rounds of chemotherapy she put her body through. It had metastasized, poisoning every part of her body and making her grow more emaciated by the day. It was not fun.
Her family visited as much as they could, but the hospital bills started to pile up. Her family couldn’t afford to worry about her. Every minute they spent with her was a minute they could spend working toward her hospital bill, and it was Ellie’s choice for them to leave her. They pleaded for her to set up a fundraiser, but Ellie was too proud to accept handouts. She made her own money for fifty years, and if she pulled through from chemotherapy, she would go back to work.
″When I pull through,” she always corrected her family and her doctor.
She splashed water in her face to refresh herself and her skin, but when she looked at herself in the mirror, the wrinkles only deepened. She was sixty-five, but her crinkled face made her look like a tired centenarian. She smiled through the disappointment, trying to replenish the joy in her eyes that seem to have faded all those months ago.
She slinked back into her room, pulling her IV stand with her (the IV was pulling her since it weighed more than she did), but she quickly stopped in her tracks.
In her room was Death, with his black robe draped over his shoulders and his head, bathing his face in darkness. He did not carry a scythe, which puzzled Ellie, but otherwise, she was not shocked in the slightest.
He was wan, his hood not large enough to disguise his pale skin reflecting the fluorescent ceiling lights. Ellie felt soothed by his presence, almost as if he were an old friend. After all, she had thought about him every day, begging to not meet him. With him almost levitating in front of her, she smiled.
“Hello, Death” she greeted. Death smiled back.
“Not everybody greets me that kindly,” he replied. “Hello, Eleanor Brown.”
“Call me Ellie,” she said with a mischievous glint in her eye.
“You know why I’m here, Ellie,” he said.
“Take off your hood first, then we’ll talk,” she demanded, leaning further on her IV stand. Death obliged, slipping off his hood to reveal an otherworldly, genderless being, nothing Ellie could fathom in human terms. His features were sharp, his skin stretched tight over his bones. His eyes–were those eyes?–were calm, calculating, cool. They must have stricken fear into the heart of anybody he looked at, but with Ellie, she only grinned wider.
Death’s appearance compelled her to approach him, hobbling close enough to smell gardenias and vanilla drift off his being.
“Come, Ellie,” Death gently commanded, holding out his hand. “It’s your time.”
“You know very well it is not my time, honey,” Ellie scoffed, wheeling her IV stand over to the lounge chairs, sitting down to calm the pain pulsating throughout her body. “Get me a water bottle, please.”
Death’s shoulders dropped. He looked over to the desk in front of the bed and spotted the mini water bottles, most of them empty. He looked back over at Ellie and asked, “If I get you a bottle, will you come with me?”
Ellie smiled coyly and shrugged. “I’ll consider it.”
So he glided over, picked up the water bottle, and handed it to Ellie, who chuckled softly.
“Thank you, sugar.” She drank the entire bottle and placed it on the windowsill, but the small act of reaching out her arm to place down the bottle blinded her with pain. “Do me a favor.”
Death’s expression turned from surprised to irked, but he obliged. “Yes?”
“Get me the pain pills, please,” she asked, pointing to the giant bottle of pain pills with all kinds of medical script decorating the outside.
Death huffed. “If I get you the pills, will you come with me?”
Ellie grinned. “I’ll consider it.”
Death glided back over to the desk, picked up the bottle, and handed it to Ellie. She took the bottle and measured out the number of pills the nurse told her to take and swallowed them dry. After all, her throat had gotten some practice in mastering the technique of swallowing pills over the course of her treatment. Sometimes she took so many pills that it felt like a whole meal, and she was too full to eat actual food later on in the day.
“Feeling better?” Death asked with a look of almost worry on his face.
Ellie nodded and picked at the hangnails on her fingers. She stared down at her hands adorned with veins and sighed. “Just tired. Old lady things, I suppose.”
Death stared at her for a moment before glancing away to the phonograph in front of her bed. Ellie noticed, and her eyes lit up with joy.
“Do me one last favor?” she asked, and Death looked at her with feigned annoyance.
″Then will you come with me?” he emphasized only to receive a shrug back from Ellie.
“I’ll consider it.”
Ellie beckoned Death to come near her and reached out her hand for him to take it. Death gently took her hand into his and lifted her up to her feet.
Ellie pointed to the phonograph with a trembling finger, the mere feat of standing up fatiguing her entire body. “Put the needle on, honey. And dance with me.”
Death made sure Ellie was stable before gliding away and looking at the record on the phonograph. He looked back up at Ellie and smiled. “This is one of my favorite songs from that era.”
″‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ by Doris Day…” Ellie said wistfully as Death returned to her, grasping her waist as he led her onto the “dance floor,” which was the more open area in front of her bed. “Could that white lady sing. Mama liked Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald better, but we always made exceptions for Doris. The white woman Mama worked for–Miss Williams was her name–always had her playing while she helped Mama clean the house. Kind, she was. Very kind.”
Death gazed only at Ellie as she gave her soliloquy, gingerly slipping his hand into hers as they leisurely twirled around the room, the IV stand following closely behind.
Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me…
“I prefer Vivaldi myself,” Death said after a moment of silence. “He was quite the charmer when I went to guide him. But eventually he gave in, took my hand, and let me lead him off.”
Ellie smiled and chuckled. “If you’re going to talk about me, talk about me to my face, honey.”
Death smiled back and lifted his arm to twirl her, and Ellie followed his lead, slowly twirling around, mindful of her IV stand. She returned to Death and grasped his hand again, getting back into their side-stepping rhythm. “Why don’t you want to go to Heaven, Ellie? You pray so much to go there. I hear them.”
“I pray to Jesus, and I know him. I know he knows it isn’t my time to go just yet. I still have some kicks in me, sir. My Heaven is on Earth for the time being. And I’m not leaving yet.”
As the song neared its end, the pair slipped into a period of comfortable silence, both of them pondering as they stare off in the distance. Ellie readjusted her grip on Death’s hand, which was soft yet full of little cracks and scars. His hands humanized him in Ellie’s vision, although Death was already human to her; he just glowed a little more than regular people did. His shoulder was bony yet tense, most likely from supporting Ellie’s weight so she didn’t fall down. She looked back at Death’s face and saw a human face staring back at her, not the abstract being that was there before. It seemed as though Ellie broke his spell, one that made him intimidating when, in fact, he looked like a mortal, just like her.
The record continued to spin despite the song being over, yet the pair did not move away from each other.
“Ellie,” Death started, but quickly stopped. The wheels in his head seemed to be turning, and he finally said, “Please come with me. It will be alright. You will be happy.”
“I still have work to do, sweetheart,” she said, patting his chest. “My family is waiting for me. I won’t be happy if I go up there. Not yet.”
Death sighed and put the needle back. He helped Ellie to her bed, lightly laying her down and pulling out a notebook from his pocket. His eyes widened as he looked between Ellie and the notebook. He sheepishly put the notebook away and smiled. “It seems I was mistaken, Ellie. I wish you and your family the best. Have a nice night, Ellie.”
And within a blink of an eye, he was gone as quickly as he arrived.
Ellie nodded and pulled the comforter over her body. She looked out of the window, the moon hanging limply from the sky as the surrounding stars supported it. It seemed as though time had also passed in the blink of an eye; she had only spent twenty minutes with him, but that amounted to fourteen hours in Death’s time. She heard a knock at the door and invited the person to come in.
It was her family: her husband, her children, her siblings, her nieces and nephews, her grandchildren. The nurse, Rita, followed closely behind with a tray of food.
“Hi, Grandma!” her eldest grandchild exclaimed as he ran in.
“Jackson, quiet down, boy,” Ellie’s son demanded curtly. “Your grandma’s had a long day.”
Rita set down the tray in front of Ellie with a smile, quickly escaping Ellie’s giant family.
“We all had some free time to visit you at the same time!” Ellie’s sister whispered giddily. “Isn’t that a coincidence?”
Ellie looked out the window again at the shadow over the moon and smiled softly. “Yes. A coincidence indeed.”
“Good news, Eleanor,” Dr. Tam said with a grin. “You’re pulling through your chemo. I won’t promise anything-”
“You never do, Dr. Tam,” Ellie said with a chuckle.
Dr. Tam laughed and nodded. “I won’t promise anything,” she continued, “but the future is looking good. Let’s continue with the last few rounds and see where it takes you. Sounds good?”
Ellie nodded. “Sounds good,” she said.
She sighed contently and squeezed her husband’s hand.