I wrote this as a submission for my college literary book they published annually. It was a tad too long, and I think much too dark (I had been reading a LOT of Edgar Allan Poe at the time). However, I love this story and the idea. I’ve tried numerous times to expand it beyond it’s short story format, but I just haven’t found an expanded version of this tale that clicks. It’s definitely on my short list of stories to write, though.
When Maxwell had called me and urged me to come with great haste, I must admit I was rather perplexed. But upon arriving at the address he had cryptically given me, it was clear that he had remembered my recent extracurricular activities. As I swung open a door made of old, rotting oak and covered in peeling red paint, the smell in the air filled my nostrils, a scent that most would find displeasing but I find myself enthralled with nonetheless. It’s difficult to describe it’s sickly sweet stench that rises and wafts through the air, but it is nonetheless clearly the smell of death.
Maxwell did not explain where it came from, he merely polished the medallion on his breast with the sleeve of his coat and looked away as I set about my work, quickly ripping off the layers of clothes to reveal it’s pale flesh to the stark moonlight. Peeling back it’s eyelids, I flash a small penlight at pinpoint pupils, but the thing beneath me does not move. With a slow, sliding motion I move my hand across it, passing over the ragged hole where the bullet entered and stopping to press my ear down to it’s blood soaked chest; it’s heart remains still. Pulling a pen from my coat pocket, I press it against the bed of it’s fingernails and apply pressure to the point that the pen nearly breaks, but still I elicit no response from it.
I become aware that my head is still resting in pools of drying blood on it’s chest, and raise up. Maxwell coughs a bit, gags as the blood drips from my ear and down through a crack in the wooden planks which form the fracturing floor, but I’m barely aware of it. I’m focusing instead on the body spread out beneath me, it’s flesh rapidly losing color and warmth, it’s blood quickly beginning to coagulate. Soon, Maria, soon I will understand everything that you face.
There’s a tap on my shoulder, but Maxwell still refuses to look at me. I mutter something, but I’m honestly not quite sure what it is, I’m thinking too much about what preparations must be done. I shove a wad of bills into Maxwell’s sweaty, blood soaked hands and beseech him to leave as my spare hand gropes around inside the leather satchel I had dropped beside me. Maxwell begins to rattle on more, probably about his find and how I’m not to mention his name even in the worst of situations, but I pay no mind and instead pull the scalpel out of my bag, greedily ramming it into it’s chest, slashing the rigid body from chest to groin, sending Maxwell gagging and running out of the room, from where I reckon he will never return.
It’s a marvelous specimen he has presented me. The hole running through the body rendered enough blood loss to terminate it’s life, but did not damage any vital organs, which is lucky; I’ll need them, after all. Slowly, delicately, softly I pull them out one at a time and lay them on sheets of plastic so that the fluids dripping from them do not seep through the crumbling floor and alert any passers by below of my antics on the top floor. When they’re finally removed and the specimen is a hollow, empty thing, I wipe the blood from my hands on the legs of my pants and procure the book from my bag. A large, leather bound tome older than I, or my father, or my grandfather, or even his father. It’s words are faded and nearly illegible, but nonetheless I am able to deftly flip to the page I seek and procure the directions.
First, the chalk. Careful not to run it through one of the drying puddles of blood, I drag it along the floor, forming lines and circles, archaic symbols and something that I think is supposed to represent a horse’s skull. With my artwork complete, I toss the stub of chalk back into my bag and carry the specimen into the center, taking care not to smudge the fresh lines with a stray arm or a drop of blood. Then, flipping back to the page that I’ve taken care to mark with an old, black piece of ribbon, I set the organs accordingly in their place on the diagram. I take a moment to double check, to verify that everything is in it’s rightful place, and begin reading aloud the words in the book. They’re an almost unintelligible garble, Gaelic I believe, but by the third passage of text, I have given up. Aside from a stiff breeze coming in through the window, nothing appears to have happened yet. After double and triple checking the words, the markings, and even the specimen, I conclude that this is another dead end. Furious, I pack up my things, swearing loudly all the way, and wrap up the useless pile of flesh with it’s own organs and drop it out the window, into the raging waters of the river below, where it will end up somewhere that I couldn’t possibly care about. After positioning my bag to hide any blood stains, I take my leave of the room.
As the old oak door swings open, I find myself in for a shock: where once was a hallway there is now darkness, but at my feet is now a mysterious, newly grown field of grass. The blades have a sweet smell to them as they sway in some invisible wind, but seem to abruptly stop roughly 3 feet from my full arm width on either side. As I look down the path, I see the strangest thing: there is a man at the end, as if illuminated by a spotlight, sitting at a piano. Though concealed by a long, black robe, I can tell that he is a tall, slim man, with skin the color of ivory and long, silver hair. He pays me no heed. He sways with his own tune, a slow, deep number, his slender fingers seemingly disappearing as their pale flesh touches against the keys of the piano.
As I clutch the book to my chest and walk forward, I realize that it must be him. I have only sought him out for years now, hoping to find him and understand my Maria’s suffering. And now, at long last, I have finally found him. My fingers tighten around the book, cutting off the circulation in my fingertips, but I pay no mind to them. I must know.
“Death.” I whisper his name softly. He stops playing, tilting his head just barely to glare at me from the corner of his eyes. He then raises his gaze to look over my shoulder at the door, which has remained in this strange place despite the numerous changes. Without saying a word, he resumes his playing.
“Death.” I say again, louder this time, “I want to know what happened to Maria.” He misses a note this time, but still he does not say a word. He shakes his head, runs his hands through his hair to smooth it out, and resumes playing.
“DEATH!” I yell again, only somewhat aware of how macabre this is quickly becoming. “I want to understand what happened to my Maria!”
I strike a nerve this time. He exhales like a wild beast and slams the lid closed over the keys of the piano, his flesh in stark contrast to it’s black construction. He rises, pulling the robe closer to him, the sound of velvet rubbing on velvet echoing in the room. He crosses his arms and towers over me, his eyes narrowed and picking me apart, but still, he does not speak. After a long moment, Death reaches his arm around and grabs the back of my head, holding me still as he places a slow, definite kiss on my forehead. His lips, colder than ice, cause me to close my eyes instinctively.
When I open them, the black emptiness is gone. I’m in a room with dim lighting and plain, white ceilings. Unfamiliar to me. I feel…different. It takes me a moment, but I realize that everything is quiet and still. A tall man in a white coat enters the room and wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead. There’s a blinding light as the man in the coat waves something in his hand at my face, but I cannot close my eyes. A sharp pain in my fingers, now. He seems to be pressing something into my fingers, close to the bed of my fingernail. Why is this?
It is at this moment that I see a glimpse of black out of the corner of my eye, and I see him again. Death stands in the corner of the room, his arms still crossed and his face still emotionless. The man in the coat moves in front of Death, who does not so much as move around the room, but instead his being seems to fall apart into a million black bugs and float around the room from place to place until they reform, finally resuming the shape of their slender man. As I stare, unable to move my head or signal to the doctor, it is then that I realize that Death has granted my wish of knowledge, and that I am indeed dead. As the realization dawns on me, I see Death smile, his lips parting and revealing a sinister grin that seems to be full of rows upon rows of teeth.
The world blackens for a second, and when it returns I find myself in another room. It’s quiet, still; you never realize how loud your own heartbeat is until it’s gone. I feel a sharp pinch in my neck, and then something cold rushes through my body, and I see a different man, this one wearing a blue smock and a pair of wire rim glasses, staring down at me. He sighs and shakes his head as he begins bending my arms and fingers. There’s a loud gurgling noise below me, which I can only assume is my blood rushing down a drain as the embalming fluid take it’s place.
The world goes dark again, but this time it stays dark. I still cannot move, cannot close my eyes. I feel empty, hollow inside as I feel something sloshing around inside of me; the embalming fluid settling in my veins, if I had to guess. I lay there a moment, dark and silent, before I hear a soft thud above me.
A moment of silence passes, and there is another soft thud.
Another moment; another thud.
It’s dirt, I realize. Dirt hitting the top of a coffin.
It goes on for hours, the thuds become quieter and duller until finally I am alone in the dark and quiet. I lose track of time as I sit, alone, unable to move but only to think. This is not what my Maria endured, I conclude. No, I have angered Death by trying to reach him, trying to solve his mystery. I sought knowledge of a world beyond my own, and he has repaid me with a sliver of this knowledge. After what feels like, and perhaps is, an eternity, I am finally able to suss out how long I have been thinking as an all too familiar smell rises into the air, one that my mind is still able to remember with impeccable accuracy. If I could move my lips, I would smile. If I could laugh, I would.
For my Maria, there is a great mystery which I will never know. For me?
There is nothing.