Alice and Death
Alice met Death at a party. It was a Halloween party, which made matters considerably more confusing for both Alice and Death.
Alice had been having a terrible day. She had only gotten herself out of bed with promises to herself that whatever the day brought, she would make her way back to her current position and her resulting relief would make getting up worth it. In this frame of mind, she had battled her way through classes and taken shelter behind the desk during her shift at the recreation center, peering over at the stream of highly motivated people and doubting that she came from the same chromosome set. As she climbed the metal stairs leading to her red varnished door, she felt as if the faint Halleluiah Chorus wafting from the neighboring church was meant just for her. The warbling of the choir of retirees sponsored by Our Lady of Perpetual Song was constantly present outside the apartment. Alice frequently had to swallow her hostility at their unseasonable Christmas songs and unreasonable pitch. As she unlocked the door, the choir finished the Halleluiah Chorus and launched into O Little Town of Bethlehem in the same breath. Alice closed the door, muffling the music, and collapsed against it, as one does when one has just beat a successful retreat. She tossed her keys triumphantly onto the table, crumbled face-first onto the couch, and groaned with the relief. She savored the silence. The apartment was dark, except for a whisper of light peeking from under the bathroom door. The apartment was small but comfortable. It also appeared to be having an identity crisis, when examined closely. Sleek glass sculptures were positioned on top of tables that could have been designed by the Mario Brothers; A bobble head of Kermit the Frog took shelter under artfully displayed roses. However, like the roommates that lived there, the decorative riffraff seemed strangely complementary.
“Alice? Is that you?” Alice’s roommate Sam leaned out of the bathroom door, curling iron ensnared in her California blonde hair.
“No. Alice has ceased to exist on this mortal coil. Please hold while our operatives contact her.”
“Good. And I can’t hear you through the couch cushion, you know. Remember when I went to that movie premiere with you because we agreed that dressing up and going alone would take too much of a toll on your self-esteem?”
“No. No I don’t remember that conversation. And neither do you. Nor shall you ever remember that conversation vocally in public.” Alice’s voice was still swallowed by the pillow.
“Right. Well, I’m calling the favor in for tonight.” Sam announced
“Tonight? Not tonight. Please. Any other time.”
“Sorry. That’s not how favors work,” Sam trilled. Alice conceded the point with a stifled groan.
“Where are we going? And why? And how much chocolate and/or pizza will be there?”
“Some friends from my sociology class are doing a Halloween thing.”
“Why do you want me to go, anyway? You know I’m no good at parties.”
“Oh, I know,” replied Sam. It had, in fact, been she who had solemnly informed Alice that society might profit if she went out less. “But,” Sam conceded, “I’m not sure how many people I will know, and I want a fallback.”
“But you know everyone”
“True,” Alice knew without looking that Sam was beaming. “If I don’t, though, and you don’t come with me,” Sam began mounting her frontal assault on Alice’s unwillingness, “I will be all alone and everyone will be wondering who I am and why I bothered to come and then I shall be forced to drink excessively to fit in and then I’ll end up passed out in an alley somewhere because no one at the party noticed me stumbling out because no one was watching out for me, and it’ll be all your fault.”
Alice considered this accusation and parried weakly. “Sam, you always drink excessively.” Sam emerged from the bathroom looking like a bunny whose mother ought not to have let her out of the house. Her hands were affixed to her faux fur hips. “Wait. Sam. Would I have to dress up?”
Death was having a horrible day. He had had a Runner that morning, and had not been up to the task. His charge had been waiting in line at a busy farmer’s market, and Death had approached and politely informed him that that was all the time he got, and it would be much easier if he would please follow Death, all according to protocol. The man had screeched and dropped the basket of squashes he was carrying and disappeared into the crowd. Death watched him go, feeling that he lacked the necessary life force to pursue him. He really was getting too old for this. It was terrible what they were doing to the retirement age these days. A fellow could work his whole life with a certain idea of what glorious exit from productivity would look like, and then they postponed it and postponed it and he had to wait indefinitely. And on top of all that, some poor bastard had been sitting at his doorstep for the past month. Every time Death left his house, he would have to say that, no Mr. Schwartz, today was not the day, but he would be the first to know when it was. So Death had sidled awkwardly past Mr. Schwartz, unlocked his mahogany door, and slipped in. He spent the next hour sitting alone at his countertop, sipping Earl Grey Tea. After washing out his grey mug and throwing away his used teabag, Death went to check The List. The List told him who he was meant to retrieve, and when, and where. It did not tell him why. Death sometimes wished it would. The List used to be an old scroll delivered by a Monk with an unflattering haircut. As time went on, however, the scroll had changed into stationary and then into a telegram delivered by a nervous boy and then They had made Death get a fax machine, which Death just couldn’t help but be nervous about. Then, about twenty years ago, They had replaced it with a box with a glowing screen. Then Death had to learn how to Turn It On and Log In. The box used to exclaim “You’ve Got Mail!” Death liked that. Then it had stopped talking to him and had started showing pictures of aggressively happy youths beside the Log In Bar and then it had asked him to come up with a safer password. Death, resenting this, just added an exclamation mark to his old password. Death only received mail from two sources: The Them would contact him a few times a day, (every email from the Them would have URGENT at the top. Death wondered why They didn’t just plan better and give him advance notice.) and he would get emails about how he could enhance his manhood. The first time he received an email from Dr. Kleinman at The Male Clinic, Death was thrilled. Upon closer examination, however, they baffled Death, so he just ignored them now. After checking to see who he was meeting (and pointedly not clicking on an email from Dr. Kleinman) Death sighed and got ready to leave. Not knowing when he would next be back, Death decided to leave out some cat food for Dog. Dog was Death’s Cat. He was never quite sure how he had acquired Dog, but Dog had seemed to have the whole situation well in hand from the beginning. Death had named him Dog because he wanted to ensure that his cat did not feel limited by his feline designation; Death had wanted Dog to know from the outset that he could be whatever he wanted to be. Sometimes Death worried this name had just confused Dog. Dog was prone to fall over while standing still. Death worried a lot. On his way out the door, Death realized too late that Mr. Schwartz had begun to cook a can of beans over a fire he had started in an open bucket. On his way out the door, he accidentally kicked Mr. Schwartz’s bucket, and apologized all the way down the walk and through the gate.
They say that Death rides a Pale Horse. This is not remotely true. In actuality, he drives a cramped VW Bug from the 1960’s. However, all the original orange paint has since peeled off, so now it’s mostly white.
Alice found herself standing alone next to a bar that was trying too hard to relate to the hipster generation. If it was a human, this bar would have claimed that its hair dried like that. Alice was dressed as a frumpy dinosaur. Sam had, as predicted, known everyone in attendance. A drunken shout of welcome had heralded her arrival. She had then affected bashfulness for five minutes, at which point she had coquettishly removed her coat and abandoned Alice. Sam was now drinking excessively.
Alice slid onto a barstool. It squeaked as she did so, but the music was so loud nobody noticed. There were two enormous speakers around the side of the bar, and flashing lights and yells punctuated the beat of the heavy music, but Alice had settled in a fairly secluded part of the bar. She rested her felt-clad forearms on the surface of the bar and admired the bottles of liquor paving the wall waist-high around the back of the bar. A misty mirror extended above it, giving Alice’s reflection the rosy effect of a stylized photograph from the 1950s. Above the ornate framing of the mirror rested a thick wooden shelf with an eclectic mix of objects resting on it; a French horn, a ham radio, and a female mannequin’s leg peeked from behind black-and-white photos of old women. Alice wondered if the mannequin missed her leg. She hoped she had a friend to prop her up. Maybe she had a dashing mannequin husband who had carried her down the aisle like a Lifetime Movie.
Deciding that her frame of mind could not get any worse, Alice looked for a bartender. As a rule, she didn’t drink when she was Sam’s plus one, but she tonight she would permit herself to consume as many nachos as was humanly possible. When she looked over her shoulder she nearly slipped off her barstool in surprise. A tall, cloaked stranger was standing behind her, staring directly at her from under his hood. After floundering for a moment, Alice recovered her balance but not her dignity, and swiveled sheepishly around to greet the stranger. “Can I help you?” gasped Alice. The man was almost impossibly tall, and a cloak obscured most of his form. It dragged behind him on the floor, though did not appear to be dirty. It had been drawn around his bony shoulders, fastened at the base of the neck with an angry silver brooch of a skull with rubies glittering in its sunken eyes. A great hood swathed most of his head, and what was not covered was obscured by shadow. The hood came to a boxy spiral point at the top. Alice wondered how he got it to do that. Wire, maybe.
“I am Death,” said Death.
“I can see that,” said Alice. “I’m a dinosaur.” Death fidgeted.
“No. No, that can’t be right. I took care of them ages ago,” said Death. “I’m here for Alice Carrel.” Death looked more comfortable once he had stated his purpose.
“Did Sam send you? Well, you can tell her I’m not interested in shotgunning or grinding or funneling anything,” Alice replied. “I’m just here until she gets too drunk to remember I forced her to go home before dawn.” Alice paused a moment, and regarded a befuddled Death. “Sorry,” she conceded. “My roommate and I have found each other at odds tonight. Here,” Alice removed her coat from the stool next to her, “If you want to sit down, I mean, you don’t have to…” She trailed off. Seeing no alternative, Death shuffled over and perched on the stool.
“I don’t think Their name is Sam…” Death mumbled.
“The Ones I serve. I don’t think Their name is Sam.” Death was getting agitated.
“Oh! You’re a bartender? And you haven’t served Sam yet? I’ll bet she’s got a different bartender hopelessly following her around. I guess I just assumed you were one of her friends. So was there a telephone call or something? I lost my phone the other day.”
“A telephone call?” Death repeated vaguely. He was beginning to feel panicky, as though he should have studied up for this one, because clearly everyone knew something he didn’t.
“Is that why you asked for me?” Alice asked
“Yes!”shouted Death. He knew this one. “I am here for Alice.”
“So there is a telephone call?”
“No! No, I am Death. I am here for Alice Carrel!”
“You mentioned,” sighed Alice, rubbing the bridge of her nose between her fingers. She was beginning to see she was dealing with a lost soul. “That’s an excellent costume, by the way.”
“Costume?” Maybe this was a test, thought Death. Weren’t They supposed to warn you?
“Yeah! Really life-like! The skeleton fingers are a nice touch. Must’ve cost a fortune!”
“I wouldn’t know. Came with the job.” Death congratulated himself on formulating such a coherent response under adverse circumstances.
“Oh, the bar supplied it for Halloween? How generous!”
“…Yes,” Death replied. He was sensing that things would be easier if he agreed with everything she said.
“But if you’re Death, where’s your thingy? Your reaper?”
“They made me leave it outside,” said Death dejectedly.
“Well, that’s okay,” said Alice, “It’s still a marvelous costume!”
“So do you enjoy bartending, Mr. Death?”
“Good! What do you do in your free time?” said Alice, struggling to keep the conversation afloat.
“What?” Alice was worried they had fallen off the conversational deep end.
“Oh! Yes, I…I collect things.” Death was worried he had pushed them off the conversational deep end. Or rather, he was worried he had just pushed this nice young lady’s portion of the conversation over and now he was about to jump in just for the hell of it.”
“What do you collect?”
“Souls,” said Death. Alice tittered nervously.
“Are you a politician, then?” Alice asked, trying to lighten the mood.
“…Yes.” Alice genuinely laughed, mostly out of relief that this man wasn’t going to try to do anything that would end in her picture being shown on Dateline.
“Ha! Ha ha! That was a joke! I am funny,” announced Death. He had been alarmed by the quick change of demeanor in Alice, but had adapted with commendable mental dexterity, in his opinion.
“Are you running for political office then? And bartending on the side? I mean, I’ve never heard of that before, but the governor of Colorado did own a bar before he ran. It takes all types, I guess! What political position do you want to fill?”
“A Duke of Hazzard?” guessed Death. He had seen the name once on a glowing box several decades ago, when he was sent to collect some people who had sniffed a great deal of powder up their nostrils. They were doing much better now. Much more stable, Death briefly reflected. That was what you hoped would happen when on the job, thought Death. On the job… He was here to collect someone! He had almost forgotten! He was having trouble remembering the person’s name though…Annie? Abby? What was it?
Alice meanwhile was laughing louder than before. He was weird, but she liked his off-color sense of humor. “Okay. What political party?” challenged Alice.
“The Off-the-Hook Party?” hazarded Death. He had heard this referenced not too long ago, when he had been sent to collect a group of people who had inhaled some burned green leaves. They were also happier now, although much less calm. Even so, Death could not help but marvel at the strange things people stuck into the holes in their faces.
“You know,” laughed Alice, “you have a knack for making horribly outdated puns.”
“You’re an outdated pun,” mumbled Death
“Oh! Um, thank you,” said Death, realizing this was not the insult it had been in the 1800s.
There was a silence that both parties were struggling to fill. “So…” Alice droned when the silence had begun to hang in the air. “What’s your favorite color?”
“I know. I’m horrible at killing time with people I don’t know well.”
“Killing Time?” Death was alarmed.
“Oh, yeah, sorry! Am I keeping you from something? Do you need to be working?”
“No. I don’t think I’m going to find her in that crowd” Death glanced at the dancers. “They might get angry, but today’s been difficult and I haven’t had a night off in centuries, so They owe me one.”
“I know how you feel. I had this whole night in planned and then my friend Sam just up and pushed me out the door. And in a dinosaur costume. It was such a long week. I just get so burned out lately,” sighed Alice.
The thumping of the dance music prevailed for a while. Some girls were screaming, apparently simply because they liked to scream. Death regarded the undulating dancers. “That doesn’t look like much fun,” he observed, almost normally.
“I mean, it’s okay every once in a while, but Sam, my roommate, she does it so often I just can’t keep up.”
“If you don’t like it, why did you come?” asked Death.
“Well, I owed her a favor, and besides, I want to make sure she doesn’t do anything too stupid. She really is a nice person when she’s not charming a crowd.”
“Actually, I think she does this on purpose. Gets me out and tries to help me learn how to be more sociable. I think she thinks I’m wasting my life. And I mean, I guess she’s kind of right. I can’t remember the last time I just went out for fun on a weeknight or kissed a stranger or danced in the rain or did any of that stuff that movies tell you is what living is.”
“No such thing,” Death said.
“No such thing as wasting your life. You just can’t do it. Sure, some people look as though they do more with their time than others, but that doesn’t mean they lived more. It just means they lived their life louder than other people. And either way is fine. The important thing is just to live. You don’t have to get fancy about it. The real waste is thinking you’ve wasted it.” Death sat back, exhausted. He had just finished his longest speech in several millennia.
“Wow,” said Alice, rather awed by this pronouncement. “Wow. That’s…That’s really…thank you. I never-,” she was interrupted by Sam, who had stumbled into Alice.
“C’mon Alice! Come dance! We’re’ll havin’ a great time!” Sam shouted. She threw her arm over Alice and began leaning on her.
“Oh boy. Okay. Time to go! Sorry, I’ve got to get her home.” Alice said to Death. Death nodded in genuine, emphatic agreement.
“Who’re you talkin’ to?” Sam slurred, her eyes slipping over Death.
“You are going to have one killer headache. Come on.” Alice put her arm around Sam’s waist and guided her purposefully toward the door. When she paused at the couch to grab Sam’s coat from the pile, she saw Death slipping through the crowd with her own coat over his arm. He offered it to her silently. “Thank you,” Alice said, “really, I had a great time.” Sam began to sway dangerously, so Alice re-draped Sam’s limp figure over her shoulders and tottered toward the door.
As she left the party and steered Sam toward her car, Alice wondered if she would ever see whoever was dressed as Death again. She realized she hadn’t even gotten his name. She also realized that she would never be able to recognize him if she did see him. Oh well. It was a small world. They would probably bump into one another again at some point.
Sam left the party excessively drunk*
Death left the party with a spring in his step. He strolled jauntily down the street, reclaimed reaper over one shoulder. He was in no hurry to get back to his empty house and The List that was waiting. He realized now that he would be scolded for not completing the job, for not finding Alice Carrel, but he didn’t properly care. He couldn’t remember the last time he had had such a good night while on the job. He realized he didn’t know the girl’s name. Oh well, Death thought. He would see her again, at one time or another.
Hannah Wold is currently a sophomore double majoring in Film and Creative Writing. Once, she thought she saw Steve Carell at a Noodles N Company. But, upon closer examination, it wasn’t him. Recently, she viewed a squirrel carrying an entire Chipotle burrito in its mouth, and consequently, she feels she has lived a full life.