By Ben Cromwell
I saw a cartoon, once, in some magazine, or maybe it was online. It said life was in love with death, and that over the years, life had sent gifts to death. A little cartoon turtle walked across the frame, going from young to old as it went. A dark robed figure waited, stoically to receive it. Death never sent anything back.
That’s kind of how it was between Elizabeth and me, too.
I was head over heels. Which is a thing. I always thought it was an expression, a figure of speech, but that’s actually how it felt, completely disorienting. Like if you’ve ever been swimming and tried to do a somersault in the water. You flail and swirl and get water up your nose, and in the end, you’re not even sure if you managed it or not. Something happened, but what it is, exactly, isn’t clear.
Our dates were never all that exciting. We went to the movies a lot and every time there was a death on the screen, I’d look over at her, expecting to see something, a burst of emotion, laughter, the existential horror of being fundamentally misunderstood. But she was always more concerned with her bucket of popcorn than the movie.
Death can eat.
Sometimes, I’d put my arm around her or lean in for a kiss and she’d give me this look like try it and I’ll suck the life out of you through your mouth. I was willing to risk it, but she wasn’t, so we didn’t.
I paid for everything, too. It turns out death has no use for money. Not that I’m complaining, but popcorn’s expensive when you don’t have a job. I’d taken to not eating lunch and just pocketing the money my parents gave me every day so I’d have something to satisfy her voracious appetite.
On our first date, I told her about my family, how I’m an only child and so my parents are always coddling me and hovering. She didn’t seem that interested, but when I asked her about herself, she just shrugged and gave me these one-word answers.
“What’s your favorite color?”
“Cool. Is that like a nod to the morally ambiguous nature of your job?”
“What’s your favorite restaurant?”
“This one’s nice.”
“Oh yeah! I like Pei Wei, too! What’s your favorite dish? I like the orange chicken.”
“Orange chicken is the dish most people choke on.”
I’d just taken a drink of my soda and I coughed and spluttered, spraying coke everywhere. Elizabeth just raised her eyebrows at me like I might be embarrassing her.
“You’re not working right now, are you?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Your job. I mean, I think it’s your job. Killing. You’re not doing that now. Like, we’re not here waiting here for someone to die?”
She stared at me, deep into my eyes, as she bit the end off a spring roll and chewed it slowly.
“I don’t wait for people,” she said with food still in her mouth. “They wait for me.”
“Like that Emily Dickenson Poem,” I said. “Because death could not wait for me, I kindly waited for her… or something like that.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Something like that.”
Later, we stopped under an overpass. Traffic was thick on the bridge. The rumble of diesel engines made my insides feel like jell-O, and there was so much noise, I could barely hear her.
“I had fun tonight,” I said.
She mumbled something I couldn’t make out.
“Can I walk you home?”
“Where do you live?”
She took my hand in hers. I don’t know what I’d expected. Cold, maybe. You always imagine death will be cold. But her hands were warm and soft. Mine was slightly sweaty.
I reached up and touched her cheek with my other hand and then leaned in for a kiss. She let me touch my lips against hers, but she didn’t kiss me back. We stayed like that for a few awkward seconds, me, waiting for… something. Anything. Her, giving me space, but no more. Eventually, I pulled away and looked down at the ground. She squeezed my hand and let it drop. When I looked up, she was at the end of the tunnel, walking away from me. I let her go.
The next day, I got a text from her. She wanted to see me again, and I said yes. Of course I said yes. She was beautiful, and mysterious, and isn’t that what you’re supposed to want?
So I bought her popcorn and sat through movies I didn’t really want to see, and sometimes she let me hold her hand, and always, at the end of the night, I would kiss her, and she would let me.
I didn’t want to be alone, and I was alone. I went to this school. It’s probably like this in every school, but I went to this school where all the rich, popular kids seemed to have all the friends.
And if you were poor and unpopular, at least you could be good at sports, but I wasn’t. And if you weren’t good at sports, you could at least be in some club, but I went to a few of the meetings for the clubs, and none of them seemed to need me, so I didn’t go back.
And if you weren’t in a club, you could maybe be smart and get good grades, but I didn’t, at least not that good, not good enough that anyone noticed.
And if you weren’t smart, you could be a stoner or a tweaker or one of those kids who drank vodka out of a sprite bottle and wore a black trenchcoat and scared everyone, but that seemed like way too much, and besides, I get scared and anxious sometimes, and I didn’t think I could pull off the combat boots or the black jeans or that haircut where it’s long on top but shaved on the sides.
The truth is that I was just regular, you know, ordinary. Un… anything.
Elizabeth and I met at the hospital, which is where most people meet death, I guess.
My Uncle Porter had prostate cancer, and it had metastasized to pretty much everywhere, so my mom and I went to the hospital to be with him while he died because he didn’t have anyone else, and there she was, already in the room because Porter had died right before we got there, but I didn’t know that yet.
She was wearing normal clothes, like chucks and some jeans and a t-shirt or maybe it was a hoodie. I can’t really remember. But her hair was dark and a little messy, which I like, and she had this little half smile on her face, and she seemed like she wouldn’t mind if you spoke to her, like approachable, and I thought that was brilliant because I have a hard time talking to girls mostly. I think maybe that’s why I found her so beautiful, because she seemed like me, you know, ordinary.
“Hi.” I think that was the first thing I said. And then, “Are you here to see Porter?”
“He’s my uncle,” I said.
She seemed like she wanted to leave then, but my mom was talking to a nurse who’d just come in, and they were blocking the door, so she waited and I said, “How did you know him?”
She shrugged, and I thought that was weird, but maybe Porter had volunteered to tutor kids or something and maybe that was why she was here.
She waited there, very patiently while my mom and the nurse talked about whatever adults talk about when someone dies, and I waited there with her, watching her and she sort of smiled at me out of the corner of her mouth, and so I said, “do you want to go out some time?” which was a really weird thing for me to say because I’d never asked anyone out before and because we were in a room where someone had just died, and I guess for other reasons as well, but she turned to me and nodded, and so I gave her my phone number, which I wrote down on a little stirp of paper I tore off of a brochure that was on the table by the door. I think it was called The Five Stages of Grief.
My mom and the nurse finished talking and the nurse went off to see another patient, while my mom stepped over to the side of the bed to talk to my dad, and the girl was about to leave.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
She paused and looked at me, and then she said, “Death… but you can call me Elizabeth if you want.”
And I laughed because that is a pretty good reply if you’re in a hospital room where someone’s just died and you’re leaving, but my parents didn’t get it. In fact, they were kind of disturbed, and when I tried to explain why I was laughing, they got mad at me and claimed they hadn’t seen Elizabeth at all.
About a month after we started dating, I was sitting in Geometry class, Listening to Mrs. Mazenko drone on about proving that triangles always added up to 90 degrees or something, and thinking about Elizabeth and where we might go for our next date, and whether she would let me touch her thigh, when something strange happened.
I leaned back in my chair, like waaaay waaay back, and the top of my head grazed something, and it startled me because I’d kind of forgotten that there were other people around me, and I blushed, thinking I’d just invaded the private space of whoever sat behind me. I couldn’t remember who it was, and I didn’t want to look, so I just sat there, feeling more and more embarrassed. And the longer I sat there, the more It felt like everyone was looking at me, and I just needed the bell to ring, but it wouldn’t even though I knew class was nearly over, and I was sweating, and I was sure everyone had noticed, and Mrs. Mazenko just kept on talking and talking, and then I couldn’t take it anymore, and I just stood up and walked as quickly as I could out of the room.
As the door shut behind me, I thought I heard Mrs. Mazenko say something like, “Theo, where are you going?” but I was already halfway down the hall. I ducked into the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face and tried to slow my breathing down. It was so stupid. I didn’t even know who or what I’d touched, but somehow everything had spiraled out of control. The bell rang. I’d left all my things in the Geometry classroom, and I had to go back and grab them before I went to my next class and Mrs. Mazenko would probably talk to me about walking out without permission, but I didn’t see any alternative, so I pulled out some paper towels and mopped my face and went back to the classroom.
The hallway was crowded with people as I retraced my steps, rehearsing the line I would say to Mrs. Mazenko. Sorry. I felt sick, and I needed to use the bathroom. I’m feeling much better now. But I didn’t make it to her class.
“Theo,” said a voice.
I looked around and saw a dark-haired girl I’d never seen before holding my books.
“Oh,” I said, taking the books from her. “Thanks.”
“I… uh… wasn’t feeling…”
“It’s cool,” she said.
I nodded. She was wearing green shoes that had things written on them in permanent marker. The left one said, Keep your laws off my uterus. The right one said, dreams in which I’m dying are the best… It curled around the back of her shoe, but I knew the lyric.
“Is that Tears for Fears?”
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s from Donnie Darko.”
“I don’t know that one,” I said, looking up at her. She had a bright purple streak in her short hair, and her skin was the color of honey, and she must have been in my math class, but I could have sworn I’d never seen her before.
“Well, you should definitely see it,” she was saying. “It’s my favorite movie.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I should.”
She nodded at me and I stood there, looking at the ground and feeling the panic rise again.
“Okay then,” she said. “Gotta get to class.”
She turned to go.
“Wait,” I said. “What’s your name?”
She stopped. “Are you serious right now?”
“I’ve sat behind you in Geometry all year,” she said.
“I… um… I’m…”
“We were in the same class in third grade.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I knew that,” but I didn’t know that at all.
She stared at me expectantly.
I opened my mouth and closed it again.
“Dear god,” she said.
She shook her head at me in mock disappointment.
“I should probably just go,” I said. The hallway had cleared out. Most people were in class now. I turned to go.
“It’s Myla,” she said.
“My name. It’s Myla.”
“Right,” I said.
“Say it,” she said.
“C’mon, it’s not that hard.”
I felt myself blush again.
“Myla,” I said.
I looked up and she was smiling at me.
“Well, see you around, Theo,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “See you.”
She turned to go again.
“Hey,” I said. “Maybe you could show me that movie sometime?”
She glanced back at me over her shoulder.
“Maybe,” she said.
I went out with Elizabeth that night. We watched a vampire movie and ate Junior Mints with our Coke, but the whole time I was thinking about Myla. Elizabeth didn’t seem to notice, even when I pulled away from our goodnight kiss much too quickly. She just turned and walked away like always.
“I’m dating death,” I said.
It was a few days later and I was sitting with Myla in the cafeteria. We’d eaten lunch together every day since she’d returned my books to me, and it was kind of wonderful.
Myla was into punk music. She played guitar and drums. She liked old movies and horror novels. Better than that, she didn’t bat an eye when I confessed I didn’t know who the Misfits were or the Ramones, or that I’d never seen the Matrix. She just asked me what music I listened to (mostly pop music), what books I liked to read (The Hunger Games, Ready Player One, Neverworld Wake…) and what movies I liked (Comedies because life feels way too serious most of the time), and she seemed interested in my opinions. It was kind of like having a friend.
“I always see you hanging out alone,” she said a few days into our new lunch arrangement. “But you’ve gotta have friends, right?”
“Not really,” I said.
She looked at me skeptically.
“Well there is this one person… or maybe she’s not…”
“Not what?” asked Myla. “Not a person?”
“Not exactly,” I said, and then I told her about Elizabeth.
“So you think she’s Death because she was there when your uncle died and she said her name was Death?”
“Well…” I said. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Has it occurred to you that Elizabeth is just an ordinary girl?”
“Not really,” I said. “She’s too strange to be an ordinary girl.”
“Fine. Not an ordinary ordinary girl,” said Myla, sighing, “but like a strange ordinary girl?”
“Hmmm…” I said, “I guess you could be right.”
“Yeah,” said Myla, “I am.”
“But she’s not ordinary,” I said..”
“Yeah, I got that,” said Myla.
She reached over and plucked one of my potato chips from my lunch and crunched it, and that made me so strangely happy, like I had a friend who would just do that, you know, steal my food like that because we were so close, so I smiled at her.
“What?” I asked.
“What’s with the goofy grin?” asked Myla.
“I think you should come with us,” I said.
“Come with you?”
“On our next date,” I said. “You should come and meet Elizabeth.”
“I don’t know,” said Myla, frowning.
“Oh, c’mon, you’d have a blast. We go to see throwback movies all the time.”
“I’m not sure,” said Myla.
“I’m sure she’d want to meet you,” I said.
“I think Donnie Darko might be playing this week,” I said.
She shook her head.
“Please,” I said. “For me?”
She sighed, kind of exasperatedly, but there was a hint of a smile on her lips and that, too, made me happy.
That night at the theater, I was really hoping Myla would bring her own money because I only had enough for tickets for me and Elizabeth, but Myla hadn’t even shown up by the time the movie was starting, so I texted her, but she didn’t respond.
“Sorry,” I said to Elizabeth. “I really thought she was coming.”
“Oh, she’ll be here,” said Elizabeth. “She’s just running a little late.”
I smiled. I hadn’t been sure how it would go over, inviting another girl on our date, but Elizabeth seemed fine with it. We got popcorn and Twizzlers and found seats down near the front, and I put my hand on Elizabeth’s thigh, and she let me, so I kept it there.
About ten minutes later, Myla showed up. She came down the aisle, making way too much noise.
“Sorry I’m late,” she hissed.
“No problem,” I whispered back.
“Shut up!” yelled someone from the back of the theater.
We both snickered and I passed Myla a Twizzler.
The movie was pretty good. It was about time travel and death and a zombie rabbit.
“I can see why you like this one,” I said when the lights finally came up.
“Isn’t it great,” said Myla.
We walked down to the overpass. Myla was chattering on about the movie and how genius it was, and I was laughing and holding hands with Elizabeth, who was smiling. She didn’t say much, but I thought she liked Myla, and that was good.
“So,” I said. “What did you think of the movie?”
“Who are you talking to?” asked Myla.
“What?” I asked.
“I mean, I loved it,” said Myla, “but I always love Donnie Darko.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I was just asking Elizabeth.”
“Oh, right, Elizabeth,” said Myla with a little smile on her lips. “I’m sorry she couldn’t make it tonight.”
I thought that was pretty rude, considering Elizabeth was right there, holding my hand.
“That’s not cool,” I said.
Myla looked hurt, but she recovered quickly.
“Look, Theo, it’s alright. I get it. You were too shy to ask me out, so you came up with that story. It’s fine.” She smiled.
I looked at Elizabeth. She was still smiling too.
“Can you not…?” I started to ask.
“You don’t have to pretend,” said Myla. “I like you.”
She looked at me like we were both in on some kind of joke, but then her smile faltered.
“What’s wrong?” asked Myla.
“I’m not sure what’s happening,” I said, looking at Elizabeth again. We were almost at the overpass. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Elizabeth?”
“It’s alright,” said Elizabeth. “Everything’s going to be alright.”
“Why do you keep saying Elizabeth?” asked Myla.
A horn from a truck sounded somewhere on the highway.
“Stop,” I said. “Stop walking. Something’s wrong”
“What’s wrong?” asked Myla, still moving forward.
“Please stop!” I shouted.
Myla jumped. She slowed down, but she was still moving, backing away now as she eyed me warily.
“What’s up with you tonight, Theo? Why are you so keyed up?”
I tried to calm down, but the panic was rising and I was having trouble controlling my breathing. I’d stopped, but Elizabeth kept moving. Her fingers slipped out of mine and she stepped toward Myla. The truck horn sounded again. It was closer this time.
“Myla, please stop walking,” I gasped. “Something is about to happen.”
She was about ten feet in front of me when she finally stopped.
“You’re not making sense, Theo,” she said. “What’s about to happen?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “Something bad.”
“I’m not gonna lie, you’re scaring me, Theo.”
I took a half-step forward, and she recoiled.
“Please,” I said. “Elizabeth, please don’t.”
Myla looked like she might run, but Elizabeth was there, next to her. She stepped right in front of Myla and took her hand, but Myla didn’t seem to notice. She was looking around wildly.
“Theo, who are you talking to?”
“It’s Death,” I said. “She’s right in front of you. Don’t you see her?”
“I’m so scared right now,” said Myla. “Please stop.”
The truck horn sounded again, and this time it was right on top of us. There was a crunching sound and then a long screech of metal rending.
“Myla!” I screamed, but it was far too late to do anything. The semi had broken through the guardrail on the highway and it was falling as if in slow motion.
I saw Myla’s eyes shift from me to Elizabeth, and a look, like the solution to a problem that had been obvious all along lit her face. Her mouth opened into a perfect O, and then everything was noise and chaos. The truck hit the pavement and it seemed to explode. The tanker it was towing burst and a wave of dark liquid expanded outward. Glass flew everywhere, and I closed my eyes as pieces stung my face. And then I was falling, too.
When I opened my eyes, the world seemed torn open. The ground was bright with the sheen of oil. Things were quiet like when fresh snow has fallen and everything seems muffled. A few people were standing on the highway looking down at the scene, but no one was saying anything yet. Despite the chaos, it was strangely peaceful.
“Myla?” I called. “Elizabeth?”
No one answered. I touched my own face, and then I patted myself. I seemed to be okay, so I stood up slowly and looked around. There was someone standing not too far from me.
“Myla!” I called, but when she turned, I could see it wasn’t her. It was Elizabeth. I ran toward her and she stepped aside, revealing a body at her feet, covered in shiny, dark liquid.
“Myla,” I said again. I didn’t want to look, but I had to. I had to know. I dropped to my knees and touched her face.
She flinched and groaned.
“What just happened?”
I looked up at Elizabeth.
“You saved her,” I said.
“No,” said Elizabeth. “I don’t save people.”
“It wasn’t her time,” said Elizabeth.
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
“Thanks for the popcorn,” said Elizabeth.
She reached down and touched my face gently, and then she walked briskly over to the cab of the semi and opened the door. The driver was inside, hanging upside down from his seatbelt.
“Help me,” he gasped.
“Yes,” said Elizabeth.
“No,” I whispered, “Don’t.”
His eyes seemed to lock onto hers and he reached out to her. She took his hand, gently, and then his eyes rolled up into his head and his body convulsed once and went limp.
I tried to get him free, but the seatbelt was stuck, and his legs were pinned under the steering wheel, and I wasn’t strong enough to lift his body. A few minutes later, the paramedics arrived and then the fire trucks. They cut him out of the truck with the jaws of life and put him in the back of an ambulance, but I knew he was dead.
In all the confusion, Elizabeth disappeared.
I texted and even tried to call her over the next couple of days, but she never answered.
Myla and I were at lunch on Monday. We hadn’t really talked about Elizabeth since the accident.
“Do you think we’ll ever see her again,” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Myla.
“You did see her, though,” I said.
She hesitated. “Yeah, I saw her.”
“She saved us,” I said.
“Maybe,” said Myla. She paused, and then “She didn’t save the driver.”
“Maybe she couldn’t,” I said.
“Maybe,” she said. “I don’t know… but I do know I hope we don’t see her again for a very long time.”
She reached across the table and took my hand. It was cold, and a chill ran down my spine.
“Sure,” I said. “Me too.”
Ben Cromwell can never remember exactly where he was born. To be fair, he was a baby. His first kiss occurred at summer camp in southern Missouri in 1997. He has strong opinions about vanilla ice cream.