The sky brightens. The street lights flicker out. The pub calls last orders. Then shuts its doors.
You pat down your pockets. Pull out a coin. Heads… You’ll walk the ten miles over to the next town. Tails… You’ll make your way over to the village’s only bus stop, and nap on the bench until the first bus comes. For as long as you can remember, that’s how you’ve made decisions.
Tails. You start walking.
At this hour, the village is graveyard still. The early morning mist hangs close to the ground. The heavy thud and drag of your steps cuts through the silence.
As the path creeps upwards, it gets harder to keep your balance. You remember the pavement being at least a yard wide the night before. Now it has shrunk down to a narrow strip, with barely enough room for both feet. You fling out both arms to steady yourself, placing one scuffed shoe in front of the other.
“Fuck these country roads,” you say. Your voice echoes through the village’s emptiness.
A twitching curtain in one of the nearby houses catches your attention. A coarse-faced local glares out at you through the grimy glass. In their expression you see the sort of disgust you know too well. After a quick flash of your middle finger, the curtain is yanked shut.
The bus stop looms up ahead, perched on a slope in a way that thumbs its nose at gravity. There is a figure sat hunched over in the shelter, his face hidden inside the hood of his… Is that a coat or a cloak?
Either way, it’s none of your business. You shrug to yourself and stagger over to where the bus times are listed. The words are swimming in front of you and it takes a while to focus on what they say. The next bus won’t arrive until six thirty.
“Country bumpkin public transport. Am I right?” You snort and look over at the figure. No response. But that doesn’t surprise you… You can’t quite put your finger on it, but he gives you the willies. Better keep your distance.
You pull your phone from your pocket to check the time, but there’s no charge in it. Fan-fucking-tastic.
Minutes or hours pass by. There’s no way to tell. Even the sky’s the same miserable shade of grey as when you left the pub. You’re struggling to stay propped up on your feet. The morning’s chill is sinking into your bones as the buzz of the last pint wears off.
You shuffle over to the bench and sit down on the opposite end, leaving as much space as possible between you and the stranger. The hard wood feels damp and uncomfortable. Still your eyelids become heavy. Your vision, already foggy from the booze and lack of sleep, starts to darken at the edges.
Before you can follow what’s happening, you’re gone. Into that in-between place you often visit after one drink too many.
A string of spit seeps out from the corner of your mouth and dribbles down your chin. You jolt awake.
The figure is no longer sat on the bench beside you. He’s standing in front of you, and from this angle you can see that his face isn’t just hidden. It simply isn’t there.
You can feel his breath tickling against your skin, somehow hot and cold at the same time. A sour smell that reminds you of gone-off milk. He hands you a yellowed handkerchief.
“To wipe your face,” he says. His voice is surprisingly ordinary.
“Who are you,” you ask. Then pause. “What are you?”
The figure sighs, like it’s obvious. “I am Death.”
There’s a clenching in the pit of your stomach. “Death? You mean…”
“Yes, you are deceased. On the wrong side of the grass. The Big Adios. Brown-,”
“I am dead?”
“Bread. Yes. Dead as doornail, I’m afraid. Though I must admit I’ve never understood that last expression. It’s not like a doornail was ever alive in the first place.”
You suddenly feel very sober. More sober than you’ve been in a long time. “I can’t fucking believe this…”
Death reaches into his cloak and takes out a packet of cigarettes. You watch him light one up and wait for him to offer, itching for another chance to flip a coin. But he slips the packet back into his cloak.
“Are you sure I’m dead? I don’t feel dead.”
“A lot of people say that.”
“And to die here, of all places! On a Wednesday… Why’d I have to die on a Wednesday?”
“A lot of people say that too. Wednesdays are our busiest days…” Death lights his cigarette and brings it up into the blackness of his hood. You hear him take a long, frustrated drag. Smoke puffs out.
“How. How did I. How did I… die?” As you stumble over the words, your mind is flashing through all the possibilities. Did you fall into the road? Hit your head on the tarmac? Or meet your gory end mashed against the front bumper of a car?
Maybe it was only minutes before, when you were drifting off. At least that way would have been peaceful.
“Does it matter?” Death takes another drag on his cigarette.
You think about this and realise it doesn’t. Everyone dies in the end.
Well, everyone apart from Death.
“No, not really. I just wish I saw it coming.”
“And I wish you humans would stop repeating the same questions. It’s tedious. I mean, would it kill you to ask me something different for once?” He chuckles at his own joke.
Death’s lack of face means you can’t see his expression, but there’s a smugness in his tone that’s starting to rub you up the wrong way. Sarcastic prick.
“I get it. You’ve seen it all, worn the t-shirt, as my Old Man liked to say.” You stand up, a little wobbly at first, and your head feels fuzzy. No headache, at least. “I wouldn’t have minded so much if it weren’t so sudden. Would have liked to say goodbye to some people, is all.” But when you think about who these people might be, your mind draws a blank.
There was nobody in your life you felt particularly close to. Maybe at one point. But for years you’ve been drifting from one place to another, striking up hollow friendships which lasted little more than a pint or two.
The realisation of how insignificant you are… How little you mattered… Creeps up. Reflected in a sky which remains miserably grey, a village that is silent and unaware, another ordinary Wednesday.
Well, for everyone apart from you.
“The bus will be coming for you soon,” Death said, breaking into your train of thought. He flicks his cigarette to the ground and stubs out the embers with the end of his shoe.
“A bus? Not a… What’s it called again? The horses and carriage?”
“A chariot? We haven’t used one of those in years. Not since buses were invented. Far more efficient! Though less environmentally-friendly, if you ask me…” Death reaches again into his cloak and pulls out a gold coin. “Oh, almost forgot! You’ll need this for the ferry. That part of the journey’s still the same.” He presses the cool metal into your palm. “Don’t lose it. Unless you fancy wandering along the riverbanks for the next one hundred years.”
“Where am I going? After the river, I mean.”
Death shrugs. “Onto the next place.”
“The next place? Where is it? What is it?”
Death sighs. “That all depends if you’ve been a good person or not.”
“And a good person is… What?”
“Not really my area of expertise. Different department, you might say. I’m just here to deliver the news and make sure you don’t hang about.”
“You mean… I don’t have to get on this bus?” An idea is forming in your mind. You start to imagine what a second chance at life would be like. What you could do with that extra time. Afterall, that’s how anyone who’s had a near death experience reacts, right?
There’s an awkward pause. Death, if he could, is likely narrowing his eyes at you.
“I know what you’re thinking. And you’re not the first. You won’t even be the last person who tries to escape death. But I’d prefer it if you didn’t make my job any harder than it needs to be. Get on the bus.”
As soon as Death mentions it, you realise the bus has already arrived. It hisses out, like the release of gases from a dead body. You step on and turn back to look at Death, but he is no longer there. Only a crumpled cloak lying on the ground where Death once stood.
Without him watching you, you start to consider it again. Another crack at life. What was stopping you? Death never said what would happen if you didn’t get on the bus… And well, a coin has never steered you wrong.
You look down at the one Death had given you for the ferry. You know what you need to do. You’ll flip and decide.