The Things We Put Off by Victoria Zelvin

Death touched her the first time and said nothing. He simply stared, removed his hand back to the shadows he wore around him. Beatrice had trouble seeing him, the night was so dark, and though they were close enough to touch she could only make out outline.

Beatrice had been driving. She was nearly certain of that. Before now, just before, she had been driving on the toll road back from a concert, the pitch blackness of the abandoned night only brightened by faux orange streetlights, and now she wasn't.

Death touched her again, a second time, and said nothing.

He never introduced himself, she thought. Beatrice had no notion of how she had come to here, of how the conversation had started or even if there had been conversation, but she knew him for Death though he did not announce it.

Death touched her a third time and said nothing.

Beatrice, taking the hint, spoke instead.

"So, I've died then?" she asked, looking down at the hand that lingered just so slightly above touching her.

The words she'd spoken, the words themselves, seemed rather far away. Floating off in a space of not to be worried about and I wish I had slept in today. It hardly seemed to matter, at any rate, and he didn't seem to mind. He simply withdrew the hand, and said nothing.

Beatrice blinked against the darkness, seeing nothing more for her efforts. He'd touched her three times. That's significant, supplied her brain, uselessly.  

  1.  {C}And then she envisioned the car crashing, saw it in her mind's eye, saw her front tire hitting the embankment and then a guard rail, flipping three times over itself before landing hard on the ground.
  2. And then she envisioned the car impacted, hit by a car, then the guardrail, then the lamppost.
  3. And then she envisioned the car stalling, stopping, the engine dying in the middle of the road, and herself helpless to move out of the way of three oncoming lanes of traffic.

And all the while she was still staring at him, despite the thens she had envisioned, imagined. His expression indicated no time had passed, or if it had he did not mind. His expression was assumed, rather than known.

Maybe it was to be a brush with Death. Three times, a warning. She would be alright on the other side of near-death experiences, but the fourth time would kill her. Or the third? She'd had two drinks at the concert and then driven home -- was her swimming head simply tiredness, as she'd assumed, or had she been impaired? Could it have been that he had spared her that once already?

If I could make it not about me, that would be better, she thought. Easier to digest.

But, here in the moment, with the pressing of his existence about her, Beatrice could not extract herself so totally from the conversation. She was not alone; therefore, it was nearly impossible to focus on a protracted other world, other sense of self, with this current other here to distract her by just being. And him! He was at once not at all like she imagined him -- a Grim Reaper to speak in all caps, a suited man with an affinity for good foods, a gaunt shadow astride a pale horse, or any of the skeletal forms she had been presented with throughout her life -- and yet, he was. He was nothing at all what she expected and exactly that. He was exactly what he needed to be.

And he kept looking at her, staring, though she was hard pressed to find his eyes. She could guess where his eyes should have been and so she looked there, when she could, and he just stared. Patiently waiting. His expression was assumed, rather than known.

She assumed a warning, rather than being told one. Death touched her, three times, but the ways that it could apply to her were varied.

  1. And then she envisioned her parents, in her dad's golden Saturn, getting hit by a drunk driver in a large silver truck.
  2. And then she envisioned her little brother, far across the country, clutching at his heart as it stopped working.
  3. And then she envisioned her former roommate from college, alone at home, shot dead in a botched robbery.

Her mind jumped from scenario to scenario, all played out on as if on a screen before her before fading back into blackness, and all the while he sat in silence. Or, perhaps, he simply did not mind the long pauses between conversation. If only she had more time to think! She knew that, when she was alone, she could think through this much better. Come up with a plan of attack. Figure out, to the minute detail, what the message was and how to go about responding. She only needed to be alone, to have time.

And then Death said something, which was instantly forgotten as it came into utterance.

"You knew I wanted to be a writer," she whispered in response. It made some kind of sense, though she had forgotten what he had said. Her vision blurred, a slight lump making itself known in her throat. She looked down as he faded in her sight, blinking rapidly against the burgeoning tears, letting her hair fall forward to hide her face as she collected herself.

Death seemed to nod, or she came to hope he did.

And then, he was gone. Beatrice jerked awake, the blackness of the backseat of the car fading into the dim grayness of her room. Her eyes were blown wide open and, though she remained laying where she was, she was as awake as if she'd been shaken.

It had been a dream, a vivid one, and though her heart pounded harshly against her ribcage, Beatrice tried her damndest to remind herself of that. Logically, she thought, it must have had something to do with eating right before bed. Or drinking.

She could make no sense of it, but only catalogue what happened:

  1. He had neither announced himself nor introduced himself, but she knew him to be Death. Assumed him to be such.
  2.  {C}He had touched her three times. For some ominous portent or purpose? A promise? Or perhaps a deadline?
  3. He had asked something of her, but she could not know the wording. She did not remember the wording, even as it happened.

Giving herself a shake, Beatrice tried to be practical. You're being ridiculous, she cautioned, shutting her eyes tight for a moment so she could rub them, but snapping them open after not too long had passed -- just in case. She checked the shadows of her room, all familiar and not out of place, and then checked them once more.

The dream stuck with her, clung to her mind's eye, undeterred.

So, she got up. Turned on her light. Gave herself a shake. Checked the time on her phone - 3:33 - and walked to the bathroom. Walked back to her room, grabbing her phone and her headphones before walking back to the bathroom, earbuds in ears. She clucked the volume up until the music flooded her mind, until her head was lyrics instead of thoughts, and as the song went on Beatrice felt a weight lift from her. By the second song, she was calmer. By the third, she was sleepy. By the fourth, she had fetched a glass of water and was back under her covers, her heart no longer beating uncomfortably against her ribcage. She could barely remember what had woken her in the first place.

It was only when she pulled the headphones out and shoved them away, somewhere under a pillow, that the dream resurfaced. Just slightly, a distant reminder of a question she once asked herself.

Probably a deadline, she settled on, before rolling over and going back to sleep.


Victoria Zelvin is a graduate of the introductory Creative Writing program at Roanoke College. Since then, she has been seen trying to find a home for her fiction pieces.