Death Follows Us to
by Vylar Kaftan
While Maggie was
still in the hospital, her brother Colin died. When the nurses
told her the news, she turned away to grieve privately.
Surgical complications, they said. The kidney he'd donated was
sewn up inside her like a secret. On her nightstand stood a
vase of wilted daffodils he'd sent. She felt like death—her old
companion—had taken the wrong soul.
On Maggie's first
night home, she got Chinese takeout, petted her dog, and called
her estranged mother. When her mother didn't answer, Maggie
called her brother Patrick.
"How's Mom taking
it?" she asked, forcing her voice to stay calm.
Patrick's voice was
spacy, even though he was supposed to be in rehab. "Oh, she
blames you. Sorry. Just saying, 'cause I figured you'd wanna
tightened on the phone. Patrick added, "She also said if you
weren't an ugly shrew you'd be married by now, y'know? And
you'd have a husband to take care of all your expensive medical
needs. Mom's a bitch. Hey—can you babysit on Saturday night?"
Maggie swore and
threw the phone across the room before she broke down crying.
She tore her glasses off and threw them on the floor. Her dog
whined with worry, then ate the takeout on the coffee table. In
that nightmarish evening spent with her face pressed against the
sofa, Maggie promised herself that Colin's death would not be in
vain. She would do something with her life, goddammit. She was
twenty-nine years old and she'd make a difference. She'd make
herself worthy of his sacrifice. Maggie crushed her nails into
her palms and drew blood to seal the promise. She stayed on the
couch until Colin's kidney—functioning perfectly—forced her to
go use the toilet.
Tod sat on the
bathtub's edge, watching her urinate. He was an old man today—a
librarian wearing glasses and carrying a stack of papers.
Maggie glared at him. "You took the wrong soul," she said.
He shuffled through
the papers and looked at something. "No, I'm sure I didn't."
When Maggie first
met Tod, he was a little boy wearing thick glasses just like
hers. Maggie was smart, and after a few strange conversations
with her family, she realized that no one else saw him.
An invisible friend
was great at first—a companion as she suffered through
treatments, downed walnut-sized pills, and stayed back two
grades in school. But Tod wasn't much fun. He wouldn't play
with her like invisible friends should.
Now he sat next to
her at Il Fiume, the best Italian restaurant in town. A candle
flickered in a glass bowl, patterning the white tablecloth with
light. Maggie's coworker Ramona was in the bathroom, washing
her hands. Maggie browsed the leather-covered menu, glanced at
all the forks on the table, and felt under-dressed.
Tod was a woman
today, wearing a black dress and a skull necklace. Maggie liked
the necklace but didn't want to tell him that. "I think you're
supposed to have four arms," she said.
"I'm fine with two."
"Why are you still
"We're not done."
"I'm going to be
fine. The doctors said I was recovering wonderfully. I'm not
rejecting tissue or anything."
"We're not done."
"Fine. You know, most people don't have to deal with you like
"Everyone dies," he
said. "Kings, beggars, insurance agents, younger brothers, and
Tod fell silent as
Ramona returned. Today was Maggie's first day back at work.
She'd found daffodils at her desk, with a note: "From all of
us. We missed you, Maggie." Everyone had signed it. The
biggest name was Ramona, who of course knew to get daffodils.
Ramona was Maggie's best friend. She was young for an insurance
agent. She wore her hair in funky braids, listened to rap
music, and rode a motorcycle. But she made a great living from
young professionals who liked her style. She was the only one
who treated Maggie as an equal rather than a receptionist.
"Know whatcha want
yet?" Ramona asked as the waitress appeared.
Maggie glanced up.
"They have ginger beers. I haven't had one in years."
"My treat," Ramona
said as she unfolded the napkin onto her lap. "Order anything
you like—I'm paying. No excuses. And don't look at the prices
and tell me you're not hungry."
Maggie chose the
moderately-priced chicken marsala. Ramona ordered spinach
lasagna and two ginger beers. The waitress wrote down the
"I'll take the veal
scallopini," said Tod. No one ever heard him or wrote his
orders down or brought his food, but he always got what he
said, looking at the candle, "you said you'd listen if I wanted
"Sure. What's up,
Maggie took a deep
breath. "I want to make a difference in the world. Something
big. Something Colin would have wanted me to do. But I don't
Tod said, "You could
fill my water glass for me. Terrible service here."
When Tod spoke,
other people seemed to perceive it as an awkward silence.
Ramona tapped her fingers on the table and finally said, "You
don't have to go out and make a huge difference, you know. I
mean, that's a great goal, but—well. You've gotta do it for the
"This is totally the
right reason," said Maggie. "It's for Colin. I have to make
his sacrifice worth something."
"Don't you think
it's worth something already?"
Maggie shook her
head. "It's not enough. I need to do . . . something. I need to
give some meaning to what he did."
Tod took a sip from
his now-full water glass. "You're not the first person to try
this, you know," he said.
In the same way that
no one heard Tod, no one noticed when Maggie spoke to him. "Try
what?" she asked him.
"To think they can
give meaning to someone else's life."
corrected. "And sure, he has value. It's listed right here."
He pulled a parchment from nowhere and pointed to something he
wouldn't let her see. "You've got one too. Everyone does. My
point is—look at how long the list is, and think about how small
the numbers are. Sure, they add up to a big total, but each
individual life? Not much. A fraction."
"Fuck you," Maggie
"I've heard that
Ramona was lost in
thought. Finally she said, "Well, okay, although I still think
you're missing the point. Any idea what you want to do?"
"None at all.
There's so many people who need help," said Maggie. "Any
ideas? What should I do?"
Ramona tilted her
head. The beads on her braids clacked together. "Well, what
means a lot to you? Who do you want to make a difference for?"
"I don't know,"
A lemon wedge had
appeared in Tod's glass. He sipped his water and said, "There's
a lot of people who want to Make a Difference somehow. Like I
said before, this is nothing new."
Maggie ignored him
and shook her head. "There must be something. What would you
do, Ramona? If you really wanted to make a difference?"
"What makes you think I'm not doing it?"
haven't?" said Tod, under his breath. Maggie wished he'd be
quiet. Sometimes he was so quiet it was scary. Once he didn't
say anything for six months—just stared at her silently, making
her screw everything up. But it was better than when he was an
Ramona said, "I grew
up in South Detroit. My mom sacrificed everything for me. She
worked at a meat-packing plant—heavy lifting, because it was all
she could get. And Mom tutored me herself to get me ahead in
school. For the last five years I've been saving all my money.
I'm gonna fix up my neighborhood and make it live again. That's
why I'm an insurance agent. I need money to get things
started. Once I've got that, I can buy the things I need to
problem," Tod said, as the chicken marsala and the lasagna
arrived. He was already eating his veal. "You're waiting for
something. Just like most people. Everyone says they'll make
that difference in the world, once they finish school or get a
promotion or win the lottery." He dropped a piece of meat,
which landed in an eyehole of his skull necklace.
Maggie looked at the
ginger beer Ramona had ordered for her. "Maybe I could help
"Nice of you to offer, M. But the thing is, that's my
neighborhood. There's a thousand like it. Millions, prolly, if
you count the whole world and all the little villages. Thing
is, you gotta find what you want. Not me. I mean, you
can help me fulfill my dream, but you should have your own too."
Maggie sliced her
chicken marsala into tiny pieces. "I think my dreams are less
important than Colin's."
"You need to find
something that both of you would have liked," said Ramona.
"Pick up garbage. Take meals to old people. Buy malaria nets
for kids in Africa, I dunno. But none of it matters if you
don't believe in yourself. Drink your ginger beer."
Maggie obeyed. The
drink was sweet, with just enough spice. She was thinking about
what Colin would have wanted, and feeling overwhelmed by the
whole prospect. She took another sip of ginger beer. The
bubbles burst in her mouth like weak ideas. How could she do
something great enough to thank Colin—something even Tod
"How's it taste?"
thoughtful. "Oh, idea! Listen, there's this friend I have.
His name is Kurt. He's a pharmacist at one of the big chain
drugstores in the city. Tall and cute in that geeky sort of
way. I was wondering if you'd want to meet him."
"Hang on, I'm going
somewhere with this. He's getting pharmacy experience because
he wants to be a political lobbyist. He figures if he knows how
evil the drug companies are, he can fight them better. Anyway.
I know how much the drug companies piss you off. Man, you must
have spent a ton on co-pays and deductibles in your lifetime."
"Way too much,"
muttered Maggie, remembering her mother's words. She glanced at
Tod, who was working on a piece of tiramisu. He shrugged. The
skull necklace jiggled.
forward. "Maggie, maybe he'll have some ideas. Working toward
universal healthcare, or reducing drug company profits, or
something else, I dunno."
Maggie set down her
fork. "A date," she said.
"He's cute, too.
How about Saturday night?"
sweated at the thought. She was supposed to babysit for
Patrick's kids again anyway. She hated doing it, but she'd
promised. She was going to say no to Ramona, but then she saw
the look in her friend's eyes. Maybe Ramona was right—getting
out would be good for her. And Colin would have told her to do
it. "Okay," she said. She'd just tell Patrick she had a cold.
Ramona. "He's a good guy. If you don't hit it off, he'll be a
gentleman, and if you do—well."
Tod leaned over.
"How irresponsible of you," he said.
"You're a fine one
"You know, you
always do terrible on dates. You never say anything. It scares
the guys off."
Being sick took up a
lot of her time. Maggie hadn't been on a date in three years,
and the reminder hurt. "Shut up, Tod."
"I'm just saying."
Ramona paid the
check for herself and Maggie. She left a generous tip. Tod
never left anything.
Monday lunch was a
tradition. They always went to Sombrero, a tiny place near the
office. Maggie sat down while Ramona picked up their usual
order: two chicken burritos, green salsa on both, extra sour
cream on one, and two horchatas with extra cinnamon. The air
smelled like cumin and grilled meat. The speakers blared
Mexican pop music.
Tod had two beef
tacos and a churro. Today he looked like Ronald Reagan. Maggie
watched him eat. "How come I've never seen you with a scythe?"
He shrugged and
talked through a mouthful of taco. "Inefficient these days," he
said. "Technology has been good to me."
Maggie thought of
dialysis machines and countless strange boxes in the hospital.
"Technology is why I'm still alive," she said.
"And why your
brother is dead."
Maggie kicked him
under the table. He flinched. "I'm making a note of that," he
said calmly. A clunky desktop computer appeared before him, and
he typed something before it vanished.
"Why the hell are
you still bugging me?" she asked. "Why don't you go harass
someone on death row? Or a lonely old widow with a bad liver?"
Tod set down his
taco and fixed his eyes on her. "I remember one night when I
held you and stroked your hair. You were twenty-five. Your
kidneys were failing. You'd been fired from that real estate
office for missing too much work and not filing the right papers
for medical leave. Your mother had just called and said you
were a worthless little shit. Do you remember that night,
Maggie? You asked me to comfort you and be a friend. I did
that for you, that night. Remember?"
She knew that look
he was giving her. She felt the abyss gazing back into every
part of her mind. All her feelings burst and flattened, like
she was bubble wrap in his hands. "I do," said Maggie numbly.
"Have you ever asked
me to go away?"
She mustered her
willpower. "If I asked, would you do it?"
"No," he said. "It
was a rhetorical question."
Ramona set their
baskets of food on the table. "Hey, M. So how was the date?"
Tod picked up his
taco as Maggie pulled a loose thread from her shirt. "Um,
well—it was okay, I guess."
"Kurt said you seemed nice but really nervous."
"He was nice. I
liked him. I was totally nervous, Ramona. I'm not good
Tod said, "You
embarrassed yourself pretty thoroughly, I think. You spent the
whole time interrogating him about pharmaceutical companies and
political theory. And then you scared him by talking about your
dead brother and how he's transforming your life and all."
Maggie turned to
him. "Did I really sound like that?"
"Yep. It was pretty
"The reason I kept talking is that I was worried what you'd say
to me if I gave you a chance."
"Me?" he asked
innocently. "I was just sitting in the back seat minding my own
"You were there,"
Maggie muttered, "like you always are."
"Where else should I
"Goddamn. I can't
do anything without you haunting me."
Ramona unwrapped her
lunch. "Well, he said he liked you. He thought you were really
sincere about changing the world. Did he kiss you?"
twisted the ring on her pinky finger. He hadn't kissed her.
He'd leaned forward like he meant to. She'd quickly thanked him
for the date, and promised to read up on anarchist government
theory at her first opportunity. She'd never actually let
anyone kiss her. She always panicked.
"Aw. Well, he wants
to see you again. He forgot to get your email address, but he
asked me for it. I can give it to him, right?"
"I guess," said
Maggie. She picked up a plastic fork and carved her burrito
into a mess.
Ramona shot her a
look worthy of Tod. "Hey, M. Listen. He liked you—it's okay.
Is this too soon? I don't want to pressure you or anything.
But you just seem so lonely all the time."
Tod leaned back in
his chair and folded his arms. "You know, you're a real burden
"Shut up, Tod,"
Maggie said, stabbing the pile of chicken and rice.
Tod's voice needled
at her. "You're always going to her for support and help.
She's a good person, but you'll wear her out. She's only got so
much pity in her."
Not now. Don't do this to me now."
"What happened to
making a difference in the world? Aren't you supposed to be
working on that? It's a big task, and you're almost thirty
Ramona's eyes were
compassionate. "I'm sorry, M," she said. "I guess I'm being
pushy. I know you miss your brother. I shouldn't have
suggested a date."
"You've got a lot of responsibilities ahead of you. Are you
sure you're ready for them?"
Maggie dropped her
fork. "Colin was my fault," she said, tears running down her
face. "I killed him, Ramona."
"Now stop that!"
Ramona exclaimed. "Stop that right away. You didn't."
"I have to agree,"
remarked Tod. "You didn't kill him. Well—not directly. He
made a choice. He decided that your life was worth taking a
risk. It was a gamble—for your sake. He lost. Hard to say if
he gained anything much."
speak. Her vision was blurry. She forced her mouth to move
until words came out. "He died for me. He's gone, and I'm
here. I have to be worth it, Ramona."
"But you don't."
Ramona's eyes were
wet. Tod sipped a Mexican hot chocolate that appeared before
him. "Have you noticed that people close to you get hurt,
Maggie wanted to
curl up and cry. How could she think of making a difference for
anybody when she couldn't even fix herself? She closed her eyes
and remembered the night Tod held her. Worthless little shit.
"Oh, hon," said
Ramona, putting a hand on Maggie's shoulder. Her mascara ran
down her cheeks. "You've got to believe you're worth it
already. Because you are. Colin knew that. I know
Tod said, "She's in
too deep. You'd better push her away, before you hurt her even
The last thing she
wanted to do was hurt her friend. Maggie opened her eyes and
pushed Ramona's hand away. "I don't want pity. Just leave me
Ramona shook her
head. "M, you've got to believe me. Because this is killing
Maggie couldn't deal
with this right now. Her throat felt like a rope knot. "I—I'll
see you back at the office," she said. Ramona looked at the
table. Maggie picked up her barely-eaten burrito and carried it
to the trashcan. When she returned to the table for her purse,
she saw Tod had changed into her brother. He gave her Colin's
Maggie grabbed her
purse and ran. He didn't follow, but somehow Tod was there
again when she went back to her desk. He spent the afternoon
leaning against the photocopier. It jammed six times, and
Maggie had to fix it.
Maggie sat at a
table in Peace Nick's, a hippie-owned restaurant near her
house. The restaurant was busy today, with nearly every table
occupied. Painted murals on the walls showed brightly-colored
people dancing with trees. Rainbow stripes and daisies edged
the doors. The music was a local folk group. She liked eating
here ever since she discovered that it annoyed Tod.
salad," he complained. "Doesn't taste right without
pesticides." Tonight he was a toga-clad Roman accountant,
complete with laurel wreath and a set of scrolls.
"Suck up and deal,"
"I could say the
same to you, for other reasons."
Maggie grimaced. It
was Sunday night. Ramona was supposed to meet her here, after
cruising halfway across the city on her motorcycle. She
promised Maggie she had an awesome new helmet to show off.
Maggie hadn't seen her much that week. She saw her in the
hallways at work, but it felt like Ramona was avoiding her.
Ramona called in sick on Monday, so they missed their taqueria
lunch. Maggie had invited her to dinner, wanting to
"I shouldn't have
pushed her away," said Maggie. She was waiting to order until
Ramona arrived, but she'd chosen the Woodstock Waffles with
Tod never waited for
anyone. He munched on his salad—double croutons, extra ranch
dressing, hold the sprouts. "You did the right thing," he
said. "You were hurting her. You had to stop."
"She was right,
though. I get lonely."
"You've got me."
"You don't count."
He shrugged. "Suit
Maggie opened her
purse, removed two white pills, and swallowed them without
water. A thought occurred to her. "Are you missing anyone by
hanging out with me? Do you have a wife at home? Little baby
deaths, with skull rattles and poison pacifiers?"
He frowned. "Now
you're making fun of me."
"Pretty much, yeah."
"I've been mocked
before. But I always collect in the end."
"Okay, point taken."
"Speaking of lonely,
that guy hasn't emailed you either. Kurt or whatever."
He hadn't. Maggie
wondered about that. She took her glasses off and polished them
on her shirt. "Maybe he didn't like me that much."
"Maybe you scared
him off. Or maybe he wasn't impressed with you. He was a guy
who knew what he wanted from life. He had a plan—you don't."
"I'm working on it,"
said Maggie defensively, putting her glasses back on. "I've got
to get it right. I've only got one life, and I need to figure
it out. I've got time."
"Do you?" he asked,
skipped a beat. "Are you trying to tell me something?"
"No one knows
exactly when they'll die," he said, spearing a stray cherry
tomato that had rolled onto the table. "They might have some
guesses, even a general idea—but not the exact moment. Unless
they take matters into their own hands."
"And whose fault is
that?" She pointed at his scroll. "You could tell me when I'll
"No, I can't."
"Isn't it written
"Of course. Name,
birthdate, deathdate, total life value, method of demise, famous
last words, preferred species for reincarnation—"
"Then why don't you
"What good would it
"I could plan," said
Maggie. "If I knew how long I had left, I'd know what I could
accomplish, and how fast I have to do it." She was thinking of
Colin again. What would he have done differently if he'd known
he would die at twenty? What would she do, if she knew how long
Tod sighed. "So
many people want information. When, why, how—I tell you, I've
been asked so many times, and everyone's the same. They think
they'll be different. They think they're special."
"Well, try me! See
what I'd do."
Tod gazed at her.
Maggie forced herself to meet his eyes. She had the
uncomfortable feeling of being weighed. "Okay," he said. He
glanced at his scroll. "Two minutes."
squinted at him.
"You heard me."
"I've got two
minutes to live?"
"Not you. Ramona."
Maggie stared at
him. "The hell," she said.
Tod shrugged and ate
his salad, picking around the green peppers.
shouted. "You're making a point. You're just making a point."
He looked at her.
Maggie felt her jaw working. She stood up, pushing her chair
back so hard it fell over. Other diners stared at her. Tod
asked, "Where do you think you're going?"
"To Ramona. To warn
her. Jesus Christ."
"Sit down," Tod
commanded, and she obeyed because she had to. He spoke with
infuriating calmness. "Motorcycle accident. Six miles from
here, on the bridge. You can't get there in time."
Maggie took her
glasses off and pressed her face into her hands. Tod continued,
"Ramona's late, so she's driving too fast. She lanesplits down
the freeway. A young mom is driving a station wagon. Her sons
are in back—a toddler and a baby. The mom doesn't see the
motorcycle. She sees a gap in traffic and switches lanes. So
fast. Ramona sails overhead. She has her new helmet but it's
not enough. Ramona dies, Maggie. One minute."
Maggie sobbed into her hands. "She doesn't, God, she doesn't."
"The baby dies too,"
said Tod, his voice solemn. "His carseat malfunctions
and his neck snaps. Will you cry for the baby too?
His name is
Thomas. He has gray eyes and he smiles a lot. The mother dies,
but much later. Two years from now, when her husband leaves
her, she kills herself."
"No," said Maggie.
She wanted to throw up. "It can't be."
"The older boy
lives, though. He's going to be a doctor. He'll be a wonderful
doctor. He pays for medical school with the settlement from his
brother's death. So now you know, Maggie. Thirty seconds. And
what will you do?"
"You're making it
up," said Maggie, slamming her fist on the table. "You're
making it all up." She lifted her eyes and saw Tod's face,
blurry without her glasses—a grinning skull under a black hood.
"Everyone dies," he
said. "Kings, beggars, insurance agents—"
"Fuck off! It isn't
true. It's not fixed. It can be changed."
"Like the world can
be changed? Where's that difference you're making? I thought
you wanted to be worth something?"
"I'm making it now!"
"Yes, right now.
Nothing is fixed. I can change it!"
"Like so many
others," he said sadly, shaking his head. "Well, you're
Maggie stared at
him, grief coloring her vision. Tod picked up his fork with
bony fingers. "Why do you do this?" she asked.
"Eat this blasted
salad? Because you drag me to lame hippie restaurants."
"No, asshole! Why
do you fuck up people's lives?"
"I just collect."
Maggie let loose a
stream of swear words. They weren't enough. Ramona was one of
the best people she knew, and she didn't deserve—no one
deserved— She crushed her hands into fists and punched her
thighs. Tod ignored her and kept eating his salad.
After a while the
rage subsided into numbness. She reached an empty, sterile
place—a hospital room inside herself. Nothing felt real.
Maggie picked up her glasses and put them on. She watched Tod
scrape the last bits from the salad bowl and wondered how old he
was. Had he known anyone closely? Had any of them made a
difference to him? Or were they just souls to collect—tokens in
a great universal game she would never understand?
"You must be so
lonely," she said, leaning forward. He smelled like ashes.
"It's hard to be alone. I know."
Tod glanced at her.
"It's part of the job."
"I haven't been very
nice to you."
He blinked. "You
don't have to be," he said. "It doesn't make much difference to
"Seems like you'll
be with me for the rest of my life," said Maggie slowly, an idea
coming to her. "The least we could do is get along. I think
most people get along with you a little better than I do."
Tod shrugged. "I'm
not exactly likeable," he said. "I'm just here. You don't have
to like what I am."
narrowed. "I know who you are," she said.
"I thought I did.
But you're more than that. I've been keeping you here, haven't
I. Ramona—oh, God, Ramona . . . . She was right, what she said
He gazed at her with
empty sockets. "What about Colin? I thought you were busy
making a difference somewhere."
Maggie lifted her
head. "There's time for that. I've got time. What I have is
enough. I am enough."
"Didn't I just make
a point? You don't know when it'll happen. Nothing you do will
be big enough. Nothing you do will matter. You can't—"
Maggie closed her
eyes and tuned out his words. Gently—awkwardly—she leaned
forward to silence him. She pressed her lips against his
ice-cold teeth. Warmth spread where she touched him. Her heart
pounded as she pulled away. When she opened her eyes, she saw
the familiar boy with thick glasses from her childhood, grown
into a man.
They looked at each
other. Wordlessly, he vanished without paying for his meal.
Maggie fell against her chair, breathing hard. In the noisy
restaurant, customers ate their meals—unaware of their deaths
hovering behind them, whispering barely-heard thoughts. Maggie
sat up straight and polished her glasses. "That was the first
difference," she whispered. "The next one's for Ramona and
About the Author:
Vylar Kaftan writes everything from hard science fiction to
fantasy. Her short stories have appeared in places such as
Realms of Fantasy, Clarkesworld Magazine, and
Strange Horizons. She lives in northern California and is a
modern-day temple dancer. Visit her website at
Story © 2008 Vylar Kaftan. Painting by Vincent van Gogh, 1888.