Death Follows Us to Restaurants
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 know."

Maggie's hand 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 here?"

"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."

Maggie sighed.  "Fine.  You know, most people don't have to deal with you like this."

"Everyone dies," he said.  "Kings, beggars, insurance agents, younger brothers, and you."

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 order.

"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 wanted.

"Ramona," Maggie said, looking at the candle, "you said you'd listen if I wanted to talk."

"Sure.  What's up, M?"

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 know what."

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 right reasons."

"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."

"Colin does have meaning."

"Did," he 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 told him.

"I've heard that before."

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," admitted Maggie.

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?" 

Ramona blinked.  "What makes you think I'm not doing it?"

"Because you 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 asshole.

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 help people."

"There's your 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 you."

Ramona grinned.  "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 couldn't mock?

"How's it taste?" Ramona asked.

"It's wonderful."

Ramona looked 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."

Maggie's breathing quickened.  "Well—"

"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.

Ramona leaned 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?"

Maggie's hands 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.

"Awesome," said 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 to talk."

"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?" she asked.

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." 

Ramona frowned.  "Kurt said you seemed nice but really nervous."

"He was nice.  I liked him.  I was totally nervous, Ramona.  I'm not good on dates."

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 bad."

Maggie flushed.  "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 business."

"You were there," Maggie muttered, "like you always are."

"Where else should I be?"

"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?"

"No."  Maggie 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 to Ramona."

"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."

"Shut up.  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 already."

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."

Tod murmured, "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."

Maggie couldn't 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."

"I do."

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?"

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 that."

Tod said, "She's in too deep.  You'd better push her away, before you hurt her even more."

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 alone."

Ramona shook her head.  "M, you've got to believe me.  Because this is killing you."

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 confident grin.

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.

"Stupid organic 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," said Maggie.

"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 apologize.   

"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 extra syrup.

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 yourself."

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."

Maggie shivered.  "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, very casually.

Maggie's heart 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 die."

"No, I can't."

"Isn't it written there?"

"Of course.  Name, birthdate, deathdate, total life value, method of demise, famous last words, preferred species for reincarnation—"

"Then why don't you tell me?"

"What good would it do?"

"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 she had?

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."

"What?"  Maggie squinted at him. 

"You heard me."

"I've got two minutes to live?"

"Not you.  Ramona."

Maggie stared at him.  "The hell," she said.

"Minute-fifty, now."


Tod shrugged and ate his salad, picking around the green peppers.

"Liar!" Maggie 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."

"She doesn't," 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 spirited anyway."

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 me."

"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."

Maggie's eyes narrowed.  "I know who you are," she said. 

"Haven't you always?"

"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 about me." 

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 Colin."




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.