Death sat quietly underneath a gnarled old oak tree in the park off Plainfield Avenue.
I can't say I was all that surprised to see him.
I walked up next to him, my feet crunching the dry leaves on the ground between us. My one-eyed dog Ralphie ran in circles around the tree, kicking up leaves and barking. Death stared at the dog, sighed.
I sat down beside Death as Ralphie bounded off after a squirrel.
The silence was awkward. The two of us never really talked much. Usually, I just walked away from him, but I had promised Ralphie an afternoon in the park.
I have a thing about promises.
At last, I broke down. Sometimes, you just need to talk. "I found him in the pound about two years ago," I said to Death, pointing at the happy little mutt, who barked at a bird flying overhead. "Some kids attacked him with a BB gun, shot him up pretty bad. The pound couldn't give him away -- no one wanted a one-eyed dog. Not until I came around, anyway. He looked so sad, I just had to take him home.
"I named him after the kid in that movie, A Christmas Story, the one who wanted a Red Ryder BB gun but everyone told him 'You'll shoot your eye out.' I don't think he gets the joke."
Ralphie ran past us, this time chasing a starling, oblivious to the fact that we were talking about him.
Death sighed again. "Brian Glanzman," he said, whispering, not looking me in the eye. "I have come for you."
I picked up a fallen leaf by the stem and rolled it back and forth between my fingers. "Look," I said. "Don't you think this is getting a bit old?"
Death shrank further into his heavy black robes. "It is your time."
I half-laughed, and watched the leaf fall slowly back to the ground. "Isn't that what you said yesterday?"
"And the day before that," he said. It was the first new sentence I'd ever heard him say.
"And back on Tuesday," I continued.
"And Monday," he said.
"Saturday," he said, and this time we both laughed. His laugh sounded like a dry, wheezing cough.
"A full week you've been at this. Don't you ever give up?"
He shrugged again. "It is my job. It's what I do."
"I guess I can understand that," I said. I worked ten hours a day at the law office, not because I had to, not because I loved it, but because it was the only thing I knew how to do.
I pulled my wallet out of my back pocket, fished around and removed a small photograph. "Did you see this the other day, when you came to my apartment? It's a picture of my mom, back before she got cancer."
Death took the photo from me with his long, skeletal fingers. "I remember her. She was very beautiful," he said. "You have her eyes." He passed the photo back to me.
"Thank you," I said, putting it back in my wallet. I stared out across the small park and the shadows lengthening in front of us, swallowed. "You know she waited for you. Every day for six months. Her body got weaker and weaker, and the pain just kept getting worse. She couldn't even sit up on her own for the last three months of her life.
"She asked for you every single day. She didn't want to go on living. But you never came." A tear rolled down my cheek.
Death lowered his head. "It was not her time."
I turned away from him. "How can you be so cruel?" I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.
"Life is cruel," he said. "Death is a relief."
"Bullshit," I said.
Death didn't reply.
I pulled myself up against the tree, put my wallet in my pocket and wiped my eyes. I clapped my hands to call Ralphie back to me. He skidded to a stop at my feet as Death rose from the ground. "You made my mother wait," I said, not looking at Death. "Now it's your turn."
I hooked Ralphie's leash to his collar and started to walk away. Just like I'd promised her, and myself.
"I will be back," came the voice of Death from behind me.
"Fine." I kept walking.
He let me go a few more steps before he called my name. I paused, then turned. He still stood under the tree, leaning heavily against his weathered scythe. Black wings drooped at his sides. He looked small, tired. "For what it is worth," he said, "I am sorry."
Our eyes met for just a moment then. I saw my mother's sadness reflected in his dark, moist orbs.
"I'll see you tomorrow," I said, then turned and walked away.
Copyright © 2001 John R. Platt
John R. Platt served three terms as President of the Garden State Horror Writers. He lives in New Jersey, in an apartment whose previous tenant claimed to have been abducted by aliens. The building hosts ghosts, secret panels, hidden rooms and unexplained sounds. John doesn't sleep very well. For more about him, see his Web site.