The Trade-Off (February 2022)
By Judy Lunsford
The old man had been in the bed in the ICU for weeks. Harry had been in and out of consciousness, but his outlook was fairly grim. He was plugged into so many machines, with tubes and wires coming from everywhere.
Covered only with a thin sheet and several light blue blankets, he was always cold. I tried to keep him covered up and even turned the heat up in his room. But a couple of the other nurses kept turning it back down on their shifts, saying it was too warm in there for them to work.
I felt bad for him. He was the only one on the floor who had no visitors. When I was on shift, I was able to talk to him a few times. He had no family. He was alone. He looked so small and frail laying there in the hospital bed. His white hair in a small rim around his head and his bright blue eyes that looked more tired every day.
I said hello to him at the beginning of my shift and turned his thermostat back to a warmer temperature. He smiled gratefully as he thanked me, and I winked at him as I left the room.
He was a sweet old man, and I had grown rather protective of him. So when the suspicious looking man in the black hoodie started towards Harry’s room, I put down my paperwork and ran over to stop him. I grabbed him by the arm and he turned to look at me with a look of total shock and surprise on his face.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You can’t go in there. Family only. Can I ask how you know the patient?”
He looked at my hand, gripping his arm, and then back up at me.
“You can see me?” his voice was filled with shock.
“Uh, yeah,” I was wondering how long it would be before I had to call for security with this guy. My bet was relatively soon. He looked back down at my hand. I let go of him and he stood there like he didn’t know what to do. He turned towards Harry’s room again. I stepped around him and blocked his path.
“I’m sorry, unless you’re family, you can’t go in there,” I said. “Are you family?”
“No,” he said.
“Are you a friend?” I asked. I was hoping that maybe, just maybe, someone might actually know Harry and want to see him.
“No,” the man shook his head.
“Then, I’m sorry,” I said in my firmest voice. “You can’t be here. You have to leave.”
The man reached up to pull off his hood and when he did, he changed. He was no longer a man in a black hoodie and jeans. He was now the cloaked figure of death standing before me with a scythe in one hand.
“Why have you forbidden me to reap this soul?” he asked me. His voice was deep and raspy and felt like it should be shaking the room.
“Wait, what?” I was confused. Was this really Death standing before me?
What. The. Heck.
“I didn’t,” I stammered. “I mean, it’s hospital policy.”
“Why can you see me?” He turned to face me and stared deeply into my eyes.
“I don’t know,” I looked around desperately. No one was standing nearby. I did get a strange look from a coworker across the hall, but she went back to what she had been doing and answered the phone.
He held the scythe out to me and said, “Touch this.”
“Why?” I asked. “What will happen if I touch it?” I really didn’t want to touch the scythe of Death. It just seemed like a very bad idea.
“It will answer my question,” he said.
“What question is that?” I asked.
“It will answer why you can see me,” he said. “And why you can forbid me from reaping a soul.”
“But I didn’t …” I sighed. “I just said that only family could enter Harry’s room.”
“And now, I am unable to enter,” he looked through the window at Harry and then back at me. “I must know why.”
I looked around, and everyone else was busy in patient rooms or doing paperwork. I reached my hand towards the scythe, tentatively. It still seemed like a very bad idea. But I touched it. Nothing happened.
“Hmm,” he said. “Take it from me.” He held the scythe out to me. I couldn’t tear it from his iron grip.
“I can’t take it if you don’t let go,” I said. Another nurse walked past and gave me a strange look before entering the room next to Harry’s.
“You are not a reaper,” he said softly. “And you did not escape death.”
“What does that mean?” I whispered.
“I don’t know,” he shook his head. “This never happened before.”
I was starting to get more strange looks from coworkers.
“Come with me,” I said and I entered Harry’s room. He followed me in.
“See?” I said. “You can come in here.”
“Only because you let me,” he said.
“So you’re Death and you’re here to reap Harry?” I asked. I looked sadly at the old man who was asleep in the bed next to where I stood.
“I’m not Death,” he said. “I am just a reaper. But you should not be able to see me.”
“Then why do I?” I asked.
He shook his head at me again. “We must find out.” He held the scythe out to me again. “Take hold,” he said.
I did so without hesitation this time and then there was a whooshing sound that rushed past my ears. My vision went blurry and I felt like my stomach was lurching up towards my throat.
We came slamming to a halt that was so sudden, I almost fell over, but the reaper put out a hand to steady me before I completely lost my balance and toppled the floor.
His touch was cold and rough, like he had sandpaper for skin. But he righted me and let go.
“Where are we?” I asked.
I looked around and it looked like some sort of large stone basement. It was so cold I shivered, and I could see my breath coming out in small puffs from my mouth and nose. There was a huge arched door in front of us that looked like it was made of a heavy dark wood.
“We are here to see someone who may be able to give us some answers,” he said.
A dark figure appeared to step through the huge door and stood before us. He was extremely tall and was wearing a dark gray cloak that was tied around his waist with a rope. There was no face peering out at me from under the hood. Just an empty blackness that made me shiver even more.
“Why have you brought her here?” the cloaked figure asked.
“She was able to stop me from reaping a soul,” the reaper said.
The cloaked figure looked at me.
“Where am I?” I asked.
I was really hoping that I was not in hell.
“You are at Death’s door,” the reaper whispered to me.
“Wait,” I said. “You’re Death?”
The cloaked figure nodded.
“She was able to block me from reaping,” the reaper said again. “She could touch my scythe without dying.”
“I was supposed to die when you had me touch your scythe!?” I stared at the reaper, suddenly feeling betrayed. Not that a reaper had any reason to be nice or loyal to me. I just felt duped. I don’t like feeling duped.
“That’s because she is not a reaper,” Death said. “And she has never had a near death experience to escape my clutches.”
“Then what is she?” the reaper asked.
Death came closer to me and stared into my eyes. Or at least I think that was where he was staring. He didn’t have a face, so I couldn’t really tell what he was looking at.
“I know what you are,” he said. His breath smelled like dirt and decay. I turned my face away from him.
“Please don’t say I’m your daughter,” I said.
“What makes you think you’re my daughter?” Death asked.
“Too much paranormal fantasy fiction?” I shrugged.
“No,” Death said. “You are not related to me. Not directly anyway.”
The reaper and I both stared at Death, waiting for him to continue.
“Can’t you see it?” Death looked at the reaper and gestured to me. The reaper stood back and looked at me again.
“Now I see it,” the reaper said.
“See what?” I demanded.
“You’re a stork,” he said.
“I’m sorry, what did you call me?” I just blinked at the reaper, feeling more than a little slighted.
“He called you a stork,” Death said. “It is our nickname for a bringer of life.”
A bringer of …” I stopped and stared at him.
“It’s pretty much the opposite of what we are,” the reaper said.
“How could I …” I stammered. “You must be wrong. How could I not know this?”
“It’s just something that happens to you over time,” Death said. “You’re not born that way.”
“What happened to me over time?” I asked.
“You bring life,” Death said. “The way we bring death.”
“What do I do with this?” I asked. “This sudden revelation that I’m a what now?”
“I can tell you right now that you’re working in the wrong part of the hospital,” the reaper said. “You have to grant me access to the old man. He lived a good long life. It is time for him to go.”
“No,” I shook my head. “If I am a bringer of life, then I am in the perfect place. And you can’t have any of them.”
“As you wish,” Death said.
The gray walls,the huge door and Death all disappeared, leaving me and the reaper back in Harry’s room. The familiar beeping of the machines that surrounded the old man filled the room, along with the smell of cleaning agents and medical tape.
“Well, since Harry doesn’t have any family, I guess I will stay here with him,” the reaper said. He took a seat in a chair by the window and propped his scythe against the wall. I spent the rest of the day trying to ignore him, but it became impossible to do so when Harry woke up.
Harry could see him.
I came into the room after dealing with a patient in another room, and when I returned to Harry’s room, the old man and the reaper were deep in conversation. The reaper was sitting hunched forward in his chair, leaning towards the old man.
Harry was laughing and looked happier than I had ever seen him. I stared at the two of them in shock and addressed Harry.
“Can you see him?” I whispered, pointing to the reaper.
“Of course I can, dear,” Harry said. “It’s my time to go. I just need you to let me go.”
“No,” I said. “It’s my job to keep you alive.”
“Which job would you be referring to?” Harry asked. “The one you are being paid to do, or the one you are meant to do?”
“Both,” I said.
“No,” Harry shook his head. “The job you are meant to do isn’t in this ward.” Harry reached out and took my hand. “The job you are meant to be doing is in another part of the hospital,” he said.
“She’s blocked me from this whole floor,” the reaper said.
Harry pulled me closer. “I want you to listen to me,” he said softly. “There are a lot of people on this floor that are ready to go. That need to go. There is a place that needs you more than here with these people.”
“I can’t just leave you to die,” I said.
“Listen to me,” he said. “Hear what I am saying. I am 96 years old. I have lived a good long and full life. I want to go. I am ready. But as the last thing I do, I want to make sure that you are in the place that you belong.”
“And where is that?” I asked.
“You need to put in for a transfer to a different department,” he said.
“It’s not that easy,” I said. “Some departments have a waiting list.”
“Then you will wait,” he said. “But in the meantime, you need to release control of this floor and let Graham here do his job.”
I looked back at the reaper, “Graham?”
“It was my name before I became a reaper,” he said.
“It is still your name,” Harry said. “Remember what I told you as well.”
“What did you tell him?” I asked.
Harry looked at me in the eyes and with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “That’s between me and Graham.”
It has been two years since Harry died. The waiting list to transfer to where I knew I belonged was a long one, but today is my first day.
Graham and I worked together on the ICU floor for that whole two years. I allowed him to do his job when he showed up and the two of us became friends. Not close friends, but we had a clear understanding. I allowed him to do his job without interference.
For my new ward, things would be different. I planned to ban Graham from the area once again. He walked me to the door of the NICU and wished me luck.
“What was it that Harry told you that day?” I asked.
“He reminded me of who I was,” Graham said. “And told me where he knew you would go. Somewhere I wouldn’t be welcome.”
“And you’re good with that?” I asked.
Graham looked through the window at the tiny babies in their incubators. Concerned parents and nurses carefully watched each child.
“I’m good with that,” he said.
I shook hands with my old friend and he headed back upstairs. I never saw Graham, or any other reapers, on my new floor again.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Judy Lunsford (website) lives in Arizona with her husband and Giant Schnoodle, Amos. She is a former library clerk and struggles with a chronic illness and is living with cancer. Judy writes mostly fantasy, but occasionally delves into other genres. She has written books and short stories for all ages.