Two Months Ago
The day Melissa Miller killed her cat, she met the Angel of Death. Except he was no angel—and he wasn’t there for the cat. He loomed in the doorway of the Miller house, dappled in sunlight and smiling at Missy as she gaped at him.
"You have blood on your hands," he said.
His words stabbed her, sharp and precise, and her heart jackhammered as if to break free from her chest. "What?"
"Blood," he repeated. "Thick. Red, ranging from maroon to carnelian, depending on the oxygen content. You know," he said cheerfully. "Life." Don’t panic,
she told herself. He didn’t know. He was just a delivery guy, an anonymous no one in a brown hoodie shirt so long and loose that it blended into his brown cargo pants. A stranger. Even so, sweat popped on Missy’s brow as she peered at him. "Who—?"
His smile stretched, cutting off her question as she saw the grin hidden beneath the flesh, all lipless teeth and gallows humor. "You know who I am, Melissa Miller."
And she did.
With that recognition, Missy’s knees buckled. Her breath constricted in her throat, trapping her scream.
"So afraid," Death said. His voice wasn’t kind, exactly, but it also wasn’t cruel; it was the sound of balance, and infinite patience. "And yet, it’s fear that’s kept you alive. So I won’t take it personally."
Her chest tightened, tightened,
transforming her body into a slow cooker and setting her heart to Boil. She had to cut herself now, right now, bleed out the pain before it swallowed her whole.
But she couldn’t move; beneath his hood, Death’s stormy gaze had captured her, cemented her feet to the ground.
Missy stammered, "H-How . . . ?" The rest of the question died on her tongue.
He chuckled, the sound like faint music. "You’re too adorable. ‘What?’ ‘Who?’ ‘How?’ The ‘where,’ at least, doesn’t need to be asked. And like the others, it really doesn’t need to be answered. For thee," he said, motioning.
With that movement, she was able to tear her gaze away from his shadowed face. He was offering her an oblong package: a pristinely, coldly white box. Where the package had come from, Missy couldn’t say; it was as if it had always been in his hands and she only now noticed it. Which made no sense, considering that the package was a good three feet long.
Then again, none of this made sense. Death was on her doorstep, bearing a gift like a suitor. A corsage before the prom,
she thought, and she quashed an insane urge to giggle.
"Take it, Melissa Miller."
Missy reached out with an unsteady hand, slowly, fighting the urge to grab the box. Her fingers ghosted over the package, her nails skimming the white surface and leaving blood-red trails in their wake, trails that quickly faded when she snatched her hand away. She blinked, and the box was once again white and pure, untainted by her touch.
"Why?" she asked, her voice hoarse.
He let out another chuckle, one that slithered up her spine and wrapped around her throat. "Philosophy? Well, then. For you, multiple choice. A
, why not? B
, because." He leaned in close and Missy cringed. "C,"
he said, "you were too overwhelmed to hold your blade precisely. You were going to slice an artery. The spray would have hit you here." He motioned to her eyes, her cheek, her chin. "You would have watched the blood, sitting in stunned silence as your life ebbed, wondering what went wrong and what happened next. It would have looked like suicide," he added, his eyes shining darkly, like starlight trapped in whirlpools. "But you and I both know better. Don’t we, Melissa?"
Her head swam with his words, and she squeezed her eyes shut to make the world stop spinning. But darkness was no friend: devoid of sight, she once again heard Graygirl’s last pleading meow, warbling and sickly, once again felt the furry body go limp and empty.
"No," she whispered. She opened her eyes, but the darkness remained on her doorstep, grinning at her.
"Yes," said Death. "Take the box, Melissa Miller."
Overwhelmed, she took the box. This time, it remained steadfastly white.
And then Missy slammed the door in Death’s face.
She bolted upstairs, the long package tucked under her arm. Voices assaulted her: her father’s, from the den, asking who’d been at the door; her mother’s, from the upstairs office, chiding her not to slam things.
His voice, dark and velvety soft, intimate and yet cold: You have blood on your hands.
Missy ignored them all. Thoughts whirling, she rushed into the safety of her room. She slammed the door (surely earning another reprimand from her mother) and locked it, then dropped the package—barely the size of a flower box now, and shrinking—onto her tattered comforter. The poster on her closet door shimmered in the curtained light. As always, Marilyn Monroe’s eyes were closed in ecstasy, and James Dean stared off to the right, his troubled gaze on something Missy couldn’t see. By the bottom left of the poster, a red rose was disfigured by the closet doorknob.
She opened the closet door quickly and tucked the white tie box onto the high shelf. She shut the door and finally collapsed on top of her blanket, clutching her pillow to her chest. Her long sleeves chafed her arms; her wrists begged her to strip naked and let the air kiss her skin. You have blood on your hands.
Her eyes stung. She blinked out the tears, felt them meander down her cheeks, burning saltwater tracks into her flesh. Squeezing her pillow, Missy thought about opening her closet door again—not for the new package, no, but for her lockbox and what was inside of it. The spray would have hit you here,
Death had said. She imagined his fingers caressing her face, wondered if his hands would be cold, like his voice. She almost smiled, but then Death’s voice gave way to another, even colder voice. Freak.
Holding her pillow like a shield, Missy gritted her teeth. No, she couldn’t take out the box, no matter how much she wanted to.
With that decision, she forgot about the messenger who’d come to her door, about the white box she’d taken but had not truly accepted.
All she thought now was how she’d show him
that she wasn’t a freak. She didn’t need to cut. She could handle it—school, her family, her life, everything. She could do it. I don’t need the blade,
she told herself, making it her mantra. I don’t need the blade. I don’t.
Missy bore the first pangs of emotional withdrawal as she imagined the blood vessels that tattooed her body beneath her skin, mapping the way to hidden treasure.
On the Millers’ doorstep, Death stood, mouth agape. The potted plants on either side of the front door sagged, already brown and withered. Overhead, the summer sun winked behind clouds, capricious, turning the sky a picturesque blue, now bleak and on the edge of nightmare, now bright again.
"Well, now," Death eventually said. "That was different."
In the front yard, a pale horse nickered.
Death shook his head as he approached his steed. "I didn’t even charge her with her task. Slammed the door in my face. In my face
." He chuckled. "I don’t know if I’m insulted or amused."
The pale horse snorted.
"You’re right," he said, patting his steed’s powerful neck. "Definitely amused. I like her."
The horse blinked, perhaps reproachfully.
"Can I help it if I have a type?"
This time, th...