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Death paged through a National Geographic between a vending machine and a potted palm.
Jessie had only seen Death twice before. She’d watched from her parents’ porch as Death arrived at an elderly neighbor’s door a minute before the paramedics. She’d been about five, so the memory was as much the smell of sidewalk chalk and sunscreen as it was billowing black robes. The second time was in college, part of a gawking crowd outside a fraternity house about to be shut down.
Death seemed embarrassed to be caught, if the soft cough from a fleshless throat and rustle of paper was anything to go by. She hesitated in the empty doorway, swallowed, and decided not to turn around.
Her feet knew every step. She’d walked this way every hour or two for days, just to have a destination. There were gardens around the hospital, a fountain in the foyer, a jarringly garish gift shop. She knew all those like the blur inside her eyelids, but they were for less fraught moments. Jessie could look at flowers while she waited on a scheduled procedure, not day three of the latest vigil.
Her debit card shook its way out of her hands. Not a caffeinated option this time, then. She pinched the bridge of her nose with a faint groan and looked down at her shoes, hoping it hadn’t bounced far.
Jessie had time to glare at the empty expanse of beige carpet before the card reappeared between two bits of speckled gray bone. “Here,” said a voice like her dead grandmother’s, like distant summer thunder, like the sharp anxieties of student loans and romantic failure that kept you awake at night.
She tried to be casual while not touching the skeletal fingers even a little bit. “Thank you.”
“Sorry. I should know better,” Death said. Jessie fitted her best noncommittal noise with an upward inflection by way of polite answer. “No, I know I upset people. It’s alright.”
Jessie made a point to assume everyone else was also trying their best. “I’m sure it’s been a long night for you, too.”
She recalled recently reading a half-decent think piece about Death. It compared fictional depictions of Death’s emotional expression over time (and a sprinkling of memes and uncredited tweets). Yet she’d never imagined that Death might laugh with ironic detachment, an exhausted huff that mocked mirth without meaning it any ill will. “Know when they built this hospital?” Death asked her.
Jessie finally remembered to buy her drink, listening intently to the tumble of the bottle on its way to freedom. “It’s pretty old, right?”
“1943. Places like this, I’m always needed sooner or later. No point in leaving just to come back.”
“Damn.” She leaned against the soda machine, its faint vibrations sharp against her sleep deprived skull, and made her best approximation of conversational eye contact. Difficult to do to a black shroud with void beneath, but her eyes weren’t focusing great anyway.
“Tonight’s been quiet, and, well, it is four in the morning,” Death shrugged, shoulders more like a vulture’s wings than was quite comfortable. “I thought I was in the clear for a break.”
“Couldn’t they give you an office or something?” Being existentially upsetting wasn’t Death’s fault. No one else had to restrict to the cold comfort of a plastic chair and an article about frogs to the deepest part of the witching hour.
“Hasn’t been in fashion for a while,” Death said with a majestic shake of their head.
The injustice of it struck Jessie with the weight only a distraction from ongoing misery can. She’d taken a few anthropology courses before she’d settled on her English major. Death’s Chambers appeared across cultures in the Bronze Age, and the decline was usually attributed to different patterns in urbanization and other stuff she didn’t remember from fifteen years ago. Surely a post-scarcity society could manage Death’s Break Room? “This place is huge. They’ve got space for that ugly fountain in the foyer.”
“I could sit in the ugly fountain. It wouldn’t bother me.”
“You totally should.”
“Hard on the magazine, though.”
“Yeah.” She looked down at the unopened bottle in her hand and blinked a few times. “Is my mom–” She cut herself off. The silence thickened for a moment, cut only by the hum of the soda machine and her own heartbeat in her ears.
“I don’t know any more than you do,” Death said, their beautiful, terrible voice even.
“Yeah, that makes sense, sorry.”
Questions like spooked squirrels scrambled through the molasses of her thoughts. Mrs. Ramirez and the fraternity kid. The cold hand of capitalism and its exclusion of humanity’s first ally. Picklesauce, the ancient cat she’d said goodbye to last fall as if she didn’t have enough to mourn. Eons of living and dying. For all the history of grief, an empty doorway and a maple leaf.
What she said was, “Want a soda?”
“Yes, actually, thank you.”
“It might be a little warm by now.” Her sense of time was shot. She handed it over and didn’t trouble herself to avoid the bones this time. They were painfully cold, but she didn’t mind. It was something to feel. “Thanks for the company.”
“Any time.” That not-laugh again. “But you’d probably rather not.”
“No, really, it’s cool.” Maybe it was the sleep deprivation talking, but– “I’ll stop in tomorrow night if we’re still here.”
“I’d like that.”
“Enjoy the frogs.”
Did you know Death likes frogs? What do I do with this information, her modestly viral tweet might say. She didn’t think they’d mind. Maybe after a little sleep. Jessie let her feet pick their accustomed way back to her mother’s room, accompanied by only the sound of a turning page.
Interview with Malda Marlys, Author of “Death Loves Frogs”
What inspired your story?
This is one of the most straightforwardly autobiographical pieces I’ve written, which is perhaps not difficult to spot despite all the pontificating about the anthropological implications of an objectively real personification of death. Walking back and forth to the vending machines is how I break up my own long hours at hospitals. Nights like that, the witching hour’s stillness clashing with chatting nurses and beeping machines, it seems unfair that you can’t take the very concept of mortality to task. Nothing else seems to conform to the rules of reality as we know them. But Death never turns up to give an account of itself, so you buy another candy bar and shuffle back to your vigil.
All that said, I wrote this story right before the pandemic swept over our lives, and it seems strangely dated now. May we all know the grace of being able to linger uselessly by our loved ones through those long nights and not risk saying our goodbyes to a screen.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi stole that title and ran off with it in triumph. I was determined to make that book last, but then I was turning the last page and didn’t know where the afternoon had gone. I’ve had to stop myself from diving right back in six months on, and I’m not usually a rereader. One review discussed what a good job Clarke had done of making you love the other world at the core of the book when it was such a strange and hostile place, and I wouldn’t say the reviewer was wrong, but I loved the crumbling halls of bones and statuary and all its many birds from the first page. How could anybody see that little universe as other than beautiful and beckoning? Maybe there are two kinds of people in the world.
How long have you been writing?
This is the bit where everybody says “as long as I can remember,” and it’s not untrue. But I’ve been working on short stories seriously for about a year and a half. I had The Novel in progress (don’t we all) when my dad’s stroke—again, this story’s not hard to interpret—kicked the knees out from under me, and I’ve been focused on crafting short form fiction since.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
Beloved monsters, abrupt and necessary changes to stagnating lives, quiet magics in the shadows of well-known places, academic over-analysis of speculative premises. So.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
I don’t much care for the poem as a whole, but the line “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night,” from Sarah Williams’ “The Old Astronomer” does sum up my approach to life.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
I teach science just outside Chicago and write the sort of speculative fiction that requires too many qualifiers for the normal flow of conversation. Fortunately, the SFFH umbrella is wide (and kind of spooky and full of brass fittings and snakes). My debut story, “Mayday,” appeared in Issue #3 of Fusion Fragment. Find me at aardwyrm.wixsite.com/maldamarlys.