The Pragmatist

by Hilary Gan

When Death, black-haired and looking rather ridiculously like Tom Selleck, climbed through the bedroom window, Ayesha was on top of the quilt turning the electronic pages of her Kindle through the newest Janet Evanovich.  Death raised a hand in greeting and flicked his cigarette out the window.  The ember traced his own trajectory through the night.

“Weren’t you in my mom’s hospital room last month?” she asked him.

“Yeah,” Death said.  “Sorry to see you again so soon.”

“Do you mind if I just finish this chapter?”

“That’s how you elect to spend your final minutes?”

Ayesha shrugged.  “That’s what I would be doing anyway.”

Death crooked the corner of his mouth.

“I’m not here for you.  But I admire your attitude.”

Ayesha’s pulse skyrocketed and her mouth went dry.

“Oh, no.”

Death went around to the other side of the bed and shook Larry, who opened a bleary eye and said, “Who are you?”

“Death,” Death said, and stuck out a hand.  Larry flailed his legs wildly and landed on the floor beside the bed with a thump.  Death sighed and stuck his hand back in his pocket.

“Every time.  No one wants to shake hands.  It’s like when you see someone you think you know and start to wave and then realize you don’t know them and have to fix your hair instead.”

“Not cool,” Larry said.  “Not fucking cool.  I talked to Apollo about this.  Why are you here?”

Death checked his watch.  “You’re about to have an aortic embolism.  Well, in like ten minutes.  I came early.  It’s policy with Olympic litigators.”

“Yeah, but I talked to Apollo, and he said—”

“Nice try, buddy.  Think I haven’t heard that one before?”

“It’s true,” Ayesha said quietly.  Both their heads swiveled to look at her.  “Apollo came to work in his firm as an intern after that whole mess with Delphyne, and Larry always made sure he got his Venti Caramel Macchiato.  He worked it out with the Fates.  If Larry can find someone else to die for him, he’s exempt.”

“Oh, shit,” Death said slowly, and reached into his pocket for his cell phone.  He dialed a number and it rang three times; Ayesha could hear it, faint and electronic against the wet silence of the nighttime.

“Hey, it’s Death.  Yeah.  I have this guy here, Larry Pancio?  He says—uh-huh.  Yeah.  Alright.  Sorry, I didn’t see the exemptions list yet.  Dude, it’s scheduled for 11:59 tonight, it should have been on last week’s.  I think the new guy forgot to adjust for time zones.  Okay.  Yeah.  See you in a few.”

He hung up.

“Okay, Hermes will be here in a minute and he can totally take you around to ask people.”

Larry exhaled loudly and ran a hand through his hair.

“Thanks, Ayesh,” he said, and smiled his half-smile at her.  She smiled back.  Her hands shook.  Larry started to hoist himself up on to the bed, but Death put his hand out in a warning and Larry froze.

“Dude, you’re supposed to be sleeping.  Don’t exert yourself or you might trigger your embolism before we can straighten this out.”

“Oh,” Larry said.  “Thanks.”

“Yeah, sure.  Reversals are way more paperwork than exemptions.”

They were silent for a moment; out the open window Ayesha could hear the gutters dripping.

“Has anyone ever told you you look like Tom Selleck?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Not that often, though.  Usually people are crying and can’t see that well.  It’s mostly old ladies who notice.  I used to get Archimedes a lot.”

There was a knock at the door.  Death sauntered over and opened it, and Hermes walked in.  He was tall and thin and wearing Ray-Bans.

“Dude,” said Death.  “What’s with the sunglasses at night?”

Hermes pushed them up onto his head.  His irises were golden.

“Had a meeting with Helios.”

“They’re pretty baller shades, though,” Death said wistfully.  “I’m hoping I can trade Bob Dylan ten extra minutes for his.  I mean, he churned out Blowin’ in the Wind in ten minutes, I think it’s a fair trade.”

Hermes turned to Larry.

“So you’re our man,” he said, smiling.  The smile made him look like a bank teller.  He picked Larry up gently and set him on his feet.  “Where are we headed?”

“I guess my parents are the logical choice,” Larry said, looking at Ayesha for confirmation.

“Did they, ever, you know, say they would die for you?” she asked anxiously.

“Well, not in so many words.  But they’re my parents.  And they’re old.”

Hermes pulled out his iPhone and tapped the screen a few times.

“They’re in Boise?”

“Yeah,” Larry said.  “What, do you have an app for that?’

Hermes held up the phone. “No, I’m playing Words With Friends with the Muses.”  He tapped his temple.  “All-knowing, remember?”

He put his phone away and dropped his sunglasses back over his eyes.

“You ready?”

“Wait, will I get to come back here?” Larry asked, turning towards Ayesha.  “Just in case?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Death.  “I’m going to hang out here.  This is the departure point on file, no point moving it when Hermes is on the job.  Easier to bring whoever it is back here.”

“Okay,” Larry said, and smiled at Ayesha again.  “See you soon.”

“Love you,” she said.

“Love you, too.”

Hermes took his elbow and they shut the door behind them.

Death leaned against the dresser.

“Is it cool if I smoke in here?”

“Hey,” she said, “whatever keeps you in a good mood.”

“I like you,” he said, packing his pack of cigarettes.  “So pragmatic.  Most people freak out if they have to stay in the room with me.”

“Do you do exemptions a lot?”

“I mean, they’re not the norm,” he said, lighting his cigarette.  “But the gods confer favors where they will.  All-powerful and whatever.”

He took a drag and exhaled a neat stream of smoke.

“Pretty cool that you guys are tight with Apollo.”

“Yeah, I guess it came in handy,” Ayesha said.  “I didn’t think we’d have to call in any favors this soon, though.”

“Embolisms are nasty buggers,” he said.  “Can’t really detect them.  Vague warning signs.”

Ayesha nodded and curled her knees up to her chin.  She rocked a little while she tried to put her words in order, then asked, “So… is there ever any difficulty?  Finding a replacement?”

Death squinted at her.

“Not usually.  I’ve had one or two that had to go anyway.  That was a fucking mess.  But nah, you humans are all into that love shit.  There’s always someone.”

Ayesha nodded.

A beep sounded from Death’s pocket.

“That’ll be Hermes,” he said, shifting into a standing position to dig his cell phone out with the hand that wasn’t holding the cigarette.  He opened the phone and then frowned.  “Hm.”

“What?” Ayesha asked.

“I guess they said no,” he said.  “That’s weird.  Usually it’s the parents who go for it.  Especially if there’s preexisting conditions.”

“Larry’s parents are pretty healthy,” Ayesha said.

“Yeah, but his mom’s got that—oh, shit, you guys don’t know about that yet.”  His frown deepened.  “I hope Hermes told her that.  Kind of an important disclosure, given the circumstances.”  His free thumb tapped the phone keypad.  “Then again, it might have been all too much at once.  That can happen sometimes.  Natural reaction, really.”

Ayesha wrapped a set of fingers around each opposing wrist in a manacle grip.

“Now who can he ask?”

Death held up a finger while he finished his message, and then slid the phone back into his pocket.

“I guess his aunt was pretty close to him?”

“Right, Aunt Lisa.”

“And then they said they’d try his best friend Marty.”

Ayesha nodded again.

“They served together in Desert Storm.”

They sat in silence again; a cricket chirped from somewhere in the house.

“It’s going to have to be me, isn’t it,” Ayesha said, her voice scratchy.

Death looked at her shrewdly.

“Yeah.  Most likely.  If it’s not the parents, it’s the spouse.”

“Will it hurt?”

“For an exemption-taker?” he guffawed.  “Totally not.  You’ll even get a pretty nice space down there.  Fruit trees and whatnot.  Aphrodite has a soft spot for exemption-takers.”

“Okay,” she said, but then she noticed he was examining his nails.

“What’s the catch, Death?” she asked, her voice too high.

“No catch,” he said.  “Everything’ll be gravy.”

“You’re a rotten liar.”

He sighed.

“You noticed, huh?  Yeah, it comes with the job description.  Fairly straightforward and all, Death is.”

He grinned at her.  She glared at him, and he held his hands up in defeat.

“I swear there’s no pain.”

“Then what is it?”

He folded his arms over his t-shirt.

“When you do this, you’re giving up your self for another person.  You’re literally taking his place.  You won’t… remember anything else.  Your whole being, your soul, the part that survives your body, will be dedicated to this one act.”

“To love,” Ayesha said fiercely.

“Yeah.  To love.  It’s like you’re sacrificing your self directly to Aphrodite.  Hence, the fruit trees.”

“Nectar for nectar?” Ayesha asked, smiling a little.

Death looked at her.

“This Marty guy better say yes.  For a human you’re really not half bad.”

Death’s cell phone beeped.

“Come on, one out of three.”  He checked the message.  “Shit.  Well, one out of four ain’t bad odds, either.”

Ayesha sighed and put her feet over the edge of the bed.

“What are you doing?  We’ve still got Marty.”

“I know they served together and all, but Marty’s kind of a bastard,” she said, going over to the closet.  “He wouldn’t change his vacation dates for our wedding.  Think I’ll need a sweater?”

“Babe,” he said.  “It’s Hades.”

“Good point.”  She let the hanger swing back into place.

“Do you have kids?  I can let you say goodbye,” he offered.

“Maggie’s at college out west,” she said.  “It’ll be better if Larry tells her.  If I call and say, ‘Hey, I’m dying for your dad,’ it won’t go over well.  And she might try to take his place instead.”

Death nodded and said, “The anger phase goes better when you’re not present for it.”

Ayesha looked down at her hands.

“This is weird.  Leaving for somewhere and not bringing anything with me.”

He waved a hand in dismissal.

“You’ll get used to it.”  He paused.  “Are you, like, sure about this?  What is Larry going to say?”

“I’m not going to let him say anything,” she said.  “The anger phase goes better when you’re not present for it.”

Death smiled slightly.

“Well, let’s wait to hear about Marty, anyway.  We’ll have a couple getaway seconds in between.”

“Okay,” she said, and sat down on the bed again to wait.

After a minute in silence she said, “I never thought cell phones would be so integral in my death.”

“Beats the hell out of memos, not to mention sheepskin,” he said.  “It’s lessened Hermes’ workload considerably.  He gets way more tail now.  Less snappy, too.”

Ayesha rolled her eyes.

“Glad we could help.”

Death’s phone beeped; Ayesha held her breath even though she knew she shouldn’t.  Death cursed.

“Marty really is a bastard,” he said.  “How could you say no to your best friend’s face like that?  It’s one thing to renege.  This is just cold.”

Ayesha stood up.  Her hands trembled and her breaths came quickly but she reached out to take Death’s hand.

“You sure you don’t want to say goodbye?” he asked.

She smiled sadly.

“It’s better if we just go.”

“You know him best,” he said, shrugging, and flicked his cigarette out the window again.  “You ready?”

She said nothing, only placed her small, trembling dark hand in his great pale one.  His fingers were cool and dry.  He led her over to the window.

“Sucks, you know,” he said, as she threw a leg over the sill into the damp air.  “I was hoping we could hang out in Hades.”

“Why can’t we?” she asked.

“Honey, in about three seconds the only thing you’ll be able to speak of with any coherency is Larry.”

Ayesha looked up at him.

“I guess that would be bad date etiquette,” she said.  “Obsessing over another guy.”

“The kiss of death,” he agreed, and followed her out the window.

HILARY GAN is a klutz who resides in Tempe, Arizona. She earned an interdisciplinary degree in biology and philosophy from Arizona State University, where she also studied creative writing under Ron Carlson. He taught her that fact has nothing to do with truth and that even eating should be secondary to writing.

11 thoughts on “The Pragmatist

  1. If this is her first story, I really can’t wait to read more. I loved everything about it, especially the way you could see the ending coming but were still surprised/saddened by it.

    Also, the little touches: “I used to get Archimedes a lot.” or “He gets way more tail now. Less snappy, too.”


  2. Wow! Even though you see it coming, you still hold out hope for Ayesha up until the bitter end. Laugh-out-loud, coffee-in-you-nose hysterical, and heavily why-does-love-got-to-be-so-sad sad at the same time. I love the suspense right up until the end. Even after a second read, you’re still hoping for some surprise volunteer who was just about to off himself to step in and save Ayesha’s day.

    Really nice read. More from this writer, please!!!

  3. Hilary! Fantastic story – had me interested the entire time! Hilarious and well written. First of many published pieces of yours, I’m sure! Love it.

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  5. I’m in stitches. Death as Tom Selleck (Hollywood’s greatest death-defier), blowing neat streams of smoke, reflecting on that “love shit,” and crushing on the pragmatist. So short, and yet, I took the bait of tension, felt the manacle gripping of Ayesha’s wrists.
    “This is weird leaving for somewhere and not bringing anything with me.” There is no more concise way to explain the phenomenon that this story is APPARENTLY about.
    “It’s going to have to be me, isn’t it?” There is no more powerful way to explain the phenomenon that this story is ACTUALLY about.
    This story is as sweet as the fruit of Aphrodite.

  6. Hilary, it’s great! Barry gave me the link to read your short story, and I really loved it. So funny and smart, and such a serious topic though! Bravo:)))

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