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A Little Trouble Dying
    by Edmund R. Schubert

A Little Trouble Dying
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

Waiting for the last contaminants of the plague to pass, I had sat in my underground bunker, surrounded by 55-gallon plastic drums of distilled water and mountains of canned vegetables with peeling paper labels. I had scribbled the days and weeks and years onto the wall like a prisoner marking time in solitary.

And that's exactly what I was: a prisoner. Except I hadn't been forced into a cell for crimes against society; I had gone down there alone, voluntarily, to escape death.

If only I had known quite how thoroughly I would accomplish my goal . . .

You see, until yesterday I had been alone, waiting, lingering, without seeing another living being in exactly two-hundred-fourteen years, eight months, and three days. But I was still here, still young, still healthy. Still exactly the same.

I was having a little trouble dying.

Now, I know what you're thinking, and no, I'm not crazy. I may have become a little obsessive about counting things, but you try spending 3,264 days alone in an underground bunker -- no matter how well-stocked it might be with books, games, digital music and movies -- and another 75,146 days above-ground but still alone, foraging for anything that might help ease the boredom, and see if you don't come out obsessed with something.

And I think it's important that you know I never intended to go into that bunker alone. Despite being told repeatedly what a paranoid fool I was for building the damn thing in the first place, I was a social person. I loved being around people. They say the difference between an introvert and an extrovert is that the former derives their energy from being alone; the latter derives their energy from being with people. I was no introvert.

But when I told my co-workers at the lab that I thought the N7HV3 virus was about to explode across the planet, none of them grasped the urgency of the situation. And when I told my family and friends the same thing, I got the same response. They called me a 'Doomsday Prepper' and told me I should go on one of those reality TV shows.

Reduced from logic to cajoling, then pleading, I finally had no choice but to go into the bunker alone.

Six weeks later they were all pounding on the double-paned, bullet proof window next to the entrance, their eyes bleeding and their flesh flaking from their bodies in great gray chunks.

But by then letting anyone else in, even my sister and her infant daughter, was no longer an option. All that was left to do was talk--and sometimes cry--along with them, through the intercom, until they died on my doorstep.

A lot of people died on my doorstep.

I hated each and every one of them for making me watch them die like that. Hated them with a passion.

That's when I started counting. I counted family and friends as they died a few hermetically-sealed inches away, and I could feel myself age with the passing of each one.

Several centuries later, I'm still in the habit of counting things -- but I haven't aged since.

And I only hate them a little . . .

Despite my scientific background and having little to do but ponder the situation, I had no idea why I stopped aging. At first I thought it might've been related to the N7HV3 virus, or some mutant strain of another virus I worked on in the lab. Both of those theories made as much sense as anything else I could come up with. Unfortunately I lacked the equipment to test them, and by time it was safe to come out of the bunker, the lab where I had worked -- along with everything else mankind ever created -- had been reduced to so much rusted, rotted, moldering junk.

But as with so many other things, after the first century I stopped questioning it. A man can only stew for so long on the same problem without finding answers before he moves on.

Then, yesterday, over two hundred and five years after I determined it was finally safe to live above-ground again, I was standing in front of the entrance to my bunker when Death came to visit me. Actually, he walked right up to me.

He was about six foot two, had blonde hair and hot pink eyes, and wore black jeans and a black t-shirt with a pirate's skull and cross bones printed on it. It was overkill in the most absurd sort of way, but there could be no doubt who he was.

I had never been so happy to see anyone in my very long life.

You see, I had thought about killing myself plenty -- I had planned it out 407 different times -- but I had never had the nerve to do it. Now Death had finally come. He would do his job and I would be free.

He sauntered up to me like it was a birthday party. "Jared Peterson?"

"Yes," I said excitedly. I extended my hand to shake his. "Yes, I am."

I had spent years talking to myself for fear I might forget how to speak, but it still felt odd to have someone standing in front of me as words came out of my mouth. Death looked at my hand as if it were covered with cockroaches and immediately stepped back, raising both hands in a gesture that was familiar even after two centuries of solitude.

"What's wrong?"

"No, no," he said quickly, firmly. "No touching."

"Why not?" But even before I had finished asking the question, I knew the answer. "Because if I touch you, I die," I said. "That's how it works, isn't it?"

He nodded once, decisively. "Pretty much. It takes a full second of contact, but if you touch my skin, that's the end."

Suddenly the sun didn't feel quite so warm on my face anymore. What kind of cosmic injustice was this? Death had finally come -- and he wouldn't take me?

"But it's time for me to die. It's past time."

Death stared softly at me, as if measuring which words he might use. It seemed like he was purposely dragging this out.

"Well . . ."

"What do you mean 'well?' Do you have any idea how tired I am of living alone?" I lunged at him --

. . . but before I had completed my first step, Death was gone. Vanished.

I staggered, I fell to the ground. It's not easy lunging at nothing.

Had I finally lost my mind?

But no, he was still nearby; he had merely moved, apparently too quickly for my eye to follow. Now he was perched, squatting, settled atop the raised concrete entrance to my bunker. The afternoon sun was directly behind him, making him look like an ominous, blonde-headed crow as he hopped down.

"It's actually painful for me to move this slowly. It's like choosing to be the Tin Woodsman after he rusted by the side of the Yellow Brick Road. I'm only doing it for your benefit, so don't try anything like that again. Otherwise I will leave you here, alone."

"No!" My stomach cringed at the thought. "God, please, no."

Death spread his hands. "No more nonsense? No more 'sudden' moves?"

"No," I agreed quickly. "No. I promise."

Death sat down in the tall green grass, his legs crossed in such an unusual way that I'd swear he had just bent his knees in the opposite direction. He said, "Let's chat, you and I. You must have questions, and I haven't spoken with anyone in nearly a century. Let's spend a few moments together."

I grew increasingly convinced he was stalling when he gestured grandly to the Eden-like world around us. "Impressive, no?"

It was an undeniably gorgeous world. Every river ran as clean and clear as an infant's conscience; fish and birds and animals teemed like snowflakes at the North Pole; fruit and berries filled the bushes thicker than people had once filled New York City.

Frankly, I didn't care about any of it. I might have once, but that was so long ago I couldn't even remember any more. Now I only cared about one thing.

"Why won't you take me?"

I was still on my feet, standing before him, looking at him longingly. And all the while, I kept thinking that there was no way, absolutely no way, he could avoid me if I threw myself at him.

Problem was, I was terrified to try.

In all the years gone by, I had never been able to come up with a means of killing myself that didn't look like it would hurt like hell -- or worse yet, leave me suffering if I failed. My greatest fear was that I was somehow immortal and would live on in agony if I cut my throat or threw myself off a cliff. And believe you me, I'd stood at the top of a lot of cliffs since that first one 73,186 days ago.

But Death could end this. One touch and it would be over.

It was his job. His duty.

I ran my fingers through my hair, despairing. If I tried to touch him and missed, if he left me here alone again . . .

I couldn't stand it if that happened. It would break me. Utterly.

"Why?" I repeated. "Why won't you just do it?"

Death grinned cheerfully. I may as well have asked a child why he wouldn't clean his room. Don't feel like it, Ma.


I lay down, flat on my back in the grass, watching the sky drift by. I didn't feel calm, I didn't feel relaxed. I just knew that if I didn't get off my feet I would do something stupid.

"Isn't there anything else you want to know?" he asked. "Like why you're still alive after all these years?"

I had been focusing on a high, thin, wispy cloud lazing across a lagoon-blue sky, but that question froze me. For too many decades that had been the consuming question. The one I had given up on.

I propped myself up on my elbows, realizing even as I did it that I was nodding my head, and that I couldn't seem to stop.

Death approved. He shrugged and spoke so matter-of-factly that you'd have thought I had just asked him why the ocean was wet. He said, "I couldn't find you."

I blinked, twice, thrice, lingering with the idea for a moment to be sure I had heard him correctly. I couldn't have. It was ridiculously insane. Insanely ridiculous. I think my mouth tried to spit out the word "What?" but I was so flabbergasted I'm not sure anything actually made it all the way past my lips.

I gathered myself, convinced myself that yes, I had really just heard what I thought I heard, and said, "What do you mean you couldn't find me? How could you not find me?"

Thoroughly irritated, I started to climb to my feet. But Death made little fluttering motions with his hands. I'm not sure if he was saying I should sit back down or if he was threatening to fly away, but the result was the same: I stayed where I was.

"What do you mean you couldn't find me?" I repeated. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

Death laughed. It was a deep, rich, resonant, horrifying sound. The sound of a gigantic wave rising from the depths of the ocean and rushing over beaches and towns and fields, crushing, crashing, and shattering everything in its path.

"I couldn't find you," he repeated. "It's pretty simple. I'm naturally drawn to the terminally ill, injured, and old, and you managed to avoid all three."

This was making less sense all the time.

"Okay, that's --" I cut myself off. At this point I had no idea what question I should even be asking. "How . . .?"

"How does someone avoid aging?" he said for me.

I nodded.

Death was amused, but mercifully he did not laugh again. He said, "Ironically, by being one of the last people on Earth. Back when the planet was swarming with people, the ones that were, if you'll pardon the pun, deathly sick or injured, called out to me. I answered them. And on my way, I brushed past the living -- and they aged. Only slightly, but age they did.

"The problem was, when I got down to the last handful of humans, you started getting hard to find. Damned hard. I wasn't brushing past people on my way to claim other lives, so people weren't aging. And the world has become such a healthy paradise --" He said the word "healthy" as if it had been marinated in vinegar before it passed through his mouth "-- that unless someone became mortally wounded or -- as a few lonely souls did -- intentionally killed themselves, I simply couldn't find them.

"And to be honest, I've stopped trying quite so hard in this last century. Maybe I'm just bored, but there's certainly no need for all that rush, rush, rush. Not when there are only four people left on the entire planet." He paused, pulled a small notebook and pencil out of his back pocket, flipped the notebook open and thumbed to a particular page. He made a little check mark. Then he looked back at me, suddenly all business. "Well, it'll be four -- in a moment."

He slipped the notebook back into his pocket.

"Wait a minute," I said. "There are others? Besides me?"

"Oh yes," he said, climbing to his feet. The grass where he had been sitting was dead. He took another step toward me and another patch of green grass withered and turned scorched brown.

I backed up. "After all this time, now you tell me there are still people out there? That I'm not alone. That's not fair. You have to let me find them. See them."

"But you said you wanted to die." His demeanor was markedly different. Hard.

"No! I said I was tired of being alone." I jerked my head around, panicked, desperate to find some avenue of escape.

"That's better," he said softly. He began circling me, gliding, muscles rippling. "It's no fun when they want to die . . ." Louder, he added "Those people have been out there all along. One man and three women. One of them is even on this continent. You just didn't look hard enough."

His inward spiral was bringing him closer and closer to me. I pivoted as I retreated, trying to keep him in front of me. "It took you over two hundred years to find me . . . and I didn't look hard enough?"

But with each word I uttered, he drew closer still. One second, he had said. All it took was one full second of contact.

"I got bored," he said. "I could have found you sooner, but I've learned to savor the moment; to relish the hunt. There are so few of you left."

I had been about to make a break for it, to try to run. But I knew it wouldn't do any good. On the other hand, when a man is about to be pounced on by a lion, doesn't he at least try to get away?

That was the answer.

I immediately stopped backpedaling.

He stopped pursuing.

"What are you doing?" he demanded. His eyes turned a deep shade of red, cherry red, if cherries grew in Hell.

"What are you doing?" I said. I jabbed a finger in his direction; he flinched away from it. "You say you're bored. You say you've learned to savor the hunt --" I moved toward him. He retreated two steps backward for every one I took forward. "-- yet you're on the verge of killing me, killing off one of the last of the humans. If you think you're bored now, what are you going to do when we're all gone?"

Death stopped retreating. He crossed his arms, folding them over the skull and cross bones on his t-shirt. His pupils dilated until they completely disappeared.

I had his attention.

"What do you have in mind?" he asked.

That stopped me cold. What did I have in mind? My mind had been racing, trying to find a way to get him to wait, to think, but I never thought he'd actually listen. Now that I had his attention, what did I do with it?

"I don't know," I said.

I counted the nine dead-grass footprints he had left as he backed up. Then I assessed the wide swath of green that surrounded us.

I said, "You could give me time. If I can find the others and bring them together, it's inevitable that babies will be born. Then you'll have more people to kill. More work to do." It sounded reasonable to me.

But not to Death. "No," he said, and his eyes flushed pink again. "I don't think so. I'm enjoying these hunts precisely because they'll be my last. After all this time, I'll finally be done. You think it's tough being alive for a few hundred years, try living a few hundred thousand."

I might have felt sorry for him if he weren't here to kill me.

"You don't want to kill us off," I said. "It would be the biggest mistake you ever made."

Death looked at me like I was insane -- but he was listening.

"I don't know if you ever were human," I said. "Maybe it's just because you've lived among us for so long, I don't know. But look at yourself. Look at all the human traits you're exhibiting. First you didn't want to take me when I wanted to die. No, you wanted to do it on your own terms. That's incredibly human. Then you said you were bored. In fact, you've said it twice now. Trust me, I counted. Boredom is a quintessentially human emotion.

"Well let me tell you something -- something I just figured out about myself. Seeing how excited I got when I learned there were still people out there? It made me realize I wasn't miserable simply because I was lonely. Yeah, I was lonely; I won't deny that. But I was miserable because I had no purpose. Without purpose people are nothing. And without a sense of purpose -- without humans to hunt -- you'll be more miserable than I ever was."

As I spoke, Death's eye-color swirled like a Halloween hurricane before they finally settled on black.

It was the first time I had been glad to see them that color. They were still unnerving, but at least they weren't in flux.

"I can't sit around and wait another century for you to find these people," he said. "Patience is one thing, but asking me to sit around is another thing all together. And I honestly don't know where the others are." He paused, then narrowed his eyes and added, "So why don't we just get this over with?"

Before I knew it, Death was inches from my face, his fist clutching a handful of my shirt. I leaned back as far as the shirt's fabric would allow -- which gained me maybe three inches.

"Wait," I gasped. "Don't you understand? That's exactly why this is going to work."

He didn't let go, but his demeanor shifted oh so slightly.

"Why what's going to work?"

"You don't know where the other people are. I don't know where the other people are. So we'll have a race. Or a treasure hunt. Call it whatever you like. We'll both go looking for the last people. Anybody you find first is yours. But anybody I find first, you can't touch for three generations."

"During which time you'll breed like bunnies."

I nodded. "I'm assuming that growing up is not the same thing as growing old, so you won't need to touch the children in order for them to develop."

He nodded.

"And none of that 'faster-than-a-speeding-bullet' stuff," I added. "You move at my speed -- regular human."

I could tell by the look on his face that he was considering it.

"And every five years we'll meet back up," I said, trying to sweeten the pot. "We'll compare notes, see how it's going."

"Make it ten years," he said. "Right here. I have fond memories of this little bunker of yours. Collected a lot of people here on your doorstep."

He extended his hand to shake on the deal and laughed heartily when I almost fell for it. His laugh didn't sound any less horrible than it did the first time around.

When he walked off, he was still laughing. It was clear that this wasn't going to be a friendly competition; it was going to be the strangest deathmatch ever.

But he had gone for it. That was all that mattered.

Or at least I think he went for it. As he walked away, I couldn't help but wonder if I had talked him into this race, or if he had tricked me into thinking it was my idea. It's possible he knew all along that he needed something to do, something to keep life interesting. Whether that something lasts for the next few years, the next few hundred, or more, I can't say. And it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that he's set all five of us in motion at the same time, just to double the fun.

Whatever it is he's up to, I don't care. There are others out there. Four of them. And I'm going to find them. Before he does.

This time I'm not going to escape Death; I'm going to beat him.

Considering the way things had turned out last time, I wonder how thoroughly I might be able to meet that goal . . .

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