Death and Natalie, Natalie and Death by Jordan Taylor
Death came across the rat when she was walking home from school through the park with her best friend Natalie. It lay spread-eagled on its back in the middle of West Drive, its sharp little snaggle-teeth sticking out at odd angles, its whiskered nose in the air, furry paws spread wide as if it wanted to give Death a hug.
The rat’s ghost was still hanging around, balancing on its insubstantial tail and chittering with glee beside the corpse, delighted to be in Death’s presence. The ghost’s teeth were crooked too. It pretended to doff a hat and made Death a dapper little bow.
Death crossed her arms.
Rats liked to think that they were Death’s special friends. Death thought it had something to do with the Bubonic Plague, and often wished she could explain to them that it had really been the fleas who’d carried the disease. The rats had only carried the fleas. A sort of sub-vector, if you will. Death was taking AP Biology.
“Look at him, Mags!” Natalie said, putting her hand over her mouth to hide her giggles from the bouncing ghost. Mags was Death’s name. Death could see the straight row of Natalie’s teeth and the tip of her upturned nose through her raised hand.
Natalie had on a puffy blue jacket and a bright pink knit hat with a pom-pom on top that flattened her curly hair and made her eyes look too big and her cheekbones too sharp. Sometimes ghosts that stuck around this long started to change. Death was watching her.
“Isn’t he cute?” Natalie said. She held her transparent hand out to the rat, and he ran up her arm to sit on her shoulder, beaming at Death.
Death glared at him.
Just three weeks ago, Natalie and Death had taken their midterms at the Upper West Side’s High School of Art and Technology, Natalie’s cheeks pink with cold as she compared notes with Death in the hallway before classes. Natalie was Death’s only close friend.
Death had met Natalie in the sixth grade, when she and her mom moved into the building beside Death’s. Natalie had shown Death her posters of Lisa Frank unicorns—“They’re cool again because they’re vintage,” Natalie had said—and something had clicked.
When neither had a boyfriend, it was just Death and Natalie, Natalie and Death.
Of course, three weeks ago Natalie hadn’t known Mags was Death. It wasn’t like she carried a scythe or anything.
Death’s jurisdiction was Manhattan. The Outer Boroughs each had their own Death, and Death sort of pitied the one assigned to Northern Jersey, not that she’d ever met her.
Death had only recently realized how little power she had—a small, local Death, with a single role. She didn’t kill anyone. She couldn’t save anyone, either. Death’s only job was to accompany the dead of Manhattan on their journey into the afterlife.
The dead always wanted to know what the afterlife was going to be like. Death couldn’t even tell them that. Death had never been all the way there; she didn’t know. Usually, she just made things up.
It was good practice for college interviews.
Death told herself that maybe Natalie had gotten stuck here because the universe had chosen the wrong Death to ferry her into the afterlife. It was really just a way to relieve her guilt. Death knew the truth—Natalie was stuck because of her.
Natalie had died in a car crash over Christmas break. She and her mom had been on their way to her grandparents’ house in Pittsburgh when a truck hit the passenger side of their car.
Natalie’s mom lived. Natalie didn’t.
According to the rules that governed these things, Death thought Natalie should have gone to the Death of the area she’d died in. Instead, Natalie had been sent to her.
“Where am I?” Natalie had asked. She’d spun around, frowning in her pink hat and her shiny puffer jacket.
It was the first question they all asked.
Death called the space in between the present world and the afterlife The Hallway, because that’s what it always was—a hallway. It changed for each person. It might be the hallway of the building where they lived—a grimy tile floor and walls covered in layer upon layer of paint, chipped rows of doors with black numbers—or the house they grew up in—a faded woven rag-rug on the floor and family pictures on the wall, their bedroom door at the end, open just a crack…
For Natalie, it was the main hallway of the school they attended. Natalie stared at the rows of shadowy lockers, rubbed her Nike against the polished floor to hear it squeak. The noise echoed.
This was usually where Death said something like “You’re dead,” or “This way, please,” and took the person’s hand.
This time, all the air had left Death’s lungs and she hadn’t been able to say anything but “Natalie?”
“Mags?” Natalie shook her head. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?” Death echoed. “I thought you were spending Christmas in The Pitts.” She put one hand against the shadow lockers to keep from slumping to the cold floor. She’d been drinking hot cocoa with her little sister before she’d been called away, and she could still taste it, sour in the back of her mouth.
“I was in the car,” Natalie said, “and then…” She froze, her eyes wide.
Death was crying. She wasn’t supposed to cry. Behind Natalie, the heavy double doors she’d come through were still open, and the sound of nighttime Manhattan traffic trickled into the hallway.
“Mags?” Natalie asked, and her voice squeaked. “You look different. Why are you here?” And then, stronger, “Where’s my mom?”
“I’m Death,” Death said, and her shoulders shook, black wings unfurling behind her back, dark feathers drifting down The Hallway. “I’m supposed to take you—”
Natalie turned and ran back through the open doors, the yellow beams of the school’s floodlights shining through her bouncing curls.
Death hadn’t seen Natalie again until a few days later, at her funeral. When Death had walked into the nave of the Church of St. Francis Assisi with her parents and her little sister, Natalie’s ghost had been sitting in the back row, swinging her legs, still in the same outfit she’d died in.
Death hung back and slid into the row beside her.
Death’s parents glanced at one another.
“She needs space,” her dad said, in an undertone that she could still hear. He put his hand on her mom’s arm. Death’s sister rolled her eyes as they continued up the main aisle, her new red Mary Janes tapping against the polished floor.
Wilting Christmas poinsettias in shiny foil-wrapped pots lined the aisle. Death thought she remembered something about them being poisonous. Deadly.
Between Natalie’s death and the funeral, Christmas had somehow passed. Death could barely remember it.
“I’ve been at the hospital, with my mom,” Natalie said beside her, staring down at the toes of her Nikes. Her legs scissored back and forth, back and forth. “She only came home yesterday. This is the first day she’s gotten dressed.”
At the front of the church, Death’s parents clasped hands with Natalie’s mom, Death’s sister hanging back, her sleek ponytail waving from side to side as she fidgeted. Natalie’s mom had on a neck brace, and one of her arms was in a sling. She’d missed one of the middle buttons on her white blouse.
Death felt like there was a huge hand in her chest, squeezing her heart and lungs so tight they might pop. Her black stockings itched.
“You’re the only one who can see me,” Natalie said, still looking down. “Are you really Death?”
“Yes,” Death said. The organ started playing as the priest walked to the pulpit. Death’s and Natalie’s families rose from their seats. Death and Natalie stayed sitting, the rainbow of colors from the stained glass windows dancing on Death’s white arm and shining through Natalie’s clothes, as if she were made of glass herself.
When Death went forward to view the body, Natalie came with her. They leaned against the heavy oak casket, Death’s arms folded over the lip, Natalie on her tip-toes. Natalie’s body looked like a flesh-colored statue that someone had dressed in her homecoming outfit. Her curls were washed soft and shining, and spread out on the silk pillow like a fairy tale princess. One half of her face was a little smooshed.
Natalie’s ghost scrunched up her nose. “I hated that dress,” she said. “Tyler got drunk and puked on it, you remember? I bet you can still see the stain.” She reached her hand into the casket, but it passed right through the satin dress.
Natalie stuck her tongue out at herself. “What was I thinking? I mean, for god’s sake, it’s plum-colored.”
“You look hideous,” Death agreed. The woman in line behind her stared, her mouth open, as Natalie slipped her whisper-light hand into Death’s and squeezed.
The first day back to school after Christmas break, Death had stalked the halls wrapped in a leather jacket like armor, staring at the faces of her classmates. Being in the main hallway felt weird; she kept expecting it to dissolve into smoke and shadow around her, and become The Hallway. It took her three periods to realize she was watching the crowds expecting to see Natalie.
At lunch, when Death’s boyfriend asked her where Natalie was, Death didn’t know what to say, and so she only shrugged, stuffing the rest of her bologna-and-mustard sandwich in her mouth. He didn’t actually seem concerned. When he turned away to talk to some of his friends from the chess club, Death studied his face and decided that his nose was too big.
By fifth period, word had spread. Death could hear the whispers running through the hallways and around the classrooms. Natalie was dead. There had been a funeral. And now everyone, from Keisha who was going to Ivy League to Joey who gave himself tattoos with an unbent paperclip in the back of class, knew it. When the principal announced over the PA that sixth period would be spent in a mandatory assembly devoted to Natalie’s memory, Death was the only one who seemed surprised.
On her way to the assembly, Death slipped a note in her boyfriend’s locker, written not even in her favorite blue gel pen but a ball-point with a chewed up end that she’d found on the floor: “It’s not working out. Mainly because you’re a jerk.”
They’d folded all the bleachers down in the gym, like there was going to be a basketball game. The wood was cold on the back of Death’s legs, even through her jeans. She sat on the back row and leaned against the concrete wall, pulling her hair down around her face so that she wouldn’t have to look at anyone. She thought maybe she would freeze and become as stiff as Natalie had been in her casket.
“I heard it was her mom’s fault,” a boy in a blue hoodie said next to her. “I heard that the crash smashed her face all up, and the mortician—you know, the guy who fixes up dead people—had to remake it with plaster. Did you know her?”
Death gave him the finger.
The principal stood up to speak.
“Hiya,” Natalie said.
Death jumped. Natalie was perched in the air beside her, her legs folded as if she was sitting on the bleachers too. The pom-pom of her hat bounced above her.
“How did you get here?” Death whispered.
Natalie cocked her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just thought about you, and here I was. Cool, huh?” She frowned. “I couldn’t stay home with Mom anymore. She took out my baby book today and cried.” Natalie looked down at her feet. “I keep trying to talk to her, even though I know she can’t hear me. I thought about throwing stuff around, knocking on the walls, you know, but,” Natalie pulled a face and mimed knocking on the concrete wall behind her. Her hand passed through, disappearing until she pulled it back out.
“Exactly,” Death said.
All 1,200 members of the High School of Art and Technology spread out beneath them. Standing room only. A lot of them cried. The principal’s microphone screeched.
“Look at them all,” Natalie said in wonder.
“Effing posers,” Death agreed.
Death and Natalie had walked home from school together, Natalie following Death up to her apartment to do homework, like nothing had changed.
“You’ll know this one. Square root of 139,” Natalie said, flicking through Death’s flashcards. Death didn’t tell Natalie that she could see the answer written on the back through her hand. They were laying side-by-side on their backs on Death’s narrow single bed, Death’s left and Natalie’s right shoulders touching. The radiator in the corner hissed and clanked. The new laptop Death had gotten for Christmas was open on her desk. Death stared up at the plastic stars glued to her ceiling, her chest tight.
Death could reach her arms out from her bed and touch the posters and photographs on both of her bedroom walls, if she wanted to. She could hear her little sister’s music through one wall, and, on the other side, the neighbors’ baby crying.
Death wouldn’t mind a little breathing room.
She should have asked for that.
“Thirteen,” Death said, and she picked up her pillow and smooshed it against her face, just to see what it would feel like to be suffocating in a car’s airbag.
Natalie continued to follow Death around school for almost a month. Ever since the day of the assembly, she had been stuck to Death’s side all day and all night, as if, if she followed her old routine, she could make it like nothing had changed.
Now the rat was always there too, perched on her shoulder, smiling a benign crooked-toothed smile over Death’s classmates and waving at Death whenever she looked its way.
Animals like the rat weren’t important enough to get Death’s personal escort service. They were supposed to find their way into the dark, wet tunnels of the ratty afterlife on their own.
Death thought maybe this rat had been too stupid.
The only time Death could truly get away from them was whenever she was called away to ferry Manhattan’s dead.
You might think that, with the number of people in Manhattan, this would take up a lot of time, but Death was efficient. Just that morning, she had gotten in 4 old people, a cancer patient, and a 95th Street stabbing—which Death felt really should have gone to Harlem—before she had to leave for school.
The stabbing victim had been unusually bad. He’d been in so much shock, his dark eyes huge and round in his grey face, his trembling hand still pressed to his side, that Death had been reminded of Natalie. Afraid that he would turn and run from the dripping subway tunnel that formed his Hallway, Death had grabbed his arm almost without thinking.
The light at the end of the tunnel looked like an approaching train.
He’d flinched away from her, shrieking, as if she were a monster. Death still couldn’t get the look on his face out of her head.
Death was cracking up, man.
Death was still feeling shaken on her way to Geometry, third period. It was five weeks and counting past Natalie’s death. You screwed it all up again, she told herself, just like with Natalie.
Death hitched her heavy backpack higher on her shoulder. At least she’d been able to convince the stabbing victim to walk forward and board the train.
The school halls seemed extra crowded today. Natalie glided through the groups of kids in a way that set Death’s teeth on edge. One of the girls from her book club waved to Death, and Death ignored her, feeling Natalie’s dark eyes on her face.
If Natalie had her way, it would always and only be Death and Natalie, Natalie and Death.
Later, in English class, Natalie perched on Death’s desk, swinging her legs and humming the theme song to “Friends” so loud that Death couldn’t hear herself think. Death’s classmates gave her a wide berth as they filed in, as if she was Joey and about to do something weird. The pink pompom of the hat Natalie still wore bounced in the air above her head.
When Mrs. Eastman began to read from Dante, the rat popped his head out of Death’s backpack, where, unbeknownst to Death, he’d been asleep.
“Typical,” growled Death.
If Natalie didn’t move on soon, Death knew, she could become a ghoul, a hungry monster trapped forever between the realms of the living and the dead.
Mrs. Eastman walked up and down the rows of students as she read, her low heels tapping on the linoleum floor, and as she passed Death’s desk, she paused.
“The Devil is not as black,” she read, “as he is painted…” Natalie giggled. Death thought Mrs. Eastman gave her a funny look before she moved on.
There were people who fought ghouls, Death knew, but she wasn’t one of them. That wasn’t her job. If Natalie changed, she would be someone else’s responsibility.
But then she’d never cross over. When ghouls were put down, they were gone.
What if the afterlife really was great? Not in the lame ways Death made up for people—golden flowers, year-round summer weather, that kind of thing—but actually great?
In the lunchroom, Natalie sat on the shiny metal table where Death ate her sandwich, alone. She was stroking the rat, who hung in the air beside her, belly-up, a contented smile on his face. She talked to him in a high-pitched baby voice that made Death want to hit her. People passed by Death with their trays, glancing at her and then away, whispering behind their hands.
It had gotten out, after she’d been rude to that guy at the assembly, that Death had been Natalie’s friend.
At their old table, Death’s ex-boyfriend was lip-locked with Keisha, his nose poking her in the face.
Natalie nodded at them. “Look at Mrs. Goody-Gumdrops,” she giggled.
“Who cares,” Death said.
Natalie’s face fell, her dark eyes suddenly looking more sunken than ever. The blank white cinderblock wall Death could see through her made her stand out more clearly than usual.
A week ago, Death would have said, “I heard they honeymooned in The Hamptons. They drank martinis with the olives in them and screamed at the pool boy.”
Now she had broken their routine.
“Next they’ll be hiring a nanny—for their home in Long Island…” Natalie faltered, but Death had ruined it all. Her heart felt like a dark cave in her chest.
The rat had frozen in midair, where he hung, staring at Death over Natalie’s left shoulder.
“Shut up, Natalie.” Death wanted to cry. She wanted to scream at her. “Just shut up!”
People at the next table turned to stare. Someone laughed.
Death furiously balled up her brown paper lunch bag, throwing it into the trash and slinging her backpack over her shoulder with so much force she had to use the momentum to spin around.
She ran from the lunchroom, the heavy doors swinging behind her. Natalie appeared at her side as she pushed her way through the hall, jabbing extra hard with her elbows at all of the band kids, because Natalie had been in band and used to love to talk about it.
“Mags!” Natalie called. “What’s the matter? What did I do? Slow down!”
Death fought through the main hallway, pushing through the school’s front doors and into the sunshine. The cold air hit her so hard she gasped. Natalie bounced after her, the rat clinging to her transparent curls.
Death weaved through the crowded sidewalks, traffic honking beside her, and veered into the park. Her heart pounded. She swiped away tears.
She turned onto the deserted path to West Drive, the January trees like skeletal brown hands on either side of her. The cold air burned her chest. Natalie appeared in front of her, her arms spread wide, her hair a mess.
“Leave me alone!” Death yelled, her heart still pounding in surprise. “You shouldn’t even still be here! You’re ruining everything! How am I supposed to move on when you can’t? Why don’t you just move on!”
Natalie floated backward, her face a stunned mask. The rat on her shoulder shook its fist at Death.
Death bared her teeth at it.
“Mags, I… I’m just scared.” Natalie wrapped her arms around herself. “I don’t want to be dead.” Her voice trembled. “I want to grow up. I want to go to art school. I want to keep finishing each other’s sentences. I want to get apartments with leaky pipes downtown…”
“No!” Death yelled. “You’re pathetic! Don’t you understand?”
Natalie took another step backward, opening and closing her mouth.
“You’re dead!” Death yelled. “Always and forever! Dead!” She spun on her heel to take a different route home, and for the first time in a month, Natalie didn’t follow her.
That night, Death lay in her narrow bed, the pink frilly lamp she’d had since she was a baby still on, her faded comforter pulled up to her chin. She stared at the ceiling, listening to her parents’ murmurs, the TV switched off, their footsteps as they went to bed.
Maybe she really was a monster.
It had been weeks since she’d gone to sleep without Natalie in the room. For the first time, Death wondered what Natalie did all night, how someone who couldn’t turn on the TV or surf the internet or turn the pages of a book kept themselves entertained while everyone else slept. Did she get scared? Was she lonely?
Death sat up, the comforter twisted in her fists.
Natalie sat on the end of her bed, her shoulders slumped. Her eyes were puffy like she’d been crying, her hair still tangled. The rat was curled in her lap, the wisp of his scaly tail wrapped around himself.
“Natalie,” Death said. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. She shook her hair out of her face with a jerk of her head. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said—”
“No,” Natalie looked away, staring blankly at the Dresden Dolls poster on Death’s wall. “You were right. My mom,” her voice hitched, “she’s decided I’m gone. After our fight, I materialized in my room, and my mom was packing away some of my things. She had cardboard boxes all made up, and she was taking all the My Little Pony dolls down off their shelf and crying over them…”
Death had started to shake. “And they’re not even cool anymore.” Her voice came out hoarse. “The gamer boys have taken them over.”
“Pigs!” Natalie threw up her hands, then turned to Death and stared.
Death gave a hiccupy laugh.
Then Natalie’s arms were wrapped around her, her face buried in Death’s neck. If she wasn’t a ghost, Natalie’s curls would have been suffocating. Death squeezed her, just the right amount so that her arms wouldn’t pass through. The rat ran in circles around them on the bed, chittering happily.
“I just wanted to hug her,” Natalie was shaking like she was sobbing, “and I couldn’t. You’re right. I can’t do anything here. I just wanted to tell her that it’s not her fault, even if people say it is. I just wanted to tell her I don’t blame her.”
Natalie pulled away. There were tears on her cheeks, like raindrops on a window. “You’ll tell her for me, right?” She held up her pinky. “Pinky swear?”
Death wrapped her own pinky around Natalie’s. Natalie’s finger was so light she could feel no pressure at all. “Pinky swear.”
Natalie gave a wobbly smile. “I think—I know—it’s past time for me to move on. I’m just so afraid.”
Death stared into Natalie’s face: her upturned pixie nose and pointed chin, her dark eyes, her little doll’s mouth. Death’s heart was pounding, but she had stopped shaking. She knew her script.
“Don’t be afraid. I’ll be with you.”
Death took Natalie’s hand. “Let’s do it now,” she said.
Natalie paused, then nodded her head.
Death and Natalie stood with their backs to the school’s double doors, tightly holding hands. The rat sat on Natalie’s left shoulder in awed silence. The deserted dark hallway stretched before them, blurring into shadow. There was a classroom door cracked open at the end, sending a yellow bar of light stretching toward them. English, Death thought.
There was a very long stretch of darkness before that light.
Natalie turned toward Death, cocking her head. “Those feathery black wings make you look like a Victoria’s Secret angel,” she said.
“Aren’t they the worst?” Death said.
“So cliché,” Natalie nodded. She turned back to face the hallway, biting her lip. “What’s there, at the end?” Her voice squeaked a bit, and the rat nudged her cheek.
“I don’t know,” Death said. She couldn’t make anything up, not for Natalie. “That’s the truth. I’ve never told anyone that.”
“But you’ll come with me, right?” Natalie turned back to Death. “Part of the way?”
Death squeezed her hand. “Part of the way.” She nodded at the rat. “He’ll be with you for the rest.”
The rat danced a jig on Natalie’s shoulder, and Natalie laughed.
“Idiot,” Death said, but she didn’t mean it. Not really.
“Three, two, one,” Natalie counted off, and took a deep breath.
“Blast off,” Death said.
They walked hand-in-hand together into the dark, Death and Natalie, Natalie and Death.
Jordan Taylor’s short fiction has recently appeared in Uncanny, On Spec, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Though she’s lived in cities across the US, she’s finally settled in North Carolina in a little cottage full of books. You can follow her online at her website or on her Twitter.