It was a Saturday, late at night. I was in a taxi. Death was at the wheel. He picked me up outside an apartment which was not mine, leaving the arms of a woman to whom I could not belong. He was taking me towards one who did not know I was being shared.
“Where to?” Death asked after I climbed into the backseat.
“Home,” I said.
“And where would that be?” he asked politely.
I gave him the address.
“That’s quite far,” he said. “It will cost you.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
Death turned on the ignition and put the car in gear.
“Right. Home it is then.”
As Death pulled off the curb I felt the tendrils of regret snake their way through me, suffocating the thrill of conquest which had buoyed me the entire night. I sighed and looked out of the window, at the passing streetlights and their soft, yellow glows.
Inside the car it was quiet. I sat behind the passenger’s seat. Periodically, Death and I made eye contact in the rear-view mirror. He would never break his stare at such moments; I would always be the first to avert my gaze. As we drove, the small scythe swinging from the mirror cut the passing time into painfully awkward slices.
I absent-mindedly looked at the clock on the dashboard.
Minutes to midnight, I thought. I rubbed my eyes and reviewed the day’s events in my head.
Work, emails, more work, lunch, work, and the office party. Then her.
And now, Death.
My mind snatched at an adage about interesting times.
Death eased up on the gas as we pulled up to a red traffic light at an intersection. There were no other cars on the road. Just Death and I. He was working the graveyard shift, making a living by carting people like me around; the young, the bright, the invincible who spent their days slowly dying but came alive at night.
The car’s engine purred as we waited for the green light. When Death was given the go-ahead to carry my hearse forward we proceeded on our way.
I slumped in the back seat.
“Good night?” he asked after a long period of silence.
We were passing through the forest of the city centre. Tall, glassy buildings clawed at the night sky. It was fashionable at the time for commercial and residential spaces to be mixed. The businesses—mostly small shops, restaurants, or cafés—would be at the bottom, the apartments would be at the top. Some of the windows were lit. I thought about the lives within, happening a bill, an argument, and a new regret at a time.
I did not register Death’s question.
“What?” I asked.
“I asked whether you had a good night.”
I looked at Death fully for the first time. He was probably around forty. He looked slender. He wore a poor boy cap which threw a shadow over his face when we were in the lee of buildings or passing streetlights. His eyes were alert, and his voice was gentle. His large hands swallowed the small steering wheel. A silver band coiled around the ring finger on his left hand.
“Oh…it was okay,” I said.
“What was the occasion?”
“Those aren’t too bad,” he said. “You can always go home with a story to tell at the better ones.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Stories.”
“Any good ones at this one?” he asked.
“You’re driving it,” I said.
We made eye contact in the mirror.
“Is it a bestseller?” he asked.
“Nah. Standard shit, I guess.”
“What happened? Swear at the boss? Drunkenly make out with a colleague on the dance floor?”
“We weren’t drunk,” I said. “And there was no dancing.”
I would have preferred to be drunk, I thought.
“So how bad was it?”
“Is,” I emphasised. “The story’s not over yet.”
“What’s the plot then?” he asked.
We pulled up to another red light. I looked around and then back at the way we had come. I did a quick calculation.
“I’m exactly halfway between two women,” I said.
A small “Oh” escaped his mouth. Silence. The light changed and we moved forward.
“Colleague,” I said.
“And, where I’m taking you now…”
“Girlfriend,” I said.
We exchanged a look in the mirror. I think he might have smirked at me, but in the light I could not be sure.
“So what’s the deal?” he asked after another brief silence alighted from his taxi.
“Who knows?” I said. “Maybe I got a good thing too fast and didn’t really know what to do with it.”
He seemed to be lost in thought for a while. Then he said, “Nobody ever gets good things too fast. They just appreciate them too slowly. And too late.”
“Regret is always punctual,” I said.
He looked at me in the mirror and then said, “So, let’s hear it then, shall we? We still have a long way to go, you know.”
So I began telling Death my story.
I was, at the time, in a strange space. Strange because everything in my life was going well. Preternaturally well.
Three months ago I discovered my karmic balance had been topped up with good fortune I did not put there. Someone, somewhere, had stringently saved a lifetime of good deeds and decided their small acts of kindness were best invested in the Universal Bank of Karma.
And the rates are favourable?
Favourable? These are the best rates in the galaxy, Mrs Aldridge. For every good deed invested with us we promise you a 200-percent return. And in any currency you desire. That new job you’ve had your eye on? Done. And with benefits. And the envy of all your friends who’ve quietly laughed at your misfortune all these years. Do you have a husband, Mrs Aldridge?
Divorced. The mister upgraded. Too much mileage on me, he said.
I’m sorry to hear that, Mrs Aldridge. But if you sign up for the Gold Account, you just need to give your private karma manager a call and we will happily deliver boils and pestilence to his door.
How about erectile dysfunction?
Would you like it delivered immediately, or with slow-burning, soul-crumbling infidelity?
I’m in. And you pay out?
Of course, Mrs Aldridge. Here at UBK we make sure what goes around comes around.
“An error must have been made on the deposit slip, though,” I said. “Because all the ensuing good fortune was paid out to the wrong account: mine.”
“To be fair, I did my civic duty and waited two days in case the correct owner requested a reversal,” I said.
“Of course you did,” Death replied with a smile on his face.
“On the third day, though, I stopped looking the gift horse in the mouth.”
“So what’d you do?”
“Well, I sent a silent prayer to the heavens and hoped Mrs Aldridge would have a nice, quiet life because I was about to make a huge withdrawal from my accidental fortune.”
Death let out another chuckle.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” he said.
We shared a long smile in the mirror.
“And then?” he asked.
“Well, I spent it, of course.”
Abs and newfound swagger: check and check. Finally shedding my father’s sense of disappointment: major check. An envious dating life followed by the acquisition of a new, probably unnecessary significant other: check and check.
Even the rent was paid by a pleasantly stimulating job which permitted me to send veiled insults to annoying clients. Everything was going well. Which meant I had to find some way to screw it all up.
That is where Leila came in. She was tall. And awkwardly pretty. She had a ponytail. I like ponytails.
She sat three desks down from me at work. We were notorious for laughing at inside geek jokes. On her first day she wore a tee shirt which said, “The answer is 42!” For two weeks it was our response to every question asked by the lower life forms in the office.
We both dreaded the upcoming office party. We would be surrounded by people who were interesting once a year, people unworthy of our wit. Like Hyacinth.
“Who the fuck’s named Hyacinth anyway?” I asked while we munched sandwiches in the office cafeteria. It was the afternoon of the party. “Do you shorten that to Hi or Hya! Like the karate chopping sound?”
“I’d go with the chopping sound,” Leila said. “And have people make the cutting motion too.”
“It would only be fair, really.”
“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” she said. “At least there’ll be wine.”
She took a big bite out of her sandwich.
“And free food,” I replied.
And each other. We left that part unsaid though.
“Never invite starving artists to a party,” Leila said with her mouth full.
“Never,” I replied.
The party was pretty normal. The office was decorated with streamers and other colourful bits which helped to transform the generic corporate feel of the place; the food was decent; and colleagues slowly got drunk on liquor they did not have to pay for. I arrived after her and rescued her from a boring conversation with our boss by asking where the drinks were. She said she would show me.
“You’re a knight in rusty armour, but a knight nonetheless. You came right on time,” she said.
“Whew, at least one woman thinks so.”
I liked that I could make Leila laugh. She had a sense of humour I gravitated towards. At work we would trade emails with links to obscure trivia and invent new swear words for all the other office drones.
Girlfriends, boyfriends—we never brought these up. They would dull the shine of our connection. We would be disappointed if we found out we were someone else’s apostrophe.
Hi, I am Oscar’s ___. Nice to meet you.
Hi, I am Leila’s ___. Nice to meet you too.
By avoiding conversations about relationships we had made a pact if other people existed they did so in other places, other times.
We wandered over to the drinks counter. She picked up a glass of wine. I reached for a beer. We sipped our drinks without talking for a bit, looking at the crowd.
“I hate these things,” I said. “I had to shorten my gym session just to make it here.”
“How’s that going?” she asked.
“Better. I feel like I’m making progress,” I said. I sipped my beer.
“You look like it,” she said. She sipped her wine.
“I smell like it too on most days,” I said.
“You have no idea. Most evenings I come home smelling like my cologne is effort,” I said.
She sniffed the air softly.
“And what are you wearing tonight? I like it.”
“Recklessness, by Jaded Youth,” I said. “They’re a new fragrance house. They’re based in your bored and confusing twenties. They’ve got some cool shit.”
She let out a little laugh and looked at me directly.
“Well, I’m wearing Possibility.”
I approached and sniffed the air around her.
“Nice. Who makes that?” I asked.
“Make A Damn Move. They’re based in Let’s Get Out Of Here.”
We stood quietly for a bit. I smiled at her, sheepishly. The awkward air between us was diffused by our boss tinkling his glass with a pen and announcing it was time for the office awards. I won the award for having eye rolls which could be recorded on the Richter scale.
“But we’ll forgive the eye rolls because, damn, he works hard,” my boss said.
“Well, you know what they say about men with good vocabularies,” I began when I accepted my award.
“What?” Hyacinth asked.
“They have big dic…tionaries.”
The rest of the office laughed and, true to form, rolled their eyes. I looked over at her and saw Leila had also cracked a smile.
I made my way over to her, grinning.
“Predictable,” she said when I stood in front of her.
“Everything is predictable.” I replied. “All that matters is the delivery.”
I sipped my beer again. Her glass of wine was nearly empty.
“So about that dictionary,” she began, “maybe you can show it to me. Later.”
I felt my face heat up.
“Now you are just toying with me,” I said.
“Only if you vibrate,” she replied.
My ears were about to ignite. My hair was itchy. And my throat was constricted. I muttered, “Yeah, sure. It…err…there are some…err…complex words in there.”
The comedy club in my head was silent after the queue drummer hit the punchline notes. It was the best I could do. Lust and wit rarely go together.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “My foreplay is wordplay.”
I did not have a witty response to that so I just stood there.
“Err…” I said.
She laughed and downed her glass of wine.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said.
I put my beer down.
Her apartment was small, in a part of town which dripped of coffee shop gentrification, places where the old residents were pushed out of their houses by the rising rent rates and ubiquitous WiFi signals. You know, places with lame quotes on their daily specials boards. Things like, “Someone once said something wise. It wasn’t the person writing on this board, though. Sorry.”
Leila’s apartment was on the seventh floor a ten-storey building. In the elevator ride she told me the modern-day building was scavenged from an older, ruined hulk which used to house a newspaper at one point. Her apartment was a small open-plan studio with exposed brick face and a high ceiling. The lounge was tastefully stitched to the kitchen and the bedroom was on a second level, surrounded by a low railing, and overlooked the lounge below. The apartment was clean, sparsely decorated but stylish.
A big poster on a wall said, “The future was great” in a bold font. Some sliding doors led to a balcony with a view which probably made the rent worth it.
After looking around I said, “This is everyone’s dream Tumblr apartment, you know.”
Leila looked around her small space and then smiled. Then she walked over to me and put her arms around my shoulders, standing on her toes to kiss me.
The contact our lips made was soft, shy. It sent shock waves through the Karma Stock Exchange. We pulled away from each other for a few seconds and stood, looking into each others’ eyes. Then we smiled again.
Leila and I kissed again. And then we made our way to her bedroom.
We lay in the afterglow of our brief supernova, smiling at each other. I could feel space bend and fold, accommodating the ripples our pillow talk sent into the universe. I felt the store of benevolence on which I had been recently living lighten considerably.
“Sorry, Mrs Aldridge,” I said quietly.
“What?” Leila said. She was teetering on the edge of sleep.
“Oh, nothing,” I replied.
When she fell asleep I slipped her arm off me and walked down to the lounge. I was naked. I went to the fridge and opened it, pulled out a carton of cold orange juice, and drank it straight from the box. I put it back, closed the fridge, and walked into the lounge.
I looked out of the sliding door towards the dark city below us. I slid the door open and enjoyed the cool breeze which slipped inside. I did not care about my nakedness as I strolled onto the balcony. I looked at the small lights scuttling on the highways in the distance for a while before walking back into the lounge and closing the sliding door behind me.
I walked past the poster.
The future was great.
I climbed up to the bedroom and looked at Leila’s sleeping figure. I picked up my clothes, brushing her flower print panties away from my trousers, and scooped up the plastic tube containing my milky fluid which, surely, if it had broken, would have been a definite sign that small evils are punished immediately.
It was intact.
The universe had other plans for me, I thought.
I quietly left the bedroom and went to the lounge and dressed. I threw the tube in the kitchen bin. Then I let myself out of her apartment. I waited to hear the security latch on the door click behind me before I made my way to the elevator and descended to the lobby.
I stood for about a minute outside her apartment block. I thought of what tomorrow would bring.
The future was great.
A passing taxi batted its eyes at me and I flagged it down.
“And here I am,” I said.
“And here you are,” Death said with what I assumed to be world-weary amusement in his voice. He slowed down the car.
“We’re here,” he said.
We were standing outside my girlfriend’s apartment. I had not noticed we had already arrived.
“That was quicker than I expected,” I said. I didn’t even get time to arrange my excuses and cover story. So much for the journey.”
“I think,” Death said, “this one was more about the destination.”
All I could say was, “Hmm.”
I climbed out of the taxi and stretched. I reached into my pocket while walking around to the driver’s side of the car, fished out my wallet, and counted the bills in front of him before handing them over.
“Thanks,” he said.
I started walking away and then turned back. I reached into my pocket, pulled out another bill, and gave it to him.
“What’s this for?” he asked.
“That’s the last of the good luck,” I said. “It’s for the wisdom. I’m pretty sure Mrs Aldridge would like you to have it.”
He took it and thanked me again. I let out a deep sigh.
“I guess I could just, you know, not tell her,” I said.
“Both of them,” I replied.
“Yes, I suppose you could not tell them,” he said. His eyes looked at me intently underneath his cap. “What you decide to do is up to you, really.”
“Whatever makes you sleep at night, huh” I said.
He looked at me and slowly shook his head.
“What?” I asked.
“Whatever makes you sleep at night,” he said as he put the car into gear, “should also make you get up in the morning.”
He let out a small laugh and then drove away. I stood in the middle of the road, looking at his fading tail lights. I imagined him looking back at me the rear-view mirror.
I took a deep breath and then crossed the road to my girlfriend’s apartment block.
It was the night before the morning after and the future, I have been told, was great.
An excerpt from diaries chronicling the laughs and times of Oscar Q. whose life is based on a true story and who, during many small moments his of life, met Death. His diaries were discovered, as it were, posthumorously, proving, unequivocally, that there is more to life than just living.