As Alice set aside her work for the day, her sheets of written text, an uncomfortable feeling stole over her. She’d committed an egregious error of some kind. The pages sat in a heap on her desk. Could she sort through them at this late hour? She didn’t think so. Her employer was not a man to mess with. The sky glowed orange behind her–not with evening, but with morning.
Alice had worked herself to the bone over this document. She had worked herself to skin and bones. Her hair, long and thin, hung in a ponytail sheath down her back. It was her last vestige of youth with its golden sheen, but the roots were ash. This work had aged her, and she had worked with such diligence, too. Yet even diligence wasn’t enough to avoid fatal errors. And make no mistake: her employer would view the error as fatal. This fatality could affect her family if she allowed it to. But she wouldn’t allow it. She would offer her own life instead.
Armed with the ream of pages, she carried the document up the hill to her master’s residence. After his secretary admitted her, she placed the document at his feet, and then bowed to her knees.
“I made an error, and I don’t have time to fix it,” she whispered, her eyes downcast to the stone floor.
“Please show me your face,” he said.
She raised her face, but not her body. She didn’t dare stand in his presence, nor did she dare look directly at him. She raised her face and stared into the corners of her eyes.
“What do you propose to do about it?”
“I know I must give my life for it. If I give my life, will you protect my family?”
“I am now, and have always been a fair judge. I accept your offer. The Grim Reaper will come for you at midnight. Set your house in order. I won’t allow him to touch the other members of your family.”
Alice trembled from the release of tensed muscles. For so many years, she’d worked on that document, her body as cramped as her writing hand, bent over her enormous desk. Her desk now sat empty, and she wouldn’t return to it. She would spend her last hours with her husband and children.
She and her family lived in the upper portion of her father’s house. Due to her husband’s low income, and her lack of one, they remained a multi-generational family, despite Alice’s plans for future autonomy. Her windfall was to come after her work’s completion, but now that riches were no longer an option, they would have to learn to live with even less–no mother, no wife, no daughter. How could she break it to them? They had tirelessly supported her project for years.
Somehow, she managed. She broke the truth, and they accepted it in the way that inevitable truth must be swallowed. Her older children understood, but her younger ones didn’t. However, older and younger alike decided not to dwell on it, and most likely for the same reasons. The young ones didn’t understand, yet they understood sadness, and they attempted to avoid it at all cost.
The little ones played; the older children read. Alice cooked dinner and cleaned up the kitchen and put the little ones to bed upstairs. Back downstairs, her husband and two eldest daughters sat silently at the kitchen table, their arms spread across the surface as if in defeat. Alice’s father didn’t seem to know what to do. He wandered the house–he picked up his guitar and strummed it. He slid a Robin Mark album in the player. Maybe songs of God would drive the darkness away. Of course, they couldn’t. This kind of death–contractual–was firmly entrenched in the physical world and in its tangible words. It contained no spiritual message.
For the last few hours before midnight, Alice tried to forget her fate. She sat with her husband and her beautiful eldest daughters and drank tea with them. With every space left inside her soul, she soaked up her daughters’ images–their long hair and soft gray eyes, which they turned from her. One scrolled through the music selection on her Android, and the other traced pictures on the wood grain of the table, invisible worlds that kept to the boundaries of her finger. Alice offered coffee to her husband, and he accepted it, though he didn’t take a drink. He slipped into a half-catatonic state, which Alice couldn’t blame him for.
At a few minutes to midnight, her father pointed to the time, and desperation filled Alice’s soul. She ran upstairs and shook her little ones awake long enough to choke out I love you to each. Her eight-year-old sleepily opened her eyes, wrapped her arms around Alice’s neck, and mumbled something that sounded like I know. Her son’s eyes flickered. He said nothing.
She ran back downstairs just as the wind rattled the glass in the windows. Lightning split the darkness and thunder cracked, and Alice found it ironic that her actual ending would be the cliche sort she’d always avoided in her writing. Death would come on the wings of a stormy night, and how could it be any other way? The lights flashed off and back on; the Robin Mark album petered out with a crackle of static.
The door flung itself open by an unseen force. Whatever happened, she would remain calm. She had no other choice. When she glanced at her family at the table, they looked away, stared into the table surface, and Alice hoped they were imagining a different life there. On the other side of her, her right side, her father stood grinding his teeth, his jaw muscles twitching. Her father’s pallor faded and his eyes glazed.
Finally, she faced the open doorway. This was the only way out–the only way to pay for her mistake. The Grim Reaper rolled up, his legs attached to metallic rollers. He groaned from the rust of centuries. He towered as tall as the house, his metal jaws attached to a swing loader. At his side, two children in white gowns hovered, waiting. They floated peacefully, unafraid of death. Their faces bore no expression, and they didn’t move or flinch, even as the swing loader swung down toward Alice’s skin-and-bones figure. It would snatch her up, and she would weigh nothing to its iron form. It opened its jaws, ready.