Dr. Ramarao might have graduated at the top of his Harvard Medical class, but his social skills hadn't developed much past kindergarten. Frustrated by the unending stream of words coming from his mouth, Helen Morris finally placed her palm across it. “You'll need to move my death out at least two months.”
He took a step back and pushed her hand away. “I do not think you understand what I am telling you.”
“Oh, I understand perfectly well.” She unscrewed the pill bottle and popped one with a gulp of water. “My prognosis is bad. What you don't seem to understand,” she said as she picked up her phone and opened the calendar, “is that the schedule is not acceptable.”
The doctor shook his head, bouncing the small curl of dark hair that adorned his otherwise bald pate. “I do not control such things. I wish I could.”
“I don't deal in wishes. And a month is not sufficient time. “I need until…” Her thumbs danced across the surface of the phone. “At least the 20th of August.”
“It is not up to me. You might have a month. It could be longer. It could also be much less.”
Helen looked up, peering at the doctor over the top of her glasses. “Then I believe we're done here.”
Later, back in her office, she stabbed away at the keyboard. The unadorned walls and desktop provided no distraction save one small portrait of Mr. Morris, whom she memorialized primarily as the founder of the Morris Consulting Company and only secondarily as her deceased husband. His stern visage provided a constant admonition of the values of working harder and smarter than the competition.
She considered calling her assistant into the office. Typing messages to people sitting just feet away was usually inefficient, but some face-to-face meetings could be minimized with a carefully considered agenda. She clicked the send button and glanced at the clock. Exactly two minutes later, the office door opened and in strode Jonas.
He stopped just short of her desk, tailored suit jacket buttoned, hands clasped in front, and eyebrows slightly raised. “This is a most unusual project.”
She nodded. “And it's your primary goal for the next six weeks. I've given you full access to my calendar, but understand that I have three clients and two potential buyers to wrap up, and no time to waste on frivolous appointments. There is exactly one acceptable result. Understood?”
Jonas rubbed his clean-shaven chin thoughtfully, gaze shifting upward. “I will certainly try—”
The sharp crack as she slapped the desk reverberated off the barren walls. “You know how I feel—”
“Yes ma'am.” Jonas took a half step back. “I will do more than try.”
“You won't let me down.”
“See to it then.” She waved her hand and Jonas, knowing he'd been dismissed, let himself out.
Helen opened the drawer and gazed at the pill bottle sitting on top, finally unscrewing the top. “So much to do,” she muttered as she popped the pill, “and never time to do it all.”
Over the following week, Jonas booked each of the scattered open slots on her calendar. She met with medical specialists, nutritionists, even an Apache medicine man. While Jonas ensured she met only those with real potential, in the end none could guarantee results in exchange for her money and time. While the former remained plentiful, the latter quickly slipped away.
All the while, she made progress on the aggressive schedule she'd crafted. Workdays grew ever longer, and empty pill bottles piled up in her desk drawer.
Several days passed with no updates from Jonas, and just when Helen was about to remind him of time sensitivity, a new appointment popped up on her calendar. Right now? Usually he gives me more notice.
The door to the office swung open. “Jonas?” She forced herself to her feet and stepped out from behind the desk. The figure coming through the door was not her assistant, but instead a thin, raven-haired girl of no more than ten, looking up at her with large dark eyes.
“G'morning!” The girl smiled, revealing a broken front tooth.
Helen glared at the open door. Where the hell's Jonas? She turned back to the girl and shook her head. “Sorry, princess, but I have a lot to do this morning, and I don't need any cookies or magazines or whatever you're selling. I'm expecting—”
“Someone taller?” The girl spread her arms wide, revealing no sign of any order forms or sales brochures. “See? I'm not selling any of that stuff.”
“Then...wait, how did you even get in? I don't understand.”
The girl giggled. “That makes two of us! I almost never meet...well, people like you. But then a very nice man…" she glanced back at the open door, “did some not-so-nice things. To get me to come see you.”
Helen leaned on the desk, legs shaking. “I think there's been some mistake.”
The girl flicked a lock of hair out of her eyes. “You do want to schedule your final departure, don't you?”
Without breaking eye contact with her visitor, Helen unscrewed the cap of the pill bottle with shaking hands and swallowed two pills in quick succession. “Schedule? You?”
The girl nodded.
Helen pinched the bridge of her nose, willing the pain to quiet down while the drugs kicked in. “Look, I don't know what kind of game you're playing—”
“Would you prefer me wearing a hooded black robe and carrying a scythe?” The voice coming from the girl's mouth sounded octaves deeper. And older. Much older. “What would your clients think?” The girl pointed a slim finger at the office door, and it swung itself closed. “Let's cut the chatter. I know you're busy. I'm horrendously busy myself.”
And in that moment, Helen Morris knew she'd found her chance. The words tumbled out. “I need to be alive until August 20. After that, I'm ready to go.”
Death glanced down at the hand still squeezing the pill bottle. “Your pain. It's going to get a lot worse.”
“Just let me live long enough.”
“I want to see the business sold. My life's work completed. The deal...it all wraps up on the 20th.”
Death scratched her chin. “Everyone's always so desperate to finish things. Why should I give you an extension? What makes you think you're special?”
“I'm not asking for a gift. I'm suggesting a deal.”
Death laughed, and the laugh was again that of a young girl. “A deal? What do you think I might need from you?”
Helen set down the pill bottle and picked up a pen and pad, scribbling madly. Moments later, she handed it over. “As soon as anyone tells me how busy they are, I know I can help. It's what I do.”
Death read the note. “You're sure about this?”
“Shall we shake on it?” said Helen.
“Shaking my hand,” replied Death, “is really not a good idea. I'll think about it.”
When Jonas arrived for work the following morning, his suit looked like he'd not only slept in it, but spent the night in a dumpster. Two black eyes provided sharp contrast to the ghostly pallor of his skin, and several clumps of his hair were missing. Helen took one look and told him to take the remainder of the day off. Not only did he appear to need the extra rest, he was likely to alarm any visiting clients.
Several weeks later, the pain awoke her in the wee hours, more insistent than any alarm clock, and not for the first time. Helen reached blindly for her pill bottle, but her fingers found only the night stand's smooth surface. She opened her eyes to a dim glow; the dark-haired girl stood at her bedside.
“It's time,” said Death, extending one small arm.
“Thank you." Fingers trembling, Helen took the offered hand, and the pain, her constant companion for months, drained away.
"You'll want time to rest," said Death.
“Nonsense." Helen Morris rose quickly from the bed. “Your business never rests. And I'm ready to work.”
“You may never again get this opportunity.”
Helen grinned. "I certainly hope not.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kurt Hohmann tells stories, builds altars to pagan gods, drums 'round the bonfire, and crafts mad culinary experiments. He shares a home in the wild snowy lands of central New York with his wife, two living cats, at least six feline ghosts, and one rather affectionate python. His tales have been featured in Abstract Jam, Bookends Review, Eternal Haunted Summer, and upcoming in Inner Sins. Links to his fiction and odd glimpses into his mind can be found at www.kurthohmann.com.