This is a few-years-earlier prequel to A Mountain with a Funeral Smile. Both stories were born from a What If? moment about one of the characters from Winter Follows. What if Noah, the contract killer, was the embodiment of death itself? What if time, which he has an uneasy relationship with, also existed as a personified concept? The two stories can be read in order, or completely independently of each other, and it isn’t necessary to have read Winter Follows for context.
(Nineteen ninety-something. A writhing sea of black leather and torn denim. A place people come to forget. Two young men, older than they look, older than themselves, remember…)
He arrives empty-handed, but he carries his past in his eyes. His past, yours, theirs, everyone’s but mine. With a nod of recognition, I welcome him by name. “Been a while, Time.”
He returns the gesture. “Busy days, Death. Busy days.”
We face each other, a foot apart, watching, catching up silently at first. We used to need words for this, but not anymore. We’ve been around each other enough by now just to know, to see everything. Sometimes it feels like we’re the only ones who really see each other. Inevitable and invisible. They look at anything but us. We have those kind of faces. The face of a clock, the face of the light they see at the end. Or what they imagine is the end. Whatever.
It’s unusual for us both to arrive at once though and we both know what it means when we do. Still, there’s an opportunity for more talk because there always is. We do it out loud now because no matter how often we end up here, no matter how separate we are from all of this, we still try to be like them in some small ways. We still try to pretend, even if only to ourselves.
“I’m Noah,” I tell him, and he gets it immediately.
“Lived to be nine hundred and fifty, according to that one book.”
“Yeah. Irony had a hand in choosing it.”
He rolls his eyes, remembering. “How is Irony these days?”
“How she always is, you know, complicated, hard to pin down. What did you get?”
“Chase. Feels appropriate. Funny how different words get attached to things, how that changes.”
There’s one almost ready here and we both feel it. This is going to be a tough one. Part of me wants to be there early, to stand close by, arms outstretched, until. Another part of me knows there’s no point. He knows too.
“Just wait,” he says.
“I hate these ones.”
“Me too, sweetness, me too. But at least the music’s good.” He looks around, appraising, appreciating. “And the scenery’s not bad either.”
“I can’t think of them like that anymore. I used to be able to, but it got too fucked up. We keep coming back and they don’t.”
“You’re stunning again though,” he says, “No matter what face you get, you’re always fucking stunning.”
“Makes it easier, I guess.”
“For them. They get to see what they need to see, when it happens. You’re not so bad yourself.”
“I know, right?”
We stop talking again for a bit, letting it all sink in, all the recognition, all the meaning and the understanding and the cold necessity. I don’t know what it would look like to anyone else, if they were looking, which they aren’t. They don’t see us in the corner, his back against the sweating wall, me leaning into him, arms around each other, barely inches between our unblinking eyes.
He looks away for a second and tilts his head into the space over my shoulder. “Don’t look now,” he says, “but that’s her.”
And I feel it. The shiver sweeps across the back of my neck, under the collar of my jacket, settling into leather-wrapped vertebrae. I always feel it there. No matter what, that’s where it lands. I wait a bit, then look round and there she is. What’s left of my heart trails itself inside out. “She’s so young.”
“Not as young as she looks.”
“But still. I hate it when I get these ones on my own, but I hate it even more when you’re here too.”
“You need to toughen up, gorgeous. You’re getting sentimental again.” He pushes a lock of hair back from my face, tucks it behind my ear and lets his fingertips rest against my cheek. “Remember what happened last time you did that?”
“I know, it’s just…you’re right. But sometimes it starts getting to me, you know? It shouldn’t, but it does.”
His hand slides from my face to my collar, down my chest to my waist. “You,” he whispers against my lips, “need to embrace your true nature.”
I whisper back, “You and your fucking clichés,” then I let myself fall into him because it’s good. It’s always good. It’s always what I need. The music pulses through the floor, through the walls, through us. Music does that. It gets into everything.
We stop for a breath and he half-smiles. He only ever half-smiles. He says, “Better now?”
“I want to dance.”
“Seriously. I need to get through this.”
“I hear you, but what’s dancing got to do with it?”
“Just that maybe I’ll never do it again. Dance, I mean. I don’t know.”
“So dark, Noah.”
“What did you expect, Chase?”
“Exactly that. Always that, from you. It’s the sweetest part of these bittersweet reunions.”
I turn and pull him with me. Arms draped across each other’s shoulders, singing the wrong words to a song we don’t know anymore, we collapse from one step to the next until we get to the dance floor. With the noise, the heat, the sheer volume and intensity of life around us, I can almost forget who we are, why we’re here.
We feel her move towards the door and we know. Quietly, respectfully, we follow. No-one notices her leaving. No-one notices us either. I think maybe she’s had that in common with us for a long time and something inside of me reaches for her.
We walk a few paces behind, out the door, down the street, around the corner to a small city park. It’s just a square of lazily turfed wasteland with a swing-set and when it gets too dark for play, in-between souls find themselves drawn to the cold mirage of nostalgia-by-proxy.
Waiting in the shadows, we bear witness as she takes the pills, the whole bottle, one by one, washed down with something from a silver hip-flask that shudders her eyes closed with each bitter swallow. Then she sits on a swing and kicks into motion, leaning back, laughing her last.
I bury my head in his shoulder. “Couldn’t we just…not? Just this once?”
He strokes my hair. “You know it doesn’t work that way, lovely. It’s not up to us.”
“It’s a fucking waste.”
“Oh, sweetheart. No anger. Not now.”
We feel the shift when it happens, so we approach, hand in hand, and she sees us for the first time. She stops and staggers with shaking steps from the swing to the ground, resting against a bench where parents sit by daylight and watch their children being children. “Are you here for me?” Her voice slurs and she sounds so young. Too young.
He sits at her left and I sit at her right, each of her hands in one of ours, holding space. She looks from one of us to the other, dizzying waves flickering across her face. The last thing she says is, “But you’re both so beautiful.”
And we wait.
“I DON’T GIVE A FUCK, CHASE. I DON’T CARE ANYMORE.”
“You should, Noah. You’re going to fuck everything up again. You can’t do this.”
“I can do whatever the fuck I want.” I stand in the middle of the road, eyes closed, arms out-stretched. Of course no-one sees me, not like this, not now, not yet. Not until I decide they’re going to.
“You know this isn’t how it works.”
“It’s how it fucking works today. You want death? YOU’VE GOT DEATH.”
“But you don’t get to decide!”
“I DO NOW,” and this is it, this is the moment everything changes, and I don’t even care anymore. One driver sees me, then another, and another. But it’s too late. Too late for them, I mean, not for me. It’s perfect for me. The violent crush of metal into metal is sweet music, sweeter than the music in the club, but not as sweet as her last laugh.
Hope. She was called Hope. Not that it matters.
I choose one vehicle from the three that currently contain people inching towards their final breath. It’s a random choice, or as random as any choice ever is. I should know better than to throw around words like random so casually. Sitting cross-legged on the ground beside the shattered window of the mess of a car, I rest a hand gently against the quietly stopping heart of a man whose last thought is of the father he wishes he’d killed when he had the opportunity.
Again, I am nothing, no-one, as I pick my way through the carnage to where he—my calm companion with his empty hands—waits at the side of the road.
“I can’t be here for this, not again,” he says, and we stand forehead to forehead as the sirens get closer.
“I love you,” I tell him, and I mean it.
“But you’ll forget.”
“But enough. And you’ll stay.”
For another second, a minute, an hour—he plays those to perfection every time—we hold each other. There are no goodbyes here, not for us. There’s always another again.
We give each other our freedom and he turns away. I say nothing as I watch him go, as I feel him become a stranger.