The grim reaper isn’t dead. Its dark, morbid garb and crescent sickle have been left with the ages. The tools of the ancient must have been traded in for a white coat, a disarming smile and a hole where the heart ought to be. Death’s keeper possesses a new name now; a name of black humour– Dr Atro Posully sewn proudly into its breast pocket. If the name isn’t consternating enough, its form is even more so. Death chose to metamorphose into a woman… a petit woman with short brown curls and a smile so sham that the sinister curve lost its trail halfway up her face.
It’s the sixth of December, and Geron watches his doctor in diffidence.
The medico checks his scans, her fingers sifting through screens with languid swipes. She has the air of someone who has done this clinical routine a thousand times before, perhaps each never more interesting than the last. All he is to her is another on the line, to be plucked and untucked from a grand reservoir of patients. Her smile tries to mask the cold brutality of it.
‘Your vitals look good, Ambrose,’ observes the doctor.
Geron doesn’t thank her. He doesn’t like her, this hospital, the government, nor does he like being called by his first name. He can see the corner of her eyes crinkle as she surveys his health stats. His body laid out in bare while she pokes into it with a scalpel. ‘Very good, in fact,’ she notes in an unnatural tone. Words addressed to him but directed at someone else.
The doctor turns and looks at the other woman in the room. Of course, it’s his daughter that she seeks. Beryl’s studying the companion handbook, cradling it in her lap as though it’s one of her bulky textbooks from law school.
Geron glances at the calendar on the medico’s desk, a sunset with compliments from a pharmaceutical company. ‘Must be disappointing,’ he quips into the silence. ‘A life threatening affliction wouldn’t sound so bad at this juncture. I hear you folks can arrange for it.’
Beryl turns and casts him a sharp look.
But Dr Posully isn’t offended. Not in the least. Dealing with petulant elders must be second nature to her.
The medico leans back into her seat.
‘I understand how you feel, Ambrose. Our patent drug will reverse the effects of the anti-senescence vaccine. We will make it as painless as you need.’
‘Oh, I bet you would,’ Geron mutters under his breath. ‘I bet you folks cry yourself to the bank, every time a fellow like me comes along.’
The doctor gives him a long glance but says nothing.
Turning back to her screens, she pulls up the clearance form and begins filling it out, his life filtered thin to a questionnaire.
Name: Ambrose E. Geron
Exmortis: Fifth Generation
Date of Anti-Senescence Administration: 06/06/2025
History of illness/disability: Nil
Date of Discharge: To be determined
She lingers on the last one.
‘I’ve looked at my roster,’ the doctor trails, ‘—I can fix you an appointment for the twenty first or twenty fifth of January,’ she says, grabbing her calendar. ‘Yes, those are the dates. It’s all up to you now. Whenever you are ready, Ambrose.’
A pensive silence fills the room.
Geron inhales deeply, filling his lungs with stale air.
Beside him, Beryl closes the handbook shut and returns it to her bag.
‘Do people…’ she hesitates, glancing between him and the doctor. ‘Do people have preferences?’
The lady reaper beams.
‘Almost always,’ Dr Atro informs them.
Geron’s hand twitches in his lap.
Be done with it, he tells himself. He raises the hand and flicks the speck of dust from his sleeve.
‘Twenty fifth,’ he decides firmly. ‘I was born on November 25th and will leave on January 25th. Should look poetic enough on my plaque.’
He feels Beryl’s eyes on him.
The medico accepts his decision wholeheartedly.
‘I will fix the appointment right away, and get the necessary clearance from the census administration. You’ll be getting the consent form when everything’s set and ready. Is there anything else I can help you with, Ambrose?’
Geron says nothing.
In the strained silence that follows, Beryl is the one to speak.
‘Thank you,’ she says, reaching out to shake the doctor’s hand.
Geron doesn’t share his daughter’s enthusiasm. He stands up stiffly, his sage green eyes still glued to that unremarkable calendar.
They walk out of the consulting room and take to the portico pathway, following the cobblestones that lead them out of the hospital. The evening sky is sober. Geron stops under a laburnum tree and takes a moment to breathe in the dulcet scent of its yellow flowers. Beryl has taken the drops out and is wetting her eyes. The same rook nose and eyes that never water. She is beginning to resemble her estranged mother with every passing day.
Beryl puts the drops back into her purse and looks at him.
‘Are you sad?’
Geron snorts at the question, his laugh lost in the wind that bristles past them.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Beryl.’
She gauges his reply, searching for something in him and relieved at not finding it.
‘Good,’ says his daughter, the spirit of professionalism again. She blinks uncertainly and for a moment, he wonders what she’s thinking of. ‘If…’ she hesitates for the second time that day, ‘If you need, we could enrol into the ‘Art of Dying’ classes.’
Geron catches his reflection in the window of a parked car.
His face hasn’t changed in the last thirty-five years, frozen in time like everyone else’s. His brutish face turns churlish for the first time.
‘And let some orange robed mystic rob me of my hard earned savings? Oh no, nothing doing.’
Beryl studies him disparagingly.
‘It might help, dad. Won’t you reconsider–’
Geron snaps irritably.
‘Dying is easy. I don’t need a tutor for it.’
In fond memory of Eggie
So said the banner on the dais.
There’s the memorial dinner suffocating and smelling rich of mulberry cake and frittata. The caterers are stationed behind the buffet dishes, ready to serve the mourners with their bright cloned smiles. He spots his son Igneous, ever the snob, pouring a critical eye over the food. Geron’s three sisters come to greet him and enquire discreetly about the inheritance; next, he is accosted by nephews who call dibs on the grand piano.
‘Ambrose!’ someone yells.
Geron cringes for it’s a familiar voice.
He turns in his seat and sees cousin Pebbles making his way through the milling crowd.
Looking prime in a grey suit, he takes the seat beside him.
‘You don’ look a day older,’ his cousin barks, thumping his back and laughing at his lame little joke. He’s been using that joke since they introduced The Life Expectancy Regulation Act. He throws his arm around Geron’s chair and sidles closer. ‘They gave you the date yet?’ he whispers, his tone dropping to dead seriousness.
Geron looks at the flower arrangements on the dais. Beryl made sure to get his favourite.
‘Twenty fifth January,’ he answers.
Pebbles curses under his breath.
Geron says nothing and watches his daughter climb the dais. Beryl smiles at the gathering, at him especially and begins her address.
‘Friends and family,’ she says. ‘Today we’re gathered here to celebrate my father Eggie. It’s a special day and hopefully a memorable one spent in the company of those he cherishes.’ Pebbles gives a loud snort at that but Beryl, though indignant at this interruption, presses on.
‘Dad has always been a man of few words. He resisted the idea of a memorial at first. But I am sure deep down, he wanted to be appreciated by his near and dear ones. Everyone does. So, please,’ she urges the crowd, looking meaningfully at each assembled face. ‘Please take a moment to come up here and speak a few words about how Ambrose E. Geron, Eggie as we call him, brought a change in your life, how he lit it up and how he will be so dearly missed.’
There’s an applause.
Pebbles scoffs and taps his knee.
‘Hm, kid’s going all out. It’s gonna be a long night.’
Geron fidgets with his bowtie and sighs.
‘At least you don’t have to be in the limelight.’
Pebbles rolls his eyes.
‘You realise, Ambrose? Half of the speeches you’re about to hear have ulterior motives.’
‘And you?’ Geron retorts. ‘Why are you here?’
Pebbles sits up, looking mortally offended.
‘I’m wounded, Cuz. I’m wounded that you’d think I am one of these vultures,’ he bellows and earns disapproving looks from everyone around. Pebbles drops the act and sobers up. ‘Nah, I am just here to pull your leg,’ he says in a quieter voice. ‘Every man deserves a last laugh, innit?’
Few words never remain few words. As his sister takes to the dais, she pauses briefly to look at Geron.
‘Eggie, oh Eggie. He was always the voice of reason in the family. When we were children, he’d–‘
Pebbles shifts, leaning into him.
‘Say, old man. You opted for those tours?’
Geron frowns and then remembers the brochure Beryl had slipped into his desk months ago.
‘The sightseeing tour?’
‘Yes. Around the world in two days? The bucketlist package?’
‘It’s a waste of money.’
His cousin turns visibly miffed.
‘You’re such a miser,’ he says and pulls away, returning to equilibrium.
No sooner Marcelia finishes her speech, Pebbles is nudging his elbow again.
‘All this death business. Aren’t you scared?’
Geron chews on his answer.
Geron says nothing.
‘Now, listen ‘ere. I need to confess something. Pray, don’t tell anyone about it,’ his head twists around. ‘But we can’t talk here. Meet me at the kei pond when all this hoopla is done.’
At the pond, a paranoid Pebbles checks behind the boulders to see if anyone’s hiding.
‘I didn’t want to tell anybody. But hey,’ he shrugs. ‘You’re going to die anyway. I see no harm done.’
Geron raises an eyebrow at his cousin.
‘Look. You want to beat the system, don’t you?’
Geron watches him in unease.
‘No one can beat the system, Peb.’
‘You won’t even fight back?’
‘There’s no point to it.’
Pebbles snarls and punches him in the shoulder. ‘Don’t pretend to me you aren’t scared. Because I sure am. They say there is nothing to be afraid of. The government and the white coats call it painless, but it doesn’t take away the fact that you cease to exist. Zilch. Gone,’ he heaves furiously. ‘NO MORE. How can that not scare you, Ambrose?’
Nursing the pain in his arm, Geron remains silent. He crouches at the edge of the pond and watches the kei flock to him. They must be expecting food. Creatures of habit.
Just like him.
Pebbles is livid at his nonchalance and paces around in circles.
‘I’m scared, alright?’ he confesses. ‘You hit thirty and midlife crisis begins. You’ve got kids and time’s running out. I hit forty and I think oh, a couple of years more to figure it all out. Two decades is a long time; I’ll find something to do, right? I hit fifty-five and I’ve still got some years to get the memoirs done. And now?’ he gestures to the memorial hall. ‘I am fifty-eight. Two years, Geron. That’s two years before… before…’ his voice quivers.
Geron’s gaze remains on the fish; he frowns at one that isn’t moving.
‘What are you planning?’ he asks at last.
Pebbles kneels next to him.
‘I’ve been researching. There have been only three ways to beat the system.’
Geron turns skeptic.
‘I hate to break it to you, Pebb. But you aren’t a think-tank or a person of extraordinary ability.’
‘The other way,’ snaps his cousin.
‘It’s too late to change your birth year.’
‘Darn it, the other way.’
‘You’re moving to Sweden?’
Geron gives his cousin a pitiful look.
‘A few years would make no difference. You expect to find meaning in five years that you haven’t found in sixty?’
‘So you go along with it? Drop dead and roll? Like dogs?’
‘No,’ says the man scheduled to die. ‘Like moths who’ve bid their time.’
‘Like dogs!’ his cousin spats out.
Pebbles refuses to see him after that argument. On the Saturday preceding the twenty-fifth, Geron finds himself in the cemetery of his ancestors. His gravestone stands proud, his name and years engraved… but epitaph empty.
‘It won’t take long,’ says the marble curator excitedly. ‘We have a whole book of Latin epitaphs to pick from.’
‘Latin?’ Geron says, perturbed at the thought. ‘I don’t even know Latin— ‘
Beryl touches his elbow.
‘Dad,’ she calls. ‘It’s alright,’ she placates him. ‘It’s for us anyway. We will choose something beautiful. Shall I go and pick one out for you?’
Geron turns to look at his daughter and finds a stranger staring back at him. The illusion of timelessness starts to fade.
He nods uncertainly.
‘Right,’ he mumbles. ‘Go on without me.’
The words have hardly left his mouth, and he wonders at the irony in them. She watches him warily for a long moment before nodding and handing over the brochure to him. She leaves him there among the broken grass, the marble curator trailing after her.
Geron watches the graveyard: the tidy rows, the mounds and the bouquets placed before some. Surreal. It’s all too surreal. He looks at the dossier in his hand. Twenty-four years ago, his own mother stood in this place. She clutched a book too, but that one had contained a treacherous secret: a bus ticket to nowhere.
She had given Geron a kiss on the forehead.
And with a smile, she’d shred the ticket.
Geron opens the book and flips through the glossy pages; he finds it empty.
And odd enough, he finds his answer in the emptiness of it.
He looks at the beaten path, the one his daughter used, before turning and leaving for the gates.
Artyv K is a writer and an eternal connoisseur of the smaller things in life. Her work has appeared in the Madras Mag and forthcoming in NILVX.