Gregor Wundt, Ph.D., LPC, adjusted the silver-framed photo on his desk. He wiped away a smudge to provide an unadulterated view of the woman beneath. Green eyes stared back at him, lips frozen in a half-smile. How long had it been now since that day at the park? Two, no three years before the diagnosis? He sat trying to remember. A minute passed, then two.
“Dr. Wundt,” the intercom crackled as the voice of his secretary cut through the room. “Your two-o’-clock is here.”
Dr. Wundt pulled his gaze from the photo to glance at the clock above the door. Three minutes to the hour. He pressed the response button on his desk.
“Then please have him wait three minutes.”
He woke his computer, summoned his calendar, and clicked on the appointment for 2:00. The summary read:
- Name: Nudd, Gwyn
- Sex: M
- Age: 44
- Referral: End of Life Clinic
He did not bother with the rest. All referrals from End of Life had the same story. His eyes drifted to the photo on his desk, where they stayed until his office door opened at the hour’s chime. Dr. Wundt, donning a practiced smile molded of imitations of sympathy and trust, stood. A man slipped into the room.
“Mr. Nudd? Please sit.” Dr. Wundt indicated a chair opposite his desk.
The man hesitated. Pale eyes framed by a boney face swept the room, coming to rest on Dr. Wundt.
“No couch?” The man’s voice hovered above a whisper. Paper-thin lips did not return the smile.
“A trope from movies, I’m afraid. I find chairs perfectly adequate.” Dr. Wundt sat slowly, again gesturing to the chair.
After a pause, the man eased his elongated frame into the seat. His black suit rustled against the leather upholstery as he turned to face Dr. Wundt.
Dr. Wundt widened his professional grin. How long had it been since he had worn a genuine smile? He pushed the thought away, resisting the urge to glance at the woman staring up at him from the photo.
“And how are we today, Mr. Nudd?”
“How long will this take?” Mr. Nudd said. His eyes did not blink as they examined Dr. Wundt.
Dr. Wundt nodded and forced his expression to be professional yet empathetic, a mask perfected over hundreds of consultations just like this one.
“As I’m sure you are aware, the clinic is legally required that you see a counselor before they may proceed with services.”
The man snorted. “You want to talk me out of it.”
Dr. Wundt shook his head. “Not at all. I know this may be frustrating, but my purpose is to ensure that you are mentally competent and fully aware of –”
“Of my choices? My actions?” Mr. Nudd snorted again, eyes unblinking. “I have been pursuing this option for a very, very long time now. I assure you I am fully aware of what I want and how I want it done.”
Dr. Wundt’s smile fractured. So it was to be one of those evaluations. His glance darted to the framed photo. No, there would be time for that later.
“Just as you do not take your decision to end your own life lightly,” Dr. Wundt said, pulling his gaze back to his patient, “neither do I, and neither does the government take euthanasia lightly. Your choices are your own, Mr. Nudd. I have no agenda other than to make sure you have all the information legally required and that the clinic has the necessary confirmation that you are of sound mind. Our discussion exists only to accomplish those two actions.”
The clock’s ticking filled the silence of the office. Dr. Wundt waited, his professional grin challenging his patient to disagree. Finally, Mr. Nudd blinked, and with a slight nod, leaned back into the chair.
“Thank you.” Dr. Wundt retrieved a notepad and pen from his desk drawer. “Now, Mr. Nudd, why do you wish to end your own life?” He took in his patient’s glistening white skin, the whisps of alabaster hair clinging to his skull, eyes sunk deep into purple eye sockets. “Terminal illness?”
Mr. Nudd shook his head.
“Oh?” Dr. Wundt’s pen faltered. Illness, almost always cancer, made up the bulk of referrals from End of Life. The photo drew his eyes once more. The woman’s serene gaze was polluted by a memory of her hand, emaciated and skewered with IVs. Dr. Wundt banished the images. “Depression is also quite common.”
“I am not depressed.”
Dr. Wundt let a beat pass.
“Surely you have some reason for seeking end-of-life care, Mr. Nudd.”
His patient uncrossed and recrossed his legs. His brows knit together into thin lines.
“I want to end my life. What difference do my motives bear upon that?”
Dr. Wundt put the pen down, sighed, and leaned forward on his elbows.
“Mr. Nudd, if I don’t put down the reason you want to end your own life by assisted suicide, then I cannot provide a recommendation to End of Life Clinic. Without my signature, the clinic can do nothing for you. Now, if you don’t want—”
“I can no longer tolerate my responsibilities,” Mr. Nudd said, a dark look flitting across his features.
Progress. Dr. Wundt retrieved the pen and jotted a note.
“I see. And what would those duties be exactly, Mr. Nudd?”
“I end mortal life.”
Dr. Wundt stopped writing.
“Excuse me?” He glanced up.
“Put simply, Dr. Wundt, I am Death, and I too wish to die.”
A long silence built as Dr. Wundt sized up his patient. The all-black suit, the sickly pale skin, the unsettling way Mr. Nudd returned his gaze, all fell into place. His patient was mentally ill. Aspirations for a simple, quick evaluation evaporated.
“You believe yourself to be… Death?” A note of incredulity slipped past his defenses.
“You don’t believe me?”
Dr. Wundt shifted in his chair and glanced at the clock again, dismayed that more time had not elapsed.
“I respect that you hold that belief about yourself, but no. I do not.”
Mr. Nudd’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Every psychologist I have seen has told me that. I hoped we might have a discussion without platitudes, Dr. Wundt.”
“I’m sure. But, please, tell me why you think that you are the personification of death.”
“Why does a bird think it is a bird? Or why do you think you are you? It is simply because that is what we are. A bird is a bird. You are you. I am Death.”
“Uh-huh.” Dr. Wundt jotted a note – ‘Delusional. Not recommended. Therapy needed.’
“You believe me to be insane?” Mr. Nudd said with a cock of his head.
“I prefer the term ‘ill,’ Mr. Nudd.” He glanced up from the notebook. “Tell me, how long have you believed yourself to be death?” He poised his pen for more notes.
“I have always been so.”
“I see.” He jotted ‘Evasive responses’ into the notebook.
“And when you told your family or close friends that you are death incarnate, what was their reaction?”
“I have no parents, no friends, Dr. Wundt. I came into existence at the birth of the universe and will be there at its end. Unless you help me.”
Dr. Wundt set his pen down. This session was going nowhere. While it was not his responsibility to treat this odd, pale man, perhaps he could offer a few insights to whatever therapist found him next. Believing oneself to be death incarnate was, after all, a unique and interesting case. After a few questions he would send Mr. Nudd on his way, fill out a report explaining why he did not recommend assisted suicide, and he could spend the rest of the hour in pleasant silence. A glance at the photo on the desk assured him this was the right course of action.
“So, let us say you are death, as you claim. What reason would death have for wanting to die? And can death even die? And why would you need the assistance of a euthanasia clinic?”
Mr. Nudd’s lips puckered.
“I don’t mean to be indelicate, Mr. Nudd, but your assertation does naturally foster questions. I am merely trying to understand.” He shot his patient another professional grin.
Mr. Nudd blinked. “Questions, yes.” He leaned back in his chair as his voice trailed off. “Perhaps that has been the problem all along.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
“There have always been questions that are… difficult to explain in words. Perhaps that is why so many of you,” he waved a hand at Dr. Wundt’s framed diplomas on the wall, “have rejected my pleas for help. Perhaps I must go beyond words to answer your questions.”
“Go beyond words? In what way?”
“I have been trying to explain, and that was the problem. Words fail me, so I will show you.” Mr. Nudd leaned forward, eyes glittering. Spidery fingers wrapped around the armrest as he pushed himself to his feet.
“Mr. Nudd, please sit—” Dr. Wundt’s voice cut off. What little color already in Mr. Nudd’s skin retreated like milk draining from a glass. His suit began to ripple, the folds in the fabric melting together and falling to the floor.
Dr. Wundt rose, his legs bumping against his chair and sending it toppling to the ground. He barely noticed; his attention rapt on the thing Mr. Nudd had become. Black robes, agitated by an unseen breeze. Above them, translucent flesh stretched over an alabaster skull. Silver, iris-less eyes stared back at him. Dr. Wundt’s reflection bloated deformed, blinked back at himself. Sweat prickled his forehead.
“Do you believe me now, doctor?” The figure spoke with Mr. Nudd’s voice.
Were semi-invisible lips smiling, or was it an illusion of the rows of gum-less teeth? Dr. Wundt opened his mouth and closed it again. Was this real? Was he dreaming? He glanced down at the photo in the silver frame, then picked it up with shaking hands. Its surface was solid and cool to the touch. It felt real. But if this were Death that spoke to him, a concept made flesh, did that mean he was…He braced himself against the edge of his desk.
“No, doctor, you aren’t dead,” the figure said.
Dr. Wundt looked up.
“I apologize for the drama,” Mr. Nudd-cum-Death said. It floated into the patient’s chair, robes swirling like smoke. Skeletal hands folded themselves. “As we were making no progress with your…evaluation…I decided showing was better than telling. Now, if you don’t mind,” he waved his hand for Dr. Wundt to sit.
“You…how…what…” Too many words and questions jockeyed to be spoken.
The skull nodded. “I am as I claimed, Doctor. I am Death. I, like any other of your human patients, want to die. And I can’t do it by myself. I have tried. Death cannot end death, just as a snake cannot eat its tail. Only something living can end me, which is why I’ve sought out the End of Life Clinic. You are the last hurdle. Conduct your evaluation, give me my recommendation, and I will leave you alone.”
Dr. Wundt fought a wave of questions and a touch of vertigo. He looked down at the photo in his hand. The storm in his mind slowed. Ideas began to form patterns. Swallowing, Dr. Wundt placed the picture on his desk, found his chair, and eased into it. Unable to meet the gaze of his patient’s metallic eyes, he stared at a distant point on the wall.
“I mean you no harm, Dr. Wundt, but I am getting desperate.” Thin lips once again curled into a smile over the white skull. “Now, please, doctor, let’s get on with your evaluation if you do not mind.”
Dr. Wundt groped for his notebook, opened to a new page, and found a pen. Clicking it, he paused. Its tip quivered from shaking hands. He put the pen down and darted a glance at the woman’s portrait. Maybe this was real, and perhaps it was not. He glanced back at Death, who peered at him expectantly. Whatever this was, whatever happened, he was one step closer to her than he had been this morning. That was something. He pushed the notebook away and looked up.
“I suppose primary question still the most relevant. Why would Death wish to die?”
“I told you. I no longer wish to suffer under my burden.”
Dr. Wundt waited.
“Can you imagine what it is like, to be the cause of so much misery?”
“No,” Dr. Wundt said. “I can’t.” The standard reply slipped out without much thought. Imagining a patient’s personal experience rarely fostered the opening and trust required for clinical psychology. Yet Death blinked as if taken aback.
“No,” he mused, “I suppose you cannot. But, as I said before, maybe showing is better than telling.”
The walls of the room began to bend, their edges bleeding into each other. Death’s chair melted from underneath him, blending with the carpet and walls. Dr. Wundt withdrew his hands from the desk as his notebook swirled and melted into his computer. The framed photo began to bend. He swiped for it, but it was gone, pulled into the swirling mass of colors that had been his office. Death waved a hand, and the colors paused, then reversed, separating from one another, pulling into themselves. Streaks of brown, instead of forming his desk, came into focus as trees. The green of his lamp became reshaped themselves as leaves. Dr. Wundt spun around. They stood in a forest, its air sweet with moisture and the tang of dirt.
“I never asked for this,” Death said. “I never asked to be the one to separate people from their lives, from their loved ones. I never had a choice.”
Death hovered to stand by Dr. Wundt, pointing to two figures on the forest floor. A naked man, lying on his back, gasped for air. A woman, animal skin over her hips, cradled his head. Between sobs, she stroked his head and murmured in a language Dr. Wundt did not recognize.
“I was there when the first man died,” Death said. He reached out a hand and swiped it over the man’s face, closing his eyes. The man let out a shuddering breath, then went still. The woman shook him, cried out, and shook him again. When he did not respond, she wailed, rocking back and forth. Dr. Wundt began to reach for her shoulder. Perhaps he could offer her some sort of comfort. He took a step, stopping when Death shot him a glance. The woman began to yell, her words angry and cutting.
“His woman,” Death continued, “the first woman, cursed me for taking him from her.”
The forest melted again, then reformed. The woman, her hair now white, lay on the ground. Men and women stood around her. Naked children clung to their legs. Death moved between them, unnoticed, and reached down to close the woman’s eyes. As her breathing stopped, a cry went up from the crowd. A man beat his chest and roared. A woman turned to shield her eyes. Children, sensing the distress of their parents, began to cry.
“And I was there again when her children cursed me for robbing them of their mother.” Death turned to Dr. Wundt, his mirror eyes shimmering. “And I’ve been there for every man, woman, and child since.”
Dr. Wundt stepped back as the forest swirled and reformed into a desert, yellow and barren. Death pointed to a woman clinging to the frame of an emaciated child.
“Do you know what it is like, to watch as a woman tries to save her starving child, only to step in and take that child from her?” Death stooped, pausing to gaze at the mother before fluttering his hand over the child’s eyes, closing them. As tears cut paths over the mother’s dust-caked cheeks, the desert swirled away and became the cliffs of a snow-capped mountain.
A man, a frayed rope coiled about his climbing gear, lay broken on a boulder. Blood seeped from his mouth, his limbs at odd angles while he jerked spasmodically.
“Or to cut down a man in his prime to leave his father to know his line has ended? I do. It is all I know.” Death reached out a hand. As the man’s eyes closed, the mountain twisted to become a field of grain, then the halls of a stone castle, then a bedroom, then a beach. At each, Death reached down to close someone’s eyes. A man, a small girl, an old woman. Death ended them all with a wave of his hand.
“I never wanted this,” Death said in the swirling and ever-shifting landscape. “I never wanted to see the terror in the faces of the people I take, to hear the wailing of their children, of their brothers and sisters, their parents. But I have been there, each one more miserable than the last.”
Dr. Wundt stood on a battlefield, bombs exploding in a twilight sky. Then a city, its air dank with rot and fear.
“For every war, every plague, every famine, I have been there. It has been my only purpose. And my reward? Being despised, feared, hated. Something to be overcome and defeated.”
Death raised his hands. Wails and curses crashed over Dr. Muchin, each voice carrying grief, anger, loss, and damning Death. Dr. Wundt stuffed fingers in his ears to block it out.
“Even you cursed me, Doctor.” The swirling resumed, settling to shape a pale hospital room, machines beeping and humming around a bed. A woman lay on it, tubes draping from thin arms like vines.
Dr. Wundt spun away. “No, not here, not this.”
Death studied him for a moment. “Very well,” he said, and with a flick of a wrist, the hospital room melted. This time nothing reformed. Thousands of colors remained suspended – autumn apple red, winter ice blue, spicy curry orange, and dozens of others he could not name – swam together like liquid abalone shell. Death hovered in it, his robes a void in the kaleidoscopic storm.
“I have taken billions, and all the while damned for it, detested, and detesting myself for causing so much pain. I will not, I cannot, do it any longer.” His voice cracked. “That is all I want, to die and be done with it.”
“I…” Dr. Wundt faltered. What could he possibly say to Death himself? What lecture hall or clinical residency could have prepared him for this?
Searching for words, he studied Death. This thing was not even human. What could he possibly offer, or what could he… His reflection caught in Death’s silver eyes. Their mirrored curves magnified the fatigue of his own face – a weariness so many of his patients wore. Was Death any different than one of them, different than him?
Maybe he was not trained for this. Who could be? But training was all he had.
“No one can deny you are suffering, and I understand that you want to die,” Dr. Wundt said.
“So I have passed your evaluation?” Death asked in a rushed breath. He hovered closer, eyes wide with eagerness.
“Not quite,” Dr. Wundt said.
Death’s brow furrowed.
“I have a few more questions to see if you fully understand the implications of your decision to end your life,” he said.
Death’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.
“What are the consequences?” Dr. Wundt asked. “What happens if you die?”
Death blinked as a ripple of violet fanned across the swirling expanse.
“Why would that matter?”
“Help me understand what is at stake for you,” Dr. Wundt said. “You want to die. Tell me what that will mean.”
“I do not know,” Death said with a shrug.
“What do you mean you don’t know? You’re Death. Shouldn’t you know everything about dying, about the afterlife?”
Death shook his head. “I do not know if there is an afterlife.”
“What?” A hollow pang hit Dr. Wundt’s stomach.
“Humans speak of death as a door to some other world,” Death said. “I don’t know if there is another world. And if there is, I only bring them to the door. I do not walk through with them. So if I die, maybe I will join some afterlife, maybe not. Most likely, I will simply cease to exist. It only matters that my suffering finally ends.”
Dr. Wundt nodded. Although never a religious man, some part of him still clung to the idea of something after this life. One where he and Susanne could… But no time for that now. Focus.
“I see,” said Dr. Wundt. “That is what happens to you. But how will your decision impact other people?”
“I have no other people, Doctor,” Death said. A dark look flitted across his face. “I have no mother, no father, no kin.” He barked a short, raspy laugh. “Who would miss Death when he is gone? No one. Isn’t that what humanity has wanted all along? To kill Death itself? Help me give them what they want.”
Dr. Wundt shook his head. “Maybe you don’t have family, but what about we who do? What happens to all the of us who are supposed to die if you are not around?
Death paused and cocked his head before opaque flesh cracked into a thin smile.
“No Death, no dying. Is that not something you would want, Dr. Wundt?” Death hovered closer, his eyes catching flashes of crimson and ocher. “To be the man who stopped Death and gave everyone eternal life?”
“People wouldn’t die?”
“No,” Death said. “Think of it, Dr. Wundt. No more suffering of the innocent. No parent will have to say goodbye to a child. No orphans.” His smile spread to a grin of ivory teeth. “And your Susanne. What would you have done if you could have saved her from me?”
Dr. Wundt watched the swirling colors dance and pictured the woman in the photo. Had that flash of green come from her eyes or that swirl of brown from her hair?
“Well, Doctor?” Death said, a hunger hanging on his voice.
“Take me back to the hospital room,” Dr. Wundt said.
Death pulled back, examining Dr. Wundt with a raised brow. Then, with a wave of his arm, the colors swirled and bent to form the antiseptic outlines of a hospital room. The bed emerged, followed by tubes and machines.
“Gregor,” a woman in the bed said.
Dr. Wundt took in a sharp breath.
“Susanne.” He took a step, his legs threatening to buckle. She was here, once more within arm’s reach. But they had been here before, and he knew how this ended. With a shaking step, he slid onto the edge of the bed. He took her hand, avoiding the IV needles lurking under her cool skin.
“You’ll be all right,” he said, repeating patterns like a needle on a record player. “You’ll get through this, I promise.”
She forced a smile. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” Trying to sit up, she winced and fell back against pillows.
“We will find new doctors,” Dr. Wundt said. “Or try some other treatment. Science is advancing every day, and—” he swallowed to still his quivering chin. “Somebody will figure this out.”
“No more doctors, no more tests, Gregor.”
“Don’t, please.” He stared down at his shoes.
“I want to go.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, it’s the drugs and the painkillers. You just need to fight this.”
“Gregor,” she squeezed his hand until he looked at her. “I want to go.”
He dropped his gaze, unable to meet the finality in her eyes.
“I’m tired,” she said. “It’s been two years. And this,” her eyes traced the borders of the room, then darted to the machines crowding her bed. “I want it to end. For the both of us.”
Dr. Wundt turned away and wiped a hand across his face. Death hovered at the foot of the bed, his robes tickling Susanne’s pillow. Had Death been there the first time? If he had looked closer before, would he have seen him standing over Susanne, ready to take her? Dr. Wundt pushed the questions away. It didn’t matter now.
“I love you,” Susanne said. Dr. Wundt turned and pressed her hand to his cheek.
“What will I do… without… without…” Words melted into a half-choked sob.
“If you love me like I know you do, you’ll let me go. Let me rest. Let this end.”
“I love you,” he said, meaning it more this time.
Susanne’s gaze drifted upward, her eyes becoming unfocused.
Death reached out a hand and wiped it over her eyes, closing them. A machine’s chirp became a long, shrill cry. Dr. Wundt held Susanne’s hand until, like the hospital room around him, it swayed and melted into the swirling tangles of color.
“Do you see why I want to die?” Death said. “I do not want to cause any more pain, Doctor. I have had my fill.”
Dr. Wundt examined where Susanne’s hand had been and asked, “Do you know why End of Life sends most of its referrals to me for evaluation?”
Death shook his head.
“It’s because I understand the people who come through my door.” He looked up. “Yes, you took Susanne from me. And yes, I hated you for a time. But that’s what she wanted. She was in pain, had been for a very long time. Susanne would have suffered more without you. So in a way, I’m grateful for you. You spared the woman I loved from more suffering, and you spared me from watching her in agony.”
Death waited, his expression unreadable.
“You say we will live forever if you die,” Dr. Wundt said. “But what would that look like? Will you also end cancer? Old age? Disease? We need you, Death. That’s why people are referred to me — I sympathize with people who see you not as something to be feared, but as a gift when there is nowhere else to turn.”
Death hovered closer. “You believe this?” he asked in a soft voice.
Dr. Wundt nodded. “Even if we hate you, we need you.”
“But I cannot do this anymore,” Death said. Then, in a voice almost a whisper, “Do I not also deserve rest?”
Dr. Wundt met Death’s mirror eyes. He held Susanne and the relief on her face when her eyes closed that final time in his mind’s eye.
“What if someone else took over? Traded places?”
“Who would do such a thing?” Death said, flicking a hand dismissively. “You?”
A thrill went down Dr. Wundt’s shoulders. He stood on the edge of a waterfall, inexorably pulled toward the edge but not knowing what lurked below. It was terrifying, stupid even, and yet…
“Why not?” The rightness of it hit him. Purpose, absent since Susanne died, blossomed over him. He took a breath, deep and pure, like surfacing from being underwater.
Death regarded him. “You are serious?” Caution laced his voice.
Dr. Wundt was unable to contain a smile. “Yes.” He raised his hands to show his palms. “I’m serious. Susanne always wanted me to help people. I’ve not been so great at that – after she died. Maybe this is how I can start again.”`
“It will be difficult,” Death said. His voice, though still cautious, mixed with a note of hope.
“They will despise you. You will have to take people who you think are too young, too innocent, and leave those who you know deserve it.”
“You may not see Susanne for a very long time.”
Dr. Wundt paused. The thrill coursing through his chest faded as he imaged Susanne, her smile a moment ago so close, now distant.
“As you said, maybe there is something after this life. Maybe there is not. Either way, I’ll be closer to Susanne doing this than staring at her photo on my desk.”
Neither Death nor Dr. Wundt spoke. Colors swirled around them, rippling and bending to the strokes of an unseen painter. Death’s mirror eyes reflected it, shifting from red to pink to purple.
“What do I have to do?” Dr. Wundt said.
“Wipe your hands over my face,” Death glided closer. “The rest will come naturally.”
Dr. Wundt reached out a hand.
“Doctor?” Dr. Wundt’s hand halted halfway to Death’s face, fingers at the ready.
Death smiled. “Thank you.”
Dr. Wundt nodded and touched Death’s forehead, fingers sliding along Death’s skin until he brushed his eyelids closed. Colors began to swirl around them, twisting to form beige walls, blue florescent lights, and black-framed diplomas. As lines sharped and solidified, he was once again standing behind his desk, Susanne’s photo staring up at him.
Death, wearing the face of Mr. Nudd, sat in the chair opposite the desk. Hands folded in his lap, his head tilted back, leaving his mouth ajar as if he had drifted off to sleep. No breath came from him. Dr. Wundt leaned closer. Perhaps it was a trick of the light on Mr. Nudd’s pale skin, but his lips were almost smiling.
Dr. Wundt opened his mouth to summon his secretary, then stopped. None of that mattered anymore. He had work to do.
Turning to look at Mr. Nudd, he waved a hand across the room. Colors rippled and swirled. Closing his eyes, Dr. Wundt stepped into the storm.
Jack Nash is a native of the deserts of the American west. A graduate of Yale University, he lives and works in Virginia as a communications professional. Though this is his first work of fiction, his previous publications include op-eds and essays ghostwritten for a former head of state, appearing in the New York Times, Economist, and elsewhere. Find him at @jnashstories.