Jacob met his Godmother on the day he graduated from medical school. He'd hung his diploma on the wall and found a bone white cat with sooty black feet sitting on the mantle, watching him.
“Well done, Godson.”
Jacob's breath froze in his chest. The cat had spoken.
“Well done, Godson.”
Jacob's breath froze in his chest. The cat had spoken.
A slow blink of golden eyes held him before she looked down at a leather-bound book between her paws. “When your father asked me to be your Godmother, I almost refused.”
She nudged the book, pushing the slim volume off the edge. Almost without thinking, Jacob found the frozen book in his grasp. He studied the cat as she curled herself into a tidy loaf, settling ashy paws under her tail. It reminded him of his mother tucking her hair behind her ears.
He tried to open the book, the pages resisted. “What is this?”
“Heed my words, Godson. When at the last you cannot heal, open this book, and it will reveal the way to health.”
Even twenty years later, he could still hear her ageless voice handing down instructions. In all those years, he'd only used the book six times. Forever in the breast pocket of his lab coat, it was a constant chilling reminder of his Godmother's presence. Working in a hospital, even unseen, she was always there; slipping away an accident victim in the emergency room or sneaking on winter's feet into the oncology ward.
Death had made him a promise on that graduation day. If he ever found her by the head of a patient, he could use the book to heal. But find her curled at the foot of the bed and he mustn't use his gift. It was his Godmother's duty to take the dying into death.
Jacob's pager beeped, surprising his heart into a nervous stutter. Checking the screen, he jogged past artificial Christmas trees to pediatrics. False cheer and blinking rainbow-colored twinkle lights glowed on worried faces in the nurse's station.
One of the nurses glanced up when he paused to grab the chart. “Her fever is higher, 105. We can't get it down.”
The door of the patient's room was closed, Jacob pushed it open with his foot and exhaled frustration as he scanned his notes. His breath plumed into a cloud. Icy flakes sparkled in the air, blown in from an open window.
“What?” He reached to shut the window and found himself blocked by the patient's father. Both hands pressed against Jacob's chest, pushing Death's book hard against his sternum. It jabbed against his soul, reminding him of his promises.
The father cleared his throat and pointed to the bed. “It's helping.”
Face bright with fever, black lashes laid across Anna's cheeks, a beautiful reminder of the healthy child she'd once been. Jacob weighed the weeks of mistakes he'd made trying to cure whatever it was that held the nine-year-old in its paws.
Goose flesh puckered his arms as he warmed his stethoscope. He stepped past Anna's father and found himself mere steps from his Godmother. Curled between the purple painted nails of Anna's feet, Death rested her chin on the girl's calf and gazed at him. She did not speak.
Stalling for time, Jacob opened Anna's hospital gown and listened to her breathing. Thready heartbeats whispered in his ears while Death watched him decide.
Two of the six times he'd used the book, he'd been in just this situation. Once with a woman bleeding out after giving birth to twins and a second time with his own mother. Those two times he had moved Death aside, dumping her off the foot of the bed like a common alley cat.
A chorus of children passed the room singing an out-of-tune carol. Their young voices sang of hope and pierced him. Shaking his head at the unfairness of his godmother's choice, he waved for Death to leave.
Snow blew into the room, freezing Anna's father with his face in his hands. The monitors stopped, the room stilled. Nothing breathed but Jacob and the bone white cat.
“Twice you've defied me, Godson. Do not forget, the scales must balance. Death must always be fair.” She stretched, muscles thrumming under the skin. Walking between Anna's legs, she laid down over the child's knees.
“Killing a child isn't fair.”
“I don't choose how or when. When it's time, I simply take.”
Jacob's mouth was dry as he opened the book. “I won't let you do this.”
Studying formulas and tinctures with eager eyes, he flipped through dusty pages and ignored Death's baleful glance. Time moved forward while he searched and found the answer to what Anna needed to live.
He tucked the book into his pocket and shook Anna's father by the shoulder. “I know what to do.”
They bundled her into a rubber sheet and filled the bed with snow. As the fire in Anna's face faded to a healthier pink, the nurses moved like ants, working as a team to administer the treatment he'd written in a heavy scrawl. Death stayed close, her fur blended into the snow as she fixed him with a disapproving stare. He avoided meeting her golden eyes and placed a hand on Anna's forehead.
“She's so much cooler.” He scooped a handful of snow and tossed it into the sink. “Let's get the sn...”
He suddenly felt dizzy. Speech slurring, Jacob grabbed at the bed and hit the ground in a tangle of snow and rubber sheet. He heard the faint calls of nurses yelling his name until everything went dark.
Before he opened his eyes, a shushing filled his ears. The sound of rain on a metal roof, the subtle pull of the ocean through sand; the noise was constant and oddly reassuring. He sat up and saw a foggy twilight spreading in all directions, enfolding him in a sea of darkness.
Jacob sat in a circle of dim light cast by a beeswax candle. Just outside the light was Death.
“Am I dead?”
“Follow me.” She stood and walked into the night with a flick of her tail.
He picked up the candle, breathing in the smoke's rich scent of summer. He felt weak, as if he'd lost a part of himself. Jacob looked down, he wore his blue scrubs and was barefoot. He didn't know where his white lab coat had gone.
“Are you coming?” her voice chased out of the dark.
Following a frosty trail of cat paw-prints, he wandered deep into a never-ending field of hour-glasses and recognized the sound that filled his ears as that of sand pouring ever so slowly from the top of each glass into the bottom.
Leaning close to a gold glass, his breath melted the rime of ice covering it. The steady pulse of the hour-glass felt like the beating of a heart.
A trembling understanding made him hold the candle aloft and Jacob cried out in despair. Millions of glasses winked back at him. Some were large, the size of a gallon milk pitcher. Others, small. Far too small. He clutched his chest and felt nothing but panic.
“Does one of these belong to me?”
Death jumped onto a shelf and wove between a pair of sturdy hour-glasses. She sat next to a slim glass, tall and thin with black grains of sand cascading at a dangerous rate. She nudged the glass; pushing it ever-so-much-closer to the edge of the shelf.
“What are you doing?” He tried to stop her and found he could not.
“This one belongs to you.”
“But, It's almost empty. Can't you turn it over?”
Death batted the glass. It tottered and almost fell.
“Wait!” Jacob clutched his candle with both hands, bending the soft wax in his fear. “I know I shouldn't have saved Anna. But, her father, I couldn't let him watch her die.”
“This isn't retaliation for the girl.,” the cat sighed. “Three times you saw me at the foot of the bed and you saved the person I had come to take. Death is about balance. In saving those three people, you took sand from your own glass.”
“I'm your Godson. Aren't you supposed to protect me?”
One bat of her pink toes against the frosty side of his hour-glass and his life hung in the balance. Tapping with the certain curiosity of a cat, Death watched understanding grow on his face. With a breath as soft as a whisker against a child's face, she knocked the hour-glass to the floor. As the last grain fell, Jacob faded to nothing.
The bone white cat sighed. “Death holds everyone accountable Jacob. Your father chose me because Death is fair. I am always fair.”
When Trace Kerr is not writing YA fantasy and science fiction, she co-hosts and produces the Brain Junk podcast in Spokane, WA. Her blog is TraceKerr.com and you can also reach her on Twitter as @teakerr. Listen to her podcast about everything you never knew you wanted to know at BrainJunkPodcast.com
Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff
Check out Jude's novelette: