Balance of Accounts

“Mr. Jones?”

Theodore heard someone calling his name, softly, from very far away. He looked but only saw a gray mist in every direction.

“Mr. Jones?” The voice called again, closer. He tried to peer through the mist and slowly became aware of his surroundings. He stood in a small office, with a man sitting at a large, wooden desk. The man rose and motioned to a chair.

“Mr. Jones, please sit down.”

“Where am I?” Asked Theodore.

“You are in the processing center. Here is my card.” The tall, thin man handed a card to Theodore. He read the simple, block letters on the plain, white card.

Department of Transition
Mr. Death
Coordinating Agent

He looked up at the man, who again motioned to the chair. Theodore slowly sat.
“I will be right with you,” said Mr. Death. He turned to a filing cabinet behind him; pulled open a door marked H-J, and began to look at the file labels.

Theodore looked down at his clothing. He was wearing a hospital gown. The last thing he remembered was walking up the stairs to his apartment, then a hot, stabbing pain in his chest.

“Ah, here it is,” said Mr. Death, pulling a file from the drawer. He closed the drawer and laid the file on the desk. He sat down in an overstuffed leather chair and folded his hands over the file.

Theodore looked down at the card he was still holding. He hazarded a guess. “I’m dead?”

“Not quite. You are in the pre-death stage. As I said, this is the processing center. We settle the accounts and complete the paperwork.”

Theodore looked at the man, bewildered. “What happened to me?”

Mr. Death opened the file and looked at the top page. “You had a heart attack, to put it plainly. There were complications with your surgery resulting in your imminent death.”

Theodore shook his head, then pressed his hands against his temples and closed his eyes. This had to be some kind of nightmare.

“No, Mr. Jones, this is no dream,” said Mr. Death. Theodore snapped his eyes open wide and stared at the man behind the desk.

“Your mental confusion is the result of your spirit being brought out of your body. Since you are not quite dead, you are like a man trying to balance on a fence. It can be a bit disconcerting. However, it will pass once the contact with your body has been terminated.”

Theodore gripped the sides of his seat. “But I don’t want to die!” He said, looking around the room for a way to escape. The only exit was a wooden door in the wall beside the filing cabinet. The sign on the door read, “Transfer Center.” He knew he did not want to go out that way.

“Believe me, Mr. Jones,” said Mr. Death soothingly, “I understand. It is your time, however. Here is the death certificate. You will die at 1:32 PM, Central US time, at Morgan County Hospital.” Mr. Death glanced at a clock on his desk. “In about 5 minutes.”

Mr. Death placed the certificate on the desk, along with a pen. “I do need your signature on the line marked with an ‘x’, please.”

Theodore pushed away from the desk, tipping over his chair. “I’m not signing anything! I want out of here, now!” He backed into the wall, then whirled and started pounding and kicking the wall. The wall suddenly seemed to give and he fell out of the office, down into the gray mist. Theodore opened his eyes and stared up at the faces that were anxiously looking down at him.

“…back,” a man dressed in a white smock said. The man looked at the heart monitor on the rack beside the bed and then squeezed Theodore’s hand. “You gave us a scare, but it looks you’re going to be all right.”

The man wiped his sweating brow and turned to consult with a another man and a nurse standing at the foot of the bed. He heard someone say, “Good work, Doctor.” Then, “Mr. Jones, your wife is here.”

Margaret came into his field of view. “Theo?” She asked, her voice quavering. He reached for her hand but his arms felt like wooden logs. She grabbed his hand and stood shaking, holding back sobs. “I was so scared. I was afraid you—” She stopped, realizing what she was about to say. She took a deep breath and stopped shaking. “I am so glad you’re okay. I love you.”

“You too,” he said weakly. He felt himself slipping away into sleep with the fading memory of a tall, thin man. “We will talk again soon…” Theodore heard someone say as he closed his eyes.

Theodore was home, resting in a chair beside the living room window. Margaret was in the kitchen and he could hear the clink of glasses as she put away the dishes from the evening meal. Their apartment was on the second floor, so he had a good view of the street. Theodore watched the infrequent cars roar by, and the more frequent pedestrians stroll up and down the sidewalks in the waning light. One by one, the streetlights were blinking on as dusk approached.

He was tender from his operation, but he still felt good. He had cheated death; he was still alive. His doctor said it was one of those miracles you read about from time to time. Unexplainable, yet it had happened. The only thing that marred his sense of well-being was the dream. He could remember it with astonishing clarity. He had met Death, Mr. Death, who was going to send him on to the afterlife. He had mentioned the dream to his doctor, but his doctor had replied that it wasn’t uncommon in near death cases.

Yet, it had seemed so real. He could still feel the texture of the business card in his hand, the raised black lettering on the stark white background. He could hear the strange stillness of the office. He could see the death certificate that Mr. Death wanted him to sign. His name had been printed at the top in Gothic letters. He could even see Mr. Death quite clearly: a tall, thin man in a navy blue suit. It had to be a dream, though. It seemed so ludicrous by the light of day.

“I’m going to drop off the garbage,” his wife called from the kitchen.

“Okay,” he called back, watching as she carried a white plastic bag into the hall.
He turned back to the window and his breath caught in his throat. Standing in the light of a street lamp was a tall, thin man dressed in a dark suit, staring up into the window. Theodore couldn’t see his eyes at this distance, but he somehow knew the man was looking at him. The man stood for a moment and then started to cross the street toward the apartment. Theodore felt a chill touch his spine.

He turned at the sound of the door opening and a sudden, unexplainable dread filled him as he glanced at the opening door. His wife stepped back into the apartment, closing and locking the door behind her. He realized he had been holding his breath, and let it out with an explosive sigh.

She rubbed her hands on a towel, brushed at an errant strand of hair, smiled at him when she noticed him staring at her, and then turned into the kitchen to finish her chores. He looked back out into the street. The man had vanished.

Theodore’s doctor had prescribed light, daily exercise, so the next day, Margaret announced they would take a walk in the park. It was a pleasant day for a walk. The sky was sunny, but a touch of breeze kept the temperature comfortable. They walked one lap around the path that circled the park and then Theodore protested fatigue and plopped down on a bench.

“I have to run to the little girl’s room,” said Margaret. Theodore nodded. She headed toward the small brick building at a brisk walk. A man sat down beside Theodore on the bench. Theodore glanced at the man, and then froze. It was the man from his dream, Mr. Death.

“It wasn’t a dream,” Theodore said.

“No, Mr. Jones, it was not a dream,” said Mr. Death quietly. “I stopped by to try to explain the situation to you.”

“I know the situation: you want me dead. I don’t want to be dead. You can’t seem to force me, so I am going to stay alive,” Theodore said.

“Mr. Jones, I do not want you dead. I am simply enforcing the rules. Death is, for the moment at least, a law of the universe you could say. There will come a time when the rules will change, but for now, it is the law. You think you have cheated death, but you have not. In the grand scheme of things a death must occur, the accounts must be balanced. Right now, the universe is out of balance, and it is my job, however unpleasant, to make sure the imbalance is corrected. If you do not wish to die, then a death of equal value to yours must take place.”

Mr. Death looked at Theodore and said quietly, “The accounts have to balance.”

“Somebody has to die in my place?”

Mr. Death nodded. “Yes.”

“Who?” Theodore asked, weakly.

“I am sorry, that is confidential information. As I said though, it has to be a death of equal value to yours.”

Mr. Death stood. “Please consider what I have said. If you change your mind, simply call me and I will return.” He turned and walked briskly down the path, out of sight.

“Who was that?” Asked Margaret. Theodore jumped. He hadn’t heard her approach.

“You saw that man?” He asked.

She nodded. “Yes. What did he want?”

“Nothing, just asking directions. I think I am ready to go home.” She looked at him puzzled, but remained silent. She put out her arm and he grabbed it, rose to his feet and they began to slowly stroll home.

The afternoon was starting to wane as they came to the stairs leading to their apartment. Theodore was silent, thinking about what Mr. Death had said. “Let me rest for a moment before I try to tackle these steps,” he said.

“Are you thirsty?” Margaret asked. He nodded. “Well, just sit here and I’ll run and get some ice water from the apartment.” She bounded up the steps.

He slowly sat on the step and watched some boys throwing a football in the street. Whenever a car turned down the street, they stayed in the lane as long as they could, as if daring the driver to hit them. The speed limit on the street was twenty-five, hardly anyone did the speed limit. Behind him he heard the tinkle of ice as Margaret navigated the stairs with two tumblers of water. She sat beside him and handed him one. He drank deeply and they both sat in silence, watching the boys play ball.

“Well, lets try the stairs.” He said, standing. As Margaret stood, the tumbler slipped out of her hand and rolled off the curb. “Damn, “ she mumbled, chasing it.

A roar down the street caught his attention and he saw a large sport utility vehicle come speeding down the lane. At the same time he heard a shout from one of the boys playing ball, very close to the stairs. He turned to see the ball arching through the air off target. The boy stepped sideways to catch the ball, not looking where he was going. He was heading straight for Margaret.

“Look—,” began Theodore, reaching out, but the boy and Margaret collided, pitching her forward into the street. The SUV locked its brakes with a squeal of tires, but it had too much momentum and it slammed hard into Margaret. For an instant, Theodore could see her neck flex and her head bend at a horrifying angle as she crumpled the fender. Then she was pushed to the ground in a heap, as the SUV slued to a stop.

He ran to Margaret and stood for a moment looking down at her, his hands slick with sweat. His heart thumped once, very hard, and then he knelt beside her. Blood was running from her nose and her eyes stared blankly into the sky.

“Don’t move her!” Someone shouted. “I’m calling 911.”

He touched her face. The flesh was warm, but there was slackness in it. He felt for a pulse in her neck, but found none. Tears welled into his eyes and a sob racked his chest. He knew what had happened. This was the death of equal value.

He stood and staggered to the sidewalk. “Death!” He called into the gathering dark. “Mr. Death!”

“Mr. Jones,” said a voice beside him.

He whirled and faced Mr. Death. “You did this,” he said.

“No, “ Mr. Death said, “you did.”

Theodore reeled at the simple words, somehow knowing the truth in them. It had been his choice to stay, and he had been informed of the consequences of his actions. “Is it too late to fix things? Can you bring her back?”

“Is that what you really want?” Mr. Death asked.

“Yes,” Theodore said, holding back the sobs. “Please, take me instead of her.”

Mr. Death nodded. “Very well.”

Theodore stood in Mr. Death’s office, wearing the gown he had on his previous visit. Mr. Death motioned to the chair in front of the large, wooden desk. Theodore sat.
“Is she OK?” He asked.

Mr. Death nodded. “We are back to the same moment as your previous visit. Your body is in the hospital bed and slowly failing.”

Mr. Death placed the death certificate on the desk and placed a pen beside the paper. “I do need your signature on the line, please.”

Theodore signed the Death Certificate, and two more documents that Mr. Death placed into his file folder. “That is all the paperwork,” Mr. Death said, holding out his hand to Theodore. “I appreciate your cooperation.”

Theodore was expecting a cold, weak hand, but it was warm and the grip firm. “If you will follow me,” Mr. Death said rising, “I will take you to the Transfer Center.”

“Where do I go from here?” Theodore asked.

“I am sorry, but that is outside my area of knowledge. I just handle the paperwork, I’m afraid.”

Mr. Death opened the door and stood to one side, to let Theodore pass. Theodore paused at the threshold, then plunged ahead. Mr. Death followed, shutting the door behind him.