The Caregiver

by Erasmus Lion

His eyes drowsily open and he pushes himself up and into a sitting position. He sighs and look around the pale and nearly empty hospital room, idly scratching at the skin around the catheter in his left arm. He sighs heavily once more as he looks at the circular clock with big and happy numbers fastened to the wall opposite his bed and realizes that he's only got a little over thirty-five minutes before his life is going to end by a young man pushing him off the roof of the hospital he's currently in.

The man sitting on the bed takes a second look around the room and notices several other things about the room " the nicotine-coloured walls, the soft glow of the single lamp hanging from the ceiling, the other, empty and rather flimsy-looking bed and the two comfortable, padded chairs for visitors, one for each bed " and starts a little as his eyes sweep the chair next to his bed and finds a young girl sitting in it, leant back and with her legs pulled up against her so that she can wrap her arms around them, gazing steadily at him with dark brown eyes, her stature telling him that she can't be older than ten or twelve, her chestnut hair in pigtail, clad in a black dress and barefoot, her shoes on the floor by the chair.

She looks at the man on the bed, at the blonde hair reaching his shoulders that appears to belong to a much younger man, at how his rather well-muscled six-foot-five body appears to crush the weak frame of the bed, the legs of the bed slowly bending as he shifts to look at her. She'd normally associate these traits with someone a lot younger than the man she's currently gazing at, but she knows that he's a little over fifty. She meets his gaze steadily for a few moments, then lets her eyes flicker to the clock on the wall. Thirty-five minutes.

He nods slowly as she checks the time, and with the third sigh of the day he almost violently pulls out the catheter that is administering some sort of intravenous fluid, and scratching his arm with apparent annoyance the big man lumbers off towards a door close to the exit; a bathroom. He moves up towards the sink and winces visibly, instinctively lifting a hand to shield himself against the man in the mirror, a large man with clear marks of the ravages of time, crow's feet at the corners of his eyes and a horrible pallor of his skin that he's only seen on shut-in elderly people.

She looks at him curiously through the open, worn door of the bathroom as he mumbles to himself in disbelief, washing himself with hot water as if he expects his visage to fall off him like a plaster mask. After a few minutes she taps her bare feet against the floor impatiently, and then stands up, pulling her clothing tighter around her as she slips on her yellow and white sneakers, bending down to tie her shoes properly before approaching the bathroom.

William, grunting in discomfort as the nearly unbearably hot water splashes over his face, turns the water off and turns around. The little girl is standing there, right in front of him, and he nods again, recognizing her stealth. He cautiously secures his hospital gown around his waist, just to make sure, and suddenly realizes that the black dress is actually a hooded robe, made in a finer material, as though to suit a girl.

"Oh," he says dumbly in a tired-sounding voice, "I thought you'd be... Well, a guy."

"That," she replies, looking down at her feet and touching her left foot with her right big toe, "is selfish of you, isn't it? Not everything's about you, you know."

"I assumed, uh, that this was about me?"

She rolls her eyes, child-like in her annoyance with him. "Twenty-five minutes. We should get going, you know."

"Okay. Do you know what I'm doing in the hospital?"

Ignoring him, Alice reaches out to grab the front of his hospital gown, giving it a token pull to make William follow her out the door.

He looks uncomfortable as he follows the robed youngling through the hallways outside, noting with a glance that they're just as nicotine-coloured as the wallpaper inside his room. Certain that he's never seen the place before, he follows the girl through the corridors of the hospital that can only be described as arid. No people, no paraphernalia, nothing but seemingly endless corridors with shabby wallpaper and poorly designed lamps, making the place too bright for its own good.

Alice glances back over her shoulder at him, making sure he's still there, and finally pulls a small notepad and a pen out of her robe, making a few notes in the notepad;

William Jacobson, age 52, hospital, 15:32.

He watches her take a few notes, coughing a little to get her attention, immediately feeling ashamed for acting like a child to a child. He gets the feeling that he's supposed to be more dignified when facing his own death, and after all, isn't that what he's been longing for?"I'm going to die," he says, perhaps just to have something to say, "but I don't feel bad about it. It's just that I feel... I wish I could have control over my own death."

"You're wondering if I've got any universal truths for you?" he asks, smiling smugly.

"Well... I, uh, yes, I was assuming you'd know these things."

"I'm fourteen. It's just a job. I might know a few things, though," she replies, opening a door to the stairs, starting to walk up, William close behind her, soon panting with the strain.

"Oh. Fourteen? You... You look younger, but you sound a lot older."

"Well, who works at fourteen anyway?" she looks at him expectantly over her shoulder, letting him think as they walk up the stairs.

Thinking to himself, he continues up the concrete staircases, pressed together, tightly and tightly again, narrow ceiling and worn-down steps. He was never much interested in physics or mathematics when he was-...

He was never much interested in physics or mathematics when he was young, but now he wracks his brain, searching for a string of thought to apply to this situation, panting under the strain of his movement. He watches the girl almost float up the stairs and quickly wipes a bit of sweat off his brow.

The younger individual of the pair stops, waiting impatiently for William to catch up before herding him through a door into another maze of corridors. These, however, appear to be populated - mostly by medical equipment, beds and other items, cluttering them up, but also by nurses in pale scrubs, seeming to stand around, surreptitiously awaiting a patient that's strayed from the herd.

As he draws closer, William notices one of the nurses glance up at him from her work of what seems to be sorting syringes. The nurse, a short and plump middle-aged woman with greying hair, looks alarmed and quickly steps out and into their way.

"You're not supposed to be out of your bed, Mr. Jacobson," she tells him sternly, "you know that!"

"I'm not?" he replies, confused "Why am I here?"

"You're... You've suffered severe head trauma," her replies come unsteadily, her gaze flickering towards the other nurses, now moving towards them rapidly.

"Don't listen to her," his black-clad guardian whispers in a low voice, urging him to keep going and ignore the nurses that are apparently trying to help him as though he's some sort of confused mental patient.

He looks at the young Alice, her chestnut hair, dark eyes and robes contrasting with her paler skin and notices a certain reality that the nurses and even the corridors do not possess. Everything somehow oscillates at a speed imperceptible to the eye, or at least imperceptible unless put in contrast with the girl's tranquil shape. William abruptly shifts from a standstill to a run, picking up speed as he moves through the shabby corridors, noticing how the wallpaper is even more worn here, flakes peeling off the walls. Another thing he notices is how solid the nurses are, for beings immaterial, as his two hundred and fifty-pound frame slams into the middle-aged surly nurse and two of her recently arrived male colleagues, scattering them easily.

Breaking into an effortless jog to keep up with William, she lightly jumps over the fallen but quickly recovering nurses. It feels as though they're already far behind the pair as they set off the alarm and a high, clear signal resounds through the building.

Pushing through the door at the very end of the corridor they just entered, William takes a moment to breathe as he watches her lock it behind them. Looking down at his bare feet, now red and a little swollen after running up concrete steps, he sighs for the fourth time today. Who's to say she's her, anyway? She hasn't said anything of the sort, maybe he's just confused. This is just a weird little girl, and he's not going to die at all.

"You know, for not being real, they're very real," he remarks, annoyed with himself and her.

"To you, yes. I think it's all to do with quantifying truth." Alice says, "Nothing's entirely true or entirely false. For example; if you forged photographs of you on a vacation in Switzerland and showed them to all your friends, isn't it truer that you've been to Switzerland, rather than what you think is true, which is the opposite?" she adds in the knowing voice only a child can apply so exquisitely.

Staring at the girl for a while, he sighs and shakes his head, "I really just want a last meal."

She looks at him set off up the stairs, apparently getting a little grumpier by the minute, listening to the footsteps of the nurses in the hallway they just exited, their hands against the doorknob, a breathed word of command from the senior nurse, sending the others back the path they came. She bounds up the stairs after him, hoping she'll get this one right " the other one made such a mess, and the fluorescent lights go out like a candle flame blown out by a mother putting her children to bed, whisking the world away from her.

Cursing loudly, the powerful words bouncing off the hard walls, he trips in the sudden darkness, smashing his knee painfully against the steps. Standing up, ignoring the pain in his knee as he feels his way. Slowly, up the stairs, the sound of the girl following him almost ghastly to his ears. After what seems like a good ten or fifteen minutes of his twenty-something, he reaches a door. Locked.

"I think you're right," he admits, slowly sinking down to sit atop the stairs, the words coming out carrying more emotion as he goes on, "but I don't see how I could die if I just keep sitting here. I mean, I don't even know what I'm doing here, and I-"

"You're going to die because you're not going to sit here. Everything in your life, everything that's ever happened, has led to the next moment in time, and that has led to the next, everything affecting everything until the ripples from the infinite events factoring into your death finally converge in," she pauses, taking a breath.

"Five minutes and twenty seconds," he reports, quietly. Steps beginning to echo up the stairs beneath them, now. Flashlights temporarily casting faint light upwards, illuminating the girl's face, suddenly a lot older.

"Death isn't permanent in the sense that you'll stop being. You know that. At least, this one isn't. It's your chance to be something, something you haven't desired to be," Alice whispers, giving his big hand a squeeze. Perhaps she meant to comfort him, but it leaves his heart cold with the addition of knowledge.

Standing up, a little light-headed, William puts his palms against the cold door, the flashlights and treading of heavy boots getting nearer as he pulls back for a second, nearer, and nearer as his shoulder crashes into the door, unhinging the poorly-crafted door and sending William gasping in pain and clutching his shoulder as he staggers out into the dim light of a cloudy day, looking to the sky.

She turns away from him, shuffling gently across the square rooftop, tiled and surrounded by a hip-high safety wall, all grey. The city in the background, clad in a shroud of mist, a few lights poking through to reach them, and the cloudy sky above shining its wispy light on the rooftop like divine light occluded. All in all, she thinks, this is a good day to die, and to kill.

He turns toward the door as it unlocks and is forcefully flung open, a half-dozen male nurses moving onto the rooftop. Without his consent, his nous takes charge, and in desperation he seeks to cling to life even before he's started to die.

"Please, please " I don't want to die " I'm not ready," he murmurs, words repeating, the Dying Man's Words.

They're too far away to hear him, and maybe if they hadn't been they would have taken it easier. As it is, they rush forward, eager to confront and subdue him. A young man with a Nordic facial structure and of a size matching William, seizes his wrists in a strong grip as they struggle.

They're close to the edge of the roof now, the young, tall man roughly shoving William against the edge after he kicked at another nurse. The caregivers' exclamations are thundering against William but he's in no position to hear them, the sound of this world dulling as he turns towards the Alice the Reaper. She's not fourteen anymore, but ten thousand years old. She's pulled her hood up and her pale, thin hands are tightly grasping her tool of the trade.

"What if death is the end? My fate isn't controlled by previous occurrences, my future my own to shape?" he takes a step back and the back of his rather scant hospital gown brushing against the , eyes drifting towards the hospital personnel.

"I suppose," she says with a fell smile, "that that's for you to know. As far as I'm concerned, I need you to pay my debts."

Ultimately, the scythe reaps wheat, and the truth is that the scythe couldn't care less about the wheat's opinion on the matter.

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