My life depends on completing this puzzle, and that's no metaphor.
Death sits opposite me, a delighted smile on his pale face. His grey-green eyes dance with something I'd never have expected to see in them—life. He's thrilled by games, puzzles being his favourite. And as stupid as it sounds, my future survival really does depend on fitting these small cardboard pieces together.
They're shiny on one side, matte and brown on the other. I'm only guessing, but I think the picture is of butterflies It's painted, and quite possibly abstract. It's hard to match the edges together. Especially as there are a thousand pieces. But I'm trying. My god, I'm trying.
There are only hours left.
I was never a puzzle person.
Death's fingers twitch, as if he wants to help me, to give me a hint. But whenever his excitement gets too much, whenever he leans forward slightly as if to reach out a hand, he reins himself in, draws a deep breath—yes, Death is breathing—and achieves inner serenity.
I never would have thought of Death as the serene type. Death is the enemy, Death is something to be feared. That's what we're told. And yet this guy looks kind of nice. Friendly and all that. Warm, even. We think of Death as cold, but this guy's smile is like heated honey.
Quite honestly, Death is kind of cute.
Yeah, start crushing on Death, I think in self-disgust. Brilliant idea! But I'm not distracted by his cuteness for long. My eyes are back on the puzzle. The sweat is on my brow. The seconds are on the clock, but they're ticking away.
Each tick seems to stir the air, raise clouds of dust, rustle the leaves in all the trees. There are trees here—we're sitting in a beautiful lush green garden. It's autumn, and fallen leaves are scattered on the ground. But those still on the branches flutter and rustle in the fresh, cool breeze.
In the midst of this paradise, there is a table, and there is Death.
There's me, and there's the puzzle.
He did give me a hint in the beginning, whether he meant to or not. Most people start at the corners, he said, excitement gleaming in his grey-green eyes. But I like it more random than that. Immediately, I'd started searching for corners.
I've built up two already. I still remember taking that first corner piece and turning it around, laying it down on the table's surface. Such a slow-motion event, as if I were moving through water. As if the planet were slowing on its axis. But the piece landed, and another joined it soon after, hooking into place on its left side. I made quick progress, exhilarating progress, at least until I stalled. Now, looking down at my creation thus far, I just feel pathetic.
That's why I've begun to dwell on Death's cuteness. It's better to dwell on that than to think about my next move.
Then I see it. The next piece. I move it over to the top left-hand corner and click it into place. Death's smile broadens, it's a shiny smile—his teeth gleam, but not in a sinister way; he really is cute, and that black hair is so glossy. Suddenly my fingers itch to reach out and touch it, run through it—
"Is Death really your name?" I ask, startling him.
He looks at me, grey-green eyes wide. A frown mars his forehead and I see that he's confused; he doesn't know what to do.
"What is it?" I ask in my own puzzlement.
He watches me a moment more, then says, "No one has ever asked me a question. After the final game has begun, I mean. You should not ask me questions. You should work on your puzzle."
My eyes jerk down—his gaze is just too much—and I stare at the pieces. Suddenly they all look the same. And are those corners smaller than they were before? Didn't I have more built onto the bottom right? I look at Death accusingly, not having to use words. He sees what I'm thinking.
"Keep your eyes on the puzzle. It's the only way. If you look away from it, anything can happen."
And I look back at it, and more pieces are missing. I bite my lip against a panicked squeal, and against disappointment. Death may be cute, but he's not to be trusted. I wish he could be trusted.
I work at the puzzle, and time ticks away. I fight the temptation to study Death, to look upon his pretty visage, to look into those odd grey-green eyes. Who ever heard of grey-green eyes? Apparently Death did. Don't think about Death! I yell inwardly, where only I can hear. Except Death can hear me too.
"That's right," he murmurs. "Don't think about me. Think about the puzzle."
And I think, and I build, and on the table's surface an image is slowly revealed.
There is a butterfly, there are many butterflies, but there is a great gaping chasm in the centre that still refuses to show itself. More butterflies? Or something else. I want to look Death in the eye, in the face, I want to speak to him. But he's right. I'm right. I have more important worries than Death's cuteness.
The metaphorical clock ticks, the leaves rustle around on the ground, the breeze blows, even if it doesn't touch me. My hair falls still around my face, oblivious to the whims of nature. The sky clouds over and a light rain begins to fall. It doesn't touch the table, or Death, or I. We are encased in some kind of dome. A small dome, but it's enough.
God, I so want to look at you!
"Don't," Death says, his voice like velvet.
I place another piece of the puzzle, and the final tip of a butterfly's wing shows. A red and black wing, very dramatic. And a hint of something else, something from the centre. Something black.
I fixate on the butterflies, and whisper, "They're beautiful." It's best to focus on the beauty. Even if I fail—even if I die—at least I saw beauty at the end. And not just their beauty, but Death's as well. Would it really be so bad if Death took me?
"Focus," Death instructs, and I obey.
The image takes shape, it is revealed bite by bite. Drop by drop. To the left of the central gap, a hummingbird shows itself, its wings a mesmerising blur. Then the entire gap is filled, and the image is revealed. It is Death, and I don't have to look up at the real thing anymore, because I'm staring down at it.
Then I realise something startling. In Death's face, I am reflected. My own features stare back at me.
"What is this?" I whisper, feeling ever so thunderstruck.
"This is the end," Death responds.
The hummingbird's wings are a blur. Death's face is not. Death's face is crystal clear, and beautiful. Focus, I remind myself, and put the hummingbird's tail feathers in place. "He's a cutie," I say. Death does not answer.
Time ticks away, but I still have minutes to spare when I pick up the final piece of the puzzle. I remember what Death said about looking away; about dividing my attention. If I let myself be distracted, puzzle pieces will displace themselves, and I will lose ground. But this is the last piece of the puzzle.
What happens when I place it?
"Will you disappear?" I ask Death, my voice trembling.
How will I ever forget his face if he leaves me? How will I go on with my life, remembering that he was in it?
"For the time being," he says. "But your last minute is counting down. Waste not the time you have."
"I'm going to miss you."
I can't believe I just told Death I'm going to miss him.
But it's hard to forget a pretty face.
"Waste not these forty-nine seconds—finish, or face your fate."
I want to face you, I tell him silently.
If that's what you want, that is what you must choose, he responds.
My hand hovers over the all-but-one-piece-complete puzzle, ready to finish the picture. But I can't decide.
Forty-two seconds. Now forty-one.
The clock ticks, and those ticks are loud. They stir the air around them; raise clouds of dust.
Raise the fine hairs on my arms.
Raise goose bumps.
Face your fate, Death murmurs. Make your choice.
And with mere seconds to go, I do as he says.