Time traced one long finger across her lips as she sat in her clock tower, watching as the three demigods approached her lair. Death led the way, his mouth set in a rigid line. His royal-purple cape blazed behind him, caught up by the breeze of his gait. On Death’s right was Life, whose brow was furrowed, his hands crossed behind his back. Birth, taller, more graceful, followed behind in stride. Her expression was unreadable.
Time thought, with a wry smile, that she’d never seen Death look so mad. She wasn’t afraid of Death’s anger. But she’d never broken a commandment before, never overstepped her domain and crossed into Death’s realm.
And Death was coming for a reckoning.
She took one slow, deliberate step after the other down the spiral staircase to the bottom of her tower, finding that the demigods had invited themselves in and were waiting. Birth nodded politely to Time.
Time strode over to greet them as if she had asked them in. “Please. Have a seat.”
Death’s violet eyes flashed at her. “You.” He blew his breath through his nostrils, making them flare, and, although the force of it couldn’t have made his long white hair stand on end, Time amused herself with the thought that his breath was what raised hell.
“What can I do for you, Death?” Time asked.
“You know damn well what you’ve already done, and it wasn’t for me. It was against me!” He sputtered and stopped, rage damming his tongue.
Time raised an eyebrow, determined not to show that fear was was an ember in her chest, waiting to be stoked. She sat on her leather couch, smoothed her black dress, tucked a copper strand behind her ear, and fixed her eye on a point above his head. “I outrank you.” Her voice raked across her throat, and it came out gravelly, as if talking through smoke.
Death’s eyes became slits, and his hands clawed into fists.
Birth cut in. “Time, we know you outrank all of us.” She looked to Life for agreement. He nodded. “However,” Birth continued, “Death is a little … upset that you didn’t consult him before you—well.”
“Ripped a page from someone’s book?” Time supplied.
Death slammed his fist against Time’s mahogany coffee table. “It wasn’t just a page, Time!” The color of Death’s face almost matched his cloak.
“His ending. I tore out his last page and destroyed it.”
“Death would like an explanation,” Birth said.
“I have none to give.”
“This isn’t just about Death,” Life cut it. “It involves us all.”
“I was not pleased with the ending Death had outlined for him,” Time replied.
“That doesn’t matter!” Death yelled. “Turning back his pages and giving him more time is one thing; completely erasing his death is another. It is against our rules, against everything we are supposed to do.”
A hint of a smile played on Time’s lips. “Well, time changes everything.”
Death’s eyes became hollow, his face expressionless, and the shade of anger fading. “Why, after thousands of years, is this one man to be singled out and made a timeless being?”
Time finally looked straight at Death. “I don’t know.”
“That’s not an answer, Time,” Life said. “I can’t help him write more to his life. There should be nothing else. Only death.”
Time jumped up and though she tried to control her trembling, the hem of her dress gave her away as it shook against her legs in a furious dance. But her voice was measured when she replied, “Then he’ll write his own story, without your help.”
Life’s shoulders dropped as he sighed. “Not if I have no further life to give to him. There are no more pages for him to write on. He will be timeless, but he will also be lifeless.” After a pause, he bowed his head. His sadness fell on Time like a heavy noose, settling around her throat. “What have you done?”
She turned her face away from the demigods. She couldn’t admit why she’d done it. She couldn’t say why she had taken James O’Rourke’s book off her shelf every day of his young life, traced the words as he had written on the pages Life had given him, and peeked at the ending Death had planned for him. All humans were going to die, but the death that had been outlined for him was unwarranted for the life he’d been living.
But any death that would have taken James away from her would have been intolerable. She could not exist when he was no longer writing, no longer living. She was the librarian of the book of lives, the one who could turn back pages and give them more of the time that was in her. But she’d never done this.
Time looked at Birth and wondered if she, too, had ever fallen in love with a human.
Time blinked, aware of what had come to the surface like a long-buried treasure finally come free.
She’d watched humans fall for each other for centuries and had always thought the demigods and gods were immune to it. But the humans—they had this saying that time mended all wounds, all hurts, leaving behind only scars as bittersweet reminders.
Time had no such balm.
Although she was second only to the Superior, she knew she was going to fall from grace because of what she had done. But she would not turn back time and change what she had done. She would still tear out James’s ending—she would still rip the page, crumble it into a tight little ball and throw it into the fire, watching it burn until there were only bits of char that she would scoop into her hand and toss out the window, seeing them catch the breeze and fly into the night like ashy stars.
Birth spoke softly. “Time, what would you like to do about this?”
“Time!” Death burst. “What do you mean, Time? What about me?”
Birth shook her head at him, holding out one hand, staying him for the moment. “Time?”
“I will leave,” Time replied.
Death stopped sputtering. Life sucked in a breath. Birth nodded as if she already knew what Time’s choice would be.
“You would fall from grace for him?” Life asked. His sadness was still wrapped around her, but now, it felt like a blanket on a gray autumn day.
“Death can be pacified because he can have what is his. A death on his hands. Mine.”
“But that doesn’t change his status. James is timeless,” Death protested.
“There is only one thing to do,” Birth said. “James will be Time’s successor.”
“A human, become a demigod?” Death scoffed.
“He wouldn’t be the first,” Birth said, but these words were directed at only Time.
“Is this agreeable to you, Time?” Life asked.
Time gave him a half-second smile, one that disappeared before it truly had formed.
“Death, will this satisfy you?”
Death gave a curt nod.
“Then it is done,” Life said. He looked at Time. “Are you ready?”
“Or do you want,” Death sneered, his eyes sparking, “more time?”
She had tried to keep the fear at bay, but at this moment she lost all of her fight. She had saved James—she had nothing left to save herself. Death would stalk her and there would be no escape. Life’s sorrow-noose would feel light compared to Death’s wrath. It would be heavy, like the weight of being immovable in a dream, and no matter how hard she tried to move her legs she would always find her ankles shackled by Death’s weight.
But she closed her eyes and said, “You can’t stop time.”
And then she held her arms out wide. Birth embraced Time, cradling her like a newborn. Life came and breathed into her, and she felt herself fill with a soul.
And she fell.
James O’Rourke sat on a park bench in the late autumn evening. He felt strange as if death had crept up on him but merely hovered rather than rushing in at full force. He didn’t feel ill; he just felt off balance as if his life were in the hands of a slow-moving clock. He put his head in his palms for a moment. When he uncovered his face, he was startled by the appearance of an old woman standing before him, her body blotting out the sun’s light except for the halo that shone around her head. She smiled, and her wrinkled face became radiant, her eyes glowing warm like sunshine.
“Hello, James,” she said. Her voice didn’t match her age.
“I’m sorry,” James said, standing. “Do I know you?”
She moved closer to him and pulled his head down so her mouth was close to his ear. “You feel like death is near you. And he is.”
If she hadn’t looked like a guardian angel, James would have been scared. As it was, he was calm. Even his breathing and heart rate had slowed to a minimal pace.
The old woman looked over James’s shoulder. He turned but only saw an older man with long white hair watching them from a distance.
“Will you walk with me?” She held out a frail hand. He glanced back at the white-haired man, whose eyes blazed stark purple against the blue autumn background. James grasped the woman’s hand, which was stronger than it looked, like a diamond placed in a fragile gold setting. She led him down a path canopied by branches cloaked in dying leaves. He counted the leaves like a clock counts minutes as they fell rained down over them.
Time sat in his library, caressing the spine of a book Birth had given him. He was sitting in shock, trying to comprehend the death that had been outlined for the woman whose book he held. She had not lived a life that deserved this type of ending. It wasn’t a remarkable life, but it was steady and solid, something that could always be counted on, like the steady tick of hands on a clock.
But her life had always been shadowed by a premonition of the very death Time had just read.
“Why?” Time had asked Birth, holding the book close to his chest, as if by refusing to give it back, he could buy her more time. He could buy her forever.
Birth had placed her hands on his. “This woman was born to die, Time.”
After she left him, he flipped through the pages again until he had memorized every word. He set the book on his mantle and went to his window. Death was sauntering around in his courtyard, unmoved by the ending he had given this woman. Time narrowed his eyes and yanked the book into his hands by its fragile spine. He gripped the last page and pulled. It came out smoothly as if it hadn’t been sewn in properly in the first place. He crumpled it up with a firm fist and threw it into the fire, watching as the flames consumed the words.
After the burning, Time went to his window. Death stood below his tower. Time sprinkled the ashes over Death as if baptizing him with holy water.
Death grinned. “Like clockwork.”
Originally published in Soft Cartel magazine, 2018.