Form 99B

Emily Leverett

     
   

            Charlotte knew it was going to be one of those days when she found the cockroach sitting in the center of her kitchen table.  Four inches of shiny brown nuisance, long black antennae waving, stared at her from the green Formica.  She scowled.

            Slowly Charlotte inched toward the counter where she kept a stack of take-out menus next to the stove. She grabbed the pile, her favorite Chinese menu on top. Thump. The list of lo meins and fried rices, pad thais and tofus, and pizzas and pastas hit its mark.

            She glared at the stack and blew her fashionable-but-too-long bangs out of her eyes. Disgusting things like this were more than she should have to deal with.  When the menus didn't move, she caught the corner of the stack with the white tips of her French manicured fingernails. She yanked them up, sending them fluttering through the air and onto the floor.

            The flattened body didn't ooze or twitch, but Charlotte shuddered and shook out her hands anyway.

            Pop!  The roach was back on its feet, antennae waving.

            And then the damn thing started to talk.

            "Now that ya got that outta yer system, let's have a little sit down," The southern drawl surprised her.  She'd have expected a New York accent, perhaps. "I'm Death, come for a chat with you about a job."

            Charlotte glanced around the room.  She lunged at the sink and grabbed a mug with "You choose when the moment is right!" in bright green slanted script on one side and "Cialis" on the other.  She bit her lip, drew short staccato breaths through her nose and chucked the mug. It bounced twice and then spun in slow circles to the bug's left. A few chips flew off and the handle cracked, but the cheap mug was meant to endure.

            "Ya already crushed me once, honey.  Didn't work."

            Charlotte said nothing.  Too much time in hospitals.  She must have picked up something from some patient, from some drug rep, and now she was seeing talking cockroaches.  She straightened, strode past the table and grabbed her new smart phone from the counter by the back door.

            "You go on and tell those nice folks at 911 that you're hearin' roaches talk."

            Charlotte twitched as she pretended not to hear anything.  She poked the screen.  It remained black.

            Charlotte turned back to face the bug. It stood in the middle of the table looking, if a bug could look anything, smug.

            "Look, little lady, the long and short of it is that I'm Death and I've chosen you as my replacement."

            Charlotte dropped her phone, squared her shoulders, and snatched a steak knife from its slot in the block.  She clutched it by the handle, blade up, point out, just like a psycho prom queen in a B movie.

            "Givin' it another go are ya?"

            Charlotte drove the knifepoint through the roach hard enough to pierce the Formica tabletop. She let go of the knife and was disappointed when the knife refused to twang or remain upright.  Instead, it toppled over, upending the roach as it fell.  The bug's legs twitched and Charlotte grinned.

            "Atta girl.  Smile like you mean it."  The roach Death wriggled off the blade and righted itself.  "But it's 'bout time you be done with this nonsense.  Grab yourself a cup of coffee and take a seat."

            Charlotte grabbed the Cialis mug from the table and poured herself coffee from the pot she set every night.  Startled by her own obedience, she added, “You're only a hallucination."

            "Bug hallucinations a typical side effect of the drug on your mug?"

            Charlotte frowned.  Maybe this was a dream, and she should just play along.  "So, you're Death."  She looked at her coffee--she always preferred it black--and then forced herself to look the cockroach in what she figured were its eyes.

            "Yup."  The roach Death fluttered its wings, and their thin rattle echoed in the kitchen.  "Any last words, then?"

            Charlotte sipped her coffee.  It tasted like normal coffee, not that she would really know what dream coffee tasted like.  "I'm only twenty-eight?  I'm too young?  I don't want to die?"

            "You'd be amazed at how many folks pick those.  I think, when I go, I'll pick something a bit more poetic.  Perhaps Homer or Virgil.  Melancholy."

            "A talking cockroach who thinks it's Death, with a penchant for classical poets.  Why not?"  Just her luck not to get the good hallucinations.  No happy dancing flowers, no Disneyesque talking animals.  Not even a Chippendales dancer or the cute guy from central claims processing.  No, she got Creepshow with delusions of poetic grandeur.  "Do you like your job, killing people?"  People in psychotherapy got to know their delusions--why should she be any different?

            "Aww, I don't kill folks.  Not really."

            "Sure."  She twisted her mug back and forth on the table.

            "Why all the drug mugs?"  The roach flew to a wooden rack.  A sea-blue mug blazed "FLOWMAX" on one side.  Another purple mug had a sweeping stick figure and "Detrol" on it.  There was a Lipator one, Zetia, and, of course, the ubiquitous blue Viagra.  She hated baby boomers, with their leaking and plugging, their impotence and incontinence, their low energy and their high cholesterol.

            "They're freebies from work."

            "You give people those drugs?  What for?"

            Charlotte raised an eyebrow.  "I thought Death didn't care."

            "Didn't say I did."  He fluttered back to the table.

            "I don't give them drugs.  I just decide if their insurance will pay for them."  She folded her hands in front of her.  "They do lots of different things.  Prolong the suffering, mostly, though that side effect isn't noted in the information packet."

            He nodded as if that answer satisfied some other question. "I want you to be Death.  I'm done."

            "Me?  A claims agent from Bakersfield, California?  Right."  She snorted and sipped her coffee.  Horrid hallucination.  She thought about slamming the mug down on it.  Maybe it was a third time's the charm kind of thing.  "Besides, I don't want to be a cockroach."  She wrinkled her nose and frowned.  "No one wants to be a cockroach."

            "You wouldn't be a cockroach."

            "You're a cockroach."

            "Right, darlin', you're quick. Can't pull a fast one on you, no siree.  But you wouldn't be.  You'd just be you. I wasn't always a roach."

            At his wistful tone, Charlotte sensed an imminent story.  She glanced at the clock. 6:15. Same as when she'd walked in however many minutes ago.  "I don't have time for this."

            "Sure ya do.  We're not takin' any real time.  That's why your phones didn't work.  Think of this conversation as a way of extendin' your life."

            Charlotte rolled her eyes.  "Great." She propped her elbow on the table and rested her chin in her hand.  "Then, by all means, feel free to tell me your story."

            The roach flew full force at her face.  Charlotte screamed, and flailed at the bug, knocking her mug to the beige linoleum and shattering it.  She swatted at the brown blur, its wings whispering death.  Finally the roach resumed its place on her kitchen table.

            Charlotte raised her hand to swat the bug again but froze.  "Disgusting, foul bug!" she spat.  She bunched her hand into a fist and dropped it into her lap.

            "That, sad to say, is all the malice I've got left."  It began to pace back and forth.  "I used to be great.  Mighty and powerful.  You heard of the Valkyrie on the battlefield?  The Black Death?  The serial killer in the shadows?  That was me.  Death on my pale horse, snatching like a thief in the night."

            She forced her fingers through her bangs again, and blew them out of the way when they fell back over her eyes.  "Now you're a snide little irritation that lurks in garbage bins, and belts out clichés."

            "Yep." Its antennae twitched.  "Diminished.  Nothin' more than a nuisance."  He stopped pacing.  "But you," he said and she froze.  "You are the future Death in this nation."  He stretched his wings, iridescent like the slime of decay.  "This is all that's left of my glory."

            "What weapon will I use?"

            "Couldn't tell you, darlin'," his smooth demeanor was back.  "Each Death gets his or her own weapon."

            She saw herself wielding a sword, or maybe, in keeping with the times, some kind of gun or a taser.  Zap! Zap!  Zap zap zap! And Death would be her.

            There was still the roach, though.  She rose to clean up the spilled coffee and hide the eagerness in her face. "Why me?"  She wiped up the cooled coffee with a dishtowel from the sink and put the mug's shards in the trash.

            "Your job."

            She sat again.  "As Death?"

            The roach's laughter filled the room, his voice too human.  "Yes, darlin'." When the mirth left him, he added, "'Cause that sure is what you are, isn't it?  You like what you do now?"

            "Sure, I…" she stopped.  What was there to like about dying people, stinking illness, aged weakness, and endless suffering?  They begged for the pennies a day they'd paid over the years to be returned as more moments of life.  Pathetic.  She was supposed to save people, empathize, understand, care.  "I help families fill out forms."

            "I know."  His antennae flicked back and forth.  "Tell me more."

            "I sit in hospitals and hospice care rooms with the dying and their families and have them sign paperwork."

            "Anything else?"

            There was the refusal of coverage.  Telling people they would suffer because medication, surgery, treatment options weren't covered.  "I tell them 'no.' I tell them they will suffer, and, sometimes, I tell them they will die."

            "And you feel for these people?"

            Charlotte looked past the roach to the counter next to her back door where she'd left her paperwork for the day.  All of the appointments, both in person and by phone, with the claimants.  The top one, her 8:00 meeting, was a man whose insurance would not save him.  "No."

            If a roach could smile, Death smiled at her.  "That's why I picked you, darlin'.  Today, even violent death ends with paperwork."

            "What will happen to you?"

            Death shrugged.  "Paradise?  Eternal flame?  Oblivion?"  Again, he seemed pleased.  "But you mean, in the end, what will happen to you.  'Fraid I can't say."

            "How will I know who to take?"  More paperwork?  More endless files to read and notate?  She quivered with brief nausea.

            "Each Death finds his own way."

            "What, you smell out the dying?"

            He spoke with the cold tone of inevitability.  "Take it or leave it, Charlotte of Insurance Claims."

            Charlotte stared out the window at the world on her street: children frozen at play, parents in unmoving cars with mugs of coffee poised at their lips, elders half-eased onto their stoops.  But she saw no humanity, only figures, numbers, predictions, deductibles, forms, needles of opiates, and death.

            "I'll do it."

            The cockroach still sat in the middle of her kitchen table. "I thought ya might."

            Nothing changed.  No glowing orbs, no flashes of lightening, no sudden appearance of a neatly folded cowl on the table.  Just the roach.  She looked down at her right hand.  The one she used to fill out all those denials.  She slammed her palm down on the roach and gave it a sharp twist for good measure. The meeting of bug and flesh resounded in her ears, and the slimy entrails dampened her palm.  She swore she heard "Atta girl" in the crunch of wings and shell.

            When she drew back her hand there was nothing in her palm but a dead bug.  She wiped her hand on her robe. The oven clock flicked to 6:16. 

            Charlotte showered, dressed in her favorite black suit--though now all the suits in her closet were black--and returned to the kitchen.

            On her kitchen table, where bits of roach corpse still remained, a stack of paperwork now waited.  Standard Cessation From 99B: Claimant Dead.  Each and every one, with the date and time of death to come, just waiting for her signature.

            A black fountain pen gleamed from its place next to the stack of papers.  No ornate filigree, no gold or silver edge.  She took it up and knew what Achilles felt when he drove his spear into Hector, when Lizzy Borden swung her axe into her parents, when Jack the Ripper sliced his scalpel into a whore.

            She unscrewed the cap and, poised over the line marked "Received by," the steel nib shone in the fluorescent light's flicker.  For the first time in her life, Charlotte loved her job.

     
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Emily Leverett is a professor of English at Methodist University where she teaches everything from composition to medieval romance. She has been a fan of speculative fiction since childhood, and her fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Online. She currently lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where she is working on her novels.