He slowly slipped a twenty pound note under the gap in the door and put his ear to the door. He wasn’t worried about the change, but he wanted to make sure the delivery boy had left. After hearing the fading crunch of feet on snow, he decided to wait five minutes more before he got his food. Just in case. Four latches were pulled back, each one making him feel more and more queasy, exposing him to the world outside, each one making it easier for Him to get in. Closing his eyes, he shot a hand to grab the carrier bags outside his doorstep, and brought them in. A can fell out, but he left it outside. It was lost now. He locked the door, and did the latches. He took the food downstairs, one bag at a time gripping the metal railing tight. He didn’t really mind making the extra trips up and down the stairs, he didn’t want to fall.
He looked inside the bags, making sure everything he wanted was there. Two cans of baked beans. Two cans of sliced fruit. One loaf of bread. He wanted a microwave, but thought better of it. It made food hot. Hot food could burn, scald, kill even (it was possible to him). He didn’t want Him getting any closer. And he was getting closer, by the second.
He liked it this way. Sterile and cold. In the basement he was safe. Sharp corners were covered in cork, the windows were sealed, and there were locks on the doors. There was a single light hanging down, focused on the center of the room. He had his armchair, a small chest of wooden drawers (the edges of which were sanded down), and a television. He didn’t enjoy the television, but sometime it was better than just waiting. He didn’t use glasses to drink. Glass broke. Glass cut. Cuts bled. He used small plastic beakers to drink water. No alcohol, no cigarettes. Those brought Him closer. The house above him he didn’t really care for. It stood, rotting, damp, it’s floorboards swelling and shrinking with every passing winter. But in the basement, he was safe from Him. Safer.
They had wanted to tear this house down for years, the authorities didn’t even know there was a man alive there until they broke down the door to the basement and a demolition worker thumped down the stairs. They needed to take out the foundations of the building first. The site manager came down the stairs and saw him sitting in his chair, rigid with shock. His jaw was shaking. “Please! Not yet!” he managed to croak. He looked like a skeleton. Thin, pale, the hollows of his eye socket drawn back, revealing far too much white than was healthy. The site manager stood, confused. It was as if a corpse was talking to him; this man was already dead. The man in the brown, floral patterned chair, eyes wide, looked at him and questioned “Are you Him?” his voice quivering. Confused, the site manager asked softly “Am I who?” The man’s knees were shaking, banging together making a hollow sound which sent spiders down the site manager’s spine. He managed to whisper “Are you…death?” The site manager shook his head, confused and made for the stairs, slowly, not daring to break eye contact with the living corpse, as if it was the only thing keeping it alive. No one else had come downstairs; no one else disturbed his tomb.
He turned off the television, using the plastic wrapped remote control. On the news: Death had stolen more people.
Slowly opening the chest of drawers, he pulled out a leather bound photo album. On the front “Our Wedding” was embossed in peeling gold letters. He lifted the cover, and flicked through the pictures, sealed in plastic. Smiling people. Happy people. He looked at a man, twenty years ago, who looked like himself, but alive. The man in the photo was smiling, next to his wife. His wife wore a second hand wedding dress, but she somehow made the stains disappear, the dirty white, white. He remembered how they danced at their wedding twenty years ago, and how happy had they had been. Before death had taken her away in their eleventh year of marriage, placed a clammy hand over her nose and stopped her breathing.
He closed the book, and looked at his wrinkled hands. He was sixty three now, old and scared. What if Death came in the night, took him and that was it? Just empty oblivion, dark and silent, completely alone. He wrapped his arms around himself, and tried to fall asleep.
And so, he went on, trying to delay his next loneliness as long as he could.
Until he heard the singing. It was morning, but it was still dark. He thought it was February, but he wasn’t sure. Something had awoken him. He could hear someone. A woman, singing to the same songs they danced to at their wedding. But then he heard something else. The soft crunching of white heels in the snow brought him back to his wedding day, when it had snowed but they danced anyway. He got out of his armchair, slowly, and put on the warm brown slippers. He shuffled to the window, and put an ear to it. He didn’t want to peel away at the black paint he’d applied to it. It was definitely his wife’s voice. Singing that same song. It was beautifully eerie hearing it, through the sound of falling snow.
He didn’t dare look. It was a trick, he thought. Death was trying to lure him out of his safe basement. Death would lure him and take him, using the sweet voice of his dead wife. Death would swallow him whole, and engulf him in searing cold that his bones had never known, a numbness he didn’t want to feel.
So he stayed inside. Waiting.
Eventually, as daylight came the singing faded away. He sat in his arm chair, his brain frozen with fright. He tried to convince himself that he had evaded, he had not been tricked. He thought about it again and again, splinters of uncertainty drawing up painful possibilities to the surface of his thought. What if it was it was his wife, he thought, trying to force it out of his mind. That night he did not sleep.
But the next morning he heard it again. He shuffled to the window again, quicker, desperate to hear that voice again. Desperate to know whether it was death, or his wife he wrestled with the idea of looking out to check. He did not want to open the door, what if death was fast and ran in? He did not want to open the windows, incase death had wings and flew in. He couldn’t even peer through them, they were blacked out. After a while he decided that he would look, he needed to know. He had to know. He scratched at the black paint on one of the panes with a long, but blunt fingernail, letting him see outside. Paint got caught between his fingernail and his skin, but he did not care. He pressed a bloodshot eye to the window. And there she was. His wife, dancing and singing to that same song, waiting for him to come and join her. But he was scared.
So once again, he stayed inside. Waiting.
That night the splinters of uncertainty in his mind turned to shards of glass. He knew he would turn mad if he did not find out. He needed to know. The next morning he would find out.
When he heard the singing for the last time, it was dark again, but it was still snowing, and everything outside had a white glow shining off of it. As he unlocked the latches, he felt different. Faint, almost as if he were stepping out into another world. He pulled open the door, and white snow fell onto his slippers. It was cold, but he did not seem to mind. He could only see her. He walked towards her, his slippers wet, his feet cold.
Everything was illuminated with a white glow, everything was beautiful. It was like time had stopped, and the only two things he could hear were his wife singing and the crunch of his feet on the snow. He felt the brown coat he was wearing, melt into the black tuxedo he had worn on his wedding night, the wrinkles on his face pulling back into an ageless state, where he could almost smile again.
His wife extended her hand, and as he took it he realised he was looking into the smiling face of death, not frightening, but beautiful, timeless: his wife’s. Her hand was neither hot or cold to the touch, but empty and complete at the same time. This was death.
As they began their dance of eternity he didn’t even see the dead body of the old man he had left below in his previous tomb, and for the first time in a long time he smiled.