Death waited at the bedside of the woman in the hospital. She had a constant flurry of attendants, but their numbers dwindled as her fate became clear. She was feverish and still, each breath slow and labored. She was dying.
They'd taken her newborn child from her, and every so often she'd whisper his name: "Marvin." Her husband would take her hand and press his lips against it when she whispered their baby's name, and he'd murmur, "Shh, he'll be fine, he looks healthy and strong."
He did look healthy, and Death had passed him by. He was his mother's sixth child--she had gone through six deliveries without a problem, but she was nearly fifty now. They hadn't meant to have another child--Marvin would be the youngest of thirteen, some of whom were his half-siblings and step-siblings. Some of the older children had started to visit their mother (or stepmother) in the white-walled room, suddenly aware that she might not get better.
Death knew she wouldn't. The ghost was never fully in one place--always lingering like a million shadows in scattered places around the world--but this woman was calling Death's name. Her family looked alarmed, but the ghost listened and heard something else.
"Death," she whispered. She knew she was dying--she had known for some time--and she was no longer afraid for herself, but she worried about little Marvin. There was no money to spare. As time ticked by in the hospital room, she could feel her family's savings going up in smoke, and she knew all of the older siblings had educations to finance or finish paying for, and her husband had lost his job. Her life insurance would buy them just a little bit of time...just a little bit.
So she whispered, her breath getting fainter and fainter, "Be his godfather."
Death had never heard such a request before. No mother had ever asked for Death to take a part in her child's life.
Suddenly Death was visible before her, and she gave a little gasp. Her husband buried his face against her hand, and her family members moved in, but she paid them no attention--her eyes were fixed on Death, who waited by the foot of her bed, and nodded. She smiled, too weak to say thanks, and then looked at her family one last time before closing her eyes.
Marvin was at the top of the playground. "I climbed Mount Everest!" he shouted.
Nina shook her head and started to climb up after him. "No, stupid, it's a castle." She scrambled up and stood beside him, her hands on her hips. She was an inch taller, and very proud of it. "I'm the princess, and you have to ask nicely before climbing my castle. See, this is the pointy tower," she gestured.
"Everything has to be about princesses," Marvin whined. "They're so boring and stupid."
"They are not!" Nina pretended to shoot him with a bow-and-arrow.
Marvin pretended to take the hit and slid down the curvy slide like a dead body. He could hear Nina laughing up above him, and then she scooted down the slide, too, crashing into him at the bottom.
That's when he saw Death lurking by an old man down the street. He got a very odd feeling in his stomach.
He turned to Nina and whispered, "Can you see that? That's Death, my godfather."
Nina looked at the old man doubtfully. "That old man?"
"No, it's..." Marvin never found a good way to explain what Death looked like. A shadow? But no, not exactly. And no one else, it seemed, could ever see the ghost. It creeped his siblings out when he talked about Death, and he never talked about it with his father, who would just start crying. They all thought he was making it up...until the presents started showing up. Then they'd gotten really quiet whenever Marvin talked about his godfather, as if they almost believed it.
"Never mind," he told Nina.
She gave him a look and was about to say something, when all of the sudden somebody yelled. The two kids looked over and saw the old man sprawled on the ground--but only Marvin saw Death waiting at the man's feet.
Someone called an ambulance. Nina's nanny came over to take her home, and Marvin's older brother decided they should go home, too. As Nina was leaving the park, her nanny tugging at her hand, she turned and looked at Marvin. "How did you know?"
He didn't have a chance to explain before her nanny pulled her away, but he looked back at where Death was fading out of sight. So the old man was gone. This was the first time Marvin had seen Death in action; otherwise, he'd only seen his godfather when the ghost came to visit on Marvin's birthday. Marvin offered his godfather a small smile and got the usual solemn nod in return.
Marvin had just graduated from medical school when his godfather came to see him. It was his birthday.
"Hello, Death," Marvin said, as always.
Death nodded. "I've brought you a final present. After this, I will do no more for you--you are a man grown, and do not need a godfather."
"Or a father." Marvin couldn't keep the edge out of his voice. His father had passed away four months shy of seeing his youngest son become an M.D.
Death grew quiet and reached out to touch Marvin's face. Marvin fought an instinct to pull back--but no, this was his godfather, after all. He was safe.
Death whispered, "They call me the great equalizer. No one lives forever." The ghost let the words hang in the air. "Now I am going to give you a great gift. You doctors like to try to cheat me, even though we know how this game will end, as it must end." Death handed Marvin a bouquet.
Marvin took it awkwardly. He looked at it; it looked normal. He smelled it, too; it smelled normal. Flowers. "Uh, thank you."
He could never see Death's face, but he knew the ghost was smiling. "Here is another tool beyond your medical training. Study this bouquet. Know how it is made--how many of each flower, their colors, how many petals, how many leaves, the arrangement. The flowers will wilt and die, of course, but if you can reconstruct this bouquet, you may save a life...for a little while, and only if I am standing by the head of the dying, not by the feet." Death leaned in, and Marvin felt a breeze on his face, though they were indoors. "Do not let the dying smell the flowers if I am at their feet. I cannot be cheated forever."
Marvin looked at the bouquet in his hands with a tight feeling in his chest. "Thank you," he told his godfather. "Thank you!"
Marvin was a wildly successful doctor who brought bouquets to every cancer patient he treated. He ordered the flowers in bulk. When his godfather hovered by the head of a patient, Marvin offered them the lifesaving bouquet, which would heal them back from the brink of death as the flowers wilted and died. Marvin heeded his godfather's warning, however, and gave different bouquets to those whose feet were haunted by Death. There were, of course, a few patients that Death left well alone, and Marvin gave them the ordinary bouquets as well. Marvin figured it was good to have a few of those patients around, because otherwise some journalist or researcher looking into the high remission rates at Marvin's practice might start noticing a strange pattern with the bouquets.
One afternoon, he got a call from his receptionist letting him know that there was someone special to see him. Marvin walked into the waiting room and saw Nina standing around. He froze, heart pounding, but then he realized Death was not at her heels...nor even at her head. He broke into a smile.
Her smile was weaker, and that told him she was here on behalf of a cancer-stricken patient. "Marvin." Her voice was still warm, however, and they shook hands. He hadn't seen her in a few years--they had dated awkwardly in high school, but it really hadn't worked out, and now she spent most of her time in Washington, D.C. She was a politician, just like her father.
And it was her father who had cancer. "But you're the best in the country, some say," she told Marvin, her smile getting stronger. "And I trust you." She looked around the waiting room, and then whispered, "And I still don't know how you knew. When we were kids, in the park that day." It had been the first time either of them had seen someone die. Marvin had never tried to explain his godfather to Nina after that, but somehow, even though she didn't know about any of the presents, Nina was just like his siblings with her half-belief.
Marvin didn't respond to the whisper, but he only said, "I'll do my best, but I can't promise any miracles, Nina." He looked to her eyes. She had to know that he couldn't save her father, not if Death waited at his feet.
She nodded, solemn again. "I know."
When Marvin saw Nina's father, he felt something in his heart give out. Death waited, coiled like a snake, at the man's feet.
Nina was watching Marvin, not her father, and she saw something in his face. "Marvin? What's wrong?"
He looked at her and wished he hadn't. He looked back at the dying man.
"We'll start treatment tomorrow, if you can manage to come down to my practice."
Late that night, Marvin stared at the crates of flowers. He had made special bouquets for two patients. He made the not-so-special ones for four patients, three of whom were going to die soon.
He thought about Nina's father and Death's quiet waiting. He thought about Nina, how happy he was to see her again once he knew she wasn't about to die. He thought about her smile, and the look in her eyes when she knew that he had seen something. She already half-believed he knew if her father was going to die from this.
Marvin started counting leaves on a rose stem. Death was his godfather, after all.
Marvin leaned over to let Nina's father smell the bouquet.
"Mmm, smells good," the old man wheezed. He gave Marvin a crooked grin. "Is this some kind of stop-and-smell-the-roses aromatherapy you've got me on?"
"We've all got to remember to smell 'em from time to time." Marvin smiled back, but he didn't feel as cheerful as he sounded. Death was slowly uncoiling and rising up like a storm.
Marvin waited for his godfather to do something, but the ghost just shimmered in the air, simmering with rage. The old man coughed, and Marvin cleared his throat and said, "I'll be back shortly. The nurse will get you started for today."
Marvin left the room and felt Death follow--but neither at his head nor at his heels, simply behind him in a dark menace. Marvin had a small office that he used when he needed a break, so he went in there with Death.
He shut the door and turned to face his godfather's wrath.
Death's hand moved to feel Marvin's face, and this time Marvin flinched. Then Death slapped him. "You have disobeyed me. This time, and only this time, will I pardon you, because you are my godson, and all men have weaknesses." The ghost leaned in, and Marvin was suddenly very cold. "If you disobey me again and save someone marked for Death, I will take you to your grave instead."
Death vanished, and Marvin was left with his cheek still stinging despite the icy chill in the room. Marvin went to a mirror to see if Death's hand had left a mark--it hadn't, but it felt as though it should.
It was a few years later that Marvin asked Nina to marry him. She accepted. They had to extend their engagement, however, because of an influenza epidemic--the federal government had issued advisories against large gatherings, and Marvin was seeing Death everywhere these days.
Then Nina got sick. Marvin tended to her with feverish devotion, even neglecting his cancer patients (or seeming to; he still made bouquets for them, and the rest of his team could take care of everything else that mattered). He stayed at her bedside, never leaving in case Death made an appearance; Death did not wait long before taking the flu victims, unlike Marvin's cancer patients. A fever might rage for a few days--the patient may even start to feel better--and then Death would appear, and the patient would die within mere hours. Marvin would be here for Nina, with a bouquet ready.
Death appeared for Nina like a tendril of smoke, curling into being at the foot of her bed. Marvin felt a strange and heavy feeling in his stomach as he watched his godfather materialize. So much for a wedding present from his godfather. He had to ask, "Why her? Why her feet? Why now?"
Death's inscrutable face betrayed no more emotion than its voice. "No one lives forever."
"I know." Marvin looked at Nina, who was lost in a fever dream, her body jerking slightly while her eyes rolled behind her eyelids. She wouldn't live forever, and neither would he. It was only a question of who would live longer.
Suddenly Nina's eyes flew open, and she looked at Marvin, confused for a moment. Then she saw the figure at the foot of the bed--Marvin was sure she saw Death, from her eyes which grew wide--and she whispered, "Your godfather? Remember? From that day in the park?" She giggled at first, and then she started laughing hysterically, each breath a weak little gasp.
Marvin brushed her head with his hand and murmured to her, calming her down and easing her back to sleep. She looked at him one last time with a smile before closing her eyes. He slipped the bouquet under her nose, and let her breathe in its scent.
Death spoke. "You know what this means."
Marvin looked up. "I do." He kissed Nina's cheek lightly, one last time. He turned to face Death.
Death nodded, and then reached for him. Death's phantom hands enveloped Marvin in a hug that felt strangely warm. "Your mother would be proud."
Marvin felt his heartbeat slowing, and he stopped breathing. He watched as Nina breathed--in, and out...