The Accidental Immortal
The room was bright.
They flipped a switch and the sudden throe of light made my eyes burn. Clasping my hands over my face, I squeezed them shut. Then, I rubbed my eyes, slowly blinking, less worried that they should burn from their own sockets. Glancing feebly around the room things grew into focus.
I was in a white room with no windows. Only walls and a door. Nothing else. It was quite empty.
On the left there was a steel door. I was unsure if it was locked, but the monstrous bolt covering the jamb aroused my suspicions. My eyes crawled up to a very high ceiling, and I noticed in its far corner a speaker and a camera.
I didn’t remember much from before I woke up there.
I remembered that they arrived at my front door. I opened it. I saw their faces. And then… nothing. They must have knocked me out. And suddenly, there I sat in a very large, empty room.
Peeking back at the camera, I knew they were watching…
As if the silence were suddenly sliced in half by a cleaver, a sharp voice belted over the PA, lambasting through the noise of thick static.
“State your name.”
“Maddie,” I answered.
“Your real name,” it clarified.
“That is my real name,” I lied.
“Short for Madelyn?”
“State your surname.”
“West. Maddie West.”
Again – silence.
“Is that your real age?” argued the voice.
“25?” I reasoned.
“Estimate your real age, please…”
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “I lost count. It’s somewhere in the thousands. Say eight or ten. Calendars have changed over the years. I’ve lost track.”
“We know what you are, Madelyn West” said the voice, crackling with static.
“Do you?” I asked, unimpressed. “Everyone thinks they know what I am, but they’re usually wrong. I’ve been hunted as a vampire. Burned as a witch. Slain as a demon.” I paused, shaking my head. I wasn’t quite certain as to why I admitted such things to a strange, faceless voice. Perhaps I could no longer see the harm in it. On that reason alone, I continued, “Once I was accused of being a succubus. And some have called me a devil, a wraith, a banshee… you name it. I’ve died more than 800 times in my life.”
“You are immortal.”
With a loud pop, the static broke as the speaker fell silent. Then – nothing. Just silence. At the very least, four or five minutes passed without so much as a sound. Eventually, the handle on the steel door turned as thick pieces of metal slipped clumsily from the mouth of the bolt across the jamb. As the door opened, a man entered the room, carrying a notepad and an audio recorder. Behind him were two other men carrying chairs and a table. The men set down their items, moving them into place, and then exited the room.
The man with the recorder stayed.
He was dressed very nicely. Sophisticated, really. He wore a button-down shirt and a well-tailored suit jacket. The man had a thick head of dark hair and thick-rimmed glasses, just the kind of glasses any man carrying a notepad and recorder might be expected to wear.
He motioned for me to join him.
“I would like more information,” he said in a cool, deep voice.
“No,” I snapped – albeit I did sit down in the chair.
“You’re a living fossil. You haven’t aged. If you don’t cooperate with me then we might have to turn you over. And who knows what the government would do with you?”
“So you’re not with the government?” I asked.
“No, we’re a private group.”
I sighed. “Withholding information? Very well. I’ll try to believe you, sir. But I have rights,” I reminded him. “It doesn’t matter how old I am. Things have changed. They don’t burn witches anymore.”
“Don’t they?” he asked quietly. Then he added, “Maddie, just what are you trying to cover up?”
I hesitated to answer.
“Look – I’ll make you a deal,” he reasoned. “Give us more information and we’ll let you go.”
“You’ll let me go?”
“We’ll give you… an escape, yes,” he nodded.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Then, I sat tall in my chair and added, “I don’t understand what information you want from me. I can hardly remember my age or name. I don’t know where to start.”
“Just start at the beginning,” the man prompted.
He pressed “record” on his machine, then pulled a ballpoint from the breast pocket of his suit jacket. Gently applying the pen’s tip to the surface of his notepad, the man peered at me over the thick rims of his glasses.
I hesitated once again, then decided to oblige his request…
“I started off as a cave dweller. Tasting plants, breaking things with my teeth. Traveling to and from places, avoiding the cold winds, searching for a warm shelter with my clan. So much time had passed – I watched children become men and men become dust. I watched it happen again and again, until generations of clansfolk were buried beneath my feet. ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I thought. ‘Why do I still live?’ I couldn’t find an answer. The ice came. So many died. I didn’t. So much time had passed – it was nearly inconceivable. Eventually things around me grew a bit more complicated and a bit less primitive. After some time, when men no longer needed caves, but lived in larger structures built from polygonal stones – that was when I was forced into slavery. That was my existence for such a long time – but it was not my destiny. Oh no. I went from being a slave to ruling kingdoms. Throughout the centuries I’ve saved and destroyed empires. I’ve delivered and doomed men. Animal, slave, queen, wretch, drunk, noble, tycoon, and bum. I was all those things. I was rich. And I was a homeless nobody. I climbed my way back up to the top again and again – only to be plunged back down into mediocrity by someone else who wanted to be king of the crap pile.” Stopping a moment to paraphrase my words, I grinned devilishly and added, “I’ve sat on everything – from thrones to dog shit.”
“And now?” asked the man.
“And now I work in a store in downtown New York.”
“And what about your life as it is?”
“My life? It’s chaotic. I wake up in the middle of the night and remember fragments of things and then – poof! They become a blur. It never ends. Once I think that I’ve become wise enough to get by, something else comes along and smacks me right back down to sheer stupidity. So far the only wisdom I’ve gained is the jaded realization that this world is the same greedy, do-or-die place it has always been. An ever-changing environment wrapped around the same, old stagnant bullshit. That’s all I’ve learned. I used to chew raw meat until I learned to cook with fire and sticks. I used to drink from a river. And now? Now I sip lattes and chew gum…”
“Keep talking,” the man encouraged, pushing his recorder across the table, easing it closer to my seat.
“You’ll let me go if I continue?” I asked.
“Yes,” he promised.
I sighed, “Very well. But it’s not going to be what you want to hear. It’s not going to be a historical account. What are accuracies? Not human, that’s what. You want accuracy? Get a machine. You want embellishment? Talk to people.” I paused, clearing my throat. “When I think of the people I’ve killed or the atrocities that I’ve rolled into motion – I don’t remember dates or names. I can’t describe exact faces or locations.”
“We’ll look past your foggy memory, then. Keep talking.”
Nodding, I continued. “Well then, what else to tell? Well, because I had so much time to live, I realized I could slow down. I could stop and look at all the details. I was not in a hurry to experience everything. I knew I’d eventually experience it all. And, yes, I admit I slept my way to the top in some circumstances. I knew how to blackmail, and I blackmailed quite well. Those who attempted to kill me usually fell victim to it. And imagine their surprise when I did not die.”
Reflecting a moment, I furrowed my brow, thinking over certain aspects of my past. “Some people were cruel. But some were not. I surveyed the more corrupt bloodlines, making certain they didn’t trickle down into the present. I assassinated some of them. Killed them in their sleep, I did. Betrayed them. Abandoned them in desolate places. You name it. Unfortunately… one person cannot eradicate them all. Corruption still exists.”
“So is that all you were? A vigilante of historical figures?”
“No,” I shook my head. “But it was a good way to pass a century. During other lengthy spans of time it was I who rose to high status. I was a princess, in fact. That was my grandest rise to power. Of course, when you’re that successful and famous, you have to die young and disappear. Otherwise there would have been too many questions.”
“How did you ascend to that kind of status?”
“Through blackmail, as I’ve explained earlier. I was a slave in the palace, but my mistress tried to kill me. Though she was not of royal blood, she had great power in the kingdom. When her attempt at murder failed – I confessed to her that I knew of her love affair with Ptolemy, our king – he was the outsider who made himself ruler of Egypt. Mistress then promised me the status I desired. No longer was I her slave, but she took me on as her “daughter.” She introduced me to the Pharaoh as his illegitimate heir. Ptolemy then felt obliged to take me on as his own. He presented me to the kingdom as the royal, legitimate, heir – insisting to his people that his Queen was my mother. The Queen, understandably, did not want me in the picture, and this caused many problems for me. She knew that I was not hers and she threatened me on multiple occasions. Ergo, the cause of her sudden death may or may not have been my doing. The Queen’s name suddenly disappeared from historical papyri and they never could figure out why.” Licking my lips nervously, I admitted, “I refuse to incriminate myself mainly out of cowardice. It’s true. There is cowardice I feel – even now – thousands of years later. Perhaps some of the Egyptians’ spiritual claptrap rubbed off on me. I still feel their eyes watching me. Through the heavens, they can see my unending life – they wait to judge me. To rip me apart.”
“And what of your mistress?”
“That woman. She was forced into exile by the Queen. I imagine a caravan picked her up as a slave, and eventually she was put to work in the city. Whether her work involved a stone slab or a street corner – I can’t be sure.”
“Those were very grand moments in your life,” the man observed. “Tell me about the lesser moments…” He scribbled feverishly at his notepad, catching up with the tail-end of my story.
Nodding, I raised a hand to indicate he settle his questions. I planned to get to those lesser moments. And so I continued, “My life wasn’t always grand, nor full of revenge and power. Sometimes it became tiring. Sometimes I was disenchanted with the exhaustion of pressing onward. I just wanted to disappear. After my grand times in the desert as princess, I disappeared. I looked for new lands, dropping completely off the grid. At times I was homeless and regarded as low class, but the times around me kept changing. Thus, I lived from handout to handout. Being homeless in ancient times meant that I would have been killed, enslaved, or put to work in a whorehouse. All three attempts were made on my life during that time. But I went on, scraping by and moving up in the world. All too often my energy ran short and I hit rock-bottom more swiftly than the time before. I birthed many children and sometimes raised them, other times killed them, burying them in the snow, leaving them for dead in alleyways. It’s reprehensible, I know. You had to be there to understand the times. I’ve lived through so many variations of “good” and “bad”. After awhile, I became desensitized. It was hard to care after so much time and so many children. They eventually became numbers. Numbers of babies, left screaming in the background as I walked away – never to look upon them again. But don’t misjudge me. Some were more fortunate than others. Some were loved and cared for.”
The man’s face dropped as he stuttered, “You – you killed your children?”
“I agree. That is reprehensible.”
“It doesn’t shock me that you would say that. In this present day you have options. I don’t believe you could fathom the limits shoved upon mothers in the distant past. But, on a happier note, as time moved forward – I did too. I evolved. Eventually, I left my children with those religious types, the ones with so much warmth in their hearts – they took in babies right off the street. I selflessly abandoned them on the doorsteps of churches, hoping they’d be looked after.”
The man stared into me, his thick glasses teetering at the edge of his nose. All the while he scribbled hard onto his notepad, restraining the judgment behind his eyes.
I blinked away the whisper of a tear, just a touch of moisture stinging hard against my eyes. “It’s not easy to watch so much history die behind you…”
“And how did you end up here?” he asked, still scribbling, keeping one eye on the recorder, should it run out of tape.
“I came to the United States during the 70′s, around the time women became more and more independent. It was a new trend. I was a foreigner, of course, so that made things a little more difficult. My accent is still apparent, but muddled. I’ve lived in so many different places at great lengths of time that I have picked up literally thousands of accents, dialects, languages – you name it. You’d be surprised how different foreigners speak from region to region. They are all countrymen, of course. They are all brothers and sisters of one another. Yet the trends their tongues choose to follow change with ease.”
The man’s recorder made a sudden noise as the button popped up. It finally ran out of tape. I eyed the man as he haphazardly searched for more cassettes, thinking he must have carried a few in with him – which he clearly had not.
Disheartened, the man abandoned his search with a brisk shake of his head.
“I’m afraid we’ll have to finish up later,” he apologized.
“No. I do not want to finish up later. I want to go,” I demanded.
The man paused a moment and then looked into my eyes. As young as I appeared, he saw just how tired and worn they had become. My eyes weren’t “old” but they were the eyes of The Old, – it was an indescribable age. They looked like bottomless pits, stretching on forever into the eternity of the past. As he stared at me, I knew he finally understood.
The mysterious man with the thick rimmed glasses, dark head of hair, and sophisticated clothing took notice of my pain. He saw that I was tired. He saw that I was done with this life.
And so… he offered up a suggestion.
“When I mentioned that I could let you go, or rather offer you an escape, it occurred to me that you might be interested in a more permanent escape.”
We stared at one another for a moment. Then it hit me as I pondered his vague insinuation.
“Death?” I asked.
Death was someone I never thought about. Death was, in all truth, strange to me. I saw Him all around me, everyday, but Death, Himself, passed through me like a breeze. Because of this, I believed that I was no longer human. My estrangement from Death, warped into my estrangement from Life. I had no humanity left inside of me. All too often I felt like an empty shell. Death may not have killed me, but He cheated me from living. I went to sleep every night, for thousands of years, feeling forgotten and forever old in a young body. Without his threat looming behind each year of dreadful life, I felt a little less connected to the world. Death would have been my anchor, but instead He left me floating about, like a forgotten balloon.
Because of my shattered relationship with Death, I was not only incomplete, but in agony. His absence slowed my aging and greatly improved my healing, but Death’s nonappearance did not relieve me of physical pain. When I was strapped down and tortured, I still felt every moment of it. Death robbed me of my mortality, yet He left me with every nerve to feel every moment of pain.
“You ask for Death by name, do you not?” asked the man.
“Yes,” I answered immediately.
“We have captured Him too. We found Him one day, weeping in a place that one would not expect to see Death weep. He explained it to us, however. He wept over the passing of a young girl, as He was the one who took her life. Much to His sadness that was not something Death had planned to do.”
Then the man looked at me with dark amusement and continued, “Death has managed to pull this stunt repeatedly throughout history. In the process of doing so, He has avoided you each time it was your time. You say that you lived off the grid – you have no idea to what extent Death forgot your place in this world.”
“Just as I have forgotten it,” I muttered.
“We have Him and we will be questioning Him later on other things. But, for now, we can bring Death to you…”
Nodding, “Yes,” I whispered.
The man stood and walked toward the steel door. As he opened it, I saw the two other men from earlier. They stood with a dark figure looming over them. The figure was taller than the rest, and its head hung low. They brought Him in slowly and then exited the room, shutting the steel door from behind.
Death’s head remained low, and He didn’t look at me. He seemed lost within Himself.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
Death lifted His head and peered at me with a pitch, empty affect. His hesitation indicated that he did not recognize my face. I can’t explain why – but I was hurt.
“Who are you?” He asked. And those very words cut through me.
“I don’t rightfully remember, thanks to you. And you, too, have forgotten me? You’re insufferable. I hate you.”
Death sat motionless. His face was dark and his features were altogether featureless – vacant. But I detected He was speechless and humiliated. Having forgotten all about a ten thousand year old human must have resonated with him in some disagreeable way.
Then Death finally spoke.
“You should have died in the Freeze. The ice killed so many. You were supposed to die. I remember it now. I detect your scent and I recognize it. It is so old and so faint. Such distinction took me a moment. I am truly sorry.”
“Where were you when I needed you?” I asked, shaking my head like a disappointed devotee.
“I do not want to speak of it. You can blame the Devil for your unnaturally long life.”
And Death grew angry for a moment, but only a brief moment, as I could have sworn I saw a flash of red erupt from the dark chasm of his shadowy face. And then He grew calm.
“I will help you, Kas’ai,” said Death.
My teeth clenched and my heart jumped.
I had forgotten my name.
Tears welled in my eyes, and my throat knotted with disbelief. I never thought it would return to me – my identity. My personhood. My mortality.
Death reached out for me. He motioned for an embrace. I wiped the tears from my cheeks and extended my hands. Then Death pulled me into his darkness, wrapping me in a cold, heavy squeeze. A flush of tension drained from me, passing off into the distance where a small light grew dimmer and dimmer…
I smiled one last time as I remembered my name.
Trista DiGiuseppi is the author of the dark scifi fantasy Nails Jane, now available for paperback and kindle.