Death and Mr. White: Vernon
Sweat would bead hot on his brow; it would skirt through the deep crevices of his leather face. The ropy veins of his once firm arms would rise and his unused muscles would burn awake, tearing through him as lightening. His eyes would water and burn, but he would not lose the light. When his knees finally buckled and his heart rapped quickly to its halt, he would tear a lasting piece from his accuser; he would not move forward easily and without sound.
The soundlessness and quiet traveled easy with him, but he would not end this way. When he rose again his voice would pierce the veil and his accuser would kneel; he would meet Death as an equal.
Vernon harbored no illusions. Death had come for stronger men. Death would assuredly come for him.
He preferred The Others on their knees. He would grip them and they would tear at the wall and he would pull their faces gently towards him at his moment–theirs always came first–he would whisper to Them “open your eyes” and They would, wildly, and he would gaze into Them, Their faces broken open and Their souls exposed for him, and a piece of him would break away.
Vernon did not kiss The Others. This was before the film that made Barbara uncomfortable; he did not kiss The Others because he did not want to see their longing for more. He was comprised of pieces, and he could not offer them more than this. He did not wish to.
He would not kiss them, but he would hold them after, for a brief moment. When he first began seeing The Others he would shower. He would scrub his golden brown skin until pink shone. Barbara was fascinated with the paleness of his skin, how close to White he might have been had he only avoided sun. He would consider this, her fascination, as he scrubbed the traces of Them from his body; he removed the scent of them from everywhere but his mouth. It was vulgar, he understood. He kept that souvenir cruelly for her, Barbara. She would not kiss him, Barbara, even before. She did not like the way mouths moved against each other, she did not want that caress. She did not want his eyes to meet hers. She did not want him rooted in her soul.
After, he would return home to find Barbara in the kitchen. She was always in the kitchen, fretting. She would meet him at the top of the stairs and her eyes would meet his for a moment before darting away. She would smooth down her apron self-consciously. When the boys came she would gaze at him over their heads in a way that she believed was loving. He would capture her eyes then and he would remember The Others and his breath would catch. Not guiltily, of course. He needed something and he could not remember what, and in the moment that he captured her eyes all thought of that need vanished.
He would move close enough to touch her, Barbara, but he would not. She would not think it proper, and he was uncertain their bodies would still complement. He would be close enough to touch her, to ghost his fingers along her dress, but he would not. He would allow his breath to dance along her neck, and for a moment he would remember and she would remember.
Barbara was poor and dark skinned and unpopular. She was cute enough, but Vernon was handsome. His skin was a light golden brown, his eyes hazel. Barbara sat at the front of the room and to the left, and when he was bored Vernon watched the way the sunlight glinted from her long, pressed hair. She was prim and shy even then, and when he finally spoke to her she would not look at him.
Barbara walked home with her sisters; Vernon drove his car. He drove slowly beside her, yelling out of the window, his friends crying with laughter. Barbara tucked her head down and did not respond to him, only pressed her mouth into a firm line. Vernon sucked his teeth at her and sped off; in his rear view mirror he saw her wipe her cheek.
Vernon heard from her cousin that Barbara’s family hated him. He bristled at this; how could he be hated? He was wealthy. Handsome. He had a future. Barbara was poor and homely. He was better than she. He began to watch her. She held her head at an angle because she was shy, but even then she expressed defiance. There was a fire suppressed within her, and Vernon wanted to root it out. Barbara did not keep her head down because she believed him better than she. She was uncomfortable with their eyes meeting. She did not want to want him more than he wanted her.
Vernon chased Barbara because he could, at first. He could have any girl he wanted; they all wanted him. He wanted Barbara to want him.
She did not. She was studious but she was not brilliant. She was sweet and she did not want to be seen with him. He obliged her and met her in secret. When he had her she made him turn down the lights so that he could barely make her out. Her eyes captured his and held them the entire time. There was still a fire there, just below the surface. He wanted to out it. He would out it.
Barbara’s uncle begged her not to marry him. Vernon was not present for the conversation, and Barbara never shared this. Rather a cousin spilled it over a cocktail and a Persian rug.
“He offered her a car if she said she wouldn’t marry you.” the cousin revealed snidely. Vernon’s vision dimmed then and he swallowed past a deep lump in his throat. He wondered–he should not–how long it took Barbara to turn the uncle’s offer away.
“She thought about it for a week,” the cousin continued. Later, as Barbara slept next to him, her fingers lightly grazing his, he burned.
“Do you love me?” Vernon demanded. Barbara jumped at his sound–he spoke rarely, but authoritatively.
“I do love you, Vernon.” She offered her love as a plea and he accepted it without knowing why. Had she loved him? He was certain she did, but he did not believe she was in love with him. She loved him as one loves a savior–obligatory love. A self-sacrificing love. A love that placed Vernon above and Barbara beneath.
Their years were measured by a dance that both understood, but never at the same time. Vernon began searching for Others as anyone does–because he was bored. He could find Others easily. In his early forties he was still trim and desirable. Barbara desired him as she always had–silently, and in the dark. On her back she would peer up at him and she would bite her lip and he only saw her fully here, she only offered her soul, and only then in pieces, here.
He engaged the attention of Others because he wanted her, Barbara, to feel desperate; he wanted her to consider how lucky she was. It was this luck that drew his attention when he met Death for the first time.
He was engaged in an affair with an Other when he received the call. His father was dead. The body must be identified. He must do it.
It did not occur to Vernon to call Barbara. She would be home, in the kitchen. She would be devastated; she liked his father. She would not weep, though. Her tears would move softly, and she would look to Vernon for direction.
The face presented on the cold steel was indeed Vernon’s father. Vernon shared his father’s nose. It was strange to see his father there, unmoving. His father was a strong ,statuesque man. He exuded life and power; his shadow covered the world entire. Vernon crumbled into himself on the bench outside of the morgue. He felt the presence before he saw it, and when his eyes moved he only met a blur, first.
“He went easy,” the voice offered. The voice was cold and wet, but not unkind. Not kind either.
It simply was.
“What was easy?” Vernon demanded, his voice gravelly and not his own. He blinked firmly, wanting to be strong even before this stranger.
His father was never as clear as the face before him. Vernon started, gasping. The eyes pierced him, deep green with flecks of gold.
“Your father,” the man with his father’s face stated. Vernon’s heart throbbed in his chest.
“You killed my father?” The man did not answer, only stared at Vernon. Vernon’s throat constricted with knowledge.
This was Death. He wondered, faintly, if Death had come for him.
“Not yet,” Death offered Vernon.
“I wasn’t considering it, yet,” Vernon lied. Death nodded knowingly. Vernon ached with the knowledge that his father moved into the next easily. Why did he not fight?
“I’ll fight you,” Vernon stated. “When you come, I’ll fight you.”
Death stared into Vernon. He grazed Vernon lightly as he passed; when Death looked upon Vernon, Vernon felt the weight of himself lifted for a moment.
The moment passed, and Vernon was alone. Vernon wept.
Barbara responded to the news as Vernon knew she would, and he hated her for it. He wanted her to cry, to scream at him. He wanted her to mourn his father, to cry for him, to beg him to stay. Why would she not fight?
She collapsed into herself and he could not reach her.
When she finally asked about The Others, Vernon was unprepared. Barbara poured his coffee as she always did, offered him two cubes of sugar. She folded her apron neatly and sat at the table across from Vernon. Jonathan was still sleeping, and the gray at Barbara’s temples was pinned back. Barbara, as always, seemed self-conscious. From the corner of his eye Vernon saw her playing with her ring. The light glinted from the silver in her hair and he thought her beautiful.
He wondered if he should tell her. He had not said the words aloud before, and he wanted to, desperately, but they solidified like cement on his tongue. He swallowed his coffee without tasting it and he heard her words, whispered into her lap.
“How many women have you gone to bed with since we married? Vern? How many?” Startled he dropped the cup. His ears burned and he rose from the table angrily.
He had wanted her to ask all the while. He wanted her to notice. He wanted her to lash out, to feel, to defy him.
Instead she mumbled the words into her lap.
“Shut the hell up,” he shouted. He didn’t know those were the words he would cast at her, but they were out and he did not want to reclaim them. Her eyes darted up and met his then, and he saw her fully. She was proud but still fragile; in her eyes he saw the poor girl from the other side of the tracks. The fire that once was was dim, but it was not out.
Barbara did not leave him then. Even when The Other called at dinner she did not leave. Her eyes met his again, and he saw the light again dim, but it did not fade.
Barbara left quietly. She packed her things and moved to the room across the hall. A thousand times he called her back, he responded to her shouts in the dark.
But she did not shout, and his lips did not move.
Their years passed slowly and without sound; days crashed into each other, and Vernon found himself missing time. He forgot her birthday, first. Then their vacation.
Then the girl. Not one of his. Jon’s. He’d forgotten that she was supposed to be hidden. He asked about her, would have sworn that she was ten; just the day before he’d told Cheryl to keep her.
“She’s a blessing,” he revealed, his voice shaking. He did not see the blessing for many years, and they pretended the blessing did not exist.
But then he forgot. “Where is Jherine? Is she coming?” Barbara’s eyes narrowed and heat flared from them.
“She’s gone,” Barbara’s mouth formed the words and they dripped like venom. The fire that he had long desired whipped forth and burned him; Vernon recoiled.
“Where?” Vernon asked. He could remember, vaguely, something about her, the child.
“Just gone,” Barbara stated.
When next Vernon saw Barbara the heat was present again. Jon’s mouth was moving, but Vernon could not quite make out the words.
Barbara’s fire had made it to the surface. She would not accept this.
She would die if she did not, but the fire could not be contained. There was something that he wanted to tell her, he was sure, but he could not remember the words.
Vernon thought Death would come for him first. But it swept Barbara softly, and the fire in her dimmed and then outed.
Vernon remembered. “You are beautiful,” he wanted to say. He searched for her but he could not find her.
“Jon,” Vernon gripped the boy close to him. “Tell your mother she’s beautiful.”
Jon swallowed. “She’s gone, Dad,” Jon sighed.
“When she gets back. Just tell her.”
“Alright. I’ll tell her.”
Death came while Vernon was sleeping. He could feel the presence looming over him. When his eyes opened he saw Barbara. She gazed at him fully, her eyes dancing. He wondered. . .
“Did you know that I thought you were beautiful?” He begged. She nodded, silent. He wondered, with his leathery skin and his weakened arms what she thought of him. If she still thought him handsome. If she loved him.
For a moment he considered fighting. But Barbara was here, staring into him. She allowed him to see her, in the light.
“I–” he wanted to offer her an apology, to give her the last piece of himself, but she shook her head.
She held out her hand for him to take, and he did. He gasped at the familiarity.
“I said that I would fight,” Vernon stated. Death nodded.
Vernon leaned into Death as a lover, and they moved from life easily, and without sound.