Some people die from heart attacks, and some from falling off ladders. Some are killed in car accidents. Some drown. Some, like my grandfather Gonzalo, die in war.
But some people don’t die—they depart. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is debatable, but departures are always interesting, so when the bell rings at the end of seventh period I’m not surprised that Iris springs up and places one pale hand firmly on my forearm. She digs her red nails in. "Hurry, Gabriela!" she says.
I allow myself to be pulled from the classroom as Mr. Harpting, our history instructor, hopelessly calls out a reading assignment to his former audience. Iris and I are already in the hall, and Harpting’s voice is lost amid the afterschool rush.
Outside, cars and buses clog the sunny hilltop turnaround. Iris drags me down the front steps, her long, straight blond hair glowing like a beacon. At the entrance to the student parking lot, a voice behind us calls, "Where are you guys going?" I turn to see Sarena running to catch up, her trumpet case bouncing against one thigh. I explain as she reaches us: "Iris thinks the Singing Man’s departing today—" I hold out my free hand to her, and she grabs on. Her braided black hair, lustrous in the afternoon sun, shines. She sings: "Ca-a-a-ro mio be-e-e-n!" reprising the song we heard the Singing Man perform yesterday. "Hey, Gabriela," she says, reminded, "did you think about those lyrics?"
I wince. "I’m sorry," I say. "I will."
"That’s okay," she replies. She’s disappointed, and I feel bad. Sarena plays trumpet and sometimes sings in her dad’s band—a jazz orchestra called the Washington Fifteen, which is the house act at the Caballero Hotel downtown. Her dad told her she could compose a song for the group, and she asked me to write the lyrics, because she thinks I have a way with words. I was thrilled at first, but now I regret it. I can’t seem to get started.
Iris pulls us both through the parking lot, where mostly juniors and seniors loiter, playing car radios and socializing. I see Sylvester Hale leaned against the hood of his new pepper red sports car—he’s in his letterman’s jacket, surrounded by friends who also wear letterman’s jackets. His pretty, wide-set eyes glance my direction for a moment, and my legs wobble, but Iris keeps pulling, and soon we’re past.
"Hey—" another voice calls.
"Grab him!" I say to Sarena. It’s Raahi standing outside his beat-up hatchback with some friends. Raahi’s older than the three of us, eighteen, a thin kid with a head of thick, wavy black hair. He’s one of those rare seniors who don’t mind being friends with underclassmen. I met him last year in Mr. Wilkson’s American Geography class.
Sarena extends her hand, holding out her trumpet case. Raahi takes her wrist, turning us into a chain of four as we head down the hill, leaving Raahi’s car. He doesn’t even bother to lock it up.
The four of us are a known group at school. Once, when we were sitting in a row in art class (left to right: Iris, me, Raahi, and Sarena), Mr. Jensen spontaneously used our skin tones as an example of a color gradient. I feel strange about that, but I guess it’s true—cream color, light brown, brown, dark brown. Our school isn’t very diverse in this regard, so I guess it struck Jensen as a noteworthy moment of life mimicking art.
"Iris thinks the Singing Man is departing today," Sarena explains to Raahi.
He nods, mock serious, and says, "Iris thinks someone’s departing every day."
"I heard that!" Iris yells over at us.
"One time she thought Ms. Lime was going to depart," I recall.
"Remember when she thought I was going to?" says Sarena.
"And last week it was Sylvester," I say, "because of his new car."
"But how did he get that car?" says Iris, trying laughingly to defend herself. "It appeared out of nowhere."
We arrive at the bottom of the hill, where Cougar Way intersects Eighth. I hear the Singing Man before I see him—a big, operatic voice that suggests the exact sort of person who comes into view across the street: an elderly, portly Italian gentleman. He’s wearing a blue suit and a thin red tie. The first time we saw him, a few weeks ago, Iris was immediately sure he was going through his wrap-up, and when he kept performing each day, the rest of us were inclined to agree—the Singing Man was scheduled to depart.
Here’s how departures work. First, you’re contacted by one of the Deaths, the creatures who oversee the process, usually with a letter saying "Dear So-and-So, your days are numbered." Then you correspond, deciding how much time you need and what you want to wrap up before you’re taken. In the Singing Man’s case, he wanted to sing, obviously.
No one knows why Deaths select particular people. There are plenty of theories, but it’s basically random beyond the fact of one statistic: departures account for one percent of all fatalities.
Sarena says all of the Singing Man’s songs are famous Italian arias, with lyrics along the lines of "Don’t leave—it’s bad when you go." Today, he belts his a cappella melodies with particular gusto. "Have we heard this one?" I ask Sarena. The Singing Man’s repertoire is pretty limited, but this melody is unfamiliar.
"No, we haven’t," says Sarena.
"This is the day. For sure!" says Iris as a delivery truck rumbles past, interrupting our view. "He saved this song for today. It’s his swan song."
As the truck exits the intersection and the Singing Man returns to view, my eyes widen.
No matter how many times you encounter them, the Deaths are startling creatures. The one who appears today is Gretchen, whom I’ve seen a few times before. Like all the Deaths, she’s about eight feet tall, extremely skinny, and grayish silver, as if you’re seeing her through a screen that filters the colors out. The Deaths live in a place called the Silver Side (where everything is presumably colored silver?) and only come visiting here when they’re drawn for a departure. Today, Gretchen is wearing a dark gray jacket over a silvery, flowing, ankle-length dress, and slate-colored heels. She approaches slowly, walking like they all do, as if through water — for some reason the Deaths experience our atmosphere as if it’s thick, and a little buoyant. They always look like they’re crossing the bottom of a swimming pool. Gretchen’s salt and pepper hair floats hugely around her, and her dress pushes and pulls against her frame, moved by unseen currents. She looks about fifty years old, but the Deaths are much older than they look (centuries, millennia in some cases). Her face, long and skinny, is expressionless, and my eyes are drawn to the dark slits, like gills, to either side of her nose.
"We’re going to see it!" Iris whispers frantically. She clutches one of my hands in excitement.
Gretchen stands to one side while the Singing Man finishes his last song. A number of people see what’s going on and stop to watch. When the Singing Man falls silent, no one applauds, but he bows. Then he turns to Gretchen. She extends one hand toward him, as if they’re being introduced. He reaches out hesitantly, and their fingers close. The Singing Man straightens up—the way you might if an ice cube were dropped down the back of your shirt. He takes a deep, surprised breath.
Then, beginning at his hand where he’s touching Gretchen and spreading through his body, everything about him from his pink skin to his b...