Triskaidekaphobia
rating: +30+x

I met Death for the second time in the basement of Site-19.

Before I entered the room where I was to meet Death, I took out my phone. The email from my Site Director was two days old and read:

Claire,

Apologies for the short notice. O5 wants a meeting so please be at EB17 Wed. 9 AM. You are meeting O5-13, which is Death.

Regards,

M

I checked twice to make sure that I had the right room. When the time turned to 8:59, I turned off my phone and tucked it into my pant pocket. I gave myself a moment to close my eyes, before pushing the door open and stepping inside.

There was a table for two, with a swivel chair on one side for me. Connie was sitting on the other side.

She looked up and regarded me in exactly the same way I remembered—angling her eyes to avoid mine and tilting her head downwards to let her bangs veil her expression. Everything about this situation was familiar: I could never grow distant from the sensation of looking into Connie’s face and seeing my own round cheeks, my thin eyebrows, my eyes.

“Why are you looking so closely at me?” she asked.

I sat down in the swivel chair, the slight buckling of my knees under me making me fall into the seat. I couldn’t answer.

“You’re thinking that I’m your sister. I’m not. Don’t you know that, Claire?”

Slowly, I nodded at Death.

“Okay,” I said.

There was a short silence. Then, I reached out my hand. “Claire Ma. Senior researcher, cultural anomalies.”

“I know. I’m Death,” she said, taking the handshake. Her skin was soft, and I could feel a pulse coursing beneath the surface.

“Why…this?” I asked.

“It’s how you know me best,” Death said. She shifted in her seat. “I’m sorry it had to be like this.”

“I don’t—stop it. Stop apologizing. I came here to talk to O5-13, not my teenage sister. Be someone else.”

Death scrunched her nose. “I told you,” she said, “I’m not your sister. She is gone and Death took her place. I’m just me and I can’t do anything about that. The only thing either of us can do is for you to deal with me.”

“How do I do that?”

“Like I know.”

I leaned back into my seat. Death started chewing her nails, and I bit back the urge to tell her to cut it out, do you want Ma to yell at you again for it?

“Why did you want to talk to me?” I asked.

“I didn’t,” Death said. “You’re being moved to work with the O5, and we usually sit down and chat with people before they start. The job got passed on to me, which is a hassle, but it’s fine, because you’d have to meet with me eventually.”

Death took her fingers out of her mouth and examined her reddened fingertips.

“Should probably stop,” she said.

My head pulsed. I’d barely had the patience to deal with Connie when we were children, and I had even less now. “Was there anything in particular that you wanted to talk about?”

“Well,” Death said, “I wanted to get to know you.”


Ma always told us to be careful when neither of us were in any immediate danger. Both Connie and I were competent in the kitchen, but Ma still felt the need to hover over us when we cooked. When we started dicing a carrot—careful, it’s sharp. When we reached for a pot that had been over the stove for a while—careful, it’s hot.

What made Ma’s constant worry even more ironic was that this was the safest she’d been in her entire life. I had an uncle that Ma never knew—all she had of him was a small, black-and-white photo of a smiling boy, around ten, in a school uniform. Grandfather was a doctor, with knowledge of both Western thaumatology and the traditional occult arts. If a Chinese solider survived an IJAMEA attack, grandfather treated them when no other doctor could, so IJAMEA came after him. He and his infant daughter survived; my uncle did not.

The rest of Ma’s life went similarly. Until she was ten our family was on the run, first from the Japanese and then the Communists. She remembered few of the details, but when pressed, she’d cough up what she could. The way the air rippled when a Green manipulated reality. The snapping and snarling of monsters in the night.

While there was no war in Taipei, Ma still worked a factory job that ended up killing or seriously injuring at least two of her young coworkers. Eventually, she made it out on government scholarships, before finding herself in America.

I had trouble reconciling this image of Ma’s childhood with the woman who now worried over knives and pots while we lived in the shelter of suburban Los Angeles. I didn’t realize that Ma did so not in spite of her past, but because of it.

Ma worried about our academic futures, too. Successful applicants to the top ICSUT campuses excelled in studies on both sides of the masquerade, so Connie and I took normal classes during the day while Ma tutored us in the occult at night. For me, Ma’s worries were over A-‘s and the occasional slip-up in one of her quizzes, but it was worse for Connie. Unlike our other Chinese friends’ parents, Ma didn’t beat us. She just yelled and yelled.

The day Connie got her seventh grade mid-term report card, I tried holing myself up in my room with a book.

“What’s wrong with you, huh? You know how hard your mother works so we can live here, so you can go to this school. This is how you repay me?”

I could hear Ma’s voice through both the thin walls and my hands over my ears.

“You think I don’t see you being lazy? Not doing your work, not studying, just doodling, wasting your time?”

There was a short silence, and I thought, for a moment, that Ma was just running out of steam. Then a loud bang: Ma’s hand striking the dinner table, followed by the sound of ceramic bowls jumping against the wood and a muffled yelp from Connie.

Ma’s yell: “Answer me!”

I threw my book against the wall and jumped out of bed, heading straight for the dining room. I closed my door, hard, and stomped my feet so they’d both know I was coming.

“Jesus, Ma,” I shouted, “can’t you just give it a rest?”

The argument could have easily escalated from there, but my entry into the scene shocked Ma out of her blind anger and gave her a second to think.

When Ma spoke again, her voice was low. “What do you care, huh? Why—”

“—I wanna be able to sit in my room in peace—”

“This is my house,” Ma said, “and I’ll make you regret it if you interrupt me again. Understand?”

I lowered my eyes. “Okay, Ma.”

“I’m asking you why you care now. I have a job, you know. And I can’t help your sister with English, history. Where are you? If you care about this, why aren’t you helping her succeed?”

Connie’s cheeks were sticky with tears, and her hair was plastered to her face. I hadn’t heard her crying over Ma’s yelling. When I looked at her, she refused to meet my eyes.

“Come on, Ma, she’s right there.”

“And?”

“And—and, look, she’s smart, she can figure things out, okay? I’m her sister, not her tutor.”

Connie mumbled something. Ma and I both turned; before Ma could yell at her to speak up, she said, more clearly, “I’m not.”

“Not what?” I asked.

“Not smart. I’m not lazy, either. I’m sitting there, looking at my homework, because I don’t know how to do it. And I’m trying to figure it out. But I can’t.”

She got up and left, and when she closed the door to our room behind her it barely made any noise. Ma and I were too tired to argue with each other any further, so we sat there in silence.



“Who’d you blame for her death?”

I looked at Death sideways. “That’s a loaded question.”

“Sure,” Death said. “Maybe there are people who wouldn’t blame someone. But you’re not one of them.”

“Fine,” I said. “In order of least to most: you, Ma, myself. Happy?”

“I don’t think Connie would have been very happy about you blaming yourself.”

Beneath the table, I clenched and released my fists. My frustration was obvious; Death did what Connie would’ve done and ignored it.

“How do you know Connie wouldn’t have liked it?” I asked.

Death brought her knees up to her chest, resting her bare feet against the chair. “I know it because I took her,” she said. “Her thoughts, memories, personality—all of it is within me.”

I exhaled. “If you have all of those, what’s the difference between you and her?”

Death shrugged. She rocked forwards on her feet, reaching forwards to grab a pen and notebook halfway across the table, and ripped out a page. With the pen, she drew a smiley face and wrote, “Connie”. Then, she put the page over her face.

“Who am I?”

I stared at Death. “What’s the point of this?”

Death ignored me again. “Not Connie, right?”

“No.”

Death removed the paper and waved it in my face. “To me, a dead soul is like this paper. So, I really, really have no idea why you keep confusing me with your sister.”

I kept staring.



I actually wasn’t sure, between myself and Ma, who I blamed more.

Eight years after our argument in the kitchen, I destroyed my relationship with Ma without her even knowing it. When I visited her after graduation, Ma still lived in the same Los Angeles home, but now, the room that Connie and I had once shared was stacked high with cardboard boxes. There was a new picture of Connie and me, dressed in winter clothing, on the mantle that hadn’t been there when Connie was alive.

Ma had made a curry chicken soup—a Burmese recipe she’d picked up from a neighbor in Taiwan. I ate my food with rhythm: strip the meat from the bone, dip in soup, add noodles, slurp. I did it all with my eyes fixed on the soup itself. Ma was eating slowly, and her chopsticks clattered around the soup bowl as she stirred her food.

“Claire, is something wrong?”

It took me a moment to finish chewing, and I swallowed heavily. “I’m fine, Ma.”

I had decided weeks ago that I was going to accept the Foundation’s offer, because I knew I couldn’t tolerate any more time in the occult community. I’d be a rare defector, and I knew that I would make an outcast of my mother in doing so—a woman who raised two daughters, one dead and the other a traitor.

In between bites of chicken, I wondered how I would tell her what I was planning on doing. All I could think of were questions of blame. Would she understand if I told her I blamed the occult community? Or that I blamed the two of us? Would she blame me for running away? Would she forgive me?

I bit into a chunk of potato, pulverized it, and then realized that the soup was gone. I hadn’t told Ma anything.

“Your lease in New York is settled, right?” Ma asked. “And your tickets…”

“Yeah. Everything’s fine, Ma, don’t worry.”

“And your job?”

I laughed. “PTOLEMY Division pays a lot, Ma. I’ll be able to send you money.”

“I don’t care about the money. Will you be happy, Claire?”

Maybe I hesitated a moment too long before answering, but I kept the smile on my face. “The work is interesting. The people seem driven. I will, Ma.”

“Good,” Ma said. She slurped up another spoonful of noodles and chewed on it slowly. “That’s good.”

After we exchanged more small talk, I hugged Ma good-bye and gathered my things to leave. I was set to rendezvous with my Foundation contact a four-hour drive away, and I wanted to make it before nightfall. My bags were in my trunk and I was five exits down the freeway before I realized that I would never eat that soup again.


Connie ended up going to the ICSUT campus in Washington state. I’d posted the test scores to get into the San Francisco campus, the most prestigious one west of the Mississippi, but if I’d known how often Ma would make me take the eight-hour drive up to the Washington campus to check on Connie, I might’ve decided to just go there instead.

After what had happened in high school, Ma hadn’t even wanted Connie to go up to Washington. It came down, as always, to another argument—Connie wanted to work for the Coalition, and the Coalition rarely recruited specialists outside ICSUT. She didn’t want to stay in LA and get a Bachelor’s. She wanted to live in the same world that grandfather, Ma, and I did.

Things didn’t go well. Connie took a semester off after her first year. When I came home that summer, Ma cornered me and told me that I needed to persuade Connie to not go back to Washington.

I didn’t want to talk to her in our room, with the door closed—I didn’t want her to feel trapped. Instead, I approached her after dinner.

“Wanna go out for a walk?”

Connie glanced at me sideways. It was an expression she’d picked up from me.

I ran a hand through my hair. “Come on. I want to talk.”

“Fine,” she said.

Living in the San Francisco campus had made me forget how uneventful the suburbs were. Every couple minutes a minivan would glide past us, or we’d see a group of kids clustered around a basketball net in the street, messing around and trying to dunk. Nobody paid us much attention.

Connie started chewing her nails almost as soon as we stepped outside the house. I waited a few minutes before saying, “Jesus, can you stop that?”

She hesitated before taking them out. “Probably should.”

“Then stop.”

She shoved her hands into her pockets for the rest of the walk.

“Why do you want to go back to Washington so badly?” I asked.

I stared at Connie for a few seconds before she gave me a noncommittal shrug. “Why not?”

We crossed the street, Connie lagging a few steps behind me. I kept slowing down so that she could catch up and I could look her in the eyes.

“You know,” I said. “So you can stay out of trouble.”

She snorted. “It’s not like I’m getting any better here. Ma just wants me close because she’s worrying. It doesn’t make a difference.”

“I thought you were feeling better.”

“Not really. I just haven’t tried anything again, because Mom keeps the med cabinet locked so I can’t really—”

“Stop it,” I said.

“Stop what.

Both of us were standing still in the middle of the sidewalk. There was nobody around us; all I could see of people were their television screens flickering behind their windows. The sun overhead was beginning to set.

“Do you not want me to talk about it?” Connie asked. “Is that what this is?”

Her eyes were fixed on me. She hadn’t raised her voice and her hands were still stuffed in her pockets, but she didn’t move her eyes from my face.

“Why do you want to talk to me about going back to school if you can’t even talk about me trying to kill myself?”

I clenched and released my fists. “Connie…”

She shook her head. “You don’t get it.”

“What don’t I get?”

“What it’s like to be on the edge of dropping out from an entire society,” she said. “You and Ma always had a place.”

She turned around. “I’m going back.”

“Home?” I asked.

“Washington. I can’t stay here anymore.”

She walked away, leaving me alone on the sidewalk. Overhead, the sky was beginning to ignite in reds and oranges. I crouched down on the curb, stuck my elbows on my knees, and planted my chin on my hands. I was thinking about so many things at once—what it’d be like for Connie back in Washington, what to tell Ma, what I was supposed to do about it all—but the predominant thing running through my head was white noise.



“Fine,” I said. “I get it. You can put the paper down.”

Death balled the paper up and tossed it behind her chair. “Sorry. I got frustrated.”

I winced when Death apologized again, but I tried not to let it show. Instead, I asked, “So what exactly are you? Some kind of psychopomp guide?”

“No,” Death said. “The dead never see me, not that they see anything.”

“A personification, then? A God?”

Death shrugged. “I’m what happens to everything. Stars, people, ideas. I’m a universal constant. Like, well, gravity.”

“Ideas?”

“Yeah. The Mandarin you don’t have anymore. The way you loved Ma when you were a kid. I took those too.”

I examined Death. On the surface, and even to the level of personality, everything about her was intimately familiar. But in a deeper sense that I could not entirely understand, she was alien. The girl in front of me who seemed to be my sister was an illusion, what my mind perceived when confronted with an all-powerful force of nature.

The room felt colder. “You already know a lot about me, then.”

“Yeah. But, like I said, not on a personal level.”

“Well,” I said, “I do, despite the rocky conversation, want to know you too. Do you have a will of your own?”

Death shook her head.

“You just do your thing, then? You never stay your hand or take something before its time?”

“That, you know, breaks things. Like, well…” Death said. She furrowed her brow while she thought of an analogy. “Like gravity acting on something more or less than it should.”

“Well,” I said, shrugging, “that happens all the time. They’re anomalies. We contain them.”

“An anomaly like that would have to act on a level higher than fate and causality.”

I felt strangely comforted. “So it doesn’t happen, which means you don’t have your own will.”

“Oh. Well, it happens.”

I blinked. “What?”

“The O5 Council.”

“But,” I said. My palms were gripping the armrests, and I could feel sweat beginning to gather underneath them. “How?”

“Well, I’m in a unique position where I don’t actually vote,” Death said. “So when they pass a measure that involves me, I just do it.”

“No, I mean…look, I don’t care about the voting,” I said. “The O5 Council alters the course of Death—your course—in defiance of causality, a fundamental force of, what, reality? How?

“Well, yeah,” Death said. She was giving me the same look that Connie would give me when she’d try explaining one of her sci-fi books and I couldn’t get it. “I mean, you’re right, causality is fundamental, but so is the O5, and more so.”

I made a choking noise.

Death snorted. “I guess it was good to get this out of the way before you started working with them. I’m not an outlier among the O5. The rest of them are also like me.”

“And they want me to work under them?” I said. “Why?”

“Uh, your expertise in East Asian occult history. The others have pet projects that they think you’d be pretty useful for.”

I didn’t say anything for a while. After some time sitting in silence, Death squirmed. “Hey,” she said. “Don’t be intimidated. You’re smart, and you’ll do your work well.”

“Thanks,” I said, without thinking. I remembered too late to whom I was speaking and felt strange.

“I think Connie would’ve said something like that, at least.”

This time, I thought about it for a bit, and then let myself smile. Death looked vaguely pleased with herself.

“You know,” I said, “this doesn’t really matter, but if you don’t vote, then how does the O5 tiebreak?”

“They don’t. They use consensus.”

My smile cracked, and I burst out laughing.



I apprehended causality lying face-down on my dorm mattress, listening to the clock tower play the latest pop hit. Outside my window, the sun melted through the San Francisco fog and baked the inside of my room. I could hear people outside, laughing, getting ready to graduate.

A glossy pamphlet and letter from the GOC’s PTOLEMY division sat on my desk. I hadn’t touched either of them since they’d arrived.

My roommate peeked her head in through the door. “Hey, Claire! They’ve got a grill set up on the slope, wanna go check it out?”

I rolled over onto my back and smiled. “Nah, I’m good. Feeling kinda off.”

“Oh. Well, hope you feel better. Seeya!”

She didn’t know. Nobody did, and it wasn’t their fault; I just hadn’t talked about Connie at all. If I went to work for PTOLEMY, I could do the same thing. Barring the off-chance that I ended up working with anybody who’d known her from Washington, it’d be like my sister had never been alive at all.

I thought about how badly Connie had wanted to go back to school in Washington, and how she’d said that I’d always had a place. I wished that I’d told her she was wrong, and that I had as much of a place here, in my dorm room, on this campus, as her ashes did in an urn.

Everything made sense when I thought about it like that. Tracing the line of my grandfather and Ma through China, to Taiwan, then Ma across the Pacific to America, then me from Los Angeles to this room, every decision and event had, if not purpose, then weight. When it came to the question that had brewed in my mind for the past several months—whether or not I would work for PTOLEMY—things made sense because I realized that, just the same way only one path had led to where Connie and I were now, only one path led out. I could only ever make the same choice.

I never wrote back to PTOLEMY. A week later, in one of the Foundation’s front companies, a man in a suit shook my hand and began to interview me.


I drove up to Washington immediately the day I learned that Connie had jumped off one of the campus bridges. My drive started in the afternoon, and I was only halfway there when it was midnight. As I fought off sleep, I reminded myself to keep my eyes on the road, to stay alert—to be careful. I realized that I only ever told myself to be careful in the same Mandarin that Ma had used: 小心.”Small” and “heart”, side by side.

I spent a lot of my time in Washington taking care of business: figuring out which of Connie’s belongings to send to Ma and which to throw away, talking to the campus police and ICSUT administrators and counselors, organizing a cremation. I was in Washington for a week, not thinking of class, not thinking of anything. I called Ma every single night.



Death waited until I was finished laughing before she said, “I don’t really get what’s so funny.”

“Nothing,” I said. I wiped my eyes. “It’s nothing.”

She shrugged. “Whatever. Can I ask you something?”

I noticed that Death wasn’t hiding behind her bangs anymore. She looked at me directly.

“Yeah,” I said. Okay.”

“Do you regret what happened?” Death asked. “Do you ever wish that you could change things?”

It took me a while to answer Death’s question; I immediately knew what my answer was, but I didn’t know how to put it.

Finally, I said, “No. Connie’s life wasn’t a mistake for me to fix. There are things I wish I’d said or done, but…I guess those are with you now, too. And I don’t like the idea of bringing what’s dead back to life.”

Death shrugged. “Not many people answer like that, you know. But I get it.”

“I’m glad,” I said.

“Well,” Death said, standing up and stretching. “This was a good talk. The Red Right Hand’ll help you get settled in at your new location. We’ll see each other around, Claire.”

I nodded. “Thanks for checking in.”

Death left the room before me; when I stepped outside, the hallway was empty, save for two members of the Red Right Hand, ready to escort me away.



I met Death for the first time as I stood above the bridge that Connie had jumped from. Her death had prompted ICSUT to install safety nets, big green meshes that stretched out and covered the view of the gorge. Below, where they’d recovered Connie’s body, there was yellow police tape to ward away the inquisitive. It was the middle of winter, and the river was frozen.

When I looked down, past the green safety net, past the swirling snow, I could see something in the river. It was right where Connie had fallen. As I watched, Death rose from the ice and rushed towards me. I saw it catch on the safety net; I saw its fingers squeeze through the holes as it reached upwards.

The wind whipped at my hair, splaying it behind my head. I could feel my heart unfolding and expanding in the presence of Death, opening to invite it into me. I kept my eyes fixed on Death. I did not turn away.

I stayed there like that for a long time, my fingers growing numb on the frozen railing, looking on the impassive face of Death as it strained at the net separating us.

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