Dancing with Death by Isabella Madruga | Short Story Contest 2019 | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly 33rd Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Young Adult


Illustration by Paul Llewellyn

Dancing with Death

By Isabella Madruga

About Isabella Madruga

Fueled by a love for classic, dystopian literature, 17-year-old Isabella Madruga finds herself spending most of her free time reading and writing. She said she is particularly drawn to the complete control she has to "create a whole new world at the whim of my fingertips."

The Menlo School junior and Woodside resident discovered her passion for storytelling at a very young age, writing and illustrating her own series of books in the fourth grade. Her contest entry piece, "Dancing with Death," aims to remind readers that "death is not something to be avoided, it's something to embrace," she said. The story's strong-willed protagonist, Ellie, shares a connection with Madruga's late grandfather who died of lung cancer. She said she was moved by the fact that he was at peace with death and knew it was his time. "I think he decided to go and death just led him along," she said. This real-life experience closely mirrors that of Ellie, except she pushed back against death because she knew it was not her time. Apart from her strong affinity for writing, Madruga is much like most teens, enjoying Netflix binge-watching sprees, taking walks with her family's three dogs, drawing and acting in school plays. Her advice to other young writers is simply to, "just go for it!" She is a firm believer that the only way for one to grow as a writer is by sharing their work with others.

— Cierra Bailey

 

Inspiration:
The inspiration for my short story didn't come out of nowhere...I actually came up with it for a prompt for a contest on TheProse.com. The prompt said, 'Write about a close encounter with death. Dodging a bullet, a reaper narrowly evaded,' and I took the reaper part of the prompt and rolled with it. I had watched videos of people who are terminally ill, and many of them say they are scared of Death but if the time comes, it comes. But they will fight like hell to ward him off. And that's exactly what Ellie, my protagonist, does.

While I did not win the contest for TheProse, I still loved the story. When I heard about the Palo Alto Short Story Contest through my advocate at school, I was apprehensive about submitting it because I wasn't sure if it was good enough until a friend encouraged me to submit it.

My friend said to me, 'There's no harm in submitting it. Either you win or you don't; you don't get penalized for doing it. Just go for it.' I think that's a really good sentiment to have as a writer. Every rejection you get is simply another chance to perfect your writing. If you just go for it, nothing can go wrong.

 

Judge's comments

In this very touching story a dying old woman encounters Death and manages to win the struggle — for a while longer. The writing is elegant and imagistic yet controlled. But it's the old woman's pervading humor, her light touch, and her gentle acceptance of her fate that make her a delightful instructor for this awesome journey, and the story is a pleasure to read.

— Nancy Packer

The rain fell gently from the heavens to the asphalt as cars whizzed past. It fell so slowly, in such a feather-like motion that someone who wasn't paying too much attention would have thought it was snow. Was it called sleet, then? Sleet is such an ugly word. The rain was so beautiful, dusting the grass with only a light layer of dew, not at all heavy or overbearing.

Perhaps that is why Ellie woke up with a smile on her face.

The rain had fallen all at once the past few nights after the storm clouds hung in the sky for weeks on end, finally letting out all their pent-up tears. Ellie did not perceive this delicate rain as tears but more of gentle nourishment to the plants after being flooded with water.

She rose from the hospital bed, the mattress creaking under the sudden weight and tugged her IV stand along with her to the bathroom. No morning nausea today.

Today is a good day, thought Ellie. Any day without nausea was a good day.

The rain pattered against the windows, getting lighter and lighter as the clouds departed back into the atmosphere after their month-long temper tantrum. Sunlight streamed through the window and onto the bathroom floor, illuminating the stains that came as a result of Ellie's cancer that couldn't quite be cleaned with bleach.

It was an aggressive form, one that refused to go away no matter how many rounds of chemotherapy she put her body through. It had metastasized, poisoning every part of her body and making her grow more emaciated by the day. It was not fun.

Her family visited as much as they could, but the hospital bills started to pile up. Her family couldn't afford to worry about her. Every minute they spent with her was a minute they could spend working toward her hospital bill, and it was Ellie's choice for them to leave her. They pleaded for her to set up a fundraiser, but Ellie was too proud to accept handouts. She made her own money for 50 years, and if she pulled through from chemotherapy, she would go back to work.

"When I pull through," she always corrected her family and her doctor.

She splashed water in her face to refresh herself and her skin, but when she looked at herself in the mirror, the wrinkles only deepened. She was 65, but her crinkled face made her look like a tired centenarian. She smiled through the disappointment, trying to replenish the joy in her eyes that seem to have faded all those months ago.

She slinked back into her room, pulling her IV stand with her (the IV was pulling her since it weighed more than she did), but she quickly stopped in her tracks.

In her room was Death, with his black robe draped over his shoulders and his head, bathing his face in darkness. He did not carry a scythe as his stereotype did, which puzzled Ellie, but otherwise, she was not shocked in the slightest.

He was wan, his hood not large enough to disguise his pale skin reflecting the fluorescent ceiling lights. Ellie felt soothed by his presence, almost as if he were an old friend. After all, she had thought about him every day, begging not to meet him. However, with him almost levitating in front of her, she smiled.

"Hello, Death," she greeted. Death smiled back.

"Not everybody greets me that kindly," he replied. "Hello, Eleanor Brown."

"Call me Ellie," she said.

"OK," Death nodded. "You know why I'm here, Ellie."

"Take off your hood first, then we'll talk," she demanded, leaning further on her IV stand. Death obliged, slipping off his hood to reveal an otherworldly, genderless being, nothing Ellie could fathom in human terms. His features were sharp, his skin stretched tight over his bones. His eyes — were those eyes? — were calm, calculating, cool. They must have stricken fear into the heart of anybody he looked at, but with Ellie, she only grinned wider.

Death's appearance compelled her to approach him, the smell of gardenias and vanilla drifting from him.

"Come, Ellie," Death gently commanded, holding out his hand. "It's your time."

"You know very well it is not my time, honey," Ellie scoffed, wheeling her IV stand over to the lounge chairs, sitting down to calm the pain pulsating throughout her body. "Get me a water bottle, please."

Death's shoulders dropped. He looked over to the desk in front of the bed and spotted the mini water bottles, most of them empty. He looked back over at Ellie and asked, "If I get you a bottle, will you come with me?"

Ellie smiled coyly and shrugged. "I'll consider it."

So he glided over, picked up the water bottle, and handed it to Ellie, who chuckled softly.

"Thank you, sugar." She drank the entire bottle and placed it on the windowsill, but the small act of reaching out her arm to place down the bottle blinded her with pain. "Do me a favor."

Death's expression turned from surprised to irked, but he obliged. "Yes?"

"Get me the pain pills, please," she asked, pointing to the giant bottle of pain pills with all kinds of medical script decorating the outside.

Death huffed. "If I get you the pills, will you come with me?"

Ellie grinned. "I'll consider it."

Death glided back over to the desk, picked up the bottle, and handed it to Ellie. She took the bottle and measured out the number of pills the nurse told her to take and swallowed them easily.

"Feeling better?" Death asked with a look of almost worry on his face.

Ellie nodded and picked at the hangnails on her fingers. She stared down at her hands adorned with veins and sighed. "Just tired. Old lady things, I suppose."

Death stared at her for a moment before glancing away to the phonograph in front of her bed. Ellie followed his gaze, and her eyes lit up with joy.

"Do me one last favor?" she asked, and Death looked at her with feigned annoyance.

"Then will you come with me?" he emphasized only to receive a shrug back from Ellie.

"I'll consider it."

Ellie beckoned Death to come near her and reached out her hand for him to take it. Death gently took her hand into his and lifted her up to her feet.

Ellie pointed to the phonograph with a trembling finger, the mere feat of standing up fatiguing her entire body. "Put the needle on, honey. And dance with me."

Death made sure Ellie was stable before gliding away and looking at the record on the phonograph. He looked back up at Ellie after pulling down the needle and smiled. "This is one of my favorite songs from that era."

"Dream a Little Dream of Me' by Doris Day..." Ellie said wistfully as Death returned to her, grasping her waist as he led her onto the "dance floor," which was the more open area in front of her bed. "Could that white lady sing. Mama liked Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald better, but we always made exceptions for Doris. The white woman Mama worked for — Miss Williams was her name — always had her playing while she helped Mama clean the house. Kind, she was. Very kind."

Death gazed only at Ellie as she gave her soliloquy, gingerly tightening his hand against the small of her back to prevent her from falling, the IV stand following closely behind as they danced slowly.

Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you

Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you

But in your dreams whatever they be

Dream a little dream of me…

"I prefer Vivaldi myself," Death said after a moment of silence. "He was quite the charmer when I went to guide him. But eventually, he gave in, took my hand, and let me lead him off."

Ellie smiled and chuckled. "If you're going to talk about me, talk about me to my face, honey."

Death smiled back and lifted his arm to twirl her, and Ellie followed his lead, slowly spinning around, mindful of her IV stand. She returned to Death and grasped his hand again, getting back into their side-stepping rhythm. "Why don't you want to go to Heaven, Ellie? You pray so much to go there."

"I pray to Jesus, and I know him. I know he knows it isn't my time to go just yet. I still have some kicks in me, sir. My Heaven is on Earth for the time being. And I'm not leaving yet."

As the song neared its end, the pair slipped into a period of comfortable silence, both of them pondering as they stare off in the distance. Ellie readjusted her grip on Death's hand, which was soft yet full of little cracks and scars. His hands humanized him in Ellie's vision, although Death was already human to her; he just glowed a little more than regular people did. His shoulder was bony yet tense, most likely from supporting Ellie's weight so she didn't fall down. She looked back at Death's face and saw a human face staring back at her, not the abstract being that was there before. It seemed as though Ellie broke his spell, one that made him intimidating when, in fact, he looked like a mortal, just like her.

The record continued to spin despite the song being over, yet the pair did not move away from each other.

"Ellie," Death started, but quickly stopped. The wheels in his head seemed to be turning, and he finally said, "Please come with me. It will be alright. You will be happy."

"I still have work to do, sweetheart," she said, patting his chest. "My family is waiting for me. I won't be happy if I go up there. Not yet."

Death sighed and put the needle back in its place. He helped Ellie to her bed, lightly laying her down and pulling out a notebook from his pocket. His eyes widened as he looked between Ellie and the notebook. He sheepishly put the notebook away and smiled. "It seems I was mistaken, Ellie. I wish you and your family the best. Have a nice night, Ellie. Goodbye."

And within a blink of an eye, he was gone as quickly as he arrived.

Ellie nodded and pulled the comforter over her body. She looked out of the window, the moon hanging limply from the sky as the surrounding stars supported it. It seemed as though time had also passed in the blink of an eye; she had only spent twenty minutes with him, but that amounted to fourteen hours in Death's time. She heard a knock at the door and invited the person to come in.

It was her family: her husband, her children, her siblings, her nieces and nephews, her grandchildren. The nurse, Rita, followed closely behind with a tray of food.

"Hi, Grandma!" her eldest grandchild exclaimed as he ran in.

"Jackson, quiet down, boy," Ellie's son demanded curtly. "Your grandma's had a long day."

Rita set down the tray in front of Ellie with a smile, quickly escaping Ellie's giant family.

"We all had some free time to visit you together!" Ellie's sister whispered giddily. "Isn't that a coincidence?"

Ellie looked out the window again at the shadow over the moon and smiled softly. "Yes. A coincidence indeed."

~~

"Good news, Eleanor," Dr. Tam said with a grin. "You're pulling through your chemo. I won't promise anything —"

"You never do, Dr. Tam," Ellie said with a chuckle.

Dr. Tam laughed and nodded. "I won't promise anything," she continued, "but the future is looking good. Let's continue with the last few rounds and see where it takes you. Sounds good?"

Ellie nodded. "Sounds good," she said.

She sighed contently and squeezed her husband's hand.

"Sounds good."


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