Return to Short Stories

The Difference of One

Alan Monroe stood at the heart of the devastated city and watched as teams of people pulled at the rubble. The earthquake had been ferocious, pulling down the small white-stone buildings in large clouds of dust and debris. Broken stonework littered the street as the town's populace sifted through the collapsed buildings, rescuing the injured and retrieving the dead.

Alan shuffled slightly from the sidelines. The native language was still a mystery to him, despite his best efforts, and without knowing what to do and where to dig, there was nothing useful he could achieve. He found the feeling unsettling; to see the dead and wounded so close by, and yet to be unable to help in any way. He looked away as a body was removed on a stretcher, the face a mask of fresh blood.

"Funny, isn't it?"

Alan looked up suddenly at the voice. A woman stood next to him, watching the scene unfold. She motioned one hand at the people climbing over the rubble and hefting stones out of the way. "Can you think of anything more bizarre?"

Alan eyed the newcomer warily. Her speech clearly marked her as foreign to the area, but not so much as her clothing. Her jacket and skirt were jet-black, matched by her shoes and hair, while her skin was pale almost to the point of being white. She presented the image of a professional businesswoman about town, a stark contrast to the normally relaxed local citizens in their white robes and trousers. Alan reflected that despite his own foreigner-paleness, he did at least make a somewhat better attempt to fit in.

"How do you mean?" he replied, considering whether this stranger perhaps had some unique but incompatible standards of taste.

The woman turned to Alan and smiled a friendly, genuine smile. "All these people. Spending their time, spending parts of their own lives, to remove the bodies from the buildings. It's strange. They aren't even expecting to recover anyone alive, did you know that? They're pleased if they do, of course. But they aren't expecting to."

Alan stood in silent contemplation a moment as another dead body was carried past him. His new companion was both controversial and distasteful. He scowled at her, barely hiding the contempt he felt, and said, "You can't just leave them there. Not if some of them might be alive."

The woman looked out at the people again. A crowd had formed where a muffled shout was heard, and pulling back the first of the stones had revealed an elderly hand. Digging began in earnest again.

"Why can't you just leave them there?" she said, eyes following a large slab of masonry that was carried away from the fallen building. Alan's mouth fell open in shocked disapproval, but before he regained use of his voice, the woman continued. "Most of these people in the rubble are already dead. Many of the ones that get rescued will be dead by morning. Why does it make sense to have so many people using their lives to move some dead bodies around? Hm? Isn't that like having two deaths instead of one? One man dead, one man dying as he pulls the body out of the wreckage?"

Her expression remained as a smile, but her eyes were serious. She actually wants the debate, thought Alan. He struggled to find a convincing argument against her.

"What about disease?" he said finally.

She looked at him strangely. "Disease? From the decaying bodies? Are you serious? They aren't near a water supply, no-one is going to live right next door to a dead person, and thousands of wild animals live despite disposing of dead carcasses without due care and attention. No, disease is no good reason."

Alan pondered a moment. "Maybe, but I'm still not sure it's worth just giving up on the trapped people."

The woman pointed at the rescuers. "You see that group? They're rescuing a man that is 72 years old. He'll be dead by tomorrow morning. And all the while there is a small child trapped over there that they don't even know about."

Alan looked across at another set of stones. Perhaps once it had been noticeably different, but now there was nothing to distinguish it. He looked back at the woman. "Over there? Under that building?"

She nodded. "Yes. He's badly hurt, very weak... lost a lot of blood."

Alan looked at the woman through half closed eyes. "How do you know all this? You're making it up aren't you? This isn't a time for mad theories and jokes!"

The woman folded her arms and considered him in return. "Your name is Alan Monroe. You were staying in the hotel on Avenue 27 weren't you?" Somewhat surprised, Alan just nodded. "The hotel was meant to collapse during the earthquake. You're lucky to be alive, Alan."

Alan shook his head. "The hotel was well-built. It only suffered minor damage."

"The hotel was terribly built! The compression wave should have ripped it apart! It's only luck that nearby mining work shifted the focal point of the earthquake."

Alan swallowed slowly, finding it hard to believe the discussion he was having. "Are you trying to say I cheated death?"

The woman smiled broadly at him. "I assure you, no-one has cheated me."

Alan blinked twice. The woman reached into a small pocket on her jacket and produced a card, which she handed to Alan. "My business card," she said.

Alan took the offered paper item and read it slowly.

// Death, Inc.

Leading Souls to the next life and beyond.

See us on the web:

He read it again in disbelief. "You're Death?"


He read the card a third time and looked back at her. "Why the suit?"

"You have to move with the times, Alan. It doesn't do to fall too far behind with the current trends of humanity. Does it never worry you that one day you might wake up to a world without war?" She considered his puzzled expression. "No, possibly that doesn't worry you."

Alan shook his head slowly, reading the business card again.

"The funny thing about humans," the woman said quietly, "They spend their time talking about how precious life is and how they hate war, and they always rush around so as not to waste any precious time. And then they spend so much effort rescuing dead people."

"Maybe it shows us we're still alive..." mumbled Alan.

The woman looked sharply at Alan, surprised at the sudden contribution. Then her face formed another broad smile. She nodded slowly, not so much in agreement, but more approving of Alan's judgement. "Yes, maybe it is that. Maybe it is indeed."

They stood for a moment in silence together, watching the people moving rubble again. Some frantic shouts came from one side and a torrent of people rushed to the source of the commotion. Alan and the lady paid them no heed.

Finally, she stretched and looked around. "Well," she said, "I see they've found the child." She pointed at the crowd gathered around the seemingly identical fallen building, then looked at her slender wrist. Alan noticed for the first time a silver watch gently clasped about the pale flesh. The face of the watch was black, with thin white roman numerals around the outside. There were no hands. "Time I was going. Very busy these days. Lots to be doing. It was pleasant speaking with you, Alan." She turned to leave, deftly avoiding the loose rocks.

"Wait!" said Alan. She glanced over her shoulder at him. "The child... will he live?"

The woman looked again at the group, shifting rocks as fast as they could. They were clearly tired, but somehow found the strength to carry on. "Maybe he'll live... maybe he won't. Hard to say really. It all depends on how fast they dig." She started walking away again, focusing only on the rough ground.

"Wait!" called Alan again. "If I help - if I dig - I know I'm only one person, but... will it make a difference?"

The woman turned around again, laughing loudly. "One person always makes a difference, Alan," she said, backing away, "the question is, do they make enough difference?" Then, laughing still, she strode purposefully down the busy street.

Alan watched her a moment, then looked at the card. He nodded slowly. Then pocketing the card he ran over to the ruined building and with both hands, started pulling rocks and masonry aside.

"One person can make enough difference," he thought, "if they dig fast enough."

This page was created by James Corrin.
All works Copyright James Corrin unless otherwise stated.
For questions or comments, contact the webmaster.