A young girl realizes what she has only after it's too late - or is it?; for Short Shots
I walked along the autumn path, unsure of where I was. The narrow road split a sea of tall trees dressed in reds, oranges, and golds. I didn't remember getting on it or where I was going, but I knew why I was there. I put myself on that road on purpose, hoping to meet a dark stranger along the way. There was only one path to take, but at some point, the road would have to fork to lead lost souls to wherever they were expected. I was also led to believe that there would be someone there waiting to discuss why I would be taking one path or the other. It didn't matter to me. I knew where I deserved to go, and I didn't need some glowing, winged guy with a podium and a list to tell me that. I just needed my date to show up.
I didn't see him there at first, but I felt his chilling presence following close behind. Then I heard the leaves crunch beneath his heavy steps, and I turned. His dark robes draped over his thin, bony visage and dragged behind like a thick, black shadow. His walking stick, a scythe with a large, curved blade, glistened like chrome in the setting autumn sun.
"Fancy seeing you here. Sorry I'm late," his low, deep voice echoed slightly in his hood.
I glanced at him, then turned away, trying not to stare too long. Staring is impolite after all, regardless of how little flesh you have.
I started walking again and asked, "Didn't you pick up Emily Dickinson in a carriage? Why are you here on-foot?"
"I come in whatever way suits you best."
That stung my pride, and I felt the sarcasm bubbling up inside me.
"Ah. So you believe that I deserve to walk myself to The End. Thank you so much showing up. Glad to know you're here for me."
"No, I'm not here for you. I'm here with you."
"Is there a difference?" I asked, flabbergasted at the idea that semantics were taking precedence over my feelings.
"Sure, there is." And he left it at that. We walked in silence for a long while, watching the trees pass by while I contemplated how much of a tool Death was. Then again, what kind of satisfaction could this job possibly have other than to torment the dead? Still, I couldn't leave it alone.
"No wonder you had a carriage for her," I muttered. "You and Miss Poetry-Pants have more in common than I would have thought."
There was another long, slate-clearing pause before he asked, "So, why are we here?"
I stopped, almost as abruptly as I had before I found myself on the path.
"Seriously?! Shouldn't you already know?! Isn't that like a big part of your job?!"
He stopped a few steps ahead but didn't turn to face me.
"I don't mean 'how did we get here.' I was watching when you did what you did. I want to know about the journey leading up to your…magnum opus."
My mind raced, trying to put together the pieces of what Death had said and why he called it that. I had almost forgotten what brought me to the path in the first place, why I was waiting for him.
"I-I-I…uh…I shouldn't be alive anymore," I managed and started walking again. He kept up with my pace, though seemingly with far less effort than I was expending, and stayed silent.
I continued, "My life is meaningless…unimportant, and now it's over. Nobody will miss me. I won't be in anyone's way anymore, and nobody can make fun of me. And if they do, I won't care because I won't have to hear it."
Another long silence drew my attention to the world around us. All of the trees and grass turned black and burned like it was all made of smoldering coals. The orange flashes among the leaves were no longer accompanied by fond memories of making scarecrows and going apple-picking in the Fall. They were fire; angry, repressed, flickering fire. I wondered if that was a sign of where my soul was going to rest for eternity. It didn't matter. Anything was better than living my life. Death's uncomfortable silence told me that he wanted to hear more. After all, it's not like he had anywhere else to be.
"I'm nobody. My parents both work all of the time and don't have time for me. I don't play sports or make good grades. I'm not popular or artistic. I only have my one friend, and she goes to a different school." I looked up at him, as though looking at the side of his nearly-empty hood would somehow create a connection.
"It's true. She's not some imaginary friend. She's just older than me and goes to a different school."
"I believe you," he said coldly. "Why is she your best friend?"
I directed my gaze ahead once more and told him everything. I told him about playing pretend outside, dancing around in my room to golden oldies and pretending we were rock stars. I told him about the toothbrushes we personified to create a soap opera centered around dental hygiene and how we played scary video games together because we liked the stories but didn't much care for the nightmares. It went on and on, all about me and my best friend of so many years.
"But she has a boyfriend now, and…she doesn't have time for me anymore."
Death nodded in his big hood.
"I see. And you think this 'having a boyfriend'-thing means that you don't matter to her anymore. You've been replaced."
"Exactly! She doesn't need me anymore, and no one else ever needed me. So, I'm leaving."
Death stopped and turned to me, freezing me in place with his empty-socket stare.
"One soul does not replace another," he said. "He may enrich her life for a day, a week, maybe a year. Even if they stay together forever, get married, and have a family, that does not replace you or your time together, no more than people being horrid to you dulls the light she has shined on your life. Where will you be when she needs you? Where will you be when this boy breaks her heart? Or when she does, one day, get married and needs a maid of honor? When her children need an aunt? When she needs a friend? Where will you be when she feels what you're feeling right now?"
I was stunned. As much as I loved my best friend, it never occurred to me that she would ever need me again. All that mattered was my pain and my problems. I hadn't been thinking about tomorrow or the next day, about her wedding day or her future. I definitely hadn't been thinking about mine, but I couldn't bring myself to admit any of that to the dark stranger. It was too late, though. He could feel it, sense it. He knew what I was going to say, but he had to ask it anyway.
"So, I ask you again, why are we here?"
My eyes welled up, and I swallowed my pride.
"Because…I've made a big mistake. I thought that this was the best thing for everyone, but now I realize that I've hurt so many people with what I've done, even if I don't think that most of them care. If no one else, I already have or will hurt her...and I'll never get to have those good times again or even reminisce about the old ones. And now it's too late."
The burning scenery hissed and cooled as it became pale ash. I looked both ways on the path. I knew we had come a long way, but it didn't hit me that we had gone so far until I could see it in the distance, the fork in the road. I panicked.
"See? That's it. The fire went out! The fire is me, isn't it? The fire is out!"
"The fire is not you," Death clarified. "The fire was all of those bad things you talked about burning through you like hot coals, slowly burning a hole through a tree stump. It eats the wood away, slowly but resolutely. When you spoke of the goodness of the world that you've seen, the coals went out. They will come alive again because that is the nature of the human spirit, but as long as you know how to put them out, you'll never be hollow. And, someday, new trees will replace those that have burned away."
I wasn't sure that I fully understood his metaphor, but it spoke to me on some level. I had to be able to recognize the good stuff in my life to keep the bad stuff from destroying me, if I hadn't already destroyed myself and come this far. I wanted all of it back. I wanted my chance to try again and be there for her and for me.
"Can we go back?"
Death paused for a moment, staring off at the split in the road ahead, thinking. I waited patiently, hoping that I had just as much time as he did, and watched him turn around.
"I suppose it was a nice walk anyway. Come on. I'll walk you home."
I shared only good stories on the way back. It became easier and easier as I went on. I even managed to think of a few good stories that involved my parents, my step-siblings, and even my pet goldfish, Harold. We walked and walked for what felt like forever. I hadn't remembered exactly where the path had started until we found it. We stopped at the end of the road where it met a white wall with a large door emblazoned with waxy fake wood-grain and the numbers 402. It looked like a door I had seen before when I had to visit my uncle in the hospital, except his room number was 321.
"For what it's worth, I had a great time," I joked.
Death chuckled below his big, black hood.
"As did I."
He paused for a moment and stepped off to the side of the road, aiming the blade of his scythe at a little twig that stuck out of the ashen land with one red leaf.
"See here? New growth already."
I nodded and smiled, unsure of what to say. I didn't want to be rude, but I wanted to get back to my life.
"We should do this again sometime," he added as he passed me and opened the door to my hospital room. "You know, in 50 or 60 years. I'll pick you up."
Word count: 1793