Grave Men: Chapter One, Revised

 

New York City, NY 

I steal breath, ragged and deep in the dry cold, attempting vainly to ignore the heavy pounding in my frozen chest. The air that fills my lungs is as ice; it burns my throat and surges through my veins, freezing me from the inside. I clench and unclench my stiff, useless hands, the palms clammy and cold with sweat, betraying me for the innocent that I am.  

Moonlight drenches us, bathing him and I in a ghostly pallor. The bitter chill that has befallen the park wrestles with and pricks my flesh, and my body shivers in protest. In the sunlight this part of the park is quaint, its four acres pristine and beautiful with their daisies and roses, fragrant flora living side-by-side as in a dream. The garden is not where I had imagined it would happen, but as this is my seventh time, I know to be led, to let him lead. This is the way it should be, I suppose, him in control. 

I rest my hand on the cold wood of the fence, not daring to move. He stands bewildered in the middle of the worn, stone stairs; I stand just inside the entrance of the garden, partially obscured by the shadows of the beautifully reddening dogwoods. Cemented to my spot I wait for him to see me, wanting him to see my eyes. Confusion clouds his eyes and they dart around wildly, sliding quickly over me; I am invisible to him. I heave another strong gulp of still air and force myself to relax, to exude more experience than I could hope to own. His comfort is essential–I need him to greet me as a friend. 

He thinks now of the carousel far off in the distance, beautiful and magnificent. He hears that haunting melody fading as the last empty ride comes to a mournfully slow halt, the horses frozen forever with empty eyes gazing into a world that their riders will never see. It reminds him of his daughter and her perpetually wind-chapped cheeks, her soft, curly pigtails, and the ride( just one ride, Daddy!) he promised her summers ago. It stands where they have always stood, except for the fires, and he could have taken her thousands of times, but he was too busy working and then she was too busy growing up. The leaves rustle gently, there is a thump thump thump thump as a solitary runner sprints past the garden’s entrance. The park at large, normally green and brown and overflowing with people blinded by their own hurry, unable to see its beauty and each other, is quiet and still, but not yet at peace. The footsteps fade, and we are alone. I step gently into his line of sight, the pale blue flicker of a park lamp soaking me in a soft luminescence.  Uncertainty marks him, then recognition.

The air before us is clouded, rhythmically, with small puffs of mist. I walk, slowly, until I am close enough to touch him, but I don’t. A cluster of leaves blows quickly past; it is so much colder now, in the small amount of time we have stood here the temperature has plummeted. In spite of the bone chilling ether, I no longer shiver. His eyes dart again around, panic-stricken and wide. Finally they rest on me, and our eyes lock.  His blue ones are watery and wide in his plump round face; I hope mine are if not friendly, at least as open as necessary. He swallows and his fleshy chin wobbles. I do not move, I only continue to stare into his eyes. Visibly he relaxes, and so I relax. I hold out my hand to him, palm down, never breaking our eye contact. I don’t want to force him. I don’t mind waiting. I can wait. He steps slowly down the stairs until we are level, me looking up slightly to stare into his eyes. He takes my hand, gingerly at first, then more forcefully, almost eagerly. His hand grips mine, we lace fingers, intimately, and I can feel his rapid pulse, his blood racing under our cold skin. The wind whistles in our ears as tears stream down our cheeks, but his grip does not waver. I nod, once, offering him a reassuring smile. You can trust me. Look at my face. You know me. Trust me. He smiles back, his mouth again trembling. There are no words. We turn in unison, a practiced dance. We fall into step together, and I lead him slowly, silently into the night.

 

***

Chapter One

Hot, wet sand sticks to my feet and squishes between my toes, and I squint through the sunlight at the tracks made crooked behind us by the wagon. Ian licks gritty sand from the seashells before tossing them eagerly from the bucket, and I walk beside the glistening red wagon, replacing all of the shells he drops, their crevices sandy but smooth in my hands. Willow and Mom hold hands before leaping into the water, their hair wild and screams ecstatic, the smell of salt wafting back to Dad and I on the beach. We smile at each other knowingly, picking up the shells, running our fingers over the edges. This one is perfect, Dad exclaims, and wordlessly I agree. Ian climbs out of the wagon, running after Mom and Willow, his soggy diaper ballooning his low trunks. He turns back, and for a moment the sun glints from his hair, and everything is perfect. Dad kisses the top of my head, and we are all perfect. 

 

John Davies was my first. I didn’t want to take him. We weren’t friends; he was a football player pressed from the mold of the jock stereotype, I was valedictorian and captain of the soccer team; we had no classes together, but I at least knew of him. 

Corri took my hands firmly in hers, her fingers plump and warm beneath my cold ones. We were watching Emma and Rhys create mudpies from the sandbox in her tiny yard, Emma meticulously decorating them with grass and roots. I smiled sadly at the overturned tricycle, the dirt crusted ball crushing white tulips in the soft bed. She held my hands tightly until I looked at her, our eyes meeting.

“Johnathan Michael Davies, eighteen years old, native of Manhattan. Currently attends Colonie High school. Older brother of—“ I snatch my hand from hers and she stops, staring at me boldly, and I stare back at her in disbelief. Her fierce eyes do not waver; she refuses to look away. I shake my head, stunned into silence. Corri watches me, even as I have given up hope. 

“No,” I begin, but the uncertainty in my voice makes me sound a child. I swallow, trying again. “How can you ask me that? Why would you ask me? Are you—are you kidding me?” Corri grabs my hand again.

“I don’t question those above me so don’t you dare question me. This is your job! This is what you are trained to do, born to do, trained to be! Dry your face and grow up! He will need you to be there, Morgan,” she pleas anxiously. “You knew what was required. You knew this was coming.” Tears burn my eyes like acid, and a painful lump lodges in my throat. I swallow, attempting to keep my eyes open, to prevent the tears from rolling down my cheeks. My efforts are in vain, however, and the tears roll down anyway. Corri’s eyes soften and gently she touches my cheek.

“Morgan. Look at me. Please look at me. I know. I know how you are feeling. But you don’t have a choice. You have to go to him. You have to be there for him. He knows you. He can’t go if you aren’t there. And the universe has ways of making you do your job. Just do it. Don’t make them force you.” I am still crying, and I can only see the outline of her small plump body through my tears. She is pleading with me, willing me to understand, but I do not. I cannot.

“Why? Why John? And how? Do I have to see it?” Corri shakes her head. 

“Remember how we said this works? We have trained for years for this. It’s like slipping into a dream. Remember the rules. You don’t speak. You never speak. When the time comes, you no longer need his memories, so don’t touch anything. Don’t laugh, don’t cry. You wait for him to see you. He has to believe he has imagined you, that he has willingly brought you in. You hold out your hand, and you wait for him to take it. Never let his hand go. You lead him into the light. He will walk through, and you will return to your human self.”

“Where does he go from there?” I dribble futilely, but Corri shakes her head again as I knew she would.

“That’s not your concern. You just make sure he leaves.” She pauses, picking imaginary lint from her pants. She shifts in her seat uncomfortably, and does not look at me. 

“Am I leaving my body? Will it hurt?” My oft-repeated question prompts a cringe from Corri, and she stares into my eyes before granting me a warm smile. She grabs my hands and squeezes them again, repeating the same answer that she has always given.

“Your soul is, but only for a moment. And it hurts no more than falling asleep.” I quickly wipe my eyes, and focus on Rhys and Emma again. Corri and Geoffry waited forever to have children. She waited, and she made Geoffry wait. 

We’re too young for kids, she told him first, her round cheeks unchecked by time, hair thick and glossy sweeping her shoulders. 

Not yet, she told him in the dark, his face pressed into her back, the shield of night hiding the stinging in her eyes, the accusation in his. 

Kids aren’t for everyone, no one can make you have them! Nicole told her proudly, knowingly, and through her nose, sipping a large glass of deep red wine. Corri gesticulated a silent yes, barely able to breathe, holding her breath so her desire (shame) didn’t spill out, engulfing and drowning everyone. 

Yes Mom, we’re fine, she told her for the thousandth time, clenching the phone so hard that her knuckles were white, whispering so Geoffrey wouldn’t hear and think of it, as if it ever left his mind. I’m just. . .waiting. 

And then, soon after, she met me. Shuffling in and hiding behind my Dad’s legs, the most beautiful and terrible sight she had ever seen–would ever see–and she called Geoffrey and told him, weeping, that it was time, that she was ready. When they finally had Rhys, Emma came a little over ten months later. They are so young and small, both with hair as red as their father’s, eyes as green as their mother’s. They are precious and sweet in their innocence. I squint at them, and wonder what it would have been like if one of them had The Gift, as Corri refers to it. I don’t give it a name; I don’t call myself. What would she do with Rhys and Emma? Corri senses my question, and examines at her children herself. She looks back at me, her mind elsewhere. 

“You are like one of my own,” Corri begins in a whisper, “and I would never, ever lie to you. I promise you, you won’t be hurt.” Tears fill her eyes now as she pleads with me wordlessly. 

“Will he?” I breathe, soft and small, like a child. Corri pauses, only for a second.

“No.” She lies.

***

“Leamas! Offsides one more goddamned time and I swear you will run sprints around this field until your legs snap!” Sweat stings my eyes, and I hear yelling in the distance where my ears used to hear before the sharp blast of the whistle trilled in them. Coach shouts obscenities, waving frantically. I look around to find my team is behind me, and I am eye to eye with the right midfielder for our opponents. 

I blink back the sweat and rain, closing my eyes for an instant. I open them again as the ball blows past me, and I find my team midfield, while I am apparently stationary in the box. I throw a glance over my shoulder, assessing the goalie. She glares at me and I roll my eyes, stepping into her line of sight. I smell the sweet fragrance of wet grass as I wipe water from my eyes. Kathryn runs, yelling, pointing at me. Adrenaline pumping, I do a quick sweep of the opponents surrounding me, threatening to overtake me. I glance into the green-gold eyes of one of the defenders from our opposition

–And am hit, as if by train, my lungs collapsing from the force. The man is large, at least 6’5 and several hundred pounds, and he towers over me, all muscle on his large frame. Fear grips my throat my eyes dart around the dark room wildly. His teeth glisten in the dim light and the smell of whisky on his breath sours my stomach. Another light flickers in the distance, but I only see his teeth, beautifully white in his twisted mouth. He grabs me by the hair and yanks me up. With his other hand he grips my jaw, opening my mouth roughly

–And I am laying in the grass, my team standing over me, Coach holding my hand. A bright light shines in my eyes as I become aware of my name being repeated.

“Morgan, can you hear me? Morgan, open your eyes.” Confused, I blink rapidly.

“What happened?” Ms. Tannen, the school nurse, smiles down at me, a crowd of faces huddled blurry over her shoulders.

“The EMT’s are going to take you to the hospital,” she continues gently, speaking softly as if afraid I might break. “We called your parents, they’re going to meet us there.” 

“I’ll go with her,” A voice familiar voice pipes from behind Ms. Tannen. Gema.

“Wait–what happened?” I gurgle groggily. “How badly was I hit?” I hope that maybe I imagined the encounter, but Coach shakes his head. “Morgan, you weren’t hit. You just. . .collapsed.” He is young, only 23, and the face that we normally talk about in ways that would make our parents lock us in chastity belts welded shut with holy water is pale and stunned, raw fear contorting his features. He shakes his head again.

“I have no idea what happened. I’m sorry for yelling,” He offers uselessly. I try to sit up, but Ms. Tannen pins my shoulders to the ground. 

“It’s best that you don’t move,” She whispers, attempting to keep my panic at bay, and I close my eyes in embarrassment. 

“Please step aside,” another voice commands, and I don’t move, closing my eyes tightly as I am secured onto a gurney. Gema whispers frantically beside me, but I say nothing.The ambulance whisks me away, and it feels like forever until we arrive. When the ambulance doors slam open I finally open my eyes, squinting as they adjust to the light, listening to the EMT rapid fire information to the doctors.

“17-year-old female, presenting with convulsions, possible grand-mal seizures of unknown origin, vitals normal. History of–“The voices fade as I succumb to a sleepless dark. 

My body aches as I attempt to sit up, finding myself in a room divided by a thin curtain that doesn’t reach the floor with a nurse in pink scrubs gently holding my arm while checking my vitals.

“Morgan, hey,” Gema greets me quietly, her eyes red surrounded by dirt smudged cheeks. She looks younger than I’ve ever seen her; her wet hair has escaped from her band and she wrings her hands nervously. She steps closer to me, and tears form in her eyes again.

I stare at her, heart racing, afraid of the sight of her fear.”What happened?” My voice croaks, and I make a concerted effort to inhale a jagged, throaty breath.

Gema glances at the nurse and then back at me, shaking her head slowly, apparently dazed.

“I don’t know. You were standing there, and it looked like you were about to block that tall girl’s shot, and then you just dropped. But it wasn’t just like you fell. I was like your body just slammed down. It was so scary. Coach threw down everything and ran over. I’ve never seen him look like that. And you. I have never seen anything like that in my life.” I want to ask questions, but I can only stare blankly at her, confused.

“Morgan!” A soft, cheery voice greets me with my name. I think it may be the doctor, but he looks barely old enough to drive. Before he can open his mouth to speak again, Mom bursts through the cloth barrier, with Dad following behind her. She barrels past the doctor and grabs my face, staring worriedly into my eyes. “Morgan, are you okay? Honey, what’s wrong?” Without waiting for me to answer, she whirls on the doctor, fiercely glancing him over.

“What’s wrong with her?” She demands bluntly, “Will she be alright?” The doctor smiles at her and holds out his hand.

“I’m Dr. Sampson, and I’ll be taking care of Morgan. Does she have any history of seizures?” Mom shakes her head and looks at Dad, who nods in silent agreement. 

“Well, we’re just going to do a few more scans, a bit of blood work, and we’ll have you some answers as soon as possible. We will take very good care of your daughter, Mr. And Mrs. Leamas.” He bobs his head, his own confirmation to Mom and Dad and gives my leg a reassuring squeeze.

Eight hours later I am home with a prognosis of stress and slight anemia. Mom blames soccer, Dad blames student council and overexertion. I blame Corri. 

She visits me while I am on bed rest (Mom refuses to let me return to school). I sit in my room bored, mourning a Friday that is unfortunate in its painfully monotonous similarity to the rest of the week. I dare not leave my bed for fear that Mom has placed trip wire on the floor, waiting for the opportunity to straightjacket me. I stare pitifully of the window at the clear spring day, feeling a prisoner in my own home, captive to my mind. What happened to me? What had I seen? I could still feel his lips. . . A wind picks up and the bright leaves of The Climbing Tree flutter softly. The Climbing Tree is the name it is given because of what I wish someone–anyone–would do to it, not because it has ever had that use. My door opens and my neck snaps over anxiously with my immediate hope that it is Gema come to bring me news from freedom.

But it isn’t Gema. Corri glides in, followed immediately by Mom who flashes a bright smile, placing her hand gently on Corri’s back.

“Morgan, Ms. Corri has come to visit you! Isn’t that nice?” First, I hate the way Mom always says Morgan before she speaks to me, as if she has to confirm that I am who I say I am. And since I am not six, I will not refer to Corri as “miss” anything, choosing instead to glare fiercely at her.

“Well, I’m working from home today,” Mom states breathlessly, “so I have to leave you to it. I’ll be in my office if you need anything.” She offers Corri an apologetic smile before slipping out of my room, closing the door softly behind her. Corri takes a moment to gaze around. I am suddenly self-conscious about my room, a bubblegum pink with dark oak floors and a fluffy, pink rug that I lay on to read, the thickness and softness matched only by its twin covering the entirety of my closet. Dad removed my bland wooden bookcase years ago and replaced it with old repurposed ladders that he sanded down and painted white. I love my bookshelf and I am possessive of its contents as Corri walks over to it and fingers the books lovingly. She plucks The Inferno from the shelf, and opens to the marked page; mouthing the words from the highlighted hell before nodding and placing it on my computer desk. I stare at her, not speaking. Her eyes meet mine and I shift wordlessly. She nods again and sits gingerly on the end of my bed.

“I’m not your enemy, Morgan,” she begins, and I roll my eyes. “I’m not,” she insists before sighing and running her hands through her hair. 

“I was gifted too,” she starts. “It isn’t difficult task, guardianship.” She admits heavily. “You are–and you always will be–my only Death. But. . .to tell someone. . .that they are death. That everything they touch. . .is touched by death? It is a heavy burden, and that is the truth.” My throat feels heavy and thick at her words.

She doesn’t know. How can she know? The burden is mine. I gaze out of the window again, attempting to see past the tree. I imagine children in the next yard (Mom isn’t super friendly, so I don’t know the names of the neighbors) playing. I imagine one day, one like Corri will meet them. I am certain one like me will find them. They are oblivious to their fate. 

“I saw into someone’s mind. At the game.” I offer this quietly, my voice barely above a whisper, and Corri looks at me, stunned. I still stare out the window, but I can feel her eyes drawn to me. “It was like, I was there inside their memory. Like I became them? I was being hit, or. . .something. I could feel it. The fear. . .everything.”

“Who was it?” Corri asks, and I shake my head.

“I don’t know. It felt. . .so real. Like it was me,” I state again, seeing. “And I was so afraid.” Corri swallows visibly before responding.

“This happens, in the beginning. Accidental seeing is hard to control, especially in high adrenaline situations. But you have to learn to control it Morgan. You can’t jump into people’s minds. It isn’t safe. For you or for them. You cannot–cannot do it again. Don’t mention it, and just. . .don’t do it. You have a job, Morgan. That’s all–you do what you have been tasked with!” Frustration slips out through Corri’s voice.

“Don’t I have a choice?” I ask her, still staring out the window, watching the rain hit the window like tears, streaking angrily to the bottom before they are lost on the pane. Corri stares at me silently, searching for words.

I think about the acceptance letters under my pillow. The first one–and the only one that ever mattered–came a few weeks ago; I was going to surprise Mom and Dad. Dear Ms. Leamas, On behalf of. . .I want to congratulate you on your admission to the School of Arts at Columbia University for the Fall semester of. . . I opened it at the mailbox, letting the contents of the pale, cream colored envelope fall to the ground. I stood there, reading and re-reading it for what seemed like hours. I calmly stooped down and picked up the rest of the package with shaking hands, ignoring the hot gravel stuck to my fingers. I opened the heavy oak door, closed it gently, opened my mouth, and screamed. I ran into the library adjacent to the entry hall and jumped up and down on the white leather couch. I peeled into the hallway unsteadily, stubbing my toe on a stone egyptian cat. I gleefully cursed the glaring cat, jumping up and down, knees practically in my chest. I took the stairs two at a time, slipping on the last and falling into the landing, bouncing onto my bed and kissing the letter fondly. I placed it gingerly underneath my pillow, promising to return. For an entire day I was happy. And then Corri contacted me and gave me my first, pulling me away from the fantasy of normal, the possibility of human chaotic existence.

“No.” She answers finally. We sit in silence until she stands at long last. She kissed me and hugs me tightly, a gesture which I return half-heartedly. 

“Morgan, your time is coming. And you had better be ready.” She kisses me again and leaves, taking all hope–and me–with her. 

My first reaping comes as a gift, for my birthday. The same night of my senior prom, I opt stubbornly not to attend, much to Mom’s dismay. She begged relentlessly, warning “You’ll never get this time back,” a promise I could only hope for. “It will be good for you, you need to make these memories,” she pleaded. I’ll pay for everything, she bribed. I retreated to a place inside of myself that she could not reach. Silent and stoic, I ignored her entirely. I knew it wasn’t the prom that she really cared about, but me. I was becoming a stranger to her. Willow, in her rebellion, was familiar. She displayed, vocally, and outwardly, her defiance. She could be punished for her disobedience, and Mom could predict her. Ian, still young, was her baby. An athlete, model student, he was perfect to her, and also predictable. I was becoming a loner. Distant and unwavering in my refusal to speak. We talked at each other, not quite understanding the nuances, what the other was saying. Mom never knew where I was going, what I wanted. After I hit puberty I was lost to her completely, but our relationship didn’t die with dignity. It lay there, burning in the fire of words we didn’t say. It shriveled, but refused to disappear entirely. Rather than let it dissolve and blow away, Mom watered it, and could not understand why she couldn’t make it grow.

Dad was different. We were always the same and in sync, growing older but not distant. Dad understood me silently, defending me and shielding me from the full force of Mom’s wrath.

“Mom will only hate you for a while,” Willow confided to me. She sat on my bed, while I huddled in my closet, arms wrapped around my knees. Willow had an obnoxious way of speaking, as if everything were obvious and boring to her. She was up from Columbia for the weekend, because Mom had bribed her as a last ditch effort to bully me into normalcy.

“I don’t know why she cares,” I respond stubbornly. I pulled my hair into my face, staring through the coils while pulling at thread on my jeans. Willow laid back onto my bed, crossing and uncrossing her legs in the air.

“You know how she is. She likes the control. So are you going to your prom or not?” I shake my head.

“Even if I wanted to, I missed the deadline.” Willow hops off of my bed and glides to the door, glancing back at me. She sighs heavily before speaking.

“Morgan, don’t let her bully you. And don’t believe anyone who says this is the best time of your life. It isn’t. If it is, that’s depressingly sad, and I honestly wouldn’t think the rest was even worth it.” She shuts the door behind her, and I close the closet door. I curl up in the corner, my heart beginning to race. I won’t go, and she can’t make me. The Universe, and whoever controls it, will have to drag me out of here. I keep my phone with me, glancing at the time every few minutes. I don’t worry about Mom finding me in here; she and Dad left for the night together hours ago. Dad handed me my gift, pressing the box into my hands. A dragonfly, silver with tiny words on the back vive ut vivas. It reflected beautifully the night and Dad helped me place it onto my neck before kissing me softly on the cheek. When they left Mom declared at the house of one of her public defenders, but I know it’s that she isn’t in the mood to see me. Ian is at a friend’s house, so I am in the large, silent house alone. I don’t dare leave the safety of my closet. My stomach growls, and I am bored, but I am too frightened to move. 

My eyes are dragged downward, as if by anchors. I am tired, but I refuse to sleep. I am afraid to close my eyes. Afraid of what I might see, where I might go. One moment I am in my closet, sitting on the cold rug surrounded by dusty trophies, thinking about leaving for a few minutes to sneak sustenance

 and the next, it feels as though my ears are popping. I see my room as if through water; distorted, the colors bleed together. I am speeding through the dark, shapeless and without form. My heart, had I one, would be thrashing in its cage. It is scary, this feeling. Being everywhere and nowhere. I want to scream, but I have left my mouth and my body behind. I know where I am headed, and as Corri predicted, I am powerless to stop it. 

Instantly I am in John’s mind. He knows that I am there immediately, because I did not arrive willing. I collide with his mind; I feel it, and he feels it. As soon as I enter his mind, I scream. He jerks around, but the car he drives is empty. He told his mom that he would be home by one; it is shortly after, and he is racing home. I am frantically peeling back the layers of his memory, trying to remember everything Corri has taught me, but fear drives the Death in me, primal and uncontrollable. How do I let him see me? Where am I? I think to myself. John jerks again, and this time I can feel the panic that embraces him. I place myself there, in the first memory I find, a recent one, of him kissing his girlfriend goodnight. She looked so beautiful that night, and he was so nervous. They were attending different colleges, but he didn’t want to think about that now. 

He sees me there, staring at them. And he yells fearfully, a blood curdling yell. This memory, my presence, it is all wrong. Forget that, I command. Look at me, I will him. He lets go of the wheel, yelling frantically. Calm down, I yell back with equal unrest. I see the light dancing in the corner of my eyes, but I do not turn to it. I have taken control of this memory, and so we are in the park. There are young cherub-like children playing in leaves, dogs barking playfully in the distance. In my mind it is a peaceful scene, but the abrupt change only causes John more panic. Take my hand, I urge him. The car is careening out of control, horns are blaring, but John does not grab the wheel His eyes are wide, and he is in complete shock He can only stare at me, the girl he thought he knew but who looks so dangerous now, who shouldn’t be here now, in his mind and he can’t get her out, and he wonders if she is here to kill him, if this is the end, if his parents know that he loves them, if he can beg for more time, where he will go Please take my hand, I whisper desperately The light is racing toward us I hold out my hand, begging him to come, but he does not take it He turns to run from the light and then I turn to the light I gaze at him, and he stares over his shoulder at me, my arm outstretched into eternity between us, tears streaming down his cheeks John, I am so–but I do not finish. The light crashes into us, over us, it engulfs us both, and I jump, and stumble around. My eyes focus, and I am in my dark closet. I collapse, my head thrown violently against the floor, crying so hard I cannot take breath. I stumble out of the closet and down the stairs, slipping halfway down and tumbling to the bottom. I jerk myself up, too stunned to feel the pain. I fumble with the lock on the back door, slamming my hand against the window hysterically, screaming, until finally it unlocks. I throw it open and fall first to my knees, and then my face onto the springy grass. I cannot remove the image–his last image–from my mind. The fear. The hurt. The accusation. I looked into his eyes and saw myself. I looked in that moment as I am–Death. And he would not come to me.  

 

Grave Men: Chapter One

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

—Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Dylan Thomas

Life asked Death: “why do people love me, but hate you?”Death responded “Because you are the beautiful lie and I am the painful truth”

New York City, NY

I steal breath, ragged and deep in the dry cold, attempting vainly to ignore the heavy pounding in my frozen chest. The air that fills my lungs is as ice; it burns my throat and surges through my veins, freezing me from the inside. I clench and unclench my stiff, useless hands, the palms clammy and cold with sweat, betraying me for the innocent that I am.

Moonlight drenches us, bathing him and I in a ghostly pallor. The bitter chill that has befallen the park wrestles with and pricks my flesh, and my body shivers in protest. In the sunlight this part of the park is quaint, its four acres pristine and beautiful with their daisies and roses, fragrant flora living side-by-side as in a dream. The garden is not where I had imagined it would happen, but as this is my seventh time, I know to be led, to let him lead. This is the way it should be, I suppose, him in control.

I rest my hand on the cold wood of the fence, not daring to move. He stands bewildered in the middle of the worn, stone stairs; I stand just inside the entrance of the garden, partially obscured by the shadows of the beautifully reddening dogwoods. Cemented to my spot I wait for him to see me, wanting him to see my eyes. Confusion clouds his eyes and they dart around wildly, sliding quickly over me; I am invisible to him. I heave another strong gulp of still air and force myself to relax, to exude more experience than I could hope to own. His comfort is essential–I need him to greet me as a friend.

He thinks now of the carousel far off in the distance, beautiful and magnificent. He hears that haunting melody fading as the last empty ride comes to a mournfully slow halt, the horses frozen forever with empty eyes gazing into a world that their riders will never see. It reminds him of his daughter and her perpetually wind-chapped cheeks, her soft, curly pigtails, and the ride( just one ride, Daddy!) he promised her summers ago. It stands where they have always stood, except for the fires, and he could have taken her thousands of times, but he was too busy working and then she was too busy growing up. The leaves rustle gently, there is a thump thump thump thump as a solitary runner sprints past the garden’s entrance. The park at large, normally green and brown and overflowing with people blinded by their own hurry, unable to see its beauty and each other, is quiet and still, but not yet at peace. The footsteps fade, and we are alone. I step gently into his line of sight, the pale blue flicker of a park lamp soaking me in a soft luminescence.  Uncertainty marks him, then recognition.

The air before us is clouded, rhythmically, with small puffs of mist. I walk, slowly, until I am close enough to touch him, but I don’t. A cluster of leaves blows quickly past; it is so much colder now, in the small amount of time we have stood here the temperature has plummeted. In spite of the bone chilling ether, I no longer shiver. His eyes dart again around, panic-stricken and wide. Finally they rest on me, and our eyes lock.  His blue ones are watery and wide in his plump round face; I hope mine are if not friendly, at least as open as necessary. He swallows and his fleshy chin wobbles. I do not move, I only continue to stare into his eyes. Visibly he relaxes, and so I relax. I hold out my hand to him, palm down, never breaking our eye contact. I don’t want to force him. I don’t mind waiting. I can wait. He steps slowly down the stairs until we are level, me looking up slightly to stare into his eyes. He takes my hand, gingerly at first, then more forcefully, almost eagerly. His hand grips mine, we lace fingers, intimately, and I can feel his rapid pulse, his blood racing under our cold skin. The wind whistles in our ears as tears stream down our cheeks, but his grip does not waver. I nod, once, offering him a reassuring smile. You can trust me. Look at my face. You know me. Trust me. He smiles back, his mouth again trembling. There are no words. We turn in unison, a practiced dance. We fall into step together, and I lead him slowly, silently into the night.

***

Chapter One

Hot, wet sand sticks to my feet and squishes between my toes, and I squint through the sunlight at the tracks made crooked behind us by the wagon. Ian licks gritty sand from the seashells before tossing them eagerly from the bucket, and I walk beside the glistening red wagon, replacing all of the shells he drops, their crevices sandy but smooth in my hands. Willow and Mom hold hands before leaping into the water, their hair wild and screams ecstatic, the smell of salt wafting back to Dad and I on the beach. We smile at each other knowingly, picking up the shells, running our fingers over the edges. This one is perfect, Dad exclaims, and wordlessly I agree. Ian climbs out of the wagon, running after Mom and Willow, his soggy diaper ballooning his low trunks. He turns back, and for a moment the sun glints from his hair, and everything is perfect. Dad kisses the top of my head, and we are all perfect. 

There exists a strange sense of voyeurism in the watching. The eyes slowly shift away, demanded by decency, but curiosity impels them as they dart back on their own. Forever invisible to them I stand frozen, captivated by the familiarity of their act. An embarrassed heat burns my ears, and I want to look around to see if the mouths of others are agape, to know that my reaction is correct. I want to turn away from the scene and the sensation of seeing something intimately private, but I am transfixed. Is it pleasure or pain? She–I think she–crashes into him, and he into her; her hands disappear into his back like claws, and blood drips from her fingers.  The fiery orange and red binds them until it is impossible to tell where the lines of his body end and hers begin.They are covered in flames, or they are themselves the flames, or perhaps they are both. Underneath the flame the red strokes of their bodies are bold and perfect: a slope of a hip here, the soft curve of a mouth there. They are the focal point, and so I do not notice the eyes in the background, watching me as I watch them. The eyes form from a break in the flame, empty and black, but unmistakable. When I notice them I startle guiltily, before averting my eyes and moving to the next, which is stained in navy and black shadows, save for the red-orange of a glowing ember as she takes a seemingly eternal drag of the cigarette. And the next, a deep sanguine, with flames, clearly visible now, hanging over her like a veil. A shape of a body, or the shadow of a body, lies motionless in the background. Sleeping or dead, I cannot tell. Perhaps there is a face beneath the veil, but her fury distorts the image, and I can’t see past it. The first two,  painted with watercolors, are vibrant and moving, but the third has a rough, unfamiliar texture that I can’t make out. I move closer now, and as I reach out a soft voice murmurs,

“What do you see?” I jolt and pull my hand away guiltily. I spin around to face Mr. Ragora, but he stares past me, entranced by the painting. I am familiar with his ritual–his question does not yet require an answer.

As he observes the paintings, I study him. Mr. Ragora is in his late fifties, well-groomed, and classically handsome. His dark brown hair is immaculate, pushed from his high forehead, accenting the handsome streaks of gray, and his blue eyes, hooded by thick brows, stare deeply into the paintings, drinking them in. At 5’6, his stoic personality creates within him an undefinable force that his stature never could: a brilliant collector and shrewd businessman, his dress–always an immaculately tailored black or gray suit–is consistently predictable.  He is a lover of both classic and modern abstract art, and the ties he wears display different themes and pieces–a surprising contrast to his seeming blue-gray life.

His ebony suit partially conceals the crisp, baby blue shirt buttoned to the point of discomfort for a lesser man, but surreptitiously boasts the starched tie tightly coiled around his neck. Only the dark blue and orange sky and the top of the subjects forehead in The Scream are visible above the V of Mr. Ragora’s jacket. Cold empty eyes appear to point upward, staring in horror at Mr. Ragora. It is creepy, the torturous way the individual hangs. I pull my eyes away from the tie and turn back to the paintings, next to him now, my mind racing nervously. In the four years since I began working here, I have felt no closer to a deep understanding of The Human Condition. An answer to the existential dilemma is lost to me.

People enter the gallery daily with lofty and grandiose expectations; openly they want to be moved and inspired, to appear learned and cultured, but secretly they want to perceive evidence of the human soul and the truth of their own condition. Only rarely does a “true” collector–one who values art for art’s sake–find his or her way into our midst, and even then, they only buy what they believe their souls would value—at least, this is what Mr. Ragora claims. To me it sounds like drivel, but he wants to make me a believer, or he wants to believe that I am. And so I stand here, waiting to “feel my soul stirred.” Mr. Ragora speaks of and looks at all of his paintings with the passion of a lover. He caresses them with his voice, sells them with his intimate knowledge of the essence of each piece. Mr. Ragora gazes at me now; I can feel his dark blue eyes piercing my skin, his expectant smile eternally patient as he waits for an answer. Shrugging nervously I stare, a helpless child, at the paintings, toying with the small, golden dragonfly hanging on a chain on my chest.

“I think. . .” I begin, my mind racing. “I think that I’ve seen these before.” I glance quickly at Mr. Ragora’s face, assessing his expression, and his smile does not waiver.

“Yes?” He urges me encouragingly. I meant my original answer literally (after a while, it all begins to seem redundant) but his expectations are so high that I lose my nerve, feeling that I must continue.

“Maybe not these exact paintings—obviously not these. But the idea, you know? It’s like. . .she wants us to see her anger. Her passion. She wants us to think that the person she painted is strong. But all I see is the artist’s weakness.” Mr. Ragora nods encouragingly, and so I continue.

“She thinks that she has revealed herself to her audience, and that we won’t look past the veil. She uses red for passion, rage, and love. She thinks that she is clever, and unique in her pain. But she isn’t. And the eyes—“ I gaze again at the first and second paintings, the struggle of the artist painfully familiar to me. The eyes of the souls of the watcher and lovers are all hauntingly absent. Dangerously subhuman. As if she couldn’t quite capture the essence of human existence viewed through the eyes.

“The eyes—or the lack of eyes—reveal her for a coward. She doesn’t want us to see her pain. She doesn’t express it because it’s too familiar. This is the work of a coward,” stepping forward boldly, I stroke the rough canvas. “She’s a coward because she reveals everything by revealing nothing and she doesn’t know it.” Mr. Ragora places his hands on my shoulders, his smile larger than before.

“Morgan,  your ideas always penetrate to the very soul of the art and, in my opinion, the artist. It is, truly, a gift.” He gives my shoulders a paternal squeeze and turns back to the work, fingers caressing his chin, and I know that I am dismissed. I glance at the eyes in the first painting again for a brief moment before turning to return to my desk.

Art galleries overrun Chelsea, lurking in shadows on side streets, prominently boasting their fare in windows, bursting forth from crowded buildings, displaying signs proudly on sidewalks already overloaded with people. If I walk from our door and stumble, I will undoubtedly fall into the lap of another gallery. Stationed on the corner of West 26th and 10th between two galleries of equal prestige, The Ragora Gallery is huddled in an unassuming converted 1920s tenement building. The interior is a stark contrast to the humble brick exterior; wall to ceiling the paint sparkles in a brilliant, blinding white. The front of the gallery is stiffly ordered with each piece exactly forty-eight inches apart and forty-eight inches from the ground. Around the corner from order and away from the eyes of window-viewers, however, lives chaos.

Mr. Ragora, like any art purveyor, entertains the presence of sculptures, but he is moderately prejudiced against them so their stays in the gallery are infrequent and brief. In the back of the gallery from wall to ceiling, paintings and photographs are displayed, pressed closely together, all yearning to be touched. The freestanding walls in the center of the gallery display his favorites, and therefore receive room of their own. Unlike other Manhattan galleries snobby in their emptiness, Mr. Ragora wants to fill the walls with art. I think the plethora of artwork overwhelms the guests, but Mr. Ragora accepts them like a starving man, hoarding every piece that crosses into the gallery, loathing those that do not.

Dirt & Desire, our current featured collection, is unabashedly exhibited on the freestanding wall in the middle of the gallery as the centerpiece. The apparent inferior modern pieces are relegated to traditional walls flanking the center, with small white cards that display only the name of the piece underneath.  A cacophony of strong scents permeates the place: paint, turpentine, and rust. They fill the air and engulf my lungs; I don’t realize it affects my breathing until my daily departure, when my chest expands painfully and greedily to take in the city-fresh, New York air.

I make my way through the maze of sculptures and the smatter of people to join Tiffany at the bright white hutch that is our workspace. With its sharp, crisp lines, and tall square vases filled neatly with plump, bulbous, lavender tulips (always tulips), the desk stands as a masterpiece in its own right. Mr. Ragora designed it himself and there are no hiding spaces. When a person enters the gallery, the desk rises colossal and intimidating before them in all of its absurd glory: glossy, white, and pure.

Tiffany reaches out to pluck lint from my thin, black shell, looking me up and down critically, and I shift self-consciously under her prying eyes.

“How did you do?” She interrogates me. Without waiting for my response, she rifles through her shiny glass drawer and plucks out her emergency mirror and mascara. I am fascinated by her brazen vanity, as well as her incessant need to view herself in the mirror which she does almost unconsciously. When the door opens, Tiffany is always quick to rise, and she positions herself directly across from the glass front, to both be seen first by the patron and to better view herself.

Tiffany is beautiful, with flawless olive skin, a strong lined jaw that slopes down gently into a perfectly formed chin, and mahogany and auburn ringlets that cascade down her back, framing her round face. Her teeth are always clenched, giving her lips a pouty pucker, and her dark brown, almond eyes are hooded by thick, long lashes. She towers over me at 5’7, and she refuses to wear a heel lower than five inches. Standing in front of her now I am struck as always, by the superficial but ever-present feeling of underwhelming that our guests must also feel when they are greeted by me instead of her.

“Better.” I respond, reaching for the phone, listening mindlessly to the messages. Every day I arrive at 9 am. I unlock the door, start the coffee, listen to the messages. I never write them down the first time, and so a large part of my ritual includes listening again to the messages at least two more times. I replay them, now, this time with pen in hand. As I struggle to catch the name of a woman clearly attempting to break the space time continuum by the sheer speed of her own speaking the door opens and I look up, automatically plastering a smile to my face.

Darkening the doorway is a group of Spectators; frequent visitors, they travel in packs and feign interest in the work, but they always leave empty handed. Mr. Ragora is one of the very few dealers who opens his doors to the public, a truth repeated so often by Tiffany it seems a point of reverence.

Todays Spectators are locals, an oft-visiting group of four women and three men. The women attempt to walk through the door shoulder to shoulder, the quiet murmur of the gallery broken when they laugh hysterically upon finding the building in the same form as it stood last month, and realizing that their arms do not, in fact, remove themselves to aid in their useless effort. The women are two blondes with skin so pale as to be translucent, and a woman with dark brown skin, the color of bittersweet chocolate and cropped, curly hair, all of startling model-esque stature. The first, blonde, enters wearing a perfectly whitened, unwavering smile. The second, markedly less smiley, haughtily tosses her hair in an attempt to display her boredom. The woman with the curly hair eyeballs the gallery, a mixture of awe and impatience marking her stunning features. This group makes their respective living as waiters and waitresses by day, occasional television and movie extras by night, and I am always quietly fascinated by their tawdry tales of woe, which they gleefully swap amongst themselves like scars.

I pretend to be busy with the phone as the group approaches the desk, and Tiffany briskly walks around me to face the group/glass. She offers her hand to no one in particular, wrist up awkwardly expecting, apparently, to have it kissed. I raise an eyebrow and stare at her as the group exchange unsure, wary looks. One of the men, tall and lanky with tousled mousy brown hair, grabs her hand and shakes it, thankfully. Tiffany graces him (herself) with a warm smile.

“Welcome to the Ragora.” Tiffany offers, her nasally voice pretentiously seductive. “We currently have on exhibit Dirt & Desire, a wonderful display from a local artist, Rachelle. It encompasses the rawness of human sexuality and desire. Notice the way she uses oranges and reds. It’s quite seductive. Please have a look around, and if you see anything you like you are welcome to take a card. The official opening is this Friday, at 7.” Without waiting for questions,Tiffany turns as briskly as she came and walks with purpose past the desk into unknown dimensions in the back of the gallery, away from the imploring eyes of her stunned but impressed audience.  The girls exchange glances with each other before linking arms and gliding past me and the desk into the direction that Tiffany has gone. Guy With Mousy Hair and his burlier (and decidedly more handsome) friend share a bored look, wordlessly turning to leave, sending a cool jet of air from the street as they burst forth. I watch them through the neat glass as the handsome one plucks cigarettes out of his pocket, smacks them hard against the palm of his hand, opens the pack carefully, and gives one to his friend. As I wonder if they will care about the sign that clearly states No Smoking directly in front of their eyes, movement catches me.

The third man, New Guy, stands three feet from the desk, having been abandoned by his friends. New Guy is decidedly average, and I imagine describing him to Gema with the lead in, “you might not think he’s cute, but. . .”

I stare at him openly, taking in his wide set green eyes and dark, curly hair. Dressed in faux nerd chic apparel, with male skinny jeans so tight I think I can see his children and a gray cardigan, he exhibits a confidence that even Gema would appreciate. As a a smile plays on my lips he turns, catching me staring, and my cheeks burn as I turn away from him awkwardly, painfully identifying myself as creepy. Curly Hair thankfully reappears, repetitiously pressing against him with her bosom while attempting to pull him away from the entrance. He allows her to drag him past the desk and into the gallery, smiling at me knowingly as he passes. I force myself to ignore her obvious and extremely obnoxious giggles. I barely look up as a few people leave the gallery, turning instead to the computer, preparing to respond to inquiries. Tiffany returns to the desk breathlessly.

“We are going to need to close early, so please try to rush everyone out as soon as possible!” Her words tumble out in a hurried, barely audible whisper. I stare at her blankly before gazing down pointedly at my watch and frowning. Tiffany, while employed longer at the gallery than I have been, is not my superior. I open my mouth to remind her of our respective stations, but she holds up one long-fingered hand, silencing me.

“Morgan, please! Try to get them out, and lock the door. Dirt & Desire opens Friday, and we have to call Wendy for catering, confirm with Rachelle, we haven’t even mailed the brochures–did you respond to Robinson about the 30th–we need to check the lineup, and you know what–I completely forgot to tell Wendy this, make a note–if she ever serves that shit she put on the platters the last time she will never touch so much as a spatula again. The gallery should be closed today.” I stand still as Tiffany’s pitch increases, peering around desperately for Mr. Ragora. Tiffany brushes against me to reach the computer, and I leave her there, cursing all of us under her breath. She becomes increasingly neurotic as openings rush closer, and I know it is best to walk away now with purpose, even though I have no intention of kicking anyone out.

As I dart around the wall that conceals the desk from the rest of the gallery, I face plant into the chest of New Guy, clearly hewn from marble, and I rub my stinging face with embarrassment. Cropped Hair is no longer attached to his side, so I assume he has escaped her. He begins to speak to me, but the loudness of my blood rushing through my ears silences him, and his lips move without sound.

“Hi,” I offer awkwardly, my voice echoing loudly throughout the empty room.

“Hey, I am so sorry. You alright?” He responds, his brows knitted into a look of sincere concern. Witty retorts are lost in my mind, and my voice falters before it reaches my lips, rendering me mute in the face of his genuine inquiry.

“Are you okay?” He presses again, and finally I nod in response.

“I am, thank you. It was completely my fault. I was escaping, so. . .” I wave my arm behind me, trailing off. These uncomfortable conversations, the awkward moment where I am not quite sure where I should look, what ingenious remarks I should make—this is why I should work solely in inventory. Second by painful second creeps by and I frown, unsure what to say. Again he speaks, but my ears are still ringing with embarrassment. Clearing his throat, he bravely tries again.

“So. . .do you work here often?” He prods, clearly a smooth talker, and I laugh, a little too loudly.

“Are you being serious?” I quip, a quizzical brow raised as a smile plays on my lips. He smiles then laughs before sighing loudly.

“Well now that you’re here, I have a question. How do people who do things like that,” he nods pointedly at the bust of what I can only assume is The Blob, standing over six feet tall in the middle of the floor in the first room of the gallery, “have their work displayed? Basically, I can pull together some shitty sculpture, call it art, and you guys will display it? And people will pay me for it?” I beam at him.

“I think it’s a little more complicated than that. First, my boss has to like it. It has to speak to him. This one is, um.” I trail off again, and we stand together, staring at it, matching expressions of confusion and disgust. Mr. Ragora and I didn’t discuss this one. New Guy laughs, head back, mouth wide. His laugh is intoxicating and rich, and so I laugh with him.

“I do, by the way,” I state, and he stares at me, smile uncertain now. “Work here. Often. Like, every day. I’ve seen your friends before, but you. . .” He beams brightly at me.

“Yeah, I just started working at Paola’s on 11th. I just moved down from Albany.” He continues unprovoked.

“Oh okay. I’m from Colonie.” I offer shortly. New Guy smiles and nods knowingly, undeterred by my awkwardness.

“Cool, I guess we’re neighbors, then. ” He shifts nervously on his feet, and my heart begins to pound. I know his request is coming, see it settling over me like a blanket, and I don’t know how to avoid his words. He opens his mouth to speak, but I interrupt him.

“So, anyway, have a great time here at the gallery, Tiffany knows way more than I do, so definitely ask her any questions you have, or you can ask anyone around here wearing the depressing black. But, um, I should go.” I rush past him for the bathroom, feeling his eyes boring into my back, and I know he is confused about what has happened.

I barrel into the restroom, panting as I lean back against the door, my eyes closed tightly. Taking deep breaths I will my heart to slow. Shit. Shitshitshit. Gema, my self-proclaimed matchmaker, is going to kill me. I have lived chaste in New York City for four years and I have dated no one, much to Gema’s chagrin. That last time I even entertained the notion of a date was at Gema’s bequest, and it ended with rhetorical bloodshed and a superficial dislike. I walk to the sink, placing my hands firmly on either side of the cold ceramic, steadying myself as I stare into the mirror at my reflection. I readjust my ponytail, pulling my hair severely from my face before fiddling again with my necklace, a nervous habit. I splash water onto my face with shaking hands as the door opens. I don’t look up, but I know that it is Cropped Hair who stands next to me. She glances at me once, then twice. She seems to be preparing for conversation, but I am not in the mood and I skirt rudely around her, leaving her alone the restroom.

The gallery appears deserted as I walk slowly, stealthily, through the abandoned rooms to the desk. An unfortunate effect of the desk being obscured by the walls is that I don’t see New Guy leaning on it until it is too late to turn around. I screech to a halt stupidly, and then walk slowly to him. Tiffany is gone, the computer screen open to an urgent email for Mr. Ragora from Jorge, a one-named buyer of old age and even older money. I sit down in the swivel chair, slowly closing the email and glancing forlornly at the phone before finally plastering a bright smile to my face and glancing up at him.

“Hi,” I chirp as if I have never seen him before. Taken aback briefly he clears his throat. He doesn’t wait for me to turn away again, overall undaunted by my all-too subtle rejection.

“So I was going to ask, before you ran off, what did you say your name was?”He stares directly into my eyes, and I stare back boldly.

“Morgan.” I answer shortly. I don’t ask his name; hopefully he won’t offer it. I want to remember him this way, as New Guy. Without a name, I can’t pine after him later. If he gives me his name, it implies a familiarity that I’m uncomfortable with. It means I’ll have a name to think about, too.

“Alex.” He offers, holding out his hand. His hand is warm and calloused, and I grasp it briefly, turning again pointedly to my computer. Undeterred, he continues as if I, too, am invested in our conversation.

“We should go out. I have a photo shoot tonight, but what are you doing tomorrow?” I swallow.

“Um.” My mind races. “Listen, I don’t usually date guys I’ve met at work.” His head jerks back, stunned.

“Seriously?” He asks. I feel helpless, and my stomach lurches. He seems really, really nice. I want desperately to say no, I’m just joking, of course I would love to go out with you.

Instead, I smile apologetically. “I’m sorry. I just. . .don’t.” I offer, finality in my tone. The phone rescues me at last, and he lingers uncertainly for a moment. Slowly he meanders back into the gallery. I hang up in the middle of the woman demanding Mr. Ragora, leaning back heavily into my seat. Blinking back tears I stare down at the floor, forcing myself to think of something else.

This is what wood should look like. Polished and clean, the espresso against the white walls gives the gallery an elegance like nothing I’ve seen. Sometimes, when it is just myself and the coffee pot in the mornings, I slip off my heels sliding unsteadily across the floor. It makes me feel young and free and human, and all I can think about is the friction of my feet against the wood, maintaining my balance. I want to do that now.

I can hear a low murmur of voices accompanied by a familiar cackle, and I wonder if Alex has told Cropped Hair about me. I know they will tell him not to worry about it, that I’m always strange. That I’m really not that pretty, that he can do better. They will try to distract him with tales of dates gone wrong, they will pretend to purchase the most expensive piece here, just to amuse him, take his mind off of the sting of rejection. They will convince him to hate me, and to cope, maybe he will. Then they will again part, lost in their own recollections, and I will become one of their stories.

I am the voyeur here. While the people who enter view the pieces, I view them.  When Gema and I were younger we would creep into the dank bowels of the food court in the mall where we were likely to see the largest amount of shoppers without ourselves being seen. We would sit tangled together sharing a mountain of fries and a watered-down Coke, and we would give the people fantastic backstories, usually culminating in the violent murder of a forbidden lover. The actual monotony of the mall notwithstanding, we believed in the possibility of drama and the chaos of life and the lives we ourselves created. If it didn’t exist in our mall, we knew it existed somewhere, and we looked forward to the Shakespearean drama that would one day mark our own existence.

One of the many problems with my Gift is seeing and watching, an act which used to bring me a manifestly unusual sense of amusement now imbues me with a harrowing uncertainty. Sometimes I can’t control it, this seeing. It feels like an addiction–the incessant, uncontrollable need to look. It is like constantly inadvertently reading diaries, watching home movies, staring too long at someone you don’t know but think you recognize. I am young by the standards of Death, and subsequently have not acquired the ability to leave work at work. I am what I do. Looking–purposely looking–is like a disease. Alcoholism. I tell myself just one more. It doesn’t even count if I don’t do it again after this time, if I only take a peek.

Wading through someone’s thoughts in the accidental way is like being in a perpetual state of daydream. One moment I am here, lost in my own empty thought, and the next I am in someone else’s, or their thoughts are inadvertently crowding mine. The reality of the thoughts and dreams of others is so much more complex than Gema and I ever imagined.

When Cropped Hair (I take care to avoid her name, but even if she did think it, I would have avoided it) first saw the painting of the woman and the cigarette she thought of her mother. Her words, you are just like your father, still sting in Cropped Hair’s ears.  The smell of the smoke on her goddamned useless shit, the way it was impossible to open the photo album–every photo yellowing and sticky with tar–(the only thing she took from the house) without smelling the stale cigarettes, the flickering embers would rhythmically light her face on those long nights when she sat on the porch when she thought me and Anthony were sleeping, picking at scabs on her arms and looking older by the minute–this all flashes through her mind in a moment. Memories aren’t laid out in a linear fashion; most of the time, they are compiled and jumbled together, as if someone has thrown groups of photos and words from the sky and I have to reform and connect the broken pieces, picking up what is useful, what is relevant.  At first thoughts were forbidden to me, and where Cropped Hair would go after the memory of her mother, I would have only ever guessed.

We all exist–human or partial–in a constant state of looking backwards, attempting to place this moment with the last, missing the nuances of the now. Brunette imagines her mother’s smile–hesitant, the teeth overlapping, the lips not quite covering the teeth–and I feel wrong, the creeping low of impending guilt. Abuse of power, as Corri would call it, if she knew it were possible, is what I am doing now, looking beyond memory. Cropped Hair isn’t mine, her memories and thoughts are her own. I remove myself from her with a thought: “leave.” She shudders and frowns, and I am afraid that she has heard me. She looks up. “I’m sorry?” she demands, mouth slightly agape.

I glance at her, raising an eyebrow as if to suggest that she is the crazy one. She looks me over suspiciously and walks away.  Sometimes (when I didn’t know what else I could do) it was easy to piece together what someone was thinking based on past thoughts and actions. I know I shouldn’t go there, into their memories, I shouldn’t be in there. Here at the gallery, constant violation and violating is an almost ironic guarantee. In the process of “Being Moved,” people open themselves up as prey for the interpretations and experiences of others and to link the work to their own past experiences, to give picture to the words they can’t find to speak themselves they offer their own souls, which I can’t help but desire to touch. Bouncing from mind to unclouded mind in here is constant, and I simultaneously love and dread the new work, which we receive weekly. Mr. Ragora expects my interpretation, and in those moments my mind is open to be infiltrated by Tiffany and our spectators. Mr. Ragora’s memories and thoughts are his own and he keeps them under fierce control, because my mind has never been overrun with his. A blessing, really, as I am certain he would obsess about lost art, past rendezvous, and long ago encounters with his wife.

Rather than seep through Alex’s brain, I opt for the slightly less sinister, but equally creepy. Glancing over my shoulder to make certain I am alone, I turn on the monitor so that I can view the security cameras. I quickly scan for Alex, who is again looking at The Blob. I want so badly to go to him and apologize, to tell him I will take him up on his offer. I want to say that I am shy, which is true. I want to call Gema, to giggle about the guy who has gone, in my mind, from decent to gorgeous, to discuss what I will wear, whether it is time to upgrade our ten-dates-before-sex rule. But I don’t. I watch him look towards the desk, and I close the screen.

Later, as the group leaves, I avert my eyes. Alex, ever determined, approaches the desk, but this time he waits to command my attention. I finally look at him.

“I really think you should reconsider.” He says firmly. “Do you have a phone?” I nod, and retrieve it from the second drawer. I hold it out to him silently, and he grabs it from me, fingers grazing mine, sending a jolt up my spine.

“I’m going to put my number in here, for when you change your mind.” He flashes me a smile, which surprises me. I smile back.

“If I change my mind, I’ll call.” He walks through the doors and join his friends. I wait until I can no longer see him, and then lock the door. Tiffany has gone to lunch, and the rest of the small staff will begin inventory, so I am alone in the front, with my thoughts.

I don’t make friends, and I don’t date. I want to, and in that order. I think about it all the time. I am asked, offered both occasionally, but I always say no. When I was in high school, my parents instilled more trust in me than my sister Willow could ever hope for. But simultaneously popular and shy the phone usually rang with Gema on the other end, or with much less frequency guys with who I never shared more than a platonic conversation. I had short flings, and one long relationship that ended horribly, but in the years since, nothing quite serious enough for me to bring the guy home. There is a certain level of intimacy and openness required to date, human realities that I could not (cannot) deal with. I am yet young, and I can’t control what I see. I don’t need (or want) to know about every childhood memory, every scorned lover, every deep fantasy before we have decided on appetizers.

Once, when I was fourteen, a little less than a year after Corri told me of my Gift, I went to the movies with Gema, some guy she liked, and the guy I dated. I could never concentrate on the film, because I was treated constantly to Gema’s date’s disturbing memories, enough for me to clench my eyes the entire film, to cower away from him, afraid he might know what I had seen. He was a tortured soul, and I was dragged through his mind, a part of his abuse, treated to his fascination with Gema’s scar, his desire to relive its inception. I convinced Gema to stay away from him (Gem, I think he has serious problems), wishing, not for the first time, that I could be normal and gift free, oblivious to the tortured recesses of the human subconscious. There is no return from knowing that part of someone.

I lied. To imply that this cannot be controlled at all is me lying to myself. Of course I have some level of control. I am made weak with the power and I have to know. But when I walk into someone’s mind, there are risks. Touching something. Breaking something. Being seen, for what I am.

I didn’t want to take John. We weren’t friends; he was a football player pressed from the mold of the jock stereotype, I was valedictorian and captain of the soccer team; we had no classes together, but I at least knew of him.

Corri took my hands firmly in hers, her fingers plump and warm beneath my cold ones. We were watching Emma and Rhys create mudpies from the sandbox in her tiny yard, Emma meticulously decorating them with grass and roots. I smiled sadly at the overturned tricycle, the dirt crusted ball crushing white tulips in the soft bed. She held my hands tightly until I looked at her, our eyes meeting.

“Johnathan Michael Davies, eighteen years old, native of Manhattan. Currently attends Colonie High school. Older brother of—“ I snatch my hand from hers and she stops, staring at me boldly, and I stare back at her in disbelief. Her fierce eyes do not waver; she refuses to look away. I shake my head, stunned into silence. Corri watches me, even as I have given up hope.

“No,” I begin, but the uncertainty in my voice makes me sound a child. I swallow, trying again. “How can you ask me that? Why would you ask me? Are you—are you kidding me?” Corri grabs my hand again.

“I don’t question those above me so don’t you dare question me. This is your job! This is what you are trained to do, born to do, trained to be! Dry your face and grow up! He will need you to be there, Morgan,” she pleas anxiously. “You knew what was required. You knew this was coming.” Tears burn my eyes like acid, and a painful lump lodges in my throat. I swallow, attempting to keep my eyes open, to prevent the tears from rolling down my cheeks. My efforts are in vain, however, and the tears roll down anyway. Corri’s eyes soften and gently she touches my cheek.

“Morgan. Look at me. Please look at me. I know. I know how you are feeling. But you don’t have a choice. You have to go to him. You have to be there for him. He knows you. He can’t go if you aren’t there. And the universe has ways of making you do your job. Just do it. Don’t make them force you.” I am still crying, and I can only see the outline of her small plump body through my tears. She is pleading with me, willing me to understand, but I do not. I cannot.

“Why? Why John? And how? Do I have to see it?” Corri shakes her head.

“Remember how we said this works? We have trained for years for this. It’s like slipping into a dream. Remember the rules. You don’t speak. You never speak. When the time comes, you no longer need his memories, so don’t touch anything. Don’t laugh, don’t cry. You wait for him to see you. He has to believe he has imagined you, that he has willingly brought you in. You hold out your hand, and you wait for him to take it. Never let his hand go. You lead him into the light. He will walk through, and you will return to your human self.”

“Where does he go from there?” I dribble futilely, but Corri shakes her head again as I knew she would.

“That’s not your concern. You just make sure he gets leaves.” She pauses, picking imaginary lint from her pants. She shifts in her seat uncomfortably, and does not look at me.

“Am I leaving my body? Will it hurt?” My oft-repeated question prompts a cringe from Corri, and she stares into my eyes before granting me a warm smile. She grabs my hands and squeezes them again, repeating the same answer that she has always given.

“Your soul is, but only for a moment. And it hurts no more than falling asleep.” I quickly wipe my eyes, and focus on Rhys and Emma again. Corri and Geoffry waited forever to have children. She waited, and she made Geoffry wait.

We’re too young for kids, she told him first, her round cheeks unchecked by time, hair thick and glossy sweeping her shoulders.

Not yet, she told him in the dark, his face pressed into her back, the shield of night hiding the stinging in her eyes, the accusation in his.

Kids aren’t for everyone, no one can make you have them! Nicole told her proudly, knowingly, and through her nose, sipping a large glass of deep red wine. Corri gesticulated a silent yes, barely able to breathe, holding her breath so her desire (shame) didn’t spill out, engulfing and drowning everyone.

Yes Mom, we’re fine, she told her for the thousandth time, clenching the phone so hard that her knuckles were white, whispering so Geoffrey wouldn’t hear and think of it, as if it ever left his mind. I’m just. . .waiting.

And then, soon after, she met me. Shuffling in and hiding behind my Dad’s legs, the most beautiful and terrible sight she had ever seen–would ever see–and she called Geoffrey and told him, weeping, that it was time, that she was ready. When they finally had Rhys, Emma came a little over ten months later. They are so young and small, both with hair as red as their father’s, eyes as green as their mother’s. They are precious and sweet in their innocence. I squint at them, and wonder what it would have been like if one of them had The Gift, as Corri refers to it. I don’t give it a name; I don’t call myself. What would she do with Rhys and Emma? Corri senses my question, and examines at her children herself. She looks back at me, her mind elsewhere.

“You are like one of my own,” Corri begins in a whisper, “and I would never, ever lie to you. I promise you, you won’t be hurt.” Tears fill her eyes now as she pleads with me wordlessly.

“Will he?” I breathe, soft and small, like a child. Corri pauses, only for a second.

“No.” She lies.

***

“Leamas! Offsides one more goddamned time and I swear you will run sprints around this field until your legs snap!” Sweat stings my eyes, and I hear yelling in the distance where my ears used to hear before the sharp blast of the whistle trilled in them. Coach shouts obscenities, waving frantically. I look around to find my team is behind me, and I am eye to eye with the right midfielder for our opponents.

I blink back the sweat and rain, closing my eyes for an instant. I open them again as the ball blows past me, and I find my team midfield, while I am apparently stationary in the box. I throw a glance over my shoulder, assessing the goalie. She glares at me and I roll my eyes, stepping into her line of sight. I smell the sweet fragrance of wet grass as I wipe water from my eyes. Kathryn runs, yelling, pointing at me. Adrenaline pumping, I do a quick sweep of the opponents surrounding me, threatening to overtake me. I glance into the green-gold eyes of one of the defenders from our opposition

–And am hit, as if by train, my lungs collapsing from the force. The man is large, at least 6’5 and several hundred pounds, and he towers over me, all muscle on his large frame. Fear grips my throat my eyes dart around the dark room wildly. His teeth glisten in the dim light and the smell of whisky on his breath sours my stomach. Another light flickers in the distance, but I only see his teeth, beautifully white in his twisted mouth. He grabs me by the hair and yanks me up. With his other hand he grips my jaw, opening my mouth roughly

–And I am laying in the grass, my team standing over me, Coach holding my hand. A bright light shines in my eyes as I become aware of my name being repeated.

“Morgan, can you hear me? Morgan, open your eyes.” Confused, I blink rapidly.

“What happened?” Ms. Tannen, the school nurse, smiles down at me, a crowd of faces huddled blurry over her shoulders.

“The EMT’s are going to take you to the hospital,” she continues gently, speaking softly as if afraid I might break. “We called your parents, they’re going to meet us there.”

“I’ll go with her,” A voice familiar voice pipes from behind Ms. Tannen. Gema.

“Wait–what happened?” I gurgle groggily. “How badly was I hit?” I hope that maybe I imagined the encounter, but Coach shakes his head. “Morgan, you weren’t hit. You just. . .collapsed.” He is young, only 23, and the face that we normally talk about in ways that would make our parents lock us in chastity belts welded shut with holy water is pale and stunned, raw fear contorting his features. He shakes his head again.

“I have no idea what happened. I’m sorry for yelling,” He offers uselessly. I try to sit up, but Ms. Tannen pins my shoulders to the ground.

“It’s best that you don’t move,” She whispers, attempting to keep my panic at bay, and I close my eyes in embarrassment.

“Please step aside,” another voice commands, and I don’t move, closing my eyes tightly as I am secured onto a gurney. Gema whispers frantically beside me, but I say nothing.The ambulance whisks me away, and it feels like forever until we arrive. When the ambulance doors slam open I finally open my eyes, squinting as they adjust to the light, listening to the EMT rapid fire information to the doctors.

“17-year-old female, presenting with convulsions, possible grand-mal seizures of unknown origin, vitals normal. History of–“The voices fade as I succumb to a sleepless dark.

My body aches as I attempt to sit up, finding myself in a room divided by a thin curtain that doesn’t reach the floor with a nurse in pink scrubs gently holding my arm while checking my vitals.

“Morgan, hey,” Gema greets me quietly, her eyes red surrounded by dirt smudged cheeks. She looks younger than I’ve ever seen her; her wet hair has escaped from her band and she wrings her hands nervously. She steps closer to me, and tears form in her eyes again.

I stare at her, heart racing, afraid of the sight of her fear.”What happened?” My voice croaks, and I make a concerted effort to inhale a jagged, throaty breath.

Gema glances at the nurse and then back at me, shaking her head slowly, apparently dazed.

“I don’t know. You were standing there, and it looked like you were about to block that tall girl’s shot, and then you just dropped. But it wasn’t just like you fell. I was like your body just slammed down. It was so scary. Coach threw down everything and ran over. I’ve never seen him look like that. And you. I have never seen anything like that in my life.” I want to ask questions, but I can only stare blankly at her, confused.

“Morgan!” A soft, cheery voice greets me with my name. I think it may be the doctor, but he looks barely old enough to drive. Before he can open his mouth to speak again, Mom bursts through the cloth barrier, with Dad following behind her. She barrels past the doctor and grabs my face, staring worriedly into my eyes. “Morgan, are you okay? Honey, what’s wrong?” Without waiting for me to answer, she whirls on the doctor, fiercely glancing him over.

“What’s wrong with her?” She demands bluntly, “Will she be alright?” The doctor smiles at her and holds out his hand.

“I’m Dr. Sampson, and I’ll be taking care of Morgan. Does she have any history of seizures?” Mom shakes her head and looks at Dad, who nods in silent agreement.

“Well, we’re just going to do a few more scans, a bit of blood work, and we’ll have you some answers as soon as possible. We will take very good care of your daughter, Mr. And Mrs. Leamas.” He bobs his head, his own confirmation to Mom and Dad and gives my leg a reassuring squeeze.

Eight hours later I am home with a prognosis of stress and slight anemia. Mom blames soccer, Dad blames student council and overexertion. I blame Corri.

She visits me while I am on bed rest (Mom refuses to let me return to school). I sit in my room bored, mourning a Friday that is unfortunate in its painfully monotonous similarity to the rest of the week. I dare not leave my bed for fear that Mom has placed trip wire on the floor, waiting for the opportunity to straightjacket me. I stare pitifully of the window at the clear spring day, feeling a prisoner in my own home, captive to my mind. What happened to me? What had I seen? I could still feel his lips. . . A wind picks up and the bright leaves of The Climbing Tree flutter softly. The Climbing Tree is the name it is given because of what I wish someone–anyone–would do to it, not because it has ever had that use. My door opens and my neck snaps over anxiously with my immediate hope that it is Gema come to bring me news from freedom.

But it isn’t Gema. Corri glides in, followed immediately by Mom who flashes a bright smile, placing her hand gently on Corri’s back.

“Morgan, Ms. Corri has come to visit you! Isn’t that nice?” First, I hate the way Mom always says Morgan before she speaks to me, as if she has to confirm that I am who I say I am. And since I am not six, I will not refer to Corri as “miss” anything, choosing instead to glare fiercely at her.

“Well, I’m working from home today,” Mom states breathlessly, “so I have to leave you to it. I’ll be in my office if you need anything.” She offers Corri an apologetic smile before slipping out of my room, closing the door softly behind her. Corri takes a moment to gaze around. I am suddenly self-conscious about my room, a bubblegum pink with dark oak floors and a fluffy, pink rug that I lay on to read, the thickness and softness matched only by its twin covering the entirety of my closet. Dad removed my bland wooden bookcase years ago and replaced it with old repurposed ladders that he sanded down and painted white. I love my bookshelf and I am possessive of its contents as Corri walks over to it and fingers the books lovingly. She plucks The Inferno from the shelf, and opens to the marked page; mouthing the words from the highlighted hell before nodding and placing it on my computer desk. I stare at her, not speaking. Her eyes meet mine and I shift wordlessly. She nods again and sits gingerly on the end of my bed.

“I’m not your enemy, Morgan,” she begins, and I roll my eyes. “I’m not,” she insists before sighing and running her hands through her hair.

“I was gifted too,” she starts. “It isn’t difficult task, guardianship.” She admits heavily. “You are–and you always will be–my only Death. But. . .to tell someone. . .that they are death. That everything they touch. . .is touched by death? It is a heavy burden, and that is the truth.” My throat feels heavy and thick at her words.

She doesn’t know. How can she know? The burden is mine. I gaze out of the window again, attempting to see past the tree. I imagine children in the next yard (Mom isn’t super friendly, so I don’t know the names of the neighbors) playing. I imagine one day, one like Corri will meet them. I am certain one like me will find them. They are oblivious to their fate.

“I saw into someone’s mind. At the game.” I offer this quietly, my voice barely above a whisper, and Corri looks at me, stunned. I still stare out the window, but I can feel her eyes drawn to me. “It was like, I was there inside their memory. Like I became them? I was being hit, or. . .something. I could feel it. The fear. . .everything.”

“Who was it?” Corri asks, and I shake my head.

“I don’t know. It felt. . .so real. Like it was me,” I state again, seeing. “And I was so afraid.” Corri swallows visibly before responding.

“This happens, in the beginning. Accidental seeing is hard to control, especially in high adrenaline situations. But you have to learn to control it Morgan. You can’t jump into people’s minds. It isn’t safe. For you or for them. You cannot–cannot do it again. Don’t mention it, and just. . .don’t do it. You have a job, Morgan. That’s all–you do what you have been tasked with!” Frustration slips out through Corri’s voice.

“Don’t I have a choice?” I ask her, still staring out the window, watching the rain hit the window like tears, streaking angrily to the bottom before they are lost on the pane. Corri stares at me silently, searching for words.

I think about the acceptance letters under my pillow. The first one–and the only one that ever mattered–came a few weeks ago; I was going to surprise Mom and Dad. Dear Ms. Leamas, On behalf of. . .I want to congratulate you on your admission to the School of Arts at Columbia University for the Fall semester of. . . I opened it at the mailbox, letting the contents of the pale, cream colored envelope fall to the ground. I stood there, reading and re-reading it for what seemed like hours. I calmly stooped down and picked up the rest of the package with shaking hands, ignoring the hot gravel stuck to my fingers. I opened the heavy oak door, closed it gently, opened my mouth, and screamed. I ran into the library adjacent to the entry hall and jumped up and down on the white leather couch. I peeled into the hallway unsteadily, stubbing my toe on a stone egyptian cat. I gleefully cursed the glaring cat, jumping up and down, knees practically in my chest. I took the stairs two at a time, slipping on the last and falling into the landing, bouncing onto my bed and kissing the letter fondly. I placed it gingerly underneath my pillow, promising to return. For an entire day I was happy. And then Corri contacted me and gave me my first, pulling me away from the fantasy of normal, the possibility of human chaotic existence.

“No.” She answers finally. We sit in silence until she stands at long last. She kissed me and hugs me tightly, a gesture which I return half-heartedly.

“Morgan, your time is coming. And you had better be ready.” She kisses me again and leaves, taking all hope–and me–with her.

My first reaping comes as a gift, for my birthday. The same night of my senior prom, I opt stubbornly not to attend, much to Mom’s dismay. She begged relentlessly, warning “You’ll never get this time back,” a promise I could only hope for. “It will be good for you, you need to make these memories,” she pleaded. I’ll pay for everything, she bribed. I retreated to a place inside of myself that she could not reach. Silent and stoic, I ignored her entirely. I knew it wasn’t the prom that she really cared about, but me. I was becoming a stranger to her. Willow, in her rebellion, was familiar. She displayed, vocally, and outwardly, her defiance. She could be punished for her disobedience, and Mom could predict her. Ian, still young, was her baby. An athlete, model student, he was perfect to her, and also predictable. I was becoming a loner. Distant and unwavering in my refusal to speak. We talked at each other, not quite understanding the nuances, what the other was saying. Mom never knew where I was going, what I wanted. After I hit puberty I was lost to her completely, but our relationship didn’t die with dignity. It lay there, burning in the fire of words we didn’t say. It shriveled, but refused to disappear entirely. Rather than let it dissolve and blow away, Mom watered it, and could not understand why she couldn’t make it grow.

Dad was different. We were always the same and in sync, growing older but not distant. Dad understood me silently, defending me and shielding me from the full force of Mom’s wrath.

“Mom will only hate you for a while,” Willow confided to me. She sat on my bed, while I huddled in my closet, arms wrapped around my knees. Willow had an obnoxious way of speaking, as if everything were obvious and boring to her. She was up from Columbia for the weekend, because Mom had bribed her as a last ditch effort to bully me into normalcy.

“I don’t know why she cares,” I respond stubbornly. I pulled my hair into my face, staring through the coils while pulling at thread on my jeans. Willow laid back onto my bed, crossing and uncrossing her legs in the air.

“You know how she is. She likes the control. So are you going to your prom or not?” I shake my head.

“Even if I wanted to, I missed the deadline.” Willow hops off of my bed and glides to the door, glancing back at me. She sighs heavily before speaking.

“Morgan, don’t let her bully you. And don’t believe anyone who says this is the best time of your life. It isn’t. If it is, that’s depressingly sad, and I honestly wouldn’t think the rest was even worth it.” She shuts the door behind her, and I close the closet door. I curl up in the corner, my heart beginning to race. I won’t go, and she can’t make me. The Universe, and whoever controls it, will have to drag me out of here. I keep my phone with me, glancing at the time every few minutes. I don’t worry about Mom finding me in here; she and Dad left for the night together hours ago. Dad handed me my gift, pressing the box into my hands. A dragonfly, silver with tiny words on the back vive ut vivas. It reflected beautifully the night and Dad helped me place it onto my neck before kissing me softly on the cheek. When they left Mom declared at the house of one of her public defenders, but I know it’s that she isn’t in the mood to see me. Ian is at a friend’s house, so I am in the large, silent house alone. I don’t dare leave the safety of my closet. My stomach growls, and I am bored, but I am too frightened to move.

My eyes are dragged downward, as if by anchors. I am tired, but I refuse to sleep. I am afraid to close my eyes. Afraid of what I might see, where I might go. One moment I am in my closet, sitting on the cold rug surrounded by dusty trophies, thinking about leaving for a few minutes to sneak sustenance

and the next, it feels as though my ears are popping. I see my room as if through water; distorted, the colors bleed together. I am speeding through the dark, shapeless and without form. My heart, had I one, would be thrashing in its cage. It is scary, this feeling. Being everywhere and nowhere. I want to scream, but I have left my mouth and my body behind. I know where I am headed, and as Corri predicted, I am powerless to stop it.

Instantly I am in John’s mind. He knows that I am there immediately, because I did not arrive willing. I collide with his mind; I feel it, and he feels it. As soon as I enter his mind, I scream. He jerks around, but the car he drives is empty. He told his mom that he would be home by one; it is shortly after, and he is racing home. I am frantically peeling back the layers of his memory, trying to remember everything Corri has taught me, but fear drives the Death in me, primal and uncontrollable. How do I let him see me? Where am I? I think to myself. John jerks again, and this time I can feel the panic that embraces him. I place myself there, in the first memory I find, a recent one, of him kissing his girlfriend goodnight. She looked so beautiful that night, and he was so nervous. They were attending different colleges, but he didn’t want to think about that now.

He sees me there, staring at them. And he yells fearfully, a blood curdling yell. This memory, my presence, it is all wrong. Forget that, I command. Look at me, I will him. He lets go of the wheel, yelling frantically. Calm down, I yell back with equal unrest. I see the light dancing in the corner of my eyes, but I do not turn to it. I have taken control of this memory, and so we are in the park. There are young cherub-like children playing in leaves, dogs barking playfully in the distance. In my mind it is a peaceful scene, but the abrupt change only causes John more panic. Take my hand, I urge him. The car is careening out of control, horns are blaring, but John does not grab the wheel His eyes are wide, and he is in complete shock He can only stare at me, the girl he thought he knew but who looks so dangerous now, who shouldn’t be here now, in his mind and he can’t get her out, and he wonders if she is here to kill him, if this is the end, if his parents know that he loves them, if he can beg for more time, where he will go Please take my hand, I whisper desperately The light is racing toward us I hold out my hand, begging him to come, but he does not take it He turns to run from the light and then I turn to the light I gaze at him, and he stares over his shoulder at me, my arm outstretched into eternity between us, tears streaming down his cheeks John, I am so–but I do not finish. The light crashes into us, over us, it engulfs us both, and I jump, and stumble around. My eyes focus, and I am in my dark closet. I collapse, my head thrown violently against the floor, crying so hard I cannot take breath. I stumble out of the closet and down the stairs, slipping halfway down and tumbling to the bottom. I jerk myself up, too stunned to feel the pain. I fumble with the lock on the back door, slamming my hand against the window hysterically, screaming, until finally it unlocks. I throw it open and fall first to my knees, and then my face onto the springy grass. I cannot remove the image–his last image–from my mind. The fear. The hurt. The accusation. I looked into his eyes and saw myself. I looked in that moment as I am–Death. And he would not come to me.

Grave Men: Synopsis

The greatest task for Grave Men is to be in the world, but not of it. Morgan Leamas is Death residing in New York City, tasked with leading the essence of humans to the Next. Rebellious and reluctant to bend to her fate, Morgan breaks the rules of Death seeking and taking the memories of humans not tasked to her. For her transgressions she finds herself relentlessly pursued, first by The Administration, the beings charged with keeping Death’s order, and finally The Reaper, the keeper of all Death. After the death of one close to her by the hands of The Reaper, Morgan makes the terrifyingly fate-altering decision to destroy Him entirely. Morgan must constantly question her resolve, which comes to an electrifying climax when she at last faces The Reaper, making an incomprehensible revelation that challenges her own foundation. A fast-paced, original, and complex tale, Grave Men fundamentally examines choice, fate, and the appointment that we all must keep.