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.
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.