He startled awake from a dream, his heart hammering hard in his chest. It was a dream, he was certain, but the reality drenched his shirt.
He was afraid.
He turned to the body next to him, a dim moon cascading over her full body. She slept on, unknowing.
William rubbed the sleep from his eyes and tried to cast away the dream, but it clung to him.
In the dream he stood at a crack at the edge of the world. The edge of the world in his dream was dark and ragged, shredded skin and spent blood. It was cold at the edge, and the deep beyond it was certain. Behind him fingers like the digits of a sun-brittle skeleton scratched at his back, tearing at his skin. He was there at the end of the world wearing only his skin, and the beings behind him wanted even that. He stretched out his arms, desperate to reach over. He lost his balance and fell into the nothing
and righted himself in bed. It was so real, the dream. He would not call it a nightmare. It was a dream that he did not think he wanted, but then he did not dream much these days.
William’s sleep—when he could sleep—was haunted. He felt more than heard the comings and goings of those just beyond his reach, and his heart rate was always slightly elevated. If he happened to fall into a deep sleep his body would betray him and he would awaken, hands clawing at steel comfort.
Now he glanced at the woman sprawled out unknowing next to him, wondering if he could wake her. He could, but she would be angry. Her temper was volatile, but he was accustomed to it. Now he wished he could talk about his dream. What did it mean?
He would go to Grammy. The answer came to him as though spoken aloud. He crept from the bed and made his way across the cramped house to the lone bathroom. He checked in on the boys, the youngest with his mouth ajar, drool covering his brother’s arm. He wished they were awake so he wasn’t quite so alone.
In the dark of the bathroom he ran cool water over his eyes. He stared at himself in the mirror for long moments before startling.
His mirror was not his reflection at all. William was bone-tired, the kind of tired that hangs over the body like a pallor. He was covered in ink and his hair could use tidying.
His mirror bespoke youth. His eyes were clear with mischief, his mouth drawn up into a pleasant smirk. His mirror had not lived the same life.
William recoiled in horror, but the mirror spoke.
“Stay,” It commanded. William obeyed.
“What do you want,” his mirror asked him. William shook his head. This must be a dream. He thought he had awakened, but he was still trapped in the dream.
“You are not sleeping, but you are not awake,” the mirror revealed. “What do you want?” The mirror repeated. William swallowed hard.
“I want to rest,” he responded without thinking. The mirror nodded slowly.
“Who are you?” William demanded of his mirror shakily. “Are you an angel?” The mirror smirked at him.
“Are you death?” William whispered. The mirror did not reply. In the mirror’s silence William knew that he faced Death, but he was not afraid.
“Not yet, though, right?” William asked hopefully. Again the mirror said nothing.
“You will receive your rest soon,” Death revealed. He spoke the words as a promise of something grand, and William took the words with ease.
When William awakened again his bed partner was gone, the house empty. He made his way to Grammy’s house, formulating the question in his mind.
He couldn’t come out and ask her—she wouldn’t appreciate that. She would roll her eyes and brush him off if he didn’t warm her up first. He dragged out the lawnmower, pushing it across her tall lawn, still moving his mind over the question.
He would not ask, of course. He opened his mouth to ask her through the screen, but her words—I don’t like William at my house. He steals.—clawed his skin so thoroughly that he jumped. He mumbled words of goodbye and left before she could see the tears stinging his eyes.
He couldn’t be angry with her. That was her way.
He imagined his time as in an hour glass, running out. He could not imagine himself not here, but he could not imagine himself old, either.
The stories he and his sisters would tell about becoming old were always one-sided. It would not be his journey, he had always known.
He considered this as he spoke with the women in his life. His mom would always be first.
Her eyes were tired and she could not hide her disappointment. She did not express disappointment in him, but in his choices, she would say. He wanted so badly to tell her about Death, but she would not understand. She would want him to hide from it, she would not understand why he wouldn’t hide.
He would go to church with her so that she would see him enveloped in Christ. This would be a salve, he was certain. In the dark and the gloom of his absence she would hold the image to her like a portrait, something hopeful.
He wasn’t sure about Asia. She was so difficult to read, she would probably laugh because she was confused. Angie would ask him if he was ready, and she would bear the weight like a warrior.
Whitney would have a hole ripped in her universe. This he felt guilty about. She would lose her right lung when he was gone, and he could not think of a way to mend her.
They trying to take me out, is all he could muster, to prepare her for the inevitable, but it wasn’t enough. It would not nearly be enough.
William thought of the things that he did not do, and he felt immense sadness. At the park he gripped his sons to him, told him that he loved them. He watched his youngest—so much like William—with worry in his heart. Someone would need to watch him. He would have to remember to say that. He did not tell his children goodbye—he could not.
“See ya later,” he said.
The reality never meets the expectation. Though he knew his time drew short, he was surprised. One moment he was alive, and the next moment the veil was drawn.
He thought he would be alone in the end. He was not. Death brought to William the giants upon whose shoulders William stood. He lowered his head remorsefully, feeling guilt for what he did not do.
“Hold your head up,” Grace commanded. “We’re here because of who you were, not who you pretended to be.”
Death held out Death’s arms to William, and William stood. He sloughed off his worry and his tired like a coat too small for wear. He left them behind; they would not fit in his new world.
“What’s next,” William asked, but Death shook Death’s head.
“The journey is long. Rest William, and be at peace.”
William lay cradled in Death’s arms surrounded by those that loved him, and he rested and had peace.