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After Life

Death sat across from him, only a white marble table between them. Light perfectly lit the room, or wherever they were, despite the lack of any illuminating source. Death’s cape and cowl stood still, as did his scythe, while his empty eyes stared at those of the man. The man could not muster a word, so Death did for him.

“Your name?” Death asked. As he spoke, he was calm, perhaps even friendly. The man wanted to answer, but the shock overtook him.

“Uh…”

“It’s okay. Gather yourself. You know who I am. You, more or less, have an idea of what I do. But me? I know nothing about you.”

The man quickly rubbed his eyes before looking at Death again. This was surely a dream, or nightmare, or something. Sleep paralysis, a hallucination. Surely.

“It isn’t,” Death said.

“What?”

“A dream. Nor a nightmare. Nor sleep paralysis. Nor a hallucination. But it is something. It just is.”

Silence suffocated the man.

“Who do you think I am?” Death asked.

The man shifted in his comfortable, perhaps even inviting, black leather chair. “You’re… You’re the Grim Reaper.”

Death sighed and shook his head. “No, no no no. I am Death,” he said, putting his hand to his chest. “Was it the scythe? It can be a bit… misleading sometimes. You see, your Grim Reaper is known to kill people, yes? The end of someone’s life is the result of his immediate action to make it happen. Do you know why I am not him?”

“I’m… already dead,” the man said. He sunk his head into his hands before cupping them around his mouth. His eyes bore into the void beneath his feet.

“Not only that,” Death responded, “but I was not the one to kill you. That, my nameless friend, was purely circumstance. Life. And he is not someone like me. He is not even someone. He is just… what happens. Do you know what brought you here?”

“No.”

“Would you like to know?”

The man looked up at Death. “Would I like to know how I died? What would be the point of living my life and then not knowing how it ended?”

“Not everyone is like you, my friend. Some people are too frightened to find out and to ever want to know. Others do not need that kind of closure, and some do not need any closure at all, and thus do not need me. They just want to move on.”

“I don’t want to move on,” the man said. “I’m not scared either. I’m…” the man trailed off.

“Angry.”

“I’m not! I’m—”

“You are. And you are allowed to be. And before you say you aren’t angry, I should tell you that it is better, for your sake, to accept it rather than deny it. I’ve found that most who come to terms with the truth feel better before moving to the later on.”

“What is the ‘later on’? Is it Heaven? Hell?”

Death stared blankly at the man. “That, my friend, I do not know. The later on could be whatever a person wants it to be, or it could be a specific thing everyone experiences. It could even be nothing at all. I am only the bridge between the before and the after, with little knowledge of both.”

“Why are you here then?”

“To answer any questions I can, I suppose. As a guide. Perhaps learning about your life will enable me to do that better.”

The man sat back in his chair and took a moment before responding. “Tell me how I died first. Please.”

“Well, what do you last remember?”

“It was a Friday. I was driving to work in the morning, but I was stuck in the usual L.A. traffic.” He looked down at his pants. They were spotless. “The light turned red and I slammed on the brakes causing me to spill coffee on my pants. That’s the last thing I remember.”

“A rough final moment.”

“What happened to me?” the man asked.

“Right now, while your soul is here, your body is lifeless, pressing against the horn of your car. Your foot is about to slip off of the brake and you and your car will creep into the intersection, with everyone around you having witnessed what happened. Right now, in this very moment, the shattered glass of your driver-side window is frozen in time. Some of it is suspended in the air, while the rest either found its way into your skin or is scattered inside your car. The coffee you just placed in the cupholder is still hot—”

The man cupped his hands over his ears. “Jesus,” he whispered. “Please, just tell me.”

Death opened his hand slightly on the corner of the table. “Well,” he said, recapturing the man’s attention. “There is one catch.”

“Which is?”

“You have to make a choice. Death, right here in this moment, as I have just described to you, or a second chance at life. By choosing to know your exact manner of death, you will have chosen death itself. By choosing to not know, you will have chosen survival and recovery from this tragic moment that has befallen you.”

The man did not respond. He only stared at the marble table.

“My friend?”

He looked back up at Death with confusion. “You said I was dead.”

“And you are.”

Bewilderment brewed within the man’s face. “But you’re the bridge.”

“That I am. I am also its guide. Imagine you are on it. Ahead of you is I, Death. Behind you is your life. You’ve been given the rare opportunity to turn around and not leave with me on the other side.”

“Why?”

“The nature of life says so. Or your God does. I do not know. This is just how it is. For you, at least. Very few are offered this gift, although most have found it to be quite the burden.”

“You’re going to make me choose?” the man asked.

“I cannot make you choose,” Death said. “You just will. After our conversation, you will have come to a decision.”

The man did not respond.

“As I said, my friend, I am the guide. And if you wish to have a guide’s help in coming to your conclusion, you may be interested in telling me your name.”

“Don’t you already know my name?”

“Yes,” Death said. “But this is your first decision. An offer of consent. I know five things about you: your name, how you died, what you are thinking, what you are feeling, and that you have this opportunity before you. If you willingly tell me your name, I will be able to see your entire life. The decisions you made, the ones you chose not to. Your relationships and feelings towards others. Every detail of your life I will know, even those you have forgotten and choose to forget.”

The man shook his head. “You’ll know more about me than me.”

“Yes.”

“You’ll see me in my happiest moments?”

“And in your saddest.”

“What was my happiest moment?” the man murmured in a moment of semi-self reflection.

Death, again, motioned his hand outward on the table. “You must give me your name.”

The man decided that knowing more about his own life, through Death, would help him decide what to do. He did want to return, but this knowledge would be helpful either way. So, the man gave Death his name.

Death tapped the ground with his scythe’s shaft, causing the blade to glow for a moment while he sat still in his leather chair. Then, it stopped. “Thank you,” he said.

“Can you tell me now, please? The happiest moment of my life?”

“You were a child. Less than a year old. Your mother held you in her arms as the two of you, along with your father, sat on the swing on your front porch and took in the summer breeze.”

The man sighed. “I can’t even remember that.”

“No one does,” Death said.

“That’s… kind of depressing.”

“How so?”

“I can’t remember my happiest moment.”

“That’s not true,” Death said.

“But you just said—”

“The happiest moment of every person’s life occurs when they are a baby,” Death interrupted. “Babies have no sense of right and wrong, no sense of good or bad, no sense of responsibility, or guilt, or any of the other more complex emotions and thoughts that come with knowing more about life. Your happiest moment, the happiest moment for the current you, is not the happiest moment of your entire life. Your happiest moment is one you can remember, even if you’ve forgotten a happier one.”

The man furrowed his brow. “What about my saddest?”

“The only difference is that the saddest moment of your life is likely one you do recall.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. Why should that be the case for the saddest moments and not the happiest?”

Death still stood without movement. “A baby’s happiness is a result of their complete innocence. Ultimate sadness, however, is a result of one’s understanding of life’s complexities.”

“That’s just… cruel.”

“That’s life. For most, sad moments make happy moments even happier. But for some, those sad moments take a toll on the happy ones.”

The man rested his mouth and nose on the knuckles of his propped-up arm. His eyes looked through Death’s empty skull, then to the ground, and back at Death again. “I thought you had little knowledge of the before.”

“I did. And then you gave me your name.”

“But surely you’ve retained everything you learned from other people, right?”

“Surely,” Death responded.

The man leaned forward. “So then you’ve probably talked to someone I know that’s dead.”

“Yes.”

“Wouldn’t you know more about me, then?”

“Keeping things on a case-by-case basis has always been my preferred method,” Death said.

“How many cases do you have?”

“One for every death in the world.”

The man raised his eyebrows, huffing exhaustedly. “I mean, that makes sense, but… Christ. You must be swamped.”

“It is more of a lifestyle than an occupation. And it’s one I’m most comfortable with.”

“So why talk to me and not someone else? There are better, more important people you could be guiding, right?”

“Perhaps,” Death said, “but there aren’t as many people as you think dying at the same moment. The others you share a death-second with are in a queue and they will receive their conversations once I’ve had mine with you.”

“Can’t you just talk to everyone at once? Shouldn’t that be, like, I don’t know, a power of yours?”

“I could. I just choose not to. I prefer pouring all of my attention into one soul until they’re ready for me to move on to the next.”

“That must take up a lot of your time to do things one by one.”

“It takes no time at all, really,” Death said. “As I mentioned before, the glass of your driver-side window is suspended in the air right at this moment. It isn’t going anywhere until you do.”

The man sighed. “So if I go back, I’ll have to go through all the pain and agony and just hope I don’t die in surgery or something?”

Death paused, electing not to answer.

“Hello?”

“Your decision is not about what specifically happens in the future. It is about your past, your present, and what you are willing to make happen in the future. Don’t let the fear of future death influence you.”

“But I can’t control that. I can’t control the fear nor can I control my chances of dying if I go back. No one is deserving of dying twice, not even me.”

“Hmmm,” Death said. “Did you deserve it the first time?”

The man scoffed. “What?”

“Did. You. Deserve it?”

The man tilted his head and paused for a moment, blankly staring at the ground.

“My friend. Did you or did you not deserve to die?”

The man snapped out of his trance, shaking his head slightly. “No. No I didn’t.”

“On some level that’s true,” Death said. “But not on a personal one.”

“Stop trying to use this mind-reading stuff on me, man. Whatever you think, you’re wrong.”

“All I know is what you, yourself, believe.”

“I didn’t deserve it! Now let it go!”

“Okay. Answer me this, then. Do you like the man you’ve become?”

“I’ve…” the man trailed off. “I’ve accepted it.”

Death stared at the man. “That’s no answer. You’ve accepted that you are someone who gets angry when they are confronted with a truth they’ve hidden deep down but can’t yet admit to themselves. How do you expect to make your decision if you can’t do this first?”

“What truth!”

Death stared, still and silent.

A tear rolled down the man’s cheeks as he cried silently into his hands.

Death only sat and watched as he let the man experience the first step towards his decision. He reciprocated what the man felt, and he knew there was a path the man would go down. It was finally opening.

The man, his eyes red, looked up at Death. “Do you know all of the things I’ve done?” he asked through the tears. “The bad things? The immoral things? The people I’ve hurt?”

“Yes. But I also know the good you’ve done. The good you choose to forget. I feel your guilt, too. I feel it right now, at this very moment. I also felt it during every selfish, impulsive decision you made. You deserve punishment, but not the one you want. Not this. Not the end of your life.”

“My life was over long before today. It shouldn’t have taken a talk with you to know that I had already destroyed it.”

“I wouldn’t say you’ve destroyed it,” Death said.

“No?”

“No.”

“Why’s that?” the man asked. “My life has been a ball of yarn. Every bad decision I made became more bad decisions. They were easy ones to make, and they only got easier as I went along. The ball of yarn kept unraveling and unraveling, and now I’m here. The end of the strand. And there’s nothing left. Nowhere to go.”

“As you say, it is a ball of yarn. Sure, you may have unraveled it. It may have even been effortless. It is possible, however, to tangle it up again. To make it whole.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

“The yarn is still there. You just need to pick up the thread at the end of that strand.”

“Why should I do that when giving up is so much easier?”

“I feel the guilt you feel,” Death said. “You feel it so much so that you would do anything to get rid of it, including dying. Even in death, that feeling might remain. Not even I know the answer to that. This is your chance to make sure the guilt goes away. Only if you make yourself do it.”

“If I go,” the man said, “it’s going to be an uphill battle. How do I know if I can do it?”

“That’s the thing, my friend. You can’t know. But if you use that guilt that has dragged you down for so long, and instead use it to push yourself forward, you might start to see the beginnings of a brand new ball of yarn.”

The man confidently sat straight up in his chair, wiping the tears flushed on his face. “Okay.”

“You will be in the hospital at first. In pain.”

“I know.”

“You will have to fight for every second.”

“Yes.”

“There is no guarantee of success.”

“I know.”

“Life will be hard. A climb.”

“I’ll make it.”

“And you still want to go back?”

The man nodded assuredly, every nod strengthening his conviction. “Yes.”

“Are you ready, my friend?” Death asked.

The man looked Death in the eyes, nodding one final time.

Death raised his scythe and plunged it back into the ground. As the waveless boom tingled his ears, the man disappeared as solitude swallowed Death once more. The man cast himself down his own slippery slope but saved himself from reaching the bottom. Now, he would have to make the climb back to the top.

Death, in only one of few instances, eagerly anticipated his next meeting with the man.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Contemporary Fiction, Drama, Fiction

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