We were kids. Couldn’t have been older than six, that’s all I know. That’s as far as my memory can reach.
It’s more than far enough.
We were kids, and we were sitting in the barn. Staring at a dead mouse. Well, it wasn’t really a mouse. Not quite yet, anyway. It was still fairly pink. Poor thing. It was trying to be a mouse. It really was.
But it fell.
Instead of crawling or walking or scurrying how mice do, it fell from the rafters. Without even a single sound, it fell.
We were kids, and we were staring at the mouse, a giant lump in my throat and a stone in my stomach. An ache spreading through my joints as I thought about how such a small thing had died so soon. He hadn’t even really lived yet, the poor little thing.
And that was when he said it. Staring at the lost life before us, his expression receded in his sadness, he said it.
“One day, I’m going to be the Grim Reaper.”
It was a bit of a bombshell.
So, I’d said, “I thought you were going to be a lawyer.”
As somberly as he could—neither of us really understood it at the time—he said, “Mom says they’re practically the same thing.”
He wasn’t wrong.
We were seventeen. The memory still played in my head sometimes.
Because I knew.
He never said it, and I never questioned it, but I knew.
He disappeared a lot. Showed back up with blood on his hands, or wearing a different shirt, or with a stain on his cheek. There was a scythe keychain that he wore around his neck. He never spoke about it, but somehow I knew.
He was the real deal.
It was strange, too, because he wasn’t ignored at school. Wasn’t an outcast. He wasn’t especially popular, but he wasn’t unpopular either. He did well in sports, his grades were good, and he usually showed up on time.
He’d go missing.
“Where ya been?” I asked him once, jokingly.
He did his best to meet my eye as he said, “nowhere”.
There was blood on his face. And his keychain as well.
I didn’t bring it up again. Never asked, not even jokingly.
Because I knew.
Clearly, it wasn’t something he didn’t want to talk about. Or, perhaps it was, and he just couldn’t. I had no idea. I wasn’t a Grim Reaper. I had no idea how it worked, if there were rules or not. All I knew was:
That night, when we were lying in bed, I brought up the mouse again. My six year old voice carried in the dark, despite how high-pitched it was.
“He was so small.”
I think that’s what I said.
And my remark was met with a sob.
Several, if I remember correctly.
Even though it was dark, I knew where the sobs came from. I mean, it was just the two of us. Just Ilya and me. I knew who was crying, even if he never fessed up to it.
He was grieving.
Grieving over a mouse.
Without another word, I snuck out of my bed and onto the floor where he was nestled. Blankets and pillows were strewn around him, like he was a baby bird in a nest. And I climbed right in, fearlessly. Without hesitation, and without judgment.
I was grieving too.
I remember we hugged each other. Fell asleep after Ilya was done crying. After the night finally had settled around us. It wasn’t much, and I wasn’t very good at comforting him, I think. But, even then, I think I knew.
Just having someone there?
That made a huge difference.
And we never brought up what he’d said either. Never. It hung between us, like a sticky secret that we ought to keep from mucking our boots. But I still remember, and I think he knew that I knew.
I was there.
Seventeen years old.
I was paying attention to the road, I swear. Watching for cars coming and going. Just because I was a pedestrian, and just because I had the right of way, didn’t mean that others would see me. That I ought to expect cars to stop. I didn’t.
I got hit anyway.
I’m not sure how it happened. The memory is all fuzzy. I just remember being in a blinding amount of pain as all my bones reacted to being smashed. Crunched up like a piece of paper. Knocked sideways.
And I remember laying on the road.
A feeling of loss filling me. Creeping around the pain.
Blood was oozing.
I knew that.
I could feel it leaving me.
It was making me tired.
So I went to sleep.
Went to sleep, and I found myself outside of myself.
Which, I’ll be honest, was much more terrifying than the accident itself. So much more frightening. Watching, as if I were a rubbernecker, as my head poured blood onto the asphalt. As the driver put her hands over her mouth in a silent scream. As the neighbors—who were miraculously outside of their house and in a competent frame of mind—dialed an ambulance. I watched as the scene began to play out.
As if I weren’t part of it at all.
It left me feeling…
Was I really already gone? I barely stood a chance.
That was when I saw him.
It was The Reaper.
Face covered in a black mask—like gauze made from the fibers of halloween—he walked forward. A hood covered his head, and he wore a modern sweatshirt. The kind that I, myself, like to wear. His jeans were tattered, fraying at the knees and at the hems. His hands were set firmly in his pockets, as if he’d locked them away there.
And his scythe?
It hung from his back. Upside down.
Slowly, he walked forward. The blade dragged against the ground, making a rather unpleasant sound. A scraping, yes, but also a scratching. Ants scurried away from the tip fo the blade, afraid. The ones who didn’t ended up dead.
And I realized it was him.
It was really him.
The Grim Reaper.
Oh man, I thought to myself, I’m going to be in so much trouble.
Just a few inches from me, The Reaper stopped.
Hands still in his pockets, he tilted his head at me. Like he was curious, or confused.
“…hi,” I said.
Wordlessly, he turned to look at the scene unfolding.
It made my stomach knot up all over again.
“Yeah, that’s… me. I swear I was watching where I was going, but the car just—”
It wasn’t his usual voice. Hidden beneath several reverberating tones, there was his voice. The surface was nothing like him. Nothing like him at all.
But I knew.
This was Ilya, my best friend. The same boy who cried over a dead mouse all those years ago, who held my hand when I insisted we go through the haunted house at the fair together, the one who I passed dumb doodles to during class.
This was Ilya.
The same guy I loved.
We looked on, at my broken body. At my spilling blood. Jeez. When did I get so much blood? Wasn’t I going to bleed out any minute now?
What was Ilya going to do if I died?
Who would be there?
The thought made my heart squeeze painfully. As if I failed, for some reason. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, threatening to barrel through my defenses.
Ilya stepped in.
Before a single tear could fall, his ethereal voice broke through the void we shared.
“Don’t let me catch you just yet.”
“What?” I asked, my voice sounding thick. Heavy.
And began walking away.
Hands still locked in his pockets, he said it over his shoulder.
“I still need you around, Layla.”
And that was it.
As if waking from a bad dream, I woke into reality.
A horrible, painful reality.
But one I survived.
Am still surviving.
All because The Grim Reaper refused to take me. Accepted only failure in the art of taking my soul.
Stingy, isn’t he?
The man who cried over a mouse.
The man with the scythe.
The man I love.
We still don’t talk about it. Don’t need to.
When he looks over and sees me there, the secret isn’t sticky anymore. Isn’t a spider lurking in a basement. Not something hideous to hide.
It reminds us both:
Failure can lead to good things. Great things, even.
It’s fine, even though I know. Everything is fine.
I don’t mind falling asleep next to The Grim Reaper.