They say your life flashes before your eyes, right before you die. That was the part I always dreaded most, and here it was; the re-runs before the finale.
Monroe Street materialized before my eyes. They called it 'the gateway to Hell'. It wasn’t hard to see why.
I saw it many times; all of it. I saw every crumbling apartment complex and shadowed alleyway branded with layers of splotchy graffiti, every yelping stray with ribs poking from their stretched, dry skin.
The stench slammed into me a moment later. Familiar plumes of cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, and rotting garbage forced me to gag. A rusting Buick I knew a bit too well burped fumes out of the tailpipe as it waited impatiently on a deserted street corner. A shadowed figure clad in a fraying hoodie two sizes too big strode towards it, clutching something.
I didn’t need to get closer to know whose face the baggy black hood hid, or what he sheltered cautiously in his hands. I didn’t need to approach the dented Buick to overhear what he told his sister when she asked innocently what was in the bag, eyes wide, because I remember. It was ‘powdered sugar’, he explained simply.
The scene crumbled as I blinked. I felt the sting of chlorine in my nostrils, icy pool water dripping down my arms. A body, tiny and thrashing, filled my eyes. I extended a pale hand toward it, grabbing at a stick-thin arm maddeningly close to the surface. A shrill shriek split the air; mine, I realized. I knew how this ended, too; she never grabbed my outstretched hand. That weekend, I went to my first funeral, and my last swimming lesson.
The frigid water vaporized, stealing away the goose bumps lining my arms with them as I squeezed my eyes shut. So far, these re-runs hadn’t exactly been of the golden days- the death of Arya, my cousin, and my brother’s night-time ‘sugar runs’ haunted my nights and, apparently, my afterlife.
I opened one eye slightly; afraid of what flashback might rise unbidden, like stinging bile.
What came next slammed into me like a brick to the face- no, wait; a projectile brick is too gentle. Perhaps it was closer to a train, carrying a load of cinderblocks, crashing into me at full speed.
My room flooded my eyes, exactly how I had left it. A laundry basket lounged in the corner, brimming with dirty clothes. My desk, dented and loaded with unfinished homework, sat next to it. A dresser lined the wall, top cluttered with half-empty lotions, earrings with their partner lost, and a single bright orange bottle. It had my name, Cass Daniels, printed proudly in capital letters, along with instructions for how many capsules to take a day and when. I’d ignored them, of course; the antidepressants had never been opened, and never would be.
There was a mirror, too, and a bookshelf filled with science fiction. As was to be expected from a bedroom, there was a bed, made with lavender sheets and covered in a striped quilt. The thing in the room that commanded the most attention, however, was also the smallest. A tiny bottle of sleeping pills rested on the ground where it had fallen from my hand. A few blue capsules lay around on the carpet where they spilled out when the bottle tumbled. The rest were in my stomach, the chemicals pumping through my bloodstream like debris in a river.
I felt my body begin to drift into a sleep I knew I wouldn’t wake up from and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to block out the inevitable end. I didn’t need to experience my death twice.
I felt the pounding of my heart in my ears subside, dying out like a bass drum in a decrescendo. Hesitantly, I let my eyes open. I didn’t know what to expect (then again, does anyone know what to expect from death?). Would there be angels with glowing halos and the towering golden gates of heaven, or demons gnashing their teeth, ripping apart the souls of the damned with maniacal enthusiasm?
I found it was neither.
It was white as the inside of a snowbank and bright as staring at the sun. There was nothing, as far as the eye could see, and nothing beyond that, probably. It was just me; my breaths were the only thing breaching the heavy silence, my footsteps were probably the only thing that had ever crossed the solid white. This was my death; my spirit’s cage, but also its final freedom.
Fast-forward five minutes, and I was already maddeningly bored, which probably didn’t bode well for the impending eternity here. Wherever ‘here’ was; it seemed impossible for it to have a name. That would just violate the utter and complete nothingness.
I shouted, the deafening boom bold and thunderous enough to put a mighty warrior to shame, just to see if it would break the silence. It traveled, until the void swallowed it, plunging the white into noiseless insanity.
“You’re a freakishly loud kid, you know that?” the silence answered with a smooth voice. Then I screamed; shrill and ringing, because silence isn’t exactly supposed to respond when you disturb it.
“See? There you go again. This is why I despise visitors. You’re basically dead already! What is out there that could possibly make you so afraid that you feel the need to scream? Ugh!” It huffed indignantly.
I swallowed hard, my hand covering the skin over my hammering heart. If I didn’t, it was bound to pump out of my chest.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I sneered, surprised by the snarky confidence in my voice, “it’s just that I hadn’t planned on having tea and a chat with death, and the sudden arrangement has left me a little flustered.”
A chuckle rumbled through the air, light and bubbly, not at all how death should sound.
“If you’re flustered now, I can’t wait to see you when the real fun starts. Oh, and by the way?”
A burst of flamboyant smoke more multicolored than a jumbo box of Crayolas exploded, accompanied by a forceful, fizzling pop like an alka-seltzer tablet dissolving in water. Out of the rainbow swaggered a man, dusting specks of color off of his shoulders.
He was tall and lean, with thick hair swept up into a night black bun. A few wavy strands hung loose, framing his olive face. Sporting a gunmetal leather jacket, a T-shirt spotted in thousands of neon pineapples, and a toothy smirk, he looked comically misplaced in the white wasteland.
“Not Death. You can thank your lucky stars for that, too, because let me tell you, I’m so much more fun. Death is the biggest buzzkill you can experience.”
“The whole point of taking the early train out was to meet death, so-” I started to explain, but he cut me off, waving his hands dismissively.
“Meeting me is kind of like reaching for an aged merlot and picking up a lukewarm bottle of grape Faygo? Can’t say I’ve gotten that reaction before- the change is a bit refreshing. And concerning.” He pursed his lips, running his glinting eyes up and down my frame. Stepping closer, he snatched my arm, pulling it close to his dark face and… sniffing?
“What are you doing?” I demanded, watching in confusion as he dropped my arm suddenly, shifting his intense gaze to my scalp.
“Shh!” He commanded, pulling gently on my hair. “Stand still, this’ll only take a second.”
“What are you-” I winced bewilderedly as he wound a thick curl around his finger and tugged harshly. A chunk of red strands circled his finger, ripped out of my scalp. I rubbed the bald spot gingerly, glaring at the man. He ignored me, sticking three hairs in his mouth as casually as if he were shoving chips in his trap and not a dead girl’s hair. He chewed vigorously.
“So, you ever been to a therapist, counselor? Anyone ever tried to pry into that basket case of yours?” He inquired, spitting out the scarlet strands.
I was so confused.
“Not that I can remember, but I don’t see-” Again he cut me off, digging into his pockets.
“Your hair tastes like walnuts.” He commented, grunting in frustration as he pulled various odds and ends from his clothing, hurling them to the ground. A pile was rising steadily by his feet, strawberry flavored chapstick and blue crayons rolling across the ground chaotically.
“Not a compliment, kid. Shampoo and condition more often.” He growled, wincing as he yanked a pincushion impaled with legions of needles from his pocket, tiny specks of blood spotting his hand.
A grin broke over his face, the floodgates of joy breaking wide as he pulled a circular plastic container from his jacket. “Ah, my breath-mints! How I love you!” He kissed the spearmints passionately, holding them in the air like a trophy. Promptly, he sighed blissfully and replaced them in his pocket.
“You’re not going to eat any?” I questioned, thoroughly confused. He snorted, staring at me as if I proposed that gravity makes things go up, and doesn’t, in fact, keep them down.
“Is there a reason I should?”
“Why are you here? And who are you, exactly?” I sighed exasperatedly, quickly realizing that if I didn’t get us back on the topic at hand, we’d likely discuss his mints for at least half of eternity.
“You know, it’s a good thing we’re not trying to play twenty questions. You’d be terrible at it. You haven’t asked a single yes-or-no question yet. And anyway, twenty questions is tremendously boring. S’probably why we’re not playing it. So, you want to know about me, kid? That’s great! I love talking about myself.”
I touched my temples gingerly, head spinning from the tornado of conversation and raw energy I got sucked into. It would be a miracle equal to wiping out poverty if we actually got anywhere- speaking with him was like doing donuts on the highway.
“I’m a reaper, technically. One of death’s lackeys that fetches his prom dates, if you know what I mean. If eternity can be compared to prom- it basically has the same run time, and is equally as eventful, but I digress! I’m here to show you something.” He explained, staring at me expectantly.
“And if I don’t want to see?” I challenged, crossing my arms and suppressing a shudder. The last few things I saw weren’t so pleasant, and I wasn’t about to live those particular re-runs a third time.
“Not an option.”
Suddenly his hand, cooling and calloused, covered my forehead, and the blinding whiteness faded to black.
When I opened my eyes, it felt like centuries later and forty degrees colder. Sirens screamed, splitting the air with their mournful, shrill shrieks. Red and blue light splashed across the ground, flicking across my face. I winced, jerking my hands away from the biting cold and pea-sized pebbles of shattered glass splattering the asphalt.
“Fallen and you can’t get up?” A cheeky voice quipped. One dark hand was extended, fingers wiggling expectantly.
I gripped his hand, rolling my eyes. Snorting, I was about to retort-but the witty quip died on my tongue when I saw what lay before me on the street.
A mangled, barely recognizable Buick I knew a bit too well smoked idly, completely totaled. My body took control, moving without the command of my mind. Faintly, I felt the pounding of my feet across the pavement as I got closer. A distant voice filled my ears, asking what happened as my arm darted out to grab at the arms of anxious bystanders and nurses. No one answered. No one even blinked as my frantic questions morphed into desperate screams.
I pushed my way through the onlookers, shoving aside nurses as I rushed to the ambulance. They didn’t seem to care, letting me shove them aside, allowing me to approach the stretcher.
“Who is it?” I growled when I saw the black plastic hiding the body like a well-kept secret. I tore at the edges, scraping at the body bag madly, but it didn’t budge.
“Can’t hear you, kiddo. Scream all you want, but no one communicates with spirits anymore.” The reaper appeared behind me, hands shoved into his pockets casually.
“What happened?” I demanded, turning to him and grabbing at the lapels of his jacket. A tear bubbled by the corner of my eye, threatening to spill out over my cheek.
“DUI,” he explained, brushing my hands off as if I were dust. “bit of a run in with that street light over there.”
“Who?” I choked. “Who was in the car?” I suspected I knew who, but I pushed my suspicions down.
“Cassandra Daniels, thirty-six, single mother of two; Aidan and Cass Daniels.”He rattled off information like he was reading from a book, but the words rang hollow in my ears. A lump rose in my throat as I watched two nurses pick the stretcher up with ease, placing it gently in the back of the ambulance.
“She’s the one that found you, you know. Tried to resuscitate you for hours, but you’d already kicked the bucket.”
I swallowed thickly, trying to keep the floodgates damming up my sorrow intact.
“The sight of you laying there, barely breathing and pale… Well, let’s just say it wasn’t giant spiders that haunted her dreams, anymore.”
A gentle bang sounded as the ambulance doors slammed shut. I felt one, hot streak trail down my face as the EMTs and a cooling corpse rolled away, bright lights no longer flashing.
“She drank to forget, but it never worked. She always woke up with vomit in her throat and memories of you on the back of her mind.”
“Stop.” I pleaded, squeezing my eyes shut tightly. That’s what made it all go away before. I just wanted it to go away.
I opened my eyes slightly, wiping away the tears freezing on my cheeks, and my heart almost stopped.
Graffiti lined the crumbling brick walls, cigarette butts littered the ground. Trash drifted on the air. A man shuffled through an alleyway somewhere nearby. I noticed none of that, however. All I saw was a figure, hunched unnaturally in a corner, wrapped in a black sweatshirt.
Kneeling beside my brother, I began to panic as I saw his face. He was pale, sweating, his pupils dilated as big as plates. His arms were bruised and lined in track marks. I shook him violently, but he just groaned and slouched over, dustings of white powder drifting from his face.
“I don’t think that’s powdered sugar donut residue. Probably shouldn’t touch.”
I whirled on him, growling ferally.
“You!” I snapped, “Why are you showing me this?”
He ignored me, lazily kicking a pop can and wincing at the loud clatter it made as it skipped across the ground.
“OD, bad cut, take your pick. He was clean for six years; until March 4, 2014. The day you died.”
“No!” I opposed, my voice shrill and ringing. “He wouldn’t, he promised me he never would-”
“He blamed himself.” He cut me off, looking me straight in the eye. “He should’ve noticed you weren’t taking your happy pills, that you’d been moodier than usual.”
I choked, the lump in my throat growing with every word I said. “It was never his fault. He was supposed to know that. How could he not-”
“How was he supposed to know? You didn’t even leave a note! This is their future without you!” The reaper snapped, silver eyes burning.
“How was I supposed to know what would happen? How? I didn’t know they cared so much. I was doing them a favor, I thought.” I sobbed, wiping away the wetness in my eyes. “Why?” I choked, my voice catching on every word, “Why do they all care so much? What have I done, other than be a burden?”
“Look, maybe you haven’t done something like invent cancer’s cure. Maybe you never will. But kid, you do make a difference- a huge one, for so many people.”
I sighed, voice hitching.
“It’s too late, now. I can’t do anything. I’m dead! I can’t just pop back into life for coffee time.”
The reaper chuckled.
“See, that, kid, is where you’re wrong. Which you usually are. Anyway- I’ll do something for you. A special onetime offer, because I like your sparkling personality and tacky fashion sense. I’ll pop you back in time- back to reality, just before you pop back those sleeping pills. You get a second chance.”
I slumped to the ground, head in my hands, mulling it over.
“What am I supposed to do? It hurts if I stay, and it hurts if I leave. There’s no way I come out of this okay!” I protested, wiping away salty wetness with the back of my hand.
“Life hurts, kid. It’s always gonna hurt. You’re not going to get out of this okay- not really. But at least this way you come out alive.”
“But-” He cut me off, squeezing my shoulder gently.
“I don’t have forever, kid. Going once, going twice-” He looked at me expectantly.
I sighed shakily, wiping away my tears with finality.
“Bring me back.”
“Good choice, kiddo.”
He touched my forehead gently, the street fizzling out to black as I shut my eyes.
“Thank you.” I whispered. I let my eyes close, and the reaper faded away.
Suddenly, I was standing in my room, painfully dizzy, but alive. I looked to the bottle in my hands- sleeping pills. I tossed it over my shoulder, and picked up a different bottle- this one orange, with my name printed proudly on the side.
I twisted the cap off of my antidepressants, the jangling of pills loud and satisfying, and for the first time in a long while, I really, truly smiled.