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As the moon crests over the spider limb treetops, bathing the woods in a creamy glow, I watch Jane Prince die.
I know her name before the car careens into the woods, sending melted chunks of metal spiraling over the forest floor. I know her name before I watch her body spring through the cracked windshield, breaking the glass into a million, gleaming shards like sharpened teeth. Call it intuition, call it a gift, but the moment I found myself concealed in the shadows of the woods, watching the young girl die, I know her whole life.
It passes before my eyes quickly, a movie reel of insignificant events: her first steps, the first day of school, her awkward, middle school phase. All up until the moment she decided to leave the party early, along with half a bottle of vodka and a smoldering cigarette. A friend of hers advised her not to go, offering a ride home. Jane refused, insisting she'd be fine. So she climbed into her jeep, unknowingly taking the last car ride she would ever experience.
Perhaps it's bittersweet, this sense of mine. I've watched so many deaths in my lifetime, more than I'd ever care to remember, and yet not one has slipped the clutches of my memory. I am each life that has been lost, carrying the souls of the dead in my fingertips. They haunt me, poison me, taint my sanity with their lifeless, glassy eyes. I am them, they are me, slipping between my eyelids like a movie on a constant loop. I have been everyone and anything, every age and every race, every minute of every day.
The mere thought of it is enough to drive me mad, tearing in my chest every waking moment. I am the Grim Reaper, or so they call me. Word of mouth has distorted my image over centuries, from skeletal beings to women with blue tongues and horse drawn chariots, to a fearful entity that passes through villages, bearing only a broom.
In truth, I am a man who has seen too much.
The fables picture me as some sort of twisted hero, setting each soul free to the afterlife. They know nothing of me, of the life I never desired to lead; a simple man whose soul has painted itself black with death, surrendered to the deepest bowels of Hell. They will never understand the torture, the writhing pain that sets in my bones as I suck the last breaths out of my prey.
Sometimes, they come willingly, ready to leave the earth that once bound them. I can tell these people apart; they die peacefully. Their eyes do not hold fear or terror as they approach their fate. These are the people who do not fear me, sometimes bold enough to reach out for my hand or wave goodbye as they cross the River. They don't know me, and yet, for some inexplicable reason, they trust me.
In these instances, I don't regret the person I am, the person I've become. I don't regret the miles of earth I've crossed only to see centuries of death, thousands of lifeless bodies that have crumbled in my hands.
The horse I arrived on, Helhes, breathes impatiently through his nose, sending a cloud of white fog curling into the black sky. I silence the stallion softly, pressing a hand to its pale shoulder. Helhes is a faithful stallion, having followed me to every corner of the world, leading the souls to Charon's boat.
"Be still, Helhes," I murmur. His depthless eyes probe me before nodding in a way that could never be considered animalistic, lowering his haunches to the ground.
I clutch my scythe, the sharpened point shining in the slant of moonlight that follows me behind the trees. My feet crunch over the dead leaves that blanket the woods as I move through the thick darkness, a howling wind ripping through the trees. At this time of night, it seems as if the entire world could be dead; not a single noise aside from the leaves cut through the quiet. It is a sharp contrast to the boisterous streets of the city, where I had just previously come from. Similar to Jane Prince's fate, I ushered the soul of a young man from a car crash, along with his female companion heading home from a party.
Although they died together, their souls seemed very, very alone.
Jane Prince is curled on her side, her forever frozen in fear, staring at some faraway point. The side of her head against the ground stains the earth with scarlet, pooling in swirls around her face. Such a shame, a life lost at her young age.
When I press my hand to her shoulder, a burst of memories collide with my own, encasing her soul in mine. Suddenly I am in her place, reliving the scene of the crash. I look on from the passenger's seat, unable to move as the girl jerks the steering wheel violently. A pair of fuzzy dice clatter to the floor where they hung from the rear view mirror, along with other trinkets she had put on the dashboard. The vodka spills from her clenched fist in slow motion, and I wish I could forget the sound of her screams, screams that I've heard thousands of times before.
Screams of raw, undisguised terror.
It is one thing most who have died prematurely share. Perhaps they fear of the afterlife, whether or not they've completed their life's duties. Many experience flashbacks from instances when they were young, or moments they regret. It's not a lie, what some people say about your life flashing before your eyes as you pass on.
Jane's sobs break through her trembling lips, and the car skids down the dirt before resting where I first found it. She bursts through the windshield then, and for a moment I'm left wondering if she would have survived, had she been wearing a seatbelt. Had the vodka not taken affect in her bloodstream. Had the music not been blaring from the radio, blasting some tinny pop song through the static. For a moment, I lean against the car door, glancing down at a picture that also fell to the floor with the other objects. I retrieve it from the rubble, shaking off bits of dirt and rock that got into the car.
In the picture, Jane's smiling, her green eyes gleaming as she links arms with an older man, perhaps her father. They're at a ball game, the sprawling grass of the baseball diamond as a backdrop. The man doesn't look at the camera, but rather at her, beaming down proudly. It's a bitter comparison to the image of the broken girl now, lying a few feet away.
The picture is the last thing I catch site of before the scene of the car dissolves away.
I remove my hand from her shoulder, stumbling slightly as I exit her last, human memory. I am back at the scene of the wreckage once more, crouched over the still body. Unlike those who have willingly died, Jane does not smile. Her lips are fixed into a frown, slightly parted as if attempting to release the words that have become trapped in her lungs. I wonder briefly if she thought of the man in the picture before she died, and what he'll think when he realizes she never returned home the next day. What they'll all think.
Life seels cruel that way. Putting all these people in your life only to seperate them inevitably in the end. The sad fact is that everyone ends up alone, left to face the darkness, at some point. For Jane Prince, there is only the unresolved feeling of a life ended too quickly.
After several moments, Jane's lifeless body shudders and a shimmering image of the girl rises, scrambling quickly to her feet. She takes several steps backwards, using her palms to support her unsteady frame,
She glances around the woods, and then her eyes fall on the destroyed car. Pressing her hands to her lips, her eyes convey the horror as she turns over a piece of metal that was once a door. I take a step back, looking away as if I've been caught intruding on a private moment. Although I've done this countless times before, it never gets easier to see this part; the realization as they piece the events together. Sometimes it comes slowly, denial clouding their thoughts. For Jane Prince, the moment comes quickly and is evident in her face. Although she cannot speak, her lips move in a way that suggests she may be shouting. Or crying.
Slowly, very slowly, she makes her way toward her body. I have no trouble picking out the words she speaks now: "Please, no. God, no." A few tears slip down her cheeks and fall to the dirt before dissolving without a trace. She clutches her own hand of her former body, tilting her face downward. She's silent for a moment, her eyes pressed tightly shut. The pale moon casts a slant of light on her face, resting on her weighted shoulders.
Taking a few steps toward her, I rest my hand on her arm briefly in a way that was meant to be comforting but felt forced. There was nothing I could do for Jane Prince now; the next part of her journey would be faced alone. Her tears continue to fall silently, but the girl no longer speaks, her lips pressed together tightly.
I turn away, leading her to where the horse now stands, staring blankly ahead. Helhes kicks up some dirt with his front hooves as I usher the soul toward the horse and onto his back. Her eyes confusedly dart from me, to the stallion, and back again. Pressing the reigns into her hands, I glance at the horse and nod once.
"To the Underworld, Helhes."
Helhes pulls his lips back and tips his head against the sky, charging ahead toward the mass of trees. As he gains speed, he looks less like a horse, his white mane suddenly catching fire. He whinnies again, this time baring razor teeth, the saddle clanging against his coat. I watch as they bound further and further away from the car and toward whatever lies ahead for the girl. I find myself wondering what will become of her; I'd like to think she'll rest peacefully. Despite how she led her life, I can't forget the photograph, how happy she must have been.
And I wonder if she'll ever be that happy again.
When they're far away enough that I can no longer see them, I sink back into the shadows of the trees, content in knowing my job has been done for the moment.
Helhes will return to me when the girl has been left at the gates of the Underworld. At the River, Charon will bring her to her resting place, and again I find myself wishing she'll find her way to peace. I silently bid my farewell to Jane Prince and begin walking in the opposite direction of the smoldering car, toward the thick darkness of the night. A wolf calls somewhere far off in the distance, it's sad moan echoing through the trees.
After several moments, a black circle of smoke appears and Helhes lurches back into the clearing, skidding forward slightly on his front hooves. When he has steadies himself, his black eyes flick to me, nodding sharply. This is is silent way of letting me know that Jane Prince has arrived safely.
I mount Helhes, tucking my scythe under my arm and holding onto the reigns with the other. I tighten them slightly, then rest my hands on his neck. Sighing, I glance once more in the direction of the girl, and back to the horse. Nodding to myself, I square my shoulders and lean forward.
"Onward," I urge the stallion, patting his shoulder.
Helhes surges forward, and together we travel to retrieve the next, lost soul with the moon following us though the trees, always close behind.