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At nine years old, Dash loved to tell himself that he was a Big Kid and anything that had scared him before was now an idle threat. It had been a whole year since he had fled to his parents' room in the dead of night with the imaginary monster under the bed chomping at his heels, and he had fulfilled the initiation ceremony that all boys in his neighborhood were obligated to go through – consuming a whole worm – and he hadn't thrown up. He had practiced and had become the fastest kid in fourth grade, earning him the nickname Dash, and he had smuggled a PG-13 horror movie into his DVD player and watched the entire thing without covering his eyes (although, if he was going to be completely honest, he had shrieked at the part when the mummy unwrapped its bandages). He had also fallen off his two-wheeler and scraped up both knees and one elbow without crying.
Dash was officially a Big Kid, and, like all Big Kids, he thought of the Little Kids, with their pathetic fears, as wimps. Little Kids cried, and Big Kids didn't. And not crying meant not being afraid of anything. Dash's cheeks remained dry of tears for a full six months, but that changed on the afternoon of his grandma's funeral.
Dash was surrounded by a sea of sallow, tear-streaked faces and black clothing. The sounds in the room weren't the sounds of crying but the honking of many women and even a few men blowing their nose. Dash's own nose was running, and a thin film of wetness hung in his gray-blue eyes and over his cheeks. He swiped at his face with his hands as his tears flowed freely.
A relative of his grandma that Dash didn't even know was standing over her coffin blathering on about something. Dash refused to listen to the speeches because he knew they'd pull more tears out of him, but this man's voice was flat and uninteresting, and Dash tuned out in fear of falling asleep. Fury boiled inside him; his grandma deserved a eulogy that could do her justice. This man clearly couldn't provide it.
Dash's fists clenched with the injustice of it all. No more nights spent at the farmhouse with its wide backyard and soaring oak trees, no more afternoons skipping stones across the skin of the pond in the woods, no more mornings awakening to the aroma of blueberry pancakes. Never again would he hear his name called so lovingly, and since almost everyone called him Dash, he figured he wouldn't hear his real name, Darren, spoken all that often anymore, anyway. The list of things he would miss went on and on. If he unrolled a scroll with all of them written on it, he figured it could reach the bottom of a bottomless pit. The pit they're going to lower Grandma into, his mind whispered.
Dash sniffled again and wiped his nose, eyes scrunched up and full to the brim with tears. He wondered if the pain would ever go away.
Suddenly he had an overwhelming urge to run away from it all. He didn't want to see the coffin or the mourners, or hear the sobs or the man's droning voice. He didn't want to smell the suffocating aroma of sadness and grief. Dash had reached the point when he could take no more.
He took off, dress shoes slapping harshly against the wet ground and causing a spray of mud to jump up onto his starched black dress pants. Dash's mother would be furious when she saw them, but at that moment, the part of Dash that cared was smothered by grief. Tears streamed from his eyes and added to the wetness of the ground. Dash weaved through gravestones, imagining them as vicious teeth lining the mouth of a monster ready to swallow the overcast sky. Maybe, if he were lucky, the monster would swallow him too. One flex of throat muscles and he could say good-bye to grief. Good-bye to everything, really, but Dash couldn't think about the good things.
He ran fast enough to leave his thoughts panting in the dust behind him. Everything became a blur, and dead leaves (dead like Grandma, dry and brittle and lifeless) swished chaotically in his wake. His black hair bounced heavily against his forehead and stung his eyes. His mind wanted him to run forever, so he decided that was just what he'd do. He'd run, living up to his namesake.
But his body was too small to carry out that goal, and before long, his knees hit the muddied ground, and then his elbows, and then his hands. His breath came in gasps, and his lungs felt as though they had knives in them. It was just as well, he thought. Finally he was feeling pain in his body to match the pain in his heart.
For a few moments, grief swamped him. His shoulders shook in a release of misery. But then leaves swished and crunched – not a dead crunch, but a living, healthy crunch, the sound a twig makes when it is snapped from a branch, revealing white-green insides. The sound of the leaves, more than the sense of something nearby, was what made Dash's tears pause in his strained, glowing eyes.
He looked up, blinking to clear his vision. When he saw what was in front of him, he screamed.
It was a man, a man with a changing face. The figure was dressed all in black, like everyone at the funeral, and he shimmered and shifted, never staying the same for a full moment. First he was a woman whose eyes were frozen and frightened, next he was a man whose mouth was open in a scream of terror, then he was a boy whose face was half gone, only red left where the other side should have been.
“You're a fast one, aren't you?” the man murmured. But he didn't have just one voice. He had many, all of them twisting and swirling and undulating together into a soft, many-layered roar. “A fast one, certainly. And willful. You've come very far merely to get away from that mass of grief. Tell me, Darren, what would you do to make it stop?”
Dash assumed for a moment that he wouldn't be able to speak. But, like in a dream, his body acted on its own. “A-anything. I'd d-do anything. Make it stop, please.”
“Darren, I can make it stop.” The man's face morphed again, this time into the face of his grandmother, her eyes glassy and, somehow, pleading.
Dash cringed, wanting to clamber to his feet and run away from this apparition, but again, his body betrayed him. “How? Tell me how!”
The man laughed, a million laughs in one. “What if I told you that I could bring your grandma back?” Again, his grandmother's face appeared, and her mouth opened in a silent cry for help. Darren, sweetie, I'm scared. I don't like it here.
Dash's heart wrenched with the desperate need to save his grandma. “Anything. I'll do anything,” he said. What kind of hero would he be if he walked away, knowing that he had the chance to save Grandma but hadn't taken it?
“I just need a little something from you. A trade, if you will.” The man took a step closer. “You want to save your grandma, don't you?”
“Yes, yes! I have to.” Dash's eyes filled with tears. What wouldn't he give to save Grandma's life? What he lacked in age, he made up for in love for the people he cared about.
“Do you accept my deal?”
Dash's face hardened, his tears drying on his cheeks. A wave of clarity washed over him. He could practically hear the slap of a skipped stone on water, smell the sweet aroma of blueberry pancakes. Those sensations might not belong to him ever again, but they'd still be there for someone else. His little sister, maybe, and his cousins. “A life for a life. I get it. And I accept,” he said.
The man used a thousand different mouths to smile. His fingers reached out, then pulled sharply back. Dash felt something within him being yanked, and he gave a gasp of surprise. He had the feeling of being pulled out of himself, and suddenly everything was chaos. He could see his own body slump to the ground, lifeless and limp. He could hear the man's satisfied chuckle, and lastly, he could just make out his grandma's anguished face rush toward him, then past him. Her voice floated to him: Darren, oh Darren, no! Sweetie, you've made a terrible mistake …
And then he was falling through a vast void, plummeting toward a pinprick of light. Just before he reached it, Dash could hear a faint tumult of sound. In the direction he'd run from, a crowd of people surrounding a coffin were screaming at the shape that opened its eyes within.