The first and only time you had ever been to the hospital was when you were born. Your mother loved telling the story - you were quiet and calm, looking to all the world as if you were fast asleep, she says. Within the screaming and your father having a close shave to a panic attack, your eyes were closed and your breathing steady. She would ruffle your hair affectionately whenever she told you the story, say that you were a good kid. Never a troublemaker. Never much of anything, in actuality.
When you were five, you fell off your bicycle while riding down a hill. You tumbled to its base, and your mother ran forward in concern. Dirt rubbed into the open gashes on your knee. Your child’s imagination ran wild with the possibilities - illness, infection, amputation. There was too much blood. Was there ever supposed to be that much blood in a body?
By the time your mother got to you, your wounds had vanished as if they had never existed at all.
The teacher stands at the very front of the room, attempting and failing to capture the class’ attention. He shouts “now!” when the thin second hand of the clock hit twelve, and the other classmates begin reluctantly jumping up and down, hands accidentally hitting shoulders and clipping heads.
Your friend next to you groans and rolls his eyes, not caring when the health teacher glares at him. While not as blatant as he, you can relate. You were thirteen, not ten, thank you very much.
You start jumping despite the offensive slight - imagine, out of any other class, failing health.
After the next minute is over, the teacher signals the class to stop and demonstrates pulse-finding by putting two fingers near the base of his throat. Everyone else follows suit.
“Geez, that’s fast,” your friend remarks after checking his heart rate. He straightens his back and puts his hand on his chest, making a solid attempt at a sincere expression. “Oh, buddy, better call the closest newspaper and tell them their next headline - ‘Teens Discover that Heart Rate Goes Up When Exercising. National Scientific Community In Shock,’ with each capital letter clearly audible. You don’t respond, focusing on finding your pulse, switching between neck to wrist. He grins. “You’re actually taking this seriously, aren’t you?”
You snap out of your brief reverie and bark out a laugh. He soon distracts you with a rendition of a rather humorous story, making you collapse into stronger laughter until the teacher walks over and scolds the both of you. Your mind quickly forgets.
You had found no pulse.
A different teacher, a different room, the same boredom.
“Alright, alright, me first,” your friend says. He chews at the inside of his cheek until he flinches. “Ow, geez, I’m bleeding. Does anyone have a tissue?”
“What’re you gonna do, stick it in your mouth?” Someone from the next table over says, bemused. Your friend scowls.
“Whatever, shut up. Pass me a toothpick.” He sticks the toothpick in his mouth and moves it around, then scraping the results onto a glass slide. “Ugh, there’s skin and blood on it…”
You laugh at your friend’s squeamishness and pass him a plastic cover, which he slides onto the organic mess and locks under the microscope’s lens. Peering in, he taps the slide gently in various directions until his eyes lock onto something. “There! Here, you have to draw it for the report,” he addresses you, sidling aside so you too can see the tiny cells. After both of you have finished sketching the shape, he passes you a clean toothpick. “Your turn.”
Carefully, you follow the same process your friend did - sans the blood - and put the slide under the microscope. You frown.
Your friend leans over. “Something wrong?” You don’t respond quite yet, moving and pushing the slide around like your friend did, adjusting the lens, the focus. Finally, you shrug in frustrated resignation and move aside.
“Can’t find anything?” You nod. “Whatever, we have the data we need. Let’s turn it in.”
The two of you walk to the front desk, where the teacher gives a lecture on legibility in lab reports, but your mind is only half listening. There were no cells in your sample.
It’s been following you for the past week or so.
On the way home from school, you’d look over your shoulder and see a shadowy figure, cloaked in a constantly-shifting, cloudy black and seemingly invisible to everyone else. People would casually walk around it, cars would drive through it as if it wasn’t there. Sometimes, you would look back and see the figure impaled on a mailbox. At home, it would stand in a corner. It never seemed to get closer than several yards.
You’re trying everything - tried everything. Thrown items would pass through it smoothly, meeting no resistance. Conversation did nothing, as it did not reply, and you decided to stop after people began staring at you for talking to what seemed to them like an empty patch of air.
The last time you checked, it seemed to move from about twelve feet away to eleven.
Several months later, your shadow has not disappeared. If anything, it has moved closer to you, now brushing you. Where it brushes you, your body feels faint, insubstantial. It began to swallow you.
The more of you it swallowed, you noticed, the less the people around you seemed to notice. There were a few disorienting instances where things were thrown through you and you did not feel it. You think you should feel vaguely disturbed, but the shadow quells those thoughts with a soft darkness any time they emerge, an anesthetic for unsettling thoughts.
One day, you are in the backseat of your father’s car as he drives you home from a long day at school. Graduation. You aren’t sure where your life is going from there.
While your parents dote over your minor achievements and your father twists back to smile at you, the shadow swallowed you whole.
“I’m dead,” you say out loud. “My God, I’m dead.”
The truck came out of nowhere.
“Hello.” You stared at the cloaked figure in front of you, now much more substantial. The previous haze of smoke solidified into a heavy cloak, well-worn and a soft black. Not much was visible under it, the face completely cast in shadow from the cloak’s hood. The only things peeking out from the cloth were pale, bony hands - which, upon closer investigation, you realized, were actual bones - and similarly skeletal feet, which were swinging as the figure looked down on you from its seat on a leafless tree.
Death is shorter than you thought it would be. You tell it so. It shrugs.
“Yours was short,” it said. “Your life, as well, compared to many others here.”
“You were the figure,” you responded. “Why didn’t you talk to me?”
“I couldn’t do much until you realized you were dead. You were taking a bit longer than usual, so I stepped in to remind you and hurry up the process a bit.”
Death’s answer makes you remember that you were in an unfamiliar place. You look around and see that the land, like the tree, is empty. Cold dirt lies under your feet, and white fog obscured anything it could, swirling around your limbs. Despite the fog twisting and the tree’s branches tossing as if in a gentle breeze, you could hear no wind - although, you realize, when listening closely enough, you could hear gentle sirens and muted voices. “Where was I, before?”
It continues swinging its feet. “You know that saying, having your life flash before your eyes?” You nod assent. “That’s where we put people until they realize that they’re dead. It’s a bit of a process, seeing as so many of you aren’t willing to accept it. It’s seconds in real life, though.”
You close your eyes, remembering - bike rides, autumn leaves. “So everything there wasn’t real?”
“Well, yes, but it’s not all you. We create a base, and your memories do the rest for you. Although, we seed hints throughout, try to make you realize. In your case, we had those events - remember when you had no pulse?”
It takes some digging, but you remember a sunlit day in a stupor-filled classroom. “Yes.”
“Things like that.”
You walk up to the tree, put your hand on its thin but sturdy trunk. “Where’s here, then?”
“Well, you’re a hundred percent officially dead now.”
It watches you expectantly.
A rather vague answer, but you move on anyway. “Why the sirens?”
“Why so many questions?” It stops kicking its feet. “Well… You’re officially dead, but this is still a transition phase. Your mind is split between here and there, near and far, this side of the river and the other one. There’s no going back,” it adds suddenly, “If you were going to ask. A lot of people ask.”
“I wasn’t going to,” you say. Your hand moves over the tree’s trunk, unnaturally smooth. “What’s next?”
“Well,” it jumps down from the barren tree, “whatever’s next is whatever’s next. I’ve never been there.”
You stare. “Death has never been to death?”
It shakes what seems to be its head. “No, no. Death isn’t where you’re going. It’s what’s taking you there.” With that, it extends a skeletal hand.
Your gaze shifts to the glistening white fingers. “Do I have to go with you?”
It shrugs. “No, you don’t. But it’ll be long, and lonely.”
After a brief period of deliberation, you shrug in return and reach out to grab the hand. The bone was warm and dry. It gestures to a path you didn’t see before cutting through the fog, paved with bricks just a little more saturated in color than the rest of the scene.
“Shall we go?” Death’s voice is disembodied, high, and cavernous, but soft.
The sirens are softer now. The voices, barely a whisper in the mist. The tree’s branches have stopped swaying with wind.
You nod. “Yeah, let’s go.”