For most people, birth and death are the bookends to their lives; the first and final pages of their life’s story. Not me.
My experiences with these two were very different. My mother’s pregnancy was easy, since it was her sixth. But it seems that her good luck didn’t hold—somehow, I died. I didn’t stay that way for long, surrounded by doctors and nurses in the hospital. It was less than a minute by all accounts. Even still, Mom claims it was the most terrifying moment of her life, joking that I was the baby to turn her hair grey. It wasn’t surprising that Mom called quits on having kids after that.
As for me . . . I was an odd child. Maybe it was because I was the youngest—as the baby of the family, I grew up with five older sisters that teased me, babied me, got protective over me, and completely sold me down the river in turns. Maybe it was my dad’s fault; Mom certainly liked to blame him. Or maybe I was just born a pint-sized weirdo and grew bigger.
I can only say that now, looking back. When I was younger, I had no idea that there was anything different about me. Growing up, I hung around at the park after school, played on the soccer team, and joined the reading club at the school library. I was around other kids a lot, but I guess I never paid quite enough attention. That changed when I was about eleven.
That was when I noticed that even though I was talking and playing and going to public school like most other kids in my neighbourhood, I didn’t exactly have friends. I remember asking a classmate if I could come over after school with the other girls and boys, but when he asked his mom, she told him no—there was something about me she couldn’t put her finger on, but didn’t like. I wasn’t meant to hear the last bit.
After that, I tried pretty hard to be liked. When it didn’t work out for me, I tried to seem cool—you know, that mysterious loner kid. Now that I managed to be good at. It probably helped that I had a pet cemetery in my backyard, full of miniature tributes to the three hamsters, two budgies, kitten, puppy, and gerbil that had died on me as a kid. By the time I was thirteen, I’d decided that other people could keep their tame animals—at least I didn’t have to clean up critter crap. My goal was also helped along by the fact that my house gave off creepy vibes. There was no reason that it should, no distinctive feature you could single out as creepy, but it still had that haunted feel.
Of course, I played up the cool angle every way I could—you survive high school by any means necessary. For me, it meant resigning from sports teams. Jocks were cool, yeah, but it was a popular kind of cool—not the mysterious, silent, loner kind that a former dork like me might actually be able to achieve. I found my dad’s old jacket and took to wearing it all the time. It was huge, the black leather worn thin in some places, and it probably didn’t look all that great. But I liked it. In addition to my dad’s jacket, my quest to carve out an identity for myself in high school also led me to paint on raccoon eyes with the help of eyeliner. My mom pitched a fit—makeup was not allowed in our house, and certainly not on her baby. That was one of the times my oldest sister was really awesome—she was my dealer of illicit substances. Kohl, in my case.
And thus World War III broke out over eyeliner. Given the way I was babied by everybody, you couldn’t blame me for wanting to get the hell out of dodge once I’d graduated high school. I mean, when you have older sisters, your privacy is zero, your dates are pre-screened and threatened to within an inch of their lives, the concept of “your stuff” is pretty fluid, and you will always be seen as the helpless baby that came home from the hospital wrapped in a fuzzy knitted blanket. Even knowing that, the way my sisters hovered over me was stifling; it was like having six moms.
It wasn’t until later that I started to understand why they were always shrieking like sirens—I had a few close calls as a kid. A fall off the monkey bars when I was seven, complete with landing on my head, had my sister Ruby in hysterics because she thought it’d killed me. When I was twelve, I was hit by a car while riding my bike. At fifteen, I ended up with bacterial meningitis. Obviously I was insanely lucky to come out of all that none the worse for wear. I figured I was owed the good luck, having been born last into such a big family. It never occurred to me that my luck could ever run out or change.
And, of course, it ran out at the worst possible moment—as soon as I’d moved away for college. Once my family was a two-hour drive away, Murphy’s Law arrived to smack me around. First of all, my roommate managed to contract the plague (not the actual plague, but something close), and was sick all over our dorm. After realizing that he had gone to the hospital, I found out that there’d been a screw-up with my tuition payment, and had to spend three very long days running between my college’s Business Office and the local branch of my bank. There may or may not have been a whiny phone call to Mom in between trips. After all that junk was finally dealt with, the work load began kicking my butt.
Finally, it was October, and even though my birthday was coming up—on the 13th—I was alone in my dorm room, dreading the midterms that were rapidly approaching instead of looking forward to turning eighteen. My friend Kira came by—because I did manage to make one of those, despite my best efforts—and she decided to drag me out. I didn’t bother fighting her, because that would just have been an exercise in futility.
That night was weird, though. I couldn’t shake the unsettled feeling I had; the kind of not-right that you just can’t find words for. For a while I ignored it, convinced that I was just in a mood. When the feeling persisted despite the drinks and good company, I mentioned it to Kira, but she didn’t notice anything off. Once, I thought I felt that prickle you get when someone’s staring a hole in the back of your head, but no one was looking in my direction.
By the time I went to sleep that night I’d forgotten all about it. New town, strange places, funky moods, they can all make you twitchy over nothing. I figured it was nothing. I forgot all about it for the next few days, until Kira asked me to visit the local graveyard with her. I rolled my eyes, but agreed. Halloween was coming up, and there were much weirder—and less legal—things she could be asking me to take part in. Like a séance, or egging her ex’s house.
But when we got there, my good mood disappeared like a pickpocket in New York City—Kira had invited other people to this little rock garden rendezvous. While she ran ahead to meet her friends, I lagged behind. Suddenly, this didn’t seem so fun anymore.
Once we were actually inside and running round in some demented scavenger hunt—whoever found the oldest headstone won—I changed my mind. I mean, yeah, the place was still kind of creepy, but not because it was full of dead people. Instead, it was creepy because it was . . . welcoming, somehow. By the time we’d have to leave or get arrested for trespassing, I didn’t want to go. The cemetery was peaceful, and quiet, and the weather was still nice, and how had I never noticed how pretty this place was before? Kira ended up dragging me out by my belt-loops, laughing.
After that, I tried to focus on the good stuff rather than freaking out over tests that weren’t here yet. It was a great plan, but it didn’t work so well. There was this tension in my gut that just wouldn’t go away; something that was gnawing at me. It kept me from sleeping right. And of course, when you don’t sleep right, you get twitchy. I started jumping at every loud noise and staring at every odd-shaped shadow. I was the definition of paranoid.
The day before my birthday, I came down with a horrible case of the stomach flu. I ended up camped out on the bathroom floor with a blanket wrapped around me, just so I didn’t have to move to upchuck. By about eleven-thirty at night, my stomach finally stopped trying to escape my body. After I kept some water down, I hauled my ass off the tile and flopped on my bed, absently noticing that my cactus had died. I was feeling drowsy and hoping I might sleep when my guts started gurgling again. I groaned, but decided to step outside for a few minutes in the desperate hope that fresh air might make me feel better.
When I got outside, the chilly breeze felt good. I leaned against the warm bricks of my dorm building and just breathed. I was outside longer than I thought, because I heard the clock tower clang out midnight. “Happy birthday to me,” I grumbled, “now if I can just stop puking, I might be able to enjoy being eighteen.”
“I wouldn’t count on that.”
My neck snapped around so fast I nearly gave myself whiplash trying to find who the low mutter belonged to. I stared, unmoving and silent, not wanting to give myself away. With how sick I’d been, I could maybe fight off a baby kitten if I had the element of surprise. This was not a good time for trouble to find me.
But when the silence simply stretched on the uncertainty got to me. I had to know if the random commenter was still there or not. “You have a name?” I called out, trying to sound stronger than I was.
“Oh, I have many names . . . but the only one you need to call me is ‘love’,” was the rasping reply.
It was creepy, and I didn’t like being creeped out. “What the hell do you want?” I yelled, anger lending my voice strength. I started edging back towards the door, fumbling for my keys.
“I’ve simply come to claim what’s mine,” the slithering voice replied. Before I could retort or book it back inside, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, and turned in time to see the owner of that rattling voice step out of the shadows. I froze.
They weren’t overly tall, about equal to me in height, but they were covered from head to foot by black fabric. It should have been hysterical—someone dressed in a Grim Reaper getup to pull a Halloween prank. But this was no prank. Masks didn’t have eye-sockets that glittered and spat sparks. Skeleton-gloves didn’t include broken, blood-crusted fingernails and decaying flesh. And no person would ever smell like that for the sake of a costume. That smell—liquefied fat and disintegrated muscle and melted skin—that smell was unmistakable.
“You smell like death,” I muttered, breathing into the blanket I was still wrapped in.
“And the Beloved shall know thee, and call thee by name,” it hissed, triumph and possessiveness tainting the syllables.
“Don’t call me beloved! I don’t know you!” the words spilled, garbled, from my mouth as I rushed to deny the claim.
“You’ve been mine since the day your mother squeezed you from her body,” Death sneered. It took a moment—a short eternity—before the statement clicked. I understood, even though I desperately didn’t want to.
“No, no—the doctors brought me back. I was only technically dead for a few seconds!” I protested frantically. I was shivering, and it had nothing to do with the temperature or being ill.
Death’s grin was disturbingly gleeful as the sickly fires of Hell danced in empty eye-sockets. “No, they didn’t.”
I thought I felt sick before, but it was nothing compared to this. I felt my body go cold, felt my heart stop and my lungs shrivel. My skin seemed to shrink and crack, and in some places it barely clung on. My fingernails were suddenly black and broken. I felt something moving through my veins, so slowly and unevenly that it couldn’t be blood. Against my better judgement, I looked down and understood: maggots. I felt my gorge rise. I was a walking corpse. It was as if I had suddenly switched bodies—my living, breathing, whole one exchanged for the revolting putrescence of one several weeks dead.
“What have you done to me?” I whispered, suddenly hoping for all I was worth that this was nothing more than one of my annoyingly-frequent nightmares.
But the next thing that happened wasn’t me coming awake, panicking, in my bed. Instead, Death stalked closer. I wanted to back up—the stench was awful—but I couldn’t seem to move. I was paralyzed, and Death was mere inches away from me and misting foul breath into my face. “Made sure you aren’t late to the wedding, of course.”
“What wedding?” I mumbled through numb lips, unable to understand anything when every inch of skin I had left was crawling at Death’s insistent closeness.
“Our wedding, love. I told you—you’ve been mine since you refused to draw breath. Think of your little resurrection as our betrothal ceremony. I’ve always been coming for you.” Death’s tone was nauseating.
“No! I didn’t sign anything or agree to jack. There has to be some way out of this.” I stared at the mouldering skull as the sickening face turned away. “There is, isn’t there? There’s a way out of this that you don’t want me to know!” I hollered, the relief making me giddy.
My moment of lightheartedness was short-lived. She—it was a she, the hood had fallen back from long, straw-like hair clinging to broken patches of scalp, the robes parting to reveal half-melted mounds of slimy fat that might once have been called breasts—she turned back to face me, and wrapped skeletal hands about my face. “There is no way out of the wedding,” she snarled venomously, “but if you leave me, it will be only after I have an heir.”
In the space of a breath, comprehension slammed into me like a Mack truck. I turned away, retching up nothing but curdled bile. If I were ever to be free of Death—of her throat-clogging reek and her malice and dark joy in young lives cut short—I was going to have to sleep with her. What was worse, I was going to have to find a way to enjoy it if I were to impregnate her worm-riddled womb with an heir and win my freedom. As she dragged me down to hell where Lucifer awaited us at the altar, I couldn’t decide which was worse—being claimed by Death, or the price I would have to pay to be free of her.
I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.