This story is by Christopher Hikari and won an honorable mention in our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Save for a faint beeping noise, the room was quiet. It looked and smelled like most hospital rooms I’d seen, cold and antiseptic. A man occupied the couch in the corner, fast asleep. The body of a young boy, about twelve years old, lay on the bed, emaciated and unmoving. The body was connected to several machines surrounding the bed by various tubes and cables. The boy’s soul sat on the side of the bed, legs swinging absentmindedly. A thin, diaphanous cable stretched from him and disappeared into the body’s chest. He glanced at me then turned away, assuming I was just another mortal.
The boy started. He looked at me, his eyes wide and disbelieving.
“You can see me?” he whispered.
“Course I can. Don’t you know who I am?” I gestured at my dark pants and hoodie.
He shook his head.
“I’m Death of course!” Nobody ever recognized me nowadays.
“Really?” Wes asked. “Aren’t you supposed to be more… skeletal?”
“Nah, I only use that to scare the Catholics,” I said as I sat down next to him on the hospital bed. He snorted, then grew serious. A worried look crossed his face, and he glanced at the figure on the couch.
“I guess I’m dead then?” His voice quavered a bit, but he straightened his shoulders, prepared for the worst.
“No, actually, I’ve come to give you a choice.”
“A choice?” He looked confused.
“You get to choose whether to die or not.”
“You can choose to die,” I repeated. “As you are right now, you’ll wake up soon. You’ll probably live for ten or even twenty more years, but you will be trapped in your body, unable to move or speak, drowning in darkness, screaming in silence, wracked with pain, in your own personal hell, living off of the slim hope that someday you will be cured. Your father will spend every last cent he has in order to keep you alive, while he desperately searches for someone to heal you, and then you’ll die after a life full of pain.
“Or… You could die right now and avoid all that.”
“What would happen if I die?”
“That’s the great mystery of mortality,” I said cryptically. “I can’t tell you about the afterlife. You have to decide without that knowledge. Them’s the rules.”
“You don’t even know, do you?”
“Nope.” Pretty sharp, this kid.
“Anyway, that’s not what I was asking. What would happen to Dad if I died? Mom left, so he has nobody else. Will he be okay?” He glanced at the couch again. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any good news for him.
“No, he won’t. He’ll outlive you either way. If you live for now, then he’ll work hard, searching for a way to cure you, because he’d believe that one day his hard work would pay off, which it won’t. When you die… Then he’d have nothing to keep him going. Perhaps he’d find strength in your memory, or in others, but in all likelihood, he would probably end up killing himself, one way or another.”
“What do you mean?”
“Drugs, alcohol, starvation. There are millions of ways to kill yourself without committing suicide. Believe me, I know.”
We both turned to look at his father, who had started to snore.
“So my choices are either to live in pain for a little bit longer, in that wreck,” he gestured at his body on the bed, “or die right now, and be free from suffering. Either way, when I die, it’ll kill Dad. Is that about right?”
I nodded. Wes paused for a minute. His hand strayed up to his chest and pain flashed across his face. His shoulders slumped, and a silvery tear traced its way down his cheek.
“Well, it’s not really a question is it?” he said, straightening up. “Send me back in.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I would rather live a life in hell than abandon my dad.”
“You’ll abandon him eventually,” I said.
“I won’t have a choice then, will I?”
“You won’t, but why are you willing to go so far for him? It won’t make any difference.”
Wes glanced back at his father, still snoring.
“Because he never abandoned me.” He smiled at his dad.
“You will regret this choice. One day you’ll wish desperately for me to come and end the pain.”
“Maybe, but every time I do, I’ll look at Dad, and know I made the right choice.” He smiled at me, but it disappeared quickly as he gripped his chest. On the bed his body suddenly arched, going into convulsions, and the machine in the corner let out one long tone that echoed across eternity. The man on the couch jerked awake and ran to the bed, shouting for a doctor. As the convulsions continued, Wes dropped to the floor, writhing in pain as his body tried to die. I grabbed my scythe and crouched next to him, ignoring the doctors and nurses bursting into the room.
“Want me to stop the pain now?”
He shook his head.
“I can’t die,” he said through clenched teeth. “My dad needs me.”
I was forced to sit back and watch as the doctors struggled to resuscitate his body, but I kept the scythe handy.
Wes screamed as sparks flew across his soul.
The cable connecting Wes to life grew thinner.
“Clear!” A pulse of energy shot down the cable, strengthening it, and a quiet beeping filled the room.
As the doctors and nurses filed out, one of the doctors stopped and placed a hand on the father’s shoulder.
“We almost lost him that time,” the doctor said. “Even if he does wake up, he will never be the same.” The father hung his head and nodded. After the doctor left the father fell to his knees beside the bed and gripped his son’s hand.
Meanwhile, I helped the young boy to his feet, impressed and disappointed. Impressed with his determination, disappointed that I couldn’t save him from the life ahead of him.
“Are you okay?” I asked. His face was taut with pain as he gasped for breath.
“I’m glad— ” he choked out, and then fell into a fit of coughing. The pain had left an imprint on his soul. He would never get rid of it as long as he lived.
“I’m glad,” he tried again, “that I’m not Catholic.” He lifted my hand with his.
I stared at him in surprise, then threw my head back and laughed. He grinned weakly. This was one tough kid.
“Alright,” Wes took a deep breath. He glanced down at his fingers, flexing them, feeling them move according to his will for the last time. “I’m ready to wake up.” He glanced at his body, and then back to me.
“How do I wake up?”
“It’s easy,” I picked up his soul, but before I could put him back in his body, he threw his arms around me. I almost dropped him, I was so surprised. I don’t get many hugs.
“Thanks for giving me a choice,” he said, his voice muffled by my shoulder. “Even if it is just for now.” Then he pulled back and grinned at me. “See you later.”
I chuckled and placed him back into his body.
On the bed, the father jerked in surprise as he felt his son’s fingers twitch. He looked up, straight into the eyes of his son. With one look, without any words, Wes managed to convey his love and strength to his father. Even to me, the kid seemed to glow with an inner strength that defied pain, fate, and as I knew all too well, Death. He was going to be an inspiration to everyone he met.
A chill ran down my spine as Wes looked straight at me. Normally, after a near me experience, mortals forget exactly what happened. Of course, with Wes, everything normal went out the window. He blinked at me, long and slow. I took it as a gesture of respect, a bow from a kid who would never be able to walk again. Then he turned his attention back to his father.
For a moment I watched the tearful reunion, then I turned and walked through the wall into the next room. Here was the soul I had come to get, an older lady, surrounded by her family, dying in peace, for her time had arrived. The cord connecting her to life had already broken, so all I had to do was guide her soul on its way. She was a devout Catholic so… I’ll just say she got what she expected. I looked back at the room I had just left.
“See you later,” I murmured. I could hear the sound of the machine, counting down the time till I met Wes again. I knew exactly how much longer it would continue to beep. I always do.