“I wish you hadn’t,” Liz said, emptying a bag of Doritos into a bowl. She was turning of age tomorrow, so Jen was throwing her a party.
“I know, sweetie,” Jen said, teasing. “You never like anything fun.” Liz crumpled the bag and threw it in Jen’s general direction. Jen ignored her. “By the way, someone invited Max.”
Liz ducked into the kitchen, hoping to hide her agitation from Jen. She poured herself a glass of water just for something to do. Her hands shook and she almost dropped it. She looked out the window—it was snowing. She hated snow, had for a long time.
She heard Jen walk in. “I don’t want him here,” she said.
“It’ll be fine,” Jen told her. “He made a mistake. Jim says he’s a nice guy, really.”
“A big mistake,” Liz replied.
“He might not even come.”
People started arriving soon after, taking Liz’s mind off of everything for a time. She even started to have fun, chatting with her friends and letting the music sway her.
She didn’t miss when Max arrived though. He came in with a twelve pack; three already empty, and he was working on the fourth. People were avoiding him, it wasn’t just her. He stood around, unsure. Liz remembered him from before, remembered that he wasn’t always this awkward. Then again, he had always been with Alex, and Alex had been the type to charge head first into life, his momentum pulling everyone else along with him.
She watched him out of the corner of her eye until she noticed Jen talking to him. After that, Liz managed to forget he was around. She had bigger things to worry about, anyway.
At a quarter to midnight, Liz found her way back to the kitchen, glad to find it empty. It was getting closer and she felt her anxiety rising. She gripped the sink, trying to catch her breath, and wondered whether it was all right to stay here or if she should lock herself in her bedroom.
“You guys have a pretty nice place.”
She jumped at the sound of his voice. She turned to find him leaning against the door frame.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” he said. Liz waved it off.
“Thanks, I guess,” she said, unsure what else to say.
“Don’t mind me, just came out here for a breather.”
“Needed a break from everyone?”
“Nah, I thought I’d give ‘em a break from me.” He smiled a little, as though he were out of practice, as though he weren’t sure it was okay. “People don’t exactly like to be around me. Responsible for the death of his best friend, sentenced to 500... I’m not exactly the first choice for small talk at a party.”
“Right,” Liz said. She’d watched the trial. Everyone had—it was a small town. That had been over a year ago.
He scoffed and took a swig of his drink. She didn’t know how many he was at now, but she was willing to bet it was a lot. He caught her staring at the bottle.
“I don’t drive anymore,” he said, answering the question she hadn’t asked.
"Yeah, but—” She cut herself off. It wasn’t her place, and really, who was she to judge.
He was taken aback for a moment, but then he laughed.
“No, I know. It’s bad for me. It could kill me,” he said. He stopped laughing. “A lot of people wish I was dead anyway. So who cares.” Silence. “Most days I wish I were dead, too. That I’d died that day instead. You know how it is, though. They won’t let you die, not ‘til you’ve done your time.”
She glanced at his arm, at the mark he didn’t even try to hide there. A scythe etched into his skin, curling around his forearm. Elegant and morbid. The number under it looked fresher, still dark pink. 474.
“I didn’t drink this much before, you know?” he said. “But now, I see his face everywhere, and I just—” He took another long drink. “One stupid night. One minute you’re with your buddy having fun, and the next thing you know—”
She didn’t say anything. She just watched him.
“That’s the first thing they do, you know?” he said. “They make you relive it. Over and over and over. From every perspective, and every angle. At first, though, it was always through Alex’s eyes. In real time, the whole thing was over in less than a minute. But for me—” He shook his head with a tired laugh. “Years. Years of watching your best friend die. Of being reminded you’re to blame. And when it’s over? There’s nothing left of you but your crippling guilt.”
She took a deep breath. “Why are you telling me all this?”
He leveled his gaze at her. She suddenly realized he wasn’t standing in the doorway by accident; he was blocking the entrance, giving her the privacy she would need.
“Because you know,” she said.
He glanced at the clock on the stove. “11:59,” he said.
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Neither did I.”
“It’s not fair.”
“They need reapers.”
He reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Good.”
Liz shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. She blinked a snowflake out of her lashes.
“It’s starting to snow, isn’t it?” he asked.
She looked up and, instead of the kitchen ceiling, the night sky loomed above her. A starry night, just like that night so many years ago. The wind swirled the snow around her, insistent, pulling at clothes. Her breath misted the air. It was time. She’d been sentenced at 18, when she was too young to transition. Now though, it was time.
“Midnight,” she whispered, her frightened gaze seeking out Max.
“Good luck,” he said, already fading away until his final whisper was the only thing left. “I’ll see you in a minute.”
She was alone now, standing in a snow-covered forest. It was dark, so dark, and she could barely make out the landscape around her. The stars laughed at her.
Then she was laughing with them, her tears burning as they froze on her cheeks. She fell to her knees, searing pain snaking through her arm. She cried out as it intensified, her arm feeling as though it was being clawed at and ripped apart. It hurt so much she didn't care the snow had soaked through her jeans. She choked back a sob and pulled her sleeve back, knowing what she would find; the scythe freshly cut into her skin along with the number of souls she was sentenced to reap.
The snow crunched behind her and she tried to turn, to see who was coming, even though she already knew. She was shoved. Hard. She toppled onto the lake, a grotesque crack resonating through the air. As she fell through the ice, she had just enough time to see her own eyes staring back at her in surprise.
She struggled for a moment, sinking into the lake, helplessly fighting toward the surface. Her clothes were too heavy. The water was too cold. Her body gave in and a cold hand gripped at her throat, unrelenting. Her lungs screamed.
She was cold. She was so cold.
Amanda is an aspiring content creator currently trying to navigate the world of blogging. When she isn’t busy tripping over her own feet, she can usually be found with either her ukulele or her phone in hand. An avid reader and a dedicated friend, her writing reflects her many passions.