I Came For Her

1.

 

The first time I saw her, everything around me was white. Snowflakes swirled in the air all around, clouds hung pregnant and heavy in the sky, and the ground was soft and pure as icing on a cake. The wind nipped at my exposed nose and lips, and I put my gloved hands up to my face, using them to ricochet hot exhales over my skin.

There had been so much noise. But now, everything had gone silent. My friends, standing nearby, were more frozen than the ground beneath our feet. It was a moment of utter purity, found only in the rarest corners of life. That's when I saw her.

I was young at the time, only eight years old. But I'd heard enough about Death to have a picture of what it must look like when it came. Dark. Hooded. Carrying a scythe. Unless the Greek myths were true, in which case, maybe there was some grey skin and blue flaming hair involved. But whatever I'd expected, it was definitely not her.

She started out as just a pinprick of darkness from between the far off evergreens, moving slowly and steadily toward us. The moment I laid eyes on her, all of the air exited my body. I could no longer feel the cold - not that I was suddenly warm, but rather that the cold had become a part of me. Or maybe, I had become a part of it.

Her long black hair floated around her as if blown in slow motion by some wind only she could feel. With each step she took, the snow beneath her bare feet turned grey and hard for a moment, melting a tiny bit once again as she passed by. Her skin was blue, darker than the deepest parts of the ocean, and in her eyes I could see constellations and supernovas.

For a moment I could see the picture of it all perfectly, as if all the pieces of a snow globe were suspended in time. Dana, Hallie, and I, standing at top of the hill. Death, one foot extended forward, tattered black dress floating behind her, almost indistinguishable from her hair. And Madison, face up on the rocks at the bottom of the slope, blood coming out of her mouth and her nose.

Then the silence broke. Dana screamed. Hallie began to cry. Our parents, hearing the sudden commotion, came rushing from the parking lot.

But I couldn't move.

I watched as Death, unperturbed by the noise, leaned over Madison's body and kissed her on the forehead. My own forehead ached, as if jealous of the contact. I licked my lips, wondering what such a kiss would feel like there.

Chaos erupted. The adults were scrambling down the hill. Someone had pulled out a phone to call 911. Somewhere in the middle of it all, Hallie had grabbed my hand.

Death straightened up and moved backward as Madison's parents crowded around the still and lifeless body of their daughter. They didn't seem able to see the tall blue and black woman with stars for eyes. How they could miss her, I had absolutely no idea.

She turned and began her journey away. Step by step, gliding steadily back to the forest. As she moved, I could feel my chest start to ache. My heart was beating quickly, and suddenly I was all too aware of the blood pumping through my veins, heating my flesh from the inside. It was too much. I was too warm for her. Too alive.

My mother's arms pulled me in for a tight embrace just as Death disappeared into the trees. I finally started to cry. But not because of Madison.

She couldn't know it, but the love of my life had found me. And now I had to figure out how to find her.

2.

“All right.” Hallie plopped down next to me on the couch in the senior lounge. “What is it today? Another terrorist attack? Or have the police shot some unsuspecting youth of color, yet again?”

I immediately locked my phone screen. “Is that even really a question at this point?”

Hallie rolled her eyes. “Fair enough. But you know what I mean. Anyone in our county.”

“None of it was nearby.” I sighed. “There hasn’t been anything new since the Sunday obituaries.”

“What a shame.” Hallie’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “Guess you’ll be trolling the nursing home again this weekend, huh?”

“Ha ha ha, very funny.” I glared at her, mostly irritated because she was right. “I’ll have you know that Grandma Dee actually enjoys the fact that I come to play pinochle with her so often.”

“But do you enjoy playing pinochle?” Hallie asked. “That’s the real question.”

“Of course.” I grinned, though I felt more like baring my teeth and growling. “She’s family. And that game is a tradition passed down for many generations.”

Hallie shook her head. “Whatever you say, dude. You stopped fooling me a long time ago.”

I sighed. My obsession with Death had grown over the last decade. As each year went by, it had become more and more difficult to hide the passion from the people closest to me. More than that, it had started to become apparent to some of them that there was something strange about my preoccupation. Hallie, for instance, had figured out that it didn’t have anything to do with who had died, nor how or why. It was only the what that I cared about. The act itself, she thought, enchanted me. Her strange, Death-crazed friend.

She’d think I was absolutely insane if she knew the full truth.

In the months after Madison’s accident, I watched my friends go through the different stages of grief. Denial was numb and quiet. We played indoors for a few days, refusing to even set foot on a playground while there was still snow falling from the sky. Anger had been loud and explosive. Dana, especially, had picked several fights with boys when the new semester at school started up. Depression kept us apart for at least a week. I eventually started calling Monique to come sleep over on the weekends, since the other two barely spoke to me, even in person. Bargaining was a strange one. Study groups formed, toys shared, volunteer hours put in, as if the three of us wanted to show we were good, so good, and didn’t we deserve our friend to come back, by some miracle? Finally, acceptance. We rarely spoke of Madison after that.

What I didn’t tell the other two girls, what I couldn’t tell them, was that I dreamt of that afternoon every single night. At first, the entire scene played out before me. Madison flying down the steep slope on her sled. Our excited yells turning into shrieks of horror. Parents rushing into the scene. And of course, Death, with her blue skin and bright eyes, walking out from between the trees.

As the months went by, however, the dream whittled itself down to just one thing: Death. Gliding forward. And, eventually, reaching out for me. Planting a kiss on my forehead just as I awoke.

I had looked for her at Madison’s funeral, but she was nowhere to be found.

“Do you think she’s coming?” I had whispered to Dana as everyone filed into the church pews.

Dana frowned. “Who?”

 

“You know. The lady with the blue skin.” Somehow, I knew better than to say Death. Even so, Dana looked at me as if my skin had suddenly turned blue.

 

“Who are you talking about?”

 

That’s when I realized I had been alone on that day. My beautiful and terrible vision had been my own. Nobody had seen her but me. And I continued to see her, night after night.

 

Eventually, after countless dreams of floating raven hair and torn dresses that trailed in the breeze, I started to think that maybe I hadn’t seen her. Maybe Death had just been in my imagination. The dreams began to fade.

 

Until, one evening, I saw her again.

 

It had been a few years. I was eleven. My parents and I were driving home from dinner one night. Mom had just gotten a promotion at work, and so we had gone out to celebrate. It was rare for a school night.

 

I was leaning my face against the cool window in the backseat of the car, eyes beginning to close as the gentle hum of the car’s engine sang me a strange lullaby. My mind had just begun to wander into a dreamer’s land when flashing lights off in the distance startled me awake once more.

 

It happened just as it had the first time. As my eyes flew open and we passed by the ambulance and the car smashed into the guardrail, everything slowed down by a thousand percent. I couldn’t make out the face of the driver in the car, but I could see their hand hanging, limp, out of the open window. And who should be taking that hand so tenderly, and brushing her dark lips across its fingers, blue skin glowing in the darkness, but my lady herself.

 

The afternoon of Madison’s accident hadn’t been a false memory, a trick of my imagination. Death was real.

 

Well, obviously.

 

But Death, the woman I was in love with - she was real too.

 

I started trying to figure out the ways that I could see her again. For a while I would take walks through the cemetery, alone, wondering if I could catch a glimpse of her visiting the resting places of her old conquests. I’d rub my fingers into the names etched on tombstones, hoping I was getting closer to her somehow.

 

But I realized quickly that she never stuck around. Death was not a ghost, and she did not haunt the places she visited. She was a fleeting spirit. Only around when the final breath left someone’s body. Which meant, if I wanted to see her, then I would have to be around at the same time.

 

I traded my strolls around the cemetery for midnight rendezvous at hospitals. I started visiting my grandparents in the nursing home as much as possible, making a lap around the entire facility both before and after spending time with them. I followed the news closely to see if there was anyone nearby who was falling into critical condition. I did my research. I watched. I waited.

 

I was not disappointed.

 

“Hey idiots.” Dana threw her bag down next to mine and Hallie’s feet, then joined the spot next to it on the ground.

 

“There’s another seat,” Hallie told her. Dana waved her hand dismissively.

 

“You know I’m great friends with the floor.” She grinned. “Being down here helps me feel grounded.”

 

“Whatever you say,” Hallie replied, in the exact same tone she had used with me. I could practically hear her thoughts. Both of my friends are weird. “Where have you been?”

“Oh, you know,” Dana said casually. “Just getting Ryan to give me tickets to Halted Youth for this Saturday.”

“What?” Hallie and I yelled at the same time.

 

“Tell me you’re joking,” I said.

 

“No,” Hallie countered. “Tell me you’re not joking. Please.”

 

Dana raised her eyebrows at us. “Which one do you want it to be? I can’t please both of you.”

 

“Come on,” Hallie groaned. “You know that concert’s been sold out for three months.”

 

“We went online to get tickets right when they were on sale,” I added. “And they were already gone.”

 

“Indeed they were.” Dana held up her phone, tapped something on the screen, and then turned it around so that we could see. Sure enough, there was a reservation listed. Three tickets. Halted Youth. Saturday at 9pm.

 

“Oh my god,” Hallie breathed. “How did Ryan get these? And how did you get them from him?” She paused. “Wait. I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that second one.”

 

Dana rolled her eyes. “Relax. Ryan’s cousin works with the fairgrounds people. Apparently there were some extra tickets that you can only get the night of.”

 

“But Ryan managed to get them for you?” I asked. “How much did you give him?”

 

“They were free.”

 

Hallie narrowed her eyes. “Nothing that cool comes for free, Dana.”

 

Dana shrugged, lowering her phone. “I’m very persuasive.”

 

“Out with it!” Hallie demanded.

 

“Fine!” Dana sat up, stretching her arms overhead. “I promised Ryan that we would go with him. And Garrett and Eddie.”

 

“You mean a triple date?” I asked.

 

“Exactly.” Dana beamed.

 

Hallie snapped her fingers right in front of Dana’s face. “News flash. I know you’re into Ryan, but I’m not into Garrett. And Aria’s gay.”

 

I could feel the blood rush to my cheeks all at once. “Um? No I’m not?”

 

Hallie gave me a look. “When you saw Channing Tatum strip in Magic Mike, you said, and I quote, I wonder what his secret is.

 

“Okay, we all know that Aria isn’t super into dudes,” Dana allowed. “But maybe she’s bisexual? I think it’s fair to say the jury is still out on that one.”

 

I frowned. “Guys, I am right here.”

 

“Come on,” Dana pleaded. “I shouldn’t even have to make this case. It’s not like I’m prostituting you guys out for these tickets.”

 

“Yes,” Hallie said. “Actually, yes, it is exactly like that.”

 

Dana sighed. “You don’t have to do anything with the boys. Let’s just all go together. Besides, Eddie can get us some free booze to take in.”

 

Hallie looked at me. I looked back at her.

 

“You might like Garrett more when you have a drink in you,” I said.

 

“Drunk Hallie is kind of slutty,” Hallie muttered.

 

Dana pumped a fist triumphantly. “Huzzah! Saturday night is going to be epic, you guys!”

 

“The concert of a lifetime with the band of a generation,” Hallie mused. “Dana, finally locking down her conquest after a month of a flirtationship. Your heroine, Hallie, either fending off or encouraging the advances of a young suitor. To be determined. And maybe our sweet Aria, finally losing her virginity.”

 

“At a concert?” I stuttered. “How about no.”

 

Hallie’s grin matched Dana’s. “Hey, who knows. It’s about time you had a crush on someone.”

 

And once again, there was nothing I could say to that.

3.

The sixth time I saw Death was the best look I’d gotten with her. It was in the hospital, around two in the morning on a Saturday night. I was fifteen at the time, and sneaking out of my house and into the intensive care unit had become a regular weekend habit. It’s kind of amazing how far you can get in a hospital with scrubs, a face mask, and a sense of purpose in your stride.

Over the years, I’d seen Death more frequently in the nursing home. We didn’t get a lot of fatal accidents or terminal illnesses, so she was most likely to appear when our elderly citizens left this earth of natural causes. But each time I saw her there was fleeting. There was no struggle to remain alive. Most of the residents of the home went peacefully during a nap. And so she was there briefly, right at the moment of departure.

 

But sometimes there was a fight. So Death had to stick around, ready to step in just at the right moment.

 

I had been wandering the halls of the ICU, avoiding eye contact with nurses and doctors. Holding a clipboard with a blank chart on it, entering and exiting the rooms of patients in critical condition. Trying to figure out what the screens on the various monitors were telling me, in case someone suddenly started to slip out of a stable state.

 

Just past the hour, someone did.

 

I was right there, standing over him. The young man was only a few years older than me, probably a college student. He and another patient had been admitted that night. Victims of a drunk driving accident. I wasn’t sure if either of them was the perpetrator, but none of that really mattered to me. He had deep gashes all across his face and chest, and though his bandages were relatively fresh, they were almost completely soaked through with blood.

 

The machine monitoring his heart rate started to beep loudly, insistently. I jumped, staring at it in confusion. On the bed, the young man’s body began to quiver and shake.

 

A nurse rushed into the room. Then another, followed by a doctor. They began speaking loudly and insistently.

His lungs are filling up.

Grab the defibrillator.

Someone get me a syringe.

 

I stood right next to the bed, practically invisible, hiding in plain sight. The doctor injected a large syringe into the young man’s rib cage. When she pulled the stopper back, the syringe filled with blood.

 

The man in the bed stopped shaking. The machine monitoring his heart rate gave a low, steady tone.

 

Suddenly, a small red box was thrust into my hands. The nurse next to me worked quickly to pull out the wires and the pads. She attached them to the young man’s chest.

 

Delivering shock, the machine said. Stand clear.

 

There was a zap of electricity.

 

Begin compressions, someone said. The doctor stepped forward and put her hands in the middle of the man’s chest, pumping up and down intensely.

 

That’s when everything slowed down in that wonderful, familiar way. I felt my own heart stop as well, leaving just a lightness in my chest instead.

 

Death walked straight through the wall across from me. Her deep blue skin was somehow blindingly bright while absorbing the light in the room. She took a few steps and then stood, very still, on the opposite side of the young man’s bed.

 

From this distance I could see that her skin was not just blue, but had tiny flecks of silver in it, so small that I could not distinguish each individual speck. In her eyes, the stars were not just brilliant, but exploding, reforming, crashing into each other and making new constellations every few seconds. Her hair was even darker than black. I knew I’d heard a word for that somewhere.

 

The chaos continued around me in slow motion times a million. I didn’t move. I just stared at Death. From what I could tell, she stared back as well.

 

And then - the most curious thing - I swear, the side of her mouth rose into a smile.

 

I opened my own mouth to speak when Death raised her hand. She let it hover for a moment before placing it in the middle of the young man’s chest. Then, with such inhuman grace, she leaned down and planted a kiss on his collarbone.

 

In that split second, having been released from Death’s intent gaze, I regained my senses and my courage. I reached one hand out and managed to touch a strand of her silky, darker-than-black hair.

 

I don’t know what I expected, but it definitely wasn’t the feeling of a million supernovae exploding inside of me. All of the muscles in my body - all of them - contracted and retracted, making my vision swim with colorful loops and curls.

My back arched and my legs shook involuntarily. Everything inside of me had filled with the most intense pleasure I’d ever felt.

 

Perhaps it was my imagination, but I thought I saw Death look up at me and cock her head to the side curiously.

 

Before I knew it, the explosions inside of my body had faded away. My vision blacked out for a second, and after a few blinks I saw that Death had retreated just the way she came. The last few strands of hair, the last few wisps of dark cloth, disappeared into the wall opposite from me.

 

Real time returned. The young man below me had died. The doctor and nurses hadn’t skipped a beat, pulling out his chart to record time of death. I put the red box down on the floor next to the bed and rushed out of the room, trying to find the nearest bathroom.

 

In the stall, finally alone, my knees buckled and I collapsed onto the tile floor. My hands were shaking, and my breath was unsteady. There was still a warmth radiating from between my legs. I simultaneously feared and hoped that it would consume me once again.

 

I had touched her. Briefly, and yet it had been almost too much for my mortal body to bear. But not in the way that one might think.

 

I am Death, I whispered. And when I love you, it’s forever.

 

If that’s what Death felt like, then I definitely needed to touch her again.

4.

“Jesus Christ, it’s getting cold.” Dana rubbed her hands together. Sure enough, her next exhale came out as an ever so faint puff of mist. “How long have we been out here?”

Ryan pulled out his phone. “Only half an hour.”

 

Hallie groaned. “Only?”

 

“Don’t worry.” Ryan grinned. “Garrett will keep you warm. Won’t you, Garrett?”

 

Garrett looked at Hallie with wide, hopeful eyes. She glanced at him, then held her hand out to Eddie.

“Booze, now.”

 

Eddie handed over one of the flasks hidden in his deep cargo pants pockets. Hallie took a long swig from it. When Eddie held out his hand to take the flask back, she declined.

 

“I think I’ll hang onto my friend Jameson here for just a bit longer.” She took another look at Garrett, then drank again.

 

Eddie turned to me. “Do you want some? I have some gin in here also.” I shook my head, and he looked surprised. “What, are you straight edge or something?”

 

“Hardly,” Dana scoffed. “Aria’s done her fair share of just about everything.”

 

Eddie raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

 

I shifted my weight back and forth, trying to keep my toes from going numb. “Yeah.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Um.” Dana rolled her eyes at me and gestured something along the lines of Don’t be a square, just tell him. “Yeah, I used to drink a lot. Did some opiates for a while. DMT.”

 

“Whoa.” Eddie looked impressed. “That’s intense. You just kinda skipped the whole weed thing, huh?”

 

My experiments with drugs were never about getting high. I’d gone through a phase a little over a year ago where I thought that the best way to get Death to come to me would be, well, to die. Or at least get close to it. I wasn’t particularly interested in dying. But I had to go through life without the person - thing? - that I loved the most, then I wasn’t that interested in living, either.

 

Anyway, it didn’t work. I used to drink myself stupid almost every weekend. I tried to overdose on Tylenol, Oxy, Valium, Ketamine, you name it. The whole DMT thing came about just because I heard that people had ego deaths and out of body experiences, and I thought maybe I could walk through the spirit realm and find Death. No such luck. Everything was a total bust. My body was just too strong, too primed for survival.

 

“Shouldn’t the opener be out by now?” Dana whined, saving me the trouble of answering Eddie’s question. She bounced up and down on her toes, as if ready to start a marathon.

 

“Should be,” Ryan agreed. He held the side of his jacket open. “Body heat?”

 

Dana flashed a triumphant grin at Hallie and me. “Sure,” she said, ducking in next to his torso. Ryan wrapped his jacket around Dana, encompassing the two of them in their own private cocoon of sexual tension. I looked over at Hallie, who was taking another swig.

 

“Wanna share?” Garrett asked her.

 

Hallie turned her face up towards his, blinking a few times before breaking out into a brilliant smile. “You know what, Garrett? You’re okay.”

 

“Thanks,” Garrett said, clearly a little perplexed. Hallie handed the flask to him.

 

“So,” Eddie piped up again. I pivoted back around to face him. “You don’t do any of that stuff any more?”

 

I shrugged. “Not really.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“I dunno. Doesn’t really interest me any more?”

 

He nodded. “I get that.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Yeah.” Eddie leaned in closer, lowering his voice. “Honestly, I don’t like drinking all that much. I just bring stuff along because these guys want it.”

 

“How noble of you.”

 

There was a change in the crowd, and we all turned to face the stage. Sure enough, the opener for the evening had appeared, and everyone took a few eager steps forward. Suddenly I was mashed right up against Eddie.

 

“Sorry,” we said at the same time.

 

“Yeah!” Hallie yelled from behind me. “Let’s go you bitches!”

 

“I think you’ve had enough,” Dana called to her.

 

“You’re not my mom!” Hallie retorted. “Hey, Garrett? Can I get on your shoulders?”

 

“Of course,” he replied.

 

A few people around us grumbled as Hallie climbed up Garrett’s broad frame. The complaints were short-lived, however, as the openers struck up the first chords on their guitars, and the fairgrounds filled with music.

 

I closed my eyes and swayed back and forth, letting the sound take over. I’d never been much for dancing, and I’d never heard this band before, but the excitement of the night was start to build inside of me. Halted Youth was one of my favorite bands, and I’d dreamt about seeing them for at least five years. Even Dana’s uncontrollable sex drive, Hallie’s sloppy drunkenness, and Eddie’s shy advances couldn’t bring me down tonight.

 

Almost an hour went by. The openers were good, but they were mellow compared to what we all knew was to come. I barely opened my eyes during the entire set, letting the blue and purple tones of music wash over me.

 

And then, just like that, it was time. Halted Youth took the stage. Lizzee Bordn, the lead singer, strode to the microphone at the front of the stage and shouted into it.

 

“Everyone here ready to have a good fucking time?”

 

The crowd screamed, and I joined them. Away we all went. We were dancing, we were jumping, we were living. Lizzee’s rough vocals and blaring guitar filled the night sky. I couldn’t fathom being as drunk as Hallie - a high like this should never be dimmed by alcohol.

 

I don’t know how much time passed before it happened. All I know was that it did.

At first I didn’t notice the feeling wash over me. I didn’t expect it to happen here, of all places. But after a few seconds I noticed that Lizzie’s voice seemed to have slowed down and smoothed out, and that next to me Eddie was suspended in the air way too long for it to be scientifically natural.

 

My body couldn’t move, but my eyes darted around frantically. She was here, I knew it. But the fairgrounds were dark and crowded, so she could be almost anywhere.

 

Finally, just when I thought I wouldn’t be able to find her, I looked up.

Death was hovering over the crowd, just a bit to the left of where I stood. Unlike every other time I’d seen her, she wasn’t moving. There was no apparent destination. She was just floating there, staring at the stage, the slightest rise at the corner of her dark lips.

 

I stared at her dumbly for a long moment. Then, my heart skipped a beat as I realized: She was watching the show.

 

Everything around me cut back to real time. The crowd was jumping, a few feet away some kids had started a mosh pit. Bodies jostled me back and forth, but I kept my gaze fixed on Death. She was still there, and she wasn’t going anywhere.

 

“You okay?” Eddie yelled to me over the chaos.

 

“Yeah,” I called back. I was afraid to take my eyes off of Death, in case she disappeared.

 

But she stayed. The rest of the concert, she hovered above the crowd, unmoving, starlit eyes fixated on the stage. I don’t know how much time passed. An hour? Two? It didn’t matter. The concert ended. The music faded away.

 

“That was awesome,” Dana exclaimed.

 

“Yeah,” I said absently. I was still looking directly at Death.

 

“Hallie?” I heard Dana say. Then more sharply. “Hallie.”

 

Hallie didn’t respond, but Eddie did. “Holy cow.”

 

“Sorry,” Dana said to the group. “She forgets how being in public works.”

 

Ryan chuckled. “I’m pretty sure Ryan’s okay with it.”

 

“Aria?” Dana asked. “You okay?”

 

I wasn’t. Death had started to move. She turned slowly away from where I stood and began floating away from the parking lot, towards the parts of the fairgrounds that weren’t currently overrun with people.

 

“Yeah,” I said to Dana, still not looking at her. “I see someone I know. I’m gonna go say hi.”

 

“Right now?” Eddie’s disappointment was too apparent.

 

“You sure?” Dana asked.

 

“Totally,” I said quickly. “I’ll meet you back at the car.”

 

Before they could say anything, I began to cut through the crowd, pushing and shoving people out of my way. They grumbled, and a few swore, but I didn’t care. Death was here. And maybe I could catch up with her.

 

She glided away, as she always did. But this time, I was keeping pace. More or less. When I got to the edge of the concert space, I had to hop a small fence in order to keep following.

 

Death started to move a little faster. I began to jog, not taking my eyes off of her.

 

We came to the trees at the edge of the fairgrounds. She began to weave easily between the trees. I nearly tripped a few times, but still, there I was. Following Death.

 

“Hey,” I said. Then louder. “Hey!”

 

Death didn’t turn around, just glided faster. I picked up the pace.

 

“Wait for me!” I yelled, even though I wasn’t sure if she could hear me.

 

She disappeared around a large tree trunk. I raced towards it, but a thick root tripped me, and I fell onto the forest floor, scraping my palms and elbows on the rocks and dirt.

 

When I looked up, Death had disappeared.

 

And even though I knew I had followed her out of the fairgrounds, even though I knew roughly where I should be, when I looked around I recognized absolutely nothing. The trees weren’t pines, but instead had large roots hanging from their top branches like yarn. A few of the roots had worked their way into the ground and started to solidify into wood, establishing themselves as an extension of the trunk of the tree.

 

I stood up and looked around. All of the trees hand these hanging roots, and some of them were so close together that it was impossible to tell where one ended and another began. I’d never seen anything like it before.

 

Small, pink orbs of light appeared between the roots a few yards away. As they came closer, they clustered together tightly, brightening, and then fading as a human form took shape before me.

 

I swallowed. I wasn’t sure where exactly I had followed Death to, but I had definitely followed her somewhere.

5.

I’d never come out to anyone, yet most of the people close to me seemed to assume I was gay. Dana and Hallie talked about my queerness on a semi-regular basis. When I was sixteen my mom started dropping hints that you know, our family is very open and accepting, and you can talk to us about anything. Dad offered to help me with my pitch if I wanted to join a softball league. One of my aunts stopped asking if I had a boyfriend yet and started asking if I had

anyone special instead.

 

My younger brother Ian and I would have an exchange every so often along the lines of:

 

Hey.

Yeah?

Is Dana/Hallie single?

Yes/No.

Do you think Dana/Hallie is hot?

She’s my friend. Of course I think she’s beautiful.

Your friend, huh?

Yeah.

You sure?

Yes.

Okay.

 

The GSA at our high school always left flyers in my locker for their upcoming events. Boys usually asked Dana or Hallie whether or not it was a good idea to ask me out before approaching me. Girls went ahead and did it up front. Not that I had a lot of suitors, but something would happen once every few months, maybe. In junior year, my English teacher encouraged me to dig deeper and bring your unique experience into the essay. I didn’t even bother to ask what she meant by that.

 

Everyone assumed this reality. But to be honest, I’d never considered myself a lesbian. Or bi. Or straight. Or anything. I’d only ever fallen in love with one person, and she wasn’t even a person.

 

Sure, Death appeared in female form. But I had no idea if she looked like that to anyone else that could see her. And when I looked at other girls, I didn’t feel any tug of attraction to them based on their gender. Same with boys. My sexuality had one focal point.

 

I did try, though, when we got into our teenage years, to figure out what I liked. Who I liked. If I liked anyone even a fraction of the amount that I loved Death.

 

My first kiss was at a party, playing Seven Minutes in Heaven. I was fourteen. When I spun the bottle it landed on Jasmine Kriegler. We went into the closet together and stood there awkwardly for the first minute.

 

“Well?” Jasmine’s voice whispered. “Do you want to try anything? Or should we just wait it out?”

 

My heart skipped a beat. Not with excitement, just with nerves. “Should we?”

 

“I’ve always thought you were cute.” Jasmine would go on to date another girl for the next year and a half after this encounter, but she hadn’t come out just yet. Or maybe she was sort of out. I’m not quite sure. “But I’ve never kissed anyone.”

 

“Me neither,” I admitted.

 

We giggled nervously.

 

“Well,” Jasmine hedged. “Should we try it, then? Get it over with, together?”

 

“Sure,” I whispered. “Why not?”

 

We leaned forward in the darkness, feeling for each other’s faces. Once I found hers, I leaned forward slowly, puckering my lips until I met with hers. We stayed like that for a moment. Then our mouths began to move, uncertainly at first, and then with more intensity.

 

Several minutes later, we left the closet with our clothes slightly askew and our hair mussed. A few people whistled and clapped. Jasmine grinned at me. In the next week she tried to message me on Facebook a few times, and accidentally bumped into me in the halls. I didn’t reciprocate the feelings or the flirtations.

 

Kissing her had been fun. But after it was over, I didn’t feel particularly connected to Jasmine. I wasn’t sure if I should. I had no idea what I was supposed to feel.

 

“Well did your heart race?” Dana asked. “Did you feel anything in your stomach or your vagina?”

 

I frowned. “Feel things in my vagina?”

 

“That means no,” Hallie interjected.

 

“Okay.” Dana shrugged. “Then you don’t like her in that way.”

 

I did kiss a boy for the first time a few months later. The same exact thing happened. After it was over, I felt the same as

I had before. Neither hungry, nor satisfied, nor interested in seeing him again.

 

I was so confused. What were these feelings that people kept talking about? Being turned on? I tried watching porn, but stopped after ten seconds of seeing genitals touch.

 

The next year, when I touched Death for the first time, I finally understood what the hype was all about.

 

Through Death, I found desire. In more than one way.

6.

The pink lights faded and the human form in front of me took shape. They had short black hair, high cheekbones, and golden eyes that shone from underneath sharp, thin eyebrows that almost looked like they had been drawn on with ink. Their skin, though not gleaming the way the lights had, still gave off a glow, and was the same shade of rose pink. A red blazer opened up to a bare chest beneath, and white pants hugged a smooth waist and long, shapely legs. At full height, they were about seven feet tall.

Golden irises stared into mine. I could feel my temperature rise, my heart start to beat a little faster. A ghost of the sensation of touching Death rolled through me.

 

“Human,” the figure said. “You don’t belong here.”

 

I found my voice. “I know, I’m sorry.”

 

“If you know,” they replied. “Then you should leave.”

 

They turned around and started to move toward the darkness between the trees.

 

“Wait!” I called out. They turned back. My cheeks immediately felt two degrees warmer. “What is this place?”

 

“The land of the Endless,” the second most beautiful being I’d ever seen told me. “This is our home. Where my siblings and I return when we are not in the realm of the humans.”

 

Siblings. My heart leapt. “Does that mean Death is your sister?” I blurted out.

 

Golden eyes narrowed. “You know her?” Golden eyes swept over me from head to toe. “You’ve seen her?”

 

“Yes,” I mumbled.

 

Those long legs began to move toward me. My throat got tighter with each step. “And you are truly just a human? Not a jinn trying to play some trick on us by occupying a mortal form?”

 

“No,” I stuttered. The rose god was now only two feet away. They stopped walking and just towered over me.

 

“Then how is it that you can see Death?”

 

“I don’t know,” I whispered. “I’ve always been able to. I followed her here.”

 

Dark lips opened and black hair tossed back. “Followed her?” They laughed. “That’s impossible. Nobody follows Death. Nobody has ever done that. Or even attempted to.”

“Well I did,” I said, louder, trying to be brave in the face of this glorious and terrifying giant. “And I would like to keep doing so, if you don’t mind.”

 

One thin eyebrow raised. “And why would you want to do that?”

 

“Because I love her.” The words tumbled out of me. It was the first time I’d ever said that sentence out loud. Part of me knew that I should have thought a bit longer before admitting it to a total stranger. Part of me knew that I was doomed to admit it to this stranger in particular, no matter how hard I tried. There was something about them that seemed to pull it out of me.

 

“In love?” The rose god knelt down so that they were at my eye level. “Did you say you’re in love with Death?”

The fact that they were now at the same height as me was only a touch soothing. “Yes.”

 

“How odd.” They cocked their head to the side, golden eyes staring at, in, maybe even through me, without blinking. “How odd indeed.”

 

They reached forward, long pink fingers finding the spot in the middle of my chest, directly between my breasts. As their skin touched mine, a wave of pleasure rolled over me. Nothing as extraordinary as the feeling Death had given me, but still marvelous. My eyes rolled back into my head, and my knees grew weak, nearly collapsing beneath me.

 

Then the moment was over. “Interesting,” the stranger said. “You’re telling the truth.”

 

“What?” I asked breathlessly. “How could you know that? Who are you?”

 

They grinned, straight white teeth bared in a way that was somehow both inviting and ferocious. “Isn’t it obvious? I’m Desire.”

 

“Of course.” My head was spinning. “Yes, that makes sense.”

 

“It’s my job to know that sort of thing in humans,” Desire continued. “What they love. What they lust after. The things they think about when they’re alone in the dark with nothing but a hand for comfort.” Desire leaned closer, their breath hot on my ear. “I have seen magnificent fantasies you couldn’t even imagine.”

 

“I’m sure,” I gasped. Desire smelled sweet but also earthy. Like a nightclub after a hours of people dancing and drinking. Like bedsheets that had absorbed sweat and tears and other sorts of fluids. Like a graveyard.

 

Desire pulled back, examining me once more. “Ah yes, I remember you now.”

 

“You do?”

 

They waved a hand. “Vaguely. There was snow, I believe. And some girl who fell off of her sled.”

 

“You were there when Madison died?” I asked incredulously.

 

“Yes.” Desire looked away from me, golden eyes staring off into the distance. “Your mother and the father of the blonde one were going to have an affair.”

 

I froze. “What do you mean, going to?” My breathing started to get shallow. “My mom has never cheated on my dad. She would never dream of it.”

 

“Oh, of course not.” Desire smiled again. “Because I never ended up giving her that impulse. Everyone was too distracted by the girl who fell down the hill.”

 

My breath slowed down again. “Thank goodness.”

 

“But it seems that my energy might have affected someone there that day, after all.” Desire was looking at me again. “I may have touched them on accident.”

 

I remembered seeing Death for the first time. How my heart had raced, how my blood had heated me up from the inside. Not unlike how it felt to be so near Desire, right now.

 

“It was me,” I breathed. “You were there, and you touched me. And I fell in love with Death.”

 

Desire’s eyes widened. “Wow.” For some reason, she looked delighted. “Isn’t that amazing? Who would’ve thought I’d play matchmaker for my sister.” Desire stood back up. “And with a human. How completely irreverent of me.”

 

“This was a mistake,” I muttered. “None of this was supposed to happen. I shouldn’t be here. I need to go.” And yet as I said the words, the thought of heading back, the idea of giving up when I had gotten closer to my dreams than ever before, made my chest ache as if I was scooping chunks of it out like ice cream.

 

“No!” Desire exclaimed. “Don’t go.”

 

“But why? Humans don’t belong here,” I said miserably. “And if you didn’t mean for me to fall in love with Death, then what’s the point of it all?”

 

“The point?” Desire laughed again. “What an utterly human idea. As if there’s a purpose to every action, every word, every ball that gets set in motion.” Their eyes glittered. “Why this? Why any of this?”

 

“I don’t know,” I answered.

 

“Exactly,” Desire said, triumphant. “There is no why. Just an endless score of what, and who, and when, and where.”

 

They had lost me. “What are you even talking about?”

 

“My dear girl,” Desire purred. “I am going to help you find my sister.”

7.

Leaves and branches crunched underneath my feet as I followed Desire through the forest. Desire, for their part, glided over the ground and between trees as fluidly as their sister did. They had an extra sort of languor to their stride, as if they were about to slip into bed within the next few steps.

 

“So,” I said, embarrassingly out of breath as I tried to keep up. “You said this is the land of the Endless?”

 

“That’s right, sugar.”

 

“What are -” my toe caught against a large root, and I almost fell over “The Endless?”

 

“That would be us, darling.” Desire raised their arms, elbows bent, palms facing toward the tree canopy above, presenting the entire forest to me. “My family. We have been around since the dawn of creation.”

 

“And who are you?”

 

Desire whirled around, somehow continuing their path through the trees without using their eyes to guide them. “Stick with the what. We are better understood as a what than a who.”

 

“Okay, then what are you?”

 

“We are the forces that your kind live with.” Desire’s dark lips curled into a smile. “We are around you, and we are inside of you. We give you a piece of ourselves, and your lives change.” They snapped, startling me. “Just like that.”

 

“No kidding,” I muttered. “How many of there are you?” I asked more loudly.

 

Desire’s expression darkened, and they turned back around. “There used to be more.”

 

Creepy. “Okay,” I said slowly.

 

“There’s me, of course,” Desire said, tone much brighter as we continued forward. “My twin sister, Despair. Our three older brothers, Destiny, Dream, and Destruction. And our baby sister Delirium. Though,” Desire added thoughtfully. “She used to be Delight, for a long time. Then something changed.”

 

“So how does Death fit into your family?”

 

“You thought I forgot her?” Desire laughed. “No, darling, I didn’t. She’s my older sister.”

 

“Wow.” I wasn’t quite sure what to say. “That’s amazing.”

 

“In all our time as a family,” Desire continued. “Which is to say, all of time ever, I have never known any mortal to show affection for Death. This will be a first, and I am delighted to see what she makes of it.”

 

“What about her?” I asked. “Has she ever loved a human?”

 

“Not in the way that you hope.” Desire glanced back at me over their shoulder. “Do try to keep up.”

 

“Sorry.” I picked up the pace, stumbling forward a few more feet as a few rocks gave way beneath my feet. “Have any of you ever loved a human?”

 

“I fall in love with humans all the time.” Desire’s voice was low and sultry, smooth as honey. “I partake in my fun with them whenever I can. And they love me back, always, though they never truly know it.”

 

“They never know it’s you?”

 

Desire waved a hand dismissively. “If they see me in my true form, they forget once the rose-colored glasses are off. But otherwise, yes. I am always there, with them and for them.”

 

“What about your other siblings?” I asked. “Have they loved a human?”

 

“Dream did, once,” Desire replied. “Or at least, there is only one time that I am aware of.”

 

“What was it like?”

 

“She was so beautiful,” Desire mused. Their tone grew distant. “The queen of the first tribe of people. I don’t blame him for falling in love with her. And what could she do but love him back? He was there for her, every single night. But fire tore through her city, and she could not save her people. Almost all of them perished. She killed herself. And Dream, he was so angry about that, he made sure she ended up in Hell.”

 

“He sent his lover to Hell?” I exclaimed.

 

Desire shrugged. “He’s moody.”

 

“That’s kind of harsh,” I muttered.

 

“Is it?” Desire said lightly. “He freed her after, oh, it must have been a thousand years or so? So she was forgiven, eventually.”

 

“A thousand years?” My voice rose, echoing between the trees a little too sharply. “That’s a long time.”

 

“For you. But, like I said, he didn’t leave her there forever.”

 

“And did she forgive him?”

 

“Perhaps.” Desire reached out and trailed their fingers along the nearby branches. Small, glowing pink grooves appeared on the bark and faded as we passed. “She was reincarnated, so she doesn’t remember anything that happened.”

 

“Wait, reincarnated?” I shook my head. “I thought you said she had gone to Hell.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“So when people die, do they pass over to another place? Or do we live multiple lives?”

 

Desire was getting irritated with me. “You ask a lot of questions, don’t you?”

 

“I’m just trying to understand.”

 

“To be quite honest, I’m not sure how my sister makes those decisions.” Desire stopped suddenly, then whirled around to face me again. “We’re here.”

 

I looked around. Nothing had changed in the forest around us. “Where?”

 

“My sister’s home.” Desire swept a hand out to the side and curled their fingers as if grabbing onto something. Slowly, they pulled their elbow back, and with it the curtain of reality. Or at least, what I had thought was reality. Behind the now wrinkled trees of the dim forest was a black expanse, an entrance to a dark void.

 

I swallowed. “Death is - in there?”

 

Desire beamed. “Maybe. Sometimes. If you can find your way to her castle, she will show up eventually.”

 

“You’re not coming with me?” I asked, though in my heart I already knew the answer.

 

“Certainly not,” Desire replied. “I have much better things to be doing. But if you make it to her, then I will definitely see you again. If not…” Desire tilted their head to the side, batting dark lashes over their golden eyes. “I’ll remember you fondly, until that memory fades.”

 

“Thanks.” I stepped forward, one foot in front of the other, trying to steady my breathing as the dark opening began to consume me.

 

“Oh, don’t forget,” Desire called. “The home of the dead does not belong to the living.”

 

I turned around, confused. “What?”

 

But it was too late. The curtain to the forest closed, and I was consumed by utter darkness.

8.

I waited for a moment there, alone, my pounding heart the only sound in the black void. Nothing happened. I waited another moment, wondering if my eyes might adjust to the darkness around me. Still nothing.

 

“All right,” I said to the emptiness. “Here goes nothing.”

 

I wasn’t sure which direction I was supposed to go, so I decided that I might as well go in the one that I was facing. Putting my arms out in front of my chest, I took a few tentative steps forward. Rocks - or at least, I hoped they were rocks - crunched beneath my feet, and I flinched. But again, nothing happened. I took a deep gulp of air, then continued my journey forward on the invisible path.

 

One foot in front of the other. I had no idea how long I walked alone in the darkness. Eventually, my arms got tired, and I began alternating holding one out in front of me and then the other. Despite this precaution, I didn’t run into anything in front of me.

 

After a while, I began to notice that the ground below me had a distinct downward slant, and that the air temperature dropped one degree about every two minutes. Appropriate, for heading closer to the heart of the land of the dead, I thought. Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought I could feel Death’s presence grow stronger as I kept walking. Like her cold, electric arms were circling me, not touching, but getting closer and closer to my skin with each step. I shivered.

 

Suddenly, with only two splashes to warn me, one made by each foot, my shoes were filled with water.

 

“Shit,” I said, though more out of wonder than anger. My converse were old and beat up anyway, it wasn’t like I was trying to keep them pristine. The icy water rushed between my toes, and I was startled to feel how sharp the temperature was. “Shit.”

 

Despite the sudden flooding of my footwear, there was still nowhere else to go but forward, and so I took another step. Or I would have, if there had been a solid place to put my foot. Instead, my shoe continued to move downward as it tried to find a place to land, and with a giant splash I lost my balance and plunged forward into the water.

 

I floundered around, completely submerged in the icy darkness. Eventually my hands found the surface of the water once more, and I followed them, pulling my head back up and swallowing the air gratefully.

 

But the water was not still, I realized as I kicked and moved my arms, trying to stay afloat. I could feel a strong current pulling me forward and down, destination still unknown.

 

“Help,” I called out, though I knew it was pointless. “Help me!”

 

The current dragged me under once again, and I fought my way back toward the surface. When I broke back to the air this time, there was a flicker of light nearby. Or maybe it was far away. I truly couldn’t tell, in this place.

 

“Help!” I yelled again, this time my urgently. “Over here! Please help me!”

 

Strangely enough, help seemed to come from the water itself. As I continued to flail my arms and legs, the current carried me closer to the source of the light. Soon, I could make out the shape of a boat, and what looked like people standing on board the deck.

 

Closer and closer, the current pulled me, until I was right up against the hull of the boat.

 

“Help!” I spat some water out of my mouth. It tasted like nothing, just left my tongue feeling cold and numb. “Please, help me up.”

 

But when I looked up at the figures above me, none of them moved. From what I could see of them in the dim blue light, they were humans of varying age and ethnicity, and they were all stark naked. Their expressions were blank, and their eyes stared out past any horizon I was capable of seeing.

 

“Please!” I banged my hands against the side of the boat. None of them moved. They could neither see me nor hear me. That, or they didn’t care to.

 

“Come on,” I moaned weakly. My arms were getting tired of trying to keep my head above water. I kicked my legs harder, trying to propel myself upward far enough to reach the edge of the boat. My fingers just barely reached the top of the railing, but my grasp wasn’t strong enough, and I fell back into the water.

 

Again. I kicked with all my might, managing to get my second knuckle over the side of the boat. But the water had made my hands slippery, and I fell once again.

 

Third time. I gave it everything, throwing my arms out and up as far as they could reach. My hands caught the railing. Just as I was starting to pull myself up and out of the water, I felt two hands grab onto my wrists. They thrust me upward with ten times the power that I could have lifted myself.

 

I shot out of the water and flew in a perfect arc onto the deck of the ship. My body hit the wood with a loud THUD, and I could feel all of the bones in my body separate and then join together once more.

 

“Ow,” I muttered as pain radiated through all my joints. Slowly, I turned over to thank my savior. As soon as I laid eyes on them, however, the words stuck in my throat.

 

Towering over me was a skeleton, at least six feet tall, with bones the color of rotting corn. From the center of its skull shone the bright blue light that illuminated the boat and some of the water around it. I couldn’t read any expression on what passed for the skeleton’s face, but from the way its fingers were cracking as it stared at me, I had a feeling that it did not see me as a welcome passenger on board this boat.

 

“Hi,” I said weakly. “I’m Aria.”

 

The skeleton opened it’s mouth, and a voice hissed at me. Aria. It is not yet your time.

9.

“I - I know,” I stammered up at the giant skeleton. “I’m looking for Death. Do you know where to find her?”
 

The skeleton didn’t seem to care much for my question. The living are not permitted on this vessel.
 

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry.” I held my hands up placatingly. I hoped body language was as universal as people always claimed. “I mean, if you want, I can die right now? I really don’t mind.” Even as I said the words, I felt a pang of guilt. I’d be leaving behind my parents. Ian. Dana. Hallie. But with every passing year it was looking more and more unlikely that I could find meaning to life without Death in it.

 

It is not yet your time, the skeleton repeated.

I sighed. “Look, I’m not sure what exactly you want from me. I could jump back into the water, if I’m not allowed on this vessel, but then I’d probably drown. So I’d be back here anyway.”

The skeleton cocked its head to the side, the light behind its eye sockets considering me. When it spoke again, its tone was much less harsh.

 

I am Charon, it said. I transport the dead from world of the living down into my lady’s kingdom.

 

“Uh, cool,” I replied. “I’m Aria. But you already knew that, I guess.”

 

Why are you here, Aria? Charon asked. If it is not yet your time? Are you my next Orpheus? It laughed. Or at least, it threw its head back and let out a sound that was reminiscent of laughter. My lady was forgiving once. It is unlikely she shall be so again.

 

“Orpheus. Right.” I rubbed my neck. “Well, I am looking for my lover. Sort of.”

 

Charon looked back down at me, blue light shining brightly on my face. You wish to join them? Does your tiny human heart ache that much?

 

“Well, not exactly,” I said slowly. “The thing is, I’m in love with Death.” The last word came out as a tiny squeak.

 

Charon was silent for so long that I thought maybe they hadn’t heard me, or had misunderstood somehow.

 

You mean you wish to join my lady’s realm, much like all of these fools, Charon said, sweeping an arm about to indicate the passengers on the boat.

 

“No,” I replied. “I don’t love the idea of dying. I love your lady. Death.”

 

Impossible.

 

I smiled weakly. “And yet, here I am.”

 

Charon leaned down until their face, the front of their skull, whatever one might call it, was just inches from my own. I blinked rapidly as the blue light shone straight into my eyes. You have seen my lady?

 

“Yes,” I mumbled.

 

When?

 

“Many times.”

 

How?

 

“I don’t know.” Apparently that was the question of the hour.

 

You have no special abilities. You are not a medium, nor a demi god, nor a cousin to the Endless.

 

“No?” I answered, even though those weren’t really questions.

 

Charon’s head tilted up, then back down, as if examining me. Does Desire know?

 

“Yes,” I said, relieved that I could answer this question. “They’re the one that showed me how to get into this realm.”

 

Charon straightened their spine, standing back up at full height. They should not have done that. They know the rules.

 

“I’m sorry,” I said. “They were trying to help me.” I shook my head. “I know all of this is probably wrong, but I can’t help it. I’ve loved her since the first time I saw her, and I’ve never been able to stop. I don’t think I can live a normal life, for whatever reason. And I know there’s probably not going to be a happy ending to all of this, but I have to tell her. At the very least, I have to let her know how I feel. Before she comes for me.”

 

If I had a heart, Charon said. I would find that very touching.

 

“Thanks,” I told them, not sure of what else I could say to that.

 

Charon nodded. Very well. I will allow your passage on my boat just this once.

 

Relief washed through me. I wouldn’t have to dive back into the river’s icy waters. “Thank you.”

 

Don’t thank me yet, Charon warned. This is only the first step in your journey. You will have more to endure in order to reach my lady.

 

My stomach sank. “This boat won’t take me right to her?”

 

Only to the inner gates of the underworld. From there, you will be on your own.

 

“Of course,” I muttered. “Do you know what I’ll find? On the inside?” I asked more loudly.

 

That is not my duty to tell, Charon replied. Cerberos may be able to give you some idea of what you will face.

 

“Right. The three-headed dog. Of course he’s real.” I shook my head. “This is not exactly what I signed up for tonight.”

 

Then you have more in common with my other passengers than we originally thought. Charon reached out a hand. However, though you may still be living, nobody rides for free. You must pay.

 

“Pay?” I said dumbly. “Oh. Um. Here.” I reached into my back pocket for the wad of emergency cash I had brought to the concert and held it up.

 

Charon retracted their hand. These wads of paper mean nothing to me.

 

“Then what sort of payment do you accept?”

 

Traditionally I take gold, silver, or bronze, Charon replied. Orpheus gave me a song. Now that it is less common for people to bury wealth along with their dead, I accept memories as well.

 

“Memories?”

 

If there was a way for a skeleton to look sheepish, Charon achieved it. I was alive a very long time ago. I appreciate knowledge of what it is like now, to be a human.

 

“Memories.” I thought about that for a second. “What happens when I give it to you?”

 

Then it is no longer yours.

 

“So I’ll forget it?”

 

Yes.

 

I chewed my lip. “What kind of memories do you accept?”

 

Happy or sad. But it cannot be generic. I do not want your scraped knees or your grandmother’s cookies. Give me something that has a bit of your real essence in it.

 

“Okay.” I held my hand out. “I have something for you, if you’re ready.”

 

Charon reached back out to me and I touched their fingers with mine. Their bones were smooth and cool to the touch.

 

Suddenly I was back in school. It was nighttime, and at least half of the student population was crowded into the gym. The DJ played a slow song over the stereo system. Hallie and Dana were out on the dance floor with their dates. I was sitting alone at a table, watching over their purses.

 

“You’re not dancing?” Ms. Wexler had snuck up on me.

 

“No,” I replied.

 

“Where’s your date?”

 

“I don’t have one.”

 

“Ah,” Ms. Wexler replied. “Mind if I join you?”

 

I shook my head, and she took the seat next to me. Her brown hair was pulled up into a knot on top of her head, though she had left some ringlets dangling by the side of her face. A low cut pink dress revealed just enough cleavage for the outfit to be scandalous.

 

“You look very beautiful,” I told her.

 

Ms. Wexler beamed. “Thank you, Aria. As do you.”

 

I nodded, feeling shy. Ms. Wexler was not yet thirty years old, making her younger than most of our other teachers. I’d had her in freshman year for geometry. While I’d never quite had a crush, I had always gotten flustered by how beautiful and friendly she was.

 

“I’ve never seen you with a boyfriend,” Ms. Wexler said lightly.

 

I shrugged. “Don’t like boys all that much.”

 

“What about girls?”

 

I shrugged again.

 

“Nobody?”

 

“No,” I blurted out. “I’m just… I dunno. Nobody in school really does it for me, I guess,” I ended lamely.

 

Ms. Wexler smiled warmly at me. “I see.” She grabbed a napkin and a pen that had fallen out of Hallie’s purse, and wrote something.

 

“If you ever need to look outside of the school, let me know.” She slid the napkin over to me. Her phone number was written in the corner.

 

I wasn’t sure what to say. Thankfully, at that moment she stood and walked off again.

 

Wow, Charon said.

 

I opened my eyes. We were back on the boat again. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.

 

What a tragedy, Charon continued. You really have never been able to love another one of your kind, have you?

 

For some reason, I was crying. I wiped my cheeks as I shook my head.

 

Well hopefully you find what you are looking for here. Charon held their arm out. We are here, Aria.

 

I stood up. Sure enough, the boat had stopped moving. All around me, the other passengers on the boat were shuffling off the boat and onto the rocky shore in a single file line.

 

“Thank you,” I said to Charon.

 

You paid the price, they replied. It’s not the first one you will have to pay. The land of the dead is not for the living, after all.

 

“That’s what Desire said.” I frowned. “Do you know what it means?”

 

I think you’re about to find out. Charon pointed to something behind me.

 

I turned. From between two stone pillars just off the riverbank emerged a large black dog with three heads and glowing yellow eyes.

 

“Cerberos,” I whispered.

10.

The other passengers from Charon’s boat shuffled past Cerberos and between the pillars without giving the three-headed dog a second glance. Once they made it a few feet beyond the stone columns they disappeared, as if dropping suddenly over some invisible horizon. In a few minutes, the shore was empty save for me and the giant beast.

 

I walked up to Cerberos tentatively. All six of her eyes followed me as I got closer and closer.

 

That’s enough. The command appeared in my brain, loud and harsh, and I stopped moving immediately. Do not come any closer.

 

Cerberos glared at me. I stared back up at her. There was no noise, save for the lapping of the river water on the sharp rocks.

 

You are still alive, Cerberos said. Yet Charon brings you to this land. Yet you approach me here at this gate. Why?

 

“I’m looking for your mistress,” I replied. “Death. I would like to see her.”

 

Why?

 

“Because I love her.”

 

Why?

 

“Why - do I love her?”

 

Yes. Why?

 

I’d never questioned why I loved Death. “I don’t know. I just always have.”

 

That is not an answer. Tell me why you love my lady.

“Okay,” I said slowly. “Well… she’s absolutely beautiful. I’ve never seen anyone or anything quite like her. She’s very strong. Nobody can escape her, and I really admire that, uh, power. And when she’s around I just feel like I’ve transcended from one state of being to another.”

 

Cerberos nodded her three heads. And what do you hope to do for my lady?

 

“I don’t know.”

 

That is also not an answer.

 

“What do you want me to say?” I exploded. “I could tend to her home for her? Hold her when she comes back to sleep? If she sleeps. Does she sleep? I don’t know. I could come with her on her adventures, her job, whatever. Help her out, somehow, if she needs it. I could put up shrines worshipping her, if she gets off on that kind of thing. I can do whatever she needs, but I just hope to be loyal to her.”

 

Maybe it was just my imagination, but those yellow eyes didn’t look quite as mean as they had before. You know that the land of the dead is not for the living.

 

I sighed. “Yes, it has been mentioned a few times, by this point. But nobody has bothered to explain what they mean by that.”

 

It means that you cannot enter here, as you are.

 

“So I do have to die?” I asked, irritated. “I just told Charon that I would jump in the river and drown if he wanted me to. Why didn’t he say that I should?”

 

No, Cerberos replied. You do not have to die. But you cannot live here, either.

 

I blinked. “What does that mean?”

 

Cerberos took a step toward me. It took all of my willpower to not fall backward as she towered over me. When the dead arrive, they are dropped in the river Lethe. Their most precious memories are washed away, and they are born again like new children. That way they feel no pain in the afterlife. That way they can live once again, if they choose.

 

“What are you saying?”

 

Go beyond this gate, Cerberos instructed me. Bathe in the Lethe. Wash away the world you know, and you will be able to roam through my lady’s land as much as you will.

 

“But if I do that, won’t I forget Death?” I asked. “Won’t I lose the whole reason I came down here in the first place?”

 

If it is meant to be, Cerberos said. Then you will find a way to remember.

 

I looked past Cerberos, at the barren grey beach on the other side of the stone pillars. Once I crossed that threshold, there was no turning back. The life I had, everything I knew, would be stripped away from me.

 

I turned back to the river from which I had come. Leaving would be so easy. Charon would probably take me back to the mortal world, if I paid them. I could pick up everything right where I left off. Go to school. Dance at concerts with Dana and Hallie. Pretend to fall in love with Eddie, or something. Lead a normal life and try to ignore the crushing weight in the middle of my chest every single day.

 

But that was no way to live. Fading into the background of everyone else’s worlds. Denying yourself the chance to get the one thing you always wanted.

 

With no risk, there can be no reward.

 

“I’ll do it,” I told Cerberos. “Whatever’s waiting for me past that river will be worth it.”

 

Cerberos inclined her heads in a triple nod. Very well then.

 

I walked past her and through the stone pillars. As soon as I stepped beyond some invisible border in the sand, a vibration ran through my entire body. It was like a bass dropped, and I was standing in the middle of the speaker.

 

The world around me shifted. The desolate beach transformed into a tropical forest, filled with tall trees and colorful flowers as big as my face. A river cut through the damp earth just a few feet in front of me. Its water was deep blue, as if a sapphire jewel had been melted down into a liquid. Even though I’d just started to dry off, I found myself wanting to jump in.

 

The Lethe. Everything I knew would be stripped away, once I got past this river.

 

I took one last breath and dove into the crystal water.

11.

There was nothing.

 

Then, my body convulsed violently as my lungs rejected the water that filled them. I turned over and heaved, my abdomen contracting repeatedly until it was satisfied that all of the liquid was gone. My throat continued to open and close a few more times as I gulped down the cool and refreshing air.

 

Black spots filled my vision. I blinked, trying to get my eyes to function properly. Everything in my body hurt, though I had no idea why.

 

Or where I was.

 

Or who I was.

 

Even what I was.

 

I collapsed down onto the grass below me, grateful for the soft surface on which I could rest my joints. Perhaps I could stay here for a while, until my limbs stopped hurting.

 

The sky above me was gloomy and grey, the sun nowhere in sight. I stared up at it, an odd kind of calm settling over me. Though my body hurt, my mind felt utterly at peace. Well, except for one small part of it that tugged at the base of my skull.

 

You’re forgetting something.

 

I shushed the nagging little voice and continued to gaze up into the dull void. Two shadows appeared far, far above my head, flying around in a lazy circle. As I watched, they slowly got bigger and bigger. Eventually there were low enough for me to see that they weren’t birds. They had wings, but they were too big to be birds. Just as a feeling of dread had started to build in the pit of my stomach, the creatures had landed on either side of me.

 

They were women. Tall, with mahogany skin and striking red eyes that looked like they’d been painted with blood. They had wings instead of arms and talons instead of hands and feet. Teal feathers also sprouted out on top of their heads, where their hair would have been. The two of them would have been absolutely beautiful if they hadn’t been so goddamn terrifying.

 

“What do we have here?” the one on my right said. Her voice was deep and sultry, but also made me feel as if I was walking over gravel with bare feet.

 

“Human,” the one on my left replied. “What else do we see in this world?”

 

The one on the right studied me, cocking her head to the side at an unnatural angle just as a bird would. “But she is different. Can’t you tell?”

 

“The smell,” the one on the left agreed. “She doesn’t smell like the others. I can’t quite place what it is.”

 

The one on the right inhaled deeply through her nose. Or was it a beak? It was large and pointed, but it didn’t cover her mouth. “Oh.” Her eyes flew wide open.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Life.”

 

The one on the left snorted. “Impossible! Why would she be down here?”

 

“We could ask her that ourselves.”

 

Both of them turned their sharp, pointed faces toward mine.

 

“Human,” the one on the right said. “What is your name?”

 

I opened my mouth, but no words came out.

 

“Come on,” the one on the left said. “Are you stupid?”

 

“Not stupid,” the one on the right realized. “She’s been in the river.”

 

“She’s living, but she went for a swim in the Lethe?” the one on the left puzzled. “What kind of mortal does that?”

 

“Maybe Destruction sent us a gift. A special treat for today’s dinner.”

 

“Why would he send us a living girl?”

 

“Because he knows that she would taste better.”

 

“Would she?”

 

“I don’t know. That would be my guess. She’s fresh.”

 

“We’ve tried fresh things. We don’t like them.”

 

“Well maybe he was hoping we’d try again, and then his sister would get mad.”

 

“Why would she be mad about that?”

 

“You know how she is. We only feed on the ones she lets us. He knows he’s tempting us because we’re always hungry.”

 

“We are always hungry,” the one on the left agreed.

 

Something they said had made a small spark flare up inside of me. After a few attempts, I managed to speak. “Sister.”

 

Their heads snapped back toward me. “What did she say?” the one on the right asked.

 

“Sister,” I croaked again.

 

“Sister?” the one on the left mused. “Yes, we’re sisters.”

 

“No, I think she means Destruction’s sister,” the one on the right corrected her. She cocked her head to the side as she studied me. “You mean Death?”

 

Death. The name made me feel like there was a hot brand being pressed into my chest. I nodded vigorously.

 

“Doesn’t know her own name,” the one on the left murmured. “Doesn’t know where she is. But she knows all about our lady.”

 

They were wrong. I didn’t know all about her. But the word, the name, the title, it made my cold body feel warm once again. I raised a heavy hand and pointed at the bird women in front of me.

 

“Names?” I asked, my voice still dry and hoarse.

 

“Who are we?” the one on the right asked. I nodded. “My name is Aello.”

 

“Celaeno,” her sister said.

 

I nodded. “What?” was my next question.

 

“What do you mean, what?” Celaeno demanded. “That’s a very open-ended question, and we can’t do much with just the one word.”

 

“I think she wants to know what we are,” Aello replied, watching my eyes move over their wings and talons. “We’re harpies, human. Heard of them before?” I shook my head. “Oh, right. Of course you haven’t. You’ve been awake for five minutes.”

 

“Maybe we should just eat her,” Celaeno said. “It’s not like she’d know the difference.”

 

Aello shook her head, teal feathers whipping back and forth. “She said Death. We cannot allow her to perish if she has some connection to our lady.”

 

“Fine,” Celaeno grumbled. “What do you want with our lady?” she almost yelled at me.

 

I winced.

 

“She’s not deaf,” Aello scolded her sister. “Why do you need to see our lady?” she asked. “Do you know her?”

 

I was about to shake my head, when I got a good look into their eyes. Their irises were red and hungry. They had taken much too long to debate whether or not I was worth becoming a snack. How I answered this question could very well seal my fate.

 

“Yes,” I managed. “I know her.” I swallowed a few times, feeling my vocal chords start to get a little smoother. “Can you take me to her?”
 

“We can’t take you,” Aello answered. “The only shortcut in the land of the dead is the one you take to its entrance.”

 

“But we can tell you where to go,” Celaeno answered. “If you think you can handle the journey.”

 

I nodded, even though I wasn’t sure I could.

 

“That way.” Aello pointed. “If you walk straight toward the horizon, eventually you will come upon the path.”

 

“Stick to that path,” Celaeno advised. “No matter what happens. No matter what you encounter. Stick to the path.”

 

“If you so much as step one toe off of it,” Aello added. “You will be stuck here in the underworld for the rest of existence.”

 

“Thank you,” I told them.

 

“Don’t thank us yet.” Aello smirked, her red eyes glinting. “Few make it to the end of the path intact.”

 

I began to shuffle forward, my feet unaccustomed to the motion. After a few steps, I finally began to understand the rhythm of walking, and started to move more quickly. I could feel Aello and Celaeno’s eyes on me as I made my way in the direction they had pointed. But when I turned around to wave goodbye, they had vanished.

 

I continued on toward the grey horizon.

12.

I walked. The path appeared, slanting just off to the right, in the same direction the harpies had pointed. It looked like it was made of black sand, and sure enough, when I put my foot on its surface, I could feel the small and sharp grains rubbing against the bottom of my foot. Though there was no sun in the sky, they felt like they had absorbed the heat of high noon.

 

I walked. Occasionally thinking about the harpies. Usually thinking of nothing. Counting my steps with one word. Death. Death. Death.

 

I walked. The sand burned my feet, but I continued on, step by step. Several hours must have passed by the time I reached the water.

 

The shore appeared out of nowhere. There had been no warning, no downward slant to the path to indicate an impending ocean. Just blue water, lapping up at the edge of the black sand and the dull green grass on either side. I stopped for a moment to stare at it.

 

The path led straight into the ocean, disappearing beneath the waves. I couldn’t make out where it led to underneath the water.

 

Stick to the path, Celaeno had said. There was nowhere else for me to go but down into the waves.

 

I began walking again, letting the water come up over my feet, my ankles, my knees. By the time it reached my shoulders, I realized that my feet were still firmly planted on the path, that I wasn’t floating up to the surface of the water. I took a final breath as a wave crashed over my head, letting the ocean consumed me.

 

When I opened my eyes, I was in a completely different world. Above the water, everything had been grey and colorless. Down here, I was in a technicolor world. There was bright coral, shining rocks, and fish flitting all around. The current caressed me, and the cool water soothed the burns on my feet. As my breath ran out inside my lungs, I exhaled, then discovered I could inhale the water without choking.

 

The path stretched out before me, black and ominous. I continued forward, marveling at the wonders around me. Suddenly, there was noise all around me. No, not noise. Music. I continued walking, but tilted my head upward, looking around for the source of the sound.

 

It was beautiful. My chest ached as the notes flowed through me, telling a story of some far off land that someone could not reach. The song flowed through me and around me. I thought I could almost see the creatures in the ocean sparkle a little bit brighter as we all breathed in the melody together.

 

A woman appeared off the path to my left. Her long, brilliant hair floated all around her face, each strand a different color of the rainbow. A blue crystal glowed in the middle of her chest, and she had silver scales that shone bright on top of the dark skin of her chest and arms. Instead of legs, she also had a long silver fish tail that reached out several feet beyond her torso.

 

As I approached, her eyes opened. They were a kaleidoscope, reflecting every color of the rainbow just as her hair did.

She stopped singing for a moment, and my chest stopped hurting. Then, she spoke, and the tortured elation filled me once more.

 

“Who are you?” she asked.

 

I shrugged. “I like your singing,” I offered.

 

She smiled, as if pitying me. “Everyone likes my singing. Thousands of men have jumped overboard and sacrificed their lives for it.”

 

“Sacrificed their lives?” I frowned. “Why?”

 

“Can’t you hear it?”

 

She began singing once again, and the ache returned in the middle of my chest. This time, however, I could feel it tugging me, pulling me forward. I took one step toward her, then another. At the last moment, I realized that I was only a foot away from the edge of the path, and stopped abruptly. The tune built up inside of me, and all of the organs vibrated against the bottom layer of my skin. Tears streamed down my face, though I did not know quite why.

 

“Wow,” I said as she stopped. “It’s really… wow.”

 

“You see?”

 

“Well… no.” I shook my head.

 

For some reason, this infuriated her. “What do you mean, no?”

 

I put my hands up. “I’m sorry. It’s very beautiful. But I don’t see why people would kill themselves over it.”

 

Her kaleidoscope eyes flashed dangerously. “What game is this? Did the Endless send you here?”

 

“What?”

 

“They are trying to insult me,” she snarled. “Sending - what are you? A golem? Down here to refuse my advances.”

 

“Golem?”

 

“It’s pathetic,” she spat.

 

“Isn’t this the land of the dead?” I asked. “Wouldn’t anyone down here be dead already?”

 

She glared at me. “The path that you are on hails from the underworld. But it travels through several valleys of different realms. And you.” Her eyes traveled over me. “You are clearly not dead.”

 

“So they tell me,” I murmured.

 

“So what are you?”

 

I lifted one shoulder. “The harpies told me I’m human. Apparently I bathed in some river, and that’s why I don’t remember anything.”

 

She tilted her head to the side, rainbow hair following the motion with a few seconds of delay. “The Lethe?”

 

“Apparently.”

 

“Alive,” she mused. “But with no memory of who you are.” Her face lit up. “And therefore no idea of what you desire. Which is why you can refuse a siren song.”

 

“Is that what you are?” I asked sheepishly.

 

“Thelxiope.” The siren held out her hand. “At your service.”

 

I looked at the proffered limb. “No offense, but…”

 

Thelxiope smiled. “You may have been reborn today, but you are a fast learner.” She pursed her lips. “What brings you along this path?”

 

“Well,” I hedged. “The harpies mentioned Death. And that sparked… something inside of me. So I think I have to find her. She’ll give me the answers I’m looking for.”

 

The siren laughed. “You seek Death? Nobody seeks Death.”

 

“Nobody resists a siren song either,” I countered. “Or so you say.”

 

Her mirth died quickly. “Fair enough,” she said archly. “Are you Nobody, then?”

 

Something tugged at the back of my mind. Her question was familiar to me, somehow. But I dismissed the thought. “For now, I guess. I have no other name to go by.”

 

“Far be it from me to give you a name,” Thelxiope said. “They hold much weight, and that is not a responsibility I care to have.”

 

“I suppose,” I answered.

 

“Well,” she continued. “You are the second human in the history of your kind to resist a siren song.”

 

“The second?”

 

Her eyes flashed dangerously. “Don’t push it.”

 

I held my hands up. “Sorry.”

 

“You are safe.” She smiled. It looked genuine, though I sensed I was probably not the best judge of character in my current state. “Best be on your way, human. My song is not the most dangerous thing that you will encounter along this path.”

 

“Thanks,” I said. “Um. Goodbye.”

 

Thelxiope turned away and swam off into the corral, singing her haunting melody once again as she disappeared. I continued along the path, though this time the ache in my chest continued even after I could no longer hear the siren’s voice echoing through the waves.

13.

The path eventually sloped upward, taking me out of the waves and back to land. Or at least, land in the traditional sense. Air, in the traditional sense. The elements seemed to follow different rules here in the underworld.

Unlike before I had dipped into the ocean, there was now a sun in the sky above. Or whatever passed for a sun in this realm. The sky was a weird, smokey shade of yellow, and at the center of it all was a bright ball whose rays of heat were beating down incessantly on my skin. The land around me was lush and green, filled with trees, but none of them hung over the path. Of course. That would make it just too easy.

 

The ocean water evaporated off of me within minutes, leaving a crusty layer of salt on top of my skin. I licked my lips, then immediately regretted the decision as my thirst went from bearable to near intolerable.

 

Death. Death. Death. I continued the mantra as I walked, occasionally letting the chant in my head follow what I could remember of the siren’s melody. Whatever she wanted of me, or I of her, I would only find out if I continued to put one foot in front of another.

 

A strong breeze blew through the trees. Rather than relieve me of the heat, however, it only burned me, exacerbating the agony I received from the sun. I winced as the air whipped around and over my skin, longing once again for the cool depths of the ocean floor.

 

Laughter echoed through the trees.

 

“Foolish mortal,” a voice said to my right. “Why don’t you step into the shade?”

 

I cracked my lips open to respond. “I must stick to the path.”

 

“But why?” said a voice to the left. “What purpose could you have that would sacrifice your comfort and your sanity? What could be more important, more thrilling, than laying down here in the shade?”

 

The spots beneath the trees did look especially dark and damp, I noted. No. I snapped my gaze forward again. There were no answers waiting for me in the bushes. Any nap that I took there would surely be my last. Or something like that.

 

“Woooooooow,” crooned the voice to my right. “Such determination! What focus! The human would rather ignore us and continue on her pointless quest to the edge of doom.”

 

Don’t waste your words on them, I told myself. Your throat is dry enough. They’re just trying to provoke you.

 

“Come to us!” shouted the voice to my left. “Quit this nonsense and join us where you belong!”

 

I clamped my lips together and continued forward. Death. Death. Death. If I focused on her name, then the heat wasn’t as bad. The magic, or whatever it was, that she sparked in me, kept me moving forward.

 

The wind picked up around me again, this time so strong that it felt like actual flames were licking at my skin. I shrieked, while still managing to keep my mouth shut tight. Tears sprung up at the corners of my eyes and so I closed those as well, trying to trap every possible ounce of moisture in my body.

 

“We’ll get to you,” one of the voices yelled. I couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from. The wind had started to make some of the sand from the path fly around as well, and the coarse black grains were now pelting themselves against my feet and legs at full force.

 

“Come on,” they taunted. “Step off the path and we’ll stop. Come into the shade where everything’s nicer.”

 

“Where everything’s nicer!”

 

“It’s so nice here in the shade!”

 

“It’s not a trap, just come!”

 

The pain was becoming too much to handle. The sand was now scraping my skin raw. If it continued, my feet and legs would be too tender to walk any further. “STOP!” I exploded. “Leave me alone!”

 

The silence and the stillness was so sudden that I almost tripped from the lack of wind forcing itself against me.

 

“Thanks,” I mumbled.

 

“Little human doesn’t want to play?” moaned the voice to my left.

 

“Little human wants to stick to the path,” teased the voice to my right.

 

“Little human has a purpose,” I yelled back, despite the fact that I could feel my throat getting dry. “I’m guessing you’re not familiar with that idea if all you do is hang out in this forest and fuck with the people who walk by.”

 

There was a bright flash, and a figure appeared just off the path over to my right. It was tall, with no discernible features. All I could see was a human-shaped form filled with crackling light and energy. “That’s pretty rude.”

 

“I’d say so.” Another flash, and an almost identical figure appeared off the path to my left. “Who taught you manners?”

 

“If I knew, I’d tell you,” I answered. “Believe me.”

 

“Believe her,” the one on the left said.

 

“Humans tore us out of our own world,” snarled the one on the right.

 

“Believe her?”

 

“We lived there for millennia in our own palaces, our own kingdoms.”

 

“Believe her!”

 

“And then they came along, trapping our kind with iron shackles and making us slaves to their every whim. Turning us against our kind, making us fight and capture those we used to love and live amongst. It was sickening.”

 

“Believe her,” whispered the one on the left.

 

“Now,” the one on the right continued. “You come here through the home we have made for ourselves, in a dimension untouched by your lowly mortal kind. Unannounced. Without seeking permission to pass through.”

 

“Sorry?” I said. “Didn’t realize that I needed to seek permission. I thought this path was, um, public domain.”

 

“Public domain,” the one on the left mocked. “Well of course the path itself does not belong to us. But would you allow someone to walk through your home without knocking on the door first?”

 

“Okay, fair point,” I allowed, even though a large part of me still thought that this was getting ridiculous. “Then can you tell me exactly how I knock on the door, so to speak?”

 

They fell silent. A reaction I hadn’t expected.

 

“One moment,” the one on the right said. It flashed over to the join the figure on the other side of the path. For a few minutes they whispered together, sparks flying back and forth between their flickering forms.

 

Just when I thought they’d forgotten about me, they spoke again.

 

“A riddle,” one of them announced. Now that they were standing so close together, I couldn’t exactly tell which one of them was speaking.

 

“A riddle,” I repeated. “Sure.” My stomach turned uneasily. I knew that I could think properly, but would my utter lack of memory affect my ability to solve a riddle? I didn’t know as much about the world - well, any of the worlds that existed, for that matter - so it would be difficult to answer questions about them. Especially ones with clever wording intended to trick you. There was a good chance I would be standing here forever, getting whipped by fiery winds until the end of time.

 

There was really only one way to find out what my fate would be.

 

“Let’s hear it,” I said. The figures giggled. Or maybe they hissed. It was hard to tell. In unison, they began to chant.

 

A spirited jig it dances bright

Banishing all but darkest night

Give me food, and live will I

But give me water and I shall die

 

They fell silent.

 

“Bright and dances,” I repeated slowly. “It eats, but can’t drink?” I frowned. This was hard. At this rate, I’d be stuck here forever.

 

“Poor human!” one of them taunted. The bright figures both disappeared, though their laughter grew louder. Once again the wind picked up around me, and this time I knew that the slashes and burns I felt across my body were from my two tormentors. I cried out in pain as they whipped across my skin, leaving red marks with each hit of heat.

 

“Little human wants to stick to the path!”

 

“Little human doesn’t want to come to the shade!”

 

“Stupid little human!”

 

Wait a minute. Heat. Lives with food, dies with water. That was it.

 

“Fire!” I called out. “That’s the answer to your riddle!”

 

The wind died, and the bright, flickering figures appeared again, this time on either side of the path. Now that they stood before me again, I could see that their bodies were forms made entirely of flames. They were the fire.

 

“That’s it… right?” I said, suddenly uncertain. Even though they had no eyes, I could feel the figures staring at me.

 

“Little human figured it out,” the one on the right said. I couldn’t tell if it was disappointed or proud.

 

They were both silent, and I looked back and forth, trying to read something, anything in their demeanor. The crackling flames yielded absolutely nothing.

 

“So…” I hedged.

 

They erupted. “Well then! Get on with it!”

 

“You answered correctly!”

 

“Go! Go away!”

 

“You may pass, so leave us!”

 

Their forms grew brighter, flames dancing more dangerously. I bit back a yelp of surprise and fear and rushed forward. For all I knew, they were on the verge of lashing out again. My stride broke from a walk and into a run.

 

All thoughts of remaining cautious and trying to preserve my body’s limited store of water left my head as I raced away, peals of laughter following me further than I thought possible. Sweat dripped into my eyes and I ran, pausing only to pivot my way around a sharp bend in the path. The trees had faded away, yielding instead to large piles of sediment that began to form into walls around the path.

 

I didn’t stop running until one particularly dramatic bend took me straight into one of the walls, and everything went black.

14.

When I came to, I was lying on the path, every part of my body hurting.

 

“Ouch,” I said out loud, to absolutely no one.

 

I sat up, head still throbbing and vision adjusting to the waking world once more. I had no idea how long I’d been out, but it probably didn’t matter. As my eyes focused, I could see the wall that I’d run into block the path, complete with a small indentation where my forehead had made contact with it.

 

Contrary to what I’d thought in the split second upon impact, however, the wall didn’t just cut through the path; it surrounded the path as well. I hadn’t noticed when I was running, but the path now resembled more of a tunnel. Or a cave, considering there was a dead end here. I glanced back in the direction I’d come from, and I could see some light, some of the open spaces I’d left behind. But in front of me, right here, was nothing but dirt.

 

Slowly, body complaining, I brought myself to standing. For some reason it made sense that I would be able to figure out this puzzle better if I was on my feet.

 

The dark sand of the path met the wall around it seamlessly. There was no extra space between the black and the brown, no cracks in the sediment or its reality that I could attempt to slip through.

 

I pivoted sharply and walked back up the path, towards the light. The walls of the tunnel disappeared, and the trees began to return. I stopped, afraid that I would get too close to the fire beings once again. Turning around, I surveyed the area around the path. To my dismay, but not my surprise, there were no divergences, no secret alternative routes to take. I walked back into the tunnel, feeling my mood darken along with the world around me.

 

Stick to the path. I had, aggressively so, and this is where it took me? This couldn’t be the end.

 

And yet, as far as I could tell, it was.

 

I kicked the wall in an attempt to release my frustration. Instead of bouncing back to me, however, my foot was now stuck against the wall. I nearly fell over from the unexpected shift in my balance. After righting myself as much as one could with only one foot on the ground, I braced myself and pulled back as hard and as quickly as possible. My foot didn’t budge.

 

“Really?” I grumbled, leaning forward onto the wall with both of my hands in order to better leverage myself. In a moment, though, I realized my foolish mistake. My hands were now stuck to the wall as well.

 

I pulled. I grunted. I leaned back as much as possible. My limbs were completely attached to the sediment before me. Finally, after a few minutes of struggling, I gave up and just stood there, trying to catch my breath once again.

 

And to think, only ten minutes ago I thought it couldn’t get any worse than a wall blocking my path. Now I was becoming part of it.

 

Wait. My breathing slowed and my heart stopped pounding as I looked at where my hands were resting on the wall. As a small experiment, I tugged them both back once again. Nothing, of course.

 

Then, I began to push forward.

 

My hands didn’t go through the wall as easily as I had hoped. But after leaning forward through my hands, letting the weight of my body sink through my shoulders and down to my palms, the wall slowly began to accept me.

 

A small part of me began to panic again. If you go any further, you’ll be even more stuck, it told me. After a while, you won’t be able to breathe. And of course, it didn’t make sense that I would be able to breathe if I was surrounded by nothing but dirt. But just earlier today I had managed to breathe underwater. Clearly the rules of the underworld were different than those of the living.

 

I pressed forward. My shoulders and chest were now moving into the wall. Bits of my lower body had started to sink in as well. It was now or never. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and plunged my face forward into the dirt.

 

For a moment, there was nothing but darkness as the final parts of my torso and legs sank forward into the earth. The air disappeared completely, and my skin was one with the dirt around it.

 

I knew I was breathing. I must have been, for there was no other way that I could have continued to stay alive in the middle of that wall. But I couldn’t actually feel my lungs expanding and contracting. I tried to open my eyes, but it was like the muscles to perform that task had disappeared entirely.

 

Then, there was a giant hum. A vibration that filled the dirt around me and reverberated through me. As it continued, I realized that I had no sense of where my body ended at the earth around me began. The boundaries had disappeared. I was no longer a separate being, but one with everything around me.

 

The hum grew. Every particle of the wall was rattling, singing along with the sound. I was filled with vibrating particles. We danced. We moved. We celebrated.

 

We felt.

 

It was not with my eyes, but with my body that I saw what happened next. First, there was a blinding light. An ecstasy emanating from it that I was a part of. The light was me. The light was everything.

 

Then, it broke in half. An agony that was somehow even more wonderful than the ecstasy flowed all around us. Me, and what was now not me. I burned hot, and the other was frozen cold.

 

I came together. My form solidified. The other did not. But they were around me at all times, and there was a sweet vibration where our two beings met. At times it vibrated more strongly, in small spots on the surface of my being. When this happened, I felt a part of me split away and join with a part of the other. Over and over again. Vibrations, and the formation of something new that was both of us, yet neither of us, and still then more than us at the same time.

 

Soon there were too many to count. Iterations of me and the other, some similar, most different, crawling all over my being. They called me mother. They called the other father. Some of them clustered together in groups and then grew in size. Others traveled across my body to meet these groups. Some spread out and lost contact with their kin, becoming lost to existence as a result. Everything on me was constant, swirling chaos.

 

I felt a dark space below me growing, somewhere that was neither me nor my other. It was not a being like we were, but rather a place. Our children grew and grew until they could grow no more, and then they slipped away down into this other place. I could not sense them there. Once they were gone down below, they disappeared.

 

There were children who slipped below into the other place and returned on occasion. Their names became known to me over time, as they whispered them into my outer layer. They slipped in and out of the dark place, and told me the secrets of what they had built there for themselves. I felt them as, through the centuries and millennia, they ruled over the other beings. Swaying them at their will. Ignoring them. Using them in fights with one another.

 

My other and I had ceased creation. We no longer vibrated against each other like we once had. But as our children crawled over me and extended their reach out into my other’s formless being, I had a strange sense of our connection growing. My other expanded out further and further, reaching beyond all unknowns. But to them, I was still the center of everything.

 

One of my children stood out to me above the rest. She went back and forth between my body and the dark place more than any of her siblings. There was something sinister in her walk, and her footsteps stung just a little bit as she walked all over my being. Wherever she went, other children slipped away into the darkness. But of all our children, I felt the most power in her. She was the most connected to my other and me. Just as we had spent the beginning of our time bringing things forth into creation, she spent her time moving them out of it, in a way.

 

My focus shifted. There was a part of my being that was frozen, covered over in white. Four small ones were moving around and through the cold. One of them moved too quickly across the white than they were accustomed to. Then they didn’t move at all. Two of the other small ones vibrated at a high frequency. The third didn’t vibrate at all.

The child who moved back and forth between the dark place appeared. Her steps stung on the cold part of my surface. And then, to my surprise, the spot where the small one stood began to sting me as well. Not as much as my child, but enough to notice. Enough to say that this small one was not like the others.

 

My child and the small one separated and came together multiple times. Once, they touched, and I felt the largest sting I’d experienced emanate from both of their bodies.

 

Their paths converged and diverged.

 

Eventually, the small one disappeared into the dark place. But unlike the others of her kind, she did so with purpose.

As I felt her leave the surface of my being, my attention shifted. I could no longer sense my connection to the other, no longer feel my children and versions of my offspring crawling all over my figure. Instead, I was surrounded by a thick substance that pressed inward on me.

 

And as the pressure increased, I remembered a name.

 

Aria.

 

I felt my body, my human body, return to the edges of my consciousness. With it came my memories, flooding back into me, icy and sharp as the river that had taken them from me. I opened my mouth to cry out from the pain, only to get a mouthful of dirt. The sediment reappeared all around me, now that I was no longer a part of it. I couldn’t move, breathe, or make a sound. I was trapped.

 

Just as I started to panic, the earth around me shifted. The dirt quaked. Every particle vibrated and I felt myself start to move forward. Suddenly, my head was thrust out into open air once again. Within seconds, my entire body was free.

 

The wall spat me out and I landed face first on the path once again. An outer layer of dust covered my skin, and my hair was a tangled mess. But I had made it through to the other side, and this trial hadn’t taken anything away from me. It had given me a gift.

 

My memory.

 

I rolled over on the ground and stared up at the sky, which was now a brilliant white above me. It hurt my eyes to look at, but I couldn’t care less. I grinned, the thin layer of sediment over my face cracking as my face moved.

 

Aria.

 

My name.

 

Death.

 

My love.

 

I had stuck to the path. And I was coming for her.

15.

There was a lightness to my step as I continued along the path now. One would think that having all of their memories re-downloaded would add onto the weight they have to carry, but I felt as if this revelation had returned lost strength to my body as well. The knowledge of who I was and my purpose here lifted me, from the roots of my feet and up to the top of my head.

 

I wanted to bounce. To laugh. To dance my way down the rest of the path, however far it would be. It didn’t matter to me now. I could walk for five more days or years and it wouldn’t matter. My mind, my body, and my heart, were mine once again. No confusion clouding the journey. I was here for a reason.

 

What would Death say when I found her, I wondered. I realized that I had never heard her voice before. If touching her led to that most amazing feeling, then what would listening to her do to me?

 

My doubts slid away so quickly that soon they didn’t even enter my mind at all. I would not tire before making it to Death’s home. She would definitely receive me, perhaps even with open arms. Whether or not she loved me back in the same way that I loved her, it would be enough. Whatever happened, it would be enough.

 

I was so lost in my fantasies that I didn’t notice how the path had changed beneath my feet until each step was propelling me upward by about six inches. Without realizing it, I had started to float a little bit as I went along my way. I wasn’t floating, but the interval at which I hovered over the ground grew a little bit each time my foot met the path.

 

There was a mist just off the edge of the path, obscuring the environment around me. Every so often a wind would blow through, and part of the mist would open for a moment, revealing a glimpse beyond its protective cover. During one strong gust a patch of light blue caught my eye, and I stopped walking. It took me about two full seconds for my feet to land on the path once more.

 

Not wanting to risk going airborne and catapulting my way off the path, I shuffled my feet forward until I was right at the divide between the path and the mist. Once there, I waved my hand out in front of my face, right into the thick of the fog. To my surprise, it cleared away easily. When I saw what was on the other side, I gasped.

 

It was the sky.

 

Or, at least, it was something that looked very much like the sky. There was an open void, an expanse filled with nothing but the color blue and a few patches of white.

 

The mist, I realized, was not mist. The path was surrounded by clouds. I was floating in the middle of the sky.

 

I waved my hands around to clear some more clouds away. My heart leapt into my throat when I saw that the edge of the path really was the edge. Beyond the black sand was a sharp drop into the void. You could probably fall forever into that bright blue.

 

Every part of me had started to feel sweaty. I shuffled back the way I’d come, right to the direct center of the path. My body and soul weren’t quite as buoyant as they’d once been, and as I started walking again my feet were only leaving the ground for about half a second.

 

That was one downside of regaining my entire history and personality, I supposed. My fear of heights had returned as well. But if I stayed in the center of the path, then surely it wouldn’t be an issue.

 

I continued walking forward again, wary of the edges now. Yet after a few steps the feeling of elation began to return.

 

In my head, I began to play out the fantasy of what would happen when I reached the end of the path.

 

Death’s castle would be a large affair. Tall, dark walls, leading up to towers that ended in smooth, sharp spires. The front door would be large and wooden, with a silver knocker in the center cut to look like the lady herself. Or maybe a skull. Or maybe it would just be plain and perfect, with no blemishes. The entire thing would be cold and terribly gorgeous, just like its mistress.

 

Perhaps her home would surprise me, though. Reveal something about her that I would never have guessed. Not that I knew much about Death to begin with, but I could make some inferences. Maybe her castle would be the opposite - light and airy, built out of glass and filled with stars. Sitting on a cloud. That was looking likely, from where I was at in the current moment.

 

Whatever the case, however her home looked, I would walk straight up to the front door and knock as loud as I could. The sound would reverberate through the castle, right into her throne room, or bedroom, or wherever she spent her time when she was at home.

 

Curious, she would think. I wasn’t expecting a visitor.

 

One of her servants would offer to bring the guest in, but she would know that this was an entrance she needed to see for herself.

 

Death would float down the stairs, through the ornate hallways, and up to the front door. She’d rest her hand on the smooth, thick wood, not knowing that mine was just on the other side. Through the door our palms would connect, a jolt of energy startling us both.

 

I’ve never felt anything like that before, she’d realize.

 

I’ve felt that once before, I would think on my end. My heart would begin to pound. Death, with no heart to speak of, would glow a little more strongly.

 

At my lady’s will, the door would open. Slowly, almost painfully, it would pull back to reveal me standing there. Tattered, worn down, but with bright eyes and a fierce determination at the edge of my jaw.

 

I’d see her. Eyes filled with stars, skin the color of the sky just beyond the sunset, hair blacker than the darkest black that could exist in the mortal realm. My heart would ache so strongly for her touch again that I’d reach forward once more, holding out my hand in the hopes that she’d give me hers.

 

My feet were leaving the path for almost three seconds at a time, now. Between each step I was reaching up to a full foot in the air. The clouds were above me as well, and during one leap I stuck my hand out into the white fluff.

 

And stayed there.

 

The cloud had taken a hold of my hand, and I was suspended above the path. After a moment of hanging there, I began to feel a pull from the other side, as if I had gotten stuck in a vacuum cleaner.

 

I yelped a little bit and wiggled around, resisting the pull. Almost immediately, the cloud released me and I fell back onto the path with an embarrassingly loud THUD.

 

That was a close one. I pulled myself up to standing and brushed a few grains of black sand off. My body was now aching as if I had run head first into a brick wall - which, I guess, was close enough to what had actually happened - but my determination was left intact and unbruised. Forward I would go, with the knowledge that off the path included getting too far above it, as well.

 

I continued walking forward, trying to figure out where I’d left off in my daydream. As soon as I started to picture Death again, however, my feet started to float off the path again. This time I was immediately going up to six inches above the ground.

 

The next time my feet touched ground I stopped, puzzling over the phenomenon. It had been cool at first. Now, I wasn’t so sure it was supposed to be.

 

I stared down at my feet and took a tentative step forward. Normal. I took a few more steps. My feet didn’t start to float off the path.

 

Breathing a sigh of relief, I looked up and began walking with a regular stride. As soon as I did, however, the elated feeling returned. I’d gone no more than a few feet forward when I started to float again.

 

“Dammit!” I yelled as I hovered a few inches above the ground. On that word, I came crashing back down to the path, less violently than before, but still hard enough that the impact vibrated up through my shins.

 

Then it clicked. The elated feeling wasn’t just figurative. It was literal. Every time I felt myself growing emotionally buoyant, I got physically lighter as well.

 

I paused, chewing on the side of my cheek. The path twisted and turned through the fog, so I couldn’t see where the end point was.

 

Apparently, in order to make it through this next part of the path, I would have to fight against my own happiness. For however long it took to get out of the clouds.

 

I began walking forward, head held up high, but my thoughts focused as low as I could bring them.

 

My mind returned to my previous fantasy, but instead of playing out an idealized version, tried to imagine the worst possible scenario. There would be spikes on the road leading up to Death’s front door. When she greeted me, her touch would immediately send me into spasms of pain, not pleasure. She wouldn’t even deign to greet me, instead sending her servants down to bring me in and throw me into the darkest pit below the castle. Her rejection would be even more painful than that touch.

 

It worked. My feet were staying firmly on the path. I even seemed to be moving forward more quickly than usual.

 

I thought about the things that had happened to me on this otherworldly adventure. The cold water of the Styx and the Lethe. My fear when Charon found me on his boat. Choosing to give up my memories without knowing if I could get them back.

 

My life before this quest surfaced as well. The loneliness I felt at school. How whenever Dana and Hallie regaled me with their stories of hooking up with boys, or appeared in the hallways with a new hand to hold, my secondhand happiness was always underscored with a deep-seated jealousy and sadness. How I had wanted to open up to them for years about the reality of my situation, my love, my sexuality, but knew that they would never understand or even believe what I had been going through. How every time I appeared at someone’s death bed at just the right moment, the elation I felt was followed a few minutes afterward by guilt that stayed on my skin for the next few days. My love was strange, forbidden, and maybe even wrong. As such, I was a bad person for letting it consume me. One of the worst.

 

I was speeding along the path now. But I was also running out of things to keep me down, figuratively and literally.

 

Then, I realized, what I had to do to get to the end.

 

I took a deep breath, and let my memory travel back ten years. Back to when it all started.

 

The snow was white all around, some of it blanketing the ground, some of it swirling in the air around. Hallie, Dana, Madison and I were all bundled up so tightly that we could barely recognize each other.

 

“The trick,” I was telling the three of them. “Is to pick your hands up and put them out in front of you. Like Supergirl.”

Hallie looked skeptical. “That doesn’t make you go faster.”

 

“Does too.”

 

“Does not!”

 

“You’re just chicken,” I told her.

 

“You are,” she countered.

 

“Am not,” I said. “I just showed you.” I held the end of the sled out in front of me. “Here, someone else try it.”

Hallie crossed her arms. Dana looked down at her feet. But Madison perked up.

 

“Sure!” she said. “I’m not scared.” She put the sled down on the ground, right at the top of the hill, and climbed on. “Give me a push?”

 

I did as she asked, throwing my body weight against the sled and sending her flying down the hill.

 

“Put your hands up!” I called out.

 

Madison did. She raised her hands out over her head, arms stretched out straight just like a superhero in flight. Her delighted shrieks echoed back up the slope to where we stood, watching.

 

I grinned.

 

Then, in a split second, everything went wrong. Madison’s sled tilted to the left, sending her away from the soft landing at the base of the hill and toward the rocks we always steered clear of. She put her hands back down on the sled in an attempt to turn away, but it was too late. Less than a second later, she crashed. The sled spun up into the air before landing sideways in the snow, miraculously intact. Madison, who was stretched out over the rocks, was not as lucky. Her hat had fallen off. Blood was seeping into the ground behind her, red staining the white around her quickly. Some of it trickled out of her open mouth.

 

Back on the path, in the present moment, tears began to slide down my cheeks. I let the memory fade from the forefront of my mind and instead gave over to the grief. My feet moved forward, seeming to know the twists and turns in the path even though I was no longer watching where I was going.

 

I killed her.

 

All those years ago, the thing that I hadn’t wanted to admit, was that it was my fault Madison died.

 

Sobs tore through my body. Huge, ugly ones that ripped up from my gut and into my throat. These were the tears that I should have cried on that day ten years ago, when I had been too paralyzed by love to even move. This was the mourning that I owed to a girl who had been one of my best friends in the earliest years of my life.

 

I was no longer walking. The guilt and the shame that I had suppressed for so many years brought me down onto my knees. My hands dug into the coarse sand on the path, scraping back and forth until my palms were raw and tender.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell if I was screaming the words out loud, or only in my head. The mantra continued nonetheless, beyond any control I might have had. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

 

Dana, Hallie, and I had never talked about that day. Not really. When we were kids, we didn’t know how to. We didn’t have the facilities to address loss properly. The three of us had addressed our grief silently, subtextually, in the way that kids do when something reaches beyond their understanding. But shouldn’t we have figured it out as we grew up? Hallie was going to become a legal adult next month, for crying out loud. We didn’t need to make Madison part of our everyday life, but why hadn’t either of them turned to me to say how completely fucked up that incident was?

 

Why hadn’t I ever taken the time to apologize?

 

My abdominals were contracting so hard that each sob sent a shooting pain from my stomach up to my shoulders. Tears had stopped streaming from my eyes, but I was still convulsing with sobs. I dug my hands deeper into the sand.

If I got back - no, when I got back - I would tell my friends everything. That I was sorry for killing our childhood best friend. That I was sorry for being so distant over the years. That I had been an utter basket case, and they deserved better.

 

My breathing finally began to grow steady again. I inhaled a few times through my nose, exhaling slowly through my mouth. My legs were still shaky, but I pulled myself up to standing. I might not be ready to face whatever challenge came next on the path, but I was damn well determined to try.

 

But in front of me, there was no more path. Just a small, blue cottage, with a white front door that reminded me of a full moon in the clear night sky.

 

I’m here,  I realized. Right at Death’s door.

 

I raised my right hand and knocked.

16.

Boom. Boom. Boom. My knocks sounded louder against that small door than I thought they would. Almost as if the inside of the house was just one hollow cavern, and a lot bigger than it appeared to be from the outside.

 

My knees were still wobbly. Actually, my entire body was vibrating just underneath the skin.

 

This is it.

 

The moment I’d been dreaming about for the past decade. I’d pined, I’d yearned, I’d followed, I’d fought my way up to this front door. And I had no idea what was going to happen on the other side.

 

I waited. Everything around me was silent. There was no wind, no trees with leaves to rustle, no chirping birds to cut through the quiet. I turned to see what exactly surrounded the house, to find that there was absolutely nothing. A black void. It was so dark that I couldn’t even make out the path that I had traveled to get here.

 

The door hinges creaked. I turned back around, my heart leaping into my mouth.

 

And there she was.

 

All I could do was stare. She was just as beautiful as the first time I’d seen her. Unchanged from the day that changed it all, and every day that had come after that. Smooth, blue skin, like the sky just beyond the sunset. Black hair that floated around her as if she was suspended underwater. Constellations shining brightly in her eyes.

 

The difference between this time and every other time, was that Death was staring back at me.

 

I’m not sure how long the moment lasted. I didn’t have the capacity to keep track of time, much less break away from the spell that love was keeping me under. Death, however, was able to.

 

“Aria,” she said. An involuntary shiver ran through my entire body. Her voice chimed, like tuning forks struck upon stars. “I’m glad you made it. Won’t you come inside?”

 

She turned and disappeared beyond the door frame. I stepped over the threshold, still searching for my voice.

 

The cottage was much bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. In fact, in here there was nothing that even remotely resembled the interior of a house.

 

Death and I were standing in the middle of a desert filled with grey sand. Unlike the sand that I’d been walking on for the whole length of the path, this sand was fine and smooth. My toes wriggled, burrowing themselves beneath the cool surface, reveling in the texture.

 

There was nothing around us. The sand stretched out to the horizon, or what I assumed was the horizon, in all directions. The sky was orange just above the edge of the land, fading into red, then purple, then black. We were surrounded by either a perpetual sunrise or sunset.

 

“I’m surprised,” Death said, breaking the silence. Her voice echoed through the desert. “No human has ever made it this far alone.”

 

I found my voice. “Never?”

 

“Never.” The stars in her eyes twinkled as she regarded me. “Not for lack of trying, however.”

 

“Oh.” I shook my head. “For some reason I thought I was the first. Desire said -”

 

“Desire said you followed me,” Death interrupted. “From the mortal realm.”

 

“Yes.” I didn’t know what else to say.

 

“Interesting.” Death tilted her head to one side, hair following behind in slow motion. “Nobody has ever followed me from the mortal realm. Most of those who have braved the path did so from their resting place in the underworld.”

 

“Really?” I was surprised, again. “Why did they do that?”

 

“Don’t dance around your real question.” Death smiled, and there was a swooping sensation in my stomach.

 

“Fine.” I swallowed. “Were any of them - in love with you?”

 

Death’s smile didn’t waver. “No.”

 

I exhaled. I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath. “Oh.”

 

“They’ve all tried to see me,” Death continued. “Because they wanted something. They had a task to fulfill. Some unhappiness that they wanted me to undo.”

 

“Like what?” I asked. I wished desperately that I could contribute more to this conversation. To be witty. To win her over, somehow.

 

“Orpheus, of course,” Death replied. “Looking for his beloved Eurydice. And Anticlea, in search of her son.” She paused. “All of them, looking for me. But not just for me.”

 

She fell silent. I searched for an adequate response, but my mind was drawing complete blanks.

 

I remembered the vision I’d had when my body had become one with the earth. Death, walking all over the planet, bringing people out of the world at their allotted time. She had been doing this since the dawn of her existence. She would continue doing it, long after I ceased to exist. She was Endless. I was not.

 

“So what do you want?” Death said, breaking the silence.

 

She knew the answer. But I still had to say it. I still had to try. “You,” I whispered.

 

I couldn’t read her expression. “Anything else?”

 

“No,” I replied. “I’ve never wanted anything else.”

 

“Aria,” Death began, but I interrupted her this time.

 

“Why were you at the concert?” Tears were coming to my eyes now. I blinked furiously, trying to hold them back. It was to no avail. “You were at the Halted Youth concert. I saw you. That’s why I followed you.” I swallowed. “I didn’t see anyone there who was dying. Was there?”

 

“No,” Death replied.

 

“So why were you there?”

 

“My brother told me I should be.”

 

“Which one?”

 

“Destiny.”

 

I felt a sharp, stabbing pain shoot right through my chest. “So all of this was fate?” I almost laughed. “But why?”

 

“There is no why,” Death said, echoing the words of her younger sibling. “Only what.”

 

“Right.” There was no stopping these tears; they streamed down my face, no mercy at all for my remaining dignity. “I’ve heard that one before.”

 

“Aria,” Death said softly. “Do you love me?”

 

“Yes,” I cried. “Of course I do.”

 

“Say it.”

 

“I love you.”

 

Death regarded me. “You don’t.”

 

That stopped my tears. “What?”

 

“I have seen Desire’s work. Love is not my expertise, but I have watched many of its culprits through the course of human history. And what you feel for me, Aria? That is not love.”

 

“I’ve thought about you every day,” I protested. “I touched you once and it was…” I trailed off, too embarrassed to finish the sentence.

 

“Humans are drawn to the beautiful. It makes them more comfortable.” Death spread her arms. “I inhabit a beautiful form so that when I come for their souls, they are willing to follow me. And when I touch them.” Death lowered her arms, her endless eyes staring at me and through me. “That is the moment that they die.”

 

“That’s what it feels like?” I whispered.

 

“I know that mortals have complicated feelings about me,” Death continued. “But I have always existed to serve. To help. I do not determine when your lives end, but I endeavor to make the transition out of it the best that it can be.”

 

“You want us to think we love you. So that we aren’t afraid any more.”

 

“That is correct.”

 

“But…” I remembered my conversation with Desire. “I thought that this was different. Desire said -”

 

“Desire gives themselves far too much credit for everything.” Death shook her head. “They don’t keep track of their exploits. If they did, they’d know that this had nothing to do with them, at least at the start.”

 

“But I came here for you,” I insisted. “I followed the path. I struggled for you. For us.”

 

“There is no us, Aria.”

 

“There could be.”

 

“No,” Death said kindly. “I think you know that is not true.”

 

A wave of exhaustion crashed over me. I sank to my knees, feeling the trials and tribulations of the journey on the path take over my body all at once.

 

“If not this,” I mumbled. “Then what?”

 

Death knelt down so that we were both seated on the ground. “What do you want, Aria?”

 

“You,” I repeated.

 

“You know I cannot grant that for you.”

 

“Desire lets humans fall in love with them all the time.”

 

Death shook her head. “Desire is the embodiment of that feeling. All mortals fall in love with them.”

 

“What about your brother?” I searched for the name. “Dream?”

 

“He nearly destroyed our existence with his love for a human,” Death said gently. “I cannot allow that to happen at my hand.”

 

I tried to think of another argument, then gave up. “What’s the point?” I mumbled.

 

“No point,” Death replied. “No why. Only what.”

 

“Right,” I sighed. “So then - what now?”

 

“I can send you back to the mortal realm,” Death replied. “The journey back to your world will be much easier than the one you took here.”

 

I sighed. “Do I have a choice?”

 

“Yes.”

 

That stopped me. “Really?”

 

“Yes,” Death repeated.

 

“Like what?”

 

“There are many realms and worlds that you could inhabit, instead of your native one. Or, should you want, I could give you a map of the multiverse.” Death pinched her fingers together and pulled a notebook out of thin air. “If you wish to journey for a while before deciding on your new home, I could arrange that for you.”

 

I reached out for the map, then hesitated. “What’s the catch?”

 

“I am glad you asked.” Death nodded approvingly. “Should you choose to accept the offer to travel elsewhere, you cannot return to your home dimension as yourself.”

 

“Meaning?”

 

“Your life as you remember it will have been rewritten. You will have not existed, and if you return, you will be born again as someone new.”

 

I thought about it. Of course, it would not be easy to leave. But what would I be giving up? I loved my family and my friends, but beyond that, I had never really belonged in our world. My mind and my heart were always elsewhere. I tried to picture returning back to the life I knew, after everything I’d experienced. How could I continue through that world now, having seen and experienced everything on this side of reality? Nobody would believe what I’d seen. And I definitely didn’t want to forget any of this.

 

Leaving would be bittersweet. Ian would be an only child. Dana and Hallie would never have known I existed. My parents’ marriage might not last. But there was something more important than everything else that I needed to know.

 

“So if I left,” I asked Death. “Madison would still be alive?”

 

Death did not waste words. “Yes.”

 

I nodded. “Okay. Then I’ll do it. I’ll leave.”

 

Death handed me the notebook.

“Anything special I need to know?” I asked, half-joking. “Any special spells? Will you give me powers that will help me along the way?”

 

Death shook her head. “These maps will guide you. Everything else that you need, you already contain within you.”

 

I felt a twinge of more than a little doubt. “You sure about that?”

 

“You made it here, Aria. If you’ve done that, then you are capable of surviving most challenges you might face.”

 

“If you say so.” I smiled, though sadness was starting to fill me, starting at my toes and working its way upward. “I guess this is goodbye, then.”

 

“Goodbye,” Death echoed. She took a step forward and leaned in. I froze, unsure of what she was about to do. Then, slowly, and ever so carefully, Death pressed her cold lips against mine.

 

For the second time in my life, I was filled with light and music and the most overwhelming sense of joy, beyond even the scope of my imagination. My body and mind were on fire with a burn so painful that it tipped over into pleasure. Everything melted away around us, the multiverse dropping away from us and out of existence. There was only Death and me in the entire scope of reality.

 

Then, too soon, Death pulled away.

 

“Go, Aria,” she said.

 

I nodded, unable to say anything of worth, and opened to the first page of the notebook.

17.

Something poked and prodded me in the ribs. “Oy. You.”

 

Still on the edges of consciousness, I turned away from the source of the nuisance. Despite my effort to remain asleep for at least a few more minutes, the jabbing followed me.

 

“Come on! Wake up!”

 

Grumpily, groggily, I turned back over and opened my eyes. I blinked a few times, trying to focus on the waking world once more.

 

A large jack-o-lantern head stared at me. I smiled.

 

“Pumpkin,” I said, my voice hoarse. “Haven’t seen one of those in a while.”

 

“Pumpkinhead is the last name,” the jack-o-lantern responded. “Mervyn is the first. Though my head might not be on me much longer if you don’t tell me who you are and why you’re in my lord’s garden.”

 

“He’s here, then?” I asked.

 

Mervyn stood up straight. Underneath his pumpkin head was a body made of sticks, covered in a flannel, overalls, and muddy boots. “He was, last I checked.”

 

“I’d like to see him.”

 

“He’s not keen on surprise visitors.”

 

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t be long.”

 

Mervyn considered that for a moment. “Fine. But if he gets angry, you owe me a new head.”

 

“Fair enough.” I pulled myself up from the soft grass and brushed off a few blades and specks of dirt that clung to my skin.

 

Mervyn turned and began to walk away, which I took as the invitation to follow him.

 

“Are you the groundskeeper?” I asked, admiring the rows of flowers that we passed. They were of all different shapes and sizes, and most of them glowed like lanterns.

 

“Grounds, house, maintenance,” Mervyn replied without glancing back. “I do a little bit of everything, depending on what my lord needs.”

 

“You do it marvellously.”

 

We reached the edge of the castle, where there was a large wooden door in the middle of the smooth stone. Mervyn pushed, and it swung open.

 

“Go through there,” he pointed at the long hallway inside. “You’ll find him in the throne room.”

 

“Thank you,” I said, but Mervyn just grumbled. As soon as I crossed the threshold, the door closed behind me with a loud clunk.

 

I strode down the long hallway, which seemed to get longer with every step I took. Just one of the many illusions that this castle contained. Despite the trick, I reached the end of the hallway in less than a minute, and the cavernous throne room opened up before me.

 

Sure enough, the master of the estate was seated on his throne.

 

“Aria,” Dream said when he saw me. “It has been a while.”

 

“I suppose it must be,” I replied, continuing down the length of the room towards him. “I stopped keeping track of time a while ago.”

 

Dream stood up as I approached the throne and extended his hand. I place my palm on top of his, and he lowered his head to brush his lips lightly across my skin.

 

“I met your handyman,” I told him. “Mervyn Pumpkinhead? Is he another rescued nightmare?”

 

“The minds of children can be strange,” was all Dream said.

 

“So I hear.”

 

Dream swept an arm out to the side. “Would you like me to take you to see her?”

 

We walked around the throne and into the dark abyss just behind it. For a moment, only the black void surrounded us. Then, a small glowing orb appeared, floating just a few feet away from where we stood. It grew until it was the size of a large beach ball.

 

Images flickered to life on the inside. Many of them were colorful and nonsensical, but after a few moments I could distinguish actual pictures.

 

There they were. Dana, Hallie, and Madison. The dream had them sitting at a restaurant, drinking tea out of china cups. But the tea turned into marbles, and all of a sudden the restaurant was underwater. As usual, none of it made any sense. But the three of them looked happy and healthy in the world of Madison’s subconscious. That is what mattered.

 

I had stopped keeping track of time. But every so often I visited Dream in his own kingdom, to what went on in the minds of the people I loved while they slept. And through their dreams I watched them grow up, graduate, fall in love, get married, have children, have adventures, and live the best versions of life that they could have hoped for. And through Madison’s dreams, I got to know the friend that I’d never had when I was a part of that world.

 

The orb shrank and then flickered out. Dream and I were surrounded by darkness once again.

 

“Will that be all?” Dream asked. “Or would you like to see your brother as well?”

 

“That’s all for now,” I replied.

 

We traced our steps back the way we came, and the throne room appeared around us once more. It was not bright, but after being in pure darkness the giant hall always managed to overwhelm my senses a bit.

 

“Thank you for seeing me again, Dream,” I said.

 

“You are welcome, as always, Aria.” Dream sat on his throne once more. “You look well. You look different. One could venture to say…”

 

“Less human?” I offered.

 

Dream inclined his head. “I did not want to offend by saying so.”

 

“It’s okay,” I said. “I feel less human. With each new realm I discover, I think I take in something new and let go of another part of myself.”

 

“Intentionally?” Dream smiled a little bit.

 

I returned the expression. “She said I didn’t love her. And she said that she couldn’t love a human, after what happened with you and Nada.”

 

Dream’s smile didn’t falter, but sorrow crept into the lines of his face. “She is right to do so.”

 

“But you have loved others who weren’t human,” I continued. “And that didn’t threaten the fabric of existence. So I figure it’s only a matter of time before I’m not-human enough for her to consider the idea. And I figure it’s only a matter of time before she’s convinced that I do, and always have, loved her.”

 

Dream shook his head. “Your perseverance is admirable, Aria. How many times have you walked the path, now?”

 

“I’m about to follow it for the twenty-third time.”

 

“You won’t be human for much longer,” Dream agreed. “Few mortals would attempt that journey more than once. None would return with the fervor that you have.”

 

I grinned. “And yet, here I am.”

 

“Indeed.”

 

Dream took my hand. “Until next time, then, Aria.”

 

“Do you think I get my Endless name, yet?” I asked. “Maybe Dread? Or Daria?”

 

But Dream didn’t laugh at my joke. “If anything, you would be Deserve.”

 

“Deserve.” I pondered that one. “Maybe. That is a good one. And more or less accurate.”

 

Dream squeezed my hand one more time before releasing it. “Goodbye, Aria.”

 

I walked the length of the throne room until I was at the front door to the castle. Pulling out my notebook with the map of the multiverse, I opened it to a page in the middle that I had marked with a fold in the corner a long time ago. When I pushed on the castle door, it opened to a bleak landscape with a path made of coarse, black sand starting right where the threshold ended.

 

I stepped out onto the path and, once again, I began the journey to the love of my life.