you’ve got an air of death about you

She could see death when she was just ten years old – not in books or funerals or the horrors she saw on the news sometimes, but in little snippets, flashes she would catch when she met someone or shook a hand or caught an eye. Her parents would wonder, sometimes, why she would go pale white when they introduced her to an old friend.

And it was never like the movies, that was the hard thing. She would watch TV shows about paranormal activity, spend hours in the library reading about psychics and premonitions and never, not once, did she find something that helped. Because she wasn’t psychic really, not at all. She couldn’t tell exactly when death would come, she couldn’t tell where or how or why. She could just tell, with every fiber of her being, that they were going to die.

“But everyone knows that,” she would mutter angrily to herself. “Everyone knows they’re gonna die.”

But it didn’t matter. Because no matter how much she tried to reason with herself, sometimes she would meet someone and she would know. She could smell death on them, she could see it lurking like a shadow, and she couldn’t do a single thing to stop it.

She was fifteen when she met him for the first time – fifteen and so small, walking slowly across a shadowy bridge. Her hazel eyes flickered back and forth, straining to see over the railings, but there was nothing but darkness beneath her.

And then there was him.

He appeared slowly out of the shadows, strolling calmly towards her. As he got closer she stopped walking, and just stared.

He was an old man, with smile lines around his eyes and wrinkles on his hands. There was a pocket-watch chained to his hip and a handkerchief poking out of his coat pocket, and, as he got closer, she thought he smelled like dust and age and wisdom.

He stopped in front of her and smiled gently. “Hello, Sophia.”

She swallowed, looking up at him through her eyelashes. “Hello.”

He looked at her, his eyes meeting hers curiously. Biting her lip, she held his gaze; his eyes looked like galaxies, deep and blue and powerful. She could swear she saw stars swirling around his pupils.

Not breaking eye contact, he patted her arm and nodded. Then he walked past her.

“Hey. Hey!” She turned around and ran after him, her sneakers padding softly into the ground. “Hang on a sec.”

She fell into step with him, her eyebrows pulling together as she tried to gather her thoughts.

“Yes?” he murmured, glancing down at her.

She frowned. “Did you always have that pipe in your mouth?”

“I don’t know.” He blew a smoke ring. “Did I always have this pipe in my mouth?”

“No.”

He smiled softly, raising his eyebrows.

She bit her lip, puzzled. “Where are we?”

“You tell me.”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t you?”

She looked around. “We’re on a bridge.”

“Exactly right.”

“But–”

“The funny thing about humans,” he mused, tapping his pipe on one of the railings and sticking it into his pocket, “is that they always ask questions they already know the answers to.”

“But I don’t know where we are!”

“Yes you do. You just told me.”

“But– but…” She stopped walking.

“Come on now,” he said, turning around. “You don’t want to fall behind.”

“I’m cold,” she whispered.

Smiling soothingly, he walked back towards her and slipped his jacket around her shoulders. “Come on now, Sophia. You’ll be fine.”

Walking slowly forward again, she glanced up at him. “How do you know my name?”

“I don’t know,” he chuckled. “How do you know mine?”

“I don’t.”

“Don’t you?”

She frowned, hugging his jacket more tightly around herself; for a moment her nostrils filled with dust. She sighed.

“What’s it like?”

“Lonely,” he said softly, after a moment. “Difficult. Painful.” He chuckled. “Oh, it’s hard having everyone hate you for doing what’s so very necessary.”

She slipped her small hand into his wrinkly one. He glanced at her, looking surprised for the first time.

“I don’t hate you,” she said.

He smiled and gave her hand a slight squeeze.

“I’ve seen you,” she continued. “I’ve seen you a lot. Ever since I was little.”

“I know you have.” He winked at her. “I’ve seen you too.”

She nodded a satisfied nod, feeling – irrationally, perhaps – that some loose end had been tied up, that some unasked question had finally been answered.

He slowed. “We’re here.”

Fear suddenly struck her, a deep panic that made her vision go hazy and her heart race. “But no, wait – no – don’t leave me yet, I don’t wanna go, no–”

“Wait,” he said firmly. “Where are we?”

“What?” She swallowed, trying to remember how to breathe. “We’re, um – we’re on a bridge. We’re on a bridge.”

“What do you see?”

She looked around again. The shadows were illuminated with red and blue lights, bringing her surroundings suddenly into view. There was twisted metal and police officers and stretchers and

“Me.” She looked up at him, gripping his hand tighter. “That’s me.”

He nodded. She looked back at the scene, memories forcing their way into her head – the tires screeching, her mother screaming, the pain and the darkness…

“You took me back,” she whispered. “You took me back the way I came.”

His eyes twinkled knowingly.

She sniffed, looking at her bloodstained body, at the medics pounding on her chest, at the people in the crowd crying. Her mother was there, awake now and wearing a neck brace, sobbing near her daughter’s stretcher.

Sophia swallowed. “What… what happens now?”

“It’s time for you to go back,” he said softly.

She shook her head. “I don’t… That’s… I’m all covered in blood. It must hurt so much. I don’t– I can’t–”

“It’s not time yet,” he said. “You’re not ready to be here.”

She shook her head again, tears dripping down her face. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Just close your eyes. Everything will be alright.”

She looked up at him again, looking at the galaxies in his eyes. Her vision blurring with tears, she took a deep breath.

And she closed her eyes.

“I’m cold,” she whispered.

“We have a pulse!”

“Sophia? Sophie honey, can you hear me? Everything’s gonna be okay, you’re gonna be okay. Can you hear me? I love you, baby, I’m so sorry. I’m right here, okay? I love you.”

Sophia opened her eyes, glancing past her mother.

He was still standing there, plain as day, but everyone was ignoring him. He winked at her.

Gripping her mother’s hand, she smiled. “Thank you,” she mumbled.

He smiled right back, his eyes wrinkling up. “This is the part of the job I like,” he chuckled.

And then she was in the ambulance and everything was fast and loud and bright but she kept her eyes open.

She had always seen death, ever since she was ten years old. And she had always been afraid of it, too. But then she grew up. And she could still see him sometimes, hovering around people she met. But instead of panicking, instead of running away, she would smile warmly. And shake their hand. And simply say

“Don’t be scared.”

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