A ray of light pointed itself directly in my vision, forcing me awake. I took a deep breath as I sat up, when I suddenly realized something was wrong.
“I’m… in my room?” I asked myself in disbelief. For a moment I couldn’t believe it, but everything was as it should be. The bed I was lying in, the bookshelves with all my figurines lined up on the sides, the closet, and even the assortment of items on the study desk matched up with my room. It couldn’t be anywhere else, but I knew that it couldn’t be right that I was here.
“This… can’t be real... because I…”
“Died?” a voice asked. A gasp escaped me when I suddenly saw a man sitting in my swivel chair. He definitely wasn’t in the room until a second ago, almost like he appeared out of thin air. His face and hair seemed rather plain, but he was dressed sharply, in a dark suit and a long black trench coat.
“Yeah, I’m afraid you did. Sorry that happened to you. Anyways, you’re in your room because I thought you’d be comfortable in a place you were familiar with.”
“I-I’m sorry, who are you?” I asked, still confused. No ordinary stranger appears in your room out of thin air. Not only that, but something about him felt… off.
“...Well, I’m a lot of things,” the figure admitted, sounding like he didn’t know the answer himself. “And to your kind, I go by many names, but by far, my favorite one would have to be… the Reaper.”
I had to blink a few times before I could fully process that he wasn’t joking. But I didn’t try to deny him, either. “As in, the Grim Reaper? Black cloak, oversized scythe, all that?”
“That’s me, yeah, but where did your kind get that idea of me?” he asked, confused. “I only appear when someone —beyond a shadow of doubt— will die, so whoever had a near-death experience and said they saw me was definitely lying.”
His attempt to ease the tension in the room failed.
“So… w-what now?” I asked, steeling myself as much as I could, even though it must’ve seemed obvious I was terrified and confused. “Are you gonna, I don’t know, take my soul or something...?”
“No, I won’t take it,” the Reaper answered, “but I will be guiding you to the other side. “I’d rather make sure you pass on with everything cleared up, you know, no regrets.”
I exhaled when I realized that my soul wasn’t going to be reaped or anything like that. I didn’t even realize I was holding my breath until then.
“So, does that mean you’ll bring me back as a ghost or something?”
“Nothing like that, I’m afraid,” he replied, smiling a little as if he was amused. “I’d rather talk you through it, though, so that at the very least, you’ll have no worries when you’re, you know… gone. ...So, I take it you remember how you died?”
“...Yeah.” It made my head pound to recall it, but the last few moments of my life were fresh in my mind. I was walking in the city when I suddenly saw a woman crossing a red light. A truck was barreling in her direction without a care, and before I could even think properly, I dropped everything I had and pushed her out of the way. Everything else in the split-seconds I had left was just an ocean of feelings, and a painfully slow replay of my life before everything suddenly turned black.
“The woman… is she alright?” I asked.
The Reaper nodded. “You pushed her out of the way just in time. She’s fine now, thanks to you.”
I sighed in relief, knowing I hadn’t died aimlessly. Then, another question bubbled up. “Was there… any way that she could’ve gotten out of it… without anyone dying?” I asked. It sounded like a stupid question, but I guessed that nobody would be a better expert on fatal situations. I needed to hear what he had to say.
He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, thinking. “The woman wasn’t living in the best circumstances,” he finally said, after a silence that was far too long. “I’m sure that even if that accident never was, it wouldn’t have been too long before she–… before it became too much for her.” He paused and reworded the phrase before actually saying it, but I understood what he would’ve said all too well. “Now, after seeing what you did for her, she’s actively trying to turn things around.”
“That’s… sad,” I say, my eyes downcast. “It’s not like I’m expecting anything from her or anything. It’s… just something anybody would’ve done.”
I look back up at him, and somehow, I can tell by the look in his eyes that he’s not telling me something. “Would… would anyone else have done it? If… if I wasn’t there, would anyone else have…?”
It makes me feel selfish to ask, but the Reaper pays it no mind. After pausing a while, he shakes his head.
“As bad as it makes me feel to tell you, I’m obligated to tell you the truth. So… that’s why I have to tell you… if you weren’t there, that woman would be meeting me instead of you.”
“Are— are you sure…?” I asked, even though I already know by now that he would know more than anything I could guess.
He goes on to talk about all the other bystanders in the incident, and why they wouldn’t be able to save her. The man beside me froze up, unable to budge an inch in his indecisiveness. The high schooler on my right was busy on his phone, inattentive to the world around him. The woman wanted to do something, but couldn’t leave her five-year old son behind. The driver was panicked and accidentally hit the gas pedal instead of the brakes, the front-seat passenger was asleep for him to be able to hit the manual brakes, the cop was on his break, the father was inattentive, the mother was tending to her child, and on and on and on. After what felt like an eternity, the Grim Reaper had made it painfully clear to me.
My death was the only possible outcome where she would live.
“I know it’s not what you wanted to hear, but… it’s the truth.” The Reaper sits upright, reaching out to me. “Are you–?”
“Okay…?” I asked. “I’m.. not sure. I just… I thought I’d die so quickly, before I could do anything…”
It still felt unreal to me, like it was all a dream, but I knew it was true. My laziness and bad habit of wasting my life away had all led up to this moment.
“You’re wrong, you know,” the Reaper said. “You did do something. You made a difference in someone else’s life.”
“And who would that be?” I asked sarcastically.
“...Your life’s just flashed before your eyes, so all your memories should be fresh in your mind… you remember Liz, right?”
“Liz? How couldn’t I?” I asked. She was one of the few friends I had in middle school, who only stayed for a short while before leaving. My memories with her were the last clear ones where I can remember being genuinely, truly happy, back when I was still a generally positive person. Now that feeling had become a stranger to me.
“If you’re telling me I somehow inspired her in some way, I can say it’s a joke in poor taste.”
“But you did, you really did,” he insisted. “I’m not omnipotent like most humans believe, so I never really know what would happen if you changed specific events in a person’s life… but I’m sure that if you weren’t in Liz’s life, she’d be an extremely lonely person today.”
“...What do you mean...?” I was mostly confused, especially since the Liz I knew was not lonely in the slightest. “All my memories of her were of her being positive and outgoing. It’s impossible for me to imagine her being lonely.”
“That’s because you were the one who approached her, that day in school. After seeing how you just glowed, she tried making more of an effort to be the person she’d think you wanted her to be, and before long, she became the Liz you knew.”
“M-maybe that’s the case, but…”
“Just admit it, now," the Reaper sighed, exasperated. “You actually had a positive impact on her life, and that’s more than I can say for some of the people I’ve encountered. Those kinds of people are only a handful, but for most humans I meet, they’ve sorely underestimated how much of an impact they’ve made on the people they surround themselves with. If there’s anything you can take comfort in, it’s that.”
“...” Those words really seemed to hit home for me. Almost immediately, it felt as if a weight had been lifted off my chest, and I just felt… lighter. I couldn’t help but smile to myself, thinking about Liz. I wasn’t really expecting anything from her or anything; just being a friend was enough. That was probably the case for most other people, too.
“...I think I’m ready to go now,” I said after pondering those thoughts for a while.
The Reaper paused for a while before nodding, getting up from his chair, and opening the bedroom door. It had been shut the entire time, but even now that it was open, I couldn’t see what was on the other side, except for a bright light. He gestured to the door and gave me a gentle smile as if to say, “Rest now. You deserve it.”
“Thank you,” I said to him, as I stood up from my bed and walked into the light.
“Life’s too short for you to not go down the path you want to… even if there’s lots of stuff you’d rather be doing now.” —A bunch of other people (Paraphrased by me)
time for regrets