So it’s like this: this is the year I die.
I have always known this. I have been waiting.
Outside, the crowds are gathering already in anticipation of the new year. Through the walls of my apartment, I can hear them talking and laughing, giddy off new beginnings and champagne. I want to join them, but it doesn’t quite seem appropriate. I’m not sure what the etiquette is for dying at a party, but I have to assume it’s frowned upon.
I say I’ve always known. I suppose I’ve only really known since I was sixteen, but most days that feels like always. I don’t remember learning, I just remember knowing like you don't remember learning your own name or that you’re alive.
There’s one hour left in the year I’m going to die and I am still alive. That’s enough time for a lot of things, I suppose. Dying only takes seconds, minutes if you’re unlucky. I don’t know if I will be unlucky.
It’s just that the waiting is boring.
Anticipating your own death is more tiring than you might think. You can only be on your guard for so long before it becomes exhausting. In January, I jumped at every noise, checked around corners, went to the doctor at the first sign of anything wrong. By September, I hardly would’ve noticed if someone had come at me with a knife. Now, at the end of December, I’m just tired. I want to sleep.
Sitting there, letters on the coffee table addressed to the few people I think will need to know anything, I feel my eyes start to close. The only fight I can put up is brief, fixed like a duel I must lose in the first round.
I’m standing in a forest then, although I don’t remember getting there.
Mist flows through the trees, eddying and swirling like ripcurrents, silver in the moonlight. The trees are green and dark with leaves, which is odd for the time of year, but as soon as I think that thought, my brain slides off of it. Odd or not, it only is.
I remain standing in place for a moment, not sure in which direction I should move, or if I should even move at all, and then the mist clears just a little and I realize I’ve been here before. I’ve been here, or at least I’ve been to some mirrored construction of here, because the trail in front of me leads down to the river I nearly drowned in when I was seventeen.
I want it to scare me. I want to run in the other direction, because that’s what you do, isn’t it? Something hurts you and you run. I was never good at logic puzzles, though, those neat grids you fill out by crossing out impossible answers until you reach the answer. Somehow I always found loopholes, even when I was trying my hardest to do it right.
I step into the woods.
It’s quiet, at first, just my footsteps and the rustling of the leaves. It’s quiet until a branch cracks behind me, and then finally I run, just maybe not the direction I should. I shouldn’t go deeper. I should go home. I don’t know if I can go home.
I come to a halt in a clearing I don’t remember, although I could remember wrong I know I don’t remember the crows. There are two of them perched on a fallen tree, and each is blind in one eye, one left, one right. I’m reminded of the milky quartz I used to pick up as a kid, washed in the streams, thinking the fact that it shone meant it was something of value.
“Welcome back,” the one blind in the right eye says, to which the one blind in the left adds, “You’re late this year.”
“I knew she would be,” the other says.
“Of course you did.”
“I’ve never been here before,” I say, my heart pounding in my chest. “I mean, not this version.”
Left: “You don’t remember?”
Right: “You were here last year. You begged for more time.”
I frown. “What do you mean?”
“You said that it was the year you were going to die. You said you wanted more time.”
“It can’t be. This is the year I die. I’ve always known that.”
“You’ve said that each of the last six years. And each year, you’ve asked for more time.”
And that can’t be right. It can’t be right, because I’ve known like I know my name that this is the year I die, but it also can’t be right because I can’t imagine begging. “That doesn’t sound like me.”
“But it is. It is-”
“-it will be.”
I’m losing track of which one is speaking. I don’t know that it matters. I’m not sure they’re actually two different entities, or if the two-faced gods I read about when I was younger have decided they want something from me.
Did the two faces share one mind? I can’t remember.
I shake my head, pull myself away from that train of thought. “Must just be someone who looks like me.”
“I swear, she’s more faithless every year.”
“It was you. See for yourself.”
The forest goes out of focus for a moment, blurring and falling away, and then at the center, I see what they want me to see. I see myself, last year’s haircut, last year’s shoes, in front of the two crows with the moon-white eyes.
“What did you show me that changed my mind?” I expect my past self’s voice to come from far away, from a distance or through a dream, but instead it just sounds real.
I take a step forward, hoping to see, but I nearly trip over a branch as I move. By the time I recover my balance, whatever they’d shown me was gone. I see my past self suddenly quiet, still.
“Please,” she says. “Please, I need more time.”
Then she’s gone, and it’s me and the crows. And I don’t really have a choice, do I?
I echo my past self’s words like an incantation, like it’ll mean something only if I get the words right. “What did you show me that changed my mind?”
I understand why looking down for a moment was enough to miss it. The image lasts only a second.
A ring on a chain around my own throat, a ring lost with a girl six years past. The scar on my chin I got two months ago. Parallel lines.
I thought so, at least.
“I need more time,” I say, breathless. “Please.”
“You may have it.” It’s one voice, two voices, both or either, but it’s the answer I need. I will see her again.
“What do you want in return? What’s your price?” I have read enough stories. I know there always is one.
“Then why would you do this for me?”
“For the same reason people watch boxing matches-”
“-or gladiators in the arena.”
“We like to see a fight.”
And if that’s the measure of what my life is worth, perhaps I’m not as upset as I should be. A fighter is only a pawn, maybe, but a pawn is more than nothing. I can be more than nothing.
I don’t want to leave yet. I still have questions unanswered, or questions I’m not sure I want the answer to but have to ask anyway. “What did I hear in the woods?”
The one blind in the left eye looks directly at me, and I realize it’s the first time. “I think you already know that.”
I think of the branch that cracked under my feet when I stepped toward the past version of me, the rustle of the leaves and the shape of my heart in my mouth, and I think I do.
I ask one last question. “How do I get out of here?”
“You’ll find your way out, the same way you found your way in.”
I don’t tell them that I’m not exactly sure how that was. I’m sure they’ll say I already know. Maybe if I end up here again I can simply cut out the middle steps, tell myself I already know the answers.
I don’t say any of that, because the last thing I know from the stories is that you don’t test your luck if you’ve somehow found some, and I have to tell myself that’s what this is. I’m just yet to figure out whether or not it’s good or bad.
Instead, I just say, “Thank you,” and I walk forward. As I go, I hear the sound of wings.
Before I know it, I’m at the river.
It looks the way it had when I was seventeen, the time I fell. There’s a dead tree across the river, roots firmly planted on my side. I made it halfway across before I fell.
I fell. I meant to fall. I don’t know. I kept my head above water, but I don’t know if that changes anything.
When I was sixteen, what would I have asked the crows?
I climb the roots and step out onto the tree trunk. I take a breath, and I walk. I reach halfway, and I do not fall.
I open my eyes. I’m not sure how long I’ve been asleep, didn’t really plan on falling asleep at all. What I know is the sensation of having dreamed, distant and lingering and unspecific. I close my eyes to see if I can remember, but all I get is a flash of trees.
Outside, the crowds are gathering already in anticipation of the new year. I can hear them talking and laughing, giddy off new beginnings and champagne. I think about joining them, but it doesn’t quite seem appropriate. I’m not sure what the etiquette is for dying at a party, but I have to assume it’s frowned upon, and there’s no guarantee I will make it much past midnight.
After all, next year is the year I die. I have always known this. I am ready.
The countdown to midnight begins.