I never saw him blink – not once. His eyes were not eyes, so much as bottomless holes. He watched as I tossed an empty pill bottle into the trash by my bed. The soft clatter as it found its place among old vials and diabetic needles felt as familiar as a nubby old sweater.
He lingered by my right shoulder when I gazed into the mirror at a face I no longer recognized. I flipped the light switch, wanting to erase this battered and weary stranger. Shadows reached out to caress my swollen cheeks with their gentle fingers. Even when I couldn’t see my thin wisps of hair, my sunken eyes, I still felt him near me. Watching. Waiting. I ignored his piercing stare, the gaunt frame that towered over me.
But it grew more and more difficult to look away.
After the first few months, the air around him softened like a turkey carcass thawing on the counter. Rather than standing awkwardly by the door, he propped the tall, smooth staff he always carried against the wall. Then he sank into the chair wedged between the cabinet and my bed as if ascending a throne.
He hovered over me at night when I lay alone in bed, presiding over the room as my breathing grew slow and deep and dreams danced under my eyelids. Dreams of flying – my legs no longer useless while trees and rooftops shrank to the size of toys under my weightless body. But sometimes dreams of my funeral – mascara flowing in dark rivers down my mother’s cheeks, as family and friends stared straight through me as I perched on top of my casket.
At first, I was afraid to be alone with him. I squeezed my eyes closed and curled into a ball, trying to take up as little space as possible. After nearly six months, I grew more accepting, more resigned. Even a little curious. I was in no position to turn down a companion, no matter what form he took.
One morning, I woke to the clink of his bony fingers against a glass bottle of beer. I peeled open an eyelid as the stale scent infiltrated every corner of the room. The label read Reservoir Dog’s Grim Reaper.
“Isn’t it a little early?” I mumbled, rolling over to face the wall.
I felt rather than saw his nanosecond of a wry grin. Like an accidental glimpse of azure sky during a hurricane, I thought.
At night, he guzzled coffee, tossing his head back to catch the last drop. The bold scent wafted through the room. If I closed my eyes, I could pretend to be sitting in a Starbucks, my fingers clicking across a wireless keyboard as words popped to life on the screen in front of me. I hadn’t seen the inside of a Starbucks since before my legs stopped working.
“What brand of coffee?” I ventured.
He considered my question, savoring my words like a biscotti as he sipped.
He rotated the mug in his hand until I could see a black label with a skull-and-crossbones superimposed upon it. Death Wish Coffee, I read.
“Of course,” I said flatly.
Weeks later, thick gray smoke banished the rich aroma of his daily coffee. I coughed. The familiar river of lava that I recognized to be a side effect of my medication seared my throat.
“Smoking kills, you know,” I said.
And there it was – a flash of teeth, aggravatingly unstained by coffee, beer, or smoke. His first real smile.
“Hey!” My mother-in-law’s shrill voice tethered me to reality. “Who’re you talking to in there?”
I glanced up to see her in the doorway. Red lipstick contorted into a fierce smile as her eyes patrolled every corner of the room. Her voice as brittle as the first layer of ice on a pond in November.
“No one,” I mumbled. But I couldn’t keep my eyes from flitting to the dark silhouette in the corner.
The fast food was where I drew the line. Big Macs oozing with thick red sauce. A crinkled bag of fries that left a grease stain on my favorite book on the bedside table. The smell, heavy in the air, turning my stomach until I hunched over the trash can by my bed.
“I don’t like that!” A bit of my old self emerged. When I was well, I could silence a classroom with a look.
His eyes bored into mine. The lights flickered. The ceiling fan shuddered to a stop. My heart fluttered like a butterfly who had forgotten how to fly.
His message was clear: You’re not in charge here.
Sometimes at night, he lurked outside in the space between the bushes and the windows. I knew he was the reason the neighbors wouldn’t visit. When they saw me in the passenger seat, they offered a cursory “How ya doing?” before scurrying back to the safety of their homes. Once, I caught the woman next door peeking through her blinds as my father folded my wheelchair into the trunk of his car.
My family and friends crowded around me in an attempt to push him out. They hid their unease behind too-bright smiles and laughter that hung in the air a beat too long. I assumed they couldn’t see him – until the day my father purposely kicked over the staff leaning against the wall. It clattered to the ground, sucking the air from the room. My father folded his arms across his chest defiantly. All eyes turned to the dark figure standing motionless in the corner.
He never spoke. But for the rest of the evening, his presence seeped into the gaps in our conversations. From the corner, he leaned into uncomfortable pauses – the moments when minds drifted without permission to malignant thoughts.
The biting cold of winter mellowed to spring. My leg muscles stopped sagging against my bones like limp rubber bands. I shuffled to the living room and plopped onto the couch, breathing hard from the exertion. He stayed behind in my room. Over the next couple of months, I saw him less and less. I guessed he was probably out pestering some other sick girl.
One afternoon, a whiff of stale beer accompanied by a familiar chill ran its fingers down my spine. I looked up from brushing the dust off my violin case.
“Oh. It’s you,” I said nonchalantly.
He raised an eyebrow, calling my bluff.
The scent of coffee filled the air for an hour before he stirred. Then he lowered the hood of his cape over his smooth scalp. The curved metal scythe at the end of his staff glinted in the light.
I spotted an unfamiliar cellphone resting on my bedside table. A Galaxy Note 7 with a lightning shaped burn across the back.
“Hey! You forgot your phone!”
He turned on his way out the doorway. Time slammed to a stop, trapped in the abyss of his eyes. One foot in my room, one in the hallway, as if straddling now and forever, the seen and the unseen.
He glanced at the phone. Then his eyes slowly traveled upward to meet mine. His mouth didn’t move, but I could hear his unspoken words as they hovered between us.
Keep in touch.