It was dark, although not cold or unpleasant, just dark.
“Open your eyes,” a voice said. It spoke in a cadence that gave it a soothing, almost melodic rhythm.
The world came into view. Only it wasn’t quite right. I was in a hospital, but rather than the pastel colors that should have been on the wall, everything was gray. People were talking nearby. Their voices were muffled whispers as they came into focus. Who were they?
“That’s your family,” the voice said, drawing my attention.
“Hello?” I asked, turning in a circle. “Who’s there?”
“I am Death,” the voice replied as a figure stepped around the corner. It wore a black cloak, long and tattered. Its face was that of a familiar woman, though she was pale and thin. In her right hand, she held a scythe, the base of its handle clicking as it struck the floor. “I’ve come to take you where you need to be.”
“You look familiar,” I said, tilting my head. I turned back to the people in the room with me, existing in their gray world. “They look familiar too.”
“The man is Keith, your son. Annette, his wife, is next to him, and those are your grandchildren,” Death replied.
“Family? I don’t remember a family,” I said, looking for more than simple familiarity in the faces of the sad people gathered around another lying in a bed. “Who is that?”
“That was you, Gladys Thomas,” Death replied.
“Gladys Thomas,” I repeated, feeling the name. It felt right, as though it fit some piece of me I didn’t know existed. “That sounds right. If that is my family, why can’t I remember?”
“Your memory will return in time,” Death replied, “This is how it needs to be for those moving on so that it is easier for them.”
“Are you going to kill me with that?” I asked, pointing to the bladed end.
“You’re already dead,” she replied, a soft smile adorning her face. She extended a hand, inviting me to go with her. “This is to protect you while we journey.”
“Protect me? From what?” I asked as I looked away from my family and took her hand.
The world dissolved around us, becoming something flat and black. In the void, there was no feeling of cold. Only an immensity that I couldn’t fathom. I looked to Death, who looked around as though watching for something.
“What do you see?” I asked.
“There are many things here between life and death. Some want what you had. Others want what you have become,” Death replied, releasing my hand and gripping the scythe. With a swipe faster than I could believe over my head, I heard a sickening wet slosh and heard something fall to a floor I could not see. “We should keep moving. It’s not far.”
Death walked forward, leading me down a blind path that I could not see.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“We’re going to your after,” Death replied, “but now is not the time for questions. Now is the time for silence.”
I nodded, though she wasn’t facing me.
The further we traveled, the more aware of my surroundings I became. I could feel something that felt like gravel beneath my feet. There was the occasional sound of something far off calling like a small bird or a chipmunk. Something brushed my arm that felt like the needles on a pine tree.
“I can smell fire,” I said, catching smoke drifting lazily past my nostrils. “Are you taking me to hell?”
“Quiet, please,” Death replied, turning quickly as I heard what sounded like a twig snapping somewhere behind me.
Seeing her face again, I suddenly realized why she looked familiar.
“Samantha?” I asked.
Death’s dark eyes flashed to me as the sound of something large traveling very quickly toward us erupted behind me. She grabbed me, pulling me behind her, before twisting in a way that sent her weapon spinning in a deadly arc. It stopped with an ear-splitting ring of metal against something hard.
Death leapt backward, landing without a sound, before feinting right and coming through with another attack from the left. I heard a slice of something as she froze, only the rise and fall of her shoulders, showing how hard she fought. She glanced over her shoulder back at me with a broader smile. She tugged her scythe free of something, and a heavy thud shook the ground beneath my feet.
“You’re remembering. That’s good,” Death said, nodding to me. “We should keep moving, but try to stay silent and close to me.”
“I can’t see anything,” I replied, falling in line behind her as she ducked down and moved forward slowly.
“We are approaching the forest of souls,” Death replied. “We’re not far off now.”
“Can you see in this place?” I asked, barely whispering.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Why can’t I see anything?” I asked. “I can hear and feel. I can even smell some things, but I can’t see anything.”
“You can’t see because your mind isn’t ready to,” she replied. “If you can hear and smell and touch, it is only a matter of time for you to see.”
A few minutes of quiet travel passed before I spoke again. “You never answered my question,” I said. “Are you taking me to hell?”
“I would not have come to get you if that were the case,” she replied. “Hell is within you, not out here. Where I am taking you is to safety. I’m bringing you where you belong.”
I fell silent, listening to rustling leaves. A comfortable breeze blew past us, and I closed my eyes to enjoy it. When I opened them again, I was standing on a forest path, lined with wooden beams. High above us, a silver disc illuminated the trees, casting shadows onto the forest floor around us.
“I can see!” I said, trying to soak in everything I saw.
Lights drifted between the trees as small woodland creatures darted to a fro on their journies. A creature, casting light from itself, stepped into view to my left. Its fur was a white-silver color as it walked gracefully forward. It stood easily fifteen feet tall but resembled a deer. Upon its head was a single, spiraled horn.
“Yes,” Death said. “That’s a good sign. That means we’re safer now. Follow me.”
Death suddenly sprinted forward, keeping her weapon at the ready. It took me a second to realize what was happening before I began running after her. It was effortless, like flying. My legs didn’t burn, and my lungs didn’t cry for air. I found myself keeping up with her easily. I imagined this is what if felt like to fly.
The trees on either side of the path became a blur to me. Random lights would flare into existence, only to leave a tracer in my vision as we continued. The gravel beneath my feet grew soft as the sky flooded with golden light suddenly, and I skidded to a halt behind Death to stop myself from running into her.
“We’re here,” she said. The light gave her skin the impression that she was alive.
“I remember you!” I said as I saw the blonde hair beneath her hood. “You’re so young!”
“Hello, darling,” Samantha said, winking with her left eye as she was prone to do. The black robe and scythe turned to smoke and drifted away from her, leaving only a sundress from our youth behind. She reached out, taking me by the hand as she led me through a field. A house came into view or perhaps was there the whole time. “Welcome home.”
“This is our home,” I said, taking in the yellow siding and white shutters. The massive maple that stood next to it was there with the swing Samantha had hung for me early on in our relationship. Everything seemed perfect. “How?”
“This is what we are after we die,” Samantha said. “This is where we belong.”
“What about Keith, Annette, and the Grandbabies?” I asked, suddenly remembering everything from adopting Keith forward. “What about them? Will they be okay?”
“Of course they’ll be okay, my love,” Samantha said, as we stepped onto the wrap-around porch. She took my face in her hands and kissed my forehead. “They had you to guide them for long enough.”
“I missed you so much,” I said, throwing my arms around her.
“And now we’ll never grow old again, or be apart,” she replied, leading me to the front door. “Now, we have forever.”