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Dark Branches Against a Dark Sky

by Luc Reid

I was moving slowly because I was sick. Not sick because of the cancer, even though it was running through my body like ants exploring a doughnut box, but because of the chemo. Cancer kills; chemo just makes you wish you were dead.

Someone was following me, and I was moving too slowly.

He'd started to follow me six blocks from my house, from where he'd been lurking in the doorway of the dollar store that closed two years ago and and has been vacant ever since. Maybe he was waiting for me, or maybe he had just paused for a moment and I caught his eye as I passed, but I was sure he was following me. The streets were empty. There was no one else he could be following.

He was tall, strong, dark, with glittering eyes and a long coat the gray of old cobwebs, but I hadn't been able to make out his face. I turned the corner by the empty lot and thought about running, but my body ached at even the idea, so I ducked behind a newspaper vending box and looked back at him.

He nodded at me and walked faster. I disregarded the aches and broke into a run after all.

Three blocks from my house were the old maple trees, grown so much next to the sidewalk that their roots crinkled it into uneven steps. I was trying to be careful of the sidewalk there, but it was dusk and hard to see, and my feet were tired, so my toes caught at one of the roots, and I tumbled and sprawled at the foot of the tree. That's when something inside me broke, something deep and central, breaking not so much from the fall but from all of it: the cancer, the chemo, the running, the fear. I tried to breathe, but the air was like wet rags stuffed into my mouth.

He caught up to me and stopped to sit among the roots, looking down into my face with a melancholy smile. His face was my face. He was like a reflection of me in a dark pool. He was my death.

My death took my hand, and I began to trickle away into him, and I stopped laboring to breathe, and the deep pain lifted, and at last I was looking down into a face that stared blankly at dark branches against a dark sky.

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