I was sixteen when I met him.
I knew who he was as soon as he arrived, though he didn’t come dressed as the Grim Reaper. He wore a black suit and an aquamarine skinny tie. He smiled and introduced himself as an old friend, and my aunt let him in the house without demanding so much as a name.
Way to go, Aunt Lynn.
When he saw me sitting on the patio with a Coke in one hand and a pair of goggles in another, he came right over and sat next to me as if his being there didn’t mean a thing.
“Happy birthday” he said. His voice was gravel – like mine got when I stayed up too late.
I just stared at him like an idiot, but honestly, I didn’t know what to say. Of course I’d thought about him before. I always wondered what it would be like to see him, to meet him. Does he feel cold when you touch him? Does he make you want to quit life?
But he looked normal. About eighteen. Bright, hazel eyes and dark, blond hair. A bit overdressed for a pool party, but normal nonetheless.
I cleared my throat. “I didn’t realize you’d be here.”
He laughed to himself. “No one can ever tell when I’m coming, Lys. Guess I have that element of surprise about me. I’m horrible at being consistent.”
I stared at the duck-shaped chlorine dispenser floating around the pool. “My guests will be here soon.”
“I’ll be gone by then.”
“I just came by to give you this.” He slipped his hand into the inner pocket of his suit jacket and handed me a black card with red numbers on it.
“See you soon.” He ducked beneath an evergreen and walked out the gate on the side of the house. I took an uneven breath and turned my eyes to the card.
January 13, the Year of Sixteen
I tried to take another breath but I felt like someone had closed my windpipe. Only seven months away.
A lot of people say to live like you’re dying. But I never really understood that, because really, aren’t we all dying? It’s not like you just jump out of bed more alive than you were the day before. The clock is a cruel thing and it ticks without stopping.
My clock was set, perfectly in sync with my Death Card. There was no changing it, so I didn’t think it would do me any good to start living differently. I didn’t know how I was going to die; only that January 13 would not be a good day for me.
It’s not common for sixteen-year-olds to get their Death Cards. And it kind of completely blows that I got mine on my birthday. I mean Death obviously missed the memo that I wanted a cell phone. Talk about a bad gift giver.
But what sucked even more than that was the way Maddox looked when he pulled his backpack out of his locker. I stared at him like I wasn’t a walking time bomb.
Surely the end of my life was the time for romance.
“Hey there, pretty girl,” he said. He always called me pretty and never meant it the way I wanted him to.
I leaned against his locker as calmly as possible. “Hey senior. How ya feeling?”
“Brilliant. I’m on top of the world. Metaphorically speaking.”
“Just glad it’s not literal with your big feet.”
“You know what they say about men with big feet,” he said, shutting his locker.
“What’s that?” I offered him a flirty smile. He ignored it.
“They trip a lot.”
I wish I could say I laughed, but it was more like a snorty outburst.
“You’re cute,” Maddox said, then kissed me on the cheek.
My heart stopped pumping.
My feet went numb.
I was entirely convinced that my Death Card was wrong and I was dying right there.
I don’t know why I agreed to a double date.
Maddox and Tanya were already at the restaurant when David and I got there. David was a nobody from my math class who could never seem to get a clue and bring a freaking pencil. He insisted on asking me for one every day. My friend Maggie claimed that he was just trying to talk to me.
“He probably has three drawers full of pencils at home,” she’d told me.
Whatever. It’s not that I wasn’t willing to give David a chance, it’s that he was inevitably going to fail the “Are you Maddox Richmond?” test. Every guy did.
Tanya was the most talkative person I’ve ever met. She twirled her blonde hair around her finger as she rambled on about everything she could possible think of. In between her sentences I stole glances at Maddox. He stuck his tongue out at me and I scrunched up my face. He laughed.
“Did I miss something?” Tanya asked, wiping her pretty, glossed lips with a napkin.
You missed everything, I thought.
The date was over quickly and I was thankful. As we walked outside Tanya was assaulted by a pack of hyenas – I mean her girlfriends. She promptly begged Maddox to let her hang out with them.
Fine by me, Tanya. Good riddance.
David, Maddox and I strolled down the street in an awkward triangular formation. I wanted to get rid of David. I didn’t think he was having a good time anyway. It turned out we didn’t have much in common besides pencils.
“Maddox will take me home,” I said.
He looked from me to Maddox, then back at me. “Alright. I guess. See you Monday.”
He strolled off to his Toyota leaving me alone with Maddox under the moonlight.
I started to walk but he didn’t move.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
No, I thought, you’re not.
“Not really,” he said.
“Tanya not your type?”
He laughed. “It’s just bad timing.”
He started to walk and I followed along beside him.
“It’s never good timing,” I said. “Love is one of the most inconvenient things. Oh, you were trying to have a life? Well too bad, now you get to think about this person all the damn time.”
He laughed. It was music.
“Its just … really, really not a good time,” he said.
“I feel the same way. Not that love is knocking at my door.”
He stopped walking. “Why is it a bad time for you?”
His eyes burrowed into mine, asking me a question I couldn’t answer.
“Well… it’s… nothing.” I said. I wasn’t ready to tell him about my Death Card.
By December I’d pretty much put all my affairs in order. I had been planning for my last day at school to be right before winter break. I’d say goodbye to all my friends like I was just going to miss them while I was on vacation. They wouldn’t realize I wasn’t coming back until I didn’t.
Maddox was my last goodbye. When I started to profess my (strictly friendly) feelings to him, he put his finger on my lips.
“Outside,” he said.
He pulled me to the greenhouse where we stopped in a perfume of lilies and orchids. He handed me a ribbon-wrapped box. “Open it.”
“I didn’t get you anything.”
“I don’t care.”
I pulled the ribbon and opened the lid.
I couldn’t move.
Inside was a locket, silver, with an L engraved on it. I opened it, and inside there was a picture my parents and me from Christmas, the year before they died.
I couldn’t tame the tears. “Maddox, where did you find this picture?”
“You’d be surprised what you can do, what you can find, when you have a really good reason to look.” He put a finger beneath my chin and tilted my head up. “I was so afraid of you. To feel the way I did. To look at you as anything but a friend.”
My heart was wild. Racing.
“Lys, I love–”
“No,” I screamed. “No!” I pushed him away. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Yes I do,” he said, his voice even.
“You can’t love me.”
“You act like I have a choice.”
Tears blurred my vision. I didn’t want it to come to this. I never wanted to tell him, but it was the only way he’d understand. I reached in my pocket and pulled out the black card.
He took it and read it.
He didn’t say anything. I wiped the tears from my eyes and looked at the ground as he weighed it in his hands.
“Lys,” he said.
“I told you.”
He took a step toward me. “You don’t understand.”
I looked up into his green eyes. He wiped my tears. Then I felt him take my hand and put something in it.
There were two cards now.
I opened the one on top.
January 14, the Year of Seventeen.
Maddox’s Death Card was due one day after mine.
Dani Nicole has been writing since she could read, typing up three- to five-page stories about everything from bunny rabbits to boyfriends. After graduating from UT Austin, Dani realized her dreams of becoming a writer hadn’t died along with the imaginary friends from her childhood. She actively writes and participates in DFW Writing conferences and events, often sharing (or not sharing) a stack of pancakes with fellow writers and debating hot-button issues such as pacing and tone.