(Written in third person for distance.)
Half her feet dangled over the cliff edge ever since she first heard God Pan's silent shout as a child. Sometimes she could predict when it would happen; sometimes, she could not. But whenever it happened, something behind her would dig their fingers into her back and push. She would lean forward. And when she leaned forward, heels still firmly planted, eyes looking down towards a cold void, she saw all the horrible possibilities pushing and pulling at the surface—teeth trying to cut through, claws trying to rip open. However, when she wasn’t looking, they would merely knock.
A soft, quiet, incessant knock.
It was a school day, and a high-school student went to the cafeteria before the day's first class. As always, she would wait for her friends or greet them if they were already there. A normal morning. Mornings were usually normal. The rising sun hushed the world.
The catalyst would be walking in shortly….
During the in-between of standing on the edge, she could feel the breeze caress her hair, and it was nice. She could feel the grass under her heels, and when she would shift them, she could hear the blades being crushed. The gray clouds grumbled. The air smelled like an approaching storm. And if she looked off into the far distance, as she often did, she could see Death, watching, reminding, waiting as they do for everyone.
There weren't too many bad days for the student because she could keep hidden, most of the time, a lifelong affliction passed down from a bloodline most willfully ignorant of its existence. Even when that affliction would crawl across the forward path, sometimes as a large slick in the road, or a towering pile of little rocks that would crumble with the slightest disturbance, or a shapeshifting creature not allowing passage.
The catalyst walked into the cafeteria.
He looked off—a different walk, timid and small, with heavy, distant eyes. Different from his usual nonchalant coolness. When he sat down, the girl asked if he was okay, and his response was brief, mentioning something about his medications. Perhaps it was an accidental overdose; perhaps his body rejected the pills. But to this day, she remains cautious—overly cautious, especially when it comes to taking any pills that might help her.
"Oh really," said the girl. "Are you going to be okay?"
She doesn’t remember his answer.
Class started, and they parted ways until it was lunchtime. She doesn’t remember anything about that day except for the crying. But she still wonders if it was him she was crying for or something else—a realization that something very important within her has been taken away or imprisoned.
Again, watching him in the cafeteria, he seemed even more distant. His eyes drooped lower, his movements slowed and stiffened, and his breathing quick and shallow. She imagined running to the nurse’s office. She imagined the sirens of an ambulance. She imagined Death.
As he sat down, the girl asked again as she ate, "Are you okay?"
He said, trying to be calm, that his arm went numb during class. He mentioned other things, but the girl (purposely) doesn't remember; it was this one and only detail that would lead to a constant awareness in the near and distant future—years and years and years, with nails digging into skin, making sure there was feeling.
The surface of the void rippled.
The Thing behind her got closer.
A few minutes passed with frantic knocks: Run, get help. Sirens. Death. Run, get help, Sirens. Death. Run, get help. Sirens. Death. Watch him. He's becoming more anxious, uncomfortable, unsure of how to occupy himself, desperately trying to distract his mind with some internal dialogue. One other person is eating slower at the table than usual. That person notices something is off with him. Good. Everyone else is distracted.
“It’s coming,” she thought. “Whatever it is.”
"Something horrible," the Thing whispered in her ear.
How could the girl have known that she had so little time before the rippling void would open its wide mouth, hungry, revealing a deeper void, while the Thing behind her, gleeful, would stop its gentle push and grab her by the neck, letting her view her new home before throwing her into the mouth? And the Thing behind her would follow her down, pleasantly drowning, arms wide, welcoming, praying as the girl’s new home made sure to feed her with the essence of the void, and she could not help but drink because what she saw, what had happened, wasn’t fantasy.
It was truth.
One moment, the girl glanced at her friend, the catalyst, then down to her food. Only a mere second later, she looked back at the boy, but this time she caught his eyes. He was staring at her unblinking, breathing heavy, his face frozen in a peculiar look as if he were asking her something with his drooped eyes. All the while, his arm was held up in an L shape, twitching back and forth as if someone were yanking on his puppet strings.
“What are you doing?” she asked, her heart racing.
In the next moment, as if every string connected to the catalyst were pulled, his body flew back and fell hard onto the tile floor. He might have made a crying yelp, but the girl doesn’t remember.
She was already running before he hit the ground.
And she made sure to avoid looking anywhere near the catalyst because she knew if she saw more, if she saw anything else, not only would another moment be etched into her mind to replay endlessly, but the moment would transform into a glass ceiling above her, preventing her from escape.
Death was close that day. It was on that day that Death’s image, which had stood strong but far for many years, took a step forward. Then another step and another. And she bowed her head, unwillingly.
“I told you,” said the Thing. “Bad things will always happen.”
It’s hard to tell if the world opened or closed. Aware, and then too aware. Every thought. Every heartbeat. Every breath. Every twitch. Every sensation. Nails digging into skin. All possibilities. And every knock and pulled string.
“Maybe,” said the Thing. “Maybe if you hold on tightly enough, everything will be okay.”
The girl took another breath filled with void inside the mouth while listening very closely to the God's shouting and the knocking, mixing together into an unending song. She tried to avoid the teeth. She tried to avoid the claws. Sometimes she tried to look at the cliff edge to see how far it was...and she could see it, but the Thing in the mouth with her, drinking in the void like gluttony, kept that part of the void warm.
“If you pay attention," said the Thing, "maybe I can keep you safe.”