Memento Mori
By Kevin VanAntwerpen

I knelt overtop the counter, my knuckles wrapped around the edge of the tile. The version of me in the mirror looked like hell. My eyes had sunken back into their sockets and there was baggage enough beneath them to carry groceries. My hair was shoulder-length, light brown, and smothered in a week's worth of grime. And I smelled as bad as I looked. Some odd concoction of sweat, sex, and old takeout chinese food. It had been probably a good week since I'd looked in this mirror – all that time I'd been either too drunk, high, or hot to care.

There was a knock on the bathroom door. "Benny, baby, are you all right in there?" It was the voice of Kelsey Morgan. Kelsy is my sort-of-I-guess-girlfriend. And by girlfriend, I mean in the loosest sense of the word. We did things that couples usually do. We held hands. We kissed. We took our clothes off and messed around. But don't even think for a second that I was in love or any such garbage. Kelsey was equal to the pills on the counter or the cheap vodka in the kitchen cupboard. A commodity.

"Fine, hon," I said. "I'm fine. Just give me a minute . . ."

Of course I was lying. My situation at hand was odd. I'd gotten out of bed and rushed into the bathroom because my vision had gone all fuzzy like the static on a TV with poor reception. After I closed the door, my fingertips began to feel numb – and the numbness spread all the way up my arms, into my chest, and straight to my core. It would have been an intriguing sensation if I weren't seriously concerned I'd keel over and die any second.

I started thinking. When was the last time I'd taken my meds? Not this morning for sure, and it was well into afternoon now. That had to be the cause of the funk I was in.

On the counter before me was a field of at least fifteen little orange bottles with white labels and caps. Some of them were prescribed by my friendly neighborhood physician. I purchased others through "alternative" retailers. But it's not like I had a drug habit, really. My doctor put me on more meds than I could count. What's the harm in taking just a few more just for kicks?

Admittedly, the trouble with having so many unprescribed pills is that I sometimes get confused about what I'm taking and when. Monday morning I'm supposed to take two of container A (for depression), one of B (for bi-polar disorder), and three of D on an empty stomach (for acid-reflux disease)

At least that's what I thought . . .

But I was so groggy – so buzzed up – that it was hard to be certain. Was it three of A, two of B and one of C? And what about E, F, G, H, I, J, and K? When was I supposed to take those and why, in the name of all that is holy couldn't I remember what they were for? I should've written it down somewhere. But I'm not all that organized.

My personal philosophy is that there's only one way to face such a tough choice. I closed my eyes and selected three pill bottles at random. I popped off the caps one at a time and swallowed three of each.

There – that should do for today. Then I sat down on the floor with my back to the door and waited for them to kick in. After a few moments, my body began to feel normal again. No groggy head. No burning skin. No headache. Good. I uselessly checked myself in the mirror, tightened the drawstrings on my pajama pants.

That was the first time I saw him – the man in the business suit standing behind me in the mirror. My heart spasmed. He was at least six foot one – taller than me by a few inches. His black suit was immaculately pressed. His red tie was straight, and his hair was greased back. He wore a pair of thick rectangular framed glasses and had a slight smirk on his face. The kind of business bureaucrat that Kelsey and I would usually make fun of. He picked up one of the bottles from the counter and read it over. "Vicodin. I'm disappointed. You know, it's so easy to find some stuff with more kick." He rested an arm on my shoulder.

"What do you want?" I asked. My voice was barely more than a whisper.

I watched him through the mirror – he smiled. "Want? Nothing. I'm actually here to tell you you're in for a real treat. I won't spoil it for you, though."

I raised an eybrow. "What?"

"Oh, you'll see," He said. "See you soon." And then the pressure of his arm on my shoulder vanished and he was gone. Like a freaky ghost or something. Good lord. My heart was still racing. My face had gone white. I wasn't entirely sure of what I had just seen. But whatever it was, I was certain more medication would help. I grabbed another random container from the counter and downed four more pills.

I was losing my damn mind.

I walked out of the bathroom and into the bedroom of the small apartment Kels and I had rented for the month. The floor was littered with garbage, beer bottles, and dirty clothes. She was lying in her underwear on the bed, her head propped back against the pillow and a cigarette in her hand (even though the apartment was a strictly non-smoking establishment).

"I've been thinking . . ." She said. Her eyes stayed focused on the ceiling as she puffed her cigarette.

"Oh yeah? I was starting to wonder if you ever did that . . ." I know it was a comment I shouldn't have made, but taking my pills makes me irritable.

She said a few nasty cursewords and then continued as if I'd never insulted her. "I've been thinking about a lot of things. About death. About what it's like. About after it."

"After it?" I said. "You mean like that religious heaven and hell crap your dad's into? Please. I'm sure, even if there's an afterlife, it's just as dirt ridden and maggot infested as this life." I don't understand why people always assume the next life has to be better than the first. That's dreadfully optimistic if you ask me.

"Benny, don't make fun," She said. But she wasn't really mad – a small smile crossed her lips. Kels always laughed at my cynicism. I carefully crawled onto the bed beside her and let out a heavy sigh. She curled against my shoulder and held the cigarette to my lips so I could share. "I'm just thinking, you know . . . about what happens to us. I love you, Ben, I love you like nothing else. I don't want this to ever end. Even after death."

I tried not to roll my eyes, scoff, or laugh. To me, love would be the last thing to cross 'the great divide'. At this point, I wasn't even sure love existed. To me, love works just like the god that Kelsey's parents worshiped so dutifully. It was a feeling – a little shiver down the spine. An apparition of a concept that never existed – something you could make yourself feel if you tried hard enough. But it was never something real.

Kelsey nestled her head into the space between my chin and shoulder and draped her cigarette arm across my chest. "I had this kitty when I was a little girl," she said. "It was the most adorable thing ever. I named it Jade after my favorite aunt. And anyway . . . we grew up on this huge property. She disappeared one day. I didn't see her for weeks. My parents kept telling me she went to live with the rest of her family and wouldn't be coming home."

"Tragedy," I said, looking up at the ceiling and stealing another puff of her cigarette.

Kelsey continued, "But Jade came back. She was diseased and thin. She had some sort of trap on her leg, probably from hunters on the property next door. My dad put her in this box in the garage and nurtured her. I was out there for hours every day reading to her from my story books, giving her food, and just loving the thing to death. Praying that my love – the love of a dumb ten year old kid would keep Jade alive."

"And what happened?"

"She died. Not quickly, though. It took a week or two. When she was finally gone, my father took her out back and held a funeral for her. He was a very staunch christian, you know, and he thought I should see death that way. But my mother came out back and started yelling at him. Spit on him. Told him that he shouldn't be teaching me that crap. I remember just sitting there and staring. This was pretty close to when they got divorced . . ." She smiled faintly.

"Sucks," I said. I took another puff of the cigarette.

"What kills me, though," She said. "Is that they were too blind to see that I didn't care what anyone believed about death. I was just a sad little kid who loved her stupid cat. I keep thinking about that – that the only thing that matters in death is love. None of the other stuff. That's what I believe about death."

"Oh, please, come on. You're talking a load of philosophical crap." Kelsey was good at a number of things: screwing, sleeping, and drinking. Philosophy she was not good at.

"You're not in the least bit concerned about the after life, are you?"

I pressed my index and forefingers to the side of my head, closed my eyes and said, "No, Kels. I'm not. I'll find out when I get there because that's what people like you and I do. They won't tell us what to believe at church because we're roaches, and they won't tell us what to believe at school because we're idiots."

She swallowed. "Idiot? You think I'm an idiot?"

"No baby, it was just a stupid blanket statement. You're my everything, ok?" I answered fast to avoid an argument. But it was total bull. Girls like Kelsey were a dime a dozen – needy, overly sexual, with twelve tons worth of past baggage. It'd take under a week to replace her. I took one last puff of the cigarette and said, "I'm going for a walk. I just need some space. I'll be back in half an hour or so."

I ignored Kelsey's disapproving glare while I put on my pants, a button up flannel shirt, and my jacket. She'd have to grow up some day and realize that the Walt Disney brand of love is the oldest lie in the book. I didn't look back as I stepped outside the door.

Our apartment was downtown – all I had to do was cross the parking lot and I was immediately immersed in the hustle and bustle of society. It was raining outside. For mid-may, it was slightly warmer than usual. I kind of enjoyed it. Strangers wandered past me with barely a glance. I noticed a cute chick looking me up and down and considered seducing her. But in all honesty, dealing with one needy woman was more than enough.

The rain started to come down a little harder as I crossed a large bridge. The cars on the road beside me sped through the puddles, splashing murky water my way. I raised an arm to shield myself. And that's when it happened.

I heard the crash before I saw it. I lowered my arm in time to see a bright yellow school bus pushing an SUV across the bridge. The traffic behind the bus had little warning to stop. Before I knew it there were at least six vehicles torn and twisted among one another. The school bus had careened into the guardrail and was now teetering precariously with it's rear half in midair over the river. Smoke billowed from the wreckage. There were fires. People were screaming for help. A few people from the sidewalks were running up, shouting things about being certified in CPR and "Hurry, let's get those kids out of the bus."

I just stood there and watched, my jaw clenched, my hands slung in my pockets. I didn't know CPR or anything. There was nothing I could do.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Said a voice from beside me. "Just listen to that sound. The screams, the flames. It's like an orchestra specifically for me."

I turned to see who had spoken and felt a slight jolt in my chest. It was the same man in the business suit and the red tie that I'd seen in my bathroom mirror. He grinned and pointed to the sky. "Oh, it's not near over yet. Believe me, you've never seen an eight car pile up like this before." I followed the invisible trail his finger made toward the sky and saw, descending out of the storm clouds, were enormous winged creatures. They had feathered eagle wings that spanned at least ten feet. Their bodies were like elongated jackals, black as coal. Out of their hindquarters snaked ratlike tails with what looked like arrowheads at their tips. I counted maybe ten – but there could have been more, it was hard to count them at the speed they moved. They flew like birds in a V shaped flock , speeding downward. As they neared the ground, they began to break formation and land amongst the wrecked cars.

The Businessman folded his hands together and smiled. "This is my favorite part." He pointed to a nearby white saturn where a middle aged man was slumped behind the wheel. One of the jackals landed on the hood of the car with a snarl. "That man's lungs have stopped pumping," He said. "Now is his time." We watched as the jackal lashed it's tail around in the air for a moment and then sent it darting forward, through the windshield and into the man's chest. Blood sprayed across the windshield.

The Businessman gently clapped. His smile was widening.

Across the scene, the jackals were finding their victims both in the vehicles and outside it. I saw one woman, bloody and burned, staggering away from her car. One of the jackals in the air did a swoop downward and pinned her to the ground with it's claws before knawing at her throat. The sound of her larynx coming out made me want to vomit. I was feeling sick again and . . .

. . . Oh, god, oh god, oh god. Those pills I had taken. How could I be so stupid? I'd swallowed a bad combination of meds and now I was hallucinating monsters from hell. I put my hands to my forehead and tried to will away the hallucinations. Be gone! I told them. Go!

The Businessman laughed at me. "Oh, get up. You're going to miss the most touching moment.." I slowly peeled my hands away from my face. A young man in bright blue jogging shorts and tennis shoes was pulling open the door on the side of the bus, letting himself in. It was the kind of self sacrifice scene you'd see in post-9/11 rescue movies. Ordinary people helping out in extraordinary situations.

"But they're oblivious." The Businessman said, extending a long finger and pointing at a nearby car. "See that little Sedan right over there? The one that's smoking? The gasoline in it's engine is about to ignite. The explosion will be just enough to shake the bus loose from the bridge and send it toppling into the river below. I'd say we'll be able to claim at least three fourths of the children on the bus, perhaps more if we're lucky. A lot of them can't swim yet." Above the bus, five or six Jackals circled – their wings violently beating the air.

I'll admit, for the briefest second, I considered playing the hero. I imagined myself running up to the bus and screaming that it was about to be blown up. I'd grab one or two small kids an run out of there, the bus bursting into flames behind me. A week later, I'd be on Oprah and she'd be saying how sad it was that I couldn't save all the children. How haunted I must be. I'd nod and fake a sigh, then ask when I was getting my check from the book deal. But the fantasy was only fleeting – it took me only seconds to realize that I valued my life far more than that. If anything, I was going to get away from the explosion.

I picked myself up and started walking briskly back home. I just need to sleep this off, I told myself.

"You're not going to stay and watch?" Asked The Businessman as he caught up beside me and matched my pace. "It's just about to happen!"

"You're not real," I said. "You're just the result of a bad chemical combination. Too much of pill A combined with too little of pill B."

The Businessman rolled his eyes. "Oh, shut up. Is your mind really that small? Don't you know Death when you see him? Can't you feel me?" He reached in front of me grabbed the collar of my jacket, pulling me roughly around. "Look," he said and he pointed toward the accident at the same time that a violent plume of fire erupted from the Sedan. The explosion rocked the cars around it. The bus shook and then was loosened from it's place on the bridge, sliding slowly over the edge.

Seconds felt like centuries.

The Jackals swooped out of the air, following the yellow mass down to the river, out of sight. I heard the splashes. There was more screaming. The Businessman – Death - wore a faint grin on his face. "That's all," he said. "I just wanted you to see. It was beautiful, wasn't it?"

I didn't answer. I turned around and started walking back home, ignoring the sounds of sirens as the cops, fire trucks, and ambulances began to arrive.

To my dismay, Death followed me. He tilted his head as if he were inwardly calculating some algebra problem. "Oh yes . . . he said. Eight children already. Oh, and that runner that so kindly stopped to help. He is currently drowning in the back of the bus."

I didn't answer. I just walked. Death kept pace with me, even when I started to walk faster. The rain was coming down heavy now and my tennis shoes made splashing noises in the puddles. "Stop following me!" I hissed. "Leave me alone."

That's when I saw them – two of the Jackals dropped out of the sky and glided to the ground beside Death. They each licked their jowels and eyed me hungrily. Death said, "Oh, I can't leave you be just yet! I have another life to take today."

Revelation worked it's way into my skull slowly like water sneaking through the cracks in a dam. I had taken too many pills and I was about to die. My brain knew it and had subconsciously attached a visual image to death. I took a deep breath and looked at the Jackals that my drug induced brain had so kindly cooked up. They looked nothing like I had imagined death would. I'd always viewed it as something more calming – a simple passing into the void. Like the souls that float gently out of bodies in old cartoons. But the way these dogs snarled, the way the saliva ran off their stained-red fangs. There was nothing peaceful about this.

Home was only a block away now. Death and his Jackals followed at a distance. I could feel their eyes burning into my back. I wondered for a moment if I could outrun him and decided why not try? Full speed. I didn't even bother looking back to see if they still followed. By the time I reached the apartment I was out of breath. My shirt stuck to my back. I stopped in front of the elevator, pushed the UP button, and fell to my knees. Each breath I drew burned.

"You have to be in much better shape than you are to win a marathon with me." Said a voice behind me. I turned to see the Businessman standing there, the Jackals at his side with their wings folded against their backs. " Honestly - I am like sin, I am like guilt. In the end, I will always find you out."

I was so tired – I didn't even care anymore. I fell backward against the elevator door and gasped. "Please. Just do it quick." I don't even know why I started to cry. I was confused. Sad. Broken. I could feel the chemicals burning through my veins, fogging my cognitive function.

Death laughed. "Oh you, silly, silly child. You're such a cliché. Too terrified that I'm coming for you to see the people around you who are dying. I don't admire cowards, Benjamin." And then, behind me, the elevator door pinged and opened. I fell backward into it. Death waved goodbye, a slightly smug smile upon his lips. "You always were too busy loving yourself to really realize that you do love little Miss Morgan. Tsk, task. Maybe you should've shown her more affection. I'll see you upstairs. You'll have a few minutes with her before I'm allowed to . . . what do they say? 'take her home'?"

The elevator door closed and it began to ascend.

I've never felt so helpless as I did in the fifteen seconds it took the elevator to reach the top floor. When the door opened I ran out, nearly trampling an elderly woman on my way. When I reached the door to room 417, I fumbled for my keys. Down the hall, Death and his Jackals were just peaking the top of the stairs. I went inside, shut the door, and latched both locks as if it would change a thing. I immediately went to the bedroom – it was empty. No sign of Kelsey. That's when I heard the shower running. The bathroom door was cracked open. I slowly approached it, afraid of what I'd find. I winced, closed my eyes, and pushed the door open slowly. I had to force myself to open my eyes. Kelsey was on the floor, still in her underwear, barely conscious. Every single one of my pill bottles was scattered across the floor, emptied, and I could only imagine how many pills had made it into her stomach.

She was lying in her own vomit, I could hear her groaning. I knelt beside her and held her head up, brushing her mussed hair out of her face. I hadn't really noticed it until now – but she was beautiful. She had delicate, high cheekbones and enormous puppy-dog eyes. She was the most beautiful woman in the world.

"Benny . . ." She whispered. She had a gentle slant on her lips, almost a smile. "I knew you'd show up. I knew you'd be here for this."

"What did you do, Kels?" I asked. "Why did you do this?"

"I wanted to see . . ." She said. "I had to see. What's on the other side."

"No," I said. "No, you can't. You can't leave."

She raised a single finger and touched it to my lips. "Silly boy. Of course I can . . . you can come with me if you like? I'd have waited for you, but I knew you wouldn't want to come. I'm not dumb. I've always known I love you more than you love me."

Tears rolled down my cheeks. I heard a tapping noise behind me and turned to see Death in the doorway, tapping his foot. He straightened his glasses and patted one of the Jackals on the head. "Touching, touching moment." He said. "But I'm sorry you two, I'm going to have to cut the heart to heart a little short." He extended an arm toward Kelsey and said, "Sick her, boys."

The dog's started to close in, their teeth bared, their eyes narrow.

Kelsey looked up at me, her wide eyes lit with both wonder and intoxication. "Who's that, Benny?"

I held her head to my chest. No words. Tears ran down my cheeks and into her hair.

The Jackals were fast. Almost merciful. They rushed into the room and simultaneously bounded upon her. The first one struck her through the chest with it's pointed tail. It was quick. I watched her eyes widen and suddenly their glow diminished. I just sat there and sobbed while they fed on her.

Death walked into the room, his dress shoes clicking on the floor. He patted my shoulder. "Funny. Guess you did love her after all, huh? It's ok, kid. I happen to everyone." Then he walked out the door, whistling for his Jackals to follow. Without turning around he shouted, "I'll see you later, Benny." and was gone.

I layed beside Kelsey for nearly an hour before I called an ambulance. What was the point? I knew she was gone. I didn't cry. I just held her hand, wondering to myself what in the name of God I was feeling. I did not love Kelsey Morgan, I had told myself over and over. But now that she was gone there was a void. Deep. Piercing.

"I did love you," I whispered to her. "I really, really did."

I hoped she could hear me.

And for the first time in my life I thought a lot about Death . . .

. . . and how very real he is.