Reaper Page 16

It’s not like I’m looking forward to spending the next thousand years alone, disconnected from the rest of the Earth’s population. But at least I’m here. I’m in your kitchen, solid and warm. I still have all my memories, and my own body, and…”

“It’s not the same,” she said. “You can’t just pick up where you left off.

You’re here, but you can’t go back to school. You can’t graduate, or go to col ege, or get married. You can’t have a career, or a family. You’re just going to linger between life and death, sending other people on, but unable to follow them,” she finished, shoulders slumped like I’d somehow added to her burden instead of lifting it. “Reapers either fade from life or start to enjoy taking it. They don’t get happy endings, Tod.”

“I know. I know al of that, Mom.”

Her tears were back, and I couldn’t understand that. Where was the joy?

The relief? Could it possibly hurt her worse to think of me as alone and slightly less than human than to think of me as dead and gone? “Then why would you do this?”

“Because the alternative sucks!” I stood fast enough that my chair skidded several inches behind me. “I thought you’d be happy. I’m still here, and I’m still me. Would you rather I crawl back into my coffin? Because I can, if that’s what you want.”

“No…” She stood and reached for me, but I backed away, and she looked bruised. “I’m sorry. I’m grateful for the chance to see you again. To get to touch you and talk to you. But honestly, the circumstances scare me. You may still be yourself now, but death changes you, Tod. There’s no escaping that. If you’re lucky, you can slow the process, but you can’t stop it. And I don’t want to see you change.”

“You won’t have to,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest. “As long as I have you and Nash, I’ll still be me. And after you’re gone, none of that will matter anyway. So why can’t you just be happy for me? This was the only way I’d get a chance to…” I stopped before I could say it. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I wanted to tell her calmly, not on the tail end of a fight about my afterlife, which oddly mirrored every fight we’d ever had about my future—back when I’d still had one.

“A chance to what?” She waited expectantly, and suddenly I wished I could just tell her that I didn’t want my death to hurt her like my dad’s did.

That was true. But it wasn’t the reason I’d come, and I hadn’t signed up to ferry souls for al of eternity just to punk out on the most important truth I’d ever possessed.

“A chance to tell you that it’s not Nash’s fault. What happened…itwasn’t his fault, and you both have to stop blaming him.”

“I don’t blame him.” Guilt lined her face, though her irises held stubbornly still.

“You don’t blame my actual death on him, I know. But you both blame him for the circumstances. But you don’t understand what really happened. It wasn’t his fault. It was mine.”

“What does that mean? What happened that night, Tod?” she asked, sinking back into her chair, and I could tell from the dark thread of trepidation in her voice that she was starting to get the picture, even if it hadn’t come into focus for her yet.

I sat across from her, leaning forward with my elbows on my knees, bracing myself for what had to be said, and for the possibility that she’d never look at me the same way again. “First, promise you won’t tell Nash. You have to make him understand that it wasn’t his fault, but you can’t tell him what really happened. It wouldn’t be fair to him.” Knowing that he lived because I’d died—even if it was my choice—would lead to survivor’s guilt thick enough to haunt him for the rest of his life.

“Okay…” Mom said, but I knew without asking that if she thought it was in his best interest to know, she’d tell him, no matter what she’d promised me.

There was nothing more she could do for me, but he was still alive, and still her responsibility. Nash had to come first now. And I understood that.

“I’m not sure how much you know about Grim Reapers. Do you know what it takes to qualify…?” I asked, and the sudden startling comprehension in her eyes was answer enough.

“Oh Tod…”

“It’s okay, Mom. It was my choice.”

“It was supposed to be Nash?” She sounded stunned. Numb.

“Yeah.” I frowned when I could see where her thoughts were headed.

“But you’re thinking about this all wrong. As much as I’d love to be remembered as a martyr—I’m sure that’d lead to some serious play in the afterlife—that’s not how it happened.”

“What do you mean?”

“I wasn’t watching him that night. I left to pick up my girlfriend, and I didn’t even check on him when I got back. Or at all. I don’t even real y know when he snuck out. Then, when he called, I bitched about having to pick him up. I yelled at him on the ride home, tel ing him what a worthless pain in the ass he was.” I took a deep breath, then spit out the rest of it, to get the bitter taste off my tongue. “That’s the last thing he heard before that asshole slammed into us. The truth is that if I’d been watching him, he wouldn’t have been on that road in the first place.”

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