Frozen air and a gleaming scythe, lighting a lantern and lending a coat. The child’s body tugged through an opening I hadn’t known was there, into a space I didn’t know had room for her.
“I am a monster born from dusk to dawn. What are you?”
“I am Rue,” the child says, all heat and hope. “Are you here to save me?”
It is hard to believe, this strange exchange with a child I was sent to kill.
I tell her of the outside world through these spitting words wrung in irony and tipped with anguish, with emotions that will one day swallow up the whole world.
The child takes them all in and says, “You look no more than a boy but better a man than most.”
My age-old loneliness begins to crumble under pale hands and impossible smiles.
The problem with seeing all the angles isn’t so much the ones I don’t see coming as it is the ones I do. I can build our entire future in an expanse of one night, seeing the improbable stretch before me, tracing unidentifiable what-ifs onto the spine of the universe like I’m trying to send it a message: allow me this.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I ask, because human beings must always look towards the future.
“I will become an arsonist and set fire to the world,” says Rue.
She gives me a smile as bright as the sun.
But the night leeches even the tint of colour from her eyes, until they reflect nothing but fathomless blackness like the end of the universe, an endless moral vacuum. We are placid on the surface, calm and remote but underneath all that, there is a void, dark and untapped and bitter to the dregs.
“Will you, really?” I ask.
Rue falters. “If you want. I can be anything you want.”
People think we feel nothing at all; no one knows that we feel everything. While Rue can sometimes choose not to, I cannot help it; the hands that kill and the mind that can dream up phantasms of destruction, ideas that make dead visionaries weep in their graves, also present me with the consequences of every hypothetical action — I am no warrior, not even a strategist for all the great foresight I possess — I am an observer, considering all options, tasting all tragedies, abstract and concrete, feeling everybody else’s pain, the ones that never were and the ones that are.
My suffering is little a price to pay for her future.
“I have found you a place on the mountains, away from all these violence and bloodshed,” I say, bony hand clutched tight around the scythe until my knuckles turn white. “You will not be alone.”
Rue hugs me, her breath gusts out hot against my ear, a marked contrast to the chill air.
“What about you?”
My parametres of familiarity have always been drawn in this way, bold and dark, harsh lines that dig grooves to border the endlessness of my life. Dignity is humanity’s greatest lie, the futile rebellion against the injustice of living, the illusion of innate integrity in the face of it all.
“Do not worry about me,” I say.
The moon rolls by, unreachable and disinterested.
“It has always been a great regret of mine that you have consistently declined the opportunity to further your study, Master Reaper,” says the deputy headmaster as they cross the entrance hall.
A group of students around Rue’s age shove at each other as they walk in the opposite direction; one of them detaches from the group, laughing, and hefts a ball in the air before hurling it and shouting, “Come on, run for it!”
I turn to the deputy headmaster and say, “I have had rather more important things to do than play at academia for the past century.” I watch the deputy headmaster turn red and adds, “Dead bodies garner more of my attention than dead languages. You understand.”
“Of course. This way.”
The taptap of my scythe echoes loudly against the stones and does not falter.
Rue tugs at my sleeve. “Knox, that was mean.”
“The guilt overwhelms me,” I say.
The child sighs and does not offer any more opinions as we follow the man up the mahogany staircase. “Everything here is so pretty,” says Rue, clutching tightly onto my hand. “Are you sure they would want me?”
“Why ever not? They cannot not want you,” I say.
“If you say so,” says Rue uncertainly.
The child does not know the facts, but I suspect that she understands more than she lets on: about the world, its people, and even about me.
“Listen.” I stop her in our tracks. Pulling her close, I slide my fingers across her eyes.
“Human beings need purpose to live. You must first find your own before you decide to share mine.”
Irritation and amusement refract in her dark-ringed eyes. This is my pet-human, transient yet unwavering. And countless centuries inside this wretched body can make my loneliness and affection so, so—
The child nods as she always does.
“What makes a human a human?”
The question hangs in the air between us, as do all the others, past unfurling in one direction and the future in the other, both curling around one another until they meet at this moment. This immediacy, the darkness that pulses in my chest and the black depths of Rue’s eyes when I bring my knuckles to my lips in deep contemplation.
“Their compassion,” I say.