By Woods

They race to keep pace with the music. It’s something loud and obnoxious, and it shatters the tranquility of the night. I’ve heard it before, but I can’t quite recall the name. My heart thrums along with the urgency of the frantic beat as I watch the car fly by. I’ve seen this so many times that it should just be another dream. But it isn’t. This is real. Terribly, horribly, unstoppably real. The victims will be different, I know, but the accident will be the same. I’ve lived it.

It’s helpless, I think, I’m helpless. Trapped. I try to convince myself that it isn’t my fault. The backwoods are dangerous, especially in the crushing silence of a cold winter night. Everyone knows that. Besides, I tell myself weakly, they shouldn’t drive so quickly. This isn’t a race track. Though I’m not in the car with them, I know that they’re going at least seventy-five, maybe eighty. Their speed is already dangerous, and combined with the snow on the ground, they’re doomed to crash. Not for the first time, I wish that I can warn them. I can’t. I tell myself that they could have taken another road. This one is desolate, rarely used, and every time someone takes it, there’s an accident. Just like when Adam decided to take back road. It’ll be quicker, he said, It’s just a shortcut. I should have walked. The incline in the beginning is too steep, the curves too sharp, the trees too tall. Excuses, excuses, I remind myself. There’s no way out of this one, not this time around.

Their voices carry back to me, though the car is long gone, devoured by the thick overhanging of snow capped trees. I have no desire to watch, but I hug my bare arms and start slowly around the bend, immune to the snowflakes melting on my skin. I close my eyes and cut through the trees by memory. I remember every inch of this place. God knows I’ve had enough time. A slight wind lifts my hair from my shoulders. Absently, I reach to tie it up, but let it fall limp when I realize I have nothing. It seems like such an innocent motion, but so out of place here.

“Hey babe, give me a kiss,” he says suddenly, taking his hands from the wheel as he grins. With his hair slicked back and skin a shade too dark for dead winter, he looks just like those guys Leila, Marie, and I are always making fun of. The ones on TV with the big muscles, small vocabularies, and even smaller brain capacities. His girlfriend, a blond reality tv lookalike, giggles. People like them usually make me want to go into hibernation until the human race has significantly advanced. As annoying as they seem, the only thing I feel for them right now is pity. I keep walking as the roaring of their engine is swallowed up by the snow.

I lean against a tree for a moment to catch my breath and open my eyes. The moon is behind me, now, but I know it’ll catch up soon. Blindly, I point up at the sky, something like a smile playing at my lips when my finger lands on our star. Vaguely, I wonder where Adam is right now. I wonder if he thinks about me. If he misses me. I look away from the star. I’ve been gone so long that he probably doesn’t even remember my name anymore. I want to look at him, to say, Look what I did for you! I took your place! I’m dead so that you can live!

I want to move on, but it’s impossible now. It was stupid of me to make such a deal. I should have known better than to make a promise that I couldn’t keep. At the time, it had been so simple: my life for his. Of course I did it. I loved Adam. I still do. But I never imagined this, hunting innocent people because of it.

“Michael, stop being an ass and put your hands back on the freakin’ wheel!” she squeals, fear just beginning to snake its way into her voice. I beg Michael to put his hands on the wheel, too. He doesn’t. I stop walking and open my eyes as a set of bouncing headlights announce their arrival. Somehow, I’m ahead of them as I step out of the trees. They still laugh, as if it’s all a game. If only they knew. If only. I swallow a breath as they come alongside. This is where it always happens. Their last words. If they knew that these would be the last words they’d ever say to each other, they would have chosen something more meaningful. I love you, maybe, or, God forgive me. I can’t remember my last words. These days, I can’t remember much of anything. Just this scene, over and over again. And Bram. I shudder.

“Not until you kiss me! Come on babe!” Michael laughs, steering with his knees. His hands are up in the air, too far away to grab the wheel. His girlfriend grabs at him, suddenly concerned.

“Michael, stop it and dr-Michael! Watch! The deer!” Her hand darts out suddenly to pull the wheel back, but it’s too late. Michael swerves, too quickly, too hard, and the car skids on the snow. I want to close my eyes, but I can’t. I watch. I have to watch. Time slows, and Michael’s eyes meet mine. He can’t see me, of course, but it’s eerie all the same. He has kind eyes, I realize. He doesn’t deserve to die.

With the sound straight out of the movies, the car spins out of control and slams itself into the thick trunk of a tree loud enough to rouse the entire woods. The owls in the trees start suddenly and take off in soundless flight. The flutter of their wings is soft, nearly silent, like the sound of snow against the concrete. Instantly, the car crumples like a soda can. As smoke snakes from beneath the ruined hood, I know that they are both gone. The wheels are still spinning, and I will them to stop. There’s something unsettling about the movement in the midst of death. Everything else, hearts, breathing, thinking, has ceased. It’s always the wheels that trouble me.

I don’t want to look. I tremble. I’ve seen it before, too many times, but still I shake. I hug myself to stay together, but I’ll only fall apart in the end. The wind whistles in my ear and catches my breath as Bram comes up beside me. He’s panting, muscles still rippling beneath his skin from his Change. Bram shakes his body out as if he’s just run a marathon as the last patches of smooth deer hair give way to skin. I don’t hold his gaze. He caused this. He stood in their way. Moonlight glancing off his dark hair, he pushes forward and leans against the crushed car, peering into the shattered window at the dead couple. I look away as he thumps the wrecked door with both hands and howls in celebration. The sound is feral, animal, and I close my eyes against it. It’s unnerving when he’s like this.

“Nena!” he calls breathlessly, “Did you see it? Their eyes! And the way the car hit the tree! It’s better than last time! Come look!”

I try not to remember last time. He strides over to the driver’s side and punches his hand through the splintered glass. It tinkles to the ground, forgotten. Bram reaches deep into Michael’s pocket and his hand comes away bloody from where he brushed the dead man’s face.  It’s too much, and I crumple to the ground. Tucking Michael’s wallet into his back pocket, he comes back around extends a clean hand in my direction. I gaze up at him, surprised. This is kindness. Bram doesn’t bestow kindness on others. He takes what he wants and does what he wants and kills without regard for human life. I don’t think he knows what kindness is. I take his hand anyway, and he helps me to stand, casually throwing an arm around my shaking shoulders. I snatch my hand away and tangle it in my hair instead. Again, I’m unwillingly stunned by his beauty. He’s flawless, all sharp angles and perfect symmetry, as if he was chiseled rather than born, and I hate him for it. For everything. For the way his hair falls over his eyes and his cheekbones cast deep shadows on this face. For the way his eyelashes brush his cheek with every blink and the way his smile sings. For the way I’m both attracted and repulsed by him. He’s a killer. Stone cold.

“Now wasn’t that fun?” he intones, perfect lips brushing my ear. I gag and try to pull away.

When I don’t reply, Bram laughs harshly and catches my chin between his sculpted fingers, forcing me to look into his eyes. There’s nothing there. Nothing at all. After all this time, I’m still stunned by the way he changes. I gasp at the sudden rush of pain.

“You enjoyed it, didn’t you, Nena? Enjoyed watching them die, hearing them scream? You loved it, didn’t you? You want to do it again.” His voice is menacing, distracting from his angelic composition. He’s two people at once. At best. He squeezes harder.

“Yes.” My voice is barely more than a whisper, but he smiles. It’s the smile of a killer, of the devil himself. Bram is Death.

He is every evil thing in the world; every monster beneath the bed and every shadowy figure around a dark corner. He is also beauty in its harshest, roughest form. His beauty is otherworldly. Godless. And that’s what he is: without God, without morals, without limits.

He is Death, and he doesn’t mind how he gets his due as long as he receives it in the end. This is a game that he plays, a terrible game that takes life from innocents. People like Michael and his girlfriend. People like the Jensen family last week. People like me. I want to believe that I am different, that I died for a reason. But I’m not really dead, am I? No, I’m trapped in some permanent purgatory between the two, doomed to aid Death in his twisted game of playing God.

“There’s a girl.” He releases me and begins walking, moonlight washing over the bare skin and taut muscles of his back. I know that I should follow, but I can’t leave these people. They don’t deserve this. I know there’s nothing I can do, but it seems wrong to leave them here. I mumble my way through an Our Father, best as I know how, and linger, as if they’ll suddenly breathe and come back to life and I’ll no longer have to play an advocate for Death.

“Come, Nena. I’m not finished with you yet,” he calls. I turn my head to where he stands waiting, hand outstretched. I don’t want to take it, but my feet follow the footsteps he’s left in the snow. I don’t want to do any of this, but I don’t seem to have a will anymore. I’m just a shell. I want to believe that none of this is my fault, but I can’t.

Bram smiles as I take his hand. Together, we walk on, the souless and the hopeless. I look back at the crash. The wheels have stopped spinning, and balance is restored yet again.