“Just go down there and take a look.” My name is Ryan. I’m sixteen and one half years old and I’ve never seen a dead body before. “Don’t be a chickenshit. Go down there.” My friend’s name is Richard. He’s older than myself but by a scant few months. I don’t want to go down there although I know Richard will most assuredly force me to confront the specter of death at the bottom of the gully we sometimes use as a shortcut to the high school. “Patrick looked at it and he’s a puss.” The sun has crested above the last line of clouded defense, and the warmth of its rays cascading down upon my exposed flesh provides instant splendor. I briefly close my eyes to enjoy the beauty of the moment or is it to take my mind off the dead body Richard is so keen on sharing with me. “You better go, Ryan or I’ll tell everyone you were a freaking puss.” I don’t doubt the sincerity in his words or the threat that would render me to the lowes't of low lunchroom tables and forever label me with the most hideous of all juvenile titles. “Go.” A simple command from a simple person and yet I discover myself stepping over the steel girder atop the embankment. The loose rock and gravel shifts, my feet unsteady as I begin the plunge headfirst into the frigid grasp of death. “Go all the way down, Ryan. Don’t you dare stop.” The first thing I notice is the ripe stink of decomposition, the acrid aroma that swirls about meat left out in the hot sun. It reeks of rotting cabbage and foul milk. My hand covers my nose as I slide down the steep incline into the gully where I’ve traipsed back and forth since exiting middle school. Everyday I take this walk, my mind so familiar with the pathway that I’m able to daydream without a single slip up on the slick surface where muddy water meets gritty dirt. Unlike those lackadaisical days of childhood adolescence, today I’m forced to eye my every move. “Are you going?” I fail to answer his query; my mind focused on the slippery mush beneath my tennis shoes and the dead body awaiting me. Intuitively, with the charming clairvoyance all children seem to possess, I know it is a man and he is near. The cloud of flies is thick, impenetrable and opaque like the deep waters of the nearby ocean. I swat at them with indifferent hands, unafraid of their grazing touch and the fury in which they confront my passing. My eyes focus on the bushes, bushes I take for granted on a daily basis although today I can see they contain within them a macabre prize of the afterlife. The shrubbery and all its details file themselves in my memory from the white flowers so small they appear as fuzzy dots to the empty Styrofoam cup hanging haphazardly from one branch. I note these things and the hand as well. “Do you see it yet?” Richard’s voice reverberates throughout the entrenchment, riding on the wind like an inquisitive message from the beyond. The hand, white and obscenely bloated, draws all my attention, every ounce of my energy as I study with a detachment I mastered in science class. The nails are purple, the veins blue streaks that are faint but visible and the knuckles can no longer be seen due to the extension of skin from pent-up internal gases. A sleeve, plaid and putrid, covers the wrist and disappears into the green bush. Out of sight but not out of mind, I creep forward on tiptoes. Perhaps I’m afraid that I shall awake the dead and they will rush forward to claim me as a prisoner of this age long war. “Hurry up, Ryan.” The arm extends further into the shrubbery and I’m forced to push the branches, leaves and stickers aside to gain a better view. A mop of hair, covered in a blue baseball cap impedes my inspection although I do recognize the same bloating in the abdominal region as in the hand. A stick materializes in my grasp -I’m unable to recall how it got there- and I push away the hat. The stabbing movement of the discarded plant limb unveils the eyes of the dead. “Are you okay?” Capturing me with their darkness, I am enraptured by the black holes that draw in the nearest light with unconcealed greed. Flecks of white pus line the lids and a smattering of gorging flies screen the left eye more than the right and yet it is the pits of nothingness that hold me tight. The odor is potent, a veiled poltergeist accompanying my visit to death’s doorway. The black ocular orbs, frosted over with death’s dew, offer a glimpse into the next world, the hidden dimension of the afterlife we all fear. I am entranced, sucked up into the black holes along with the warmth of the sweltering sun above. These inky cavities have claimed me as their own. “Ryan?” Richard’s frightened cry awakes me from my stupor, my eyes ripping free from the dead man’s visage. The fear that had chaperoned my journey leaps from its hiding place and snags my undivided attention. My feet carry me with such speed that I barely touch the ground as undiluted adrenaline fuels my escape up the embankment. Richard is waiting for me, his flushed countenance so naked that I know he has not seen the dead man’s eyes for himself. He has saved himself from their dark, penetrating glare. “Did you see it?” “Who’s the puss now, Richard?” My words sound hollow, each syllable trembling with raw fear because I know the black holes from below bid my eventual return into their dark emptiness.
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