It starts with a heavy pinpoint, sharp, deep in the middle of Aaron’s heart. As he reads Megan’s letter, it swells and blooms, licks like fire through his veins.
This feeling should be love. It is love underneath, but it’s wrapped in something hard and cold and perpetual.
Death’s followed Aaron for twenty years.
Death came for Aaron’s father first, a cruel illness that halved his body (no more walks in the woods), laid him flat (no more car journeys to nowhere), muted him utterly (no more wise words), and finally sputtered him out like a spent candle.
Aaron was seven, and he didn’t understand.
Nor did he understand when, ten years later, Death took his mother, his home, and all his worldly possessions. Everything he ever loved, gone with the tilt and flare of a scented candle against a curtain. He came home to a smoking shell and a stone-faced policewoman, who confirmed his status as Aaron Johnson: homeless orphan, owner only of grief, fear, and the filthy football kit he was wearing.
He hit the road the day he turned eighteen, resolving never to stop, never to put himself in a situation that could shatter the way his childhood did. The only way to spite Death was to keep moving.
This worked perfectly for nine years. Without responsibilities or family to preserve himself for, no country was too cheap for Aaron, no journey too dangerous, no company too suspect. Experiences flooded his life. He looked Death in the face at war and at peace, crowed ‘you can’t catch me’ and moved on, watching, writing, living. Caring without attachment gave him the perfect angle from which to contemplate anything and everything in front of him.
His tales of adventures great and small found a keen audience. His bravado and born-of-necessity quick tongue brought him to the lucrative motivational speaker circuit. Aaron never invested in anything he couldn’t carry on his person, so he lived the good life anywhere he could.
Until he met Megan.
She was at a conference, inauspicious and sterile, drowned in the cling and cloy of cheap aftershave and limp handshakes. He was a speaker; she was there to be spoken to. As he took the stage, her face lit up, stood out. He felt life exuding from her, surging and bright. For a moment he was certain Death must be looking elsewhere.
He held her gaze as he spoke, felt calm and curious stability in her hopeful face. She entranced and petrified him simultaneously.
Just tonight, he told himself, just tonight.
They talked at the bar, in the hotel, and in the garden as the sun rose. That afternoon, he said goodbye. But he knew it was a lie, because it hurt to leave her, and nothing new had hurt him in nine years.
Death stirred at his shoulder, tickled his ear, reminded him it was watching, waiting, poised to poison anyone he opened his heart to.
Aaron responded by switching continents for five nights. Don’t stop running.
A week later he was back, another speech to give. As he checked into his hotel, the receptionist handed him a letter.
Full of tiny joyful words and casual, pressure-less thoughts. ‘Write back if you like’, it said. He liked. He wrote back.
He convinced himself Death didn’t care for letters. Megan wasn’t real; she wasn’t there with him. Strictly paper. Nothing that can’t be carried in his one and only suitcase. Death wouldn’t touch this.
Wherever he went, her familiar little letters, yellow envelopes addressed in green pen, would be waiting for him at the front desk. The moment he was done with business or sightseeing, he’d spend all night replying.
If we stay far enough apart, we can be together forever.
Six months on, he’s in the best room of a fine hotel, looking out over a city he’s always wanted to visit. But he isn’t going out today. He’s reading this letter over and over. This letter isn’t like the others.
It isn’t cats and culinary disasters and a-funny-thing-happened. No, this one says real things, says can’t pretend things, says we’ve got something special here things. Things that make Death rub his hands together with glee, jolting Aaron deep with love, and furious with fear.
She’s too wonderful, too perfect, too precious to risk. He can’t be without her words, without her.
So he can’t be with her.
He writes back. He explains everything. He tells her about his father, his mother. About Death on his shoulder.
He tells her he’s given her everything he can, that now he’s moving on, and that he’ll tell hotels not to take mail for him.
And he tells her he loves her, and he’s sorry.
But he has to keep running: he can’t ever stay still to be with her.
He posts the reply. He changes hotels. He keeps busy. Tells Death he won’t let it win.
Four days later, he’s woken from a lie-in by a tentative knock at the door.
He’s overwhelmed, frozen. His memory of her wide eyes and open smile was monochrome and fuzzy, compared with reality.
His heart bounds as a chill darkness tries to flood it. Then she drops her bag and dives at him, wraps her arms around him; laughing, squeezing, she came all this way and he hugs her back and his heart beats so golden and warm Death doesn’t stand a chance.
You can’t keep her… Death whispers, nervous. Run, before it hurts.
He doesn’t want to run. He looks in the darkest corners for Death, and sees nothing.
“You know,” she says, drawing his gaze back to her, voice cautious, soft, aware, “I understand. I don’t need…things. I’ll sell my house, quit my job, and…come with you. If you like.”
He smiles. And says yes. Because Death can’t catch either of them if they run together.
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