While walking back home, I was surprised to see a man standing on the sidewalk. The distance between us must have been about 10 meters when I decided to pause and take in his appearances. He was wearing a black cloak, the kind you would usually see a person wore at some medieval period-themed party. Part of his face was hidden underneath his hood, casting dark shadows over it, yet I could feel his gaze on me. What I didn’t know at the moment was that he was looking past me, to something beyond. Something about him -his stare, his mannerism- tugged at my memory, but at first I couldn’t quite place where I had seen him before. He stood there unmoved and I couldn’t help but mirror him.
Lightning struck and thunder rumbled from the sky. His face was lit for only a fragment of a second but it was enough for me to recognize who he was. “Uncle Jim,” I said under my breath as a mere recollection rather than actually calling out to him. Slowly, things were coming back to me, old memories from when I was a kid, and I saw him standing over my bed when I woke up in the middle of the night. I remembered being terrified of him and crying into my mother’s chest. “He’s not real, you were just imagining things,” she whispered into my ear. She told me that I was gravely ill at the time, and my sickness had brought me nightmares in my sleep.
All of sudden it felt like the wind was knocked out of me and it was hard to breath, as if the memory had carried a curse. Or was it only a nightmare? How could it only be a nightmare or an imagination if I was looking directly at him at the moment? He had a name, for goodness sake! He told me his name. “Uncle Jim!” I didn’t know why I shouted his name but just as I did so lighting struck again and I looked up at the dark clouds hovering over us. Then when I was scanning my perimeter for the nearest shelter, I saw them.
There were ten to twenty other people that I could see who look like Uncle Jim with their black cloaks and empty stares, looking at different directions. Some of them were standing in the middle of the road, some were on top of buildings and some were even standing on the electric poles. I started to think I was actually hallucinating. Maybe I was just exhausted from going back and forth between home, school and the hospital. Maybe the stress of taking care of my sick mother was finally getting the best of me. Mom was right. This was only my imagination.
I was bracing myself to keep walking but then my ears caught the sound of chanting and I stopped in my tracks again. It was soft at first, and gradually it got louder but I couldn’t seem to catch what was said. I looked at Uncle Jim and I saw his mouth moving along with the chant. Something about the repetition and the aggressive undertone in their voices sent chills down my spine. I had half a mind to curl myself up into a ball and wait until it stopped but more than anything I wanted to turn around and run back to the hospital. I needed to protect my mother.
In the distance, a church bell rang and my stomach churned as an overwhelming sense of fear washed over me. I didn’t have time to process it, though, as in that exact moment I saw Uncle Jim and the others who dressed like him sprinted in an ungodly speed in multiple directions. Uncle Jim sprinted past me as if I was a ghost and I felt a sudden chill. Or was he flying?
In my head, I was trying to make sense of things but I couldn’t seem to hold on to a single train of thought for more than a second and everything was chaos in my brain. Out of nowhere, I heard a beat drop in my head and snapped out of my daze. I started running back to where I was coming from. Despite my shaky legs and awkward footing, I headed to the hospital, running faster than I could remember myself running.
The journey to the hospital was one I could hardly recall for my mind was too occupied thinking of what on earth was happening. What I did remember, however, was the sound of my heartbeat in my ears, the burn in my lungs, the heavy-breathing, the ache in my muscles and the inevitable feeling of doom. It must’ve started to rain before I could get to the hospital because the next thing I knew I was already through the door, soaking wet from head to toe and shivering from the bone-piercing cold.
My eyes fell on the strangers in the room, the Uncle Jim’s. Their black cloaks contrasting with the white coats around them in a remarkable irony and they stood there, by patients’ beds with an eerie calmness in the midst of a great commotion. I could almost make out what the doctors and nurses were saying, I could’ve if only the chanting was a little less overpowering. That was all I could hear and this time I could make out their words. “May the weaklings die in peace and the strong ones prosper!”
I ran to my mother’s bed and there he was, my own Uncle Jim, standing over her and chanting those same words. The image of him waiting by a hospital bed brought me back to that night when I fell sick from pneumonia at the age of 4. It was probably in the middle of the night and I was partially asleep, only awakened by a hoarse voice speaking to me. I strained my ears to listen, my clouded mind limited me from doing so, and I heard him say, “I am Jim, and I take you with me.” However, Uncle Jim was repeating those words to my mother now and I heard what he had truly said that night. “I am the Grim Reaper, and I am here to take you with me. May the weaklings die in peace and the strong ones prosper!”
“No, no, no, no!” I tried to move to chase him away, but he took one look at me and I was immediately paralyzed, my mouth shut and tongue tied. My heart sank to my stomach. I was forced to watch him put his wrinkled hand on my mother’s and repeat those cursed words. I wanted to cover my ears with my hands and close my eyes just so I could have the slightest chance of denying what I thought was happening. But he would not let me have it.
I imagined my mother holding me close to her chest and whispering words of comfort in my ears. “You were only dreaming,” she would say and I would wake up from this nightmare. She would’ve finished chemo in a few more months and we could have dinner at home again. She would wake up and tell me that I was being silly, standing here frozen like a madman with tears running down my face. But I was not a madman. And she was not waking up.
“May the weaklings die in peace and the strong ones prosper!”