At the end of the day, there was nothing left to do but go for a bike ride along the river. It was not a very interesting river, and the bicycle path next to it was old and riddled with holes and bumps made by impatient tree roots. It followed the muddy band of water, by a playground and an old restaurant that reeked of fish during hot summer days, by the line of decrepit warehouses and under the arches of two metal bridges that were connecting this side with the other.
At one spot, just before the first bridge, the path left the river for a reason known only to its creators. At that place, it circled up the little hill and then down, straight towards the riverbank, so that it felt like it would continue until it reached the water. It did not – it just made a sharp curve to the right and went on and on, forever, or so it seemed. It must have had an end, but Ian had never biked that far.
He still remembered the day when, for the first time, his parents had allowed him to go alone for a ride on his new bicycle, a little dark blue thing, which got stolen soon afterward. He did not remember, though, when it was exactly that the rides had lost their charm of great adventures and had become nothing but a habit. Pushing the pedals, wiping the sweat, fighting the flies and the mosquitos, holding the breath until the old restaurant was far behind… If you had nothing to do, if your friends were not in town and your screen time had been used up, you could always go for a ride.
However, there was that short part of the path, up the little hill and then down, which after all the years still held an unspeakable thrill and horror for Ian. For he was certain that if he was not careful enough, if he did not check the brakes on the bike before every ride and was not breaking all the way downhill, that he would, instead of making a turn, continue straight on and fall into the river. What would happen then he did not know, but he for sure didn’t want to find out.
The evening came when Ian went for a ride, as usual, and reached that special spot on the path. His heart started to beat faster as the bike sped up. He clutched the handlebars with all his strength preparing to make a turn, when, suddenly, an unusual sight attracted his attention. A group of people was standing on the very edge of the path, looking at something on the ground beneath them. Ian stopped and approached them carefully, his fear whispering that danger had not yet passed, but his curiosity winning the upper hand. He wanted to see what it was that everyone was observing.
The water level was low and there was a strip of muddy ground between the stone wall that supported the bicycle path and the river itself. On that strip, a body lay. Ian came as close as possible and bent over to see better.
The body was of a man, dressed in a dark, old-fashioned suit. His legs were slightly apart, arms spread like in a person who was relaxing after a hard day of work or heavy lunch. One shoe was missing, and the sock on that foot had a hole. How embarrassed would the man be if he knew that so many people saw what his socks were like, thought Ian. Fingernails on the hand Ian could see were blue, and the hand was strangely swollen, as well as the face, so one could not tell if the man was young or old. But the expression on the face was peaceful – really it would be so easy to think that it was just some drunkard taking a nap if it were not for the two policemen already unbuttoning his jacket and searching for documents.
As if it was some weird lottery, Ian strained to hear what name they would say. Suddenly and unreasonably, a strange fear overwhelmed him that it would be a name he knew. Someone dear and beloved was lying there and he had no idea. Maybe… but no, the body must have spent at least several days in the water. Still, it would be much better if he could just know the name.
“Who was he?” he almost asked, but he stopped himself, afraid of drawing attention.
The police officers put the wallet they had found into a plastic bag and continued their work. The crowd was told to go home, that there was nothing interesting to be seen. But that was not true. Just behind the drowned man’s head, Ian noticed someone else standing, touching the swollen face with the tips of long, slender fingers.
Did no one else see him? A pale and tall man, in black, wearing a black hat. Ian wanted to look away, to avoid being noticed by him, but just as that thought appeared in his brain, the man with a hat rose his head and looked straight into Ian’s eyes.
“Move along, move along, give us some space, will you,” said one of the officers to the crowd.
Ian was pushed back and, feeling again the soft grips of the bicycle handlebars in his hands, he shook his head like someone waking up from a bad dream. He dared not look back. The man with a hat might have been staring still. After pushing his bike for a while, Ian turned and rode back home. It was getting dark, and a strange chill came over him.
At home, and after he had eaten whatever dinner was on the table that evening, Ian told his parents what he had seen. They were not surprised at all.
“All this homeless and desperate people wandering around the city, it’s only strange it didn’t start happening sooner,” they said. “It must have been a suicide”.
Suicide or not, Ian could not get it out of his head. The sight of that lifeless body haunted him when he went to bed and finally, after some struggle, fell asleep.
He could not remember what was in his dreams, but he woke up in the middle of the night, surrounded by darkness. It was so dark that for a moment he thought that he had gone blind. He lay on his back, motionless and frightened, searching desperately for something familiar in that strange dark world into which he had awakened. A thought came to his mind, unnoticed and secret, whispering softly:
“This must be how it feels to die.”
How did it feel to die, he started to wonder. To stop existing, to stop feeling, breathing, hearing, to plunge into deep, cold water and never come out, like that man by the river today?
Ian struggled to breathe, unable to move or utter a sound, paralyzed by fear and loneliness. For the first time in his life, he had become clearly aware that he was going to die as well. That great and final darkness would swallow him, not now, not tomorrow, but once. And it did not matter what he did or how hard he fought, there was no escaping it.
In his mind, the eyes of the man with a black hat suddenly appeared. He was scrutinizing Ian over the dead body, only this time he lifted his hand and pointed one of his long fingers at him, his lips moved, and he said, “You’re next”.
The morning after that sleepless night was agony. There was no school to help Ian take his mind off his fear, just long empty hours, which he tried to fill with staring at different screens, reading, or playing with friends. As the days passed, he became increasingly convinced that the man with the black hat was none other than the Death himself and that because he was able to see him, Ian was his next victim.
Naturally, those thoughts appeared silly and childish in the bright light of the summer sun, but as night drew closer, his heart would start beating just a little bit faster and shadows appeared just a little bit darker, ominous, and threatening.
Ian tried to live as he had done before. He even went for a bike ride with a friend, but when they came to that wretched spot on the path, even from a distance, Ian could swear that he could see the man with a black hat standing by the river. He asked his friend if he could see anyone there, but the boy shook his head.
“I see no one. Come on, let’s go,” he said and rushed down the hill as fast as he could.
Ian tried to follow, he honestly did, but before he was aware of what he was doing, he slowed down and stopped. He approached the edge of the path and looked down, again. The river had almost covered the spot where the body had lain, only a very small piece of land still remained dry, but on that piece, Ian could clearly see a footprint and a black hat lying on the ground.
He was so frightened that he turned back immediately and went home without telling goodbye to his friend. After that day, he had never gone for another bike ride. He rarely left the house as well, although the days grew hotter as the summer progressed. Somehow, he felt that if he ever rode a bike by the river again, he would fall into the water and drown at the same place where they had found that man. Or maybe some other horrible thing would happen to him! He could not guess what, but he knew he would die – of that, he was certain.
His parents grew anxious about the change in his behavior, but he told them that he was studying, and they were pleased.
“Such a hard-working boy we’ve got,” they must have been thinking.
His father still tried to talk to him, because he did not think it was normal for a boy of Ian’s age to study that much, but how could his father possibly help? He was not in a better position himself. If anything, he was in a worse. He was going to die too, and he was helpless to stop it. So, how could he provide any protection?
Days continue to drag, and slowly but certainly the summer grew old and spent. Hardly anyone now called Ian to go out. They all knew he was going to say no. Through his bedroom window, Ian could see boys climbing the big tree in the neighbor’s back yard. He longed to join them, but he did not dare. In the evening, the sky would become fiery red or tenderly pink and the air would smell so sweet, of promises and hopes of all the future summers. Ian wished he could walk out and never stop – except he knew that was not possible. He would have to stop once. And waiting for him to do just that, the man in black would be there to grab him and take him away.
This state could not go on forever. Ian was eating little, talking even less, and sometimes he would spend all night listening to the sounds in the house, imagining footsteps or opening and closing of doors. The worst thing, however, came when his parents decided to take him for a visit to his grandmother.
The night before they were supposed to travel, Ian had a horrible dream that they had a car accident and that everybody was killed. He took this as a sign that he should not go on this trip. His parents were quite upset when he told them he was not going, expectedly, especially after he refused to give them any good reason for his decision.
“Be reasonable,” he tried telling himself. Nothing would happen. Everything would be all right. If only he could believe that!
When the morning arrived and their bags were brought down and piled in front of the entrance, his parents going in and out, trying not to forget anything, Ian felt so weak that he thought he would faint. How could he explain to them that he was sure something would go wrong? They would just laugh or think he was imagining things. Maybe he was, but he could not force himself to make another step towards the door.
“Come on, honey, time to go,” said his mother and he froze.
This was the moment then. This was how he was going to die. Once confronted with the horrible truth he found out he had no courage. No courage except to run back to his room, screaming “No!” and hide behind the door.
There was a lot of shouting, pleading, and threatening and his parents were really angry, but they could not make him leave the room, and since carrying him out and into the car was not an option, partly because he would upset the whole neighborhood with his screams, they let him be for a while. Later during the day, his mother tried to come in. She found him shaking on his bed, burning with fever.
“What is happening with you?” she asked with tears in her eyes, but Ian could not explain. The fear was his own and, though he yearned to do it, sharing it with other people could not help. It could only make it bigger. So he said nothing, and after giving him some soup, she left.
Ian was all alone again. He could hear all the familiar noises of the house, but they brought no comfort. He could even hear his parents talking in the kitchen, and coming up the stairs, and his mother whispering, “I don’t know what to do.”
His father answered, “Leave the boy alone for a while. Don’t you see that he is afraid?”
“Afraid of what?” she asked. There was no reply.
In the evening, just before Ian fell asleep, father came in with a glass of milk and sat next to him on the bed.
“Do you want to tell me what’s bothering you?” he asked.
Although he was a big boy, Ian started crying then. He could not bear it any longer. Through tears and sobs, he told his father everything or at least the part that sounded reasonable. He told him that he had had a dream about the car accident and that he had been feeling like that most of the summer, ever since he’d seen the dead man by the bicycle path. He did not mention the creature with a black hat, but even without mentioning him, the story sounded quite silly, now he heard it told aloud. Stupid, childish fears, he realized, his father would laugh for sure and would not believe a single word, or he might send him to a psychiatrist, thinking his son had gone mad.
Father, however, did none of those things. He sat for a while, silent and thoughtful, and then put a hand on Ian’s head. How calming was that touch in the silence of the room! Father looked a little bit puzzled and like he was thinking some deep thoughts, but finally, he smiled.
“The question, my son, is not whether you’ll die or not. That is not for us to decide, and you know it. What you can decide and choose is if you are going to live,” he said quietly. “I suggest you think about it and not waste any more of this beautiful summer. Soon it will be winter and then there will be not much else to do but sit and think.”
He kissed him and left the room. Ian stopped crying. He drank the milk and, feeling a little better after talking to his father, tried to sleep. In vain. He was tired and exhausted, but no dream would come and bring peace and rest. Instead, he started thinking about everything that had happened since the drowned man’s day.
Was it all just in his imagination? Did he invent everything just so that he could find a reason for his weakness and fear? If it was so, if he was only making excuses, or if it was the other way around, if everything was true, one way or the other, father was right. Ian could not continue living like this. He had to face his problems, no matter what the outcome of that battle might be.
Finally, everything seemed clear. His fears were still there, but he knew now that he had to confront them. Otherwise, he would never be free again. He would forever be afraid, not knowing if he was hiding from something real, or from something that was just a figment of his imagination.
What was he to do? Trying to think rationally, like a grownup would do, Ian realized that he had to prove to himself that he was wrong. There was only one way to do it, he understood. He had to take one more bike ride.
It was late, and his parents had already gone to bed, but Ian wanted to waste no more time. If he did not do it right now, tonight, he might never find enough strength and courage again. He quietly crept down the stairs and into the yard. Familiar things looked hostile and strange in the gloom – darkness always made them look that way – only this time, he did not allow his fear to stop him. He went straight to the garage and took his bicycle out, as quietly as possible. Then, looking one last time at the house where his parents lay asleep, he turned around and rode away.
Down the path he went, the light of his bike like a tiny, lonely star, following the water, by the playground and the old restaurant that stood silent and desolate but still smelling bad, by the line of decrepit warehouses and getting closer each minute to the arches of the first metal bridge. Then, not even thinking about it, he turned with the road, up the little hill and then down, straight towards the river, going faster and faster and faster, feeling freer than ever before. His fear was gone, and he laughed and laughed, even when he realized that the brakes did not work properly and that he was going too fast to make a turn. He laughed even when he felt the bike had reached the end of the path and the ground had slipped away under the wheels. He flew through the air as if he had wings, as if he was a bird of some sort, or a butterfly, finally free from the confines of its cocoon.
His flight had to end. All flights did. Ian knew that, as well as he knew that there was nothing but water underneath him. He was going to fall in and drown after all. He had been right all along. Death had been waiting for him and he had run right into his clutches.
Yet Ian did not care any longer. The few moments he had before drowning were enough for him to realize that a life spent in fear was not worth living. You could love life without hating death. You could embrace it all and just be happy and grateful that you had been given a chance to walk the earth and breathe, love, laugh and cry, even if only for a short while.
The seconds slipped and in that lonely darkness, unheard and unseen by anybody except the indifferent moon, Ian spent them all. He was falling unstoppably. Any moment now and the water would take him. He braced himself for the inevitable.
His bike hit something hard. Ian fell off and rolled away, scratching his arms and legs, and hitting his head. For a moment, he lay dizzy on his back. Was this what dying felt like? If it was, then it was not very painful or very long.
He stretched his hands to both sides, carefully exploring. He was lying on a pile of something big and round. It smelled funny. Coal, he realized, remembering the smell coming from the basement of his grandmother who stored her winter fuel there. He must have landed on a deck of a riverboat, which was passing by, carrying its cargo noiselessly down the waterway.
How amazing! How strange! He tried to move but his head hurt too much. He gave it up for the time being. Maybe he was dying after all. Maybe he was already dead. Yet, the river air was cold and fresh and the stars above his head were like no stars he had ever seen before. They were brilliant and sparkly, moving slowly as the ship continued its voyage towards the unknown. Ian smiled, feeling suddenly that this was not the end of his journey, but a beginning of a wonderful new adventure.