Clarence's parents told him every day not to worry. Don't worry about the reapers. Don't worry about the road around The End. Certainly don't worry about the kaggers.
The color left the world long before any of them were born. The tree connecting the mortal realm to Ganedyn was blocked by a reaper who lost his way. It was never entirely gone. With the connection to paradise blocked, life became static. Grass turned pale green and white. The sun was white, and the few flowers that didn't shrivel looked like bones. There were still pockets of vibrant color where life thrived in the cities, but the roads connecting the world were too dangerous to cross. The end's reach spread with the absence of paradise, and with it the monsters came.
Clarence and the other children only knew a gray world. A pale gray sky, and an even grayer ground. "Things are so grayte," he joked to his best friend Wakoba almost every day on their walk home.
They passed the same photography stand every day after school. On the best days, a runner arrived with pictures from parts of the world Clarence could only dream of visiting. He and Wakoba caught glimpses of the way the world used to be for everyone. The towering buildings that reached into the sky and the vast forests full of life—that's what they wanted to see. Neither of them were enthusiastic about anything they had to learn at school. Shapes they would never need to know; books they would never read if it weren't for school, and history of a colorful world they would never know.
The school was in a small village surrounded by water. Water created and sustained life. Living by it was the closest to safety anyone felt from the End. Most of their classmates lived in town. Their parents owned, managed, and frequented the various shops. Wakoba and Clarence's families didn't have steady jobs. While most of their classmates wore new button-down shirts, slacks, and skirts shipped in from the city, Wakoba and Clarence wore pants with patches on their knees and shirts with stains that could never fully come out.
They exited the stone wall separating the town from the bridge and crossed the river. The second they reached the other side, the ground looked duller. The grass was fragile. A breeze could make the boney blades snap. Each step crunched the pale ground.
Clarence adjusted his old button-down. It fit him when the school year started, back when he still had some of his baby fat. He was much taller now and a little lanky, with light brown skin and neatly trimmed black hair. He and Wakoba kicked a rock back and forth across the road.
"What was that for?" Wakoba ran off the road to pick up the rock and toss it back into play.
"Sorry, I just tapped it," Clarence replied and put even less strength into his next kick, which still nearly flew by Wakoba.
It was the only paved road on their side of the river; they could take it all the way around The End if they wanted. The road would take them to Ganedyn if they survived long enough. It was the path down which the reapers took their souls ever since the tree was blocked.
Ahead they saw a lanky gray-skinned man in a smart gray suit. His cheeks looked hollow, and his eyes were completely white. He held his hand out for an older woman to take. She hunched over and limped toward him, coughing into a handkerchief the whole way. Clarence pushed Wakoba off the path, and the two crouched on the side of the road.
"Can you imagine if he saw us?" Wakoba asked, still clutching his chest. His face went stone white.
"He wouldn't take us," Clarence replied. He knew reapers were strict. They would never take a person around The End before their time. He was just superstitious about being on the road at the same time as one. Like it was tempting fate to give him a premature departure.
The two boys watched a pair of twins cry just behind the low stone wall separating their yard from the paved road. Their mother came out and wiped her eyes with her long, baggy sleeves. "Come on, girls." She tried to usher them in, but they wouldn't budge. One of them even slipped under her mother's arm and reached out for the elderly woman.
The woman on the road beside the reaper didn't look back at the young children. Clarence was told when his father first got sick that there was a time the reapers were celebrated.
"When my father was taken away, he looked relieved. Even the reapers knew this was all a part of life and where we went next helped grow this world. Besides, living amongst the reapers—in a world with all that life? They don't just end life, they move it to a new world and bring life back here from Ganedyn, maintaining perfect balance. The Red Reaper brought back an acorn and planted it in the front yard. It reached the clouds only a year later, and I can still feel my father's presence when I sit at its base," Clarence's father said the same day he first coughed. He tried to hide it, but the whole house knew his time was coming to an end, and soon he would have to make his journey around The End.
When the reaper pulled the woman down the road, he didn't use any force, and she followed with slouched shoulders. She looked more like she was guilty of a crime. Not relieved to be going, but relieved to not be a burden on her family anymore.
"I'm not stepping out there again." Wakoba pointed to the road.
"They're not gonna take us. Besides, look." Clarence walked to the center of the road, spun in place, then jumped up and down. "No more reapers are coming."
"Still, bad luck to be on the road the same time as a reaper."
"That's the only luck any of us have got left. Might as well get home to a warm bed before any kaggers come out," Clarence replied.
This got Wakoba moving again. Kaggers were more annoying than dangerous during the day. The light blinded them, and the worst they could do was sting someone on the bottom of the foot if they accidentally stepped on one. But at night when they could spot a fly a mile away and moved faster than sleet, they became dangerous. They repeatedly stabbed their drill-shaped back legs into a person until the rest of their swarm could catch up.
"I heard a story about a kagger nest in your neighbor's home," Wakoba said.
"Don't be ridiculous. Kaggers can't go in homes."
Wakoba looked over his shoulder. The two heard something crack.
"Relax, we're almost back." Clarence put his hand on his friend's shoulder to put him at ease, but Wakoba's shoulders tensed the rest of the walk. "I'll see you at school tomorrow." Clarence waved as Wakoba walked into his house, a small one-story stone cottage, almost identical to everyone else's outside of town. There were only a dozen homes outside of town, and two of them were empty.
He looked across the street at his neighbor's house. His wall was higher than anyone else's. Behind it Clarence could see the start of a garden. It was the only place he'd ever seen real color. A sight like a small light at midnight to stare at to prove you can still see. The top of a tree poking over the wall had vivid green leaves. Pink and red flowers were in full bloom along its branches. A single petal reached over the wall, like a hand extending for Clarence to take. Clarence's mother said his garden reminded her of the way the world used to be before The Reaper in the Tree blocked the path to Ganedyn.
"I can't for the life of me figure out how he does it," she said one evening when they had a clear view of his overgrowth under the light of the full moon. "That much color just doesn't exist anymore."
Clarence stopped by the tree in his front yard. His house and his neighbor's were the only two houses with something growing behind their stone wall. He rested his back against its trunk and looked to the sky. It rose through the dense clouds with long branches extending toward the yard's boundaries but never crossing.
"I bet it's nicer over there, huh, Granddad?" He felt a vibration from the tree and smiled. As long as that tree stood in their yard, he knew they would all find their way to Ganedyn when they had to.
Something caught his eye. A teenager with light brown skin climbed down the tree behind his neighbor's wall and into the garden. He only caught a glimpse of her black curly hair. It looked like his sister Jessi. Inside the house, Clarence heard his mom plead, "I already told you, take another year; take ten years for ten days."
Clarence ran into the house. A man so tall he had to hunch to not bump his head on the ceiling stood toe to toe with his mother. His skin looked carved from stone. He wore a dark gray suit and a matching top hat, which covered his bald head. It was the reaper who came to their house every day since his father first coughed. Clarence's father was under the reaper's arm, and his mother was trying to yank him free.
"I'm afraid no one in your family has enough years to satisfy this debt except—" The reaper paused and looked at Clarence. Clarence's mother looked at her son in horror.
She stepped between the reaper and him. "Out of the question." She held her arms out, further shielding her youngest child, like even the air around him was not for sale.
"Then I'm afraid—"
"I have payment," a new voice called into the room. Jessi entered, cupping her hands together, careful not to crush or drop whatever she was holding as she approached the reaper. "I have payment." She rolled her shoulder out of reach of her mother and approached the reaper, then held her hands up to present her payment. When she uncapped her hands, a small blue bird chirped and hopped around in her palms.
"Is that real?" Clarence stepped around his mother to look at the creature; it had been so long since he saw a bird or any animal from Ganedyn. Without the reapers bringing life back into their world, only beings of death were born, or worse, those of fear from around The End.
"Where did you get such a thing?" the reaper asked watching Jessi more than the bird. He waved his hand in the air, and the bird went still. It hovered in place, just over Jessi's palms. The reaper released their father, and Clarence's mother rushed over to catch him. She led him to his bed; they kept it in the den so he could see the first light rise every morning. It also offered the freshest air since the den was the only room with two windows. Reapers had to announce their presence. They couldn't come in the middle of the night and steal a life, so they didn't need to worry about leaving him out there.
"I think I can answer that," a calm voice interrupted the discussion. A man with long, curly, brown hair tied back and two jet-black eyes entered. He curled his hands into fists, but his face and voice gave no indication of anger. "Trifling through my garden again?" He turned his eyes to Jessi, who froze in place.
"I should've known this would come back to you." The reaper held the bird out for The Neighbor, but it was more of a mocking gesture, and he pulled it back to his chest moments later. The neighbor didn't reach for the blue bird but took a step toward the reaper. "You and I both know you're not leaving here with that, and you're not leaving here with their father. You can make it your choice, or you can be embarrassed that a measly mortal-bound stopped you."
"I never thought you were one to show off." The reaper held the bird out for The Neighbor to take. His face was stoic. His stillness gave him the impression that his consciousness left his body, leaving the statue figure behind.
When The Neighbor took the bird, he turned his full attention to Jessi. "You better hope I never catch you in my garden again, do you understand me? Neither of you." He made sure to include Clarence in his warning, but Clarence never ventured into the garden. His parents always warned him not to. It was okay to admire the beauty from a distance, but not to be lured into it.
"See you tomorrow." The reaper nodded to Clarence's mother then to The Neighbor. "And you, I may never see again." It didn't sound like a threat. The neighbor didn't take it as one. His gaze dropped, and though he tried to stand tall, it looked like the words hurt him more than scared him.
"You should be so lucky," The Neighbor replied and left; the reaper followed not long after. Everyone in the house remained quiet until their mother walked to the window in the den and looked out. The reaper and The Neighbor were out of sight.
"What were you thinking?!" she raised her voice before she turned around. Jessi was halfway to the room she shared with Clarence. Clarence went to his father's bedside with a glass of water.
"He almost took me today," his father said, but he sounded disappointed to still be there. "I wish you would all stop sacrificing years for me."
"No one's taking you away, not yet," his mother said, turning to the father now that he broke his silence. "And you're not going anywhere." She didn't even look at Jessi but caught her with a warning just before she escaped into the bedroom.
"I did what had to be done. You saw he was gonna take Dad away," Jessi said.
"As he should've. I've been a drain on this family long enough. Lola, you have to stop worrying about me and go back to work. The children need your sacrifice more than I do. By sunrise tomorrow I'm gonna start the walk to Ganedyn on my own if I have to." He coughed before anyone could protest and waved Clarence off when he tried to help make him more comfortable. "Would you stop that? Adjusting the pillow and putting me under the blanket won't get rid of a cough. We've done all we can; you should all have some time to live your lives, instead of sacrificing precious time to keep me alive an extra miserable day."
"You don't mean that," the mother said.
"You don't even know if you can make it to Ganedyn," Jessi said.
"With a reaper, I know I can make it around The End. How bad could it be?"
Clarence couldn't stomach the thought. Ganedyn and the mortal realm were two sides of the same coin, keeping each other balanced, but around The End was on an entirely different plane. The creatures came from fear and an absence of life. Creatures like the kaggers were born there and have flooded into the mortal realm since the tree was first blocked.
"We won't let you go," the mother said. Jessi walked back into the den and stood on the opposite side of her father's bed.
"My love, I'm afraid none of us really have much of a say anymore." The father looked to Clarence. "I was always so jealous of my dad. He got to come back as a tree. Can you think of anything more beautiful than that? To have a piece of your soul watching over your family, giving shade to every generation that follows, and maybe a little mischief for climbers like you and your sister." He reached out and squeezed Clarence and Jessi's hands. "That's all I ever wanted for myself. To be able to keep a piece of me here for my family, and my family's family, and instead I'm trapped in this sickly body."
He coughed hard before he could continue, "We're lucky we have a reaper willing to make the journey with me. You're sacrificing years of your lives to keep me here while other families have been burdened with a living corpse for years. There aren't enough reapers for everyone anymore. You should be happy I have a chance to leave." His next breaths sounded painful and strained.
"Get some rest; we'll talk more about this in the morning. You're not taking the path around The End and you," the mother pointed to Jessi, "are not to cross into The Neighbor's yard again; do you understand me?"
"Yes, Mom," Jessi replied and put her head down. She gave her father's hand one final squeeze. "I love you."
"I'll see you in the morning," the father said to Jessi before she walked away.
"I don't want you to go around The End." Clarence struggled to get the words out; his lips trembled too much. Until that point, he remained silent, not because he wanted to, but because his tongue felt too swollen to speak.
His father held Clarence's hand in both of his. "The reapers are just as scared as we are to go around The End. They have to return to Ganedyn, or else they die. It's not just my responsibility to go, it's what the world needs. But I promise you, reapers only go when they feel confident they can make it. I will be fine."
Clarence knelt beside his father's bed and buried his face in the blanket. He wanted to block out the world and freeze that moment. He felt his mom's hands on his shoulders and let her guide him to his bedroom. Still, he looked down and away, unable to find the strength to look back one final time. "Just a little more time. Please," he said to his mom.
"I'll try." She did her best to sound reassuring.