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In Living Memory

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The most important changes in a person’s life often happen within a split second. One quick fall, one misstep, one spoken word, all one thing, or a culmination of things that build tension until suddenly it snaps, and nothing is ever the same again.

People tend to move on from life changing events, or perhaps they don’t and they simply remain in a state of shock until their dying days. Either way, they are never the same as they were before. That person effectively becomes dead, and a new one takes their place. As long as human beings have had souls, as long as they’ve been around, this has been the way of things.

Change is and was a constant in life, and so was death, or at least, it was supposed to be.

There were only two exceptions to death’s merciless hand in all of history, and they both happened at exactly the same moment. In a small coastal town—Jakku was its name, she vaguely remembered— a young woman was walking outside toward a well, intent on the simple task of fetching water for her family. She raised a hand to shield her eyes against the rain as she held up her skirts with the other, flinching against the sound of loudly booming thunder as she walked out toward the well.

Pushing her fear aside, the woman continued trudging through the mud until she could see the stone well ahead of her, watching as the wind caused a nearby tree to sway violently. A part of her wondered how she was still standing, and debated running immediately back to the safety of her home, but she still persevered, pushing onward through the wind and the rain. “You can do this, Rey,” she whispered to herself, trying desperately not to think about how loud the thunder was getting—how bright the lightning was.

Rey finally reached the well a minute later, though by that point she was thoroughly soaked and was fairly certain she’d absolutely ruined the boots her mother had made her. She panted as she leaned against the edge of the well for a few seconds, but then quickly snapped out of her shocked state, remembering the lightning that was dancing in the sky. There wasn’t much the young woman knew of the bright light, but she was fairly certain it was deadly. At least, that’s what she’d been told in stories from her father. Or had it been her mother? Her siblings? Maybe she was married and it had been her husband. Perhaps her children if she had them? She couldn’t remember. Time eroded them away into complete ghosts. 

Without another moment’s hesitation, she reached for the rope that would pull the water bucket out of the well, and began to tug, pulling it up and up and up until the wood and iron bucket was in her hands. She freed it from its rope, then she began to trudge her way up the hill.

Time immediately began to move in slow motion. In hindsight, Rey would realize she should’ve just gone back to the house, and waited out the storm to fetch water. Perhaps she could have spared herself immense, incomprehensible amounts of pain if she had, but she did not. Rey had gone to the well, and fetched the bucket of water. She had sealed her fate.

If she had been paying attention to anything other than the way the rain was pouring down over her, she might have noticed how the hairs on her arm stood on end or the slight crackling sound in her ears, and it wouldn’t have helped her, but perhaps she would’ve understood better what was about to happen to her. She would’ve at least had a warning, and she wasn’t sure if it would have made a difference, but it wasn’t like she would ever find out.

The storm intensified around her, the sound of it building to a crescendo between the pouring rain, the howling wind, and the near and distant thunder as she made the trek back to her home. She was almost there, she was so close, in fact, she could reach out and touch it, but she didn’t quite make it. Instead, she was greeted by the most brilliant, blinding white light she’d ever seen, and the most deafening boom she’d ever heard.

The light enveloped her completely, and though it was only the smallest fraction of a second, it was comparable to the eternity that followed. The most intense pain she’d ever felt—up until then, at least— raced up and down her spine, and she wanted to scream, but she couldn’t move. Somehow, Rey had been frozen by that blinding light, and the light left her very quickly, but it did not take the pain with it.

A vague part of her was aware that she was now falling to the ground as she lost control of her legs, and then more than ever she wanted to scream. She wanted to open her mouth and howl her pain to the sky, but she couldn’t move. All she could do was lay there as the pain got worse and worse, staring at the front of her home as she watched black spots fill into her vision, and she realized that in the last several seconds since she’d seen the blinding light, she hadn’t taken a single breath.

Was this death? Was this that inevitability they all waited for and always seemed to meet far younger than they ought to? Rey couldn’t think. She couldn’t hear after the explosion that had filled her ears. She could only just see, and even her vision was being taken away black dot by black dot. Rey’s eyes slowly fell shut, and she prayed for peace, for death to take mercy on her as she was encompassed by its cold hand.

This would later become the only memory she had of her mortal life. Her death.

Thirty miles to the south, that same thunderstorm took out its wrath on a small farm, where a young man was riding a horse back home from a market, carrying a bag made of scratchy material on his back full of potatoes he’d obtained from a seller his family trusted.

In hindsight, he wouldn’t remember them either. He wouldn’t remember if he had a son, a daughter, a mother or a father in the years to come. All he remembered was that he had something, some pull or attachment to people that filled his early memory with light.

But in the present, he was just trying to make it home through the wretched rain and wind that howled around him, never mind the lightning that made him feel all the more anxious with each bolt that illuminated the sky. He couldn’t focus on that.

His horse galloped through the woods, guiding him straight on toward his home, only he never quite made it. He couldn’t be sure what it was, but there was something about the millisecond before the blinding white light hit him where he got the most intense feeling of foreboding. Something bad was about to happen, but what—

Blinding light filled his vision, and immense, horrible pain flooded his body. It overwhelmed him so much so that he didn’t even feel it when he fell from his horse, he didn’t notice when his body hit the ground, and his bones broke from the impact. He was already far too gone to notice, even when his head impacted upon a rock when he hit the ground.

As it had been with the woman, the man— Ben, some vague part of him remembered—wanted to scream, he wanted to yell his agony to the sky, to his horse that now galloped away in fright, to the woods around them, but he couldn’t move. Every time he even thought about moving, white hot pain rushed through his veins. Not that it mattered much anyway, since black spots were already killing his vision, filling it slowly until he lost consciousness.

Just like the woman, this was also his last living memory, and it was the first thing he could remember of his life. His own death.

Both of them didn’t know what had happened to them at first. All they knew was it was a miracle they’d survived what they did. Rey grimaced at the half full bucket of water that she’d dropped when the lightning had hit her, and Ben stared ahead through the forest where his horse must’ve run off without him in fright. At the same time, the two of them walked the remaining distance into their homes, each feeling quite off, quite different than they had before, but neither could place it.

No, they didn’t notice it until years started to pass, and their reflections failed to change. Ben’s family members, whoever they were that he just couldn’t remember to save his life, all sported graying hair and wrinkled faces if they didn’t die out from disease. Ben never caught a disease, and he certainly never wrinkled. The same went for Rey. She never seemed to change, and yet everyone around her continued on like normal.

They both lived in denial of what was happening to them and their families until their relatives started to slowly die off from their age. Two hearts broke in different places as the years passed, and they both slowly but surely found themselves alone.

Ben was the first one to leave his home for good, setting off for another coastal town to find a way to make a new life there, and maybe eventually he’d meet the same fate as everyone else. He would die in the end and he would see his family. Everything would be alright after that. Surely it would. The world had already been cruel enough to him to make him watch while everyone he’d ever loved died, hadn’t it?

Rey didn’t leave her home. She continued living in that tiny little thing on a hill, looking after her family’s things like they’d be back any day now and perhaps they’d just gone off to attend business in another town. They’d come back to her. The universe couldn’t be that horrible, could it?

They both stayed up late at night staring at ceilings or stars, and wondering why they couldn’t die. Both of them had agonized over their lives, both of them had cried over it, and shed enough tears to fill the ocean. They’d both tried their hand at ending it themselves since nature seemed too lazy to do it for them. It hadn’t worked and had only resulted in further misery, driving them both into immense, unbearable pain.

Both of them would spend years, decades agonizing over what had caused it. Why was it only them who ever seemed unable to die? Why was there no one else out there like them? Why were they so… alone?

A century passed, more than, actually, without anything of import happening to them. It wasn’t until Ben suddenly made an impulsive decision to leave his new town that everything finally began to change again after being stagnant for so long. He took a horse from his new home, and left with only a few important things of his old life on his back, traveling northward to a settlement that lay on a peninsula, taking him on a path that would result in the biggest supernova of collisions that history had ever seen.

The path that would bring one lonely person who could never die to another. The path that would bring Ben to Rey.