Cain Mariner had a near death experience when he was a kid and it haunted him to this day, but not in the way he expected it to.
It was his twelfth birthday, and his parents had gotten him an expensive, brand-new, top-of-the-line scooter. He nearly fainted when he saw the box and was bouncing in his seat for the rest of the party. It was the exact one he’d pointed out last Christmas—the one he’d begged for and hadn’t gotten. It was the one he’d seen in ads and sighed over, offering to do chores around the house in exchange for money.
They came to an agreement, eventually, that if he got his grades up, and kept them up, they would get it for him.
He’d never worked harder in his life.
He studied, read, did all of his homework. On the weekends he mowed neighborhood lawns to help pitch in. And now, finally, half a year later, here was his reward, sitting in front of him.
His parents made him wait until most of his friends had gone home before they let him take the shining chrome scooter with blue padded handlebars and blue wheels out of the box. His best friend, Bradley Fest, was spending the night and together they hatched a plan to go viral by filming tricks on Bradley’s phone as Cain rode down the large hill his house sat on.
“Alright, check it,” Cain said, stepping onto the new scooter. “You filming?”
Bradley was holding up his phone, watching his friend through the screen. “Yeah,” he yelled back.
Cain flashed a V with his fingers at the camera before gliding down the hill, letting gravity accelerate him. At the last second, at the bottom of the hill, he jumped off, waving his arms to cover his face and head.
A huge red pickup blew through the stop sign.
Cain stumbled backwards, barely catching his footing. He turned back to Bradley, and they stared at each other gaping before Cain started shakily making his way back up the hill.
“Oh my God. Are you okay?” Bradley shouted, all his senses slamming back into him at once. He locked his phone and ran down the hill to meet his friend. “Hey, Cain… Hey, are you, uh… Are you laughing or crying?”
He couldn’t speak, just gasped for breath with his hand over his heart.
They left the scooter, dented and broken into sharp pieces of new metal, in the street, too shaken up to go back for it. His parents had to yell at him to go get the pieces so they could return it and get a new one tomorrow. It was under warranty—he was a stupid kid and they weren’t taking any chances after spending all that money. They’d figured he’d pull a stupid stunt at some point, but they hadn’t expected it to be so soon.
He never forgot that day. Not because he nearly got hit by a truck, not because he almost died.
No, it was because every year, the night of his birthday, he heard the squeaking of wheels, the sound of metal crunching. All the things he’d forgotten he’d even experienced in that split second between life and death came back to him in the quiet moments of his birthdays. He couldn’t stop his heart from beating until it hurt, couldn’t inhale deeply enough to breathe.
When he tried to look back on that day, it was a blur. The sound of a car driving by too close made him jump instinctively. He never rode another scooter, or skateboard, or anything, for that matter. He never learned to drive (not that he could have ever afforded a car anyway).
But he hated his birthday.
Every year was just a reminder—something, somewhere was telling him not to get cocky, to be grateful he was alive.
Every year he was given a gift: a piece of scrap metal, a piece of the scooter. Sometimes he found it outside, sometimes on his way to school. Sometimes it was in his room, on his desk or in his bed. But it came every year—and every year he was forced to remember his almost death.
Around high school, he stopped trying to have any big parties. They were expensive and always ended badly anyway. Bradley came around most years, had dinner and a cake with him and his family. One year, the two of them were outside, tossing a football back and forth in the yard as Bradley’s purebred French Bulldog ran excitedly between them.
“I got a job,” Cain was saying. “At that store down the road.”
Bradley was the only person to witness Cain’s brush with death, and he was the only other person to witness the noises. The haunting—whatever it was—started that year, and Bradley’s dog stopped running between them, her ears perking up, looking towards the front yard.
“Daisy? What’s up, girl?” Bradley asked, leaning down to pet her.
Cain heard the soft whish of wheels down the road next. If Bradley heard it, it didn’t bother him, until the wheels screeched. They screeched and there was a crash, a metallic crunching that made the hair on Cain’s arms stand up and he visibly winced.
“What was that?” Bradley asked.
“It’s okay,” Cain lied.
Cain was used to the noises. He didn’t like them, they made him sick, but he was used to them. He knew them, and he understood them in a way he wished he didn’t, but he recognized when to be afraid of them and when not to be.
“What was it?” he asked again, grabbing ahold of Daisy’s leash. Bradley being Bradley, and growing up the way he did, he was just a little bit afraid of Cain’s neighborhood when he was by himself. “Some kids, or what?”
Cain rolled his eyes. “Stay here,” he said, and went to the front yard.
But Bradley followed him, too frightened at the prospect of being alone here. Here, where there was that soft, mechanical whirring noise Bradley couldn’t quite place. Here, where some thugs could jump the rotten wooden fence at any moment to shank him because that’s just what happened in this neighborhood, according to his parents.
None of that was true, but Bradley was well off and Cain was not, so Bradley followed Cain out to the front yard anyway.
Cain was knelt in front of the steel metal trashcans next to his house, holding something in his hands.
He looked over his shoulder, his expression more sad than spooked. “Hey,” he said, pushing himself up off his knees.
One of the trashcans had a dent in it.
“Kids do that?”
Cain rolled his eyes again and gestured vaguely with the blue rubber wheel he was holding. It was nearly pristine, except for the broken metal screws that clinked whenever he moved it. “I dunno, man,” he said. “Every year this happens. Every fucking year—…” He inhaled. Sighed.
He opened the trashcan, dropped the wheel into it, and closed it again. “Want some cake?” he asked.
“Yeah.” He nodded. “Yeah.”
A month later, Bradley often visited him at his new job. He followed Cain around as he worked, pretending to be a customer so he would have an excuse to not get on a register. When another customer came by, Bradley asked him about the first thing that came to his mind.
“Can you show me where the scooters are? I was thinking of buying one.”
Cain gave him an incredulous look before remembering the game they were playing. “Yes, sir,” he said in his best customer service voice. “Of course.”
And he led him to the aisle, away from the customer who actually needed help.
Once alone, Cain hit Bradley in the arm. “Scooters, bro? Are you fucking serious?”
“It was the first thing that came to my mind,” he said with a laugh. “I’m sorry.”
But Cain had that look in his eyes. The one he’d had a month ago, in his backyard on his birthday.
Below the sound of the store’s music, there was the soft whooshing sound of movement.
He was looking straight over Bradley’s shoulder, down the aisle. When Bradley looked back too, the wheels of the display scooters and bikes were all spinning, all turning on their own.
The sound of leaning. Of metal. Of buckling, of crunching, and—
Cain grabbed Bradley by the arm and ran out of the aisle as the displays came down, bringing the shelves, cables, boxes all down with it.
Bradley looked between the destroyed aisle and Cain’s terrified face, the same expression as the terrified twelve-year-old he’d caught on camera five years ago.
“Remember that time you almost died?” Bradley asked suddenly.
Cain’s head snapped to look at him like he was coming out of a trance. “What, you mean just now?” he nearly shouted.
“When we were kids,” he answered. “What if it’s your old scooter coming back to haunt you?”
Cain was halfway between laughing and crying. “What?”
“You know, like… it wants revenge.”
Cain gasped for breath. “What, like it blames me for it getting run over?”
“I’m just saying, you coulda gone down with it. You jumped off.”
“If I saved your life just now, is it gonna haunt you too?” Cain sighed a breathy laugh.
Bradley looked over to protest, but Cain was smiling again.
“Punk ass scooter can come say it to my face,” he decided.
So, he did not hide from the noises after that. He had no illusions about his life—he knew that since his twelfth birthday, he’d been living on borrowed time. He treasured every moment of it, laughing as loudly and as often as he could.
So, when the scooter, on his seventy-seventh birthday, came to him again as he walked home from the bus stop, he could do nothing but laugh once more. Here it was, in front of him, full, shiny and beautiful. Almost like new.
Cain observed it carefully, matching the dents to the ones from his memories. To the pieces that were always left lying somewhere nearby so he could never forget how he abandoned that new, beautiful scooter he’d waited eight months for—leaving it in the middle of the road like a dead animal.
“All these years you couldn’t let me enjoy my birthday. Are you finally gonna let me rest tonight?”
It squeaked towards him, finally whole, finally complete after years of being dumped in the trash can. Sixty-five years later, and as it wheeled towards him, slowly, steadily, on its own, Cain realized he was still not ready to face this.
“What do you want? An apology? You wanted me to go down with you?”
The scooter continued.
Cain watched it, taking a few steps back, wondering what was so fucking menacing about a goddamn scooter. But it dented in front of him, and he winced at the sound of metal on metal and he remembered with a white-hot searing pain what it was that had allowed him to live for so long.
“I just wanted a goddamn scooter for my birthday. All the kids had them except me,” he said, falling hard to his brittle knees. “And I worked so fucking hard. Bret Sullivan’s older brother stole the replacement three weeks later. I didn’t ever ride it anyway.”
It was still squeaking—still whirring in his head. He felt like a kid again, shaking, terrified, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, his eyes squeezing closed. “I didn’t want to die.”
The sound stopped.
Cain forced his eyes open.
A large pickup blew through the intersection.
Cain didn’t move. He watched the truck drive by, drive through the scooter, watched it explode into pieces of shrapnel and fall onto the street like it had when he was twelve. A piece flew by him, nicking his forehead.
And for the last time in his life, Cain Mariner narrowly avoided death. On his seventy-eighth birthday, he did not hear the squeaking or the crunches of metal, did not find pieces of scooter or shrapnel.
He passed peacefully when he was eighty-two years old in his sleep, seventy years after his first near death experience.