I grew up on a wheat farm in Sweetwater, Oklahoma. The town is famous for the sweet tang in the water. Plants grow at twice the normal rate because of it. From my room on the second floor, I’d sit for hours watching the wheat fields around our home. That’s how I saw the reapers for the first time.
They’re tall, just shorter than the tallest stalks in the field, and they move in a swaying motion, like wheat blowing in the breeze. You’ll only see them at night and never under a full moon. They were a fact of life on the farm — something you always knew was there but never paid any mind.
There’s only one rule in Sweetwater: don’t drink the water. It makes you sweeter, Ma used to say, to all kinds of things. Then she’d glance at the fields and look back at us with nary a wink or a grin.
The first time I did it was on a dare. “It’ll give you the strength of ten men,” said Tommy Harlson, heir to the richest farm in town. “That’s what father does, and he’s home for dinner early every night.”
That afternoon, when Ma took the laundry out to the line, I snuck into the kitchen, filled the ladle straight from the tap and sucked it down. The rest of the day passed for normal. At dinner, Pa asked about my day. I kept a straight face. Whether I was a good liar or he was too tired to see it, I’ll never know, but I made up to bed without a hitch.
I woke up to rain on my windowsill. A storm had blown in during the night, and lightning made the wheat dance like ghosts. It was fun to watch; reapers hated storms. If you looked closely, you could see them scampering through the fields in search of a hiding spot.
I climbed out of bed and scurried to the window. When lightning flashed again, I scanned the field. Something at the edge of the yard made me stop – something standing still against the wheat. Even though I couldn’t see its eyes, I knew the reaper was looking back at me. The flash faded, and I found myself counting the seconds until another bolt lit the yard. When it did, I found it halfway across the yard, near the tire swing Pa had made for me.
I hurried back to bed. The next flash came and went, and I thought my imagination was playing tricks when I heard the roof creaking overhead.
I glanced at the window.
Two glowing eyes stared back at me, white and round like full moons. Lightning flashed. I screamed as it outlined the reaper’s thin silhouette. The light faded; the eyes disappeared. I heard footsteps coming down the hall. Pa, probably, thinking I had a nightmare.
I was trying to think of what to tell him when icy pain pricked my skin just below my cheekbone. Cold breath washed over my skin, and a thin line of blood oozed onto a slender, white finger. Two pale eyes winked to life beside me, peeking over the bedside.
“Sweeeeeet,” it whispered.
The board outside my door creaked a moment before the light clicked on. Warm light soaked the walls, and I bolted upright. My eyes tore around the room, looking for a sign, looking for the reaper. The room was empty.
I was beginning to think it was a dream when a drop of blood snaked down my cheek and splattered onto my fingers.
“Son,” Pa said, slow and clear, “have you been drinking the water?”