The Man Who Was Deathly Afraid of Death

The Man Who Was Deathly Afraid of Death by Kaylie Barreda

Ruiz Aguilar was young when his father died. They’d tell Ruiz that his father’s death was an accident, that even though his father, Reinaldo, smoked three packs of Marlboro cigarettes a day, he was still in decent health for a man of thirty-six. Sometimes, people were just in the wrong place at the right time.  

Reinaldo Aguilar was shot outside the Catedral de Matamoros. The bullet strayed from the robbery across Calle Cinco and flew into his chest. Reinaldo died before the afternoon mass had ended. When Father Sono tried to release the congregation, the looming church doors wouldn’t open. The heavy wood pushed back at Father Sono.  

“Esto es Dios! He wants us to continue our worship.” And so, Father Sono returned to his brassy podium and spoke, through a mouth of spit,  John 15:7.  

If ye abide by me, and my words abide in you. Ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.  

In the house of the Lord, the congregation pronounced it ah-men. On the second attempt to lead them out, in peace to love and serve their mutual Lord, the doors pushed back again. Father Sono, out of breath and sweating, smeared the bottom of his holy stole across his drenched forehead. Two other men threw themselves against the dark wood until it gave. More hands gathered on the doors and shoved. Once the doors finally creaked and sighed, the congregation cursed Reinaldo Aguilar’s name.  And since his last cigarette had continued to burn in his left hand, most were shocked when Father Sono announced that Reinaldo had been dead after all.  

The funeral was held a week later in the same Catedral de Matamoros because Anita Aguilar believed that Reinaldo would’ve wanted it there. Where fifteen years ago, they had promised in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, and until death. Anita Aguilar was young then too. She was only thirty-three when Reinaldo passed. Her hair was long then, black brushed straight. Her gray hair didn’t come in until she turned fifty-two. Then it was like all of the aging came at her all at once.  

Anita carried Ruiz up the cement steps, not looking down as she climbed them. The sight of the brown clay walls grew around the young Ruiz. The bronzed bell above them clanged into the quiet morning.  

Inside, the air reeked of gardenias. Father Sono didn’t quite know how to say this to a grieving young widow, but gardenias were a strange flower for a funeral to have. He thought they smelled too sweet. Death wasn’t supposed to smell sweet. It was meant to leave a stench, like myrrh smoking out of a thurible at mass. None of that mattered to Anita. What mattered was that Reinaldo was the one in the casket.  

“Dejalo.” Was all Anita said.  

The Catedral de Matamoros didn’t believe in windows. Windows gave the congregation the opportunity to get distracted. To look away from their Lord and Savior strung up at the end of the aisle. Where His flesh clung to each rib. Where His crown of thorns pierced away at the thin, delicate skin above the human brow. Where His only protection from the world was the white fabric tied around the hips. With hunger, it swallowed more of Him. On the cross, He wept down at Reinaldo. The casket rested just before the high altar. Row by row, members of the Aguilar family took the Eucharist, ah-men, and said their goodbyes. They each gave Reinaldo his final sign of the cross. They’d graze his forehead, his right shoulder, then the left, and softly pat his chest. Ah-men. 

Ruiz was too short to look into the coffin. His eyesight stopped right at the bottom, where the glazed wood was wiped sheen and reflected his young face right back. But Ruiz knew his father was in there. He smacked a chubby palm on the reflection. Tío Miguel dragged his feet until he reached Ruiz. Tío Miguel smelled of cigars and smiled with both rows of his wide teeth. Ruiz was too distracted by the vitiligo on Tío’s hands to notice that he was being lifted up. Tío Miguel grabbed the young boy from under the armpits and hovered Ruiz above the casket. Slightly resting Ruiz’s knee on the seam of polyester and oak. 

“Mira,” Miguel whispered. 

Ruiz took one look at Reinaldo and his hair went white.  Then his face did too. Each follicle seared from fright. Poor little Ruiz’s small body couldn’t contain anymore terror. To make more room, Ruiz’s tiny voice left him too. Terror filled up every organ in Ruiz, saving his eyes for last. They bulged open, a new vessel appearing with each second he looked down. Down at the corpse death left behind.  

Reinaldo’s eyes were barely shut. The light fingers of whoever laid Reinaldo to rest, slid the cold, thin lids into slits. The whites of his rolled back eyes looked out from those slits, out towards his ashen cowboy boots. In his cold wrinkled hand, Reinaldo clutched his ranchero hat, keeping it over his silent heart.  

Tío Miguel ignored the boy’s white hair and kept Ruiz up in the air. Through his thick teeth, Tío Miguel said, “Todos morimos, pequeño. Así es la vida.” 

It would take a few years for Ruiz’s voice to find him again. But even when it did, it only returned as a whisper. A permanent laryngitis. As if Ruiz spoke any louder, death would remember that he existed and come find him too.  

Death found Ruiz Aguilar the same way it found his father eighty-four years earlier, with pure luck. The eighty-eight year old cobarde had been caught laughing. The sound had ripped out from him so suddenly, his hoarse cackle, that once Ruiz had started, he couldn’t figure out how to make himself stop. All because poor old Ruiz Aguilar woke up and needed to pray.  

Ruiz was outside before the birds started their chirping. Along the Calle Cinco, the dark was everywhere. It seeped into Ruiz’s peripheral vision. Only contained behind the glass panels of the shop windows. The pavement was cracked and uneven. Bunches of weeds grew from the black lines. Fire ants piled hills high in the hollowed cement. Ruiz swung his stiff leg over each cut in the pavement until he reached where the sidewalk ended. The bronze bell clanged five times when Ruiz touched the steps of the church. Right on time, like always. And like his mother, Ruiz kept his eyes off the ground as he walked up. 

The church was silent. Father Sono had passed away a few years before Anita. The new priest was a younger man named Father Jorge. Ruiz had never met Father Jorge but was told he had a strict character. Confessions used to be offered early in the day but a week into his tenure, the CCD class complained that after they had confessed their worst sins (the most condemning was being born Catholic), Father Jorge had yawned and asked them if that was all they could think of. He had recommended at least three Hail Mary’s for the ones who were guilty of lying to their parents. And to the really miserable ones, the ones who often took the Lord’s name in vain, Father Jorge lost all patience and told them that God doesn’t forget. The miserable ones went home and cried to their parents about how God wasn’t as forgiving as they had been promised. After enough complaints, Father Jorge only held confessions in the evenings, after mass. Ruiz never went to mass. He only prayed because of Anita.  

Ruiz dipped his shaking hand into the bowl of holy water. He splashed a sign on the cross as he continued up to the altar of candles, avoiding the weeping Christ. The altar burned red. Rows of rosy glasses flickered with their small fires. Ruiz quietly picked up a wooden lighter and caught light from another prayer candle. “Lo siento.” Ruiz whispered into the weak flame. He lit his two candles. 

In the mornings the church used the arch lamps. The glass chandeliers that hung above Ruiz were meant for mass. For worship. To illuminate the teachings and glory of the Bible. The lamp light was unstable, dying out and coming back to life constantly. Shadows grew on the ceiling, as if the heat had burned them there. They loomed over Ruiz in his second-row pew. Down on his good knee.  

Ruiz’s hands ached. The ache was shallow. It kept itself just below the skin. It laid there, contracting until it throbbed like a set of lungs. Before he prayed, Ruiz looked down at his swollen palms and swore they were breathing. Ruiz clenched them together, his decaying flesh. Even the hair sprouted out at his knuckles had aged to gray. God only left the hair that grew out of his skull bone-white. 

The Lord’s Prayer was always recited first.  

Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done. On Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread. And forgive us for our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 


When Ruiz sat back, the screw from a brass dedication plate etched itself into his spine. A quien madruga, Dios le ayuda. Oh if only that had been true. After his father had died, Anita had become obsessed with symbols and meanings. She believed that Reinaldo would send her blue things to remind her that he was still there. Just far away. Little Ruiz was still near enough to worry about. His ghastly white hair told Anita that the boy had been not just scared, but petrified by his father’s corpse. Ruiz had been scrawny, smaller than the other little boys his age. His cheeks drooped down, the bags under his wide eyes were purple, with blood that had clotted there after so many long sleepless nights.  

At first, Anita believed that all little Ruiz needed was to have an egg passed over him. She’d rub the shell of the raw egg over each joint on his small quaking body while she muttered prayers to God. Then the egg was cracked over a cup of water. The yolk had been intact and clean. How strange. If the disease wasn’t Ojo, then it was only fear. And fear could be cured. Anita attempted to do just that.  

In the Plaza de Hidalgo, there used to be a swing set. Little Ruiz had liked for the wind to push his body around on the rubber seat. That way he was able to watch the clouds pass overhead and count each car that revved down Cinco. Back then, his legs had been too short to touch the ground. And maybe that’s why Anita went behind little Ruiz and shoved his swing. Maybe she got nervous that if she hadn’t taught Ruiz to be brave, he wouldn’t be able to live without her. With that, Anita gave one final push and sent Ruiz up into the clouded sky. She had hoped that he’d jump. But with each creak of the rusting metal chain, Ruiz screamed. His voice had come back to him with a brief vengeance. He screamed until the swing settled itself and his throat had been torn raw. Despite his careful dismount, Ruiz remembered how quickly the ground had flown at him. He tried to remember the pain. But it had only been a scrape, right at the knee where the dry mulch had sliced it, and the dirt nestled into the open wound. Ruiz had cried.  

Anita had spoken down at her son softly, “Is it still hurting you, mijo?”  

Ruiz nodded.  

“Well,” Anita hiked up her skirt and got down to little Ruiz’s eye level, “If it hurts you that badly, we can just cut it off. Then it won’t hurt anymore.”  

Ruiz had cried with no sound. When his face got red enough, Anita laughed, “Oh I was just joking, you can keep it. Not everything is so serious.” It had been the first time Anita had laughed since Reinaldo died. Or at least, the first time Ruiz had heard it again. The giggles had come out in hiccups. As if there were bubbles of laughing gas trapped somewhere inside of her diaphragm. The laughter pinched her cheekbones and cramped her stomach so much, she had barely regained her breath.  

Ruiz unclenched his jaw. With a grunt, he pulled the padded knee rest down and lowered himself down. He clasped his wrinkled hands together again. 

“Ayúdame, Dios.” Ruiz looked around to be sure that he was alone. Then, with his back straightened, Ruiz looked up at the bleeding Christ and begged, “Kill me. Please let me die easily. While I sleep. I beg for peace and your mercy. Let tonight be my final day and let tonight be the final night I close my eyes. I pray.” 

And although the words only came out in a hoarse whisper, Ruiz felt as relieved as he would’ve been had he screamed them. Ruiz prayed for a mercy he knew only God had the power to provide. And Anita had promised that through our prayers, God would listen.  

“God gives us strength.” Anita had kissed the cold face of Our Lady Guadalupe, adjusting the dainty chain around her throat. Reinaldo had been gone for two years and by then, Grief had hardened her faith and thinned her lips. “But He makes us pray for it.” Anita had told little Ruiz to shut his eyes. She had made him promise to keep them closed until the birds started chirping, then his hair would return to normal. He’d be cured! But the birds had chirped, they whistled and cawed. And Anita had returned to a trembling little Ruiz, with hair white like gardenias. 


Ruiz walked back up the altar to light another candle. But the weak flame refused to light anything else.  

The chain-linked fence rattled behind him. Through the dirt path, Ruiz found his orange tree. Most of the rinds were still too green. But behind a hidden bunch of blossoms, was an orange ripe enough to be picked off the thorned branch. At his age, Ruiz ate to make the stomach pain go away. But as he tore away the peel, Ruiz started salivating. Spit dribbled down the side of his mouth and crusted over before he could wipe it away. The peeled pieces fell to his feet like petals. Soon, specks of brown ants would pile over each other to find the discarded and decomposing waste. 

Ruiz closed his eyes while he ate. It was the only way he could focus on how many times he had chewed. He always ate his scraps slowly. Entirely. He chewed until the tiniest bit of pulp was nothing but mush in his mouth. Until all he had to do was swallow it, like saliva, or he’d spit it right out on the dirt where it belonged. Ruiz bit the next slice in half. The juice spat back at him, into his throat, splattering at the uvula. Suddenly, it was like every breath tickled. Ruiz cleared his throat. He pounded at his chest in two beats thu-thump. The deep breath was a reflex, a quick prep before a cough. But it had brought in enough air to shove that last bite to the back of Ruiz Aguilar’s throat.  

Ruiz felt his head pulse with blood. The rampant pounding of his heart. That goddamn bloody motor. Blots of black stained the parts of his vision that the glaucoma hadn’t already fogged. His wrinkled knuckles clenched his throat, wrapping around it like anyone but God had been watching. No! Not like this! Ruiz had not begged God on his knees for this.  

Ruiz made a fist. He put it just under the ribs and slammed his abdomen to high heaven. But the pumped air didn’t bring anything back up. It had only made his eyeballs bulge in and out from their sockets. In his desperation, his right hand released its fist and shoved itself down the esophagus. Five fingernails scraped along the slimy lining, leaving behind long red scratches. His vision was beginning to eclipse. His mind was back and standing at the altar lighting the candles. Back to Jesus and the Virgin Mary who pitied him. Who wept for him. Poor old Ruiz Aguilar, getting what he deserved. Their tears, merely drips of blood. This is what you wanted, Ruiz! This is death! 

Ruiz dry-heaved the orange blob into his sharp nails. He retched until the piece came out entirely, it went onto the patch of dried grass, pooled in foam spit.  

The air came back to Ruiz slowly. His head felt like a balloon that someone kept pumping with too much oxygen. No, not oxygen. His body swayed with the wind, a smile curved at the ends of his thinned, chapped lips. Laughing gas! That was what made his head ache and float above his shoulders.  

Por que, if it hurts you that badly, we should just cut it off. Anita’s voice was brought back from beyond the grave.  

“Cut it off!” Ruiz screamed.  

His throat felt incinerated. The vocal cords didn’t know how to vibrate fast enough after a lifetime of only whispering. His voice cracked, losing itself before Ruiz could finish the cry.  

“Chinga tu madre.” Ruiz said, his red-brimmed eyes glared up at the sky.  

Lodged in that same deep crevice where the orange had hid, Ruiz felt another tickle. The first laugh surprised him, the feeling of it at least. The quick spasm, a hiccup where you waited, wide-eyed, for the next one to come. The small sensitive child in Ruiz wailed. No! No! No! Can’t you remember? We have to be quiet! Death will find us! A second burst of chuckles found Ruiz. It sent more spit flying off his licked bottom lip.  

“Let’s just cut it off.” Ruiz croaked. He had felt so heavy from these last eighty-eight years, it was like he had discovered that someone had put rocks in his pockets, coughed water into his chest, and then suddenly it all got poured out. Just because of this thing. This tiny thing. A piece of an orange nearly killed him and how light it was! Lighter than his own breath. More laughter came up and out.  

The laughter built up octaves until the sound became hacking, then retching. The left side of his stomach cramped, the muscles twisted. He was a sprinter without water. Without enough air. Ruiz’s stomach throbbed at the same rate as his heart. Both ached and burned, chewing at themselves, greedy like hunger. Even his teeth hurt. Left out in the air too long to dry out like raisins. Saliva worked its way into the corners of his mouth and dried up too. That way, while Ruiz went on smiling, pinched cheeks up to his eyes, the dried pieces cut away at those crusted corners with every millimeter of movement Ruiz’s locked jaw made. He felt each vein in his neck throb with the rushing blood. The carotid, the jugular. Breathe! They pounded. Breathe! 

His abdominal muscles went stiff before they started twitching. The cramps and the fit of laughter shoved Ruiz down onto his knees. The good and the bad. It snapped his head back to look up at the morning sky, the sky so full of what he desperately wanted. No. Needed.  

Ruiz clamped his hands together for mercy, pleading for God to save him. But God already was. In the distance, the church bell clanged seven times.  

When the laughter died it became a cackle. Guttural. Ruiz didn’t know what to do with his hands when the air finally ran out. Everything burned. It felt like fire ants had crawled into his body, through his organs, and were having a feast. The tendons in his neck protruded. The tidal breath left his pursed, agonized mouth in a whoosh. Ruiz collapsed. Urine left his body the way blood poured out of wounds. It soiled the earth. The earth that would soon devour him. 

Kaylie Barreda is from Houston, Texas and is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at New York University. Kaylie’s work appears in Volume 9, Issue 1 of Warwick Uncanny’s Undergraduate Literary Journal. Although she doesn’t consider herself a horror writer, after reading enough Stephen King, horror just finds its way into her stories.