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The first time I saw it, I was at the bedside of my grandfather.

I must have been ten or twelve at the time. My Grampa had been slowly dying of lung cancer, a self-imposed death spread out over three years. He was as lucid as ever - flirting with the nurses, cracking a smile to expose the rotted stumps of his teeth as he kidded around with the staff in the hospice. He knew he was dying, but he didn't want to go out with a whimper. I always loved my Grampa for that little show of bravery.

He was telling my Dad and me the joke about the barber and the nun when he just started shaking. Something furry and black had crawled from underneath his pillow and was sucking the air out of his lungs. I could tell my Grampa knew it - there was something in his eyes I had never seen before. Years later, I recognized it as fear.

Apparently my Dad couldn't see the black thing as it moved its little spidery legs to get a better angle to suck the breath out of the dying man. The head was almost cat-like, but the body was more like an insect. I tried to bat it away, but I couldn't seem to hit it. It moved just before my hand got there, almost as though it knew what my actions were before I did. It cast a raven-black eye at me and seemed to be annoyed I had seen it, let alone attempted to hit it.

My Dad had apparently been yelling for a minute or so, because the room became flooded with hospice workers. I tried to say something about the creature, but it had slipped underneath the pillow out of sight. My Grampa lay silently on the bed; the rattling breath no longer permeated the room. Nurses were crying, my Dad was yelling, but nobody noticed the little black spider-cat as it slid along the wallboard until it ran from the room.

Over the years, I saw it a few times. One time it was in my doghouse, and my pet didn't survive the encounter. I spied it at the deathbeds of other family members, including my Dad. He didn't learn from the example set by Grampa, and died of lung cancer too. The funny thing was I saw three different ones that day, all going into rooms near where my father lay cooling. Those families also experienced the same loss as I had.

Nobody else seemed to be able to see them. They quickly moved out of the way of running feet, deftly hopped over the dustmop being pushed around by the janitor making Porsche driving noises. Even my daughter didn't notice them, although one stopped in its tracks to stare at her.

On the drive home, my daughter talked about my father, and how glad she was that she and I were the last people he saw. I couldn't follow her logic, but I just grunted and said "yep" every few lines in her monologue. I was thinking about the one creature that had stopped to look at my little girl, and how it seemed to recognize her. I was so engrossed in thought that I never saw the back of the garbage truck until it was too late.

The sounds of tearing metal, glass shattering and the screaming of a little girl blended together into a slow-motion song of horror. I felt the engine get pushed back onto my legs, and the heat and the flesh ripping caught my breath, until my lower spine snapped, sharply cutting off the pain. I turned to look at my daughter, and saw the tangled bloody mess of hair that covered her beautiful face. I also saw the little creature that was in the hall of the hospital, and it was crawling towards her open mouth.

I grabbed at it. The little cat head was turned away from me and it did not notice my groping. My hand closed around a warm furry body and I squeezed. I expected it to die instantly, but it just squished like a water balloon and began to tear at my hand with its one free leg.

I felt another one, and I knew it was coming for me. If I opened my hand, the one that was looking to suck the breath of my daughter would be free to kill her. I grabbed at the other one, and I caught it too. Both struggled to regain their freedom, and both scratched and bit at my hands. I refused to let them go.

The paramedics and the fire department arrived and extracted both of us. They were very surprised to see one, let alone two survivors. I could hear them feverishly working on my daughter, her body broken from the violence of the crash. They carted her to a waiting helicopter for the long ride to the Children’s Hospital, while I was driven to the same hospital where I had seen my father die.

They worked on me for hours. I refused to have any anesthetic, and my calm demeanor had the staff very confused, even frightened. I knew I was doomed to a wheelchair before they told me, but they had no medical reason for my hands to be clenched permanently into two clawed fists.

My daughter survived, against all odds. Her recovery was miraculous, some of her doctors said. I knew why. I had death - her death - gripped in my right hand. My left hand curled around the death that had been meant for me. As long as I kept my hands clenched into fists, I knew she would be all right. The doctors wrote my useless hands off as palsy, but I knew better. I would make up for my mistake of being a careless driver by being her guardian angel.

Wounds would appear on my hands from time to time as the creatures tried to escape, but I bore the biting and scratching with hardly a wince. I had my hands bound to keep them closed while I slept.

I spent years suffering in silence. At times I saw other creatures, but they always went for other people. Apparently there was only one death per person.

I kept my promise until my 114th birthday. My daughter, who had lived a long and beautiful life, was ninety two. She had developed Alzheimer’s, and was ready to let go. As I let my hands relax for the first time in decades, I saw my great-grandson's eyes watch the creature crawl up towards my mouth. I winked at him, and told him to always watch out for those he loved.

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