This story is by Adam E. Farence and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Nausea welled up in Alex’s throat as he checked social media. Curiosity had gotten the better of him, and he had decided to see what his ex-girlfriend had been up to.
That was a mistake.
She was arm-in-arm with another man in her profile picture. He flipped through several others. As he did, depression pierced his heart.
Several photos showed them happily walking along a mountain trail with a gorgeous view of the valley below. Fall leaves added magnificent color to the photographs. A few had the sun perfectly positioned in the corner, casting Alex’s former lover and her new beau in a warm light.
The dates on the pictures went back several months; Alex’s willpower to avoid her Facebook page held strong up until now. Their breakup had been a rough one and he did his best to bury thoughts of her in his mind.
Alex looked out the window from his New York City apartment. Night had fallen – not that it mattered since high-rise apartments shielded his window from the sun. All he could see was his own reflection.
As he stared into his face, he realized just how worn down he looked. His blue eyes sank into his skull, his face looked like it had aged several years. Normally clean-shaven, a beard had grown into a tangled mess. He touched his hand to the glass. The cold winter air on the other side sucked the heat right out.
His phone rang. Sarah – his sister – popped up on the screen. It was a photo of her and Alex when they were kids. He ignored it.
Resigned to the depression twisting in his chest, he put on a thick winter coat, gloves, jeans, and boots. He walked out of his cramped apartment and down a tiny hallway that led to a flimsy pair of double glass doors. Pushing through them, Alex walked into night’s cold embrace.
Alex meandered through city streets – everything had closed for the evening, save for a few late-night restaurants and convenience stores. He avoided them all and walked along the water’s edge, staring at it intently.
Gravel crunched underneath his boots as he walked along the Hudson. The piercing wind and freezing temperatures kept him company. His gloves didn’t fully protect him from the cold and his hands cried out in pain as the wind felt like dozens of tiny razors slicing into him.
At first, he shivered against the cold. But he kept walking. The path rounded a corner where a bunch of trees grew. Behind them he was out of sight of any buildings. Treeless leaves cut off the little city light that still reached Alex.
It was well past midnight. Behind the thicket of trees shielding him from the rest of humanity’s glow, Alex stood out and looked across the Hudson. There was no light anywhere. He could hear the river lapping at the little stony beach he knew was in front of him.
He had stopped shivering now. Heavy depression pressed down on him, mollifying any desire to keep warm. As the piercing cold kept digging deeper and deeper into him, he kept thinking to himself:
“I deserve this.”
The entirety of his past relationship assaulted his mind – everything he had done wrong. Everything he had thought he had done wrong. What he could have done differently. What might have been.
His soul had started to turn to ice.
He fell to his knees. The wind hadn’t stopped. But the feeling of razor blades on his skin did.
Alex closed his eyes and felt like he was about to slip into a deep sleep.
Alex opened his eyes but didn’t see anything. He couldn’t hear anything. He could only feel that he was lying down on the ground with his head turned to the side and his arms sprawled out.
Her voice, both soothing and authoritative, rang throughout Alex’s soul. Alex mustered up some energy and rose to his feet. He tried looking around, but all he saw was inky blackness. The sound of water lapping up against the shore was gone.
A white ball of light appeared in front of him. Dimly at first, but it quickly grew in brightness and size before taking the form of woman with dark eyes and long dark hair. A long white cloak hid her body.
Alex stood in awe of the person before him.
“Who are you?” he asked.
His question went unanswered as part of her cloak leapt out at Alex, quickly ensnaring him before he had a chance to react. His arms and legs were bound together.
She lifted him off the ground and brought him closer to her face – he could feel powerful energy roiling through the cloak as it moved.
Her eyes locked tightly with his. Alex couldn’t look away even if he wanted to.
“I see your tortured soul, Alex” she said. “I can remove the pain for you. But think carefully before you say yes.”
Alex, still unsure of who, or what was holding him, asked again: “who are you?”
Her cloak tightened around him, squeezing the air out of his lungs – almost to the point of breaking his bones.
“If you agree, I will remove your feelings of depression and anxiety forever. But it comes with a cost – you will not feel happiness for the rest of your life.”
The deep knot of misery inside Alex’s stomach began to blossom in his mind. He thought only of sunshine and sweet memories of love long gone. Sunshine that now belonged to his ex-girlfriend and her new man.
With a broken, ice-cold soul, Alex said those fateful words.
“Yes, anything for a life worth living.”
Silence reigned for a few minutes.
“Very well then,” she said.
Bright light erupted from Alex’s mouth as his blue eyes glowed. The weight of his depression curled up and started to lift. Up through his throat and out of his mouth – and into hers. She swallowed.
The lights stopped.
“For a life worth living indeed,” she said.
Everything faded to black.
Alex’s alarm went off. He rolled out of bed, got dressed, and walked out the door. Before him stood a vast forest, with not another house in sight. Years had passed since that walk along the Hudson.
The sun danced through the trees. The weather was warm, calm, and energetic. Spring had sprung, trees showed signs of life as little buds started to grow. Flowers around Alex’s home had started to bloom.
A stream cut lazily through his backyard. Birds flew overhead, speedily navigating their way between branches.
Alex walked around his house and down towards the mailbox. He opened it and pulled out several letters. One from his sister, another from his parents, and the electric bill. He walked back to his house and put the letters from his family into the trash.
He was in the middle of making some bacon and eggs for breakfast when he heard a knock at the door. It was his sister, Sarah.
“Alex! It’s so good to see you!” she said with a huge, nervous smile on her face. She wrapped him up in a huge bear hug.
“Hi Sarah” he said flatly, unmoving.
She didn’t wait for an invitation and hurriedly walked inside.
“How have you been Alex?” Sarah said. “You haven’t been home to see mom and dad, and we haven’t heard from you for years!”
“I’ve been alright,” he said in a monotone voice.
Sarah fought her best to prevent her concern from showing. But her willpower cracked, and her smile fell.
“Alex, are you alright? You’ve just up and vanished from everyone! Ever since you moved away from New York we’ve barely heard from you.”
“I’m alright,” he said in his same voice.
An awkward silence followed. Only Sarah felt it.
“Alex…” She said. “You can talk to me. We miss you, what’s wrong?”
Her eyes looked down and saw the torn-up letters in the trash. Her face started to well up in tears.
“Alex…why…why don’t you want anything to do with us anymore? Your family, your friends, we’re all concerned for you.”
“Don’t be,” Alex said. “I’m fine out here.”
“Don’t you care about us?” Sarah asked, exasperated.
“I don’t feel much of anything,” he said.
Sarah’s soul shattered.
“I…I don’t know you anymore,” she said. Sarah walked towards the door and opened it, letting warm sunlight spill into Alex’s house.
“Is this really a life you want Alex? Is this a life worth living to you?” Sarah asked, tears streaming down her face.
“It is,” Alex said.
Sarah slammed the door, cutting off the sunlight from reaching into Alex’s house.
Alex continued to make breakfast.