This story is by Jessica Gruber and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
His life was blissfully perfect. The parties, the dancing, the talk, the knowledge that he could have whatever he wanted when he wanted, and the drug made everything blissful.
He leaned on the high table beside him, sipping his drink. The room was a picture of glitter and tinsel. The ladies wore their black dresses and heels, men wore their tuxes and ties. They danced to music that throbbed with their pulse. They whispered in corners and candlelight. All of them drank perfect bliss. He pulled a little vial of it from his pocket and let a drop or two fall into his drink. He nearly downed his martini.
He turned. A young woman, a long-legged beauty, came up to him. Her hips swung with every step, an outward sign of their tucked away relationship. Oh, but he did love her. The way her eyes sparkled with a secret made bliss that much brighter.
“James, darling,” she said, throwing her clutch upon the table with a seductive little pout, “I’m terribly bored. Let’s do something fun. You’ve all but ignored me this entire evening.”
“My dearest Zara, have I?” said James, a smile crept over his lips. “Well, allow me to remedy that.” He offered her his arm. “What did you have in mind?”
“Well,” she said, slipping her arm through his, “we could sneak off. I had something I wanted to tell you.” She smiled sweetly.
“If you insist,” he said, leading the way to one of the secluded halls.
“Here,” she said, holding his arm to stop him. “This room is quite enough.”
“Here? It’s hardly more than a closet. Dear Zara,” began James.
She wouldn’t let him finish and pulled him inside. “Do you think anyone saw?” Light lit her face from the lamps outside the frosted window. The shadow of snow danced over her skin.
“Does that really matter?” he asked and leaned forward to kiss her.
She stopped him. “James, you need to listen to me.”
James pouted, but he frowned when he looked at her eyes. A sliver of light illuminated her face. The spark wasn’t there. Fear replaced it. He hadn’t seen fear in years, no one had it. The bliss took it away. “Darling, what’s wrong?”
“James, you must listen, you’re not going to believe me, but you must listen.”
“Alright,” he said.
“You must stop taking the drug.”
He almost laughed. “What? Don’t be silly. Everyone takes it.”
He almost drew back from her.
“James,” she said, putting her hand in his, “James, darling, none of this is what you think it is. If you stop taking the drug, you’ll see that. It’s all…illusion, for lack of a better word.”
“Zara,” James said, concern creeping in at the edge of his voice, “sweetheart, what makes you even say that? You shouldn’t stop taking it. It’ll make you, like this.”
She looked down at their hands. “Do you trust me?”
That melted James. “Zara, of course I do. But what is wrong?”
She breathed in and let out her breath slowly. “Do you remember when the Prime Minister announced this? The drug that anyone could have?”
“Of course,” said James. “I funded it. It ended the war.”
She looked him in the eye. The spark returned with an unknown fear. “I know, James, that’s why I came to you.”
“Zara, I can’t see what you mean—”
“I’m part of the force that’s been against it from the beginning. Not against you, against the drug. They’ve used it James, the people in charge, they’ve used it to destroy our country and others. The world is falling apart.” She shook her head and words became whispers. “I just couldn’t once I knew…”
James rested his hands by her cheeks. “England is perfectly safe, darling,” he said, wishing she would stop, that the fear would go away, “and so is France. You could look out the window right now and see Paris is thriving.”
“James!” She shoved his hands away. “It isn’t real. What you see out that window is not the same as what you’re standing in. Paris fell a long time ago. Half the city is gone and the streets are overgrown. This building is hardly sturdy enough to hold us.” She sighed. “Even the cake you’ve been eating isn’t cake.”
James could feel his patience slipping. “If it’s all so dangerous what are you doing here? Honestly, I’d think you’d had too much to drink if that were still possible in this day and age.”
“It is possible James. You’ve done it several times even though you don’t know it.” Her face was sad, something he didn’t think he’d ever see. “I had to stop when I knew what it did to you. What it’s doing to you.” She rested her hand on his chest. “And I won’t let you live like this anymore. I can’t let you freeze to death on an estate that’s torn apart by this war.”
Her hand was warm and he realized he was cold. It pricked and shivered over the surface of his skin. He shook it off. “Darling Zara, the war is over.”
“It isn’t James. Not yet. But we’re trying to end it. We’re trying to save everyone.” She grabbed his arm. “You could join us. We’re not sure what to do next, but you could end the war if you helped us. They already trust you.”
His temper flared. “Is that what this is? You just want me to join your little renegades because of my money and influence?”
She let go of him. Her arms hung at her side, her wrists glittering with diamonds he’d give her. Shadows danced over her face. “No,” she said in hardly more than a whisper. “I want you to join because I believe you’ll do good. And because I want you to stop living this lie.”
He frowned. “What you’re telling me sounds like a lie.”
“If you stop taking the drug, you’d see the truth,” she said. She lifted her hand to touch his face.
The light outside dimmed. Shadows gathered in the room. He couldn’t understand.
“I should go.”
He grabbed her wrist. “Zara, it’s too hard to believe.”
“I know,” she said and gently pried his fingers away. “But you must try. I…I can’t bear it anymore.” She slipped from the room, letting the door swing open, leaving him with the echo of her heels and the whisper of her words. And there was something else. What was it?
He returned to the hall with something that wasn’t bliss. Something he hadn’t felt since bliss arrived. Was it doubt? Maybe fear. Disappointment? Whatever it was, he didn’t want it. He didn’t want that feeling to rest in his chest, where it settled now as the cold settled in his bones.
He needed a drink. He needed bliss.
He strode down the hall and up to the bar, the distant crunch of snow and ash beneath his feet. He rapped the counter with his knuckles. Bits of wood scratched his skin. The bartender looked him over and nodded. James reached for the vial in his pocket, where bliss rested.
The bartender handed him his drink.
James pulled out the little bottle and brought it to the edge.
But he hesitated, the fear in Zara’s eyes reflected in the glass.
He took a sip and hid the bottle away.
Two men watched from the corners.
He leaned on the high counter. A shiver crept up his spine. Everyone danced, in their heels and suits. They whispered over lightless candles. They drank and stumbled with the thrum of music. Not one of them looked blissful.