The Five Stages of Grief
A man sat by a crackling fire, using a sharp rock to shape a stick he had found into a weapon. A large crack from the fire made him look up. Pools of amber stared impassively at the roaring fire.
This man was Oliver Zhang and ever since he could remember, he had always wanted to live forever. Oliver was fascinated by the world and the humans scattered about it. He wanted to live forever to watch the human race and their actions. What would they look like in a thousand years? How far advanced would they be? Would the world be set back after some horrible natural disaster or war? Oliver wanted to know. But he knew that immortality was just a dream no one could reach. Or so he thought.
Oliver carried on with his life. He graduated from high school and college and married the woman of his dreams; Independence. She had the brightest red hair, the cutest freckles, and very patriotic parents. Though her temper might be short, she was always patient with him. But she wasn’t afraid to tell him the harsh truth when the time came. Oliver truly loved his wife with all of his being. Yet there was one thing Indie couldn’t see through Oliver’s eyes; immortality. While Oliver saw it as the greatest gift, Indie saw it as a horrible curse. She never did tell Oliver why she thought of it that way. Indie always said, “you know me well enough to know why I think like that.” Whenever Oliver felt like he was so close to finally understanding, the sheet would be pulled over his eyes and he was back at square one.
A rustle from the surrounding bushes pulled Oliver out of his thoughts but did not alarm him. A small furry creature came out. It stared at Oliver with curious green eyes, its grey fur puffing up to make it look bigger in a weak attempt to scare him off. Oliver scoffed at the creature.
“Please, you can do whatever you like. Nothing you do will matter,” Oliver murmured and went back to sharpening his stick.
The creature blinked once before scurrying up to Oliver’s lap and resting there. He looked down at the grey puff ball in surprise before resuming his blank expression. Oliver sat the rock and the stick down and watched the flames dance around in the pit he had built. Unconsciously, his hand began to pet the soft creature.
“Hey, Puff Ball,” the creature lifted its head to look at Oliver’s face. “How about I tell you a story? Just for one night though. I don’t want you sticking around.”
The creature, now titled Puff Ball, made a strange noise, almost like a cooing sound. Oliver took it as a yes.
“Many moons ago, there was a fool with a dream.”
Oliver stepped into his house with a sigh of relief. He shrugged off his business coat and threw it onto his arm chair. He walked into the kitchen, loosening his neck tie, and paused in the doorway. A ghost of a smile appeared on his face as he watched his beloved wife run around the kitchen, chopping vegetables and meat then placing them into a pot on the stove. Her ear buds were in place, she was no longer in this world but her own.
Oliver grinned and tiptoed over to the ginger, being careful to not make a single noise. Once he was in arm's reach, Oliver wrapped his arms around Independence and pulled her into him. She yelped in surprise then glared at Oliver once she realized who it was.
“Hello Indie,” Oliver smiled, pulling out an ear bud.
Independence smacked Oliver’s arm, in which he made a noise of protest, and placed her hands on her hips. “I told you to stop doing that! How many is this now?”
Oliver just grinned. “Well, if you include our days before marriage, then about a hundred.”
“You’re such a jerk.”
Independence sighed then smiled sweetly. She pulled on his tie, bringing his face down for a kiss. They savored the sweet and gentle moment as long as they could before pulling away, in dire need of air. Independence resumed cooking and Oliver turned on his music, the smooth voice of Frank Sinatra blaring through the speakers. Together, they finished putting all the ingredients into the pot and ate dinner together at their dining table under candle light. They told each other how their days went and laughed when the time seemed right. After dinner, Oliver and Independence swayed to the music of the King of Swing. It wasn’t long before they turned off all the lights in the house, changed into pajamas, and went to bed with Oliver clinging Independence for warmth.
Oliver blinked and blinked again. He was in a large room with no windows or doors, the walls made of solid concrete. It was cold. Where was his warmth? Where was Independence?
“Indie,” Oliver yelled, his voice echoing throughout the room. “Where are you, Indie?”
“Could you please keep your voice down?”
Oliver jumped at the new voice. It wasn’t his Indie, it was a man. The man was a baritone, sounding so smooth and calm, but for some reason this voice put Oliver on edge. It sent chills down his spine and made him look frantically around the room. A man appeared out of nowhere directly in front of Oliver. Oliver let out an unmanly shriek and jumped backwards, his heart racing in his chest. The man, if you could even call him that, merely laughed at Oliver. He was nothing more than a pure black figure, a three-dimensional shadow. The only features Oliver could possibly see was his blindingly white smile and two white circles he assumed were eyes.
“What are you?” Oliver asked breathlessly.
A dream. He was obviously a dream, there was no other explanation. The concrete walls, the disappearance of his wife, the . . . thing in front of him, it all had to be just a dream. Or a nightmare because Oliver did not like this man nor did he get any good vibes coming from him.
“Well Oliver, if I explained it to you then I’m afraid your pretty little head wouldn’t be able to handle it. Just call me The Dark Man, okay?” His smile grew bigger.
“What do you want with me?” Oliver demanded and straightened his composure, trying his best to intimidate The Dark Man in any way he could.
“I’m here to make a “wish” come true, buddy,” The Dark Man chuckled, brought his legs up, and sat on nothing but air. He wrapped his arms around his legs and rested his chin on his knees. “Word is that you want to become immortal. Is it true?”
See, a dream! Not a lot of people knew about his wish to be immortal so obviously this was his subconscious bringing it back in another dream. Though, usually those dreams would have him at various points in the future.
Oliver grinned. “Yeah, I want to be immortal!”
The Dark Man made a noise that sounded like he was clicking his tongue. “Okay, so I can give you immortality—”
“Really?” Oliver’s smile widened if it was even possible.
“Yes, really — but you need to be absolutely positive about this,” The Dark Man said.
“I’m absolutely sure!” Oliver exclaimed, eagerness radiating from his entire being. But why should he be so excited? It was only a dream.
The Dark Man’s smile turned into a smirk. “Okay, but the price for immortality is big.”
“Whatever – just give me it!” Oliver whined much like a little kid who wanted a new toy.
“Fine, all you have to do is wake up and all your dreams will come true,” The Dark Man’s smirk turned back into a smile.
Oliver shot up in bed, drenched in a cold sweat. The curtains were closed, blocking the sunlight from coming in. How odd. Independence always left the curtains open because she hated sleeping in complete darkness.
Slowly, Oliver emerged from his warm bed and walked up to the window. He grabbed the colorful curtains and threw them open. Oliver gasped in surprise at what he had found. Although the neighborhood seemed just fine, on the horizon, smoke was rising up from town.
“Independence, wake –”
The Asian man turned to his where he assumed his wife was but she wasn’t there. He jumped on the bed, and pulled the blankets back.
She was gone.
“Indie!” Oliver shrieked, waking himself up, and jumped up from his place on the couch.
Oliver sighed and lay back down on the couch. It had been one week since Independence left with the neighborhood and just about everyone in town. Strangely enough, all electricity had stopped working the same day. But Oliver could still hear the howls and barks of the dogs in town, wanting their owners to come back. It was depressing being on his own, but Oliver was going to be a faithful husband and wait for Independence’s return.
“Come home soon dear,” Oliver whispered and closed his eyes.
No matter how long he had his eyes closed, Oliver couldn’t fall back asleep. He sat up, pulled his hair into its usual ponytail, and walked into the kitchen. Browsing through the cupboards, Oliver found little to nothing to eat. He would have to go out into town today and get more food. Maybe by the time he got back, Independence would be home. The thought brought a smile to his face.
Quickly, Oliver ran to the front door, pulled on his shoes, and ran outside, shutting the door behind him. He jogged all the way to town to the nearest grocery store. Luckily enough, the doors weren’t locked so Oliver let himself in then cringed at the horrid smell of the store. The meat, fruit, and vegetables were beginning to go bad and the smell it caused was absolutely disgusting. Grabbing a cart, Oliver wandered the aisles and stocked up on food that wasn’t going bad.
As he grabbed various boxes and cans from the shelves, Oliver’s mind began to wander. Not only did he think about his precious Independence, but The Dark Man as well. More often than not, Oliver doesn’t remember his dreams, but The Dark Man just stuck with him. Though The Dark Man was nothing more than a smile and two circles on black background, he struck fear into Oliver. Sure he sounded friendly and cool, but Oliver just couldn’t help but feel there were sinister intentions behind that disturbingly large smile. But once Independence got back from wherever she went, he would be nothing more than a distant memory.
“Don’t bet on it buddy, she is long gone,” The Dark Man’s voice rang throughout the store.
Oliver jumped and wildly looked around. Was it his imagination or did he actually hear The Dark Man? Maybe it’s another dream, or he’s hallucinating because Independence wasn’t there to keep him sane.
“This isn’t a hallucination, Oliver. I’m the real deal and you’ll be stuck with me for a while,” The Dark Man said gleefully.
Dressed in nothing more than old jeans and a beat up hoodie, Oliver ran head first at the wolf, a large blade in his hand. He let out a war cry and tackled the beast to the ground, swinging the knife around wildly. It growled and clawed and snapped furiously at Oliver. So much adrenaline was pumping through Oliver’s veins that he didn’t feel when the wolf bit into his forearm or when it created a gash across his neck with its claws. All he was focused on was killing his dinner. His animalistic instincts kicked in and to be honest, it was all a blur to him. When he came back to Earth, Oliver was lying next to the deceased wolf; both of them covered in blood and matted fur.
Sighing deeply, Oliver ran a hand over where his wounds were. There were none to be found. He discovered he had the ability to heal from any wound years ago, months after The Dark Man gave him immortality. Oliver tried to take his own life but no matter what he did, Oliver came back at full health. In the years since the incident, he has traveled far and wide, hoping there would be another human being somewhere. There was no one to be found.
Oliver Zhang was the last man on earth. With no humans around, it forced Oliver to become a hunter, a predator.
He slung his kill over his shoulders and trudged back to the town he took up residence in. Nature was taking over the world once again. Wild animals wandered the city without fear of humans chasing them out. Oliver didn’t mind them so long as they didn’t attack him first. It was rare when they attacked first. Whenever they did, they would end up being his next meal.
The wolf he killed ended up being cooked over an open flame he started inside fireplace in an abandoned house. Even though the house was dusty and dirty, everything was still intact, including the family pictures hung up on the wall. It was a family of four. A tall man with sun kissed skin and a short blonde woman with the greenest eyes he had ever seen. They each held a child, the man holding their toddler son, a young blonde boy with one brown eye and one green eye. The woman held a baby girl with curly locks of brown hair. They both looked so happy and Oliver took that away. Because of his wish, this family lived no more. The couple wouldn’t grow old and they would never get the chance to see their children grow up, graduate from school, fall in love, everything a human being should experience once in their life. Because of one selfish desire, he took away the human race and above all else, Independence.
Oliver didn’t realize how much he depended on Independence to be there for him. He loved her so much and now she was gone because of him. No longer would he see her smile or the way she would scrunch up her face when she was in thought, he wouldn’t be able to run his fingers through her fiery red hair, he would never be able to dance with her again. He took away the love of his life, the chance to start a family of his own. The mere thought of it made him so angry that he didn’t know what to do.
Oliver moved away from the fire, taking a few deep breaths, and walked towards the window. The stars were out and Oliver could see so many. After all these years, he would still be amazed by the amount of stars in the black sky.
“Independence would’ve loved to see this,” Oliver muttered under his breath.
“Well Ollie, old pal, she wouldn’t get the chance to see stars like these if you hadn’t made that wish.”
Oliver jerked his head to the side. It was The Dark Man yet again. The creature who has been torturing Oliver the moment he was alone in the world. With just a few short, curt words he could make Oliver’s blood boil over. The Dark Man was the most despicable being he has ever encountered and yet, he was keeping him sane through the years with his presence.
“What are you talking about?” Oliver scoffed, his hands turning into fists.
“Well, I did say I could give you immortality and there would be a price to pay,” The Dark Man morphed from the shadows of the room and stepped into the moonlight. Like Oliver, he looked the same as ever.
“You tricked me, you son of a bitch!” Oliver yelled.
“Me? I did no such thing,” The Dark Man pouted with a frown.
“You led me to believe it was a dream!”
“A dream come true! I gave you what you wanted your entire life!” The Dark Man bellowed, the house shaking, having dust rain down on them.
“But if I were awake then—”
“You still would have said yes! Your avaricious thinking in that one moment of my offer would still have led you to say yes even if I did come to you in person.” The Dark Man said coldly.
“How would you even know what I would’ve said!” Oliver screamed to the high heavens above. At this point, his fingers were digging into his skin and drawing blood.
“I know everything! I am the universe!” The Dark Man countered then drew in a deep breath and sighed. The frown turned back into his manic smile. “I am the creator of this world and those stars you adore. I am the reaper; I decided who stays and who goes. I am everything in this world and to me, you are nothing more than an ant. Not even that! I gave you immortality because even though the human race has done well to keep entertained through the years, they have become a bore. But you, Oliver Zhang, no, you’re quite interesting. So I came to you with the deal of a lifetime in exchange for one big price.
“For you to become immortal, you needed every single life on this planet. When I took them all away, there were seven billion people on this planet. Think of it as alchemy’s equivalent exchange, Oliver. In exchange for immortality, you became the last man on Earth.”
The weight of the world fell on to Oliver’s shoulder when the truth came out, his insides felt heavy and unbearable. His selfishness, his greed was the reason he was alone. Even though he knew this all along, getting confirmation just made it all the more terrible. Especially from the thing that made this happen.
He fell to his knees and repeatedly hit the ground until his fists were bloody. His throat was raw from screaming out his frustrations at The Dark Man, the world, but mostly himself. Tears poured down his face but no matter how many times he stopped to wipe them away, more came flowing down. Immortality wasn’t a gift. It was a curse.
Oliver paced in the cave, his long hair swaying behind him. He breathed onto his hands and rubbed them constantly to keep them warm. Winter was coming and it would be a long one. He didn’t have any food stored up. All the animals seemed to have started to slowly disappear a few weeks back. It was hard to come by an animal nowadays, but thanks to Oliver’s excellent knowledge of plants, he hasn’t starved to death. Literally.
He sat by his small fire and pulled the pelt of a strange being, it looked like a mixture of a bear and a mountain lion, over himself. Right about now, Oliver would give anything to end this. The book collection he has built up through the years, the shirt off his back, his organs! Anything just to end this suffering. Even if it means talking to the thing that made this all happen.
Clearing his throat, Oliver stared into the fire. “Hey, Dark Man, come here.”
Nothing happened. Oliver growled in frustration and tried again. “The Dark Man! Come here!”
A deep chuckle resounded through the cave. Like the last time they met, The Dark Man appeared from the shadows. He stood tall, his arms behind his back and his feet together. His ever present smile toned down and the circles for eyes staring right through Oliver.
“Well, don’t you sound so happy to see me,” The Dark Man said giddily.
“Shut up and just listen,” Oliver grunted.
The Dark Man sat across from him and gestured dramatically for him to continue.
“I want to make a deal,” Oliver paused and looked at The Dark Man wary. He didn’t know what to expect from him, a violent outburst or laughter at how foolish he sounds. “I want you to take away my immortaility and kill me. In exchange, you can have whatever I can possibly give you.”
The Dark Man remained silent, pondering Oliver’s arrangement. He rested his hands on his knees and stared at the filthy man. For once, he wasn’t smiling or frowning. It was just a straight line, or so Oliver assumed. He couldn’t really see his mouth.
“Well, I’m surprised it finally took you hundreds of years to ask me,” The Dark Man stroked his chin thoughtfully. “But no can do, buddy. When I make a deal, I always keep my deals.”
“You have to do this!” Oliver pleaded, sitting straighter, his pelt falling off his shoulders.
“I don’t have to do anything, you on the other hand need to be prepared. This isn’t a normal winter,” The lunatic-like grin returned. “This is the next ice age, right on schedule too!”
“Please! Just kill me now and end this misery! My sanity is slipping!” Tears filled Oliver’s eyes, recounting the times when he believed he was going insane. It was only in recent years, but it still scared Oliver that he was losing his mind. “Every time I’m alone, I think I hear her voice but then I realize she’s gone. I can hardly remember what she looks like, all I can remember about her is her voice and her red hair. She whispers, saying such sweet things to me when I don't deserve it because I'm responsible for the fall of the human race, just when I think she's reaches out to caress my face, I look up and she's gone. Please . . . just kill me now, I’m so tired of living . . .”
“Sorry kid, but no can do. You wanted immortality, I just gave you what you wanted. I should be going now, so many things to do and whatnot.”
The Dark Man disappeared without a trace, leaving Oliver alone in the cave.
The air was cold, the ground covered in a thick layer of snow. The sun emerged from behind the grey clouds, shining its light onto the icy ruins of a half buried city below. Amid the snow and ice were critters wandering about, searching for food. It wasn’t long before one found a large lump in the snow and uncovered an ancient creature so blue; a human. Oliver Zhang.
His eyes snapped open and he took a raspy breath. That one breath was all it took to scare away the small creatures. Slowly and painfully, Oliver sat up, shaking violently. His mind was fuzzy, trying to remember why he was out in the middle of the snow. It was slowly coming back to him. He was out looking for food and then he just collapsed. But he was still here. He was still stuck on Earth. Oliver shut his eyes and fell onto his back. Everything hurt; his arms, his legs, it even hurt to breathe. Why couldn’t this just end?
“When I make deals, I keep them.” The Dark Man stood next to Oliver's body, standing on the air just above the snow. “I must say, you are fairly good at hiding. It’s been what, a millenia or two or six since we last saw each other?”
Oliver remained silent, too cold to do anything. Even his hatred for The Dark Man wasn’t enough of a pick-me-up and punch the thing across the face. The lack of reaction made The Dark Man frown but soon enough, he smiled again and crouched down. The Dark Man raised his hand and began to poke at Oliver’s blue face. It was the first time he ever dared to touch him and it was a strange sensation. Oliver knew he shouldn't feel anything after being frozen for so long, but he felt the feather light touch of The Dark Man.
“Why so blue, Oliver? Tired of falling into a false sense of security? Are you tired of that annoying little thing called hope? Hope that when you close your eyes, you will finally die for the last time?” The Dark Man grinned maniacally. "Sorry, but that's the curse that comes with humanity. You always have a ridiculous sense of hope, as though some greater being took mercy on you."
In response, Oliver rolled away from The Dark Man and deeper into the cold white fluff and partly melted ice chunks. He could feel his heart slowing down again, it won’t be long before he dies again, then he could get some peace from The Dark Man.
“You’re no fun today,” The Dark Man sat in the snow and pouted. “Can’t you just yell at me again? I’ll settle for that, just do something that doesn’t involve lying and dying in the snow.”
“Come on Oliver, it isn’t that bad. You still have me,” The Dark Man sang with a silly grin.
The black haired man raised his head and stared blankly at the black figure. Couldn't that thing just realize he wanted to die? At least when he froze to death before being reanimated some time would pass.
“You’re not human though, you don’t have compassion. You don’t have the loving touch I need. You’re not a friend, you’re not family, and you are most definitely not my wife," he managed to stutter.
“But I’m all you have left, I’m your only source of company,” The Dark Man countered, sounding unusually serious.
“Are you thick? I lost everything the moment I was immortal. You are nothing more to me than some insufferable that wants me to suffer.”
The Dark Man stopped talking and for that one moment, it was music to Oliver’s ears. Finally he could be frozen again and not have to deal with that prick for however long this ice age lasts.
Oliver remained silent, not bothering to acknowledge The Dark Man. Said creature decided to continue, knowing that he was still alive.
“I’ll kill you—But on my own terms!” The Dark Man shouted, sounding frustrated. “This planet still has a lot of time before it’s destroyed, but how about until the last plant dies, I keep you alive. The ice age right now will keep you “dead” for the most part since it just barely started, but when things start to warm up, you only have so many years before everything dies.”
He couldn’t believe this. Was it his frostbitten state or was he actually hearing that The Dark Man would kill him? After all these excruciating years, he would finally be at rest? The new information was enough to bring a weary smile to his face. But one question lingered in his mind. He had to force himself to ask The Dark Man before he “died” or before The Dark Man disappeared.
“Why make me immortal? Surely I wasn’t the only one who wanted it.”
“That’s true, your greed for immortality wouldn’t even compare to some people. But you thought differently about it, you thought it was a gift, even though your wife told you many times it was a curse. You wanted to use this immortality to watch the human race grow, even if it meant watching your family, your wife and children age and die before your eyes. It was foolish how this didn’t occur to you. No matter what you chose, you would still lose everything,” The Dark Man paused and looked down at Oliver almost thoughtfully.
“I needed to show you how bad being immortal is, how lonely it can be. You’re nearing your 900 millionth birthday and it still doesn’t compare to my time alive and alone, hiding from humans while still running the place. Maybe this wasn’t my brightest idea, but you’re one interesting fellow. Well, you still have some time to go before this ice age is over, so I’ll let you be for now.”
Oliver let his head drop into the snow and sighed. He didn’t know when The Dark Man left, but Oliver didn’t care. He was on the verge of falling into a sleep-like state for the next who knows how many years. But right now, he could really use the time to rest.
“And that’s my story,” Oliver muttered and looked down at the ball of puff on his lap. It was sleeping peacefully and has been for some time.
It’s been a long, long time since his last encounter with The Dark Man. It wouldn’t be too long before he would have his last encounter with him. He noticed that lately it was getting hotter than usual. The Sun was expanding and the Earth only had a few more centuries before it couldn’t take the heat and all life would die.
“Y’know, I’m going to miss you when you die, Puff Ball.” Oliver remarked, running his fingers through the grey fur of the small critter.
Puff Ball opened its eyes and stared at Oliver blearily. The human just chuckled dryly and shook his head. For now, he would focus on the present and where he would go next instead of his next encounter and, as a result, his inevitable death. Maybe in the afterlife he’d meet with his Independence and she’d agree to keeping Puff Ball as a pet. Well, if there was an afterlife, but Oliver decided to think more positively about it than he had in a very long time.
“Puff Ball, even after everything that I’ve been through, I still haven’t forgiven myself, accepted what I did,” Oliver confided, looking up at the dark sky. “I took away every chance the human race had to grow, to make mistakes and get messy. I took away lives, the innocent and guilty, the young and old—those who weren’t even born yet! I ruined everything for the sake of immortality.”
Puff Ball made a strange purring noise and rubbed its head against Oliver’s hand in an attempt at comforting him.
“Thanks, Puff Ball.” Oliver murmured and stared up at the sky. “But nothing can repair my damage. Not even in death. I will forever be the reason why the human race just disappeared. I can only hope that the lives I have taken will not hate me for wanting something that seems unattainable . . . for being human, I guess you could say.”
They sat in silence, listening to the cracks in the fire until it died out and Oliver fell into a dreamless sleep with Puff Ball at his side.