I opened my eyes and choked as the scream got caught in my throat.
Here I was, standing on the edge of an extremely tall building that I had never seen before, my head reeling as I ogled at the long way down to darkness. I knew that one wrong move was all it would take for me to fall, but that wasn’t the reason why I could hear the fluttering of my heartbeat so close to my ears, nor the reason why my mouth felt dry and rough as sandpaper.
No, I was pretty sure my fear was caused by the realization that something was very, very wrong with me.
A person would usually go into fight or flight mode whenever they were in a dangerous situation, and it went without saying that standing on the edge of a building with a high possibility of falling to death was dangerous. Any person in their right mind would step off the edge, flee from the scene of danger, and scurry back to safety.
Yet that wasn’t my first instinct. When I looked down at the unfathomable abyss waiting for me, all I could think about was jumping off and getting swallowed by the darkness. I didn’t just want to jump, I needed to. My whole body was itching to do it.
It didn’t make sense.
With an insane amount of effort, I looked away from the abyss and tried to grasp where I was. As far as I could tell, this building was the only infrastructure in sight, and it stood way above the gray clouds and the blanket of mist that stretched to the ends of the horizon. The sky was dull and gloomy—an eternal overcast that cemented my strong distaste of this place.
Everything was in different shades of gray.
Bleak. Lifeless. Dead.
The moment that word crossed my mind, something heavy had lodged itself inside me, and I was unable to breathe for a second. My hand made its way to my chest, pressing down on it as hard as I could, hoping the pressure would help alleviate the weight that had suddenly burdened me.
“Let go,” a soft, insistent voice whispered in my ear.
I was certain that there was no one else on the rooftop, but the voice proved me wrong. Whatever said it was beyond my senses. I couldn’t see it, I couldn’t feel it, and it seemed like I could hear it only because it allowed me to.
The message was clear.
It wanted me to jump off—to leave all this weight behind and never look back. But I didn’t want to. This weight, though scathing and painful, felt extremely important to me, and I wasn’t ready to let it go. I would do anything to keep it, even if it meant going against the will of the inhuman force lurking in this place.
“Nope,” a male voice—more pronounced than the first—said, startling me. “You don’t want to do that.”
It came from behind me. I turned around and saw a tall shadow of a man leaning against the wall. There was a door beside him; something that was definitely not there before.
“Who are you?” I asked, my eyes narrowing at the suspicious figure.
“Well, that’s a little difficult to answer,” the man responded, and even though I couldn’t see his face, I could sense the smirk in his tone. “You people have given me a lot of names. But you’re smart, Angela Summers. You should be able to figure out who I am.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
My stomach started churning, the way it always did whenever I had to deal with something unpleasant. And I didn’t like how he used my real name. Nobody had called me that for years. Nobody was supposed to know that.
“Let me give you a word of advice,” he said. “Don’t fight it. Just give in to the natural order of things, and you’ll be in a better place; much, much better than where you are right now.”
“What is this place?”
He shrugged. “A connecting point.”
“You’re not making any sense,” I muttered, my impatience getting the better of me.
“Of course I am. You’re just in denial. You don’t want to accept that everything ends here; that your time is done.”
And as if to prove he was right, the weight inside me had increased another tenfold. I gasped as I tried to keep myself together.
“Shut up,” I wheezed. “Just get me out of here. I have important things to do.”
The man shook his head. “I can’t do that.”
“Just get me the hell out of here!” I screamed, the panic rising fervently to my chest. I tried to push the resurfacing memories to the back of my mind; I refused to acknowledge what was happening. I had no reason to be here. I wasn’t done with my life yet. Why should I listen to this idiot who knew nothing about me? About the amount of work I had to do just to survive and get to where I was before that stupid accident ruined everything?
Suddenly, the man laughed. “Oh, wow, it’s been a while since I’ve been called an idiot.” His eyes shone with dark humor. Nothing about it was funny. “Well, you see, Angela—”
“My name is Samantha Collins! I—”
The cold, dark veil that fell on his face silenced me.
“I don’t like being interrupted,” he said icily. “I suggest that you be careful of how you talk to me. You’re not the only impatient being here. There are worse things than death… let’s just put it that way.”
The hostility that came with the warning filled me with fear that I had never felt before; the kind that didn’t exist elsewhere. And I didn’t like how he referred to himself as a “being” instead of a “person”.
“Now, are you ready to listen?” he asked, his tone light but serious.
“First things first: you’re dead.” His eyes were like knives, ready to stab if I made any motion to disagree. “Stop denying it. Stop acting like you’re not. Do you understand?”
It took everything I had to swallow that bitter pill and nod again.
“Good. We won’t get anywhere if you can’t even get the basics.” He crossed his arms. “Secondly, you can’t go against nature. Everybody dies. It doesn’t matter how young or rich or good you are, you’re still going to die. Somebody gets born in your place. Somebody new gets a chance at life. That’s how the world keeps its balance.”
I understood every word he said, but that didn’t mean I accepted it. The life I had was not easy, but I built it with sweat and blood. I firmly believed that I deserved to reap the rewards of my hard work. I was moving up the corporate ladder, slowly gaining the power that I desperately needed, and yet it was snatched right under my nose. I was robbed of the chance to live my life to the fullest.
It wasn’t fair.
My death was not timed right. There must have been a mistake somewhere; an error in the system; a disruption in the balance. I was not supposed to die.
“Your way of thinking is dangerous,” the man said, shaking his head disapprovingly.
“You said I can’t deny my death, so I’m not denying it,” I said assertively, “but that doesn’t mean I think it’s valid. There’s obviously something wrong here.”
“Your inability to cope with it doesn’t change the fact that you no longer exist in the world of the living.”
“No,” I said, putting as much strength and defiance in my words as I could, “this is not how it’s supposed to end.”
“Your time is up,” he said firmly, but I could hear the budding anger in his voice. “No force or power can reverse that.”
He was beginning to scare me into silence again, but I wasn’t going to back down now. There was absolutely no way that I would just let myself be erased from the world that easily.
The second I made up my mind to aggressively defy the laws of nature, the weight had increased a hundredfold, sending me crumpling to the ground, threatening to overthrow me into the abyss. The pressure was enough to drive anyone insane, but my decision was final: I would never, ever allow myself to fall.
The first voice was back. It was hard, relentless, and commanding. It was no longer a soft whisper. Clearly, we were past the persuasion part now.
I felt a force from behind me, trying to push me off the edge.
“No!” I screamed. The force was unbelievably, inhumanly strong, but somehow it couldn’t push me all the way. And then it hit me. The force, regardless of how powerful it was, didn’t have the ability to make me jump.
Because the choice was mine.
I smiled despite the agony of bearing the weight. It seemed I had cracked the code.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man’s lips press into a thin line. It confirmed that the conclusion I arrived at was correct.
“You can’t make me jump off this building either, can you?” I asked, unable to hide the smug look on my face.
“No.” He sighed, looking more annoyed than ever. “If I could, I would have kicked you off the edge before you had the chance to open your eyes.”
“Well, this rule works nicely in my favor,” I said, gritting my teeth as the weight increased again.
“Not really,” he said. “If you don’t surrender to your fate, the weight of your existence will keep increasing until you can no longer hold yourself together. And then you will vanish… you will cease to be. Don’t you think it’s better to leave it all behind than suffer such a consequence? You have the choice to be free from your problems, dreams, desires, frustrations, memories—the burden of a life that has already ended. You have the choice to be... elsewhere.”
“I choose to get back the life that was unfairly taken from me.”
His face darkened. “Angela, your fate has led you here—”
“I decide where my fate will lead me!” I shrieked as I fought the angry, desperate tears that threatened to roll down my face. “Please,” I begged, “there must be a way. Get me out of here. Please.”
It seemed like an eternity before he spoke again. For a moment, I thought he was going to snap and give me the ultimate punishment—a fate worse than death, but then his demeanor changed. The anger and frustration were gone; they were replaced by something I couldn’t point my finger at. It unnerved me.
“Fine,” he said in a monotone. “Since you’re so… intractable, I’ll make an exception this time. Let’s have a little gamble.”
“Yes.” He smiled coldly. “If you win, you’ll get your life back.”
The corners of my lips turned up.
“But if you lose…” He paused, holding my gaze with such intensity that I couldn’t, even if I wanted to, look away, “...you’ll gain something you wish you never had.”
It could just be my imagination, but the sky got a little more ominous after he said that. And even though his words were clear, their meaning wasn’t. What could be so bad about gaining something? How could he be so sure that I would rather not have it?
“Not everything you gain is beneficial for you,” he answered simply. “So, your answer?”
But that question was merely a formality. He knew my answer even before the words were out of my mouth.
“Yes,” I said resolutely, knowing that at this point, I had nothing left to lose. “I’ll take it.”
The man flashed me a bright, almost sinister, smile. “Great!” he said, looking psyched. “Let’s get this show on the road.”