The murky river water rushed far below the bridge I was standing on, blurred by the tears streaming from my eyes. Hands trembling, I gripped the rain-coated metal railing. My shoulders ached from the strain of attempting to pull myself up and over. It was such a simple act. One good pull and my misery would be over forever.
I stood there breathing heavily, desperately attempting to convince my body to take its malformed self and put me out of my existential pain. My muscles would violently contract but abruptly stopped before they could muster enough force for the job. Something was holding me back, but what? What did I have to live for? I had no family who would miss me. My friends would be heartbroken but they’d get over the loss of me quickly. I couldn’t get a job, I didn’t have the energy to finish my education and to top it all off my hope of treatment was denied. I could not think of a single reason to keep living, yet somehow my body continued to resist my will to die.
After several unsuccessful minutes, I heard footsteps approaching, barely audible over the sound of the cold, dreary rain. Just my luck. I couldn’t gather the courage in time, so someone who was crazy enough to be out walking the park trail in the rain was coming. They’d see what I was trying to do and I’d probably be convinced to step away from the bridge’s edge and turn myself in to a mental hospital for treatment. With no insurance, I’d be left with a massive bill I’d never be able to pay off. I tried using that mental image to try to give myself the one surge of willpower needed to throw myself into oblivion. Exhaling, I lowered my head and closed my eyes. No good. I was so pathetic that I couldn’t even kill myself properly.
The footsteps abruptly stopped. Carefully avoiding seeing my hideous reflection in the metal railing, I opened my eyes and turned to face my well-meaning rescuer, prepared to unsuccessfully try to argue why I deserved to die.
“I-,” I paused. I didn’t know how much of it was my tormented mental state, but the stranger’s appearance was outright bizarre. They wore a tan suit with a matching fedora, which was odd enough, but for the life of me I could not focus on their face. Their features seemed to be constantly changing size, shape and color, never settling on one face. I could not even tell if they were male, female, or something else. It was so disorienting that I forgot both my despair and the words I was going to say.
“You don’t want to live anymore, is that right?” Their voice flowed and shifted like their face but almost pleasantly so, a strangely soothing cacophony to my ears. I wiped my eyes, sniffed and nodded. The stranger reached out towards me. “You suffer from a deep, chaotic pain. I can sense it residing in your soul.”
Still struggling to form words, I gestured to my hideous body. I had done my best to appear as much like the young woman I was, but there was just no overcoming the disfigurement of my male puberty, the driving force of the despair that brought me to this point.
Their head moved in what I assumed was a nod. “Well, Rose, I won’t stop you if death is really what you desire. However, should you decide to give life another chance I have a, let’s call it a proposal.”
I took several steps back from this being, who at this point I was beginning to question if they were even human. “How do you know my name?”
A discordant chuckle emanated from them. “I know much more than that, girl. I know that Rose is not the name most know you by. I know why you are here, too. You were denied treatment that you desperately need. It’s a shame, really. Your life has filled you with chaotic potential. It would be a waste to just throw it away like this.”
This was starting to freak me out. My pulse quickened and I gripped the railing tightly. “Just who are you? Are you the devil or something? Are you trying to get me to sell my soul?”
Their head shook, the visual effect making me feel slightly nauseous. “You’re far from the first one to ask me that. No, I am not aligned with either the forces of good or evil. I don’t require your soul, either. It’s not even within my power to take.” Their voice trailed off. “Though I have some ideas on what I’d do if I somehow ever managed to get my hands on one…”
Goosebumps erupted down my arms. I didn’t know what this thing would do with a soul and my gut told me I didn’t want to know. “So what is this proposal of yours, then?” I asked quickly in an attempt to shift the conversation away from the topic of souls.
What passed for a mouth on their face shifted towards what I hoped was a smile. “I will take your pain away, something others would not do. In case that’s not enough, I’ll even throw in something extra to sweeten the pot. A bonus gift, if you will.”
Their words filled me with creeping suspicion. “What’s the catch? Just how do you intend to take away this pain? And what is this about a ‘bonus gift’?”
“Not very trusting, are you?” the figure chuckled. “That’s good, I like that. As for the ‘catch’, well, it depends. Short-term, all I ask is that you stay alive. Live to fight another day and all that. Long-term…” They paused for a moment, “Well, the gift is a surprise, so I can’t really say much without spoiling it but suffice to say you’ll know when the time comes. I won’t tell you how I will take the pain away or what the gift is because I insist that my gifts be taken in faith. You must trust that what I offer is a better alternative to the path you are currently seeking. A leap of faith into the chaotic unknown, rather than a leap of desperation into the ultimate unknown.”
They spread their arms wide, almost too wide for their size. “If you decide to accept, just give it a day. Twenty-four hours to see how you feel about it. If you decide it’s not worth it and still want to die at the end of the day tomorrow, then I will not stop you. I will even make sure your death is quick and painless.” Giving another one of their strange smiles, they held out their hand, “So, do we have a deal?”
I stood there for a moment, considering their words. This being seemed crazy, but I didn’t really have anything to lose. If, as I suspected, they were just some nutcase or a hallucination or some combination of the two, I could always try to end it again later. On the other hand, if they were for real, maybe I stood to gain something. Ultimately, I decided there was no harm in trying. I slowly took several unsteady steps forward. Lifting my trembling hand, I placed it in their outstretched one and shook it. “Deal.”
At first, the stranger’s touch made me feel uneasy. Their hand seemed to have a life of its own, bubbling and pulsing beneath the clammy skin. I reflexively tried to pull away in disgust, but their grip was strong. A small rush of warmth and a mild tingling sensation ran up my arm. I felt the hairs on my neck stand on end and goosebumps break out all over my skin. The mysterious person’s grin seemed to grow a vast assortment of mismatched teeth. “It’s been a pleasure, Rose. I look forward to meeting you again, providing you don’t fail like all of the others.”
I shook my head in confusion. “Wait, ‘all of the others’? What others?” As the words left my mouth, though, they faded away into the drizzling rain, leaving me alone on the bridge once again.
The logical part of my mind knew I should probably be freaking out after what was now undoubtedly a supernatural event, especially with someone who could have still been some kind of malevolent entity. However, the warmth that had spread up my arm was making me feel beyond wonderful and I could feel it slowly moving to fill the rest of my body. Shrugging, I decided to honor the agreement and give things a day to see what would happen. Worst case scenario, my final day would be a pleasant one.
I turned around and walked back to Johan and Twila’s apartment, where my friends were graciously allowing me to stay. They were due back from work before too much longer and would probably be wondering where I was.
Remembering that struck me with a spike of guilt. How would they have felt if I had actually done what I had gone to the bridge to do? They were good people who actually cared a lot about me, even if I never understood why. My death would have devastated them. In hindsight, it was really strange how none of that seemed to matter to me when I stood there at the railing. My suffering had consumed me so much that I was unable to care about my impact on other people around me. The realization weighed heavily on my mind, bringing down my newly discovered good mood.
Fortunately, my friends still were not home by the time I’d returned. That was good, it gave me time to grab the suicide notes I had left out for them and bury the papers deep into my trash can. With that taken care of, I changed into some dry clothes and went to the kitchen to see if I could scrounge up anything to eat. For some reason I was abnormally hungry, my stomach growling at me like an angry cat. True, I hadn’t eaten anything all day but it was pretty normal for me to practically starve myself out of self-apathy. Now, though, I was ravenously craving as much food as I could get my hands on. I also noticed that the comfortable warmth I had felt earlier had spread completely through me and began to increase. It was quickly becoming less comfortable and more itchy. The tingling, which had faded after the first couple of minutes, was back and growing stronger. I was also developing quite a headache but I just chalked that up to the stress of the day.
While I was digging through the cabinets looking for something edible I could prepare quickly and easily, the front door opened. Johan and Twila were home. I started to walk out to greet them, but before I could reach the doorway the warmth swiftly grew into a searing pain that was shooting through me in waves. All of my nerves felt like they had burst into flame. My headache intensified into a splitting migraine and I was vaguely aware of myself collapsing onto the rough carpeting of the living room floor. I heard Twila call out, “Rose? You okay?” Unable to respond, I felt myself beginning to slip beneath the raging waves of the sea of pain. The last thing I heard was the sound of dropped keys, hurried footsteps and Twila yelling frantically, “Rose!”