Welcome to December! For this month, I will be sharing parts of a short story I have written entitled, “Paths Unfollowed”. I hope that you enjoy it, and please give me feedback if you have any. I always jump at the chance to make my writing better.
“Paths Unfollowed: Part One”
The ache began in her hips and slowly crept through her entire body until each bone creaked and groaned. She tossed and turned all night, wondering why her body hurt, sweating from the intense heat she could not escape. Nightmares of broken glass and emergency sirens and the nauseating scent of blood. She felt herself calling out in her slumber, and for hours, she tried to pull herself from the incessant dreams.
Wake up. Wake up. Wake up!
When she finally managed to break free, letting her groggy eyes adjust to the real world, she noticed the emptiness of the room in which she lay. It was almost silent; the sort of quiet that comes when something is wrong, and the only sound she could find was a tiny beeping in her ears. She looked around at the covered white room, and whispered, “Where am I?”
“You’re in the hospital, Ellen,” a voice suddenly poked out of the cold silence. There sat a man on the couch, covered in a black cloak and hood, and though she could not see his face, she knew there was an evil smirk lurking beneath it.
She examined the space around her, noting the uncomfortable hospital bed and the monitors attached to her by the needles in her hand, “What do you mean? Who are you? How do you know my name?”
“So many questions,” he said, his gravelly voice forcing chills down her spine. He stood and patiently paced around her bed. His presence was both heavy and light, fast and slow, and she could not keep up with him. She wished he would just stand still and give her a minute to digest, but as he paced, the room spun in such a way she thought she might never find balance again.
Finally, the man snapped his fingers, and everything went dark. The sounds of the beeping monitors gently faded away, and as the room turned to that sickening silence again, she fought to keep her eyes open, an intoxicating sleepiness coming over her.
“No!” she screamed at the man, holding her eyelids open, until she heard a loud crash to her right, and she whipped her head around to face the noise.
As if it was an old-fashioned motion picture, she saw the scene in a blurry wave of gray, and as if it were something of nostalgia, she knew she recognized it.
It was her, driving on the highway. Ellen gazed at the car pulled off to the side of the road. A woman holding a wailing baby and a man screaming into his phone, probably trying to get a tow-truck during the busy morning traffic, a near-impossible feat. Ellen watched the mother begin to cry as she rocked her baby, feeling as if this moment would never end, and she begged for silence and comfort so that her baby might fall asleep peacefully.
Ellen reflected on her own struggles with parenthood, remembering what car rides were like with her daughter, Grace, when she was an infant. And so, Ellen pulled off to the side of the road to help with their car troubles, call a tow truck, or even just tend to the baby.
She was careful to park off the road an appropriate amount, and as she walked up to the young family, similar to what her own had been like five years prior, she saw a truck in the right hand lane come nearer and nearer to the shoulder. Surely, they would turn their wheel away after seeing her, but they kept drifting towards her.
Suddenly, she felt as if she was in a dream, and she tried to wake up, but the sharp, aching pain came with the crash, starting first at her hips, and it swept up to her head in seconds, leaving a dark wave of nausea and grief inside Ellen’s body.
The young mother screamed, holding her baby closer to her heart as she watched this stranger get hit by the pickup truck. She told her husband to call 911, quickly, as the driver of the truck got out slowly, instantly realizing what he had done.
Ellen was escorted to the hospital thereafter, and as the doctors tended to her severe injuries, nine-year-old Grace sat in the waiting room, accompanied by her father, Will.
Ellen shook away the foggy vision and looked deep into the man’s cloak. He had no skin nor any human features, but he was still a being. Or was he?
“So that’s why I’m here? Because I stopped to help someone pulled off the road, just to get hit by a car?” Ellen yelled at the man, searching for the scars and bruises that would certainly appear from the damages.
He said nothing, and though he had no eyes that Ellen could see, he looked at her as if he knew her better than anyone. He just stood there, leering at her, and he waited.
As she wished that he would stop staring, she realized that the beeping of her heart monitor still had not come back, and when she looked behind her to see it, her heartbeat sat as a straight line.
Wake up, Ellen, wake up!
“Am I dead?” she asked, and her body began to convulse with dread and terror.
“No,” the man replied, “but you are dying.”
She looked at her hands, her hands that were turning gray like the vision he forced her to watch, and she begged for the truth to become fiction. She rubbed her eyes to wake up from this nightmare, but when she opened them, she still saw the man and the empty hospital room around her.
“Are you Death?” she asked. The man only nodded. “Are you here to collect me?”
Death stepped nearer, and Ellen felt the chill creep down her back again, “I am here to take you somewhere else. Not to keep you for my own, if that’s what you mean.”
Ellen felt cheated. She was thirty-nine years old, and she still had a lot of life left and a daughter to raise. She was not ready to go, and he could not make her.
“No,” Ellen said, hoping there was power and conviction in her voice, “it’s not fair!”
“Neither life nor death are fair, Ellen, but it is what we choose to make of them that counts,” Death replied, holding out a cloaked hand for her to take.
Ellen screamed, “No!” and she tucked her hands under her armpits as if they would protect her.
Death merely stood there to wait, wait for her to release, she supposed, but Ellen refused.
Ellen took a deep breath, and she whispered softly in a moment of defeat, “This is what I get for being kind.”
Death’s raucous voice boomed, bouncing off the blank walls that trapped Ellen where she lay, “You believe that death is a punishment for kindness?”
She buried herself in the white sheets around her, pulling the pillow around her ears to shield them from Death’s harsh words, “Well, yes! This would never have happened had I not been kind,” Ellen muttered, “It is punishment for being naïve and for risking my life for people who wouldn’t do the same.”
Death stood very still as he pondered her behavior, and after a few moments of observation, he simply asked, “How do you know they wouldn’t do the same?”
“Because normal people are not kind. Humans are always selfish,” She spat out at him.
“And you believe that being unkind would have prevented your death, Ellen?”
Ellen replied quickly, “Well, I wouldn’t have stopped for them, so yes, it would have prevented my death.” She knew it must have been a trick question; she always presumed Death to be a trickster. But even so, she wanted to be right.
Death quickly snapped his fingers, and Ellen soon became nauseous as she turned to her side to watch the next motion-picture.
Ellen drove angrily as she sped down the highway, listening to the clinking bottles rolling around in the back, honking her horn at the idiots out on the road. How dare people not even go the speed limit in the right lane? She held a hatred for people like that in her heart, and she would rant about them to anyone who would listen.
She would rant about anything even if she was the only one around to hear it.
Ellen was trapped behind an idiot going 60 in a 75, and since she could not pass him from the left, she chose to swing around him by pulling on to the shoulder.
She accelerated before she jerked the steering wheel to the right, and she did not have enough time to break for the person standing beside his car, waiting for a tow-truck. She slammed straight into him and his car, and as if it were slow motion, she saw his body bend in a way no human should, and she felt her own bones crack as the airbag released in front of her.
She passed out, but she knew she was dying. And she was only thirty years old.
At least she would have something new to rant about after death.
“Being a kind person did not ruin your life; it actually prolonged it,” Death said.
Ellen shook her head, “That doesn’t make sense! That would have been nine years ago, and I would not have been driving like that. I would have been pregnant or had just given birth to Grace.”
Death replied, “If you had not been a kind person, you would have never had Grace, and you would have not cared to have children at all.
“If you had been unkind, your life would have been shorter, less meaningful, less deserving. There is more to her story than just the way she died; she was always unkind in so many ways that I could not have shown you all of them. She was cruel and harsh, just as she imagined the world around her, the way you see the world yourself.
“So do not blame kindness for your death. You may have died while performing a kind deed, but kindness is not a disease you must conquer. It is a way of living, Ellen. And there is no reason to regret something that gave your life more meaning.”
To Be Continued…
To read Part Two, click here.