“Maybe the world would be better off without you.”
These were words I never expected to hear from my therapist. Up to that point, she had always been on my side, despite the many flaws that made up my character. I had fleeting thoughts of suicide, but it was never something I intended to act upon. Sharing them with Dr. Covenwood was usually a comfort; something that her soothing voice and wisdom could easily dispel. Reciprocation never even occurred to me.
“What?” I asked in confusion.
She reached into her desk and pulled out a pamphlet, of which she handed to me.
“People don’t understand you, Jack. You’re special. Let them live here in their ignorance. There’s a better place for you. It’s time to move on.”
It was a brochure of sorts. “Next World” was a paradise of the afterlife, equipped with a beautiful, otherworldly charm and happy community that put even heaven to shame. At least, that’s what the pictures and descriptions made it seem like. I was baffled but intrigued.
“What is this?” I asked.
“This is your solution. A place where you can live without fear or worry.”
She pulled out an envelope from the drawer and emptied it into my free hand. It contained a sharp, silver utensil.
“Leave tonight, Jack. Use this to do it. The portal will be opened, and you will travel into the next world. Trust me. It’s for the best.”
Dr. Covenwood never looked so serious, but she didn’t need to. Between my admittedly fractured psyche and the intense trust we developed over the years, I had an unhealthy attachment to her. Whatever she told me to do, I did without question. She could have told me to jump off the nearest bridge to my death and I would have, just to appease her. I was a broken man.
“Okay… If you say so.”
No further words were spoken. She simply gestured for me to leave and then turned around in her chair, facing the wall. I would be lying if I said our strange conversation hadn’t shaken me, but I still agreed to her terms and left, once again putting my life in her hands. Rational thinking was a luxury I hadn’t had in many years.
That night, in a zombie-like stupor, I prepared. I sent the appropriate, vague, goodbye messages to what family I had and sent my pet cat Harvey outside to roam free with the strays in the area. With that, I ventured to my bedroom, turned the lights off, laid down in bed, and got to it.
I’ll spare you the details of the act itself. Just know that it was far from pleasant.
Whilst laying there in a pool of warm liquid, waiting for my eternal slumber, I noticed something. My vision was beginning to blur, but I could see a figure at the foot of the bed. It was a man, cloaked in darkness; a shadowy statue painted into the room by an unseen brush. A single ray of moonlight outlined his form, allowing me a glimpse at some of his features. He had gray hair and looked to be around fifty years of age. Covering his body, a suit you might see in the closet of an esteemed professor. Across his face, a wicked grin that stretched from ear to ear. Though on the verge of death, I was still frightened; jarred by his presence.
The pounding in my chest was the only movement I could muster in my wounded state. I was forced to watch in agony as the man turned his head upward and opened his lips as wide as humanly possible. From his eyes and mouth, a white light was expelled into the ceiling. The blast broke through the roof and more than likely cut a hole in the night sky. The house around us shook, and all at once, our environment transformed. I was no longer laying in bed. I was now in a white room, healed of my self inflicted scars.
In pulling myself to my feet, I surveyed my surroundings. Before me was a white table; behind it, two doors on either side. Standing opposite me was the man, his head still tilted. The light had now dissipated. After a moment or two, he lowered his gaze to meet mine and smiled.
“Sorry to scare you. It was necessary for the transition. Please, take a seat.”
The man motioned for me to sit at the table. I obliged, but remained cautious. He sat down across from me.
“We are here to determine eligibility. Normally, when a mortal is killed with a Next World artifact, they move on without issue. However, when it is done deliberately to oneself, a judgement is needed to complete the process. Make sense?”
I was amazed. Dr. Covenwood was speaking the truth. The next world was real, and I was ready to take my place inside; hopeful for a better existence. I nodded.
“Good. We can begin.”
The man handed me a blank sheet of paper and fountain pen.
“Answer truthfully. The paper will know if you’re lying.”
To my astonishment, questions appeared on the page. I would write out my response, the ink would vanish, and the next query would present itself. Some were normal, asking for mundane personal information, while others probed for answers about my actions in deeply strange scenarios, such as, “If given the choice, would you rather have your skin removed, or your soul?” It felt like an exam I could never have studied enough for. When all was said and done, I handed the paper over. The man put on a pair of old-fashioned spectacles and looked it over, as if what I wrote was still there.
“Oh dear. This is not good. Not good at all.”
I looked at him, perplexed.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“You were referred by one Elizabeth Covenwood?”
“Yes,” I said, “Is there an issue?”
“Well, Dr. Covenwood has recently been brought to our attention for violating one of our sacred rules. She’s what we call a collector.”
I was confused.
“Yes. She’s sent many a patient to the next world, in hopes of easing their pain. Collectors are usually malevolent by nature; killing the innocent with our artifacts and feeding off of the energy expelled from the act. She’s different. Her intentions are morally sound, but her actions still conflict with our code of conduct. She’s even gone so far as to pass around non-sanctioned, printed material revealing privileged information about this place, as I’m sure you’ve seen.”
“What does this mean, exactly?” I asked.
The man bore a heavy look of disappointment.
“Unfortunately, given the unique circumstances of your departure from earth, you are considered non-eligible for residency in the next world. You will now be escorted to the other world instead.”
“Other world? Where’s that? Will I be okay?”
The man offered no reply or consolation. Within a matter of seconds, I was lifted from my seat by an unseen force and pinned to the surface of the table. The man stood up from his chair and pulled a strange-looking dagger out from within his jacket. I tried to break free, but it was no use. The sharp point gently caressed my skin, forming an X on my torso, just below the heart. In a flash, I was lifted again, and then pushed into the door at the right-hand side of the room. It was swiftly shut behind me.
I turned back, but the door was gone. Around me, an endless black void. I ran, desperate to find even a sliver of light in the darkness. This endeavor was unfruitful. No direction offered any dissonance. The only thing that broke up the landscape was the occasional shadow in the corner of my eye, slightly darker than the canvas behind it. I would glance over in an attempt to catch it in my field of view, but it was too fast. Before I knew it, I was pinned in place again, sprawled out on the floor beneath me.
Shadowy figures loomed overhead. With them came voices. Three distinct whispers in the dark.
VOICE 1: It’s different than the rest.
VOICE 2: You say that about every human.
VOICE 1: They’re all different.
VOICE 3: Shall we learn from it?
VOICE 2: I’ll prepare the fragmentor once the examination is complete.
VOICE 3: Why do we even bother with that thing? They can’t die here. It’s just torture.
VOICE 2: Don’t forget your training. Anguish is the energy that powers the next world. It is the payment we make in exchange for studying these creatures.
VOICE 3: I suppose that makes sense.
VOICE 1: Who would like to make the first incision?
VOICE 3: May I, Overseer? It would be my first.
VOICE 1: If you slip, its form will fragment too early and we will have to wait a thousand years for it to reconstitute.
VOICE 2: I can’t even begin to fathom what this type of being would experience in that time.
VOICE 3: I’m aware of the risk. I believe I am ready.
VOICE 1: Very well. You may begin.
One of the shadows reached for me. I screamed as loud as my lungs would permit. The fear had fully set in. I no longer wished to be dead. This was not what I signed up for when I pushed that silver metal into my flesh. I was blindly fulfilling Dr. Covenwood’s wishes; that much is true. Still, I secretly hoped the afterlife would offer me some solace. A peaceful existence, free from the thoughts and memories that plagued me back on earth. This was something far more sinister. A truth I never wanted to know.
Before the shadow could make contact, I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Faint voices filled the room.
“He’s lost too much blood.”
I was in and out of consciousness for a while.
“Should we get the paddles?”
My vision was fuzzy. There were forms around me, but I could not make out anything discernible.
“He’s back! We have to keep going!”
I couldn’t hold on any longer. I had no choice but to succumb to the weariness and drift off.
I came to in a brightly lit room. It was spinning, but eventually stopped, revealing its design. It was a hospital room. I looked down and saw bandages all over me, covering the marks I had made with the tool Dr. Covenwood gifted me. It seemed I was somehow alive.
Was it all a nightmare?
A nurse came in to greet me.
“Good! You’re up. You’re one lucky man. We nearly lost you, last night. It’s a good thing we have some of the best doctors in the world at this hospital.”
I offered a half-smile.
“This is going to sound strange, but can you please tell me… I am alive, aren’t I? This isn’t… the afterlife?”
“No, of course not. You survived your injuries, but just barely. I guess that means you’re stuck here with us for a while longer.”
She smiled, but then bore a look of concern.
“It’s not my place to bring this up, and you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but I have to ask. Your wounds looked sporadic and uncontrolled, which is common with these types of cases. So…”
“Yes?” I asked.
She let out a sigh before resuming her query.
“I really shouldn’t pry, but… why did you carve an X into your chest?”
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