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The Alternative: Chapter One
Someone was at the door.
It had been ten years since Sam had heard the saccharine ringing of the doorbell. No one had visited him in that time, and he had not expected that to change even after he was dead and buried. He had no friends, no acquaintances. He rarely went outside, and lived in seclusion, away from the world—away from his persecutors. Day by day, all he did was gaze lifelessly at the peeling wallpaper of his squalid “house” and drown himself in his regrets, waiting for his time to come. It would not be long now. He anticipated it with a puzzling mix of relief and…something else. Something he could not name….
But that wasn’t important now. This was a monumental event.
Someone was at the door.
Sam reluctantly stood up from his appalling excuse for a couch and sauntered to the door like a drunkard. The sandalwood floorboards, turned a dull taupe by several years of uncleaned dirt and dust, squeaked noisily under Sam’s feet as he walked with a painful slouch, as if he were carrying a great stone pillar on his back. Before opening the door to whoever was cruel enough to pay him a visit, he shot a vacant glance at the long, rectangular looking glass on the wall. In the mirror, he saw the same thing he had seen since he had run away from Summerfall; his abhorrent face laughed at him, his sagging skin danced with his despair, his rotten teeth smiled at his eternal sadness. Only his eyes, his pale green eyes, found no merriment in his misery. Whenever he looked into his eyes, all he saw was disappointment.
Sam was unsure what kept him from escaping. Life had become a prison. It was not worth it anymore. There were trees all around his house. There were several long, sturdy branches. There was a rope up in the attic. He felt he had every reason to escape and yet…he didn’t. What kept him from relieving himself? What poisoned his mind that had kept him alive this long? Perhaps it was fear; Sam had done too many horrible things in his life to have any doubt where death would take him. Perhaps it was optimism, hope for change; Sam did not hesitate to scoff at this.
Sam’s mind drifted, and he hesitated.
…Perhaps…perhaps it was…
The doorbell rang again. Whoever had come to see him was growing impatient. Rebuking himself for letting his mind wander so far into the forbidden depths of his past, Sam reached for the doorknob and yanked on it. The door flew open with a sudden, startled squeal, and Sam faced his visitor.
A cold wind blew, carrying change with it. Sam felt it in the air. Someone was at the door, and with him was change. Something was going to change. Everything was going to change. He felt it. Change.
Something seemed off about the man. He was dressed normally enough, albeit professionally. He wore a black pinstripe suit with a purple tie, which insulted Sam slightly as he was clad only in a cheap plaid shirt and faded denim jeans, the only clothes he had been able to afford. A black fedora cast a dark shadow over the man’s face, which, from what Sam could tell, was unusually slim and wrinkled with laugh lines. It was the face of a snake.
Sam took a small step back upon seeing the man. The weather was an eerie echo of Sam’s life: dark and inclement. Wind fought its way to the flimsy front door of Sam’s house, and the man took one calm step forward.
Sam’s eyes narrowed. “Who the hell are you?”
The man responded only with a smile.
“I asked you a question.”
“Would you be Mr. Summerton?”
Sam fell silent. He hated that name. It was his name. He loathed it, but he could not hide from it. “…Yes.”
“My name is Findlay Parish. And I have the answer to all your problems.”
That unnerving smile again. Sam frowned.
“No, thanks,” Sam growled. “I know what the answer to all my problems is, and it’s not anything you could sell me.”
“You’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer, have you not? This is…quite unfortunate.”
Sam froze, his face filled with shock. He had never seen this man before in his life. He had no friends, no acquaintances. He rarely went outside, and lived in seclusion, away from the world. No one knew about his illness. He had been diagnosed with it a year ago. The doctors had brushed him aside, recognizing his life for the worthless endeavor it was. No one had cared. No one had known. But now, Sam stood face to face with the one man who did know…somehow. And it scared him deeply.
Parish quietly took another step forward and walked past Sam, who will still standing in the doorway, dumbfounded. He continued speaking right where he had left off.
“…And at the ripe age of only twenty-seven. This is very…very unfortunate. How could this happen to you, Mr. Summerton, when you had your whole life ahead of you?”
Sam chuckled grimly. “Do you think my life was ever worth anything anyway?”
“‘Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile’,” Parish proclaimed. “Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of his generation or any generation since, said that. Please, Mr. Summerton, would you close the door?”
Sam reached for the door and slammed it shut. The wind’s distant howling abruptly ended. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“You still want to live…don’t you?”
Sam eyed Parish suspiciously.
“I have nothing to live for.”
“You have so much to live for. You just don’t think about it.”
Sam could not believe this man’s stupidity. Had he not taken a moment to observe his surroundings? The majority of the items in Sam’s house had not been bought, and the things that had been acquired through decent means of trade were acquired through bargaining, pleading, coercing, begging, entreating, imploring—not money. All of Sam’s money was painted black with blood. Sam did not have his own personal savings stored in a bank for safekeeping. He had committed atrocities to sustain himself, and it had been worthless in the end. Worthless. All these horrible things had happened to sustain his worthless, worthless life. He had not lived his life for others. He had not lived it for anything. His mind suddenly flew to Peach—
No. Do not think about that. Do not think about that….
Sam was silent. His wild eyes glared at the corner of the room, unseeing. Parish stared at him, puzzled. Struggling to control his fickle, feeble emotions, Sam took a deep, trembling breath.
“I have nothing to live for,” Sam repeated.
Parish grinned and shook his head. “You lie to yourself.”
“I have nothing to live for,” Sam repeated firmly. “When will you understand? I have not done a single thing to help another human being my entire life. I…I’m evil. I never lived for the good of others; I hurt and betrayed people to help myself, to feed my own desires. You know nothing about life. I have nothing to live for.”
Silence. Only the groaning of the walls and the creaking of the floorboards could be heard as Sam put his face in his hands, on the verge of tears, his emotions shattering yet again. Parish just stood there, staring at him with a phantasmal grin that somehow spoke volumes about him while simultaneously hiding so much more. Sam knew that trusting Parish would likely be the wrong path. He did not know anything else about this mysterious man, and what Parish said next was nothing short of shocking.
“So you have nothing to live for, eh?”
A brief, eternal pause.
“…What about sweet, little Clarissa Blackbourne?”
Sam’s head moved like a bird’s. His heart careened upward into his throat. Sam whirled around to face Parish, the air plucked from his lungs. He found himself back in Summerfall. He saw Blackbourne Manor. He saw the elegant three-story Victorian era mansion hiding under the vivacious, verdant canopies of gargantuan oaks and sprawling maples; he saw the beams of sunlight filtering through the leaves, spraying the ground below with their luminous colors; he saw the wide cobblestone road stretching up to the house’s exquisite front porch, which surrounded the entire estate; he saw the girl, sitting on the wooden porch steps, her face hidden in her hands, tears leaking through her fingers, staining her dress—
“Yes. Sweet, sweet Claire. I know you remember her. And she remembers you. Yes…she remembers you all too well….”
Sam gritted his teeth. Anger gnawed at his brain.
“Ah, yes, she remembers you very well, Mr. Summerton. She thinks of you every day.”
“Her poor broken heart—“
“Oh, I don’t think she can bear it much longer—“
Sam flew across the room faster than he ever knew possible. The choleric chaos within his mind forced an enraged shout of fury out of his mouth, and he clenched his fists, ready to strike Parish down. He had done many terrible things. It would not matter. He prepared to strike.
Parish effortlessly put his hands up to Sam’s chest and gently shoved him away. Sam did not even stumble; he only took a step back and felt his indignation recede to the depths of his brain as if it had never been there in the first place. Everything had returned to normal in the blink of an eye. That was not normal.
Sam was, once again, dumbstruck. “How…?”
“What if I told you that you could save her?”
Sam froze. Then he smiled a cold, rancorous smile. “You’re joking. That’s all you’ve been doing ever since you invited yourself in my house. Why don’t you just leave me alone?”
“Because I’m not joking. I am here to help you. You are a lonely, angry man…but that can all change. I can offer you that change.”
For the first time in an eternity, Sam howled laughter. It was a frigid, unnatural sound, and he did not like it. Parish’s ghostly, omniscient smile remained.
“My life is rotten!” Sam shouted wildly, his anomalous smile fading into oblivion. “My life is rotten to its core! Nothing can change it! That’s the joke! That’s the joke, isn’t it? And, Mr. Parish, it is hilarious!”
“Mr. Summerton, please sit down.”
Sam collapsed down on the couch, which expressed its disapproval in a tiny shriek. Parish walked in front of Sam and slowly reached into his suit pocket. The smile was still plastered on his face.
“You can’t do anything to help me.” Sam was still fiercely skeptical, his life too sour for him to believe it could be saved. “And I don’t want you to help me either.” He paused, knowing he had just uttered a lie.
Parish knew. “And Claire?”
“Don’t mention her. Please…don’t….”
“You won’t have to dread her name anymore, Sam.”
Parish drew something from his pocket and concealed it within his fist. A sudden curiosity commanded Sam, and his arm stretched out for the hidden object. Parish’s grin widened, and then he retracted his closed fist. Sam retracted his hand as well.
“I don’t understand,” Sam mumbled.
“You don’t have to. All you have to do is recognize your life’s true worth. Now…I am going to ask you to think of Claire.”
“Don’t tell me this a joke.”
“It is not a joke, just as your life is not one. You tell yourself that, and you lie to yourself. You think her heart cannot be mended, but it can. You think your wrongdoings cannot be forgiven, but they can. You think your life cannot mean anything, but it can. You tell yourself that you will welcome death. That is not the truth. In reality, you would give anything to have one—just one more chance at life.”
“I…I don’t know….”
Sam felt his arm reach out.
“Yes…yes, you do. The knowledge is within you. Forgiveness is within you. Courage is within you. Death will not save you. God wants you to redeem yourself. You will not go to Hell for what you have done, for I assure you…there is an alternative. An alternative to death, an alternative to Hell….”
Sam’s palm opened up, and Parish placed something in it.
“I give you the Alternative.”
Parish closed Sam’s fist and gently lowered his arm. Sam was incredulous, unbelieving, unthinking. This all seemed…right. Sam brought his hand up to his eyes and opened it. In his hand was a tiny circular receptacle containing…something. He did not know, but he was sure now that this was no joke. The receptacle was black, decorated with crystals and jewels of all kinds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds—things that were not easy to acquire. In the center of the receptacle’s outer layer, the jewels coalesced to create a colorful collage depicting a hummingbird at flight. The prospect of redemption was whispering in his ear.
The Alternative, in all its strange, unearthly glory.
“The hummingbird represents the enjoyment of life, joviality, happiness….This is your solution, Sam. The answer to all your problems. This will give your life worth.”
Sam looked at Parish dubiously, still not truly believing. “I…I don’t know what….What does this even do, anyway?”
Sam opened the jeweled receptacle. Visions flashed before him. Peach. Sandy. Jimmy. Claire. A vial containing a clear liquid shined before him. He stared at it. He heard the distant purring of a hummingbird’s wings.
“Eternal life. Once you have drank from the vial, you will never die. You can try to hang yourself, or drown yourself, but it will never work; the Alternative will keep you alive. You will live forever. You will be immortal.”
Sam was stunned. “This is…impossible….”
“Only if you tell yourself those lies.”
“…This is a joke….You can’t possibly be serious!”
“This is no joke.”
“Impossible! That’s what this is!”
“Mr. Summerton…nothing is impossible.”
“You can’t just say that and expect me to believe you. I won’t know unless I drink from the vial, and whether or not I do that…is my choice.”
“…So you will choose not to redeem yourself?”
Sam did not answer.
“You will wait in this house, you will wither and die…and you will go to Hell?”
Parish folded his arms, his smile long departed. Sam looked into the man’s face and found an echo of what he always saw in his own eyes in the looking glass: disappointment. It was not a joke. It was real, genuine disappointment, and it reached Sam’s very soul. Sam looked down at the vial and watched the clear liquid undulate within it. He was lost in Summerfall. He felt the grass shudder beneath his back as he lay behind Blackbourne Manor with Claire; he felt the warm rays of sunlight on his skin; he felt Claire’s smooth, fragile hand in his, trusting…loving. He didn’t know what to do.
Parish’s funereal tone of voice jerked Sam from his fantasy. The man’s face was worn with grief, and, with a somber adjustment of his fedora, he began to walk slowly to the door.
“You have told me that you don’t need help,” Parish moaned. “If you will believe the lies you have told yourself…so be it. I have a busy schedule. I must help those who actually want helping.” Parish turned to leave. “Good day, Mr. Summerton.”
As the mysterious man strode towards the door, Sam gazed down at the open receptacle, down at the vial within. He did not think it was possible. Something as outlandish and spectacular as this simply could not be possible. It was a joke. It had to be, and yet…he found no reason that an ordinary man would go to such extreme lengths to augment his already burdensome woe. Perhaps it was a joke, and he was just a devilish man, entertaining himself by destroying the hopes of the hopeless. Perhaps it was real, and this could change Sam’s life forever. Perhaps…
A violent gust of wind hammered into Sam’s body, tossing his auburn hair and tugging at his dirty plaid shirt. Parish stood in the doorway, his shadowy silhouette casting a spectral shadow upon the floorboards.
“You have the Alternative in the palm of your hand. The choice is still yours, Sam. I hope you will choose life.”
The door slammed shut, and the hush seeped in.
Parish puzzled Sam. Why would he come here of all places to give Sam of all people a second chance? Why did Sam deserve it? There had to more to this. As long as the truth was hidden from Sam, he felt he would just sit here without purpose, staring at a vial whose purpose was just as unclear. However…what if there was a purpose, and Sam was just overlooking it? And purpose or not, did it really matter…?
Parish’s words echoed within Sam’s mind:
“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”
Sam thought of Claire. He saw her pale blonde hair blowing in the wind as she ran through the forest, her arms spread out like an eagle, her imagination gone to places unknown….
Claire had always been a strange child, but that had not made breaking her heart any less horrible. Parish had known that; Sam had no idea how. It scared him that a man he had never met before had such disturbing insight into his past, his faults, his crimes—everything. Parish had known about Claire, and perhaps he even knew about Peach, or Sandy, or Jimmy….
“This is insane,” Sam muttered aloud, his eyes locked on the vial. What did the vial contain? Would it bring immortality? Would it bring apocalypse? How could Sam know?
“You will wait in this house, you will wither and die….”
Sam looked up from the vial and glanced around the living room. The bare walls and the dusty floorboards mocked him with their abominable poverty, and he immediately looked back down at the vial. He did not want to die in this place. When he looked down at the Alternative, his eyes beheld no mockery; only hope. Hope for the hopeless. Redemption.
“If you will believe the lies you have told yourself….”
This was no joke. This was no lie. Sam knew now. The Alternative was real. He didn’t know how it could be…but he didn’t know how it could not be either.
“You have the Alternative in the palm of your hand.”
The vial beckoned to Sam. He plucked it from the receptacle and held it in front of his face. Was this really the answer to all his problems? He had forgotten about the rope in the attic. Death seemed like an alien idea, an idea only the wildest imagination could conjure. Eternal life was reality. It was right in front of his face.
“The choice is still yours, Sam.”
Sam stood in front of Blackbourne Manor. He heard his footsteps on the cobblestone walkway; he saw the mansion in front of him. The sun’s heavenly light sieved through the tree branches, splashing the ground below, whispering of second chances. Sam’s eyes fell to the garden in front of the porch, where there lay beautiful, resplendent rows of wildflowers, zinnias, hydrangeas, and violets; Claire loved violets. He ascended the porch steps. No squeaks escaped from under his feet.
“The choice is still yours, Sam.”
Sam uncapped the vial.
There he stood on the veranda, staring at the front door in breathless anticipation. Each step he took, the sound of the hummingbird’s wings grew louder.
“The choice is still yours, Sam.”
The front door loomed in front of Sam.
He raised his hand.
He raised the vial.
“I hope you will choose life.”
Sam heard himself knock on the door. He heard footsteps coming from inside the house, hurrying to answer.
Claire was coming.
“To life,” Sam uttered.
The hummingbird’s wings fell silent.