John knew it was time.
As his heart tightened, he began to see flashes of his life appear before him.
He didn’t want to die, so he began to mentally beg for his life, though there was no one there to hear him.
He was alone in his apartment. There was no one to witness his struggle, and no one to call for help. John was going to die alone, and he knew it.
The world started to turn grey and he felt himself slipping away, but then he saw a dark figure standing off in the corner watching him.
John stretched out his hand, unable to speak.
Suddenly, John found himself surrounded by a swirling black mist. He felt like he was in the center of a tornado.
He whipped around back and forth, trying to understand what was happening, when the dark figure he had seen in the corner only moments before, walked through the swirling storm, and approached him.
“Hello, John,” the man said.
The man was wearing an all-black suit and looked young, but his eyes revealed that he was much older than his outside appearance suggested.
“Who are you?” John asked, still afraid to die, but also afraid of the storm surrounding him and the man before him.
“It’s complicated,” the man replied with a grin. “You can think of me as a wish granter of sorts. When people want to be rich or famous, I’m the one that makes it possible. In your case, I’m here to give you a second chance at life.”
John stood unsure, but curious.
“The bottom line is,” the man continued. “Death will be here soon to claim you, but I thought I’d take a moment to offer you a chance to survive this heart attack, and continue living.”
“Yes, yes!” John answered quickly. “Please, I don’t want to die!”
The grin on the man’s face grew. “I was hoping that would be your answer.”
The man reached inside his pocket, and pulled out a parchment of paper.
“You’ll have to sign this contract, and of course there is a slight disclaimer,” the man said.
“Disclaimer?” John asked.
“Yes,” the man replied. “You see, Death will still need to claim a soul, so to save yours, I will have to direct him to take someone else instead.”
The man saw the expected worried look on John’s face. He had seen it countless times, on countless faces, but he knew it wouldn’t sway him long.
“But don’t worry,” the man assured him. “It won’t be anyone you know, and people die all the time, so it’s not like it will make much of a difference in the end.”
John didn’t need any more convincing than that.
The man handed John the contract and pen, to which John quickly signed.
“Very good,” the man said, folding the contract, and putting it back in his jacket pocket.
John, still nervous about being in the eye of the storm, asked, “What now?”
“Now, you go back to living your life,” the man replied, raising his hand and snapping his fingers.
John opened his eyes and found himself lying on the ground, staring up at the ceiling.
His chest no longer hurt, and he was able to breath normally.
He quickly lept to his feet. He felt like a new man. He couldn’t be sure if what had just happened was real, but regardless, he was alive.
Over the next week, he joined a gym, and began eating healthy. He didn’t want to succumb to another heart attack.
Like with all of us, as time went by, he began to fall back to his normal routines, and once again, he found himself facing his previous health issues.
One day he was driving home from work, and passed a funeral procession, which made him think of the life that he had traded for his own.
“You shouldn’t dwell on such things,” the man he had made the deal with stated. He was now sitting in the previously empty passenger seat.
John almost swerved off the road when he heard the man’s voice.
“What are you doing here?” John asked, regaining control of the car.
“Why? I’m here to collect, of course,” the man answered.
“Collect what?” John asked, nervously.
“You,” the man answered, matter-of-factly.
“What are you talking about?” John asked. All he wanted to do now was run. Get away from this man who now sat beside him.
“Well, if you had taken the time to read the contract, you would have seen that your life was only extended for an additional six months,” the man explained.
“What?!” John exclaimed, panic setting in.
The man was wearing the same grin that he had been wearing when John had met him in that swirling storm.
“I’m afraid your time is almost up again,” the man continued.
“But I don’t still don’t want to die!” John pleaded.
“No one ever does,” the man replied, shrugging.
Enjoying himself, and seeing he had John right where he wanted him, the man continued. “Of course, according to the contract, you can ask for extensions. If that is something you’re interested in.”
John pulled off the road and looked at the man sitting next to him.
“Yes, please,” John continued pleading. “I don’t want to die so soon. Please. I ask for an extension.”
The man pulled out another parchment and pen to hand to John, but before John could grab it, he said, “Of course, I must once again remind you of the disclaimer. For you to live another six months, another person must take your place.”
“Another person has to die?” John asked.
“I’m afraid so,” the man confirmed. “Death must have his soul.”
The man saw the conflict within John, but was prepared.
“John,” the man began with an assuring tone. “Think of all the people who have died in the last six months. Thousands. Do you think one more will truly make a difference?”
John’s desire to live helped him rationalize his dilemma.
“But for only six more months,” John continued. “To trade for another soul, I should get at least another year.”
If another person has to die, so I can live, I should get more time, he thought, hoping the man would agree.
“I’m afraid not,” the man said, plainly.
“Then I can’t sign,” John said, hoping the man wouldn’t call his bluff.
“Then I’m afraid this is the end, my friend,” the man said. “Without an extension, it is your time to die.”
“All I’m asking for is another six months,” John pleaded.
The man faked a saddened look.
“I’m afraid the contract you signed is very clear and cannot be changed,” the man said. “I’m afraid it’s just out of my hands.”
John thought hard, but in the end, while he felt guilty about someone dying because of him, his desire to live was greater.
He reached over, grabbed the contract, and quickly signed it.
“Very good,” the man said, tucking away the contract. “I’ll see you again in six months.”
John knew the man had vanished without even having to look over at the now empty seat.
People die all the time, he tried to convince himself.
John sat there, clutching the steering wheel, trying to come to terms with what he had done.
Every morning John would look at the obituaries, but instead of worrying about who may have taken his place, he used to justify his actions. It was a reminder that people die every day, and one more wouldn’t be noticed. The deed was done, and he was going to enjoy the extended time he was given.
After the next six months had passed, John had an easier time renewing his contract.
“Will I be able to live forever if I keep signing these renewals?” John asked after several years had passed.
“I’m afraid not,” the man replied. “Too much attention would be drawn if a person lived too long?”
Hesitantly, John asked, “So how much longer do I have to live?”
“When you get to an age where people start to notice, is usually when the contract will permanently expire,” the man explained. “I’ve had people live to over a hundred before, so there’s a good chance you will to.”
“Do you do offer these contracts often?” John asked.
“Routinely,” the man replied. “Though most don’t sign because they feel the price is too high.”
His culpability in others’ deaths weighed on him.
“But with all the ones that accept, I don’t hear many stories of people living over a hundred often,” John pointed out.
“True,” the man agreed. “Over time, the guilt of trading their lives for another becomes too much to bear, and they stop renewing their contracts.”
John felt guilty for trading other lives for his, but over time, he was able to justify it, and come to terms with it. He couldn’t understand how all the others weren’t able to do the same.
“Due to their guilt, many begin looking into who may have taken their place,” the man explained. “But it only leads to feeding the guilt.”
“Why?” John asked. “With so many deaths in the world every day, how could they even begin to suspect who had taken their place?”
The man grinned at John. He enjoyed this part.
“They start, just you are now, by asking this very question,” the man replied. He wasn’t going to ask John if he wanted to continue with their conversation. He wanted John, just like the others, to know the truth.
“The ones that take your place every six months are easy to spot. They die the same day your contract is signed, and their death normally stands out.”
John didn’t like the sound of that.
“What do you mean, ‘stands out’?” John asked.
“I’ve already told you enough,” the man said. “I have to go. Other appointments to be kept. Take my advice, and don’t pursue trying to discover who the people are that take your place. Continue living in blissful ignorance, and enjoy your life.”
The man knew he had planted the seed, and would enjoy what would follow.
Before John could ask any more questions, the man was gone.
John tried to ignore the curiosity that was eating away at him, but the very next day, he began to investigate who may have taken his place.
He went to the library, and found the newspaper for the day of his heart attack when he had first signed the contract.
Just like the man had said, one story stood out.
A family had been in a car accident, with only one family member being rushed to the hospital. It was a little girl of eight. She had been placed in stable condition, when suddenly she passed.
Doctors were not able to determine an exact cause of death, but said there must have been some internal hemorrhaging due to blunt force trauma that they hadn’t detected previously.
John wished he hadn’t looked. He had expected to have been an adult that took his place. Maybe an elderly person who was going to pass soon anyways. That’s how he had been justifying it to himself the entire time.
He was afraid to learn any more, but he felt he was already down the rabbit hole, and owed it to these poor victims to find out what he had done.
The next article he found was of another child who was hit by a car. The driver wasn’t intoxicated, and swore the child wasn’t in the street one second, and then was, too close for him to stop.
The child was six.
John’s heart and stomach wrenched as he read each account of a child dying horribly the same day he renewed his contracts.
When he had gone through all the dates, he slowly walked out of the library. He felt like he was in a daze.
Outside the library, he watched people walking up and down the street. Every time he saw a child, they appeared to him one of the ones that had died because of him.
He couldn’t take it.
He ran to his car, and drove away until he found himself driving on a country road. He pulled off to the side, opened the glove box, and pulled out a gun.
He knew what he had to do. He couldn’t live knowing what his extended life had cost.
He put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
The man sat in the passenger seat, chuckling.
“Oh, I’m afraid it’s not that easy,” the man said once John had pulled the gun out of his mouth and realized though the gun went off, it did no damage.
“Wha, what?” John mumbled.
“I’m afraid you can’t die until your contract expires,” the man explained.
John broke out in tears.
“I can’t live with the knowledge of the cost my extended life is costing,” John cried.
The man’s grin grew.
“But I’m afraid you’ll have too,” the man said. “Since you decided to get curious, and learn the truth, you’ll have to live the next six months living with the knowledge you obtained.”
“No, please no,” John pleaded.
John was about to become more forceful with the stranger, but when he turned to confront him, he was gone.
Over the next six months, John locked himself in his room, unable to face what he had done. Everywhere he went, he was confronted with children who he saw as future victims of people like him who chose to trade death for someone else.
When the man appeared in John’s apartment, he was amused at seeing the windows boarded up, and the rank smell of a man who hadn’t left his room in months and didn’t shower often.
He walked into John’s bedroom, finding him lying in a fetal position and in soiled clothes.
Still wearing an amused look, the man said, “Shall I assume that you do not wish to renew your contract?”
John only groaned.
“I’m afraid that I must also point out another disclaimer within the contract,” the man said.
John continued to lay in the fetal position facing away from him.
“You see,” the man continued. “What you did is considered abhorrent to the powers that be. I’m afraid when you do decide to die, you will be going to a very special part of hell, where you will be tortured beyond what you can imagine that word to mean.”
John slowly rolled over to face the man.
“What?” John asked.
“I’m afraid that if you think life is bad, what lays beyond death for you is a million times worse,” the man explained.
John began to cry. He knew what was coming.
“But death doesn’t have to come now,” the man explained. “You can stave death for years, and all you have to do is renew this contract.”
As John took the contract and pen, he wished he was brave. He wished he had never tried to cheat death. He wished he wasn’t going to be the cause of so much death, so much suffering, but in the end, he was more afraid of what awaited him, than of the monster he had become.
He wept as he signed the contract.