The response came too quickly. That’s why I didn’t have to read it to know what it said.
Normally the editors took at least a month to make their decision, but this time they’d replied the very next day. The faster response meant that they’d either loved my story, or much more likely, hated it from the first line. I opened their message with a familiar sinking feeling. In the impersonal tone that broke every writer’s heart, it said: “Dear author, we appreciate your taking the time to send us your story.”
Had they even bothered to read the story that had swallowed up six months of my life and my creativity? It was my strongest effort ever. I’d started with my best idea, and had written and revised and rewritten it until it sounded just right. I’d slaved over each paragraph, labored over every line, sweated over each word.
Once I’d spent an entire hour on a single punctuation mark. With infinite care I’d crafted the text over and over until my fingers had grown numb. Then after a week’s break I’d crafted and polished it all over again. And to be sure that it was beyond reproach, I’d sought feedback from a platoon of beta readers. All the flaws they pointed out I fixed and every change they proposed I implemented. I then rewrote, recrafted, and repolished the text until every syllable was pitch-perfect. Only then did I submit it.
And what was my reward? “Although it does not suit the needs of our magazine at this time, we wish you luck in placing it elsewhere.”
After my first flush of bitter disappointment, my thoughts turned murderous. In my imagination, I strangled the magazine’s editors in slow motion. Then I hacked them up with a rusty ax. And for good measure I cremated them using the ceiling-high stack of paper they called “slush pile.”
Then I brought them back to life and did it again. Several times. And each time I began by reading their form reply back to them. “We appreciate your taking the time to send us your story.” I swung my ax, chopping limbs, smashing faces, and ripping guts until the floor streamed red. As I stomped on their bloody entrails, I yelled: How does it feel to be on the receiving end for a change?
This latest rejection was the last straw on the camel’s back. Cliche, you exclaim. Are you an editor? Have I offended you? Good! How does it feel to get a taste of your own medicine? To be paid back in your own coin? To lose an eye for an eye?
My vengeful thoughts diverted me for a while, but then the sinking feeling returned. Who was I kidding? With my smoker’s lungs and matchstick arms, I couldn’t have hurt a paralyzed rabbit leave alone a roomful of pugnacious editors. As for the pen being mightier than the sword, my Bic must have failed to get the memo — its only martial trait was a tendency to leave red stains on my shirt. My homicidal mission would thus have been exactly as successful as my literary career.
Your literary what? you ask. Fair question. When was the last time I’d actually been paid for writing? Ah yes, the small fortune I’d made writing promotional literature for the local animal shelter. Add to that the princely sum I’d earned writing obituaries for the county newspaper at five cents a word. Not to mention my first foray into fiction, ghostwriting the memoirs of our ex-councilman. That literary effort would have nearly covered a week’s rent, if my client’s check hadn’t bounced.
No, I didn’t have the strength or nerve to kill anyone. But there was something else I could do to soothe the pain of rejection.
I knew my regular doctor would ask too many questions. I went instead to the dodgiest-looking clinic I could find in the most rundown section of town and simply asked for it. A perfunctory exam, a few routine questions, a receiptless cash transaction, and there I was, holding a prescription for a 20-day supply of industrial-strength painkiller. It was so easy it was scary.
Then I took the script to a pharmacy I had never been to before and slipped it over the counter, carefully avoiding the pharmacist’s eye.
“Having pain, are we?” said a familiar voice.
I looked up, and my heart sank into my boots. Gazing at me with a quizzical look was Salima, a 40-something woman of north African origin who had moved into my apartment building the previous year. I recollected now that she always left for work wearing a white coat. Of all the pill pushers in town, how did I end up picking the one who knew me? Today, of all days?
It’s not that I didn’t like Salima. Quite the contrary. I admired her long brown hair and the quick smile that lit up her eyes. I enjoyed the way she broke into a musical, deep-throated laugh whenever she was amused, which was often. I appreciated her full-figured, earthy charm. On top of all that I sensed that she had a soft spot for me, though I’d been too downbeat to respond to her overtures.
“Looks like you’ve never been here before,” she remarked as she keyed in my data.
“No, I haven’t,” I said curtly. Normally I enjoy the personal touch, but today I didn’t welcome it.
She wouldn’t let it go. “What made you change pharmacies?”
“Oh, to have an excuse to see you.”
“No, really. Why the switch?” My gallantry had fallen flat.
“Don’t you want me here?” I growled. Insincere flirtation followed by unprovoked rudeness; I was on a roll.
“Of course I’m delighted you are here.” She smiled. “I was just curious. Anyway, back to your script. It’s for chronic back pain, I see.”
“How odd that you’ve never mentioned it before.”
“Well, it just started a few days ago.”
“Your chronic pain started a few days ago?”
“Dammit, can you stop with this interrogation?” I almost stamped my foot. “Here, give me back the script. I’ll take it elsewhere.”
“Relax, Harry.” She seemed unflustered by my outburst. “I’ll fill the script now. Come back in 10 minutes.”
When I went to the counter to pick up my pills, Salima appeared subdued, with her earlier banter gone. I apologized for my rudeness.
“You do seem rather stressed,” she said.
I tried to get away with a half-truth. “It’s all these rejections I’ve been getting. I haven’t earned a penny this year.”
“That sounds rough.” One of Salima’s colleagues came over to ask her something; she sent him off with hurried instructions and turned towards me again. “Harry, tell me if I’m stepping out of line … perhaps I could help you out? I could cover your rent until you get something published.”
“What if I never get published?”
“Then it will be a gift from me.”
“I don’t need your charity,” I said and immediately regretted my harsh tone. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. It’s really very sweet of you.”
“Forget it. Come over to my place for tea this afternoon.”
I hesitated. This was the fourth or fifth time she had invited me over, and I’d always made some excuse not to go. But now I didn’t have the heart to say no.
“Sure, I’d love to.”
This was my first time inside her apartment, and I was impressed with its simple elegance. Her sofa and armchairs were metal-framed in the style more common in patio furniture, but pastel-colored cushions and bolsters gave them an air of solid comfort. A small square glass-topped table had the tea things laid out.
Salima emerged from the kitchen with a tray of scones fresh from the oven. We sat down on either side of the table. I poured us both a cup of tea.
The edgy feeling I’d started with relaxed a bit after a couple of scones and a cup of tea. Salima did most of the talking at first. She talked about the loss of her parents when she was 11 and her struggle to work her way through college. She told me about her failed marriage and her painful decision to move across the world in quest of a new life.
I hoped that I could leave before the topic switched to me. But Salima paused abruptly in the middle of a sentence about her first job.
“Enough about me. Now you talk.”
Keep the conversation safely in the past, I said to myself.
I spoke about my childhood that straddled three foster homes, an unexpected legacy that helped pay for college, my first job as a computer programmer, and my decision to quit that well-paying career to take up writing.
When I paused to take a breath, Salima cut in. “Harry, I actually wanted to chat about what brought you to the pharmacy today.”
“Like I told you, my back’s killing me.”
She poured herself more tea. She offered me some, and when I shook my head, she emptied the contents of the teapot into her cup. She was looking away as she did this, and now she suddenly turned towards me. “Harry, why are you lying to me?”
I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You don’t really have a back problem, do you?” Her dark lustrous eyes gazed unblinkingly at me.
I could only stare at her, heart pounding.
I found my voice. “I’m not lying!”
“I think you are.” Salima held my hand. “It seems to me that it’s your spirit that’s ailing.”
“Nonsense!” I pulled my hand away. “What gave you that idea?”
“Well, you used to sing every morning. Off-tune, but I liked it. Now I never hear you.”
“So I’m giving my throat a rest. Doesn’t mean anything.”
“You used to be so neat. Frumpy, but neat. Now you seem to wear what you slept in.”
“So I won’t make the front page of Vogue. Big deal.”
“You stopped doing the things you used to. Making bad jokes. Annoying our neighbor’s dog by holding his tail. Imitating our landlady’s accent. Drawing moustaches on her magazine pictures.”
“Maybe I just grew up”
“Or maybe you are feeling miserable.”
I didn’t have the energy to deny the charge.
“Am I not right, Harry?”
I sighed. “Yes, Salima, you’re right. My back’s just fine. I am just sick of things. Sick of being a failure. Sick of letting everyone down. Sick of having nothing to look forward to.”
Salima pushed away her cup and gripped my hand so hard it hurt. “And so you’re planning to … to do away with yourself, Harry? Is that what the painkillers are for?”
My denial froze on my lips. I’ve never been a good liar, and those lovely enormous eyes of hers forced the truth out of my mouth. “Yes, you’re right.”
“You’ve made up your mind?”
I sighed with infinite weariness. “Yes.”
“No second thoughts?”
Now we both sat in silence for nearly a minute. I could hear the ticking of the clock on the kitchen wall. I cut myself a piece of scone but didn’t eat it. On the busy highway two blocks away a police siren approached, grew louder, then faded away.
I broke the silence. “What will you do now? Report it?”
“I have to.”
“What if I hadn’t told you?”
“By law I have to report suicidal intent, even if it’s only a suspicion.”
“Damn the law. My life is mine to live or take. You have no moral right to interfere.”
My argument seemed to impress her. She sat in silence for a few moments, deep in thought. “Maybe you have a point.”
“You think so?”
“Yes. I’ve made up my mind. I’m not going to report it.”
It was my turn to grab her hand. “You really mean it?”
“Yes. But on one condition.”
“Anything for you.”
“Will you let me be with you when you … do it?”
She stirred her empty teacup with a spoon for a few moments and looked up at me with eyes that glistened with unshed tears. “Harry, since I can’t stop you from trying to kill yourself, let me at least make sure you don’t suffer.”
“Suffer? In what way?”
“If you pass out before taking all your pills, you might get a massive but non-lethal dose. Then you’ll be in coma for the rest of your life.”
“Dear Lord, no.”
“Or you could regurgitate the pills you’ve swallowed and choke on your vomit.”
“Bloody hell. How disgusting.”
“Yes. That’s why I need to be there with you.”
I wanted to say no, but her dark eyes held me in their power. I temporized. “You’ll be abetting a suicide. That’s a felony.”
“Nobody will know.”
“You’re sure you want to do this?”
I thought for a moment and then gave in. “Okay, then. Will you come around nine?”
“On the dot. Until then, leave the tablets with me.”
“Why? So you can flush them down the toilet?”
“No, no, I’ll return them to you intact. I promise.”
“Because I don’t want you jumping the gun.”
After some hesitation I handed the pills to Salima and left.
My final literary effort — my suicide note — was done by 8 p.m., and I waited anxiously for Salima. I now regretted having confided in her. Perhaps her supportive attitude had just been a pose. Perhaps this very minute she’s calling for help.
But I was wrong. At five minutes to nine my doorbell rang, and there Salima was, pill bottle clutched in her hand. I drew her inside and shut the door.
“I wasn’t sure you’d come.”
“I made a promise.”
We went to my bedroom, which in honor of her visit I had tidied and aired. The bedside table was bare except for a jug of water. I laid myself down and motioned her to sit beside me.
“Harry, I wanted to ask you one final time: Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Then let’s get it over with quickly. There are 40 tablets here. Chew one and swallow the rest.”
Who was I to argue with an expert?
I took the first pill she gave me and chewed on it. It tasted bitter and unpleasant. Just like my life, I thought. I took a sip of water.
“Okay, now swallow the rest.”
Again I obeyed her instruction. The first few pills were easy, but progressively they seemed to stick in my throat. Despite rising nausea, I managed to gulp down the remaining ones over the next several minutes.
Then my head started to spin.
“Okay, lie down now.” Her voice sounded oddly muffled. “I’ll cover you with the sheet.”
I did as I was told. I felt myself sinking fast.
“I love you.”
“Do you mean it?”
Salima gazed at me for a long moment with those wonderful dark eyes and sighed. “I love you too, Harry.”
By now I could barely articulate.
“Would you like to lie down and hold me?”
“More than anything in the world.”
She slipped in beside me and cradled my head on her breast. Her heart thumping in my ears was the most wonderful sound I’d ever heard. I wanted to weep but had no energy left even for that. As I began to pass out, I screamed: I don’t want to die. Please don’t let me die, Salima. It isn’t too late. Call emergency. Please, please, don’t let me die.
But the scream never got past my frozen vocal cords. The last thing I remembered before fading out was the immeasurable pity in Salima’s eyes and the terrifying finality of her gentle smile.
A delicious languor. Soft bird chirps. Something bright on my face. A soft, rhythmic thumping like the sound of a distant drum. A subtle fragrance in the air. The infinitely sweet sensation of a warm body holding mine.
If this is death, I like it.
I felt my eyelids flutter. I fought to keep them closed, trying to stay wherever or however I was. But it was futile; they snapped open and bright sunlight flooded my eyes. Squinting, I turned my head away.
Whose voice could that be?
Fully awake now, though groggy, I spun around to find a dark, lovely face inches from mine.
“Salima? What? How?”
“Harry, you aren’t dead.”
I stared at her, trying to say something.
“Take it easy,” she said. “Have a drink first.”
The water felt cool and delicious. It had a pleasant mineral aftertaste that I had never noticed before. I had a second glass.
“Yes, Harry.” She rubbed her eyes.
“You switched the pills, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did. Are you mad at me?”
“Mad? I could kiss you a million times.”
“Kiss me once. The rest can come later.”
I did. Then a thought struck me. “If you switched the pills, why did I pass out?”
“Well, the first tablet, the one you chewed, was a strong and fast-acting sedative.”
“And the rest?”
“Placebos used in clinical trials. Dummy tablets made of pure cellulose.”
“Are you sure?”
“Are you sure you didn’t slip in some sildenafil?”
“Sildenafil? Why on earth? … Oh!”
“Let’s first go have some breakfast.”
Chandra Shekhar writes novels, flash fiction, and rhyming poetry. His first novel, Mock My Words, was published in 2017.