From what I can tell, Richard was born to be a writer. When he was nine years old he stood at the front of a classroom full of other children his age and read out the short story he has conjured up half an hour earlier. He couldn’t remember whether he had been applauded or laughed back to his seat. He didn’t care. He just loved sharing what he had written. He would have done it every day if his teacher would have let him. Unfortunately, there was work to be done. Real work. Reality was calling and he had very little choice in answering.
Despite the realities of growing up in the small farming down of Dusterfield – best known for its cornfields. Richard never lost his love for storytelling. It was no surprise to anyone when, at the age of seventeen, he informed his parents of his intentions to move to Contribution City and pursue a career as a novelist. Contribution was the place to be for ambitious young artists looking to create their masterpiece. Every year it attracted hundreds of bright eyed kids who were determined to leave their mark on the world. There was no question in Richard’s mind that this was where he had to be if he wanted to take his writing seriously.
His fearlessness and enthusiasm were admirable but there were practical issues standing between him and his life as a novelist. The main problem was that he was young and had very little money to his name. He knew that his parents were not going to be able to help fund his ambitions. They were barely able to pay the rent each month. There was no way he would even consider asking them directly for money.
He decided to spend the next two summers working in his father’s liquor store while he finished high school. The business was small and it was barely making enough profit to keep the doors open. For this reason, his father could only afford to pay him a basic wage. Most of his wages were immediately eaten up by rent payments and by the end of the second summer he had only managed to save a tiny proportion of the money he estimated he would need to set-up his new life in Contribution City.
He felt a sense of gut-wrenching disappointment in himself. Not only had he not saved up anything close the amount of money he needed but he had also failed to write anything meaningful in the last two years. He had written a couple of trivial short stories; one of which was published in Dusterfield’s local newspaper. He felt that both were mediocre at best. There was also a half-finished novella floating about somewhere in his parents’ house but he had gone off the idea and didn’t have much intention of going back to it. What he wanted to do was write a complete novel, a piece of work that he could pour his soul into, but as more time passed without seeing results, the less confident he became to put pen to paper.
One hopeless evening in late-august, Richard was closing up Laker’s Liquor for his father when he decided that it would be a good idea to take something for himself. It was his nineteenth birthday tomorrow and he wanted to celebrate in style. He searched the store room and picked out the cheapest bottle of rum that he could find. He didn’t dare to take anything expensive and risk his father noticing that it was missing. There would be hell to pay if he found out.
The sun was still shining as he rode his bicycle through the town and towards the woodland. He was heading for Dusterfield lake, a peaceful spot, which he had spent a lot of time exploring as a child. The woodland paths were deserted and the weather was beautiful. The landscapes around him were glowing with the evening sun and wildlife was plentiful, but Richard didn’t notice. His face was hard. All he could see was the rigid path ahead. A year ago, he would have been able to appreciate a peaceful bike ride like this. Not anymore. His external situation was shaping his inner experience. He felt uneasy. Trapped in his own life.
He arrived at a clearing which overlooked the lake. There were a couple of picnic benches dotted about the place but there was no one else in sight. This pleased him. He wasn’t in the mood for conversation. After a couple of minutes looking around the area he picked a spot by the edge of the lake which was somewhat shielded from view. He spent the next hour sipping rum from the bottle. He watched the reflection of the clouds as they moved across the water. He began to ponder his life, his journey, and what he was going to do after the summer was over. It was going to take him forever to save up enough to make the move to Contribution City at this rate. What he needed was to start writing more. Then he could attempt to sell some of his work. The issue was that his writing had been so uninspiring recently and because of this his motivation was dwindling. It was like his life situation was sucking the creativity from his body one day at a time. He needed a change, something to shake up his everyday experience because if things kept going as they were, he would have no creativity left to give. He briefly thought back to his childhood, where had written stories out of pure joy. What had happened to that part of himself? He needed to reconnect with it.
Richard noticed a group of kids swimming at the opposite end of the lake. He recognized them from town. They seemed to be having a great time, shouting and laughing as they pushed each other into the lake. He couldn’t help but to be slightly envious of their cavalier attitudes. He was never able to let his hair down and have fun in the same way that most other people seemed to be able to. It felt like a waste of time when there was so much else he had to do. But this quirk in his personality also meant that he found it hard to make friends. He didn’t have many close friends when he was at school and while he wasn’t self-aware enough to know this at the time - he would always be something of a loner. It bothered him more than he was ever willing to admit to himself.
The sun was now beginning to set. A dark shadow crept across the lake and the temperature was quickly dropping. The kids on the other side of the lake had gone. Richard figured that he should do the same. It was only when he got to his feet that he realised how drunk he was. He felt lightheaded and couldn’t seem maintain his balance. Then he heard soft footsteps nearby.
“Hello,” a trembling voice called out “is there somebody here?”
The voice was coming from the main part of the opening. He realised that whoever this voice belonged to must have seen his bike, which he had left out in the open. He was still concealed but would be easily spotted if this person walked down further towards the lake. He tucked the bottle into his backpack and left it near the edge of the water. He then emerged from his hiding place, revealing himself.
The voice belonged to an old man. He was wearing a baggy white shirt, beige slacks and sandals. Richard also noticed intense scarring on his face. He had never seen him in town before. The old man moved towards him using a wooden walking stick to balance himself. Richard could have done with something similar himself right now. He tried his best to hide his intoxication. It wasn’t easy.
“I’m very happy to have found you!” said the man “Could you point me in the direction of the town? I’m afraid I have gotten myself a little bit lost out here. It’s getting dark and I don’t know how to get back.”
“Uh-yeah, sure, you just-” Richard glanced up the sky. The sun had disappeared behind the trees and darkness was already creeping in. It wouldn’t be long until it would was pitch black out here.
“Actually, I was just about to head back to town myself. I can show you the way.” He said “Let me just grab my bag, it’s by the water.”
There was a strange, blank expression on the old man’s face. Then his forehead wrinkled and his eyes squinted. It was as if he suddenly became annoyed and saddened by something Richard had said.
“What are you doing out here, young man?” the old man snapped.
Richard was taken aback by the sudden change in tone. Feeling a little intimidated, he took a step backwards, not knowing how to respond.
“You have much to do,” said the man “I would give anything to be your age again, the opportunity that lies ahead of you is – I can’t express it in words. You are in possession of the greatest gift mankind has ever been given– time.”
Something about the old man’s words struck him. An uncomfortable sensation quickly spread throughout his entire body. He felt nauseous but it wasn’t the over indulgence of alcohol, it was something else, something in the air.
“I-I-need to get my bag.” He said as he took another step back.
He turned away from the man, not daring to look back. The sickness was building inside of him. He felt like he was being watched as he scurried over to where he had been sitting. It was not just the old man’s eyes piercing his back as he stepped over to the edge of the water to retrieve his backpack but it felt like he was being observed from all angles. He reached for his bag, he was the focal point of that specific moment, and then, he slipped.
Did I mention that Richard had never been taught how to swim?
It took a couple of seconds for him to process what had just happened. He gasped for air as his head went under and then bobbed back to the surface again. Panic engulfed his entire body. His arms flapped, reaching out for the mound of land he had just been standing on. It was close but slippery and raised above the water. He could barely reach it.
“Help! Help me!” He screamed as he kicked and squirmed trying to keep himself afloat. “I’m in the water!” He looked up at the ledge expecting to see the old man appear at any moment to pull him to safety but he was nowhere to be seen. Richard twisted his neck surveying the edge of the lake but he couldn’t make out any sign of life. There was nobody there to hear his cries. He was alone.
Every minute that passed felt like ten. Richard’s arms and legs were beginning to tire. His head began to slip below the surface of the water more frequently. It took all his strength to push himself back up and take another gulp of air. He submerged into darkness again and again. Eventually his body stopped responding. His arms and legs went limp. He could no longer see the surface. His mind was screaming out but he felt there was nothing he could do. Then, without warning, everything went quiet.
He was still alive, floating below the surface of the murky water, but he had stopped fighting. His life didn’t flash before his eyes, like he would have expected in the face of death. Instead, a feeling of serenity took hold of him. For a few brief moments; his thoughts were crystal clear. He had never experienced a sense of clarity like this before. At least not since he was a child. Not since the time when he was writing stories and sharing them with his class out of pure joy. The serenity turned into an emotion which gripped his heart even tighter. It was a sadness. It accompanied the realisation that no one would ever know what was in his head. Everything he wanted to say would die with him. The potential that he had always felt was caged up within himself would vanish into a black mass of nothingness. The sadness turned to anger. This was not how it was meant to be. There was still too much left to do. His focus shifted entirely to the thumping of his own heart. This was the first time in his life that he was so completely aware of the fragility of his own body.
Then, suddenly, a realisation struck him - he didn’t have to die here. He could fight this. He had a choice. There had always been a choice. This was his story. He was the writer.
An intense focused emotion shot through his entire body like a lightning bolt. The darkness surrounding him no longer seemed so dark. There was a light leading the way. He began to kick his legs with a determination unknown to most human beings. He moved through the water. Following the light. There no was no doubt left in his mind or body. No possibility of second guessing. He had made his decision. This story was not over yet.
I don’t think Richard ever fully grasped what happened to him that evening at the lake but the experienced changed him. His life had been saved by a local dog walker who happened to be looking out over the lake at the exact time Richard resurfaced. After being pulled out of the water, Richard could vividly remember shivering as he lay flat on the grassy bank. He gazed up at the darkened sky; it felt like he was seeing it for the first time. It was incredibly vast and powerful, while at the same time it seemed close and personal, like all he had to do was reach up and touch it. He knew that this moment was special. This was his second chance. The years of accumulated dreams were his to manifest. It was all within his reach.
From that day on, Richard seemed to become a different person. He made sure to practice his writing every day and managed to sell two more short stories within a few months. He also put in extra hours working at Laker’s Liquor. He no longer saw the long work days as a chore but as an opportunity. He realized that if he wanted to be paid more he couldn’t simply just expect a pay raise from his father but he would have to bring in more money for the business itself. He came up with the idea of offering a home delivery service for those living locally in Dusterfield. Every evening after closing the store, he would go door to door asking people if they would be interested in signing up for the service. The response was highly positive and to his father’s surprise the store began to almost double its sales overnight. Less than six month later, Richard had saved enough money to make the move to Contribution City.
The moment he boarded the twelve-hour overnight train was overwhelming. The carriage he had been allocated was cramped and stuffy but that wasn’t important to him. All that mattered was that he was finally moving towards his purpose. His face appeared youthful and full of hope for the future as he shuffled past other passengers and found his seat. He waved goodbye to his parents who stood helplessly on the platform as the train began to move away. They soon disappeared out of sight and it dawned on Richard that this was the beginning of his journey.
He remembered sticking his head out of the window as the train approached Contribution City the next morning. The cool air felt good on his face. He was mesmerized by the glowing orange fireball which appeared over the city. It was fierce, intense and full of opportunity. In that moment, he promised himself that he would write the greatest novel of his time. He would create something true to himself, something that no one would ever forget.