Chapter 1:

An Unsatisfying Life


Markus opened his bleary eyes, trying his best to enter the world of the waking. His phone sang the high-pitched chirping that was his alarm, dragging him from a very pleasant dream. It took all the willpower he had not to silence the alarm and go back to that dream. He hadn’t been sleeping well since the break started. Markus constantly felt uneasy, alone in his apartment. He didn’t enjoy being around people, but he also knew the complete isolation was not good for his mental health. He also knew that he wasn’t going to do much to remedy it. As he silenced his alarm he checked the date and groaned in annoyance.

“Can’t be late for the first day,” he thought to himself as he sat upright. “Only one more year to go, then I’m finally free.” He groaned again as he rose to his feet, stretching out his back. He shuffled through his tiny apartment, slowly getting ready for the first day of his last year of school. A heavy silence clung to him as he packed his bag, mentally running through a checklist of things he’d need. The list wasn’t very long. Miss Anderson would probably give him grief about it, but it wasn’t like he was a bad student. He made his way out of the apartment but paused for a moment in the open doorway.

“I’m off to school,” he quietly called into the empty apartment, his soft voice only making the silence all the more deafening. It occurred to him that those were the first words he’d spoken aloud in more than a week. He shoved the thought from his mind, not wanting to acknowledge how much of a shut-in he’d become. He closed his door and began wandering in the general direction of his school.

It was still early and Markus was lucky enough to live within walking distance of the school. Along the way, there was a small supermarket that stocked everything he needed. It was very convenient for him, but it also meant his whole world existed on one single street less than a kilometer long.

He had convinced himself that this was a great way to live and didn’t add to his isolation at all. If he needed anything he could just get it on the way back from school. He never had any need to stray from that course. The rest of the world could be lost to him.

School was the exact same as it had always been, that being painfully boring. The first assembly of the year dragged on at a snail’s pace, but eventually, the students were all released and sent to their respective classes. Markus sat at the back of the class, right by the window. In his eyes, it was the best seat in the building. It offered a nice view of the area behind the school, a small patch of trees and grass rarely visited by people. He could lose himself to that view for hours on end, much to the chagrin of his educators.

Not that they could complain too much. He was already ahead on all of the work and consistently placed at the top of his class. This wasn’t because Markus was particularly smart, nor did he figure out some way to cheat or pay off his teachers. In his day-to-day life, he needed something to pass the time and provide distractions. Studying was as good a way to do that as any, so he sank many hours with his nose in a textbook. He could have turned to sports or video games but found that those activities were inherently social. Around him he saw his peers clump together, discussing what they did with their breaks and reminiscing on how fast time had flown since they were kids. Markus frowned slightly. His leg twitched as he contemplated standing up and joining one of the conversations, but a pang in his chest anchored him to his seat. He was certain they wouldn’t welcome him.

“I can’t wait to get out of this place,” he mumbled, turning his head and casting his gaze out of the window. He lost himself in mindless thoughts, trying to distract himself from the feeling that had clung to him like a wet wool sweater for over a year now. He was distracted from his distracting thoughts when the teacher stepped into the room, clapping her hands lightly to draw all the students’ attention. Everyone quickly took their seats, and the first lesson of their last year began.

The rest of the school day passed agonizingly slowly. Markus wanted nothing more than to go home and get back into his bed, to return to the pleasant dream he had that morning. As the final minutes of the last period ticked away, the teacher at the front of the room asked a question Markus knew was coming, but dreaded nonetheless. They were in their last year of high school, of course, they would be asked that.

“What do you want to do with your life?” she asked. “You’ve got one year left, and you need to make the most of it. Whether you want to go to college or join the workforce directly, you seriously need to consider your plans. Your choice will determine the rest of your life. Talk to your friends and your parents about what the best choice might be for you, but in the end remember it’s your choice, and you need to make it for yourself, not someone else. I have faith that all of you will be successful.”

“What if we have no one to ask?” Markus asked, quietly enough that no one heard him. His eyes were boring twin holes in his desk, refusing to make eye contact with the woman preaching to them about their future. He tried not to think about the question she posed them. Every time he did it felt like he would get a headache as if his body was physically rejecting the idea of a future.

Every possibility he’d ever managed to think of felt like it would drain him of whatever sliver of his soul remained. He had no drive to achieve anything. He hadn’t for about a year. He used to be very ambitious, but now it seemed like his life was well and truly pointless. He couldn’t affect change or improve the world for the better. He was a cog in a machine that would run better without him there.

The ringing of the bell ripped Markus from his melancholic state, and he quickly put his game face on. A neutral expression meant to make him blend in and disappear into the background. The last thing he wanted was for someone to ask if he was ok.

“Markus!” the teacher called out. “Please stay behind. I would like to speak with you.” Markus cursed under his breath, his fist reflexively clenching. Of course, she’d notice. She was perceptive and had been keeping an eye on him. He hung around by his seat until all the other students cleared out, then made his way to the teacher’s desk. She smiled kindly at him as he approached. He quickly ran through whatever reason she could have to talk to him and came up with excuses for whatever she might accuse him of.

“You wanted to see me, Miss…” he began, then trailed off.

“Anderson. Rebecca Anderson,” she said, her smile twisting into a frown. “For Pete’s sake, Markus, I’ve been your teacher for three years now. How don’t you remember?” Miss Anderson seemed genuinely hurt by his apparent poor memory.

“Sorry,” Markus said, looking at the ground. He hadn’t forgotten her name, of course. He just found it hard to deal with her. She was always so upbeat and chipper, a stark contrast to his dark and gloomy mood. He felt obligated to fake a smile around her, and usually, he did, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it today. It didn’t help that she had self-inserted herself into his life as a pseudo-maternal figure.

“It’s ok,” she said with a sigh. It seemed like her whole body deflated slightly, and her frown softened into a look of concern. She wiped a wisp of hair from her face and straightened her glasses. “Listen, Markus, I’m worried about you.” Markus looked up to meet her gaze. He hadn’t expected her to be this direct. Usually, she was more subtle in her probing into his life. “Ever since the accident last year you’ve been distant. I understand it was traumatic for you, but it’s been a year, and you aren’t making any progress. I haven’t seen you talking to any of your classmates. You turned down the school’s offer for therapy, and you stopped attending your extracurricular activities. Your marks have skyrocketed too.”

“That last one is a good thing, isn’t it?” Markus asked, taking the chance to throw out one of his premade excuses.

“On its own, yes, it’s a great thing, and I’m really glad you’re putting in the effort. I think there’s more at play here, though. The effort is symptomatic of a bigger issue,” Miss Anderson said. She softened her gaze and put a hand on his shoulder. “There are people who care about you, Markus. I know you don’t think so, but there are, and they’re closer to you than you think. I’m worried you’re not even trying to work through things. You’re a great kid, and you’re letting your life pass you by. It’s not what they would have wanted.”

“I’m fine,” Markus said, brushing off her hand a bit more aggressively than he had wanted to. “I have to go, I have homework.” He quickly left the room before Miss Anderson could stop him, or notice his eyes glistening as he fought back tears. He shook his head, trying to get her words out of his head.

“What does she know,” he thought, walking out of the building. As much as he wanted to, though, he couldn’t shake the feeling of her hand on his shoulder. It was the first human contact he had felt in a very long time, and while he hated to admit it, it felt nice to have someone worry about him. For that moment the terrible isolation he’d been feeling was eased.

“Maybe she’s right,” he said quietly, talking to himself. “Life’s passing me by. I guess I need a little excitement every now and again.”

This was the last thing that ran through Markus’s mind as he stepped onto the crosswalk. Miss Anderson’s words had plunged him so deep into his thoughts that he didn’t even notice the truck blasting across a red light. The blaring horn did somewhat get his attention, and he instinctively turned his head in the direction of the loud noise. His brain had just enough time to sear the image of the oncoming truck into his memory before gracelessly sailed several meters down the road, landing in a crumpled heap.

Markus felt like his mind was filled far beyond its capacity with fog. He could hear faint noises through the fog pressing against his consciousness. He picked up on a man’s voice, but it seemed extremely distant, and he couldn’t make out what it was saying. He tried to gather his thoughts, but it felt like his mind was fractured into a thousand pieces scattered throughout the mental mist, and trying to put them back together seemed impossible. His eyes registered movement in front of him, but he couldn’t process the image he was seeing. He blinked, trying to get his vision to focus.

It felt like his eyes were shut for less than a second, but when they opened them his view had changed. Several shadows now loomed over him, and the distant voices were different. More urgent. He felt his body being lifted up. The sensation caused the fractured pieces of his mind to spin around one another, whipping about through the fog. He closed his eyes in an attempt to stop the turmoil. He tried opening them again just a moment later. A bright light nearly blinded him. He was still surrounded by shadowy figures, but they were different than before, and they moved around him. They seemed human, but he couldn’t make out a mouth or nose on any of their faces.

“Wait, how is this kid awake?” he heard a voice call, piercing the fog. A moment later he felt something being pressed against his face. He felt an instinctual urge from his lizard brain to remove whatever it was, lest it hinder his breathing, but he couldn’t move his arms. He wanted to fight and break free from what was happening to him, but he felt dizzy, and his vision was clouded. Every move he tried to make failed, and every breath he took just clouded his vision more. Soon he closed his eyes again and, fell into a deep darkness.


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