Carol tried to raise her left arm, but found that she couldn’t. Something was holding it down.
She tried to turn her head. The excruciating pain which followed forced her to abandon the idea.
She blinked and tried to focus on something, anything at all. She could see a leg, and an arm.
Who is that?
She tried to trace each limb back to its body, but could not make a match. It was difficult to see who was where.
She called out their names. No one answered.
She strained to look around and realized she was upside down. No wonder she couldn’t move! She struggled again and was able to free her arm. She unfastened her seat belt.
She did not expect to fall so hard and so fast. Her head hit a metallic surface and she screamed as it cut deep into her forehead.
She began to wriggle, but something was holding her leg. She was still stuck.
She looked around, frantically searching.
Not seeing what she was looking for, she used her two hands to pull her leg. Still, she could not move. She reached forward and grabbed the driver’s seat. She held on tightly and pulled as hard as she could. Still, she could not get her leg free.
She stopped struggling and tried to catch her breath. She wiped away the blood that was streaming down her forehead.
God, is this it? Am I going to die?
She did not need anyone to tell her where she was, she knew exactly what had gotten her into this situation.
She had been sitting in the backseat as Laura drove the SUV down the road “I’m so excited for this beach trip, it will be great fun.” Carol had said.
Her friends had giggled mockingly.
“Why are you all laughing at me?”
“Since when do you know anything about having fun, Carol? You’re always engrossed in your studies,” Emily had said.
“That’s not true! I do have fun.”
“Really?” Trish had laughed. “Okay, tell us about the last time you took time off from studying to have fun.”
Carol had paused to think for a while.
“Seriously? You need to think about that?” Trish had asked.
“Well, what about today?” Carol had replied.
“Today? What do you mean today?” Laura had asked.
“I’m hanging out with you guys, aren’t I?”
Laura had turned around to glare at her. “Don’t be ridiculous, Carol. How can you count today? Do you mean that aside from today, you can’t remember when you last had fun?”
“Please keep your eyes on the road. You’re driving,” Carol had protested.
The girls had all burst out laughing again.
“What?” Carol had asked.
“You said that I’d better keep my eyes on the road. You’re such a goody two-shoes,” Laura rolled her eyes.
“What’s wrong with that?”
Laura had turned around again. “What makes you think my eyes aren’t on the road?”
“Oh, stop it! You’re driving, for goodness sake!”
Then Emily and Trish had started screaming.
The sudden noise jolted both Carol and Laura.
They had just taken a sharp bend and were coming out of it. At the speed they were moving, none of them had seen the huge tree which had fallen across the road. It had appeared out of nowhere.
Frantically, Laura had tried to apply the brakes, but it was too late. They were much too close. The collision was inevitable. As their SUV hit the tree trunk, it lifted into the air, then began to spin and somersault.
The SUV had then crash-landed on the road and rolled over several times, finally settling upside down.
Carol had remained conscious all through the accident. She had witnessed everything—the shouting and screaming, the crying followed by that eerie silence.
She shook her head as if trying to clear her mind.
She called her friends’ names again. Still no response.
Then she heard it.
It sounded like water dripping. And it was hitting the road not far from her.
She strained her ears to listen again.
Yes, it sounds like water, she thought.
Then she saw it, dripping steadily from the engine.
That was when she realized what could be happening. Since the car was upside down, it was probably water leaking from the radiator.
Or was it?
The pungent smell of petrol soon began to fill her lungs. It was so strong that she began to cough.
Then she heard it.
Fearing the worst, she turned to see the fire that had started somewhere at the back of the car.
The realization of her impending fate gave her sudden strength as she began to struggle again, trying to break free from whatever was holding her leg down.
But the more she struggled, the more she realized how futile her efforts were. And that was when tears began to stream down her face.
It’s hopeless, she thought. She knew that she was going to die.
She looked around. It was obvious that all of her friends were either unconscious or already dead from the crash.
They weren’t going to witness their bodies being incinerated. But she was. And the thought of that frightened her even more than the rapidly approaching flames.
“Please, someone! Anyone! Help me! Please,” she cried softly, knowing in her heart of hearts that there would be no one around to come to her rescue and that she was moments away from dying a most horrible death.
“Is anyone alive in there?” a man asked.
Surprised, Carol began to struggle again as she shouted back. “Hello! Yes, I’m here! Please, help me get out! Help!”
“Just hold on a moment!” the man called again.
By now, she could see that she had already been surrounded by flames. The putrid smell of burning flesh confirmed her worst fears; her friends were already being burnt inside the car.
Suddenly, the man gripped her arm. The smoke was already too much, obstructing her visibility. She began to cough as she was dragged out forcefully. She screamed when her trapped leg finally broke free.
Soon, she had escaped the wreckage. She could see the upturned SUV burning as hungry flames devoured it with fervour.
“It seems like you were the only one that made it out alive,” the man said.
She could smell the odour of burning flesh as she nodded. “None of them were responsive,” she managed to reply.
“That’s too bad. Who were they?”
“My friends. My best friends from school. I can’t believe they’re all gone.”
“Bad things happen all the time, miss. You should be grateful that you’re still alive.”
“How’d you find me?”
“I heard your cry for help.”
“My cry for help? Was I crying for help?”
“Well, it was more like a prayer.”
“A prayer?” she repeated. At that moment, she turned and looked up to see who her rescuer was.
He was tall. He was wearing a dark suit, a dark shirt and a black hat. Since he was towering above her with his back towards the sun, she couldn’t clearly see his face. The wide brim of his hat shielded his face from view. “Who are you?”
“Someone who just saved your life, Carol.”
She gasped. “How do you know my name?”
“I know a lot of things. A whole lot of things, indeed.”
“But I never told you my name!”
“You amuse me. I’ve just granted your wish, and all you’re bothered about is how I know your name.”
“My wish? What wish are you talking about?”
“Your wish to be alive. Or maybe you could call it a prayer. Whatever you choose to call it, I heard you, and I came. Aren’t you happy that I came?”
Carol shook her head vigorously. “No, no, no, don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy! I’m just confused. I wish my friends had made it out as well.”
“They couldn’t have. None of them called out for help. None of them were alive.”
“But, how did you find me?”
“I was passing by.”
“Yes, we always pass by when such incidents happen to check if there are any survivors.”
“I’m grateful to you, sir. What’s your name?”
“Don’t worry about my name. I’ll be around to see you again soon.”
“Wait, are you going to leave me here all alone?” When she heard no response, she looked up and saw that he had gone.
She turned and began to look around. There were no other vehicles on the road.
Who was he? She kept asking herself that question until the ambulance and police cars arrived.
Soon, she was being lifted onto a stretcher by medical personnel. Tired and exhausted, she closed her eyes and everything went black.
The flickering of the fluorescent light woke her up. She shielded her eyes from the glare.
She was lying on a white bed inside a white room. Everything was white. The walls, the windows, the floor, the chair.
There was someone sitting on it.
“How are you feeling, Carol?”
Carol squinted. “Who are you?”
“All my friends are dead,” Carol replied flatly.
“Yes, I know. But you’re still alive. And you should be grateful for that.”
“Grateful to whom?”
“To me, of course.”
She frowned and took a closer look. Yes, it was him again. The same man who had rescued her from the burning SUV.
“Please. Don’t make me feel unappreciated,” he said, adjusting his wide-brimmed hat.
“You left so suddenly back there. Why?”
“I wasn’t needed there anymore. I was required elsewhere.”
The man nodded, though she could only tell from the motion of his hat. For some reason, his face still remained obscured from her view.
“There was someone else in a situation similar to yours.”
“Yes. Someone had a wish to make. A wish to live.”
Carol sat up. “Who are you?”
“I’ve told you before, haven’t I? I make people’s dying wishes come true.”
“But how is that possible?”
“Well, how about the fact that you were not burnt alive, as your friends were?”
“But why do you go about making dying people’s wishes come true?”
“Because I am mandated to do so. At a price, of course.”
“A price? What do you mean ‘at a price’?”
The man chuckled for the first time. “Come on, Carol. Nothing in this life is free. Don’t you know that?”
“I do. But what’s that got to do with your rescuing me?”
“Everything, Carol. Everything has a price.”
“I’m still confused. What’s the price of rescuing me from an accident that wasn’t even my fault?”
“Another life, Carol. When you made your wish, you were on the verge of death. And, at that moment, your soul was already expected. Now, another soul needs to be sent to replace yours.”
“Expected soul? What’s all this supposed to mean?”
“You are indebted. You owe one soul. Either yours or someone else’s.”
“But wait, I never agreed to any of this. How come I now owe a soul?”
“You still don’t get it, do you? When you wish for life at the point of your imminent death, you must make arrangements to submit the soul of another person.”
“But I never knew about this arrangement!”
“That’s what a lot of people say when they’re confronted with the reality of the situation. However, ignorance is not an excuse, especially when it has to do with matters such as life and death.”
“This is crazy. And what if I don’t do whatever it is that’s expected of me? What if I refuse to get some other soul?”
“That’s simple. The previous status quo is restored, and you’ll be faced with the situation that would have led to your original death.”
“Now I know that all this is nothing but nonsense,” Carol chuckled and shook her head vigorously. “That’s impossible.”
“Is it, Carol? Do you really think it’s impossible?”
“Of course it’s impossible! How can you suggest that I’ll be faced with the same situation? You mean that I’ll have another car accident?”
The man didn’t say anything. Rather, he raised his hands and clapped thrice.
“What are you clapping for?”
Immediately, there was a sudden gush of wind. Carol felt the room begin to spin all around her. The walls, the windows and even the bed beneath her, all appeared to be sucked into some sort of vortex. The experience was unnerving and frightening. She held on tightly to the edges of the bed.
Then, just as suddenly as it started, everything disappeared.
Carol blinked and turned to look around her. It was as if she had just woken up from a deep slumber.
Where am I?
She tried to get up, but discovered that she was stuck in an uncomfortable twisted position.
She tried to focus on something, anything at all.
That was when she gasped. She was upside down.
She freed her hands and felt around her body until she caught the seat belt.
Carol felt a chill of fear as she suddenly realized where she was. She was back in the upturned SUV, the exact spot where she had been not too long ago. The spot where she had been saved by her unknown rescuer.
“No, no, no, this can’t be happening again!” she cried, tugging at the seat belt. But even as she struggled, she could not help but notice the sickening feeling inside her stomach. She knew it was futile. She wasn’t going to be able to break free.
Then, like a scene from a movie, she watched helplessly as the events she already knew so well began to unfold.
She heard what sounded like water dripping in front of her. She looked around and saw it soak the road ahead of her and begin to trickle down. In time, the odour would envelope the entire interior of the car. The unmistakable smell of fuel. And then, there’d be a loud whoosh as fire ignite from somewhere in the back. Soon, the putrid stench of burning flesh would hit her nostrils, and she’d choke on the smell as well as the smoke.
By now, she was crying and wailing. She knew what had happened. Somehow, she’d been transported back in time, back to the same spot where she’d last been—the scene of the accident.
There was no point trying to find out if any of her friends had survived. She already knew they were dead, and she was about to join them if she did not act fast.
The flames were already encircling her. Carol closed her eyes. “Please, help me. I need your help. I’m sorry. Please, help me out of here,” she cried softly.
“Are you sure you want to live?”
Immediately, she opened her eyes. She tried to look around, but the smoke was getting into her eyes. She coughed and struggled as the flames drew closer.
“Yes, I want to live! Please, get me out of here! I don’t want to die like this. Get me out, please!” she cried.
“Fine.” But rather than being pulled out like the last time, Carol was suddenly back inside the vortex. The SUV, the fire, the smoke—everything around her was now spinning around very quickly. She grabbed onto her seat belt and closed her eyes tightly.
She felt as if she was going to fall from a fast-moving vehicle. She was still gripping her seat belt when she felt someone tap her arm.
She opened her eyes and almost jumped when she saw a man in white.
“Are you all right, miss?” asked a tall, strapping man with a kind and pleasant face. His name tag confirmed that he was a doctor.
Carol looked around, shocked that she was back in her hospital room.
“Where, where am I?” she asked, not too sure of her environment.
“Well, you’re in the hospital,” said the doctor, gesturing at the two nurses beside him.
“What happened?” Carol looked around frantically. She was expecting to see the mysterious man in black sitting on the chair. But he wasn’t there. The chair was empty.
“You were involved in an accident. I’m afraid you were the only survivor.”
“But we were all together in the car! How did I get out alive? How did I get here?”
“The rescue team found you some distance away from the wreckage. It’s a miracle that you were able to get out.”
“Get out? How did I get out of a burning car?” Carol demanded.
“You must relax and try to get some rest, okay? I know how traumatic this incident must have been.”
Carol sat up on her bed. “I don’t need any rest. Just answer my questions.”
“What answers do you need from me? You should be grateful that you’re alive! It’s a miracle that you survived the accident.”
“Yes, and you should be grateful. Now try and get some rest, please.”
After the doctor and the nurses had left, Carol was all alone.
“You don’t believe in miracles?”
She turned to look at him. As expected, he was sitting on the chair.
“Are you a miracle? Are you my miracle?”
“You can call me whatever you want. Some people think of me as a provider of solutions. To others, I am a miracle. And yet others call me the answer to their prayers, or simply their dying wish.”
“But you’re not any of those. You’re a sick joke. What’s this supposed to be—a second chance or what?”
“Careful with that temper, Carol. By now, you should know that I’m immune to provocation. Collecting debts from people is a serious business which requires concentration and meticulous attention.”
“You’re a debt collector?”
“I go by so many names these days that I don’t even bother to remember. All I know is that after I’ve granted someone’s dying wish, that person must be ready to repay their debt.”
“And to repay that debt, I must provide another soul, otherwise I’ll get sent back to the same situation I was in when I made my wish, right? A quid pro quo.”
“Exactly. You finally understand.”
“How long do I have to repay my debt?”
“Yes. Exactly forty-eight hours from now.”
“But that’s impossible! Where will I get a soul for you in forty-eight hours?”
“You talk as if you haven’t just been given a brand new life to live. You can be creative with the process, Carol. Before you know it, you’ll see that you’ve already repaid your debt, even before you get discharged from this hospital.”
Carol frowned and shook her head, as if trying to clear her mind. “Wait, I didn’t get that. What do you mean by being creative and repaying my debt before I get discharged?”
The man beckoned to her. “Come, Carol. Come to the window.”
She stood up from her bed and walked to the window.
“What do you see outside?”
“A car park. Cars. People walking around.”
“No, Carol. Look again. Now tell me, what do you see?”
Carol looked again at the car park down below. After a while, she looked away. “There’s nothing else. Just cars and people.”
“Okay, Carol. I’ll open your mind a little. What I can see is height. Do you understand?”
Carol turned to look at him. “Height?”
“Yes, Carol. You’re on the seventh floor of this hospital. Just imagine what it would be like to have someone thrown from this floor. No one would ever suspect anything. They’d say that the person was depressed, mentally ill, or even suicidal. And that would be the end of the story. You would have repaid your debt before you’re discharged.”
Carol gasped. “You’re suggesting that I deliberately kill someone?”
“I’m not suggesting anything. I’m simply showing you ways to repay your debt.”
“But I can’t push someone from a window!”
“Then maybe you might consider what would happen to you if you don’t. Do you remember the burning SUV? Perhaps you’d like to find yourself inside it once again. And this time, there would be no one to answer your cries for help and your dying wish. Is that what you’d prefer, the horrible pain of being burnt alive?”
“No, no, please! Don’t let me die like that!”
“You’re not going to die like that as long as you do what must be done. Forty-eight hours is all you have. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand. Forty-eight hours.”
Then he was gone.
He hadn’t opened the door or flown through the window. He just vanished, disappeared from the room like he was never there at all.
Carol sat down at the edge of the bed. What had she gotten herself into? she wondered.
Just then, the door opened and the doctor came in.
“Hello. How are you feeling now?”
“I’m okay. I’m feeling a bit stronger.”
“That’s good. I’m going to give you some medication to help you recover.”
“But I feel fine, Doctor. Do I still need medication?”
“Of course you do. You don’t realize what it means to survive such an accident. And we don’t want you suffering from an infection as a result of what you have gone through to get out of that burning SUV.”
The burning SUV, she thought. So everyone actually thinks I miraculously escaped from a burning SUV?
“This room is a bit stuffy. Maybe I should open up the window for you?”
Carol watched him cross the room. He drew aside the blinds and opened the window. For a while, he just stood there, observing the scene below.
Carol continued to watch him. Her mind began to race. Perhaps this is my chance, she thought, as she quietly got off the bed and tiptoed towards the doctor.
When she had gotten close to him, she stopped and began to contemplate what to do.
All she had to do was to forcefully push him and he would fall out of the open window.
That wouldn’t be so difficult, she thought.
But he seemed like such a nice person. Why would I want to kill such a nice doctor?
The debt collector must be watching me.
How she wished that there was another way out of this predicament! But still, she began to stretch out her hands towards him.
Just then, the doctor turned around. As he did, she quickly withdrew her hands. “My, you were able to get out of bed?”
“I felt restless. I wanted to take a look out the window.”
The doctor stepped aside. “Of course, go ahead. I guess you must be feeling bored, right? I’ll get a TV brought up to your room.”
“Thank you, Doctor. That would be very nice.”
After he left, Carol sank to the floor and began to hit it with her clenched fists.
“Are you all right, miss?” someone called.
With tears streaming down her face, she looked up. It was one of the nurses. Carol had not heard her come into the room.
“Are you okay, miss? What’s the matter? Why are you crying?” the nurse asked as she knelt down by her side.
Carol wiped her tears. “I’m just tired and confused. I really don’t know what to feel or think anymore.”
“I understand. Not everyone can cope with such an incident. I heard that there were four of you in that SUV, but you were the only one who made it out alive. That must feel awful. Were they your friends?” She was speaking in a soft coaxing voice, so as to comfort an obviously distraught patient.
Carol nodded and wiped away more tears. “Yes. We were going to the beach.”
“I’m really sorry. Let’s get you to your bed so you can rest, okay? I’m sure you’ll feel much better after a bit of a rest. How about that?”
Carol nodded. The nurse’s calm and professional behaviour helped soothe her frayed nerves. She wrapped her arm around the nurse’s shoulders and tried to get up, but her knees were feeling weak.
“You’re feeling groggy. Here, let me help you up,” the nurse said and wrapped her arm around Carol’s waist. Just as she pulled Carol up, the nurse staggered backwards. In the process, she stepped on the edge of the bedsheet that was on the floor. Instinctively, she let go of Carol to try to stabilise herself.
Still weak, Carol collapsed back on the floor, unable to hold herself up. She watched in shock as the nurse slipped and struggled to regain her balance. But the nurse was too close to the window. Realizing what was about to happen, the nurse began to scream, with her hands thrashing all around.
At the last moment, she grabbed onto the window blinds to steady herself. But the blinds only offered momentary relief. They were not designed to support the weight of a full-grown, adult woman. They easily gave way.
Carol was still on the floor. She thought of stretching out her hand to the nurse, but hesitated.
The last thing Carol saw was the look of horror in the nurse’s wide eyes before she fell out of the window.
Carol gasped as she heard the nurse’s screams. There was a loud thud, and then, silence.
It wasn’t long before she began to hear the sound of commotion on the ground outside.
Carol remained huddled on the floor. She was too frightened and weak to even muster the courage to look out the window.
She remained on the floor with her face buried in her hands, crying helplessly.
She was still in that same spot when the door barged open and the doctor rushed in with other personnel.
“Are you all right?” the doctor asked, kneeling beside her.
Carol managed to nod.
“I don’t know. She was trying to help me up. I think she slipped and then, and then, and then–” Carol stuttered as she struggled to complete the sentence.
The doctor patted her shoulder. “It’s all right. Come on, let’s get you back in bed.”
Carol was carried back into her bed. After she had been laid down, the doctor examined her briefly. “I think you’re going to be fine, miss. I’m sorry about that incident. It must really be terrible. I mean, having to witness such a tragic accident not long after surviving one.”
Carol reached up and held the doctor’s arm. “Please, Doctor. How is the nurse? Is she all right?”
The doctor’s eyes were heavy with grief as he shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
Carol gasped and covered her mouth. “Is she dead?”
The doctor nodded. “Unfortunately, yes. Such a terrible thing, isn’t it?”
“I’m so sorry!”
“You don’t have to be. After all, you have repaid your debt. Just like I knew you would. You could have saved the nurse if you’d really wanted to. But you chose not to.”
Shocked, Carol cringed backwards in fear.
“Relax, Carol. After all, you are no longer indebted,” the doctor said with a smile as he left the room.