It Started with a Whisper

by Edward Liu

Why are you still alive?”

I remained silent.

“You didn’t jump that day. Why didn’t you jump?”

“Because I was afraid of not dying,” I said.

“You didn’t choose a tall enough building.”

“There’s always a slim chance of survival. How would I jump again if I somehow survived with every bone in my body shattered? Repeating the task would be near impossible,” I said, but that wasn’t all there was to it. Thinking about suicide is simple. Initiating the act was a whole other story. At least for me. Why was I still alive? I wondered that myself. It was almost a year since the lowest point of my life. What had I accomplished since then?

■ ■ ■

It started with a whisper almost four years ago, a small voice in the back of my head.

“This is bad,” it said softly as I stared at my score on the math test I had just been handed.

“I’ll make up for it,” I said.

Mathematics was my best subject growing up. I liked math. It was the only thing which I felt like I excelled in. My peers used to call me a human calculator and I felt an obligation to keep up my studies in math. It was also the only subject in which I scored above ninety percent. One bad mark did not predict my final mark, but things were different that year. Many things were different. The most obvious being I had taken the math course on a higher level, my school called it medallion level, as opposed to the normal academic level. I had never done so before that year.

“This is very bad,” the voice said a bit more clearly after the following math test.

“There’s still time,” I told it. “Just let me deal with it, like I did last year.” I thought I could deal with it, but several weeks later, I knew I was wrong. The voice knew, but it said nothing. I couldn’t fix my mark. It quickly went from bad to worse. One year prior, I had around a 92 in math. But then? In that medallion level class I was a mid-80. I was not used to feeling such a lack of skill in a math setting. That was only the beginning of my downfall.

“You lost your grip on the only thing defining your existence.”

I felt like nothing had changed in the way I handled my time, so why was I progressively performing worse in not only math, but in all subjects? When my grades first began to drop, I played games, or a single game rather (since I only remember playing one most of the time), more frequently to dive deeper into the virtual world in order to escape reality.

“If only you were as strong as that character you were roleplaying.”

Unfortunately for me, it worked. The voice retreated for a while. But my escapes worked a little too well. My grades got even worse. Why did it work so well? Maybe it had something to do with my life at home.

It wasn’t really home. I had learned that home is not a place. It is a feeling. I sure did not feel at home in that house. It was where a tired and irritated father returned every night, always on the verge of exploding into a tantrum. Who’d want to live with that? Why did I have to live with that? He and my mother rarely got along. Their opinions almost always differed, and my father was never one to change his mind. I guess I got my occasional short temper from him. How many years has it been? How many years of me sitting in that same living room, having to listen to the many arguments they had in the kitchen? One might even ask “Why did you not retreat into your room?” Now that I think about it, I have no idea. I remember one time, my mother said to me, sobbing:

“If you’re going to turn into your father, it’s best not to get married.”

What happened as a result of my marks lowering, life in that house, and my constant gaming to escape? Depression. I fell into an endless void. The escapes no longer worked. My marks were at a record low and were still dropping. After a series of unfortunate events, I was nearing the brink of my sanity, pushed onto that edge by the voice upon its return. That was when it appeared. The voice adopted a physical form after several months of constantly tormenting me.

I was curled up in the corner of my room on one sad and lonely night almost a year ago. A night light was on and it illuminated my little corner.

“Why do you continue living?” the voice asked. At that point, it was clear to me that the voice was a male voice. He sounded as if he were right in front of me.

I looked up. He materialized out of the shadows and loomed over me. He wore a hooded cloak and, in the darkness, I couldn’t see his face. His arms were at his sides with his hands hidden in the cloak’s long sleeves. I couldn’t see his feet which made it seem like he was floating a few centimeters above the floor. “I don’t know,” I finally said.

“Why don’t we end this? Is this life worth living anymore?”

I put my head back down and he remained silent. When I finally looked back up, he had disappeared. I went to sleep that night thinking about what he had asked.

He began speaking to me more frequently, always wearing that pitch black hooded cloak which hung a shadow over his face at all times. It was the worst few months to wrap up the worst year of my short life. He would point out buildings I passed by and would make comments such as, “That one looks promising,” or “Maybe we’ll try it today?” On one occasion, only once, I found myself at the top of a certain apartment building. I looked down and instantly felt nauseous. Did I mention that I was afraid of heights? And still am? He urged me to jump. All the pain and suffering from constantly feeling like my existence is all for naught would be over in an instant. It was tempting. I had already made it to the edge of that roof. A single step was all it would take.

■ ■ ■

Luckily, I’m still here.

“Why didn’t you jump that day?” he asked.

“Because I was afraid of not dying. There’s always a slim chance of survival. How would I jump again if I somehow survived with every bone in my body shattered? Repeating the task would be near impossible,” I said. “Besides, it hasn’t been all bad.”

“What do you mean?”

“Haven’t you noticed? My grades are the highest they have ever been!”

“But they have been dropping for a while now, have they not? You’ll return to the wretched state you always fall back into! What can you do, all alone as you always are?!”

“I’m not always alone. You are here. Four years ago, I was beginning to fall off track, and two years ago, I fell off completely for a whole year. Then you emerged. For the first few months, it was horrible having you around, but look at me now. It is going to take time, but I will get back on track,” I said, staring confidently into the shadow that covered his face. “We will get back on track. I need you to believe in our ability. I need to believe in myself.” He remained silent. I couldn’t tell if he was hesitating, but he raised his hand and slowly removed his hood. A moment later, I was staring into a pair of tear-filled eyes; my eyes. He tried to hold back the flood of emotions he had held in since he first spoke to me, but failed miserably.

“It’s been so many months, so many years even,” he said, sobbing. “Do I truly think that this will be worth it?”

“To be fair, it may not be worth it. However, I won’t know until I experience it for myself,” I said. He slid a beat-up old calculator from somewhere in his sleeve into his hand and passed it to me.

“This,” he began. “This is what remains of the great ‘human calculator.’ The numbers don’t flow in my head like they used to before.”

I looked at the calculator in my hands and felt a hint of nostalgia. “The human calculator may be dead, but he can be rebuilt,” I finally said, recovering my resolve, placing the calculator on the table beside me. “Or I can try something new. Something I couldn’t quite do in the past.” I passed him a pen. It was a special pen. It could be used as both a pen for writing and a stylus for smart devices. I kept it on me at all times. “Like writing. The possibilities are endless in this life.”

“I,” he paused, inspected the pen in his right hand and looked back at me. He clutched the pen in his hand. I watched as his trembling lips showed a small hint of a smile, his eyes glimmered slightly with hope, and he vanished into thin air.

The pen landed next to the calculator on the table.