Last year, I wrote a short story for a competition by Mind, the mental health charity. The story, ‘The Journey’, was shortlisted but didn’t win any of the top prizes. Given that I wrote the story specifically for the competition, I didn’t really know what else to do with it, so as it’s currently Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, I thought I’d share it here. I’ve tweaked it only slightly and even had a go at illustrating some of it.
The story begins below. For more about how and why I wrote the story, click here.
David strolled wearily along the path by the river. This had always been his favourite part of the city, but recently it seemed to have lost some of its brilliance. He was beginning to notice layers of grime and cracks in the stonework that he was sure had not been there before.
Every so often, a harpy would swoop down and land beside him. She was a beautiful creature with large, feathery wings and flowing red hair, wearing nothing but a strip of cloth around her human torso. Whenever she landed, she would kiss him on the cheek, which would lift his spirits for a while. But soon she would be gone, returning to the sky above him; somehow so close and yet just out of reach.
Soon, David reached a bridge. As he made his way across, it started to shake. He looked down to see a horde of trolls crawling up the bridge supports and chipping away at them. He swung his sword at the nearest troll – a short, fat, balding creature – but it caught the tarnished blade, which shattered in its hand. David sprinted desperately towards the opposite bank, but before he could reach it, the bridge began to collapse.
He saw the harpy, perched on the edge of the cliff ahead of him. As the ground fell from beneath his feet, he leapt and reached out his hand towards her. But, with a sinking feeling that had nothing to do with gravity, he realised that she was not going to help him. She sat there and watched, her expression blank and emotionless, as he plummeted into the chasm below.
He hit the icy water and was swept away. He struggled but could make no progress against the current. His body went numb and then, overcome by fatigue, he lost consciousness and was carried away by the churning waters.
– – – – –
He woke up on warm sand. His mouth was dry and his head throbbed painfully. He struggled to his feet, fighting against aching muscles, and surveyed his surroundings. A vast desert stretched away as far as the eye could see. In the distance, he saw the familiar shape of the city, but it was so far away. He knew that he had to get back, but it seemed like an insurmountable task.
As he surveyed the desert, he noticed a small settlement nearby, which turned out to be the home of a kindly old couple. They offered to take him in and he spent several days eating their food and several nights lying on one of their comfortable beds. But sleep eluded him and he did not feel any better or less weary; none of the warmth that he had lost in the river had returned, despite the desert sun.
He went outside for the first time in days and stood staring out across the desert.
“Daunting, isn’t it?” said the woman. David turned to see her standing with her husband, who had his arm around her. “You can stay as long as you need,” she continued and her husband nodded in agreement. “But, sooner or later you will have to cross it.”
“I know.” David sighed. He knew it was inevitable, but he didn’t feel ready. He wasn’t sure he would ever be ready.
He stayed with them for a few more days. He still didn’t feel prepared for the task ahead, but he knew he shouldn’t put it off any longer. The couple gave him some supplies for the journey.
“I’m afraid that is all that we can do,” said the woman. “But there is a wise Oracle who lives in a white tower. She may be able to help you.”
David thanked them and departed.
David trudged slowly across the dunes. Off to the east, he noticed a tall, white tower, but it lay in the wrong direction. He was focused on his goal; the distant city.
Occasionally, he found himself on a downward slope and his spirits would briefly lift, but it was not long before he would have to climb again, and climbing was exhausting.
Sometime later, as David walked around the edge of an enormous crater, he was overcome with loneliness and despair and he collapsed onto the sand. “This can’t be happening,” he said to himself.
“Oh, but it is,” said a voice. David looked up and saw a figure sitting on a nearby rock. As he watched, it transformed, shimmering like something emerging from a heat haze. When its form settled, it was a mirror image of David, but there was something…. ‘otherworldly’ about it. Its skin was a pale grey and a black mist seemed to emanate from it. There was an orange glow in its eyes; like a roaring fire.
“What’s going on?” David asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” the figure said. “You’ve been cast aside, abandoned.” Ghostly dioramas formed out of the sand around him; David sitting in a cubicle, looking thoroughly miserable. His co-workers and his short, fat, balding boss, all forcing smiles as they posed for the group photo that they had taken on his first day at the job…
“After all your hard work they just cut you loose,” hissed the creature. “Like you were nothing!” A wave of anger swept through David’s body and as it did, the sand beneath him shifted and he slid down into the crater.
After a while, he struggled to his feet and looked up to see the demon leering down at him. He tried to ignore it, set his sights on a different path and left the taunting creature behind.
He scrambled up the new path, but another shadowy figure appeared in front of him. This one’s eyes glowed purple.
“She never loved you, you know.” A broken picture frame appeared on the sand; David and a beautiful woman with flowing red hair smiled up at him from amongst the fragments of glass. David felt a stab of pain in his chest, as if a dagger of ice had been thrust through his heart.
“And why would she?” hissed the demon. “You’re pathetic!” A feeling of inadequacy and self-loathing overcame David, and once again the sand beneath him slid away, sending him tumbling back down to the crater floor.
Another cliff face, another shadowy figure. This time, its eyes were a brilliant green.
“Look at all your friends,” the demon hissed as dozens of images appeared, floating in the air around them. “People your age who make twice as much money as you. Going on exotic holidays and eating out at fancy restaurants.” The demon pointed at the myriad happy faces that were beaming at them from all sides. “People who have their own house, their own family.” The images swarmed around David, overwhelming him until he dropped back to his knees. “Look how happy they all are,” jeered the creature. “Life clearly isn’t so hard for them!” Overcome with jealousy and resentment, David felt the all-too-familiar feeling of the sands shifting beneath him.
Again and again, David attempted to scale the north edge of the crater. Every time he felt able to attempt the climb, a demon would appear in his path.
Eventually, overcome with exhaustion, he collapsed. Another apparition appeared beside him. David had not seen this one before. It was clothed in ebony robes and its eyes were black and lifeless.
“Why don’t you just give up?” the demon whispered. “You’re tired. You’re weak. You’re trapped. Why keep fighting? Just lie down and close your eyes. It will all be over soon.”
That was David’s lowest point and for a long moment, he considered giving in to the demon’s seductive words. But despite himself, he managed to struggle upright.
“You cannot win,” the demon hissed, grabbing David’s arm. “You are weak, feeble.” As David stared into the dark abyss of the demon’s eyes, he saw a flash of white reflected in them and something occurred on him.
“You’re right,” David said. “I can’t beat you… Not alone!” The demon recoiled as if its hand had been burned. It looked down at David with anger and contempt as he got to his feet, but then smiled as David turned his back on it.
The demon’s laughter echoed in David’s ears as he walked away, but now he had a plan.
– – – – – – – – – –
> > > > > > The story continues here.