Life Is a Death Sentence

Backstory Biernes #3, Friday, May 22nd 2015: Terminal

Today on Backstory Biernes, I am going to discuss the evolution of the short story Terminal. If you haven’t read it just yet, don’t worry. It’s still here.

The original story was about a shape-shifting creature, a scavenger that lives in the shadows of our world and feeds on the fresh corpses of suicides. It was inspired by the idea that suicides have a special place in the afterlife where they continue to suffer for the so-called sin of taking their own lives.

I do not believe in any particular religion, but find mythology and religion to be fascinating, mostly because of how they demonstrate the power of the imagination.

After many edits, the story became the story of a young woman, Tessa, who finds something worth living for at the depths of her despair but realizes that she can not run from her choices.

One early draft went something like this; you might recognize several plot points from the final version:

Tessa has been down and out her whole life, and in the past few months, she has lost everyone she ever held dear. One night, she intentionally overdoses on pills and alcohol and even goes the extra mile by slitting her wrists.

As she lies dying in her bathtub, a shape-shifting creature comes in the form of a dog and begins to lick up the blood dripping from her wrists. When Tessa momentarily comes to her senses and sees the creature, it is forced to leave, as its habit is to feed only on suicides. She passes out again and wakes up later, alive but with a hangover.

She senses that someone is watching her, so she flees her apartment to the chaos and danger of her neighborhood streets. Amid the violence of the city, she is attacked by a man in a coat, hat and dark glasses who reveals his twisted face to her. She is scared, but manages to escape his grasp and flees to a hotel at the edge of town. She checks in with the large, scarred receptionist, Ned, and is not sure if she should be afraid of him or be thankful he is there. She goes to her room and then comes back to the lobby to get some coffee before sleeping. There she meets Adam, a traveler, who treats her kindly. Despite his friendliness, she runs from him. When she is attacked by the man in the room next to hers, Adam rescues her. For that, she invites him in and they get to know each other. He is gentler than anyone she has ever known. She quickly falls for him, as is her way, and they have sex.

Later that same night, when Adam goes to the bathroom, he returns in a semi-catatonic state. Tessa sees that he is bleeding from his head and mouth and runs to him as he falls to the floor. As she cradles him, crying, the creature emerges from the bathroom in the same form as the man who had attacked her on the street. He has finally caught up to her.

Tessa screams, and he jumps on her, pinning her to the floor. He tells her that he wants to feed on her despair, that he loves its smell and its taste. He tells her that Adam will die and she will be alone forever. Tessa screams, but is powerless against the creature’s strength. Just as it is about to say something, his head explodes. His headless body squeals and runs away, disappearing through the wall. Ned stands in the doorway of the room holding a large gun. An ambulance and the police come, and Tessa survives by shear luck.

I didn’t like that version for several reasons, among which are:

  1. The creature cares too much about Tessa, who should be insignificant to him, as the individual is to physics.
  1. Tessa never truly bears the consequences of her action.
  1. She is powerless to save herself.

In the new version, the creature just exists and devours Tessa because that’s what it does. It’s a force of nature. Tessa suffers the consequences of her action and realizes that her hero never existed. Adam is the creature, and her joy was not real. Tessa may not save herself in the new version, but she regrets not having made better choices. In that split second realization before she dies, she has the power, but it’s too late.

The story makes good on the promise that was made to Tessa long ago–a promise that she had once accepted–that she was born in hell, and she would die in hell. Her regret was too late.

Among other things, the story is a metaphor for being trapped in a system that you can not escape. You might go through ups and downs, but the cards are stacked against you, and you’re going to die a horrible death. But it also demonstrates the value of choice even in inescapable situations. If Tessa never tried to kill herself, she would never be pursued by the creature. She would have died in some other horrible way, but at least not by her own desire.

Thanks for reading.

Read on.