James placed the pen on top of the paper where he had written his final thoughts. He glanced at the clock and was unnerved to see that it was already 3 am; he had spent the whole night writing. 

He inhaled a deep breath of cool air and folded his hands on top of the desk. Exhaling slowly, he steadied his nerves and then stood up. He picked up his chair and carried it over to the middle of the room. A shadow in the shape of a circle swayed gently on the wall.

It wasn’t easy setting the noose up. Earlier in the afternoon, James had to tear down part of the ceiling to access a wooden beam strong enough to support his weight. After all that work, exhaustion had rendered him so tired that he found himself nodding off. But as soon as he closed his eyelids, the terrible nightmares jarred him awake. Oh well, he thought, sleep would come soon no matter how bad the nightmares were. 

Though he was exhausted, James managed to write through the night. After, staring at that thick rope, he wondered how painful it would be—how long it would take for death to take hold.

Standing in front of the chair and looking up at the imperfect circle, he watched as it slowly swung back and forth in front of his face. With his heart beating like mad, James closed his eyes and took one final moment to calm himself. 

Once he had himself under control again, he stepped up onto the chair and used his hands to slide the noose over his head. The rope tightened around his neck as he sank down a bit to make sure it was secure. Using his left leg, he kicked the chair out from underneath his feet. 

A loud crack thundered through the room. Before he lost consciousness, James thought, my neck just snapped. That was the last sound he heard until he awoke in a hospital bed some days later.

At first, James only saw flashes. The bright lights hurt his eyes whenever he tried to open them. His hearing was only slightly better so he could barely make out the faint voices of two nurses talking; it was like trying to listen to a conversation at the end of a crowded hallway. He couldn’t make out all of what had happened, but apparently, the rope or beam must have snapped under his weight. Before this, James’ doctor had told him that his weight would one day be the death of him. Who knew his big gut would actually save him from himself? The irony wasn’t lost on him.

That was his last thought before the world dissolved back into a murky haze.      

The next time James woke up—or at least woke up and was lucid enough to know what was going on— he could tell that it was late. The room was dim and the curtains were closed. This allowed him to look around without straining his eyes. 

He wasn’t sure how long he had been out this time but it must have been for a while. The pain meds were wearing off and James could feel with perfect clarity the burdensome brace around his neck and the alien sensation of having had a feeding tube jammed down his throat. Trying to reach for the call button, his hand trembled and was all but useless. 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. You don’t want to hurt yourself… any more than you already have, I mean.” 

Even in his current condition, James almost shot out of bed at the sound of the voice. There was no denying who it belonged to. It was impossible. But it was clear as day. Jan.

Pictures of the accident scene from the news went through his head. There was no way Jan was in his room. It had to be a hallucination from the meds. He blinked several times but the figure standing in the darkened room was unmistakable. This wasn’t a hallucination or a dream. As much as he wished it was.

There was no way James could ask the questions he had. That didn’t stop him from trying, but all he could manage were unintelligible whispers. 

“I’m betting you have a ton of questions right now, doncha? I don’t have all night, there’s a bus I need to catch. So I’ll make this quick for both of our sakes.” The figure stepped forward beneath the soft overhead light that revealed a smirk upon her face. “I got a body from the morgue of this very hospital. It wasn’t easy, but faking your own death never is,” Jan said with a chuckle. “With that done, I dropped my ‘suicide note’ in your mailbox. All I needed to do after that was wait until you ended up here.”

Jan stopped talking for a moment to give James time to soak it all in. Was everything he had gone through the last few weeks really all a lie? Just some bizarre revenge scheme cooked up by a crazy coworker? His vision began to blur as tears welled up in his eyes. 

“I was there watching you through the window, you know. When the beam you were hanging from broke and you crashed to the floor.” Jan stepped to his bedside. “Lucky for me, you left the door unlocked. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to do with you. At first, I wanted to leave you there until someone found your lifeless body. But then I thought this would be better.” She knelt beside him and looked him right in the eyes. “So I called 911 and now here we are.” 

Methodically, Jan pulled the pulse reader from his hand and put it on her own finger. Then she stood up and moved to the head of the bed. “I read your note by the way. The way you painted yourself to be a saint.” James started hyperventilating but Jan acted like she didn’t notice. “I know how much you like to lie, so I don’t know why I was surprised. But no need to worry. I made sure to replace your note with one I had written. I’m pretty good at mimicking people’s handwriting.” She smiled at the thought. “The new note paints you in a bit of a different light. It shows what a sexist shitheel you truly are.”

Covering her freehand with a latex glove, Jan leaned over with her wide eyes meeting his. Without breaking eye contact, she gently lifted his head and pulled the pillow free. The back of his skull bounced on the firm mattress sending him into a dizzy spell.

“End of the line, sweetie.”

Holding the pillow with both hands, Jan brought it down with great force. 

There wasn’t much of a struggle on James’ part. He tried his best to make as much noise as he could, but it was no use. What little fight he had dwindled fast. Jan applied pressure for two minutes after his chest had stopped moving.

With the quiet grace of a nurse, she returned the pillow beneath his head like he was a sleeping patient. All there was to do now was to place the pulse reader back on his finger. Once that was done, the flatline alarm would sound and the room would fill up with people whose job it was to save this piece of shit.

Sure enough, as soon as she replaced the pulse reader, a nurse was by James’ side attempting to resuscitate him. More nurses and doctors rushed in but Jan had managed to slip out unnoticed. 

She calmly made her way to the elevator and watched its doors close just as one of the doctors in the hallway spotted her. The ten floors down seemed like an eternity. And as soon as the elevator doors began to open to the lobby, Jan pushed her way out and headed toward the exit.

Nothing ever felt quite as good as the cold breeze against her face that night. Reveling in the joy of her victory, a smile worked its way onto her face. Jan couldn’t remember the last time she had smiled like that. A true, genuine smile. 

Wiping a tear from her eye, she started to walk to the bus station. She wasn’t sure where she was going yet, but it didn’t matter. Tonight was the beginning of her new life. She was now free to become whoever she wanted to be.        

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The Willow Tree

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