He was alone.
Last year, he might have predicted things would work out this way. Someone who had been given such a gift -- entrusted with it, really -- would never simply continue life as it had been before. He should have known.
And here it was again, this holiday time of year. The calendar told him it was 2012, and his life was different.
The change went much deeper than a season or being a year older. It went under his skin, as deep as his soul -- if he permitted himself to believe in such a thing.
Life was like that, he thought. It could strip everything away from you in the blink of an eye. And then it could restore everything you had lost -- give you even more, in fact, than you had ever had -- with the same lightning speed.
He knew that, now.
It started with a suitcase. The wrong suitcase, to be precise.
Holiday travel was always anxiety-inducing. In the bustle at baggage claim he must have accidentally grabbed the wrong luggage. At least he correctly discerned his other bag in the mess.
If Karen were still here, she would have reprimanded him for buying such a large, common suitcase. "It's too big for carry-on and looks just like everyone else's!" It was strange to think of her so vividly, so alive. He had only just returned from her wake.
He noticed it wasn't his when he stumbled across the landing of his apartment. There was a blue ribbon tied to the handle; that was certainly not his doing. Curious, he dropped the other bag near the door and shuffled to his bedroom. He threw the suitcase on his bed and was going to report the error.
But to be on the safe side, he thought he should open it first.
He removed the blue ribbon, tossed it on the floor, and popped open the suitcase. For a moment he was confused. It was empty, save for a small ring placed snuggly inside a foam pad. He pulled it out.
The ring didn't look expensive. It was oddly unisex. Mesmerized, he completely forgot about reporting his lost luggage. Something about the ring made him want to put it on. It was inviting, almost flirtatious. He slid it on his pinky finger.
Not a second later, the doorbell rang. Shaken out of a daze, he went downstairs.
No one was there. The door was still wide open from when he walked in. Taped on the door he found a note that he knew was not there before.
The message was short but perplexing. Perhaps this was a mistake? But no, he realized, it was addressed to him. The message read:
You have been chosen.
You have exactly one year.
He thought, what do I have to understand within a year? And why this way? Couldn't they have just delivered it to my doorstep? Then he realized: This way, they had his bag. Maybe they could find him using something from inside. No, it was only filled with clothes. But somehow, they found him.
They must be watching me now, he thought.
And he was correct.
* * *
He had been trying for weeks to remove the ring, but it never came off. The hand the ring was on had shriveled slightly and losing color. While buying some lubricant at the store (perhaps it would help?), he decided to randomly buy a scratch-off ticket. He shoved it in his pocket and made his way home, still trying to pull off the ring.
He cut across the park by the homeless shelter. Shuffling through the grass, he stepped on something. It was a wallet. Breathing heavily, he achingly bent over to pick it up.
No identification, no cards, nothing. But it was filled with cash -- nearly a grand. This was the third time this had happened lately, all in different places. He grabbed the money and tossed away the empty wallet as he exited the park. A beggar asked for money, but he walked faster.
Not paying attention while crossing the road, he was nearly killed by someone trying to beat the light. Had he not stopped for the wallet, he'd be as dead as Karen.
He thought about his sister. Everyone in his family was independent, alone. He still hadn't figured out exactly how she died. There was some guy he didn't recognize at the service. He assumed the man paid for the funeral.
The stranger had said she drowned. When he asked why there was a wake at all, the stranger gave him an appalling glare and slipped away.
At least I showed up, he thought. Their brother was still off traveling.
Apparently Karen had become reclusive in the months before her death and had moved into a bigger apartment to better hide herself. In her coffin, Karen was dressed in a black Chanel suit, something he thought ridiculous if she was just going to be buried anyway.
He shivered and fell out of the daze. Reaching home, he found yet another baffling note.
Be aware and be wise.
In winning, you will lose.
In giving, you will receive.
Again no signature. He threw the letter in the garbage and slinked into the kitchen to try to remove the pesky ring, but to no avail. Either the ring was getting tighter, or he was getting weaker. He did notice that he was fatigued more often than usual.
He gave up and remembered his lotto ticket. He fished around in his pockets for a quarter and took a second to slump down into a chair. He scratched.
Out of the billions of tickets in circulation, his had to be the one. In shock, he stared at the tiny piece of paper. He had just spent five bucks on a ticket worth a million.
* * *
It was coming to the end of the year again, and things were different. Dozens of winning lotto tickets, weeks spent at casinos winning jackpots. The months went by quickly and his financial luck just got better. Nicer car, nicer clothes, nicer things.
People bugged him more often -- beggars, random people on the street, people he met gambling. It annoyed him to no end. The bum from the lot near the shelter would stand in front of the house every day -- watching, waiting for his handout.
He decided to stay as independent as possible. But he had never been weaker, now almost stuck in a reclining chair.
He had figured this was some kind of lucky ring, but what was he being tested on? How could it be lucky when it made him weak? Even as he thinned, the ring seemed to tighten.
By now his skin was ashen. The ring had taken over his body, turning him into some kind of cement-colored, walking statue. At least he had his money.
He suddenly realized that this was the last day.
The doorbell rang. That was the last thing he remembered.
* * *
He awoke in a filthy room. Ropes and chains tied him down to a chair and his hands were held down by a strange device on a rickety table in front of him. A speaker was in the top corner of the wall; a calendar was hanging below it. It was winter 2012. The room was otherwise empty.
A voice bellowed through the room.
"You were chosen to participate in an experiment. Ridding the world of greed was the mission. Do not ask questions.
"You were given a gift that was created to teach a lesson. Some pass, others do not."
Everything had been taken from him, and yet he had been given so much. It seemed as if he was about to lose everything again. He understood that now he was alone.
The voice spoke again.
"This was not random. You were entrusted with a gift, but you never used it for good. You have failed. Now the ring must be removed, with consequences.
"There is nothing you can do, the grayness will consume you. Continue this way and you will never die, but live forever in a life of guilt and despair, illness and decrepitude."
A buzzing sound came from below the table and a mechanical arm with a small spinning blade sprang up from the side.
Panicked, he remembered Karen's body -- she had a blue ribbon in her hair. Was it the same one from the suitcase?
For some reason her hands kept popping up into his thoughts. He finally realized -- she was missing a finger! How did no one notice!? And why did she die, then!?
He shook with fear, his mind short-circuiting. This can't be happening, he thought. He should have known not to continue life the way he did.
The voice spoke for the last time.
"However, immediate death is yours if you answer one question:
"Where is your brother?"
* * *
When the authorities found him in his upscale apartment, he was slumped in the bathtub.
"Looks like he slipped and hit his head while filling the bath. Poor sap. Has all this money, and goes like this."
There was naturally no suspicion. The authorities seemed rehearsed in their assessment.
One of the men picked up the blue ribbon and put it in his pocket.
The vagrant came into the bathroom, removing his getup and exposing his badge. "Sir, don't forget to put the ribbon in the suit coat we're burying him in. Even in death, everyone needs some color."
* * *
A man relieves himself at a rest-stop after leaving a funeral. He returns to his car, searching through his backpack in the trunk for water.
Somehow, it's the wrong bag.
Shocked, he runs back into the building to look for others. Empty.
He pulls out a blue ribbon from the bag with something heavy tied to it -- a ring. Mystified, he unties the ribbon and puts the ring on.
Suddenly, a loud honk from his horn alerts him.
He rushes outside, frantic, and finds a note under his wipers, flapping in the cold breeze of the black night.
Kyle A. Smith, 23, lives in Buffalo and works as a writer and editor for an energy company. Smith said, "I write all the time. For me getting the idea takes the longest." This time, he said, "I thought of the ring right away [for the 'gift'], but I didn't know what it meant at first. I probably spent a good two weeks trying to figure out the continuity for the story, how to make it work."
Once he had his plan, though the rest came quickly. "I wrote it in a day or two -- once I knew what I wanted to do."