Palo Alto Weekly 35th Annual Short Story Contest
Young Adult Honorable Mention

Walking Forward

by Michael Zhang

Author Bio

Michael Zhang is a Palo Alto high school student. Born in Canada, he moved to America as a child and has lived in Palo Alto for most of his life. He spends his free time socializing with friends or playing video games. Michael developed a love for both reading and writing at a young age and has maintained that passion ever since. As a reader, Michael seeks out books that promote discussion and new ways of thinking; as a writer, his primary aim is to create content worth reading.


I have wanted to explore a "deal with the devil" type of story for as long as I can remember, but there was always some difficulty figuring out how to execute it. Concepts like death and the loss of loved ones were largely unfamiliar to me, so when I played the psychological horror video game Omori, I felt inspired to give some more thought to the matter. The game’s relationship with mental health, trauma, and acceptance have greatly influenced my piece. I sincerely hope anybody who enjoyed my story gives the game a shot.

Rex didn’t expect to die immediately after he woke up. He wasn’t expecting to die, usually, but it peeved him that Death made his appearance right at the crack of dawn.

On the morning of Death’s arrival, Rex jolted awake with ice-cold droplets of sweat crawling down his face. That alone wouldn’t be out of the normal, but his fight-or-flight response was in full overdrive from the second he sat up against the back of his bed. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes to compose himself. Presently wide-eyed, he took a look around the small room that he had called "home" for the better half of his life. Dawn’s pale light poured onto Rex’s lap from the windows, casting away the shadows of night, gently illuminating the hospital sheets that protected his lower half; outside those windows, a nest of early-rising birds chirped and squaked as they feasted on morning worms. The machinery at the bedside beeped and droned as always, pulsing with Rex’s heartbeat. On the adjacent table, always an arm’s reach away, laid Rex’s greatest treasure: his laptop, a large, sturdy, workhorse computer, adorned with all the "get well" stickers he’d received over the past couple of years. It had been a present from his parents for his sixteenth birthday. A sweet gift for what should’ve been a sweet birthday, but all Rex could remember of the event was his sour mood and an abundance of misplaced anger. Everything seemed to be normal, Rex confirmed, save for the sharply dressed stranger seated near the foot of the bed. His wide-brimmed hat obscured much of his face, and the jet-black suit didn’t exactly give off comforting vibes, but a lot of the doctors who came to check up on Rex were oddballs.

"Hey… Hi. Who are you? What are you here for? I usually don’t take any visitors before lunch," he said to the man, who was reading a tabloid headlined "Twenty Tips to Live Twenty Years Longer!"

As he folded the magazine shut and raised his pitch-dark eyes to meet Rex’s, the visitor smiled slowly. "Hello, Rex. I am Death. And I am here for you."

No longer did the birds chirp or the heartbeat monitor chime. All that was left was a silence that bored its fullness into Rex’s ears. He came to the heart-stopping realization that this was Death’s way of setting the final stage, stretching out the infinite moment before his inevitable demise—he would die as he had lived for most of his time on Earth: trapped in a hospital room with naught but soulless machines to accompany him.

If Death noticed the boy’s sorrowful face, he did not show it. "As I said before, I am Death, here to guide you to the afterlife. As I do for all lost souls. I know quite a lot about you, Rex Payton. Your condition is quite… unfortunate."

Through the panic and surprise, Rex barked out a laugh. His biting fear rapidly morphed into migraine-inducing anger, as it so often did. "Unfortunate is right. Hey, Death, can you tell me why you gave me this condition? You took away my dreams, my friends, my entire life. Took away everything. Today, I die, and it’s all because of you, isn’t it?"

He shook his head. "You are mistaken. I do not plot the course of your destiny—that would be the duty of the one truly in charge. My humble mission is to help you accept the life you lived so you may come to terms with the life you will lose."

"Not much to lose, is there? Well, if it’s alright with you, Mr. Reaper, you can go ahead and collect my soul. I’ve been ready for a wh-while," he said through wavering lips.

"Of course," Death said, rising and moving to Rex’s side. "Although, to clarify, I am not a reaper. I have been Death, am Death, and will only ever be Death. With nothing further, let us go on one last journey into your mind." He took Rex’s bony hand in his and, with a blink, they departed the mortal world.

The mind of Rex was, apparently, shaped exactly like his hospital room, only in greyscale and without the bed, table, or anything, really. It was an empty, windowless box, with only Rex and Death floating ethereally at the center of it all. Rex glanced down at his thin, ghastly, ghostly body and groaned. His blackened and withered feet and legs were dangling in full view, laid bare without the hospital covers that usually concealed them. The darkness from Rex’s lower half crept up part way through his torso, ending around the pale flesh near his belly button. It was a sight that doctors had called "incredible" and Rex’s former friends had called "nasty".

"Not cool, man."

He observed the rest of the faux-pital room. A black, knobbed door stood on the left of it, with an identical white door on the right. A third colorless door was located directly in front of him. Rex swiveled around to find the wall behind them was blank.

"This room is the Hall of Memories," began Death. "The black and white doors represent the lowest and highest points in your life. You will be able to see them once more before you die. The third door is your gate to the afterlife, which you will cross when you are ready."

"What if I’m never ready?"

Death’s empty stare yielded no insight to Rex’s question. He continued on.

"You will view the black door first," Death said as he drifted over to it. His hand, gloved in white, reached out and gently twisted it open.

As he took his place next to Death, Rex’s eyes widened in surprise at what laid beyond the door. His mouth hung open for a moment, then shifted into a deep frown.

"This is insane."

Rex’s hospital room was in full view and full color. It looked as it always had, familiar yet hollow, bringing Rex both relief and sadness. The moon’s faint glow and the half-broken fluorescent light smeared sickly shadows upon the walls. Inside the room was... Rex, appearing a little more than a year younger and wearing a rainbow-colored party hat. Positioned above his lap was a portable table, holding a tray with a steak and single cupcake. The cupcake had a candle in the shape of the number "17" upon it, and the steak was accompanied by a set of metal utensils. The past Rex eyed the tray’s fork and steak knife for a moment, then picked up the knife.

The present, black-and-white Rex shook his head and sighed. He and Death continued to peer through the dark door.

Though the rest of the room was in color, the Rex inside of it seemed to have a completely whitened face. His hands were unsteady and his Adam’s apple bobbed in an alien rhythm. Slowly, terribly, he raised the steak knife to his throat and let it rest an inch away. There it stayed for a long, long couple of minutes, with the boy’s heaving breaths filling the room’s atypical pin-drop silence. Rex’s hands trembled and trembled and trembled until the weapon mercifully dropped out of his grasp and clattered onto the floor, leaving him unscathed.

In the Hall of Memories, Death began making his way over to the light door. The colorless Rex looked on for a few more moments, seeing his past self hurl the steak into the garbage and begin to sob. With great haste, he turned away and left, but the 17-year-old Rex’s wails were distinctly audible even on the other side of the Hall.

There Death stood, waiting, the white door fully open at this point. Rex looked into Death’s lightless eyes and saw only himself before harshly averting his gaze. Wordlessly, they looked into the land beyond the door.

In a park blessed with abundant sunshine, a happy family sat atop a cherry red blanket. The father, stubble greying, was unpacking a basket filled with sandwich-making materials. His heavy gold watch gleamed in the Sun’s shine. The mother was playing with the child, a boy who looked delighted to be away from the tireless, unforgiving toil of grade school. Her abundant jewelry bounced up and down as she jumped around with her beautiful son. All three of the Paytons were smiling and laughing together. The boy began to run about, waiting for his father to give chase and eventually envelop him in one of Papa Payton’s trademark bear hugs. With all the freedom in the world, they would run and run until—

"Stop," said Rex. "Close the door."

"I can’t do that, Rex."

"How is this supposed to be my life’s highest point? You’ve got to be joking! I know when this was. This picnic was a week before my diagnosis. A week before my life ended and I became the local freak. A week before I lost everything. You’re telling me that this is where my life peaked?"

Death said nothing.

"This was a picnic with the parents who don’t even love me anymore. How could parents with everything ever love a son who had nothing to offer them? They visited me a few days ago, you know. They told me to ‘not give up hope’ and that they’re still ‘getting closer to a solution.’ I hate them for saying that. What hope is there left to give? I hate them, honestly—no, I don’t. I hate that I’ll never get to say goodbye. To say thanks. I hate how useless I am. I hate myself."

Death said nothing as Rex began to cry.

"You," Rex spat out in between choked sobs. "I hate you." He lunged towards Death, but his fingers passed straight through the shadowy figure’s neck. As he passed through, Rex’s form became fuller and more defined. He tumbled to the ground. After a brief struggle to get up using only his hands, he fell once more to the textureless floor and flipped onto his back, like a hollowed-out turtle shell that had lost its owner.

Death said nothing.

"YOU. You’re the one who did this to me. I—they always wanted me to get better. They always said I couldn’t give up. Well, guess what? I give up. I’ll do what you want. I’ll die. I’ve been running on borrowed time, anyways."

Death spoke.

"I visit those who have lost the ability to live. For some, it is because they have forcefully had their life taken from them. Others lose their lives with the passage of time. And there are some who simply cannot bear being alive.

"You are all three. Yet, in your dying moments, there is hope. Perhaps you dislike that phrasing. There is opportunity. Those who have not truly lost their ability to live often regain their physical form in the Hall of Memories. It is rare, but it does happen. When your bodily desire to live overwhelms your spirit’s inclination to pass on, you might just seize your chance to go forward with your life. When you pass through that door, sometimes you will end up in the afterlife. Sometimes you will return to the world of the living. It is you—your soul, your conviction, your belief in your ability to live, that dictates where you end up."

Rex blinked away a few dwindling tears.

"So… you’re saying I can live? Just to die in a few months, when the doctors say the disease is going to finally reach my heart?"

"That, I cannot tell you," said Death.

"Huh," Rex remarked icily. "Why would I go back, then? My parents? My friends online? None of them really know me or cared about me. Tell me why I would go back."

With that, Death fell silent once more.

"Answer me. None of them want me around, and I don’t even really want… Oh?"

Rex’s attention was taken by the events going on past the white door. A song was being sung by his parents to his childhood self. It was a cheesy love ballad, but the lyrics were so very familiar. The sniffles beyond the black door quieted as if the boy in there wanted Rex to listen closely.

The song sang of love, of never-ending passion. Of being together forever, of not letting go. Of never forgetting what it meant to love. It had a chipper tune and happy lyrics, yet Rex felt a piercing sadness close in on his heart.


Death gestured towards the colorless third door and recited what seemed to be a well-rehearsed speech. "Whenever you’re ready. You seem to have accepted the life you have lived and will lose."

Rex studied the gentleman intently and asked, "Why did you do this? Aren’t you supposed to make people die? This has gotta be bad business."

Visage unchanging, Death said, "I’m not in charge of what happens in your life, Rex. You are. Now, please, whenever you’re ready."

"If I die, really die, what’s going to happen?"

Death seemed to hesitate for a second—but Rex wasn’t people-savvy enough to say for sure. "You will immediately forget our interaction, regardless of what happens. Back in your room, lying on your hospital bed, your disease will wither away a key set of veins and your heart will quickly stop beating. Blood will stop flowing to your eyes, your ears, your brain. It will be a fast and mostly painless death. That is, of course, if this is your morning to die."

Rex raised his eyebrows and still wondered of the logic behind Death’s actions. Then he got up onto his feet and walked over to the colorless door.

He stood there for a moment before looking down to see his stick-like legs holding up the impossible weight of his torso.

A reserved smile made its way across the boy’s face. "You’re not so bad, are you?"

Death’s lips were still tightly closed and his cheekbones never lifted. Rex imagined for just a moment that, inside of Death’s eternal eye sockets, the spheres of darkness had the faintest glint to them. But that was just his imagination.

He opened the colorless door, closed his eyes, and stepped into the light that laid beyond.