The road was blocked, so the man took a short-cut through the woods. It was a new path he had never taken before, and on that path he met the fey. He had heard the stories, but he had never thought he would meet them himself.
“We can offer you a deal,” the fey said.
“That does not surprise me,” the man said, trying to remain composed. Fey were dangerous, and their deals even more so.
“If you pay us, we’ll save a life.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“No,” the fey said. “It will be the life of someone who is sick or will get sick or will die of poverty. Someone who is going to die. But if you take our deal, they will live.”
The man tried to recall all his acquaintances, trying to remember if any of them had been sick. None of them were in such a financial struggle that it would kill them, that he knew for sure. As far as he remembered, none of them were deadly sick either. But you never knew these days. And the fey had said: will be sick. It might even be his own life.
“Who is this person?” he asked.
“A stranger,” the fey said. “You will never meet them.”
The man sighed in relief. It was not him or his family or friends. But of course, it was still someone, and that someone was probably someone else’s family member or friend.
“So what is the price?” he asked. “Surely something like the color of my hair, or all the memories before I was 5, or the ability to hear birds singing. I know how these fey deals work. Always giving out an impossible choice.”
Of course a life was worth more than the color of his hair. And if someone dies, they lose all their memories, not just the ones from early childhood. But if he gave up on his own memories or even hair color, he would never get them back. He would have sacrificed them for his best friend, sure. For a stranger? Impossible to choose.
“No,” the fey said. “The price is 5000 dollars.”
“Dollars?” he asked. “Like, money?”
“Yes, 5000 dollars.”
“Why would fey need money?”
“It is not because we need it,” the fey said. “It is the price.”
“That’s a lot of money, you know,” the man said. “I don’t have 5000 dollars. And even if I did, I would not carry that much around in the woods like this.”
“The offer will remain,” the fey said. “You can come back anytime. We will be here.”
The man frowned. 5000 dollars was a lot. He could probably get the money together by clearing his savings account, asking his cousin to finally actually pay for his old car and waiting for his salary day next week. But then his savings account would be empty and he would not be able to afford the hiking trip he had planned for the week after.
Maybe all of that would not be worth a life, or even his early childhood memories. But it was his money, after all.
“Who do you think you are, demanding me so much?” he asked. “For 5000 dollars I could pay my rent for half a year, you know.”
“We do not demand,” the fey said. “It is a deal. We have made you an offer.”
“Your offer is unfair.”
“You do not have to take it. You can keep your money, and a stranger will die.”
“But they were going to die anyway, right, so it doesn’t really matter,” the man said. He heard the insecurity in his own voice and hated it. You must never show insecurity to the fey.
“If you take our offer, they will not,” the fey said.
“I don’t think you understand how ridiculous you sound,” the man said, now agitated. “You cannot measure a human life in dollars. A life is a life! It’s worth more than 5000 dollars.”
“Would you like us to make the price higher?” the fey asked.
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” the man said. But maybe the fey did not know. They were not human, they did not understand words like humans.
And fey could never lie. That’s what made it worse. Someone was indeed going to die. And even if the man did not know who that was, he did not want them to die.
“I’ll have to think about it,” he said. “Anyway, I don’t have the money right now.”
“You can come back anytime,” the fey said.
The man went home.
That evening he could not concentrate on anything. He called his cousin, who promised to pay for real this time – but that did not mean he had accepted the fey deal, and he hoped the fey knew it. Also, his savings account was in a slightly better shape than he had thought. But it would still be stupid to use all that money for a deal he had only heard about a couple of hours before. The savings were there for a reason. What if his car broke down? What if he got sick?
But somewhere, someone was sick and dying. He, on the contrary, was not sick. He was just worried.
He tried to watch a series, but he could not make himself forget the fey. It was not that the deal that had been unfair, he thought, the deal was fair. But it was unfair that it was made to him. Why not someone richer? Or someone more heroic, who would have embraced the chance to save a life for a simple payment?
He wanted to be heroic as well. A life-saver. But if he had not met the fey, being heroic would have been way more difficult, maybe dangerous, even. This wasn’t like rushing to a burning building to save a child.
One would have thought the fey’s offer made it easy, but somehow everything just got more complicated.
He decided to call his best friend. She was the kindest person he knew, always there to help others. He was a bit worried she would scold him for not accepting the deal right away, but he really needed someone to talk to.
She picked up and listened to his story patiently.
“If I were a good person, and actually cared, this would not be so difficult,” he concluded. “I would just take the deal and be happy with it. After all, how many people have the chance to save a life so easily?”
“I think you do care,” she said. “If you wouldn’t care, you would not sound so distressed. I think you actually want to save that person and take the offer.”
“Well, of course I want to save them,” he said. “But I can’t bring myself to do it. It would take all my savings and more.”
“I don’t think you should use all your savings for this,” she said. “Everyone needs an emergency fund. What if your car breaks down?”
“But that person is sick, or will be sick, and will certainly die,” he said. “That is an emergency too.”
“See, I told you you do actually care,” she said. He could hear her smiling through the phone. “But please don’t exhaust yourself. If you want to help others, you have to remember to take care of yourself as well.”
He thought about it. The fey had said he could come back anytime. If he started putting money aside now, he could keep some of his savings and still be able to pay the fey in a few months. Maybe he could even go hiking anyway, if he would otherwise live frugally until he had enough to pay the fey.
All of that would be exhausting. Living frugally was not fun, he knew that from experience. But somehow it sounded motivating as well. And at least it would be some kind of a decision. Worrying about whether or not to take the fey’s offer would probably be even more exhausting.
“So you think I should accept the deal?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“Why?” He was confused. He had thought she would have pressured him to do it, and maybe even envied the rare opportunity the fey had given him.
“Never trust fey,” she said. “They cannot tell lies, but they do not tell you the whole truth either. Maybe this life-saving deal actually kills another person to trade that death with the sick person’s death or something.”
“I could ask them if that’s how it works,” he said.
“There might be another side effect you didn’t think of,” she said. “The fey will never tell you everything you need to know to actually make an informed decision. That’s what makes them so dangerous.”
“But if I don’t do it, someone will die,” he said.
“And if you go ahead without understanding what you are doing, you might end up causing more harm than good,” she said. “Don’t do it.”
He thought he should have been relieved. He didn’t have to make a choice after all. He could just use his money however he pleased, do whatever he wanted to do.
But he wanted to save a life. He could not come up with anything he would rather start saving money for. Saving a stranger from certain death would have been so much more meaningful than anything he could buy from the store.
Indeed, the fey had tricked him. He should have known it was too good to be true.
“Besides,” his best friend said. “If you actually want to save a life for 5000 dollars, you can do it in a way where you can verify how they are doing it and what they need your money for.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, now more confused than ever.
Of course, fey are not real. That is probably for the better, for it is way safer to deal with people. And if you too would like to trade for the life of a stranger, there are people who can offer you a deal.
I liked this one a lot!
It was very easy to read and pulled me in. I felt compelled by the protagonists inner turmoil, and how he makes his decision. The writing was clear but it flowed very well. This is something I will send some friends to introduce them to effective altruism.
The only part I didn't like was the ending. I like the intention of linking to GiveWell's page but it pulled me totally out of the fantasy. Also the friend felt a bit 2D. But these are minor quibbles.
Thank you for writing this!
Agreed, it would have been simpler it was framed as the Fei taking your money and giving it to GiveWell. Perhaps the Fei wish to test human morals.
Thanks for the feedback! Deciding how to end the story was definitely the hardest part in writing this. Pulling the reader out of the fantasy was a deliberate choice, but that does not mean it was necessarily the best one – I did some A/B testing on my proof reading audience but I have to admit my sample size was not that big. Glad you liked it in general anyway :)
Care to share the alternate ending?
I tried out a couple of different ones and iterated based on feedback.
One ending I considered would have been just leaving out the last paragraph and linking to GiveWell like this:
I also considered embedding the link explicitly in the story like this:
However, some of my testers found that this also broke the flow and that moving the link "outside" the story gave a less advertisement-like feeling.
And I also tried an ending that would wrap up the story more nicely (at this point the whole story was around 40% longer and not that well-edited in general):
This longer ending was most liked by readers that were already quite familiar with EA, so I decided to not go for it, since I wanted to write for people who have not thought and discussed about EA that much yet. But of course, my pool of proof-readers was not that big and everyone was at least somewhat familiar with EA, even if not involved in the movement. It would be interesting to get feedback from total newbies.
I like the second one! Though I'd make a minor change, just for punch:
This one is nice as well!
Personally I like the method of embedding the link in the story, but since a many in my test audience considered it off-putting and too advertisement-like I thought it it better to trust their feedback, since I obviously personally already agree with the thought I'm trying to convey with my text. But like I said I'm not certain what the best solution is, probably there is no perfect one.
I really like your long version, myself, but I'm already familiar with EA. :)
glad to hear you like it! :)
I'm sorry, but I have the weirdest bit of commentary to give on this: There's several places where the comma is outside the quotes (if you do a search for ", you'll find them) and it's making me go all twitchy-eyed. I'm about 95% confident commas are supposed to go inside the quotes, the way other punctuation does, at least in English? Sorry about this.
Don't be sorry! Feedback on language and grammar is very useful to me, since I usually write in Finnish. (This is probably the first time since middle school that I've written a piece of fiction in English.)
Apparently the punctuation slightly depends on whether you are using British or American English and whether the work is fiction or non-fiction (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quotation_marks_in_English#Order_of_punctuation ). Since this is fiction, you are in any case totally right about the commas going inside the quotes, and I will edit accordingly. Thanks for pointing this out!