Dead leaves crunched against basketball shoes as I exited my high school’s parking lot. Practice hadn’t lasted any longer than usual, but the remnants of the winter sun were already being overtaken by ever-lengthening night. I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head as a cold wind teased my sweat-soaked hair, then continued on. There were two roads that diverged from the lot—one long and straight, lined with houses and busy with vehicles connecting to the highway. The other was old, with tightly tangled curves snaking through the woods like gnarled, man-made roots. My destination lay somewhere along the second.
My grandmother’s house was no more than a mile from the school, but with my calves burning from seemingly endless laps around the gym, each step felt twice that. Despite my lethargy, I kicked at some stray gravel as I went, startling a barren tree full of Winter Wrens and sending them into the air, another dark cloud against a dull sky. As I passed the last houses before the road took its first bend, I dwelled on a missed shot from the afternoon’s scrimmage. Regret welled inside me. Embarrassment. Even resentment about having those very feelings compounded on one another, turning a meaningless event no one else would remember, into something that would stick with me forever.
Taking advantage in a reprieve from the chilling wind, I looked up into the barren branches that hung over the road, their skeletal arms adding another obstacle for what little light still tried to make its way to the ground. The crack of a limb caused me to turn to my right, but I saw nothing. As I continued to walk, I began to hear the trickle of water from the creek which flowed icy cold from the western mountains to run alongside the road. Where the rocky waters came closest, the street diverged again. I turned left but once again stopped as I heard the crack of breaking wood. I turned to look toward the origin of the sound but was only met with another flock of startled Wrens who took off and vanished among the woods. I wanted to regain my composure and finish the last half of my routine journey, but my legs felt stuck. My ears perked and the hair stood up straight on my arms and neck. Somehow I knew if I stopped looking towards the sound’s origin, it would get me. Whatever it was.
The minutes I stood, looking into a copse of dark, dead winter trees, felt like an eternity. My mind raced with possibilities as to what could be veiled in the darkness. In my head, I envisioned a creature—some supernatural, evil entity. Then I began to rationalize. There were no such things as monsters. No, that wasn’t true. The Earth is inundated by monsters—they just don’t run on all fours or wield fangs or magic. Real monsters are men with evil in their hearts and souls. More likely than not, if there was something within the woods beside me that wished me harm, it was more man than beast.
Sweat began to trickle down my forehead and neck, tickling my skin and tempting me to make a move. Somewhere deep within, I knew if I moved, that whatever, whoever it was that stalked me, would cease the opportunity and attack. Silently, I began to pray. Whispers filled my mind, begging a higher power for strength to escape, to survive. After what felt eternal, I began to rationalize and overcome my fear. Whether it was through faith or force of will, I came to the realization that I was being crazy. Monster or man, if something was going to attack me from the woods, it would have already done so. Odds were a deer or some other benevolent, unknowing creature had stepped on a twig, startling the flock of birds and sending me into a needlessly intense moment. I took a deep breath and steadied myself. My face flushed with embarrassment as I came to my conclusion, then I turned and saw him.
Underneath the brim of a beaten-up hat, a wrinkled man stared at me. His face, partially cloaked from the shadow of his cap, looked scarred and twisted. A patchwork of grey whiskers protruded here and there, as if he’d tried to grow a beard and couldn’t, yet still refused to shave. There was a familiarity about him, though, and my brain scrambled to make a connection. I tried to speak, to ask who he was and what he wanted, but my fright trumped ability and I stood silent. The elder man seemed just as frightened. His mouth opened a time or two but nothing audible escaped. I could see his shoulders quaking beneath the grey trench coat that swallowed his form. Then, he pulled a hand from inside his pocket and pointed a gun at me.
My heart sank as my voice bounded back.
“No. No, please! Whatever you want, just tell me. I’ll do it. Just don’t kill me.” I could feel my blood pumping through my veins, could feel my body filling with adrenaline.
The gun shook, but still no words came. Tears began to stream down my cheeks, their warmth intermingled with the cool air against my face.
“Oh, God, please, please don’t. Just tell me what you want. Please.”
The gun shook again, and I could see tears streaking the man’s face.
“This is what I want. It’s what I have to do.”
My fear was temporarily suppressed by confusion. My thoughts ran to all recesses of memory. Why would someone have to kill me? Want to kill me? I had never done anything to warrant such an extreme act, especially not to some old man.
A stray beam of dull light from the setting sun momentarily gave vision of his face. I searched, tried to remember if I knew him, tried to think if I could have inadvertently caused him grief. There was some familiarity to his features, some strange feeling that I should know him.
“Who are you?” I asked on a shaky breath.
“It doesn’t matter who I am.” He shook his head.
His arm straightened. His hand steadied. The index finger of his right hand tightened onto the trigger.
“Wait! If you’re going to kill me, just tell me why. I deserve that much. I deserve to know why I won’t get to live. Won’t get to find love, to marry, to have children, to see the world.”
His hand began to shake again and a sob escaped him. He wiped his left hand across his eyes and nose.
“Don’t you know? Don’t you know who I am? Can’t you see? I am you.”
My vision spun and time stood still. I could see it now. Could see his dark blue eyes, the scar near the left brow, the shape of his face. But it couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible.
“It is possible,” he said, knowingly. “I wish it weren’t. No. No, I’m glad it is. I can’t let you do it. I can’t let you live it.”
“Wh-what are you talking about?”
“Our life! I won’t let us go through it again. I can’t. You’ll face such horror, you’ll wish you’d died before it started, you’ll beg to die! I know. I have. And now I’m here to answer a prayer you didn’t even know you had yet.”
His arm straightened again, hand steadied.
“Please. Please!” I started. “No matter what it is, I want to face it. I want to live. More than anything, I want to live.” I began to sob again, snot and saliva mingled with my tears as I begged. “Even this young, I’ve known sadness, known sorrow, hardship, and loss. If you are me… if you used to be me, then you, too, will remember. But, despite the sadness, despite how heavy the burden of loss weighs on our minds and souls, I know that it is worth it to see tomorrow. Only God knows for sure what is to come.”
He shook his head. “No. I know what will be. I won’t let it happen.” His finger pressed on the trigger again, but he hesitated. I knew I was getting to him, knew it because he was me.
“Clichés are clichés for a reason,” I said. “Look, I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that regardless how tiresome the saying is, it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. Then, too, surely it is better to have lived and lost than to have never lived at all.”
He squinted his bloodshot eyes, then dropped the gun to the pavement with a clang. “You’ll regret it,” he said. “You’ll regret what you have to do, what you’ll become. Monsters are only in the heart of men, right?” He scoffed. “You’ll find soon that you were more right than you could know.”
He bent over and retrieved his weapon, then placed it into his trench pocket. He gave me one last look with sorrow in his eyes, then turned toward the woods and began to walk away.
“When the time comes, you’ll look back on this, “ he said over his shoulder, “you’ll look back on this and remember that you had a way out. You’ll wish you’d taken it when you see. For all their sakes.”
And then he was gone.
I never told anyone of the time I met a man on an old country road when I was sixteen. I suppressed fact in place of rationalization and, in time, I came to believe it never happened. That was until today as I washed the blood from my hands.
I should have let him kill me.