Don’t do it.
I ignore the thought hissing from the back of my mind and jump into the pool. My body slips through the water as if there is nothing but air, ribbons of multi-coloured light striking across my vision and wrapping around me. Energy hums in my ears, my kind of energy, the kind I’ve had since I was a little boy. It’s wild, ceaselessly vibrating and barely contained. It’s the kind of energy that made the other kids hate me during exams in school, unable to keep still or stop my pencil from rapping against my desk as my mind drifted to the rumbling trucks outside and airplanes soaring overhead in the clear sky. It’s the kind of energy that he, with his calm and contemplative movements, found endearing. Something like electricity makes my skin dance excitedly and it pulls me backward to the place I want to go.
Suddenly, my feet find the bottom of the pond and the water is simply water again. I wade out and stand on the shore, completely dry. The canopy of old trees are exactly as they were a moment ago in the timeless haven.
I need to find the boy.
Moving away from the small body of water and searching for familiar landmarks in the dense underbrush I push through the shrubbery, past the trees looming over the water. The sweet scent of pine needles and dying leaves envelop me as I move. These trees have been my silent friends for more than thirty years. I had spent most of my adolescence amidst these familiar scents, but the pond didn’t reveal itself to me until I was much older, after I lost him.
I plod through moss, fallen leaves and twigs, scanning the dark browns and greens for a path that can only be found by those that know where it is, thinking of him as I search. His lazy smile and contemplative eyes that somehow soothed my nervous energy fills my mind. I had always loved things that moved, things that seemed out of place when they were immobile: wheels, planes, cars, trains, and boats. And then there was him who hardly moved at all, who’s every word was deliberate and every action had a purpose. He was endlessly patient. Too patient. He never satisfied my explosive temper with an equally violent response resulting in the screaming match I always wanted when angry. Some university or high school would have been lucky to have an instructor like him; if he could tolerate me, he could deal with any misbehaving kid. He would have made a good teacher, that is, he would have if he hadn’t… I stop myself before finishing the thought.
Seeing a familiar gap between two shrubs, I find the path and begin weaving under low hanging branches and around thickets with sinister thorns. The boy has to be there, he has to. The nagging creature coiled around my brain thinks otherwise and tightens its hold, gripping my body with anxiety. The branches swipe down, leaving red trails behind on my skin, trying to steer me off of the course. Their arms become so tightly knotted that I have to contort my body to squeeze through a gap between two pines in the path. I tumble into a small grassy clearing before a great gnarled oak tree when the assault finally ceases.
Tucked beneath the tree, a sandy haired boy in a red windbreaker sits with a book in his lap. He absentmindedly chews his bottom lips and raps the hardcover with his fingernails, eyes scanning the page. I heave a sigh of relief. Books, glass marbles and a metal toy train the boy should have grown out of rests in his pile of treasures on the forest floor. It’s him.
Sensing my presence and startled by the sudden appearance, he looks up and immediately shuffles his possessions behind his back. I knew he would have put them beneath a raised root at the back of the massive oak and covered them with leaves, but I had snuck up on him and he hadn’t had the time. The caboose of the train peers out from behind its protector and I eye it fondly. Its blue paint is still fresh and glossy, the little wobbling wheels sharp enough to cut through paper like a rotary blade. They don’t make toys like that anymore; everything is plastic and safe now. I am tempted to tell him to keep an eye on it when he grows up, to make sure it doesn’t get lost, but I resist. I’m here for something else.
Following my gaze, the boy shifts again so I can no longer see the toy. He glares up at me suspiciously, the fingers rapping against his book increasing in tempo. I can see the front edge of the book still in his lap and recognize it immediately. It’s a textbook on motors, an anthology of the only kind of poetry I’ve ever appreciated.
“I’m not going to take your treasures,” I tell him calmly.
“You…” he hesitates, warily searching my face. “How do you know I call them treasures?” I remain silent. He irritably looks me up and down until recognition flashes in his eyes. “You’re…”
His jaw drops and the tapping ceases. “How?”
“It’s not important. I have to tell you something.”
“What happened to me?”
“That’s why I’m here,” I speak, subconsciously lifting my hand to the scar tissue that climbs up my face to my hairline and through my cheek, revealing my upper gums. The echoes of screaming and pointing children fill my mind as I think on my appearance. “There’s someone who will become very important to you, more important than any of your treasures. He’ll die in a fire,” the sentence gets caught in my throat. I clear it and continue, trying to keep an even tone, “There is nothing you can do to save him, nothing. His destiny can’t be changed. Do you understand?”
I watch the freckled face closely, the dappled sunlight falling on his pale and smooth complexion beneath the waxy leaves of the oak. The boy’s eyes are round coins of blue as he nods. I have his complete attention, but as per usual he fidgets unconsciously, his foot making a line in the forest floor with the edge of his sneaker. I was happy at this age, but only because I didn’t yet know what my life could be, what it would be when I met him. “Who is he?”
“You’ll know when you meet him.”
“How will I know? Is he like me?”
A half smile lifts the edge of my stiff face. “No. Not at all.”
“You’ll be with him when the building burns,” I speak over him, “You’ll escape, but you’ll look like a monster—like me—for the rest of your life. Or,” I hesitate before continuing, the creature in my mind hissing and coiling tighter in resistance, “or…you can stay away from him, never know him and live a normal life with a normal face. You can save yourself from the fire if you let him go.”
I watch the younger version of myself carefully. He can’t know how difficult this is, how the monster in my mind is tightening its grip in dismay at my betrayal and whispering, how could you do this? I try to hide the pain in my eyes.
“Why are you telling me this?” the young reflection of myself asks.
“To give you a choice.”
“But, why would I stay with him if I knew that was going to happen to me?”
I give a searching glance. Pity wells in my chest for the little figure in the red windbreaker before me, for the good that hasn’t yet come into his life and for the sharp loss that he will feel when it is taken away—if he chooses it. I shake my head sadly. “You can’t understand.” The boy hasn’t yet encountered him, he who didn’t love things that moved with engines and pistons and force like I did; he loved things that were seemingly stagnate, but always shifting: tectonic plates, the swaying of the ocean and, especially the always upward reaching trees. That was where we had found a nexus amongst all of our differences. I loved trees for their stoic silence, their acceptance of me and later even more for their hatred of fire. Somehow, he had let me steal him away and bring him here. I had added the best treasure I’d ever known to my collection. And now you’re throwing it away, the creature hisses accusingly. “You haven’t met him,” I speak, trying my best to ignore the needles sinking into my lungs.
“Do you understand what I’ve told you?” my voice comes out surprisingly hoarse and cracked, a lasting effect from flames licking down my throat as they ate away my face.
The sudden harshness of my voice has scared him; he lowers his eyes, biting his lip again and answering quietly, “Yes.”
Before the boy can speak again, I turn and dash back through the forest down the hidden path. The stiff fingers of wood and sharp thorns rip through my skin, but I don’t slow. How could you do this? How could you do this?
“Wait!” his high unbroken voice rings after me. I run faster, leaping over fallen branches and weaving away from the trail into the unexplored brush.
The pond opens up before me and I plunge into it. The same electric current lifts my skin and whips of light fill my vision as I’m delivered back to my own time.
My feet touch the bottom of the pond and the water calms once more. I stumble out, heart thundering in my ears. I look around warily; my body is as dry as the dead leaves littering the forest floor. The surroundings haven’t changed, as if I have gone nowhere and done nothing, except there is now no clear and high voice calling for me from within the wood. My knees buckle on the shore of the dark water and moist dirt like the crumbs of chocolate cake stick to my jeans and the palms of my hands. The lingering scent of algae and sap fills the air.
A breath gets pulled into a tangled knot in my throat as I lift a hand to my face. The creature squeezes painfully tight in my mind. My fingers shake as their tips brush against the skin. It is coarse and uneven; I am able to touch the gums through the hole in my cheek just as I could before entering the pool. The monster uncoils its serpentine body and quietly slithers away to some dark place where it will no longer torment me.
I let the hand fall and a sad smile lifts my ruined face.
* Published first by The Write Room Literary Magazine