Sleep ended violently, as it always did, when the alarm jarred him into consciousness. There was never enough time to sleep. Sleep was the nearest thing Matthew Parker got to peace, and it always seemed to end just as soon as it began. Another miserable pointless day in another miserable pointless life, he thought, as he rolled out of the bed. Here we go again. Just another day to will myself through.
It hadn’t always been like this. School was once a tolerable if often unpleasant aside to a reasonably happy childhood. There were math problems. There were bullies. There were boring moments. All in all, the discovery of learning new things and the challenge of mastering new concepts were enough to make up for, well, everything else. Moreover, it began and ended, and he got to go home to his family. Family was everything school wasn’t. It was supportive, loving, tolerant, warm, and familiar. Mom and Dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were like a comfortable old blanket that would always keep him warm no matter how cold the world would become.
What happened, and when? There was never an obvious answer. There was homework intruding on family time. There was the frustratingly slow pace as the teachers taught to the lowest common denominator of intellects in class. There was more incessant teasing and wise cracking from classmates. But none of those things was entirely sufficient to explain the change, at least not to his mind. No, there was something else. Something much bigger. Something much scarier. Something much, much worse.
Perhaps it was the future, the unknown. Years ago, the prospect of leaving home and entering the adult world was sufficiently far away that it was easy to ignore. Now, everyone was preparing for college, and beyond that a career. What was college? More schoolwork, more essays, more of the incessant mindless chatter that passed for conversation among teenagers, and then there was the prospect of roommates and dormitory life. It was enough having to go to school with other teenagers. The idea of living among them filled him with a mixture of fear and disgust that left him dreading graduation. And what was waiting at the end of that, but the interminable grind of the working world? Putting in long hours and slaving away to enrich some lazy fool who’d been fortunate enough to be born to privilege? Searching for true love only to finally settle for whoever you could get, getting stuck in an unsatisfying relationship, then noisy children, debt, mortgages, and the rat race to accumulate more treasure than the next poor sap before you die. Yes, this was the new terror that loomed over the horizon, a deepening dark shadow slowly swallowing and consuming all light and joy and hope. Nothing to do but go on as long as I can, he thought as he rolled out of bed.
The morning passed as it usually did. A bowl of cereal and a glass of milk were typical breakfast. It was quick, easy, and it was enough to keep him from being hungry. After that he’d put on whatever was on top of his drawer, and begin the walk up the drive, about a quarter-mile, to wait for the bus. On a good day, the school bus sounded to Matt like a monkey house at the zoo. On a bad day, it was more like being in the middle of a swarm of locusts. No focus, no point. Just noise. Just a bunch of children prattling on about the same nothings as the day before and the day before that. He had his own thoughts, and own interests, and these seldom coincided with others, especially his classmates.
He didn’t hate the bus though. When he stopped trying to focus on the individual voices and their boring topics, they would start to blend together into a kind of hum, or buzzing. It ceased to be something chaotic and disparate, and became one sound with its own volume and variations and nuances. It was fascinating in its own way. The bus was a kind of neutral zone. A place to prepare himself for school, and to wind down after. Like sleep, it was always over too soon.
The day was a grind. From the seemingly endless dull dead time before first period, to the merciful three o’clock bell. It must be like prison, he thought. What else should it be like? I don’t want to be here. Neither does most anyone else. Yet, here we are, crammed randomly together at the whim of some bureaucrats and politicians. How, exactly, could one think of high school as anything but a prison. He didn’t describe it as Hell though. That was too far. No matter how bad it is, he would say to himself, it can always, always get worse. He knew that better than most, or so he thought.
The day dragged lazily on. Science, history, ugh, math. He tried to get what enjoyment he could from learning. It was never enough for his hungry mind, so he turned to daydreaming, doodling, and reading ahead in the textbooks. There was something deliciously ironic about someone who loved to learn hating a place of learning so thoroughly. It wasn’t really a place of learning at all, he would muse. I can learn anywhere. I do learn anywhere, but as the result of some cosmic joke of the universe, I’m stuck here. He laughed about it, as he did about many things. Not a pleasant, happy, childlike laugh, but an insincere, cold, and sickly laugh, like the laugh of men walking to the gallows, who laugh at their miserable lot in life to fill the silence and dispel their fear and anguish.
Lunch was perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of the day. These children are insufficiently supervised, Matt often noted. Sometimes he sat alone. Other days he sat with the handful of fellow misfits, losers, and neer do wells who he counted among his few friends. He liked people who had no expectations for themselves, because it usually meant they had no expectations for anyone else, and one of the several things Matt had come to dislike was expectations. He didn’t care if they made all failing grades, and they didn’t care how “weird” or “not normal” he was. They didn’t care about much of anything, and neither did he. That was pretty much the beginning and the end of what they had in common but it was enough. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Were truer words ever spoken?
After lunch was english, or was it called literature? Whatever it was, it was probably the most pointless of all classes. Grammar was tedious and boring. He already knew most of it. Literature would be better if there was more reading and less writing it all down over and over again. He hated to write, not so much because it was difficult, but because he hated to share his ideas with anyone. His thoughts, his ideas, his mind, his feelings, his soul. These things were his. They belonged to him, and only him, and no one could take them away or tell him what to do with them.
But there was another reason he disliked this class. That was the class with Rachel, or was it Rhonda? Whatever her name, she was insufferable. Matt didn’t like girls in general, and Rachel/Rhonda/Rhoda was no exception. If boys were annoying, girls were positively repellant. Always talking about who was dating whom, and who was whom’s boyfriend, or who was cheating on whom, or what celebrity was wearing what fashion.
That wasn’t the worst of it though. Not by a long shot. While his mind was telling him one thing, his body was telling him quite another. There were some girls whom, when he looked at them, gave him very unusual feelings. He knew about sex, and lust, and human reproduction. These were not particularly difficult topics, in theory at least. Still, he found difficulty coping with these feelings. The dissonance of vacillating between intense desire and intense dislike was mind breaking. The distraction of unwanted desires and emotions intruding uncontrollably into his consciousness was just one of several new curses visited upon him by biology. He tried to avoid looking at girls, especially if there was any chance they would look back at him.
Rachel, however, was a different kind of distraction. She was always nice to Matt, unusually so, and experience had taught Matt that when people are unusually nice, it usually means they want something from you. He learned this when the other kids would ask him if they could copy on a test or if he’d do their homework problems. At first, he usually did, thinking that they might treat him better, and sometimes they did, for a while, but it never lasted long. Rachel was probably no exception. Matt had a pretty good idea what Rachel wanted from him, but he had no intention of giving it to her.
The ugly truth of the matter was that Rachel was, well, kind of ugly. While she was friendly enough, she was not much more interesting than any other girl, and he found her face repulsive. That was the worst part. Matt had always been told the usual clichés about how it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and don’t judge a book by its cover, and other such lies adults tell their children. He knew by now that such things were not true, but that didn’t stop him from wishing they were. Part of him would have liked to get past her looks and take her to a movie or something. Still, he knew there was a part of him that couldn’t or wouldn’t. He reasoned that it would be better to simply act friendly, and nothing more, than chance getting involved in someone he would never completely love. It was important to do what’s right, and not hurt other people. This much he believed in. He would never be like the others, who dated one person until someone more fun or more attractive became available.
As for the girls he did find “cute”, he wasn’t the sort of guy that got the pretty ones. He wasn’t good at sports, or good with words, or very popular. Worse, the ones he thought were prettiest were often the ones with the most vicious and ugly personalities. They were often the stupidest, most boring, tedious, and uninteresting people he knew. If it made no sense to date someone he wasn’t attracted to, it made even less sense to date someone purely out of physical attraction. Still, part of him wanted that, and would never be satisfied with less. And all of that is beside the point, he would say to himself. He wasn’t really like that. He didn’t want any of these thoughts. They were frustrating, distracting, disturbing.
Moreover, Matt was struck by how unfair the world was, and how different the real world was from the world he believed in as a child. It was unfair that he never had a chance to get the girl he wanted. It was unfair that some people were so unattractive that they had little prospect of ever finding “love”. It was most unfair that he couldn’t just choose who to be attracted to, or choose not to be attracted to anyone. He sometimes wished he had no gender, and that it would all just go away, but he knew it wouldn’t, and so the grind continued. Day in, and day out, the grind continued. All that kept him going was his will to persevere, to endure, to continue on for no reason other than to prove that he could. To stop, to give up, to ask for help, was to lose, and he would never lose, to them, to society, to the world.
He was looking out the window, daydreaming again, when the bell rang. This time he was imagining the trees were great cities filled with tiny citizens, conquering their neighbors in the name of gold, glory, and the greater good, building grand kingdoms that stretched from their home on the playground where he’d once played as a child, all the way to the high school football field, where they held at bay the evil forces of the Heskol empire. A bit of a shame, he thought, as the brave King Edward of Palagron was about to lead a heroic charge against the Heskol emperor, Jeremy the Wicked. I suppose Jeremy’s reign will have to be put to an end tomorrow, he mused. This was a good daydream. I’d almost entirely forgotten where I was and who I was. The ones that make you forget, those are the best.
The ride home was uneventful. The time passed quickly enough, then it was off the bus, and walk down the long driveway. It was a nice day. It was autumn, the end of October, Matt’s favorite season. The cool gray days suited him best. The kind where the clouds covered the entire sky, filtering out the bright light of the sun, muting the colors of the world, and leaving the landscape dull and dreary. On those days the world looked how he felt, and that was somehow comforting, though he didn’t understand quite why. This day was one of that sort, and Matt found himself very comfortable in the cool air, so he decided to take a detour.
There was an old path, who knows when it was made or by whom, that ran through the woods that lined the red gravel drive. It led up a hill where it ran along what was left of a barbed wire fence, marking some boundary that no one cared about any longer. It was well off the property, and his parents didn’t much like him going that way. As if anyone cares, he thought. It’s just woods. If anyone cared about it, they’d cut down the trees and build something. Who cares if some kid walks through the woods? The path led on around their property and onto several other wooded lots for about a mile all round. Just a short diversion, ten or fifteen minutes, but one he was in the mood for.
He walked along slowly, enjoying the cool breeze and admiring the uniformity of the carpet of gray clouds that covered the sky. He climbed the hill, and turned left along the fence, watching his feet to avoid the fallen rusted wire. He’d walked perhaps ten yards when he saw a deer standing near a thicket of brush. He moved towards it, trying to see how close he could get. He liked animals, especially wild animals. He’d always enjoyed learning all sorts of little facts about them and relished the opportunity to see them in the wild. He’d gotten within 10 feet perhaps when he stepped on a branch. Crack. The deer’s head sprung up from where it had been nibbling on the bushes. Its tail sprang up, and it bounded off into the woods. Oh well.
When he turned and looked up, he jumped a bit. Just there, sitting on one of the fence posts, was a man. He froze in fear for a moment, thinking who this stranger might be. He appeared to be an ordinary middle-aged man, with brown hair parted on the left side. He was neither very large nor very tall nor very fat nor very thin. He had no particularly remarkable features. He had the sort of face one tends to forget soon after they see it, because it looks like a hundred others. If anything, the man seemed so unremarkable, it was a bit alarming. An angry neighbor wanting to shoo me off his property most likely, Matt reasoned to himself.
At first, the man seemed to take no notice of Matt, and Matt thought to head straight back down through the woods towards the drive. He knew the woods well enough from playing there since he was very young. Just as he was about to start, he heard a loud “Hullo” come down from the man on the post. “He-Hello”, Matt stammered back. The man sounded friendly and Matt’s fear receded. He rarely talked to people he did not know, beyond the simplest pleasantries, but something about the man’s voice seemed to beckon him near. He walked up to the man and looked him straight in the eye. “Who are you”, he stated directly. “Hmm,” the man mused, looking away as he spoke “and who are you, and who taught you manners, to greet someone in such a way”. Matt opened his mouth to apologize but was interrupted by the strange man. “But who I am is of no particular importance. You may call me whatever you wish. I find names rather useless to begin with. Whether I call myself Adam or John or Luke or Peter hardly matters, wouldn’t you agree?” Matt nodded in agreement. He was terrible with names. He had a better memory than most, but still often struggled to match the face to the name.
“Well then” the man then turned toward Matt, looking sternly at him, as if he were sizing him up for some as yet unknown purpose. “You look like an interesting young person, and I do enjoy chatting with interesting people.” The man turned away again. “Most people are so frightfully boring. They’re all wrapped up in themselves, you see. Their jobs, houses, cars, and their various trivial trinkets. Filling their lives with useless junk that does little more than accumulate dust.” The man turned again and looked Matt straight in the eye “but not you, I’d wager. You have an altogether different look about you.” Matt stood dumbfounded a moment, surprised to hear someone speak plainly the words he could never find, the words for the ideas that so filled his head with fascination and wonder. “No sir”, Matt finally replied. “Ha, Now we remember our manners I see, but you may dispense with the formalities. If I have no use for names, I have even less for titles.” The man looked off into the western sky over the trees. “Titles are perhaps the most useless inventions mankind in his infinite ignorance has yet contrived. Convenient labels so that one man might suppose he knows another man without a word of conversation, as if we were jars of jam or cans of cauliflower, neatly stacked and shelved….” Matt could only nod in agreement. He had lost all sense of fear, or even curiosity, as to the man’s identity. He was utterly lost in the words of this mysterious stranger, spoken in a quiet yet confident manner.
“I see I have your interest then.” the man declared.
“Yes”, Matt replied, “but what do you mean”. “Interest in what?”.
“Hehehe”, the man chuckled dryly. “Why, you’re interested in knowing, of course” “Knowing what I know, or how much I know” The man clasped his hands, turning them over and cracking his knuckles loudly. “I mean my words have captured your interest. A moment ago you weren’t the least bit interested in me or who I was, and now it’s the only thing on your mind. I am correct, yes”. Matt nodded sheepishly. “Well then, Mr. Parker, let me come to the point. I am, in fact, something of a purveyor of knowledge.”
Matt’s fear suddenly returned, altogether different from before, upon hearing this stranger speak his name. “How do you know my name?”, Matt said sharply, his muscles tensing preparing to run. Unphased by the inquiry, the man replied “As I said, I am something of a purveyor of knowledge. It is a business of mine. Pursuit of knowledge is perhaps the noblest of pursuits, and like most pursuits, it can be quite profitable. Everyone wants something you see. Most people want silly and meaningless things, a new car, a million dollars, a distinguished career. Some people just want to love, marry, and have children the same way their parents did and their grandparents before. Can you believe it? What dreadfully dull dreary people there. Utterly uninteresting in the utmost. Don’t you agree?”
Matt’s mind was racing now. This was beyond his experience and he was unprepared, as if anyone could be prepared for such a situation. He had never been particularly religious. On the occasions his parents had taken him to church, he had found it rather boring. Moreover, the people seemed interested in all sorts of things not the least bit related to God or goodness. Perhaps I should have paid more attention, he thought. Part of him wanted to run, as fast as he could, anywhere, anywhere but here. The fear in his mind was something primal. He was like the mouse before the cat, overmatched before a predator much greater than he. Who is this man? Why does this man seem to know exactly what I’m thinking? At last he managed to stammer out “Are you… Are you the.. the Devil”.
The man let out a deep sigh, as if he were disappointed. “What do you think?” the man replied slyly. “You’re an intelligent young man as anyone can plainly see. Is that really the best explanation you can come up with?” the man queried. The man looked at Matt for a moment, waiting for a reply, but seeing that none was forthcoming, he began to speak again. “well, I’ve been called that, yes, and I’ve been called other things as well, some nicer and some less so, but as I said earlier, I have little use for names, and even less for titles. Men have all sorts of words to explain things they don’t quite understand, but you already know that, don’t you?” Only now did Matt truly begin to suspect the peril he was in, for the stranger’s words rang true. He had indeed mused on how men irrationally feared and hated what they could not understand, for they often directed such prejudice at him. Despite his fears, he felt a strange sense of kinship and mutual understanding with this… being before him. He could not run, and he began to relax as if silently accepting some terrible doom laid upon him. “Yes…, yes, I suppose I do”. Matt replied.
Matt’s mind now began to recover from the shock of this surreal situation. He had learned well to hide emotions like fear and anger, and he now summoned up those skills from deep within. He concentrated, hard, focusing precisely on what was happening now, this very moment. The past and the future became as vague and airy dreams, then they ceased to exist entirely. There was nothing else in the entire universe except right here, right now, in this moment. Whoever or whatever he is, he has what I want, and I might be able to get it from him. He recalled stories he’d heard about the Devil and how he made deals to give men what they want and taking their souls in return. Perhaps such tales were based on truth, but exaggerated out of fear and prejudice. Perhaps he might really strike some reasonable bargain. Still, the tales might be entirely true, and the Devil would try to trick him or turn the bargain in his favor somehow. If I am to confront such an opponent, there is no room for error. He silently prayed a moment, asking for strength and wisdom, as in fact, he often prayed for such things. He had no intention of selling his soul whatever happened. He steeled himself, resolved to face down this challenge. He always relished a test of wits.
“Good then”, the stranger spoke, as if he’d been silently listening to Matt’s thoughts. “Now to business. I have a bit of a proposal to make to you.”
Matt interjected, “is this where you offer me something in exchange for my soul?”.
“O ho”, the man scoffed, “suddenly found our courage did we? Well we’ll see how long that lasts. But no, of course not. Contrary to what you may have heard, men are not quite so gullible as that. Most men, even the commoner ones, are not so stupid as to bargain something like an immortal soul.” The man now hopped down from the post he’d been sitting on up until this time, and smiled wryly. “But then you aren’t at all like most men are you? Nor are you after something fleeting and temporary like most?”
“No indeed”, Matt replied.
“Very well then” the man declared “I’ll come to the point, I could offer to show you how the universe was made or unveil the whole history of this world and every other, or I could whisk you away to show you distant galaxies and marvels of the universe so far away that no man shall ever reach them, but that isn’t quite the knowledge you’re after, is it”.
“No indeed”, Matt replied again. “and you’ve failed to come to the point.”
The man nodded in the affirmative “So I have. The point then is this, What you want to know is what all men want to know, whether they realize it or not. You want to always choose the right path, always make the right move, prepare for dangers before they materialize, dodge every pitfall before it even appears. What you seek is the knowledge of the future, most precisely your own future, but that hardly matters. After all, knowing the future isn’t as difficult as men imagine it to be, and if you can see the future of a single man, why, the rest of it is so much simpler.”
“What do you mean?” Matt queried. “Why would knowing my own future allow me to know the world’s future, and why should I care anyway? All I want is to see what happens to me, and how I can change it. That’s all, nothing else.” Matt said it sternly, he would not be so easily tricked “I want exactly what I say, no less no more.”
“Fair enough” the stranger said “but it’s not so easy. You can’t learn much about any one thing before you learn something about everything. but the bargain will be as you say. I will show you your own future. No less and no more.”
“And in exchange?” Matt asked. “What shall be the price if not my soul. You want me to do something for you? Some evil deed, or you want me to acquire a position of power so you can then use me to make mischief in the world?”
“No indeed”, the stranger replied, “I have no need of any of that. I can make enough mischief on my own, and there are enough people inclined to trample one another in the name of personal gain as it is. I don’t have to even lift a finger these days.” the man chuckled softly as he continued “These days I just sit back and watch them tear each other apart.”
At that juncture, the stranger clasped his hands and cracked his knuckles once again, this time stretching his arms over his back. “A good salesman always offers a sample of his product, so I’ll let you see a bit, a glimpse of what your future would be if you’d never met me, or if you turned around and walked away, refusing my offer. Perhaps you’ll like what you see after all, and then there will be no need to pay me anything then, will there? In any event, we’ll leave the subject of payment until you decide whether you want to buy or not.”
Matt hesitated. Perhaps this is the trick. He’s going to show me something I can’t do anything about or something useless or even worse, something terrible that I’ll do anything to avoid, then he really will ask for my soul. “First there will be a couple of conditions,” Matt declared sternly. “First, you agree that no matter what you show me, and whatever knowledge you offer to sell me afterwards, my soul is off-limits, that won’t be the payment. Second, you’ll show me a fair sample that will accurately reflect part of what my future is, not just a bad day or something. Third, you won’t show me something unavoidable, like an earthquake or a volcano or that sort of thing. Finally, if I decide I don’t want what you’re offering, you’ll go away immediately, and never trouble me again. You’ll swear to God Almighty on every condition or no deal. If you really are the Devil, you can’t break such an oath, and if you’re not, well then, I suppose I’ll just have to take your word.”
A sickly smile writhed snakelike across the man’s face from right to left, and he spoke softly. “I was right, you are very interesting, and very clever. This has already been well worth my time.” Then the stranger stood up tall and declared loudly “Very well then. I so swear, by God Almighty, to abide by the very conditions laid out by you. Now then, let’s be going”.
The man pulled a small object from his pocket. It was a round, purplish blue thing. It looked like it could be a marble or one of those small rubber balls that he used to buy out of the vending machines at the grocery store. Matt guessed it wasn’t. The man dropped the object on the ground, and it burst into flame instantly. The flames were gone as soon as they appeared, however, and a thick gray smoke began to emanate from the spot where the strange object had been. Matt felt a strange sensation, as if he had suddenly fallen through some crack in the universe, for when he looked around, the trees and the fence and the fence post and the thicket where the deer had been were all gone. There was only gray smoke everywhere.
“What’s going on?” Matt protested. “I don’t see anything but smoke”.
“Patience,” the man replied. Time passed, perhaps minutes, perhaps hours. Matt could no longer tell in the world of endless gray swirling smoke. Slowly, after what seemed an eternity, the smoke began to thin. Matt began to see vague shapes of trees and buildings through the smoke. Finally, the smoke was clear. Matt found himself standing on a sidewalk, looking up the drive of a modest house. He gulped, swallowing hard; it wasn’t hard to guess what he was looking at. “I take it you’ve already guessed where we are” the man said “This is where you live many years in the future. I won’t say exactly how many years, nor exactly where this is. Neither is of any particular importance, as you will see.”
The man walked straight up the drive. “Well are you going to come see, or just stand there like a statue all day? You’ve already come this far; are you going to see what your future holds or have you lost your nerve already?” Matt was stung and surprised by the unexpected taunt. He’s right of course, Matt thought to himself. I’m too far into this to back out now. With that thought, Matt walked slowly up the drive.
The drive was short, very unlike that of his childhood home. It seems I moved to a suburb of some city, there’s no telling which one. Perhaps I’ll catch a glance of a newspaper or some other clue. “Let’s not dawdle shall we. This isn’t an unlimited free sample after all.” the stranger’s voice coaxed him on. They came to the door and the man stepped to one side, beckoning Matt to take the lead. Matt reached for the doorknob, but when he tried to grasp it, he felt nothing but air and his own hand. “What?” Matt exclaimed.
The man sighed and said “Of course you can’t touch it, it’s not real to you, at least not yet.”
“But you said you’d show me my real future.” Matt protested “otherwise what use is it.”
“Oh, this is your real future, but only a sort of… projection. You can’t interact with things outside your own time, you see. That would be… well, problematic. If you want to get in, just walk straight through. It’s rather like a movie, you see, but one that’s happening all around you instead of on a screen. You can see it and hear it, but you’re not really a part of it, just an observer.”
With that, Matt strode inside. It was dark. Clearly there was no one home. “So how on earth do I accomplish anything useful this way? I can’t see anything and I can’t exactly flip a light switch now can I?”
“Oh ye of little faith.” the man replied as he took another round object from his pocket. He dropped it and it burst into flame just as the one before had done, but instead of smoke, a cool blue light seemed to fill the room. It was strange, for the blue light moved and swirled just as the smoke had done, but whatever space it spread to was filled with a miraculous light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.
With the darkness dispelled, Matt began to look around the house. There was a nondescript living room. The walls were some boring shade of beige or brown. There was a kitchen, and a hallway with several doors visible to either side. Not a very interesting house. Matt sighed, disappointed but not surprised. It was an unremarkable house for an unremarkable man living an unremarkable life. There were a few pictures on the wall. Some of them he recognized as photos of him as a child. Some were of his parents, aunts, uncles, a childhood pet, the sort of photographs that everyone has. Matt had always hated having his picture taken. He hated sitting still, and what was the point anyway. Why should I take a picture of something I know happened anyway, as if I have to prove that I existed or something? Matt focused most on the pictures of people he did not know. He looked through them to see if he could find someone who might be a wife, or children. He saw several photos of a woman, and some of them had him in them as well. She must be it, he thought. She seemed to be of medium height. Perhaps 5’6″ or 5’7″, though it was hard to tell from photos. She had long brown hair in most of the photos, which were clearly those of her when she was younger, perhaps college aged and into her 20s. In some of the photos she had shorter hair. She must have changed it at some point. She was not strikingly beautiful, but neither was she ugly, like that Rachel from literature. She was somewhat heavy, but not so large as to be disgusting. She’s well endowed enough in the chest anyway, Matt mused. She’s OK I suppose, Matt thought, somewhat relieved. He saw many photographs of a young boy, some as a baby and progressing in age. The newest looking one showed him at what must have been around Matt’s age now. I did have a child after all, Matt thought, somewhat surprised.
Matt then walked back into the long hallway, turning left at the first door. It was a room filled with books. Most of them looked to be old textbooks and various works of non-fiction. Books filled with all manner of facts from many topics that interested him. A bird identification manual, a book on the second World War, a collegiate chemistry textbook. No doubt this was a study of some sort. He looked up at a framed diploma on the wall. “Matthew Parker” it read “Bachelor of …… from the University of ……..”. The words which had seemed perfectly clear at first were suddenly illegible. They swirled and moved in the now familiar pattern of the gray smoke. “Of course I can’t just show you everything now can I?” Matt heard the man’s voice call from down the hallway. So he knows what I’m doing even if he can’t see me, or maybe he just sees through the walls. Oh well. So much for searching for clues.
Matt continued to peruse the various topics of the book stacks, but quickly caught himself, remembering the stranger’s words from earlier about having only so much time. He turned out to the hallway, thinking to visit the other rooms, but before he could turn, he heard the turn of a key in the door lock. He froze, suddenly confronted by the surreality of coming face to face with an older version of himself. A sudden irrational fear gripped him. What damage would age and the struggles of life have worked upon him? What could be more terrifying than seeing one’s own life unravel before him. I should never have come here. Whatever I see, I’ll never be able to forget it. The deadbolt clicked open, then the knob turned. The door opened, and Matt did not see himself as he had expected to. Instead, Matt saw a boy about the same age as he. The boy moved quickly, his head to the ground. He kicked his shoes off and headed straight into the kitchen. He grabbed a beverage of some sort from the refrigerator, and headed down the hallway. Matt instinctively stepped back into the study room to avoid a collision, though he knew it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The boy went in the last door on the left and shut the door behind him. Matt followed. When he cleared the door, he saw the boy sitting in a chair. The chair was an old brown recliner, unremarkable. The boy switched on a television and clicked some sort of gray box. Must be a new video game system, Matt reasoned. So much smaller than mine though. The boy picked up a controller that Matt did not recognize and stared intently at what seemed to be a fuzzy mess of shapes and colors on the screen. Either video games have changed drastically or this is some other trick of my host, as with the text on the diploma. Really? What clues can I possibly get from a video game? Whatever. The boy sat almost motionless playing his game, like a zombie, mesmerized by the screen. Do I look like this when I play games? Matt wondered. The room itself was not particularly interesting. It looked like most teenager’s walls, with posters on the wall, all illegible as the diploma, but they seemed to be pictures of pro athletes or rock bands. Ah well, nothing much to see here then.
Matt walked back out to the living area. The stranger was leaning against a wall not far from where they’d come in. How in the world does he lean on anything? Matt wondered. The man’s eyes appeared to be shut. Was he asleep. The man spoke without opening his eyes.
“What have you learned so far?”
“That I probably look like a zombie when I’m playing my video games…. I guess that’s my child.” Matt said
“Well yes. Not too impressive is he, but not altogether unlike yourself perhaps. A loving son to carry on his father’s name. Let’s speed this up a bit and find out” The man dropped another smoke ball of some kind and the colors of the room swirled around mixing into an amalgam of light and colors. “You’re fast forwarding ahead?” Matt asked.
“Yes, indeed”, the man said “I already told you this isn’t an unlimited free sample, and it just wouldn’t do at all to show you nothing but this humble house filled with common clutter and a boy staring at a TV.”
As the accelerated time effect dissipated, it was clear that night had fallen. Matt was startled to now see a woman in the kitchen, preparing a meal. It was the woman from the pictures, clearly somewhat older and heavier than most of the photographs had shown. Ah well, Matt sighed, she probably was reasonably attractive when she was younger. She had a very friendly face, like his mother. Perhaps this isn’t so bad after all. “Just wait”, the mysterious stranger quipped, once again seeming to read Matt’s thoughts. Just then, a pair of lights crawled up the drive. This was it. The lump in Matt’s throat returned. Was he really prepared for this? Could anyone be prepared for this? The deadbolt clicked shut, then open again. Then the knob turned. Matt clearly recognized his own face, not as devastated by the years as he had feared, yet not unchanged either. This must be me in my mid to late 40’s I would guess.
“Why is this door unlocked” Matt’s older self grumbled angrily. “If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times to keep this door locked. Anyone could just walk right in.”
“Oh no, I came in through the garage, it must have been Ryan” the woman replied.
“Bah, RYAN”. The sound of footsteps came down the hall and the boy from before skulked into the room
“What is it NOW”, Ryan sarcastically asked. “Ryan, the front door was unlocked again”, the old Matt scolded.
“So”, Ryan snidely quipped back. “So, haven’t we discussed this before. When you’re home by yourself after school, this door is always to remain locked.” Old Matt continued “Anyone could come in here and do who knows what”.
“Like who”, Ryan snapped back “When was the last time anyone was robbed in this dinky little town anyway? And who would rob us when there’s probably hundreds of people with way nicer houses that aren’t freaking paranoid and don’t have an aneurysm if the door isn’t locked?”
“You watch your mouth young man?” Old Matt sternly cautioned. “What do you mean, cause I said ‘freaking’? Really? C’mon Dad, it’s not like it’s the 1990’s anymore. It’s twenty ….. freaking …….” Matt strained but couldn’t make out what year had been said. His mysterious host let out a quiet chuckle. No matter.
“RYAN”, old Matt shouted “YOU GO TO YOUR ROOM THIS INSTANT, AND TOMORROW THIS DOOR HAD BETTER BE LOCKED”.
“Whatever” Ryan shrugged, “not like I care either way. Night Mom, love you.”
“Goodnight Ryan, I love you too. Have a good day at school tomorrow.” the woman replied
“I’ll try I guess” Ryan shrugged and strode defiantly back to his room.
“Honestly Matthew”, the woman’s voice was kind and gentle, “You know you shouldn’t yell at him like that, it doesn’t do any good.”
“Well someone has to. Is it really that hard to just lock a door?” old Matt snapped back
“He probably forgot dear, he’s always forgetting things like that. He doesn’t mean to disobey. He just..doesn’t see it as important as you do. And when you lecture him like that, you just make him angry and he fights you.” the woman’s voice was calm and even, still as gentle as before,
“Honey I just don’t understand that child. Why can’t he just do what I ask? Why can’t he understand that I make rules for his own good?” the older Matt said as he sat down at a table, looking over a stack of papers
“He’s a CHILD, dear. He isn’t supposed to understand. Didn’t you ever have a rebellious phase? Nevermind, forget I asked, of course you were always the perfect child.” The woman chided her husband
“I wasn’t perfect” old Matt declared
“Well sometimes you act like it” the woman instructed
“I never said I was perfect. You’re putting words in my mouth” old Matt said, becoming more frustrated
“I didn’t say you said you were perfect, I said you act like it. Can’t you understand the difference?” the woman asked, her voice sounding somehow sad as she asked
“I guess I can’t” old Matt muttered
“You’re both so much alike, stubborn mules both of you.” the woman shrugged and dropped her hands to her sides
“Look, I had a long day at work. We failed an inspection today and we’re going to have to make a bunch of changes to our quality control system. I’m probably going to be late all this week. All I want is to come home and have a couple of hours of peace and sanity to relax, not fight with a disrespectful teenager.” old Matt lamented
“You can’t expect him to understand your life and your problems dear. He has enough of his own.” the woman replied
“He’s a kid, what problems can he possibly have? He doesn’t have to work or pay bills or deal with an idiot boss who got his job because he’s the owner’s son-in-law. Did you know Simmons got promoted to department head last week? He doesn’t have half my qualifications, but he was a frat buddy of that incompetent buffoon who runs HR. Honestly, why does HR have any say over who gets promoted in product development anyway” old Matt’s voice elevated in volume as his ranting continued
“If you hate your job so much, why not just quit?” the woman asked
“Then what, then what do I do? Start over making half what I’m making now. Who’s going to pay those bills then? Besides, I’d just end up working my ass off to buy some other rich idiot a new yacht. What’s the point? Honestly, I work and I work and I work and what do I have to show for it? Nothing.? Oh wait, I do have a broken down old house, a couple of compact cars, and all these bills.” old Matt ranted sarcastically as he slammed the stack of papers on the table.
“Nothing to show for it? Nothing? If that’s how you feel, you can sleep on the couch” the woman snapped back, her voice sounded both angry and hurt at the same time.
“What now, what did I say now? What’s the problem with…” the words trailed off into a dull hum.
Matt had been utterly fixated on the heated conversation. He had not noticed the thick gray smoke begin to billow about his feet. For a moment, the figures seemed suddenly frozen in time. The kind woman had stormed off toward what must have been the bedroom. Matt’s older self was beginning to walk after her. The smoke slowly enveloped them again, and it was just Matt and the mysterious stranger, once again enveloped by the all-encompassing smoke. It seemed that eons passed waiting for the smoke to again disperse. Matt was trembling at the vision he had just witnessed. He shouldn’t be surprised. That’s what the world was. That’s what life was. Did he really even need to see it?
Finally, the smoke began to disperse. Once again they were standing next to the fencepost, as if they’d never moved at all. The stranger said nothing, patiently waiting for Matt to recover from his shock. Once again standing on the trail, the familiar ground beneath his feet, Matt did begin to recover his wits. He was here, in this moment. He concentrated again, as he had before, forcing the past and the all too terrifying future into the gray haze outside his consciousness. Now came the real test, to resist whatever temptation would now be offered. Matt was certain of one thing, and one thing only. He would do anything to avoid the life he’d just seen.
The interminable silence was finally broken by the stranger. “Well, now that you’ve had a moment to recover your faculties, we can discuss business.” Matt was struggling to think of a reply but the stranger interrupted him, speaking again “I take it that our little show made quite an impression.”
“You said you wouldn’t show me a bad day”, Matt complained, remembering the agreed upon conditions
“Oh, that wasn’t a bad day”, the stranger replied, “at least not in the sense of being unusually worse than others. I could have shown you much worse.”
Matt shuddered and asked tremulously “What do you want from me?”
The stranger took another of the small marble like objects from a pocket and dropped it upon the ground. It flamed to life with smoke, this time a bright green smoke that gathered into the shape of a boy. The boy appeared to be a few years younger in appearance than Matt, with wild unkempt hair, jet black. The boy said nothing, only fidgeting nervously. “Now coming to the crux of the matter. He may not look it, but this fine little fellow is actually quite talented. He’s, hmm, how to explain. Well, he’s a… parasite, of sorts. He lives inside of other things you see. He has to, in order to survive, because he can’t on his own. It’s terribly sad really, having to be dependent on other living things in order to just live, wouldn’t you agree? He can live inside of most anything that’s alive, and some things that aren’t. When he lives inside something simple, like a mouse or a tree or a spider or a bee, he’s hardly noticed. He just quietly sleeps. However, when he lives inside something more interesting, like a man or a woman, something with lots of energy and life, well then he’s able to stay awake. Furthermore, when he’s awake, he’s quite talented, just as I said. It just so happens that this little fellow is exactly what you need. If he lives inside of you, you’ll be able to look through his eyes, and he sees all kinds of things that you can’t on your own. Things like what happens if I turn left instead of right, what if I take the easy path or the more difficult, what if I choose to study economics or poetry. Causes and effects, yes, causes and effects. Everything we do today casts shadows far into the future. If you want to see those shadows, well, this little guy is your best bet.”
“And what do you get?” Matt inquired. “What’s the price?”
“Ah yes, well, in truth, this little fellow is quite a friend of mine, so just taking him in, as it were, has quite a bit of value. He can’t live inside of me, I’m afraid. We’re too much alike you see, he and I. So then the price is this. You’ll agree to let my little friend live inside of you, for as long as you live, and you’ll never speak a word of any of this to anyone; not your closest comrade or your fondest friend. But there’s a bit more yet I’m afraid. The cost of anything, you see, is what you have to give up to get it. So in order to get one thing, you have to give up another and it’s just like that with everything, time, money, power, even possible futures. It’s all negotiable really. If you want to cheat fate, you have to give up fate. It may sound confusing now, but once you decide to take on my friend here, you’ll understand.”
Matt paused, thinking long and hard over everything he’d seen and heard. He parsed every word and every event since he had met this mysterious stranger, trying to find some hidden trick that would undo him. The oath, the conditions, were clear in his mind. So too was the fascination with this strange unknown creature before him. Could he really let me see the future? Then a question entered his mind, clear and bright as the morning sun. It struck him all at once. It was so obvious, so simple. He’d asked to see only his own future. The conditions had been followed, and thanks to them, he could beat this devil.
He asked aloud “What if I just want to avoid that future you already showed me? Can’t I just change something obvious, like not marrying that particular woman, or not having a child, or being more careful what job I take? Maybe I just don’t go to college at all. You blotted out where the diploma was from and what I studied but I still know I went to college somewhere? I saw what the house looked like. The photos. I could change any of it. I could live in a different house. I could go to the city. The boy said something about a dinky little town, didn’t he? I could change my haircut, wear glasses. I could even take up smoking. You covered up the specifics, but you said yourself that they aren’t really important anyway. I don’t have to turn left or right or any other way. I could turn around or just stand still. How could that future even happen now anyway. Now that I’ve seen it, I’ll automatically avoid it, without even thinking. Just seeing it, just imagining it, that’s already enough to change it. I am correct, aren’t I?”
Matt expected to see a look of resignation, or disappointment, or even anger, some sign the devil knew he was beaten. But instead, the same sickly smile from before snaked across his face. “Oh, but of course you are. I did tell you didn’t I, that seeing the future wasn’t as difficult as men imagine it to be. ” Matt suddenly noticed the small figure with the black messy hair had vanished. He felt suddenly ill, as the utter truth fell upon him, a hammer sent down from Heaven itself to smash his hubrus. He was correct. Just seeing it, just imagining it, he’d already changed it. He couldn’t get it back, even if he wanted to. Then it all appeared before him, just as the Devil said it would, and he saw in his mind for a moment a thousand choices, a thousand lives he might have lived, a thousand windows into a thousand possibilities, each one shattering into a thousand others as if one was viewing one kaleidoscope through another, and then another, and on, and on. If he tried his entire life he could never count them all.
“What did you do?” Matt gasped out in desperation.
“Do? I didn’t *do* anything. You’ve done it all yourself.”
“What?” Matt was now beyond desperate for answers. “Is it that kid, the one from the smoke? Is he…inside me now?”
“Oh yes indeed”, the Devil replied. “but then he always was inside you, you see. You just never have faced him before. Everyone has one like him, you see. They all look different, but everyone has one, because everyone wants something, and everyone is afraid of something. That’s what they are you see. They feed on man’s darkest desires, his deepest fears. When you hate, or dread, or fear, or lust, you are giving them nourishment, and making them into your own personal demon. Whatever men hide in the darkest recesses of his mind, that’s what they’re made of. More than anything, you wanted to escape from what you saw as a tedious and boring life, filled with struggle and misery. The boy you saw was the living embodiment of all that fear and desire. He has the power to see the future, and to change it, because you, yourself, gave it to him. Now you’ll never know life without him, and you’ll always see what he sees. Now that you’ve seen him, he’ll haunt you for the rest of your days.”
“Was any of it real? What you showed me, or did you take it all from my own mind?”
“Oh it was very real, and of course it came from your own mind. You believe that just because something appears in your mind and not before your eyes, that somehow it isn’t real? That’s not the case at all. They’re all real you see, equally so, at least until the moment when one or another is chosen. What you saw was one of many. It might be, but it isn’t yet. It’s as real as any other future you might imagine. Maybe by chance you’ll happen to see one that actually happens one day. I think we both know that you won’t be living the life you just saw, now that you’ve seen it. Either way, this has been quite a rousing diversion for me. You’ve provided me with quite the sport. I don’t bargain to collect souls or make mischief or any such ridiculous thing. I do it because I’ve lived a very long time, and I have grown very bored of most everything else. You mortals are always so unpredictable, so inexplicable, so incalculable, so entertaining”
Matt fell to his knees and wept, realizing now what it was he was actually facing. He had brought it all upon himself, with all his anger, and fear, and desire to escape what he believed might happen to him. He looked up thinking to ask the Devil for mercy, to ask him to take away the memory of what he had seen, to put him back on the bus or back in his bed that morning. Anything, anything to undo what had been done. Anything to take away the curse he now felt. However, when he looked up, he saw only the fencepost and the trees and the sky. The Devil was gone.
Tears ran down Matt’s face. He bowed low and repeated every prayer he could remember. If ever he needed strength and wisdom from heaven, it was now. After a few minutes all strength left him, and he fell flat upon the autumn leaves, and slept for what seemed ages, though truthfully only a few minutes passed.
He was awakened by the chirping of a bird. It was a cardinal, sitting on the fencepost, chirping away as if it were the height of spring. The bird seemed oblivious to all the world, singing its joyous song. Matt sat up. His face could not have been two yards from the fencepost and the cardinal. Yet, it did not fly away. It cocked its head back and forth in a very bird-ish way, eyeing Matt, and then proceeded to continue singing once again. Matt listened to the bird, thinking how beautiful the song was, and how beautiful the bird. He had always thought cardinals beautiful. He was always curious why, when the other birds lost their colorful feathers and become dull and drab like the landscape of winter itself, the cardinal kept its bright red all winter. It was as though the red bird were put there to remind the world that no matter how deep and cold the winter, the spring would come, and that life and hope could never be completely extinguished. He waited, still sitting, still as possible to not disturb the cardinal. Finally, several minutes later, the bird looked off toward the setting sun, and flew off. Matt looked to it as it flew into the sunset. He noticed the sun was much lower now, than when he’d started his walk down the drive. His parents would be home soon, and it would be none too easy to explain why he wasn’t there when they arrived.
As Matt got up and started to walk, he reflected on all that had happened. He felt the pain of knowing that he would never be as he was before, an innocent and foolish child. The truth of what he had learned was something he could never escape. He had created his own future, and destroyed it just as quickly. It occurred to Matt that he would never be able to look at the future the same way again. No matter how he imagined it, he would always see so many different possibilities. He would always know how every action, no matter how small, changes the future. He could see it, but he couldn’t control it. There were so many thousands upon thousands of possibilities, how could he know which choices led to joy and which to sorrow? It was hopeless. He sighed. Oh well, I suppose it could be worse. It can always be worse.
He wondered if he should tell someone, his mother or a pastor or some expert on paranormal phenomena. But no, what would he tell them? There was no evidence. The Devil and the boy and the smoke were long gone, without leaving any trace they were ever there. They’d think I was crazy, Matt said to himself, and who’s to say they wouldn’t be right. Maybe it didn’t really happen. Maybe I slipped when I went to see the deer and hit my head. Maybe I was dreaming the whole time until I woke up and saw the bird on the fence post. No, he said to himself, it happened. There can be no doubt of that. I’ll remember it till the end of my days, and that is as real as anything can get.
He turned to the left again where the trail left the fence line and headed back under the trees. He thought about what he would do now, what would his life be like now? He couldn’t undo what he had done that day, or unlearn the terrible truth the Devil had taught him. Still, his life was still his own, his mind was still his own, and his soul was still his own. There was hope yet. Somehow the prospect of another grinding day tomorrow seemed less terrible than it had before. Was it because he’d seen that future, and now had turned from that path, never to find it again? Was it because the terror of what he’d just experienced seemed so much worse than any of the daily annoyances of school and teenage life? There was a strange, inexplicable hope in his heart. The bird, he thought, maybe it was that. Perhaps in his darkest moment, that beacon of hope shone brighter than any terror the Devil could muster? Perhaps his prayer was heard after all. Who knows. Maybe it’s all of them. Maybe all I really wanted to know was that I was free to choose my own future. How frighteningly simple it was. Even so, I wish I’d just gone straight up the drive today. No use dwelling on it now though. Now it’s in the past, and there’s no changing that.