He often walked in the place where it ended. Thoughtlessly. Invariably without point or purpose. He felt like a ghost reflecting on a past life each time he retraced his steps, divorced from all sense of who he was.
The colours were brighter in his head. The air crisper. Everything was much clearer.
He forcefully tugged at his dog’s lead as he journeyed deeper into the forest. Anaemic winter sunlight strained through the bare branches, dappled the withered trunks. Twigs snapped underfoot. His breath appeared before him; thin grey wisps that disappeared the instant they left his mouth. Bird song was sporadic, sounded distant.
It left him with a strange effect each time. One that came in waves. Not as a constant ebb against his battered psyche, but as intermittent yet overwhelming surges that threatened to engulf him.
They came without warning. Involuntarily. Out of nowhere.
Every part of his surroundings provoked a recollection. His mind would wander back direct to some distant happy place.
He could visualise the long walks holding hands through the undergrowth. The fast kisses and awkward fumbles concealed behind bushes. The games of hide and seek during endless summers.
The images he clung to flickered across the scenery in perfect clarity.
The tissue of his memory tethered him to the forest. A warming sensation enveloped him each time he came here.
That was the part he didn’t mind. The feeling would inevitably worsen, however. The images’ abrupt dissolution induced a depression comparable to that a Sunday morning comedown.
The air bit. He felt a shiver.
Another series of images would play in his head. The accusations. The sniping. The fights. They simultaneously bombarded his senses. The slam of the door after she picked up the last of her things elapsed into a gaping silence.
A vice clamped between his temples to accentuate the bleakness of it all.
It had all become familiar. And he resented himself for allowing it to happen each time.
But he found himself unable to extricate himself from such emotions. Or at least was unwilling to on some unconscious level.
He wasn’t sure.
And this was how it usually went. He would traipse the same steps he had so many times in the past and find himself lost in the haze of his memory.
The aftershock was still palpable after all this time. He wondered if this was how survivors of near-death experiences felt. His surroundings, his sense of self irrevocably skewed.
It had reached the stage where he no longer felt like an accurate judge of his own emotions. Whether things happened exactly as he remembered. Whether they were as good as they seemed. Whether he was even in love to begin with. The thoughts crashed around inside his skull like a ship caught in a storm.
He walked. Dazed. Shaken.
The dog’s bark jolted him from his pained introspection.
He saw a family through the trees in the middle distance. A child’s laughter drifted within earshot. The family’s dog ran free off the lead. The woman’s head was directed down at the ground, a wide smile across her face. Her partner clung tight to her. He nuzzled his chin into the lapels of his coat and dipped his head slightly to kiss her cheek.
The child, a young girl of around six or seven, sprinted from behind her parents and ran on ahead. She hurtled over gnarled roots protruding from the soil without looking back. She bobbed and weaved between trees away from her parents’ calls.
Her legs picked up speed. She became unbalanced. Her body tilted from left to right and back again. Her eyes remained totally fixed on her feet.
The soft notes of her laughter rippled through the forest.
She stumbled. Her right foot clipped a large stone concealed by a clump of dirt. She staggered forward unsteadily, tried to regain her footing before falling forwards.
She landed at his feet. He stooped, checked that she was okay. She picked up her head from the cold hard ground and directed her stare to meet his.
He expected to see her eyes moist with tears. Instead he was greeted by a disarming familiarity. Her pupils were big and wide, similar to those that belonged to her. The same hazel colour as an exploding sun.
The girl did not flinch or panic at the sight of a stranger. Rather he saw a mirror image of his own reaction. Her features matched his. Their expressions softened in unison at this realisation. Mild curiosity formed across both their faces.
Her parents caught up with her. They cooed and fussed over their daughter and helped her to her feet. They both crouched to brush the dirt from her coat.
But her stare stayed locked to his.
The girl’s parents thanked him for tending to their daughter. The faces that looked back at him were recognisable in that moment. Him. Her. Yet slightly different. Strangely distant. As though from another place and time entirely.
Their features were a little worn, their hair peppered with grey. Faint wrinkles were visible around the mouth and eyes.
They were unmistakeably them. The mother’s kind smile confirmed as much. The father’s repeated thanks in a kind and contented tone was one he hadn’t heard in a long time.
He watched silently as the girl’s father hugged her so tight it seemed that he would never let her go. The man stood upright and clasped his daughter’s hand. They turned their focus towards him for a second before setting off again on their walk.
He made sure to return their attention.
He tossed over what happened only to find confusion clouding his thoughts. Light rain fell from the sky that very instant. He pulled the hood of his coat over his head and wrapped his dog’s lead around his knuckles and stepped towards where the pathway forked.
It crossed his mind whether he would ever find happiness.
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