“Have you spoken to him too?” the man asked.
“Huh?” The boy didn’t even take his eyes off his comic book, only putting it down to quickly light a cigarette. “To that old guy? Yeah.”
They were the only ones in a dimly lit bar, sat just opposite each other at a small table. The air smelled of booze and smoke and something else, something faint leaking in from behind the closed entrance door. The room felt eerily calming, like a lonely midnight walk. The man crossed his arms and let himself stare off into space, his faded blue eyes focused on nothingness as he recounted, “Strangest thing… All these years, and yet I still remember it so clearly. I couldn’t sleep that night, so I went for a walk. It was winter, and I remember it was so cold that you could feel-” The man glanced at the boy, who was taking a drag out of his cigarette and turning a page. He sighed and shook his head. “You oughta’ quit those, son. How old are you?”
The boy blew smoke to the side and answered, “Fourteen.”
The man raised his eyebrows and nodded slowly. “Really? That’s exactly the age I started smoking. I didn’t kick the habit ’till I was in my forties, but you should do it much earlier. Trust me, boy, they don’t bring anything to you other than weaker lungs and weaker sex.”
The boy let out a small chuckle. He closed his comic shut and threw it on the table. “I’m sure if an old geezer like you lived this long, I’ll be fine too, you know?” He put out his cigarette and quickly lit another one. “I’m listening now, so quit giving me that hairy eyeball and keep talking.”
The man prepared a snide comment but stopped himself upon noticing the book. “This comic,” he said as he picked it up and flipped through the pages, “I used to love this back in the day! I thought kids your age barely read these anymore. Or at least they’d read the newer ones. Are you a fan of the classics?”
The boy raised an eyebrow. “What? Whatever man. C’mon, go on with your story!” The man rolled his eyes as he put down the book.
“Excuse me for being interested.” He reclined back in his chair and began stroking his beard. “As I was saying, it was cold. The sort of cold that makes your nose runny and your cheeks numb the second you step outside. I liked it like that. It meant no one would be around, meant the streets would be quiet. At the time, I was living downtown in this place with old houses all around it. It was where the upper class used to live, you know, remnants of a bygone era. And I loved them. It felt like these hundred-year-old buildings spoke to me, each with its own little story to tell. They made me feel calm. Heh, I thought back to that night so many times.” The man closed his eyes and smiled. “Everything was just… perfect. The dark starless sky and the snow piled up at the sides of the street. That slow fall of the snowflakes illuminated by the street lights…” The man opened his eyes, his smile turning sad. “And as I walked through this peaceful dark paradise of mine, I would remember… and I’d dream. With one step, I’d remember the things that saddened me. With another, I would dream of those that kept me happy. I was free to contemplate in my loneliness.” The man shook his head, breaking free from the tight hold of the past. “I’m sorry. One’s memories have certain feelings attached to them. And they can be difficult to explain to another person. I’ve been rambling. I don’t think I made any sense.” The man chuckled, then turned his gaze to the boy expecting to find him flipping through the pages of his comic again. Instead, he met with the boy’s piercing blue eyes staring back at him. They were wide open and seemed afraid. His cigarette had burnt out in his mouth, its ashes in a small pile on the table.
“Did you-” The cigarette butt fell from his mouth. “Did you live where I live? I can’t believe what I’m hearing.” The boy rubbed his forehead. “I mean… You- You did. You made perfect sense! It’s just that- please, continue,” the boy said, sounding half amazed and half desperate.
“So not only did we meet him, it seems even our circumstances were similar,” said the man.
“I’d say identical!” said the boy.
“It’s no coincidence then, us being here. Am I right in saying that,” the man leaned over the table and spoke in a hushed tone, “that night, its serenity, felt tailor-made? That night belonged to you and no one else, right?”
“Yes,” answered the boy, also in a hush, as if they were sharing a secret that the empty bar was not supposed to overhear. For a moment, they both smiled, seemingly finding a modicum of comfort in each other. “And then you saw him?” asked the boy. “Dead trees at his back and that small dark alleyway in front, right?” The man’s face turned somber.
“I did, yes. By accident, really, out of the corner of my eye. A smidge of gray in my world of white and black, so out of place. Sitting right on the last bench on my left, cross-legged and smoking.” The man scratched his chin and frowned. “I stopped in my tracks and thought how odd it was. He only had that gray suit on him. Wasn’t he cold? He just-”
“Didn’t belong there,” the boy cut in, his hands fidgeting as he lit another cigarette.
“Exactly,” said the man. “I was fairly close to him, but he did not even look in my direction. I don’t know why but…” The man struggled to find his words.
“He called you,” said the boy. “Not with words, but he called you.”
“I felt compelled.” The man laughed nervously. “Felt he had something for me, something I may never have a chance at otherwise.”
“I went to him,” said the boy, taking a deep drag of his cigarette. “I couldn’t resist.”
The man shook his head slowly. “Neither could I.” He looked to his side at the red neon sign that buzzed incessantly. “Every step I took towards him made my heart beat faster and faster. My vision began to blur, my breathing became erratic, but I couldn’t stop. My body was begging me to turn around, but I refused. I pressed on like an idiot. When I finally reached him, I couldn’t even speak. What could I have said?” The man chuckled nervously. “To my surprise, he spoke first. ‘Lovely morning, isn’t it?’ Heh. That voice of his, so soothing, calmed me down right away. It made me forget how cold and odd this was. ‘It is,’ that was all I could say. Then he invited me to sit next to him, so I did. Told me, ‘There are not many people awake at this hour, seldom one so young. What is it you seek out here, child?’ Then he turned and looked at me for the first time. I’ve never been good with faces, but his, I think I’ll take it with me to my end. He had a long face with a widow’s peak and slicked-back hair. His nose was tiny and sharp, with laugh lines coming down to a graying goatee. He had crow’s feet too,” the man said, tapping the sides of his eyes. “Those small eyes of his… they seemed to be laughing. They were black, so black you couldn’t even see the damn pupil.” The man paused for a second, staring blankly ahead. “I told him I couldn’t sleep, that winter nights were my favorite because no one went out, and I liked the quiet. He raised his eyebrows after I said that and smiled at me.”
“As do I child, as do I,” continued the boy. They looked at each other with trepidation, both already knowing the words that would come out of each other’s mouths.
“There is solace in solitude.”
“There is solace in solitude.”
The man crossed his arms and straightened in his chair. The boy put out his cigarette, crushing it in the ashtray, and swallowed dryly. “Did he ask you too?” the boy asked, his voice trembling. “Did you-“
“He did.” The man looked down at his feet. “He told me… he offers a quiet life…” The man locked gazes with the boy and, with unblinking eyes as if in a trance, began to recite while the boy mouthed the words in perfect synchronicity. ” ‘I could give you a quiet life. I could give you a lover’s warmth each night. Happiness for you and yours after. No remorse for your deeds, only fulfillment. A life without wants, a death without regrets. All I ask in return is your soul.’ ” The last words left their mouths in tandem. The boy shifted uncomfortably in his chair, causing it to creak, echoing into the empty room. The man winced at the sound as if someone, somehow, might overhear. The room no longer felt calm. The air became tense, and that faint unknown smell seemed to find its way into the room. The man tugged at his collar. He didn’t feel safe. He felt something was at the front door, listening and waiting to barge in, like a predator pouncing on its helpless prey. The man darted his eyes around the room, and his breathing became erratic. “Can you-“
“What did you answer?” the boy cut him off. The man looked at him and cleared his throat.
“I… I was raised a christian. I went to church every Sunday. I would pray in the mornings and before bed! I-” The man put a hand to his mouth. “God, I wanted so badly to leave…”
“But you didn’t,” said the boy, with a harsh voice.
“I asked what would become of me if I gave it away. How could I live without it? And he laughed.”
“What is a soul, I ask you?” the boy said, staring at the man with his haunting blue eyes. He was no longer here in the bar; but sitting on the bench, wearing a gray suit and speaking to himself.
“If you could grasp its purpose, you would despise it, go mad. It is nothing more than a dribble of energy created in a foolish attempt to achieve perfection. Strings to a puppet, nothing more. A twisted design crafted by a sick infanticidal architect.”
“But what of paradise?” asked the man as he asked all those years ago.
“What of it?” answered the boy, cold and mocking, as the man heard all those years ago. “What is bliss to the dead is agony to the living. Paradise has no rays of loving light shining down from clear blue skies, no emerald green grass where the joyful sing and play, nor the embrace of a loved one. It gives no pleasures you would know. What I offer is fleeting, only for a lifetime. I shall not lie. But it is real. All you have to do is accept this.”
The man jolted in his seat, and suddenly he was back in the bar. His eyes were tired, painted by time like two glaciers. And they were beginning to melt. He could feel the tears welling, so he rubbed his eyes and sighed. “He held a cigarette out,” he said.
“And what did you do?” asked the boy.
The man tightened his fists and looked up at the ceiling, pausing for a moment. “I said no. I left. I got up and left without looking back. When I got back home, I prayed and cried until morning came. I said no.” The boy grabbed his pack and shook it next to his ear.
“So strange. Our stories are nearly identical. You prayed for forgiveness, did you?” the boy asked, taking out the last cigarette and lighting it. The man nodded without looking at him. “But if you said no, why would you? Heh, I say nearly identical because there is one part you’ve changed. Or wish you could’ve, anyway.”
“What are you talking about?” asked the man, the rising heat making him sweat.
“I suppose the closer one is to death, the more regret breeds with hindsight,” the boy said as he took a deep drag out of his cigarette and let the smoke pour out slowly. “I said yes.”
The man found himself alone. In his shaking hand, he held a cigarette, and at the other end of the table lay a decayed comic book. He remembered now, as brimstone filled his nostrils and sobs and screams roared around him. Try as he might, his cries wouldn’t leave his lips, and his tears would turn to steam in his eyes. The neon sign flickered before its buzz and glow ceased, plunging the man into eternal darkness.
9 thoughts on “A Choice, Through Time by Anatoly Radimir”
The “bend” in this, the way it comes around on itself is fantastic. Nothing is given away cheaply.
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Gorgeous writing – superb dialogue, a really strong atmosphere, and such a compelling story. The interaction between boy and old man is perfect.
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The theme song for the story could be “Old Man” by Neil Young who was the young man when he sang it.
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Atmospheric. Based on limited experience, it is easy to imagine it happening in England, and based on a lot of experience I can imagine it happening where I live. One can imagine being in that situation. Coincidence – I wrote “Lover” and “The Devil’s In The Details” recently about similar deals. Something about adequate or better minds. The idea goes back at least to Faust, probably before.
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Well crafted and nicely atmospheric.
This story give me chills ! BEAUTIFUL !! ❤
I’m a sucker for a sold soul story and this one is up there.
Mr Scratch would be honoured!!