What had seemed to be an ordinary fall for most, had been just the opposite for me.
There are days when I am convinced that the whole thing never happened — that old age and the passage of time had gotten the better of me. But then there are those other days; and especially the nights, when the flashes of memory are so vivid that I can swear that I was back there once more, and I wonder all over again if I have lost my mind.
If I close my eyes, I can be brought right back to those days and I can see everything. I can play it all back, again and again and again, and remember that sick feeling in my gut when I knew everything was all wrong.
It all started with the colors: the colors of fall. They were fading.
The change was very subtle at first — almost imperceptible — but it was there. The vibrancy was gone from the reds and the yellows, and the crispness was gone from the oranges and the browns. A dullness had washed over the once heightened colors of fall, much like the harvested corn fields that stood at the end of town, and I felt like it was beginning to affect my mood. The brilliant colors were supposed to be the trade-off for the end of summer; rather like a consolation prize for losing the warmth and sliding into the cold and the often-dreary days of fall.
And, then, suddenly everything turned gray. It was like a filter had been applied to the entire town and we were being gypped of our beautiful tableau.
A dirty, putty-hued filter was over everything. It was ugly. It was sad. And it was blindingly disruptive. I found myself slipping deeper and deeper into a depression. But as strange as this phenomenon was — what was even stranger — was that no one else was acknowledging that it was happening. Not one single, solitary soul had remarked upon it to me. No one. Not one person. I repeatedly would mention my observations and repeatedly my remarks were ignored. I was incredulous at their lack of comments on the situation. How could they not notice? How could they not see what was happening around them? Was I surrounded by the inept and the inane?
And it continued — the days growing ever shorter, darker, colder. Those around me seeming to do the same, so much so, that I finally began keeping my mouth shut. I kept the shock of what was happening to myself as people were now openly avoiding me. It wasn’t my imagination. They were avoiding me. My newly found state of oddness was keeping them away. And It wasn’t just the fading colors and the avoidance of people that was troubling. There was a distinct lack of birds in the sky as well. No birds, no geese or ducks along the flyway where there should have been thousands filling it by now — nothing but empty skies and empty trees. A feeling of desolation was encircling the town and it was as if nothing alive wanted to be here. I was beginning to feel the weight of the days on my heart.
I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, and they obviously felt the same about me. I knew that we were in the middle of something; something had to be happening — I just didn’t know what. All I knew was that I was as miserable as I’d ever been, and no one seemed to care. I slowly began to close myself off and as the days wore on, I began to speculate. Sorrowfully, these speculations were just as dark and somber as the days and I was beginning to fret. I wasn’t sleeping well, and I had very little appetite. Something needed to change, or I was going to slide off that slippery edge that everyone was talking about and spend the rest of my years trying to find my way back.
It was then — at my most anguished moment that I noticed him.
He was leaning his left side against the brick wall of our neighborhood market and he was smoking, holding the cigarette loosely in his right hand.
I really couldn’t discern his age — he could have been anywhere from 13 to 20 — incredibly tall and thin, with brownish/blonde hair down to his shoulders that had been pulled back with a rubber band away from his face. In silhouette, he had fair skin and a reddish hue to his cheeks that popped out like he had a fever. He was looking down and I followed his gaze to his tennis shoes that may very well have once been white; but were now considerably dirty and quite worn. I then let my eyes wander to the rest of his clothing and they, too, were also considerably worn, almost tattered, and didn’t seem to fit him at all — hanging off him as if he was a narrow pole. I immediately felt very sorry for him and I wondered if I should approach him and ask if he needed help of some sort — but, I felt myself hesitating. Something about him, his manner, kept me planted where I was.
He dropped the still lit, half-smoked cigarette onto the ground and then immediately proceeded to stamp on it — smashing the cigarette into bits onto the sidewalk until it was barely a black smudge. It was at that point that he seemed to notice me; or at least, he acknowledged my presence. His eyes met mine, or whatever those cold, black, and empty orbs sitting in his eye sockets were, and to this day I have never been able to get them out of my mind. He had no eye lashes, no pupil, no iris, no movement, no color, no humanity. I couldn’t explain it. Well, I couldn’t explain it then. Now, of course, it was all part of a greater whole — but, at that moment, I was in my own little world.
He only looked at me for an instant, and then he drifted off, disappearing like a cottonwood seed in the wind. I stood there for a while thinking about what I’d just seen. He was just so strange looking, and it fascinated me. Who had eyes like that? I tried to shake off the feeling that he gave me; but it wouldn’t go away. It was a lonely feeling. A sad, depressed feeling that — combined with the grayness that surrounded me — left me feeling quite cold and overwhelming filled with despair. Still, no one else noticed any difference in the days, no one else noticed the difference in the town, and no one else seemed to notice this boy.
A week would go by before I’d see him again. I had begun to wonder if he’d just wandered off like a back-in-the-day hobo, disappearing onto the train tracks that ran parallel to town. But to my surprise, late one morning, I saw him coming out of the little corner market as I was heading toward it. He looked the same — the very same, with the exception that he was now carrying a full pack of cigarettes in his left hand. He didn’t look at me this time — instead he slipped the new pack into his left pants pocket and continued walking in the opposite direction from me.
I thought it might be a good idea to try and follow him to see if I could find out anything. He was just so fascinatingly weird that I couldn’t seem to help myself. I tried to be cool and not look obvious about it; but he managed to give me the slip almost immediately as a truck going down the street successfully blocked his movements. The next thing I knew, both he and the truck were gone, and I was standing there on the sidewalk alone. It felt as if I’d just been ditched by a friend — rejected somehow. It was all so strange. And it was made all the stranger by the fact that no one mentioned anything was different. I decided to go back into the market and ask Mrs. Gamin, the lady who ran the market, if she’d talked to him. He’d just left the market — she had to have seen him — sold him the pack of cigarettes. It did cross my mind that perhaps he’d stolen them, but they were kept behind the counter. It was highly unlikely that he’d gotten back behind the counter without her noticing. My mood seemed to lighten as I walked quickly back to the market. Of course, she had to have talked to him. Of course, she had to have been fascinated by his look and demeanor. Of course, she had to have been taken aback by his eyes. Finally, after weeks of no one acknowledging anything different about this freak of a town — finally I was going to be able to talk to someone who had experienced the weirdness. Finally.
But it wasn’t to be, and I was thunderstruck. I was thunderstruck. That’s exactly how I felt after talking to her.
I had gone into the store and had been pleased that no one was occupying her time at the main counter, so I walked quickly up to her and began talking to her. In my most polite voice, I asked her if she’d just seen a boy come into the store and buy a pack of cigarettes. She repeated the words, “A boy?” as if puzzled why I’d ask about a boy and a pack of cigarettes, and I, again — very politely, asked if she’d talked to him. She looked me straight in the eyes and told me that I had been the only boy in the market so far that day — I’ll never forget it. She looked at me as if I had a head filled with straw. “What are you talking about?” she practically demanded. “No,” she said emphatically. He hadn’t been there — he hadn’t walked out of the market with a pack of cigarettes — I had been the only boy in the store that morning.
I just stood there unable to move or process what I’d just heard. Why would she pretend she hadn’t seen him? I was shocked. Why would she say that to me? I was racking my brain trying to think of a reason why she’d deny it, and then it occurred to me. Of course — she was probably afraid that she’d get into trouble for selling cigarettes to a boy — so, she denied the whole thing. I was just about to open my mouth again and tell her that it didn’t matter to me; but just at that moment, a bird flew into the plate glass paneled window on the front of the market, making a terrible noise, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. She and I were the only two in the market at that moment and we both ran outside. The bird, a crow, looked to have broken his neck.
She looked down at the dead bird, and then looked back up at me, and then back down at the bird again. She put her hand over her mouth and walked rather quickly back into her store and slammed the door as hard as that heavy glass door could be slammed behind her.
All I could do was stand there.
The only sounds in my head were from her. I was hung up on her words . . . her words that I had been the only boy in the store that morning. I just could not imagine how that could possibly be. I watched him come out of that store. She had to be lying to me; but, why?
I felt as if I had no where to go; so, I just stood there on the sidewalk looking straight ahead, but I didn’t really see anything. I didn’t really feel anything. I felt emptied. Nothing seemed real, like that feeling when you know you’re dreaming. Those same feelings that I was caught inside my own little world and there was no way out.
My brain became as weak and weary and as dismally bleak as the weather. My days and nights blended one into the other and I was soon in such a funk that everyone around me was taking notice. I’d done as good a job as I could of hiding my increasing distress and it looked like I was going to be either forced to confront it or run away from it altogether. Running away from it sounded like the better option; however, I wasn’t exactly sure how one went about running away. No clue at all. Maybe it was because of my age that I didn’t have the maturity to properly think it through. I couldn’t keep ignoring something so heavy. It was over me like a winter quilt and I had no clue how to throw it off. It seemed like my only option would be confrontation.
Confrontation and then realization. I was then sharply aware of a cold wind against the back of my neck and distant memories of a voice telling me that I was as useful as a burnt-out cigarette. And maybe I was.
I looked down and around to make sure that I knew where I was, and I noticed a nicely sized, gray-dappled rock not far from the tip of my right shoe. Immediately, and without any thought, I began kicking the rock down a rather long stretch of road that opened in front of me. After a minute or two, I realized that I’d been on this road before. Following this road would lead me out of the city limits and into the country — farm country — where mile after mile of dried corn fields filled the landscape.
I could vaguely recall a time when those fields were as familiar to me as my own face. How we would run and play and hide in those fields for hours and hours that stretched into days, weeks, and months. We didn’t care about the other creatures who were sharing the fields: snakes, rats, and bugs were all a part of our time here and we never hesitated about taking them on to begin a new adventure. At the end of the day, bitten by bugs and scratched by the sharp leaves of the corn, we would head back for home, exhausted, but triumphant from our day. Glory days to be sure; happy and carefree and glad to be alive. Just so very glad to be alive.
I gave the rock a final kick and it sailed into the dead, brown stalks and landed with a thud in the dirt. I felt an instant sense of regret with not being able to connect with it anymore and I decided to go into the fields and get it back. I kept my eyes down as I entered the field and was soon able to spot it lodging up against a tawny stalk. I quickly scooped it up, and it was just at that moment as I turned to leave the field, that I saw it — or rather — that I saw him.
There are times; I guess more times than none, when closing my eyes yields nothing but the sight of him that day; hanging in front of me — dangling like a scarecrow with empty eyes and a useless body. This boy, this boy who had intrigued me for so long was here in front of me; dangling from a pole wearing the same sad clothing and the same ragged shoes that he’d been wearing on every occasion that I’d seen him. Everything about him was the same — the same, except . . .
I remember dropping to my knees.
It was then that I knew. That feeling of doom that takes your breath and you know it’s over. I knew, and I remembered. My life as I had known it was over. Our lives as we had known them were over; both ended forever in a ragged field on a faded, fall day, and no one noticed. No one could see it was happening — only me. Only me.