Short Story: Old Acquaintance

The swarming crowd cheered and prepared to count down from ten as the sparkling orb descended. Strobe lights and camera flashes played in random patterns as one year prepared to pass the baton to the next. The crowd’s drunken enthusiasm is a stark contrast to my mixed emotions. Perhaps they’re simply happy to revel in the billboard splashed streets having survived yet another rough year. Don’t get me wrong, so am I. It’s just that there’s also some uncertainty about the 365 days to come. I guess there always is, particularly for those who have lost so much.

In my case, I was laid off in the year’s sophomore season and like so many am still struggling to bounce back. The losses didn’t end there. My longtime girlfriend decided to pursue other life options that apparently don’t include me. I feel the sting of her absence as I watch couples embrace and steal kisses before midnight. Meanwhile old man winter’s frosty stubble prickles my face. The chill burns almost as much as the cold shoulder I’ve gotten from some of my family members as a result of our differences. Maybe I’m better off alone rather than to be surrounded by unnecessary drama and complication.

Then there’s all the craziness that extends beyond my life. Among it, social injustice, international tensions and domestic chaos in the shadow of a discordant government. The world has been ass backwards for a while and lately has shown no signs of righting itself. If anything, more people seem to be entering the unofficial competition to out-crazy and out-corrupt one another. Even at this year-end celebration I’ve witnessed four senseless brawls and several acts of exhibitionism. It was enough to make me wonder what possessed me to come here instead of watching the festivities from home. Maybe it was my desire to do something out of character in hopes it would set the tone for the new year.

The countdown begins. The crowd chants along with the bellowing host.

10, 9, 8…

Seven more seconds until I bid the year adieu, or good riddance.

Out of the thousands of people around me a single one catches my eye. It wasn’t some beautiful stranger or half-naked pop star writhing around on stage; quite the contrary. For some reason, my eyes locked on a weary-looking man with skin like a crinkled paper bag. He appears to be laughing at me as his gaze pulls me like metal to a magnet. Our eye contact is only broken by the intermittent interference of waving arms. He turns to walk away and squeezes through the wild spectators. Not knowing why, I decide to follow. Something about the way he looked at me fills me with such unease and interest, as though he somehow knew something about me. Maybe it was his laugh. It seemed like the product of a joke that only he knew, only I was the punchline. I struggle to weave through the swarm, something the elderly man was doing with ease. The distance between us stretched as the crowd had already counted down to five. At that moment he faced me anew. With a wink and a smirk he raised a weathered hand into the air and snapped his fingers.

The flashing lights freeze in time as does the multicolored glow of Times Square’s billboards. The ball hangs suspended. People become mannequins, some locked in precarious poses. An echo of the crowd’s reverie briefly warps through the misty air before falling flat. Deafening silence follows and the pungent scent of hot dogs, sauerkraut and pretzels grows stale. I wonder if the scene around me was the product of overindulgence, then I remember I didn’t have anything to drink. I had been determined to spend the beginning of the next year sober in defiance of the stupor I had been in for months. My sorrow had proven resistant to my repeated attempts to drown it and I knew I needed to find a different way to kill it. For a moment, I consider the possibility that I was the unwilling passenger of a contact high, but that theory faded into the ether like the brief pungent vapor I had walked through nearly an hour earlier. No way was it potent enough to generate such a display.

Loose pieces of prematurely fallen confetti had also halted in the air. I walked into several of them. Their impact against my face felt like ice pellets; much harder than they would’ve felt in real time. Still, they didn’t fall, but were merely brushed aside like sediments in thickening gelatin. The man remained in place, hands now shoved in his coat pockets as I continued my approach, my legs slicing through the steam paused above the subway grate. So many questions filled my mind as I faced him. What was so damn funny? How did he make everything freeze? Who the hell was he?

He began by answering the first.

“You think you’ve had a rough 365 days? Son, you don’t know the half of it.” The elder’s eyes crinkled as he laughed. “People who didn’t even make an effort to get to know and understand me are eagerly waiting for me to die…including you.”

I wondered what gave him the authority to discount the difficulty I’ve had all year. Somewhat offended, I nearly uttered a snide remark until I realized something about the man seemed familiar. Still, I couldn’t place him. I found that, and his statement, curious.

“I don’t understand. Have we met before?”

“Everyday.” The strange man nodded. “But I understand if you don’t remember. Many don’t. Instead, they float aimlessly through their days, not paying full attention since they’re preoccupied by troubles—real and imaginary. Anyway, I’ve changed a lot since we first met. Time is harder on some more than others, you know.” The old man stroked the scraggly beard on his prune-like face.

“Tell me about it,” I snorted. “It’s been kicking my ass these days.”

“You, you, you… Just my luck I get stuck with the most narcissistic lot,” the man muttered, puckering his face. “Son, you still can’t see past your own face. Here’s a clue to who I am… The beaten up shell that stands before you is the result of what you’ve all done with me.” He swept his arms out, gesturing the motionless crowd. “But naturally you see yourselves as the victims.”

An explosion of revelation shook my mind. How had I not seen it before?

“Wait. So you’re…father time?”

The old man shook his head. “No, just a servant whose job is to weave a certain length of it, that’s all. I merely presented a length of time, the decision of what to get out of, and put into it was mainly yours. Now, my job will end in a matter of seconds. But I, much like my predecessors, have been given a final gift to pause my abdication just long enough to reach out to a promising few, to get them to break the illusion that they are helpless victims at the hands of time. You’re among a special group I’m speaking with at this very instance because in your heart lies a promise that not even you can see in the present. However, if you keep an open mind, you’ll seize the opportunity my successor is poised to provide; the opportunity to take hold of the reins of your life and guide it towards happiness and fulfillment. But first…”

Our eyes locked anew and my mind was flooded with frenzied memories of the year gone by. It was like reviewing my life through a shattered mirror, only realizing I had contributed to making some of the jagged fragments. Of course, not all unfavorable events had been my fault, but I had indeed been responsible for more than I took responsibility for. Too often I sulked in the ashes of burnt bridges not realizing I was holding the charred matches. Too often I pushed people away, including my longtime love, by finding one way or another to avoid emotional intimacy. My desire to exude the appeal of strength had exposed one of my biggest weaknesses, my stubbornness, which led to tensions at my old job as well as in my family. It was a strange sort of agony, being shown with full clarity all the missed opportunities and wasted time that I couldn’t reverse. Yet, in all that, there was the indescribable joy of knowing that even though some things were irreversible, I still maintained the power of choice to make a difference in the future, regardless of what had happened in the past.

The juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness never seemed more prevalent to me than it did at that very moment. I realized that no matter how dominant one or the other may have seemed at any given time, both were present whether in an event, situation or simply the lenses of our perception. It is something neither I nor anyone else had the power to change. What we do have the power to shift is the focus of our observation. Yet, the negative always seems like the most alluring subject to behold, or at the very least the easiest. A dangerous prospect if the idiom “seeing is believing” is correct.

Something stirred inside me as though triggered by a shot of espresso. It was the invigorating decision that I would no longer knowingly give power to the very things that I allowed to oppress me. I will no longer take solace in the resulting excuses. I am on the verge of a new beginning, a new chapter, a new year, a new chance to breathe life into the dreams I nearly slayed with my own self-doubt.

“Damn. I was a fool,” I muttered.

“Eh, don’t be hard on yourself.” The stranger waved his hand. His breathing was growing increasingly labored. “Everyone’s a fool at some point, and fools can’t always help themselves.”

“Why do you care enough to try to set us right? Time doesn’t depend on any of us, does it?”

“No. Chances are, time will always exist independently of humanity and its ability to measure it. The thing is, will time still matter if no one is coherent enough to care about it, or around to witness it? You feel it, don’t you? Each year, special occasions lose a bit of their luster, holidays lose a little bit of their vibrance and meaning, darkness fills the broadening gaps leaving less for people to look forward to. The same can be said of every other day. If this continues, people will simply stop looking forward, thereby getting stuck in the same looping cycle of despair—much like the cycle you’ve been in recently, and even worse.”

The surrounding stillness was breaking as the world around me began to move like molasses as he staggered over to the curb. I caught him by the arm as he lost his footing. His weight was deceptively heavy. I eased him to sit on the yellow-trimmed concrete. The time was nearing. He was fading, and apparently so was his power as the sights and sounds revved up gradually. Smells began to regain their potency. The world’s return to life contrasted with the old stranger’s impending death. His smile was that of a terminal patient who had seen his final wish come to fruition. Finally, I asked his name.

“No name. Just… a number. 2,014.” The corners of his mouth shook as he uttered his final words. “My successor is near.” His eyes grew distant. “Treat him kinder than you did me, and hopefully, he’ll return the favor in kind.”

Just like that, 2,014 faded into the ether. I imagined him flying with a cape fashioned out of the calendar’s tattered pages. His destination, someplace where the present can no longer do any more damage or rectification. My thoughts were interrupted. All at once I was surrounded by a thunderous roar:

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Amazing. In those few stretched moments of time I had gone from longing to see the year’s end to feeling bittersweet about its passing. It was like finally getting to comprehend a misunderstood friend or relative just before watching them die. In hindsight, I found myself wishing we’d had a little more time.

Before long, the crowd thinned and like so many I made my way to the train station. A voice called to me from behind. I looked over my shoulder and saw a face I never thought I’d see again. My girlfriend. Well, newly ex-girlfriend. It was a pleasant surprise when she threw her arms around me and planted a passionate kiss on my lips.

“2015 is already looking up,” I thought.

I opened my mouth to apologize for my recent behavior when she pressed a gloved finger to my lips.

“No need to explain.” Her lips curled almost seductively. “Everyone’s a fool at some point, and fools can’t always help themselves. That includes me.”

“Who told you that?” I frowned.

“I don’t know.” Her expression suddenly matched my own. “Just like I didn’t know you’d be here, but somehow…” Her voice trailed off as she hooked her arm into mine. Slowly, we began to walk as the cleanup crews moved in. “It just popped in my head. None of that matters I guess. What matters is that we’re here now. Why don’t we start the year off different than we ended the last…Together? Happy New Year.”

“Happy New Year,” I replied as we walked into the promising, yet unknown future.

 


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8 Responses to Short Story: Old Acquaintance

  1. Beautiful, and a piece many people (myself included) needed to read! Thank you for sharing this.

  2. mildred says:

    i really liked the part about 2014 being near to his successor 2015 nicely put

  3. What a brilliant, poignant, and insightful story, Shykia. You are such a gifted writer and you craft your words with such love and care. I know there are so many more wonderful stories, both long and short, that you will share with the world. Lucky world! Keep writing, always.

  4. Shykia says:

    Thank you so much for your kind words of support, Lisette! It’s people like you who motivate me to keep writing.

  5. Leona says:

    Shykia,

    That was beautifully written. You are so incredibly talented, not only with your imagination and how you put it into words, but also in your artwork. I look forward to the next book and any other short stories you will write. Loved this!!! Especially loved the underlying meaning and lesson.

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