“The Lepers in Your Head” / Chapter Ten: The Tree

This is the tenth chapter of a novella I’ve written. It will be published here one chapter at a time, roughly twice a week. Trigger warning: this story is very dark, and may be triggering for those with suicidal ideation. It’s also not the kind of thing you’d expect your pastor to write. So, fair warning.

I was sitting in the grass at Cisco Park. It was dry and brown, but felt like home. I stubbed out my cigarette in the grass, and started to look through my backpack. Everything was still here: a broken and dented flashlight, duct tape, two full packs of cigarettes, and my Leatherman pocketknife. I shoved the knife in my jeans pocket, next to my active cigarette pack and lighter. Then I got up, picked up the backpack, and walked to an area of overgrown shrubs. I checked the cigarette pack in my pocket – there were still six left. More than enough. I threw the backpack into the shrubs, and it disappeared amid the undergrowth. I wasn’t sure what would happen to it once I completed my mission, but this seemed as good a place as any to stash it for now.

I wondered what time it was. It was definitely dark, past twilight. In early November that meant it could be anytime after 6:00 or so. I couldn’t remember what time he was going to arrive. I remember that he came down here that night, November 3, but that’s all I remember of the timing. Thinking back to what my sleep schedule was in those days, my best guess was that he’ll arrive sometime between 9:30 pm and 1:30 in the morning. But even that was speculation. I walked around aimlessly, thinking about how to figure out what time it was. I looked up; there was a lot of light pollution here, but I could see a few stars. Then I remembered that I didn’t have any clue how to use the stars to tell the time.

So there I was, alone in the dark, not knowing what time it was, nor what time he was coming. It could be five minutes from now. It could be five hours from now. I realized that it was also possible, though unlikely, that I missed it. I mean, the sun was setting when I left La Crème de la Café. Had I really run straight here from there? I guessed that I must have – those delusions must have been along the way here. In that case, it couldn’t be much past 6:00. But this day had so many strange and bizarre experiences – maybe the jog here actually took hours. I just had to trust that I wasn’t too late. There was nothing else I could do.

I turned toward the entrance to the park on Barnham Street. I knew he’d be coming in from that side. I walked in that direction, and scanned around until I found a bench. I sat down, and kept my eyes aimed that way. It might be a long night.

There were a few false alarms. I saw people walking along Barnham Street, as though they were heading here to the park, but they did not enter. As frustrating as it was each time, I was grateful for them, because it kept me alert, kept me from falling asleep.

Other than those few duds, and the brief yet intense anticipation that accompanied them, my time on the bench was very quiet. No visits from anyone, real or imagined. No voices, no doppelgangers. Just the sounds of the night. The diminishing traffic. A dog barking. A few crows in the distance. The street lights were mesmerizing. The wind blew the leaves. I sat on the bench. Drifting. Fading. Dozing.

And then I saw him. He crossed Barnham, and entered the park at the corner. He was walking toward me. As he approached, I could see the short hair, the leather jacket, the Doc Martens. He was talking to himself as he walked. I knew what he was thinking, and if I paid attention, maybe I could even read his lips and join in. He didn’t even notice me on the bench as I sat, watching him. He walked past me, and I turned my head to keep him in view. He made a beeline for that tree, the tree I was staring at a few hours earlier when I arrived here.

I got up, and silently followed him at a distance. I didn’t want to interrupt the flow, not yet anyway.

He stood at the tree for a full minute. He hit the tree with his fist. Then he climbed, and stood on a sturdy limb about seven feet off the ground. He held onto another limb just above him. I watched him remove a rope that had been tied around his waist. He already had a noose tied. He slid it over his neck, and stood there, holding the other end of the rope. I knew he was trying to find the courage to wrap it around the branch above. I also knew that without external motivation, he would not find that courage.

I walked all the way to the tree, knowing that I was going to have to make my presence known soon. I could hear him talking, sobbing. “Please, let me know if this is the right thing to do,” he said. I stayed right next to the tree, and walked around it, so I was right beneath him.

I looked up at him, and felt some sympathy for him. He was so upset, so worried. He felt so guilty, and nobody would punish him the way he knew he deserved.

He stood there, talking to himself quietly. I couldn’t make out all the words, but they were some sort of prayer. “Just give me a sign that I should live,” I heard distinctly. And that was my cue. I had ten seconds to act now. Because I knew that in about ten seconds, his night would change completely: a car would drive by, and from that car the song “The Sign” by Ace of Base would be blaring. Hearing that song would make him laugh, give him just enough hope. He’d interpret that song as a rather literal sign to stop, a sign that he was supposed to live. After hearing that song, he was going to climb back down, and walk home, and while it wouldn’t solve all his problems, he would never get this far again.

I had to distract him the moment that car came by. I could very faintly hear the song in the distance, and I knew it was now or never. I shouted at the top of my lungs: “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!” I kept it going for twenty seconds. I watched the car drive by, its message unheard. I kept screaming for good measure, and looked up at him. He was staring down at me, a look of bewilderment and fear on his face.

I cleared my throat, and said, “Hello.”

His face was a mixture of confusion and terror and shame. “How long have you been there?” he asked, his voice quivering and weak. What a strange question to ask someone who just screamed his head off.

I smiled at him. “A very, very long time. Longer than you could imagine.”

He started to shift himself back toward the trunk of the tree.

“No, no!” I interrupted. “I’ll come up there, with you!” I grabbed hold of a low branch, and climbed up to a spot on a different branch. It put me about a foot below him, about a hundred degrees clockwise around the tree. “There,” I said. “We can talk up here.”

He stopped where he was, and said, “Who are you?”

I smiled. “Look close.” I pulled my cigarettes out of my pocket. I lit one as he stared, and offered him one. He declined.

He said, “Wait. Are you me, from the future?”

I said, “Oh, come on! I thought I looked timeless. You saw all the grey hair when I struck the lighter, didn’t you?”

He nodded, and seemed much more at ease. I guess when you’re up a tree contemplating suicide, it’s less worrying to see yourself than to see a stranger up there with you. “I guess you’re here to tell me not to do it,” he said. “I just asked for a sign, and you’re it.” He smiled. “Things get better, I guess?”

I sucked hard on the cigarette. “Yes and no. Yes, I am your sign, the sign you asked for. And no, I’m not here to tell you to stop. I’m here to tell you to do it.”

He tilted his head. “What?”

I continued, “You’re here because you know it’s the right thing to do. You’re here because this has been the worst week of your life.”

“You remember this week?” he asked. “How old are you? Thirty-five?”

“Oh, bless your heart,” I answered. “Forty-nine, actually. It’s been twenty-five years since the last time I stood in this tree. And yes, I remember this week. This was a watershed in my life. In some ways, I can divide my life into pre-tree and post-tree.”

“This tree?” he asked. “Give me a cigarette.”

I pulled one out, and handed it and the lighter to him. As he lit it, I said, “I remember when Allison broke up with you. I remember the conversation you had with your pre-med advisor, when he told you that you don’t have the aptitude to be a doctor. I remember when Grandpa died. I remember the conversation with Mom when she said that you had failed the family. And all this happened in one week.”

He took a long drag on the cigarette. He looked at me closely, and said, “This week. But I thought you’d say that eventually things get better. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say?”

I smiled. “Maybe. I guess they do get better. But it’s not worth it. Life has its good times and its bad times, but you…” I trailed off. I couldn’t figure out how to say it.

“What?” he asked. He was hanging on my every word.

“Well, you cause more problems than you solve. That’s what it comes down to. You make this world a worse place in the future. And I know that I’m really talking about myself here, saying that I have made the world a worse place. But it’s true.” I looked him in the eye. “It doesn’t matter if life gets better or worse. Because you – I – we – get worse. I hurt people. I cause pain. I am stricken with guilt.”

He stared at me.

I continued. “There’s a part of me that wanted to kill myself in my own time, in the future, like a normal person. But here’s the problem. I have a family now, and I don’t want to put them through the trauma of losing someone this way.”

He nodded. “Better to keep the casualties to a minimum.”

There was silence for a moment. Then he spoke again. “I’m scared.”

“I know. But you know that it’s for the best. This is the greatest act you’ve ever done. Look at me. Think of all the people I’ve hurt in the past twenty-five years. People you haven’t even met yet. Think of giving them their lives back. Giving them a better life. This is absolutely for the best. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

“None?” he asked.

“None.”

“Why, what did you do? Did you kill someone?”

I hesitated, and then said, “It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter, because soon it will never happen.”

He slowly shook his head. “Something’s not right here.”

I climbed over to the branch he was on, and stood next to him. Our hands were almost touching on the branch above. We were the same height, but he seemed so small to me, so young, so insignificant, so insubstantial. “Tell you what,” I said. “We’ll jump together.” I gently grabbed the rope around his neck, and began to tie it around the branch above him. He didn’t stop me.

“You don’t have a noose,” he said.

“I don’t need one,” I replied as I finished the knot. “As soon as you expire, I’m going to disappear.”

“What, like Back to the Future?”

“Yeah, like Back to the Future,” I said, pulling the knot tight.

“Don’t lie to me,” he said. “I can tell when a lie comes out of my own mouth. You don’t know what will happen. You don’t have the faintest idea.”

“No, I suppose I don’t. I guess I didn’t study hard enough in quantum physics to understand the true nature of the grandfather paradox.”

“Yeah, well I don’t want to create a paradox,” the younger me said. He was getting angry now. “I hear you, and I believe you that you still hurt people. I believe you that you want me to end it now, and maybe I agree with you that it would actually be the best thing. But now that I’ve met you, I can’t do it.”

“What?”

“Now I know I’m supposed to have a future. I met you. And now that I met you, I can’t die, not at least until I’m forty-nine. Otherwise, I could be responsible for, I don’t know…tearing apart the space-time continuum or something. The fact that I met you means I can’t do this. I have to live, for the sake of reality. Or whatever.”

I said, “Oh my God. You are not doing this.”

He shouted, “You’re damned right I’m not doing this.”

I felt a flash of anger, and I bared my teeth at him. “No, I mean you are not doing this to me. You little ungrateful son of a bitch. Do you know how hard I worked to get here? Do you have any idea how much trouble I went through? I am not going back after all this. I am not going back empty-handed.”

He responded with a similar anger. “You want me to respect you for all the work you put in to killing me? You want me to feel sympathy for you because you endured trouble for the sake of ending my life today?”

He reached for his neck, intending to remove the noose. I lunged for him, shouting, “Oh no you don’t!” He tried to push me away, but I wrapped my arm around his neck, holding him next to me. He started to wobble, as though he was losing his footing. I let go of him, and stepped backwards. I got my own footing back, preparing to give him a good sharp shove. Before I could do this, while my feet were still in motion, he grabbed hold of me to steady himself. Both of my feet slipped off the branch. We were both in mid-air. The noose tightened around his neck, and his arms tightened around me.

We spun in place, two versions of me clinging to one another. I heard a loud crack, as our combined weight and momentum broke the limb the noose was attached to. I hit the ground with a painful crash. I was lying flat on my back, my younger self on top of me, still holding tight onto me. An instant later, the limb hit him in the head and back. He screamed in pain.

He squirmed, trying to roll off of me and also out from under the limb. I pushed him, and he rolled off. I noticed one of his ankles was turned the wrong way – the same ankle I’d broken in the cave. “Hurts, doesn’t it,” I called to him.

He was on two hands and a knee, trying to breathe. “What?” he sputtered.

“Your ankle. It hurts. Something like that happened to me.”

He looked at me with a snarl of rage. “What, twenty-five years ago, old man?” He tried to stand up, but he crumpled to the ground.

“Don’t try to walk on it. You can’t.” I stood up, and brushed myself off. Other than a pain in the shoulder, I seemed okay. Certainly better than I was in the cave, and certainly better than this unfortunate in front of me. He was lying on the ground face down, the rope still wrapped around his neck, tethering him loosely to the tree limb beside him. He looked so pitiful.

“Call an ambulance,” he said.

I stepped toward him, until I was standing over him. “No.”

He yanked the noose off his neck and rolled over. “I can’t walk. I probably have a concussion. Call me an ambulance.”

I knelt down next to him. “Why did you come down here tonight? To go to the hospital?”

He said, “I didn’t come down here to be in pain. I came down here to end the pain.”

I pulled out my pocketknife. “Allow me.”

“No!” he screamed. “I’ve changed my mind! I told you! I changed my mind!”

I put my face right up to his. “I’ve never stabbed anyone before, Damon,” I said. “I’ve never deliberately inflicted physical pain on anyone.” His face was a picture of terror, and I realized that tears were flowing down my own face as well. “I’m not doing this out of anger, or hatred. But you and I have inflicted so much emotional pain on so many people, it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is. It’s time, Damon.” I thrust the knife into his chest.

He screamed out, “Help! Help! He’s killing me!”

I stabbed him again, and immediately started weeping uncontrollably. “I’m sorry!” I said to him. “I’m so sorry, but this is the right thing.”

His screams grew more and more like those of an animal, as he thrashed on the ground, trying in vain to push me away.

“I’m sorry,” I cried to him, as I kept stabbing and stabbing and stabbing. “But you were right when you came here tonight. You were absolutely right. This pain has to end. It has to end. It has to end.”

He stopped screaming.

I fell back to sit in the grass. He was gone. He wasn’t breathing, his face contorted in a grimace, noose still tight around his neck. I tossed the knife away, and heard it land in a bush. I looked at my hands. They were splattered all over with blood. Any second now, I thought, they’d start to fade away like Marty McFly playing “Earth Angel.” But they didn’t. They were still in front of me. I quickly went back to him, and put my ear next to his nose. No breathing. I tried to find a pulse. Nothing. I checked my own pulse. It was strong and fast. This wasn’t right. How could I still exist if he was dead? Something was very wrong here. I started to tremble.

I heard dogs barking. I saw lights all around me. I stood up, shaking. I started to run, as fast I had ever run.

Next, and final, chapter: The Bridge.

(c) 2021 Michael J. Scholtes

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