I found him perched on the railing of a bridge, contemplating the dark water beneath.
“I’m going to eat you” I said.
“Oh, right” said the teenager, not looking up.
I tried again. “I’m going to consume your soul.”
“In your agonising last moments, your sense of self will be forcefully torn from your memories.”
My shadows drifted about us both. My stomach rumbled. I was not sure what to say.
“You seem unconcerned” I volunteered.
“I hate my life.”
“What?” I said “What? I’m a dark and bitter creature (lifeless and unfeeling), you don’t see me complaining about it.”
“And you have a young and warm body and every reason to believe in a promising future.”
“Bullshit” he said. “I might as well throw myself in.” To emphasise his point he spat in the river. “I wish I had never been born” he added as an afterthought.
“That’s awful!” I said, somewhat horrified. “I can’t eat you like this!”
I reached out and took his hand. Time and space spun around us.
“What happened?” he said. “I know this place.”
We stood outside a stone farmhouse next to a lake. Snow lay quietly on the ground and on the frozen surface of the lake. The wind pushed the trees into unfamiliar shapes. A small boy, wrapped in furs, ran across the yard after a dog. “My kid brother” said the teenager. “And my old dog. The past?” The dog ran out across a frozen lake, bounding through the layer of snow on top of the ice. The boy ran out after him.
Something in the scene stirred memories for the teenager. “For a few years after my father died, we lived in this old cottage next to my uncle’s farm.” The boy pelted across the ice. All of a sudden there was a dry, deep crack and the boy skidded to a halt and stood motionless. For a few moments nothing happened but then the ice gave way and the boy tumbled into the water. “I remember this” said the teenager. “He took hours to get warm after I pulled him out.” The boy shouted out and his hands scrabbled on the broken ice, trying to find purchase. His shouts became more frantic as the intense cold bit into him. His furs grew heavy with water. The teenager became agitated. “I should be there by now. I heard him calling.” The boy stopped shouting and struggled to keep his mouth above the water, his head tilted back. His arms moved spasmodically in a final struggle against the water. “Why aren’t I saving him? Where am I?”
“This is the world you wanted. This is the world where you were never born. You wanted to throw yourself into the river. I thought I would show you what it looks like to drown.”
The teenager shuddered and drew inside himself. “So I don’t want to change the past. This doesn’t change anything. My brother didn’t die. I’m still going to do it.”
I pulled strands of time around us and the world fell apart and came back together. I showed the teenager his brother at different ages. A taller kid took his lunch and no one stepped forward to shove him away. An English assignment gave him a headache and his mother’s words didn’t reassure him. Each time, the teenager glared and said it changed nothing, but he spoke less and less.
I also showed him the past as it actually happened. An older boy leaning over a younger boy showing him how to do long division. A pair of boys sharing one ice cream because they didn’t have change enough for two. After some time the teenager spoke. “What happens when you die?”
“I have many talents” I said “but that knowledge is not mine.”
“Doesn’t matter” he said and looked away from me.
I showed him a girl, perhaps fourteen, waiting in her bedroom. She got a message on her phone and ran to the lounge to ask her dad if she could go on the internet to chat with a friend. He asked who this friend was. She said a boy from school. He said yes. She went straight to the computer. Her father smiled to himself as he turned back to his book. “We had a fight a month ago” said the teenager. “I haven’t spoken to her since then.” The girl sat in front of the screen all night, her face lit by the screen and by the smiles his messages provoked. “We used to spend hours like that” said the teenager.
We skipped forward. He watched himself making a playlist for her. At school he was too shy to speak to her. He walked up to her and put it in her hands outside the classroom, then quickly walked away. She listened to it on repeat. “I was never sure she liked it” he said. She doodled his name in her diary and wrote her favourite lyrics around it.
One day they had their first hug. “Your hair smells nice” she said. He smiled.
“You didn’t realise she liked you?”
“I’m not very good at those things.”
One day they had their first kiss.
They watched horror films together. They made short films together. He was always running away and she was chasing him, wearing a black wedding dress and white makeup. “There wasn’t really a plot” he said “but that wasn’t really the point.”
He got home late and his mother was waiting for him. “I was worried sick” she said.
“I told you not to stay up.”
“I can’t go to sleep if you aren’t home.”
He stomped off to his room. She sighed and turned off the lights she had left on. Before she went to bed she looked at a photo for a few minutes.
“It must have been hard for her after your father died.”
He shifted uncomfortably. “I didn’t make it any easier.”
“You were a child.”
We went back and watched her explain that daddy wouldn’t be coming back. She held the two boys as if nothing else in the world existed and didn’t allow herself to cry.
I took us into the future. It was a gentle day, raining, but not heavily. A man was speaking to a small gathering. “We will never be able to answer that awful question: ‘Why?’ That ache will always be with us. Each of us will re-examine our last moments with him for some clue, some hint that we should have noticed.”
“Whose funeral is this?”
I said nothing. The man continued. “Perhaps hardest for us to accept is that he would end his life on his birthday, the very day that he became what we all knew him to be: a bright young man, ready to find his place in the world.”
The teenager gasped faintly and rushed forward. He fell on his knees in front of the headstone.
“July 24!” he croaked, his throat dry. “My birthday! Me!”
“He will be dearly missed by those he loved, who love him still. We must find some solace in the time that we spent together. In Ecclesiastes 3:1 it is written: ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.’ I pray that in time, we will understand his choices and although we may not agree, we will find it in our hearts to forgive him.”
The teenager rose and backed away from the ceremony. “I don’t want to see this!” he cried out. “I don’t want this!”
I caught him up and in a blink we were back on the bridge. He took a few moments to take it in. “It hasn’t happened yet.” He took several deep breaths.
“It’s an incredibly odd sensation, watching your own funeral. I hadn’t really thought about it.”
For a few minutes we stood in silence on the bridge. At last he turned to me.
“Thank you” he said. “I was trapped inside my own head. Today has been like a rush of cold water.”
“It’s easy enough to get caught up” I said “and not at all easy to let go of it.”
He told me about his family and the girl he had been seeing. He told me about his brother and all the things they did together. He told me about his mother and all the things she’d done for him over the years. With each sentence he felt lighter and he was smiling when he said he’d get back in touch with the girl he’d been seeing. He thanked me profusely.
I said it was nothing. I was just happy to see how alive and how full of energy he seemed. My stomach rumbled and I found I was having trouble focusing on his words.
“All the same, it means a lot to me. God! I was going to throw myself off. I really believe I would have done it.”
“What will you do now?” I asked, a glint in my dark eyes.
“I think I’ll just go home. Just to be with my family.”
“No” I said.
He looked at me in confusion and I saw sudden realisation in his face. “Wait” he said, colour draining from his face. His mind was filled with all of the people he loved, all of the moments he had shared. “Please” he stammered, backing away from me, as if I was a physical being, as if he couldn’t see the shadows dancing around him, as if his soul was not in a web that tightened around him and latched onto every thought and memory.
“No,” I said, “No.”
At the very end, there was nothing left but a nameless, faceless surge of terror,
and I consumed that too.