It was a humid July evening and I was taking the long way home from work through the woods just north of town. After another difficult day in the office I was grateful for the relative quiet, happy to be alone under the protective shade of the trees that arched over the steep, potholed road. For quite a while all I could hear was the sound of my own laboured breaths and the occasional unseen bird relaying some indecipherable message to one of its avian friends. But as I approached the point where the road levelled out, I heard what sounded like someone reciting a prayer under their breath. Peering through a gap in the trees, I saw a boy standing in a clearing, near one of the grey concrete outhouses that had once belonged to a long-disused infirmary. Sweat darkened his loose-fitting t-shirt as he shoveled dirt out of a fast-emerging hole in the ground. He was maybe fourteen or fifteen, verging on obese, with a weird-looking left eyeball which seemed permanently fixed upon the top of his prematurely reddened nose. A little further up the road, I noticed, was his small red bike, lying on its side beside a gap in the bushes.
A moment or two passed before the kid noticed me. I searched his face for any sign of anger or surprise, but there was nothing. Feeling a little embarrassed, I raised my hand as though greeting an old friend, but the gesture was not reciprocated. I tried to think if I knew him, whether I’d ever seen him around, but I had not. It occurred to me, though only briefly, that he might be some kind of chemically-induced figment of my imagination. Only a week earlier, my office had merged with another and I’d been forced to ingratiate myself with yet more people I’d sooner have avoided. As a means of calming my manifold social anxieties, I’d taken to mixing my medication and drinking in my lunch hour. For a while it helped, allowing me to get through each long and arduous day in a kind of impenetrable bubble. But soon my colleagues, both old and new, started to comment on my appearance, talking behind my back, making jokes at my expense. Worse still, I was pretty sure my boss had noticed the downturn in my productivity and I arrived at work every morning convinced that I would be fired by lunchtime.
Apparently untroubled by my presence, the boy continued digging. I couldn’t help but think that there was something a little sinister about him, something a little off, but I wasn’t able to put my finger on exactly what. I began to wonder who or what was intended for the hole, what crime or misdeed I was in the process of witnessing. In the end I decided that it was none of my business and I continued down the road, hoping to arrive home before Gary and Marlene, the unhappy middle-aged couple from whom I’d been renting a dark and aesthetically displeasing room since my divorce nine months earlier. I did not enjoy their company and they did not enjoy mine, but I had become a useful buffer between them and their problems, and if I wasn’t careful they would try to extend their tedious small talk long into the night.
I found the kid in the same spot a few days later. His cold, piercing gaze had never been far from my mind, and for reasons I could not explain, it had drawn me back to him like some kind of masochistic compulsion I was not strong enough to resist. This time I was careful to stand a little way back from the trees so that he would not catch me staring at him. But I needn’t have bothered. Standing beside what was now a deep hole, roughly the size of a grave, he laid down his spade, looked up at me as though he’d been expecting me, and addressed me by my full name.
It was then that my heart started to beat somewhat erratically, just as it’d done when Caitlin sat me down to tell me she was leaving me. I stepped back from the trees as zigzags appeared in front of my eyes and sharp stabbing pains attacked my temples. Forward momentum carried me a short way back down the road before I slipped on a patch of wet leaves and fell, with a dull thud, onto my back. The next thing I remember, the kid was standing over me, his spade held high above his head, an unsettling grin spreading across his face.
Many weeks have passed since then, and things are far less complicated now. Now I am able go about my business unhindered and unmolested by the world. And although my desk has been given to some other pale, unhappy-looking guy of about my age, talk of my impending dismissal has stopped. I know this because I make a point of turning up to the office each day to listen-in on the inane conversations of my colleagues. My hours, it seems, are pretty flexible and I’m free to come and go as I please. Sometimes I joke to unresponsive strangers that this is the death I’ve always dreamed of living: no more drink or drugs or crippling hang-ups; no more lying awake at night wondering where I went wrong. Thanks to the kid, I have transcended it all. And sometimes, when the mood takes me, I head back to the woods and gaze through the trees at the gradually flattening mound of earth he left behind, and I thank him from the bottom of my no-longer-beating heart for everything he has done for me.
Nick Ryle Wright is a writer of short fiction and poetry, currently based in the New Forest, England. He has had stories published in a few magazines and journals here and there and is a fiction reader for The Nottingham Review. He can be found on Twitter @nickrylew.