Jacob went outside and his trench coat billowed with wind. The sudden force caught him off guard and he was chilled — partially from the wind, partially from surprise.
He buttoned his coat and smiled at his success. He was finally, quantifiably happy. He gazed at the stars, but a flickering lamppost down the street caught his eye. On the corner, squatted over the curb, sat a grizzled old man.
Jacob bit the inside of his lip, as his anxiety was wont to do. He ripped a thin piece of squished skin from his lips and swallowed. He recognized that grizzled old man.
He hesitated as he thought of the evening chill, but he was not ready to return inside. He started to think about the past. He stopped and smiled defiantly.
He made his way over to William’s curb. His footsteps echoed like loud tocks of a clock as he stepped over the antique cobblestone street. He expected William to move, but he remained unmoving. Jacob reached the edge, few feet from his old friend — he was not scared. Jacob leaned down to see Will’s face, “Hey!” and William turned, his face crackled and broken in the light. Anxiety fled Jacob and a sudden, altogether more potent emotion overcame him: guilt.
William’s face held time. His cheeks were thin and narrow; his jaw looked ragged, worn, used… The muscles on his face sagged and curled under his jawline. It looked as though weights had tugged down his skin, drawing it down his scraggily beard, pointed at the center. Coarse lines ran through his neck, like carved wood. And with each billowing gust, his hair strained to stay attached.
William’s cigarette was three minutes old. He took a drag, hastening it’s inevitable demise, “hi.” Jacob couldn’t tell if that was William or his own projection on the wind. He relented.
Jacob couldn’t bear a grudge against this man he no longer knew. He plopped himself down next to William; it was as if they’d gone back in time. He tried to capture it, “How ya doing?” Jacob rubbed his hands over one another; not solely to generate heat, but in hopes to generate energy/liveliness/anything within his old ally.
William did not move, he’d yet to make eye contact. His gaze was fixed straight ahead. If not for the tip of his index finger tapping on the cigarette, Jacob could’ve believed William was made of stone.
At last, William’s mouth began to move, like an old machine cranking through rust to open.
He said, “Peas and carrots, peas and carrots, peas and carrots…”
Smoke drained his lungs. There was no moisture to his breath. Jacob shivered and tugged at his shoulders, pulling them in closer. His teeth rattled, the frost was coming in. “I’m doing great, yeah! Absolutely great; fantastic! Been doing a lot of…”
Jacob finally felt it, it hit him harder than the wind and weighed on him more heavily than the guilt. The loneliness.
He’d left William in the bitter cold, left him blank, but there had to be more — he had to have… “I- I got your letter.”
The butt of his cigarette greened. Strauter pursed his lips for a drag. He sucked until the orange embers spiraled to his tarred lips. He let the cigarette fall from his mouth; smoke wafted from the creases in his cracked lips, “yeah.”
Jacob could swear Strauter was using the wind vicariously. He couldn’t utter a word, but a mere syllable from William seemed to linger on for decades. Jacob ravaged his mind, cycling over and over just what had torn them apart. What was so important? Where was the betrayal?
The anxiety came rushing back. He began to feverishly gnaw on the inside of his lips. He had been winning a one-sided battle that he’d long since forgotten. The world grew darker and the streets more crowded, he felt a sense of hopelessness; a forlorn wish from eons ago; an unanswered question. He was back in elementary school again. “Why do I have to study astronomy?” His teacher sat idly by the projector, purposely pausing to ensconce his distaste, “so you know what the stars are.” The question remained unanswered. His heart was gone.
He could’ve spoke of the theories, the imaginable cosmos from millions of light years away, the never-ending expansion of everything but he was left with…
Jacob’s mind burst, his eyes bore into a past all but lost, he had to save his friend. “I have a friend. He does work with… they always need people,” his energy accelerated, “They always need people. Let me help you.”
Jacob had barely finished but there was nothing to be done. Hope was obliterated; vaporized without a trace. His own breath wafted for a moment before fading into blackness. Not even the heat remained; his breath like a forgotten echo in the cobblestone streets of Salem.
A grin cracked William’s mouth and an incomparable wave of relief dispelled Jacob.
“No,” William, still fixated on the wall, his voice heavy like gravel, “I want none.” His words were slow and sincere, yet Jacob felt deprived, he wanted more; he hung on every word! This man had given up, he was no longer living so much as a shadow.
He was rabid now, Jacob bolted up, throwing his hands wide. The cold evacuated in place of his heat. He was mad; raving mad. “Great! Great! Fine, then. I thought I could spend time on you, but I don’t need to be here! There are people- worlds built in my image. I want to help. All I want to do is help!” He was pleading, urging William to see the merit; see what he is worth… but Strauter’s head sagged. The wind whisked by like the passing of time.
The ragged, weary Strauter resigned from his curb. He stood and stared directly into Jacob’s eyes and a light, unlike the glow of fluorescent flickers, but not quite like the glow of stars reflected in William’s eyes. They were babies; bright, blue, optimistic babies. His eyes were centered, fixed points of joy, as though all the life from his body — his face — had drained into these two tiny pearls of sight. The pits deepened and a hand found its way through the air, to land lightly on Jacob’s shoulder. The softness made Jacob jump.
“Where am I going?” William Strauter held no resentment, only honesty. “I’m infinite.”
And with that, William Strauter disappeared down the road. Never to be seen or heard from again.
For more stories, visit Derek Hobson’s Article Archive