Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Halloween Story: The Last Straw

As I stand here in the cold and damp I'm too weary to feel sickened by what I am about to do. I have wrestled with my guilt for sometime now but eventually self-pity and self-preservation have overcome it. I never asked for any of this, I could never have known what would happen to me and what I would have to do. My one consoling thought is that whoever I pass my burden onto will one day feel the peace and contentment that I have been promised awaits when I am finished. It started two months, one week and four days ago. That was when my life was changed forever.

It was a Thursday night and I was walking home from the pub. It wasn't late, I'd had a testing day at work and a steadily building headache had forced me to finish my last pint, give my apologies and head for home. I took my usual route along the towpath on the outskirts of the city, the canal waters dark and still beside me. It was a cold, clear night, and the stars were reflected on the water's surface. Everything was quiet and calm as I approached the crumbling brick bridge that connected the two sides of Tollman Street across the canal. I had on occasion felt a slight apprehension about walking under the bridge at night. Its ceiling hung low and when you passed under the blackness seemed to swallow you for several seconds before spitting you out at the other side. Once or twice I had passed someone walking in the other direction, perhaps with a dog or going for a midnight jog but for the most part the bridge and towpath were deserted whenever I walked along. I was therefore unprepared for the figure that stepped out of the shadows just as I approached.

It was a man in a dark green jacket and flat-cap. His face was drawn and gaunt looking. There were heavy shadows under his bleary red-rimmed eyes and his grey hair stuck out from under his hat in untidy tufts. 
“Excuse me,” I said, motioning that I wanted to pass. He didn't move. “I need to get past.” I said more firmly.
“If you could have one wish what would it be?” He asked me.
I blinked with unease. “Pardon me?”
“If you could have one wish what would it be?” He repeated. I was feeling pretty spooked by him at this point and my head was starting to throb again.
“Look Mister, I really need to get home, if you could just move out of my way-”
He held out his hand to me and said “Pick one.”
I looked down to see that he was holding five straws in his hand. “What? Why?” I asked.
“Pick one.” he said again. “If you pick a long straw then I will grant you a wish.” By now I was convinced that he was completely insane and so I thought that the quickest, safest way to get away from him was to play along.
“So if I pick one then you'll grant me a wish and let me go?”
He nodded.
“Right, ok then.” I selected a straw at random and drew it from his hand. It was a long one.
He small smile played about his lips. “Well done, you picked the long straw. What would you like to wish for?”
I don't know why I replied as I did but all I can think is that I was desperate to get away from him and it was the first thing to come into my head.
“I wish that I didn't have to go into work tomorrow.”
“Done.” he said, then stepped aside allowing me to pass.
I hurried away from the bridge as fast as I could, keen to put as much distance between myself and the strange man as possible. It wasn't long till I reached my front door and it was with some relief that I put my key in the lock and let myself in. As I lay next to my wife in bed that night I couldn't quite shake the feeling of apprehension. The meeting under the bridge had disturbed me, but I had no idea even then what would happen next.

The phone rang early the next morning, just before I was due to get up for work. I was still groggy from sleep so I didn't quite take in what I was being told at first. It took a few minutes for me to realise that I was being told the business had folded and that my job no longer existed. I would not be required in work that day or any day after that. In the shock I felt directly after receiving the news I completely forgot about the man and my wish. It was only after my wife had left for work, banging the door on her way out that I remembered what had happened. Surely it was just a coincidence I told myself. He was just some madman under a bridge talking nonsense. But still, even though I tried to ignore the growing unease inside of me throughout the day something finally made me put my jacket on and retrace my steps back to the bridge.  It came as a shock when I saw that he was stood in the same place as the night before. He watched me as I cautiously approached him. It was as if he had expected me, which of course he had.
“So you came back.” He said.
“Yes.” I had no idea what I was going to say to him but it turned out that I didn't have to say much at all.
“I know why you are back. It is about your wish. It didn't go as you expected?” he looked down at his feet as he said this.
“I didn't expect it to go at all. How did you-”
“Would you like to try again?” he asked. “You're next wish might work out better...” he proffered his hand which now held four straws. I stared down at his hand.
“Why should I?”
He looked me square in the face. “Because you have to finish it.”
I often wonder why I didn't just walk away there and then. I can only say that I was still shell-shocked from the morning and perhaps feeling like I had nothing left to lose. How wrong I was, I still had a lot left to lose at that point. I picked one of the straws offered towards me and pulled it from his hand. It was a long straw. For my second wish I thought long and hard. My wife and I had been trying for a child for some time without luck. It had begun to affect our relationship and I had recently come to wonder if it would be the eventual cause of our breakup. Despite having just lost my job I recklessly decided that with my next wish I would try and fix the problems in my marriage.
“I wish that my wife would fall pregnant, safely pregnant– wait, with a healthy child.”
I raced home, the implications of what I had just done only then beginning to dawn on me. The anxiety built as I neared the front door. I had made sure that the baby would be healthy, that the pregnancy would go safely. Surely that was all that mattered? I found the note taped to the fridge. 'Dear Michael' it began. 'We have been drifting apart for some time now. Our marriage is over, it has been over for some time now, but neither of us were willing to admit it. There is no easy way of telling you this, I'm sorry that I couldn't find the courage to tell you to your face, but I am leaving you for someone else. You don't know him, I met him at a conference in May. I am pregnant with his child. I have taken most of what is mine but I will call back later in the week so that we can discuss the house. I'm so sorry, Amanda.'
I ripped the note off the fridge and scrunched it up into a tight ball. This had to be a joke; everything had to be a joke. I walked into the bedroom. Empty drawers. I checked the bathroom. Shampoos and expensive creams missing. She had even taken a gold picture frame that we had used to display a photograph taken from our trip to Prague. The picture had been discarded on the dresser.
It was at this point that the anger started to build in me. Just who was this man and how did he have control of my life like this? Why did he have control of my life like this? Once again I found myself racing back to the bridge.

This time I was in no doubt that he would be there. I tore up to him and grabbed him by the scruff of his ragged green jacket and I thrust him against the wall. “Who are you, why are you doing this?” I yelled in his face. He did not seem surprised or even threatened. He looked like he had been expecting this.
“It is not up to me what happens.” he said simply. “I only provide the means to make the wish, I do not determine how it takes effect.”
“Then how do I stop it?” I begged, still holding on the front of his jacket. In answer he held out his clenched fist. Three straws remained. I stared down at his hand for a few anguished moments. Then with a heavy heart I released my grip upon his jacket and drew a straw from his hand. It was a long straw. He looked at me expectantly. I had lost so much in the past day and a half, I had no job and no wife. I had wasted my first wish on something frivolous, I had used my second wish to try and fix something and had ended up breaking it more. I knew that my third wish was bound to go wrong in some unforeseen way no matter how carefully I worded it so I reasoned that I might as well get something out of it.
“I wish for lots of money.”
I was in no rush to return home this time. I knew that something no doubt unpleasant awaited me, perhaps I would find the proceeds form a bank heist in my house and then be arrested for robbery. Perhaps I would be hit by a police car on the way home, lose a leg and then receive a huge compensatory pay out. Of course, I may find a winning lottery ticket in the gutter, I hadn’t totally given up hope.

I heard the fire engines long before I could see my house. Soon I could see the billowing smoke and smell the sharp bitter tang of burning on the air. As I got closer I walked up to the gathered crowd in a trance.
“Gas explosion” I heard people saying.
“Poor bastard. Still the insurance payout should be substantial.”
I gazed up at the flames that were devouring my home. Everything I owned being reduced to ashes drifting down the street, being brushed from people’s eyes. I knew that I should have stayed and spoken to the fire officers and the police. I should have made arrangements and tried to salvage what I could. There was only one place I wanted to go now though.

He was still stood exactly as I had left him not one hour ago. I walked slowly up to him, my shoulders drooping with the weight of all that had happened since we’d first met. I needed no prompting this time.

He offered me his hand with the two straws left and I selected one and pulled it from his fist. It was a short straw. “Thank you.” He said.

I have been standing under this bridge for two months, one week and four days now. It was several days before I could sum up the courage to even ask anyone what they wished for most in the world. I was several more days before anybody took me up on my generous offer. Others have since played along as I did that first night but few ever return except to give me a black eye or to threaten me to never come near them again. I have lost count of how many lives I have ruined so far, how much misery I have brought on strangers. One day, after I had been here a month or so, the man walked past under the bridge. He looked less gaunt than the last time I had seen him, his clothes were no longer ragged and his hair was trimmed and washed. He didn’t stop to speak, but he did slow and nod to me. I think he just wanted me to see him.

It is getting late, I am expecting someone. Someone who won’t be happy to see me. I hold two straws in my hand just now. I pray that my visitor will take one of them and leave me holding the last straw.

by Kirsty Morrison

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