THEY SAY YOUR LIFE flashes before your eyes before you die. Well, mine didn’t: at least not literally. But maybe suicide doesn’t count. All I remember going through my head as I stood on the parapet of the bridge and gazed down into the inky black waters beneath was a deep sense of resignation. I’d been over and over everything in my head thousands of times already: all that was left was just that one single step. Just put one foot in front of the other, like I’d been doing my entire life.
The cool night air felt fresh and cool against my face, like the farewell kiss of a long lost love. I closed my eyes, and raised a foot into the empty air in front of me. And that’s when I hesitated. Hesitated just long enough for my life to take a very different turn.
A dry, sardonic laugh echoed through the night, a kind of world-weary chuckle that suffocated the seriousness of my intent in an instant. I opened my eyes and turned around: a figure was idling towards me out of the darkness.
His tone was breezy and light. I did my best to ignore him, but he walked up and sat himself down on the wall beside me, facing into the bridge. He took out a small pouch and began rolling himself a cigarette. Halfway through the process he looked up at me sideways, his eyes glinting in the orange streetlights. “So how’s things?”
I stared down at him. “Just peachy, thanks.”
He laughed again. “Yeah, looks like it.” His nimble fingers produced a toothpick-thin cigaratte, which he licked and lit with the dexterity of a stage magician. He took a long, deep drag, then exhaled a thick plume of smoke out into the night.
The silence stretched out between us like thick toffee. Eventually I couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Look: I don’t want to talk about it, and you can’t do anything to help me, so you might as well leave and let me get on with it.”
“Fair enough. I’m not exactly a good listener anyway.”
He took another drag, letting the smoke hang for a moment in the empty air. “But how about you do something for me first?”
Now it was my turn to give a little laugh. “For you? Like what?”
“Oh, it’s pretty simple really. You just give me a year of your life.”
“A year of my life?”
“Is there an echo out here?”
“Says the guy about to take the shortest swim of his life. What have you got to lose? You’ve been master of your own life so far, and where has that led you? To this one-off high dive performance for an audience of one.” He grinned, his eyes twinkling from beneath his shaggy, unkempt hair. “You don’t want it anymore, so give it to me, for just one year.”
“Is this some kind of sex slave thing or something?”
A deep chuckle reverberated across the bridge. “No, no, nothing like that. You place your life in my keeping for twelve months. After that, we part company, and you can do whatever you want. Your life is your own again, and if you want to come back here – well, that’s entirely up to you.” He threw his cigarette over his shoulder, and I watched it spiral down to the rushing water below. “Just one year. No time at all, considering you’re a long time dead.”
“I still think you’re insane. Why should I trust you?”
He grinned. “You, my friend, are a good judge of character.” He reached into his pocket and pulled something out, holding it out to me in his closed fist. “Call this your insurance policy.”
I sat down beside him on the wall of the bridge, legs dangling over the river beanth, and put my outstreached palm under his fist. He opened his hand, and something small but reassuringly heavy dropped into mine. It was a tiny, double-barelled revolver, inlaid in silver with a pearl handle. It looked old and well worn. “It’s a Derringer. I’m told it’s an antique.” I turned it over in my hand. “Careful – it’s loaded. Try it.”
I pointed it down into the water and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp crack, and the tiny weapon jumped in my hand as a bullet splashed into the river.
“One shot left. That’s your Get Out of Jail Free card. It’ll save you the drive back here if you ever want out of the deal at any time. And if you’re worried about me doing you a mischief, well, that’s your security right there. You’re holding all the aces. So what’s it going to be?”
I felt the weight of the tiny pistol in my hand as I considered this strange suggestion. A brand new life for a year, free from everything that had driven me here in the first place. It could be like being born again. I’d already walked out on my old life: why not start anew? And it was true: I’d fucked up royally on my own terms, so why not live my life on someone else’s for a while?
I turned to the wild-eyed stranger, and raised the barrels of the miniature gun squarely to his forehead. He was right. I did have nothing to lose. A wide grin broke across his face, and a twinkle of something like anticipation danced in his eyes.
“I think we have a deal,” I said, pocketing the revolver and striding away from the bridge.
There’s an old Chinese curse I’ve always liked: it just says, “may you live in interesting times”. Well, my life certainly got more interesting from that night on.
My mysterious benefactor – if you could call him that – was unlike anyone else I had ever met. He showed me that beneath the surface of things, behind the veneer of humdrum normality that most people work hard to lose themselves in on a day-to-day basis, there’s a another, deeper world lurking in the cracks and the shadows that is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. My newfound friend and I travelled to all the secret corners of the world and met people who seemed to straddle the boundaries between what was real and what was… otherworldly.
In those twelve months we lived every possible kind of life you can imagine. We dallied with the drunks and down-and-outs in the nether realms of New York, rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous on the streets of Monte Carlo, and even lived for a time in a weather-beaten croft in the remote and desolate Highlands of Scotland. My companion seemed to know everyone, and could open doors into areas that I never even knew existed. He seemed to exist on the margins of reality – he was certainly insane, that much was certain, but his insanity was infectious, and he introduced me to countless other strange and unique individuals around the world.
It would be too easy to dismiss it all as a kind of madness, a shared folie a deux which my companion inculcated in me while I was in an emotional and vulnerable state. That’s the kind of explanation the old me would have put on things, so I could tidy those experiences away in a neat little box and not have to think about them too much. But one of the things I learned, perhaps the most enduring lesson that I’ll take with me to my grave, is the fact that perception is reality. Those dark, creeping things that we faced in the moonlight in Sri Lanka, the shapeshifting miasma that we cornered in a back alley off Wall Street, even the nightmarish entity that almost stole away both our minds in the toilets of that illegal club in Munich – though they might not seem possible in your world, their existence is as real to me now as the ground beneath my feet. I still bear the scars, both physical and mental.
Whenever I asked my companion about himself or his life before we met, all he would give me was a tight-lipped little grin. “I’m just another pilgrim,” he’d say, “a fellow traveller, just like you.” Eventually I stopped asking: in the end it didn’t really matter – I’d closed the door on my old life the moment I walked off that bridge, and now everything was a voyage of discovery. There didn’t seem any point in looking backwards, not when every day held such challenging and testing new experinces for me. It was all I could do to keep up with him – I felt like a tighrope walker afraid to stop and look down for fear of falling.
I lost track of time as the year wore on. I knew we were balanced precariously on the very edge of reality, between madness and sanity, and I knew we were playing a very dangerous game. Even as I was exploring these new realms that my companion opened up for me, I think I always knew that things were destined not to end well. You can’t play fast and loose with the rules of reality like we did and not expect it to come back one day and kick you in the face.
Eventually it was the turn of the seasons that reminded me of our deal. The sting of winter was gathering in the air again, and the Derringer seemed to weigh more heavily in my pocket than ever. In all the time we’d spent together it had never left my side.
I began to think about what would happen once the year was up. Would we just go our seperate ways? Would I be left to fend for myself again, knowing what I knew and having seen what I’d seen? There was no returning to my old life, that was for sure – those days already felt like the memory of some half-remembered dream.
I was suddenly very aware of time passing. My companion seemed to grow more and more distant as the days rolled on: did he have a plan for when the year was over? Was he hatching another mad scheme with me at the centre of it? Or maybe it was just me. Maybe as the deadline drew closer I was getting paranoid, and my newly-attuned senses were picking up on things that simply weren’t there.
Still, I began to look on my “friend” with new eyes. He’d always been secretive by nature, and now I began to read a dark intent into his every move. I’d seen him be callous, even brutal in the way he dealt with people, and I knew how easily he could turn on a whim and throw my world upside down. He was a man of his word, but once our deal was done there was no telling what he might have in store for me.
We returned to my hometown without a word said between us about the looming deadline. The old streets that had once been my home seemed peopled by sinister shadows and malicious whispers that died away before I could catch them. The place was utterly alien to me now, like a cheap stage set full of bad bit-part actors. It gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach to be back there again.
My companion appeared to grow more distant with each passing day. He seemed flat and uncommunicative, and my growing fear and suspicion filled his silences with unspoken yet sinister motives. It got so that I could hardly bear to be around him. His very presence began to feel threatening to me, and his unpredictable and eccenentric nature which I had once found so intriuging now only instilled in me a growing sense of dread.
I became convinced that I had to do something, and do it soon, before the year was up. A kind of heavy malignancy seemed to hang in the air, tainting everything it touched. The tension was almost unbearable.
We were driving back to the bridge in his van when things finally came to a head. He wouldn’t say that that’s where we were going, but the streets themselves seemed to lead us there with an eerie inevitability. It was a year to the day since we’d struck our little deal, and as the time ticked on I grew more uncomfortable by the second.
“Pull over.” My voice sounded thin and wavering against the low growl of the band’s ancient engine. He looked over at me with something like resignation in his cold blue eyes. The van slid to a halt in a small layby on the outskirts of town. “And so we come full circle,” he muttered under his breath.
I took the Derringer from my pocket and again pointed it squarely at his forehead. It looked ridiculous in my oversized hand – like a child’s toy – but something in my manner must have conveyed the seriousness of my intentions. He shut off the engine. “Get out of the van,” I said, still without a clue as to what I was going to do next.
Without a word he opened the door and slid out of his seat. I followed, the cold night air washing over me like icy water. We faced each other by the side of the road, the lights of the city twinkling in the background.
“So now what?” As ever, he seemed entirely unfazed by this new development.
“I was about to ask you the same question.”
“That was always your problem: too many questions. You find answers in the doing of things, not in asking questions.”
“What does that even mean?” I was getting flustered, while he remained cool as a cucumber. “Look: I want to know what you’ve got planned for me. Where we go from here.”
“How should I know? You get your life back. What you do with it is entirely up to you.”
Somehow I doubted that. “But how could you do that? Just walk away? After everything we’ve seen, everything you showed me…”
He shrugged. “What were you expecting? Some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? There is no end point. No goal. Things just continue on, and what goes around comes around.”
“Yeah, thanks for that, Yoda. That’s cleared things up no end.”
He gave a tired little half-smile. “I think deep down we both already know how this is going to pan out. Let me force your hand.” He reached into his pocket, and in an instant my heart was in my mouth.
“You’ll be needing these.”
He threw something towards me: I caught a glint of metal in the fading twilight.
Did I mean to pull the trigger? I honestly don’t know. It all happened in an instant. The crack of the pistol sounded obscenely loud coming from that dainty little toy of a gun, but the bullet somehow found its mark despite my trembling hand, and the man who had been my constant companion for the last twelve months instantly crumpled to the ground. I looked down to see what he had thrown at me: two bullets for the Derringer lay in the dirt by my feet.
I dragged his body into some bushes by the side of the road and sat in the van to think. I rolled myself a cigarette to calm my nerves. As the van filled with smoke, I loaded up the gun with the two bullets I’d been given. I sat there for a very long time, the loaded gun cradled in my hand.
Eventually I came to a decision. I put the gun back in my pocket, started up the van and drove out to the bridge, the place where it had all began. Maybe my companion had been right: things should turn full circle.
The events of the last year cycled round and round in my head. There was no way I could back to living a normal, humdrum life, not after everything I had seen. There was simply no place for me in that world anymore. Everything had lost its lustre. When your only choice is no choice, you just do what has to be done.
I pulled up at the bridge and got out of the van. Walking towards the parapet, I felt empty and numb, like a machine just going through the motions. Then I stopped dead in my tracks. There was a figure already standing there, framed in the cheap neon glow of the streetlight, gazing down into the still waters below. Just another pilgrim. A fellow traveller. I let out a dry, sardonic laugh and walked towards him, my fingers lightly caressing the Derringer in my pocket.
After all, when you think about it, a year’s not really a long time at all, is it?