I looked at my watch: two months, three days, twenty-two hours, and seventeen minutes. Only five minutes since the last time I checked. Shaking my head, I shoved my hand back into the pocket of my jacket and kept walking.
The air was dry and cool, a sure sign that in just a few short weeks there would be snow on the ground. For now, though, the autumn leaves still crunched under my boots as I walked through the forest that stood between my house and the small town where I was headed.
Yet again, I pulled out my hand to read the watch: two months, three days, twenty-two hours, and eighteen minutes. This time, only one minute had passed. Still, it was one minute longer than it should be. One more minute that I added to the endless guilt that had become the last two months of my life. One more minute that I knew he was suffering because of me. Yes, because of me. I knew it was my fault, and at this point I didn't even bother to try to argue otherwise. The last two months had worn me down, stripped away at my hardened façade until there was nothing left but the raw skin of the truth I had tried for so long to deny: he was broken, and it was my fault.
As I walked through the brisk evening air, I considered how I had come to be this way, how the events had unfolded that had led me here two months later, to this forest. Up ahead, I saw the very bench that tied me to these memories. In just a few steps, I was there. I sat down slowly, as carefully as someone easing into a warm bath. I realized my mistake just as soon as my back met with the back of the bench. A deluge of memories flooded my mind, flitting in and out of my consciousness just quickly enough for me to feel their pain as though it was a tangible presence in the crisp air. All at once, everything I had tried so hard to forget hit me, leaving me breathless, and all I could do was remember….
On that day, it was exactly two hours later than now. The sun had very nearly set beneath the oak trees that surrounded us, and at that time we didn't need jackets. The air had just begun to change with the seasons, and it was still warm. His hand was clasped with mine, our fingers intertwined, as we walked along the paved path that was all but concealed by fallen leaves and weeds that had sprung up between the cracks. I looked up at him as we walked. His face was framed by the last light of the setting sun, causing it to glow as he laughed at a joke that I could no longer remember. His voice was like music when he laughed, and at that time I had no idea that soon my life would no longer have a score.
We had been this way countless times before, but this time it seemed somewhat… tainted by my knowledge of what I was about to do. As always, we stopped at the little bench that marked the halfway point to our destination. His thumb drew tiny circles on my hand as I tried to collect my thoughts enough to speak. And to this day, what I find ironic is that those words, those small, seemingly harmless words that ruined my life, are the only details of that conversation that I can no longer remember. I can still see, in stunning clarity, the look on his face, that look that started as shock before morphing into dejection mixed with a certain indescribable kind of sadness that I had no name for but which still haunts me to this day.
I closed my eyes now, trying to cut off these images before I could relive seeing him walk away in the wrong direction, as if now that I was gone, he didn't even care enough to bother checking which way he was going. But the images didn't stop. They just skipped like a record after the needle had been caused to jump. And what I saw now was even worse.
Now, I saw the effects. I saw what I had seen every day for the last two months. I saw him sitting by himself at a secluded table while his friends moved on as though he had never existed. I saw that look on his face that had seemed to become his default expression: that same dejection and nameless sadness. I saw these things, and I knew, even then, that this was at least somewhat my fault. Though, at that time, I had tried to reason. I told myself that this was his fault, not mine. It was his fault for caring so much. But deep down, I had always known that was a lie.
The truth is I'm a terrible person. In the most cliché fashion possible, I had told him that I needed space. However, this was just another in my arsenal of lies. All I wanted was a reaction. I just wanted to see how it worked, what would happen. I had no intention of ruining his life. I had intended to undo the damage the next day after I had my answers. But that proved to be more difficult than I had thought, for in the course of a single day, he had cut ties with everyone, become a recluse, and quit any activities in which he had always found comfort. That is the reason I had allowed this to continue for two months. I was afraid that if I revealed my true intentions, there would be a backlash, not only from him, but from everyone who had loved the old him.
I had toyed with someone's life for the sake of my own twisted sport, and this was the result. I had taken advantage of the fact that I knew that, if it were up to him, we would never be split, never spend more time apart than absolutely necessary. You see, we had grown up together. I had known him just as long as I knew my own family, and it was quite obvious—both to us and to everyone who saw us—that we were soul mates. Already he had begun to plan spending his entire life with me. That was part of the reason I did it. I had to know what it was like, if only for a day, to be apart from him. I had to know what he would do without me. And while I wanted to dismiss his current state as a result of the unhealthily strong nature of his affection towards me, I still knew that it was my fault for feigning disinterest in the one person I knew could never be disinterested in me no matter how hard he tried. I loved him, and he loved me. And I was sorry. I was so, so sorry.
I only became aware of the tears falling from my eyes as I felt the cool wind attempting to whisk them away. The memories were too much for me now. I shook my head again to clear them, jumping up from the bench that had become my anathema in the past two months. I raised a tense, shaking hand to check my watch once again: two months, three days, twenty-two hours, and forty-five minutes. Too long, far too long. I had to do something, had to act. My mind was racing as the steady stream of tears continued to fall, fogging my vision.
All I could do was run. I ran through the trees faster than I had ever run before. I knew what I needed to do. No amount of backlash could ever be equal to the pain that both of us were going through. I had to end this misery. I ran towards the small town, and after what seemed like hours but was in reality, only seconds, I saw a break in the trees. A busy road separated the forest from the town, and the path picked back up on the other side, running alongside the worn buildings. Here I came to an abrupt halt, for I saw a figure on the other side who, after seeing me, did the same.
I recognized his face immediately. He stared at me with what I could only assume was a perfect reflection of my own expression. I saw him open his mouth to speak, but there was no way I was going to let him say anything before I told him what I had been dying to say for two months, three days, twenty-two hours, and forty-seven minutes. "I'm sorry!" I screamed, louder than was necessary for that distance. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"
He continued to stare at me as if in a trance, and for a moment I was worried about how he might answer. His face gave no indication of what he was thinking. I couldn't tell if he hated me or still loved me. All I knew was that I would never stop loving him. Slowly, he stepped forward, his eyes never leaving mine. He moved like a sleepwalker, moving into the road slowly and shakily, his face pale. And then… he stopped. I held my breath, waiting for him to say something, anything. But he didn't. The corner of his mouth pulled up into the slightest smile, but only for a fraction of a second, because a blaring car horn cut through the depths of our trance, and brought reality screeching back. It was all so sudden that it took me a minute to understand how he had disappeared.
And when the paramedics found his body a quarter mile down the road, I was still there, sunk to my knees now, on the side of the road whispering, "I'm sorry."