The woods were dark, and I was lost. It was midsummer and hot the way that it only is in the south. The last of the lavender light had disappeared hours ago, and I was still walking. I hadn’t meant to get lost. Of course, no one ever does, but I knew the way home. I walked this path almost every day, and I didn’t stray.
That’s the weird bit. I just didn’t make it home. Although I kept walking, and the sun kept setting, I never reached home. I should be home by now.
I heard a whippoorwill in the distance, chiming into the symphony of frogs and insects. That wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was that I hadn’t heard the Freeway yet, or seen the streetlamps that stood guard over my place, standing like sentinels and glowing like beacons.
Uncertainly, I glanced at the woods on either side of me. It felt stupid to leave the path when I knew that my home should be straight ahead. It also felt stupid to stay on a track that seemed to reject space and time. There was no reason that I should be lost.
Taking a breath that was more resignation than encouragement, I stepped off the path. I felt something shift almost immediately.
It wasn’t that anything looked different, exactly. It was more that it felt different. Everything looked just as it had, yet, it felt wrong. As I walked forward, I noticed fireflies floating in the distance, hypnotizing in their dizzying waltz.
Despite myself, I walked toward them, farther from the path and in no particular direction. Yes, I was walking in a direction, but it was like I couldn’t pay attention to anything but the fireflies’ dance. They bobbed up and down, at first randomly, and then forming a pattern.
When I got closer, I saw that they were only normal fireflies. I captured one in my hands and gazed at it, transfixed by the small blinking bulb. The glow seemed to expand for a moment, and when I looked up, I found myself in an unknown clearing.
A breeze blew across tall grass, and it blew through me. I felt insubstantial somehow, as though I might simply float away, like who I am might cease to exist. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
It felt like I was holding onto a reed in the wind, and all I would have to do is let go. Then all my problems would go away. But something told me to hold on. I can’t explain it any other way.
So I held on until the breeze passed by me. I held on until my body was heavy again and landed like a ton of bricks.
All the noises that should have decorated the night were gone, but so was the light. There was no light, not a twinkle of starlight on the grass. No movement of tree leaves in the distance. It was a pitch-black world, silent as death.
I wondered if I was dead. Then I remembered the wind and the voice in my head, telling me to hold on. So I did. I sat in the dark for a long time, but I waited. Then it was like blinking, and I found myself in a cave, flickering light played on the walls, illuminating crevices, and cracks.
They were beautiful, and the crackling sounded like music after the silence. I watched the shadows dancing for a long time before I noted how comforting the warmth at my back was. When I finally turned around, I saw the fire in all of its glory, dancing and merry.
I stared into the fire for so long that I almost forgot I was a person and not the fire. I might have sat by that fire forever, but that voice pestered me until I broke my eyes away to see the book wedged between two logs, burning and yet whole.
If I had any sense, I would have left it there. But this all felt too much like a dream, and the voice told me to take it.
My hands burned as I grabbed it. It hurt so bad that I started crying, but I pulled until I pried the book out. I dropped it on the ground patting wildly at my body. Then I threw myself to the ground, trying to put the fire out.
Finally, gasping for breath and sobbing with relief, I looked at my hands. There wasn’t a mark on them. In fact, they looked perfect, as though I hadn’t spent my whole life covering them with scars. They’d grown rough and ruined, over-working at a job that couldn’t even pay for the chemo. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough.
And so I cried like I hadn’t allowed myself for months, trying to be strong for her, for us. Only once I’d exhausted myself did I reach for the book.
Unlike my hands, the cover was blackened and burnt, like it had absorbed the fire but refused to disintegrate. Although the pages were all blacks, and browns, and greys, they were also smooth and whole. There was no cracking crispness. The paper was soft and flexible like fabric, and written on its pages were secret words that I didn’t want to share.
I held the book as a gust of wind blew through the cave, blowing out the lights. I was back in the darkness, but I wasn’t alone. The words were there too, joining the voice, asking me to write onto the void.
When I woke on my doorstep, it was deep night and quiet, like even the insects had gone to bed. In the orange light cast by my street lamps, I watched the contrast of golden leaves and dark shadows.
Everything I saw stood out so clearly, and I had a distinct impression that I wasn’t alone. That I would never be alone again. I drank in the lights and breathed deeply when a breeze finally blew through the trees. I heard it, the shifting leaves and chirps of bugs and frogs, not as silent as it had seemed only moments before.
It felt like all of life was coming back, like I was finally experiencing it again. I was breathing it in again, but there was something more behind it now. I was something more.
When I finally turned to go inside, I almost tripped over the briefcase, perched carefully to the side of my doorway.
My heart leaped at the sight, not because it shouldn’t be there but because that was always where she had me place my dirty shoes and coat after a long day. It had felt like shedding an old life so that I could meet her in my fresh skin.
Trembling, I reached for the briefcase, my hands still miraculously flawless like I’d worked in an office instead of breaking my back my whole life.
It felt sacred somehow, so I took it inside, waiting until I sat in my silent living room, one lamp lit before I examined it.
I opened the briefcase quietly, trying not to wake Maddie. She needed what sleep she could get. It clicked open, the metal clanging more loudly than I’d anticipated. I opened it like I’d rip off a band-aid.
Inside were bundles of money, the small blackened book perched on top. If I hadn’t made it home safely, I might have tossed it away then.
But I knew that if Maddie wasn’t worried, then not too much time had passed. And I knew she wasn’t because I could hear her breathing in the next room. All of my senses were heightened somehow now, and I marveled that before, I’d heard nothing.
I’d heard stories about people sleeping for a hundred years, but everything was just as I’d left it. We had no children, no one to take over once we were both gone.
So I opened the book. Inside, the letters shifted and reformed, no language that I’d seen before, and yet I understood as though it had spoken.
“Don’t forget the agreement.”
I almost choked, realizing that it must be precisely what we needed to make up the difference. It would be $20,000 exactly. I didn’t regret the agreement, and no one possibly would. The book would help me change things. It would also help me remember.
And it turns out that remembering is pretty essential when you’re rewriting reality. I had promises to keep, and I was ready.