Written by Sarah Schuss
A great wind rose up in the South, taking with it the dark and frigid remains of a long-dead winter. It had won the fiercest battle of five long months, and now triumphantly tumbled upon the countryside, spreading its victorious mirth wherever it traversed. It washed over receding white blankets on hills and crashed upon the last remaining shards of ice floating on swollen green streams. Gathering strength, it descended upon the city like a giant wave of long-forgotten joy, gathering its inhabitants in tendrils of temperate air, and gently blowing over the rosy faces of young children playing in its streets.
There was, however, one young man in particular walking down one of these city streets whom the wind could not seem to warm, try as it might. Handsome in the strictest sense of the word, his face rarely broke its icy composure, and a smile had not graced his lips in months. As he plodded on, his long, brisk strides marked a familiar path from a modest, red-brick house to a small, dark banking office in which he spent the larger part of his time. Time was of the utmost importance to Mr. August Wright. Time meant money, and time wasted on trivialities that not be justified. Desiring to make both a name and a profit for himself, he eagerly made his way to the bank every morning at first light, and refused to leave until he had satisfied his clients, and his own pride. He had no time for sunsets, or long conversations; affection and friendships were things for weak-minded men. Alas, it was in his compulsive desire to make the most of every minute, and to miss nary a single opportunity that August Wright missed much. In his need to ensure that no small task was forgotten, August forgot himself.
It wasn’t long after he had secured his position at the bank that Mr. Wright began to spend less and less time in his little red-brick home. He found that the pursuit of riches gave him time away from his wife whom he soon thought altogether too plain, and his two children whose inefficient movements and impulsive behaviour began to cause him much anxiety. In all truth, August began to resent his current vocation, and seriously doubted that he had chosen rightly.
“I’d be better off without the lot,” he would think to himself, as he pushed away one child who was clambering up his leg, and passed along another, who had taken to wailing incessantly, to his wife. Then, as he sat down in peace to eat his meal and glanced at her, he would remark to himself that she looked rather hollow and worn. Her blushing cheeks which he had once found so endearing, now appeared wasted on her crinkled visage. August would sigh, and would go to bed a good deal troubled and discontented.
Now, August found solace in numbers, and soon began to find that he could sleep more comfortably with his head resting on a stack of receipts on his desk, than he could in his own bed. He often rested this way, which required less time spent at his home during the night. It was on one particularly late night that Mr. Wright found his eyelids beginning to grow especially heavy upon his ink-stained face. As he glanced about him, he noticed that night had begun to fall. The ordinarily dark banking room was now becoming void of all external light as the last few rays of sun on the wall in front of him were swallowed by the dripping shadows. The darkness hung about him like a heavy blanket, drawing his head down into the ink-blotched papers and receipts on the desk below him. He let his eyelids slowly shut, and as he stole a last fleeting glance about the room, the shadows cast by desks and chairs seemed to him to be reaching towards him with gnarled and cold fingers.
Suddenly, a floorboard creaked with all the vengeance of a thousand ancient doors, and a scratching noise like fingernails upon the inside of a coffin pierced August’s heart with a cold fear. His eyes flew open, and with his heart leaping into his throat, August quickly surveyed the dark room.
“Who’s there?” he cried with shaking voice. His eyes suddenly caught sight of a dark figure in the corner of the room who, it seemed, stood unmoving for several moments as if trying to decide whether to attack or fade into the blackness about. August blinked rapidly and fumbled about his desk for his letter opener which he then wielded before him like a crusader of old. “Show yourself,” he cried with masked trepidation, “or face my blade!”
The figure suddenly stepped forward, arms waving like a many-tentacled creature of the deep. “Stop!” it cried, with a voice as dreadful as any banshee it seemed. “’Tis I, sir. I sweep up some nights.” August instantly dropped the letter opener, and leaned against his desk with feigned indifference.
“Well, get on!” he said, sustaining the tremor and shame in his voice, and waved the man forward. The man began to sweep again with much timidity, and turning in the shadows, remarked, “You should go home, sir. It’ll be too late come tomorrow.”
“Yes, yes,” August grumbled. “I have a few more things to finish.” But as he glanced up, he saw that the man had moved into another room, and was no longer present. Still feeling the shock of the previous moment, August rested his head upon his desk and let his eyelids shut once again.
August awoke suddenly with a start and shock, for he was in a bed. It was not his bed, however; he reached that conclusion within seconds. These sheets were much too rough to be his own, and the musky, dust-filled smell about the room quickly assured him that he was elsewhere besides his own home. Confused, he fumbled at the bedside for a moment, and after discovering a curtain hanging down beside the bed, quickly pulled it open. He winced as beams of light shot into the room, illuminating a large and stately chamber; or rather, it appeared that it had once been stately. Now, dust-covered furniture filled the grey space, and once colourful and illustrious carpets and curtains now appeared tattered and bare. August was markedly confused by all of this, but he suddenly sat up as he caught a glimpse of his own outstretched hand. It was not his own. Wrinkled and grey, it was the hand of a man at least twice his age. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he began to discover that it was not just his hands that had undergone such a transformation, but his arms as well.
Beginning to panic in his confusion, he threw his covers aside and ran to the opposite side of the unfamiliar room where a chest of drawers and a mirror were standing. Baffled, he stared blankly into the face of an elderly man; lines and folds of skin covered his once smooth forehead, and a grey, unevenly trimmed beard scratched his once clean-shaven face. He appeared as sunken and grey as the room about him, as if a corpse stood in front of him, staring back with unfeeling dismay. The only thing that remained of himself were his own blue-grey eyes which shone out from behind his wrinkled brow.
With a cry of anguish, August hurriedly turned away from the mirror towards the doorway of the bedroom. Could it be that years had passed him by without his notice? Had he slept them all away, or had he become numb to the passing of time? Suddenly plagued with a cold fear, August ran as fast as he could manage away from the dismal room, and down a narrow hallway which led to a creaking and battered staircase. “I should have gone home,” he thought as he tore down the stair and burst through a door covered in peeling grey paint which led into the street below.
The street was recognizable to August, as much as a street which had never truly been looked at could be recognizable. Slowly it dawned on him, however, that this particular street was one which he had walked along nearly every day since he had been hired on at the bank, although now it was covered in swathes of grey and blue shades as sheets of cold rain fell from the sky above. He turned to his left almost mechanically, and began to walk with quickening pace along the familiar path that had always served as a means of getting away from the little red-brick house, but now, strangely, was leading him to it.
He stopped where his path ended, and fell to his knees on the cobblestones as the falling rain mixed with salty tears on his cheeks. In front of him stood three crumbling corners of red and brown brick. A tall post had been driven into the earth there, and nailed across its center was a single rectangular sign: “Wright & co.,” it read. The cross-shape of the overshadowing signage seemed to both convict August and prod him. “Where are you going?” it seemed to say, but August could not answer. He was too far away now to return; even though he now desired that path, his martyr’s crown, he knew it would elude him now because he had evaded it before. He buried his withered face in his hands, and lay down on the cold stones, as the rain surrounded him and pressed upon him.
“You never did go home, did you?” August raised his eyes at the sound of the gentle voice, and beheld a rather disheveled man who, though unsettling and asymmetrical, gazed at him with dreadfully benevolent eyes. The man was holding a black umbrella in one hand, which shielded him from the pounding rain, and a broomstick in the other. “Who are you?” August cried, part of him aching to discover the man’s identity, and another part dreading to hear the reply. But the man only gazed at him, as if asking that same question. August tore his eyes away and buried his face in his arms. “Dear God,” he cried. “Have mercy on me.” Having said these words, he slept, as a gentle and distant voice seemed to whisper, ‘to supplication, hear his sighs though mute; unskillful with what words to pray, let me interpret for him, me his advocate.’
August awoke and slowly opened his eyes, his cheek wet with tears. He was in a bed, and the light was just beginning to shine from behind him onto the dark wall in front of him. He was in his own bed, and his own home. He knew it, and he breathed a sigh, for he realized that it had always been there and he had merely allowed himself to forget it. He turned over towards the sunlight streaming in from the window, and as he did so, caught sight of his wife in peaceful slumber beside him. He gently bent down and kissed her cheek which was as pink as any rose, and which the rays of light had just began to touch. Suddenly the white laced curtains billowed out from the window as a warm breeze swept into the room and warmed his upturned face. Someone had left a window open.