16 Nov Paying It Forward
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"Paying It Forward"Written by
Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
I was ready to die. It’s funny; we, as human beings, like to imagine ourselves as fighters. We like to think that when death grips us by the throat, prepared to drag us into whatever beyond awaits us, that we’ll instinctively resist, either out of desperation to live or even some deeply ingrained sense of pride that won’t allow us to pass on without a struggle. Maybe it’s like that for some, but it wasn’t like that for me.
I didn’t know why, though. I had much to live for. I had a family who meant everything to me, a good job, close friends, and every reason in the world to want fight for my life. But despite all this, I was overcome with a hard apathy that prevented me from caring even the slightest bit about all the blessings in my life. The struggle proved too hard and I wasn’t able to fight.
With death looming nearby, these were the thoughts that went through my mind as my body convulsed with violent shivers. The wind howled around me, seemingly shrieking with laughter as it pelted me mockingly with fat snowflakes, symbolically tarring and feathering me before my death. I wrapped the emergency blanket tighter around my body and rocked back and forth, thumping lightly against the rear right fender of my car.
Immediately behind me was the shredded tire of my 2008 Ford Focus. A large stone covered by snow on the rode had decimated tire, reducing it to thin strips of rubber that dutifully clung to the metal frame that remained. Initially, I was merely annoyed about having to get out of the car in the freezing storm to change the tire. When I popped open the trunk and discovered that the tire iron was missing, I’d begun to panic. Staying out in this weather for more than a few minutes was dangerous, life-threatening even. I entertained the idea of getting back into my car and driving to the nearest gas station on the destroyed tire, but the car was running on fumes there’s no way it would have been able to drag the dead weight of its back end through the ever-thickening snow on the already precarious canyon road.
Desperately, I had tried to twist the bolts off the tire with my bare fingers. The icy weather made the appendages incredibly delicate and raw, but I nonetheless struggled for minutes that felt like eternity until my throbbing fingers were numb and coated with a thick covering of frozen blood.
Having destroyed my hands, I pondered my other options. I could get in the car and blast the heater, but what would that do? The battery might last a few hours, possibly even until the storm passed, but that wasn’t very likely and once the battery was dead I would be stranded. Granted, I could run the engine, but with how little gas remained in the tank, that would only end up the in the same result. Ultimately, either option would only prolong my hypothermic death. If I was going to die in either case, then I saw no purpose in extending my life only to watch frostbite work its way over my body.
I closed my eyes and leaned back against the car, trying my hardest to ignore the spasmodic attempts of my body to keep blood running through my veins. Interestingly, I wasn’t sad, frustrated, bitter, or anything. I really didn’t feel any emotion. Rather than thinking of my family, my mind played back random YouTube videos, minute details of things I’d noticed earlier that day like the tiny tear in tear in my waitress’s apron at Denny’s. Meaningless, sometimes mildly entertaining thoughts arbitrarily passed through my mind as my body slowly began to accept the inevitable.
An image of my dog, Max, a gigantic husky, balancing on the birdbath of our neighbor’s yard one sunny afternoon was on my mind when, of their own accord, my eyes slowly reopened, like when you dreamily awaken from a deep sleep.
Normally, what I saw would have caused a horrified shock to course through my body, but in my current state I was merely confused, trying to process what I was seeing.
No more than 10 feet in front of me stood a tall figure. It was draped in a long, black cloak with a high collar, effectively shielding its entire body from view. But instead of a person’s head, it had a ram’s head. Or, perhaps not a ram, but a goat or some kind of lamb. The animalistic head had the features and the horns of a ram but appeared more juvenile, more…innocent. The head that gazed back at me had tiny horns protruding from its forehead and ivory fur that was frequently camouflaged in the ensuring snowstorm. Its eyes caught my attention, though. Its eyes were pure white sclera, nothing else; no irises, no pupils, nothing. Empty seas of whiteness that were only separated from the rest of its face by a dark black ring. It looked as if someone had taken a lighter and burned the fur surrounding its eyes in a circular shape, leaving a charcoal colored black outline of its almond-shaped eyes.
I stared at it stupidly. I didn’t know what to make of this new entity before me. I was ready to close my eyes and resign myself to death once more when it spoke to me then. Although, it spoke without words. There was no audible voice, nor did it speak in my mind with words. It spoke to me through impressions. I felt a sudden urgency to get up and approach the being. I dimly shook my head no, trying to communicate that I had no control over my body, that I couldn’t get stand up no matter how hard I exerted myself. It pushed wordless encouragement into my mind, and I somehow knew that if I tried again, I could stand.
I was able to, but not without effort. My legs were about as responsive as the legs of a toddler who barely mastered the art of standing. Every moment that I remained erect, my legs threatened to collapse beneath me. It was with great concentration that I was able to take awkward, heaving steps towards the figure, my body spasmodically shaking and shivering the entire time.
The being was much bigger than I originally thought. Standing about 4 feet before it, I could see that it was easily over 7 feet tall, towering over me. Normally, I would have felt horrified. As it was, I simply stood before it and, had I not been shaking so much, would have shrugged as if to ask, “So…? What do you want?”
The front of its cloak ruffled slightly and parted down the middle as its hands extended outward. Like the rest of its body, the thing’s arms were covered with thick, black cloth, its hands wrapped in what looked like black leather gloves. Curiously, it seemed to have humanoid hands with four fingers and a thumb adorning each.
But in its hands, it held an object that I never would have expected. I almost laughed out loud with the sheer absurdity of what I was seeing. Like how a person dying of thirst in the desert sees a mirage of an oasis, I believed my mind had conjured up some unreal image in an attempt to convince me that not all hope was lost.
In its hands, the creature held a tire iron.
It held the object as delicately as a flower girl holds the pillow upon which the wedding rings are rested. It presented it to me with reverence, as if it were holding a holy religious relic and not a tool that is found in every automobile’s trunk in the entire country.
I reached out to grab it, but the being spoke to me again, harshly, almost angrily. Again, no words were spoken or even conveyed into my brain, but I knew that I was not take the tire iron unless I understood the gravity of what I was doing. This creature was doing me a favor. In fact, it was quite literally saving my life. It expected me to pay it forward, so to speak. It would bestow this gift upon me, with the understanding that I would use the tool not only for myself, but for its purposes as well. I’ll be honest when I say that I didn’t fully understand, all I knew that this tool was my only chance of returning home to my family before hypothermia or frostbite overtook me. I nodded to the creature and the oppressive feeling clutching my chest relented, replaced with a feeling of relief, of approval, and even of close affection, the kind of affection an adult feels towards an endearing infant child.
With limited control over my body, I was somehow miraculously able to return to my car, change the tire, and continue the drive home.
That was three weeks ago. When I’d gotten home, my wife was one the phone with the police, ready to fill out a missing person’s report. I stumbled in through the front door and she had shrieked in a bizarre mixture of horror, relief, joy, and frustration. She spoke to me, but I don’t know what she said. All I could hear was the hot rush of blood flowing back into my head, into my hands, my feet, and all the other parts of my body where I had been too numb to feel anything. All I remember is that she stripped my wet clothes off of me, threw a thick wool robe over my naked body, wrapped me up in as many blankets as she could pile on me, and then pushed me into her car that was parked safely in the garage and sped me to the hospital.
I was committed to the hospital for two days before the doctor felt confident enough that I could return home. I had gotten frostbite on my left ear and both hands. The doctor had to amputate the ear as well as two fingers on my left hand and the pinky finger of my right hand, but I didn’t care. My wife sobbed with gratitude as I exited the hospital and she clung to more closely than I ever saw any of our three children cling to her when they were nursing. I returned her embrace as well, fighting back the tears that threatened to spill over and down my cheeks. I can’t believe that in my lowest moments I had somehow been prepared to leave her and our family behind.
Life slowly returned to normal, and at some point, I had dismissed the being that had greeted me in my near-death moment as some kind of wild hallucination, the malfunctioning of a desperate and horrified mind. When recounting the event to my wife, I completely omitted the character from the story. Doing so felt…wrong, to say the least. I couldn’t explain where I had obtained the life-saving tire iron, and when I had lied about it, saying that I found an abandoned car off the side of the road, I felt a conflicting feeling of deep shame and rage burn deep inside me, and in the moment I had even felt afraid, superstitiously supposing that perhaps I might have incurred the wrath of that benevolent being in the storm. The feeling never fully passed but became more muted. I attempted to continue with my life, but no matter what I was doing, that feeling never left.
At work, at home, playing with the kids, and even making love with my wife, that feeling plagued me, and I had an anxiety that grew inside me each day. All logic dictated that the being was a figment of my imagination and that I had never made any kind of deal, nor was I in danger of angering some sort of mythical creature. I attributed the stress, the anxiety, the guilt, and the fear all to some kind of post-traumatic stress and tried as hard as I could to push it out of my mind. My rationalizations could never set me fully at ease though, and I knew that what I had experienced was real.
I awoke one night in extreme discomfort. I often will wake up during the night to use the restroom or to get a drink or even just wake up for no real reason. I’m a fairly light sleeper and so I’ve grown accustom to these late-night awakenings, and my wife typically sleeps through it.
Tonight was different though. I awoke with a jump, thinking the house was on fire. The air around me was stiflingly hot and I was sure that there must have been open flames in the room. When I opened my eyes I wasn’t greeted by blackness like usual, however. The room was cast in a deep red glow, which would have given credence to my worry that the house was on fire, except that the color was too deep. The color was visceral and thick, as though the room was engulfed in the blood of some kind of ethereal massacre. The light was dim and I could barely see anything, but my eyes were quickly drawn to a being in the corner of the room, near the door. It was the same being that had met me that night I almost froze to death. But…it was also completely different.
The innocent, cherubic lamb’s head that had once gazed at me was replaced with an adult ram’s head. There were no eyes, the sockets were filled with insects crawling in and out of them, venturing from the decayed ears, to the nose, and down into the mouth, out of which lolled a disgusting, meaty tongue that was bloated and purple, seemingly ripe with infection. The creature no longer wore a cloak, but stood naked before me. It was even more imposing than before; where it was originally 7 feet tall, it must have been at least 10 feet tall if standing upright, but the creature leaned forward, supporting its weight on its knuckles as a gorilla would. It had the body of a person, enormous in every dimension, and equally as rotted as the head. The flesh was pale and sloughing off in large sections. Its abdomen had been decayed all the way through and vomited out a long tangle of intestines. A symphony of thousands of flies buzzed around the creature as cockroaches and other unspeakable parasites darted in and out of the numerous open sores covering its ruined body.
Only after seeing the repulsive, rotting carcass before me did I notice the overwhelming stench in the room. Images of concentration camps and rotting bodies pushed en masse into open ditches flashed through my mind every time I inhaled, imagining that those scenes still paled in comparison to the reek that was wafting off of the thing standing in front of me.
Underlying all of this was an oppressive feeling that punctuated every second:
The bed frame, the photos on the dresser, the mirror on the wall, everything in the room that was even relatively loose rattled and shook as the creature emitted a deep growl of fury. From seemingly out of nowhere, the creature produced the tire iron and held it out one enormous, simian-like hand, similar to the offering it had the night it had saved my life.
Immediately I realized that I had insulted the creature by not honoring my end of the bargain. I had taken its life-saving gift and used it for my own benefit, but I had failed to use the gift it gave me in order to carry out its own purposes.
I climbed out of bed and approached the thing, the smell and the heat increasing exponentially with every step that I took. It communicated to my mind the same way that it had before. It had given me the tire iron for a purpose, and now I must return the favor. I dared not look it in the face. Once I knew what it was that I needed to do, I simply nodded and gripped the tire iron with my left hand, the missing fingers a stark testament that my first encounter with this being was all too real. The metal of the tool was white hot and I screamed in pain but was too terrified not to retrieve the item. I lifted the tire iron and held it in both hands, then finally summoned the courage to lift my gaze toward the creature and meet its eyes, or what was left of them. When I looked up however, the being had vanished, leaving me in a cool, air-conditioned room that was pitch black save it be the faint moonlight that trailed in through the window and the various LED lights of my wife’s my electronic devices.
I knew what I had to do. I was too terrified to delay any longer than I already had. Clutching the tire iron in one hand, I made my way downstairs and climbed into my car.
Home from work, I opened the front door and entered the house. For the second time in 4 months, my wife nearly tackled me to the floor, gasping in relief.
“Oh, honey! I was so worried!” She breathed, holding my face in her hands and resting her forehead against my chest. She always did this when she was trying to hide her tears from me. She was horribly upset about something.
“I was watching the news,” she continued, “and I was so worried that yours was one of the cars on the interstate.”
I grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her away gently. Not out of frustration or annoyance, but simply so I could see her face and look into her eyes. My suspicions were right–tears were brimming in her eyes and threatened to spill at any moment.
“I’m fine, Sariah. Why would you be afraid that I was hurt?” I asked.
She gestured to the TV in the living room where the news was playing live.
“There was a major accident on the interstate. It’s made national news, no one has ever seen anything like it. On 9 different stretches of road cars have lost control. Cars have been losing control, running into the cement barriers, colliding with other cars, even some diesels have flipped onto their sides and slid into oncoming traffic. There’s already over 40 people confirmed dead. They’ve blocked off the entrances and exits and slowed traffic as much as they can. Hopefully they prevented more accidents but those people–” her voice choked out into a sob. “I was so worried you were one of them,” she said, shaking her head, shoulders heaving with sobs that almost sounded like laughs.
I looked over her shoulder into the living room and saw the image of a diesel lying on its side in flames, surrounded by other cars in a similar state of ruin.
“What caused it?” I asked numbly.
“Nobody’s sure. The best guess is that a number of the cars had broken axles or something. A lot of the cars’ tires just popped off while they were driving. One of the cars they examined apparently didn’t even have any bolts holding the tires in place, and the tires that had stayed on looked like they’d been pivoted outward, ready to pop off off. I just don’t understand, how could this happen?”
Sariah looked back up into my eyes and stared into my eyes with such love and concern.
I turned away.