Estimated reading time — 4 minutes
Early one autumn morning, when the chill of the bitter New England air bit my lungs and skin through all the layers my mother forced me to wear, the girl next door and I made the long walk through our densely forested neighborhood to the bus stop. She, blonde, one year my junior, sustained a sunny one-sided conversation about the promise and potential the sixth grade held. I, dreading another day of middle school – and unaware of how much worse high school would prove by comparison – did not have the heart to contradict or disillusion her. Instead, I let my mind and gaze wander, lighting on the frozen plants by the roadside and the memories of a lost summer that seemed ossified inside them. We trudged on, breaking frost-limned leaves underfoot.
The road curved around a copse of balding trees, and I peered through their browning foliage as we passed. As my neighbor chatted away, I felt a stab of gloom – infinitely sharper than the general discontentment of beginning the school day – and it seemed as if the color drained from the world around me. That was when I spied a figure deep in the midst of the trees. He sat with his legs pulled tightly into his chest, pressing his hairless head into his knees, which obscured his face. His posture seemed one of intense despair. Despite the cold, he wore only a white tee shirt and a pair of ragged blue jeans. I could see his bare, pallid feet protruding from their fraying cuffs. He remained absolutely still, although he undoubtedly heard my neighbor and me coming down the street.
I had never seen him, or anyone like him, before – and in our isolated neighborhood, where everyone knew everybody else for lack of other companionship, that was a rarity. I alerted my neighbor, pointing out the man in the trees. After some searching, she spotted him, too. The moment she laid eyes on him, complete reticence supplanted her cheery disposition. It was as if all the happiness had been sucked out of her.
“I don’t like how I feel,” she whispered, her voice cracking. “I’m scared.”
Her eyes began to water. I was about to tell her that I also felt uneasy, but stopped short as I noticed that a saline sting began to well up under my eyes, as well. The autumnal colors around me blurred and faded. Blinking them back into focus, I found that they had become utterly achromatic. The trees and leaves around the copse had turned black and white. I tried to relay this finding to my neighbor, but the words caught in my throat – for the blonde had drained from her hair, leaving only a bleached white.
“I’m scared, too,” I said, my voice weaker than I expected.
The two of us ran down the road, all the way to the bus stop. The frigid air pricked our lungs, but the pain of catching our breath in such chill air was nothing in comparison to the relief we felt. I looked around and saw green lawns, orange leaves, blue skies. My neighbor’s hair glistened gold again. Although we had several minutes to pass until the bus arrived, neither of us spoke about what we had witnessed.
In our shared silence, I ruminated over the curious spectacle of the sorrowful man. What exactly had I seen? My first thought was that he had drawn all the life and color out of the area around him, but that sounded absurd. Who had ever heard of such a thing happening?
My rational side took over from there. Nobody ever heard of such a thing because such things did not happen. I must have imagined it because the sight of the man must have spooked me.
Then a pang of conscience struck me. We had seen a man in the woods, likely in distress. Possibly ill, or lost, or homeless. Neither of us had offered to help him. What if he were in trouble? We could not afford to leave him there alone.
All this I relayed to my neighbor. Despite some misgivings, she agreed. We dashed back to where we had seen the sorrowful man, worried that he might have frozen to death in the meantime.
When we arrived, however, he had disappeared. Not even his imprint remained in the icy leaves on which he sat – although our own footprints from our brief pause by the trees stood out clearly in the frost. Otherwise, no prints led to or from the copse, whose dull brown hue had returned in our absence.
In the many years since that initial sighting, neither of us have glimpsed the sorrowful man. My neighbor barely remembers if I ask her on the rare occasions I see her these days. Sometimes she wonders whether it was something I made up, a trick of the mind that startled me so fiercely as to frighten her, too. It is as good a guess as any.
Sometimes, though, I will take a walk through the neighborhood of my youth when I go to visit my parents for a holiday. Without warning, I will be overcome by a sadness so intense that it drives me to my knees, and the tears and sobs flow freely. I will see the skin on my hands grow paler, and the world around me will be devoid of color, grim and without promise. It will take every ounce of my resolve to stand up and flee, to run until the colors and the will to live return.
I suspect in those moments that the sorrowful man is still out there, somewhere. Hiding in my periphery. Following me.
I find it far less scary than the more likely explanations.
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