3: Unclear Paths
Like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, she enveloped him in her small arms. Crushed against his chest, she sobbed, her tears wetting the front of his white shirt. She screamed into him, small fists beating on his shoulders as her misery began to take the shape of his very body. He didn’t know if it was sweat sticking his shirt to his chest or her tears, but he felt exhausted already, as if her emotional explosion drained him. He felt like all the color was being pulled out of him, and he began wondering if through these seventy four years, he had had any color at all.
The Professor wrapped his arms around the girl, and her sobs began to subside as he held her close, this girl he had never known. In all his old years, he had always treasured the heart beating within his chest, though it beat steadily weaker every passing day. Her chest pressed against his, he felt the thud thud thud, and knew that grief was the only real muse of the heart. Soon, they withdrew from the close embrace, and he looked at her face, a face empty of the lines and wrinkles he had been so used to seeing. Her wet eyes found his, and the Professor wondered if he was a horrible man, and if he deserved the affection he had not received for half a century.
He helped her stand. She wiped her eyes and looked up at him, a weak smile spreading her lips.
“Thank you,” she murmured. She looked as if she had something else to say, but she buried it in her mind and walked away.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
On the way home, he frowned as he tried desperately to recall the waitress’s face. He could not, no matter how hard he tried. As he thought these things, the Professor found that he was no longer who he was. He felt different, strange, changed, transformed, but older than ever. Often, he had found, the heavens responded to his melancholy. It was never more certain than now, for the rain had begun to fall harder than her tears had wet his mind. Soaked in seconds, the Professor walked faster, surprising his old legs with the pace with which he traversed the pavement. He did not want to look at himself, he feared the rain had washed him of all his facades. The last time it had rained, he had fallen down a flight of stairs, feeling less Quicksilver and more Professor. The name his students had given him had stuck in his own mind, but only because he liked the feeling of being called anything but slow.
Now, it felt like the rain was washing away his very being. And what happened when the Professor was no longer the Professor? When a soul is stripped of everything it is, it is a bare body, and at seventy four, a very old bare body indeed. The Professor rummaged in his pockets for his keys, finding it more difficult than usual. The drenched cloth had become baggier, if possible, and the keys had sunk to the very bottom. Shivering from the cold, he dumped his things on the floor without hesitation. The bathroom’s warm water pipes seemed to call to him, but nothing was the same as he stepped inside the small tiled square of a room. The basin gleamed white, but nothing gleamed brighter than the mirror.
The Professor gaped at his reflection, seeing soaked clothes hanging on a different man. The shirt did not fit, the trousers were far too short, and the body was far too young. Standing in his mirror’s reflection was a man, not Quicksilver, and not the Professor. A mop of clean brown hair fell to his ears, and a thin stubble covered his no-longer-weak chin. He pulled out the wet package that was his cigarette box, gazing into its emptiness, remembering the endless cigarette. The taste of the unsweetened tea hung on his tongue.
He tugged off all his clothes, examining every inch of his new body. Or was it old? He had aged backwards, and he looked exactly the same as he had forty years ago. The numerical hung in his head- fifty, fifty, fifty- how old was he exactly? Seventy four? Thirty four? He stood there for a good five minutes looking upon the wonder in the mirror, until he dressed with speed that astonished him. He sprinted down the steps of his apartment complex, all the while thinking of how the wind rushing about him was a feeling he hadn’t felt in decades. To sprint, let alone run…to move without pain, to feel things with young skin, to sweat with young pores. He wondered what it would be like to cry with young eyes again. He hadn’t cried in so long, and yet, the tears began streaming down his face as he ran through the rain, narrowly avoiding pedestrians.
If this was the meaning of life, to come full circle and not understand it fully, then it was a meaning he needed to grasp fully. His breath was no longer labored, and his run ended shortly. The coffee shop stood in front of him. Gingerly, he stepped into it. His quick eyes scanned the space around him, looking for the walk, the eyes, the golden brown hair, or even a tear-stained face. He found nothing.
“Sir? There’s a table available, right there.”
Quicksilver followed the waiter’s finger until his eyes rested on the short table and chair hidden under a tree, his usual haunt. But the table did not seem so hidden anymore, nor did it seem pleasurable to sit at. He noted the ashtray on the table surface, but it was empty of rubbish. There was no burning cigarette. He realized at once that he did not want to sit there- in fact, he did not want to sit, ever.
“Excuse me,” he said to the waiter, who dutifully nodded.
“There was a girl waiting tables here. Brown hair, short stature. Do you know her?” he asked hurriedly. The waiter frowned, smirking.
“No, sir, there’s no such person working here. Are you sure of that description?”
Anger rushed into the Professor’s cheeks. Were they playing him for a fool? And why did the waiter smirk? Is it human nature to assume the worst- that he was nothing but a lusty man looking for a pretty girl? He needed answers.
It was human nature to need answers, but he had long since realized that it was also human nature to look for them in the wrong place.
“She was here not one hour ago,” he said.
The waiter shook his head again, now looking visibly firm.
“I would have known if she were working here, Sir. Maybe you’ve got the wrong café?” he asked the Professor, who slowly nodded.
“Maybe I have. Thank you.”
The Professor walked out of the wrong and right café, and stood on the pavement. The rain had stopped, and the sun shone brightly above him.