I first met him at birth. Imagine it. My mother, covered in blood, sweat, and pee after five hours of active labor, desperate to get rid of the things in her uterus. I came out first. Followed by a stillborn twin.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the doctor said as he handed off my twin to a nurse.
They ushered Felix--as they would have named him--to a cuddle cot while they cleaned me off.
A little while later, the nurses came back with Felix and I… and a camera. Family photos were actually a common practice with stillborns.
As the poor nurse gritted her teeth and tried to take a decent photo, I cried, my mother cried, my father cried, Felix’s body continued to exist, and a stranger stood quietly in the back corner of the wall cuddling a newborn baby boy. Unintentionally caught by the camera lens. I never got his name; then again, I didn’t exactly understand language at the time.
The photo now rests on the mantle above my parent’s fireplace behind a picture of me with a cake covered face on my sixth birthday. No one’s ever mentioned the man in the photograph and I probably would have let the mysterious encounter go--had that been the only time we’ve ever met.
When I was eight, I saw him again at that park next to the highway. You know, that crappy park parents go to when they’re tired from their kids, but don’t want to drive all the way across town to that good park with the new swing sets. Every city has one.
That day, I played with my new friend, Lola, as we chased around her new red, rubber ball around the park. We were giggling and tripping, getting a few scraps and bruises. At one point, someone’s dog had sunk their teeth into it and ran off. So, we chased. Like a cat following a mouse. The only difference was cats have nine lives they can waste. We don’t.
To save his treasure, the dog darted across the highway. Lola followed, while I went back to my mother who called my name. Even without me, it was a fun party for three: the dog, Lola, and the driver who ran her over.
I didn’t see exactly what happened. Only heard the screeching of the tires and the screeching of Lola’s father. The dog got away with the ball and Lola’s parents instantly loathed me being alive, and I saw him again across the highway. His back was turned to me, but I still recognized him. He stood next to someone young enough to be his daughter. They never crossed the street or turned around; instead they walked away.
Maybe he took her to the good park across town.
By some rare chance, our paths crossed again on my twenty-first birthday. Already hard-core wasted by the time he showed up, I could barely recognize him. For my twenty-first birthday, my friend, Chad, threw a party for me at his frat house. Before I knew it, four in the morning rolled around with half the people already passed out while the music stayed loud and the drinks stayed fast.
I slammed down a shot glass from some kid’s souvenir collection said to my roommate, “I know that guyyy.”
She chugged another beer. “What guyyy???”
“Ummmm…. I don’t know his name but…” I pointed a wobbly finger at him during shots with my friend Chad in the corner “Him. That guy.”
My roommate laughed. “Haha! That’s Chad you idiot everyone knows him.”
“No, next to him!”
She squinted, real hard at the corner. “Mallory, there’s no one else there. Girl, how drunk are you???”
“What??” I shouted over the music. “I can’t hear you!”
“You know what? You should go talk to Chad! He’s been checking you out all semester!”
She pushed me forward. “Go get yourself a hot piece of ass, girl!”
And I did. Or at least tried to. Chad and I went from grinding together to blacking out together. I woke up the next morning covered in his vomit and laying next to his dead body.
The stranger had left by morning. And I never caught his name.
The first time that stranger ever spoke to me was the night my marriage ended. Visiting hours were nearly over, and outside his hospital door I rested on a visitors’ bench as my eyes drooped. In my right hand, I clutched a container of pills I thought would help, but haven’t brought myself to take any yet. A few nurses tried to ask me to leave, and a few nurses got their heads chewed off by me. So, I stayed.
Sometime around eight, I saw him walking through the hallway carrying a bouquet of black roses. I eyed him from the bench when he sharply turned right and stopped outside my husband’s door. Maybe it was the stress, or sleep deprivation, but as I saw him try to enter, a snarl grew on my lips and I smacked my hand across the door, blocking him. “Are you a doctor?” I snapped.
“Do you know my husband?”
“Then why are you here?”
“Why are you blocking my path?”
“Because you’re cursed. You didn’t think I would realize it, but I did!” I snarled. “Wherever you go you bring misfortune.”
His eyes filled with grief as he looked down at me. “No,” he said, “ I only follow it.”
“But, you’ve been following me…?”
He didn’t reply, but I could see the truth in his eyes.
“Aren’t you going to ask my name?” He asked to break the silence as I stared down at the orange container in my hand.
I gripped the pills so hard my fingers turned white. “No… I think I already know it.”
“Do you wish you didn’t?” he asked. “Do you wish we stayed strangers?”
I waited to answer.
“No,” I said at last, unscrewing the lid. Took a couple of tries with my shaking hands. Stupid child-proof caps. “It’s not so lonely when you’re going with a new friend.”
I swallowed about half of them without water as I heard an army of nurses’ storming towards me. I could only assume they were here to chew off my head this time, but I couldn’t care, I was far too… too tired.
As my blinking slowed, the man offered his hand and I took it. He hoisted me to my feet and we left the hospital, my husband, and those black roses behind. While holding his hand and walking, I felt lighter on my feet than I did in my prime. So, we kept walking. I think we’re going to that good park, finally.
Meanwhile, somewhere behind us, my body waited, growing cold and covered in black roses.