He is cold. It's always cold around this time of year. The sun decides it's had enough and pops off for a quick solstice nap. Not that he minds. He's used to the cold by now.
He props his collar up, puffs his scarf to cover all exposed skin; all that dead, gray skin. He tucks his gloves down over the wrists and sucks on the butt of his last cigarette. Damn things never last. His wife used to say it'd give him cancer, not that it matters now. He lowers his woolen packer hat over his brow and stares at his reflection in a shopfront window. He used to recognize himself, now what is he?
It had all happened so fast; the heart attack; cracking his head on the tile floor; the ethereal sensation that he was losing life, as though it were seeping out of a hole somewhere. And then the doctors. The nurses. The scalpel. He saw it all, from outside his body. He watched as they operated, trying so heroically to save his life, but in the end the line went dead.
So what the hell is he doing back on Winthrop street in high Winter, and how did he return?
- - - - -
The door to the shop swung open and closed to a chime of bells. Instinctively, the man flicked his cigarette to the ground and stamped it out. He turned from the window to face a young woman.
“Hello, John,” she called.
John stared at her awhile. He had lived in this town for most of his life and frequented Winthrop Street, but he did not know this woman.
“I didn’t think you’d recognize me,” she continued, beckoning him to join her.
John stumbled forward, his legs stiff and robotic. With each painful step he took, he stared at the red-haired woman before him. She gazed at him with warm eyes and her thin lips formed a half-smile.
When at last he reached her, she took his hand and led him off Winthrop onto Northup Lane. They walked silently past farmlands with overgrown pastures but no horses there to graze; past a lake where a fisher had cast his nets but no fish there to be caught.
They ascended a hill and reached a wooden bench overlooking those vast, empty acres. “Why did you lead me back here?” John ventured.
The woman dropped his hand. “This,” she cautioned, “is your last chance.”
- - - - -
John was confused. Why was he feeling pain and being led through the town he grew up in by this woman? How did she know his name? Would there be no resting in peace for him?
“What’s going on?” John asked, frightened, knowing he didn’t really want an answer.
“Look out into that field, John, and remember. It was a cold November night. You were 17 and out with two of your friends for one last good time before graduation. Do I look familiar now?”
John wasn’t sure how it was possible, but he began to feel sick to his stomach.
“You’re the one we…, I mean the girl they…, I only…” He had blocked out the memory of that night which was now forcing its way back in with a vengeance.
“I know,” she said with a deep sigh. “You only watched what they did. Then, you left town and never looked back. I didn‘t pull through.”
The sudden onslaught of sleet was stinging his face.
“I didn’t…, I’m so…, am I forever damned?” John began to cry.
“Not yet,” she said quietly. “Not quite yet.”