The end of the tunnel

Just like the stories. A bright, soft light. A warm, comforting glow. A sense of letting go. A feeling of movement forward. And upward. No weight, no pain, no fear. Just light and…

A park bench.

Which wasn’t what you were expecting. Then again, after the bright light and the tunnel… you weren’t sure what to expect. There’d been a brief wrenching sensation, like an elevator dropping a few feet, then the light and the tunnel and the bench and…

A boy.

He seems vaguely familiar. You search your memory. He looks about ten, maybe a youngish twelve. Someone from fifth or sixth grade, then. Light brown hair, shaggy and in need of a cut. Bright blue eyes. The clothes seem about right for that time period. Sears “Toughskin” brand jeans. T-shirt with broad orange and blue stripes. Plain, white sneakers. Something… a scar over one eyebrow.

“Ted?” you ask.

He nods.

You think. “Ted… Anderson?”

He shakes his head. “Anders. Ted Anders. But that’s pretty good, considering it’s been nearly seventy years.”

You nod. “Yeah. Ted. Teddy Anders. We were in school together for… what? About two years? Fifth and sixth grade?”

“You’ve got a good memory,” he says. He’s sitting with his legs tucked up under his butt on the bench, looking out at a small, shallow pond. You don’t recognize the place, but it’s as normal seeming as anything you’d find just a short walk off a county road rest stop.

You sit and watch the pond for a minute, both of you. Quiet but friendly. There’s a slight breeze and you realize you’re very comfortable. The sun feels warm and pleasant, the breeze cool and pleasant. The noise of small fish blurping in the pond sounds pleasant.

It’s pleasant.

After a few minutes, you turn to Ted and ask, “Where’s everybody else? I mean… I’m glad to see anybody, I guess. But I kind of expected…”

“You expected the important people.”

You nod. “No offense.”

“None taken.”

After a moment, you ask, “So… why you?”

Ted turns to look at you very seriously. His child’s eyes are full of wisdom and joy and sadness all at once. It’s a look you recognize from the faces of friends you’ve known for decades. From your family. From children and teachers and students. The ones you trusted and respected. It is odd and a bit disconcerting to see that same look on a boy you knew, briefly, in grade school a lifetime ago.

You ask again: “Why you?”

He reaches across the bench and takes your hand and replies,

“Because I’m the easiest.”

It’s fifth grade. You are on the ball field behind the school. You look around and recognize your best friend, Stuart Martin. You see others whose names you remember.

There is a crack. The unmistakable sound of a bat colliding solidly with the ball. You look up into a Fall sky the color of heaven and see the white ball arcing up in your direction. Without thinking, you jog a few paces to your right, run backwards a few steps and extend your glove. Keeping your eyes open, like Dad taught, you watch the ball carefully… adjust a little to the left… and… Thwap!

You pinch the ball into the mitt to make sure it stays, and then take it out with your other hand to throw it back to…

You.

You’re standing on the pitcher’s mound. Looking back at you. And the you on the pitcher’s mound is smiling and shouting, “Yeah! Nice catch, Anders! Solid! Pitch it back!”

You throw it back to… you… on the mound. Looking down, you see that these aren’t your sneakers (the ones you’d drawn fangs on). These are clean and new and the baseball glove is on your right hand which means you’re a lefty, but you feel good and happy and accepted in this new school because you made a solid catch and you like that kid… the pitcher on your team.

The same kid who…

… called you a “perv” while waiting for the bus.

You’re there. Not you, but Anders. Ted. Same clean sneakers. Same Fall weather. Same left hand.

And you have an itch because your underwear has been riding up on you all day and nobody’s watching so you reach in with that left hand and give your junk a good, solid scratch and…

“Get yer hand outta your pants, ya freakin’ perv. Play pocket pool on your own time!”

It’s the same kid. The pitcher. And a couple other guys. But now the feeling is different. Not warm and friendly. Shame. Anger. Betrayal.

They laugh and the bus opens the doors and you all get on and it’s no big deal, but you still sit there, not scratching, even though you still have a mad itch.

That was me, both times,” you say.

Anders nods. “Of course it was.”

“And you.”

He nods again.

“I didn’t remember either of those things. I remembered going to school with you. I remember, vaguely, playing ball. But…”

“You don’t remember the catch or the scratch.”

“No.” You frown. “Should I?”

“It doesn’t matter. I didn’t even remember your name. Still don’t.”

That makes you chuckle. “Fair enough.”

You sit quietly for a few minutes, listening to the bugs and the breeze. After awhile you say, “Sorry about the ‘perv’ thing.”

Anders smiles. “You’re forgiven.”

It seems an awfully formal phrase from a child. But you are oddly comforted.

“Thank you for cheering my catch,” he finally says.

“You’re welcome,” you reply.

He nods and gets up off the bench.

“Nice to see you again… whoever you are,” he says, holding out his young hand.

You shake it and smile. “Nice to see you again, Anders.”

He begins to walk away and you call out, “Hey! What’s next?”

Without looking back, he calls over his shoulder, “Everything.”

You sit and enjoy the quiet of the lake. Waiting. And you think about what he said:

“I’m the easiest.”