Howard Benson hobbled down to his favorite bench by the lake after sunset, clutching a bag of old bread close to his chest so he didn’t accidentally drop it when he stumbled. The crumbs of stale bread were too stale for his few remaining teeth, but the avian friends he kept didn’t seem to mind.
Howard sighed and set the bread down, then carefully lowered his body onto the old wooden bench. The water gently lapped against the shore, the peaceful sound soothing to his ears. It was a shame he couldn’t enjoy it like he used to. What was once a healthy body in his youth was now riddled with cancer and a hunchback that made breathing hard and walking even harder.
Howard shook his head. His wife had died two years ago, leaving him with an empty apartment and medical bills he couldn’t afford. He’d been kicked out of his apartment for nonpayment of rent and forced to move into a homeless shelter to survive. Retirement ended abruptly when he took two meaningless part-time jobs at the only two places in town that would hire him.
But the idea of giving up, of giving in, didn’t appeal to him now and never had in the past. He’d been brought up to stand his ground and fight the injustices of life and he’d be damned if he didn’t at least try in his own case.
Howard knew it wasn’t fair to be mad at the rules of life but he couldn’t help it. He hated being old. He hated being alone. He hated the constant aches and pains that reminded him of what he’d become. He hated having to deal with younger people, the way they looked at him, the way they spoke to him. He hated it all.
But most of all, he hated being old.
With rage boiling inside of him, Howard could feel his heart beating faster and faster — like a younger man’s heart. He allowed himself to revel in the moment for a brief second before looking out over the water in search of the soft, blue waves that never failed to calm him down.
The sound of a branch breaking behind him broke Howard out of his trance and he tentatively looked around, searching for the source. His hands tightened on the old wooden bench, but he was more worried about a kid emerging and scaring the birds away than any potential threat to what was left of his life.
“Hey, old man,” a familiar voice said.
Howard squinted in the dark, trying to find the source of the voice.
The man stepped from the shadows into the moonlight, revealing himself to be a young man in his early twenties. He was dressed in a dark hooded jacket that obscured his face and dark jeans that blended into the dark grass. Howard frowned. The man was too young to be one of his friends. His hunchback tensed, unsure of what the man wanted.
“What do you want?” Howard asked.
“It’s me, Howard.”
Howard felt his heart stop, then race. He knew that voice. He’d heard it every day for years. He turned around and faced the man, his eyes widening as they fell on the man’s face. The unsullied face of his younger self.
“It’s me,” a younger Howard said. “It’s really me.”
Howard stared at his younger self, unable to believe it.
“It’s really you,” Howard repeated. “How? Why? How are you here?”
Howard’s younger self sat down on the bench, then looked down at Howard, a sad smile on his face.
“Did you bring the bread?”
Howard handed his younger self the bag of bread. He couldn’t take his eyes off him.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for so long,” Howard blurted, feeling excited for the first time in years.
His younger self opened the bag of bread, then pulled out a handful and tossed it to the ground. Almost immediately, Howard’s usual flock of birds flew out from the trees and feverishly pecked at the bread.
“Howard, I have something to tell you.”
“Howard, I’m dying.”
The old Howard frowned, confused.
“You’re dying? But how? You’re young! And you were supposed to fix this, fix me!”
Howard’s younger self shook his head.
“Howard, it’s impossible. This is happening. I can’t stop it.”
Howard gripped his fists, teeth gritted with rage.
“Then you’re wasting your time here. Why even come back? There’s nothing else I want to hear from you!”
Howard stood and turned away, frantically searching among the birds for the sparrow he called his own and named after his late wife Valerie. He heard his younger self call out to him, but he was wholly focused on finding the bird, determined to enjoy what little time they had left together. He called out to the bird over and over again, but it was no use.
“Howard,” young Howard pleaded, “you have to listen to me. You need to listen to me!”
Howard felt hands on his shoulders. His younger self turned him around, then clasped his hands together as he looked down at Howard with a sad look in his eyes and pulled the old man in for a deep hug.
“I’m sorry. I tried. I really did. There’s nothing I can do for us.”
Howard felt his body go numb. His legs buckled under him and he fell to his knees. He felt his tears roll down his face, then looked up at the sky, the tears falling into his mouth. He tasted the salt on his tongue and realized he hadn’t tasted anything for years. He was so hungry. He wanted to eat. He wanted to feel. He wanted to live.
“I don’t want to die,” Howard cried.
He wanted to be young again. He wanted a do-over. Another life.
The other Howard pulled Howard to his feet and held him tightly. He rubbed Howard’s hunched back and kissed his forehead as Howard sobbed into his shoulder. The other Howard kept holding him, until Howard finally stopped crying and let him go.
“There’s nothing else to do.”
The two Howards stood and faced each other as the birds circled overhead.
“You were supposed to fix this,” Howard repeated with a helpless mixture of misplaced anger and sadness.
“I can’t, Howard. I already told you I can’t.”
“If you can’t, then who can? Who’s going to give me my life back?”
“Then what’s the point?” Howard asked, his voice trembling with emotion. “Was my life a waste?”
The other Howard just looked at him.
“The point of life is to live, Howard. You lived. You don’t have to be an old man if you don’t want to be. You know the arrangement. I’m giving you a chance to choose.”
“Choose your fate. Live your long life, then die in misery. Or die young, but live to the fullest.”
Howard looked around at the peacefulness of the night, the liveliness of the birds, the gorgeous full moon, and was overcome with a wave of sadness for all the things he wouldn’t be able to do anymore, no matter his choice.
“So that’s it? Those are my only options?”
Howard sighed, his knees trembling.
“Then I choose this.”
The other Howard smiled.
“That’s what I thought. I’ll be waiting, then. I love you, Howard. I always have and always will.”
The other Howard kissed Howard on the forehead, then pulled him into one final hug. The lake lapped at the shore, the birds pecked at the dirt and the bread, and the stars shone down, but Howard didn’t notice any of it.
He had chosen.
Howard pulled himself to his feet, then limped down to the water’s edge. He stood there, staring at the lake, then suddenly he heard the whooshing sounds of the birds all flying away from behind him, leaving most of the bread he had brought his friends still uneaten on the ground.
“Come back,” Howard croaked, but his voice was too weak, “you’re all I have left.”
The birds didn’t come back. Howard’s head fell forward and he felt his legs give way. He fell to the ground, then turned over onto his back, staring up at the sky. The birds circled overhead, but Howard couldn’t see them. His vision was fading. His head felt heavy.
* * *
Howard Benson woke up with a start. He sat up on the bench by the lake, clutching his chest, barely aware of the birds cawing and singing in the trees. He fell forward on the bench, struggling to breathe, and dropped the unopened bag of bread to the ground. It spilled open and the birds took notice, immediately flying in to get their share of bread before it was all gone.
Howard could feel the warm tears rolling down his cheeks as he tried to catch his breath. His heart was racing and he was dizzy, but he smiled, because he knew he had lived a good life. He was finally ready.
His hunchback made it hard to draw in a proper breath. His bones and muscles ached. His teeth hurt. His ears were ringing. It took almost all the strength he had left to bend over and retrieve the bag of bread, but he opened it up and spread the full contents all over the ground.
More birds swooped down, grateful for the sudden feast, including the sparrow he called Valerie. They all thankfully started chirping together, making the birds’ sounds much louder. Howard’s pain and suffering were forgotten. He smiled as he laid back against the wooden bench and listened to the birds, louder and clearer than they’d been in years.
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, reveling in the moment.
“I made the right choice,” he said to himself.
Howard smiled as the birds continued to eat. He wasn’t aware when his heartbeat finally stopped, and neither were the birds that eventually flew away with full bellies.