There he was again. The young guy with the red baseball cap. Standing at the end of the aisle, watching him. Pretending not to notice, Nick glanced down at his shopping list. A second later, he looked back up, and the man was gone. Not even a trailing shadow left. He pushed his cart swiftly to the end of the aisle, peered left and right, but the man was nowhere in sight.
Where did he go?
This was the fourth time Nick had seen him in the past week. Two is a coincidence. Three is suspicious. But four meant something wasn’t right. Why was he following him? What could he possibly want? Nick racked his brain, trying to remember if he had ever met the man before. He did look familiar. Maybe he was the son of one of Caroline’s friends. Or maybe he was one of the interns at work. Nick tried to picture shaking hands with him, but the memory eluded him. The guy was probably thinking the same thing about him, recognizing him but too embarrassed to say anything. Still, that didn’t explain why he kept seeing him everywhere. And it didn’t look like the man was uncertain of who Nick was. On the contrary, it looked like he knew exactly who he was, and wanted something from him.
Nick shook the thought out of his head. He was being paranoid. If the man did know him and needed to talk to him, then that was his problem, not Nick’s. And if it was just some punk who wanted to mug him or something, he would have done it already. There was no sense in worrying about it.
He rolled the cart into the next aisle. Next on the list was bread. He picked out the brand they usually got, gave it a light squeeze to make sure it was soft, and dropped it in the cart. Caroline usually did the grocery shopping, but he had volunteered this time. An hour ago, she had come into the house, sweaty and dirty from working in the garden.
“I’m going to take a shower and go to the store,” she said.
“Why don’t I go?” he said, trying to sound casual. “You rest; I’ll do the shopping. I’ve been sitting at the computer all day anyway. I need to stretch my legs.”
He did this about once a month. It was almost a ritual now. He’d find an opportunity to go to the store alone, buy a pint of chocolate ice cream, and wolf the whole thing down in the car. He even paid for it separately with cash in case Caroline looked at the receipts. It seemed like a lot to go through, but it was worth it. Ever since his doctor had told him his cholesterol was too high, Caroline had put him on a strict diet, and that meant no ice cream. He hadn’t lasted a month without it. Certainly, a little ice cream every now and then wouldn’t kill him. At first, he felt guilty sneaking around behind his wife’s back, but then one day when he was searching through her coat pockets for the car keys, he discovered half a pack of cigarettes. He had only smiled and put it back. Everyone was entitled to their little secrets and guilty pleasures. Besides, if he ever got caught, he now had ammo to fight back with.
But there was another reason Nick wanted to go out today. He was hoping that, by some far-off chance, he would see Lisa again, and that did make him feel guilty. Lisa was his girlfriend in high school. They had been in love with one another, but after graduation, they had gone to different colleges and drifted apart. Eventually, they had both agreed that there was nothing left in their relationship and ended it. Lisa was actually Nick’s last serious girlfriend before he met Caroline, who happened to live on the same floor as him freshman year. Thinking back on it now, he found it odd that Lisa and Caroline were so different from one another. Lisa was short, brunette, quiet. She would rather curl up with a good book than go to a party. Caroline, on the other hand, was tall, blonde, active. She was always outside gardening, playing tennis, and, after Nick’s last physical, dragging him to the park to go jogging with her.
He had seen Lisa a few days ago. It was the first time in nearly three decades. He had stopped at a gas station on his way to work. A woman was coming through the doors as he was walking out, and they bumped shoulders. Nick turned to say sorry, and there she was. She looked different, but he recognized her instantly. Her hair was shorter, thinner. There were wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. But she still looked beautiful. Their eyes met. He opened his mouth, but he couldn’t think of what to say. He just stared at her in dumb astonishment. Thankfully, she spoke first.
“Lisa,” he replied stupidly. He held out his hand awkwardly, and she shook it. “Um, what are you doing here?”
“I’m visiting my parents. My husband and I have the week off.” She glanced out the window. Lines of cars were beginning to form at the pumps, as people pulled in to fill up their tanks before heading off to work. “Listen, I gotta pay for this. Why don’t you meet me at the coffee shop next door? We’ll talk.”
He was struck by her forwardness and nonchalance. It was as if she had been anticipating their meeting. “Yeah, okay, sure,” he said. He would be late to the office, but he didn’t care. Usually, he was not this impulsive, but seeing her felt surprisingly good. Seven presidential elections had passed since he had spoken to this woman, but seeing her now had awoken something inside of him, like an old merry-go-round springing to life under an array of cobwebs.
A few minutes later, she came into the coffee shop, ordered a latte, and sat across from him at a table near the window. He was still stunned by how pretty she was. It made him feel self-conscious about his own image. He straightened his back to try to hide his protruding pot belly. It didn’t work.
Lisa smiled. “Jesus, you got fat and bald, Nick.” Her bluntness didn’t surprise him.
“You look pretty atrocious yourself,” he lied. They both laughed. “So what’s going on with you? Still a doctor?”
“Still a doctor.”
“I met my husband Bill at the hospital I work at. We have two kids: a son in high school and a daughter in middle school. The son is a dickhead, and the daughter is a cunt. What about you?”
He took a sip of coffee and sighed. “I have a wife, Caroline. We have one daughter in college now. She’s studying Biology. She used to be a cunt, too, so don’t worry. She grew out of it.” Lisa chuckled. Nick pulled out his wallet and showed her a photo of him, Caroline, and their daughter Amanda at her high school graduation a couple years ago.
“They’re beautiful,” Lisa said.
Lisa’s eyes suddenly shifted away from the photo, and her face grew serious. “Did you ever tell them about, you know, what happened with us?”
“No. I’ve mentioned you before, but not what happened. Didn’t see the point.”
“I never told them either. But I think about it a lot, probably more than I should. Do you ever wonder how our lives would have been if we’d decided to keep the baby?”
“Sometimes. But I try not to dwell on it. We made a decision. It was the path we chose, and I think it was the right one. Our lives turned out alright, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Still…I think about it. I know it was the right decision, and I don’t regret making it, but it still feels wrong.” She paused and closed her eyes, searching for the right words. “It’s like there’s an emptiness inside of me. And if we had decided to keep the baby, maybe I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now, but maybe I would at least feel complete. I would feel whole again.”
Nick nodded. He reached out and placed his hand over hers. He understood how she felt. As he grew older, he became more aware of the choices he made in life. Minuscule decisions would have everlasting consequences. If he had chosen to live in a different dorm his freshman year, for example, he probably would have never met Caroline, and their daughter would have never existed. And if he had chosen to have the baby with Lisa, well, he probably wouldn’t have even gone to college at all. Life was a tree with an infinite number of branches, an infinite number of possibilities. He remembered a Physics professor once talking about parallel universes, and how there was a universe for every combination of decisions ever made. In some universe, he and Lisa were married and had a child together, and they were probably sitting in a coffee shop as well, wondering whether things could have been different.
Then again, Nick had also heard that freewill was merely an illusion, that we could do what we willed, but we couldn’t will what we willed. We could do what we wanted, but we couldn’t choose what we wanted. There was no such thing as “what if,” only “what is.” If Nick relived his life a million times, he would make the exact same decisions, because nothing would have changed. Every choice was influenced by a thousand factors, and those factors were influenced by thousands of other factors, and it just went back like that to the beginning of time. You thought you had freewill, but in reality your will was shaped by a million other things. You consciously made decisions, but those decisions were inevitable.
Nick wasn’t a particularly philosophical man. He enjoyed musing about these ideas every now and then, but he knew it was all just pointless bullshit. What does it matter if we have freewill or not? What matters is we do what we do, and if we fuck up every once in a while, then we just had to accept it. He acquired this attitude from his father. Whenever Nick used to ask about things like why the sky was blue, his father would say, “Who the fuck cares? Eat your dinner.”
Nick and Lisa continued to chit-chat about more amusing things, like her finding pot in her son’s room, or her daughter wearing thong underwear. After a while, Nick looked at his watch. He was supposed to be at work ten minutes ago.
“Sorry, I’ve got to go,” he said.
“Yeah, me too. It was really nice seeing you, Nick.”
“Yeah, it was really nice seeing you.”
They stood up and hugged. As they pulled away, their eyes locked, and Nick instinctively kissed her on the lips. She kissed him back. It wasn’t a passionate kiss. There was really nothing adulterous about it. It was just an act of nostalgia, like trying on an old baseball glove you found in a box in the attic. When he opened his eyes, he was relieved to see that it meant the same thing to her. She wasn’t happy or sad, just slightly satisfied, as if the gap inside her had been partially filled. They left the shop together, said their goodbyes, and parted ways once again.
Now, picking out apples in the produce section, Nick kept an eye out for her. He felt a little dirty, but it wasn’t as if he was stalking her. He didn’t still love her or anything like that. Sure, he loved her once before, but that was thirty years ago. He understood that love wasn’t indestructible. Unlike some people, he had no fanciful notions of love. Love wasn’t some supernatural force that magically drew people together. It was merely a psychological connection that developed over time and could likewise deteriorate over time. When they had kissed in the coffee shop, deep down they had both expected it to happen. Their connection had been abandoned long ago, but it still existed. They could still read each other’s thoughts.
Nick had been thinking about her since their encounter. He didn’t even want to speak to her. He just wanted to see her, to see that she was real. He wanted that rush of nostalgia again. It wasn’t her but what she represented that he craved for. It was why people enjoyed looking at old yearbooks and photo albums. Memories by themselves aren’t anything. They’re just electrical impulses in the brain. But a physical relic transforms the past into something tangible. It reminds the person that the past actually happened, that it wasn’t just some abstract dream. Seeing Lisa had taken him back to another lifetime. It had made him feel young again.
He remembered the day she had told him. It had been after school. Three months before graduation. He was about to drive her home. Before he could start the car, she had put a hand on his arm.
“I’m pregnant,” she said matter-of-factly.
He looked at her to see if she was joking, but she wasn’t. It took him a while to comprehend the situation. She’s pregnant. I impregnated her. She’s having a baby. She’s having my baby. My baby. She’s pregnant with my baby. For some reason, it just didn’t make sense to him.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
She nodded. “I took the pregnancy test last night.”
“But we always used a condom.”
“Well, they don’t always work, you know.”
He stared at her stomach. There was something growing inside her at that very moment. Cells were multiplying rapidly. In nine months, she would give birth to a person, a real live person that would grow up and maybe have kids of its own. The idea was unfathomable. He created life. Life. And he did it completely by accident.
“What are we going to do, Nick?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
In the end, they had agreed to get an abortion. It seemed like the obvious solution the moment they considered it. Both had received full college scholarships. He was going to be a mechanical engineer, and she was going to be a doctor. Maybe after they were completely finished with school, and their careers were well underway, they would get married and have a child for real, but not now. Not when their adult lives had just begun. They had to think about their futures. Neither had any moral qualms about the issue. It wasn’t a matter of pro-life or pro-choice. It was just something that needed to be done.
No one knew about it. Not their friends, not even their parents. By graduation, it didn’t even seem real anymore. She was pregnant. And now she isn’t. End of story. By the time they had broken up, the secret was long buried. It was a distant memory. Insignificant. It was just a bunch of words tucked away in the back of his mind. During his marriage, he occasionally revisited that part of his life, but it was always blurry and indistinct. He could remember vaguely the sequence of events, but he couldn’t remember the feelings and emotions that accompanied them. At least, not until now.
As he sat in his car outside of the coffee shop, he could almost see Lisa sitting next to him. Not the old Lisa, but the young Lisa, gently placing a comforting hand on his arm. I’m pregnant. It all came back to him then. That wave of panic as he stared at her stomach and imagined cells duplicating and his perfectly planned life crumbling apart. It was not a pleasant memory, but he enjoyed it nonetheless, because it felt real. Because it helped fill the hole in his heart, a hole that he didn’t even realize existed until Lisa had pointed out the one in her own. And maybe, he thought, just maybe if he saw her one more time the hole would close all the way. The past had left a void in his soul, and the only way to fill it back in was to relive what happened. He needed that sense of nostalgia again.
Coincidentally, the day Nick had bumped into Lisa was the same day he had seen the man in the red baseball cap for the first time. On his way home from work, he had stopped at a red light. As he was waiting, a group of pedestrians walked by, and one of them—a man in his late twenties or early thirties, wearing a red baseball cap with some college logo on the front—looked straight at him, as if something about him had caught his attention. It sent chills down Nick’s spine. He tried to get a better look at the man, but he was already on the other side of the street, and he couldn’t see past the car next to him. Eventually, a few impatient honks pulled him out of his daze, and he realized the light had turned green.
The next day, he had been standing in line at the post office to pick up a package when he felt somebody watching him. It was the man in the red baseball cap again, standing next to the vending machine, peering at him calmly, as if he knew him. Nick looked away as the line began to move, and when he looked back, the man had vanished into thin air.
A couple days later, he had been jogging in the park with Caroline and had stopped to catch his breath. His hands were planted on his knees. He gasped for air as Caroline effortlessly jogged in place beside him, teasing him, urging him to keep moving. The trail ran alongside a pond, and on the other side, he spotted the man with the red baseball cap, gazing back at him.
“Hey, do you know that guy over there?” he asked Caroline.
He turned to point, but the man was gone. “He was just there a second ago.”
“Stop stalling. Let’s go.” She galloped ahead of him. Nick took one last look across the pond and then gathered his remaining energy and went after her.
And now he had seen the man at the grocery store. Four times he had seen him, and four times he had suddenly disappeared. The more Nick thought about it, the more he was certain that the man wore the same clothes every time. The same jeans. The same T-shirt. And, of course, the same cap. Was he homeless? He didn’t look like it.
Nick began to wonder if perhaps the man did know Caroline and had seen him kissing Lisa in the coffee shop the other day. Maybe the man wanted to catch him in the act again, or maybe he was waiting for the right moment to confront him, to blackmail him. Nick laughed at the thought. His life just wasn’t that exciting. Even if that was the case, he wasn’t having an affair anyway, so he had nothing to be afraid of. Caroline might be upset that he had kissed another woman, but he was sure that once he explained it, she would come to understand why he did it.
It took him about half an hour to cross out all the items on the shopping list. There was just one more thing he had to get: ice cream. He rolled the cart to the ice cream section, opened the glass door, and selected the usual brand and flavor. He held the cold carton in his hand, staring at it longingly before tossing it in the cart. His mouth watered. He could almost taste it.
As he pushed the cart toward the checkout lanes, something in the aisle next to him caught his eye. He turned and saw the man in the baseball cap standing at the opposite end, watching him. On an impulse, Nick turned the cart and headed toward him, staring at him unwaveringly, afraid that if he so much as blinked, the man would disappear again. A voice inside him told him to leave it alone, to back away, but his curiosity overpowered it. He wanted some answers. He wanted to know who this guy was, and why he was following him. If he was just being paranoid, then this was the best way to find out. He could hear his father saying, “Who the fuck cares?” I care.
Nick was vaguely aware that the other customers in the aisle had abruptly stopped what they were doing to look at him. It seemed a little odd. It was as if they had all been waiting for this confrontation to occur. Nick half-expected the man in the red baseball cap to walk away the second he began to approach, but to his surprise, the man smiled and began to walk toward him. Nick shivered. There was something wrong about that smile. It was menacing. Hungry.
They met in the middle of the aisle. The only thing separating them was the grocery cart. Up close, the man’s face looked extremely familiar. Those eyes. Where had he seen those eyes before? A light bulb flicked on in Nick’s head. Those were Lisa’s eyes! Yes, he was sure of it. And that nose…that looked like his nose, thick and pudgy. But how could that be?
“Who are you?” Nick asked.
“I’m your son, Mark.” His voice was soothing but painful at the same time. It was like a knife scraping across sand.
“I don’t have a son.”
“You did. When you were 18. With Lisa.”
Nick shook his head. The man was lying. They never had the baby. He remembered. They were sitting in his car. Lisa put her hand on his arm. I’m pregnant. He was confused at first, but then he understood. She was pregnant. He had made her pregnant. It was an accident. They had used a condom. Well, they don’t always work, you know. No, they don’t always work. Nothing always worked. Mistakes happened. But they fixed it. They fixed the mistake. They went to the clinic and got rid of it. They had to get rid of it. It was going to ruin their lives. They were going to college in a few months. They had it all planned out. They were going to get married. They were going to have a real baby. Not this fake baby. Not this make-believe baby. They couldn’t have it now. It was too early. Too much responsibility. They had to give it up. There was no other choice.
“No, we aborted it,” he said. “We never had it.”
There were more customers coming into the aisle. They had abandoned their carts and were pushing their way through, knocking items off the shelves. What were all these people doing here? Didn’t they have anything better to do? This was none of their business. This was a private matter.
“You’re right,” Mark said. “You never had me. I was never born. I never grew up. I never became a doctor.” He motioned to the people crowding behind him. “I never saved these people’s lives. They’re all dead. Because of you.”
Nick didn’t understand. He couldn’t think straight. He felt sleepy. He should have just checked out. His dad was right. Who the fuck cares? He didn’t want to be here. He wanted to be in his car, eating chocolate ice cream. The spoon was still in his pocket. He always brought a spoon with him. One time he forgot the spoon, and he had to go back in and buy a box of plastic spoons. He only needed one, but he had to buy the whole damn box.
He wanted to go home to Caroline. He loved her. He didn’t care if he had to go jogging. He just wanted to be with her. And he wanted to see Lisa again. He wanted Caroline to meet her. She was a good person. And so pretty. Thirty years had gone by, and she was still so pretty. Not like him. Jesus, you got fat and bald, Nick. Well, sorry. He had a busy life. He couldn’t keep in shape. And his hair…
Nick felt the top of his head. His hair was thicker, longer. He looked down at his body. His gut was flat. His arms were more slender. He was wearing different clothes. He was 18 again! What was going on? He tried to stop and think, but he couldn’t focus. His mind was moving through Jell-O. He needed to get out of here. He turned to run, but there were dozens of people crowding the aisle. They had him blocked in on both sides. They were like zombies, except zombies were dumb and lifeless, and these were real people. There was an old lady in a wheelchair. A little girl with ribbons in her hair. A skinny guy with glasses. And they all had the same expression of disappointment on their faces, as if they had trusted him, and he had betrayed that trust.
Meanwhile, Mark just stood there and smiled. Nick hated him. He was glad that they had gotten rid of him. He didn’t deserve to be born. Nick tried pushing the cart into him, but it wouldn’t budge. The wheels were cemented to the floor. He put all his weight into it, pushing with all his might. And then the cart was gone. His hands were clutching air. It was some kind of trick. The cart was never there to begin with. It was a trick cart.
He looked around. The crowd was closing in on him. There was nowhere to go. He turned to the nearest shelf and started to climb it. He knocked a jar of pickles down, and it smashed to the floor. He swept bottles of ketchup and mustard off the shelf, trying to make room for his hands and feet. Somebody grabbed the back of his shirt and pulled him down. He fell hard on his back. The mob of people surrounded him. They formed a canopy above, blocking out the light of the store. He could barely see. The guy with the red baseball cap, the one who called himself Mark was standing at his feet. He couldn’t see him, but he could feel him. He could feel him grinning.
“We didn’t have a choice!” Nick cried. “We had a future!”
“What about my future?” Mark asked. “What about these people? What about their futures?”
Tears were streaming down Nick’s face. “I’m sorry!” he wailed. “It was a mistake! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”
And then somebody was stomping on his chest. He tried to fight them off, but he couldn’t move. They were pinning him to the floor. He could feel hands clutching his arms and legs. And the foot kept stomping, coming down harder and faster. He gasped for air, but he couldn’t breathe. He could feel his ribs breaking, his chest plate shattering. And then the foot was stomping directly on his heart. It beat loudly in his ears, and then it gradually softened. He could feel the foot digging into it, crushing it.
And the hole that was inside, the emptiness that had been hiding there for so long, it grew. It spread across his entire body. There was nothing he could do. He let it take him.
He let it swallow him whole.
“Is there a doctor here?! We need a doctor!”
Lisa and Bill were three aisles away looking at soda when they heard the calls. They ran over as quickly as they could and pushed through the gathering crowd. Lisa gasped when she saw the man lying on the floor.
“Oh, my God. It’s Nick.”
There was a woman bending over him. “When did this happen?” Lisa asked her.
“I don’t know. Just a minute ago. He was clutching his chest, and then he collapsed to the floor. I already called 9-1-1.”
“Help me get him to sit up. Bend his knees. It’ll help him breathe.” He was wheezing badly. She managed to sit behind him and hold him up. “Bill, there’s some aspirin in my purse.” He handed her a couple tablets. She placed them under Nick’s tongue.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled between breaths. “It was a mistake…I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…” It seemed like he was talking to someone in front of him, but there was no one there.
When he stopped breathing, Lisa performed CPR to help circulate the blood until the paramedics could arrive with a defibrillator. They were not able to resuscitate him.
Lisa and Bill watched as the ambulance took the body away. “That was the guy you had coffee with the other day?” Bill asked.
Lisa nodded. She thought about her conversation with Nick and the choice she had made so long ago. It didn’t matter whether it was the right choice or the wrong choice. All that mattered was that it was her choice, and now that Nick was gone, she was the only one left to bear the responsibility of it. The fact that her path in life was probably inevitable did not console her. Even if freewill was an illusion, it was an illusion that weighed down upon her soul. She needed to share the burden, because if she didn’t, it would eat her up inside. It would devour her.
She took her husband’s hand. “There’s something I need to tell you.”