As I sat on the crudely constructed camping chair, the fabric digging into my thighs, I reflected on what I'd spent my life doing. The man I had become and the decisions I had made.
A few yards away, the lake lapped against the rocky shore producing a sound I’ve always found calming. The figures in front of me kept catching my gaze. But, they weren't really there, of course. While the moonlight cast irregular shadows across the rocks, the fire made those shadows dance across the shoreline. Despite the dark, the lake looked eerily beautiful this time of year. A translucent mist was forming across its skin, like forgotten souls arising from the depths.
Warmth hit my back. My friends and I had lit the fire a few hours before they turned in. After shifting my chair to watch it alone, I enjoyed the intensity of the flames as they spluttered away, spitting smoke into the sky.
Looking across the fire, I glimpsed a figure wading through the woods that enclosed our camp. Several seconds passed as I tried to decide if my eyes were mistaken. Everything became a threat in the blackness. But no, this was a real person. A man, I thought. We were near a boathouse on a popular hiking trail; plenty of campers are nearby.
His approach attracted my attention as he headed straight for me. I studied his course as he neared, my senses slowly igniting. There was something about the way he moved that told me he was no threat. It was a mere feeling, as I couldn't see much.
He flicked a smile over the flames as he sat across from me on a damp log. Campers often showed up unannounced, which wasn't unusual. It was his eyes, though, that were. They seemed familiar, yet distant, like a dream you can't quite recall come morning.
I noticed him shift position, the damp log, a little too damp in parts, it seemed. His hands stretched out toward the fire, "funny where our decisions lead us?" He said, more as a statement than a question. My head nodded in agreement. No hello, or chit-chat about the weather. I liked him. It's almost as if he knew my disdain for small talk. "I had just been pondering that myself", I replied.
His next two words will never leave me. They felt like bucket of ice had been dumped down my back.
"I know", replied the stranger.
But it was me who knew. I knew at that moment who this stranger was.
I felt my heartbeat increase, filling my ears as the orange of the fire threw enough light onto his features. It made my vision falter. There was a problem with the information my eyes were sending to my brain. My mind knew this was not possible, but my eyes were stubbornly remaining contrary to nature.
The stranger was no stranger.
He was the man I knew better than anyone in the world, the man who knew me better than anyone ever could.
He looked to be around ten years older, but I couldn't really focus, given the situation.
He must have sensed my shock, as it was too dark on my side of the flames to spot.
A pain erupted around my right temple. The mirror I was staring into did not have glass. The familiarity I sensed earlier was in his body language, undeniably my own.
"How…?" The words died on my lips.
"How is this possible?" He asked, finishing my sentence, an amused smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
As he spoke, I felt distanced, like I was watching a character in a film.
"Yeah", was all I could manage.
"Maybe I'm not real, and this is nothing but a dream”, he said.
Or a nightmare, I thought. Dream or not, my apprehensions suddenly evaporated. Suppose this was me; I couldn't be safer. I knew this man's intentions; after all, as they were my own.
My brain began believing my eyes and rebooted.
"Why are you here?" I asked, a little more forceful than I'd have liked.
Everything I had read about time travel said you weren't supposed to see an alternate version of yourself. Otherwise, you'll both die. I pushed that thought aside for now.
"You know why I'm here", he replied.
I didn't. Although, if I were dreaming, and this was my subconscious trying to communicate with me, I may as well play the part.
The fizz of fire intensified for a split second which drew me back into the moment.
"What's the meaning of life?" I shot out.
"Anything you want it to be", he replied.
"What's my meaning then?" I countered.
"I haven't figured that out yet", he said. Disappointment etching his words.
"I'm 20 years older than you, not 100".
Twenty years. I had aged well.
I stroked the sand-coloured hair on my chin, waiting for him to say something. Anything.
"I would like to advise you; I can't give specifics, but branches to follow", he announced.
"OK", I said, feeling the confidence returning to my voice.
His voice was strong, bold, almost like he knew I was hanging on his every word.
I was, of course.
As I was about to ask a question, a thought occurred to me. I realized if he is me, he's already lived this moment.
"You tell me my question", I proposed, grinning as I spoke the words.
A smile flashed across his features, illuminated momentarily by the glow of the flames.
"Nice try, branches as I said, not specifics".
He was ready for that. God-damn it. Talking to your future self was like playing those games at the market, you know they're rigged, but you play along anyway.
I decided just to be honest.
"Are my parents proud of the man I become?" I asked, voice quivering as the words left my mouth.
"Yes", said the stranger.
"They're proud of you regardless." He added.
I swallowed, feeling suddenly uncomfortable like I was wearing someone else's clothes.
"When do they die?" I asked.
"They're still alive in my timeline; I'll give you that one, but no more specifics", he replied. His tone tinged with gratitude.
A sense of warmth came over me, knowing I have at least 20 years left with my parents. I believed him, I don't know why, but I did.
The stranger stood, turning his head toward the trees. I followed his gaze but saw nothing other than the shifts of bark in the breeze. He moved toward a log, throwing it onto the fire as he returned to his now dry seat.
The flames engulfed the wood, sending a blast of heat across my face.
"I can sense you're struggling here; I knew this would be difficult. How about I offer you some of the things I want you to know because I spent way too long thinking about them or way too little." He said.
That sounded fair, I thought.
"Sounds good", I said.
He paused, looking down monetarily.
"The older you get, the less attached you become. Besides love, you slowly realize how little is essential. Family. Friends. Relationships. That's the real stuff. Everything else exists to keep you distracted from them until it's too late. You're strong and wise for your age. But you're only 26, so stupid and irrational as well."
I opened my mouth and then closed it again.
"You make many of the right choices, but many of the wrong ones too. You throw yourself into work, often at the expense of relationships. No one looks back on life wishing they'd worked more. What good is it to be the richest man in the world, but divorced and alone. Money comes and goes, but time just goes. If work takes you away from relationships, you're heading in the wrong direction. If there's a choice, choose time with loved ones. Give me all the money in the world; I'd trade every penny of it for another minute with my family after they've left. All of it."
I suddenly felt regretful. Every moment I'd chosen not to spend with my family, flashing through my mind. Every phone call I missed, every word I never spoke, every moment I never grasped.
The stranger looked directly into my eyes. I couldn't see them. But I felt them.
"Right now, you're hungry." He continued." You think you're patient, but you're not. You think you understand yourself, but you don't. There are many things you're currently struggling with that your subconscious mind suppresses. There are many difficult conversations you need to have that you're yet to even discover.
You shunned your social life as a teenager and early 20-year-old. You lost many friends but gained many skills. Those skills will serve you well. You picked something at 13. Something you thought you would spend the rest of your life pursuing. But now you're transitioning. You realize that you don't want to do it forever. You've invested all this time but no longer have the light inside you, burning bright. It's been extinguished, favouring a new one that burns brighter. You must take a leap of faith. You either continue down the familiar path, the easy road. Or you jump to the next one—the one that feels right in your bones but is littered with uncertainty, struggle, and pain. But the rewards, the rewards are greater than you could imagine. Not the awards, not the status, not the titles. None of that matters. It feels great for an evening but dissipates quicker than a scratched itch. The rewards are getting to continue to do it. To do that thing you love. The obstacles you overcome are what provide the meaning in life; nothing else even comes close."
As if he had just had a revelation while delivering mine, he paused, not quite finishing the last word.
"Well, I thought I was doing the revealing tonight. But, perhaps I have discovered my meaning after all." His voice had lost some of its confidence now.
He paused, looking across the lake, collecting his thoughts, a familiar habit.
I followed his gaze, but after only a moment, he continued.
"Overcome your obstacles. Love your family. Be kind and help others. The rest is noise."
"Oh, and keep writing; it works out in the end."
The stranger stood, stretching as he did so. He nodded in thanks, turned, and began trailing the path back down the hill. I watched him fade into the trees, every sentence he'd uttered ricocheting around my mind. I wondered if I'd remember his words come morning. But, before I thought to reach for my phone, darkness descended.
The next thing I heard was birds. Groggily, I rubbed my eyes, sprouting my arms into the air as one does when they've slept in a camping chair. The fire was a pile of black ash, wisps of smoke, still rising into the red sky.
I looked around and smiled.