The Gift

by 
John B. Rosenman


“You’re going to be a very beautiful, very old woman,” a man’s voice said.       

Jaeda looked up. She was, in fact, a very beautiful woman of twenty and did not appreciate being disturbed, because she was trying to study in the student union before leaving for her sister’s wedding. But even as her eyes rose, her brain registered the rich baritone of the intruder’s voice and found it attractive.

The owner of the voice wasn’t bad either.

Tall, dark, and extremely handsome, he smiled down at her with a knowing look. She lowered her book and sat up on the couch.

“What did you say?” she asked in a practiced voice that had broken hearts from the time she was twelve.

The man laughed and waved his hand with careless grace. “I said, ‘You’re going to be a very beautiful, very old woman.’” He paused. “I see you at 97 shortly before you die in your sleep. Despite your aged flesh, you still look lovely.”

I see you at 97 shortly before you die . . . If this was a pick-up line, it differed completely from the hundreds she had heard before. Haughty words of dismissal rose to her lips, but there was something about this guy’s presence, his style, that stopped her.

“How can you know what I’ll look like when I’m old?” she finally asked.

“Simple. She’s already in your face.” He studied her body. “She lives in your hands too, and in your legs and chest. At this moment she cries to me from your ancient eyes.”

That’s it. This creep’s crazy as a loon. Well, it was time to split anyway for Angie’s wedding. She gathered her books, but even as she formulated a cutting remark, he glided to the couch beside her and fixed her with strange, purplish eyes. “Stay a while. You’ll get to your sister’s nuptials in time.”

“How do you know about that?” she asked.

“This is how it works,” he said. “I see everything, especially possibilities. I look at you and see the old woman you will eventually become. But I can also look further and see the lovely child inside her that you used to be. And I can see her before she grows up and gets old, before she becomes poisoned and trapped inside your ruined body. And listening, for I must listen too, I can hear the sad music of all her lives, the bittersweet melody of what might have been.”

His words were mad, crazy, insane. And yet they held her.

He pointed at the books in her hand. “Broadcast journalism, right? Your major is Mass Communications and your big ambition is to become the leading anchor for a major network.”

These last words finally weakened his spell, and she rose to her feet. It was only bullshit after all. This jerk was no more than a con artist. He had snooped around, done a little research and found out things about her so he could impress her--then get her into the sack. His mystic chatter was just a scam.

“Here’s a news bulletin for you, asshole,” she said. “I’ve got no time for losers.”

She laughed in scorn and left, showing him her haughty back.

“Jaeda.”

For some reason she stopped. A chill ran through her body, a sudden feeling of powerlessness. And yet there was no reason to be scared just because he’d spoken her name. Before her stretched a large, well-lit building with students eating at tables and walking about. Some played pool in the middle of the floor. She heard the click of balls striking.

It was all so ordinary, but she did not feel reassured. Even the burly football player who stared at her with open admiration didn’t comfort her. Rush, she thought, remembering how she’d flirted with him. He wants me. All I have to do is open my lips and call him and this pest will vanish fast or get hurt. That’s all I have to do.

But she didn’t do anything. Behind her, the intruder’s presence seemed to deepen and intensify. She could feel him stare right through her skull with those weird purple eyes, peering into her brain.

“Jaeda,” he called again. Softly.

Slowly, as if he were pulling her strings, she turned.

Ferociously handsome, he leaned forward on the couch. “Shall I tell you how you’ve toyed with that boy over there? You know, the lovesick football player named Rush. You’ve thought of sleeping with him and then dropping him, just like you have others.”

Coldness flooded her belly. How could he know that? She had never told anyone.

“Come here,” he said. His eyes glittered.

Jaeda shook her head. When it came to men, she’d always been in charge, the one who called the shots. But she did not like the way she felt now or how things were going. Yet it was all so stupid. This guy was just a jerk and all she had to do was walk away.

He patted the seat beside her. “Come, wedding-guest.”

Something stirred in her brain. Wedding-guest, and those glittering eyes. Both he and his words reminded her of a poem she’d read in that English Lit class she’d had to take. Something about an old, wandering mariner. But poetry bored her and she glanced behind her. Rush had come nearer and was standing just forty feet away, his muscles bulging. He looked big enough to throw this pest halfway to the moon.

Reassured, she turned back and approached the man on the couch. One minute, that’s all she’d give him. Then she’d split.

She sat beside him and gazed at his handsome face, his purple eyes. To her surprise, she felt out of breath, as if she’d run a long way. Her heart pounded in her ears.

“Let me tell you about yourself,” the man said. “You’re selfish and self-centered. Not only that, you have no imagination, and little sympathy for others. But worst of all, if you live you’ll probably cause a lot of people a great deal of grief.”

Jaeda blinked. How dare any guy talk to her like this! “Like you know, pretty boy. I bet you’ve done your share of dirt.” She raised her hand in anger, but he took it and pressed it to his cheek.

“But you almost certainly will go far and be quite successful,” the man continued. “You have no unique spirit of your own, but you possess a bright, superficial charm and a glib tongue. Here’s a news bulletin for you, Jaeda. I predict that you will become the famous, influential news anchor you dream about. Indeed, you’ll even manage to shape events you only poorly understand.”

She felt afraid again. But his eyes and voice held her.

“H-How do you know this?” she asked, half-believing. “How do you know my f-future?”

He removed her hand from his cheek and lowered it to her lap. “I’ve been given this gift. For a long time I’ve gone from place to place, and now and then I see someone who just opens up to me like an infinite flower. Sometimes it’s an expression in their face, a shadow in their eyes, or just the way they laugh. Whatever it is, I just know. And when I do, I have to tell that person about themselves, tell them about the way they are and what they are becoming so they can change.”

“Change?”

The man rose and gazed down at her. “It’s up to you now, Jaeda,” he said. “It’s your choice.”

She watched him walk away. Let the bastard go, she thought. In a minute you’ll be rid of him. But anger seared her mind, and she spoke despite herself.

“You must be cursed,” she called.

He stopped, turned around. “I beg your pardon?”

Her lip curled in a sneer. Not that she believed a single damned thing this lunatic had said, but she couldn’t let this guy--any guy--get the best of her. She had to even the score, make him pay.

She raised her voice. “I said, 'You must be cursed.’ Cursed to move from place to place, seeing what no one else can in others’ faces. I bet you don’t have many friends.”

"It is lonely." He gave her an odd smile. “Sometimes I even feel like I’m wearing an albatross around my neck.”

Jaeda studied his dark, handsome features, wanting to fill them with pain. This bastard had said she was unimaginative, but for the first time in her life, she felt an insight form. “What did you do to be punished like this? It must have been pretty bad to make you wander so long with no rest or end in sight.” She laughed. “Whatever it was, I’m glad. I hope you suffer.”

The man’s face twisted. His handsome features vanished, and he appeared not only immeasurably old and wasted but haunted by torment. She blinked, trying to dispel the illusion.

"You’re right, Jaeda," he said at last, his striking looks restored. “It is a curse, one I richly deserve and can never atone for. But it is a gift too. A powerful gift.”

“A gift?”

“Yes. Thanks for revealing your cruelty to me. It reminds me that some people can’t or won’t change and are beyond redemption. In their case, a second chance is simply wasted, and it’s necessary for me to . . . act.”

Before she could reply he walked toward her. His eyes, filled with sadness, gazed into her own. Then he leaned down and kissed her.

It was like no kiss she had ever known. His lips seemed to ignite her mind, caress her soul. She felt the kiss deepen and probe her, searching. It went on and on and then, even though she yearned for more, he broke contact and stepped back.

“Goodbye, Jaeda,” he said.

She watched him leave. Her whole body tingled.

Stop him, don’t let him get away!

But he was already gone. Dimly, she realized that minutes had passed. She raised her fingers and felt her lips. Never, never before had she been kissed like that.  For the first time in her life, she felt truly alive.

But the feeling soon faded. Ridiculous! Everything that man had said was crazy, and she became angry at herself. She’d always considered herself to be nobody’s fool, yet look what she’d let that man do to her.

The football player was watching her. She shook herself. Yes, Rush was really hot for her. There was a girl with him now, but Jaeda knew she was no competition. All she’d have to do . . .

She smiled at him.

He stared at her for several seconds and then approached. She admired his build, the roll of his muscles. Yes, maybe she’d have a fling, then dump him.

For some reason Rush’s pace slowed, and he no longer looked so eager to reach her. Suddenly he stopped walking altogether and clutched the girl’s arm, making her halt too. Their eyes widened in horror; then they turned and ran. The girl looked back once over her shoulder and screamed.

What was wrong with Rush? And why was that girl screaming? Even worse, why did she feel more and more tired, so drained?  Raising her arm, Jaeda stared in horror at her shrinking, wrinkled flesh. Her fingers were like brittle sticks, and so terribly cold.

That was when she noticed the rest of her body.