"Not everything in life is hopeless, you know? At least, that's what I'm sticking with. Otherwise, well, I don't know what any of us are doing anymore..."
The cigarette burned slowly, the cherry an acid red competing futilely with the outside light. The bulb was so bright, it made her feel like the porch they sat on was by itself in the middle of eternity, nothing but black and nothingness all around. Just her and him on the porch (and the big beetles and mosquitoes drawn to that light) drinking and smoking.
She liked listening to him, him and his stories. He had a story for damn near everything. All most likely true, from the life he had lived. So she just sat, twisting her cigarette and staring at the ice melting from the summer heat in her glass, sucking everything up like a sponge.
He turned his head towards her, after his last revelation, little boy smile on his face.
"I know I talk a lot. Just have to tell me when to stop; its not often I get a listener." He sat back in his rocker, a sip of his glass and a drag from the cigarette.
"I don't have a lot to talk about." She watched the bugs dance along the wooden slats under her bare feet. They attempted to fly, turning in circles as if only one wing was working. The light seemed to make them drunk. It drew them in, the way it did to her, night after night, and trapped them in this microcosm. Even if they, if she, wanted to leave, it was impossible.
She had been coming here every night, since she was probably 8 or 9, running over from her parents house for a bedtime story. Titus was an old man then. Not fragile old, just old. He had a strange way of looking 90, but then acting 25. No one really knew how old he was at all. He had always been in this neighborhood, always lived in that white one story farmhouse.
After her parents passed away when she was 15, she got the house, stayed living there, quit school and worked a job to support herself. Some money had been left, but money doesn't reproduce on its own. She knew how to work, and she was proud to depend on only herself.
And him. His stories every night after that had become almost a life's blood to her. She couldn't sleep unless she had sat, leaned against one of the porch columns, a cold drink of water in her hands. Then when she was old enough, a cigarette, and eventually a whiskey and coke. And Titus was always there, drink and cigarette in hand, waiting for her arrival at the end of the day. She felt safe here. It was stable and secure, and she would never give it up.
Her head jerked to attention upon hearing her name. He was staring at her, an odd expression on his face. Anxiety, worry, something she had never before seen cross his countenance.
"Julie, as much as I love having a listener, a companion, I have to be honest with you." Was that guilt she saw, also?
"Not everything in life is as cut and dried as it seems. Some things are a mystery, even to those living in that mystery.
"I don't know how much you'll understand about this, but you have a choice to make. I made this choice too, once long ago, and some days I regret it. Some days I embrace it. But I'll never be able to change that choice. Neither will you. You'll make this decision, and that will be it. Forever."
"Titus, sir, what are you talking about?" She could feel the blood beating at her temples and in her chest, speeding up at his strange change in attitude. What choice?
"Tomorrow Julie, tomorrow is your destined day to die. You will wake up, go to work, go about your day, as you have for over thirty years now, come home, and a heart attack will take you as you prepare dinner.
"Now, the choice is. Do you want that? That life and death? Or do you want this. This porch, these stories, this world, forever?" His eyes had turned from golden brown to grey. Slate grey. And they stared into her, bored into her own eyes and into her soul.
Was he correct? Was she over 30 now? She counted the years in her head... yes probably 36 or 37 now... How had life passed her by like this? Why were her only real memories about this porch and this man and the stories he told? She shivered, even though the heat was oppressing.
"I'll die? Tomorrow? How do you know?" She knew this was a stupid question. Of course he knew. It wasn't a question of how. He just did. And she knew he did. In that moment, she felt he knew everything, from the moment of creation to the sound of the Lord's trumpet. And she was not afraid.
She made her choice.
Little Julie ran next door and climbed clumsily up the steps of her neighbor's porch. There her neighbor, Titus, stood, an extra cup of ice water in his hands, a smile on his face, and a story on his lips, ready for her return.Her laughter filled his heart.