What is consciousness, really? Can we – as some have suggested – create our own reality? This is a "Flash Fiction" piece (a story in less than 1000 words) about one man's strange encounter with an enigmatic younger man in a quiet neighborhood park. To paraphrase the great Rod Serling: "You're moving into a dimension of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You're about to cross over THE FINE LINE into... the Twilight Zone.
As the man strolled into the park, a few children were playing. Other than that it was a very quiet afternoon. Peaceful. The autumn breeze was barely enough to rustle the leaves. Then something caught the man’s eye. What was that young fellow doing over there? Curious now, the man moved a little closer. The boy looked to be a bit older than the man had first guessed. Late teens, maybe twenty. A sudden gust of wind rustled the leaves in the trees and whipped the boy's long blond hair about wildly. Then, just as suddenly, all was calm.
The boy was standing absolutely still among the towering evergreens and maples that lined the park. The man could see the young fellow's eyes. They were gazing upward, staring, unblinking. The fellow was smiling. No. No, he wasn't. Or was he? Yes, maybe he was. But a strange smile. Barely noticeable. At the corner of his mouth there was a quirk of evidence.
The man moved even closer.
Then, quite unexpectedly, the boy spread his arms wide and shouted into the air, "How fine the line between illusion and reality!"
A bird fluttered in a nearby tree. A child playfully screamed somewhere off in the distance.
The man ventured closer. Now, within arm's reach, the man cleared his throat. "Hello there," the man said.
The boy remained silent.
"I say, are you alright?"
The man raised his hand to place it on the boy's shoulder.
The boy snapped his head toward the man, his eyes glaring. "Don't touch me!"
A cold chill rattled down the man's spine. "But I was just..."
"I'm a tree!" the boy shouted, his face breaking an odd smile, his eyes filling with tears.
"I'm afraid I don't..." the man tried for words.
"I'm a tree! I'm a tree! Can't you understand? I'm... a... tree! Look at me! I'm one with all! Look! I'm love!" Tears streamed down the young man's face and the sap bled from the trees.
Again the man raised his hand toward the boy.
Again the boy shouted, "Don't touch me!" This time it wasn't a threat. It was a plea. His soul screamed for mercy.
The man's hand gently touched the boy's arm and, instantly, hundreds of birds screeched and scattered from every tree in the park.
Startled by the commotion, the man ducked. He looked up to see the sudden flurry of confusion. It was over in mere moments but the branches of the trees were left quivering in the wake of the explosion. Then he turned to the boy but the boy was gone.
The man looked around, perplexed by the boy's sudden disappearance. There was no sign of him anywhere. His attention, however, was briefly captured by the sight of a certain large tree. He didn't know trees very well but a vague awareness crossed his mind that it was different from the other trees. His eyes continued to search in vain for the boy.
The long shadows of late afternoon were beginning to creep across the park grounds. A chill was in the air. The man stuffed his hands into his coat pockets and looked down at his feet. He nudged a fallen leaf with the toe of his shoe. A large bird scolded and flapped its wings high in the tree above the man's head. The man looked up and squinted against the brittle cold.
"Where'd he go?" the man called to the bird before making one last quick survey of the park.
Hunching his shoulders, and turning his collar up to protect the back of his neck from the afternoon chill, the man shoved his hands deeper into his coat pockets and continued on his way. At the edge of the park he stopped and turned around to look once more.
The afternoon sun was behind the trees now. A few thin shafts of light filtered through the deepening blue shadows. The man turned back toward the street and paused a moment to light a cigarette, cupping the match against the breeze. He exhaled the smoke and watched it wisp swiftly away into the air.
"How fine the line between illusion and reality, indeed," he muttered to himself, shaking his head as he strolled out of the park. "How fine, indeed."
Back in the park a small girl hugged her doll and stared at the one tree that seemed different from all the rest. "Mommy!" she called to her mother. "Look at this tree! It's smiling!"
"Don't be silly," her mother said.
"But mommy! Come look!"
The girl's mother approached and lolled her head to one side, then the other, examining what was, indeed, an unusual formation in the grain of the bark on the trunk of the tree. "Oh, it's just a trick," she said.
The girl looked puzzled. "A trick?"
"Yes, dear. It's just a trick of light and shadow. That's all it is." Then, with an affectionate grin, she added, "And, of course, your wild imagination." She spoke with a tone of assurance and wisdom––the kind that adults acquire from their years of experience in a world where illusions can often fool even the most skeptical observer. "Come on, now. It's getting late. We have to go."
As they walked away, hand in hand, the little girl glanced back over her shoulder for one last look at the tree. It was nearly dusk and the lighting had changed but she could still see a smile on the face of the tree. She smiled back and cuddled her doll up close to her cheek. "Adults don't know everything," she whispered. The doll grinned. Or so it seemed.