As I was sitting on the crudely constructed camping chair, the fabric digging into my thighs, I thought about what I'd spent my life doing. The man I had become and the decisions I had made. The moon cast irregular shadows among the rocky shore, only yards from my feet. A translucent mist was forming across the skin of the lake, like forgotten souls ascending from the depths. The fire my friends and I had lit now spluttered away, spitting smoke into the sky.
Looking across the flames, I glimpsed a man wading through the woods that enclosed our camp. That wasn't alarming; we set up camp near a boathouse on a popular hiking trail. The man looked to be heading straight toward me, which made me study his course.
As he approached, I sat up in my seat, my senses slowly igniting. Something about his movement told me he wasn't a threat. He trod the track toward me with determination in every stride.
Silently sitting across from me on a damp log, he flicked a smile over the flames. Not unusual, campers were a friendly bunch, often showing up unannounced. What was unusual were his eyes. 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. I nodded, agreeing. What a strange introduction. 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 said.
I'll never forget his next two words. They felt like a cold hand, pressing between my shoulder blades.
"I know", replied the stranger.
But, it was me who knew. I knew at that moment who this stranger was. The orange of the fire threw just enough light onto his features for my breath to catch, my heart to pound, my body to shake.
Eight words were all it took.
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 on that given the situation.
He must have sensed my shock, as it was too dark on my side of the flames to spot.
But then I thought, if he's me, he's already lived this moment.
"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 lips.
"Yeah", was all I could get out.
"Maybe I'm not real, and this is nothing but a dream".
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, they were my own.
My brain rebooted.
"Why are you here?" I asked, a little more forceful than I'd have liked.
Everything I had read on time travel said you weren't supposed to see an alternate version of yourself. Otherwise, you'd 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, 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. My beard was still yet to fill-out across the cheeks, though. As I reflected on that advancement, 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 you 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.
Just before I was about to ask a question, a thought came to mind.
"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, but I know the question you're really asking." He continued.
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. I heard an edge of gratitude in his tone.
Knowing I have another 20 years with them filled me with warmth. 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.
"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 either too dumb to spend it, too old to use it, or too vain to spread it? If work takes you away from relationships, you're heading in the wrong direction. If there's a choice, choose time with loved ones. Time is something no amount of money can buy. 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."
He paused for a moment, not quite finishing the last word. As if he'd just had an insight while delivering mine.
"Well, I thought I was doing the revealing tonight. But, perhaps I have discovered my meaning of life." 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, the course I saw him traverse only moments ago. 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.