The Good Guide
Fiction by Shelley Savran Houlihan  •  Art by Sunny Williams
 


I walked backwards.  I'd gotten good at it, after four years of leading tours.   Good guides keep eye contact with prospective students and parents and siblings who don't really want to be there anyway.  Good guides don't even step carefully backwards.   We move like it's natural, like the rest of the world is moving in the wrong direction.

I was going to let out all the stops.  I was fired up about this tour, really more than any of the billions I'd done.   Because it was my last one.  I wanted to remember it forever.  The warm day.   The tulips and new leaves.  I thought of all I was going to miss.  I mean not the classes so much as the discussions.   The arguments about whether Tibet should be freed and whether there is free will or if everything is fated. I still don't know about fate, even after all that happened. 

I was already thinking about that long brick archway.   Candles.  Graduation.  Walking forward with all my friends, walking as the sun set. It's beautiful, even if you think it's kind of dorky.   I'd seen it before.

But on that tour, I knew I was freaked because it was the last time I'd  be walking backwards, maybe even in my whole life. I couldn't have walked forward, even if I'd been supposed to.  Like I was ready to cross into another space I couldn't have gotten to before?   Everyone else was more ready to make it than I was, though I couldn't have said it that way then. Friends already knew what they were going to do. I made jokes about how I'd soon be unemployed. Kind of lame.  I hoped someone would think I was smart or funny, and give me their card, you know?  Not take pity on me so much as recognize my talents.  Give me a break.  Deliver me from having to work at that crappy restaurant till I found something else.  Something that'd make my parents think they'd gotten their money's worth. 

I was walking backwards on that last tour like always.  Telling them all about the legends at the pond.  The kisses on the bridge that were supposed to lead to marriage.  To happily ever after.   Jobs and such. Even babies. I made it all sound so promising. Romantic. People like that sort of thing. They want to believe that the path is carved out for them, that they'll have it all sewn up by the time they graduate. I guess I did too.

So I was going to do it that last day.  Just step into the pond with the lily pads and the sludge and the promises forever.   I mean, I wasn't supposed to.  It was a rule.  But it was my last tour.   And water is only water.  So I took off my watch and my glasses and fished my billfold out of my pocket and set them all down on the post at the edge of the water.   Then I walked backwards.  I was a good tour guide.  I never walked forwards. Only backwards.    I stepped back into the cold water.  I could feel my chin touch the edge of something hard and scratchy.  Knocked my head up and back like a sucker punch. Everything changed then. It was dark in there.   It didn't feel as weird as I thought it would. It hurt only for a second when my spine snapped. After that, it was like I was already gone.  The water wasn't cold anymore.  I floated down to the bottom, I guess, and my eyes were open.  It was dim and dirty even though it was water, and it filled me up.   I could hear nothing.  The taste was rank and bitter and then there was no taste at all.  I was happy for that.

I hadn't wanted that to happen. I'm sure of that. But just the same, I was relieved that the wondering and the waiting were over. I could relax.  I still don't know why things happen or why they don't, but I don't let it worry me. There's so much time now. No hurry.

Now I'm part of the folklore. I'm the dude with the freak accident, and it's a shame that the tour guides will probably always know what happened to me. It'll be passed down, whispered about from one group of guides to the next. It's not the legacy I would have hoped for. They'll see it as a cautionary tale. But it won't be part of their job to divulge it. It'll just be something that they know, and they'll wonder how and why it happened when they stop to think about it at the end of their tours. My requiem. There's no getting around that.

So I walked backwards like a good guide. I was always a good guide. One of the best.  I knew how to tour.


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