Every night when he arrived home from the day, he would take out the ledger from beneath his bed. A black book, huge, full of endless pages. He’d come to despise the thing, now covered in dust that could not be wiped away, slime that could not be washed off with any solution or chemical; he swore at times that the ledger lived, had sentience. It knew him. It knew him better than he knew himself.
Like Dorian Gray’s picture, the ledger was where the man stored all of his sins, his wrongs, his daily failures. All of the things he willfully engaged in, all of the wrongs he’d done, kept hidden, in order that no one see him for what he truly was: evil and corrupt, like his ledger, covered in the black, creeping death that he’d allowed to walk right into his life so many years ago. This was what he believed: as long as he confessed to the black ledger each night, all of his wrongs would be hidden from sight; visible only to the one or two that he thought knew him well.
And even from those few, he hid.
Every day, the man would venture out before the sun began to set and sit on a bench in a nearby park. Every day, an old man walked through that park, petting dogs, talking to people, and on occasion, the old man would sit on another bench a few feet away. The man watched the old man. There was something about the old man that he couldn’t quantify; a familiarity that he could not shake. And yet the old man, at the same time, made him nervous. Once in a while, the old man would look him directly in the eye, hold that eye contact for a couple of beats, then go about his business. Like his own ledger, he thought somehow that the old man knew him.
Knew him better than himself.
He knew this was impossible. The man was a stranger. Familiar, yes, but still he knew he did not know the man.
Every day, he went through his routine; he went to his job, he went to the park, he went home at night and dutifully confessed his own anger, bitterness, how he’d been rude, selfish, and had ignored tasks and had ignored others. He wrote about all of the horrible things he’d thought about. His hatred for the ledger merely grew, as did its presence in his mind. There were days where the black book haunted him all throughout. He could think of nothing else at times.
The world began to feel like a prison to him. Every thing he encountered reflected himself back to him. Every book he picked up at first looked blackened and filthy. Every person he met mirrored back to him his own ugliness, which despite his nightly confessions to the ledger, only seemed to increase with each day.
After a time, he lost his employment. He did not bother looking. He lay on his bed, thinking about the ledger. Soon, thinking about the ledger was no longer enough. He soon began to pull it out each morning, opening it, the filth and slime sticking the pages together, and each time he opened it, the sound was as removing one’s shoe from thick mud.
The words were haphazard, written all over each page, sometimes within the margins and lines, but also outside those lines and margins, in the corners, packed in, pressed down, smeared; the guilt and shame he’d dutifully put down each night seemed to, at times, swirl around on the pages before his very eyes.
At night, the ledger itself seemed to whisper to him horrible things, speaking into the night all of the confessions he had written, accusing him constantly, taking sleep from him. He had brought into existence a thief that hid under his own bed. And yet, still, he took the book out and read it, wrote more into it, and hid it from all eyes but his own.
The hatred of the ledger began to spread. He began to hate himself, for all that he could see when he looked in the mirror were the swirling, mad words tucked into every little space on all of the many pages. At times, he thought someone else lurked in the mirror behind him. Some kind of dark Thing that he had brought forth from some Abyss by writing in the ledger.
The world closed in.
Though he remained within his house day and night, the one routine he forced himself to maintain was going to the park and sitting on the bench. But even that began to haunt him, as he believed that he could see the black stain of himself turning the bench a different color. Still, he went. He would see the old man every day, never changing, never waivering, always tending to the people in the park kindly, as if the old man knew them all intimately, even their dogs and pets and things. And the old man would always look at him. It was a look that he never saw in the mirror anymore: one of acceptance.
One day, the old man walked right over to him and sat on the bench.
He wanted to run. Instead, he simply sat there on the bench. The old man did not say anything, he merely sat there. And yet, somehow, this mere gesture was a comfort to him. Perhaps the creeping death of his own ruination did not bother the old man. As if the old man actually wanted to sit there. After a while, the old man stood, smiled at him, and walked away.
For the next three days, the old man did not show up at the park. This bothered him. Where had the old man gone? Was he ok? He couldn’t believe the fact that he was disappointed that the old man was gone, because he simply wanted the old man to come and sit beside him again, even if the old man said nothing. There was something in the old man’s smile. Something familiar but something lost to him entirely. As though the slime and dust from his own ledger had somehow covered his eyes to what he saw around him.
Each night, the madness within the ledger grew. Each night, he saw the Thing in the mirror behind him. The Thing mocked him, cajoled him, spoke all of his own confessions back to him in sarcastic tones, telling him to keep the ledger hidden from all, for to allow anyone to see the truth would mean that all the world would know him for what he knew himself to be: a failure, useless and wanton, of no use to anyone.
After the third day, the old man again showed up in the park, as though the old man had never been gone, going through the park and smiling at people, talking to them, like he knew them all, even their pets and things.
He felt his heart skip a beat at the old man made his way over to his bench.
“Hello, friend,” the old man said.
He could not look up at him. “Hello,” he replied.
“May I sit?”
“Please, would you, sir?” He didn’t know why he’d blurted out the words so quickly. His stomach was in knots. He was simultaneously terrified of and yet drawn to the old man.
The old man sat down and for a few moments, said nothing. The old man then spoke after a time.
“That couple over there,” the old man said. “Do you know them?”
“I don’t,” he replied.
“You should go meet them one day,” the old man said. “Good people. You’d like them.”
He said nothing in reply. “If they knew who I really am,” he thought to himself, “they wouldn’t like me.”
At this, the old man looked over at him and would not look away until he made eye contact. He saw the look in the old man’s eyes and it terrified him. He could see that, somehow, the old man had heard the thought. Knew what he was thinking.
“It keeps you awake at night, doesn’t it?”
He looked at the old man in shock. He tried to recover himself, but his voice broke as he spoke. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“That’s how the Thing gets in,” the old man said. “Words. Small at first. You think you’re doing the right thing. But it’s a lie. That’s how it gets in. Soon enough, it’s behind you, in the mirror, at night, then in the day light. Soon enough, you’ve created for yourself the darkest shadow of a specter. But it’s all a lie.”
He sat there and stared at the old man, unable to speak. He wondered if maybe the old man weren’t actually crazy, or senile; telling some weird story he wanted to tell for whatever old, senile reason.
“I’d like to take it off your hands,” the old man said.
Finally, he was able to speak. “What?”
The old man looked him dead in the eye. “That ledger of yours. That tome that has called up your own darkness.”
“What? I don’t know what you mean! What ledger?”
“It’s under your bed,” the old man replied. “But now, you pull it out and read it constantly. I’ll bet you’ve got every word memorized by now.”
He was now so afraid that he couldn’t run. He wanted to stand up and take off like he was being chased by a tiger, but his legs wouldn’t function; he could barely breathe. “I still don’t know what you mean,” he said to the old man.
The old man merely smiled. He almost pulled away when the old man slapped a hand onto his shoulder. “Bring it tomorrow,” the old man said. “I dare you.” The old man stood, smiled, and walked away.
That night, he was haunted by the Thing in the mirror, haunted by his own words, made powerless by his own guilt. He actually thought he wanted to take the book to the old man. But all of the words he’d written in the ledger were howled back to him inside his mind. He couldn’t allow the old man to read it, to see who he really was. He just couldn’t. He just couldn’t. He just couldn’t. The words echoed so loud that he could think no clear thoughts.
He woke the next morning. He could still hear the words echoing, giving him no relief, the cacophony seeming to manifest outside of his mind, inside of his own house. The very walls seemed to be screaming at him not to do what he was going to do. He finally screamed back at the walls, took the book from under his bed, put it into a plastic bag, went to the bathroom and was sick, then made his way to the park.
This time, the old man was sitting on the bench waiting for him. When he saw the old man’s smile, the words in his head began to quiet.
He sat on the bench and held tightly to the bag.
“I don’t want you to see this,” he said to the old man. “I don’t know why I brought it.”
“Yes you do,” the old man said. “You hate it, you want to be rid of it. You can’t see why yet, but you know that I can take it off your hands.”
“But why would you do such a thing,” he asked, holding back tears.
Again, the old man smiled. He looked out at the people in the park. “You see those people? Every day I come here and talk with them. Most of them don’t remember me. Some have never met me. A few of them know me. The ones that know me, I purchased their ledgers, too. The other ones, the ones like you who dutifully hold onto those ledgers, convinced they’re doing the right thing, well, son, I just wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“For them to do what you’re about to do: to bring in their ledgers, sit down with me, talk, and let me take those horrible lying things off their hands.”
“But why?” He couldn’t believe he wasn’t surprised to hear the words the old man had spoken. He couldn’t believe he didn’t care if the words were true. He merely wanted to be rid of the damnable thing, and to know why anyone would want to bother themselves with such filth.
“I do it to set them free.” The old man looked at him and held out his hand.
He didn’t want to let go of the ledger.
“I already know what you’ve written,” the old man said. “I read it every night.”
“I don’t believe that!”
The old man began to recite from his ledger, and he finally couldn’t hold back the tears.
“Here! TAKE IT!” He handed the plastic bag full of all of his most horrible thoughts, deeds, and words, to the old man. He then sobbed without even trying to stop himself. He cried so hard that people in the park began to stare at him.
The old man stood, turned, and lifted him from the bench. The old man put his hands on his shoulders.
“It’s all right. Be strong. Stand up. There is nothing in here that could surprise me. There is nothing in here that is going to prevent me from coming back here tomorrow and sitting with you. This I promise you.”
He wiped his eyes and looked at the old man. And the old man walked away.
That night he slept. He dreamt of things, some of them horrible, but most of them were not. He rose late in the night and went to the bathroom. He turned on the light and noticed that nothing stood behind him.
The next day, the old man was waiting on the bench. Though he knew he would see the old man there, true to his word, he still couldn’t believe it. If the old man had really know all that was in that black ledger, then he could not fathom why the old fool would bother coming near him. Still, there the old man sat, smiling.
When he got to the bench, the old man stood, and the two of them shook hands.
“How did you sleep,” the old man asked.
“Better. Somewhat fitfully, but most certainly better.”
“It takes a while sometimes,” the old man said.
“I still don’t understand why you’d want to take that filth of mine home with you. I don’t understand at all.”
“I don’t expect you would just yet,” the old man said. “But give it a little bit here, and I think you’ll start to see more clearly.”
He furrowed his brow and looked away from the old man, out at the park, at the people smiling. One of the people who’d stared at him the day before while he was sobbing smiled, even raised a hand to wave. He waved back with a smile of his own. That smile felt peculiar on his own face.
“Oh,” the old man said, “I’ve got something I wanted to show you.” The old man leaned down and picked something up.
He recognized what the old man held: his ledger. But it was clean. The old man handed it to him. He opened it. The words all over the pages that he’d written were now blocked by a red stamp that took up the entire page, on every page. The stamped words read, “Paid in Full.”
He held back the tears again. “How? Why? What is this? I can’t be excused for any of this! Did you read any of it at all?”
“I told you already: I read it every night. Every word, every penstroke, I know better than even you, the one who wrote it all.”
“So what does it all mean?” he asked the old man.
“It means that you don’t need this ridiculous thing anymore, that’s what it means.” The old man took the ledger from him, and he willingly gave it away this time.
“How about we meet every day here,” the old man said. “If you’ve got something to get off your chest, you tell me. We’ll figure out how to fix it. How does that sound?”
He thought he’d never heard better words in his entire life. Still couldn’t grasp why. Still didn’t know what it was about the old man that made him believe his every word. And yet, he did just that.
“I think that would be a good thing, sir,” he said.
“You keep talking to me like you don’t know who I am,” the old man said, chuckling. “That ledger really did cloud things up for you.”
“What will you do with it,” he asked, still processing the words he’d just heard.
“I’ll keep it, along with all the others I’ve had. I’m something of a collector. A debt collector, of sorts.”
“Debt collector? Does that mean you’re here for money, too?”
The old man laughed so loud that people in the park turned and looked, then went back to their business.
“Take another look, son.” The old man held the ledger open, flipping page after page, showing him the big, red stamp, “Paid in Full.”
“The only thing I wanted from you,” the old man said, “was this ledger, so that I could set it right. Everything you’ve written in here, well, it’s all been paid for. The debts were forgiven long, long before your parents even had an idea that they wanted a child. Before their parents, and generations before them. I collect these ledgers for the simple reason that I want it known that you, son, owe nothing to that darkness that’s haunted you. Not a thing. I’ve seen to that. And now, since you trusted me, I’ve seen to your ledger. Now, I’ll take it home and put it where it belongs.”
“My Father’s house.”
He looked away. The words. He knew them. The old man. He knew that, somehow, he knew him too. But it still wasn’t coming to him. For a while, neither man said anything. People talked and laughed around them, dogs barked and played, birds sang, and a breeze bent the grass and trees, ever slightly. Finally, the old man stood.
He stood, and took the old man’s hand when it was offered. “Same time tomorrow,” the old man asked.
“Yes. Same time.” And then he realized who the old man was. How had he seen him as old? The man smiled, turned, and began to walk away.
“Wait!” he said. “Wait, wait! I know you!”
The man turned back with a smile. “‘Course you do, son. ‘Course you do.” Then he turned around and walked away. He thew up his right hand in a wave and said, “Tomorrow, then!”