Karl Mercer's short story takes us to a mysterious man who spends his life on a park bench, waiting and waiting and waiting. Illustrated by Tom Haugomat.

To look at him, you wouldn’t think him special, and in some ways he is completely average. Sitting on the park bench in dull, well-worn clothes, thumbing a wedding ring, he looks completely normal. Yet, if you were to walk into the park the next day, you would see him again, in the same drab, unassuming clothes, thumbing that same wedding ring. And the day after. And the day after that. And the week, the month, the year after that. The same clothes, the same action. He sits and waits. Every aching day, he waits. Always. If he were immortal he would wait until forever runs out.

The park is isolated from the world. Perhaps it is his entire world. When the world ends, perhaps all that will be left floating through the cosmos will be him, the bench he sits on, and his waiting. Children don’t play in this park. It is barren of laughter and love. Actually, there is love, but it’s an obscure version of it; it’s a longing love, the kind that weeds amongst flowers have. A love that yearns to be expressed, given, and taken. Yet the weeds wait in futile hope, for no one cares about weeds. And it is hope that makes the sadness of waiting so utterly profound. This man has hope and it is his hope that keeps him bound.

He watches hours erode. He watches the acid spill of the morning sun melt away shadows. He watches cold stars burn in distant space. He sees all and says nothing. He never seems to eat. Somewhere, in a dictionary of obscure sorrows, there is an ageing photograph of this man and some paltry words to describe his waiting. But even in this dictionary, there is no mention of what he is waiting for. His eyes, impassive icebergs, keep his motives hidden beneath the surface.

This man is an insidious germ. His waiting is infectious. Others want to know what he is waiting for, so they stop and wait. He has a small following. People sit beside him and wait wordlessly with him. He is the unwitting messiah of his own cult. No one waits for long though, and even those who stay the longest are an infinitesimally small fleck of paint in the canvas of his waiting. They all leave, eventually. They leave him on his own, the horizon encircling him — an eternity to an eternity in every direction.

I don’t know which joke is more cruel: that he waits until the very end of time for something that never comes, or that he gives up waiting one day and misses that same something. One day I expect to walk past his bench and see a fully clothed skeleton, or a wedding ring sitting atop a heap of bone dust.

Yesterday, I walked past him as I always do on my way to work. He was sharing his bench with a young track-suited mother and her little girl. The mother was talking loudly down her phone, taking breaths only to puff on the white bone of a cigarette, which she held expertly between her yellowing fingers. Ignoring her child, she didn’t notice the little girl, radiant in an apple green dress, grab the hand of the man as he thumbed his wedding ring. For the first time ever, I saw an expression on the man’s face. It was like watching a stone being sculpted at light speed. His face, usually so stoic, displayed an emotion I didn’t recognise and have certainly never felt. It was so delicate that I didn’t dare breathe for fear of bursting it. The girl pulled his hand towards her face and examined it with such seriousness. She seemed like a rapt entomologist studying the almost nonexistent patterns in the wings of a foreign beetle. Her eyes were so close to his hand that her eyelashes touched the aged parchment of his skin, almost as if she were reading the secrets buried within him, or written upon him, for anyone bold enough to look so close. How long had it been since those hands touched another? How long since he had felt skin, other than his own, upon those palms? I realised that I was waiting. Just like him, I was waiting for...something. This moment was like a cave by the sea sucking water into its cavernous maw. It was magnetic. Still oblivious, the mother cackled hyena-like down her phone at some unknowable joke as her daughter held the man’s hand.

There was no ceremony when the girl took the ring. She just took it and he let her. He said not a word. Not one discernible syllable. Even when her mother, still prattling, dragged the girl ignorantly away, he said nothing. His face was a lost language, utterly indecipherable, as he sat and watched his ring, enclosed within a tiny fist, ebbing away from him forever. A stillness so deep that it threatened to smother, stole upon the world. I could almost hear the grass breathing. Each frost-choked blade gasping voicelessly for air. Then, as quickly as it began, the stillness flew out of existence; as if a black hole had swallowed all motion and vomited it out just as quickly. Distant sounds of traffic, the hoarse crowing of birds and, perhaps for the first time ever here, the sound of children playing all came rushing back in a dizzying whoosh.

The man seemed caught in a reverie, still watching the girl walk away though she was long out of sight. I didn’t dare move. I wasn’t sure if he was even aware of my presence. I thought of him as a wild animal that I was spying on and I didn’t want to spook him. At that moment, I would have given my eyes to know what he was thinking. I would have given my lungs. I wanted to shake him, take him to some remote building and beat it out of him. Throw myself down and beg. I’d always been curious as to what he waited for but the ‘what’ was a pale shade compared to the ‘why’. Why now? Why this? Why her? Why? It didn’t even seem like a word anymore, let alone a question. It had become something more primal, an animal urge that needed sating. I was scared I would pin him down and drink in his reasons until I choked or drowned on them.

With a courage I’ve never been able to muster in even the direst of situations, I moved one leaden foot in front of the other until I sat beside him on the bench. And I waited. I don’t know how long I waited. I know that every now and again I would discover that I had been unwittingly holding my breath and would let out a gasp as quietly as my need for oxygen would allow me. I know that my waiting must seem ridiculous and that it was as pointless as the perpetual waiting of the human puzzle box beside me. But I had to do it — I had to for my own sanity.

After what could have been either minutes or hours, I felt a shaking. It was the slightest of tremors, almost imperceptible. I turned to the man and feeling my gaze on him, he turned to me. Tears were running freely down his face as his iceberg eyes slowly melted. And yet, he was smiling. Smiling broadly and fully; a smile so vast that I fell into it and found myself grinning inanely back. It occurred to me that all the long, interminable years of waiting could perhaps have been for this one moment. The moment a little girl took the ring from his hand. In the grand scheme of things, this moment is a single mote of dust in an uncaring universe. Yet despite this, it had more meaning than anything else I have ever encountered. Over the millennia, how many miniscule moments have occurred unnoticed by the world? Moments so desperately full of significance that they alter an entire world as the actual world keeps spinning senselessly through space, heedless of the bacteria multiplying, killing and dying on its surface. Wars have been fought for less.

Still smiling, the man heaved himself off the bench, took one last glance in the direction the girl had walked, then set off in the opposite direction. My hand wandered to the area in which he had sat never-endingly until now. The wood was smooth from years of use, his warmth slowly evaporating from it until there was nothing left to ever even hint that he had been there. With my hand still resting on this new found void, I looked out over the park to see a bruise-blue sky and frostbitten rays of sun shining weakly over the shimmering earth. The sun seemed a gaping wound in the flesh of the heavens, bleeding light and staining the swaddling of cloud which clung to its surface. Every single day, be there rain or snow, he had sat here looking at what I was looking at now, waiting. Just waiting.

I considered standing and walking away, leaving the bench unguarded for the first time in who knows how long, now the man had left his post. But somehow, this seemed a little perverse, so I didn’t. It seemed as though after all that had happened, something else would happen too. Something that would explain or quantify everything in a way I could understand. I couldn’t fathom what sort of something that would be but knew that maybe, if I stayed there awhile, that it would become evident — that something would come to me even though I didn’t yet know what I was waiting for. So I shuffled over to my left and felt the smoother wood beneath me, the last remnants of warmth still clinging to the timber. Sighing, I absentmindedly thumbed the buttons on my coat, turned my gaze inward and waited.

'Until Forever Runs Out' was published in Popshot's 13th issue, The Outsider Issue, which is available to buy in its limited edition supplement-style format here.