The man watched as Bob crammed the remainder of his hamburger into his mouth and switched on the television. He knew Bob was thinking there was plenty of time for study later. At the moment, Bob was only concerned with the score of the game on channel six. He twisted the cap off his beer bottle with his left hand while lighting his cigarette with his right. That physics exam wasn’t important, he told himself. As long as he didn’t get a failing grade for the course, he would be fine, and he was sure he could pull off at least a “D.” Even if he did fail, he could just take the course over again. He was in no hurry to graduate.

Just as the game was getting interesting, the phone rang. Afraid it was his boss calling him into work, Bob let it ring until the answering machine clicked on.

“Bob, you bastard,” shrieked a female voice. “Why won’t you return my calls? Again and again I leave you messages, but you never call me back! Well, just forget it! I never want to see you again!”

Bob shrugged and took another swig off his bottle. The game was on, and that was more important than female histrionics. Just like his father, thought the man as he continued to monitor the sorry scene before him. He struggled to suppress the urge to rush out and strangle Bob. That was why he had come there after all. He had traveled a long way to kill Bob.

The man grunted, and Bob turned to look in the direction of the sound. The man stepped farther back into Bob’s bedroom, hoping he had not been seen. For several minutes, the man stood there, barely breathing, his hand sweating on the butt of his revolver, but Bob did not come.

The man stood there, immobile as a statue, until a sudden unsettling suspicion that Bob had made his escape out the front door impelled him to investigate. His ears attuned to every sound as he crept toward the doorway, he heard only the voices on the television droning on about beer. It was a commercial for Bob’s favorite brand, and listening to it filled the man with rage. Hearing Bob cough, he almost rushed out to kill him right then, but managed to restrain himself.  Bob hadn’t done it yet. Though he knew Bob had already done enough to deserve his hatred, this wasn’t the Bob he had come to murder. The Bob who had ruined him wasn’t there yet.

The man poked his head through the doorway and peered out cautiously just as Bob was picking up the phone. He remembered how Bob had refused to get a cell phone long after the point where they had become ubiquitous. It was his way of avoiding responsibility by making himself harder to reach. But now Bob was reaching out. Was this the moment? Was the man he despised about to make his entrance, or had he been too careless? Was Bob about to call that bookie to place his bet on the game, or was he calling the police? The man wasn’t sure what he would do if Bob didn’t place that bet. Could he still kill him? Then the man heard Bob say to place ten thousand on the Raiders, and he laughed.

“Who’s there?” Bob demanded, but the man only continued to laugh. Bob got up, tiptoed around the piles of dirty laundry that littered the floor, and had almost reached the bedroom when the man, clad in a black overcoat and wearing a surgical mask over his face, stepped out to face him.

“Who the hell are you?” Bob stammered as he stumbled back from the intruder. “What are you doing in my apartment?”

“I just stopped by to kill you, Bob,” said the man, following Bob into the center of the room. Bob took a few more steps back and was about to turn and run when the man stopped him by raising his right arm. Bob looked at the gun pointed at his chest, glanced furtively at the front door, then dropped to his knees, whimpering.

“Get up,” ordered the man, his disgust evident in his voice. “You make me want to puke, you pathetic coward.”

“Don’t kill me,” Bob pleaded as he gripped the arm of the couch to pull himself up. The man waited until Bob was swaying uneasily on his feet to tell him there was nothing he could do to save himself.

“Why?” Bob asked his voice cracking.

“Look at me,” growled the man. “You made me what I am, and now you are going to pay for it.”

“What are you talking about? I don’t even know you,” Bob screamed.

The man lowered his surgical mask to reveal a face little more than a skull, causing Bob to vomit up his burger on his slippers. He then watched with considerable satisfaction as Bob buried his face in his hands and sobbed.

“Don’t like what you see, Bob? You made them do this to me! You never cared for me! You always did what you pleased with no regard for how it would affect me! You never had ten thousand dollars. You welched on that bet, and those bastards skinned my face, took off my nose and lips, and turned me into a monster! Think I’ve been out on any dates since then, Bob?”

“I didn’t do it! I don’t know you!”

“I know you, Bob. I know everything about you, every weakness, every petty desire, even every thought you have ever had up until the moment I walked into this room.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m your future self, Bob. I’m the result of that bet you made, as well as all the other rotten decisions you’ve made in your life.”

“That’s impossible,” Bob stammered. “You’re insane!”

“Humor me, Bob. Let’s just pretend it is possible. Look at what you will become!”

“You could have stopped me. You could have stopped me from placing that bet.”

“Why? So you could turn into something even worse? So a Bob whose face didn’t reflect the monster inside could go on screwing over everyone foolish enough to care for him? At least losing my face gave me a purpose. I studied and worked hard to find a way to come back. There was little else I could do. I finally got a position working for a brilliant man who took pity on me and shared his secrets with me. I betrayed him by coming back here today, so I guess I really haven’t changed all that much.”

“But you could have saved us!”

“Why should I sacrifice my revenge for the sake of some other bloated and useless Bob? Why should I care about my past self when he didn’t care for what happened to me?”

“But, if you kill me, you’ll be killing yourself!”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure how it works. Either way, I don’t care. I don’t have much of a life anyway.”

The man walked up to Bob and pressed the barrel of the gun against his forehead, but noticing a change in Bob’s demeanor, he paused, puzzled. Bob had stopped whimpering. He looked into the man’s eyes and smiled.

“You’re not going to kill me,” he stated with surprising bravado. “I just remembered who you are. I’m surprised you don’t remember yourself. You are as much a part of my past as I am of yours.”

“I told you I am your future,” the man shouted, angry that Bob’s sudden irrationality was marring the vengeance he had worked so hard to achieve. The man needed Bob to believe him, and to know why he was about to die. Killing a madman would not satisfy him.

“You are my past,” Bob declared. “Don’t you remember the man in the nursery? Don’t you remember the monster?”

Bob was laughing at him! He could not kill him now; Bob had gone mad. The man cursed himself for depriving Bob of his reason, and depriving himself of his only reason for living. Snarling, he pushed a button on his belt buckle. There was a hum followed by a flash of light, and the man was gone.

Relieved to see the game was still on, and there was still time to cancel the bet, Bob rushed to the phone. A minute later, the nightmare was over. He stood there for a few minutes, trying to make sense of what had just happened, and then dialed his mother’s number.

“Hi, it’s me,” he said, trying to suppress the quiver in his voice. “No, I’m not out of money. I was just wondering about that story you told me, the one about why Dad left.”

Bob then listened as his mother related a story he had heard before but never really believed. She told him how she had come into the nursery one morning to find a man with the face of a demon bending over his crib. Hearing her screams, Bob’s father had rushed into the room, gun in hand, and the stranger had been shot. He had said something to Bob’s father before he died, but Bob’s mother couldn’t hear what he had said, and Bob’s father wouldn’t tell her. She said he would never hold Bob after that, and a few weeks later, he deserted the family, never to be heard from again.

“I believe you now, Mom,” Bob said as a tear ran down his cheek, “and I forgive Dad.”