On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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When I died, I was alone.
I know that I’d been walking somewhere, and that it was in the evening. I’m not sure where I was, or where I was going to, and I know that it’s strange not to remember those details, but they’re beyond the reach of my memory. I think it’s a part of crossing over.
I can’t find any indication of my fate. I feel fine, and in fact I don’t really feel much of anything. Neither hot nor cold, neither tired nor hungry. I don’t seem to need to sleep or eat or any of the rest of it. That’s apparently all behind me now.
This place is difficult to describe, because it’s unstable. It’s one thing when I look left, and another when I look right. Sometimes it changes right in front of me, but without me noticing any change until it’s something completely different. It makes sense from moment to moment, but as soon as it becomes something else, the previous place seems like it was bizarre and incomprehensible — then it fades from my memory too.
I seemed to be stuck in a brief present period of time, never really making any progress, until I saw the gate.
I felt a sense of relief, and I moved towards it automatically. It seemed far off at first, but then I was suddenly right there in front of it, and at last, there was someone else. It was a man, much older than me, but another strange thing is that I don’t even know how old I am now. Perhaps I’m young, since I don’t seem to have any frailties or aches or stiffness of any kind. But perhaps I’m old too, because I certainly don’t feel like I’m young. There’s an edge of faint, intangible regret to everything I see or think, and isn’t that a property of the old more than the young?
The man watched as I approached, and his face was familiar but also indistinct. He had no particular features, but I could feel that his gaze was upon me, and I knew that he could see everything about me. Not just the physical, but everything; thoughts, memories, feelings, and the details of my whole life before now.
I became aware that he held a book, a large and heavy book of paper, bound in leather. I had a flash of something like amusement or a sense of quaintness at the idea of a physical, paper book, but I had no idea why I would feel that way. I had no idea what other kind of book could possibly exist. I felt that I once knew, but that the knowledge was gone from me, even though the man could no doubt perceive it. If he noticed any change in my demeanour, he gave no indication. He seemed to have endless patience, and in that moment I realised that he had been standing here for an exceptionally long time, and that he had been waiting for me. Perhaps he’d even been waiting for me since before I was born.
He drew my attention to the book, even though he didn’t move a muscle and I couldn’t really see him properly. I could somehow tell that the book pertained directly to me, and while it wasn’t a journal or a history, it did summarise and establish a reckoning. I knew this without a single word of explanation, or the slightest glimpse of its contents.
I realised that the book was mine, and that I had created it myself. It could belong to no-one else. Its conclusion was foregone, even though I didn’t know what it was. The man confirmed my deduction without speaking. It seemed that verbal communication was also behind me, and indeed it would be very strange to speak aloud here.
I looked at the gate, and it became clearer the longer I stared at it. It was of silver, many metres high and wide, and ornate but also sturdy. There would be no question of getting through it without permission. But a moment afterwards, I came to realise that the gate, too, was of my own making. This seemed to draw the smallest hint of respect from the man, who confirmed that indeed I had given the gate its current appearance.
Some people saw a towering wall of stone, he said without saying anything. Some saw a line of guards blocking the way, armed with swords or other weapons. Some saw a narrow bridge, swaying in unseen winds, hovering over a precipice. What I saw was merely the barrier concept, given form and shape by the beholder. In that moment I felt embarrassed for some reason, as if my imagination had been lacking, but the man waved my discomfort away without waving at all.
I gestured towards the book, and I did so physically, using my arm. It seemed almost uncouth, but I had done it before I could think to do otherwise. I felt concerned that the man might be offended, but then I saw that he was no longer there, and nor was the book. It was suddenly clear to me that the man was also me, and that his disappearance was simply because he was no longer required.
I looked towards the gate, and it was different now; gold instead of silver, and more ornate. Then I looked again and it was the most ordinary gate you’d find on any country road, dull and rusted in places, and not quite hanging straight. And then it was gone, leaving only the place itself.
I had been here all along, I knew, and neither on one side of a barrier nor the other. There was only the choice to perceive it as such, and I had ultimately chosen not to. There was still no-one there, but perhaps there could be, if that was what I wanted.
I found that it was.
And as I became aware of the faces of all those I had ever loved and lost, so far away and yet so clear, I began to move towards them.
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