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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The old man reached into his pocket and took out a small object that I couldn’t see, because he kept it clasped tightly within his fist.
“It’s different for everyone,” he said. “And remember that you always need two. One to go, one to come back.”
“So you need to collect things all the time, really,” I said, and he gave a sort-of nod that wasn’t quite in full agreement.
“If you want to jump around all over the place, I suppose,” he said. “But most people only really want to go to one place.”
I looked at him, waiting for him to continue, but he just shrugged. “Like I said; different for everyone.”
I put my hand into my own pocket, but the old man made a gesture of caution.
“Not yet,” he said. “And remember that I can’t come with you. Obviously I can’t, because I wasn’t there in the first place. So we need to talk for a little bit. Before that, though, this is how it works.”
He raised his hand and uncurled his fingers, palm facing upwards, to reveal a tiny red plastic animal, perhaps a horse, whose head was missing. The old man didn’t look at it immediately, but he smiled.
“The important thing is to be in the memory,” he said. Then he nodded, as if confirming the statement to himself, before letting his gaze settle on the chunk of plastic.
And then he wasn’t there anymore.
I blinked, and even took a half step backwards. There was a sense of air rushing in to fill a newly-vacated space, just for an instant, but there was no sound. I looked around, but I was still alone on the path down by the river. I stood there, unsure what to do. A minute or so passed.
Then I had the strangest sense of… something. A wordless warning, from the oldest part of my brain; an instinctive note of increased alertness. It lasted a fraction of a second, and then the old man was standing there beside me again. I thought I smelled the scent of extinguished candles, but then the smell was gone.
The old man’s hand was still raised, but it was his other hand this time, again closed into a fist. He put something back in his opposite pocket. I didn’t know what the object was, but at least I knew its purpose.
“One to come back,” I said, and he nodded, but I could tell he wasn’t quite paying attention. I waited patiently, and after a few moments he began to speak.
“My daughter’s third birthday,” he said. “My late daughter, I should say. She wanted to be a zookeeper back then. She thought it meant you got to care for at least of two of every animal there was.”
I nodded, smiling sadly. I wondered how his daughter had died, and what age she’d lived to. He told me, as if he could hear my thoughts.
“Breast cancer, five years ago,” he said. “She was thirty-six. And a lawyer. Nothing to do with animals. But when she was three, she loved them — horses most of all.”
So the red plastic thing was a horse after all, I thought, and then the old man was speaking again.
“The little red horse was on her cake. Her little cousin grabbed it and bit its head off. You can imagine how upset my daughter was, but she laughed in the end. Children are strange that way. It’s one of my most cherished memories.”
“I’m sorry about your daughter,” I said, feeling uncomfortable at how inadequate the sentiment sounded. The old man gave a nod of combined acknowledgement and gratitude that had the quality of something performed a thousand times.
“I can see her whenever I want,” he said. “That’s how it works. These things — or a smell, or a place; whatever works for you — can take us back to when they became so important to us. If you focus, and you let yourself forget what’s happening now, and get right inside the memory. You can go there.”
I felt troubled, because I didn’t know if my own object would be enough. It certainly evoked powerful memories, happy ones, and I very much wanted to return to those times. I looked at the old man, and I could see understanding in his lined, bloodshot eyes.
“It sounds backwards, I know,” he said, “but you’ll find it easier if the memory hurts a bit. It can be a good memory — it should be — but it’s easier to get there if it hurts in retrospect. Like my daughter. Nothing takes you back more readily than that sadness.”
He took the partial little horse from his pocket again, and he showed it to me without looking directly at it himself.
“Poignancies, I call them,” he said, then he shook his head ruefully. “Maybe too fancy a word for younger people like yourself. But you know what it means, don’t you?”
I’d never heard that particular form of the word before, and I wasn’t sure it even really existed, but I knew the basic term well enough. I did indeed know what it meant, and so I nodded.
“So maybe think on that before you try to go,” the old man said. “Find something suitable, if you don’t already have it. And remember that you need another one, to come back. But for that one, almost anything will do. Even just a piece of today’s newspaper. We can’t help but remember what we’ve lost. The return trip is too easy, and it always comes too soon.”
I thanked him, and he waved it away. I decided to wait a while, perhaps a few days, before I’d try to go back. I wanted to get it right. The old man seemed to know all this already. He just gave me that same sad old smile again, and nodded, before letting his gaze fall upon the little red almost-horse once more.
“Always easier if it hurts,” he said.
And then he was gone.
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