I was given this prompt:
A poet once said that there is one thing between living and dreaming. What is it and why?
What follows is my result.
* * * * *
“You know, I once found myself in the very same position you find yourself in today, “ the weary old man was interrupted by a violent fit of coughing that shook him down to the last fiber of his being. One final cough was spent into a handkerchief he had produced from his pocket. The man cleared his throat, folded the small garment, and grimaced as he placed his hands back on the handle of his cane which was resting betwixt his legs.
“Please, excuse me – I’m not quite as resilient as I once was.”
Before him on the floor sat a young boy who had previously been preoccupied with an assortment of toy figurines who were engaged in a ceaseless battle orchestrated by his hands. Now, however, all conflict had come to a temporary halt as the boy stared curiously at his grandfather, his wide eyes full of wonder with a wisp of concern – though he didn’t quite understand the concept of that emotion quite yet. He was only half-listening to what his elder was saying to him before, but the harshness of the coughing fixated his attention like a dog to a whistle.
“What… what do you mean, grandpa?”
“Come again,” the old man raised a shaky hand to his ear, “I can’t hear so well these days. You’ll have to speak up a bit, child.”
The boy repeated his question, this time with more confidence.
“What do you mean you were in the same position as me?”
The old man looked upon the boy with tired eyes. A slight shift of his lips formed a wry smirk and the wrinkles on his face mimicked their movement. He leaned back in his chair which grumbled at his decision to do so until he remained dormant once more. His elbows were now placed firmly on the armrests of his chair and his right forefinger was tracing the weathered wedding band that was seemingly embedded into his ring finger. He made the boy wait a moment longer before he responded.
“I remember a time back when I was around your age and I spent a day alone with my grandfather who sat and watched me play with my toys. It seems it’s becoming somewhat of a tradition in our family.”
“Did he live here too?”
The man chuckled and looked around the room. To his left was a small side table with an olive lamp atop it. The base was fairly plain with smooth indentations around the lamp that ran the entire length vertically; the shade, which was at one time white, was now grayed with dust and crooked. Opposite of him was an aging loveseat covered in floral patterns whose cushions had long since passed their prime. They had become compressed over the years and the sides had creases that numbered nearly as many as the wrinkles in the old man’s face. Beyond it was a relatively bare beige wall save for a few family photos and the doorway into the kitchen. To his right sat an old tube television whose rabbit ears were contorted – the skewed shape was deemed to provide the best picture according to the old man. Behind it was another wall which housed two symmetrical windows with tattered curtains half drawn whose patterns resembled that of the couch.
For a few seconds longer he basked in the scenery the room offered. In the past he had disagreed with his wife on nearly everything in the room, thinking most of her design choices to be ugly. He could remember the petty arguments they had looking at catalogs and in furniture stores, all of which he had lost – save for one, the television. At the time it was a distraction from all the horrid decor, which was enough to satisfy him. Since the passing of his wife he rarely spent time watching the images dance behind the television glass anymore. Instead he found himself simply sitting in his chair staring at the objects in the room. What he once opposed he couldn’t cherish more, now they were the closest physical remnants he had of his wife. He shook his head and finally answered the impatient boy who had ceased the interlude of the epic battle.
“No… no he didn’t live here. I built this house for my wife, your grandmother, and we lived here happily for many years. My grandfather’s house wasn’t too different, I suppose,” the man trailed off, now staring at a photograph on the wall behind the couch.
“Oh, okay,” the boy wasn’t entirely sure how to respond, but his question had been answered.
Some time passed along with more outbursts of coughing, several body slams performed by action figures, and imaginary explosions brought to life through the boy’s practiced noise making. Finally, after wiping away the remnants of another cough with his handkerchief, the old man spoke.
“Would you like to hear a story?”
“What kind of story,” the boy’s curiosity had been piqued again.
“A story that my grandfather once told me when I was your age.”
The boy looked down at his toys, pondering which activity would bring him the most enjoyment. After some contemplation the boy set his toys down and faced his grandfather, crossing his legs to get comfortable. He nodded to signal his interest in hearing a story. The old man smiled once more, pleased with the answer.
“Ah, very well then,” he clasped his hands and rested them on his lap, “I suppose it best to begin with a little background information. I was born seventy-two years ago during what my parents told me was the coldest winter night they had experienced. Of course I don’t remember anything from the first few years of my life so I’ll skip ahead to when I can remember a few things. I’d wager that these foggy images that remain in my old brain were from around the age of four or five – about as old as you are now.”
The boy nodded. Even with his vivid imagination he had a hard time picturing his grandfather being the same age as him. He missed a few minor details about his grandfather’s parents while he was trying to visualize what he might look like as a child, but his focus was restored when his grandfather made a connection to what he had said earlier.
“One of my most vivid memories, probably the only one from that age, was when my parents had to travel for work and left me in the care of my grandfather. It was during this visit when my grandfather shared a rather interesting story with me; it was that very visit that I was referring to earlier. I find it odd how well I can remember his tellings because at the time I was very young and not much of his story made any sense to me.
“Anyway, I got a little off-track there. I was at my grandfather’s house which I mentioned was somewhat similar to this one. I can’t exactly remember the entire house, mostly just the room I was in when he would tell me stories. It was a small room, smaller than this with no windows, no television, no carpet – the floors were hardwood. I recall now that he used that room for sitting and smoking with his friends and family. My grandfather was a big tobacco smoker, in fact the only other piece of furniture in the room besides the chairs and floor lamp was a liquor cabinet in which he kept whiskey, cigars, tobacco, and his assortment of pipes. I remember playing with my toy cars on the floor, seeing how far I could get them to roll on the slick floor.”
“Wasn’t it uncomfortable to sit on the wood floor?”
“You’re right, it most certainly was, but the only alternative was to sit in the other chair. I didn’t like to do that because smoke would get in my eyes and make them sting, so the floor was the safest place for me despite its lack of comfort. It didn’t bother me, though, and actually it was quite mystifying to watch my grandfather exhale the smoke from his mouth when I didn’t have to worry about it getting into my eyes. The smoke would slowly lose traction and swirl lightly around the room until it eventually faded into nothingness.
“On that particular evening he leaned forward, parting the shroud that separated us and he asked me in his raspy voice: ‘Boy, do you know what a poet is?’
“At the time I did not, so he explained it to me, and I will tell you what he told me in case you do not as well. He said, ‘a poet is a person of words. A person who can fill your mind with images using only his words like I can fill this room with smoke using a pipe.’ He then proceeded to tell me about a time when he met such a man in his younger years.
“‘I was in a bar I had never been to before. It was late and the only other patron there sat two stools to my left, nursing a beer and writing tirelessly into a leather bound journal. He was a small man, older than I was at the time, but not quite as old as I am now. He was mostly gray in his hairs and had spectacles that were slightly too large for his face. The only times he stopped writing was to either adjust his glasses or adjust his glass to sip some beer from it. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered him, but every so often I would hear him mutter under his breath or feverishly strike through something he had written. I couldn’t help but be a little curious. I got his attention by buying him another beer when he had about finished his. He was appreciative. I inquired about his notebook and he happily showed me what he was working on.
“‘Turns out the guy worked for the local paper and liked to write poetry in his spare time. The poem he was currently working on was quite the mess; the thing had scratched out words almost every other line. This particular one, he told me, had something to do with a magic place or something to that effect. The poet told me that it was a place he described as being between the living world and the dream world – apparently the only thing between them. At the time I deemed it to be drunken rambling and thought nothing more of it since then. I had completely forgotten that night, but now… now I think I’m inclined to believe the man.’”
The old man paused to clear his throat; mimicking his grandfather’s gravely voice was harder than he’d expected. The boy was now laying flat on his stomach, chin supported by his hands, looking expectantly up to his elder.
“Was that all he told you?”
“It’s about all I can remember. I think he spoke more about what the man had written in his journal, but I can’t be sure. I do remember that was the last time I ever saw him, though. After that he seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth. There was never a funeral for him because nobody really knew what happened to him or where he was. It was almost as if everyone had forgotten about him; I must admit that what I told you is the only memory I have left of him.”
The boy’s eyes were now wide with wonder, excitement, and a hint of fear. He wasn’t expecting the story to take such an unexpected turn. He couldn’t imagine his grandfather disappearing never to be seen again. This was the first time the concept of never seeing anything again had been presented to him, and it was fascinating if not a little worrying.
“Indeed he did. Like I said, though, he all but disappeared from our minds too. After that life went on as usual. I grew up, went to school, graduated, met my wife, opened several businesses, had children, and became old, as old as you see me now. I’ve lived a good life, accomplishing everything that I’ve ever wanted to do. Not once can I remember thinking anything more of my grandfather, not until recently.”
The old man closed his eyes and smiled to himself, reminiscing about the life he had lived. He spoke the truth, he really had accomplished all that he wanted to do.
“What made you think about him again?”
The smile disappeared from the man’s face. His eyes remained closed. So he sat for a time before he opened his eyes to the boy and answered.
“I believe I visited the place my grandfather told me about. The one that the man in his story was writing about. The place between living and dreaming.”
The young boy became uncomfortable. He could tell something had changed in his grandfather’s demeanor. His eyes weren’t tired and comforting as they had been moments ago. Now they were dark and emotionless. The man was gripping his cane strongly now – his knuckles as white as his hair, pressing against the skin that contained them. This place his grandfather spoke of was foreign to him, and he didn’t know if he should fear the unknown.
“You mean you think the place is real? The one from the journal?”
“What was it like?”
The man could tell the boy was becoming afraid, an emotion he hadn’t meant to inspire within him, so he composed himself and tried to put an uplifting spin on his experience.
“It’s a bit hard to describe, but I’ll do my best. I don’t know exactly how I arrived there, but I do know it was some time after I had laid down in bed. My consciousness was fading. I was drifting off to sleep, or so I thought. An instant later I found myself standing in a large space devoid of anything. The ground I stood on was completely white and flat; it stretched out in all directions for what seemed like miles. Above me was the color white. Toward the horizon appeared to be tall grayish black shapes, they looked to be trees or something similar. In all directions they were consistent in height and shrouded in a mist of sorts. It’s almost as if I found myself in the middle of a large-”
“Forest,” the boy cut in excitedly; he was captivated and no longer scared.
“Yes, exactly, it looked as if I was in a large clearing in the middle of a forest,” the old man was glad to see his grandson was eager to hear more.
“Why do you think that’s the place the man wrote the poem about?”
“Because of what happened next.”
The man paused; what had happened next had been so bizarre that it made him shiver to think about it again. He hardly believed it had happened himself, and it was certainly not appropriate to tell his grandson what proceeded exactly as it had. He would have to change the story to protect his youthful innocence.
“I had been there for what felt like hours. I was walking in one direction; the horizon never grew closer. At this point I thought it just a strange dream so I stopped walking and tried to wake myself up. It was then that I felt a presence all around me, yet it mattered not where I looked, nothing had changed.”
“What was it? Did you ever find it?”
The boy had inched his way closer to his grandfather, engrossed. His imagination was running wild at the possibilities of what this mysterious presence could be. A cold sweat started to form on the brow of the old man. His hands shook slightly more than normal. He averted his eyes from the child to a picture of his wife on the opposite wall and took a deep breath.
“The presence did reveal itself to me in time. It turned out that what had been watching me was… was an angel.”
“No way! An angel? What did it look like?”
The image the man had in his memory was far from the description he gave the boy. So as not to scare the child he gave a fairly generic answer: the halo, wings, and the white gown. In fact what he had seen was much worse.
* * * * *
The old man had wandered for hours, gaining no ground. Finally he decided to put an end to his efforts and attempt to wake up from what was surely a dream. The stillness around him shifted when he halted; a gnawing feeling that he was being watched from every angle emerged. The man became anxious. He could not wake himself and his sense of urgency felt all too real. He tried the one thing he had yet to try: speak.
“Hello,” his voice did not echo or travel far, he felt he could hear it fade into the silence mere inches from his mouth, “is anyone there?”
As if to answer his call, a figure rose from the ground directly in front of his feet. It grew until it was at eye-level with him. It appeared to be a silhouette of a human-like figure. It was completely black and it seemed to absorb the light around it. The edges of the figure were constantly moving, as if shadows were flowing from it to the ground around it. The sight of the creature caught the man off guard and he stumbled backwards, nearly falling to the ground. A rumbling in the man’s head grew slowly more audible. As the volume raised, so did its clarity. The noise soon became recognizable as speech.
Hello. Do not be afraid.
The being was communicating inside the man’s thoughts.
“What are you? Where am I?”
He could feel his words being pulled into the darkness before him.
Do not be afraid. You find yourself at the gates of the void and I am the gatekeeper.
“What do you mean? What is the void?”
It is simply a place that exists between living and dreaming. Few ever find their way here.
“How many leave,” he was more concerned with that statistic than the one presented to him, “how do I get out of here?”
The gatekeeper started to sway back and forth as it began to circle the man, leaving behind it an invasive black trail.
You are free to leave at any time as you are not yet in the void. You are only at the gates. The darkness at the horizon is the void.
“Then I would like to leave at once.”
First, I would like to propose a deal.
“No thank yo-”
A sharp stabbing pain slid into the man’s head. He fell to his knees clutching his skull as the pain slowly subsided.
First you will hear me out, then you may leave once you have accepted or declined my offer.
The man looked up slowly from the ground. He did not trust this being, but he couldn’t see any other way out of this situation. He begrudgingly accepted that he was at the mercy of this thing, whatever it was, and would have to abide by its rules for now. It had now made one full revolution around him and it did not appear to be stopping.
“Okay. Tell me.”
Excellent. I know you, the life you have lived, and I know all those that were apart of your life. Your father, his father, your son, your grandson… your wife.
The man stiffened.
I know where those who have passed now lie. I know where their souls await to be reunited with yours. I know the future, what will happen to your children and your children’s children. I know everything.
A chill ran down the man’s crooked spine.
Not only do I know everything, I also have influence over the happenings of your world. Why do you think your life has been without suffering? Why was your life so fulfilling and happy while many others did not have that privilege?
It was a question the man had no answer for. He shook his head.
I’ll tell you, then. Your grandfather found his way here once. I proposed the same deal to him which I am about to propose to you. You offer me your life now, and in exchange I will take those few years you have left and enrich your grandson’s entire life. He will lead as successful a life as you were able to thanks to me. If you decline, I will not bother you and you may continue living out your days. Your grandson will not be guaranteed a happy life.
The voice in his head fell silent, but the figure still circled him like a wolf waiting for its prey to show a sign of weakness. He thought about the deal, and the memory of the conversation with his grandfather was made clear once more. What more did he have to live for? Could he trust this being? Probably not. He could feel its presence in his mind, listening to his every thought. He made his decision.
“I’ve made up my mind.”
If you decline, then I also cannot lead you to your wife’s soul. You will not be reunited should you decline.
The old man became very tired. It seemed as if the silhouette was now pulling his energy into its depths. He didn’t trust the self proclaimed Gatekeeper of the Void, but being here he knew one thing for sure. There must be some kind of afterlife. This was no dream. That being so, he in no way wanted to spend an eternity without seeing his wife again. His willpower was now completely drained, he couldn’t deny an opportunity to be with his wife once more. At the least his grandson would be taken care of.
His head was buried in his hands. Tears flowed from the corners of the man’s clenched eyes. He struggled to vocalize his answer.
“I… I accept your offer. Will you allow me another week to see my family once more?”
Suddenly the presence was gone and when the man scrounged enough courage to raise his head he found himself alone in his bedroom. Had this all been a dream? No, he knew it wasn’t. He had just made a deal that he was now worried he would come to regret. He looked at his digital clock that sat upon his nightstand. It was three in the morning. A wave of exhaustion washed over him and he drifted to sleep.
* * * * *
“So the place between the living and dreaming, doesn’t really exist? It was just a dream?”
The boy’s voice pulled his grandfather’s mind out of a fog. The man had spaced out after he finished telling the boy a false story of what happened. He nodded.
“You got it. It turned out it was all just a dream.”
“Well, that is kind of disappointing.”
The child was now beginning to think he should have played with his toys instead of listening to his grandfather’s story.
“Sometimes disappointment is better than the alternatives you may be presented in life. I think you may be disappointed once more tonight.”
The old man rose slowly from his chair. His knees popped in retaliation and his chair gave a sigh of relief. He hobbled his way towards the door.
The child grumbled as he left the room and looked back longingly at his toys. He was more tired than he thought, however, and was fast asleep soon after his grandfather tucked him in. The old man fell quickly into a deep slumber as well.
* * * * *
A slight rumble from within the man’s head awoke him from his sleep. He rubbed his eyes until he could see clearly. He went through is usual morning routine as if nothing had happened the night before. He was unusually excited this morning. Today his son was dropping his grandson off to stay for a few days while he was out of town for work. It had been many months since he had gotten to see them. He sat in his kitchen sipping coffee from his favorite mug, reading the paper and speaking to a photo of his deceased wife that sat on the counter.
The doorbell rang and he made his way to answer the door as quick as he could. Kind words and hugs were exchanged along with a suitcase containing the boy’s belongings. His son was running late and had to leave to ensure he would catch his flight. Before he knew it, the boy was settled in his room and now had his toys littering the sitting room floor. It pleased him to watch his grandson play before him. The image sparked a memory long forgotten in his head.
“You know, I once found myself in the very same position you find yourself in today.”
* * * * *
In the land of the living rested a worn out leather bound journal inside a box tucked away in the corner of an attic, destined to remain unseen. In it was the poem a small man once wrote and below it a note:
The one thing between living and dreaming is the void. It is a place where unfortunate souls are tempted, tricked, and trapped forever by a being called the Gatekeeper. The Gatekeeper is the void itself. Should a soul find itself at the threshold of the void it should ignore the Gatekeeper at all costs. Souls who interact will remain within him in the void. Here they will relive a fabricated memory created by the void itself for the rest of time.
* * * * *
In another afterlife a soul belonging to the old man’s wife waited an eternity to be reunited with her husband.