Through the Open Gate

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Through The Open Gate

by

Phoenix Hocking

She was cold.

She was wet.

She was hungry, tired, and sore.

How she came to be here, wherever here was, was a mystery.

In fact, much of her circumstances seemed to be a mystery, including her own name.

She sat with her back against a tree, knowing full well that it was exactly the wrong place to wait out a thunder storm. If lightning struck the tree, she’d be fried like a piece of bacon on a Sunday morning.

Images, like photographs, came to her then: a kitchen, painted bright yellow. A chrome table. A curtain wriggled in the breeze that came in through an open window. A plate of bacon and eggs. A woman in a dress and apron.

And then the images were gone, flown away like so many of her memories.

The loud crack of nearby lightning made her jump, her hair standing up with the electricity of it. She covered her head and screamed, though the sound was swallowed up in rolling thunder, tossed about like clothes in a dryer.

Another image: standing in front of a bank of dryers. Where? Oh, of course, a laundromat. Where she would wash the baby’s diapers and clothes.

Baby? Did she have a baby then?

She wasn’t sure where the rain stopped and her tears began, but she became aware that she was crying. She just didn’t quite know why.

Where was everyone? Where was she? What was she doing here?

She closed her eyes and just listened to the rain as it pelted the ground beside her, felt the drops hit her face, became aware of the decreasing intensity of the storm.

And just like that, it was over. The sky attempted to clear, scrubbed clean by the tempest. A patch of blue played hide-and-seek with the clouds. A snippet of rainbow appeared for a brief while, then receded.

She got up and shook herself. Her clothes were wet and clung to her body, showing off curves that might have been voluptuous once. Now her breasts hung to just above her navel, and her thighs rubbed against each other when she walked. Her hair, once a subdued auburn was now a yellowish gray.

Another image flashed into her mind: A man this time. Handsome. Wearing a uniform. Military maybe. Or maybe not. It was hard to tell. There was something in his face that made her put her hand to throat and catch her breath.

And then he was gone, the image fading along with the others.

Where was she? She stood uncertainly, wondering where to go. For she knew she couldn’t stay where she was. Besides, she was hungry.

How long had it been since she had eaten? She couldn’t remember. An hour, a day? Longer?

Her stomach growled loudly, and she smiled a bit. A woman’s voice. “Your stomach must think your throat’s been cut,” the voice said. “Here, have an apple to tide you over ’til dinner.”

The voice faded, along with the context.

Peering through the trees, she saw something. A house? A cave? She started towards it, whatever it was, hoping to reach it before the rain began again. For the sky was once again darkening, and low rumbles could be heard in the distance, headed in her direction like horses gone wild.

She tripped over roots and downed branches. She brushed her thinning hair back away from her face, blinked the wetness from her eyes. She became disoriented and searched frantically for whatever it was she had seen before, but there was nothing.

Nothing and no one.

Lightning struck again, and again, and again. She curled herself into a ball, put her hands over her head, and scrunched her eyes closed until all she could see was the pattern the lightning made on her eyelids.

“God!” she cried. “God, make it stop! Please make it stop!”

But the only sound she heard was the storm as it raged on around her, an insignificant bit of life on the bosom of the earth.

She made herself go away. When she was young, she could make herself disappear when Uncle Charlie came to visit. It was an old escape mechanism. One she didn’t know she still possessed.

She withdrew into her imaginary refuge: a room. Floor to ceiling book-shelves. Mahogany paneling. A warm carpet on the floor. Oil paintings on the walls. A large round table in the middle of the room, with yellow roses in a vase. On the far wall a picture window, framing the sea. A wing back chair. A footstool. A blazing fire in the fireplace. A cup of tea.

She saw herself in the room, sitting in the chair, her feet on the footstool. She was warm and dry. She was reading Anne of Green Gables. A cat… no, a dog lay beside the chair, snoring softly. She nibbled some cookies she found on the side table. Drank some tea. Looked out the picture window at whales and dolphins playing in the ocean.

She slept, or thought she did.

When she awoke, the storm was over. The sky was completely clear, though beginning to darken into dusk. With dusk came more cold. Bitter, bitter cold. She wrapped her arms around herself, though it did little good.

She shivered and her stomach growled. But she felt better, as though the storm had washed away some of her own mental cobwebs.

She still didn’t know where she was, but she remembered her name: Martha. Martha Collins.

The voice again. “Very good Martha. Now what is your address? You must know your address in case you ever get lost.”

Her name was Martha Collins. She lived at …

She couldn’t remember where she lived, so she began to cry again. How was she going to get home if she couldn’t remember her address?

Another image. A house, set back a little ways from the street. A white house with green shutters. A white picket fence, with an open gate. Yellow roses around the base of the porch. A child playing in the rain in the front yard.

“Martha! Come in the house this second before you catch your death of cold!”

The image faded again, to be replaced by another. A building, but not a home. Like a hospital, but not a hospital. Gates. Someone had left a gate open. She remembered walking out of the gate, onto the street. She followed the sidewalk. “Don’t step on a crack; you’ll break your mother’s back!”

Then she saw roses in a yard. Pretty roses. Yellow ones.

She started to walk up to the roses to smell them, when someone yelled at her. “Get out of my yard, you old biddy! Get out!”

And she had run. Well, maybe not run exactly, but she moved as fast as she was able. But she got turned around and couldn’t find her way back. And then she forgot where back was, or why she wanted to go there.

She got off the sidewalk at some point, and strolled off into the trees. The trees were pretty and she wandered around among them until the storm came.

And now, here she was, with no more notion of where she had come from or where she was going than “the man in the moon,” as her mother used to say.

She came to a clearing. She stopped and listened. She was surrounded by stones, flat ones, and upright ones. Stones with writing on them. The rain had made the stones shiny. In the distance was a sound that might have been traffic, but she wasn’t sure. In any case, that sound was all around, so she didn’t know in which direction to go.

She started to walk, because she couldn’t think of anything else to do. At least it wasn’t raining any more. But now, it was starting to get dark, and she was still cold, and wet, and hungry.

She wandered around the place with the stones, feeling as though she had been here before. She just couldn’t remember when, or why. But the place had a familiar feel to it, a feeling both comforting and sad at the same time.

She saw a bench and sat on it. Her feet hurt, so she took off her shoes. She smoothed her hair with her cold, cold hands.

She was so tired. So very, very tired.

She lay down on the bench and went to sleep.

She dreamed of the white house with the green shutters and yellow roses. The gate was closed that led into the yard. On the porch was the handsome young man, shining bright in his uniform.

He held his arms out to her and in an instant she knew exactly who she was, and who he was. She knew exactly where she was going, and where she wanted to be.

“Thomas!” she cried, opening the gate and running to his waiting arms. He embraced her and kissed her, and suddenly she felt warm, and dry, and safe.

Martha Collins sat in the dining hall of Life Everlasting Community Home, tucking into a plate of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and sweet corn.

“So, how was it this time?” her friend Walter asked.

“Not a good experience this time around,” she answered, reaching up to rub the red paddle marks on either side of her head. “I was cold and wet and hungry.” She took a bite of mashed potato. “Pretty uncomfortable, really.”

“But, did you get to die this time?”

Martha’s eyes grew moist. “Yes,” she said. “This time I died.”

Marvin leaned forward. “How long were ye dead fer?”

She smiled. “Seventeen minutes and thirty-seven seconds.”

“Then what?”

Martha laughed. “Then I sat up and said Where’s my dinner?

The other residents surrounding her all laughed as well.

“And was Thomas there?” Harriet asked, twisting her napkin around with her arthritic hands.

“Oh yes, Thomas is always there every time I die.” Martha put down her fork, a wistful look coming into her eyes. “Maybe one day,” she said, “I’ll get to stay dead.”

The End

In The Land of Odin

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In The Land Of Odin

by

Phoenix Hocking

I never wanted to live forever. Truly. “Living Forever,” was not on my bucket list.

Ha. Ha.

Let me explain.

My name is Walter Stone. I am eighty-five years old. I’ve been eighty-five years old for fifty years.

I live in a time when medical advancements are coming at so fast a pace, no one can keep up. There are cures for almost everything now. Almost.

I was actually kind of looking forward to dying. I wanted to see my beloved wife again, who had passed away when we were both in our seventies. I wanted to know what was on the “other side” of this earthly life. I wanted to be free of the aches and pains of old age.

When my memory started to go, I got scared. Alzheimer’s disease is a horrible thing. It robs you of your memory, of your children and grandchildren, of any joy in life, until you are nothing but a shell of your former self, sitting in some nursing home in a wheelchair because you’ve forgotten how to walk.

The very thought filled me with dread.

So when a clinical study began, asking for volunteers to test a new medication that was supposed to cure Alzheimer’s, I took the plunge.

And it worked! Lord in Heaven! It actually worked! After only three injections, my mind was as sharp and my memory as clear as when I was in my twenties or thirties. Better maybe.

No, better, definitely.

As time wore on the memories of those in the trial got better and better until we could remember every single moment of our lives, from the trauma of birth, to the pain of our first tooth, to the first day of kindergarten, to our first kiss, our first broken heart, our first paycheck, the first fight with our parents. Every single thing that had happened to us was available to us.

It was a miracle.

It was such a miracle that there was a rush to put this drug on the market. Such a rush, that long-term studies were deemed useless. It worked, so why withhold it to those who so desperately needed it?

They should have done the long term studies, for as it turns out, the drug had some unexpected side effects.

For example, it did nothing for other conditions a person might have. Diabetes, COPD, arthritis, macular degeneration, muscular sclerosis, post-polio syndrome – well, you get the picture. A person still had all the aches, pains, and conditions that he or she had before taking the drug. But, by golly, our memories were sharp!

It was only about five years into the study that researchers discovered yet another side effect to this wonder drug. The participants in the study didn’t seem to get any older. If your body was eighty-five, it stayed eighty-five. If your body was ninety, or a full hundred, your body simply stayed there.

Forever.

Or so it seems. It’s been fifty years since my eighty-fifth birthday, and I’m still eighty-five. I still have crippling rheumatoid arthritis. I’m still diabetic. I’m still in pain every day of my life. My bones ache when it rains, and my bum knee still gives out when I climb the stairs. My macular degeneration is such that I can’t read any better now than I could when the study began.

Even now that most conditions have largely been wiped out among the general population, they’re still alive and well among those of us who took the Alzheimer’s drug.

I don’t live at home any more. When the side effect of living came to the attention of the researchers, they rounded us up and put us in various nursing homes across the country.

I’m not sure how many of us there are, but quite a few.

I live in Shady Acres, just outside of Chicago. It’s a nice enough facility I suppose. My son and daughter used to come and visit, but they’ve both passed away now. It creeps out the grandkids to come see me, so they don’t bother to visit. It gets lonely talking to the same old people every day, especially after fifty years and we’ve all heard everybody’s stories a million times.

Rumors swirl around like we were in high school though.

One rumor is that some people in their thirties and forties have taken the drug, trying to stay young forever. Hmmmpf. What foolishness that is! Trust me, living forever ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Another rumor is that they’re trying to find a way to kill us without harming us. I mean, nothing violent, for that would be cruel. I’ve heard they managed to kill one old gentleman in San Francisco, but he only stayed dead for fifteen minutes. When he came back to life, he was the same age as when he had died, and still had all his attendant miseries. Only now, he was blind too.

There is talk that using the guillotine and immediate cremation might work, but so far they haven’t got a volunteer to try that. After all, what if your ashes came back together and you became alive again in your grave? I shudder to even contemplate that.

Luckily, they can’t force us. There are laws about things like that.

Of course, the use of the drug has been suspended indefinitely. I’ve heard the scientists are still working on a cure for Alzheimer’s that doesn’t have all the side effects, but so far, no luck.

Maybe that’s for the best, in the long run. At least at some point a person with Alzheimer’s will pass away and their misery will be over. For those of us who took the wonder drug, our misery lasts forever.

In Norse mythology there is a tale about a bird in the land of Odin. In Odin there is a mountain, one thousand miles square. Every million years this bird comes along and sharpens its beak on the mountain. When the mountain is finally worn away, that, to eternity, is only one single day.

From the looks of it, I may still be around when that happens.