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Short Fiction: This Way Please

(photo by Zer Cabatuan)

In the dream, the old man tells me, “Come in. Come in boy. The show’s just beginning.”

And I do.

The theatre is filled with people, young and old – one child is holding a cotton candy cone in her hand, laughing, giggling; a thirty-something woman sits near the aisle, sobbing; I see a couple kissing in a corner.

At first I don’t get it. The screen is showing nothing but static. When I return to the man outside, he’s smiling. “Don’t like what’s on?”

I say there’s nothing on, but the smile doesn’t fade, and he nods knowingly.

“Ah,” he says, “So we have a realist, eh?” He seems amused and surprised. “Don’t get much of your kind here. The last one to say she was one ended up staying, after all. I think it was a love story, for her. Figures. So just static for you? Nothing? Not even a shadow or something blurred and jagged in the background?”

“No,” I answer.

“So it’s back to the real world in the morning, yes? Same as always?” Asks the old man, who has, from somewhere, pulled out two mugs of steaming coffee. He hands me one. He gestures for me to join him on the bench where he's sitting, and I oblige.

“Same as always,” I say. The coffee is black, with just the right amount of sweetness. “Good coffee,” I tell him.

“Ha! At least I did something right by you. I reckon you’ve just realized what this place is, eh, boy?”

I nod.

He sighs. “Ever since the beginning of time, I’ve been here. I’ve lost count of how many people have gone in. You though, are a rare specimen. If I remember correctly, you’re, hmmm… three thousand seven hundred and seventy five.”

“Three thousand seven hundred and seventy five is a lot,” I retort.

“Not when you’ve been around here for as long as I have. We used to have plays and dances around bonfires and things like that, but you’ve gotta move along with the times, right? So it’s the big screen now, all modern and spiffy, with popcorn and cotton candy and soda and everything.”

“Do they ever come back?” I ask. “Will I?”

He gestures dismissively. “Oh, don’t worry about yourself. You’ll be back before you even finish your coffee. Them,” he says, jerking a thumb towards the curtained entrance, “sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. For some people it’s better in here, y’know? Better than out there. I think even you understand.”

I nod again in agreement.

He pats me, father-like, on the back. “Well, better get going, boy, and good luck to ‘ya. You need it, you know. Everyone out there does. And thanks for sticking around, it’s not often someone I can chat with comes along. They usually just head on inside and that’s the last I hear of them. You’d think it was too much to just pop a ‘hi there’ to an old man. God knows I need the company.”

I shake my head. “Me? I hardly said a word. And no one comes here? No one?”

He shrugs. “Nope, not really. Ol’ Grim comes around sometimes, but you know, he’s not one to talk. All action, that guy. Dunno what he does inside though. But I’m sure as hell it ain't official business. I guess even guys like him need a break sometimes. Tough job, that. This here job is eons better than what he has on his plate.”

I then realize that I’m beginning to fade away – I’m translucent from the knee down. I set the coffee mug on a nearby table. “I’m sorry if I wasn’t much conversation.”

“Nah, don’t sweat it boy. I reckon guys like you are my break, and I appreciate it, even if it was just for awhile. Well, hope you visit again sometime, and if you’re going in for the long haul, don’t forget to give this old man a hello.” He waves. “Remember boy, nothing bad in coming back and staying.”

I wave goodbye, and then with those last words echoing in my head, I wake up.

(This post was originally posted on the Hump [] last August 5, 2009).


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