This is a story I wrote a couple of weeks ago for the lovely Esther Newton’s Guest Post. She kindly provided the prompt for me and this one was a joy to write. It seemed to flow from my mind to and on to the page more so than some of my more recent efforts. So thank you, Esther!
Paintings of the Past
By Adam Dixon
Joe opened his eyes and looked around the room; where the hell was he? He was standing in a long hallway with white walls, wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts. He blinked a few times to make sure that he was awake. He was, and with a clear head and calm stomach too, which dispelled his second idea that he must be drunk. He turned his head and stared down the corridor. It was a very long one and he could barely make out the end of it from where he was standing. All he could see was a crimson carpet running along the floor like an elongated blood stain and what appeared to be a series of paintings or photographs hanging on both walls. He glanced behind and saw only another blank wall blocking his path. He scratched his head in confusion and tried to figure out what had happened.
“JOSEPH PEEL, PLEASE MOVE ALONG. THE GATEKEEPER AWAITS,” a clear voice boomed from above. Joe almost jumped out of his skin and cast about to and fro, seeking the cause of the noise. He saw nothing but the walls and carpet. After calming down a bit Joe concluded with a degree of satisfaction that he must, in fact, be dreaming after all and that by approaching this Gatekeeper the dream would reach its conclusion. He would then wake up in his over-priced but stylish flat in Brighton and wonder at the significance of it for a moment before getting on with his day. Maybe it would even feature in some of his writing in the future. Regaining his dignity, Joe took a deep breath and began to stride down the hallway.
The objects mounted on the walls were all paintings. Joe knew little about art but he appreciated the realism of each one. They all boasted a central image of a man or woman staring off into the distance surrounded by a snapshot of their lives. One showed a tall, bearded white man wearing blood-spattered armour standing amidst several fallen soldiers, the cross of Saint George proudly displayed on a flag behind him. Another depicted a white woman on a wooden stage, gesturing wildly as an audience gazed at her with rapt attention. Another saw an Asian woman wearing colourful clothing watching a fierce battle with horror and sadness. Joe noticed that the paintings appeared to be displayed in chronological order in terms of their historical period. He rather enjoyed the grotesque painting of what surely must have been a victim of the infamous Vlad the Impaler in Russia. The suffering of the naked, bleeding man was exquisitely and disgustingly detailed. The painting of a primitive black woman protecting her children from a white man with a rifle was as inspiring as it was horrific. After half an hour of walking and not paying complete attention, Joe walked into a solid wooden desk and stubbed his toe.
“Ahh, bugger it!” he yelled, bending over to grasp the injured digit and hopping about in fury.
“Oh dear, that is most unfortunate!” a woman’s voice tutted sympathetically. Joe ceased hopping and looked up. He had reached the end of the hallway. A small, plump woman with a kindly face was seated behind the offending desk, her soft brown eyes gazing at Joe with concern.
“Are you alright, Joseph? I really ought to have said something, but I saw how engaged you were with the Artwork! Oh dear, silly old fool that I am!” The woman was about sixty, with curly silver hair and wearing a practical woollen cardigan over a simple green dress. Her voice was friendly, if a little bit high-pitched, and Joe found himself liking her instantly despite his situation.
“Erm, that’s alright,” he replied, unsure what to say. “So…are you this Gatekeeper, then?”
“I am indeed, Joseph!” The woman clapped her meaty fingers together in delight and beamed at him. “I am your Gatekeeper and I must say that it is a pleasure to see you again!”
“Erm…right,” Joe gingerly set his foot down and stood up straight. “So, what happens now? Are we going to have a tea party or something until I wake up?”
“I don’t follow you, Joseph,” the Gatekeeper frowned. “There won’t be a tea party, although I could have prepared one if I knew that’s what you would have wanted. You won’t be waking up either, I’m afraid. Well, not like this, anyway.”
“Oh…kay…” Joe scratched his head again. He looked behind the woman. There were two doors set against the sterile white walls, both just as plain and unassuming. The way out, perhaps?
“I wouldn’t approach the doors just yet, dear,” the Gatekeeper said, reading his intention. “Not before I tell you about them first. I always forget that you won’t remember the last time!”
“What last time? How do you know me? You’re just my imagination, a figment of my subconscious!” Joe was becoming annoyed. “I know I shouldn’t’ve eaten that bloody stilton! Look, just say what you need to say and let me wake up. I’m a busy man, I haven’t got time for this!”
“The dead have an eternity in this Waiting Room, Joseph Peel,” the Gatekeeper said solemnly.
“The dead? What the hell are you talking about?”
“You are dead, Joseph,” the Gatekeeper said with regret in her voice. “You died on Wednesday 3rd of May 2016 A.D. You are currently approved for Resurrection in 2030.” Joe stood dumbfounded, staring. After a moment he began to chuckle, running his hand across his face.
“That’s not bad, actually!” he said, grinning. “Although I’d have thought that my subconscious would’ve come up with something a bit more exciting. Maybe that’s why my first books haven’t sold! Haha!”
“Joseph, I am not jesting,” the Gatekeeper leaned across the desk and looked intently up at him. “You died at four thirty-two A.M after your lit cigarette dropped from your fingers and onto a pile of discarded writing paper. Your flat went up in flames a few minutes later. Your severe inebriation prevented you from waking up in time to save yourself.” Joe stood still again.
“You…you must be joking,” Joe stammered. “I can’t be…dead…I was only-“
“Thirty-seven years old,” the Gatekeeper interrupted, glancing at a sheaf of note papers in her hand. “You were unmarried, living in Brighton, England and you were working as a freelance writer. I know all about your life, Joseph. This life and all of your previous lives, too. Did you enjoy the charming paintings of them? There are quite a few now!”
“Previous lives…” Joe’s face scrunched up in confusion. “Are you trying to tell me that I’ve lived as those men in the paintings that I’ve just walked past?”
“No, Joseph, that’s not what I am saying,” the Gatekeeper said with a frown. “I am trying to tell you that you have been ALL of them, both the men and the women. Every single painting you wandered past before reaching me is a depiction of the person you once were, during a single stage of Resurrection.”
“Yes, Resurrection, Joseph,” the Gatekeeper sighed. “It really is unfortunate that you don’t remember all of this when you come through here. It’s rather tedious having to explain it all over again! Simply put, Joseph, your soul has lived forty-seven lives throughout its existence and it is my duty every time you die to guide you onto your next Rebirth. Understand?”
“I…” Joe was lost for words. He scratched his head, a look of defeat creeping across his face. “I’m…dead….but…it’s not fair! I was finally getting somewhere with my life! My book sales were picking up and I’d started dating again! Why now?”
“Life is rarely fair, my dear,” the Gatekeeper said sadly, cocking her head to one side. “After doing this job for a few millennia you’d see that, too. You’ve had much worse luck in previous lives, if that makes you feel any better? You were wrongly accused of murder in Texas in 1843, for example; you were hunted down and lynched by the townsfolk! It’s shocking that they would even do such a thing to a woman back then…”
“No, it doesn’t make me feel any bloody better!” Joe cried, slamming his fist down on the desk. The Gatekeeper jumped, her curls bouncing and her pearl necklace jostling around her throat.
“Come now, Joseph! There was no need for that!” she said, adjusting herself crossly.
“Like I give a toss!” Joe retorted. He began to pace before the desk, stomping his feet deliberately.
“Why now? What’s the point?” he said, half to himself. “Why let me die in 2016 if I’m not due for Rebirth or whatever until 2030? Surely I could’ve lived until then!”
“Then you would have come here slightly older but no less annoyed for it,” the Gatekeeper replied, folding her arms across her chest and leaning back in her chair. “Now, Joseph, you must make a decision. You have two choices: to spend an eternity in this hallway with nothing but these walls and paintings for company, or accept what has been planned and be Reborn once again. To do so you need only open the door on the left. I know which one I would choose, given the opportunity.”
“What about the other door?” Joe rounded on the Gatekeeper. “What if I choose the door on the right?”
“That door…” the Gatekeeper’s tone and expression was grave, “is where Death awaits. If you walk through that door, Death will embrace you and He will reap your immortal soul. Your death that time will be final; no more Rebirths, no more lives to lead. It will be the End.” Joe shivered, hugging himself against the chill which passed through him.
“Do…do many people choose that door?” he whispered. The Gatekeeper shrugged.
“Some,” she admitted. “But not many. Most find the very idea too awful to contemplate.” Her expression revealed what she thought of that option. “You do not have to make your decision right away, but if you delay for too long then I will assume that you do not wish to be Reborn and I shall leave you here. By all means take a few moments to think it over. I shall wait.”
Joe’s mind whirled with emotion as he tried to make sense of everything he had learned. He raised a hand to his eyes and wandered back down the hallway aimlessly. He thought about his life, or the one he remembered at least, and longed to return to it. He felt crushed by the weight of his misfortune. Life really had been improving! Sure, he’d never have become the next Stephen King, but he was all set to make a halfway-decent living from his writing.
“A bloody house fire! How could I have been so stupid?” Joe groaned, recalling the countless instances when he had glanced up at his broken fire alarm and reminded himself to get it fixed. Maybe it was natural selection at work…
Joe opened his eyes and saw that he was standing in front of a ghastly scene. The painting before him showed a man lying on the back of a wooden cart with a dozen other corpses, all emaciated and riddled with disease. A village was burning in the distance, with a line of identical carts moving out from its gates. Joe was repulsed by the scene and suddenly grateful that he couldn’t recall this particular fate.
“Okay, I’ve made my decision.” Joe said, looking at the Gatekeeper with a pained expression. The Gatekeeper nodded and looked at him expectantly.
Joe straightened and took a deep breath. He stepped past the desk and with a trembling hand he opened the door on the left.