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art by Shothot Designs

Questions

Jacob A. Boyd grew up in a town with a population of 2,000, went on to get caught in a lightning storm while hiking Pikes Peak, and eventually found himself surrounded by wild monkeys in India with nothing but a stick to protect him. Along with friends, he co-founded and runs the theater group, No Shame Eugene, for which he writes and performs. He lives in Eugene, OR with his wife and two dogs.
Chase entered one end of a narrow white-walled room and crossed it toward a chair positioned before an unfamiliar man at the far end. But for the man and the chair, the room remained featureless. Chase was drawn to them.
Seated, Chase asked, "Am I dreaming?"
"No," the man said. What he said was certain.
Chase was not dreaming.
"Am I dead?" Chase asked.
"That's two," the man said. "And yes."
Two doors appeared on the wall behind the man. Back on the far wall, the door Chase had entered disappeared, replaced with bare white. His mind lurched.
"Can I go back?" Chase asked.
"Three. No."
"Where am I?"
"Four. You are nowhere, yet. Once you choose where to go, you will be somewhere."
"Where can I go?"
"Five. Through the door on my right is a place where you will forever wade in the complete memory of your life."
Hearing this, Chase realized that, indeed, he had no memory of his life, only a yawning cavity of curiosity. He was a body, a mind, in a shape, but he had no knowledge of how he had come to be such a body, such a mind, in such a shape.
"Through the door on my left," the man continued, "you will linger between places."
"Are those the only choices?"
"Six. Yes."
"When do I choose?"
"Seven. Whenever you wish."
"Can I change my mind after making a choice?"
"Eight. That is the one thing about you I do not know."
"Why are you counting my questions?"
"Nine. I have a theory that the number of questions relates to the decision reached."
"What's your theory?"
"Ten. I cannot influence your decision by telling you."
"How long have you been doing this?"
"Eleven. There is no time here, but, numerically, I've seen many, many more than you."
"How old was I when I died?"
"Twelve. Forty."
Like an algal bloom, a gluey certainty that he had lived forty years filled the cavity of Chase's curiosity. Its level seemed lower than it should've been.
"How did I die?"
"Thirteen. Your heart stopped and shortly thereafter your brain quit functioning."
An urgent question pressed aside Chase's insult.
"Was my death an accident?" Chase asked.
"Fourteen. No."
A hole opened in the algal bloom, boiling with caution, fear.
"How many questions can I ask?"
"Fifteen. As many as you'd like."
"Will you always tell the truth?"
"Sixteen. I must."
What the man said was certain.
"Was I murdered?" Chase asked.
"Seventeen. No."
The algae rippled.
"Did I kill myself?"
"Eighteen. Yes."
The hole in the algae widened. Chase understood that he had been a religious man who believed in the divine as a punitive machination.
"Am I being punished for my suicide?"
"Nineteen. The truth cannot be punishment."
Through the part in the algae rose a sense that life could be measured on various scales which tilted one of two ways. Also, in life there were things one deserved and things one did not.
"Was my life pleasurable?" Chase asked.
"Twenty. At times, yes."
"Was I a good man?"
"Twenty-one. I cannot pass judgment. I can only tell you the truth."
The skim of algae rippled with the movement of something large beneath it. Chase understood company as a kind of goodness, loneliness as a dismal rot.
"Did I have a family?"
"Twenty-two. Yes. A wife and children."
Chase envisioned two children, a girl and a boy.
"Do they miss me? Are they faring well?"
"I will count that as one, for I cannot tell you such things about other people. Twenty-three."
"Did I cause my family pain?"
"Twenty-four. At times, yes."
There was kindness in the man. A sympathy. A bond. The man yearned for Chase to ask the right questions. It was clear there were questions he did not want to answer, but would if asked.
"When I died was my family alive?"
"Twenty-five. Some were."
"Did I have a part in the deaths in my family?"
"Twenty-six. Yes."
Chase became aware that he was a man who rarely apologized yet could not let go of regret.
"Think it over," the man said. "Take your... time."
Chase could not wait. It rose under the algae, irrepressible, clamant.
"Did I care for my family?"
"Twenty-seven. Deeply."
"Whose deaths did I have a part in?"
"Twenty-eight. Your daughter's, then your own."
Chase understood she was his first. Just as he knew it was terrible to have a favorite child, he knew she was his favorite. She had kept him and his wife together, had given them strength and hope enough to try for a second child.
"Was my part in her death an accident?"
"Twenty-nine. As much as it could be an accident, it was."
"Could I have prevented it?"
"Thirty. There is only what happened and what didn't happen."
"How long after my daughter's death did I kill myself?"
"Thirty-one. Five years to the day."
"How old was my daughter when she died?"
"Thirty-two. Five."
"Did anything mean as much to me as my time with her?"
"Thirty-three. You have to answer that for yourself."
The man stepped aside as if Chase had reached a decision. Chase rose. The man was right. Chase knew all he wanted to know. He approached the door on the man's left. He understood that hesitating would only make the room he was in as much a place between places as what lay beyond the door. But here, he might be tempted to know more. He wanted to thank the man, though felt that if he tried, it would come out wrong and sound like an apology. He opened the door and stepped through it.
Chase entered one end of a narrow white-walled room. A chair appeared before him as the two doors behind him disappeared. A man entered through the far wall's only door and crossed the room to the chair. When the man sat, Chase recognized him.
Seated, Chase asked himself, "Am I dreaming?"
"One. No."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 29th, 2010

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