This story is by Christin Baumgart and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He was alone in the room. The walls around him were almost blindingly white, though no source of illumination was visible. He sat on a metal folding chair that was bitter cold against his skin. He wasn’t sure how he had come to be in this room; one moment he had been lost in mundane daily anxieties and then the moments stopped, and he was here. There was only one door in the room, looming in front of him, but he knew somehow that the door led on, and not back.
He realized he was still breathing, but when he stopped nothing happened. He wondered if there was even air to breathe. He tried to listen for his heartbeat, but all he heard was the silence pressing in around him.
In one corner of the room was an old TV and VCR that looked exactly like the one his parents had during his childhood. There were piles of VHS tapes everywhere, and each hand-written scotch tape label bore his name, his moments, those both cherished and forgotten. The metal chair broke the silence as he scraped it across the floor to sit in front of the television he remembered so well. He tried to avoid going near the door, which stood so imposingly tall and frightening above him. Even with his back to it, he was aware of it calling to him, tempting him with its mysteries. Instead he turned to his memories, selecting the first tape at random from a pile near his foot.
The static cleared and he saw the beach near his home, his mother smiling and tan as she rolled out their beach towels in the wind. The sun that drenched them that day seemed to grow and spill out of the television in the room where he sat. He knelt on the floor, inching closer to the warmth of that day. Now he was running, sprinting down the beach, limbs flailing, wild laughter pouring into the sky and being blown out to sea. His sister tried to keep up but she wasn’t even close, he was free and wild and more a part of the salty spray than boy. He threw his head back and howled and even as he watched from the room, no longer youthful, he felt the exhilaration echo in his chest. Tears slid down his cheeks as he watched himself on screen, now collecting sand dollars, now eating pretzel sticks with Kool-Aid that stained his mouth and ran down his chest. This would normally get him scolded but not today, not in the wilds of the beach. And as the sun sank and the day grew copper and pink, their shadows were giants, as tall as they felt inside.
When the tape ended he put in another, then another and another. Methodically moving through each stack of tapes, he watched his life in random order, a CD on shuffle. Here he was with a lunch tray at school, hesitant and isolated. Now he was graduating college and surrounded by family, but only pretending to throw his cap for fear it would get lost. He saw his mother hold her dying father’s hand, could almost smell the sharp sterilized smell of the hospital room. His wedding day brought a pang to his non-beating heart; he wondered how she was now that their shared moments had ended. He saw the day they met, when their eyes locked and he wasn’t sure why, but he knew she would be something important to him. He watched their dinners, and walks with the dog, and the fight when he had put his fist through the bedroom wall. He watched her face crumple as he said every cruel thing he could think to lob at her, desperate to make her feel as badly as he did. She stroked his hair away from his fevered, sweaty forehead. She sang while she washed the dishes. She told him fiercely how much she loved him. He began looking only for the tapes that had her name on them.
He put their wedding day tape on yet again. Was this the fourth time or the fifth? He listened to their drunk friends wish them well as he got up and strolled around the room, eventually stopping and staring at the door that had never moved or changed. The surface was cold and smooth as he reached out a hand to lightly touch it. Inexplicably drawn closer, he pressed his whole body against the door and strained to hear clues as to what lay on the other side. Was that laughter? A melody that sounded like his wife’s voice? Perhaps it was the pulsing of a quasar, burning in the quiet depths of far away galaxies. At times he thought he heard screams, but were they human voices or the screams of stars, shooting their way through the vastness? Sometimes he thought it was a library, with hushed whispers and the hiss of a strict librarian, tiny rustles as ancient pages were slowly turned. Sometimes there was nothing, just the cool door pressed to his face.
The tape ended and he left the door to put on another. They had never wanted children and had done everything they could do avoid this moment. But here he was now, holding her hand, sitting in the clinic’s waiting room. She was so brave and fierce. He clutched her hands that barely shook as they walked defiantly past the protesters outside. The linoleum floor in the clinic sparkled in the harsh lighting as he watched his past-self contemplate collapsing onto it. She had always been stronger than him. They both knew it was the choice they wanted to make but still the moment hung there, somber and apart from other memories. That night he held her particularly close and they lie together experiencing what wasn’t grief, but more akin to a road not taken. A door left unopened.
He saw many unopened doors as he watched his life over and over again, for longer than it took to live it, slowed down, now sped up, now forwards, now backwards. His mistakes and his flaws were amplified, learned by heart, a song you hate but sing along because you know the words. Also amplified were the joys, the heartaches, the tiny moments that meant nothing to anyone else. He saw himself change but he also saw the ways in which he was the same all along, the story of one man told over and over in each tape, regardless of time.
He was still alone in the room. He wondered how long he’d been there, but time didn’t seem to notice this room. He had not eaten or slept, only watched himself eat and sleep. The door was still waiting for him, and he began to think it would not wait much longer.
He also watched the last tape. He had expected it to be shorter than the others, as cut off mid sentence as his life had felt. But interestingly enough it was the same length as all the others, using every available bit of tape. He wondered if there was a significance to that. In the tape, he watched himself clutch his chest and stagger backwards. Fear was in his eyes as he watched and remembered those last seconds of clarity as he knew, ‘This is it. This is the end. This is where I go.’ There was a rush of sadness, a desperate gasp for all the things of the world left untouched, and then nothing. The tape ends in static.
Near the end of his stay in the room, if it could even be called that in a place time ignores, he watched this last tape the most. He watched and felt his own end over and over, learning the fear and sudden release like a melody. Every time it ended, he went to the door and pressed his face to it, knowing whatever lay outside the room was calling him. Was it the heaven promised by preachers from their pulpits, gilded and lush, an end to pain and heartbreak? Or torment, equally promised, the lakes of fire and eternal suffering, which every child knows to exist. Or perhaps it was nothingness waiting. His atoms would peacefully drift apart, finally at rest.
The moment came for him without warning. His last tape ended for the last time. Both on screen and in the room he felt the same fear and panic echo through his mind. And then it suddenly dissipated. He strode to the door and placed his hand on the doorknob. He threw the door open, squared his shoulders, took one huge step and—