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    Is this what being dead feels like?  If so it's kind of a relief.  I was always afraid death would be the end so I'm glad I'm still here… although I'm not sure where "here" is.  It's all black and I can't see hear or anything.  In fact I can't even feel my own body.

    I think my eyes are open, but I can't tell.  Usually when you close your eyes, you can still see shadows of color, or a faint image, lingering on your eyelids for a few seconds before it fades to memory.  There's nothing like that now... only black, a shade of black darker than I've ever seen.  I feel like I'm floating in the middle of a great void, but maybe that's only my imagination, struggling to come terms with what I see- or, rather, what I don't see.

    I've read about people who had near-death experiences.  There's always the sensation of moving toward a light, or a tunnel, or seeing scenes and people from the past... maybe even God.  But they never mentioned emptiness.  Never just hanging, in a murky, pitch-black void that seems to go on forever, where nothing exists to even acknowledge my arrival.

    Then, from somewhere far away, I hear something.  I’m not sure what it is at first, but as bits of it come together, I realize it’s music.  Someone is playing a guitar, very far away.  I can’t make out the tune, but it sounds familiar… in fact, I’m sure I’ve heard it before.  It’s slow, almost haunting, and weaved in the notes of the melody I feel a strong sense of yearning.  Someone is singing softly, too, and even though they’re too faint to hear, it’s obvious they’re mourning something.

    I think the music is coming from somewhere in front of me, but I can’t move toward it.  In fact, I still can’t feel anything, except that sensation of floating.  But the void isn’t quite as dark anymore.  There are distinct specks of light above me now, like someone is poking pinholes in the distant black.

    As I listen to the music, I feel a breeze across my face.  It’s a refreshing feeling, and I turn toward it.  It’s a cool breeze, but not cold, and it carries the crisp scent of the outdoors.  I smell summertime forests, and meadows, and flowers.  And it brings with it memories, scenes of hiking through the woods, of standing on a mountaintop and looking out over a wide green valley.  In my mind's eye I see hawks gliding on the breeze, hunting for prey, and above them, pure white clouds scattered in the deep blue sky.  I raise my arms as if to embrace the wind and it gusts, filling me with a raw happiness that makes me almost delirious.  It's as if I'm surrounded by everything good and wonderful in the world, and I can't help but laugh as the feeling washes over me.

    The breeze dies down, and I suddenly realize I’m cold.  I pull my jacket around me, and shiver.  The empty black void is gone.  I'm standing on the ground, and even though it's still dark, the stars shine overhead, giving a feel of eerie twilight to the air.  I look up, amazed.  The white swath of the Milky Way cuts its way across the sky, but no constellations look familiar.  There's no moon, and no clouds, as far as I can tell.  Just a sky full of stars, a sky as crisp and clear as any I have ever seen.  Not far away, I see the horizon, and I realize it's made up of treetops.  I'm standing in a clearing, and on all sides of me are dark woods.

    It’s not scary, though… in fact, I feels comfortable, almost reassured.  In the distance, at the edge of the trees, is a campfire, which flickers and casts eerie shadows into the branches.  The music is definitely coming from that direction.  So I walk toward it, following a narrow path through the long grass, which brushes at my legs as I walk.

    The song is getting louder now, and I see two figures sitting at the fire.  One is an older man with a bushy gray beard, sitting on a tree stump.  A guitar is on his knee, and he’s singing quietly.  The other is a younger man, fair-skinned, who sits on a log, not moving, just staring into the depths of the fire.

    I approach, but I'm afraid to interrupt.  The trail leads right up to them, though, and as far as I can tell, stops there.  The fire is in the middle of a wide clearing, and there's no path into the trees beyond.

    The old man stops playing and looks at me.  He nods in greeting, and motions to an empty log sitting near the fire.  Then he strums a few notes, and begins to sing again.  The words are simple, but they beckon me forward, and I sit down on the log.

    Gather round, friends,
    and tell me your stories,
    Of hope, and of love,
    Of dreams, and of glories...

    As he sings, I look at the younger man, who hasn't moved at all.  It seems like he hasn't even blinked... he just keeps staring into the fire.  I watch him for a moment, then follow his gaze into the fire's bright center.  There's nothing unusual there, just jumping flames, and hot coals that pulse with an orange glow.  Occasionally a branch cracks, and sparks fly up into the cool night air, lingering for a brief second before they disappear.

    Tell of your triumphs,
    Your losses, your sorrows,
    And chasing your dreams
    Through a thousand tomorrows...

    Other than the crackling of the campfire, the night seems quiet.  I don't hear crickets, or chirping birds, just a peaceful silence, and I realize with a start that the man has stopped singing and is looking at me.  "Welcome."

    "Where am I?" I ask.

    He smiles, and leans back.  "Well," he says, "where do you feel like you are?"

    I realize that there's only one answer to give.  "I feel like I'm home."

    He shrugs.  "Close enough.  By the way, I'm Mike, and this fellow here is Pete.  Tough to get him to say much, though.  He usually prefers to listen."

    For the first time, Pete looks up from the fire and nods to me in greeting.

    "We're just two humble storytellers.  Or, in Pete's case," Mike chuckles, "a story-listener.  We tell stories, and we collect them."  He looks at me.  "Will you tell us yours?"

    The strange request leaves me at a loss for words.  "Geez... my story?  I don't think I really have one.  My life was pretty boring."

    Mike laughs.  It's a deep sound, from his belly, and if he were fifty pounds heavier, he could easily be mistaken for Santa Claus.  "Ridiculous," he says.  "Everyone has a story.  Simply by living, you create stories."  He grins.  "So tell us yours."

    I stare into the flames for a while, pondering what to say.  "I don't even know where to start."

    "I would suggest the beginning."  He shifts his guitar on his knee.  "It's usually the best place to start a story."

    The soft crackling of the flames is reassuring, like the voice of an old friend, and finally I feel like I can speak.  "My name is Cameron O'Riley," I start.  "My parents were Ken and Sarah."

The wind picks up again, and the flames begin to dance.  Staring into the depths of the fire, as I speak, I see two flames, and between them, a smaller flame flickers to life.

    "I was born in a little seaside town in Florida.  I spent a lot of time on the beach back then… heck, I think I learned to swim before I learned to walk."

Mike is plucking strings on his guitar, choosing each one carefully, as though deciding what notes fit the story the best.  Something about the fire, and the music, seems to encourage me, because for hours I tell the story of my life.  Through it all, nothing interrupts but the music of a guitar, the crackle of a fire, and the occasional chirp of a cricket in the long grass.

    We moved a lot when I was a kid, and as my story shifts and people fade in and out, I see flames fade away and new flames join the dance.  In high school, we settled down in a little suburb outside of Atlanta.  I found a close-knit group of friends and for the first time, began to feel at home.  The fire crackles, and it seems to fade from an angry yellow to a warmer orange.

    I tell them about college.  I tell them about struggles with love, and friends who moved away or failed out.  I tell them about my own depression, and the time I hiked my foot up on a tenth-floor balcony and almost ended my story right then.

    I tell them about my longings, my hopes, my dreams.  I tell them about the people I care for.  I tell them about family, about everything I ever wanted to be and everything I wasn't.  Along the way, Mike strums his guitar along with the story, his musical flourishes turning prose into poetry.  And through it all, at the heart of the fire, Pete watches the flames perform their dance.

It ends with an ironic twist.  A swim in the ocean, a rip tide, and sudden blackness.  So much for the guy who learned to swim before walking.  I can almost taste the foul tang of salt water as I finish my story, and Mike plays a final few sad chords before letting the music fade into the stillness of the night.  He leans forward, and looks at Pete.

    The quieter of the two is still staring into the fire, but without looking up, Pete shakes his head, and Mike sighs.  "You've got potential, but you're just not there yet.  Missed opportunities, plotlines unresolved, character development that you never took the time fleshed out... it's gonna be hard to use."  He leans on his guitar and looks at me.  "Follow up on the side characters.  See if you can bring them into the main plot.  And above all, try to find a theme.  So few people do."  He looks over at Pete, then back at me.  "We'll see you in a while, kid."

    Then he strums a disonant chord, in fact the first chord I think I've heard from him that wasn't perfect, and I jerk upright.  The log disappears, and I'm floating again, in the great dark void.  In the distance, I hear a voice.  "Clear!"

    Another jolt, and pain spasms through my chest.  I'm in the middle of the campfire now, little specks of fire dancing around me, and I stare up past the flames at the darkness of the sky.

Another jolt.  I'm sitting outside the fire, a guitar on my knee.  Pete is sitting across the fire, and I could swear I see him chuckle.  "Clear!"

    A burst of light blinds me.  The pain in my chest is ferocious, and I gasp for breath, but spasm instead.  A fit of coughing grips me, and I curl up, coughing water and mucus onto the sand.  A hand pats my shoulder, and I roll onto my back.  As my eyes adjust, and the haze of pain begins to fade, a woman's face comes into focus.  She's looking at me, concerned.  "You okay?"

    I blink, and start to sit up, but a hand pushes me down again.  "Just lie back and relax."

    I feel myself lifted into the air, and lowered onto a soft surface.  The world shifts again.  I'm on a stretcher.  "You'll be fine," says the voice.

    "I know."  I close my eyes, willing the pain away.  "It's just that my editor is pissed."

Comments (2)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

I like the idea of how you fleshed-out the concept of writing life's story. The tone was very conversational which carried the reader. It might be a touch long because it seemed to drag a little in the middle. Rudyard Kipling compared a story to...

I like the idea of how you fleshed-out the concept of writing life's story. The tone was very conversational which carried the reader. It might be a touch long because it seemed to drag a little in the middle. Rudyard Kipling compared a story to a fire in a fireplace, i.e. you have to rake out the ashes to allow the fire to burn nicely. I will usually write a piece and then come back a week later and then chop out a full 25% of the words. We as writers tend to have a lot to say; witness my long comment!

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Joshua Hennen
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Thanks for your feedback! I tend to agree with you, both on the strong points and the weak points. I'll have to take another shot at editing down the middle.

Andrew Williams
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