“Where am I?” The question is so simple yet cliché, but it’s more than appropriate now – you don’t know where you are.
You’re standing on a directionless, uniform, ethereal plain surrounded by enough fog that it’s more like a cloud. Golden ambient light breaks through the haze just enough for you to see a few feet in front of you, but nothing beyond. And there is a silence as if you’re the only creature in existence. Altogether, it’s so unreal that this must be some heavenly vision, but the tangibility of it – the dew on your skin, the echo of your steps – is hyper-real. It can’t possibly be a dream.
“‘Where am I?’ Why is that always the first thing they ask?” You jump, and your heart races. The question had been rhetorical – you’d thought you were alone after all, but something or someone answered. You search from side to side, yet you can’t find the speaker. He sounds the way you’ve always imagined the Cheshire cat speaking, a rich, gentlemanly voice with a condescending tone and out of sight yet somehow all around you. “But, of course, you must be new here. They always are if they’re asking questions, and some don’t even make it this far, so aren’t you special?”
His words irk you into a response, “Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you answer my question? Hmm?”
The speaker sighs. “I always hope they’ll figure things out on their own, but do they? … Y’know, some of them do, but it takes a great effort for them to get there.”
You’re tapping your foot. “I’m waiting.”
“Hardly any need for that attitude, my dear. I daresay your characters get quite enough of it,” comes the response, but this time his voice begins to collect its sound behind you. “Do you mind turning around? Your backside isn’t the view I want.”
You turn around slowly. You’re not sure what to expect, so you can neither say you’re surprised or disappointed when you see him.
He’s a head and shoulders taller than you with a smiling and smug expression on his handsome features. He looks like a train conductor with a suit coat and vest, a hat and tie, and a pocket watch on a golden chain. Yet, he is so much more extravagant than that.
“Without farther ado, welcome to Story’s End.” He bows graciously and gently says, “Do you understand where you are now, my dear?”
And somehow, you understand. You can’t explain it, but you do. A wave of grief and sorrow washes over you. It strips you of your annoyance and playfulness and constricts your chest painfully. It’s almost too much to breathe.
“This -” you say. It’s the understanding you desire, but the realization is agonizing. “This is where – where stories end – where the one I’ve written ends.”
“Good,” the Conductor replies. He now visibly shares your sorrow. “Very good. That makes my task easier. I’ve met some authors who refuse their ending. They just continue…”
He wants to say more, but you’re overwhelmed. It’s all too much. You’ve worked on your story for years. The ending – it’s too abrupt.
Tear break your resolve. Your knees buckle. You collapse into the mist.
“Now, now,” he says. You bury your head in your hands. “There is no need to cry. You’ve done well. You made it here after all.”
After speaking, the Conductor kneels and begins stroking your back, and he waits, waits until you’re ready. Time doesn’t stop or go, slow down or speed up. It simply ceases to bother you.
Finally, as your tears peter into sniffles before receding, the Conductor whispers, “I had hoped that you were able to understand this on your own because I know it would be harder for you – you’ve survived more than most. If you please, my dear, we have places to be before …”
He rises and offers his hand.
Reluctantly, you reach and grasp it.
The world becomes a kaleidoscope the instant you take it. Vivid colors swirl around you. Shapes form one moment and return to fluid the next. The wind picks up speed. It forces you to shield your eyes from its blister, and the Conductor tightens his grip. Only he remains as he was moments before. He’s smiling.
“Aha, here is our stop,” he says. Your stomach churns while colors slow down, shapes solidify, and the fog settles. “If you’ll stand, we’ll have a look around.”
Your legs shake, but they still work better than expected.
The Conductor beams at you as he leads you forward. “Do you know where we are?”
Your eyes widen. It’s impossible, yet you’re standing in a place you’ve only dreamed of: the beginning – your beginning. You needed it to be just right, and you labored over it for months before you continued. It’d been a rookie mistake, but a learning experience nonetheless.
“Very good, I thought you might. Some writers are shocked when I bring them here,” he says, keeping hold of your hand. “This is Story’s End, but that doesn’t make the beginning unimportant. Sometimes, it’s more important than the End.”
A smile embraces your face while joyful tears trickle down your cheeks. You’d started and restarted the beginning so many times you lost count, but you still know every detail so well. Your characters are standing life-sized at the moment you started with them, waiting for their adventure to begin.
A mechanical click breaks the silence. You’ve been admiring the scene that you’ve almost forgotten the Conductor.
“Well, now dear,” he says, you see him stowing his pocket watch. “We’ve another stop before … We must be going.”
“Mhmm.” You nod and wipe away tears and tighten your grip on the Conductor’s hand.
Your beginning disappears with mounting speed, and the kaleidoscope starts all over again. Shapes and basic objects form and fade fast. Colors you’ve never before experienced glow and dissolve.
“Here we are. Right on schedule,” the Conductor announces, and the kaleidoscope solidifies instantly. Another scene is all around you with vaporous tendrils coming off the new forms. “I don’t need to ask or tell you where we are.”
He is right. You know where you are.
“This is … This is my ending.”
You turn to him. “Why’d it – why’d it end like this? I – I didn’t start expecting this.”
“No. No, you didn’t. Few storytellers ever expect to end where they do, and the journey they take to get there is very unplanned,” the Conductor says with a heavy sigh. “You ended here because the tale you told deserved it.”
“But, not everyone made it, not everyone survived.” You grimace. You aren’t unhappy with what you wrote. You’re upset with yourself, but you can’t explain why.
“No, not everyone does. The pen is mightier than the sword, especially in your hands and you wield it with special care. Some authors treat their characters like pawns to be moved around deliberately, but others, just as good as the first, feel as much – no! They feel more than their characters. You’re among the latter.”
“Why does it have to be so real?”
“Because, it is real, especially for you. You wrote reality into fiction, your fiction. Now, the realities you wrote of can echo into the real, and make a difference,” the Conductor answers, looking at you with reverence and love. “Only the best of them ask that question.”
You look back at your ending and smile.
“Maybe … history isn’t the only thing we can learn from.”
“Correct,” he says. “Now, my dear, you’re drooling on your keyboard.”
The Conductor lets go of your hand. “It’s time to wake up!”