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The Terror of White Walls

Matthew Alcorn

When I opened my eyes, I was surprised to find myself not in the queen bed that I’d slept in nearly every night of my adult life but on the floor of a small room with four blindingly white walls. There was no apparent source of light, but the walls themselves seemed to radiate a light intense enough to make me wince. My next observation was that there were no doors, windows, cracks, or holes through which I could peer beyond my stark white surroundings.

At first, I assumed that this must be an elaborate prank, most likely my son’s doing. Jackson had inherited his late mother’s penchant for mischievousness, and moving his sleeping father from his bed to a strange and otherworldly room, while odd and arguably a few steps past eccentricity and into the realm of crazy, wouldn’t be too out of line with the sort of jokes he had played in the past. I tried shouting, “Alright son, you got me good, now can you let me out? I’d really like my fried egg and coffee.” There was no response. In fact, there was no sound at all except for the faint hum of electricity that reminded me of a fluorescent light fixture. It was then that I recalled that my son no longer lived with me and had long since been married and had two children of his own.

After a few more vain attempts to call for help, I stood and began examining the walls. I knocked on them, trying to gauge their thickness and determine the material they were comprised of, hoping to find that they were thin and hollow. If no one was going to let me out, maybe I could break my way out, even if my arthritic joints seemed less than fond of the idea. Rapping on the walls, I found them to be thicker and harder than concrete. A wave of panic swept through me which I struggled to repress. Whatever this was, I’d break every bone in my body before busting through.

Then a thought came to me: perhaps I had died and this was some sort of holding cell for the soul—a personal purgatory. I was certainly old enough for a natural death to come without great shock to my family, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for whichever of my children would be the unfortunate one to stumble onto my lifeless form.

Resigning myself to whatever fate had been foisted upon me, I sat down and was suddenly aware that the room was obscenely cold. Not the kind of cold you feel when you walk outside to pick up the newspaper on a January morning without shoes or an overcoat, but an arctic chill, one that sinks past the skin and sends sharp pains ricocheting in jagged paths throughout one’s body. I closed my eyes and curled into a tight ball, rubbing my chest, attempting in vain to create a sliver of warmth. When I opened my eyes, the room was the same except for three unexplainable additions.

In the center of the room there was a small metal fire pit, which I am certain was not there before. Beside the pit I found a thick, black book and a lighter. Without hesitation, I grabbed the book and opened to the first page, intent on ripping it out and setting it ablaze, which is when I realized it wasn’t merely a book. It was a photo album, and the photos were of me.

More specifically, they were of my life, the events that made up my earthly existence beginning with my very first memory (falling from the counter my mother had sat me on and smacking my head on our kitchen’s tile floor). While attempting to ignore the cold, I began to flip through the subsequent pages. I saw my seventh birthday, when my best friend Oscar ate too much cake and vomited on my aunt Jane, my high school graduation, meeting my wife for the first time, our marriage, the birth of our kids, her chemo sessions . . . it was all there. Apprehension gripped my heart as I approached the final page. Assuming my death theory was correct, I was consumed with morbid curiosity—what had been my last memory? When I reached the final page, I was greeted by the smiling faces of my grandchildren piling around my recliner beside the Christmas tree, a copy of The Night Before Christmas open in my lap. I smiled. At least I had gone out on a positive note.

My contentedness was short-lived, pushed aside by the gnawing cold. I tore the first page from the album, lit the edge, and tossed it into the fire pit. Immediately, my body was flooded with an unnatural yet soothing warmth, and I relaxed. But as the page burned, I felt a searing pain in my head, like someone had taken a branding iron to my temporal lobe. My first memory was gone, and in its place, there was a void. When the page was finally reduced to ashes, the cold returned, vicious and unrelenting. My heart sank, heavy with the realization of the horrific choice that was before me. I could either suffer an endless, agonizing cold in this hell of blazingly bright white walls or burn my own memories for brief moments of relief.

I wish I could say that I put up a good fight against the cold, but in truth it didn’t take more than a minute before I was ripping another page from the book and setting it ablaze. It was almost a compulsion, as if the choice was an illusion. Try as I might, I couldn’t keep myself from burning page after page, desperate for relief. My head throbbed as memory after memory was scorched from my mind, but it was still better than the cold. Childhood birthdays, early lovers, and the faces of friends flew up in a billow of smoke before dissipating into the white nothingness of the room. I tried to burn judiciously, avoiding what was most precious to me: my late wife, my son, my daughter, and my grandchildren. This continued for what seemed like days, incalculable hours of fighting to stave off the biting cold.

Eventually, nothing in the book remained, save the faces and names of those I loved most. As I allowed the fire to die, the cold seeped back into my body. The agony I felt was far beyond even the most graphic and violent depictions of Hell. Even so, I clung desperately to those few remaining photographs. If I didn’t have them, then what was I? How could I even be considered human if I lacked any memory of my existence? And what would hurt worse, losing my loved ones forever or spending eternity in a frozen Hell?

So, I sat. I froze. I hoped that hypothermia would set in and at least give my brain the illusion of warmth that comes before that kind of death, but that respite never came. I don’t know if it had been seconds, days, years, or millennia before I finally took the page containing my beautiful grandchildren and let it be devoured by the greedy flames. As they left me, I cried. I sobbed like an infant who doesn’t even know why he is sobbing. When all that remained in the pit was ash, I tossed in the book itself, with the pictures of my wife and children, and flicked the lighter.

With the book reduced to ash, I felt a new sensation. The cold was gone and in its place there was . . . nothing. True nothingness. An absence of existence. It made me miss the cold.

Then, it appeared. On the far wall, in the center, there was a door. I struggled to my feet, shuffled towards the door, and grasped the handle. No sooner had my hand touched the metal of the handle that every memory returned to me in a flood of ecstasy and warmth. My children, grandchildren, wife, and everything that comprised my life was returned to me. With a sigh of relief, I turned the handle and exited the white-walled room, eyes shut as tears of joy dampened my face.

When I opened my eyes, I was surprised to find myself not in the queen bed that I’d slept in nearly every night for most of my adult life but on the floor of a small room with four blindingly white walls.

Matthew Alcorn (he/him) is an educator and aspiring writer. When he isn't teaching literature or writing, he reads for White Cresset Arts Journal. In his spare time, he tries to find ways to make his daughter laugh. His twitter is @mattwritesstuff.

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