As Long As I Live ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The precious, leaden moments slipped away. Time was running out. He had five more days. He could see a clock on the wall but tried not to look—he could go mad looking at the clock! And though he was alone, he had nothing resembling privacy; someone was watching him all the time. They thought he might try a do-it-yourself job, which could make you laugh if you thought about it long enough.
They brought him magazines but he didn’t open them. They offered him tranquilizers (handed through the bars one at a time, of course) to calm his nerves, but he declined them. They brought him cigarettes, candy and chewing gum, but they lay untouched. They brought him writing paper to write any farewell letters, but he had none to write. They offered to bring in a TV to brighten his final hours, but a TV would only remind him of the things he was trying to forget and he declined it. When asked what he wanted for his final meal, he said he wanted only the Last Rites administered by the prison chaplain.
He had had many confidential conversations with the prison chaplain and had been absolved of his sins. He signed the papers to have his body donated to medical research. He said all the goodbyes he needed to say. Nothing was left undone.
The guard, the one named Finch, told him the best thing he could do for himself in preparation for the Big Day was to clear his mind—let go of guilt, remorse, painful memories—anything that was gnawing away at his mind. It was the best advice he had received in prison—or in life, for that matter.
Five more days; nothing to do but wait. It was all downhill now. He was ready to go, ready for his sentence to be carried out. (I’m ready for my execution, Mr. DeMille!) His whole life, from the very beginning, had been leading up to this moment.
He regarded his reflection in the mirror and thought how soon he would be only a shadow, a shade, a memory to anybody who might have any reason at all to remember him. When he was gone, it would be as if he never existed; he would leave nothing behind.
He lay on his bunk and looked at the ceiling. He turned on his side and looked at the wall. He thought about his body that would soon be a nameless, faceless laboratory specimen. (If there’s anything you can use that might help somebody else, welcome to it!) He thought about the oxygen that kept him alive, no matter how unworthy, and the heart that miraculously pumped blood to every part of his body.
On Wednesday morning, two days before the Big Day, the guards bound his hands and feet and ushered him into a small room in a part of the prison he had never seen before. They set him down at a table with his back to the wall and left.
Four other men were in the room; they were all on the other side of the table, facing him. He knew that one was the prison warden but he didn’t know who the others were. He relaxed in the chair and took a deep breath. He had nothing more to fear.
“How are you holding up?” the warden asked.
“I’m all right.”
“Do you need anything? Anything we can do for you?”
“I see from your records that you have no family. You’re forty-two years old, married twice but divorced both times, no children.”
“That’s right. Family all dead. A couple of ex-wives who would love to pull the switch.”
“Your health is good. No diseases, no addictions.”
“You know what they say: health is wealth.”
“Your psych report looks good.”
“That’s because I’m so stupid.”
“That’s not what it says here. Your intelligence is far above average.”
“I’m a good faker.”
“You took a wrong turn somewhere.”
“Many wrong turns.”
The warden set aside the papers, folded his hands and cleared his throat. “I’m going to make you a proposition,” he said.
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“Do you believe the earth has been visited by alien beings?”
“Is this a joke?”
“No, it’s not a joke. Do I need to repeat the question?”
“No, I got it. It’s just not the kind of question I expected to be asked. Do I believe the earth has been visited by alien beings? I’ve never really thought about it, but I suppose I would have to say yes, I believe the earth has been visited by alien beings.”
“Would you believe me if I told you the United States government has been in contact with an alien race, an alien intelligence, for thirty years or more?”
“Sure, I’d believe it. Why not?”
“They want a small number of men from earth.”
“The alien race.”
“What do they want them for?”
“That’s the thing. We can only speculate.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we don’t know.”
“They’re from another planet?”
“Let’s just say they exist in another world.”
“I honestly don’t know what you’re trying to say to me.”
“As a model prisoner, you qualify for a special program.”
“Yeah? What program is that?”
“You can go and live among this alien race for the rest of your life, if you so choose.”
“It’s entirely your choice. You get to choose. Only you, nobody else. If you choose not to participate, your sentence will be carried out on Friday night.”
“I’m not sure I’m hearing this right. I can do what?”
“Your death sentence will be commuted if you choose to go live in another world with an alien race.”
“I must be dreaming. I’ll wake up any minute.”
“It’s no dream.”
“This is for real?”
“Absolutely for real!”
“This is not just another psychological test where you gauge my reaction?”
“It’s not a test.”
“All right. When do I go?”
“Day after tomorrow. Friday.”
“And what will those aliens do to me? Will they cut me up in little pieces? Will they eat me for dinner? Will they make me a slave?”
“They promise humane treatment. That’s all I know.”
“Well, that sounds good enough for me. Where do I sign?”
“You don’t need time to think about it?”
“No. I’ll do it.”
“Once you’ve decided, you can’t change your mind.”
“I don’t want to change my mind. I’ll go. Anything is better than the forty thousand volts.”
They removed him to an isolation cell so he couldn’t talk to anybody. No guards, no chaplain, no fellow prisoners, nothing. Complete isolation. Food and drink would be given to him through a little compartment in the door, without any human contact.
He still believed they might be playing a trick on him, but as the hours went by he began to have a different view of midnight Friday night. Instead of darkness and oblivion, he now saw something different, a tiny light at the end of a long tunnel. He wasn’t going to be fooled, though. The world had a way of dashing his brains out at every turn.
In his different cell, he could no longer see the clock, but he knew from the light coming in at the window that it was Wednesday night. Then it was Thursday morning. His breakfast was handed in at the little opening in the door and then, hours later, lunch.
Thursday afternoon and evening seemed interminable. He lay on the bunk, paced the floor, counted the tiles in the floor, counted his breaths. When the evening meal was delivered, he called through the opening that he needed to speak to the warden, but there was no response. He wanted some questions answered before he was going to climb on any old spaceship to the stars.
Finally it was Friday morning, his last day in prison, his last day on earth. He felt brave and almost happy and then his insides quaked with terror. He had changed his mind. He didn’t want to go. What had he signed on for? He wasn’t going to be the plaything of hideous aliens on a faraway planet. There was no way of knowing what kind of tortures they might subject him to. Maybe he wouldn’t even be able to breathe when he got there. He wanted to put a stop to this thing. He wanted to die as scheduled at midnight and let that be the end of it.
He wasn’t able to touch his breakfast, but when lunch was delivered he felt calm again, his hands had stopped shaking, his heart was no longer hammering in his chest and his breaths didn’t choke him. He ate everything on his lunch tray and then he took a restful nap.
He was awakened by the opening of the door to his cell. It was the warden, the doctor and the chaplain. The warden had some “release forms” for him to sign; he signed them without even looking at them. The doctor gave him shots in both arms, checked his blood pressure and listened to his heart. When he was finished, he nodded to the warden to indicate that everything was all right. The chaplain then stepped forward to administer the Last Rites. He spoke a few lines of Latin, made a few sweeping gestures with his hands, and then he was finished.
“Just a few more hours now and you’ll be on your way,” the warden said, smiling encouragingly and touching him on the upper arm. “You have my very best wishes for a safe journey.”
As soon as the warden and the others left, he received his dinner tray. He ate all the food and drank the tea. When he was finished, he lay down on his bunk with his hands behind his head to wait for what was going to happen next.
The next time the door opened, he jumped up expectantly. “Is it time?” he asked. It was two men he had never seen before. They escorted him to the shower room, told him to strip down, wash thoroughly with a special soap they gave him, take care of any personal needs he might have, and when he was finished to dress in a heavy nylon jumpsuit that encompassed his body like a cocoon.
He was then put in a “holding cell.” On his way to the cell, he caught a glimpse of a clock; it was ten minutes after eleven. He had less than an hour.
A short time later, two mysterious “attendants,” faces covered, came to the holding cell and, without speaking a word, escorted him up three flights to the roof of the prison.
On the prison roof was a wooden structure about twenty feet high, not unlike a gallows. He was taken to the top of the structure and placed on his back on a low platform. A helmet was placed on his head and his arms and legs strapped down. Then, still without speaking, the attendants placed a cover over his body, like the lid of a coffin, blocking out the starry sky. Then the attendants were gone, having completed their job.
He lay still and waited. He hated the feeling of being helplessly tied down and unable to move. His heart pounded and he was sweating. Was he going to suffocate? How long would he have to wait before something happened?
Ten minutes passed and then fifteen and then thirty. He wanted to call for the attendants to come and let him out, but he was sure nobody would hear him. He was scared and ready to call the whole deal off. He didn’t want to go to…wherever it was. He’d rather face the electric chair and have it over and done with. Clean and quick.
It started with a gentle vibration like the rocking of a rowboat, followed by bright lights all around that he could see even with the helmet over his head and the cover over his body. The vibrating intensified, becoming a shaking that he felt in his gut the way he felt a carnival ride when he was ten years old. A low rumbling sound like a car with a hole in its muffler became louder and louder, a gradually rising crescendo, until it was so loud he wanted to cover his ears if only he could lift his arms.
He felt himself being lifted up then—up, up, up into the sky—gently at first and then faster. His fear was replaced by a sense of well-being, a feeling of joy that he hadn’t felt in a long time and maybe never. It was the last thing he knew before he lost consciousness.
He was in the land of oblivion for what might have been a minute, a day, a month, a lifetime, or a thousand years. When he regained himself, he was lying in a brightly lighted white room. He was aware at once of another person standing nearby.
“Where am I?” he asked. “Am I on a Mars?”
“Not Mars,” a male voice said. “You wouldn’t be able to breathe on Mars.”
“Where am I, then?”
“The land where the bong tree grows.”
“How did I get here? Am I dead?”
“We’ll keep you here for a couple of days to make sure you’re not having any serious side effects.”
“Side effects from what?”
“Are you hungry? I can get you some food.”
He lifted his head to see the person he was speaking to. “Are you a doctor?” he asked.
“Enough of a doctor for you.”
After two days of “medical evaluation,” he was taken to his own house, a low structure built into the side of a hill. Two young attendants brought him food, clothes to wear, and anything else he might need. When he tried to speak to the attendants, they looked away and wouldn’t answer.
The house contained every comfort. There were thousands of books (in English and other languages) arranged neatly in bookcases, American magazines dating from the 1940s and ‘50s, a record player with a collection of records, a bed, chairs, couch, table, piano, prints on the walls. Much better than his prison cell. Nothing to complain about.
After five days of being left alone, the first “tissue sample” was taken from his arm by a silent attendant.
“What is this for?” he asked.
“I don’t understand your language,” the attendant said.
The next day he was given pills with his food.
“What are the pills for?” he asked.
“To keep you healthy,” was the reply.
It took him a while to figure out the attendants weren’t human. They were human-like machines.
Left on his own as he was, he began taking long walks. There were trees, hills, flowers (profuse and enormous), birds, and small scurrying animals in the underbrush, much like on earth. Unlike earth, though, the sky was more violet than blue. Trees grew to the astonishing height of hundreds of feet. Water in streams sparkled like liquid diamonds, as if the water contained some quality that water on earth was lacking.
And in all his long walks, he never met another human. Had he ever been any place on earth where dozens or hundreds of people weren’t clamoring to be seen and heard? He was convinced at times that he was dead and what he was experiencing was the afterlife.
Far off in the distance from his house, he could see a high wall or fortress, but it was too far away to tell what it was. In the opposite direction, equally far off, was a similar fortress. If he watched long enough, he saw strange silver streaks in the sky going to—or away from—the fortresses. If he looked at the silver streaks long enough, they disappeared.
The next time an attendant came to take a tissue sample from his body, he asked what the fortresses were.
“It’s the walled cities where they live,” the attendant said.
“Where who lives?”
“Who are they?”
“They created all this.”
“I’m afraid I’ve said too much.”
Attendants came regularly and collected tissue samples, to which he readily submitted. Every day they brought pills with his food, which he took obediently; he didn’t want to consider the consequences of not taking the pills. He had the idea that if he rebelled against anything that was asked of him, he might be sent back to prison and the electric chair.
In a dream, on a hill not far from his house, he met an old man dressed in shabby evening attire. The old man offered him a smoke, which he declined.
“Sit down and rest for a while,” the old man said. They both sat on a rock projecting out of the hillside.
“None of this is real, is it?” he asked the old man.
“As real as you are,” the old man said.
“I think I might be dead.”
“A man can think too much, you know.”
“What are those huge walls?” he asked. “Over there and over there?”
The old man laughed and took a draw on his pipe. “It’s where they live,” he said.
“Yes, you’ve heard about them?”
“Yes. Who are they, anyway?”
“They created all this. They’re the reason you’re here.”
“Why do I never see them?”
“They don’t want you to see them. All they want from you is your DNA.”
“They take tissue samples from you, don’t they?”
“Why, yes. How did you know?”
“They’re making clones.”
“Yes, they’re very capable. They can do anything, except fight their own wars.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The Western Sylphs are at war with the Eastern Sylphs. It’s a war that never ends. The Sylphs are unable to fight on their own, so they use clones. The tissue samples they take from you are used in making the clones to fight the wars. When they’re killed in battle, it’s just so much trash.”
“What’s wrong with the Sylphs? Why can’t they fight their own wars?”
“You haven’t seen them. As smart as they are, they’re very weak. They’re all white and only about four feet tall. They have huge heads and faces like hideous frogs.”
“If I go to the walled city, will I see them?”
“They’d never let you in.”
“But you’ve seen them?”
“Yes, I’ve seen them.”
And then, after a significant silence, he asked the old man the question that most troubled him: “What is this place?”
The old man looked at him, smiled, and shook his head. “It’s probably not what you think.”
“A planet far from earth?”
“That’s what people think, but that’s not what it is.”
“What is it, then?”
“It’s what you call a parallel world. It exists right alongside earth, but, of course, people on earth are not aware of it, because they’re not supposed to be. There are many parallel worlds. Probably thousands. Maybe millions.”
“I’ve never heard of a parallel world! Why me?”
“You are fulfilling your destiny, that’s all.”
He was going to ask the old man who he was and why he knew so much, but the strange call of a bird distracted him. He turned his head to look at the bird and when he turned back, the old man was gone.
Later, he thought of the dream as a “vision.” He didn’t know who the old man was and never saw him again but believed he was a manifestation of God.
The pills he took every day kept him from being older. After fifty years or a hundred years, he still looked the same as when he first arrived. Tissue samples continued to be taken on a regular basis. It was the only requirement made of him. The rest of the time he was left alone.
After two hundred years and more, in the natural order of things, he began to change. His body thickened; he became stooped. His skin lost its color and became white. His hair came out and soon it was as if he had never had any hair at all. His hands and feet became webbed; his nails lengthened and became talon-like. At first he was alarmed by these changes, but then he stopped bothering to look at himself in the mirror and stopped thinking about the way he looked. If he ever had any vanity or pride, it was gone.
His physical transformation complete, he began receiving telepathic communications. Go to the Walled City of the Western Sylphs, he was told.
The trip took two days; he moved slowly and had to make his way through swamps and undergrowth. Large birds constantly circled overhead to help him find the way. When he finally reached the Walled City, a gate opened for him as if by magic and he entered.
The Sylphs received him as one of their own and assimilated him into their millions. He was revered because he came from another realm and was hundreds of years old.
After he had lived among the Sylphs for a time and had absorbed their ways and customs, he forgot he had ever been anything other than a Sylph. He had no recollection of ever being a human man, of ever existing on earth. This too was part of his inescapable destiny.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp