The burning in his throat woke him. The air reeked of sulfur and ash. He found himself on his side, facing a campfire. A man sat, tending it, only half facing him.
Pushing himself up to a sitting position, he asked, “Where am I?”
The man just gave him a blank look and went back to the fire.
The land around was barren, scarred and blasted, only a few dead trees broke up the hilly landscape. It was black overhead, but no stars shone down. Heat permeated the air.
“I’ve never seen this place before. Where are we?”
The man looked at him again. He had short black hair and very light eyes, which served to create a very eerie appearance. “You have seen this place. Everyone has.”
“No. I’m sure I’d remember something like this.” But he didn’t feel as sure of himself now that he had been challenged. There was something familiar about it.
“You have. Think back to your worst nightmares.”
That struck a chord.
“Wait. You mean I’m in… Wait. I’m dead?”
“Everyone dies sometime.”
“But…” He was dumbstruck. This didn’t make sense. “How did I die? Why can’t I remember that?”
“Must not have been important to you. But really, is that the question you want to ask?”
“Well, why am I here?”
“Ah. There it is. The question everyone asks.”
“Are you going to answer it?”
“What? Why not?”
“Not my place to answer it. You have to. Some people figure out the answer right away. Other people… Well…”
“How do I figure it out?”
“That’s up to you.”
“You’re not very helpful.”
“Never said I was trying to be helpful.”
“Argh! You’re infuriating, you know that?”
“I have been told so. More than once.”
“So if you’re not here to help, why are you here?”
“Ah. I’m not going to tell you that. Personal, you see. None of your business.”
“No, I mean… Why are you right here, sitting by this fire, waiting for me to wake up?”
“I’m by the fire because it’s warm. You happened to fall there. I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Can you tell me anything useful?”
“I can. And before you get annoyed further, I will. See that crack in the ground there?”
“Follow it until you can see a large building. Then, go into the building.”
“And I’ll find answers there?”
“No. Probably just more questions. Though you seem to have a steady supply already.”
“So why would I go there?”
“Almost everybody does. And, no, I haven’t gone, and I don’t know what you’ll find. So you can either stay out here with me, or go there. It’s up to you. But I’ve got nothing more to say.
He stared at the man, but true to his word, he just watched the fire and said nothing more.
This was crazy. It had to be a dream, didn’t it? But what if it wasn’t? What if he had really died and gone to…? He didn’t even want to think it. Instead, he stood up and began walking. Away from the crack.
That was enough to break the man’s silence. “You’re going the wrong way.”
“No. I’m not. You said I had two choices. It struck me as odd you didn’t mention the obvious choice of seeing what else is here. So that’s what I’m going to do. Good luck sitting by your fire.”
The man said nothing, and soon he was too far away to hear anything if he had. This seemed impossible. Even frightening. But he was determined to find out why he was here, though he wasn’t certain he would like the answer.