All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
I arrived in town earlier today to attend my younger sister’s wedding tomorrow.
It has been almost ten years since I first left for university. The old town, stuck in the middle of a valley between two rolling mountain ridges, was where my sister and I spent our childhood. The town was small yet closely bonded: every family knew every family. Even the gatekeeper living alone on the edge of town was included as part of the community. Only occasionally were there visitors, mostly geography experts from the nearest city, asking about a plan to build a reservoir in the valley.
“Where do you all plan to go afterward?”
“That’s the question we wish to ask you.” The gatekeeper would reply calmly, refusing to let the experts enter our idyllic town.
In our understanding, the tiny village can never be replaced by a reservoir. The farmlands were injected with both our organic fertilizers and sentiment—for generations we grew up with the valley. For centuries we were completely forgotten, like a piece of porcelain from prehistoric civilizations buried and obscured in the sand before suddenly being discovered and exhibited by archaeologists.
What was forgotten along with us was our story—the secret I have kept for ten years.
That summer I turned 18, and my younger sister 14. She was ready for first year of high
school and I, a university freshman. We had much time to spare for months.
The town was an old acquaintance to us. We knew every corner of the valley by heart,
having grown up with it. What lured us was the city beyond the mountains—the traffic, the people, the shops. The geography experts and the books they gave us made city life sound so interesting that we couldn’t resist going there against the will of our parents.
One evening, before going to bed, I stared out the window and found our family minivan parked beside the main road instead of behind our house. That means the keys were likely still on the kitchen table, where they always put it to remind themselves to move the minivan to our back yard after unloading the supplies to the kitchen.
I bounced out of bed, pulled the city map out from my pillowcase, and shook my sister awake from the opposite bed. We tiptoed our way to the kitchen, picked up the keys, and pushed the minivan down the main road like a bicycle to the edge of town before starting the engine. None of our neighbors could hear the noise that way.
The night in the mountains was quiet and serene, broken by two teenage girls and their parents’ minivan, craving a peek at the world outside the valley.
The city lights were more glamorous than we could ever imagine. We drove down the busy
streets, surrounded by shades of red and blue and green, immersed in the honking of congested automobiles and buses. We looked up and could see twos and threes of colorful neon lights blinking high up in the night sky, drifting across the horizon as the planes prepared for landing at the city airport. Everything we have ever read and heard came true.
Among the myriads of signs stuck above the doors of shops was a tiny glowing arrow with the word “bar” written on it. I felt my sister pulling on my sleeve.
After a drink, both of us felt dizzy. Sudden nausea brought back my alert mode as I realized that things were going wrong. I turned to my sister, who seemed to be speaking to some gentleman I fail to recognize.
“Anna, it’s time to go.”
My sister attempted another drink but grudgingly followed me outside. She lay down in the back of the minivan, blabbering gibberish, as I plugged in the keys to head back home.
The roads felt bumpier on the way back. As we approached the village, my view was becoming dimmer and dimmer. All I could make out was the light of the gatekeeper’s cottage flickering on, and the rest of town embraced by darkness and slumber.
I stopped the engine at the edge of town and attempted to push the minivan forward. Yet the drink must have interfered with my strength as well—the minivan did not budge.
“Anna, wake up and help me push this thing, hurry.”
Anna sat up and got out of the van, stumbled a few steps, then crouched down by the side of the road. She couldn’t even keep herself standing straight, let alone help me with the van. In the chilly night winds, at the edge of town, the mischievous two young women were destined to be caught.
Then we heard, in the distance, an ominous cracking of a door. I looked up and saw, in the lighted doorway of the gatekeeper’s cottage, stood a dark silhouette.
The gatekeeper took over the minivan and pushed it into town with ease. I, terrified at being caught, returned to my sister and attempted to help her up.
“Hold on, I’ll come back for her.”
The gatekeeper parked the minivan in front of his cottage and returned to us. He picked
Anna up—his posture reminded me of how mother taught me to hold babies when Anna was several months old—and entered the cottage.
I hesitated on the front steps.
“Come in, please.”
I didn’t budge.
“I will not hurt you. I’m here to help you. Trust me.” My alert mode was still turned on.
The gatekeeper signed. “I will tell you why you should trust me after you come inside. If you don’t want your parents finding out you snuck out to a bar, you have to let me help you.”
Reluctantly I stepped inside.
The gatekeeper cleared out his bed and invited us to sit.
“Milk or honey water?”
“Do you prefer milk or honey water?”
We did not answer. The gatekeeper handed us two small bottles of milk.
“This will hopefully treat nausea.”
Anna gulped down the liquid, but I held the bottle firmly in my hands.
“Ah, that feels nice.” Anna smiled.
“Sleep.” The gatekeeper smiled and gestured towards the bed.
Anna, possibly believing it was her bedroom, plopped down on the bed without hesitation and quickly fell asleep.
“Drink,” The gatekeeper turned to me after covering Anna with his sheets, “Or else tomorrow morning you will feel worse. And your parents will notice.”
“Did you put sleeping pills in here?”
“No. The seal is still complete, see.”
“I don’t trust you.”
The gatekeeper sat down beside me and told me the story—the story that will continue to haunt my nightmares and reality for the following ten years.
I stared at him defensively. I have never had the chance of staring into the gatekeeper’s eyes before. It felt familiar as if I had already spent a lifetime staring into a similar pair of eyes, pure and earnest and gentle.
I took a deep breath and decided to trust those eyes.
Anna sat in front of the mirror, with two friends helping her with the makeup and headdress. In the next room, our parents were getting dressed to greet the guests. Downstairs, a truck was loaded with all their furniture and belongings, ready to take them to a new house in the city.
I sat on the sofa behind them, watching them smile beautifully in the mirror. From where I sat I could see the doorway, where a shadowed figure approached, sneaked a peak, then quickly turned away.
I knew the shadow too well.
I flung open the door, only to see the figure rushing down the flight of stairs.
Wishing to call him back, I opened my mouth but no sound came out. What should I call him by? Certainly not “gatekeeper,” but that was the identity people knew him by. Only I knew that he had a second name, and I must keep the secret.
“Sir, wait a moment please, sir.” I ended up shouting.
He did not look back but began to run towards the edge of town, past his cottage, and into the mountains. I followed along, but after a few turns, I got lost.
“Sir?” I shouted, “Sir!”
I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted with all my strength.
“I know you are listening sir, so hear me out!”
My own voice echoed back at me from the empty mountain ridges.
“You have spent your life loving a woman, protecting the lands that contained your memory with her, protecting her daughters. Now it’s her daughter’s wedding, and the last time you will ever see her—grow some courage, it’s your final chance to let her know!”
Let her know, that someone had voluntarily given up his entire life, more than fifty years, to protect the land. Silently he watched over her, making sure that all her wishes came true, all her desires fulfilled and her joys savored.
“It’s unfair to you if she never knows!”
No response. Only the honking of excavators thundered in the distance, building the dam to fill the valley into a reservoir.
He failed at last, after half a century of struggles. In a gamble of “all or nothing,” he started off as a teenager clinging on to the hope of achieving everything yet ended up as an old man alone, staring into the reservoir with empty eyes. Time flowed past as his life came to a halt—the cruel verdict of unrequited love.
As I wandered my way around the mountain roads, my memory journeyed back to the evening when we snuck out to the bar. Back then we dreamed so dearly of growing up and seeing the world outside. Yet some people never grow up: they learned to hold on to their teenage zeal with child-like persistence.
I could almost see my young self again with the minivan, pushing my way through, as if simply by heading forward, I could achieve the ultimate answer.