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A SHORT STORY: The Gatekeeper by Lorilyn Roberts

Last updated on September 5, 2022

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Ivan, the gatekeeper, summoned the young lad, Leonid Portnoy. Having just turned 21, Leonid was now considered an adult according to the village’s laws. The majestic sun hung over Ivan’s shoulder as he stood next to the gate. Gently rolling hills and pleasant valleys surrounded the obscure town. At an undisclosed location, it was the only city in the world where people didn’t have to work if they didn’t want to, and everything was provided to its residents for free.

Hidden City would remain hidden as long as Ivan was its gatekeeper. For decades, he had protected the village. As the oldest living resident, Ivan didn’t know everyone in the village, but everyone without exception knew Ivan. And while his life was coming to an end, he had never shared the secret to his longevity.

A stranger visited Ivan when he was young and gave him a book. Then the stranger told him some truths that made him shudder. Ivan never saw the stranger again, though he searched far and wide. After all these years, Ivan never shared what the stranger told him. Now, the sick man sat beside the gate with the setting sun at his back. How many more days would he be able to perform his duties? He had summoned Leonid Portnoy to appear before him. Where was he? The perfumed flowers along the fence lifted his spirits. Ivan glanced at his watch and massaged his fingers to warm them. So much to say, Ivan mused, but so little time.

The hour was late, and Ivan admitted he had a sense of dread. Perhaps Leonid got off work late. Maybe he didn’t see the summons. Life changed for all the young people in Hidden City when they turned 21. A house and car were awarded to each resident if he had been a good citizen. Money didn’t exist. If a person wanted something, all she had to do was request it, and in 30 days, she received it—free of charge.

Many thought Hidden City was just folklore. But almost everyone who believed it existed wanted to live there. A few souls knew its location, but entry was forbidden under the penalty of death.

By contrast, nobody from Hidden City ever wanted to leave. Why would they? Everyone was rich, could have whatever they wanted, and never went without food.

Ivan began to cough and reached into his robe pocket for a throat lozenge. He hoped to silence the cough before Leonid arrived when he would need to talk. The ongoing cough was a reminder of the progression of his disease. He would not escape the ravages of its curse despite outliving everyone else in Hidden City.

But at last, Ivan saw Leonid approaching in the distance.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Leonid said as he neared. “I stopped by the store on the way home. Only when I arrived did I see the summons.”

Ivan waved his hand dismissively. “No problem, Leonid.” Ivan pulled up a chair and pointed. “Please, have a seat. I have some business to discuss with you.”

Leonid complied immediately. “Am I in trouble?”

Ivan laughed. “Of course not. You are one of the most trusted young men, and…”

Relief crossed the lad’s face that the gatekeeper wasn’t going to reprimand him, but when Ivan stopped midsentence, Leonid leaned in. He didn’t want to miss something important.

Ivan bit his lip, unsure of how much he should tell Leonid. There was no guarantee the young lad would agree to his business proposition, and if he didn’t agree, the information he shared could put Leonid at risk.

*~*~*

Leonid’s life had not been easy. Both of his parents died before he turned twelve, so he had been raised by various families in the village. That was typical because most people died before age thirty. If someone lived to forty, that was unusual. Leonid didn’t know how old Ivan was, but the fact that he had white hair made him seem ancient to the lad. Ivan had no power beyond his duties as gatekeeper, but his old age earned him great respect.

Leonid’s thoughts returned to the present. Why had Ivan summoned him out of the thousands who lived in the city? He anxiously waited for Ivan to finish his sentence. Soon the sun would settle below the hills. Leonid did not like walking around after dark, especially when it was such a long walk back to his apartment.

“…and what?” Leonid asked.

Ivan glanced around, perhaps making sure no one could overhear their conversation.

“Leonid,” Ivan said, “I want you to take over my duties as the gatekeeper of the village.”

Leonid stared at Ivan in disbelief. To take over the duties of gatekeeper seemed way beyond his abilities. Not that it was hard, but the prestige that went with it, the trust of the government and the people—plus it was a full-time job. Ivan’s house was beside the gate. Did that mean he would live in Ivan’s house? And what about Ivan? Did he not want to be a gatekeeper anymore?

“Why do you want to step down from being the gatekeeper?” Leonid asked. “It’s the most prestigious job in the village.”

Ivan’s eyes appeared sad to Leonid. Perhaps Leonid didn’t want to know the answer; he regretted asking the question.

But Ivan didn’t wait this time to answer. “Leonid, I’m dying. I have the cough of death, and you are the only one I trust to take the job of gatekeeper.” He waved his hand. “I know the government will find someone to replace me if you don’t accept my offer, but who knows if the appointed person might be dishonest. The outside world is very different. Money is needed to purchase things like food, cars, and gas. A greedy person who wanted to get rich could do so easily at the expense of the folks who live here and abscond with all that wealth outside the city gates.”

“What’s money?” Leonid asked. In Hidden City, everybody had plenty and needed nothing

Ivan pointed to the barbwire fence. “Beyond that fence and gate, people live a long time. They don’t die young. So supplies are limited and there isn’t enough food. Land is expensive. That’s why everybody wants to come here. They know the residents can have everything they want. However, if the government allowed visitors into the village, Hidden City would be exposed for what it is, and the landowners don’t want that to happen.”

“Has anybody ever left Hidden City?” Leonid asked.

Ivan shook his head. “Anybody can leave, but they can never return.”

“Why is that,” Leonid asked. “I’ve never understood why.”

Ivan lifted his head toward the heavens. “Leonid, there is a cost to freedom. In Hidden City, no one is free. And although everyone’s life is shortened, the citizens have everything they need. Nobody goes without.”

Leonid’s heart focused on Ivan’s words; everyone’s life is shortened. “Why have you outlived everybody, Ivan? My parents died before they reached thirty.”

“I can answer that only if you agree to be the gatekeeper,” Ivan said.

Leonid stared across the fields outside the barbwire fence. What was out there? Leonid knew he only had two choices. He either left Hidden City forever, or he became the gatekeeper. He knew his conscience would bother him too much to turn down Ivan’s offer and remain in the village.

The truth was, Leonid had already contemplated leaving. He felt drawn to go —unlike his friends. Leonid knew the folks outside Hidden City lived longer. Once a week, supplies would arrive, and the delivery guys were often older—at least older than anybody in town. What would it be like to be free—but where would he get the money? That seemed important to the outside world, even though he didn’t know what it was.

Leonid had shared these thoughts many times with his friends and never understood why they were so disinterested. Why was he different? Finally, he replied, “Let me think about it for a day.”

Ivan nodded. He reached inside his mantle and handed something to the lad. “I want to give you this book. I want you to keep it, but don’t let anyone know you have it. It’s forbidden in the village.”

Leonid took the book from Ivan and examined it in the dim sunlight. “It’s ancient, isn’t it?”

Ivan nodded. “It belonged to the previous gatekeeper. He gave it to me before he died.”

Ivan’s words scared Leonid. “Suppose I decide that I want to leave the village? Is it forbidden”— Leonid pointed beyond the gate—”out there?”

“Only by those who hate the book,” Ivan said. “But don’t worry about that right now. Go home and read some of it. Then come back tomorrow, and we will talk some more.”

Leonid bid his new mentor farewell. He had much to think about, and the book was thick—there was no way he could read it all in 24 hours.

When he returned home, his cooked dinner was waiting for him, and the aroma whetted his appetite; he had selected his meals the previous week. Tonight he had salmon—a rare delicacy in the village—with rice, asparagus, and cheesecake for dessert.

After finishing, he made himself comfortable in his favorite chair and pulled the book out of its protective covering. On the front cover were the words, “Holy Bible.”

“So this is a holy book,” Leonid whispered. Holy books were not allowed in the village. He opened it, and written on the cover page were the words: “True freedom is spiritual. John 8:32. ‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

For the next few hours, Leonid read the words in the holy book. He thought about Ivan’s words, the barbwire fence surrounding Hidden City, and the gates that Ivan protected to keep outsiders from entering. As far as Leonid knew, nobody had ever left the city, but could they? And why couldn’t they return?

If freedom existed outside the barbwire fence, why would anyone want to come into Hidden City? Was it just curiosity?

But Leonid had one question the Bible didn’t answer. Perhaps it didn’t matter, but why did the residents of Hidden City die young and those beyond the barbwire fence live longer? And why had Ivan lived longer than everyone else?

That night Leonid tossed and turned in his sleep. For the first time, he felt an awakening. For years, questions had filled his mind about things that no one was allowed to talk about; could Ivan answer his questions? And if he did, would that make Leonid obligated to become the next gatekeeper?

Unexpectedly, the concept of freedom loomed large in Leonid’s mind. New insights from the Bible and Ivan’s words pricked his soul. Leonid remembered the Hidden City rulers telling the citizens they lived in paradise as special people. Was that the truth?

The lad turned on the lamp next to his bed and opened the book to re-read Ivan’s words: “…the truth will set you free.”

***

The next day at about the same time, Leonid returned to meet Ivan. Ivan appeared much older than the previous day, reminding Leonid that Ivan was sick. Leonid still didn’t know what to do, but he didn’t want to disappoint Ivan, who had chosen him to take his position.

“Greetings,” Leonid said.

“Thank you for returning,” Ivan replied. “Did  you have a chance to look at the book I gave you?”

Leonid nodded. “My eyes have been opened to things I never thought about before.”

Ivan smiled. “The truth will set you free. You can be free even here in Hidden City, where you are not free.”

Leonid pointed beyond the gates, but before he could ask his question, he saw a man approaching. “Look.”

Ivan stood to greet the outsider. “Can I help you?”

The man said, “I am a journalist, and I wanted to interview the gatekeeper of Hidden City.”

“That’s me,” Ivan said, “but I don’t do interviews. Besides, you aren’t allowed to videotape or take pictures. You can read it right there on the fence sign.”

Ivan glanced at the fence where Leonid perceived a hidden camera. “And I need to inform you, we are being watched,” Ivan added.

The man simply said, “Thank you,” and walked away.

Ivan said to Leonid, “On the fence in multiple languages is written, “No entry, no trespassing, no filming, and no photography.” That’s why I am here, to ensure the law is followed.”

Ivan began to cough, taking several minutes to get his voice back. “So what do you want to ask me, Leonid? My time is short, and I need to know tonight if you will take my position as gatekeeper. I may not live another twenty-four hours.”

It took some time for Leonid to recover after hearing this revelation. Dozens of questions swirled in his mind. Before his mentor died, Leonid needed to know the answer to one question that only Ivan could answer. “Ivan, why have you lived so long, and why does everyone else here die young?”

Ivan nodded. “Yes, I knew you would ask that. I shall tell you now as it weighs on me. Many years ago, spent nuclear waste was dumped here and contaminated the area. Certain parts of the village are more polluted than others. It depends on where you live and how much radiation exposure you receive as to how soon you will die. Those who receive the most radiation die first. Me—I never enter the village. I am the gatekeeper, and this is where I stay. I am at the rim of the exposure, on the border between where it’s safe and where it’s not. I’ve lived almost as long as those outside the village.”

Leonid’s eyes widened. “You mean we live on a nuclear waste site?”

Ivan’s countenance fell. “Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“Why would anyone want to enter this wasteland?” Leonid asked. “That doesn’t make sense. If the people of Hidden City don’t know about the pollution, then they don’t know to leave.” Suddenly, Leonid felt like all he wanted to do was get as far away as possible.

Ivan replied, “Leonid, there is a cost to being free. Throughout history, many have died in the pursuit of freedom. But some people don’t want freedom. They want to be taken care of by the government. They want possessions. They don’t want to be productive citizens. Perhaps they are lazy; perhaps they are just unmotivated. But in return, unwittingly, they receive death. A famous American once said, “Give me liberty, or give me death.’”

Leonid tried to comprehend everything Ivan told him, but his words were so packed with meaning that understanding them all at once was difficult.

“What about you, Ivan? You know all of this, yet you choose to be the gatekeeper. Why?”

“Do you remember the passage I quoted in the book?” Ivan asked.

Leonid nodded. “I memorized it. ‘True freedom is spiritual. John 8:32 ‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

“You see, Leonid, I am free, even though I live between two very different worlds. The freedom I have comes from the words in that book, and no government or person can take that from me.

Leonid focused on Ivan’s words as he continued.

“My home is not here; I’m just a gatekeeper. Many people pass through, and I can share these truths. That is my calling. Because I protect the gate and do my job well, people trust me, and with age comes even more respect. What’s most important is the truth in the book set me free so I can share that truth with others. If you believe the words in the book, you will be set free, too, no matter what you choose to do.”

Ivan gazed into the heavens. “Soon, I must go to the place where eternal truth resides, and I will meet the gatekeeper who died to give me eternal freedom.” Ivan paused. “Does that make sense?”

Leonid nodded. “And I bet they have no need for money in that place, do they.”

Ivan laughed. “You get it, Leonid. I knew that you would. There is no need for money. The debt to live there has already been paid.”

“By Jesus?” Leonid asked.

“That’s right,” Ivan replied.

Leonid stood and walked over to the barbwire fence. He ran his fingers along the razor-thin edge of the wire. He noticed, perhaps for the first time, the rolling hills and wildflowers clinging to the rocks in the distance. Survival was difficult where freedom reigned.

Leonid turned toward his village, studying its kempt pathways and modern structures. He contemplated his two futures. Then he faced Ivan with his decision. “My freedom comes from above. Let me take the mantle from you, and may I grow in wisdom to become as righteous as the gatekeeper who died for me.”

Ivan smiled. “Bless you, Leonid. You will make an excellent gatekeeper.”

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