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The Doors of Seconds

by Ward Crockett

 

I thought it strange that the new, incompetent maintenance man said nothing about the luminous doors floating in the back of the water heater closet. But, as I had always been teased for seeing things no one else could see, I decided not to mention them.

“It’s broken, friend,” the maintenance man said, tapping the water heater, checking gauges, turning knobs. I could tell he had no idea what he was doing. He had an air about him that I knew well, that of a man doing a job he knew nothing about, a sad man whose life was going nowhere.

Hours later, after the maintenance man had brought over his friend in the water heater repair business to replace mine with a shiny new one, a tank he introduced as “the Empress of water heaters,” I thanked them both, showed them out, then re-opened the closet door. I was sure the lights would be gone by now, just phantoms born from three hours of sleep and too many computer games.

But they were still there — one yellow, one red. Their light melted to orange on the lustrous cylinder of the Empress, and I could hear from them a soft, seductive hum that wove tingles through my chest. I stepped over the pipes and gauges and knobs so I stood just inches away from the red door. Its hum was quite loud now — the hair-raising, electric wind of a power plant and there was something floating in its color, a thin tendril that spun and coiled as it hovered. Figuring I must be in a computer game dream and had nothing to lose, I touched the red light. My hand passed through it, through the wall itself. I stuck my head in, felt myself merge with a cold, hopeful, terrifying essence, let it take me in, then found myself stepping back over the copper tendrils of the Empress and into the hallway.

I needed some sleep.

After a couple dreamless hours I trudged to the kitchen, threw a fried chicken TV dinner in the oven. While it cooked I watched the new maintenance man pretend to fix a patio gate on the unit across from mine. Mostly he just cursed and rattled the thing on its hinges. Sometimes he hit it with a screwdriver. When he looked over at me, I drew the curtains shut, then poured a tall glass of milk and plopped down in front of the TV. Suicide bombers and unemployment. Rigged elections. Miraculous surgery on conjoined twins.

When I woke up I was covered in milk and choking on smoke. Eyes burning and blind, I jumped up from the couch, sending the empty glass tumbling to the floor. I tripped on the table, stumbled around, saw fire and smoke engulfing the world, heard someone on TV talking about abortion rights. I staggered, found a doorknob, hugged the warm, orange flesh of the Empress, then tripped over her feet and plunged into the rectangle of yellow light.

I stepped out of the red door. I needed some sleep.

After a couple hours of dreamless, eye-aching sleep, I trudged to the kitchen, threw a TV dinner in the oven, this time making sure to set the timer. While it cooked I watched the new maintenance man pretend to fix a patio gate on the unit across from mine. Mostly he just cursed and rattled the thing on its hinges. Occasionally he hit it with a screwdriver, and sometimes he glared at me over his shoulder.

The TV dinner was golden and scrumptious, the chicken crispy, the potatoes fluffy, the corn soft and salty. After turning off the oven, I dumped the food onto a plate, poured a tall glass of milk and then plopped down in front of the TV. Suicide bombers and unemployment. Rigged elections. Miraculous surgery on conjoined twins.

When I woke up I was covered in milk. I jumped up, sending the glass and empty plate tumbling from my lap. The dishes shattered on the coffee table. I raced to the kitchen to make sure I’d turned off the oven. It was still warm, but definitely off.

The doors of light, one saffron, one scarlet, floated behind the Empress water heater, giving it a warm, divine aura. I jumped through the golden door, took a nap, cooked a TV dinner, watched the incompetent maintenance man glower and walk with a limp I hadn’t noticed before, turned off the oven, savored the greasy food, watched violence and corruption, put the dishes on the coffee table, woke up. I was dry and alive.

The Empress gleamed with the beautiful, orange light of second chances. Her skin was warm, her gauges steady. Leaning close to the red door, I saw that the floating thread had been joined by a second helix, and I knew that it was me, saved and safe. I stepped through the red door again, then went to take a shower. It would be a nice day to go out.

• • •

At the table across from mine, in a coffee shop on the ocean-beaten wharf, she glanced up at me. I looked away through the window and down on the sea otter sleeping entwined in a bed of kelp. I looked back at her, certain the beautiful woman would be gone, as I had a tendency to see things that others didn’t, and I was often teased for it. But she was there, and she was smiling at me. I smiled back.

Fifteen minutes of mental debate later, I was sitting across from Corina, engaged in a conversation about sea otters, living by the sea, conjoined twins, and TV dinners. The only thing we disagreed on during those cups of fresh coffee and stale pastries was computer games. She said she hated their kill-everything-in-sight philosophy, so I named her several games that didn’t involve killing a single thing.

“Yeah, but who plays those games?” she said.

“People fed up with killing,” I said.

Corina laughed. “People like me?”

I grinned.

She laughed again. “Well, maybe sometime you could change my mind on killing.”

She wrote down her phone number for me, saying she had to go back to work at the hospital. I told her I had to go back to work, too, though I hadn’t had a job in months.

After jumping through the red door to save the perfect day, I loaded up my computer game, blasted demons and remembered Corina. I was still warm from the seaside conversation.

A hound of hell leapt from the rafters of a cathedral, fell upon me with slavering fangs and diamond-claws, ripped my life bar to zero. The game told me I was dead, in case I hadn’t noticed, and asked if I wanted to re-load. I sighed. Lost in contemplation and instinctive mouse-clicking, I’d forgotten to save the game for at least 17 frags.

The golden door was ripe, alive, murmuring with the voices of Monday — Corina’s rich confidence, my diffidence. I leapt through.

I saved at the archivolted doors of the cathedral beneath a watchful quatrefoil, drank a couple potions to my health, drew my RPG. The hound of hell got me again, but with a quick load I was back in my armor and aiming the rocket launcher. I blew apart the infernal canine, racked up another frag, saved the game.

It wasn’t until I was shutting down the computer that I noticed the long crack in my keyboard. It hadn’t been there when I first sat down to play.

• • •

At times it was rocky for Corina and me, especially when she couldn’t understand my love of games. But we worked through the problems without too much trouble. As a physician she was used to talking about problems, and she was the only person I’d ever met who was able to get me to discuss serious issues. Mom and Dad were happy to hear about my new girlfriend, and they kept asking, “When are you getting married? When will we be grandparents?” I told them Corina was just a friend. But they knew I was a liar and often teased me for it; they told me not to let her slip away like the last one. I promised them I wouldn’t, which was the first promise I ever kept.

I didn’t tell Corina about the doors of seconds. She wouldn’t have understood, especially with her strong dislike of games, which I hadn’t managed to weather. After she moved in, I had to make sure to use the doors only when she was sleeping or working. In those first months I used them for a little bit of everything: taking a different route to avoid traffic; ordering a burger medium instead of medium rare to avoid indigestion; hanging up on the telemarketer instead of being pressured into getting a subscription to the paper. I ignored the little differences that cropped up every time I re-loaded — Corina’s dead plants, the cracked dishes, the warping in the bathroom mirror. Nothing serious.

The most important use was righting an interview that’d gone poorly, and after the third interview attempt I ended up getting the job, a Quality Assurance position at a growing game company north of town. Corina wasn’t crazy about it, the idea of my playing games for a living, but I didn’t hold it against her. We loved each other, and I did everything I could to make her happy, including using the doors to get rid of the speeding tickets she was always acquiring.

After six months of beta testing console games, one of the game producers caught me fiddling with a space-shooter game design I’d been developing for a couple months.

“What the hell is that?” he asked.

I shut it down to re-open the QA database I was supposed to be building.

“Wait! Bring it back!” he cried, leaning in close to the monitor.

I opened up my game, demonstrated its seamless mixture of 2D side-scrolling and 3D tail-view.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, pointing at the low-polygon, bumpmapped, multi-textured spacecrafts. “Did you model these?”

“Yeah.”

Corina had been pushing me toward the designing end of the game spectrum. “If you love games so much, why don’t you make some of your own?” she was always saying.

“What’s the goal?” the producer asked.

I smiled. “Kill everything in sight.”

And so I was promoted to Level Designer for the latest first-person shooter on the company’s development schedule. The producer pitched my space-shooter to the senior designers. They loved it, and Cyprus went into full production six months later with me at the helm of the art department. The FPS I’d been level-designing hit big; Polynon Games moved to a larger building farther north in the Bay Area.

Corina was thrilled with my success, and, in a burst of excitement while drinking coffee at our cafe on the wharf, we decided to get married.

• • •

Carrying another load of boxes out to the rental truck, I stopped at the door to the water heater. Through the rusty vent near the top of the door I could see the red and golden light emanated by the doors of seconds. I opened the closet door, looked at the Empress armed with copper and valves and warning labels, and standing guard before the shimmering thresholds. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d used them. The twin threads continued to corkscrew in the red glow, and the purity of the gold still gave me that familiar sense of hope. With things going so well, I decided it’d be a good time to save, and quickly leapt through the red door before Corina came back in for another armload of our possessions.

“What were you doing in there?” she asked when I stepped out.

I hugged her. “Just saying goodbye,” I whispered in her ear.

“To a water heater?”

I laughed. “It was installed the day I met you.”

She grinned, then kissed me. “You’re silly.”

We made love amidst towers of boxes and columns of rolled-up carpets, with ocean cologne cooling our sweat and brilliant, mid-morning sunlight wandering over our bare skin. We fell asleep to the sound of the sea.

• • •

When Corina opened her eyes for the last time, I saw the woman I’d married sixty years ago, as though she’d been reborn in that eleventh hour. The dementia had hidden her from me for six years, more than half a decade of tears and frustration and slow dissolution of identity. Although the kids had kept telling me we had to put her in a home, I’d refused, always having faith that the drugs that worked on everyone else would work on her.

 “It’s not Alzheimer’s,” the doctors had said. “We don’t know what it is. But we’re trying.”

“I always had to be different, huh?” she’d say to me in a lucid moment, and I’d smile, take her palsied hand in mine and gaze into her eyes until they didn’t know me again.

But in the last moments, with our kids and our kids’ kids waiting outside, as I stroked her pale brow, its skin stretched too thin over her failing body, the real Corina gazed up at me. I heard the ocean then — even though we’d moved inland decades ago to get away from the frantic hum of urban life the sea carrying its salt and sand in curling slaps against beaches and the barnacled stilts of a foggy wharf. She looked up at me as I leaned down to kiss her. When I lifted my head again, her eyes were closed.

Ronny and Jane didn’t understand when I told them I’d be gone for a couple days. “You’ll never know I left,” I told them. “Everything will be fine.”

They stared at me in shock as I walked past them, smiled at the grandkids — barely kids anymore — who looked up at me with wet, red eyes, and left the waiting room, hospital, city, world.

The train station guards stared at me, an old man carrying nothing but an ancient, beat-up journal, as I swiped my card and walked through the gate onto the lightning-train platform for the 2:07 AM departure.

Thirty minutes and one connecting train later I was back in the seaside town I hadn’t seen for seven years — the last time Corina and I had come out for our anniversary. It had changed little since we’d lived there, its residents ever conscious of its rich Spanish heritage, the centuries-old vitality of its roots. The coffee shop where Corina and I had first met still stood on the wharf.

Many of the modern buildings had been replaced or renovated over the years, but it wasn’t difficult to find my old apartment complex nestled three blocks from the beach amidst a nest of palms and cypresses. The sliding glass door that served as the front entrance was wide open, and there was only a screen to separate the inside from the out. I waved my hand over the sensor on the screen door, and it whispered open. I stepped inside, expecting to recognize something — a wall, a door, a smell. It was completely different except for the essential layout. And its occupant.

He came into the front room, flipped on the light and stared at me. We could’ve been twins, he just as threadbare and decrepid and bleary-eyed as I. He walked with a limp and looked familiar somehow, and the young, imaginative part of me thought maybe I was staring at myself as I would’ve been had I never left. Staring at this long-lost reflection, this worthless version of me, made my eyes burn with revulsion. I rushed forward, grabbed something from a cluttered table and struck at this monstrous doppelganger, beat and struck and stabbed until Corina’s death was out of my mind.

When I got up, I dropped the hammer I’d snatched up, stared down at the strange, bloodied double. Seeing the hammer next to his lifeless body, I realized who it was. Tapping, examining, cursing. Incompetent. The maintenance man, the one who’d known nothing about his job, who’d claimed to repair but only made worse or had done nothing at all. On his dining table were screwdrivers, nails, bolts, washers, pliers, wrenches, doorknobs, curtain rods, an entire array of apartment components and the means to repair them. I looked back down at his corpse, suddenly hated myself for what I’d done. But soon it wouldn’t matter. None of it would matter.

I went down the hallway to the door, smiled at the familiar lights squeezing through a new vent in a new door. Opening it up I found the Empress gone, replaced by something fancier, more efficient, but just as tall and still watching over the red and golden doors of seconds. After one last flip through my journal, my record of everything that hadn’t turned out right, I stepped over the heater’s copper entrails and into the bitter light of the golden door.

“What were you doing in there?” Corina asked, a single lock of gray hair falling over her cheek.

• • •

As the years passed again, as Cyprus and other game designs made us rich again, Corina wondered why I invested so much money in mental health research.

“Just as long as we have enough for his college fund,” Corina said, gazing at four-year-old Ronny flying around the living room with a toy airplane.

I jumped up from the couch, ripping my arm from around Corina’s shoulders, and leapt to where Ronny was about to trip and whack his head on the edge of the coffee table I’d owned for years. That hospital visit hadn’t been in my journal, but I remembered perfectly the long hours in the waiting room that smelled like cleaning solvents and nursing homes. He giggled as I swept him up and spun him around and hugged him.

Corina looked at us, a bit shaken by my sudden leap, but beaming and eyes glistening. With Ronny giggling in my ear, I gazed at my wife and wanted to tell her everything, that I knew our second child was stirring inside her, that I knew the course of our lives and that I was going to save her. But she would just tell me I was silly, that I’d been playing games for too long. I could never tell her.

 “How ’bout playing a little ball?” I said. “And then a movie and ice cream later?” Ronny whooped with excitement as he ran off to search for his shoes.

Corina stood and squeezed my hand. “You spoil him.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s going better than before.”

Corina looked at me, her brow furrowed.

“Let’s make a picnic out of it,” I said, heading for the kitchen.

As we walked down the driveway, past the yellowed lawn and rotting shrubbery, avoiding the long crack that stretched from the garage door all the way to the asphalt street, where the crack spider-legged into a massive delta of fractures, I tried to ignore the twitching in Corina’s arm.

• • •

Dane’s Syndrome they called it after years of research, largely on my penny. Some kind of viral infection. It was popping up all over the world with no apparent pattern, striking first with a steadily worsening palsy of the limbs, then moving into the deep circles of the mind, deleting and corrupting and encrypting memory and personality.

I had to drag Corina to her weekly treatments, which were little more than experiments with newly synthesized drugs. They slowed considerably the disease’s progression, during which time I tried to remember if she’d really exhibited the sickness so early in life the last time around.

Progress on Cyprus IV hit a snag when someone cracked into the Polynon network, stole the source code and distributed it over the Internet. We also discovered a virus that’d embedded itself in the 3D model files and animation sequences, one that prevented us from rendering in high resolution, forcing us to re-model everything and thus push back our release date.

To make things worse, Ronny was getting in fights at school, and Jane had been diagnosed with a severe learning disability that’d all but destroyed her ability to read. It’d been over sixty years since I’d raised these kids the first time, but I remembered nothing like this.

Nor did I remember the massive conflict brewing in East Africa and the Middle East. The flaring tempers of dictators, rebels aided by terrorists, chemical attacks in Israel and India. Maybe I just hadn’t paid attention last time.

• • •

The Dane had sucked away almost every spark of life, but the real Corina stabbed through at the very end, just like last time. I heard the ocean crashing on the quay, saw the otter sleeping in the kelp, smelled the salt of the seaside town I’d be returning to again.

Her eyes were closed before I could kiss her goodbye.

“That’s too young,” Ronny’s wife Sheila, nothing like the woman he’d married last time, said as I came into the waiting room. “Fifty-nine. Too young.”

They looked up at me, Ronny and his stranger wife, the four grandkids where there had once only been two, misty-eyed Jane sitting without the husband who’d taken away her twin daughters ten years ago, and sitting across the room from the brother who’d always teased her for her mental faculties. Somebody cried — one of Ronny’s children.

“Everything will be fine,” I told them.

The lightning-train was young and still expensive. The guards pointed at me and laughed, a man on the verge of senior citizenship riding a train in the middle of the night. I told them to mind their business. One of them pushed me to the ground, and the other spat on my head and rubbed it into my hair with his boot.

The town was different, its history lost to economic expansion and earthquakes that’d rippled along the coast in the last few years. Scientists kept saying the Big One was due any day now, but what the hell did they know? They couldn’t even stop a microscopic bug.

There was the old apartment complex, half of it missing and paved over by a parking lot, and there was my old place, its patio drowning in trash and piles of wood, curtains drawn and door locked. I took a brick from the patio, smashed the front window and jumped into a living room that reeked of alcohol and urine.

“What the hell?” someone yelled, and a light came on.

There was the maintenance man, younger but somehow older, grizzled, skin pale and thin, eyes wide and bloodshot. He came at me with a baseball bat. I ducked. The bat swept across a table covered in hypodermic needles, vials and tall whiskey bottles, sending broken glass everywhere and putting a dent in a grease-stained wall. Even as I brought the brick down on his head he swung the bat into my side. There was a crack as it shattered my ribcage. The brick shattered on his forehead after splitting his skull wide open, and the maintenance man fell to the floor with a grunt.

As the light faded from his eyes, he stared up at me, squinted. “I know you,” he said.

My first impulse was to grab one of those stinking bottles of whiskey to help assuage the pain in my ribs, but there was no need. I sprinkled the remaining fragments of brick into the man’s eyes, then walked to the closet.

The Empress, rusty and a bit sour-smelling but still warm, greeted me at the door. The doors of seconds glowed eagerly behind her as though they’d been waiting for me to return.

“What the hell’s going on in there?” someone yelled outside, and there was a crinkle of glass. “Jesus Christ.”

I stepped into the cold of the golden door.

“What the hell are you doing?” Corina screamed, her eyes convulsing, half her hair burned off and blisters oozing on her scalp. The apartment reeked and stung with acid air. A siren wailed from the presidio.

• • •

The doctors told us there was something wrong with Ronny three months before he was born. They said it’d been happening to a lot of women who’d lived on the Central Coast at the time of the chemical attack. All the damage to the reproductive organs had worsened over time, festered inside, waiting for a way to escape the body, and it found its way into Ronny. The doctors had urged abortion. We ignored them.

Ronny was born two months premature with stunted legs — one that ended at the knee, the other at mid-thigh — and stunted hands, one of which had no functional fingers. He was born quietly, without fuss, and the doctors had to resuscitate him several times during his first hours. Corina and I cried and held each other that entire day. I ran my hand through her artificially re-grown hair, kissed her forehead, hugged her to stop the palsy that was getting worse with every day.

Ronny survived, grew up with a surprisingly sharp mind. What little money I made before Polynon tanked — following the release of a superficially beta-tested game designed by the bigwig producer who came in after our senior designer was killed in the terrorist attack — we had to spend on Ronny’s massive medical bills.

Jane was never born.

“Dad?” Ronny said, nudging me awake.

I opened my eyes to a piercing white light and a migraine. After a moment I recognized the refreshing whiskey odor of my own breath. Ronny, dressed for his second day of high school, was sitting by the bed in his wheelchair.

“Dad?” he said again. “Mom’s not waking up.”

I rolled out of bed, followed my son to Corina’s separate bedroom, the room she hadn’t left in three years. A light, desert breeze rolled through the barred and screened window the night-things were weak and easily dissuaded by basic security precautions. You were safe as long as you stayed out of the streets after sunset. Their chemical-burned eyes were sensitive to bright light, but I couldn’t afford to live in a neighborhood with the all-night floodlights and security patrols.

I brushed Corina’s prematurely gray hair out of her face, kissed her forehead between the faded scars. The attack had scarred her more than me, and she’d often joked, as she always had, that she always had to be the different one.

“I’m glad she isn’t sick anymore,” Ronny said.

I looked at him, my head rolling with the room, throbbing with fire and battering ocean. His eyes shone with tears. I wanted to shake him, shake the room, take the house and the city and world by the neck and strangle them all until there was nothing.

“Where are you going?” Ronny asked.

• • •

It took me two days to get back to the sea. There were no lightning-trains in existence, hardly a car to flag down and only a monthly bus that went to what was left of the Bay Area. I stole a lemon from an old lot, made it halfway through the Nevada desert, then stole a car from a young couple filling up at a gas station.

The town had retained its historical look but had not maintained it. A stinking yellow haze drifted in the streets and stained the architecture, turned the ocean brown and choked the long-dead cypresses and palms. A few people in gas masks and rags wandered the streets and gathered around barrel fires. The wharf was gone, its timber either washed away or salvaged for firewood.

I squeezed through a break in the fence surrounding my old complex, sneaked down the central walk, which was lined with torches illuminating graffiti and broken windows.

The night-thing looked up at me with pale, chemical-burned eyes from beyond the glass and bars in my old apartment. Before I could turn to run, the door was open, the thing’s claw wrapped around my arm, and a fetid stench hissed from its toothy maw.

“What took you so long?” the maintenance man said.

• • •

His own blood roiled in the green drug that filled the syringe. Then he pressed the plunger and a new vibrance seemed to rush through the man’s flesh. When he was done he offered me the needle. I shook my head, glancing at the red and golden light spilling from the doorless water heater closet.

“They’re pretty lights, huh, friend?” he said. He took a deep, deep breath, as though inhaling the very idea of light. “I wish I could see them again. So pretty. So pretty.”

I readied myself to make a break for it.

“It’s survival of the fittest, I suppose,” he said calmly, picking up a small pistol from the table and aiming it at me. I sat back in my chair. “You come in to re-load, we fight, you beat me. Not much of a guardian, am I? Not like those creatures you used to program. What a bitch. I always enjoyed that Cyprus series of yours.” He sighed. Crimson drool slugged down his chin and stretched to his pallid, shirtless chest that seemed to glow in the candlelit living room. “Done much game design, lately?”

“Just let me go. This has nothing to do with you.”

“They were my only friends, you know, those lights. They helped me fight back. They helped me beat those bastards. They helped me beat everything.” His eyes went blank as a drugged haze rippled through him. “I leave for a few years and come back to find you in my home. I wait for you to leave during the day so I can come in and use it. But it’s gone and I know you stole it. And I feel it every time. I feel you saving over me, messing up my game with your worthless life, infecting my life but never getting rid of me. And then you start over and bring me with you again.” His eyes returned. “Not anymore.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” But I remembered the twin helices floating in the scarlet light and that feeling of merging with another essence the first time I’d used the red door.

He wiped the black pus from his cheek, smeared it on the table. “Programmers have it easy, huh? Save a file, change it and rename it, save it with a new name. Everything’s clean and separate in computer land, huh?” He jumped up and struck me on the side of the head with the butt of the gun. I fell to the floor, choked back vomit. He kicked me in the side, and I remembered from my previous life the pain of broken ribs. “It’s not made for two people, friend. I’m still in there and you can’t erase me completely. You throw yourself into my save point and now look at the world! Look what you’ve done!”

“What do you want?” I said, crawling along the moist, molding carpet. From the corner of my eye I saw the night-things crawling onto the patio, pushing through the open door with their rotting flesh and chemical stink.

He put the gun to the back of my head. “I’ve been waiting here to see those lights again. I’ve been waiting here through all these goddamn lives you made for me. I remember dying. I remember you killing me. What should happen to memories when you die, friend?”

“I— ”

“They should disappear.” The man’s bloody spittle spattered the back of my neck. “I want it back. It’s mine.”

The gun erupted above me. Then there was a face next to mine, a melted, gray face with featureless eyes and broken teeth. The maintenance man shot again at the screeching night-things as they poured through the front door, their black pus and saliva silking through the candlelight, and he shot again and again and again.

I got to my feet and bolted for the closet. Fire ripped through my shoulder, carried me into the hallway and slammed me against the wall. The gunshot rang in my head as I reeled my arms to catch hold of something. I pushed off the wall and propelled myself through the open doorway and into the taciturn body of the Empress, ever younger as I returned sooner and sooner with each passing life. Smearing my blood over her cool skin as I stepped around her toward the golden door, I realized I wanted it to end. I didn’t want to see Corina die again.

I stared into the red door of seconds, watched the thread of my existence entwined with the maintenance man’s, the double helix whirling in the incarnadine miasma. The threads pulsed weakly as arcs of fluid light passed between them, as they fed on each other. I felt the lure of the door even as my vision clouded and breath came in gasps and the monsters screamed closer.

One more time, I thought.

• • •

Corina looked up at me from the floor, past me, at nothing. The sea bubbled from a widening crevice in the apartment floor and rushed around her motionless body.

I caught her, lifted her, carried her toward the front door, around the pieces of rubble and furniture that’d collapsed from the apartment above us, balancing on the edge of the splitting earth as it effortlessly ripped the carpeting. Water and dust spat from the chasm in rapid-fire geysers. The shattered skull of the world grumbled and howled and hissed.

Our neighbors screamed and ran for the parking lot through steam and snow. I followed, glancing up only once at the bright flash from the jagged, black rip in the middle of the colorless and cloudless sky, at the spiraling tornado of bodies slithering from its infernal heights.

A van, its very steel melting in some unfelt heat, tore down the street and collided with a parked car. Sirens wailed in the distance. I set Corina down next to the rental truck loaded up with boxes from our apartment. I brushed a lock of hair from her forehead, then rested my head on her chest and tried to cry.

A shadow slid over us. He was standing only a few feet away. I looked up and met his eyes, the only part of him I recognized, for his body had become an almost fluid mass of scars and pustules and leprous wounds. I stood up, placing myself between Corina and the maintenance man.

“They should disappear, friend,” slushed the orifice below his eyes. “Disappear.”

He lifted a hammer over his head and swung at me with the strength of a child. I caught his soft, spongy arm, took the hammer from him and pushed him to the ground. I knelt beside him, put the hammer claw to his eyes, let him understand how I was going to rip him apart, and he looked at me with daring light, challenged me to kill him again and again until there was nothing left to re-load, no more game to live.

A tremor in the air above drew my attention to the maelstrom of sable-winged bodies fluttering from the gash in the heavens. The creatures spun off into snaking flocks that slowly fanned out as they buzzed across the sky, blotting out a waning, scabrous sun.

I looked back down at the helpless thing beneath me. I dropped the hammer on the shivering asphalt.

He was dead by the time I stood before the Empress. Whether he’d died in the lot or in my arms I didn’t know. I suppose he’d been dead so many times in the centuries of lives we’d lived that it didn’t really matter. But I hadn’t killed him this time.

The red door swallowed him. One thread of the helix, undulating and pulsing in the glow, disappeared. The remaining thread surged with new life. I hoped it was him, his universe, his life thread, his essence blended with mine that’d allowed me to murder him so many times. But I had a habit of seeing things that weren’t there, and I knew that saving him in death wouldn’t take care of all the impurities, all the shadows.

The gold of seconds was warm.

“What were you doing in there?”

• • •

It was difficult to tell what was new and what was the same. It’d been so long since that first life — I’d forgotten how many years it’d been, perhaps a century or more — that everything seemed new and different. Not cleaner or better. Purer. Maybe all of it was new.

Over the course of our marriage, Corina grew tired of my telling her that I didn’t deserve her. “You keep saying that, and one day I’ll believe you,” she replied one day. I never said it again.

Every morning I thought I might see a twitch in Corina’s fingers, sheer hatred in Ronny’s eyes, or that Jane would just not come down to breakfast and no one would remember she was ever there. They all teased me for my neurotic fears. They told me I worried too much. And I laughed and agreed with them.

But sometimes I thought about going back to the doors. Sometimes it took every ounce of willpower to keep myself from jumping on that lightning train just once more. I didn’t want to accept the idea that this time, that this life was the last version. My last try. Sometimes it was so imperfect that I thought maybe the maintenance man was still there, trapped in the red, infecting my existence with the code of his dark soul.

But that was only sometimes.

And then I’d look at Corina, and everything was fine. Every moment could be the last version, and whether it was a good or bad moment didn’t matter. They were all last moments.

• • •

When Corina’s hair was gray, when Ronny and Jane were beginning to show the weather in their skin, when the grandkids in their sundry ages were brilliant with the anticipation of college and love and the saffron luminance at the cusp of the world, I lay down.

I smiled at Corina as she stood beside the bed and ran her hand through my vague hair. She smiled back and leaned down to kiss my forehead. I opened my mouth to whisper in her ear.

My eyes were closed when she stood up again.

The ocean shushed a thousand miles away.

 

 

Ward Crockett is a freelance writer and filmmaker in Chicago, Illinois. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in GUD, Postcards from…, Danger City Two, Right Hand Pointing, Thieves Jargon, Sinister Tales, Chilling Tales, Ideomancer, Kaleidotrope and decomP. He is currently finishing post-production on his first feature-length horror film, Night Things. He enjoys reading, music, movies, photography and cheese soup. And wine.


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ISSUE #18

October 2008

FICTION