It was the end of the world.
The three of them remaining sat in the tiny, cramped room, watching and feeling the universe crash around them. They hadn’t left for days, and it was hard for them to think that they had any reason to leave. The fate of the world had been decided. It was all over but the shouting, and watching it happen would have been traumatic on top of depressing. When everything you know is quivering on its foundations, when light itself slows to the point where you can see it splash on the wall, it becomes pointless to look around at your surroundings. At least, that was what two of them thought, and they took every opportunity to make sure the others in the room knew what they thought.
Sherri wasn’t ready to give up, though.
She was not the oldest, not by far, nor was she the youngest. (That would be Dina, the quietest of the other two.) She wasn’t the prettiest, or the smartest, or really even the best at anything that she liked to do, no matter how much she liked to do it. Still, if she was anything, she was an optimist. This was her worst fault, according to Shawna, the oldest and most broken of the three. Also, her throat was sore from trying to convince the others. End of the world or not, she was not going to go down without a fight.
The room shook, painfully, violently; she stood up.
“Don’t know why you’re doing that,” Shawna said. “No matter what you do, it’s going to be over soon.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Sherri started edging toward the door. She was indeed more nervous about it than she let on, but she refused to let it take over. Nervousness is at best a two-edged blade. It can put you on top of any situation and make you ready to act, but it only takes one false move to slice up your hands as badly as your enemy’s. And like any knife fight, no one would win. One person just didn’t lose quite as badly as the other.
“You know nothing matters, Sherri. No matter what you think you’re going to do, it’s not going to work. On top of that, it’s completely against the rules.”
Sherri turned and looked at Shawna, something that was hard for her to do at times no matter how close they usually were. Parts of her were stunningly beautiful, and no single part of her looked bad. But her left eye was deep brown and soft, while her right was chilling and official, like it had been copied from a painting meant to inspire fear as well as respect. Her hands were as similar as those of two siblings, or maybe even cousins, her legs looked like a last-minute addition, and the more Sherri looked at her, the more her differences stood out. Sometimes Sherri had to hold up her hand to block out one side or the other, just so she could focus on what she was saying and not what she looked like. Sherri was also pretty sure that this was why Shawna was so bitter and cynical all of the time.
“What am I supposed to do, Shawna? Just sit here and let everything explode around us?”
“It won’t make any difference in the end.”
“And you want to tell that to Dina?”
“Tell me what?” the little girl said, from the dark side of the room.
“Don’t worry about it, sweetie,” Shawna said. Then she turned back to Sherri, a look of fury twisting her features into even more of a bizarre mask than before.
“You keep quiet in front of her, Sherri. She’s just a baby!”
“You’re not even going to tell her what’s happening? You always say that since you’re the oldest, we should respect you. Well, give us something to respect.”
“What good would it do?”
“And what good would it do to just sit here, Shawna? Even if it doesn’t work, we’ll still be right where we are.”
“What’s going on?” Dina asked again.
“I’ll be right there, sweetie,” Shawna said. Then she wiped her hands in front of Sherri and flung her fingers at her face.
“Fine. Do what you want. I’m going to enjoy my last few minutes.”
And she turned around. As usual, her right side seemed to make it through the turn long before her left. But she managed as well as she could and staggered to Dina’s side.
Sherri wanted to keep arguing but it was pointless. Not only would she never convince Shawna that this was the only thing they could do, but there was a good chance she could talk herself out of it, too. So she pulled the door open and threw herself down the shaking, twisting hallway.
There was a time when the hallway was a different place. The floor gleamed an impossibly glossy black, feeding off and enhancing the shiny light emerald walls. People just like her had marched back and forth, sometimes to a summons and sometimes of their own accord. The corridor had hummed with a thousand stories, with ten thousand lives, words and thoughts and feelings swirling around everyone. Sherri had vague memories of those days, back when she was younger than Dina was now, but by the time she’d been able to walk the hallways herself, the world was well on its way to becoming this barren hollow wreck of what was once beauty and power. It would have been better if she couldn’t remember how it was. It is hard to know what one can never do; it’s even harder to know what one used to do and can never do again.
Like their room, the hallway trembled and shook. For half of her short trip, she felt like she was walking on the walls. Once shiny, efficient passageways, they were now fouled with at least two years of filth and neglect. By the time she got to the door at the end, open just a crack, she was glad to be able to stand still.
He was in the bathroom, right where she knew he would be. The single bulb, the only one that still worked, illuminated his skin and bounced onto the white, grimy walls. The only colors in the place were dirt and red.
Red lines crawled up his arm and down his palms. Splotches struck out from the white basin pooling in tiny blobs at the bottom of the sink. A few rivulets ran down through his fingers, but he hadn’t cut himself that deeply, yet. He was clutching a toothbrush with a double-edged razor blade taped among the bristles. The flaps of bloody skin on his fingertips attested to the painful minutes before he’d done that. His face looked completely white… even the brown stubble at his chin had faded to pale nothing overnight. His glasses lay by the gritty base of the toilet. He didn’t notice her walk in, and when she spoke, his hand jerked and sliced another line in his wrist.
“How long are you going to keep that up?”
He turned toward her, raised one bloody hand up to his head to push his glasses down, didn’t notice that they weren’t there.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said, because she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
He looked at her like he wanted to argue, then went back to running the blade across his wrist. He found the nick from the slice he had just made and settled the end of the razor inside it. It was easier for him to hit an old wound than to open up a new one.
“You can watch if you want,” he finally said. “I won’t be long.”
“I’m sure you won’t.”
He tried to saw at his skin again, but the blade or his hand — or both — wobbled.
“There are easier ways, you know,” she said.
“I hate doing things the easy way,” he said. “It’s too difficult.”
She gave up waiting to be invited and squeezed around him so she could sit on the toilet cover.
“I don’t know why I’m still trying this,” he finally said. “I’m probably already dead, huh?”
“Why would I be here if you were?” she said.
“Why would you be if I wasn’t? It’s not like… like people like you just up and visit me all the time, right?”
“Oh, you’re not dead yet. I just thought I’d come and pass the time with you a little before you go. That’s okay?”
“Sure it is. What do you have in mind? Shall I get out the chessboard?” He laughed. Twice. That was enough for now.
“No, I don’t play.”
“What do you do?”
“I tell stories.”
“Chick stories, I bet. Chick-lit? Femme-fiction?”
“You can do better than that.”
He looked down. “Maybe once, I could have.” He jerked the blade back and winced. He still hadn’t found a vein, but another bubble of blood broke free and slipped down the side of his wrist.
“You’re never going to…”
“You know what?” he said, spinning around and dripping more blood on the floor. “I don’t remember inviting you, okay? And maybe I’m just being sentimental, but this is a time where I’d really kind of like to be alone, alright?”
“Sure,” she said. She didn’t move.
“So are you going to leave?”
“Well,” she said. Then she took a deep breath. “Since you’re not going anywhere, just yet…”
“Give me a minute. You’re not making this any easier.”
“I thought you could tell me a story before you… before you leave.”
“I don’t do that anymore,” he said. He had the blade back against his wrist, dangerously close to the vein this time.
“Then what if I tell you one?”
For the first time since she’d come in the bathroom, he looked at her, really looked at her. He drilled into her eyes so hard that she would not have been surprised to feel something burning out the back of her head. But she stood her ground. As pale, as uneven as his eyes looked right then, she didn’t think she could have turned away from him, anyway. Finally, after at least half a minute, he looked down.
“Sure, if you wanna waste my last few minutes alive, go ahead. I’d rather enjoy them, myself, but do what you have to do.”
“Even if you do it right now, it’s gonna take a few minutes for you to exsanguinate. So I might as well entertain you, right?”
“Exsanguinate. I remember looking that word up.”
“It’s a good word,” she said. “Like ‘defenestrate.’”
He pushed the blade down again, but it didn’t go in any further than it had already.
“Listen,” he said. “I need to be alone, okay? Can you give me that last request?”
“You said I could tell you a story.”
“No, you didn’t. You chickened out, as usual. You didn’t follow through. You ducked away. But you didn’t lie”
“You have a minute, okay? One minute, then go.”
“That’s not enough. I need five.”
“You can have two. Then I’m doing it, okay? I’m tired of wasting time, okay? Tired of telling myself I’m going to, over and over, settling my accounts, got rid of the cat… I wrote my note, even, and that was the first good bit of writing I had done in years. I’ve gotta do it now. Do you understand?”
“There was a little boy a lot like you were, once.”
“There were a lot like me, once, and they all did the sensible thing, eventually.”
“He was normal, though. Like you. He was completely normal, but he had a secret: his mother, wasn’t.
“She would see things that only she could see. She would hear things no one else could hear. The little boy had to be very careful around her, because sometimes the things he would say would upset the people that only she could see. Her best friend was a rainbow-coloured monkey, and whenever it was ‘visiting,’ the little boy had to stay outside until the monkey… that he could neither see nor hear… would leave.
“Then one day, he came home and a policeman was at the door. Someone had run over his mother and killed her. The policeman said that he could go inside the house and pack a bag for a couple of nights and then he would take him to stay with family friends. When the little boy went inside, the rainbow-colored monkey stood in the middle of his room, tears on his face, demanding to know what had happened to his friend.”
“Wait…” the man said. She noticed that he had set his rigged razor blade down.
“Wait a second,” he said again. “The monkey was something only his crazy mom could see, right?”
“And when she died, he could see it?”
“Maybe. That’s one way of looking at it.”
“Well… which was it?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. That was two minutes.”
“You said that I had two minutes to tell a story.”
“Oh… well, well I changed my mind, okay?”
She shook her head and smiled. “No, I think I should leave. You look like you’re busy, anyway.”
“But… but you can’t just say that much and then leave. That sounded like a good story.”
“I think it is.” She stood up and brushed herself off. She wasn’t shaking anymore. “So I’ll come back tomorrow and tell you more. But I need to go, now.”
“But, that story sounded like something I could write.”
“I know it is. And if you throw that thing away, maybe you can.”
He pulled the blade loose with trembling bloody fingers and dropped it in the trash can.
“And you should bandage those, too,” she said, and she pulled open the door of the medicine cabinet, even though that was probably another violation.
“You promise me you’ll come back?”
“I promise. If you’re ready for me, I will be here.”
“And you’ll tell me how the story ends?”
“That and others. You have at least two more, remember?”
He shook his head. “One could have been a novel, but I waited too long to finish it. It’s like two different people wrote the thing and the parts just don’t match up. I’ve tried to fix it… God help me, I’ve tried. But now it feels like it’s fighting me.”
“But there’s still something there. You know there is. And what about the new one?”
He looked down. “I… I couldn’t… it was too close…”
He brightened. “If you tell me the end of that story, I’ll bet you…”
“Tomorrow. I will tell you tomorrow,” she said.
“You’ll be here tomorrow, right? I promised you. Will you promise me?”
He looked at the blood soaking through the bandage that he held against his fingers and pushed it a little tighter. “I will.”
She broke another rule and hugged him. Hard.
Then she slipped back through the mirror and into his head where Shawna and Dina waited for her.