“Not today, please.”
The words tumble quietly out of the mouth of the disheveled man seated awkwardly on an elegant wooden bench. The dense, heavy ebony is adorned with intricate carvings of the globe. Each of the continents clearly delineated, the ornate relief work seemingly hand carved into the hard flesh of the Diospyros ebenum. The bench sits alone in a long, barren hallway that seemingly has no beginning and no end, extending as far as the eye can see.
He is perched uncomfortably on the edge of the polished surface, his hands braced firmly against his knees, as if holding every ounce of his being up against the crushing force of gravity below him, fighting the urge to float away and disappear into nothingness above.
His entreaty, fading to a soft whisper, is barely audible in the ambient noise of existence and the gentle whirring of the large, glowing orb suspended overhead. Its soft, warm light bathing half the bench, leaving the other half in darkeness.
There’s no memory of how he got there or how long he’s been sitting on the smooth surface. He has a vague recollection of coming through a door to his right. It was was marked one way, but his memory is foggy. He feels as though he has walked for years. It could very well have only been days. He can’t tell. It doesn’t matter. He shivers, but he isn’t cold. In this stark, sterile hallway, he feels alone. Lost.
The man looks up, pleading with his tired, sunken eyes. The sombre semi-circular moons that frame his lower eyelids darken further, coated by the downward shadows cast by his eyebrow ridges. His irises, expanded with the contraction of his pupils, catch a glint of the brightly flickering orb-light from above, briefly regaining some of their former lustre, a dark chocolate brown bordering on black. Just like the ebony bench. Within, small flecks of gold dance with life then quickly fade to nothing, the rippling echoes of a stone thrown into a pool of water until stillness returns.
Her voice, while pleasant and friendly, is firm and clear. Unlike his statement, her question has no tremble or shake. Her reply is strong and practiced, as though she’s been through this negotiation before, in many forms, over many lifetimes. Always the same. A hint of amusement is palpable on her as she tilts her head ever so slightly to the right, her piercing grey eyes leveled directly on his, never breaking with his gaze. The beginning of a smile attempts to break onto her face.
“I’m not ready, yet.”
He sits up straighter. Upright. His voice rises along with his body, as though he’s mustered the last dredges of energy from his reserves to push those few words out. With conviction. A last ditch effort. But there isn’t enough energy, the well is empty, and his voice drops again on the last word. Falling. Softening. Failing him.
He’s no longer slouched over, having pushed his shoulders back and his head up for the initial drive. His eyes don’t leave hers, but they’ve changed again, weighted by a profound sadness, or perhaps realization of his current situation.
“When will you be ready?”
As her smile came to be, it was extinguished. A ghost. Did it ever really exist? Was it ever really alive? He can’t be sure.
Her script is polished and practiced. As though she knows what will come next, the carefully orchestrated sequence of asks and entreaties. This was not her first rodeo. She has been doing this for an eternity. For life.
“I don’t know.”
“That’s not an easy question to answer, is it?”
He doesn’t expect an answer but sometimes Life surprises us.
“I don’t suppose so. I’ve been doing this for a long time and no one ever seems to be ready. They always say they have something left to do, you see. But you can’t stop it, it doesn’t work that way. It won’t matter how much more time I give you, there will always be something left undone, something left unsaid. There will always be unfinished business.“
He considers her words carefully, knowing she’s right. She’s always right. She has all the answers. She knows all the questions. She always has. He thinks back on his unfinished business, reflecting on all the things that he has left to do. Things undone. Words unsaid. The missed opportunities and untouched experiences. He will never get the chance again. He knows it’s over. The crushing weight of reality pushes down on him, pushes against him, from within. It’s overwhelming. The air suddenly heavy, thick. He struggles to breathe.
“I’m not ready.”
He says the words again, modified from the previous to be more definitive this time, for his benefit rather than for hers. His eyes are glistening now, and he feels the burning within them. The tears. He swore there wouldn’t be any. That was his promise all those years ago. He tries to fight them off. It doesn’t work. They come anyway. They always find a way. Slowly at first as he speeds up his blinking, trying in vain to ward the inevitable. His eyes widening as his jaw sets, the muscles contracting visibly. He is no match for them. No one ever is. They grow, gathering at the edge of his lower eyelids, threatening to spill out.
“I know. There aren’t many who are.”
This time her voice is softer, kinder. Empathetic. Maybe it was the unmistakable sheen in his eyes. She is tempted to reach out and place her hand on his shoulder, which has slumped again. To comfort him as he sits on the bench. But she doesn’t move. Her aloofness often considered cold and uncaring. It’s not her place. It never has been. It’s how Life has always been.
Her eyes, much like his, with flecks dancing in the flickering light of that hallway that has no beginning and no end, look at him earnestly. Her face is calm, conveying infinite knowledge and wisdom. She understands that this is how it is. This is how it must be.
The gathered moisture in his eyes hits a critical mass and breaches the banks of his eyelids. She watches as the tears cascade down his cheeks freely. Each one silently following the one before it, ultimately breaking off and forging its own path. Creating its own life when ending that of its predecessor. Reflexively, she reaches out, and using the tip of her thumbs, gently wipes them away, her fingers cradling his jaw. A wet trail glistens on the crest of his cheekbones, highlighting the defined arch.
He doesn’t seem to notice. Lost in the moment. Numbed by Life.
Wordlessly, he stands from the beautifully carved bench, smoothing out his wrinkled clothing. Her hands return to her sides. He doesn’t know how long he’s been sitting there since she spoke those words. It feels like a lifetime.
Looking around, he notices that the hallway isn’t actually barren, that the walls aren’t empty. There are incredible images etched into every surface, all illuminated by the glowing orb up above. Vast mountain ranges and raging rivers teeming with life. Animals of every kind and description. Plants and insects. The flora and fauna of the world. And all those familiar faces. He was so caught up with Life that he missed out on the beauty that surrounded his as he sat on that bench.
She repeats herself more firmly this time, leaving no room for doubt.
He starts and gives her a thin smile, his lips pulled taut. She hears a soft sigh escape as his shoulders rise and fall. With one last loving look at her, that sadness clouding his eyes, he turns on his heels and walks down the never-ending hallway, in the opposite direction from where he came in.
She’s right. It was time. He knew it. It was inevitable. He was resigned to it, like everyone eventually is. It had come. His time. Life had the final say.
He walks with purpose, head held high, shoulders set. He doesn’t look back. It’s too late for that now. She watches him go as he leaves her.
She turns and walks in the other direction. For the first time, like every time, she realizes that maybe she’s the one leaving.
She steps the wrong way through the one way door.
The tears come back. Trailing down her face.
Trailing down his. As he wails into the bright white light.