The man sat down at his desk. The office was grey. The man turned on his computer.
The computer said: Hello, Man.
The man wrote back: Hello. Is it today?
The computer replied: No.
Another man, a man from somewhere else, came up to him.
The man went away. That was okay, thought the man.
More time passed, and then it was lunch. The man stood up from his chair and left the office.
Lunch was okay.
The man went back to his desk.
The computer said: Welcome back, man.
The man wrote back: Hello.
The computer said: Now.
The man stood.
He was in the room with the stairs again. One set went up, and the other went down. Up and down. It meant something, but he couldn’t remember what.
A woman stood next to them. She wore white.
“Okay?” he asked her.
“Sorry.” she said, shaking her head. She pointed at the steps. “Down.”
Something inside the man, very deep and very fragile, began to crack, and then shattered fully. He shook his head.
“D…down?” he stuttered. The colour returned to the room.
The woman stared at him with impassive eyes and said nothing. A sudden thought, clear and exciting, exploded into his mind.
“My name… my name is Tom Saunders!” he said. “I have a wife, she’s beautiful! Her name is Naomi! We live at 242 West Park Road, on the East Side, and I work in an office downtown. The last time I saw her-”
He stopped. He’d seen her this morning, hadn’t he? No, that wasn’t right because…
He looked towards the stairs and felt a gurgle of nausea.
“Where am I?”
“You are here.”
“And where’s that?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied. “the decision has been made.”
He looked around the room. The only exits were the stairs.
“How long have I been here?”
“The same as anyone.”
“Why couldn’t I remember my name?”
“Awareness is only restored when the decision is made.”
Awareness? he thought.
Then it came back to him, sudden and brutal. That night with Naomi.
I’m gonna put some music on. That okay?
I really want to listen to it though. That cool?
He pushes the tape into the deck with one hand, and steers the car with the other. The window is down and the breeze rolls over him. The road is dark and empty. The music starts.
It’s strings, his favourite. They rise and fall like breathing, and he feels uplifted.
Can we stop at Melvin’s on the way? she asks.
Her voice cuts through the music, talking, always talking, draining the emotion from it. He grips the wheel tighter.
Okay, he answers.
Thirty seconds pass, and music envelopes him again.
’Cuz I was thinking we’ll probably be hungry by then.
His jaw clenches harder. He nods. The music has moved on without him. He tries to clear his mind.
I’m going to have blueberries on mine. And syrup. Oh! And those white chocolate chip thingies!
He stares at the road. The hot coal of anger begins to smoulder inside him. He reaches out and turns the music up two notches. She reaches out and turns it back down.
You okay, anyway? You seem tense.
He ignores her. He turns the music back up. Another thirty seconds pass.
Well anyway, when we get to Melvin’s we can—
He pushes on the brake, hard. She screams. The car skids and then stops. Smoke and the smell of burnt rubber fill the suddenly silent night.
What the fuck are you doing? You could have killed us!
I need to pee, he says. Calm, serene.
He gets out and walks towards the trees. The door slams behind him. She follows, shouting.
What the fuck’s the matter with you?
He ignores her and keeps walking. She overtakes him and turns, blocking his path.
Are you even listening? Look at me! What the hell just happened?
The anger reaches its peak.
Goddamn it, Naomi, get out of my way.
He punches her. In the chest. Hard. She stumbles backwards, a little at first, then all the way. She falls in slow motion, and there is a crunching sound as the back of her head makes contact with a rock.
Looking down at her, he feels the air leave him.
He waits, but she does not move. Even in the darkness he can see the blood begin to pool around her. He bends over and vomits. Some of it splashes on her shoes.
The rest of the memory was fuzzy. Something about the trunk of the car, an orange stain on the bottom of the wash basin, the smell from the garage after the first few hot days of summer, the clink of the rounds as he dropped them into the chamber. The images came in flashes, but he would not allow them into his mind.
He looked around the room. The woman was gone. There were no other exits, and the two sets of stairs had been replaced with one. It lead down.
Sudden and horrific realisation dawned on him, and he screamed.
“It’s not my fault! I told her I wanted to listen to it! She should have known!”
Nothing happened. He slowly sunk to his knees and clasped his hands together, looking upwards to the ceiling.
“I’m sorry! Please! It was a mistake.”
A voice came. It was the sound of every person he had ever known.
“The decision has been made.”
“No.” He said, beginning to sob. “I’ll do anything.”
There was a few seconds silence, and then his legs began to move. They lifted him to his full height.
“No!” he screamed. “I’m sorry! I really am! Stop, please!”
He beat his fists against his thighs and tried to resist, but still they began to move. At the staircase, they stopped.
The man held his breath.
Ryan Fitzpatrick writes in Wolverhampton, England.