He was truly happy. A kind of happiness he didn’t need to share for validation. He had a newly romanced air about him that would drive a hopeless cynic to insanity and walked with a smile without a sense of purpose, apart from the bacon and milk he’d been sent for. Paul took in the world around him. He pulled the shapes and smells from the surrounding space into an impenetrable bubble of thought reserved just for one. Thinking of the woman waiting for him back home, he floated.
His friends only meant well when they told him not move so fast and, when he thought about the situation logically, he agreed. Only, love isn’t logical. It was her face, the face of a new world in which he wished to belong. That’s the last thing that eased through his mind as he and the car collided. He was hopeless to avoid it as he floated into the oncoming Sunday traffic. Not seeing the Ford estate until it was too late. The combination of bonnet, window and eventually concrete pulled him into the darkness.
No bright light, he thought as he lay, too afraid to open his eyes. He didn’t want to see what happened to his body. He was sure it wouldn’t be pretty, people running around the mangled mess on the floor and falling over themselves to ring an ambulance. He couldn’t understand why people swarmed to see an accident.
In reality, Paul was deserted by the driver as soon as his head hit the pavement and was only found twenty minutes later by an old man walking his dog. He opened his eyes into darkness and raised his hand to his face. He couldn’t see anything. There was no pain but the feeling remained when he rubbed his hands together. That’s when a light appeared and flowed over his skin with a warmth he felt inside, not out. His eyes adjusted and the moving staircase revealed itself.
The escalator came into Paul’s view, stretching into the air from an unseen source with an unseen destination. All he could hear was a low hum he had come to associate with this sort of machine and all he could see were the stairs. He knew it was solid ground beneath his feet but it was an empty darkness that could have spread infinitely or been confined to a centimetre below him. There was air as he was breathing , and light from somewhere otherwise he wouldn’t be able to see the escalator at all. There had to be some grasp on reality but reason and logic were failing to hold on. He thought of the estate that had hit him and of the woman he was now certain he had left behind. He was grateful for the swift departure but he would have taken all the pain that anything could have thrown at him for one last glance. Paul stood at the foot of the stirring steps and looked for the end.
“Hello?” he shouted towards the summit, surprised to hear his voice. “Is this it?”
Paul waited for an answer from the seemingly never-ending stairs and quickly received one.
Before he had chance to spin around, Paul was pushed aside by a much larger man with a guitar slung over his back. He had a well-worn suit and face to match, stories etched all over his dark skin.
“Sorry about that buddy, but I’ve got a date with fate. I’m guessing you do too, so hop on”
Stunned to have seen another person, Paul jogged up to meet the scruffy man sitting on the edge of a step with a smirk.
“I take it this is your first time then?”
Trust in this place seemed a moot point but Paul still thought he should tread carefully and took his time to answer.
“You could say that,” he eventually croaked.
The man’s grin widened.
“Thought so, you look like you’ve shit a brick.” He stood up and held out his right hand.
“Jonny B, you get what you see. Nice to meet you.”
“Paul,” he replied, taking his hand. “Where are we?”
“I don’t know what it’s really called but to me it’s a staircase for the soul. A kinda beg-ulator. Where folks who died before their time can come and beg for it back.” Jonny B looked over the side and then glanced down the steps as a young woman wearing a white scarf around her head and a dirty looking maids uniform stepped tentatively on.
“A bit of skirt down there and I’m sat here with you.” He sighed and winked at Paul which made him follow his line of sight. “I get all the luck.”
To Paul she looked like something out of a Jane Austen novel and, even at their height, he could tell she was crying. He, as strange as the situation was, had Jonny B to keep his mind off the gravity of what was happening. He hadn’t been allowed to settle and take it all in. The woman slowly rising didn’t have that luxury. She was alone with no way of knowing what was happening but Paul knew he wouldn’t be the one to help her.
“Look funny to you?” Jonny said and pointed. “That girl?”
“She looks like she’s just walked right off a period drama.”
Jonny looked sickened and placed his hands behind his head.
“How could you tell that from here? Man, must be her time of the month.”
Paul shook his head and laughed at Jonny’s confused expression. “Never mind”
The musician ignored Paul’s giggles and looked back down at the woman.
“With a dress like that she’s not of my time. That’s the beauty of this thing, there is no time. She looks like that because that’s the way they dress where she’s from. Hell, last time I was here I met a guy who said he could jump back and forward through time because in the year 2467 they have found a way to do it. The fool was wearing next to nothing.” Jonny put his hand around the front of his dirty jeans and readjusted.
“The damn thing looked starved of air.” He sat back and looked up into the darkness above their heads.
“That’s not a future I wanna feel.”
“How did he end up here?”
“He said a Dino stepped on him and he needed to go back because he was the only one who knew how to get him and his group back to their time.” He smirked and lent back on the step. “All those brains and he didn’t think to share them.”
Jonny put his guitar on the step above his head and stretched out in the space he had.
“How did you get here then, Paulie?” He gave him a once over. “Plane crash?”
“No, I was hit by a car.” Paul didn’t know why the conversation was flowing so freely. He thought it must have been the lack of time to process what was happening. He looked back over his shoulder, the woman was still crying. “How did you get here?”
“Drugs baby,” Jonny said, surprisingly optimistic. “Same as last time.”
Paul raised his right hand and began to clap one-handed. “Wow.”
Jonny looked hurt and threw his arms in the air as if performing to a crowd. Something Paul doubted he did very often.
“It’s not like you get a slap on the wrist and they let you go, buddy. This is some serious shit. You don’t pass your interview it’s game over, and they don’t give you the courtesy to remember it if you do. I only remember being here now I’m back.”
Jonny ran his hand over the neck of his guitar.
“You come through with the only thing that could save you, a token, a way of improving mankind by a future action. I got my guitar. I’m gonna bring people together with my music. But the scene has got me twice now.” He raised his arms again in that theatrical manner.
“All that booze, women and drugs man.” He made a kissing noise with his lips and then whistle. “I know that my seem a waste of time in some circles but what a way to waste it.”
He looked down at the step he was sitting on.
“Let’s hope third times a charm, eh?”
Paul sat on the step below and reached into his pocket. His fingers ran over something sharp but he felt no pain, even when his hand closed around it and he took it out. It looked like a piece of rock, just ordinary, one that held his life in its jagged edges.
“Is that your saviour?” Jonny began to laugh. “Wow man, you’re fucked. That might increase my chances buddy, you’re a dead cert for the drop,” he said, with an emphasis on ‘DEAD’ that made Paul feel sick.
He strummed a few chords and left Paul to ponder.
“What time are you from then?” he finally asked after taking it in.
“1970, buddy. How about you?”
“A brit? Nice.” Hard as he tried to conceal it, Paul caught ever drop of sarcasm in his voice.
“I’m from all over the USA, constantly travelling. I can’t even remember where I was born.”
Paul thought there was more to Jonny then what came out of his mouth but also that he was looking at a dead man.
Maybe they send the dead in two by two because I can’t see this rock changing my situation, he thought.
“Plus, my folks died when I was pretty young so can’t ask them anymore, Not that you would care man, or should.” He strummed out a few more cords and continued. “Every man has his cross to bear, in life and in death.” He laughed and slapped Paul on the back.
“Or at least that’s what they tell you.”
A slight buzzing came from above and a large platform with a door came into view. That door held the answers to questions Paul didn’t think he wanted.
Keep moving or turn into the same quivering state as Jane Eyre, he thought.
As they walked over to the door, Jonny started to get a worried look and his body performed an involuntary dance.
“Just one question before we part, buddy.” He started to look frantic and his eyes grew wide. “You’re from 2002, right?”
Paul frowned and it was his turn to look at the floor. “2012, Jonny. How well do you think you’re going to do in there if you don’t listen out here?”
This made him do the nervous shuffle one more time. “Okay man, yeah 2012. I was just wondering, in your time, you ever heard of Jonny B?”
Paul turned from the musician, not able to look into his eyes. He should have said he didn’t really follow the music scene and that, if he got another chance, the world is what you make of it, but Jonny had already thrown away one second chance and he didn’t think he was going to get another.
Paul didn’t have anything else, no words of comfort. He turned back to see the realisation spread on the musicians face
“You go first, Paul,” Jonny said gravely, and he turned his back and sat down. “My stocks have just taken a dive.”
For Jonny if the dream dies, he dies, and it was written all over his face.
Paul turned and looked at the door. It was stuck out, surrounded by air, and nothing appeared to be behind it. Paul was now alone and the situation had finally caught him with his pants down. He reached out to the handle, the last moments of conversation with the musician still fresh in his mind as he turned and walked through.
Paul shut the door behind him and scanned the room. When he was sixteen, Paul had once been caught in the wood behind the school with a joint in his mouth to impress a girl, who didn’t show up. He was caught by the harlot of physical education and sent to the headmaster’s office. This was that office. Everything was exactly the same, from the pictures of past glories and star students, to the bland carpet and cream covered walls, everything apart from the figure behind the desk. The man was dressed in an extremely well-worn black suit with a white shirt and red tie. His face looked drawn with a sickly glow fighting to peer through a matted beard. Coupled with a bald head, he looked like a newly produced egg. There was no grin on his face, just a stern set of locked lips which screamed professionalism even if the rest of him looked like it was just coming off a night out that lasted longer than anyone wanted it to.
“Take a seat, Mr Hilt, and place your token of the table in front of you,” he said casually without looking up from his clipboard. “We must discuss your situation.”
Paul felt the temperature drop dramatically as he took the seat opposite. He fished out the piece of rubble and, as instructed, placed it on the table in front.
The man quickly scanned the table, one eye fixing on the small rock, and raised an eyebrow. Amusement flashed in his eyes, which Paul either missed or refused to believe, before they returned to normal as his gaze fell back upon the clipboard page.
“My name is Mr Andrews. I am the interviewer of wayward souls in all of earths past, present and future, and I will be your one chance to return.” He pushed the clipboard to one side and clicked his fingers. Out of thin air, a laminated sheet of paper materialized into Mr Andrews’s hands, making Paul start. “Just a parlour trick. Don’t worry.”
Mr Andrews cleared this throat and began to read.
“My name is Mr Andrews.” He paused just long enough to point at himself. “I am the interviewer of wayward souls in all of earths past, present and future.”
Paul frowned as was about to comment on Mr Andrews’s repetition but decided it was something he did a lot.
“And I will be your only chance of return.” For the first time thier eyes locked and a smile spread across his face. “Even then there is no guarantee.” The smile disappeared and he returned to the script.
“Mr Paul Hilt, your rights are as follows: you are allowed to state your case when, and only when, I have received your personal file. Your records will tell me how you died prematurely and the date for your ADD or Actual Date of Departure. Begging and pleading is not forbidden but is frowned upon as it’s a pointless act of emotion and will not help you in your case.” He paused to take a sip of water out of a glass that appeared, before placing it on the table.
Paul’s head was swimming but all he could do was listen to the man and try to keep a grasp of his mind. Mr Andrews’ arm pointed and performed a sweep of the room without looking up from the page.
“The room in which you are sitting represents a serious moment in your life, not too serious, but one you will be able to remember to try and express the seriousness of this situation. We at the HCNP, Human Containment and Nurture Program, take the matter of life very seriously and therefore all one world theologies and mentions of Gods or higher powers are not forbidden but are frowned upon as it is a pointless act of emotion and will not help you in your case. The candidate, insert name here, must understand their case is incredibly important and will be treated with the utmost care and attention.”
Utmost care? Paul thought. Not enough to deserve my name being inserted where it was meant to.
His thoughts were interrupted as Mr Andrews continued.
“The candidate also must realise, depending on which time period he or she has died in, Earth may have a situation of over-population, therefore the interview stage will be skipped and I will proceed to termination.”
Paul went white.
“If this is the case your interviewer will have already have proceeded with the termination and it will be over soon.”
Mr Andrews placed the laminated paper on the table and clicked in the air once more to produce another sheet. He cleared his throat and continued reading. “Congratulations. At your time of death, Earth’s over-population has another sixty-three years before becoming a problem to anyone, so the interviewer will hear your case.”
The interviewer took another sip of liquid, and again read from the sheet without a change in expression.
“Your token is a symbol of your worth to the human race and you are advised to explain to the best of your ability. However, in the interest of consideration for the interviewer, you must be brief.”
The laminated sheet merged into a big orange file which Mr Andrews slammed on the desk.
“Okay, now the legal technicalities are out of the way, we will proceed. First, we review your token and see if you can visualise any scenario where it would come in handy for the sake of humanity.”
The clipboard reappeared with a pen attached, and he waited for Paul to begin his defence. Paul felt cheated. A rock, in his mind, was not a token to inspire this jobs-worth to return life.
“I have no idea what this rock is for,” he said.
Mr Andrews started to skim through the file and made a gesture with his hands that said ‘keep going and tell me more’.
“All I know is I am more than this rock. I have more to offer the world than this can ever show. I have an amazing life and an amazing girlfriend who I’m planning on spending the rest of my life with and start a family, a family with an infinite number of possibilities and goals we could reach.”
Mr Andrews stopped on one of the pages near the back and he looked up at Paul with guilt, as if his professional exterior was penetrated by the desperate man’s words, but he didn’t interrupt.
“I admit I haven’t done a lot with my life on a grand scale. I’m not a rock star or sportsman, giving happiness or hope to millions, but I have given happiness to the few people I know.”
The interviewer looked increasingly agitated, shifting around in his seat and placing his hand on his face.
“And isn’t that what humanity is? Isn’t that what humanity should be, about the little guys?”
I’ve got him on the ropes, Paul thought.
“It’s the little guys that can change the world. The average Joes that can change the mood of anyone they meet with just a smile, a stranger’s smile that can be the catalyst or springboard into inspiration. I haven’t a clue what my future will bring but I know whatever the possibilities, whether they’re good or bad, I can face them head on, without fear, because I’m the guy the little guy can rely on.”
Paul slumped back into his seat. He hadn’t noticed the tears that were trying to dry on his cheeks until he took in a deep breath and felt the liquid cool. He wiped his eyes and looked up at Mr Andrews’s open mouth and face of embarrassment.
Not the reaction I was going for, Paul thought, but he would take that over his earlier stone face. The interviewer stood up and slapped his mouth lightly with one hand.
“I’m sorry, Mr Hilt. I have the wrong file, just a moment.” He spun on his heels and quickly left the room through a door Paul couldn’t see. He left him on his own, for the first time since arriving in this limbo world, and left him a broken man crying hysterically.
He began to wonder why he was even here at all. His death, it seemed, was close enough for him to taste and also close enough for him to want.
The door opened again and a flustered interviewer returned and sat down.
“Sorry about that. You were saying?”
Disbelief spread across Paul’s face and he began to scream at the man opposite him. If any realization of the situation was left, it was flowing in an instant.
“JUST FUCKING LET ME DIE!” he repeated over and over.
“I’m sorry you have not been treated with the respect you deserve. Mistakes happen and I apologise.” His voice took on a cool tone. “Can we looked at your file and continue?”
Paul shook off the latest tears and took a few long, satisfying breaths.
“Okay,” he whispered.
Slowly, the binding was removed from the correct file and Mr Andrews started thumbing the pages.
“The piece of rubble is important to your cause, Mr Hilt, so let’s have a look at your information and find out why.”
He started to take a few sheets of paper and pictures from the file and lay them out in front of him. Paul could only watch as his life was thumbed through, like a journalist pouring over images of a minor celebrity doing coke in the back of a whistle-blowing taxi.
“These look familiar to you Mr Hilt?” The interviewer said calmly, like a sergeant interviewing his suspect. He slid the photos across the table.
Paul’s past and present was placed before him. Snapshots in time of any major moment, Christmas with parents, school plays with him never the lead but still proud, and on the far right was her face, the face of a future that would never be his.
“Yes,” he said softly. “These are mine, my memories.”
Mr Andrews held more photos in his hand but put placed them back into the folder. All except one.
“How about this one?”
He slid the last one across to Paul. The photo was of the Hilton hotel. The building was alight with a huge ball of fire erupting from one side. Paul pushed the picture back and shook his head.
“Means nothing to me, defiantly not from my time. That building’s still there and intact.” Then it hit him, the pictures were past, present and future.
“No Mr Hilt, it’s not your time. Well, not yet anyway.” He took the final note from the file and scanned while talking. “The explanation for the rubble is right here. Usually a candidate knows the reason why they should be sent back into their own time, that’s what the escalators are for. They give the soul a chance to process the information. It speeds this process up a great deal,” he said, flicking a finger back and forth between them.
He stood from the desk and walked back and forth behind it with his hand on his chin in some homage to Sherlock Holmes’ style of deducing. If he wasn’t trying to work out the answer to a question he came up with, Paul may have thought the charade convincing. As it was, the interviewer looked more Frank Drebin then Holmes.
“As you were distracted by Jonny B, your soul didn’t have the chance to process that information. The Victorian lady for example, the one you saw crying, she had time to understand the reason so she has an immediate pass back to her time.”
He remembered the woman as she stepped onto the escalator, her hands wrapped around her body, cradling her chest from the wheezing sobs.
“Why was she crying?” Paul asked, his voice weak.
“Luckily, statute four hundred and fifty seven of the candidate confidentiality bill doesn’t come into effect until next week,” he said smiling. “And I do enjoy a bit of gossip.” All the professionalism had drained from his voice. “Her token is a knife, a really big knife and the reason why she gets a free pass is, with that knife, she will save her daughter from a brutal death.” Mr Andrews sat back down and closed Paul’s file.
“She will save her two-year-old daughter from being raped and stabbed to death by the man she loves, the child’s father, by slitting his throat.”
Paul couldn’t reply and Mr Andrews seemed content in letting him think about it for a moment. Of course, it meant nothing to him, he had to deal with this sort of situation on a daily basis but seeing as though Paul was about to get his own dose of morbidity, he let him sit on it for a while.
Eventually Paul spoke. “How can she live and return to her time with that? Either you don’t pass her and she is gone or you send her back knowing that she has to kill the one she loves.” It was Paul’s turn to lean forward on the desk. “That sir, is fucked up.”
The interviewer shook his head. “The candidate never remembers being in this place, unless you return. Didn’t the musician tell you that?”
Paul couldn’t remember and he wasn’t going to try, his mind and eyes already returned back to the picture of the Hilton in flames. He didn’t answer the interviewers question and instead asked one of his own.
“How do I fit into that?” he asked, pointing to the photo. It was a question he now didn’t want answered but the inevitability was painful and his insides begged for a swift and merciful end.
Mr Andrews pulled a final sheet from the file without looking and placed it in front of him in the same precise manner as the others.
“Mr Hilt, you also get a free pass out of this place.” He sat back down on the chair, but looked ready to spring back up again.
“In six months’ time, after recovering from your unfortunate accident, you will save a lot of people. You will limit the damage of a bomb that will be detonated during a Conservative party conference. The ‘Occupy’ crowd decide to take things a little further than anyone deemed necessary or possible.” He rose from the chair and walked around the table to face his candidate, again giving Paul time to digest but noticing his face had turned even whiter, he decided to wrap it up. “If it’s any conciliation, you won’t remember a thing and you save a lot of people.”
Paul couldn’t move. He could only watch as the interviewer took a seat on the edge of the table. There was no ability to take in what was going. To Paul, his grip on the situation was weak and the grip on his stomach was too much and he vomited down the side of his chair.
“Even the soul can be sick,” Mr Andrews said with a chuckle. He raised his hands in front of him and clicked revealing an Ipad size screen with doctors rushing around a broken body. The appearance of the screen drained the laughter out of the interviewers face.
“This is you Paul. It’s a sorry sight to see, but you will recover.” He reached back behind the desk and pressed a button which made the screen, in which Paul could see himself, spark.
“Time to return, Mr Hilt. Goodbye”
Just as the defibrillators hit Paul on the screen, a worm hole opened and dragged the soul back into the darkness.
Paul opened his eyes and was instantly hit with mild flames all over his body. He could remember it all: strutting out into the street, the Ford as it came closer, and then waking up here. Paul was very happy to be alive and he took comfort.
It took him a few seconds to register who the voice belonged too. One look at her smile reminded him instantly.
“Amie with the face,” Paul managed to push from the back of a sore throat.
She rushed forward and hugged her fallen man with an intensity Paul’s wounds could have done without but his soul was crying out for.
“I’m never letting you out of my sight again,” she whispered, trying to hold back her tears.
Paul kissed her and smiled. “Don’t worry. I’ll never leave you again.”