Lights shine onto the floor, like streetlights spaced far apart on a smooth, icy street. But I’m not on a street, I’m walking down a corridor. Darkness fills the spaces between the lamps. I hurry into the glow cast by one of them. It’s sickly, and yellow. Like bile, not like the sun. The light blinds me, causing the darkness nearby to turn darker. I can’t see anything outside this circle of light.
I’m not safe. I glance behind and shiver as the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Keep moving forward. Don’t stop.
Reason tells me I’ll see better outside the light. I step out of it, my bare foot rebelling against the cold metal floor. In front and behind, the corridor stretches like a never-ending tunnel, with doors to the left and right. I don’t remember the doors from a moment ago. Did I come through one of them? They are each the same: dark metal, same color as the floor. Tiny, unlit windows in each one look like eyes staring out at me. I don’t know what’s behind the doors, don’t want to know. But I move forward anyway, ducking beneath the one on the left.
Voices. A whispering from behind. I glance back down the corridor. Nothing. The whispering sounds like the ocean in a sea shell, distant and tiny. It must be coming from behind the door.
But I have to. Maybe the voices can help me. Or the people attached to the voices. Are they people?
I turn to look back down the tunnel, the feeling that something is watching ballooning inside my chest.
Turning to face the door is terrible because my back is no longer secure against the wall. I ease up to look through the window.
The lights are on in the room, but they don’t shine on me. Students sit in rows of desks facing the front. I see their faces. The room is blank except for the students, desks, and white light from the ceiling. A teacher stands before them. He’s not talking, just standing. I wave.
They can’t see me. I pound on the door. It rings deeply like a gong, beautiful and sinister.
Students and teacher look up. I wave again.
The ringing gong bounces off the walls of the corridor, hitting the doors to the left and the right. They reverberate as well, starting a chain reaction that ripples up and down the tunnel in wave after wave of a ringing crescendo.
The teacher walks to the door, staring at the window but not looking out.
“Hey! Let me in!” I shout. My voice is drowned out as more doors ring.
The teacher smiles a big, toothy grin but doesn’t touch the door.
My heart rings with the gongs, beating faster and faster in time with a hundred of them. A thousand. No longer beautiful, their clamoring sounds like screaming. I stare at the teacher and he stares back at me. The corridor shakes. I break eye contact and fall to the floor to cover my ears, my entire body vibrating. It hurts. My head is going to burst.
And then, suddenly, the sound stops–all of the gongs silenced at the exact same time. I pant on the floor, my body stripped of any will to move on. After all the racket, the silence in the hallway is more complete, now more sinister than the gong and the screams. I turn onto my back and stare up at the door. The window is as black as ever. Can the teacher see me? I glance down the corridor. Are others looking out at me from all the windows?
I climb to my feet but recoil at the thought of unknown faces watching me through the windows. But whatever is watching me from the windows is not what is hunting me from the corridor.
My breath is shallow, rapid. I move to the next door on the right and peer into its tiny window. More students. Another teacher. The light inside not shining out. The room is the same as the other. Instead of touching the door, I yell at it. I’ve already made too much noise at this point, so more won’t increase my peril.
“Hey!” My voice sounds oddly muted. “Let me in!”
These words are the only ones I know.
This time the teacher stops and waves at me, another big grin crossing his face. The students look at me, too. One of them laughs. Then another. Soon laughter undulates around the room. I can’t hear them, but I see their faces. Mouths open to show white teeth, eyes closed, bellies shaking.
I hurry down to the next door, this time just standing there waiting to see if the teacher can hear me. It’s the same one, I realize. Each time it’s been the same teacher, but I’ve been seeing from different angles. But the class is no longer laughing. They all stare at the window. And frown. The teacher holds up his left arm and points to his watch. You’re late, he mouths. One by one the class gets bored with looking at me and turns to the front of the room again.
Each door is the same. After a while, I stop looking in them. My feet drag through the never-ending corridor. I could sit down and wait for whatever is behind me, but I don’t want to. When I slow down I hear its breath following after me. So I push on, passing door after door.
I walk for day—or is it years?—until my feet blister and bleed and the skin wears off. And still I keep walking. Because behind me something is waiting. Maybe it’s herding me to the end of the corridor, which I can’t see it but know exists.
More time passes. I’ve always walked here, in this space between living. Nothing changes. Not even a light flickering over a door. I always stay out of it. The silence is unbearable. All I hear is one foot placed in front of another. And sometimes the breath behind me.
The red door at the end of the corridor materializes in front of me. Or maybe I just didn’t see it because I’ve been watching my feet as I trudge along. It has no window. Instead my name is etched across the front. At one point I would have questioned why my name was on the door. Now I just let it beckon me onward.
Breathing behind me. My hair flutters with it. I don’t dare turn to look.
The red door glows faintly and hums the gentle hum of a machine. I wipe my tears—have I always been crying? My hand moves toward my name, like magnet drawn to magnet.
Don’t touch it.
My name is on it.
I touch the door. It warms my hands; I didn’t even know they were cold.
The door glows brighter and hisses open. A deep blackness yawns in front of me. Maybe it’s like the windows: I can’t see in, but something’s there all the same. Something brushes my shoulder. I don’t look back.
And without another thought, I step in.
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