“Deliver it,” the old man said to me.
“Alright,” I replied, and departed.
The corridor is longer than usual. I stare down the wall on the other end, a mere glowing dot from the moonlight pouring through the window with an undrawn curtain at the end of the corridor, and move my feet. The darkness is frightening, but not so much so that I am paralyzed.
One, two, three. My footsteps are soft and muffled on the lustrous carpet. I trudge through the soft mesh of synthetic materials, refusing to let them stop my feet. In all reality, I could lie down - lie down, and just fall asleep right there. It is dark, anyhow. Walking is insensible business.
I hear the shrill laughter of a woman, and the clinking of bottles. Then, unsettling silence. I stiffen my resolve to knock on the gold-embroidered door.
I am familiar with the door. Not this one in particular, but many doors like this. Its inhabitants are often both extremely ill-tempered or jolly, depending on what your message is. But they can be quite mellow and sad too, such as this one. I suppress the urge to take a step back at the fat woman’s sharply drawn eyebrows, arching impossibly downard to make her powdered face egregiously sorrowful.
“Good evening, ma’am.”
She nods her head in acknowledgement. I know I am but a haze in her eyes, nothing exciting or stimulating in the least.
“I have a message for you.”
“The old man. You may have heard of him - your neighbor, just over there.” I point to the door behind me. Have I only walked three steps? It does not seem like it.
“I know no such old man. Would you like to come in? I have freshly baked cookies and some lovely earl grey tea.” She asks, her sad eyebrows inching up and down a bit like depressed, starved worms. I refuse politely, and move on. She has likely never met a child in her life. I have only glimpsed the little dolls with glasses that flash by the windows once in a while. They are always so perfectly still, she’s probably never had to talk to them.
The next door I knock on is a dark blue one. A beautiful woman emerges, with birds in her flowing hair.
“Hello,” she greets me, and extends a hand for me to kiss. I want to refuse it, but something makes me bend down and touch my lips to her ivory skin.
“I have a message.” I utter quickly, lest I forget the mission of my trip.
“Lovely.” A bird chirps quietly in her hair, its silver tone being just loud enough for me to hear. Her smile falters for a second, then comes back.
“Well, go on. Don’t let me tarry your journey.”
“Do you not want the message?”
“I have no use for it. Move on, now, and try not to let the night eat you! It’s very hungry.”
She laughs, and her silvery laughter sounds just like that of her bird, except louder. I trot away anxiously, now darting my eyes into the thickening darkness seeming to envelope me from all around. It wraps around me, seeps into my nose and eyes, blinding me, suffocating me-
“Need some help there?”
“Yes, yes.” I choke out, and nearly collapse. A ray of warm light from the room in front of me blows away the darkness in my eyes and I see a middle aged man with wild grey hair. I gulp, and say what I have come to say.
“I have a message.”
“And if I could help you deliver it, I would.” he looks sympathetic. He then turns and peers behind himself, into the warm, welcoming room, and I hear the sound of a child and a gentle cooing. “My family is about to have dinner though.”
“I understand,” I answer, trying and failing not to sound deflated. “Thank you, sir.”
He waves his hand. “Don’t call me sir. I am Paul.”
“Goodbye then, Paul.”
“Goodbye. Good luck. I advise you against your journey. If you must take it, close your eyes. Things can get very ugly outside.”
“But I’m already outside.”
“Not outside the room. Outside the house.”
Outside the house. I mutter to myself, over and over again as I walk away, until I misstep and fall down a staircase. It’s a slippery one, and I fall. A silent scream in my throat. My message threatens to spill out of my brain as I stumble and tumble, around and around, down, down, down.
A pair of small hands stop me by the shoulders. It then moves down, to my shirt hem, my pants, my shoes, until it suddenly reaches up and slaps my face. I didn’t even get to see what it was. The hands dance away gleefully, laughing as it did so, the sound dying away.
I get up and cough, discovering that my mouth was filled with dust. My eyes water, too, from the acrid earth that got into them. I cough and cough until I feel something slippery jump into the palm covering my mouth, and writhes away. I decide then to suppress my cough, and walk on.
I walk, barefeet, on something warm, soft, and dry. It feels like ashes, or perhaps coal dust. Just as that thought pops into my head, a bright light nearly blinds me. I put my hand up and wildly try to get away.
“Hey! Hey, it’s okay, it’s me.” The lights dim a little, and I catch a little click of shutters somewhere. I start, but a human face in front of me calms me down.
“I have-” I coughed.
“I know, I know. Me too.” The boy smiled, his white teeth glowing in the dark. “Where are you headed?”
I panic in ignorance. Where am I headed? But then the answer came to me, clear as can be.
“Wherever the message is needed.”
“Hmm… why though?”
I peer at this strange boy, with soot all over his face. He keeps pointing the light at me, and smiles with his shiny teeth. “You do know that your message isn’t needed?”
“What do you mean? It’s a very important message.”
“Nobody needs it. I’ll prove it to you, just tell me this. Who told you to deliver it?”
“The old man.” I answer, disliking him more and more. His hand now firmly grasps my arm.
“And where does he live?”
“On… above. Why?”
He visibly ponders for a bit, and frowns as he does so. Somewhere, a canary chirps repeatedly. I try to wrestle away my arm, but it won’t budge.
“Promise me something, and I’ll let you go.” He smiles some more, waving my hand in front of my face. I observe in horror that it is now intertwined with his, and seemingly stuck together as if they have been glued. I struggle frantically, but his black eyes bore into mine and I bite back a scream, then stop struggling.
“What?” I ask, on the verge of tears. “What do you want?”
The shutters click again. “Promise me you’ll forget about the message.”
I decide against refusing outright, because a warm sputter of liquid is now transferred onto my hand. It feels violating, dangerous, and binding. I try to wiggle my way out.
“Because it’s dangerous.”
“But you are dangerous. You’re the only one that’s dangerous.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Now, promise?”
He holds out his free hand, and extends a pinky. It is a shapely hand, with well manicured nails and smooth skin.
“You don’t belong down here.” I say. “What are you doing here? I came to deliver a message, and I won’t stop until it reaches someone.”
“Your message,” his smile turns ugly, “it dies with me.”
The canary screams, and suddenly the world is shaking. I yelp in fright, but am helpless as I am buried under dust, soot, and rocks. They rain down on me and the boy and we are soon buried. Dirt blinds me, silences me, and makes me deaf. He screams, too, but I am focused on extending my neck, hard, to stretch above the rocks. I succeed. My head arches strangely into a breeze, the intoxicating dawn of the outside. I let the air clear away the dust keeping me from breathing and seeing and speaking, and open my eyes.
I glimpse the outside for a second of an eternity. I see tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcano eruptions. I see explosions and mushroom clouds. I hear tremendous trembling, smell the fleeing of small things, and taste the uncertainty of the universe.
And then I am flying. Flying, flying, until I land in the middle of a playground. Children with wings are playing, and they come to me, grasping my shoulders, then my shirt and my pants.
“Why are you here?” They ask me. “Are you our parents?”
I open my mouth, but close it again. I will gladly be their caregiver, and play with them. But something compels me to dash the hope of the innocent, and utter the words-
“I have a message.”
They don’t seem wounded at all by the passive negative to their inquiry. “Ooh! Tell us, tell us!”
I take a deep breath, then feel a sudden fear of not knowing what to say. A thousand questions crowd my head: Am I the messenger? What does it matter now? What’s the point of saying it here? What is the message? But then it came to me. And I speak, with tears streaming down my cheeks-
“Stay alive. Keep alive the mind, keep alive the mind. Keep alive the mind, my loves!”