By George Oliver
I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but I know it’s been an unreasonable amount of time. I don’t really know what here is, or what I’m doing, but here and this are all I know, all I can remember.
I feel decentred. Displaced. Like someone has removed me from my box prematurely, but with the labels still on. I’m the incongruous toy able to freely walk down shop aisles and poke obnoxiously from shop windows, demanding that passers-by engage with my contrived operation to neglect capital gain and restore power to the people.
My knowledge of the literal process I am confined to is limited. Minimal. But enough to justify rationalising the situation outside of the useless confines of my own head. Here goes.
There’s the Bridge, the River, and the Nothing. They are desirable, comparatively not, and an immovable constant, respectively. The process invariably ends at the Bridge, which I must swan dive from before the sky turns black, otherwise I wake up in the River, gasping for air and frantically competing with the rise and fall of the waves.
I must swim downriver until I arrive beneath the Bridge, which I must scale the side of until I can clamber to the top. Only then can I start the process correctly, by which point I’ve lost precious minutes in the countdown before the sky turns black. I’ve lived through enough iterations of the process to know that the sky turning black is the only reliable indicator of the passage of time.
If I do dive from the Bridge in time, next time I wake up back on the Bridge, naked and foetal; this variation gives me much longer to live before the sky turns black. After diving from the Bridge, I float in the Nothing for what always feels like a few minutes before waking up back at the Bridge, or in the River if I don’t successfully dive before the sky turns black.
My awareness of these structures and rhythms is undermined by the most crippling ignorance imaginable: at each stage of the process, I have absolutely no idea what happens if I die here. The outcome is an entirely plausible possibility in the River, which is why it’s so perilous, so unspeakably terrifying.
I feel decentred because, quite recently, I begun meeting others here. Other people scrambling to learn as much as they can about what they’re going through simultaneous to doing it. Like me, those I meet watch the sky anxiously, aware that they have limited time to live before the pieces are swept from the board and the process resets.
Living entails trying different staircases leading to different doors in the hope of finding a positive experience. These staircases stretch interminably from the Bridge. Experiences can be moments in history, your own memories, or random and miscellaneous human situations you’re invited to be a part of.
My most recent was a particularly unpleasant sandstorm in an unspecified Australian desert, alone and at an unknown point in time. It was quite far at the opposite end of the spectrum to, say, a recent evening at a vibrant cocktail bar in ancient Greece. When “cocktail” consisted of wine mixed with sugar and spices. When happiness was served on a silver platter and human kindness was as free and available as oxygen.
In Greece, I met what would be classifiable as friends for life, if “life” wasn’t such an insecure, unstable conception. These friends vanished with the day; the sky turned from blue to black and I desperately searched for my doorway back to the Bridge. I didn’t quite manage to do so in time and woke up soon after fighting for my life in the River.
It was easy to realise there were others here, others just as able to travel through the doors as me, grappling with the same Bridge-River-Nothing quandary.
First there was David. David bumped into me on one of the staircases as innocuously as you might on a shopping centre escalator. He initially responded to the action with a mumbled apology, before double taking and realising the gravity of what had happened.
“You… you’re… I’m… there are others?”
“Looks that way.”
“Are you… in my head? Or real?”
“I’m real. Are you real?”
“Good. That’s settled then.”
Our exchange progressed organically to the point where we revealed our names. We then swiftly moved on to motivations, to agendas.
“So this, this Nothing, as you call it: how long do you spend there before you wake up?”
‘Minutes, I guess. There’s no way of knowing.’
“There isn’t, but for me it feels like days in there. Then I wake up in the Intermediate, back on the Bridge.”
“Yeah. What do you call it?”
“You can have that. You gave me the Nothing.”
David’s agenda is simple. He spends his days pre-reset desperately trying to find his lost dog. “Lost” insofar as he hasn’t been able to relocate a dog he once found through a door, which as I try to tell him seems to be kind of the point here. I think David thinks he’ll be able to bring it back through the door and wake up with it after diving from the Bridge. I don’t have the heart to tell him that this doesn’t seem to be possible. He’ll try it with Ruffy; I’ve already tried it with countless objects and animals and people. They all disappeared into the gaping black hole of the Nothing. Each time I woke up alone.
Next there was Stanley. Stanley also seems to be living a slightly different version of the process to mine. Like David, I met Stanley out of the blue and have since run into him in the Intermediate a few times. Stanley’s agenda is equally fixed: early on, he found a washing machine, which inexplicably manages to stay in the same spot at the foot of the same staircase every time he wakes up. He spends his days entering and exiting as many doorways as he possibly can while the sky’s ticking bomb does its thing, stealing clothes from whoever he meets, bringing them out into the Intermediate.
I try to tell Stanley that he needs powder or detergent for the washing machine to be effective. I don’t have the heart to tell him that the machine would also need a plug socket to function, which don’t seem to exist here.
Every time I see Stanley, he has an armful of gloves, shirts, or socks, and is walking in the opposite direction to me, away from the doors. He bundles the clothes into his machine while I more aimlessly walk up random staircases and see where the days take me.
Finally, there’s Richard, who I am about to meet.
Via eeny-meeny-miney-mo, I’m selecting my first staircase on what feels as ordinary as any other day. Suddenly, a 5 ft 10 blonde man falls out of the sky and down the staircase nearest to me, into me.
“Christ. Are you okay?” I ask the heap of limbs on top of me, threatening to cut off my air supply.
“So sorry. I—I tripped, fell right down the staircase. I—I completely lost my footing. Here, let me help you up,’ Richard offers, extending a hand attached to his now upright body in my direction, willing it to restore his new friend to the same state.
“Thanks. What’s your name?” I ask Richard.
“Richard,” Richard responds.
I return the nomenclatural favour, and conversation begins to flow more freely and naturally and interestingly between us than it ever has with David or Stanley. Richard and I soon get on like a house on fire, with no intention of tracking down an extinguisher, with a shared desire to completely forget the existence of the fire brigade.
Richard and I go through a door together and agree to do the same each time we meet in the Intermediate. I’m the first person Richard has met, but I tell him all about David and Stanley. Richard and I share surprise that we’re able to step through and have an experience together, which I haven’t thought to try with David or Stanley. I just didn’t expect the rules here to be so catering.
Richard and I defy what we were led to believe was our world’s internal logic, and grow old in our individual processes, together. The gaps between our meetings remain inconsistent and unpredictable, but we savour each meeting. We travel the world throughout human history, picnicking underneath the Eiffel Tower during the 1900 Exposition Universelle, being entertained in the Roman Colosseum by Titus’ inaugural games in AD 80, even being fortunate enough to travel back into our own skulls. I introduce Richard to my great-great-great grandmother; he introduces me to his childhood best friend.
On our adventures, we talk about everything and nothing, from the deepest philosophical debates to the most trivial observations. We look into each other’s eyes and at each other’s bodies, taking in every detail, sharing what we see: the evidence that we’re both beginning to age. We speculate on what this could mean collectively and what destiny may have in store for us.
Richard and I wonder if it means it’s all coming to an end, after all this time. We entertain the possibility that if this indeed some kind of selection process, we may have finally been chosen, together.
One day, Richard and I wake up at our separate Bridges and successively locate one another again, despite the difficulty in being able to do so due to the serendipitous nature of the staircase formation. We hold hands and gaze up at the beautiful blue sky. I take a moment to consider how good I have become at timing my days here. It’s been a while since I woke up in the River, a component Richard’s version of the process doesn’t contain, a component he has helped me forget ever existed in the first place.
Richard and I walk up a staircase. As we do, I imagine the noise of a dog barking and that of a washing machine whirring and vibrating as it begins a new cycle. The pair soundtrack my journey up the staircase and into our elected door. Richard’s grey hair glistens in the sunlight as he steps over the threshold. I take a mental photograph of the image and lock it away deep inside, before throwing away the key.
I imagine the golden key falling into the Nothing and clinking with a pile of others as it reaches the bottom, its function of unlocking futile in a world like this one anyway. I smile at the prospect of relinquishing this hindrance. I feel recentred.
George Oliver is a PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at King’s College London, as well as a short fiction and culture writer. He is also Assistant Editor at Coastal Shelf. His recent publications include Avatar Review, Derailleur Press, and Roi Fainéant Press. He was also shortlisted for Ouen Press’ 2019 Short Story Competition; his work appears in their print collection Zawadi & Other Short Stories.