After the craziness and slapstick of my last short story The Monster I wanted to go in a different direction for my latest The Onward Journey. The theme for the story was: A journey to the other side.
As ever if you prefer to read offline you can download a pdf of the story:
The Onward Journey
“You have reached your final destination,” the cheerful mechanical voice of the auto-cab announced.
The man in the back seat looked up from his intense study of his fingers and out of the window towards the grey concrete monolithic building that gloomed above him. Set back away from the road, the man had to dip his head down to see the top of the golden glass dome that sat atop the structure sucking in what little sunlight there was on this day. The weather reflected the man’s mood. Grey and black clouds low in the sky. Fat raindrops landed on the window and streaked down the glass, collecting stragglers and pooling in the groove where the window met the metal door.
“Have an outstanding day,” the voice continued.
The doors of the cab unlocked and opened automatically, letting in an icy wind that wraps itself around you like an ever-flowing scarf of ice. The man closed the lapels of his coat together and slid out of the door. He stepped away from the cab as the doors automatically closed. The vehicle silently moved off onto its next fare.
The man stood there for a moment, for a minute, for maybe more. Looking without seeing as he pictured Hannah’s face. Her smile was frozen long ago. Large bruises around her brown eyes and her nose in a splint. As he told her, he was sorry. He blinked, and she was gone. He walked towards the entrance, treading on wet leaves fallen from their trees which lay in piles across the concrete paving. Towards the revolving doors that only went one way. They started turning as he approached, matching his pace. Then he was inside.
The building’s interior was in bright contrast to the outside. The walls of the atrium were streaked with colour. Complementary and clashing. Splashes of crimson, orange, ocean blue, yellow, green, and more. A visual spectrum of pigment that captured the man’s eyes and attention. He traced trails of shades and hues, looking for patterns, for meaning. The haphazard randomness drew him away from the doors as he sought a better look. He approached the reception desk, still looking at the walls. A vidi-screen came on, activated by his presence.
“Welcome to The Onward Journey. We are glad to have you visit us today,” a woman’s voice said from the screen. The voice was calming and soothing.
Peter tore his gaze from the walls to the display. On the screen, the company logo fluttered as it flew over and into wispy white clouds. The stylised ‘OJ’ swooped down. The clouds grew thicker, more substantial until they parted onto an ocean of darkness. The logo dove to the water until it stood on the surface. Black waves broke and fell against it. The heavy currents dragged the logo down. When it disappeared entirely, the sky on the horizon turned pink as the sun rose. The sequence was only twenty-thirty seconds long, but it captivated Peter.
“Please place your thumb on the screen,” the voice asked as the screen changed to a simple rectangular box with the image of a thumbprint in the centre.
Peter looked at his thumbs and chose the left one. He placed it against the vidi-screen and could feel the warmth of a laser reading his thumbprint through the cool glass-like screen.
“Welcome, Peter, to the final part of your Onward Journey,” the voice said. “Please follow the lights to your compartment.”
The wall that had entranced Peter earlier opened and split in two. Revealing a corridor. In the opening, gently pulsating lights beckoned him forward. He removed his thumb from the screen and rubbed it against his forefinger, feeling the warmth pass between them. He entered the corridor, his feet sinking into the deep crimson carpet. He felt an urge to remove his socks and shoes, to experience the softness against his bare skin. He decided to crouch down and touch it with his fingers. Ignoring the embarrassment at his actions, he stroked the fibres, pressed his hand deep into the thick pile, enjoying the sensation it gave him. He stayed like that for a minute, maybe two, before he stood and continued on his way.
At regular points along the corridor, darkened doors lined either side. The lights which ran along the join between wall and ceiling continued their siren call. They took him around a corner and he could see in the distance a lit doorway that ended the guiding lights push. He walked up to it and the door automatically opened. Inside was a small, dimly lit room with a luxurious leatherette reclining chair in the middle. A small vidi-screen mounted on one arm. From recessed speakers in the ceiling, the voice directed Peter to remove his coat, place it on the coat hook beside the door and sit. Peter followed the instructions. Without his coat, Peter could feel a slight chill in the air that raised the hair on his bare arms from the top of the wrist to his upper arm where his t-shirt partially covered the tattoo of Hannah’s name in ornate script. He raised his hands and rubbed where the chill was worse. He sat on the chair. The seat was soft but supportive, and he sank into it as the chair automatically reclined. His hands unconsciously stroked the leather arms as he tilted backwards. The vidi-screen switched on and a fatherly man appeared, wearing a white lab coat and a wide smile.
“Hello, Peter. It’s good to see you again,” the man said.
It was Peter’s fourth visit to the centre. Possibly his last. He didn’t know if the session was interactive, or if the man was even real. However, he always gave the man a small wave and a thin smile. His built-in polite response to a friendly greeting.
“Today is your final session. You’ll decide today whether you wish to move onward or choose to remain. It is fully your choice. Your decision. I cannot guide you either way. The process does not hurt. It will completely change you. The new you will be designed completely at random and you’ll have no memories of the previous you. Your friends and family will not know you and you’ll not know them. A completely new start.”
Peter sat there silently, eyes closed, listening to the man. He knew all this, of course. Each session he’d had they’d explained the procedure and the consequences. He was so angry and so hurt. He’d figured he’d go through the process, see what it was all about and find a reason to go on. Losing his family? He’d never known his dad. He’d died before Peter was born. Died in service. Peter had seen pictures, but there were no feelings. His mum, on the other hand, had always been there for him. Working hard to put him through craft school, but always there when he needed her. Until now, he supposed. She and Hannah never got on. He should have seen it and followed his mum’s intuition, but he was in love. Still in love, he corrected himself. If he wasn’t, it wouldn’t hurt so much, would it? He’d seen less of his mum over the past few years. The calls and messages dried up too as he was caught up in his world. The guilt didn’t sit well on him.
“On your screen, there are two buttons. Labelled ‘Onward’ and ‘Remain’. All you need to do is touch the option you have decided upon.”
Peter looked and could see them. Onward was a red button, remain green. He rubbed the fingers of his right hand together like he was trying to remove dried glue from them. Red? Green? His fingers reached out. Hannah’s face flashed in his mind. Beautiful. His fingers stopped. She smiled and pushed her blonde hair out of her eyes. His fingers hovered over ‘Remain’.
“Come home,” she said in his head.
The picture changed in his mind to a time he had come home. Unexpectedly early. To surprise her. He silently opened the door to their apartment and placed his suitcase on the floor by the door. He crept into the kitchenette, past the living area dotted with pictures of Hannah and himself. She wasn’t there. A noise from the bathroom. Peter headed that way and opened the door.
But the surprise was for Peter. Hannah and a man in the shower stall. Hannah bent over, the man behind. The man’s face dropped as he pushed Hannah away. Her face cracked against the tiled wall and she fell to the floor. Peter stood there. Taking in the scene. Unable to move. His fingers reaching for the door handle, rubbing against the faux-wood door surface but unable to feel. The man reached for a towel. Hannah lay there. Peter eventually touched the handle and stepped out of the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
In the chair, tears fell from Peter’s eyes as he remembered the pain in his heart as he stood outside that door. The sick feeling in his stomach. The shaking in his hands. He looked at his outstretched hand. The shaking had stopped long ago. His hand was still, and he reached out and pressed.
She walked down the street with confidence, her knee-length boots clacking on the tiled pavement as everyone she passed turned to watch her go. Her dark hair bounced with every stride. She reached her destination. The best bar in town. The one with the non-watered-down drinks and the sexy people. The models and the rich. Her hand gently slid across the brass doorplate. She enjoyed the touch of the cool metal against her fingertips, and then she pushed it open and walked in. The place smelled of alcohol, perfume and so much aftershave. Acquaintances and friends called out to her. “Petra!”
Petra showed she was heading to the bar and that she’d be back. She noticed the quick looks of disappointment from some of the want-to-be-friends, or more, and smiled. It’s nice to be wanted, she thought. She reached the bar and stood there waiting to be served. The barman was at the other end of the bar. Standing beside her was a blonde woman. Petra looked at her while she waited. The woman was slightly shorter than Petra, with a nearly empty martini glass on the counter in front of her. Petra could feel a sense of sadness coming from the woman. She’d always been empathic and good at reading people’s emotions.
“Can I buy you another?” Petra asked the woman.
The woman turned towards Petra and smiled. Petra looked at her without staring. Taking in the woman’s flawless complexion, her deep brown eyes. The only imperfection a slightly crooked nose. Previously broken? Petra asked herself.
“That would be nice, thank you. Gin martini, if you don’t mind?”
“I’m Petra. Nice to meet you.” Petra held out her hand. The woman took it and they shook hands. Petra ran the pads of her thumb against the woman’s skin, enjoying the warmth of the touch.
“Hi Petra, I’m Hannah. Nice to meet you too.”
I hope you enjoyed this story, thank you for taking the time to read it.
Twenty-seven of my other short stories can be found in my short story collection A Few Hours After This on Amazon – mybook.to/FewHoursEbook.