The Door at the End of the Universe

Slava Gerj/Shutterstock.com

When the door at the end of the universe came into view, the old man dropped to his knees and cried. How long had it been since he’d first set out in search of it? Across countless places and ages, he’d journeyed, and now, at long last, the door lay within reach, embedded in the side of a barren world-sized mountain.

The old man could feel the wind on his face, whipping the cracked and blistered skin that stretched over his ancient skull like parchment. At that moment, he bore the full weight of his age and dreamed of how good it would feel to be young again. But that great cosmic clock in the sky turned in only one direction, and while death might have spared him, time most certainly had not.

There was little vigor left in those rheumatic joints, but somehow, the old man rose to his feet; somehow, the old man stepped forward across the grass and the rocks, keeping the long sought-after door within his sight.

“Hello,” he whispered in a voice like windswept reeds. “I’ve come to meet with you at last.”

And with a gnarled, unsteady hand, he reached for the door handle and listened for the voice that had called to him so long ago.

Welcome, came the reply, profound and immediate, a soundless ripple across space and time. Long have you fought for your place in the world beyond, and now you may open the door. Now you may step over the threshold, and in so doing receive new life.

The old man reflected on his journey and on all the adventures he’d had along the way, and though his path had been fraught with endless perils and suffering, he was grateful for the change wrought inside of him, for it was a necessary precursor to the life yet to come.

What sort of existence awaited him on the other side? He didn’t know, but he wished with all his heart to find out. And so, with the last of his strength, he pulled on the door’s handle, and when it swung open, when the stars of that other world revealed themselves at last, the old man smiled, ready to embrace his eternal reward.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

The Hammer

Ermolaev Alexander/Shuttestock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on February 19, 2019.

Only after opening the door did I discover Mr. Duncan’s body, and by then it was too late. He’d given me yesterday off, and when I returned, the smell was overpowering.

It was an old shop—older, even than Mr. Duncan himself—and not many like it were left. This wasn’t due only to the unusual wares Mr. Duncan sold, but also to the building’s Dutch Colonial architecture, which came straight out of the early 1800s. There wasn’t much in the way of legal paperwork, but that had never overly concerned its owner. The shop wasn’t easy to find, not unless you knew what you were looking for.

My first thought upon opening the door was that I’d see Mr. Duncan seated at the back in his antique rocking chair, whittling or smoking a pipe. Instead, my nostrils were assaulted by the stench of spoiled meat, and when I spotted Mr. Duncan’s cadaver, hunched over a narrow glass counter, purple and bloated like a corpse thrown overboard, I gagged.

“Mr. Duncan!”

For almost two years, the old man had prepared me for this possibility. It was one of the reasons he agreed to take me on as an employee—with an eye toward making me his apprentice—even though he had so little business nowadays that it was hardly worth the expense. But until the day I found his body, his warnings had amounted to little more than a theoretical complication, an uncomfortable curiosity that would sometimes pass between us the way dark clouds sometimes pass across an otherwise peaceful sky.

I raked my hands through my hair. Every instinct urged me to go to him, to check for signs of life even though it was clear nothing could be done. But the look of the body suggested that doing so would be dangerous, a fact that Mr. Duncan had drilled into my head over and over again. The body was not just a message but a trap, so instead I raced behind the counter, steering clear of the poisonous corpse, and located a small steel box hidden beneath a loose floorboard.

Tears stained my eyes as I removed a second key from my pocket, one we’d both prayed I’d never have to use. I unlocked the box, opened it, and blinked.

“If something were to happen to me,” Mr. Duncan had said on multiple occasions—his usual, not-so-subtle way of preparing me for the worst—”you open that box and protect whatever you find inside.” Many times, I’d asked him what that something was. His reply was always that I was better off not knowing.

I was honored to be trusted with the secret of the box’s existence, along with a copy of the key that opened it, and I returned the old man’s gesture by respecting his privacy and steering clear of his secret. But oh, how curiosity had chiseled away at me. I spent so much time imagining what I wasn’t allowed to see that when I finally laid eyes on the box’s contents for myself, I was more than a little underwhelmed.

The object in question was a tiny metal replica of a blacksmith’s hammer. Made of polished, untarnished silver, it flashed when I held it toward the light. It was nice, bordering on beautiful, but why had Mr. Duncan gone to such great lengths to protect it, and why had the people he’d warned me about come around at last to look for it?

I made to place it in my pocket, then paused.

Why so much trouble over a trinket?

Might it not be better to leave it behind and let it be someone else’s problem? The idea that those who’d murdered Mr. Duncan might come looking for it again terrified me, and without knowing what the object was or why it was important, what was the point of taking on such risk?

Then I glanced at Mr. Duncan’s corpse. The sight of his discolored, disfigured body brought back the smell, and a fresh wave of nausea made me wretch all over again.

“Trust me and do as I say,” the old man had said just a week before his untimely passing. “There is much I would teach you if only there was time.” It was as if he’d foreseen his own death—and for all I knew, he had.

What have you gotten me into? I wanted to ask, but I knew he couldn’t answer.

Not now, not ever again.

When I finally palmed the tiny hammer, there was no magic flash of light nor supernatural revelation. All I had to go on was a promise I’d made to a now-deceased friend. But that promise, along with the trust it represented, was all I needed, and when I stepped outside into the light once more, unsure what sort of power I possessed, I said a prayer for its protection and hoped that whoever had killed Mr. Duncan wouldn’t come searching for me next.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

Rental

zef art/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on February 5, 2019.

The street was dark and empty, and aside from the tidal hum of distant cars, I was alone. I’ve always been open about my fear of crowds, but what only a few close friends know is that I find the opposite extreme equally unsettling. You never know who or what might be standing beside you, unseen.

I looked up and down the street, waiting, and soon enough I heard her coming.

It wasn’t just the chunka-chunka of her broken down engine, but the way the wind stopped to hold its breath, as if the night had been startled by her presence. Laura’s rusty ’58 Buick came into view a moment later, rounding the corner in a flash of headlights and a chorus of crunching gravel.

The lime green vehicle pulled up to the curb beside me. The engine sputtered and the lights died. The passenger side window rolled down, and a voice I’d been both waiting and dreading to hear sounded from the darkness within.

“Hello,” said Laura.

I peered through the window, hoping for a glimpse of the interior or the woman inside. But, of course, I was disappointed on both counts. The inside of the Buick was shrouded in darkness even though the streetlights should have set it ablaze.

“How are you, Laura?”

“I’ve been better.”

“Should I get in?”

“Please.”

I clutched a door handle that felt like it had spent a month in someone’s freezer and pulled. The Buick was a tank, and the door, solid metal, squealed when I opened it, revealing an inkblot of darkness. I reached in, trying not to think about how my hand seemed to disappear beyond the threshold, and felt for the seat. I took a deep, steadying breath and sat down.

The moment I did, the world outside disappeared.

“Are you comfortable?” Laura asked.

“Yes,” I said, even though the oppressive darkness clung to every inch of my body like tar; even though I had to fight the instinct to leap out and run far, far away. This was business, so I swallowed my fear and resigned myself to the void.

“The terms are, uh, fairly standard. The body is yours for 24 hours provided you do nothing illegal or defaming. Cash upfront. No extensions or refunds.”

“Cash upfront. Nothing illegal or embarrassing. I can do that.”

Something slid into my lap, and even though I couldn’t see, I knew what it was.

“Twenty thousand, just like we agreed.”

I didn’t need to count it. Her sort were a lot of things, but they weren’t liars.

“You’ll carry it into the house for me after the exchange?”

“Of course.”

Suspended in the void, I sat, terrified of what came next. It wasn’t something you ever got used to. Each time was like the first, a heart-stopping drop from the precipice of the infinite and down into the endless sea of oblivion. Still, Laura deserved a respite from her long exile, and let’s face it, twenty thousand dollars was a lot of money.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m ready.”

With my consent, the soul inside me came unmoored, and like a boat across a night-darkened sea, I began to drift. I felt the world outside, already invisible, recede further until at last, I could feel Laura, passing beside me in the opposite direction.

In the instant our paths crossed, I beheld the entirety of her being: the otherworldly resplendence of her former self along with a body that was now lost forever; a keen and cunning intelligence weathered by eons in this awful, soul-crushing prison; and, most heartbreaking of all, the crippling despair that had turned her into the dark and faceless creature she was today.

Then the swap was complete, and, trapped in the driver’s seat, I was doomed (albeit temporarily) to suffer exile in her place.

With the phantom sense of a man who’s lost an arm or a leg, I felt Laura flex my fingers.

“This is wonderful.”

“Yes,” I said, already mourning the loss of my body and counting the hours to its return. “It feels good.”

Laura slid from the car and slammed the door behind her.

I didn’t want to think about how many rentals I could endure before the darkness worked its awful madness into my soul just as it had with Laura. Instead, I focused on those parts of myself that remained apart from the void, and when I regained my composure, I pulled back onto the road and drove away.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.