This Ad Will End In Two Millennia
Alan Forthite opened his eyes and was met with blinding light. His head felt extraordinarily heavy on his shoulders, and he had to exert considerable effort to not let it lull about in place. He raised his hand to rub at his aching temples.
That’s when he remembered that he was dead. I was sitting in that little used bookstore Cathy had found. Raintree Books it had been called, right? But how did I die? Did I actually die? Well of course I did because I was shot. Why? Who knows, though I suppose that why doesn’t concern me presently. He touched the side of his head, afraid of finding an oozing, wet hole, but there was none. Simply his temple as it had always been. There was still a dull ache coursing through his head, the kind that would linger in your thigh if you dreamt of breaking your leg.
Then, a concerning question jumped into his mind: if he was dead, then where was he? He was sitting on a solid metal bench of a boring cream hue. The room around him was of a similar aesthetic, small and dingy square tiles lined the floor into walls of muted and earthy green. The sole piece of furniture was the bench upon which he sat. There was also a window directly across from him. It was large and had a small hole through which to presumably speak. On the other side of the window, from his seated position, he could only see the same dull green wall on the other side.
Well, be it heaven or hell, this is rather disappointing, Al.
Alan swayed as he stood. His head felt a bit better, but his knees and back popped. He stretched with a groan and walked to the window. He was surprised to find a woman with black hair in a bob cut leaned over a large desk with chaotic stacks of paper scattered about. She wore a black pinstripe blazer with pointed shoulder pads extending to either side. He also noticed that she was writing with both hands on separate sheets of paper with smooth independent motions in a language he couldn’t identify.
Alan cleared his throat and knocked on the glass separating them. The woman snapped her head up to reveal horn-rimmed glasses upon a heavily made-up face. The green of her eye shadow and the shocking red of her lipstick stood in stark contrast to one another. Alan couldn’t help but let out a yelp of surprise at the sudden reaction.
“Alan Hayes Forthite,” the woman less asked and more demanded of him.
Alan, confused, stuttered his name back to her as if taking attendance.
“Yes, that’s what I just said.” She turned her attention back to her cluttered desk and rummaged through a random stack of manila folders precariously leaning on her left. She leafed through them with impressive precision and speed. Her nails were finely honed into points and clad with bright pink polka dots atop the black nail polish.
Near the middle of the stack, she found what she had been looking for, and the file fell open to an impossibly large block of pages. She flipped the pages straight to the back two or three and scanned them through her spectacles. “Ah,” she nodded and glanced up at Alan for a moment before returning to the paper. “You know the guy who shot you got a bad tip on that store. His friend had actually meant the gift shop two streets up.” She chuckled to herself.
Alan waited for her to continue, but she proceeded to read the strange language on the papers.
“So…is this…it?” He motioned around the blank cube of a room.
She let out another bark of laughter. “Oh goodness no, dear. This is a Waystation. If you just have a seat over there,” she motioned towards the bench he had awoken on, “I’ll let you know when you can go through.”
“Go where?” She glared at him over her glasses. “Well I don’t mean to be rude, or annoying, but I don’t really see any-”
As he motioned to the walls on either side of him, he saw a door on his left and his right. “Oh…well, which one am I gonna go through, then?”
The woman let out a slow sigh lacking any hint of subtlety. “You’re going to eventually go through the door on your right. Heaven, Nirvana, Wally World. Whatever you want to call it.”
Alan eyed the door on his left. “Then that door is-”
“I don’t actually know. They don’t pay me to know. But I am supposed to tell you that if you go through that one, you’ll cut your wait time by a fairly significant amount.” She shrugged and went back to reading the papers.
“Really? How long do I have to wait if I don’t?”
Without looking, she pointed up with a pencil. Alan looked up and saw on the wall above the window– there was now a large digital clock. Bold red numbers readout 1,051,200,000.00, and then 1,051,199,999.59, then 1,051,199,999.58. This continued every second. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Oh if only, sweetheart.” She set down his papers and pulled out a crossword puzzle book that was bent and frayed around its edges. After a moment, she lowered the book. “Look, you’re kind of supposed to figure this all out for yourself; I’m not really allowed to sway you at all. They don’t really care, but it upsets some of them when it looks like we push people either way. So until that clock reads zero, you’ll have to wait here. We’ve got some reading material, but it’s whatever they’ve provided, you don’t really get to choose. So you can just take a seat there and wait it out if you like.” She motioned to the bench once again. A small coffee table had appeared in front of it, with magazines strewn across its surface.
“So let me guess,” Alan said, looking back and forth between the doors, “you go through the left one and it’s Hell or Purgatory or something like that.”
The woman shrugged and shook her head. “I really don’t know. But anytime people choose that door, a lot of nasty sounds come out of it.” She let a small grimace cross her red lips. She glanced around as though someone might be there to listen in, and half-whispered to him, “Supposedly it leads to the same place; you just have to go through a few years of torture.” Her face contorted into a wince that was trying to be apathetic.
Alan raised his eyebrows. “Years?”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Well in years as you’ve come to experience them. That’ll pass after a while.”
Alan couldn’t stop staring at the door on his left, then back up at the clock again. 1,051,199,997.34. He sighed, gave another glance at the door, and decided to have a seat back on the bench.
* * *
Alan read through countless magazines. He lost track around 1,243. Without anything to write with (he had asked the woman behind the counter if she could spare one and she, of course, had refused), it was difficult to keep track of numbers. The magazines themselves were more catalogues than anything else. Adverts for fishing equipment, tools for carpentry, cars, tennis rackets, home gyms, warmers to put on the seat of your vehicle. It went on and on ad nauseam. He would finish leafing through one, set it down to pick up another, and when he would look back, the first was replaced with a new one. Perhaps this time for cooking ware, or the thousands of different types of clothes hangars one might be able to purchase. He found it odd there were no prices attached to any of the items, nor were there any people modeling or posing with the leaf blowers or table saws. Only the item, it’s meaningless specifications, and that would be all.
Every once in a blue moon, he found what must’ve been a big-ticket seller that would take up two whole pages, such as a lawn furniture set which included a picnic table with a large gray umbrella, comfortable-looking foldout chairs, and a set of lit tiki torches placed around them. Then there was a full kitchen set including a dual oven, a refrigerator, a rack to hang your pots and pans over the kitchen island, and a dishwasher all in sleek, stainless steel. Finds such as these were becoming a treat.
After losing count of the actual booklets he had picked through, he picked up counting the words. The last number he was sure of before letting it slip was 298,673. Then he resorted to counting the letters themselves. At first, he omitted the spaces between words, reaching 608,092. He started again, but included the spaces, and broke 1,000,000.
He took a break after this and counted the small tiles making up the floor. They were placed in a staggered fashion so he couldn’t efficiently count the edges and then multiply, nor did he want to shoot for efficiency anymore. So, by counting each individual piece, there were a disappointingly low 3,126 full tiles with 23 separate pieces cut to fit the edges of the room.
What Alan was desperately putting off was looking up at the clock. He knew there would be no way of making this wait easy, but looking at the seconds tick by would drive him insane. He had run out of things to count in the room itself, and the idea of picking up yet another sales catalogue that didn’t put in prices or the pictures of other people made his stomach churn.
Don’t do it, Al. It won’t end well, and we don’t need to know what’s behind door number two, do we? Bad sounds come out of there, nasty sounds.
He slowly craned his neck up to the clock. 1,051,197,937.42. If his rough estimation of time was correct, it had been little more than a day. This couldn’t continue.
He stood up and looked at the doors. It would be stupid not to try. He rushed over to the door on the right and reached for the handle, just to see if it would give. Then his hand hit the glass separating him from the woman, and he was facing that side of the room. “What the?!”
The woman was shaking her head at him. “Don’t even think about it, mister. That door is more than locked before your time is up.” She resumed her book she had taken up.
The cover looked to be that of an old boring romance novel, but the title was, again, in that strange, unrecognizable language. Alan had never longed for such stimulation in his life. He was near salivating while staring at a picture of a rose with odd markings wrapped around it.
Ok, Al. Pucker up buttercup, because this is already torture. Let’s say we knock a few years off of this.
Alan walked towards the door on the left and stopped. He looked back to see if the woman had anything to say, perhaps to encourage him to step through, or even to warn him against it. She only looked up for a moment, raised an eyebrow, then returned her attention to the book and turned to the next page.
Alan attempted to shake out his nerves to no avail. He looked at the bench and the magazines. Yeah, screw that noise. He opened the door. It was far worse than Alan had expected, or even had the capability of expecting.
The woman was right, though; nasty sounds came out of there.