The water was hot, steam filled the air. The bathroom floor was slick, the white-green tile, recently installed, and still glistened with sparkles as the man made his way from the vanity to the tub. He reached in with his left hand, scarred from several knife blade wounds, and turned the knob off. The steam rising from the water cast a haze about the small room, giving an even more ominous feeling to the already tense situation. The man disrobed, throwing his dirty clothes into the empty hamper next to the toilet. He lowered himself into the tub of hot water, sinking himself down into its warming waters. The house was cold, it was October and the temperature outside had fallen past his tolerance level for outdoor sleeping. The house had been abandoned, half the town had been abandoned, and it would have been a huge risk to start a fire in the fireplace. Instead, he chose to have a hot bath, something he hadn’t had in over a month. He lay in the tub for ten or fifteen minutes, soaking in the warmth of the water, then, as if responding to a starter’s pistol, he was in full flurry movement, washing himself in record time and emerging from the hot water, toweling himself off.
The man dressed just as quickly, with clothes he had pulled from one of the closets in the abandoned house. The clothes were his size, of course they were, he thought to himself. They always are my size, no matter what house I go into. The red plaid shirt combined with the blue jeans and hiking boots outfit seemed to be a universal one in this particular region of the country. Every time he had entered a home, and he only went into them during particularly harsh weather, especially cold weather, or after long bouts of living on the run in the forests and jungles. He enjoyed the feel of being home, as he would wander the empty hallways looking at the wall decorations, the old family photographs, and the familial memorabilia that surrounds each and every house he ever entered. They always felt familiar, no matter where the house was, it always had that feel that he had lived there before. Dressed, he emerged from the bathroom like a butterfly emerging its cocoon, fully cleaned and glistening like the white-green bathroom tile. He didn’t use electricity that much when inside the homes. It all worked, but using it meant others would notice his presence and that would lead to inquiries, and he hated inquiries.
Instead, he used candles and lanterns, only using electricity in rooms with no windows to the outside, like the bathroom. The laundry room in the basement also had no windows to the outside of the house; he usually slept in that room. The bedroom was more comfortable, but he could never bring himself to sleep in the beds of the homes he used from time to time. The bedroom was a private room and deserved to be treated with respect. He would enter long enough to peruse the closets for fresh clothing, but he would not sleep in them. He preferred the laundry room in the basement because of being able to use the light. He would use the light to read, something he wasn’t able to do much of on the run. In the woods, and in the jungles, he was on the move during the day, predators lurking all around him, all the time. At night, when the heat and light of his camp fires would keep the predators away, he was usually too on edge to read by the flickering light. But, when circumstances forced him to enter a home, he loved to read. The laundry room light allowed him to check his notes, which he would furiously scribble while being on the move, and finish his map.
He had been creating a map of his journeys, seeking out a possible way out of the never-changing, always morphing quagmire that he had been ensnared in for the past ten years. For the past decade, he had hunted for a way out. The town boundaries always seemed to change. The first year, after he woke up to find the town half deserted, he could walk for three miles in any direction and found find the town limits signs. He would try to walk past those signs only to wake up hours later in another portion of town. He was never able to walk more than ten feet past the town limit signs, no matter how many times he tried. Within the next couple years, the town limits changed. For a bit, the town limit signs were closer, only a mile in either direction from the town square, and other times it was further, five miles away. Sometimes it was a mile north to the limits, and four miles south to the limit. The boarders were always changing, as was the vegetation.
The town had always been nestled in the Missouri forests, with gentle hills, but it changed that first day. That first day, when he awoke for the first time in this changed world of his, the trees had been replaced with tropical trees, with Amazon River valley vegetation and animals; tree frogs and macaws, anacondas and jaguars, the whole are was transformed. It became a Missouri forest again a couple days later, but it never stayed that way. The houses remained; the streets stayed mostly the same, although they changed too. The biosphere changed, the weather changed, the seasons even changed, with it being burning hot, heat wave hot, last February instead of cold, winter weather. He was confused, there was no rhyme, and there was no reason for the changes. Except they kept him on the run, except for the fact that they kept him from truly focusing on the one thing that eluded him the most, where was his family.
The lights dimmed, he pulled his attention back from his notebook and looked at the door way. He could feel it happening to him again. The change was happening. Outside it had been a blizzard when he entered the home. Snow had covered the few automobiles that lined the street. The telephone poles that still stood were covered in ice, dangling from the lines on parallel sides of the road. The winds blew hard, and harshly, creating snow drifts over the automobiles and beside the empty homes. The dark, equally empty streets gave nothing but the howling of the winds mixed with the howling of the wolves in the distance. The wolves were one of those predators that he had to maneuver and outwit if he wised to stay alive. Food was plentiful, but only at the market. For a decade, with no explanation, the market had fresh food and was a safety zone of sorts, with no predators lining the aisles or even on the parking lot, but the roads beside and around it were littered with predators; wolves, tigers, bears, and other beasts.
The lights burned bright again, he knew the change had taken place. He began to notice the indicators, like the light dimming, which were obvious. Other indicators of changes were more subtle, like when he slept. He would dream of The Day, when he was married, with children playing in the yard. The family at the beach or carving Halloween pumpkins, the family together for meals or putting up the Christmas tree, he would dream of The Day when all his dreams had come true. He would awaken the next day with a smile on his face, he could almost smell his wife’s coffee perking in the kitchen, but we would awake to find the change had taken place. Instead of being home in the Missouri hills, he would be in a tent in the middle of a desert, with camels and scorpions. He never dreamed of The Day when things stayed the same. He would live, sweating and on the move, in the desert environment for a month, perhaps two, never dreaming of The Day. In fact, during this time he couldn’t even remember the faces of his wife or children. They eluded him.
He doused the lights in the laundry room and reached for the door knob. He wasn’t really ready to face whatever was beyond the door, but he always hoped that the next time he opened it his wife and children would be on the other side. He turned the door knob and pulled the door towards himself, revealing the light pouring in from the basement windows. It was day light outside. When he had come into the house, not an hour before, the moon was high in the sky, the sun itself having only gone down two hours prior. Now, it was day light outside, almost noon, judging from how high the sun was in the sky. He crept up the stairway, always cautious even though in ten years he had never once been attacked by a predator inside the home. He opened the door to the main floor of the house and inside was teeming with life. Had he survived? Was he going to see his family again?
He looked around and there were people everywhere. During the previous ten years, he knew the town was almost deserted, but he also knew others lived. He could see the lights on in their homes, he would see them at the Market, but no one ever spoke to him. They would look at him, as though they were surprised to see him, then they would cast their eyes away, as if they were not worthy of looking on him, or ashamed to see him. It was all rather peculiar, but he knew other people lived. He had never seen so many gathered together, not since before The Day. They did not look at him as he walked into the middle of the room. They walked around, with colored paper plates in their hands, eating cake. Food, hot, fragrant food decorated the kitchen table, people milled around getting vegetables, celery stalks, baby carrots, dip, or loading up on turkey or ham, or deserts. He continued to make his way through the home, making his way to the living room, where he found it.
He found what he had been looking for. His wife sat in her recliner with a red colored paper plate in her hands. Beside her, on the side table, her iced tea glass sat with ice cubs bobbing along. She herself was motionless. Her face was sad. Around her were her children, he remembered them now, and they appeared to be consoling her. He tried to scream out, he tried to make a noise, but he had no voice. He couldn’t remember the last time he had spoken. He never spoke to the people he would see at the market. He never spoke to the predators, or even himself. For ten long years, he hadn’t spoken a single word. He had sought for an exit from town, but he hadn’t spoken during his quest. He had sought for a solution to the ever changing landscape, but he hadn’t spoken during his search. Now, when he wanted to speak more than ever, he found he could not. He tried to walk toward his wife, but was unable to. Each step he took towards her, he found himself further away from her. It was cruel, it was inhuman. Why was he being punished so?
“You are not being punished my son,” came a booming voice.
The room became silent and still and a figure appeared next to the man. The figure was that of an old man, very cliché, in white robes with a full white beard and white head of hair. He stood there, a good half a foot taller than the man, and put a reaffirming hand on the man’s shoulder.
“You need not be afraid, I am not a predator. You are not being punished, instead you have graduated and this is your reward.”
“Graduated,” the man asked, his voice finally returning and finding the sound of his own voice a little comforting.
“Yes. You have been tested.”
“Tested,” he continued to question, “why was I being tested?”
“To see if you were worthy.”
“I don’t want to sound rude, but I can do this back and forth stuff all day, to see if I was worthy for what, heaven?”
“That’s one way to look at it,” the old man spoke, before changing into the image of a beautiful blonde woman in a tight red dress, “or you can look at it like you are being tested to see if you are worthy of ascension.”
“Ascension, what does that mean? Nice change up there too, was feeling all Mr. Jordan-ish with the old man get-up. What do you mean this is my reward? Being able to see my family, but they can’t hear me, see me, feel me? How is that a reward?”
“But you do get to see them,” the red-dressed woman spoke, “and that is the reward. We could keep them out of your memory, if you wish, but from our tests it seemed it was very important for you to see them again, for you to ‘remember’ what they looked like, are we not correct in our assumption?”
The man stared at his wife and children, still frozen in time, and turned, “Yes, you were correct in your assumption, I do want to remember them, but why can’t they see me?”
“They cannot see you because you no longer exist on the same plane of reality as them.”
“Are you saying that I am dead,” the man asked his face sunken in defeat.
“No,” the woman began, changing into a dark-skinned Middle Eastern man, “not exactly dead.”
“What does that mean?”
“You are not dead, as you can tell by our exchange, you are very much alive. However, for your ‘wife’, that is the correct term isn’t it, your ‘wife’ and ‘children’ believe you are dead.”
“Believe me to be?”
“You are very astute, just as our tests indicated.”
“Thank you,” the man said walking out the front door of the home.
The man turned and walked down the sidewalk. The sun was high in the sky, it was a little after noon, he noticed the clock inside the home was at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. He walked towards the market, the Middle Eastern man following behind him.
“Where are you going,” he asked the man, “We thought you wanted to see your family.”
“I do,” the man said, still briskly walking down the hill, “but not like that. They think I’m dead. They can’t see me. What the hell am I? A Ghost? What?”
“No, as we said, you are not in the same dimension. “
“So where am I?”
“This is called Purgatory.”
“Hold on,” the man said, coming to a stop, “you mean this is some sort of spiritual way station between Heaven and Hell?”
“That’s one way to look at it,” the Middle Eastern man said, before he changed again, into the spitting image of the man himself.
“What, now I get to talk to myself,” the man says.
“We have to keep changing our appearance, to make the interaction more pleasant for you. Our real image would not be pleasing at all.”
“So you’ve been testing me, to see if I am worthy to ‘ascend’ as you put it?”
“Yes, and you’ve been deemed worthy.”
“So the pay off, the reward, as you called it, was being able to see my family one last time?”
“No, your reward is to return to your family, forever.”
The man, who had begun to walk away again, spun around. “Forever,” he questioned, “what do you mean forever.”
“You are believed dead to your family,” the doppelganger explained, “because your car went into the lake and your body was never found. You will be allowed to return, but with no memory of your time here. “
“But it’s been ten years, will they even remember me?”
“For you, traveler, it has been ten years, for them it has been ten weeks,” the man spoke as he changed a final time, into the image of his wife, “Time to go home, sweet heart. Just walk through the front door of our Home.”
The man almost sprinted to the front door, turned the door knob and pushed open the door, ready to return to the land of the living. Outside, the image of his wife faded to be replaced by his own image, then that of the Middle Eastern man, the red-dressed blonde woman, and finally the old man, all the while with a smile on its lips. Inside, the man is greeted with tears, hugs, and kisses as his family embraces him back into the fold. Outside, the old man’s image changes into that of a dog-like demon, with long snout and horns on its dark red flesh, the watcher knows that the test is not over, the watcher knows the test is no where near over.