Jeremy Rebus startled awake. A voice throbbed inside: Go to work, go to work! The words sounded familiar. Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of waking each morning to create the fiction of one’s identity, one’s life. Jeremy often pondered that after rising, and again today as he stood dazed in the bathroom. Much of his identity remained wrapped up in his job. He had been a clerk, an assistant manager at Transitions Unlimited for ten years. Perhaps longer. Everything seemed clear once, but of late he was bedeviled by confusion, irked by an amnesiac fog cast over essential details.
A week ago, Christina, an intriguing co-worker asked, “How old are you?” Normally, he found such questions invasive, however, she had inquired with a smile while brushing lint off his jacket. He theorized that she wondered if Jeremy was in her acceptable potential dating range. She being around thirty-five.
Jeremy paused in mystification. “I, uh…”
“Don’t be embarrassed.” Christina played with her blonde hair that showed dark roots. “I know you’re older. That’s cool.” She eyed him. “Forty-five?”
Trying to end the strained moment, Jeremy said, “Exactly. You guessed it.”
She nodded with a smirk and returned to her cubicle.
He now felt determined to confirm his age. After showering, Jeremy ransacked the drawers in his studio apartment but couldn’t find a drivers license. No wonder. He lived in the Center Square neighborhood of Albany just four blocks from Transitions’ office. With parking garage costs and urban traffic snarled most of the day, Jeremy’s license had either expired or he never sought one in the first place. Jeremy unearthed credit cards, though no birth certificate. He Googled his name. Five different people came up. None of their photos resembled him; their ages ranged from twenty-three to eighty-seven.
Jeremy then noticed his flat screen TV atop the dresser had vanished. Worse, after checking his pockets, his wallet containing a hundred in cash was gone. What the hell? Noticing the digital clock by his bed showing 8:45, he quickly dressed and raced outside.
The main room at Transitions was rectangular with connected cubicles. Beyond it sat two private executive offices. People in-between jobs and those unemployed for longer periods came to Transitions to sharpen their resumes, or to be referred for temp work and permanent positions. Sometimes they just received a pep talk. Part employment agency and part counseling service. Transitions received a small fee from walk-ins and a payment from companies that hired qualified applicants.
Jeremy worked in their smaller back room. At one time, seven employees held desks there. It now served as a graveyard for malfunctioning office equipment, file cabinets, and broken swivel chairs. The other associates had left the rear area due to odd circumstances.
The fluorescent light tubes overhead buzzed loudly, and at times the volume increased to bug-zapper-in-kill-mode frequency. Even when the tubes were replaced or repaired by electricians, the irritating noise continued. But Jeremy rarely noticed it.
The air vent system that brought cooler temperatures in the summer sometimes malfunctioned and emanated a foul, rotting odor. In the winter, the steam heating pipes clanked with alarming vigor while providing minimal warmth. Female coworkers took to wearing coats and wool hats inside. On occasion, they claimed to hear pleading voices through the brick walls. Jeremy remained unphased.
One coworker, Maryanne, had complained about him. Jeremy’s friend Titus Wilson recounted her words later. “That guy goes into a trance for hours, just typing away frantically, not talking, ignoring us,” Maryanne had said. “He’s either an arrogant prick or he’s been touched. You know, drop-kicked at birth.”
Jeremy worked at a heavy oak desk pressed against the rear wall. Beyond the desk stood a door with three outsized locks on it. He had been entrusted with a secret: the never-to-be-opened door led to a twelve-foot hallway leading to another locked door for an office in the adjoining building. Why this suspended bridge passageway existed was never discussed.
The only person who knew anything of the locked door’s origin was Thad Wexler, the Director of Transitions. A reclusive man, Wexler refused to venture into the office. No one beyond the two senior managers up front ever contacted him.
Jeremy opened a computer file and began typing letters, numbers, and symbols at a rapid speed. All day, every day, he filled blank documents with incomprehensible gibberish. Sometimes he theorized he must be writing code, even though Transitions did not employ in-house coders.
Jeremy’s fingers moved on their own accord so he didn’t fight them. At the end of the week, he received a decent paycheck, and on the first of the month his apartment rent was auto-paid by Transitions. Jeremy’s terms of employment dictated that he work from nine a.m. to eight p.m., and that he be the last person to leave. Fifteen minute breaks were allowed and a half-hour to eat a delivered lunch in his room.
During a morning break, Jeremy found himself unlocking the desk’s lowest drawer. He hovered on a distant plane watching one hand feel around until his fingers touched cold metal. Three keys on a keychain for the locks on the sealed door. A bolt of electric pain shot through his forehead. “Keep them on your person at all times.” Thad Wexler had stressed this over and over in voicemails. Jeremy flattened his brown hair as he did when vexed.
Where did he lose them and how did they end up back in his desk? He returned to manic, automatic typing. When his tuna sandwich lunch arrived at one p.m., bits of the recent past filtered into Jeremy’s ragged memory.
Titus from the outer office set the plastic tray on Jeremy’s desk and studied the discarded machinery cluttering the room.
He sniffed the air. “Damn it stinks in here. And whatever died in those air vents, I’m definitely allergic to.” He gazed at Jeremy with sympathy. “Hey, man, you want to eat with us, get some fresher air?”
“Sorry,” Jeremy replied. “Too much work to finish.”
“Not to pry, but what do you do exactly?”
Jeremy froze; he didn’t know. Suddenly, words vomited up out of his throat. “I catalog each person who comes through Transitions office. File their information, gauge their career trajectory. I calculate the success and failure rate then submit the data to Thad Wexler.” He smiled. “That way we can continually improve our interface with humanity.”
“Interface with humanity?” Titus laughed. “You sound like a robot sometimes, dude. Anyway, you hear about Christina? Hasn’t come to work since Tuesday. Three fucking days. No one can reach her. Didn’t give her notice or anything.”
“Yeah, numbnuts, the woman you were flirting with.” He leaned against the wall. “Good thing you never actually dated her. She had a sketchy boyfriend named Krieger who did time for robbery, a second-story guy.” Titus lowered his voice. “Christina pretend-dated Armando.” He pointed toward the outer office. “The day after their second date Armando’s house got broken into. Lost a watch, some clothes, and cash.”
“Wow.” Jeremy considered his missing television and wallet.
“She was pretty hot, but good riddance.” Titus exited the back room.
Jeremy continued working until the day escaped and he heard co-workers leaving at five p.m., the last ones departing by seven.
As the office went quiet, Jeremy experienced a sudden memory flash. He had dated Christina last Saturday. Not only that, but they slept together. When he woke the following morning, his bed was distressed yet empty. As someone who didn’t have a girlfriend and had never been married, Jeremy should have recalled their sex in detail. To linger over it, summon it during morning showers and again at night before dozing off. When he scrunched his brow and concentrated, words scrolled across his mind: satisfactory, adequate, followed by, perfunctory, brief.
Had Christina’s overtures been a ruse, a way to get his home keys and copy them? Perhaps Krieger the shady boyfriend robbed the apartment while Jeremy toiled at Transitions Unlimited.
At eight-thirty, Jeremy patrolled the main room turning off any tech gadgets left on, making sure the two private offices were locked, and doing a little clean-up before leaving. A loud thump sounded from his back room. Jesus, did the jumbo screen for his computer fall over?
Everything looked the same. Nothing broken or toppled. Switching off the noisy overhead fluorescent lights, he rolled his swivel chair to the center of the room and sat listening. Jeremy thought he heard a distant female scream, but assumed it came from the street. The neighborhood had been called, “up and coming”. A real estate code term for the slow gentrification of a former high crime zone.
“Motherfuckers, let me out of this place!” a man shouted.
Jeremy lurched backward, knocking over his chair. The voice had issued from beyond the triple-locked door. Someone was trapped in the hallway. Maybe the adjoining office in the next building had left their door open and a custodial worker wandered inside, then got locked in. It really wasn’t Jeremy’s business and his internal voices began repeating, Never open the door, never open the door. Clearly, he should leave at once, and Jeremy needed to replace his missing flat screen at the Lark Street electronics store before it closed at nine.
He dug Thad Wexler’s private number from his desk. Only to be used in an emergency. Wexler’s phone rang eight times then answered; a distorted wash of white noise came through Jeremy’s earpiece. “Hello? Mr. Wexler?” The harsh sound grew louder, frothing and crackling until the line went dead.
“Jeremy, are you there?” a woman cried out from beyond the sealed door. “It’s Christina. I’m stuck in here. Please let me out.”
Jeremy froze, unable to retreat or step forward.
“Listen, I know you’re pissed I copied your keys, but I like you. Set me free and we’ll spend another night like Saturday.” She paused. “You were fantastic, by the way…”
Jeremy fished the keys from his pocket. He heard an agonized shriek, then silence.
His body felt numb, but he slid his cumbersome desk away and unlocked the three locks. A dank, moldy stench seeped out when he pulled the door open.
The hallway was so dark Jeremy couldn’t even see to the connecting door. After finding a box of safety matches among the junk on his shelves, he lit one and proceeded through the corridor. Empty. Where had Christina gone?
In the dim, yellowy light cast by the match, Jeremy watched the hallway telescope outward. The entry door slammed shut, a gust of air blowing out the flame. Jeremy became disoriented. He pressed a hand against one wall but it felt soft and wet like the inside of a throat. Jeremy recoiled. Both sides of the corridor illuminated. Images formed like Medieval tapestries on castle walls; liquid paintings that moved in slow motion. Living. Breathing.
On the right side, he watched a group of circus tents burn atop a hillside, while people fled through billowing smoke. To his left, Jeremy saw a weary man buried in the dirt up to chest-level. His arms flailed about as he struggled to fend off wild dogs. Jeremy continued forward in the hallway entranced by the images. A traveling caravan of ragtag vehicles, followed by a woman cackling in a solitary confinement cell, and beyond, he saw a deserted city sunken into a lush European valley.
A man yelled, “Help me” from far away. Jeremy squinted to locate the source. The next shout came from just down the corridor. Something that might have once been human sprinted toward him. Its footfalls made wet sounds as if sloshing through puddles. The creature looked formed of raw meat, like a person turned inside-out.
“I went through the other side,” it said. “Don’t do it. Somebody help.”
Jeremy braced for impact, the thing’s hot breath like moldering swamp gas. Instead, it became vaporous and passed directly through him. The weirdling continued running until it vanished down the extended hall. For the instant they merged, Jeremy sensed that the figure was Krieger the thief.
He turned to concentrate on a tropical jungle forming within one wall. An extremely pale naked woman with a golden frazzle of hair walked into a clearing. Jeremy felt himself grow aroused—painfully stiff. Black feathered wings grew out of her back. An angel born from hell. She moved close, pressing against the porous liquid screen of wall to beckon him over.
Jeremy then recognized Christina, his groin drawn magnetically toward her. He reached his arms through the sticky translucent surface to grip Christina and bring her out into the hallway. As he did, her flesh dissolved.
Loping toward the faraway door, Jeremy tripped and sprawled upon shag carpeting, the fibers writhing like worms. He heard Christina laughing, a maniacal sound that soon trailed away. Jeremy felt his skull vibrating as if enduring a fit. Minutes passed. The shuddering finally ceased and the haze fogging Jeremy’s mind began to clear.
For over a century he had watched the portal. The longer your essence remains within a human, the weaker your powers of possession become. The sublimated Jeremy Rebus had awakened recently and felt urges of lust, of curiosity as to what lay beyond the office door, the human briefly reasserting control.
The inside-out man paused from his running to speak. “It’s a passageway between matter and anti-matter, between logic and utter chaos. A DMZ. Whatever beings live beyond the other door are not sculpted of flesh and bones. They are toxic clouds, poisonous viruses, and nuclear explosions.”
The separation must be maintained.
“Fragments of each world seep out from time to time,” the grotesque man continued. “If they blend and mix freely, it could be catastrophic.”He loped away.
Someone must guard the doorway. Not Jeremy though. He was now sealed inside.
The sublimated human Jeremy gave one last try, moving toward the door leading back to Transitions’ office. No doorknob showed. He pounded against it in hope of alerting a night janitor but the putty-like surface projected only dull slapping sounds. The human finally collapsed, ceding control.
“You can’t help me anymore,” Christina said from faraway. This time, her laughter came bitter and laced with regret. The flayed meat man sprinted blindly back and forth along the hallway howling. Krieger had briefly gone through the other portal—to his eternal regret.
Soon the chaos quieted, leaving Jeremy alone. He meditated during the relative calm and considered an eternity trapped in delirium corridor.
Senior Manager Abu Nazim, stopped reading, feeling nauseous. He shuffled the papers from Virginia Taylor, skimmed her background details again, then reread the disturbing personal essay at the end of her job application. How did she know so much about Transitions, about their former employee, Jeremy Rebus?
He finally looked up at Virginia, sitting motionless beyond the desk as if hypnotized. A routine interview had taken a bizarre turn.
The separation must be maintained.
“Did you say something?” Nazim asked. Virginia’s mouth hadn’t moved. “This is not the usual essay we receive for why you’d be an asset to Transitions Unlimited.”
She nodded, her glassy eyes staring straight ahead. Someone must guard the doorway.
“What?” Nazim looked around then coughed. “I need to get this application to our Director, Thad Wexler, immediately.” He stood up. “We’ll be in touch soon. You can be sure of that.”
Max Talley was born in New York City and lives in Southern California. His fiction and essays have appeared in Fiction Southeast, Del Sol Review, Gravel, Hofstra University – Windmill, Bridge Eight, Litro, and Entropy. Talley’s novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, was published in 2014, and he is a contributing editor to Santa Barbara Literary Journal.
About the illustrator: Shannon Elizabeth Gardner is a graduate from the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point with a Bachelors in Studio Art and a Minor in Art History. Her interest in horror and the macabre came about while exploring nature and the paranormal. The work explores the natural and organic process of death, evoking empathy for decay. She believes life is beautiful when left to fate, leaving art to chance assists the viewer to witness beauty hidden within imperfections. Her process appreciates nature’s process and discovers the earth’s imperfect beauty. The ethereal mood of her work reaches the extreme and addresses taboos. www.instagram.com/shannonelizabethsar #shannonelizabethsart