"String" by Shelton Bryant


by Mike Velichansky


John Milder had wasted his life. He knew it, deep down in his heart, and had known it for a long time. The sickness finally had eaten away what was left of it, leaving nothing but an empty husk. He was dead inside.

No. Not dead, not completely; he still felt the despair and hopelessness
of it; the old wounds were still there. Lost friends and lost opportunities. But there was no happiness there, he had no hope for the future. Time was past.

John sat on the floor in his cheap one-bedroom apartment, leaning against the ragged couch he had been meaning to replace. The TV hissed quietly in the background. He glanced at the clock on the wall and saw that he was late for work. He knew he should stand up and go; he was ready, sitting on the floor in his cheap gray suit. The same gray suit he always wore, though he had five pairs. They were all the same. Looking down at himself, he imagined himself covered in gray dust.

John needed a drink, and that made it worse. He'd been off the sauce for years now, after Marie left him.

The phone rang, causing him to jerk slightly. The tinny ringing cut through his thoughts, and he cursed savagely.

The phone rang again, with disgusting persistence. On the fourth ring, John finally picked it up.

"Hello?" he said, his voice empty.

"Hi! is this Mr. Milder?" a chirpy voice on the other end of the line asked. And, of course, whoever it was had gotten his name wrong. The "I" had an "ih" sound, but they always said it "mild." He was sick of "mild-mannered" jokes. He didn't say anything, though.

Without pausing for air and inadvertently giving him time to interject, the voice said, "This is something-something, we're calling to tell you about our new something or other ..."

John wasn't really listening; he was trying to get a break in the endless stream of words, to tell the voice that he wasn't interested. He couldn't; the person vehemently ignored his attempts at ending the conversation. So he ended up listening to the whole spiel, and bought whatever it was they had been selling -- with money he didn't have.

Then he sat down, still holding the phone. He should have hung up on them, told them to fuck off, given them phony credit card numbers, told them how to say his name. But he didn't. Milder, milder, that he was.

What a mess, he thought. Fifty-six years on this shit-hole planet, and all he had to show for it:

A one-bedroom bachelor's pad, without so much as an oven. Microwaved food made him sick, but he ate it.

A creaky bed with a dirty mattress, an old sofa, and a TV that only showed the Snow channel.

Four pairs of gray suits and a Hawaiian shirt he wore on casual Fridays.

A job he hated, that paid in shit and an ulcer.

A title: Senior Associate. All it had cost him was a marriage.

One briefcase, full of papers that all looked the same.

Fifty-six years, and John Milder had nothing to show for it. He had never been out of the country and had only ever been to two other states. The number of women he had managed to go out with more than once could be counted on one hand. He had once seen a Shakespeare play, at Marie's urging. He fell asleep when she dragged him to hear Mozart.

It still amazed him that Marie had stayed with him. For two years she stayed with him, though she deserved much better. But when he started drinking, she finally left him.

"What a waste," he said, out loud. John had nothing to live for, no friends, no future. He had no money, and they were going to fire him soon.

Slowly, he walked over to the window, and looked out onto the dirty street a throng of people moving underneath him. Opening the window, he stuck half his body out and looked at the smog-filled sky. It was dirty gray, like his suit.

"Jump!" someone yelled beneath him, laughing. The cry was echoed.

Finally, whatever had been keeping John Milder going collapsed. Like a tooth rotten on the inside, that finally cracks apart on a piece of bittersweet candy.


* * *


John Milder stood up, amazed. There was no way he could have survived the fall, he knew. He looked down and quickly turned away. That explains that, he thought.

He took a deep breath of air, but it didn't seem to make any difference.

I guess I'd better get used to not breathing, he said. But nobody noticed.

John watched the people gawk, and the ambulance take his body away. They didn't rush. There was no need.

After a while, John began to wonder what would happen next. He had never been a religious person; it wasn't that he didn't believe, he'd just never really thought about it. But memories of Sunday school flooded back. He wondered if jumping had not been the best thing to do. He was pretty sure that kind of thing was frowned upon.

Too late now, he said. His voice was hollow and empty. It worried him slightly what the consequences would be.

But nothing happened. He stood on the sidewalk and watched people walk past him -- and through him. It wasn't like in the movies; they just became foggy and cloud-like, then solid again on the other side. It was kind of annoying, actually. Made him feel like he didn't really matter. As in life, so in death.

"Hello?" he said. "Anybody? Um. What's going on?"

For lack of anything else to do, he went down to the morgue. It took a while, because he took the sidewalks and waited for stoplights to change. Old habit didn't break easily.

He didn't know the way, but he managed to find it. He felt the way. It took a while to get down to his corpse. He had to wait for people to open the door and then quickly sneak in. (Whenever he tried to open the door, his hands just turned foggy and went through the knob. It didn't occur to him to just walk through.)

There was a crowd in the morgue. He ignored them, and they he.

Days passed, and he witnessed his body being burned. It was unclaimed.

After his body turned to ashes and the embers died, John walked out into the street. It was strange, being dead. He felt detached, empty. It was like he'd felt before.

He stood on the street, watching cars fly by. In the distance, he spotted a black limousine. He watched it run a red light and slam into a semi that had been making a left turn.

There was no explosion, and metal didn't fly through the air shattering windshields. The limo went through the truck, and kept going to stop right in front of him.

John stared at the long black vehicle. There was no exhaust coming out the tailpipe. The car's idling engine didn't make a sound. The windows were tinted black, and the license plate had an omega sign on it. On the hood was a small curved sickle, leaned forward.

Soundlessly, the driver-side window rolled down. John gulped, as he stared upon the at once horrible and comic visage before him. In the driver's seat sat a skeleton, completely without flesh. Bone hands held the steering wheel. It wore a black and white tuxedo, and on its head was a black hat. The head turned smoothly, smiling terribly.

In the empty sockets were tiny rubies, shining red.

One of the hands moved down and pressed a button. The passenger door clicked and opened. John Milder was frightened, but it was hard to leave. He entered the limo and shut the door. He felt the car move, but still didn't hear the engine.

The vehicle's inside was empty save for a seat of dark leather. It was total silence, outside and in. He looked at the window, and saw that it was just as dark as in the limo. He touched the window and found it wasn't glass at all, but a thin piece of obsidian. When he tried to open it, he found there were no handles or buttons of any kind on this side of the door. He was trapped.

Between the passenger seats and the driver was another piece of stone. John knocked on it, but nobody answered.

"You know," he said, "this isn't what I had imagined it to be. I mean, I always heard about a tunnel of light. You know. Um."

There was no answer from the driver. His voice didn't even seem to pierce the dead silence inside the car.

"And, you know, they all say your life flashes before your eyes. Not that I really want to relive it all, you know, but ... this isn't what I'd imagined it like."

John stopped talking. A small compartment opened underneath the window separating him from the driver, revealing a small television set.

His life flashed before his eyes, in gritty black and white, with bad reception.


* * *


His life had been edited down to a few hours, it seemed, and most of that was tedium. So full of hope at first, bursting with life. All of it slowly sucked away, as he saw himself work at one horrible job after another, throw away chance after chance to be something more than John Milder, mild-mannered nobody.

The limousine stopped when his life story did. The door opened, and John got out, not without apprehension.

He found himself in the middle of an elegant office building, in front of the reception desk. He looked back at the limousine, and the skeleton waved a bone hand, then with its index finger tapped twice the spot where the nose would have been. The car became foggy and vanished.

The only person in the large reception hall was an attractive receptionist. Fearfully, John walked up to the desk.

He opened his mouth to talk, but before a sound came out, the receptionist smiled pleasantly and pointed down a hallway.

"Hello," John said. "Can you tell me what's going on?"

The receptionist just smiled and pointed again. She looked back down.

"This is all really strange to me, and I don't know what's happening. If you could just tell me what's happening, it would really help me out. Please. Um."

John Milder looked down at his shoes. He was still wearing cheap brown shoes to match his suit. The receptionist ignored him.

"Thank you," he said, and walked down the hallway she had pointed to.

The end of the hall was unseen. On each side, every ten feet, was a plain brown door with a golden plaque. He read some of the names:

Dawn Feng

Mike Wilson

Steven Lim

They kept going, names that meant nothing to him. Finally, he found a door that read John Milder. Shaken slightly, he moved to open the door, when he saw reflected in the polished golden sign the door opposite his.

Marie Milder

Turning around, he walked up to the door and put his ear up to it. He heard voices inside, though he couldn't make out what they were saying. Marie was there. How did she die? Did she miss me? Why did she keep his name? Did she remarry?

Questions burned in his mind, and he put his hand on the gold doorknob. His hand tightened on it as he prepared to open the door ... But he stopped. It felt wrong, somehow. Like breaking a rule. He wanted to see Marie again, to talk to her again. The memory of her voice rang sweet in the back of his brain. But maybe he shouldn't risk it. Maybe she didn't want to see him, or he would get in trouble. Sighing, he turned and walked back to the opposite door. His shoes made no sound on the polished marble.

The door opened silently, smoothly. Inside was a spacious office with a desk at one end and a shuttered window behind it. A large man sat at the desk, hands folded, staring straight at Milder.

"Greetings Mr. Milder," the man said in a deep baritone voice. "Won't you sit down?" He pointed at a chair in front of the desk.

Milder walked over and sat on the edge of the seat, mindlessly twisting his suit as he looked around. The office was simple and elegant, like the rest of the building. Comfortable chairs, wonderful mahogany table, expensive carpeting; it was everything John expected from a major executive or a CEO.

"This is nothing like what I'd imagined it to be," he said.

The man smiled, revealing pearly white teeth. He leaned forward, putting his chin in both his hands. "What did you expect, Mr. Milder?" he said.

John was slightly unnerved. He stared for a second: the man would be over six feet tall if he stood up. Short hair, slicked back, a rich black to match his suit. His shoulders were squared, like a football player's. The man's face was heavily tanned; Milder decided he was white. Eyes a strange shade that didn't quite keep to one color. It was disconcerting.

"I don't know," John Milder said. "but they always talk about tunnels, and beings of light." He shrugged, looking around the office. He'd never been comfortable inside of his boss's office. "And I'm pretty sure there's supposed to be angels and stuff, Saint Peter before the gate, that sort of thing," he said.

The man smiled gently, "You don't really believe any of that, Mr. Milder. None of this is real, you know. But your mind sees things the way it wants to; you see strength and power, so your mind makes me big, and has me wear a suit. Elegance and beauty become an office building, with a Van Gogh on my wall."

"So what happens now," Milder asked.

"That depends on you; it always did. You were never very religious, were you, John?"

"Well, I went to church when I was a kid," John said.

"That doesn't matter. People have gone to church every Sunday, and never really believed a word of it. It's all what you believe. What do you believe, Mr. Milder?"

John starred at the plush carpeting.

"Well, you can call me Peter if you like."

Confused, John said, "What?"

The man smiled lightly, "It's a joke, John."

Milder smiled, unsure, then went back to looking at the carpet. After a long time, he looked up. The man in the suit was sitting there like a statue, chin in hands, lips curled up slightly.

"I want to go back," John said.

"Really," the man said, pulling back into his chair, "and why is that, Mr. Milder? You still had maybe twenty or thirty years left, you know, but you chose to cut it off. And now you want to go back?"

"Yeah. I mean, yes. I want to go back," he said. He stopped mangling the fabric of his gray jacket, and became more alert.

"There's so much I never saw, so much I should have done," he said, his face slightly flushed.

"But you had fifty-six years to do that, John," the other man said, "Why should you have another chance, when you wasted the one that you got?"

"I've made some mistakes, I know that now. But what's the point of mistakes if you never learn from them?"

"What kind of mistakes, Mr. Milder?"

John started; his train of thought had been interrupted. He leaned back in the chair for the first time, but didn't notice how expensive it was.

"I didn't want to be an accountant, you know," John said, staring blankly at the wall. "But the money was good, and my parents wanted to make sure I could get a job. They'd grown up during the Great Depression, you see."

John stared at the night scene on his left and continued to speak:

"I never did anything worth mentioning in college, while my friends changed the world. When Vietnam came along and I was drafted, I went along. Not because I agreed, but because it was easier to go than to stay. It was always easier to stay at my job, working for a man who didn't give a damn about me, than it was to quit, and later it became easier to lose myself in alcohol than to develop something really special with my wife. I ... I think there's more to life, and I missed out," John Milder said.

The man in the suit smiled, and said, "Well, if that's the way it is." The man stood up, walked over to the door, and held it open. Stylish, self-assured: the only way to describe the way the large man moved.

John got up, suddenly feeling tired and old. There was nothing beyond the doorway but a solid white mass.

Déjà vu.

John walked slowly to the door, unsure of himself. He put his hand out tentatively, and putting it through the curtain, found that it wasn't actually there. His arm passed through it fine; there was nothing there; feeling around, he felt nothing. He stepped closer and glanced at the stranger before carefully sticking his head through the doorway. It was like being blind in a world of white.

He pulled back and stepped away from the door. Sighing, he said, "Will I remember anything?"

"Of course not, Mr. Milder. However ... sometimes, certain feelings do remain. Integral values often stay the same."

John looked back to the door, trying to see through the nothingness, but still there was nothing. He closed his eyes and started to slowly count up to ten, taking deep breaths as he went. It took a minute for his heart to stop beating frantically and his stomach to settle down. (That was confusing, because shouldn't he have neither heart nor stomach?)

And he stepped through the white curtain.

Flash: Opening his eyes for the first time, screaming with that first intake of breath, his first kiss, first love, parents' death, marriage day, realizing he was drinking too much and still reaching for the bottle anyway, reading the note and even then seeing the cruel irony of it starting "Dear John," putting on the dusty gray suit, the pavement closing in so fast ...

Déjà vu?

Flash: The horrible visage of a skeleton, smiling the maniacal smile of the fleshless skull, ruby eyes burning though him, tapping his index finger against his long-gone nose.

John Milder could not leap, run, walk, crawl, or move; but tore backwards anyway, falling backward out of the doorway.

He lay on the ground, eyes clamped shut, out of breath.

When his eyes opened, the suited man was still holding the door, staring down at him, his face without expression.

It took John a minute to catch his breath and stand up. His face was flushed, though whether from embarrassment or otherwise, it was hard to tell. John faced the man holding the door, for the first time looking him in the eyes. (They were dark, and deep. Like something separate from his body, small black holes that drew you in. Was there singularity at their apex?)

John said, "I've done this before, haven't I?"

"Yes. Many times you have come here, and chosen to return." The man said, slight humor in his voice.

"And ... and during that whole time did I ever find happiness?"

"No, Mr. Milder. Each time, your reasons for returning have been the same: you felt that there was more to life than what you had experienced, that you'd wasted your life."

"And each time you let me go back? Why?"

"That's not the way things work, Mr. Milder. I am not your judge; you are. Whatever you believe deep down, that is what you perceive. Yes, there is more than this," the man gestured around with his left hand, "but you are not ready for it, you don't ... can't accept it. Let me ask you, now that you know that you have failed countless times at living your life the way you
believe it should be led, what do you want to do?"

John began to speak, but stopped. Finally he said, "I want to go back again." He looked down at his shoes, as if being chastised, then looked up again. "I want to go back, damn it. But what's the point? If every time I'm just going to mess things up, then why bother? I'll just screw up again!"

Feeling hot, Milder slammed shut the door leading out, and stormed over to the chair. He flopped down, letting out air and putting his head in his hands. He paid no attention when the door closed, and the stranger walked past him, back to his seat behind the desk.

Minutes passed, or maybe hours. Milder sat staring at the floor, his brain full of thoughts, none legible. At last he said, "So now what?"

"As always, it is up to you, Mr. Milder," the voice from behind the desk said.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

The man across from him did not answer, smiling pleasantly instead.

"Why the hell are you just sitting there?! Help me! Tell me what to do!" John was yelling now, his face flushed with a mix of frustration and hopelessness. He stood up with his hands on the desk.

"No," said the man, still sitting. The half-smile was absent now. "I will not tell you what to do. All your life, you've let people tell you what to do, convince you in their beliefs. How can you expect to lead a real life?"

The man stood up, towering over John. "Look at you; you don't even exist! You're nothing but a stereotype, John Milder. All our life you've done what people told you to do, or what was expected of you, never taking any risks, never doing anything to improve. Instead, buying into every greedy materialistic aspect of your sad little world."

"You sad little man. You don't even know what you want! You've wasted every gift given to you, and when you realize that you've accomplished nothing, you do nothing but pity yourself, abuse yourself, and then destroy any chance of righting wrongs."

John trembled as the man's voice became stronger, deeper, reverberating through the room.

"Three times now you've been allowed to go back, because that is what you wished, what you needed. And three times you've made the same mistakes. The mind does not remember. But your soul is like a typewriter's ribbon. Everything your mind perceives shapes your soul. And yet, three times you've done as before."

John tried to speak, spluttering out vague denials and excuses.

The man stepped out from the desk and went over to the door, opening it again. Beyond lay a hallway.

"I will give you a choice for the last time, John Milder. Beyond this door, at the end of the hall, are two choices. You may either return again, or you can end this charade now and resign yourself to oblivion, return to nothing, cease to ever be."

Turning his back to Milder, the man stepped out of the office and walked away, his shoes tapping harshly on the marble.

John jumped up and ran to the door, but stopped short of leaving the office. "Wait! Please! I don't understand! Please, help me, what should I do?" He received no answer. "Please!"


* * *


John sat, staring at the doorway, his face blank, eyes unseeing. He didn't know how much time had passed.

Two choices lay before him: to continue trying to live life until there were no more regrets; or to end it, finally and completely, as he had tried to do when he had jumped out his apartment window.

His mind churned. If I go back, he thought, I will only repeat my mistakes. If I choose to cease existence altogether, I'll have failed completely. I must go back! Then he thought: But if I go back, I will only fail again ...

Like a computer program stuck in an endless loop, John Milder sat, eyes empty, mind running to reach a decision; but it was like trying to find the end of a mobius.

He had wondered: Am I in Hell? (After all, there must be a Hell. That's what he'd been told.) He didn't think he was; after all, he'd been a good person, done what he was told. What else could you do? He didn't think he was in Heaven, because there weren't any angels or anything, like he'd been taught as a child.

One part of him knew -- that one small part in his mind that had been so strong in his youth, but had died in small stages as it was ignored. That one part within him sensed there was more to life than drab offices; that part had flared briefly when he married.

Deep down, John Milder knew he was not in any Heaven or Hell, but some in-between place, an empty place void of the imagination needed to create either of its neighbors.

But it did John no good to know. Empty of imagination, he had only two choices. "Please," he said, "somebody tell me ..."

Nobody answered.


Story copyright 2001 by Mike Velichansky kroosk@icqmail.com

Illustration copyright 2001 by Shelton Bryant avengers39@coastalnet.com


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