Horror & Dark Fantasy

COSMIC POWERS

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Fiction

Death’s Door Café

Theo thought of the pain in his veins as the clawing of bats, the smell in his nose their guano, the rawness of his throat torn by their smoke. It was this, the pain in breathing, that made him climb out of his car at last and walk a block to the Dusseldorf Café.

The large purple door had a suburban brass knocker and a spy hole. A plaque beside the door read The Soldier. In larger text: b1922 d1946

Up close, he could see dark stains in the wood. He touched his fingers to the marks, feeling the door’s thick grain, wondering if he’d get a sense of “ending,” an understanding of the death it had once concealed.

He knocked.

When the waiter opened the door, Theo jumped back. He turned away, wanting to run, knowing he wasn’t able. Once, he could have been around the corner before the waiter even raised a hand. Now . . . he had no choice. Even walking one block from the car had sapped his strength.

“Table for one?” said the waiter. “Did you have a booking?”

Theo shook his head. The café wasn’t in the phonebook or online; he’d only found it by walking up and down the street.

“That’ll be okay, we can squeeze you in. A cancellation, aren’t you lucky?”

Theo stepped inside. The waiter led Theo across the room, saying, “There’s a great table over here in the corner. Right next to the magazines.” Theo stood close to him.

“Who was The Soldier? If that’s not a rude question.”

“It’s always the first thing people want to know: Who died behind the door?” The waiter’s face shifted, became serious. “The Soldier was back from war a year, and he was listening to some gloomy music, some sad sort of song, they say, when there was a knock on that door.” The waiter rapped loudly on the table and Theo jumped.

The waiter handed him the menu.

Theo hadn’t eaten solid food for more than a week. Even glancing at the Chef’s Specialities list, with its “South Coast Swordfish” and its “Hazelnut Chocolate Soufflé,” made him feel ill.

“The super special today is a lamb tagine with blood plums. The chef tells me it’s very good,” the waiter said. “So the soldier opens the door, that very door you came through, and who is standing there but his old sergeant? And the sergeant says, ‘You’ve brought shame to an entire division,’ and he reaches in and slashes the soldier’s throat. The soldier bleeds to death so fast, he’s gone by the time the killer reaches the front gate. They say the music was still playing two days later when the body was found. As if that poor dead soldier kept hitting replay.” The waiter shrugged. “So, what’ll it be?”

Theo felt sick. “Could I just have a green salad?” he said. The waiter smiled.

“We sell a lot of green salads. Chef does a very good one. Anything else for now? Some nice toast? We sell a lot of toast, too.”

Theo nodded. Smiled. His dry lips cracked. He didn’t know what to say, how to ask for what he wanted.

“Drinks?”

Theo shook his head. “I’m not really drinking. I’m . . .” He hadn’t told anyone yet, and he didn’t know what words to use. “I’m not well.”

“Oh, you poor thing. How about I bring you one of our fabulous Virgin Marys? We leave out the vodka for sick people.” The waiter smiled. “We get a lot of your type in here.”

The café was full, but remarkably quiet. Gentle music played, something with pan pipes and an ethereal female voice. The chair was comfortable; high-backed, soft-seated. Theo shifted back to give himself more room and there was no scraping sound, as if the legs were muffled. The walls were painted all around with a mural he took to depict Dusseldorf and the River Rhine. Along the banks, stylish people strolled, perfectly groomed, laughing, small dogs at their feet.

There was nothing dark, no hint of death beyond the door he had walked through.

Theo couldn’t eat his green salad when it arrived, but he drank his tomato juice. He watched to see what people did. He wanted a clue, didn’t want to mess up, miss out.

An emaciated woman held a bread stick. She was dressed in hot pink as if to draw attention away from her pale face. Her companion, a red-cheeked woman with a high, far-reaching voice, did all the talking, frivolous stuff. She barely took a breath. Theo thought she was frightened the sick woman would speak. He understood this kind of avoidance.

He had good hearing (Batboy, his mother called him, because he picked up everything) and didn’t have to strain to listen in.

“They’ve got it in green, blue, brown, orange and red,” the healthy woman said. “But they don’t have all the sizes, you’d have to try them on to see. But first you’d decide if you wanted green, blue, brown, orange or red. I, me, I’d choose red or orange though I wouldn’t mind brown . . .” without a break, desperately filling each space.

Finally the sick woman reached out a finger and touched the loud woman’s wrist. The loud woman stopped instantly.

The sick woman nodded.

“Waiter! Waiter. We’re ready to see Jason now,” the loud woman said, waving the menu.

Theo opened his menu. The owner’s name was there, in large, ornate type. “Your host, Jason Davies,” it said.

Jason Davies came and sat at the table with the women. He was young, black hair, pale blue eyes. Theo saw the patrons in the room all watching him. Nobody spoke or moved; all focused on him.

He talked with the sick woman for a while (“How did you hear about us? And is this a friend? A relative?” “I’ve answered all this, she said. “I’ve told you.”) then led her through a door at the back of the café. She walked slowly, relying heavily on a cane.

Theo swallowed. Winced.

The friend stood by their table, clutching her handbag. She started towards the back door, but the waiter gently led her to walk towards the front.

“Leave it with us, now.”

“I need to give her a lift home. She can’t manage.”

He smiled. “She’ll be fine.”

He moved over to Theo. “Can we help you with anything else today, or just the bill?”

“Could I see the owner? Jason? Can I talk to Jason?” he asked, wondering if he was being reckless, ruining his chances. The waiter stood by the table and looked at him.

“Come back tomorrow.”

“I can’t. I haven’t got the time,” and that meant a different thing to someone with cancer.

“I’ll ask him,” the waiter said. “You may have to wait. What’s your name?”

It was fifteen minutes before the waiter said, “He can’t see you today. Maybe next time.”

“How many visits until you’re considered worthy?” Theo asked. He hoped he didn’t sound sarcastic. He meant the question.

“It’s not so much worthiness. Often it’s persistence.”

“How many times did that woman visit?”

“I’m not sure. Many. Many times. Some of our regulars come for months.”

“But I may not have months.”

The waiter looked at him.

“Jason will know.”

Theo felt a ticking in his ears, sign that waves of pain were on their way. He paid. The waiter said, “Come back soon. Tomorrow’s special is French Onion Soup. It’s fantastic. If I had to choose a last meal, that would be it.”

His direct gaze told Theo, I’m not joking and I’m not being cruel.

He handed Theo a sheet of paper. Questionnaire, it said. “Bring it with you next time,” the waiter said, ushering Theo out. “Be as honest as you can. That’s what Jason always says.”

In the car, Theo swallowed pain killers and waited for the nausea to pass before driving. His doctor had told him he shouldn’t be on the road, but that was advice he would ignore for as long as possible.

He looked at the twenty-page questionnaire. What do you fear, what do you love, what do you miss most about childhood, where do you think you are going to, do you believe in God? Are you ever tongue-tied or lost for words? What will you do with the rest of your life? He laughed; he hadn’t answered such personal questions since a long-ago girlfriend had wanted to know everything about him before making a real commitment.

That hadn’t worked out so well.

Before he was five pages in, he was tired. He listened to podcasts: stuff about good eating habits, slow cooking, a bat cave near Denpasar Town, Bali where the bats are known to keep bad things at bay, and children’s theatre. He watched people come and go from the café, so many of them clearly ill. He liked watching them.

Two hours passed.

He had nowhere to go.

Three hours.

Then he saw the woman all in pink. She must have left via the back door. She seemed taller and she had no cane. She put out her hand for a taxi, then lowered her arm and walked to a bus stop. As Theo watched, she counted the money she held. Shook her head. Laughed.

He started the car, drove alongside her and offered her a lift. “I was in the café,” he said. “Death’s Door Café.”

“You were? I’m sorry. I noticed very little.”

In the café, she had looked over fifty. Now, she seemed to be in her mid-thirties. Her face glowed, and she bounced on her feet as if full of energy.

She leant into his car. Looked at him. Then climbed in.

“Where do you want me to drop you?’

She seemed a bit stunned by this. Lost for words. “To your friend’s house?”

“No! No. To the airport. I’m, ahhh . . .”

“Holiday?”

“Holiday.” She looked at the money in her hand again.

“You need money.”

She shook her head. Then nodded. She laughed. “I’m not sure, actually.”

Theo smiled. “I can buy you a ticket. Easy. Money’s just burning a hole in my pocket.”

“What would you want in return?”

“Nothing, really. Just to talk.”

“I can’t tell you anything,”

“You look fantastic.”

“I do, don’t I? And I feel better than I have in maybe two decades.”

“So what happened in there?”

“I can’t say. I really can’t. Not even for a plane ticket.”

“I’m going to buy you that anyway,” he said. It really did mean nothing to him. Even ten thousand dollars wouldn’t make a dent. “But . . . how do I get in? How do I get Jason to talk to me?”

They approached the airport.

He said, “Do you want me to give a message to your friend?”

She stared at him for a moment. “Oh. No. No. Best not. Look, if you want to get in? Keep going back. And be honest. As honest as you can force yourself to be. And good luck.”

She kissed his cheek, her lips warm, soft, alive.

“Keep going back,” she said.

• • • •

Theo was not the only regular.

Some had a constant companion, like the little boy and his mother. She carried him in, set him up with pillows. Ordered a milkshake, chocolate cake, but that made the boy cry with frustration. He took a sip, but Theo could see that it rose straight away back into his mouth.

They were invited through the door on the day the boy didn’t stir as the mother walked in with him.

Some were always alone. These, like Theo, carried a book or magazine to read, or concentrated on phones, not wanting to look lonely or needy. They exchanged glances, sometimes sat together, but they didn’t talk. Theo wondered if amongst them were potential friends, or long-term partners. The mother of his child. But all they really had in common was illness.

Some came in with a new companion every time, paid nurses. An elderly man who walked with a cane always had his nurse bring gifts; he owned a series of stores, Theo discovered. He never said anything, just smiled as the nurse handed out pens, notebooks, chocolates.

A sort of camaraderie built amongst them. There were light cheers any time one was allowed through to the back.

Jason Davies sometimes nodded at them. Sometimes he’d smile. The regulars would exchange looks when one of them was so blessed.

Day after day, Theo drank carrot and ginger juice, ate dried yam chips. At times, the nausea would be too much and he would push through the beaded doorway, (Mountain Walker, the plaque beside it said, b1933, d1972), walking along the increasingly chilly hallway, open the dented back door (Teen Singer b1985, d2001), stumble every time over the rock which sat too close to the path, and enter the toilet, (Three Year Old b1998, d2001) which shared space with a laundry tub and what appeared to be rejected artwork from a teenage girl’s bedroom.

He pretended to work at a variety of tables, taking his laptop in, using his phone. He spoke if spoken to, like the day when the elderly man sat at the next table, sitting with his eyes closed, humming softly. His nurse fussed over him, smiled around the room, stayed connected.

“You’re a busy, busy man,” she said to Theo. She was in her twenties and smelt faintly of cigarette smoke and breath mints. “What is it you do, busy all the time?”

“I’ve got a sonar equipment company.” He handed her his business card.

“Love the bat,” she said. Theo had drawn it himself; he had drawn bats from the age of five. “I love bats.”

Theo was called Batman at school, because of the cave on his property. He didn’t mind at all; he’d take kids there in groups, let them throw bat poo at each other, tell them things they didn’t know.

After all the bats were killed, though, he couldn’t bear to hear the name spoken. Each time was like a punch to the heart. He knew he deserved it, every hard hit, for not stopping the slaughter.

He didn’t tell the nurse any of this. He might, he thought, if something happened between them. If she really loved bats, he could show her the cave, they could see it together and she’d cry with him, maybe.

But she didn’t come again. Next time, the nurse was a man, bright faced and cheery, who made them all laugh.

• • • •

One morning, Jason appeared. There was silence as always. He surveyed the room. “Can you stay for a while, Theo? It would be good to have a chat.”

Theo nodded.

“Excellent,” Jason said. He walked over to the elderly man, placed his hand on the back of the chair, and leaned over to whisper in his ear.

The elderly man gave a little shudder. “Me?” Theo heard him say.

Jason led the elderly man though the door. The waiter (there were three of them, Theo knew, all kind, efficient, professional) said to the nurse, “You’re all done now. You’ll be paid for the month. And thanks.”

The other regulars congratulated Theo. He still didn’t know what he was lucky about. No one discussed it. But it was a cure; they’d seen it. They knew it worked. Theo himself had seen six people go through the door and never return to the café. He’d seen three of them later, walking down the street, transformed. Flowers appeared in the café, with notes saying THANK YOU. Like flowers sent to nurses in hospital.

There was no followup because he knew no names, but still, even to have one day feeling that way would make it worthwhile. Even if it was just that one day.

Theo ordered herbal coffee and cheese but could swallow nothing. Sometimes he felt so exhausted, so suddenly and completely drained, he wanted to lay his head on the table and sleep. Sometimes he did nod off, wake to find himself still there, his coffee cold in front of him.

Theo was grateful for the pile of magazines, so he could withdraw into himself, not engage. Many were tourist magazines from Dusseldorf and he flicked through these, looking for things to talk about

When Jason sat down an hour later, Theo said, “How long did you live in Dusseldorf?” thinking it a safe, intelligent question.

“Never even been. I just like the sound of the name. Don’t you?”

“Except people don’t call your cafe that, do they?”

“Don’t they?”

“They call it Death’s Door Café.”

“Because of the doors.”

He pointed at the huge wooden door where the ill people entered. The door Theo wanted to enter.

“We call that Gladiator. We dunno how many died behind it. But plenty. You can see sweat marks from their hands as they stood leaning against it. Some came through okay. But plenty died.”

“I’m . . . curious to know what’s behind that door.” Theo wished he had a script, but everyone spoke to Jason differently. “You’ve taken a lot of people through.”

“I have. When I get to know someone well, sometimes I’ll let them through.”

“I’d like that. I need that.”

“People do.”

“But I’ve been given . . .” Theo couldn’t say the words aloud. He’d told no one the timing, barely acknowledged to himself that his life could be counted in months.

“You like it here, don’t you?”

“I do. Really. There’s something very calming about the place.”

“That’s what we aim for. Our customers . . . mostly they’ve made a decision. Come to an acceptance, or had a realization. It calms you, to be in that state of mind.”

Jason Davies put his hands on Theo’s.

“Can you tell me who recommended you?”

“Nobody. I just heard about it.”

“Usually we only accept recommendations. How did you hear about us?”

Theo blinked. “I’m afraid I eavesdropped on a plane. I guess they thought no one could hear, because they were talking under a blanket, but my hearing is very good. I had to find the place myself, though.”

He knew everyone was listening, because he had heard all the other interviews, both the successes and the failures. He hadn’t identified why some failed.

“Tell me about yourself,” Jason said. He had the questionnaire on the table before him. “It says here your greatest fear is bats.”

“No! Not at all. The death of bats. That’s my greatest fear.”

Jason tapped his nose. “Is this an element of your disease?”

Theo felt his cheeks flush. He rubbed his nose. All his life, blood had drained from it when he was nervous, scared or tired. Children weren’t smart enough to think of connecting it to bat’s white nose fungus, but he thought of it himself and he didn’t mind. He liked the similarity.

“No, this is just nerves. My fingertips go white sometimes, too. It’s not life-threatening. Not like the bat disease. It gets carried from one cave to another by people who love bats and want to see them all. One of those ironies.”

“People are a bit like that, aren’t they?”

He asked Theo about bats, simple questions, leading him to feel comfortable, relaxed.

“All right. Look, come through.”

Jason led the way through the gladiator door, through a short hallway to a bright-red door covered with stickers of unicorns, rainbows and puppies. Family of four b1952, b1953, b1975, b1980, d1984. Theo touched it.

“Father gathered them in the toy room and shot them all,” said Jason. “Incredible tragedy. But don’t things lose their awfulness over time? Become gossip, or matters of curiosity?”

Theo realised he was asking an actual question.

“It’s still awful, isn’t it? That the children died. And the wife.” Theo thought he heard voices inside and the sound of a ball bouncing.

Jason smiled. “Yes. Of course it is. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Theo thought this made no sense at all.

Jason led Theo to a small, sunny alcove. A young woman sat there, sipping from a delicate tea cup. Her black hair was soft around her head.

“This is Cameron. She’s going to ask you some questions, talk to you a bit about your questionnaire.”

Theo sat down and smiled at Cameron. She smiled back.

“Would you like a cup of herbal tea?”

“No, thank you. I just finished one.” Theo found it hard to contain his nerves, to maintain politeness.

“Okay then.” She was very still and Theo was still with her. “What did you think of the questionnaire?”

He laughed. “It was pretty full on. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about myself like that before.”

Do you think of yourself as a good person? Is there anything that makes you feel guilty? How much do you give to charity each year? How many hours of voluntary work do you do each week? Do you feel guilty about the number of hours you do?

“I wasn’t sure what the point was.”

“The point is never meant to be clear in these things. We just want an understanding of you and your motivations. It’s really an important part of the process. And, to be honest, we’re not interested in helping psychopaths.”

“I hope I’m not one of those.”

She smiled. “You are not.”

They talked for another hour. Theo hadn’t felt so relaxed in a long time, and he hadn’t ever talked about himself for so long. She seemed to understand about the bats, and didn’t blame him for his state of loneliness. She spun her wedding ring periodically and he appreciated the signal; this is all it is, she was telling him. He liked things to be clear.

Jason joined them. “Feeling okay?”

Theo nodded. He didn’t want to mention how he felt physically.

“Okay. So what we’re talking about here is a second chance. You came to us, like all the others did, because you’re desperate. You want to have another go at it. And you’re tired of the pain, and the fear. Is that about right?”

“Yes.” Theo’s throat constricted and the word came out as a whisper.

“All right then. We need to sort out the paperwork.” Jason opened the folder he carried and removed papers and a pen. “It will cost your life savings. I need to start with that. You need to begin this process with nothing to your name.”

Theo had been prepared for a high price. “If I die I’ll have nothing anyway.”

“Exactly. That’s all in the details. But then you will have to reconsider how you live your life. How you re-live it.”

“What does everyone else do, given a second chance?” He wanted that as well.

“Everybody is different. Every single person.”

Jason filled in the forms. Theo signed. He agreed never to kill, never to rape or maim. He agreed to live a good life, to make the most of his second chance. He signed the paper believing fully in this commitment.

“So . . . what is going to happen? Can I ask? What is the actual process?”

“We can talk about that tomorrow when you come back for your appointment.”

“Come here? So is there a clinic here or something?”

“We can talk about that tomorrow.” Jason said. “My suggestion is that you spend the day somewhere you care about. Somewhere important. Some will spend it with loved ones, but many prefer not to. There is nothing certain in this world and this is no exception.”

Theo knew there were questions he could ask.

“It will take all you’ve got. We’ve discussed the money. But the life. You will be leaving your past behind. The people, the places. You won’t want to visit your bat cave again.”

“There are other bat caves.”

“You’ll feel nothing for them. That memory will be lessened, so much so that you will wonder where you read about it, if you think of it at all.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Make your visits. And decide. It’s never too late to change your mind. But this may be your last chance.”

• • • •

Theo went to the bat cave, his first visit in 17 months. Only the memory of them remained, but that memory was strong. Hours spent on a rough mat on the cave floor, his face covered, listening to them, feeling the flap of their wings. Close to half a million bats was the estimation, and through three generations of Theo’s family there had been no harm, no damage. Then reports came in of the diseases they carried, and one scientist was bitten. Theo couldn’t even remember now if the man had died; certainly there was a lot of fuss. Theo never believed it was the bats.

His father was determined. “Too many kids here to risk,” he said, because there were cousins as well as siblings, all of them working on the farm, balancing it with school.

He was advised that fire was the best, the kindest way. That the smoke would put the bats to sleep and the fire would then burn the bodies so they weren’t left with half a million corpses, just a pile of ash that could be swept away.

Theo’s father made the children stay in the house, but it was an old place with gaps so the smell came through dead clear. They watched smoke billowing out, saw Theo’s dad dashing out for air then back in again, and again, the whole thing taking most of the day. Theo’s grandfather helped, and the brothers, all Theo’s uncles, no women allowed to kill. Women inside keeping the kids quiet, baking up scones and cakes, stirring soup, all of them talking bright and cheerful as if a massacre was not taking place.

Theo never forgave them for that.

It wasn’t as if the advice was right; the smoke did not kill them all, so many were burnt to death. And the fire did not burn them all to ash; the bodies piled at the entrance to the cave so that Theo and his cousins had to help dig the men out. Those bat bodies still warm, some charred, and the flutter of them, the sense they were still alive when they weren’t. And the smell; he’d thought he was used to guano, that he actually liked it, but this was like poison.

Years later, a journalist came to confront his father with evidence the bats hadn’t needed to die.

Theo’s father cried as the journalist continued relentlessly to tell him . . . you didn’t have to. Those bats had lived in the cave for 150 years and you killed them.

Theo cried, too. He said to his father, as he had said many times, “You should have saved the bats.”

The farm was no longer in his family. His father was too sick to look after anything at all. His mother long gone. “Those bats. All that bat shit,” his father said, coughing, furious.

The new owners didn’t mind Theo visiting, as long has he didn’t come knocking on the door for water. The bat cave was empty. Theo could see his own footprints in the dirt floor, and the broom marks from the last time he’d tidied up. Guano still decorated the walls and the rocks, and the smell of smoke, and the walls were dark from the fire. He lay on the ground and tried to imagine them back again, alive, generations of them coming and going and his family with no guilt on their heads.

It was there he decided. Imagine not caring anymore. Imagine not carrying this guilt, this sorrow. And this pain.

• • • •

Theo couldn’t eat or sleep that night. In the morning, he dressed carefully. A casual suit, a fresh, pale mauve cotton shirt, clean shoes, underwear he wasn’t embarrassed by. Clothes he’d be happy to be buried in, if it came to that.

He felt as if the atmosphere at the Dusseldorf Café was charged, as if they were all watching him with envy.

The waiter brought him a carrot juice he didn’t order. “On the house!” patting him on the back as if congratulating him.

Just the smell of it made Theo feel sick. He’d never been so nervous, so terrified, in all his life.

Jason came to his table after half an hour. “Come on through,” he said. The other regulars all held their breath, it seemed to Theo. As if they could bring the magic to themselves by not breathing. He wiggled his fingers goodbye.

They walked through the gladiator door.

Jason said, “Did you manage to see anyone yesterday?”

“There’s not really anyone I wanted to see. My family . . . we’re not really in touch. Nothing in common.”

Jason nodded, smiled, as if this was ordinary, something he heard all the time. “It’s the people left behind who suffer when someone dies, so a loner leaves less grief than a father of three.”

“But I’m still worthy. That’s part of why I’m here,” said Theo. “I want time to make a family of my own, one I choose and have a chance to mould.”

“Most people don’t like being moulded.”

“I want a second chance, to make people care.” Theo thought for a moment, then amended it to, “To find someone to care for. I don’t want to die alone. This will give me the chance, it’ll help me to find someone. It’ll be different this time.”

“How different?”

“I’ve made my money. I won’t have to focus on that.”

“You won’t have much, though. Financially, it’ll be like starting again.”

“But I don’t care now. I’ve done that. I want something else.”

Jason touched his shoulder. “Good. That’s very good. Now, the last thing we need to do is to get you to hand-write a letter. To cover us. It’s a farewell letter of sorts.”

“Who do I make it out to?”

“It needs to be to someone who knows you very well as you are now. You really have no one?”

Theo thought of his managers, his staff. “I’ve got people.” He made it out to his vice-president.

He had little to say; he’d long since dealt with the business side of things, anticipating his own death.

“And then there’s this.” It was a promise of complete secrecy. “Do not tell others what happens. You may, if you are absolutely certain they are suitable, recommend someone, but do not bring them in yourself.”

They walked.

They passed through a bullet-scarred door to a long hallway. “One of Ben Hall’s gang died in front of this door. Shot to death.” Jason poked a finger through one of the holes.

“There is a bat cave where that gang holed up,” Theo said. “No one really knows where. Or they do but they want to protect the bats.”

“So many connections,” Jason said. “Now, what we have back here is a series of rooms. We’re going to have a look at them, and you’ll choose the one which suits you.”

“How will I know?”

“You’ll feel an empathy. Feel it physically, almost as if you could pick it up. One of these rooms will resonate with you. You’ll feel a grieving, a sense of loss. One of these rooms will make your heart beat faster, or bring a lump to your throat. You don’t need to know why; you need to listen to your body.”

The door on Room One looked like it had come from a ship. Inside was a small children’s room.

“A child died behind this door. It was so airtight and heavy, when the ship sunk he couldn’t get out. He suffocated.”

“Oh, God.” Theo closed his eyes. He thought he sensed movement which made him dizzy. He reached out to balance himself on Jason.

“Let’s look at the others before you make up your mind.”

They walked. “What’s . . . actually going to happen in the room?” Theo asked. “Once I’ve chosen it?”

“There will be some relaxation exercises. We always start with that.”

Theo thought, I’m an idiot. No one knows I’m here. Who knows what the fuck these people are doing. I’m insane. I should go.

“Everyone feels nervous at this point, but I don’t like to pre-discuss too much. It’s better this way. Tell me about what you might do with your second chance. Your questionnaire wasn’t big on helping others, Theo. Would you address that, perhaps?”

“I would,” Theo said. “Because it makes sense.” He wasn’t sure that was true.

“You might be asked to do more good than you have done before. The universe may ask this, I mean.”

Theo was silent. No one had expected him to do good before. “Of course,” he said. “Whatever it takes.” He had an absolute terror of death, after his experience with the bats, and with his mother’s passing. He wanted to avoid it for as long as possible; until he was deep in dementia and didn’t notice his own dying, if possible.

The door on Room Two was narrow, with inlaid wood. It seemed Asian in influence.

“This is a popular one. Behind this door a Chinese prostitute was beaten to death over a hundred years ago.” Theo leaned toward the door, wanting to touch the detail.

“This one?” Jason asked. He pushed the door open. The smell was overwhelming; incense, and perfume, as if both were present in living form.

Theo shook his head.

Room Three was a toilet with an opaque glass door.

“He died in the toilet. Fat and lazy. Heart attack at 42, lay on the floor, paralyzed, blocking the door. They couldn’t get him out for four hours. Everything in the rooms is recreated precisely.”

Theo shuddered. Stepped away. Put his hand over his face.

“Not that one, then. People do choose it, you’d be surprised. Smell and all.”

The door to Room Four was a studded, shiny one.

“He slept through the hotel fire alarm and died of smoke inhalation. No one realized he wasn’t safe.”

Jason looked at Theo.

“This one could be for you.”

He opened the door and they stepped inside. It was a typical, dull hotel room. The fan overhead spun slowly, slightly off kilter, and there was a sound to it like flapping bat wings.

Theo felt his throat constrict, his veins swell. He could hear them; the bats calling out, as they did when he was a child. Calling out to him, making him feel as if he belonged amongst them.

“It sounds like bats flying. Can you hear it?”

“Everybody hears something different. We all see the same thing, though.”

On the bed; it looked like a man, but there was no substance to him.

“We all see it,” Jason said, comforting him.

The ghost on the bed shifted onto his side. His shirt tail hung out; it was crinkled.

“What I’m going to do now is to help you into a state of deep sleep. This will help us assess your physicality, now that we understand your mentality. It’ll be comfortable, and you’ll wake up with a sense of calm.”

Theo felt a moment of panic. He looked for cameras, for some evidence that this was weird and wrong.

“Theo, really. It’s okay. You’ve seen the others; you know it’s okay. You really, absolutely know that. Let go of your fear and allow it to happen.”

Theo closed his eyes. He thought he could hear the calling of the bats, but he often did. It was a memory. A guiding force. He felt himself slipping into sleep and wondered if this was all he was meant to do.

He shivered; it was cold. The ghost was gone, though there was a smell in the air of whisky, and aftershave, and soap. It was night outside, and that darkness with the flapping of the fan brought the bats to mind again. He curled up and wept with grief for those bats, lost generations, and for his father, who had killed them, and his grandfather, and for himself, because he had been a child.

He slept.

He dreamed his mother was burning the dinner and the smell woke him. There was smoke in the room, it was full of smoke and he could hear sirens and screams and he was hot, now. Flames licked under the door. He wrapped the sheet around his waist and ran to the window. It was bolted shut, double glazed. He found his shoe and hammered the window, coughed, coughed, his eyes streamed and his lungs burnt, he choked and coughed and collapsed, he could not draw breath and he could feel his eyes clouding, feel the heat leaving his body, then all was black.

• • • •

He awoke feeling nothing. He wore his own clothing again and he felt cool, as if a breeze washed over him. He curled up, enjoying the comfort of the bed.

He curled up.

He had not been able to do that for some time. He felt flexible. He stretched out his arms, lifting them high.

“How do you feel?” Jason said. Theo had forgotten his existence, had not heard him enter the room, or, even, knew if he’d left.

“I don’t know,” said Theo. There was no guilt, he did know that. And the grief was gone, the sorrow for the death of the bats. There was room for something else.

It seemed the ache in his stomach was gone, and his veins didn’t hurt.

“Give it a few days.”

“I thought I died. There was a fire . . . did someone put it out? Is everyone all right? What about Cameron, is she okay?”

“There was a fire,” Jason said. “We discovered that if we trick the body into believing it has died, it will recover from any fatal disease. We’ve had particular success with cancer. So we placed you behind a death’s door, and we physically, in actuality, re-created the death. You DID die. You took some of the suffering of those who have passed before you, especially him.”

“I feel as if the world must have changed,” Theo said. “I feel so different, the world must have changed.”

“You are a poetic man. But yes. This will suck the spiritual energy from all surrounds. You’ll notice everyone around will be feeling lethargic for a day or two. We like to complete the process on Sunday evenings best. People pass off their reaction as Monday-itis.”

Jason handed Theo a wallet with $500. “To get you started. Good luck. I’ve put my card in there. You’re welcome to come back if and when you need to. We don’t encourage debauchery of the body, but . . . well, this gives you the freedom to explore without the concerns others have. You will need to consider the financial element. For each visit we require at least double the last. Obviously, all you possess, but it needs to far exceed the amount you paid this time.”

He led Theo to the back door.

“Could I say goodbye? I feel as if I know them all so well. And thank the waiters. They’re so kind. And to Cameron.”

“Best not,” Jason said. “Not all of them will pass through the door. It’s best for them not to know for sure until . . .”

The air outside smelt good; someone was cooking onions. He suddenly felt hungry. “A hamburger,” he said to himself. “No, a steak.”

He felt better the next day, and the next, then he saw his doctor.

“I’d call it a miracle if I believed in them,” said the doctor. “But I don’t. Good luck. Make the most of your second chance.”

Theo did. He met and married a recovering drug addict who never needed another drink or another drug. He didn’t invite any of his family to the wedding; as far as they were concerned he had disappeared.

He didn’t miss them.

There were times, though, when a spinning fan made a light flicker, or when his ears picked up conversations he shouldn’t hear, that he thought of the bat cave and its cold comfort and he did miss that, with an ache he could not ease.

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Kaaron Warren

Bram Stoker Award Nominee, twice-World Fantasy Award Nominee and Shirley Jackson Award winner Kaaron Warren has lived in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Fiji. She’s sold more than 200 short stories, three novels (the multi-award-winning Slights, Walking the Tree and Mistification) and six short story collections including the multi-award-winning Through Splintered Walls. Her latest novel is The Grief Hole (IFWG Publishing Australia, coming out in August) and her latest short story collection is Cemetery Dance Select: Kaaron Warren.

You can find her at http://kaaronwarren.wordpress.com/ and she Tweets @KaaronWarren.