Directly next to the grey door was a paper sign sellotaped to the wall. The ink in the message had ran, suggesting to Matthew it’d been there for some time. He squinted to read it:
KNOCK BEFORE ENTERING
What a strange instruction, Matthew thought, wrinkling his nose. Nevertheless, he raised his right arm and rapped the door three times with the back of his hand. Nothing happened at first, which irked him. If a man’s made to do something, there ought to be good reason for it! he thought, feeling foolish. The silver door handle gleamed before him, and Matthew contemplated walking through uninvited.
He outstretched his knocking hand, then hesitated before his fingertips could touch the handle. Though it pained him to concede, he couldn’t exactly storm through the door like some sort of maniac off the street. There were rules for a reason, wasn’t that always the truth of it?
As he was resigning himself to the possibility he could be standing there for hours, a female’s voice broke from above. Startled, Matthew flinched toward the black speakerphone in the corner of the ceiling. How on earth didn’t I see that?
‘Do come inside, Mr. Doherty.’
Still glancing suspiciously at the speakerphone, Matthew closed his fingers around the door handle, his wedding band clicking against the silver. Swinging the door open, he stepped inside. The door shut behind him.
He was faced with what first appeared to be a dull, somewhat claustrophobic, waiting room. The majority of its space was taken up by rows upon rows of uncomfortable looking, grey office chairs. A man of a similar age to Matthew occupied one of these chairs in the middle row, a bored expression on his bearded face while he flicked through a black-bound catalogue.
Against the wall facing Matthew was a corner desk, of which a twenty-something year old woman was sitting behind. Her attention was fixed on an old fashioned computer monitor.
She had curly hair and brown eyes, and she was wearing a blood red lipstick. Matthew’s first thought was how attractive he found her. His second thought was how he was a balding, forty-six year old plumber, with a family and a noticeably round waistline to support.
‘Uh, hello there,’ said Matthew, approaching the empty counter. ‘I have an appoint-’
‘- kindly sign your name on the form please, Mr. Doherty.’
Matthew almost asked the young woman what form she was referring to, only to look down and see, to his surprise, a clipboard had appeared right in front of him.
‘What in the world –’ he muttered, trailing off, looking from the clipboard to the young woman. He forced a brief chuckle. ‘Am I missing something?’
The young woman raised her eyebrows.
‘I wouldn’t have thought so,’ she said, simply enough. ‘Please, sign the form. I expect we’ll be getting started any moment now.’
Despite stirrings of uncertainty in his chest, Matthew picked up the clipboard and unclipped the pen attached to it. Clasped under the metal ring was a lined piece of paper, with only the one name scribbled upon it. He could just about make it out; John Hume. In much neater handwriting, Matthew signed his own name underneath.
He handed over the clipboard and the young woman did something with it to make it disappear. Smiling, she motioned for Matthew to take a seat.
There were plenty of chairs to choose from, but the presence of the other man, John Hume, presented something of an awkward problem for Matthew to consider. He didn’t want to sit too close – with so many options, that would be a weird choice to make. But equally peculiar would be sitting obviously far away.
He decided the safest bet was sitting on the same row as the man a couple chairs down. Settling into it, Matthew felt a pair of eyes on him, and glanced sideways at John. Both men nodded curtly at one another, then John returned to his catalogue, the cover of which fronted two identical men shaking hands underneath the banner:
THE MCMULLEN TWINS:
Crafting Coffins, So Your Children Don’t Have To
Now they were closer to one another, Matthew could see details in the man’s face he hadn’t noticed from the waiting room door. His red beard was a shade lighter than the desk clerk’s lipstick, and in Matthew’s opinion, untidy for a middle-aged man. On his left cheek above these auburn whiskers was a brown, checkered birthmark splashed across it. It was this area where Matthew was paying the most attention. Strangely enough, he thought he’d seen it before.
Stop staring, Matthew thought, blushing at his own reprieve. He turned away sheepishly, trying to recall who among the people he knew shared a birthmark with this stranger.
Before anybody came to mind, a loud bang erupted in the far corner of the room, as a set of double doors struck the very wall they were a part of. Frowning, Matthew questioned how he hadn’t noticed they were there earlier, but there was no time to dwell on the matter. Entering via these mystery doors, stealing his attention, was the sudden appearance of a long haired man rolling a TV on wheels into the room.
It screeched to a halt at a point where both Matthew and John could view it best. This is absurd, thought Matthew. First the speakerphone, then the clipboard. Now this madness. Something dreadful was afoot, he was certain of it. He felt it in his bones.
He looked at John and instantly recognised in his face the same fear he was feeling. Knowing he wasn’t the only man in the room who was afraid only made matters worse.
The long haired man cleared his throat. His grey eyes were pulled down like he was sympathetic to their plight.
‘Mr. Hume, Mr. Doherty, I’m sure you are both desperately curious as to the reasons you are here today …’
It was only when he said it however, that for the first time since entering the waiting room, the question rose like smoke in Matthew’s mind. It left him cold all over. For the life of him, he couldn’t think of an answer. Why the hell am I here? he fretted, feeling goosebumps rising up his arms and neck. Even more daunting was the realisation he had no idea where here even was.
Matthew’s lips parted as though meaning to say something. The urge to rise to his feet and demand an explanation for what was happening was strong, but Matthew wasn’t sure he could even stand. Even sitting down, his legs felt like jelly.
The long haired man continued.
‘We’ve found it can be much easier for those in your, ah – situation – to see rather than be told. Once it’s over, you’re welcome to begin the next phase. I’ll be waiting in the next room.’
He turned on his heels at once.
‘Wh-what do you mean, the next phase?’ Matthew called after him, but the man had already disappeared through the doors.
The TV screen buzzed into life, and somebody, the young woman Matthew presumed, turned down the lights. A grainy, black and white image of a road appeared on screen. It was a narrow road with dense trees on either side. At the end was a blind spot, hidden in shadows.
Something about the location … it looked awfully familiar. Matthew leaned forward, trying to get a clearer look. On his left hand side, John did the same thing.
When the blue Peugeot appeared at one end of the road, Matthew finally understood. The memory of it dried his mouth, turned his skin a greeny-pale. Suddenly, it was as if he was back in the car.
The radio was playing something light-hearted. He could remember the tune but not the words, so he was whistling along instead. There was no central heating, making it feel as if he was sitting inside a freezer.
His was the only vehicle on the road. He was thinking how peaceful it was. The nose of the car rolled toward the blind spot. Matthew gripped the wheel to turn.
A pair of headlights suddenly lit up the very world itself. For the briefest of moments, he was able to glance a single detail in the face of the man driving the car.
On his left cheek was a birthmark, scattered above a thick, red beard.
The TV switched off, and the lights went up instantly. Matthew and John looked at one another, speechless. There were tears in both their eyes.
‘How … terrible,’ choked John.
Unable to speak, Matthew replayed the event in his head again. He was forgetting something …
There was a knock at the door.
‘Do come inside, Master Doherty,’ said the young woman at the desk.
The door opened slowly. Matthew struggled to his feet, horror-struck. There in the door frame, wearing a confused expression, stood a small boy of five.
‘Daddy?’ he said softly.