When I open my eyes, my gaze falls on a crack in the eggshell white ceiling. Dusty strands of cobweb span the crack near one end. For the second night in a row, a sheet and a duvet have kept me warm, and instead of being woken up by the laughter of children and nearby footsteps, it seems that my brain considered that the noisy toilet cistern from the upstairs neighbor was a threat. Or maybe it was time to wake up, because the morning light is filling the bedroom through the glass panes of the door to the tiny balcony.
Chieko, my benefactress from a faraway place, is gone. She fell through reality. And I bet that, as she assured me, whenever I walk into the living room, that opaque white doorway will be waiting for me.
In the kitchen, I prepare myself a coffee and I also grab some slices of salty ham. Chieko, or her employers, had stacked the fridge with groceries, although some of them will expire sooner than when the lease runs out. Also, the first time I entered the bedroom I found the apartment key next to a wad of banknotes, which looked as fresh and crisp as if they had been printed a few days before. A total of two thousand euros in tens and twenties.
Once my stomach starts digesting the slices of ham, I carry the steaming cup of coffee through the hallway into the living room, and I stand near the white doorway. It remains as lifeless as any other door. Nothing moves in this apartment but me and a couple of spiders. Although the impossible doorway doesn’t scare me anymore, it gives me the anxiety of a ticking clock. It would be nice to take advantage of this shelter and be alone for a few months, although I’m sure that I’ll feel as broken a few years from now. I want to lounge around thoughtlessly. Still, the money would run out eventually, and nobody will support me anymore. I’d need to find a job, at some office no doubt, and those nightmares would begin all over again.
For several minutes, while I sip my coffe, I observe the white void through which Chieko left. I barely got to know that odd woman, but now that she’s gone, the silence gets heavy and oppressive at times. She has abandoned me. No, she hasn’t, I barely knew her. And yet that’s how I feel. I miss her smile, those ostentatious dimples, and how much she cared. I finally met someone nice who wanted to help me, but she has disappeared in a more definitive way than the other people in my life had, even those who died. I get the feeling that unless I follow Chieko through the doorway, I won’t be able to find her anywhere even if I spent the rest of my life searching.
“Once I go through this doorway, I will never see this world again,” I mumble, repeating her words.
Why didn’t she stay and help me in person instead of giving me the freedom to choose? I’m tired of making decisions, of pondering what road to take. For years I focused on losing myself, on escaping reality, through fictional stories, and I left the technical details of how to survive in this world to my boyfriend. Maybe to a fault. I’m sure I wasn’t mentally present for plenty of it. I let Víctor worry about everything but cooking, and I would have gladly allowed cobwebs to grow in the corners of the ceilings. Maybe if I hadn’t lost myself into fantasy, if my living heart still beat properly, maybe he wouldn’t have stopped caring about me. I shake my head. No, nothing justified him cheating repeatedly on me. To break the covenant is unforgivable.
After three quarters of an hour standing there like a zombie, my brain gets tired of thinking about it and decides to wake up. I take a shower. I clean my skin with the amount of liquid soap that any other person would have spent in four showers, but during this past week I became self-conscious about my stink as if I was constantly trailing around a noxious cloud.
The first night I spent here, finding my clothes in the wardrobe of the bedroom should have astonished me. They are the clothes that I left behind in Victor’s apartment after I decided to become homeless, without any thought about how I would survive the following days. The only way I imagined that anyone would have retrieved my clothes involved Víctor agreeing to let those strangers in, but I stopped myself from trying to figure it out. Chieko, or Chieko’s employers, had produced a two-dimensional door that led to another world. I’m sure they had their peculiar ways of transferring my clothes to this apartment.
I put on some jeans, a short-sleeve V-neck blouse, and on top my favorite hooded knit cardigan. I don’t feel that it suits me well anymore, but it reminds me of sitting next to a window to write.
I test the key in the apartment’s door a couple of times, just in case I’m suffering a psychotic break and I’m still living in the streets. I can lock and unlock the door, so I should be able to return here after a walk. At this hour on a Thursday, beyond the regular traffic on this one-lane road, I spot delivery vans supplying shops, along with housewives and retirees walking around. The same old anonymous, monotonous parade. I saunter towards the parts of the Kursaal that show up at the end of the street. The slanted, translucent glass cubes stand against a porcelain white sky. Once I reach the intersection, I stop and take in the view. The line of flags that promote some event that the Kursaal is hosting are fluttering in the breeze. To my right, although the outside sitting area of some restaurants block most of the view, a wall-like, foresty hill blocks the horizon. Cars are passing in front of me in both directions. A couple of surfers are driving electric scooters, heading likely to Zurriola beach, which is located behind the Kursaal.
I feel unreal. Everything seems fake, as if I’m staring at a painting. These past two nights have granted me enough rest, and my mind must be detaching itself from this world that it had already relinquished when I became homeless a week ago.
I cross the street and I keep walking in front of the Kursaal until a flat view opens up, that shows the beachfront promenade and beyond it a band of steel blue water. I’m seeing myself from above as I approach the low wall that borders the beach. Tanned men and women, either barefoot or wearing sandals, are standing or walking on the sand. A muscled man wearing orange trunks is climbing the safeguard tower.
I won’t see this view, or any that I have stored in my brain, ever again. Whatever awaits me on the other side of that white doorway will become my new reality. I will follow the only person who cared enough to save me. I refuse to continue in this world that has thrown me aside so carelessly, and if it turns out that crossing that impossible doorway will kill me, then so be it.
As I rest my back against the low wall, I focus on whether I’ll miss anything or anyone of this world I was born in. As I got older, fewer and fewer people cared for my books, which were my only contribution. All these strangers walking around don’t glance my way; I looked my best in my mid twenties, too long ago already.
The breeze is cooling my face. It smells like salty water and crustaceans. My ex-boyfriend’s face pops up in my mind. All that’s left of those five years with him is bitterness and pain. I’m sure any of his other women will take his calls. Although I threw my cell phone in the garbage, I doubt he would have insisted on calling beyond the first couple of days otherwise. In any case, I no longer feel capable of loving people. It’s not worth the trouble.
I stare at the distant view of the hill, and how it slopes down until it ends in cliffs a couple of kilometers into the sea. I can make out the silhouettes of distinct treetops on top. What about my father? I haven’t seen him for years, since he started his new family. Even though I was older when he abandoned us, I always remember him as he looked when I turned my head towards him while I lay on the sofa of his office, back when I was a child. He wore his glasses when he went over papers related to his work in the publishing industry. He always printed them out, he hated reading them on a computer screen. Sometimes when I would ask him to tell me more about what he was looking at, he would just laugh and give me an offbeat smile. He has been dead, as far as I’m concerned, for a long time.
I never cared much about my mother. That day at the hotel, when she announced that she was going to move out with her boyfriend and her kids, she made it clear enough that I would become a secondary concern from then on. Still, she called me regularly, and I was the one who refused to meet her in person as much as she wished. I didn’t attend her wedding, and I’ve only met my half-brother a few times. Once I cross that opaque white doorway, I will disappear as if the earth had swallowed me up. My mother might have tried to contact me in the last week, but she never met my ex-boyfriend, so she wouldn’t know how to locate me. I picture her realizing that I’ve gone missing, that she will never see me again, nor will she ever find out what happened to me. I suppose that she’ll assume that I killed myself so proficiently that nobody would find my body.
My chest gets tight, and I’m having trouble swallowing. I close my eyes and breathe slowly. A black cloud is enveloping my heart. My mother will grieve for years. I won’t stick around just to spare her the pain of not seeing me again, but at least I want to let her know that it was of my own volition, and that maybe I moved out far away, somewhere I could be happy.
As I walk back towards my current apartment, I realize that I haven’t seen a phone booth in years, and I don’t want to ask a random stranger for his or her cell phone, mainly because I don’t want them to stand nearby as I have a difficult conversation. There’s a pub in the corner of the street that leads to my apartment. Its front is made of wood, and painted cobalt blue. I look in through the window. It reminds me of Irish pubs. The interior is dim, and at this hour there are only two customers, both retirees. One of them sips a beverage in a large pint glass.
I enter the pub nervously. I approach the bartender, who is a woman in her forties. Her hair has plenty of greys already, and she’s wearing a striped, black and white T-shirt. I get on a bar stool.
“Give me one of those potato omelette sandwiches, please. And… would it be possible to use your landline? I have to make an important call, but I’ve forgotten my cell phone at home. I’ll pay if necessary.”
The bartender grabs one of the plates with those sandwiches and slides it towards me.
“No problem. It’s in the kitchen. Do you want to call now or after you eat your sandwich?”
She’s looking at me as if she can tell I’m troubled. I’ve spoken too fast and loud, as I always do when I’m speaking with someone for the first time.
“Yeah… I’d rather get the call out of the way first.”
The bartender gestures towards a door between shelves stocked with alcoholic drinks. As I walk behind the bar, she shoots me a look of concern.
“Are you ok? Your face seems very pale.”
“I’ll be alright soon enough, I hope.”
The kitchen is empty. I guess that they don’t open it for orders until closer to midday. The landline is mounted on the wall, close to a sink. My heart is beating fast. I hope I remember my mother’s cell phone number correctly. My hands are sweating.
I start counting backward in my head to give myself some time. Then, while holding the receiver with a sweaty palm, I dial the number. To my surprise, a kid answers. I can’t tell at first whether it’s male or female.
“H-hello? Who is this?” I ask impertinently.
“Uh… Iker. This is my mom’s phone, though.”
It’s my half-brother.
“I’m… Is your… mom around?”
“No, she left an hour ago. I guess she forgot the phone.” The kid coughs. I wonder if he’s at home because he’s sick. “Who are you anyway? Your voice sounds familiar.”
“Uh… I’m… Izar Uriarte.”
My mouth gets dry when I say my father’s last name.
The kid doesn’t speak for a few seconds, and I don’t hear his breath either. I have no idea what this kid thinks about me. If our mother has insisted that we are half-siblings, maybe he wonders why we have barely seen each other. I wouldn’t know what to tell him.
“Hi, sis,” Iker says.
I swallow. I’m nobody’s sister.
“Did you want to tell mom something? You can leave a message.”
The kid is old enough to realize that I only called in the past because I had something to say, not because I enjoyed small talk nor wanted to catch up. And I’m sure that all of them remember the bitterness in my voice.
“Yes, I want you to tell her something. Listen… I’m going away. For a long time, maybe forever. So she should… You both should know that I do it of my own volition.”
My last words are lodged in my throat. I feel tears building up behind my eyes.
“Where are you going?” Iker asks, concerned.
“I can’t tell. Far away, that’s all. I wanted to tell her that I’m sorry… for the way things turned out.”
“You aren’t going to call again,” Iker says as if he just realized.
“No, I won’t. I don’t think I will ever hear your voices again, nor will you hear mine.”
Tears come into my eyes slowly. I wonder what this kid is thinking, but he’s a stranger. Will he remember this conversation years from now? Will he blame himself for having been unable to say the right thing?
“You can call back whenever you want,” Iker says nervously.
I wipe my eyes.
“By the way… how old are you? Twelve, thirteen…?”
My lips twitch as I try to figure out what to say.
“None of this was your fault. It’s me. I’ve never known what to do with people.”
Iker remains silent. I hear something playing in the background, but I can’t tell if it’s a movie or music.
“Are you going to be okay?” Iker asks in a low voice.
“Yeah… I’m going to try something new. Neither of you need to worry.” I force myself to smile at nobody, but instead my mouth quivers. “Anyway, that’s all. Don’t forget to tell mom.”
“Sure, I will. Take care.”
I hang up. As I turn around, I want to walk directly back to the potato omelette sandwich I ordered, but I end up leaning against one of the kitchen counters, and my gaze falls on the dirty, stagnant water pooled in one of the sinks.
I thought of packing a backpack, but there isn’t one in this apartment, which doesn’t contain anything except for groceries, food-related objects and clothes. I wonder who is going to find my remaining possessions in the wardrobe of the bedroom, but I guess it doesn’t matter. I have no doubt that Chieko was telling the truth: I won’t return to this world. Everybody who knows me here will forget me soon enough.
I didn’t bother changing my clothes. I would hate to leave this cardigan behind anyway. I stand a few steps away from the featureless, white doorway in the living room. The front half of the soles of my shoes are resting on the edge of the carpet. I keep shivering every few seconds, and I fear that I’ll end up pissing myself, even though I made sure to empty my bladder. My heart beats wildly. Something awaits me on the other side of this hole in reality, and I can’t begin to imagine what it might be. But it contains someone like Chieko, so it should be fine. Still, I’m sure that this doorway will lead to more disappointment and pain. No other world can be that different.
I step forward and reach with my right hand slowly. I follow how the white light brightens the fabric of my cardigan. Once my fingertips touch the white surface, I expect them to find some resistance, but they disappear into a void that lacks any sensations. I draw my right hand back. The ends of those fingers haven’t been cut off. After I probe them with the fingertips of my other hand, they seem undamaged.
Alright, this is it. I close my eyes, but the powerful bright light shines through my eyelids. I take a deep breath and walk through the doorway.
An electric current runs in my body from end to end, but only for a second. I’m receiving muffled sounds. Although they seem familiar, my brain can’t make out what they are, as if I had started playing a song midway through and it would take a couple of seconds for me to recognize which one it was. I panic; even a moment of disorientation feels fatal. However, when I open my eyes I find myself inside a glass bell the size of four phone booths, and beyond the clear glass I see that this bell has been installed in a large room, one similar to the lobby of a luxurious hotel. The floor is marble-like, as smooth and reflective as a pool, and it features circular designs in shades of brown, from tortilla to hickory. Soft orchestral music is playing somewhere, a mix of string and wind instruments.
My mind freaks out by itself. I take a step forward and turn around as if to make sure that the doorway I came through remains there, but as Chieko said, it’s gone. I might as well have popped up inside the glass bell as if I materialized.
When I turn back, a rounded hole the size of a door has opened in the glass bell as if it was cut out with surgical precision. My mind is reeling as I step out of the glass bell. There are three others to my right, set up in an arc. They are closed and empty. The ceilings and the walls are engraved and embossed with labyrinthine motifs, some of which seem to depict animals. I realize that the building was constructed with stone, not bricks, as if it were a surviving monument from a long-dead civilization. An arched doorway stands tall on one side of the room, and around it hang green and purple wreaths that remind me of peacock tails.
As I was listening to my footsteps echoing in the large room, I feel someone’s gaze upon me. I look in that direction. There is a large recess in the wall where they have installed a reception desk of sorts, but it’s also made of stone, and bedecked with gilded motifs of flowers and vines. A curved wall of screens is obscuring partially the sight of the person standing behind them. When I realize that the screens, which are too slim, paper-like, are floating in the air as if mounted on invisible displays, I face that nothing like that would have been possible in my previous world. I’m either in another dimension, or in the future. Either way, I’ve reached a whole new reality.
The person behind the wall of screens, a woman, says something, and it takes me a moment to realize that I just heard my name but pronounced with a strange accent. My legs are trembling as I approach the desk. The woman stands on the other side of the desk in a way that the back of the screens don’t hide her. It’s a human being. I had feared she wouldn’t be. Her skin is peanut brown, but her eyes are much darker. She’s pretty, beautiful even, the kind of attractive woman they would want to greet the clients at a hotel lobby. She’s wearing two round earrings that remind me of the sun, and she’s also wearing a long-sleeve, crimson dress made of a velvety fabric. The torso of the dress is covered in intricate, gilded motifs of blossoming flowers. I feel as if I entered the most expensive hotel in the world.
The woman smiles with perfect teeth, and pushes a hemispherical device over the counter towards me. It’s about the size of a fingertip. The woman gestures for me to pick it up and press it against the skin behind my ear. I saw Chieko wearing an identical device behind her ear, which I had confused with a wart. I obey the woman. As soon as I press the device against my skin, it latches on painlessly, and then something alien flows throughout my brain. I stagger, and I step back until my legs hold me properly. I feel as if my mind were larger, as if it suddenly held more content, but the experience is painless and unobtrusive.
“Do you understand me?” the woman asks, now lacking any accent.
I snap my head back. Only a couple of seconds later I realize that I’m standing there with my mouth agape. I feel tears coming.
“Y-yes! I understand perfectly!”
The woman offers me a kind smile.
“Welcome to our present. You are now in one of the offices of the SFPT. Can you confirm for me, just in case, that you are Izar Uriarte?”
“Yeah,” I say as I wipe a tear from my right eye. I want to sob. “W-what’s your name?”
“Why, I’m Garima.”
“Garima… I’m so pleased that we can understand each other. For a moment I thought I would be trapped in a strange world without being able to make myself understood.”
The woman chuckles softly, and then points at the identical device latched on to the skin behind her ear.
“We aren’t born knowing every other language, Izar. That’s why we have technology. In case you lose your translator, just come here or to any of our other offices and we’ll give you a new one. I’m sure that random people would also help you in that case, maybe lend you one.”
I’m overwhelmed. My legs are weakening, my throat closing.
“This is a miracle,” I mumble.
“You will get used to it, dear. I already notified your representative, Chieko Sekiguchi. Very nice girl, I’m sure she’ll be eager to show you our town. You can just walk around for a while if you want. We have a beautiful waiting room beyond that doorway.”
“Y-you have welcomed many others, right?”
“Dear, I don’t know how many. I hope I’m being cordial enough, even though I’ve had the same conversations over and over.”
My mind is going numb. The animal part of my brain is having trouble integrating what’s happening, or maybe it’s trying to push me out of it, as if it has assumed that I’m hallucinating. Garima keeps staring at me calmly. She must have seen it before and it’s nothing to worry about.
“Sit somewhere. Do you have to go to the bathroom?”
“N-no, I’m fine.”
I teeter away towards the arched doorway, and I pass under the hanging wreaths of green and purple flowers. I avoid looking over my shoulder, because I fear that I’m about to break into uncontrollable sobbing.