The Tale of a Secretary, Chapter I: Scenery of Salvation
The Tale of a Secretary, Chapter II: Introduction to a Diligent Task
The Tale of a Secretary, Chapter III: The Smiling Man
The Tale of a Secretary, Interlude: Mr. Reed's Everyday Life
The Tale of a Secretary, Chapter IV: Trahison D'être
The Tale of a Secretary, Chapter V: Reaching the Rubicon
The Tale of a Secretary, Interlude II: Existential Angst
The Tale of a Secretary, Chapter VI: Eschatology Blues
The Tale of a Secretary, Chapter VII: That Which Hath No Name
The uneasy dance of bare feet on limestone floor tiles smoothly promulgated James's trepidation through the unilluminated hallway and along its walls. It seemed to penetrate every nook and cranny of this Gothic style edifice, coldly and with callous indifference advertising his dread to anyone within earshot. In his ears his throbbing heart overpowered the voice of reason, now a subdued whisper cowering in the overwhelming shadows.
Pantingly he forced himself to continue to stagger forward looking to the left-hand wall for the support that his legs no longer granted him. His world continued to spin out of control, leaving James nauseated and forcing him to lean his back against the wall, lest he lose his bearings completely. He slid down to the cold floor, back still against the wall. He hated to feel this way. He hated spiraling down like this. And, the more he thought about it, he hated his feelings of powerlessness getting the best of him.
"Get a fucking grip, James!
" he commanded himself. All the feelings passed over and through him. He permitted them to do so and as they trickled away he gradually regained a controlled breathing. Not before long, he was sitting quietly, arms folded over his belly, staring blankly into the opposite wall and listening to the reverberating silence. His blood froze as a chill ran down his spine.
"James..." a hoarse whisper rippled through the hallway. Turning his head little by little, he noticed a brass door at the end of the corridor. It was a well-crafted piece, the panel astonishingly adorned with a motif depicting a hawk and a raven, each perched nearby opposite stiles on the sides of the intimidatingly large hinged barrier. James's heart thumped uneasily.
The doorknob was, insofar James could surmise, made of brownish shining ivory. It emitted a strange glow, playfully begging to be at the center of attention. A warm luminous glow escaped from under the door, reflecting on the polished sill spreading the light in all directions.
A mere score paces away James could for the life of him not understand how he'd failed to notice the door - the very thing providing the biggest contrast to the darkness of the hallway. The door had an alluring quality, and as it beckoned, James unflinchingly rose to his feet. Eight determined steps later the susurrus once again swept through the corridor, only this time with more intensity: "James..." He stopped in his tracks. This time, however, the sudden terror had evaporated and was to James's contentment being replaced by two not too unfamiliar feelings.
The increased illumination was causing his pupils to constrict as if they were coiling up around an imaginary prey. He pushed onwards without squinting and after half a dozen steps he was overcome by an eerie sensation of finality. "Once I walk through that door there's no going back.
" he thought. "But then again, what are doors for if not to be opened, save being kicked in?
The remaining half a dozen steps literally disappeared as he found himself standing a foot away from the imposing gate. The excitement and apprehension were causing his limbs to move jittery and his eyes were searing from the intense light. The wheezing voice, this time forcefully affirmatory: "James." He drew a deep breath and reached for the doorknob. Heart pounding in his ears anew and with sweat dripping from his forehead, he slowly turned the knob. The metallic creaking drowned out all other noises. He kept on pulling using both hands, and with the door finally ajar, James was engulfed by the brilliant light.
James simultaneously gasped for air and sat up in his sweat-drenched bed. It had come to him again. The dream. Though the details varied from time to time, the core never changed: Darkened corridor, terror, voice, door and light were all present. The first couple of times had been truly horrifying experiences, but as the nights passed, he gained more control over the dream. He knew the trepidation no longer carried any weight, for the simple reason the allure of finding out what hid behind that door now was more powerful than ever. Not quite ready to let go of the image of the door, he closed his eyes and visualized the light, trying to steady his trembling body.
Swinging his legs over the edge of the upper bunk bed, he scanned the dormitory for movement, finding none. With a gentle push he departed his bed, landing soundlessly on the floor below. "Not quite morning yet.
" he thought. The sleeping sounds of the nineteen other pupils affirmed this sentiment. He sneaked out of the room, carefully closing the door behind him.
The washroom lay a mere fistful steps down the corridor. James entered the room, flicked the ornamented light switch and proceeded to an elevated black stone slab into which a row of sinks were embedded. James reached for the faucet while using his other hand to rub his left eye. His eye spied an envelope resting solemnly against the gray wall. "To James", it read in large, cordial letters. "James..." the voice from his dreams echoed. His heart, having finally become tranquil, started pounding his chest like how a madman might pound on the doors of his cushiony confine. His heart pricked him when he turned his gaze upward at the unclean mirror and beheld an stony, paradoxically smiling face.
It was a spruce man in his mid-twenties who could easily have been mistaken for a businessman, had he not had such a brawny build. Though the sum total of his face was emotionlessness, there was a glow of fierce determination in his eyes that betrayed the intellectual dragon within. This was a dangerous man, James gathered. Neither man nor boy budged. After seemingly countless rounds of respiration, James swung around, taking his eyes off the man's smiling face at the last possible instant, and found that no one was there. He retreated a step, grabbed the letter and opened it discreetly, almost reverently.
" it read. "We proffer hope and opportunities abound. We offer an epistemology superior to that of revelation, authority and testimony - a way of acquiring reliable knowledge that is, in theory and practice, dependent upon reason alone. We offer truth, albeit with a minuscule T. However, it is not without admission. To reach the light you must leave at the door any pretenses you have come by during your youth, any [expletive deleted] wishful thinking, and, though tentatively, any metaphysical certitude. If you find this proposition fair, we will assist your embarkment on this lifelong journey.
It was signed only "The Elders." James stared blankly at the words, struggling to comprehend their full sense. "How did they know about the door?
" was the only thought running through his head. James knew that he wanted through that door. Everything else was unimportant.
Unbeknownst to him sweat was running down his temples, dripping to the tiles and slowly adding up to a small puddle. He took a swift step forward, slipped and spun around. "How did they know about the-
" he thought as he was knocked out cold against the edge of the sink.
A restless fortnight had passed without anything out of the ordinary. The dreams were gone, but what good did that do, when in their stead vivid daydreams intruded upon his consciousness? His absence of mind had not gone unnoticed by his teachers, who were already giving him a hard time as it was. The disconnect between dream and reality grew to the point that James feared that they soon might be ripped apart permanently. This afternoon however, James spent in the real world - for he had a mission.
To fill his need for cash and extracurricular activities, James had taken a side job running errands for various shady characters. The assignments were mostly of the benign kind: delivering a piece of information across town (as was the case today), vandalizing a piece property or relieving someone of a particularly heavy purse. He had no moral quandries about the whole business - everyone did what they could to survive, and as long as he followed the instructions, he was certain no harm would befall him.
James's jaw dropped. Panting from the many steps that had transported him across The City, he realized he already knew of this building in two ways. Firstly, it served as his Gothic house of bad dreams. Secondly, his memory connected it with a great fire. "Yes, now I remember! This is the... the... Shamb-, no... Shay-, no, darnit, I can't remember!
" James thought quite loudly. What he could remember were the rumors about this place being an orphanage, an asylum, or perhaps both. Either way not a house of pleasant dreams.
Without conscious effort James soon found himself picking the lock to the basement generator room. When the lock resigned with a familiar click, James slowly pushed the door open, feeling the welcoming damp against his face. He quickly advanced through the mazelike passages until his feet hit the familiar limestone floor tiles. He raised his head and fixated the familiar door at the end of the corridor. This was the moment of truth. He walked forward in a steady pace. All the same feelings flowed over and through him, and once again he let them do so. Determinedly, he reached for the ornamented doorknob and started turning it slowly. The metallic creaking drowned out every other sensation. He pulled frantically, and with the door finally ajar, he simply squeezed through and walked in.