“I’m a character in a story.”
“Of course you are,” Daniel says, like that’s obvious.
“So I’m fictitious.”
“Wait. I’m a real person?”
“Is that a question?”
“Seriously, am I real?”
“You are to me.”
“I’m a real person, but I’m also a character in a story.”
The game is Candy Countdown, and I’m losing to Daniel. Candy Countdown is our private version of Twenty Questions. We’re at the Maria Negra, a run-down coffee shop on the unfashionable end of Avenida Allende, right next to the Tobogán subway station. They have decent coffee though, and it doesn’t get too busy, at least not in the daytime. We always find a table there, and it’s quiet enough to have a conversation.
Today, we’re sitting at a tiny table between the out-of-order jukebox and the out-of-tune piano. On the table, there is a small bowl filled with Galaxy Minstrels, the kind of candy you can always eat another piece of, no matter how many you have already had. Every time I ask Daniel a question about my assigned identity, he eats one of the Minstrels. If I find out who I am before the bowl is empty, I get to eat what’s left in the bowl. One time, we tried playing with Jelly Beans, but Daniel threw up before I got anywhere near finding out I was Zaphod Beeblebrox. We have stuck to Minstrels ever since. Right now, the bowl is half full, or half empty, depending on how you look at it.
“Am I famous?”
“As famous as it gets.”
“Would my parents know who I am?”
“Am I alive?”
“I am dead.”
“Did I die a long time ago?”
“Not by cosmic standards.”
Daniel grins. He likes to show off.
“More than a thousand years ago?”
“More than two thousand years ago?”
“Did I live around the time Jesus Christ was born?”
“Am I Jesus Christ?”
“No. Are you crazy?”
“You tell me.”
“I’m a famous person who walked the earth two thousand years ago, and I am also a character in a story, but I’m not Jesus Christ.”
Daniel is munching Minstrels while I’m wasting precious questions reiterating what I already know. It isn’t much. I have no idea who I am, or what the story is. The level of Minstrels in the bowl is getting dangerously low, but I won’t go down without a fight.
“I don’t think I’ve read the story I’m in.”
“I know you have.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Just take my word for it.”
“Will it help me to find out about my profession?”
Daniel reaches for the bowl and grabs a Minstrel.
“That was not a question,” I protest.
“It sounded like one to me.”
“I hate you.”
“It’s only a game,” Daniel says.
I know he doesn’t mean it, and he knows that I know. He really cares about this game. Paradoxically, he doesn’t like Minstrels very much. He’s not a candy person. But I love candy, and Daniel loves to see me suffer. There are now only three Minstrels left in the bowl.
“Did I live in the Middle East?”
“Did I travel a lot?”
“Did I know Jesus Christ?”
Daniel eats the last Minstrel.
“Am I Joseph of Nazareth?”
“No more questions.”
Daniel points to the empty bowl.
“Seriously? You won’t tell me who I am?”
“That would be against the rules.”
“Since when do you care about the rules?”
“I do when it’s fun.”
It’s cold outside, but not as cold as I expected. I decide to walk home. I don’t like the subway anyway. I put my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. While I walk up Avenida Allende, I wrack my brain about my identity, but my thoughts are going round in circles. Without really knowing how I got there, I find myself in front of Dan’s Deli, one door down from where I live. It’s late, but Dan is still there. I go in to pick up a bottle of his homemade smoked chipotle sauce. It comes in three varieties: hot, hideous, and hellfire. I go for the hellfire. There is nothing in this world that fire won’t improve.
I fish for my key, let myself into the lobby, and check the mailbox. Today is Saturday. The mailman doesn’t come on weekends. I check the mailbox anyway. I always do. You never know. And sure enough, there is a little envelope. Somebody must have put it in the mailbox while I was out. There is no sender and no address. On the back of the envelope, there is some sort of logo—a pair of crossed hockey sticks, or tennis rackets, or bowling pins. I can’t really tell in the dimly lit hallway. It’s probably from one of the sports clubs in the neighborhood. It’s the kind of thing I tend to throw away unopened, but something about this envelope makes me curious. I tear it open. Inside, there is a little card, about three by four inches in size—larger than a credit card, but smaller than a postcard. On one side of the card, there is a message in an old-fashioned typeface. The message reads TAKE THE ELEVATOR. That’s all it says. The other side of the card is blank. I crumple up the envelope and throw it away, but I hold on to the card.
I never take the elevator, although my apartment is on the top floor. Taking the stairs is good exercise, and I don’t like the tiny car. I take the stairs. It’s a hundred steps in total, twenty steps for every floor. I count them out, like I always do. I unlock the door to my apartment and put the little card on the table. I heat up what is left of last night’s pasta casserole, fusilli with fried red onion and cherry tomatoes. I spice it up with a big splash of Dan’s hot sauce. It tastes much better than it did yesterday. I eat it standing up, right out of the pan. I wash the pan and go to bed, feeling very warm inside.
I’m in an elevator. How did I get here? The doors are closed, but the car isn’t moving. I reach for the OPEN DOOR button, but it isn’t there. There are only two buttons, shaped like arrows, one pointing up and one pointing down. That doesn’t make sense. These are the kinds of buttons you would normally find on the outside, in the lobby, to call the elevator. But inside the car? I haven’t taken an elevator in ages, but I could swear there are usually more than two buttons: one to open the door, one to close it, one for each floor, and one to call for help. I press the button with the arrow pointing up. The car jolts to a start. I can’t tell whether it is going up or down. It rumbles along for a while, and then it stops. The door opens with a menacing screech. Just as I am about to step out, the elevator dissolves around me. I’m back in my bed.
Did I dream it all? I guess I did.
But then I see the card on the table. I pick it up. It feels real.
TAKE THE ELEVATOR, it says.
I call Daniel. He picks up on the first ring.
“I won’t tell you who you are.”
“That’s not why I’m calling.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m serious. Can we talk?”
“Isn’t that what we’re doing?”
“I need to show you something.”
“What is it?”
“It’s probably nothing.”
“I can’t wait to see it.”
“The Maria Negra, around three?”
“It’s a date.”
When I get to the Maria Negra, Daniel is already there, reading a battered paperback. There is an empty coffee cup on the table in front of him.
“Have you been waiting long?”
“I was early.”
“Any good?” I ask, pointing at the book.
“I just started. It’s too early to tell.”
“You read my mind.”
I signal the barista. Daniel closes the book and puts it on the table. The title is TRANSIT, spelt out in large red letters on a dark background. I can’t make out the author’s name.
I sit down across from Daniel and hand him the card.
“This is what you wanted to show me?”
“Yes. It was in mailbox when I got home last night.”
“Just like that? No address?”
“It was in an envelope, but there was no address.”
“A blank envelope?”
“It had a logo on it.”
“Do you still have the envelope?”
“No. I threw it out. I didn’t think it was important.”
“What did the logo look like?”
“I didn’t really get a good look at it.”
I try to draw the logo on a napkin, but it comes out looking like a bashed-up butterfly.
“That’s not really what it looked like.”
Daniel nods and examines the card very closely, front and back. I half expect him to bring out a magnifying glass.
“You said it came yesterday?”
“That’s when I found it.”
“Yesterday was Saturday.”
“Do you get mail on Saturdays?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Was there any other mail?”
Our coffees arrive. Daniel drinks his down in one gulp. He takes another look at the
“The typeface looks like Abbot Old Style.”
“I didn’t know that you knew anything about typesetting.”
“I’m not an expert. I could be wrong. I probably am.”
“What’s Abbot Old Style anyway?”
“It was popular in the Seventies. George Harrison used it on his album covers. I haven’t seen it in a long time though.”
Daniel pulls out his phone and taps the screen a few times, nodding to himself. “That’s what I thought.”
“It’s not a standard font on any system. It looks like you can’t even buy it online.”
“So are you saying this thing could be old? As in decades old?”
“I doubt it. The card looks new, and the ink hasn’t faded.”
“Suppose someone had kept it under museum conditions?”
“Why would they?”
“I have no idea.”
Daniel hands the card back to me. I put it in the inside pocket of my coat.
“As you said, it’s probably nothing. I think you are seeing ghosts.”
“But somebody put it in my mailbox.”
“A kid’s prank maybe?”
“Why don’t you just take the elevator? See what happens?”
He’s right. How bad can it be? My neighbors take the elevator all the time.
I walk home and check the mailbox. It’s empty. I go to the elevator and press the call button. The door slides open. The car is already there, as if it had been waiting for me. I step inside. The elevator is even tinier than I remember it. The permit says it will hold up to ten people, but I don’t see how that could work. Unlike the elevator in my dream, this one has a panel with numbered buttons and a single-digit display. I press the number six button for my floor. The button lights up red, and the car starts to move. I keep my eyes trained on the display. It counts up, but it feels like the car is going down. When the display hits six, it flickers and jumps right back to one. The car stops and the door slides open. I am back in the lobby, facing the message board. A note is pinned to the board. I don’t think it was there before, but I’m not sure. I have lived in this building for five years, and I have never seen anything of interest on that board.
The note says HOLD ON TIGHT in what looks a lot like Abbot Old Style. But before I can go check it out, the door slams shut, and the car drops like the cable has been cut. The speed-up is so abrupt that I crash, head first, into the light fixture. I pass out. When I come around, I’m eye to eye with the key panel. Its dull red glow is the only source of light now. Apparently, I have knocked out both myself and the light above. I guess I should have held on tight. I have no idea how long I have been unconscious. The elevator is still moving, so it can’t have been long. Just as I try to get up, the car stops so abruptly that I fall right back down. The car must have hit the bottom of the shaft. The door slowly slides open. I scramble out. The door slams shut behind me.
I am on some sort of platform. It’s no more than five feet deep and about a hundred feet wide. There is a vaulted ceiling overhead, held up by a row of cast-iron columns. Beyond the platform, there is a single set of tracks. I had no idea my house had its own subway station. The tracks look dull, like no train has come through here in a long time. A timetable is bolted to one of the columns. There is only one entry:
SUNDAY SPECIAL—departs as needed.
The second I read this, the tunnel lights up and the platform starts to tremble. A sorry looking train pulls in. It consists of a rusty engine and a single passenger car. A door swings open. I wasn’t planning to take a trip, but what choice do I have? The elevator door is shut, and there is no button to bring it back.
I get on the train. I am the only passenger. The door slams shut and the train starts to move. It quickly gathers speed. I sit down by a window and look at my reflection in the glass. There is a cut on my forehead, and blood has run down the side of my face. I wipe it off with the sleeve of my coat. I take off the coat and use it as a cushion. I try to get some sleep, but I’m wide awake. I go to the door at the front of the car. Maybe I can get to the engine, talk to the driver, get some answers. But to my surprise, the door leads to another car. I could have sworn there was only one car. Then I see a crumpled-up coat lying on a seat by the window. I go to look at it. It’s my coat! I’m back in the car that I just left. How is that possible? I return to the door that I just went through, open it, and look over my shoulder. There is someone at the other end of the car. It takes me a second to realize that I am looking at the back of my own head. What is going on?
“Wake up,” I hear someone saying.
I’m back in my seat, feeling sleepy. A shortish man with a wild head of curly hair and some serious razor stubble is standing right in front of me. There is a smell of brandy on his breath. He’s in a conductor’s uniform that looks like it was made for a much bigger man. By contrast, his hat is so small that it’s almost swallowed by his curls. Something about him reminds me of Daniel, although he doesn’t look like Daniel at all. Daniel is tall and tidy, and he always smells like he just stepped out of the shower.
“Ticket please,” the conductor says.
Now what? I dig for the card in my coat and hand it to him. He nods and hands it back to me. He doesn’t seem to mind that it isn’t a proper ticket. I put it back into my pocket. “Have a good trip,” he says and tips his hat.
He disappears before I can ask him what kind of train this is, or where it is going. It’s pitch dark outside. I can’t tell whether we are in a tunnel or above ground. There are no stars. No moon either. No lights at all. What time is it? I have no idea how long I have been traveling, or how much further I have to go. It feels like the train is rolling down a ramp, or a long slope, taking me deeper into darkness. I go back to sleep.
When I wake up, the train has stopped. There is no sign of the conductor. I put on my coat and open the door. We are still underground, in a tunnel that isn’t much wider than the train. The air is very cold. I button up my coat and climb onto the narrow walkway that runs along the tunnel wall. I go to the front of the train. Apparently, we’ve come to the end of the line. There’s no more track ahead. On the wall, there is an arrow-shaped sign that reads HOTEL TERMINUS. It points to a recess in the wall. In the recess, there is a revolving door, all polished brass and frosted glass. It looks out of place in the grim tunnel. An ornate coat of arms is etched into the glass. It’s a pair of crossed keys with the teeth pointing up. I have seen it before somewhere. I wrack my brain trying to remember where it was. Of course! It looks just like the logo on the envelope that I threw away. It seems I’ve come to the right place without really meaning to, or knowing how I did it. I go through the door. Behind the door, there is a red curtain. I pull aside the curtain, and I’m in another world. It looks like a gentlemen’s club. Friendly flames are dancing in an open fireplace. The walls are lined with books. Newspapers in wooden holders are lined up on a marble-topped sideboard. A magazine is spread open on a coffee table, as if the reader had just been called away. In the middle of the room, there is a wooden reception desk, gently lit by a pair of floor lamps with honey-colored shades. I walk up to the desk. The tufted carpet swallows the sound of my steps.
A small man appears from the back office. He looks a lot like the conductor, but he is much more carefully groomed. His hair is cut short and his face is clean-shaven. He is wearing a white shirt, a silk tie, a dark suit, and a pair of polished lace-up leather shoes. “Welcome to the Terminus,” he says.
The badge on his lapel reads S. PETER. This is when it hits me. I am Simon Peter. The prince of the apostles. The rock of the church. The first pope. How did I not see this? I’m famous. I’m dead. I traveled with Jesus Christ. And I’m a character in the gospel.
“I’ve solved it!”
“Excuse me, Sir?”
“May I show you to your room, Sir?”
“Won’t I have to register?”
“Everything has been taken care of, Sir.”
“Follow me, Sir.”
He leads the way to a door off to the side of the lobby. It opens automatically as we approach. I take a peek inside. The floor is polished hardwood. The walls are covered in a lustrous orange weave. In one of the corners, there is an easy chair. Next to the chair, there is a low table. On the table, there is a little silver tray. On the tray, there is a snacksized pack of Minstrels, the kind you would find in a vending machine or a minibar.
“This looks very nice.”
“I’m glad you like it, Sir.”
“But where is the bed?”
Mr. Peter laughs. His teeth are very white.
“Oh, this is not your room, Sir. This is just the elevator to your floor.”
Now I laugh.
“I can’t afford this.” I gesticulate at the elevator. “Any of this.”
“Everything has been taken care of, Sir.”
“You keep saying that. It worries me.”
“It shouldn’t, Sir. Take a seat. Have a Minstrel. Relax.”
Mr. Peter sounds very persuasive. People in his line of work always do. I want to trust him, but I can’t help thinking that this trip will put me in debt for the rest of my life. This hotel looks like the kind of place that will charge you a fortune for every little thing.
“What about incidentals?”
“Everything is included in your rate, Sir.”
“I don’t get it. I haven’t even made a reservation.”
“Let’s just say it’s on the house, Sir.”
“Well, I guess it can’t hurt to take a look at the room.”
“I promise you won’t regret it, Sir.”
“How will I know when to get off?”
“The elevator will take you directly to your floor.”
“And when I get there, how will I find my room?”
“There is only one room on your floor. It’s a private floor.”
“How will I get into the room?”
“Just hold the keycard up to the doorknob, Sir.”
“Keycard? What keycard?”
“It was mailed to you I believe.”
I reach into my pocket and bring out the card that reads TAKE THE ELEVATOR.
“That’s the one, Sir.”
I get into the elevator.
“Enjoy your stay, Sir.”
The door slides shut while I’m still wondering whether I should tip Mr. Peter, and what amount would be appropriate. Too late now. There is no OPEN DOOR button. There are no buttons here at all. I feel like I’ve stepped into one of Daniel’s paperbacks. I drop into the easy chair. It’s so comfortable I almost fall asleep again. But I don’t want to miss any of this. I open the pack of Minstrels and start eating them. The elevator accelerates swiftly, but smoothly. That’s what it must feel like to ride in a Rolls Royce. Just when I’m down to the last Minstrel, the elevator stops. The door slides open. I put the last Minstrel in my mouth, get up, and get out. I’m in a corridor that leads to a single door. I walk up to the door. The carpet here is even thicker than in the lobby. There is no lock on the door, but the doorknob is pulsing red. I take the card from my pocket and hold it up to the doorknob. Its color changes from red to green. I open the door.