The earliest memory he had was walking through the main door. It was how his life began, they told him. That was how all life in the world began. First there was only darkness, thick and unyielding. He thought that was all there ever would be until the light came and consumed it. It was so beautiful, that light, and he had never felt so warm. Then a bell rang and somebody opened the door for him.
“Where do we come from?” John asked the withered one.
“Your like always ask too many questions,” the man replied. He was wrinkled and stooped, and what little hair he had was as white as the clouds outside the window. He was always looking at those clouds, as if he was trying to find the meanings behind their irregular shapes. John had never seen him move from the chair next to that living room window. If he didn’t grunt so much, he would have easily been mistaken for a piece of furniture.
“Well?” John urged.
“If I knew the answer then maybe I’d gone off to find the place long ago. God knows I have nothing but time!” He scowled and turned his head to the window again as an act of dismissal. The way he stared at the endless procession of clouds, it was with such a deep and melancholy longing that John felt sad for him.
John sighed and made his way to the game room. It was the most occupied place in the world. Some of the people there never left at all. They continued to play and chat, even when it all became too repetitive. Most of them were gray-haired and slow, and they had the tendency to forget things, which was likely why they never grew weary of conversations that went in circles.
Prim was sitting uncomfortably between two large and saggy women when John entered, playing spectator to a board game he did not recognize. She beamed when she saw him. John watched her squirm free and jump off the couch, disturbing the game for a moment and ignoring the annoyed sounds the players were making.
“Is that one new?” John asked her as she approached him.
“Darla found it in the chest,” she answered, her hands brushing off invisible dust from her skirts.
“It’s funny how objects just seem to pop out of nowhere. Where do they come from?” It was not just board games. Sometimes they would walk into rooms and find new frames hung on the walls, new chairs, new sheets and even new clothes in the closets. Often they would also notice a lot of things had been moved from one spot to another. It was strange how they never felt the need to change clothes or eat food or smell flowers, and yet here they were, ready to be worn, to be consumed, to be sniffed.
“Based on that remark and the rather despaired look on your face I take it you did not get a satisfactory response,” she said with a smile meant to irk him. A tiny thing she was, about half as tall as John, but she had been here longer than him and many others, and from the way she spoke it was clear she knew far more than she let on. She had long, golden hair and blue eyes that reminded John of his own.
“No, I did not,” John said. “But he mentioned something… something about…”
“Time. He said he has nothing but time.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know.” He felt like he knew it once, before he arrived here.
They sat at their usual corner, away from the more raucous areas of the game room, a dim alcove just spacious enough for the two of them. An elegant wooden chessboard with ivory pieces was waiting for them. Nobody else ever touched it. Prim once announced to the room that chess was a game for thinkers. He had laughed at that while all the others just looked up, their expressions devoid of comprehension.
Chess was the only game left that managed to enthrall him. So many variations of openings, attacks and defenses; so many ways to win and lose. He wondered if he would ever discover them all.
The look of triumph on Prim’s face was indubitable as he made his first mistake by exchanging his bishop for a pawn. That mistake led to another, and then to another, until he was crippled by three major pieces. By then Prim’s face was a mask of boredom.
“Don’t tell me you’ve given up on chess too?” Prim said gruffly.
“No, it’s not that.” He took one of Prim’s captured knights in his fingers and pressed his thumb onto the pointy ears. “Everything just bothers me so much.”
“We all have questions, John, but to allow them to nag at us is completely pointless because no one here knows any of the answers. Perhaps the answers don’t even exist at all.” She folded her arms in resignation and sunk back into her chair.
“If we cannot answer the who’s and the what’s and the where’s, then why then? Why are we here? Why do we continue to exist for no purpose? Why do we arrive into the world knowing nothing but our names?”
Prim looked sullen. For a moment, her eyes seemed watery. She grimaced and rubbed her palm on her forehead. “Do you think I haven’t asked that? Do you think everyone else here has not wondered? I am certain I’ve already asked questions you haven’t even thought of yet. Do you think I haven’t asked, ‘Why am I so small?’ or ‘Why is everyone else pale and wrinkled?’ Have you noticed we have the same eyes, John? Why is that?”
“You don’t know and I tell you, you never will. That’s just how it is.” She stood up and walked toward a nearby shelf. “Who are the people in these pictures? Why are all these pages blank?” She pulled out a book so forcefully that the two others beside it fell with a thud on the carpet. She showed the book to him and blank pages flew past his eyes.
“There should be something written there,” he said. He had never read a book before, but he knew what it looked like before seeing it and he knew what it was for.
“I know,” Prim said, looking dejected. “But how can we know that when we’ve never seen any of these with writing on them?”
It was all too perplexing. But was everything really supposed to make sense? Why was it so important to him that they should? Did he really need the answers? Why did it trouble him so much?
“What is a bed for?” asked Prim in a tone that did not suggest any curiosity.
“For sleeping,” John said.
“But we do not sleep, do we?”
“No, we don’t.”
He took a closer look at the photographs on the shelf. His eyes lingered on the picture of a woman and a small boy holding hands. He did not know where they were but he was certain it was not in any room here. The room was far too wide and the floor was much too rough. As he stared at the grinning faces, a stroke of familiarity hit him, but it left as quickly as it came and the people were strangers to him again. When his eyes fell on the next picture his heart jumped.
“It’s me,” he almost croaked.
Shaking, he handed the frame to Prim. She held it and looked passively back and forth from him to the picture.
“He looks nothing like you,” she said, handing him back the frame.
He studied the photograph. Where recognition flickered moments ago, doubt now loomed. The man in the picture was not him. How could he have mistaken that face for his own?
“You’re right,” he breathed. “My thoughts are such a mess even my imagination has gone loopy.”
Prim laughed. “Come on, let’s play chess again before your wits start losing credibility and I run out of worthwhile opponents.”
John nodded and rejoined Prim at their table.
They were fairly matched, the two of them, and they played and played until they were able to read each other’s minds and anticipate each other’s moves. The more games they had, the more difficult the next round became. Every match was a learning experience and their improvement knew no bounds.
Both were taken aback when a hot white illumination suddenly filled the room. The brightness and the warmth were strangely familiar.
Prim looked at John solemnly. “Another one,” she said, just before the bell rang.
They were on their feet in an instant and they followed some of the others to the foyer. Many stayed behind, either because they had not noticed the signs of a new arrival or because they had simply seen too many arrivals to break their apathy.
When they passed the withered one he grunted irritably and muttered, “Can’t blame you for being so excited since it’s the only show you’ll ever get.” He didn’t wait for them to respond, nor did he even seem to care if they took in what he had said. He rubbed his hands together, stared out the window and continued being a piece of furniture.
The small crowd was gathered around a woman, whispering welcome remarks, shaking her hand and embracing her. She looked as utterly confused as he had felt when he first walked into the world. They were explaining things to her; the very same speech they had given him during his own arrival.
He moved past a few people to get a better look at her. She was the woman in the picture.
And then she wasn’t. He had never seen that face before.
The woman smiled at everyone nervously until their eyes met. Her pale face looked horrified at the sight of him and though they hardly made a sound her lips clearly said, “John.”
John shivered. He suddenly remembered the darkness and how it was to be trapped in it.
She blinked and took a step back, her gaze not leaving him though the fear was fading now. She sighed in relief. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said to him, smiling kindly, “I thought you were someone I knew, which is really odd because I don’t think I know anybody at all.”
John looked around. Everyone else was giving her that patient smile that said, “We understand.”
“Happens to all of us, my dear,” said a thin gray woman as she took the newcomer’s hand. “Come, let us show you the world.”
The crowd followed them as they left. Each person in it knew every detail the tour entailed; they knew every step, every word, every answer to every question that was answerable. Yet they still followed like it was their duty to do so.
Only John and Prim were left in the foyer. He realized that Prim had been staring at him the whole time.
“She said your name,” Prim whispered. He could tell that she was frightened. “Why?”
John laughed and shrugged. “It’s like what you said, Prim, I don’t know and I never will.”