“Remember the rules,” they said. “There are no refunds.”
The rules were printed in the brochure and repeated at intervals along the walls. Andre’s brochure was crumpled, the once glossy card soft and fraying at the corners. He’d signed the contract, and now waited like everyone else.
There was a lot of waiting. They said everyone got five minutes – no more and no less, but the queue inched along tortuously. Andre clicked his teeth, he drummed his foot, he hummed old songs under his breath and he fiddled with the brochure, which finally came apart along the creases and made him wish for tape. He put it in his pocket and stared at the wall opposite him, where a woman and a man rejoiced in the splendour of Oceania and invited him to visit them on their perfect beach.
He was there with them. He could feel the warm grit of sand under his bare toes; feel the heat of the sun so strongly it gave him a headache to squint against the glare. There was the smell and taste of the sea, dry at the back of his mouth, and the damp green of kelp. His sister was there. She took his hand and tried to pull him toward the water, but the gentle lapping was now white crashes and spray, and he tasted fear, salt like the sea.
“Is this when you died?” he asked. The spray wet his cheeks and opened up a well in his stomach, deep and hollow.
Someone brushed against him. Back in the queue, the man next to him shifting slightly and turning the page of his book. He was a large man, who made the bench creak under him, and he smelled of mints. A woman further down the line was frowning at Andre but dropped her gaze at once and pretended to be looking for something in her purse.
Andre struggled to stay in himself. Was it like death? What if he couldn’t get back in? Who was it walking around when he wasn’t there? Fear held him, kept him sound – like ropes or an anchor. He thought of an anchor – then stopped and looked furiously at the floor, trying to stop thinking. Thinking, he drifted off and someday - well it was bound to happen, he was scared even to sleep now - someday he wouldn’t come back.
He took out his brochure, noticed it had fixed itself. Fixed itself? Just one more incomprehensible thing for him to try not to worry about. His neighbour, as if he’d only just recalled early lessons about sharing, was offering his bag of mints, nodding at Andre that he should take one. He crunched a mint between his large, even teeth and shook the bag a little.
“Thanks,” Andre said. He took one just as the queue shuffled on so he and the mint man had to move together as if in a dance, Andre’s hand still trapped in the bag. But the mint was so powerful Andre was glad of it, it kept him in himself with its large, awkward shape and pungent, eye-watering taste. Nearby, several other people were struggling with their huge mints, and Andre noticed one woman palm hers in a tissue and stuff it down the back of the bench.
The queue moved. Commercials flickered on the walls, casting strange colours on the faces of the waiting people; yellows and greens, soft reds and eerie blues, so that their differences were more apparent and they looked not like members of one species, but a gathering of aliens. The young woman on his right, with her small, dark eyes and hooked nose became a bird-like creature, angular and hunched. A man bathed in the red light of a sunset was transformed into a beast, fierce and blood-spattered, his forehead and jaw thrust forward, lowering. The boy sitting next to him, also in the red rays, was so thin he was a snake, head down, eyes in slits, daring anyone to come close; quiet conversations where now weird honks and clicks, rumbles and howls.
Andre blinked, and the people were just people again. Was it real? He thought. He could still smell the dry, not-unpleasant smell of snakes and the heavy fug that had surrounded the beast-man. Is it real because it’s real to me?
He saw Sophia again, standing in the surf. She was dripping, drowned, but her eyes were alive.
“Did you really drown?” Andre asked.
“You dreamed it,” she said. Seawater came out with her words and dribbled down her chin.
“So it’s not real?”
“No, it is real. I’m dead.”
“But why do you keep coming back!” he almost screamed.
People were staring this time. The woman who had been a bird gazed at him with tragic eyes, extending her sympathy to include him, and someone else patted his arm.
“It won’t be long now,” mint man said. “You hang in there.” He offered the bag of mints again, which Andre refused.
He could see the door now. Two guards stood outside, and there was a small desk. A severe woman with a pointed face and hair that was pulled back so tightly it stretched the skin at her temples in a most uncomfortable way was looking official with a clipboard. She was dressed in a white coat, like a scientist, and was wearing the company badge. As each person entered through the doors she spoke to them briefly – a reminder of the rules, Andre supposed. No one came out again, and he assumed there must be an exit somewhere else.
Five people ahead of him, then four, then three; Andre could hear his own pulse thumping in his temples; he felt too hot and a pressure in his chest was making it seem hard to breathe. His hands were damp, and when he rubbed them on his trousers he saw they were shaking.
The mint man’s name turned out to be Bernard Desmarais, which suited him. Do people grow into their names? - he thought, to distract himself from his anxiety. Did he always look like a Bernard, even as a baby? Andre cut off this thought. He didn’t want to see the mint man suddenly tiny and fat and in a nappy. And he wouldn’t smell of mints any more, but of baby lotion and milk – wouldn’t be the mint man in fact. He concentrated on the mint man remaining the mint man, seeing him safely through the door.
“Andre Sencalle!” the white-coat woman called. Too soon. Surely the mint man had only just gone in? He stood up on stiff legs, had to will them to move. He had pins and needles in one foot and his head felt like a balloon attached to his neck by elastic.
“Andre Sencalle?” she repeated, and he realised he was supposed to answer.
“You are aware of the rules?”
He nodded but she told him anyway, in a sing-song voice full of weariness. She might have been a teacher, explaining a problem for the tenth time to a very dim child, without any hope that the child would ever understand.
“Only ask questions relevant to yourself. You may ask no questions on behalf of others. You may not approach the Oracle. You may not touch the Oracle. The Oracle may approach you, and the Oracle may touch you. Remain seated at all times. Do not get up. If you get up your session is over. When the bell rings,” she added. “You will make your way to the exit at the back. A guide will then show you out. Do you have your receipt?”
He handed it over, she peered at it for a moment and handed it back with the air of someone who had completed her task and if anything now went wrong she at least couldn’t be blamed for it. She ticked his name on her clipboard.
“You can go in.”
He couldn’t see the space around him. It seemed both vast and claustrophobic, the darkness a pressing weight one moment, the next a yawning void. One small chair was placed in a circle of light, but as soon as he sat the light winked out and Andre gasped, clutching the chair, the cold metal the only solid thing he had to hold. His eyes tried to see, finding patterns in the darkness, strange shapes and colours like rainbows in oil. He floated in them, weightless, panic pushing at the edges of his skull.
“Oracle,” he said, but his voice was a whisper and embarrassment at his fear calmed him enough that he repeated it in a louder voice. “Oracle, will there be a time when I won’t be able to get back?”
“You never leave.” The Oracle’s answer was not like sound. It was a presence; a scratch in his mind and a tingle in his ears. It kissed his lips and churned in his stomach, stroked him and shook him and caressed.
“But I feel I leave my body and travel. I see my sister. Oracle, am I a murderer?”
“You are a murderer.”
“But how?” he said, and now his voice did break. The little boy scared, screaming it wasn’t fair. Andre closed his eyes.
“You know you kill her day by day and time after time. Your wishing makes it so. You raise her to kill her again and again.”
“But how can she die when I wish it?”
“Because you wish it.”
“How can wishing make something true!”
“You know this is your place. Your world is the one you have made. You made me and you remake me every moment. You know this is true, and you made me to tell you because you cannot tell yourself.”
“What about everyone else? All the others? All the people – how can I?” Andre cried, his chest so tight he couldn’t breathe. He felt sick - stinging, bitter warmth rising into his throat. “The Oracle is meant to speak the truth, but this can’t be true.”
“What you imagine to be true is your truth. What you believe is your reality.”
“But I would live in a paradise! If this world I see and feel and hear is one I make why is it so horrific? Why would I make rules to thwart myself? Why would I make people die?”
“You don’t believe you deserve a paradise. Your sister comes back to remind you of your guilt.”
“It’s true Andre,” Sophia said. She was sitting next to him, so close he could feel the chill of her body and make out the tiny droplets on her skin. She looked at him with her head titled, wet hair hanging down like seaweed. “You’ll never be rid of me. Better you’d left me alive – but you couldn’t could you? The thought was enough. One thought – one moment’s hate was all it took.”
The room was white and empty.
“I’m sorry,” Andre said. Tears were on his cheeks, cold as the salty water dripping from her hair. “I’m so so sorry. Can’t I make you alive again? Please be alive. Oracle?”
The Oracle was gone. Maybe he had no more answers for himself. Maybe.
“You say that Andre, but you don’t want it really,” she told him. “You’re cold and dead and you want me the same. Come on.”
She pulled at his hand, dragging him toward the water, where the white foam fell on sand as grey and wet as her dead skin. And he was cold, with a chill that extended into his centre and could never be warmed. In a world of illusions, how could it teach him what he didn’t already know? He admitted to himself how he’d hated her; still hated her. She had stayed while he’d been sent away – she’d had his life.
Andre, always second, always last. Ignored and pushed aside for a golden sister. Why – why if they’d kept one child – why was it her and not him? She meant to drag him under but he grabbed her and brought her down with him, falling back into the waves. He felt consumed by hate and by fear; as if it was bursting through his skin, but he didn’t know what he hated most - Sophia or himself. She struggled, kicking at him, but he was stronger. He wrapped his hands around her slippery neck and tightened his fingers like he was moulding putty.
Where is the real world? He asked, looking up at the through water at a retreating sun. Where did it go?