In this town you only get one chance to live your dream. This, indeed, was no ordinary town, it was the kind of town in which there were no regulars at the pubs and in which few people remained for long. The only people you could count on in this town were the homeless, a single pair of them in particular.
They had had many nicknames even in my own brief time in the town, most people called them 'The Askers' but I preferred the name 'The December Twins' for it was rumoured that they, a boy and a girl of around nineteen, had simply appeared one December and never aged and never left. No one saw them walk in but by the next day their act, if an act it was, had been set up.
If you believe in magic then maybe you could call their activities magic. I, myself, only came to believe in magic after the day I first saw the twins. It was eight o'clock in the morning and I was running late through the town centre on my way to work. I glanced furtively at my watch, scolding the hands for every movement they made and then she stopped me, the girl. I looked up to a nest of yellow rats tails that sat upon her head and her piercing eyes as she said "Now, slow down there mister." Her voice was not unlike the carking of a crow but despite her uncleanliness and her rough edges she did not repulse me because she gave a friendly smile. "I have a very important question to ask you." I began to walk away, I was now five minutes late "No, no love. It won't take a minute, just tell me whether you'd like me to ask you the question now or not." she crowed. Her brother was accosting another member of the public in a similar manner.
"I wouldn't like to hear it now, thank you." I replied tersely. I surveyed the sister, the brother - who was altogether a little more charming and displayed something that almost resembled tact - and their rather gloomy setting, they wore rags but at least they were colourful. They stood directly in front of what could only be their home. There was a small collection of belongings on the pavement behind them and then a more open patch of ground in the space between the twins in the centre of which was a circular, shimmering, ethereal hole. I did not believe I had seen that it was there at all as I walked away but I was proved wrong when I looked back at the pair who were now guiding another member of the public towards the hole before she jumped into it and seemed to fall straight down. She vanished. I continued on my way to work, eventually ten minutes late, and tried not to think about what I'd seen that morning.
Well, you can imagine when I came out at lunchtime I took an outside seat in a café that gave a good view of the December Twins. It was quite a popular café. I asked the waiter who the twins were.
"I'm new 'ere," he began "but I've been told that theys the Askers. Theys suppos' to ask you a question but they only ask you once an' never again." He sniffed and wiped his nose with his forearm and put a plate, my lunch, down on the table. "Boss calls 'em the December Twins an' I guess 'ee knows the most about 'em." He walked off to hand some other customer a snotty plate.
I watched as the sister picked out a passing woman and gave her the friendly smile she gave to me earlier that day. The woman nodded, took off her posh fur coat and dropped her bag on the floor, smoothing out some stray hairs and walked towards the hole in the floor. She took a last, deciding step and fell rapturously into the hole. Some of the other café customers shared confused glances.
Later still on the very same day I passed the December Twins on my way home.
"Ahh, it's you again mister," said the sister "would you like me to ask you the question now that you have a minute to spare?" You can imagine I was intrigued by the question having seen other people talk to the December Twins who had then been guided to the hole. From my position I couldn't see through the hole, it simply shimmered like some kind of force field.
"What's this question all about, then?" I said. She smiled mischievously and directed a thin hand to the opening in the floor with an air of mythical grandeur and began a very pragmatic monologue.
"The exact words of the question I cannot say, otherwise I will have asked you the question, but I can tell you this, it is no mundane question. It is, in fact, the most important question you will ever be asked in this life or the next. The question, of whether you wish to proceed through the portal, can only be asked to any person once which is why I asked you now and this morning whether you wished to hear it."
I interrupted her here for I feared that she would continue speaking in her starry manner for quite some time. "If the question is very important then I would rather it was not asked now." She nodded wisely.
"Very well." The brother had just gotten another customer and I stayed around to watch him jump through the hole in the ground.
"Where does it go?" the man asked. He was a ragged-looking man and it occurred to me that he had been sat at another table in the café the very same day.
"Ahh," sighed the brother, "it leads to the greatest place you will ever know." I, just as you most likely are, was bemused. How could this boy be so sure? What sort of place were the pair of them hiding under the floor that was so 'great' that they only allowed you to visit once?
"How much do you charge for three hours in there?!" the customer asked eagerly, trying to look into the hole in the ground but even now that he and I had edged closer we still could not see any more than the dark shimmering surface. The twins shared a glance.
"Well then, mister, hadn't you better be on your way?" The sister chirped, turning me away from the hole and the ragged customer. When I looked back the man had disappeared and the brother looked around clumsily. I had a feeling he had pushed the man.
"Say, what's your name?" I asked the sister.
"Ohh. That would be telling, wouldn't it, mister?" With that she gave me a happy smile and a small shove and sent me off into the evening.
A year on from that day my routine was very similar; walk past the December Twins in the morning, tell the sister I didn't want her to ask me the question today - usually with a passing shout of "not today!" on my way to work; sit in the café at lunchtime and watch the twins work; decline the offer again in the evening. I had become obsessed with the pair and since that first day I had noted the complete disappearance of all those who went down the hole. In a single year the café had been through fourteen new waiters. The current was a girl whose company I enjoyed - it was I who had educated her on the December Twins yet for the duo themselves business appeared to wear thin. The twins seemed to get thinner and through the winter had almost stopped trying to talk to passers-by from their excessive shivering. I had spared some old coats for them and though I knew the name of neither of them I felt that they considered me a friend. Now, it was a year to the day from our first meeting and the day I began my job, with little warning I was fired. I sat in the café all day, thinking about life knowing that I did not have the money to sit all day pondering the mystery of the hole in the ground and the December Twins. I imagine you have guessed what happens next. I left the café at twenty to six in the evening, my usual quitting time, and walked past the twins, leaning in to glimpse the hole as I passed.
"What's up, mister? You seem upset."
"Sister," I sighed "I would like you to ask me the question today." Her eyes widened into circles with pupils like the portal behind her as she was so obviously shocked by my request.
"Very well, mister!" I guess she must have been twenty by now. "Would you like to experience paradise?"
"Yes. Yes I would." Sister took my hand and lead me over to the portal, even from directly above it no light emerged.
I held my breath as if I were diving into water and jumped into the hole. It turns out, the other side really was like water only there was no need to hold my breath, I seemed to sink until I hit the ground at the bottom and then the room seemed to materialise. I'd like to call it the Paradise Room as it seemed to take form exactly as I had imagined it would, a room that stretched out seemingly forever, a blank canvas that painted itself as you walked forwards through it. Whatever I imagined or whatever I wanted would, I reasoned, appear. After a short minute of contemplating what to imagine I realised that in the past year my life had been consumed by my obsession and all I could bring to mind was an imagined version of paradise. I concentrated on that and there I was, on the white marble balcony of the most beautiful garden, like Eden it was vast and colourful though unlike Eden there seemed to be no exit or end. Clearly in view, presenting itself to me was an enormous flower with huge orange petals. It was surrounded by flowers of every colour and I thought that I would quite like a chair and some classical music which appeared to me as soon as breath does on a winter's day. If I could imagine anything I wanted then surely I could stay here alone for all eternity and that was certainly the plan. I slouched comfily into the chair and dozed off.
When I woke it was exactly the same midday and the flowers still bloomed and I wondered how the Paradise Room accommodated all of the people that had passed through the portal. Was it possible that I didn't see them simply because I didn't want to? I stood at the balcony and sniffed deeply, drinking in the flowers, a cocktail glass appeared in my outstretched hand.
The huge orange flower seemed to shift itself slightly under the white, heavenly glow I had dreamt up to light the room. A moment later, and without my permission, you understand, the flower shot some yellow spice into the air in small powdery clumps. The stench was overwhelming and the imperfection was palpable, a powder snowdrop landed lightly on my forefinger and I rubbed at it with my thumb, frowning, it burnt painfully through my skin.
Then all the flowers were changing, morphing into… people? Thousands of them, the waiters from the café, my work mates, they were everywhere yet I could see the December Twins standing in an elevated position, right where the poison flower had been.
"A trick?" I asked them, disgusted.
"Would we really offer Paradise for free when we were so poor?" replied the sister.
"No," answered the brother "We were raising an army." The pair laughed, the crow resemblance remained apparent while I tried to imagine them as flowers from the garden or as anything except what they were.
“What for?” I raised an eyebrow.
“Now, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?” said a disembodied voice.