George rubbed his eyes and looked back up at his companion. Nothing had changed. The resemblance to himself remained. The wrinkles were numerous, the hair much longer and completely white, but there was no denying it. The old man looked like George.
"This is insane," George muttered.
The old man chuckled. "If you wish to refer to your imagination as insanity, then, yes, I suppose it is. But that's awfully harsh, don't you think?"
George let out a long breath. "No, I'm serious. This is utter madness. How can you possibly be who you appear to be? How can any of this be what it appears to be?"
A ripple of concern crossed the older man's face. "Steady now, George."
But George was already lost in a maelstrom of contradictory thoughts. He'd been so excited to discover this place, to realize just how powerful and creative his imagination could be. It had been intoxicating, almost glorious.
But this, this stranger with his own face. This was different. He found it unsettling, somehow. To create an alternate version of one's self just through sheer thought... it was almost more than his mind could handle.
"Oh, George." his alternate-future self was saying. "Don't give up on me now. You were doing so well."
George looked at him. It was almost painful to do so.
"You have a whole history," George said to him. "A whole past life, that I know nothing about."
"Yes, that's true," his older self replied. "But it all exists because you thought of me. You created me."
"No," George said, putting his face into his hands again. "No, I can't accept that. It's too much. I don't want that kind of responsiblity."
"Oh, dear," the older George said, his voice tinged with deep regret. "Perhaps you weren't ready for this. Perhaps I said too much."
George looked up at him and just shook his head.
"I'm sorry, George," his elder said. "You're just going to have to process this now. Perhaps once you've sorted things out..."
George's mind was reeling now. He barely knew what to think anymore. So much had been thrown at him, in what seemed like such a short time. (How long had he been in here, anyway?)
He felt himself suddenly being tugged backwards. He looked down at himself, but there was nothing attached to him. When he looked up again, the older figure was distant, barely discernable as more than a blob on the horizon.
But there was no horizon. The endless white had returned, and George was moving backwards, at an ever-increasing rate of speed, towards a destination unknown.
He glanced over his shoulder. A rectangle appeared in the all-consuming white. He looked forward again. Nothing but whiteness.
He looked back again. The rectangle was moving now, sliding aside. No, opening. It was opening.
It was the door.
He could see a corridor beyond the framing rectangle. He could see the walls, the carpet. The water cooler.
He looked forward one more time. There was still nothing to see.
"George," came the distant voice of his alternate self, "you have to believe."
As the voice echoed in his head, George saw a flash of white light and heard a thud.
He opened his eyes. He was back in the corridor, sitting on the floor, his legs splayed out in front of him, staring at an off-white wall that bore the ghostly image of a closing door.
The door closed, and the image faded.
He knew, in a dark place deep within him, that the door was gone. A pang of grief bubbled up his gullet. He knew that the wonders of the universe had awaited him on the other side, and he supposed that now he'd never get to see them.
All because his mind had shut down.
He sighed. It was all he could do just then.
"Well, look who's come back to grace us with his presence." The voice was coming from George's right. "The prodigal son returns."
George looked up, suddenly realising that the back of his head hurt like the devil. It was only then he understood that he'd been flung across the corridor and banged full on into the water cooler.
"What are you doing sitting on the floor, Georgie-Boy? And how'd you get in here without anyone seeing you?"
It was Bill. Of course. It would have to be Bill.
George pulled his legs in and managed to get himself up to a crouch. "I thought you went home," he said to Bill.
Bill offered a hand and helped George to his feet. "Not just yet, George. It's only lunchtime, and I'm feeling quite well, thank you."
George rubbed the back of his head, squinting with discomfort. "Lunchtime? What are you talking about? I was staying after hours, and I came down--"
"Well, you must've stayed awfully late and been awfully tired when you got home." Bill shook his head.
"What are you talking about?" George asked, thoroughly confused now.
"Oh, the old amnesia routine," Bill said. "I was wondering what kind of story you'd come up with."
George looked around, a stark realisation suddenly hitting him. All the lights were on, and people were moving up and down the corridor just like it was--
"What time is it?" George asked, panic rising in his chest.
"I already told you," Bill said. "It's lunchtime." He glanced at his watch. "Twelve-thirty-three if you want to be exact about it."
George put his hand to his head. "Then that means I've been gone for..." He paused to do the math in his head. "...over eighteen hours."
Bill laughed. "Eighteen hours? Yeah, George. Well over eighteen hours. You've been MIA for three days now, pal."
George could feel the blood draining from his face. "Three days?"
Bill snorted. "You mean to tell me that you didn't know how long--" He looked at George with concern. "You're looking a little peaked there, George. You feeling all right?"
George did not answer. He was too busy spending what little energy he had left in an effort to remain upright.
He was not succeeding.
"George? Are you okay?"
As he watched the little white squares begin to encroach upon his field of vision and felt his knees start to turn into something gelatinous, George had but one thought.
He should have believed.