The Severing

an excerpt



Chapter One

"Why do you keep looking in that store window, Billy?" Sarah asked him.

He glanced at her and shrugged. It wouldn't do any good to tell her the reason. She'd only say he was obsessing. She'd be right, of course.

"Come on. We can't get anyone to serve us in that place."

"Yeah, we can," he replied, moving away from the window. He had no intention of going inside anyway. "There's one of ours in there."

"Oh. Another obsessoid!" She rolled her eyes.

"I don't think obsessoid is a word, Sarah."

"Give me a break. You went to university. I barely finished high school. What's that one's story?" She hooked her thumb in the direction of the jewelry store.

"Not sure. Maybe he was a jeweler."

It was supposed to be a joke, but Sarah wasn't listening anymore. She raised her arm and tapped her watch.

And she calls me paranoid!

"It doesn't work here." He sighed. "I told you that already."

"I don't understand why it shouldn't. We need to keep track of time too."

"What for?"

He didn't get an answer. "Have you been able to read time since you arrived... anywhere?" He shot her a meaningful look as they walked on down Broadway through the hustle and bustle of the early morning crowds. Around them, a mist of people hurried to get taxis and raced down the steps to the subway, bumping into each other with travel mugs in hand.

Sarah was still tapping her watch. "It's brand new."

How many times had he explained it to her? It's not that she didn't understand. She just didn't want to accept it. Maybe it was wrong for him to try and make her do that?

"I guess it makes sense, like you told me," she announced suddenly, head up. "Time doesn't mean the same thing here."

"Then stop playing with your watch," he gently scolded as they kept moving along. No one saw them. They just looked right through them.

"It was a gift from my parents for graduation, you know," Sarah told him for the tenth time. "I suppose they thought it was a nice gesture to send it with me. They needn't have bothered though," she scoffed. "It's useless."

"Consider it ornamentation," he commented. "It looks nice on your wrist."

"Thanks. I got to go. I'm attending a parapsychology class at NYU."

"How was the last one?"

"Pretty lame. Most of it they got wrong. How can they really know until they come here?"

He leaned down and pecked her cheek. "They don't all come here."

"Well, whatever." She rolled her eyes.

"Put them right then," Billy said.

"Yeah, sure," she muttered. "Very cute. How am I supposed to do that?"

"Tip over a podium or something at exactly the right moment." He grinned at her.

"Very dramatic, but we're not allowed to do those things, remember?"

He nodded.

She lifted a hand to him, and he watched her as she walked to the corner and unnecessarily waited for the walk sign. Old habits die hard.

He was glad she'd taken his advice about auditing classes at the university. It was what she would have been doing anyway if she hadn't landed here.

Sarah was one of those who seemed to accept her fate. She was coping quite well, but still, like everyone here, sometimes she would lapse into lament. Maybe it would have been easier if they weren't able to see the others walking around doing all sorts of things. Like with the watch. Sarah was bound and determined to find the time on that thing even though she knew deep down it was impossible.

And he was one to talk! Here he was headed to his old office like he'd done every morning, stressing over arriving on time even though time was irrelevant. He used to live just a few blocks away. It had been ideal. It had taken only about twenty minutes to walk to the office every morning.

When he reached the building, he glided through the revolving doors with a certain sense of misguided purpose. The huge lobby with its shiny ceramic floors and mirrored walls still had the capacity to dazzle him. He nodded to the security guard and saw that several people stood waiting for the elevator. He recognized some but couldn't quite recall all their names. They headed to their jobs on various floors, getting in and out of the elevator like animated robots, stifling yawns and complaining about their lives. He felt like reaching out and shaking them. They had nothing to complain about.

Floor after floor, the doors of the elevator opened then closed as it let people on and off. No one, however, got off on his floor which meant he'd have to wait until the lift went back up and came down again.

Three times the elevator climbed and descended. Finally the doors opened in the lobby, and Denise Philberg stood there. She was a receptionist in his office. She always wore really short skirts and high-heeled shoes. It looked like she'd changed her hair. It was even more platinum than before, if that was possible.

He got off the elevator with Denise. He could smell that perfume she always wore, Chanel No.5. He'd bought her a bottle last Christmas. He paused to read the huge sign on the wall that read Ludwig Publishing House in gold letters. We publish what you want to read. That sign made him smile. He had loved his job as junior editor here. His mother had been so proud, crediting herself for his love of books. When he was a boy, his mother had worked in a library part-time. He'd go there after school and wait for her to finish, and read.

He was thinking about his mother as he walked down the carpeted hallway, nodding and smiling at his coworkers. She'd stayed by his grave for hours after the burial. He had touched her, but she couldn't feel it. Time heals all. Surely the pain had eased, he told himself, shaking off the memory.

"Good morning," he called out as he turned the corner to his tiny office. He froze when he spotted the janitor standing outside the door.

"Hey, Karl," he said cautiously, "what are you doing?" Maybe they're finally going to paint the office. It needs it. He came closer. Karl was scraping letters off the office door.

"That's my name," he protested. "Oh please, please, Karl. Don't do that. This is my office. It's still my office, isn't it?"

The janitor went on scraping.

Panic was setting in. He couldn't believe they'd do this to him. It was way too soon, wasn't it? The office was no longer his if his name disappeared. Now, he'd have no place to go every day. It wasn't right to take a man's work from him. He didn't want to work in their world because here he felt...alive. That name on the door proved it. But now...he had officially vanished.

Billy tensed, aware that he wasn't alone. Oh no. What's he doing here? He glanced down the hall to see a shadowy form hovering there, a tall gaunt man with a crooked smile. His baldhead was shining almost like a halo. It was probably his most distinguishing feature, that nude head of his. The guy was a nuisance if nothing else, always showing up where he wasn't welcome, keeping tabs on him.

"What do you want, Horace?" He shoved his hands in his pockets and studied the worn carpet.

"What are you doing here, Billy?" Horace came to stand in front of him. "I thought we'd agreed you'd find something else to do with your time. This is breaking the rules."

"What do you want me to do, work in the dead zone all the time?"

"There are worse things. There are people who need help, Billy. You would be a comfort to them."

"I don't want to be a comfort to anyone. I want my life back."

"Well, that's not an option. You know that. You're my greatest prospect. Don't relapse now."

"Relapse?" he muttered as he followed Horace to the elevator. "You talk as if it's some kind of disease."

"It is. And it's terminal." He had the audacity to grin at Billy with that crooked smile as they got on the elevator. A woman stepped on at the same time and pressed L.

"Is that supposed to be funny?" he persisted.

"Yeah."

"You have one hell of a bizarre sense of humor."

"I believe the right word is macabre."

He watched Horace on the way down. His expression turned blank, and he was looking straight ahead. That macabre wit was probably what kept him going in this place. It seemed he'd been here forever, yet he managed to keep going, maintaining a sense of purpose in a place which had none.

When the elevator doors opened, Horace placed a hand on Billy's shoulder. "You have to accept the fact that you could be here for a long time."

"Long time," he repeated. "What you mean is forever."

Horace shrugged. "One never knows."

"Have you heard anything?" he asked anxiously.

"No," Horace replied. "Perhaps there is nothing to hear. You know how those sorts are. He may never do it again."

Billy closed his eyes. Could it be that he was hoping he would do something? One man's luck is another man's heartache...or, in this case, demise. No, he could never wish that on someone else.

"There have been no new members today so far, but it's only a matter of time," Horace continued as they left the building.

Time. It was odd how Horace could use that word as if it had actual meaning.

"I need you to be ready for counseling, and to give them information about the severing."

Severing. That's what they called it here. He'd actually been severed from life. It was as if someone had made a huge rip between him and the living world, and that rip had been so violent and abrupt there had been no way to mend it. "It doesn't mean he won't be caught. It could happen at any moment."

"We are talking about two different things. I thought that conversation was over." Horace gave him a disparaging look.

"It gives me hope to talk about it."

"The more time passes, the lower the possibility. You know that, and you can't live on dreams."

"But I'm not living at all."

"You know what I mean. Come with me, Billy. Help me help those who can't accept, can't understand. They need you."

How could he comfort others when he could find no way to comfort himself? Now his office was gone. He was gone. As they walked, they passed the jewelry store. He stopped to look in the window. He saw the ring, gold, glittering with little diamonds. He was wearing a ring just like that one. It was the last thing Billy saw before the severing.

"Billy, there are many rings like that one." Horace sighed.

Billy knew that of course, but he couldn't help wondering if he'd bought it at that place. Maybe one day he'd come back there to buy something else, and Billy would see him and...and what?

That played in his mind as they continued through the crowded streets. The crowds moved around him, and he wondered where all these people were going. He even reached out and touched the living when he dared, and marveled at the fact that they never felt it. Neither could he. He swallowed hard, afraid suddenly. "Horace?"

Horace glanced at him. "Hmm?"

"How long have you really been here?" Billy asked.

"I arrived here on June sixteenth, nineteen twelve."

"Do you know what's on the other side of that door, the one that looks like fireworks in the background?"

"I've heard it's like returning to life," Horace told him. "It's heaven, I suppose, and heaven can be anything you want it to be."

"Do you think you'll ever leave here?"

"No. I never will."

"And I'm never leaving here either, am I?"

"I don't know, Billy. I really don't know."

"How did it happen?" Billy asked him.

"I've forgotten." He looked away.

"No, you haven't."

"I don't talk about it." Horace shook his head. "It brings back too many memories, bad memories."

I know what he means. I don't dare think past that ring. Maybe I can't. The rest has been buried somewhere deep inside.