The last time Denby felt the wibbly-wobbly world-tilting sensation known as vertigo was long ago. It was long ago on a Wednesday morning. The previous night he had mistakenly made the choice to order dollar-off jumbo margaritas to wash down his Tuesday tacos. This was a mistake. A mistake he tried not to repeat and a memory he attempted to forget. But that dizzy morning and the recollection of discount super-sized tequila refreshments came rushing back as a wave of room-spinning vertigo smashed into him with his first steps through the green door.
The floor was squishy beneath his feet and became squishier with each timid step. He could see the dark silhouette of the bathrobe-wearing man and slowly followed it through a short, oddly shadowed hallway.
Light began to wrap around them.
As the light grew more intense, the squishy feeling in Denby's feet gave way to firmness and his vertigo softened into a bright blurred blindness.
He could feel something against his leg. A soft something. He looked down and a dark blob came into a furball of focus. It was the earless black rabbit glancing up at him as it hopped around his feet. Denby knew little about the disposition and demeanor of animals but even he could tell that this was one happy rabbit.
Denby's vision cleared and he raised his head. There stood the bathrobe-wearing man with his arms stretched outward and sporting a peculiar grin. “Care for a beverage, my good boy? That throat of yours must be absolutely tattered after all that yammering.”
Denby heard the question, but could not speak to answer—temporary speechlessness due to what he assumed was shock. Shock to his system from the marvelous room beyond the green door.
Randomly cut dark wood panels covered the walls and ceiling and jutted out in every direction—creating odd nooks and crannies.
This . . . this shouldn't be here, Denby thought as he turned to take in the structure that seemed to be designed by a deranged architect and made by mad carpenters.
The strange paneled walls and ceiling were adorned with shelves filled with well-worn leather-bound books that appeared to defy the laws of physics as they rested securely at all angles. This shouldn't be here, Denby thought again.
Two white-porcelain steamer trunks with copper latches sat stacked in a corner. Denby assumed they were porcelain. For that matter, he assumed they were steamer trunks. He had never seen anything like them before.
An ornately carved round wooden table, covered with stones and cubes and trinkets of all shapes and sizes, rose from the center of the room. If the table were a touch larger, it would not look at all out of place hosting a meeting between a dozen knights and their king.
Denby leaned on the table, looked up and shielded his eyes. What . . . what is that? He squinted at the light source above and his mouth involuntarily fell open as he saw a luminescent bent pyramid that slowly rotated in midair, suspended by absolutely nothing at all.
"Beverage?" The man in the bathrobe repeated.
Denby remained silent.
"A beverage, my good boy? Something to drink? I have a bit of everything."
Words were still out of Denby's reach, but after a pause that was just long enough to push the awkwardness, he breathed out a near audible, "Umm."
“Touch bit difficult on that. All out of 'umm.' Anything else?”
“No. Nothing," Denby answered quietly.
“Suit yourself,” the bathrobe-wearing man picked up a grey pear-shaped stone from the cluttered table and tossed it to Denby.
After a brief game of solo hot potato, Denby held on tight.
“Altogether fascinating,” the bathrobe-wearing man watched Denby grip the stone.
“What? What is it?” Denby asked.
“Oh, nothing. An interrogation stone. But that is not the fascinating bit.”
“What is fascinating?”
“You are, my good boy,” the man in the bathrobe paused, collected his thoughts, then continued, “. . . apologies, introductions are in order. My name is James, and you would be?”
Don't tell this guy your name, Denby thought.
“Denby. Denby Evers,” he answered immediately without hesitation, and the stone let out a red flash. “What is going on here?”
“Indeed. What is going on here?” James asked.
Don't tell him anything, Denby thought.
“I came back to your door because of a girl,” he answered, and the red stone flashed again. “I didn’t . . . I didn’t wanna say that,” Denby tried unsuccessfully to loosen the stone from his fingers. “What's going on?”
“The stone you are holding tends to help people answer questions truthfully. What is the lass’s name?”
“Hazel Bailey,” Denby once again answered instantly.
He tried to drop the stone as it flashed.
It would not budge.
He forcefully shook his hand.
It would not budge.
He tried to pry the stone loose.
Still, it would not budge.
“An interrogation stone would not be of much use if the interrogatee could just toss it aside, now would it?”
“No. It wouldn’t,” the answer came immediately, and the stone flashed.
Denby became desperate, “I came back because of a girl, but I also really wanted to make sure you were okay. I . . . I didn't mean any harm.”
The stone flashed.
“Of course,” James said, “another question for you, Mister Denby Evers. How are you able to see me?”
“Huh . . . I . . . I don't understand," Denby answered and the stone flashed.
James rubbed his chin, “I shall rephrase the question. Through what trickery are you able to see me?”
“I dunno what you're talking about. There is no trickery,” Denby answered. The stone flashed again.
“Please, sir. What's going on?”
“Bliss. Foo. Mort,” James whispered.
The interrogation stone fell from Denby’s hand.
None of this can be real. Denby watched as the stone rolled across the floor. He said aloud, "None of this can be real."
“It is all very real. Interrogation stones have passwords, so to speak. Unlock mechanisms. Wouldn’t want you wandering around telling the truth forever, now would we?”
“None of this can be real,” Denby repeated.
James grabbed Denby by the cheek and said, “Oh, we are both very real. So fascinating.”
“What . . . what is going on? Who . . . who are you?”
“For some reason, you can see me. For some reason, we can . . . interact. Both of these things should not be possible. None of your kind should be able to see mine. And this . . . ,” James slapped Denby on the butt, “should not be able to happen.”
I gotta get outta here, Denby thought.
“Hmm," James paced back and forth. "Seems you are in the dark. Even with those unique eyes.”
Pull it together. Denby took a deep breath. The story. You need a story for Hazel. Get the story and then get outta here. He slowly muttered, “Umm . . . how . . . umm . . . how'd you survive getting hit by . . . ”
“Yes! That dastardly auto! That is sure to illuminate the situation for you!” James excitedly said.
“No one coulda survived that."
“Surviving? Pssshhh. That much is easy. All I do is survive. Death cannot claim victory over me," James said. "How did my legs not shatter? How did my noodle not go splat? Those are better questions. And the answers to both are the same. I always bring a dash of luck with me wherever I go.”
“Death cannot claim victory . . . ”
“Correct,” James said. “But let’s get back to that most annoying auto. Why do you think it so rudely crashed into me while I was standing in the middle of the thoroughfare with my fine friend Jerry?” James gestured toward the earless black rabbit. “Am I not noticable? Strapping man as I am. Tall and beautiful. Why, I would be the last fellow anyone would want to run over. So why do you think that happened?”
“I have no idea,” Denby answered.
“Because my kind . . . ,” James winked. “ . . . are quite unseeable to yours.”
None of this can be real. Denby sighed and again said aloud, “None of this can be real.”
“Oh, it can be and is. But all a bit much to take in,” James circled Denby. “Not in quite some time have I met one of your kind that was able to see. So fascinating.”
“This is crazy.”
“Not crazy. Fascinating.”
“Look, you seem to be fine. I may be the one who needs . . . something. Professional help, maybe," Denby said. "I'm gonna . . . I'm gonna just go.”
“Yes. Yes. By all means, get back to the lovely maiden Hazel. Come back tomorrow. Let us see if we cannot get to the bottom of this,” James hugged Denby and slapped his shoulders. “So extraordinary, Mister Denby Evers! Tomorrow!”
Denby walked out the green door.
The next morning, Denby stood before the mirror fixed on the wall of his ordinary bathroom in his average one-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a run-of-the-mill Brooklyn walk-up and did not say a word.
Denby had wanted to continue the story, to find answers that he could share with Hazel. Which would lead to another lunch in the break-room. Which would no doubt lead to marriage and children and happily-ever-after.
Now he had more questions than answers. Questions that he had to have answered—not for the sake of the story, but for his own sanity.
Why did no one else see the door?
The room behind it?
Was the man inside raving mad?
The flashing stone . . .
. . . the levitating light . . .
. . . the everything.
Am I raving mad?
After a restless night, he had decided to get up early. He was going back to the bathrobe-wearing man before he took the train to his ordinary office. He needed answers.
Denby knotted another inoffensive tie, threw on another plain grey suit, stepped into the same pair of simple black dress shoes and slipped out the door.
For the second morning in a row, Denby’s carbon-copy commute was anything but.
He hurriedly walked past the corner of Forty-Fourth and Fourth and made a beeline for the dilapidated red-brick building. There was a bounce and determination in his steps as he moved through the rushed foot traffic. He was going to find his answers. He was not raving mad and would get to the bottom of this.
As he came upon the building, his steps lost their spring and his arms fell to his sides.
Ya gotta be kidding me.
Wire fencing had been strung between orange portable construction poles at the sidewalk's edge where four men in hard hats wearing yellow reflective vests studied a clipboard.
The green door was gone.
“Excuse me," Denby yelled to the workers. "Excuse me!”
“What do ya want?” a worker shouted back.
“What's going on?” Denby asked.
“What’s it look like?” another worker chimed in. “Building's comin' down.”
“What did you do with the door?" Denby was afraid to hear the answer. "The . . . green door?"
“Huh? Don't know what you're talkin' about,” a worker answered. “Place is gonna fall down before we even swing the hammers.”
Denby slowly stepped away from the fencing.
Denby once again sat in his unexceptional cubicle. There were papers to mindlessly shuffle, but his attention was focused elsewhere.
Did my Great Aunt Catherine have schizophrenia?
He thought he might have heard such a thing over Thanksgiving dinner.
Is that sort of thing hereditary?
Are hallucinations of earless rabbits and odd men and strange green doors the first stage?
I should see a doctor immediately.
He picked up his work phone to schedule an immediate appointment with a medical professional to confirm his uneducated self-diagnosis. Receiver in hand, he looked up from his cubicle. He could see Hazel. The sight of her made him drown in disappointment. He did not think he had a chance with her as a regular nobody; he certainly did not think adding derangement into the mix would help.
The telephone receiver slipped from his fingers as he saw a man walk walk between them.
It was James, changed out of his bathrobe and into a hodge-podge of a wanderer's wardrobe. Dust fell from his grey tweed pants as his thick, rugged black boots marched directly toward Denby. A tawny topcoat hung from his shoulders and around his neck dangled a tangle of peculiar jewelry and metallic baubles.
Denby could see a green shimmer bounce from one of the chained oddities. "No . . . no, no, no," he whispered to himself.
James smiled wide and threw out his arms, "Denby!”
“What . . . what are you doing here?” Denby asked in a nervous hush. “How did you find me?”
James leaned on the edge of Denby’s cubicle, “Believe we have some things to sort out, do we not? And since I was unceremoniously evicted, I assumed you would have a tad bit of trouble locating me. So, I took it upon myself to find you,” he gave the ordinary office a quick once-over. “This place is dreadful, by the way. Dreadful.”
“I am losin' my mind,” Denby said.
“No, Denby, I believe quite the opposite,” James curiously glanced at the shuffled papers.
“Look, you can’t be here.”
“Yet, here I am.”
“I am sorry I came to your . . . home . . . or whatever that was.”
“I am not!”
Denby glanced around the dreadful office, “I can’t be seen talking to you.”
“That is absolutely correct!”
“No, I can’t be seen sitting here having an argument with myself. You gotta leave.”
“Yes. We have to leave. Posthaste, I might add.”
“You and I, my new friend, we must leave this dreadful place.”
Denby, understandably distracted, failed to notice Hazel walking up to his unexceptional cubicle. She began to move directly into James, who was forced to the side by her mere presence, “Hi, Denby. How are you?”
“I am good. Good . . . good, Hazel. How . . . umm . . . how are you?” Denby stammered.
“Ahhh, the fair lady Hazel,” James said. “She has a quite pleasing persona. I too may have knocked on a strange door for a woman such as she. Come to think of it, I have. Several strange doors actually.”
Hazel could literally hear none of it. She spoke over James, “Anything exciting happen this morning? Any more rabbits?”
“Nope,” Denby answered. “Nothing . . . nothing . . . at all.”
“Liar!” James barked. “See, this is why interrogation stones are necessary. When a man such as yourself will lie straight to his beloved’s darling face, all hope is lost—is it not?”
“Please . . . please be quiet,” Denby whispered to James.
“What was that? I didn’t hear you,” Hazel said.
“Nope. Same old normal morning. Normal as can be. Nothing exciting,” Denby said to Hazel.
Denby tried to ignore James the best he could and focus all of his attention on Hazel. Which, of course, came easy to Denby. He was well-versed on Hazel-gazing. He was so focused on her that he did not see the Kevins as they walked up to his unexceptional and now standing-room-only cubicle.
“Who are these two skulldoogooroos?” James asked.
“Jesus,” Denby sighed.
“Jesus! I knew the man. Horrible about the bit in the end. I offered to take his place, but he wasn’t havin’ it. Said it would foul up the plan.”
“What’s wrong?” Hazel asked.
“Nothing,” Denby answered.
“That’s not true, actually. I did not know the famous fellow named Jesus. Not personally. Havin’ a go with you,” James said.
“Denby, need you to run those Northern region sales reports and verify the shipping data,” Kevin number one ordered.
“Pronto,” Kevin number two added.
“I'll . . . I'll get right on that,” Denby said to the Kevins.
“No, you will not! We must flee, Denby. We must go. No time for this dreadful madness,” James said.
“Lookin' good today, Hazel,” Kevin number two said.
“Definitely,” Kevin number one agreed.
“I do not believe it would be out of line for me to say that these two half-wits ought to be disemboweled at the earliest convenience. Or at the very least, put in the pillory,” James said.
“Enough!” Denby blurted at James.
“Whoa, buddy,” Kevin number two said.
“Only givin' the girl a compliment,” Kevin number one said. “Get that work done by this afternoon,” Kevin number two added as they both walked away.
Hazel remained at Denby’s cubicle.
James’ patience dwindled.
“Lunch again today? There’s this place close by that I want to try,” Hazel asked.
“Denby, under normal circumstances, I would suggest that an engagement with your fair maiden would be the loveliest of ideas. But these are not normal circumstances. Would you not agree?”
Denby gave James a rankled look.
“Something seems wrong,” Hazel said.
Denby lost his rankle-ness and looked back at Hazel. “No, nothing is wrong.”
“Enough of the sugar coating,” James said seriously. “Denby, you are in grave danger.”
“Then lunch?” Hazel asked.
“Denby! Grave. Mortal. Danger,” James reiterated. “We must flee. Now.”
Denby looked back at James.
“If you don’t want to, then that’s okay,” Hazel said.
It mattered little whether Denby was indeed stricken with an affliction passed on by his Great Aunt Catherine. Real? Imaginary? It did not matter. James was here and was not going anywhere. Denby was certain it would be impossible to have lunch with Hazel and maintain even the unwanted appearance of a regular nobody. He would not be able to keep it together over soups and sandwiches with the relentless James by his side.
“Say these words to your fairest Hazel, these exact words,” James cleared his throat before continuing with panache, “There is nothing more I would rather do. You are the one bright light in this dreary place.”
Denby hesitated then begrudgingly repeated James’ exact words to Hazel, “There is nothing more I would rather do. You are the one bright light in this dreary place.”
Hazel, caught off guard, tilted her head.
“But something has come up that is unavoidable and of the utmost urgency,” James continued.
Denby repeated, “But something has come up that is unavoidable and of the utmost urgency.”
“What's come up?” Hazel asked.
“I must journey to the gates of hell with my new friend, Immortal Jim!” James cheered.
Denby squinted, “Umm . . .”
“What is it?” Hazel asked.
Denby thought for a moment, rubbed his cheeks, and said, “I need to visit my Great Aunt Catherine. She's in the hospital.”
“Liar!” James laughed.
“Oh, that is terrible," Hazel said. "Well, I hope she gets better soon."
“Yeah. Me, too,” Denby responded and Hazel went back to her own unexceptional cubicle.
“The gates of hell?” Denby asked James.
“New Jersey, actually.”