Cat didn’t recognise the front desk, or the podgy bald man sat behind it reading the paper. She looked back and didn’t recognise the front door, either. Or the street outside.
For that matter, she didn’t recognise the paper the man was reading, or the colour of suit he was wearing. It seemed to her to be somewhere between dust and apricot, and the paper’s headline just read I Was A Tree Last Week. The subheading was a series of swearwords in bold, angry lettering.
“Er-” said Cat.
The man jumped. The inside section of his paper fell out and pages scattered everywhere. He stared at her as if he hadn’t seen a human being in years.
“Blimey!” he said. “How did you get in here?”
“I- er- I’m not sure.” Cat took a step back.
The receptionist’s bushy grey eyebrows almost disappeared over the top of his head. “Not sure? You what? Where’s your clothes?”
Cat looked down. He was right. She was naked. It didn’t much bother her, but she was also soaking wet. “I- I’m not sure.” she said.
He scratched his head, a puzzled expression on his face. “I’m not following. Who are you?”
“I’m Cat.” she knew that much.
“No you’re not!” he frowned. “Cats are littler. They go on legs like this, see.” he conjured a black cat into existence. It padded across his desk, meowed proudly, then vanished in a puff of smoke.
“No.” Cat said. “I’m not a cat. My name is Cat.”
“Your name is Cat?”
“But you’re a…” he reached into a drawer beneath his desk and pulled out a clipboard. He pored over it for a moment. Then he looked up. “Human?”
“Last time I checked, yes.”
“This won’t do, this won’t do at all.” he picked up the telephone and dialled a short number. “You just- Yes, hi Agnes. I’ve got a-” he glanced at the clipboard again. “-human? A human here. Yes, I know. No, I didn’t bloody well let her in. Well, how should I know? No, I don’t.” he listened for a moment, then looked up again. “I dunno, one of them new ones. I don’t think she has the plague. No. Really? I’ll ask.” he clasped a hand over the mouthpiece. “Excuse me, human. Cat, is it?”
“Who’s your god?”
“I’m not religious.”
“I don’t have a god.” Cat folded her arms. “I don’t think I really need one, thank you.”
“Right, gotcha.” he went back to the phone. “Atheism, I think. Oh, come off it, Agnes. Yes, it’s a thing. Right. Send her up, will I? Alright, tell Greg. Cheers. Bye.” he hung up.
“Where exactly am I?” Cat asked. “Only, the thing is, I don’t know what day it is.”
“That’s normal, I suppose. You’re dead, probably. Don’t know why the frig you’ve ended up here, though. Sunday, I reckon. Paper’s bigger than usual.” he heaved himself out of his chair and plodded around the desk. “Right, come with me, we’ll get you sorted out.” he walked over to a row of lifts on the far wall. Cat followed him, dripping water behind her and slipping slightly on the tiles.
“Sorry about the water.” she said.
“What? Oh, don’t worry about it. My name’s Gabe, by the way. Here.” he pressed the button and the lift door opened. He squeezed inside. Cat edged in beside him. The lift was utterly unremarkable, except for the mini-fridge and the hundreds and hundreds of buttons scattered randomly over the walls. When Cat looked closer she noticed they didn’t have numbers on, but strange symbols she didn’t recognise. Gabe pressed six buttons in quick succession and the lift doors slid closed. A few moments later, the doors opened onto a completely unremarkable office floor. People milled around in shirts and ties and skirts and spectacles, buzzing around photocopiers and droning into telephones while making faces at their colleagues. Cat noticed there was no correlation between beards and trousers, or between skirts and shaven legs. She also noticed that colour co-ordination wasn’t a thing here. Gabe squeezed out and led her around a number of corners, passing office doors all marked with a big letter A. Cat paused at one, which stood open. Gabe wandered on, oblivious, still nattering on about how he hadn’t had his tea yet. Inside the office another man was mumbling to himself.
“-Harry Talbow Steven Howl Jennifer Bandew Muhammad Alam Razid Khalar Vladimir Nasonov Muhammad Dawood Terry Bowden-” the words spilled from his mouth as if he wasn’t the one making them. It reminded Cat of a friend she once had who talked in a similar way after a few drinks. The man was scribbling the names neatly on a letterheaded sheet of paper. Cat watched. He soon reached the bottom and slipped the paper into his outbox, where it caught fire and vanished. Then he snatched another blank sheet from his inbox and continued. “-Muhammad Latif Abdul Aziz Zuhur Aziz Peng Wuchang Benedict Fowl-”
“Come on now,” said Gabe, “don’t be disturbing Death while he’s working, come on.”
Cat stared at the feverishly scribbling man as Gabe led her out again.
“Poor bloke. He likes to leave the door open. Gets awful stuffy in there otherwise. Friction, y’see. Wears out a lot of pens.”
“Sorry- I mean- did you say… Death?”
“Oh, come on. You managed to sneak your way in the front door, you’re not stupid. Obviously that’s Death.”
“Right. So…” Cat stopped and flattened her hand on the closest door. “What about this?”
Gabe furrowed his brow. “I’ll give you the guided tour if you make me a cuppa, how about that, eh?”
Cat laughed. “Where’s the kitchen?”
“Smartarse.” Gabe grunted. He seemed to hide a smile, though. He planted a hand on the window of the next office, its blinds drawn. “Luck in there. Fancy knocking?”
“Luck.” Cat murmured. She’d never had much luck. Her hand seemed to raise itself. Hesitated. Gabe watched. Then Cat snatched at the handle and threw the door open.
This room was interesting. The walls were once white, clearly. Most of the base colour had been obscured, though. Large amounts of what looked like multicoloured paint had been sloughed across the walls. Spatters and splashes of red and green were everywhere. Yellow spots covered all like the stars on the backgrounds of children’s books. A woman sat back in a large leather chair. There was no desk. Her hands were behind her head, and silver hair fell in unkempt rolls around her neck. Like Death, her lips moved relentlessly as if possessed. Unlike Death, she looked content. Her tongue flicked expertly around the numbers as they flooded from her mouth. Cat recognised most of them. It seemed to take a moment for Luck to notice she wasn’t alone. Her eyes snapped open after a nine. “Oh! Oh dear.” she flung her hands up over her eyes. “Girl, put some clothes on!”
Cat stared at her for a moment.
Gabe coughed. “We have a loose dress code, here.” he told Cat. “It can lead to disagreements.”
“I’m sorry.” Cat did nothing to hide herself. “I don’t have any clothes.” she continued looking at Luck.
Luck peered through her fingers. “I do hope you aren’t blaming me for this whole mess.” she said.
“Guilty conscience?” asked Cat.
“Look, girl.” she dropped her hands. “I am a machine. I give values, nothing else. If you’re looking for someone to take responsibility for your predicament, it isn’t me.”
“Not you?” Cat couldn’t draw the memories up – she couldn’t remember why she was here – but she felt the space they left inside her, like a vacuum. Anger bubbled.
Luck sighed. “No, not me. Leave me, I am busy.”
Gabe took Cat by the shoulder. “Come on, let’s go. Come on now.”
Cat closed the door behind her. “Who else works here?” she asked.
“Blimey, how long have you got?” Gabe answered. “All of them. If you can think of it, chances are we’ve got someone in charge of it.”
She thought for a moment. “Where are you taking me?”
“Up.” he said.
They walked past more doors, more cubicles. Flourescent strip-lights ran overhead, and they followed them for what seemed like forever and no time at all. Finally they came to a door. It was bigger than the rest. Grey and wide, with a large bolt holding it in place. Gabe pressed a button and it slid aside noiselessly. The door swung inwards.
“In you go.” he said. “I’m gonna see about that tea now. Hope you get it all… sorted.” he scurried away and left her in front of the door. There was nothing inside. Or rather, there wasn’t an inside. Cat tried, but she couldn’t get her head around it. She couldn’t see in, but it wasn’t dark. In wasn’t there, and out didn’t seem to want to get involved. The door was already closed, and she on the other side of it. The office was sealed.
Then there was a chair. Two chairs. One was occupied, and the other was free.
Cat sat down in the chair opposite.
“You should not be here.”
Cat said nothing.
“I am Time.”
Cat looked around. The room didn’t exist. “So you’re the boss around here?”
“This is a flat organisation.” said Time. “We don’t believe in managers.”
“Then why the big door?”
Time cocked its head. “Excuse me?”
“You’ve got a bigger door than everyone else.”
“Ah, I see.” Time said. Cat thought it sounded faintly sad, but it was hard to tell without a face. “That’s not the in-charge kind of big door.”
“It’s the other kind of big door.”
“No-one seems to like it when I leave.” Time extended a tendril towards the door. “It’s there to stop me running out.”
It was cold in here. Cat didn’t feel a chill, but she knew it was cold all the same. “Are you okay with that?” she asked.
“Not terribly. What’s the point of having me if I can’t do what I’m supposed to?”
Something tugged at Cat’s frayed memory. It was an old blue feeling. “Do you really have to go?”
Time groaned. “Everyone says that. It’s boring. Of course I have to go. That’s what I’m for.”
“But…” Cat felt as if the question was urgent, but she couldn’t remember why. “…why?”
Time narrowed its eyes. “Awfully inquisitive, aren’t you?”
“That’d be it then. Too inquisitive.” Time said flatly. “You poked too hard at the veil and ended up downstairs. Thank Christ, nothing’s broken then. Last time we had a human end up here we had to send the blighter back. Hell of a lot of trouble that one caused, I can tell you.”
“Where-” Cat started, then stopped. She could guess. Instead, “why am I all wet?”
“Well, if you want a definite answer you’d have to ask our friend down the corridor.” Time said. “Although, judging from the state of your hair-” Cat ran a hand over her scalp. Her normally-straight hair was madly frizzed and felt all prickly. “-that’s electrocution. Nasty accident you had.”
That sounded familiar to Cat. “But- I’m not-”
“Apparently you are.” Time said, not unkindly.
Cat paused for a few moments, trying to get her head around it. “Do I go to heaven, then?”
“I thought you were an atheist?”
Cat shrugged again.
“No, you don’t go to heaven. I wish people would stop asking that. I’ll ask Thought to feed you into the causeway somewhere, not that it makes much difference. Everyone ends up in the same place eventually.”
“A nice little shack in Johannesburg, where do you think?” Time picked up a phone and started punching in numbers. “Your consciousness will be distributed with the others and you’ll eventually dissipate into nothing. I think there’s a deficiency of inquisitiveness around Dave-Sixteen, you’ll probably end up there. Cereal, I think you lot call it.” Time paused. “Wait, no. Sirius. Yes, Agnes? Can you send Thought downstairs to me please? Yes, I’d like to dial him myself but I don’t have fingers. Look, I always get put through to you anyway- just do it, please, will you? Thank you.” Time hung up.
Cat still didn’t understand. “So I am dead, then.”
“Hm? Oh, yes. As a fridge.”
“But- my time wasn’t up yet!” Cat felt angry again. “I had so much left to do!”
“Like… I…” Cat fumbled in her mind. She couldn’t reach anything.
“I am sorry, really.” Time said. “But your time ran out. There is no other, there aren’t any futures that were meant to be, and you only get one past. Straight line, from start to finish.”
“Can’t you fix it?”
“Nothing is broken.”
“I don’t want it to end.”
Time looked at her. Its twelve eyes blinked rapidly. “Sorry.” the word came out as if it was well practiced. “But that’s what its for. You get a blip. One short segment of a very very long line. Does it really matter if your segment was a little bit shorter than some others?”
“I don’t- I don’t-”
“Ah, damn it.” Time squeezed its eyes shut. “Stop that. Death will get mad at me. He hates paperwork.”
“What can I do?” Cat asked. “There must be something. I can make it worth it. I can earn it.”
“Earn it, you say?”
“I can give you a second.” said Time. “One second.”
Cat’s heart fell. “A second?”
“Don’t. Seconds are expensive. If you don’t use it then we can send you worse places than Sirius. Make it worthwhile, damn you.”
“What the hell can I do in a second?”
“Nothing good.” Time withdrew a tiny hourglass from its pocket. “What can you undo in a second?”
“I don’t-” then the memory surfaced. “Oh.”
“Yes. Seconds count. Make good ones, will you? They add up.” Time paused for a moment. “You can’t do this again. Don’t try. And remember what you can. Remember that you didn’t want all of it to end. Not really. Just some of it.”
“Just some of it.” Cat repeated. She felt her legs going weak. She felt a burning in her nostrils. “Not all of it. Just some of it.”
“Good.” Time said. “Remember, most people don’t get this chance. Do what you can for them. They can’t undo it.”
“They can’t undo it.” Cat said, trying to affix it in her mind. “They can’t undo it. They can’t undo it.”
“Goodbye, human Cat.”
She was underwater. The hairdryer hung above her. The bathroom was hot, filled with steam. Time stood still. There was a roar in the distance and it moved again. Cat hesitated. The hairdryer fell all over again. Then her hand flew out of the water, beating her mind by a fraction of a second. Water burst from the surface and scattered in the air, catching the warm orange light and glinting like broken glass. Then a sharp pain in her hand as she smacked the hairdryer away. It soared through the air shattered against the far wall, sending fragments of cheap plastic everywhere.
Cat sat bolt upright, splashing more water onto the dirty floor. Her heart thumped wildly in her chest. She felt it in her throat. The note was where she left it, with the pen. She snatched it up and scribbled as fast as she could while the memory disintegrated.
Just some of it, she wrote.
There was a hammering on the bathroom door and a worried shout of “Cat!”
Can’t undo it, she wrote.
Outside the rain beat down on the single-glazed window, chilling the air around it.
One second, she wrote.
It was almost gone, now. The memory drained, leaving only a few flashes of remembrance as the last of it self-destructed. She chose one, and wrote it down.
Nothing is broken, she wrote. And for that second, she believed it.