After the Storm
by William Michaelian

The three doors were identical in every respect, so I picked one at random and knocked. Youíre late, a serious-looking young woman said. She looked past me down the corridor. Where are the others? she said. Are they late as well? I nodded, though I had no idea what she was talking about. Theyíre downstairs in the lobby, I said. I think they were distracted by all the paintings. The young woman smiled, then asked me to come in. Her office was surprisingly small. But what it lacked in size, it made up for in view. From her window one could see the entire city, bathed in blue mist. It was absolutely lovely. You like it? she said. Itís beautiful, I said. She smiled again, then thanked me. I think itís one of my best, she said. Come. Have a closer look. She gave me her hand, and together we stood before the window and looked out. While I was admiring the scene, I suddenly realized the window wasnít a window at all, but a painting. This is amazing, I said. You did this? It must have taken forever. But she told me it hadnít, that it had taken her only a few minutes. We sat down. Are you sure theyíre coming? she said. I looked at my watch. The elevator was acting a bit funny, I said. Maybe they had some trouble. She picked up her telephone. Iíll call someone, she said. Hello? Eddie? Would you please check the elevator? No. Uh-huh. Yes. Thatís what I thought. She hung up. What did he say? I said. Troubles? No, he said we have no elevator. No elevator? I said. Then what was that I rode up on? For a long time, she didnít answer. Then she stood up. I think you have the wrong room, she said. I got up and followed her to the door. I do thank you for coming, though. Iíve enjoyed our visit. I stepped into the corridor. The door closed behind me.

I was trying to decide which of the other two doors to knock on next when the elevator opened and three well dressed men got out. Sorry weíre late, one of them said. We were looking at all those paintings. Pardon me, I said, but I donít think weíve met. This is true, the same person said. To put it another way, we are complete strangers. But letís be friends, shall we? Life is much more pleasant when people are friends. You remember the war, and how we ó Wait a minute, I said. What war? I donít remember any war. What are you talking about? The war, he said. The war. Surely, youíve not forgotten the war. Otherwise, why would you be here? Iím here, I said, on business. Trouble is, these doors arenít marked, and all three are exactly the same. Ah, said another of the strangers. May I offer a suggestion? Certainly, the first stranger said. Thank you, the second stranger said. My suggestion is this: why donít the four of us have lunch together? Itís almost one oíclock. Iím sure our friend here is hungry. Iím told the cafť downstairs is quite good. Also, it would be nice if we could get better ó What cafť? I said. There isnít any cafť. Everyone smiled. Everyone but me, that is. If you will excuse me, I said. I really am very busy. Perhaps another time. Yes, yes, the third stranger said. Of course. Why not make it for another time? Then he knocked on the door to the room Iíd just left. Almost immediately, the door opened and the three strangers were admitted by the same young woman. The door closed.

Relieved to be alone, I knocked on one of the remaining doors. Things are certainly hectic this morning, said the older woman who answered. She looked past me down the corridor. I do hope we wonít see the likes of them again. She closed the door behind her. You look familiar, she said. Have we met? I donít think so, I said. Although you do remind me of my mother. Your mother? the woman said. How very sweet of you. Iím flattered. Itís always nice to look like someoneís mother. Mothers are so very important, especially in this day and age. Really, the frightful things that are happening. Where does it all end? Thatís a good question, I said. Iíve been wondering that myself. The woman invited me to make myself comfortable. Tea? she said. Yes, I said. That would be nice, if youíre sure itís no trouble. She assured me it was none at all. The tea was excellent. We sat at a small table staring at one another. I was hoping youíd come a bit earlier, she said finally. Really? I said. Thatís what your neighbor said, too. My neighbor? she said. Which neighbor? The young lady in the next office, I said. The first thing she said was that I was late ó which seems odd, since I had no appointment. That is odd, my second hostess said. Very odd indeed. But, never mind. Late or early, you are here, and thatís whatís important. Thank you, I said. Iím glad to hear you say that. Iíve never liked being late ó or early, for that matter. Iíve always thought being early was rude ó not as rude as being late, to be sure, but almost. Anyway. Iím sorry. This tea is really excellent. Whatís in it? The woman smiled. Oh, she said, this and that. Whatever I find. Whatever is available. She sighed. Itís difficult, you know, since the war began. Excuse me? I said. Youíre the second person Iíve met today who has brought up a war. I donít mean to be obtuse, but what war, exactly, are you talking about? The woman put down her cup and leaned forward. Some say itís over, she whispered. But itís not. Donít believe them. The war has never stopped. Oh, there have been occasional breaths of air. But they donít amount to peace. Take the men you were just talking to. Iím sure they wouldnít be so ó Hold on, I said. How did you know I was just talking to someone? ó thoroughly glib if they hadnít been given those silly suits to wear. Did you hear me? I said. I asked how you knew I was just talking to someone. Yes, she said. Of course I heard you. Iím not deaf. The point is, they canít be trusted. They are carriers of the blight we are now suffering. They look innocent enough, but theyíre nothing more than mindless drones. On the contrary, I said. They didnít look innocent at all. By the way. Do you have any idea what business they might have in the office next door? No, she said, I donít. Other than the obvious. The obvious? I said. And what might that be? The woman fell silent. She looked down at her cup. Never mind, I said. I understand. It looks like I have the wrong room. No, please donít get up. Iíll let myself out. Thanks again for the tea. Youíve been very kind.

Once again, I was alone in the corridor. While I was getting up the courage to knock on the third door, the first door opened and the three well dressed men came out. This time, though, they were without their polite and cheerful demeanor. I told you it was a waste of time, one of them said to the others as soon as the door had been closed behind them. People like her make me sick. Yeah, one of the other suits said. Artists. Excuse me? I said. Did any of you happen to see her painting of the city? I thought it was quite excellent. Painting? the third suit said. What painting? The one behind her desk, I said. The one that looks exactly like a window. Suddenly, all three of them laughed. That is a window, the first suit said. Donít tell me you fell for that. I didnít fall for anything, I said. I saw what I saw, and what I saw was a painting. And it was a darn good painting, at that. They laughed some more. Then, suddenly, they became deadly serious. Look, all three of them said, we know why youíre here, so why donít you just tell us? They took an ominous step closer. Huh? I said. Tell you what? If you know why Iím here, why donít you ó Ah, shut up, they said. We know your kind. Here ó and they handed me a map. Whatís this for? I said. To help you get your bearings, they said. To find yourself, as it were. Business indeed. Hah! Youíre one of them. Now, donít try to worm out of it. Weíve been watching you for a long time. Watching me? I said. Why on earth would you be watching me? Donít play games with us! they roared. Now get in that elevator. Weíre going for a ride. There is no elevator I said, quoting the artistic woman Iíd met behind the first door. Ask Eddie. Heíll tell you. The three stopped. Eddie? they said. You know Eddie? Of course, I said. Everybody knows Eddie. Just then, the elevator door opened. Without saying another word, my three would-be assailants stepped inside. The door closed.

I went to the third door and knocked. Sorry Iím late, I said to the very old woman who let me in, but I was detained. The old woman closed the door. No need to apologize, she said. It happens all the time. I suppose it does, I said. Especially with the war and all. The old woman nodded. It has been the same for as long as I can remember, she said in a weary voice that seemed to recall much suffering. And that is a very long time, I can assure you. But please, wonít you sit down? Your papers are almost ready. We sat down on opposite sides of a clear, quiet pond. Papers? I said. What papers? A leaf landed on the waterís surface. The old woman smiled. It doesnít matter, she said. When the time comes, you will see. Or, you wonít. Either way, life will go on, as it has since the beginning. As the old woman spoke, she rocked gently, side to side. To keep myself from being hypnotized, I said, And the war, too, I suppose. You know, to be perfectly frank, until a little while ago, I didnít even know there was a war. But now I think I must have just forgotten. Iíve been so preoccupied lately ó worried. Itís sad. It seems the harder I try, the less I accomplish. Iím not a lazy person. I never have been. I enjoy work. I really do. Anymore, though, my efforts always lead to a dead end. If that makes any sense. The old woman rocked. Another leaf landed on the water. Well, I went on. As you said, it doesnít matter. What matters is that we are here. I am concerned about the war, though. Tell me. How did it start? The old woman became very still. It started, she said, when people stopped believing in life. When they became dissatisfied with common miracles. When the soft breeze upon their skin was no longer a surprise, they set out to measure the unmeasurable, and to give it a foolish name. War has been with us ever since. As she spoke, a soft rain began to fall. The men outside, I said finally. For a moment, they seemed quite anxious to do me in. She smiled. Because they canít understand you, she said. You are a threat. But whatís there to understand? I said. Iím just a guy. A person. The clouds opened. The rain came harder. And the wind. The pond between us became a raging river. I stood up to leave. Perhaps I should return for my papers later, I said. After the storm.

I stood in the corridor, wondering about the painted world outside, and about the very strange one inside. I wondered about the war, and about the three women and three men Iíd met. Who were they? And who was I?

To this day, I still donít know. And to this day, I donít know which door to knock on next, or who I will meet inside. But I keep knocking, and I keep finding out. And the men keep laughing at me and telling me Iím wrong ó about everything ó or, as Iím afraid Iíll one day find out, about nothing. Nothing at all.

William Michaelianís newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelianís other books and links to this siteís other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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