Step. By step. By step.
Bright light dazed him and he blinked heavily. The spotless, blue sky was a huge change after the dim and grey surroundings of the Hallway he had climbed just a moment ago. The sun in the sky smiled at him warmly, but not so hot it might make him sweat. After a few moments in the bright light his eyes also adjusted to it and he took a step forward. The healthy green grass felt soft underneath his feet. He adjusted his backpack for comfort and he took a long look around.
The grass stretched endless miles and met the blue sky at the horizon. The meadow was plain, no small hill or hole disturbed the sight. But there wasn't only grass. Countless flowers bloomed across the grass, some yellow, some red, all the colours had their place amongst the petals on the field.
And the butterflies! Oh, those sweet creatures, their elegant beauty a welcome change after what the man had seen so far in those grim and endless Hallways! They flew around, all over the flowers, drank their nectar, flew high or low and some even seemed like black stars up in the sky. Their blue wings flapped delightedly, they circled around each other and eased the exhausted man with their beauty. He took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of the grass, the flowers and the sun. Yes, this was a good place.
One butterfly closed in on the man. He smiled, pushing some of the sadness and harshness from his face, and slowly lifted a hand. It had been so long since he last touched something else than the dark stone of the Hallways and his scarred fingers longed for the sensation of the butterfly. The small being flew around his outstretched finger and seemed to evaluate whether it was safe to land on his hand. He kept perfectly still, not really minding the outcome of the butterfly's struggle. He was perfectly fine with just looking at the small creature. Still, he was happy when he saw the the blue insect finally made up its mind and touched his finger.
And shrivelled up like burning paper, wings breaking, legs twisting, faintly shrieking, deformed clump falling down into the green grass where it lay motionless, almost accusing.
The man gave a startled shout and bent down. No, no, no, what happened, what had he done? He stretched out his hand as if to pick up the unsightly corpse of the butterfly, but he jerked it back the moment it touched the grass around the butterfly, which also started to whither and die on his touch, turning ashen green, crumpling up and dying away. The man got up slowly and looked behind. Indeed, he saw, wherever he had put his feet on the grass it was dead and the ground was charred black.
His body stiffened. Why him, why always him? But before he was able to retreat further into his thoughts he noticed something strange. At first he wasn't able to completely put his finger onto it, but after he few seconds he realised, and shivered. The remaining butterflies had stopped moving and had turned to face him, their feelers tingling softly. Nothing moved on the meadow, no wind stirred the flowers, not wing flapped. The man looked around without moving his head and, realising he had held his breath, slowly exhaled.
And suddenly every butterfly, wherever it may have been sitting, ascended and flew towards the man. In a matter of split seconds he was surrounded by a blue whirlwind of butterflies. He lifted his arms as if to defend himself, but very quickly he realised that the butterflies didn't mean to attack him. They simply encircled him, torrented around him like a whirlpool, their blue wings flapping constantly. The man already started to relax, as a butterfly hit him in the chest. It died, shrieking, just as the one before, and all hell broke loose. Suddenly more and more butterflies broke from the circle and flew towards the man, hitting him on his arms, legs, all over his body, and died, every single one of them giving a faint, accusing shriek. The man startled and fell down on his knees, praying and begging the butterflies to stop, but to no avail. They gushed at him in their suicidal flight, they hit him and shrivelled up and died. Soon, the shrieking seemed never to stop and it constantly filled the desperate man's ears.
He didn't want this. He didn't want these beautiful creatures to die. He didn't want to ruin the benevolence of the meadow, of its inhabitants. Why, oh why did this happen to him? What did he do to deserve this?
A familiar creak sounded and the man lifted his head. Through the maelstrom of blue wings he was able to see a door a few steps ahead, wide open, a flight of stairs behind. The next Hallway. The man swallowed his fears, his desperation and, not without effort, got up, shielded his eyes and ran blindly into the direction of the door, right through the butterflies, the shrieking sound all around him and increasing, he could feel the life dying beneath his feet and on his skin, oh Mercyful, what if he missed the door, what if the butterflies followed him into the Hallway, what -
And the door slammed shut, locking out the meadow and its beauty which had been killed just by touching the man. The latter didn't stop running, though, and he fell as his feet hit the lowest step. He hit the grey stone hard but didn't bother to get up at first. Instead he just lay there, the heavy weight of his backpack on his shoulders, silently crying, asking himself how long he had to go on.
A landing with a camp fire and a person. The person is a man, his youth disguised by an aura of sadness, loneliness and desperation around him. His brown eyes look into the fire, his mind, though, is wandering. Wandering where in these grey, unfriendly Hallways? There seems to be no place to go for his thoughts. His heavy backpack lies by his side. Later it will serve as his pillow so the man is able to have at least a shred of comfort. An empty can is lying nearby, the man's dinner. The man also holds something in his scarred and leathered hand. It's a journal, a beloved companion. It's resting firmly in the man's hands, dealing comfort. The young man keeps staring into the fire and nothing for a while longer, then he sighs, gets up and pulls a blanket out of his backpack. He then lies down, head on the backpack, blanket over his body, closes his eyes and is fast asleep.
Step. By step. By step.
The man left the door reluctantly, crouching as if to take cover, his feet treading so he wouldnn't fall over the debris. The air around him was filled with the noise of war; gunshots near and far, the deep thump of artillery in the distance, echoes of people getting hit. The air smelled of smoke and powder and blood and death and the sky was overcast and the man couldn't tell if the black clouds where natural or caused by the smoke. He took a quick look around and found a hiding spot. Still ducking he ran for it and hid behind a broken wall which had once supported a house which maybe had been home to a small family. Mother, father, two children, maybe a dog, or a cat or -
The man closed his eyes and forcibly cut off the thoughts. It was no good to think about such things, to think about what had been here before he arrived. The only thing that counted was how he got away from this place. He was no fighter, he hated death, and he didn't want to stay here longer than necessary. He reopened his eyes and let the backpack fall from his shoulders. He knew he had some binoculars somewhere which might help him to find a way out of this hell. A bullet hit the stone not a hand's span away from his head and he flinched. He had better find those things quickly, or the door at that, else he might die here on this battlefield, in this war over a cause long forgotten to the participants.
Even after five minutes of rummaging in his backpack the man didn't find what he was looking for and he uttered a soft curse. He hastily continued searching, though he was barely able to concentrate. All this fighting around him, people he couldn't see dying not fifty or a hundred steps away, the dirt splashed on his clothes by bullets which only missed him by a hair's width, and the screams, oh the screams...
“Help... help me please,” came a painful whisper. The man stiffened in surprise (he wanted to jump but was afraid to give away his position, so he contained himself at the last moment) and slowly turned his head to where the voice came from. There, not even ten steps away from him, he saw a soldier in a brown uniform, a young man with blonde hair cut short and brown eyes. The soldier was just old enough to be no longer considered a child and his dirty though masculine and handsome face was distorted by a grimace of pain. He was crouching, slowly, towards the man, and held his red and moist right side. The blood still flowed out of the soldier's body, the man was able to see, and he was also able to see that only quick treatment would be able to save the wounded soldier from certain death.
So the man didn't think long (though he hesitated for a short moment, remembering the incident with the butterflies) and searched his backpack for bandages, thread and a needle. He gave a relieved sigh as he quickly got his hands on the items he needed, gathered them up and, crouching low, moved towards the dying soldier. There he knelt down and stretched out his hand to put the soldier's stained fingers away to have a better look at the wound.
And his fingers went right through the soldiers clothes and body without any resistance, as if they were made of air.
The man sat there, frozen in place. Then, slowly, he tried to touch the soldier again – and again his hand was met with no resistance. He tried it over and over again, but the result didn't change; he was unable to touch the soldier.
“Please... Why won't you help me?” came a weak plea from the mouth of the soldier, followed by a cough and blood. “Please... I need help... What did I do to you?” The soldier tried to lift a hand, maybe to clutch at the man's clothes in a desperate effort, but before he could do so the hand dropped down to the ground. Then the soldier tried to utter one last sentence, or maybe just a word, which drowned in the blood flowing from his mouth, and he died.
The man sat there, completely motionlessly, and stared at the corpse. His expression was empty, his eyes were blank, looking down at the dead body. He seemed to have forgotten the war going on around him. Then his mask broke and his face filled with grief and anger and tears. Why wasn't he able to save this soldier who so desperately needed his help, who had put all his hope into him? Why couldn't he do anything, even though he had had everything at hand to rescue him? The soldier could have survived, the soldier could have lived, if only he himself had been able to help. The man's fists clenched tight and hit the ground, which, as if to mock the man, they were able to touch.
Tears wanted to fill his eyes, tears of helplessness and resignation. But before he could allow them to flow the man heard more faint voices all around him and slowly, fearfully, looked around. Over two dozen soldiers, each one heavily wounded, came crawling into his direction. They all looked at him, all clad in brown uniforms, their bodies bleeding and their faces filled with pain and terror and... hope.
Hope the man knew he couldn't fulfil.
“Please... I'm dying...”
“Help, please, my leg...”
“It hurts so much...”
“Please, mister... Please help me...”
The man got up and circled, looking at them. His eyes slowly filling with terror and tears. He wanted to help them, but he knew he couldn't, and he wanted to excuse himself, excuse his impotence, but as he opened his mouth only a choked sob escaped his lungs. He wavered, had to seek stability from the wall at his side. Now the first soldier was so close the man could have stretched out his hand and helped him, relieved him from his agony...
Suddenly, there was a new sound over the sputtering of the machine guns and the dying soldiers and collapsing of buildings. The man knew the sound and, as always, it filled him with terror and relief alike. It was the creak of a door opening. The man looked around hastily and there, amidst the crawling soldiers, not ten steps away, was the door.
He gathered his thoughts and his backpack, closed and shut off his mind so it won't bend and break, took a deep breath and ran. He ran over, no, through the soldiers on the ground as they were grasping for his shoes, his trousers, as they were moaning and cursing him and begging him to stay, to help them, please, help them, it's hurting so much, don't run, we need you, please -
And the door slammed shut, locking out the battlefield with the soldiers who put all their hope into the man who wasn't able to help them and was forced to watch them dying. The dim light always present in the Hallways hid his face in the shadows, and if there had been anyone else in the Hallway they would have heard low curses and the quiet thud of fists hitting stone and soft sobs which quickly turned into a single, deep, long howl. But there was no one else, of course.
Another landing, another camp fire, the same young man. He had stopped counting the landings he had already visited. Sometimes he had been able to travel from landing to landing without once leaving the Hallway, always climbing the stairs, only resting his shoulders, aching from the backpack's weight, when reaching a landing. Not every door led outside the Hallway – sometimes it simply led into the next Hallway which only differed from the previous one in the width of the steps. Once, the man had gone through a door and entered a Hallway with steps so wide he was only able to conquer three before he again had to take rest. The steps had been wider, much wider than the man had been able to see in the dim, omnipresent light. But that was a long time ago, or was it? The man lost any idea of time long ago. Now he just sits there, both hand clutching on the journal, and it seems as if... No, of course he won't throw it into the fire, no matter what. He gives a deep sigh and rubs his eyes. As they open they show a bottomless sadness, born through experience no one should ever have had, and a loneliness which, as the rests at the camp fires went by, became heavier and heavier. The man slowly, almost lethargically gets up and prepares his bed. But he isn't able to fall asleep for a long time whilst his mind once again wanders around. And when he finally finds sleep it is with tears in his eyes and nightmares in his head.
Step. By step. By step.
“Oh dear, you look horrible! Just what happened to you?”
The female, near shrill voice made the man frown. What was this place? A kitchen, wasn't it? A table, four chairs, a lamp hanging from the ceiling, a fridge, a stove, a kitchen counter with a brown cat complacently sleeping on it, a window which flooded the room with sunlight. And outside the window...
A touch at his shoulder focused the man's attention back on the woman in front of him. She had bleached hair, blue eyes and a face which desperately tried to cover its age, somewhat between forty and fifty. The woman wore neutral, but still somewhat nice clothes as well as a simple golden chain around her neck. The fingers on her hand which touched the man's shoulders were in good shape; not manicured, but also not broken. She seemed like a perfectly normal woman and the man could almost feel himself relax. Almost.
The woman smiled at him and ushered him further into the spacious kitchen. His eyes quickly wandered around but weren't able to find anything unusual. The lamp looked nice, the carpet looked nice, the furniture looked nice. The only thing which alienated him were the empty chairs. One for him and one for the woman, sure, but the other two...? He pressed his fingers on his eyes. No need to be paranoid. Maybe they were simply gone, to the toilet or something. Maybe there was a perfectly logical reason. Just look at what happened to you. Who knows, maybe this was what he was searching for? Maybe this was what he had taken on all those hardships for? Maybe, just maybe, this was the place promised in the -
“Daddy, you always look so worn out when you come back from work.”
Slowly the man opened his eyes and looked at the origin of the voice. The chairs were no longer empty but were now occupied by two children, one young girl, roughly old enough to be able to talk complete sentences, and one older, but still young boy around seven. Both looked at the man with their brown eyes full of sorrow. The boy, the man realised, was the one who spoke. He smiled and put a hand on the boy's hair, blonde like his own, roughing it up softly. The boy, fighting a smile, pulled his head away and looked at the man with acted anger whilst the little girl grinned a smile full of milk teeth. This sight caused the man to laugh, the first laugh in... In... In...
The smell of food distracted him and he looked down at the table. It was filled with dishes for four and delicious food – neither too rich nor too austere, just some healthy and tasty and enticing-looking looking food. The man's stomach grumbled, it had been so long since it was last filled with something else than canned food. It had been... Had been...
His clean hand went over his shaven face. What was he thinking about? Seems like the work had gotten to his head again. Why was he thinking strange things about the food his wife of fifteen years had cooked for him? He should really think about taking some days off from work and spend some time with his family. Maybe he could continue to work on that shed he always wanted to build in his garden...
“Now, Honey, please give me that unsightly backpack and sit down and eat with us.”
The man stood paralysed. Even his breathing stopped for a moment. His eyes instantaneously regained all the focus they had lost over the last few minutes. His cheeks paled. He turned around, hands gripping the shoulder straps of his dirty backpack. His wi-, no, that woman stood there, cheerful smile on her face, hand outstretched. She said, “Now, come on, give me that bulky thing. You won't need it any more, now that you have us, back home.” Her hand reached out as if to touch the backpack, but before this could happen the man flinched back, his eyes widened. The woman frowned in confusion. “Darling? What's going on?” She made a step to close the distance the man had generated, and he took another step back.
His eyes looked around quickly. The children, not his children, looked up at him with empty eyes, and the food on the table had suddenly lost its appetising smell and appealing look. The man looked back at the woman who looked at him with what should have been a consoling smile. It only served to push the man further back.
How could he have been so stupid, so blind! How could he not have noticed that there was nothing outside the window except for light, that everything was too good to be true, that this was not the promised place? No, he wouldn't be able to stay here without giving up his life, or what filled his life. The moment he gave that woman his backpack was the moment he would experience peace and comfort, but what would be the price? His being, his identity, he would have to give all this away to lead this life of boring but comfortable uneventfulness.
He didn't want this. He wanted peace and comfort, but not at this price.
And again the creak was maddening but also welcome. The kitchen door slowly opened and revealed a Hallway behind. The man gave one last look around, looked at the children, the food, the woman who stood there, her eyes empty but her mouth smiling. He looked at everything, gave it all one last, but short, consideration Then he shifted the backpack into a more comfortable position and left through the door.
This time it didn't slam shut behind the man's back, much to his surprise. So he slowly turned around, wondering what might be the reason.
And there stood the woman, not three steps from him, her clothes full of blood, and a big kitchen knife in her hand. There was no longer food on the table but a lake of blood in which the two deformed bodies of the children and the cat lay, their bodies torn open, their guts spilled on the table, the floor, the stove, their eyes and mouths screaming at the ceiling in silent and dead terror. The light which flooded the room was no longer a bright yellow but a poisonous green instead.
The man looked from the woman to the children and back to the woman. His body was stiff with fear and panic and guilt. He wanted to take a step, a step back into the room of horror which had been a safe haven just a few seconds ago. But before he could move the woman, not taking her terribly, cruelly sad and pitying eyes from him, slowly lifted the knife and pointed it at her throat. She stood there for what seemed like years, unblinking, unmoving. The man looked back, still horrified, but he felt the ability to move creeping back into his bones and muscles. He lifted a hand. He wanted to save the woman at least. The last shred of the promise of safety and comfort he had cast away.
But before his hand could travel through the door the woman smiled a sad smile and said, “This was the happiness you so wished for. Now you will never experience it. You brought this upon yourself. You killed it.”
She thrust the knife forward the moment the door slammed shut, leaving the man standing in the dim, blue light of the Hallway, one hand still halfway outstretched. He stood there, motionlessly, his eyes fixated on the door he knew would never open again. Slowly, he let it drop to his side, the rest of his body still frozen.
After a minute or an hour or a day he turned and took the stairs. Step. By step. By step.
The young man puts more wood into the fire. Where does he always get it from, or the food and the water? It doesn't matter, it never has. The man puts more and more wood into the fire until it reaches higher than himself, sitting there on the ground, looking at the flame with a deeply sad determination in his eyes. It has been three Hallways since the last... time, three Hallways full of nothing but dim light and grey stone. And full of thoughts. Now the man is satisfied with the fire, gets up and goes to his backpack. He kneels besides it and looks at it lovingly (though even this is not enough to chase the sadness in his brown irises away). His backpack which has travelled with him so far, which has accompanied him, which contains everything the man consists of. The young man opens the backpack carefully and searches for something. It doesn't take him long to find it - He always puts it into the same place. His careful hands slowly, softly caress the journal and his eyes look at it for a while, thinking, what if there was another possibility, what if...? No. The man closes his brown eyes, raises the book to his lips and softly kisses it on the title reading 'Hopes and Dreams'. Then he shoulders his backpack which suddenly seems so much lighter, presses the journal to his breast and, without hesitation, walks into the fire.