It was world’s cleanest terminal, probably. That’s what came to my mind when my eyes opened. Trust me, I have seen enough of them terminals and I know what I am talking about. It was white. I’m sure you will find many airport terminals that are but what set it apart was its pristine quality which had nothing to do with the efficiency of the cleaning staff. It looked old enough, like it had been there for a while yet there was something strangely peculiar that gave the terminal a sense of novelty, like someone had been tweaking with the building, small changes here and there. It was a mix of some 17th century structure out in the wilderness, some mansion or ancestral home, combined with the modern day architecture that have the best facilities one could get. Television sets were hung at intervals showing nothing but static for the moment.
Yet, its cleanliness, believe me, like nothing I’d ever seen. It was so clean that the people around me appeared to be shimmering with a light of their own. Some even seemed to have developed halos around their faces. The lawyer in my mind was looking at something else though—their prim, expensive suits and coats; shining shoes and briefcases and purses of rich leather. I wondered if only the rich and affluent were allowed here in this airport.
I’m not saying that I am super-rich or something but yes, I have done well for myself so far. The bills are paid on time, tax-sheets always turn out clean, have an old couple at home who doesn’t stop talking about how good their son is. Well, I have done well for a thirty-year old man sitting in his ten by fifteen office space with a young college dropout girl as his secretary—but I doubt I had done this well to find myself sitting in this Airport of the Affluent. Latent income, you ask me? Sorry I don’t think I’m ambitious enough to resort to the ‘deals under the table’.
I looked at my own suit, a grey one with shiny lapels, adorned by a white rose on the right, a crisp white shirt and black tie, with a pair of reddish –brown supple leather shoes. I wondered which client of mine had so much money. Probably if you combined my fees from all of them, I could buy some money-gobbling apparel or something. As far as the luggage goes I did not have much, almost nothing—just some pamphlets and the ticket on the seat beside me. Actually, there were two tickets.
I picked one up. It was made of some stiff yet shiny plastic. I wondered when had they stopped using paper, or was it only applicable for the Airport of the Affluent? Even the logo of the airline seemed unfamiliar—it showed a man wearing a baseball cap, his face in shadows, a scythe in his right hand and his left thumb up (as if the sight of a man with his face partially hidden with a scythe in one hand was supposed to be normal for the rich). Below the logo was written ‘Limbo Air’ in cursive with the tagline ‘You will never have a better travel experience than your Last one’. I scratched my head in bewilderment. Was it somebody’s idea of a joke? If it was, then I believe that someone was inflicted with a crooked mind and the uncontrollable itch of getting his/her ass kicked all the time.
I heard the announcement on the loudspeakers and my train of thoughts shuddered to a halt. It was a call for the passengers of some flight ‘L.Air 013’ that was due to leave shortly. I peered closely into my flight details and found the information regarding flight number ‘L.Air 000’ that was scheduled for my destination ‘Purgatory’. I suddenly felt like a fool. Was someone or a number of them playing a prank on me?
I looked around for the glimpse of a familiar face. Suddenly I noticed something: the pairs of commuters. Everyone present around had one and only one travel companion, mind you. My eyebrows shot up in wonderment. Was there some special discount season going on here, or had so many husband-wife couples and gay couples decided to take a trip at the same time? Something was awfully wrong here, screwed if I were to tell you the truth.
My eyes drifted over to the rest of the waiting area: again only couples sitting around on the seats, huddled close-by. Their expressions looked grim, like they had just received the news of the death of someone close. There was even a kid, a girl of around ten-twelve, accompanied by a man whose face didn’t seem to bear any expressions at all. Either he was a bad parent or some pedophile, because the kid didn’t seem alright. Her face was devoid of the brightness and joy that children are gifted with. She looked as if she had been stopped from watching her favorite show and the man/parent had dragged her to the airport.
My eyes fell upon a janitor leaning against the pillar to the right of the man-daughter/pedophile-victim duo. He was dressed in white overalls and a blue t-shirt, a beefy man of forty maybe with a tattoo sporting Chinese characters peeking out from the neckline of his tees. He had a lollypop in one hand and was making faces at the kid, probably trying to make her smile. Well I guess he was good enough with making faces, at least his comical expressions made me smile. But I think the kid was too glum to find him funny or had an advanced sense of humor than the rest of us (well, more advanced than me).
I decided to approach the janitor, the only one smiling in this spotless yet joyless terminal. I got up from my seat, remembering to pick up the tickets and dumping the pamphlets down the waste-bin. I got a peek at stacks of similar pamphlets inside the bin. Rich or poor, probably nobody read the pamphlets, it appeared.
As walked towards the janitor, still busy trying to make the kid laugh. For the first time the expanse of the terminal and what lay beyond its glassed-in facades hit me in the gut. The terminal went on for what looked like the length of four football fields, equally grand in terms of width. Fog drifted and danced outside, at least it looked like fog to me—thick, ropy wisps that impeded any view beyond.
“Hi, I need a little assistance,” I spoke as I neared the pillar, feeling the sudden, booming pitch of my voice (had it always been like that or was the open space of the terminal somehow twisting the acoustics?).
My eyes were still fixed on the impenetrable fog when the janitor spoke.
“How can I help you, sir?” He sounded like my grandfather. I shifted my gaze towards him. Hell, he looked quite a bit like my grandfather! He had a cap similar to the one I’d seen on the head of the man in the logo for Limbo Air. Something was written on it in black. I looked closely. It said—“Till eternity we will serve…”
“I’m not sure how to say this,” I said. “But I don’t know which place is this. I mean it sure is an airport terminal but I haven’t been able to recognize which one or where.”
The janitor glanced behind me then swept his eyes sideways along the waiting lounge. He frowned.
“Sir, may I know where is your companion?” he asked.
“My companion?” I blurted out. “I never had any companion, at least not since I’ve woke up here.” The man sitting with the girl looked at me then returned his gaze towards the floor as if he had suddenly lost interest in our conversation.
“How can that be?” The janitor stood upright, leaving his support. “Are you sure, sir? You are supposed to have a companion to guide you through till your destination. Someone was supposed to see you off till your final destination!”
I stared at his dumbfounded expression with no explanation to offer.
“Anyway,” I continued as if everything was okay. “How come I’ve never heard of this?” I pointed at the logo for Limbo Air on one of the tickets. “Limbo Air—did it start recently?”
The janitor looked at the ticket then back at me, back and forth, like he was trying to demystify the world’s biggest secret.
“You don’t know really, do you?” He asked me, his eyes showing a hint of sympathy. “Yeah how would you. You are one of them—the Undecided.”
“The what?” I asked. The janitor extended his arm for the other ticket, this one showing the destination to be ‘New Delhi, India’.
“Well, I’d suggest we take it slow, one thing at a time.” He said, observing the confused expression on my face.
“You don’t know where you are because you only come here once. You sir, are standing at the one final stop of your life’s journey. Life ends after you pass those yonder gates.” He pointed at the series of doors marked ‘Departures’.
“A companion was to accompany you till you reached the Final Destination—a Grim Reaper, to state it crudely.” The air whooshed out of my lungs and my jaws dropped. The Grim Reaper, for real? I thought.
“The Grim Reaper, you mean—Death?” My mouth had suddenly gone as dry as a desert. I looked up at the lightning fixtures overhead. My head was spinning. How can I be dead? I mean I was okay till…
I tried but nothing occurred. What had I been doing before waking up here?
“Exactly, the same one—at least one of his innumerable agents,” the janitor nodded. I felt as if somebody had stuffed my ears with cotton. “You see, sir, you are dead, or nearly dead, or trying to be dead. Which one is it, may I ask?”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I exploded. Some passers-by looked at us and ignored. The little girl blinked foolishly at me then resumed with her doleful stance.
“Well it means that you don’t know that you are dead or sick or wounded enough to be dead; or probably you wanted to kill yourself—a self-inflicted wound. Getting me?”
I didn’t, not an iota of whatever he was blabbering about.
“I’m sorry that’s the most that I can explain.” He said in a surrendered tone.
My mind zoomed through the scenarios the janitor had presented me with. When did I die? I thought. Nothing before waking up in the terminal came to me. It was as if my mind was aware of everything about myself, my life history, names, professions, hell, phone numbers, even. But nothing related to my whereabouts or whatever I’d been doing before landing in this quagmire.
“You have two tickets, which means you have been given a second chance—a choice; maybe because you died before the predestined moment. Or tried to kill…”
“Predestined by whom?” I asked, ignoring the janitor’s last comment.
“By Fate, Kismet, Ka—call it whatever you want to,” he replied. “You die at a particular time, a Reaper comes to collect your soul and ferry it to the Purgatory, where your fate is decided on the basis of your Karma, and then off you go with him to the Great Beyond—either the Hell or the Heaven. That’s how it normally works.”
I was speechless. He pointed at the crowd of commuters.
“With every soul you are seeing here, there is a Reaper. They are all waiting for their imminent flight to the Purgatory.”
“Is this really happening? I mean, I die and there’s some ‘Happy-to-Deliver Your Soul Service’ of God to send me to Hell or Heaven?”
“God,” The janitor smiled. “I don’t know under whose purview this ‘service’ falls.” He laughed and popped the lollypop into his mouth. “God or no God, this is how it works. The idea of an airport terminal or say a railway station, that’s up to the dead person’s mind. This terminal is your mind’s interpretation.”
I looked around at the terminal. Was it my mind’s version of the Final Stop—an airport terminal, seriously?
“What am I supposed to do now?” I asked him. I had no curiosity to anything about Hell, Heaven or Asshole any further. If I was dead, I was dead.
“I told you,” the janitor said, shifting the lollypop to the corners of his mouth. “You have been given a choice.” He paused, sucking at the lollypop and thinking.
“Look at that,” he indicated towards the Departures gateway. “See the sign above the doors?”
I saw them, right above every door. They read—No Exit.
“Once you step out of those doors, there’s no turning back. Your decision has been made—Purgatory, followed by either Hell or Heaven. Now, turn around,”
I turned on my heels. I could see a large doorway through which normal & gay couples (Reapers and souls, I reminded to myself) were trickling into the terminal. My eyes immediately found the sign reading ‘EXIT’ above the wide door.
“That, dear sir, opens out to both worlds—that of the dead and of the living, unlike the One way door behind.” He pointed his thumb backwards.
“So I just have to choose one of them,” I said.
“Well, the tickets say so,” the janitor remarked. “They’re valid for the journey backwards and onwards, both.”
I kept looking at the figures entering through the door that could be my way out into the Land of the Living—if I chose to.
The question was why and how had I died? Had it been some accident or some burglary gone amiss? I imagined myself lying in a pool of on a busy street. The image changed into one where the pool was fast spreading out of a smoking bullet hole in my side.
“I wasn’t killed—no accidents or anything as far as I can remember,” I said, more to myself than to the janitor.
“Maybe it wasn’t an accident,” the janitor replied. “Maybe you tried to kill yourself as I said earlier—a suicide attempt, I guess.”
I frowned at his conjecture. The lollypop still quivered in his mouth. His bushy eyebrows bristled. Was it possible—a suicide?
I tried to remember—nothing, again. I tried harder, focusing my mind on the memories of my daily routine—waking up, getting ready, breakfast with parents, office…
Something flashed! It was like a scene moving at ultra-high frame speed. The television sets all over the Terminal blared to life. All of them were showing the same thing—a commercial for Ambien, a sleeping pill brand.
“God, you took those?” the janitor asked, surprised and amused at the same time.
“Wait, what?” I regarded him with equal surprise.
“Oh come on,” he spoke in an exasperated tone. “Your mind, your interpretation, it’s at work here. Don’t you get it? You took these pills to kill yourself. You’ve started to remember.
“Now I know why you’re still hanging midway between life and death. I never trusted the brand myself. Lunesta would’ve been better, quicker.” It was a matter-of-fact comment.
I could indeed feel a knot unraveling somewhere inside my brain. A memory flooded through—me lying in an unmade bed, a vial of Ambien in one hand, a fistful of pills in the other. I knew now, I could remember it, almost everything.
I had tried to kill myself.
“You are still not dead, sir,” the janitor said. “But if you don’t make up your mind soon, you’d certainly die.
“Well, take it from an older fellow, sir, life is never fair—anybody’s life. But killing yourself without even trying to make it fair is wrong. You ought to give yourself a change to right the wrongs. What do you do, by the way?”
“I’m a lawyer,” I told him. He eyed me suspiciously.
“A lawyer, nice,” He smirked. “One with alternate sources of income or one without?” He asked me.
“A straight one, I guess. One without alternate sources of income.”
“Thought so, too. The ones with alternate sources don’t go around swallowing Ambien pills usually. They don’t have any reason to do so—money, women, fame, they have it all, mostly.”
“But it’s tough being the straight guy in this time and age.” I tried to explain. “Are you dead, too?” the question popped out of nowhere.
“Ah, yes. I died a long time back,” he said with a smile, as if he was cherishing some pleasant memory from his heydays. “I actually chose to die. You see, I didn’t want to go to either of the two, Hell or Heaven. I liked what I saw here. I was worried by the fact that probably Hell or Heaven would be too lonely. And the way they portray Hell in movies and on television…” He gave me a conspiratorial grin.
“This almost feels real,” he pointed at the Reapers and souls. “Like I’m working in the world’s biggest airport terminal, usual yes sir, no sir, right away, sir—that kind of work. No questions asked.”
“What did you do, to stay here?” I enquired.
“Well I simply tore off my tickets—plural, mind you. I was just like you when I had come here. I had already lived a good life and the prospects of Hell and Heaven seemed too esoteric and complex.”
“Should I tear off my tickets?” I asked.
“You can if you want to. But then you will have nowhere to go but live here, in this terminal. Probably you would work under me as my assistant.” He joked and became serious all of a sudden. “Trust me, this place has got nothing to offer but endless waves of dead ones coming in—occasionally a few lost souls like you and me. And again, you can’t go on pretending forever that this is just another airport terminal.”
I realized I didn’t want to let go of my choices. I had to make a decision.
“Did you choose to die because you were satisfied with the life that you had?” I posed the question.
“Satisfaction,” He laughed. “That never comes. We humans can never be satisfied, that’s the truth. But I had nothing more to do there. I was a successful businessman, you see—one with very deep pockets and a lot to smile for. Too many smiles, actually—so much that it started looking like a farce, an act. It was an accident. I slipped and fell down the stairs. Brain damage, coma and paralysis, it was too much of a struggle. I didn’t want any. I chose to give up.”
“You chose to die, you chose for it to happen that way.”
“Yeah, I chose it.”
We fell silent. My eyes darted between him and the terminal exit, the only one that would lead me backwards—probably give me another chance to be happy, live a bit more.
“I think I’ll go back. I want to live.” I announced and saw his face light up.
“That was quick. What made you change your mind?”
“I guess I’m still too young to die. Plus, I think whatever you said, there is a point.”
“Let me walk you to the exit then.” He motioned me towards the large doorway. I thought he was scared that I would change my mind.
“You know you are quite right,” I confided. “About the endless stream of dead people, day in and day out. And the televisions,” I gazed up at one of the TV sets that was showing merry, blue skies and a sunny weather. “They don’t show much and I can’t live without watching those re-runs of ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Friends’.”
I was sure he didn’t have a clue what I had just said. I hardly believed Walter White and Phoebe were very much known among the dead. Yet the janitor laughed with me as we made our way past the new arrivals. Don’t ask me how, but somehow I could tell the difference between a Reaper and a Soul.
The janitor stopped as we reached the doorway. He faced me.
“Here you go, sir. I can’t venture any further.”
“Thank you for everything,” I said. “You saved my bacon today.” He sniggered loudly. I moved on but then froze in mid-step. I’d forgotten to ask him something!
“Will I see you again, you know,” I asked. “When I come back here with the Reaper?”
“I don’t know, sir,” He said, twirling the lollypop in his hand. “It depends on what will become of this place when you come here next. Perceptions change, you see—maybe it’ll be a railway station or a harbor or even a bus stop. Whatever it may be you won’t find me working as a janitor at least.”
I nodded at him and waved a goodbye before stepping through the doors into the dense fog. I could perceive shadows passing by. It was strange, the fog. It had a sickly smell—probably that was how death smelled. I wondered why any of it didn’t flow in through the open doors of the Terminal.
The fog engulfed me and wafted into my nose. I felt it getting up to my brain as I waded deeper.
With a jolt my eyes flew open and nausea forced me to bolt sideways. I fell down on all fours. I was noticing the rough fabric of the carpet beneath me when I spasmed and vomited. My head reeled and hurt. With groggy eyes, I observed my surroundings. I was in my bedroom, lying hunched over beide my bed. There was an open vial lying close by. The label read ‘Ambien’. I looked at the pool of puke. There were undigested pills in it, with my half-digested morning breakfast.