art by Melissa Mead
Exit Stage Life
by Cate Gardner
The door appeared beside Mabel Powell's desk at nine o'clock. It clunked into place, making a showy deal of its arrival, exit sign neon-lit above its frame. Mabel sputtered coffee across the morning post. The phone rang. As if everything was running to routine, Mabel answered the phone.
"Good Morning. Hobson's."
"Seven minutes, twelve seconds," an automated voice said, before ending the call.
Mabel's hand shook as she placed the handset into the receiver. Seven minutes. Not enough time to make a decision about her future. She'd been with the firm eight years, had seen people choose to leave and choose to stay, and had spent many an hour contemplating what she'd do if a door arrived for her. So easy to imagine leaving when you know you have to stay.
She traced her fingers across the doorframe. Paint peeled. No one knew what was on the other side of the doors. They arrived. People left through them. No one ever came back. Everyone knew what happened to those who ignored their door and stayed in situ. An example walked by. Derek Foote (accounting, ignored his door in 1964), bones jutting against mummified skin. It would be silly to stay and rot here.
How many minutes left until the door vanished? A few heads rose from their desks to consider the door. Mabel regretted all the times she'd buried her head in her work and waited for the person whose door had arrived to choose whether to stay or leave. Everyone wanted the door. No one wanted the door.
Time had to have wound down. Derek returned, calculator in hand.
"Should I go?" Mabel asked in a high-pitched whine.
Derek almost jumped out of his skin, which wasn't very far, and which most people expected he would one day do without a fright. Bones walking, leaving skin dust behind. She didn't want that to happen to her.
Mabel gathered her handbag to her chest. She stood, hand curled around the doorknob. She thought she heard a "No" close by, but figured she'd imagined it. Certainly wasn't Derek. What use are dreams if you never enact them?
It only took a second to open the door, to make the choice. Then she was gone.
This story was first published on Thursday, September 22nd, 2011