Fluorescent lights pried into Ray’s skull as if to scare a story out of him.
Children’s latest artistic efforts tacked amongst faded zippy wall-poster slogans all sank into an over-lit backdrop.
A welcome sound could be heard far off: fresh coffee percolating in the new machine’s pot.
Ray sat silent, desperate to ignore Jolie’s end of a phone conversation emanating like irregular bomb blasts from two desks ahead of his.
“Hello? Yes, I called yesterday and left a message with Parker… Parker… Oh, he said his name was… Yeah… No, I never heard back. Well, I… No… My name’s Jolie… Pwell… From Sea Breeze. It’s a church… Yeah, now I have three glass L-desks we need to… No, we need to get them out of here today, so… Well, Parker said today would work… What’s your name?”
Ray glanced over at old desk pieces piled in ruble at the center of the large, open room.
The space was a ghost town of crumbling boxes, scuffed phone systems, large and small cabinets, plug-in calculators with rolls of tape, and trays strewn with dusty remnants from former employees’ drawers.
A broken plastic Christmas tree leaned propped against a little table surrounded by four white cartons marked CHRISTMAS STUFF.
To the rear of the central wasteland stood a perfect wall of unopened boxes Ray had signed for when delivered a week before.
From beside Todd’s big door, far across the way, Ray caught the eagle-like stare of Mottamis, whom everyone called Mo.
Mo seemed to be honing in on Ray, glaring not quite pensively.
As soon as their eyes met, Mo blinked as if in defense, then stepped purposefully forward.
Ray’s attention was caught away by another abrupt burst from Jolie . . . still pressing for some sort of confirmation from whomever she had on the line.
Mo came to a halt at just the right distance to almost loom over Ray.
“Hey, I have a quick question,” blurted Mo, his tone suggesting more.
“Okay,” replied Ray, glancing from left to right.
Mo’s questions were never quick.
“What would you do in a situation where you have unlimited freedom to create or experience anything you want? And it’s forever. And I mean anything at all!”
“What do you mean?” asked Ray, peppering out more shaky, sideways glances.
There was no telling what sort of office-wide tension such conversations could snowball into.
This one felt like a trap.
“I mean,” said Mo, “you can make anything happen. Anything you want. Just by imagining it.”
“Um,” Ray sputtered, immediately aware of a stack of unanswered correspondence on his desk, “…and it’s forever?”
“Yes. You will always be able to make or do absolutely anything you can think of.”
“I guess,” ventured Ray, “I’d want to know what flying feels like. Um, why? What would you do?”
“Okay,” snapped Mo, “So say you fly for as long as you want. You would eventually get bored of just flying though, right? So what then?”
“I don’t know,” said Ray.
“Come on! Unlimited freedom! What would you do?” Mo’s words had the cadence of a counterpunch.
“I guess I’d do just what it says . . . like, imagine different things, and different people and stuff. Different situations. Um…” Ray’s eyes returned to rest over upon Todd’s giant door.
“But you see the limits, right?” roared Mo, his smile resembling that of a baby shark about to feed.
Beads of sweat began to dot and itch Ray’s neck and back.
He did not see the point Mo seemed to be so confidently driving toward.
Knowing Mo, it probably had something to do with God.
But then, instantly, none of it mattered.
Mo and the conversation slipped from Ray’s focus, along with everything else.
It’s happening again.
Ray watched as words he might have sought to say fell from sequence to meaningless scribbles and jumbled, clanging noise.
He smiled, aware of only drifting toward an old, familiar place.
He had watched himself slip like this before, losing track of where (and even sometimes who) he was.
But he had never quite made it all the way back to his special place since…
And there it was . . . that same beloved sound, unmistakable.
As if suspended in the emptiness of the calmest, darkest of caverns, Ray heard a rush like limitless oceans crashing eternally all around.
He did not think to marvel at how nothing had changed.
Instead, he remembered Mo.
But the dialogue and nonverbal cues had been cracked apart like an egg, its soft yolk running raw in pure colors of intention.
“I guess,” Ray heard a voice like his own utter with disarming peace, “I’d rather have something totally unknown happen . . . not anything I’d choose or expect at all. More just whatever could happen. Or maybe whatever couldn’t.”
“But you would still have forever!” Mo’s faint voice insisted. “That’s a long time. Do you really think you would enjoy just whatever imaginable random events forever?”
Ray’s distant response came smooth and quick: “If it were just infinite worlds and things I could imagine, then no, you’re right. But why does everything have to be imaginable?”
“What do you mean? That makes no sense: ‘…why does everything have to be imaginable?’”
“Well,” Ray’s tranquil voice went on, “why do things have to be the way we experience, y’know, with our senses? Why do things have to happen in time? Yeah, I’d get bored with just different worlds of strange creatures and things. But I think if I could see what stretches out, like, as far as possible away from my imagination, then I might never get bored.”
Mo’s voice fired back: “You’re talking about a world not bound by matter and space, or even logical absolutes?! That would be a world where things could be what they aren’t. You get that, right? And what could happen in this non-material, non-rational world of yours?”
“Anything. Whatever…” Ray uttered, his tone morphing down to a hopeful, raspy whisper. “I’d spend forever seeing whatever could be.”
The words felt like the final squeeze of a sponge.
A tremendous shaking hit Ray’s chest as he was washed back from his faraway place until it became again a fuzzy, beloved memory.
The office air felt icy cold and dry like death.
All eyes were locked on him, each set filled with varying degrees of pity and disdain.
I HAVE TO KEEP MY MOUTH SHUT!
Even Jolie was silent, obviously listening.
How bizarre Ray must have sounded, spouting such nonsense about unimaginable worlds.
They all know!
Mo stood perfectly still, his face a model picture of deep thought.
“Go on,” said Mo gravely. “That was pretty good. See what working in a creative environment like God’s house can do for you?”
But Ray caught himself in time, stuffing the words back like clothing into an already packed case.
“This isn’t . . . what?” pressed Mo.
Ray sighed, shaking his head, his face surely betraying in twisted contortions the overwhelming shame he felt as he fought to glue his gaze to the floor.
“You know,” continued Mo, “it’s unfair to think we’re not creative. I mean, consider that you have actually met Jaylen Uay! He got his start here, doing praise for youth. And it was those same songs he created in free worship that have made him one of the most successful Christian artists ever. Are you saying he’s not creative? Are you saying I’m not creative?”
“No,” gulped Ray, the rapid river of never-to-be-said phrases held unsteadily at bay.
I could save this place, you know!
But no one listens.
Why did you all write me off?
Why do you think I’m CRAZY!
A beep, and a click, and Todd flew into the office like a hearty comet.
Ray felt the frigid air begin to thaw.
Todd must have felt something too, for he halted mid-strut, pivoted past the desolate part pile, and strode straight up to Ray.
“How are you?” Todd thundered, showing the warmest of smiles.
But Ray knew better, of course.
The smile had to be just a cover for enormous suspicion and contempt.
PLEASE DON’T WRITE ME OFF!
“You…” Ray began as if at the press of a button . . . his mechanical soul threatening to spring and drain floodbanks held fast by only human lips.
“You have to see it all, all at once, or . . . or you’ll die.”
A massive, sick grin arced hard across Ray’s face as all the blood flushed out.
He heard no responses and saw no reactions.
Yet as glaring lights above went dim, he felt the creepiness he had unleashed permeate the stale air like sludge, acquiescing to every face, possessing every heart and mind…
This would be Ray’s last day working at the Church.
Though he would always keep close by.