World's End Inn
Truth be told, I'm not sure how I ended up in front of that ominous inn in the first place. One minute I was standing on a train, half-asleep on my way to school in the hot summer. The next, I'm still half-asleep and standing in front of the door to that place. I figured it was a dream, that I had zoned out while waiting for the train to arrive at my stop. Interesting though the building was, with its brick walls and oddly working waterwheel, I had no interest in going inside.
Why the word 'END' had to be in capital letters was the first question to spring up. Then came the question, "Why such a morbid name in the first place?"
My imagination tended to run away with me at times, so I paid the figment about as much attention as one would a stranger on the street. After all, I still thought I was on the train on my way to school.
Of course. Why would I doubt that?
I turned from the building, and looked to the left. There was a small pier overlooking a vast body of water. I lived no where near the ocean, so it only helped to emphasize the dream theory in my mind. Come to think of it, why don't more stories take place near the ocean? It was as if such a setting would deny the writer a chance to make a chapter about the experience of visiting the beach. And dressing up their characters in revealing swimwear, if cute girls were involved.
And these days, every story had a cute girl involved. More often for the sake of appeal, than any real necessity.
Before I realized it, I was standing on the pier, where I noticed a bench leaning up against the railing. Actually, that wasn't the strangest thing. The pier didn't end like it normally should. I wasn't very familiar with piers, mind you, but even I knew something was wrong here. The railing behind the bench was all disjointed, broken and even a little twisted. Beside the bench, the pier just seemed to stop entirely, as if the rest of the floor was torn away by time or a ship that passed too close. There was even a beam sticking out haphazardly, in a way that would damage a ship to the point it could sink.
Strange. But not that strange, I guess. Could just be poor maintenance.
My rational mind was in full force today. Odd, considering I was contemplating the possibility of the sun setting back down instead of climbing up into the sky like normal this morning.
I looked out to the ocean. In the distance, I could see a few pillars jutting out from the horizon. White seagulls were everywhere, some perched on those pillars. I hadn't been to the ocean in a while, but I was pretty sure there wouldn't be large rocks sticking out like that all over the place. Come to think of it, why weren't there any boats or other people around?
I turned back to the building marked "World's END". However, something else caught my eye. There was a sign sticking out from the ocean, just beyond the broken railing behind the bench.
"Syūten," it read, with an arrow pointing out to the left. I followed the arrow, but I only ended up staring back out to the ocean. The only thing in that direction, aside from more water, were a few of those pillars in the distance.
What was Syūten? Was it a place? The name itself didn't ring any bells. Plus, the sign was pointing out to sea. An island by that name? Who would bother putting up a sign like that? What's the point?
With the sign causing more questions than actual answers, I turned back to the building marked "World's END". I looked up at it, seeing for the first time that it had three stories. The second and third floors looked to be made of wood instead of brick. Though since I'm not an architect, I guess I couldn't be sure of anything. There were a few windows -none of them open -though the shutters were. There was also a clothesline with some articles of clothing up on the balcony of the third floor.
A pink blanket; if I were to guess, a girl would be living here. Just beneath that balcony, there was a tarp stretched out to provide shade over a round table and a few chairs. Aside from the rather morbid title, the building looked almost... inviting.
It was at that moment that I stopped thinking about it. I instead thought about something else.
Why was I still here?
Why hadn't I woken up?
I did the cliched thing and pinched myself on the arm. All that did was leave a patch of red skin on my arm. And hurt a bit.
That did it. If I wasn't going to wake up, I could try to leave on my own. I turned around and walked in the opposite direction of the bench on the broken pier.
… only there was no where to walk.
The same broken, disjointed railing that surrounded the pier and house blocked off the road leading away from it all. For no reason, as there was no where else to walk beyond the railing.
There was only more ocean. Far as I could see. And those same jutting pillars in the distance.
As my heart sank in my chest, only the sounds of the seagulls in the air seemed to comfort me.
And small comfort that was.
I stared at the simple sign for what felt like hours. Probably only a few minutes, at most. There was nothing strange about the sign. Unless you consider red paint strange.
Maybe that was a clue. Who uses red paint for signs in this day and age? Why not black?
Before I let my imagination run away with me, I stopped and came up with a plausible explanation. Maybe the owner's favorite color is red. Maybe red paint was all he had on him. Or her. Or maybe it wasn't red paint, but... nah, I'm over-thinking things.
Or was I?
I still didn't have an answer for how I got here in the first place. Though my legs and back were starting to hurt, I stood upright in front of the sign. I dared not lean against the shoddy railing for fear of it giving way under me. I didn't consider myself heavy, but it seemed that every time a physical was performed in school, the nurse's comments about your weight felt harsh.
Such is the fate of a girl, I guess.
I shook my head. After that little tangent, I focused hard on how I got here. The last thing I remembered was getting on the train to go to school. It's June, so already we were feeling the heat of summer. I looked down at my clothes. A thin, white blouse. A green pleated skirt. Brown loafers, black socks reaching up to my knees. I didn't much care for the socks, but dress code demanded it. Typical summer wear for school.
So I got on the train. There were no seats available, so I was forced to stand and hold onto one of the safety rings. I was still tired, having stayed up late to talk with my friends and procrastinate our homework assignment. Actually, I didn't get around to finishing it. I resigned myself to the inevitable bad grade and went to sleep. A model student I was not.
Anyway, I tried half-heartedly to both stay away and keep my balance. Though that was all. I don't remember getting off the train, or even hearing my stop being announced. Had I merely dozed off while standing on the train?
If so, why couldn't I wake up?
All the while, I continued to eye the brown door of the building in front of me. Were it not for that sign, I'd have gone inside a long time ago. Everything about the building looked pleasant. The owner might even be a charming young lady, daughter of an eccentric man that once owned the place. She probably never removed the sign because it was a memento of her dad.
Anyway I dressed it up, the sign was still there, though. And that chilled me to the core.
Actually, for the first time since finding myself here, I took in a deep breath of the wind coming from the sea around me. As if to assuage my fears, the scent of the ocean made its way through my lungs. That same wind blew my medium-length black hair across my face. Once I brushed it back, I resolved to go into the building.
I stood before the brown door. It was worn, the paint slightly faded. Some parts of it had no paint left at all, and a dull brown showed the true color of the door. Actually, there wasn't a doorknob, but a single metal bar. The kind you find on doors at restaurants.
I took hold of the handle. My heart was beating faster than it ever had before, I think. Still, I pushed on the door handle. The wooden door creaked as it swung open and granted me entry.
Would it be considered strange for me to have expected something strange inside the place? I mean, the way I built up the whole "World's END" sign, surely there was sure to be some reason for it. Right?
Imagine my bewilderment then, when all I saw inside the place was a countertop and someone standing behind it. The interior resembled the entrance of an inn, which incidentally, was the purpose of "World's END". Aside from the countertop in front of the entrance, there was a small lounge to the left with a few tables, chairs, and a comfortable looking couch. Even a potted plant, though it was long since wilted and dead.
I looked to the person standing behind the counter. It was the middle of summer, and this place didn't seem to have any air-conditioning. Yet this person was clothed from head to toe (I'm guessing here, since he is behind the counter) in black. A black fedora, thick-rimmed black sunglasses, a black trench coat with the collar popped so that it covered most of his face, and heavy black leather gloves. If he was looking at me through those shades, I wouldn't be able to tell.
We stared at each other for a moment. Or at least I stared, unable to look away for some reason. I know this is a rude thing to do, but there was something about his face I couldn't quite put my finger on. While most of it was covered up by the hat, glasses and coat collar, his cheek was still visible.
It was white. Pale white, like a sheet of paper. I thought for a moment he might be an albino. Right after that, I felt bad for thinking something so mean-spirited.
"Hello." I finally managed to blurt out.
The man remained motionless. Still, words escaped him.
"Welcome." Silence followed. An unnerving silence, to be honest.
I took this chance to look over the rest of the entrance of the first floor. Despite the apparent size on the outside, the building was quite small on the inside. The counter took up most of the entrance, while the waiting room over to the left could probably accommodate a family of five or six, at best. Next to the counter, and between the two 'rooms', there were stairs leading up to the second floor.
With the awkward silence between myself and the man behind the counter, I desperately wanted to go upstairs and away from his gaze. All the while, leaving through the door behind me didn't cross my mind.
"Where am I?" I asked.
"The World's END Inn."
It was only now that I noticed the thick book on the counter in front of the man. It looked like he was half-way through it. I couldn't tell if it was a novel of some sort or an encyclopedia. There must have been several thousand pages in the thing.
"I mean, where am I?" I reiterated.
"The World's END Inn."
His response was the same. I swallowed hard after he spoke the name of the place a second time. Because of the words "end" and "inn" being next to each other, it almost sounded as if he was saying "The World's Ending". Most likely intentional.
"I'm sorry. I think I'm in the wrong place," I stammered, hoping to escape this creepy place as quickly as possible.
"You are here for a reason."
His words were cryptic. I felt like I was in a mystery novel. Would it be so hard to give me a straight answer?
"I don't even know how I got here. And there's no way to leave outside."
"The road will open when you're ready to depart."
As if that was enough explanation, the man turned his attention back to the thick book on the countertop. What did he mean by that last statement? Was there going to be a ferry arriving at some point? A ship? Where would they dock? What's more, how is it I don't remember even getting to the tiny island out in the middle of God-knows-where in the first place?
"Is there something else?"
The voice snapped me out of my daze. Funny, how could I be in a daze in a dream? Or was this not a dream? Maybe it was a dream in a dream. Or I had gone crazy out of the blue. I think I read that happened once.
"I..." I tried to say something else. But what could I say without sounding utterly crazy? Then again, could I be called crazy for wondering how I got to a tiny island in the middle of the ocean?
"You are here for a reason."
That was a line he already said.
"But sometimes, souls lose their way."
What that meant, I had no idea. But it sure did freak me out more than I already was. But not as much as what came next.
The man raised both his hands as he stood up. He was a tall fellow, probably well over six feet, maybe close to seven. I wasn't very tall myself, so it could just be my skewed perspective. His left hand began to pull at the individual fingers of his right glove. He was going to take it off for some reason. When the last of the four fingers had been tugged on, he grabbed onto all four loose ends and pulled the whole glove off.
His hand was a pale white. White as a sheet of paper. But it wasn't because of his skin. It was because he had no skin to speak of. I stared in shock as collection of bones moved about in the air. There were no veins or anything else holding these things together. No tricks I could see to explain this. Either this was some new kind of animatronic technology being used as an elaborate prank, or...
I couldn't begin to entertain the second notion.
During my mind's attempt at making sense of all this, he reached over the counter and poked my forehead. Were my mind not running marathons around my head, I'd have probably fainted on the spot.
"It seems you were correct. You do not belong here. Yet."
The man... thing... whatever, sat back down. He replaced the glove, though it did little to conceal what was underneath for me anymore. I tried to focus more on what he said.
"So how do I leave?"
"The road will open when you're ready to depart." Familiar words. He followed up on them. "Proceed to the third floor. You will find more answers there."
Maybe I followed his suggestion to get away from him. Probably the reason. Still, curiosity is a powerful thing, so before I knew it I was more interested in what was hiding out up on the second and third floors than the bone-handed man on the first. I hoped it wouldn't turn out to be a person with more exposed bones.
The second floor had a pair of doors opposite each other down the hall to the left. I resisted the urge to look into them, and looked to the right. A single door, open, leading to a bathroom. It was complete with an antique white tub and sink, the kinds you see in movies that take place in the early twentieth century. The stairs up to the third floor were right ahead, so I moved on.
Up on the third floor, there was again a single hall to the left, and a bathroom on the right. However, this time there were two doors on the righthand side of the hall, and one door on the left towards the end. With no one around, I walked down the hall.
The first door on the right was closed, and had a blank name tag on the front. The second door on the right was identical, while the single door on the left had an actual name on the tag.
"Rose" was written on the tag in red paint. I hoped that was paint.
The door was also slightly ajar. I could hear someone inside, but I was scared to say something. The man downstairs said I'd find answers up here, so I had to ask this "Rose". Again I found myself taking a deep breath and my heart racing. I was never this jittery before. I slowly and softly brought the back of my fingers to the door.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
"Who is it?" Came a voice from within. It was a girl's voice. She sounded nice.
"Umm... can you help me?" I really didn't know what else to say. Something deep down told me not to share my name just yet.
The person inside the room shuffled around a bit. The door pulled back to reveal a normal person. No trench coat covering her face, or thick shades or hat. She wasn't wearing gloves, either. Her hands were normal. By normal I mean with skin. I let out a sigh of relief.
"Yes?" She quickly sized me up before I could answer.
"The man downstairs told me to come up here. Said you could give me some answers?"
Before she could answer, I sized her up myself. She looked older than me, probably in her late teens. Early twenties, tops. Despite the warm weather, she was wearing a pair of brown boots, black leggings, a denim skirt, a white shirt, and had her long, black hair in a ponytail.
"I didn't think it would ever happen."
She had a smile on her face, as if she were waiting for me to arrive.
"Let me guess: you don't know how or why you got here, right?"
"You tried to leave, but there's no where to go?"
"You go inside, trench coat says something really weird, then tell you to wait?"
This time I answered audibly, "Well, he said I'd find the answers up here."
The girl, whom I assumed was called "Rose", let out a chuckle. Something was amusing her to some end.
"Come inside. You might want to sit down for what I'm about to tell you."
Turns out "Rose" isn't really the girl's name. It's an alias she chose during her time here. The man downstairs, whom she consistently referred to as "Trench Coat", told her to never utter her name while in the inn. Fortunately, she managed to stop me just before I said my own name.
And since I never felt like I wanted to change my own name, I was at a loss when it came time to decide on an alias. Rose was kind enough to pick one for me, one that matched her own alias: Lily.
So now that I was the newly dubbed "Lily", Rose went right into explaining what World's END really was.
And since there is no way to sugarcoat this, I'll just say it as bluntly as she said it to me.
This is Limbo. The passage between life and the afterlife.
As anyone might react, I didn't believe her. I even went so far as to call her crazy. She wasn't hurt by my words, though. She probably saw them coming. She probably went through the same thing herself when she got here. But there was a silver lining to this predicament. What Trench Coat said before was true; both myself and Rose did not belong here. We weren't really dead.
And that knowledge was a load off my mind.
"So why are we here?" I asked.
"Trench Coat won't tell me." She shrugged.
And she just accepts it? Well, not like she could do much about it all. There was only ocean as far as we could see, and no boats to speak of. Then again, if this really was Limbo, you'd have to figure the only way out of it was by divine intervention.
"By the way, who is Trench Coat?"
Rose looked at me with a quizzical expression. Was it a dumb question?
"You didn't see his hand?"
I shuddered upon the mere mention. Answer enough for Rose.
"Well, Trench Coat never told me who he really was, but I got a look at his book once. I thought it was a normal book, but it turned out to be a list of names. Thousands of names per page."
Where was she going with this? I had a feeling, but I dared not voice it.
"And once, I saw his face through the popped collar. He doesn't have any skin anywhere on him."
"You mean...?" Again, I dared not say a word.
"My guess is... he's Death. The Grim Reaper, without the scythe and cloak."
That would make the book he's "reading" a tome with the names of everyone who's set to die. What, he just reads the name, and the person's time comes? Guess that's more efficient than going to each and every person individually with the scythe. Or maybe that was just a superstition?
Judging by the World's END Inn, it was as if all the preconceptions of the afterlife and Limbo were false. This wasn't a desolate place devoid of the sun's brilliance. Except for the fact that we can't go anywhere, it's almost a pocket of paradise. Then again, this is just Limbo. What awaits beyond the sea might not be so pleasant.
So what was I to do in the inn until my time arrived? Be it to leave or pass on, as it may.
It wasn't actually required by Trench Coat (a name I continued to use over Death or Grim Reaper), but Rose insisted. She said she was a bit of a neat freak, and couldn't stand to see the inn so filthy. That, and since there was literally nothing else to do, it was a means of occupying the mind. At least now she had someone to converse with.
I asked random questions while we cleaned the rooms on the second floor. Where she was from (somewhere in America), what were her hobbies (shopping and chatting with friends), and of course, if she had a guess as to how she arrived here (she didn't).
Those same questions were directed at me, so I answered accordingly. As we tossed around ideas as to why we were there, a flash of brilliance struck Rose.
"What if we're unconscious?"
I didn't think that made sense. Wouldn't that mean that every unconscious person in the world would be here with us? I was certain we weren't the only two in the whole world.
"Well, medical science has gotten better and better. Maybe we're really, really unconscious?"
I had a feeling Rose was bouncing these ideas off me for the sake of conversation. Who knows how long she had been here before I came along. I doubt Trench Coat was much of a conversationalist. And ridiculous though they might seem, anything was possible at this point.
After all, we were cleaning an inn in the middle of the ocean for Death himself. And he was wearing a trench coat. And this was supposedly Limbo.
"You mean we're in a coma?" I was never sure of the meaning of a coma. I always figured it was being so unconscious, you wouldn't wake up for a while. I was probably not far off the mark.
Rose pounded her right fist onto her left palm.
"We wouldn't be the only two people in the world in a coma. Where are the rest?"
Maybe she ignored me on purpose. Seemed all I was doing was shooting down her ideas. Not my fault if they were flimsy.
Then again, maybe I shouldn't be so quick to dismiss them. I wasn't trying to find a solution, myself. Maybe I was trying to delay my inevitable return to the waking world. Limbo or no, this place was much better than going to school. Even if I had to clean all day.
Actually, we had been cleaning for some time now. I looked out a nearby window to see the same bright sky. If there was a sun up there, I couldn't see it. And all this time working, I hadn't felt hungry or tired in the least. I brought this up to Rose.
"Yeah, don't worry about it."
She waved her hand at me in a dismissal.
"While you're here, you won't get hungry. Or tired. Or even need to go to the bathroom! Which is sorta why I said help with the cleaning. Keeps your mind focused on something. Otherwise..."
Otherwise, you sit and go mad.
Maybe that was Trench Coat's plan all along. We weren't supposed to die yet, but he'll keep us here until we go crazy and hurl ourselves over the railing and into the ocean. I wonder what were to happen if we did go into the water?
Maybe it was a fate worse than the afterlife...
We could move about freely both inside and outside the inn. Trench Coat never seemed to mind as he continued to read that book all day. Rather, at all hours. Rose told me there was no night here.
While it was a perpetually beautiful day, I also missed the beauty of a sunset. Or the night sky. Or daybreak. And food. And...
I was starting to lose it already.
Why was I here? What had happened to me on the train? Why didn't I ever get to school?
As the questions continued to surface in my mind, I pondered throwing myself over the railing. Rose noticed what I was thinking, and grabbed me by the waist.
"No, Lily! You can't do that!"
She yanked me back, and we both crashed onto the floor. There was a silence between us. Only the sounds of the seagulls in the sky and the sound of the wind and sea could be heard. I sat up on the floor and clutched my head.
"I want to go home." I felt my eyes welling up.
"It's okay," Rose whispered in my ear, "I'm sure you'll wake up soon."
That was a lie. She knew it. I knew it.
"Rose, how long have you been here?"
If she could muster an answer to that question, I'd be amazed. With no perception of time marching ever onward, she'd have to be keeping track of every passing second in her head. Her index finger went to her lips, the gesture that a person is thinking hard on the matter at hand.
"Not long. Feels like forever to me." She answered honestly.
"I've been here a few hours and already I'm going crazy. Why did I fall asleep on that train?"
I let the tears flow from my eyes. Rose could do nothing but hesitate behind me. I thought I'd spend some time undisturbed as I poured out my tears. That's when I heard the door to the inn open.
Rose was still sitting down next to me. Meaning the only way the door could've opened was Trench Coat.
I stopped crying as best I could, and looked to the door. Sure enough, the tall figure stood in front of the entrance. Silently, he walked past us and towards the road that supposedly led away from the inn. Rose and I followed.
When we turned the corner, we were stunned to see a road leading away from the inn. Trench Coat looked over to us both.
"Your time has come."
We were unsure to whom he spoke. If Rose left, I don't think I'd be able to handle the solitude.
"Both of us?" She asked, anxious.
Trench Coat pointed at me. I never felt so happy in all my life, I think.
"The waking world demands her return. You will remain here for the time being."
That was all he had to say. He returned to the inn, silent as a ghost. I looked to Rose, and saw tears in her eyes.
"I guess this is goodbye."
I'd known her only a few hours. Why was I feeling guilty about leaving, then?
"Maybe you'll be leaving next?"
It was little comfort. It was also cheap. But maybe it was enough for her.
"Here," Rose said, taking something out of her skirt pocket. It was a hair clip, a cheap little thing you'd get at any accessory store. There was a slightly faded rose decoration on one end.
"If this is a dream, this will have been for nothing. But if it's real..."
I don't know what she was trying to prove. There was no way this thing would return with me to the real world. This had to be a dream for me. Why else would I be leaving so promptly?
But to deny her now would be too cruel. I took the clip from her, and clutched it tightly.
"And you, Lily."
That was all we said to each other. I turned around, and started walking down the road.
I never once looked back.
As suddenly as I had first appeared in front of the World's END Inn, I was gone. The next thing I knew, I was lying in a hospital bed. I looked around, and saw only a nurse by my side. She seemed surprised to see me awake.
"Welcome back. Are you feeling well?"
"I guess? Where am I?"
"The hospital. You took a tumble in the train, I'm told, and hit your head. You were out cold for a while, now."
So Rose was right. I was unconscious. Or in a coma.
"How long was I asleep?"
"A couple days. The doctors thought you weren't going to wake up for a while. I'll inform them immediately."
Before I could ask any other questions, the nurse left the room. I sighed. Now the doctor would probably bombard me with all sorts of questions about what I remembered or something. What would I tell him? That I thought I was in Limbo, only it looked like Paradise?
Then it hit me. The clip Rose handed me.
I looked down at my hands, which were balled up into fists at my side. I moved my fingers around slightly, trying to see if there was anything in my hands. I couldn't feel a thing.
Then I brought both fists up to my face. I opened them both at the same time.
A hair clip with a faded rose on one end fell from my hand and onto my chest.