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The Stranger

the stranger


Estimated reading time — 10 minutes

THE STRANGER only comes at night.

He only comes to certain people, too: those trapped in life, unable to free themselves from the daily grind and the cares that keep you from caring. Those sick of commutes, meetings, rude customers, spouses, children, or being stuck at home. Tired people. Desperate people.

People like me.

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Don’t bother trying to contact or look for him. He’ll know when it’s time. So will you.

Get ready the evening before. Say you’re going on a business trip or vacation. Better yet, don’t tell anyone. You’re going to disappear. Leave your credit cards, purse, wallet, anything that can be traced back to you, on a table somewhere with a note that says this verbatim:

Gone. Won’t be back. I have unfinished business. Whatever happens, I love you.

Four true statements, or three truths and one lie? Fear not. It will become true.

When everyone else at home is asleep, when you’re utterly alone, sit by the front door.

Wait.

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He comes at night, but I don’t mean 8-10 PM or midnight. He’s not Cinderella’s coachman. No matter how few cars pass by or how many creepy noises you hear, warning you to turn back and go to bed, don’t. This is your only chance.

Ever see some morose soul at a bar staring into the far distance? How about a coworker doing the same thing? Either they’re close to meeting the Stranger or have already missed his call.

Some refuse it, thinking they’ve dodged a bullet, but the next time their kid has a tantrum at a restaurant or their favorite Netflix show gets canceled, they won’t just be disappointed. A deep part of them will die. They’ll wonder what could have been. Where they could have gone.

So wait as the moon climbs in the heavens and the stars maintain their course. Wait as traffic lights change from green to red and back again. Wait as your current life, hard and hueless, starts to thin out and become intangible. Wait until 3:00 AM: the real witching hour.

He’ll show up right on time.

No matter how bright the streetlamps are, no matter how good you are at identifying vehicles, no matter if it’s right there, you won’t be able to pinpoint the model of the Stranger’s car. It’ll look like every other one you’ve seen, a shape blacker than the pavement, than the sky.

Shut your eyes against the sudden glare. If you dare, keep them open.

You’ll think the whole world’s gone taillight-red, red as the depths of Hell, of a human heart. You’ll see silhouettes of those you love, those you hate, even those you’ve forgotten. In that split second you’ll catch a glimpse of the last place you’ll go, though you won’t know it then.

The Stranger will leave the car, close the driver’s-side door with a click, and approach you.
If you’re waiting inside, he’ll scrape his nails against the glass of your front door pane in a nearly-silent knock, leaving trails of frost. If you’re waiting outside, his footprints will appear on your sidewalk in a dusting of snow even if it’s the middle of summer.

Open your door, exit and lock it. If you’re outside, make sure it’s locked anyway.

The sight of your visitor might unnerve you. He also appears as a silhouette: a tall man in a fedora and trench coat, like a 1940s film noir detective. You’ll find he’s as solid as you or I.

He’ll stretch out his hand. Take it. It’ll be surprisingly warm.

He will lead you to one of the car doors. If you’re a regular passenger, you’ll ride in the rear.

If he likes you – if you’ve longed for this journey your whole life – you’ll ride shotgun.

The car’s interior is close and cozy, as if you’re huddled under your favorite blanket. Thoughts of an earlier, easier time and place will come to mind. A time when you had no bills to pay or mouths to feed. A place where no landlord came pounding on your door late in the evening. Even if you’ve never been so secure thus far, you’ll feel completely safe because you are.

Despite the seemingly midsize dimensions of the Stranger’s mode of transportation, there’s a minibar in the back. Like in a limo. You’ll think you’re in one because the leather bench is so comfy and slick that you can slide from one end to the other in one smooth motion. Don’t do this too much or the Stranger may stop the car, force you out, and leave you stranded.

You don’t want that. Not on the way to where you’re headed.

Instead, take a look at the beverages. All your favorite drinks are there, alcoholic and virgin.

See the Nepenthe Vodka? Whatever version you prefer, take the bottle. A choice is near.

There’s some up front. In fact, it’s the sole drink available to you, chilling in the cup holder, but hold off. The Stranger has a long drive ahead. He wants company. He’s chosen you.

In the shotgun bucket seat, all you’ll be able to see are the dashboard and door-lock lights and the glowing tip of his cigarette. You’ll inhale the aroma of fine-grained leather, the musk of his aftershave, and the intermingled scents of menthol and tobacco. Beneath it all, a tinge of ice, a breath of winter. You’ll shiver for an instant. The car’s still warm, though.

Congratulations on getting this far. As I said, this is your only chance.

Whether you’re in the front or back, the Stranger will tip his hand as if to say: Shall we go?

If you say no, he’ll help you out of the car and usher you back inside, into your old life.

If you agree, he’ll lock the doors, back out of your driveway, or continue down the street.

Wait until you’re out of town or the lights of your rural dwelling have faded. Then, if you’re in the back with the long bench and minibar, you’ve gotten the shorter, sweeter end of the deal. Drink the vodka – every drop. Lie down without a pesky seatbelt and drift off to sleep.

If not, you’re in for a gentle, exhausting trial. It’ll take all you have, all you are, to stay awake.
Your chauffeur wants to talk. So talk. Tell him your life story. Better yet, tell him everything that happened from the day you found out you wanted to take this trip until tonight.

Maybe you’ve learned there are more dead ends in this world than viable roads. Maybe a job or a relationship went sour and life got more lemon-like from there. Maybe you feel like you’ve seen it all before, because on the karmic wheel, you have. Or maybe, like me, you’ve traveled back and forth across a threshold. You’ve experienced what it’s like on this side, and now. . .

As you talk, you’ll notice three things: 1) the car is cooling; 2) the end of the Stranger’s cigarette never gets any closer to his mouth, which you can’t see because the sky and car are so, so dark, and 3) the Stranger never says a word. He doesn’t have to. He understands.

He remembers.

Pay attention to the road signs if you can.

The first one broadcasts familiar locales from your present existence – apartment, home street, workplace, the restaurant where you and your partner had your first date. You can tell your driver to take the exit to any of these places, and he’ll obey, but why would you? You didn’t brave getting in the car in order to look at this sign and chicken out. Take your first sip of Nepenthe if you need to. The Stranger doesn’t judge. He’s here to carry you forward.

The next eight signs mention locations you know from early adulthood. Your alma mater if you went to college or trade school. Your first place of employment if you went right to work after getting your high school diploma or GED. The bars and clubs you frequented on campus or on busy city streets. The farm where you spent several summers as a hired hand, learning of the Stranger’s business. Again, you can ask him to take you there, take you back. He will. Yet you run the risk of having the same problems as in your current – now previous – life.

Better taste another mouthful of your new favorite liquid. You’ll forget soon enough. He won’t.

At this point, if you’re not too wrapped up in the narrative of your days, nights, and everything in between, you’re starting to get an idea of who your companion is and what his vehicle really is. You’re a little nervous but not terrified. You still have time. All the time in the world.

By the time you reach sign ten, you’ll shiver in earnest. You’ll put on a coat if you have one.

You’ll ask the Stranger to turn on the heat, but he can’t. The car doesn’t have heat or A/C.

You’ll look out the window, an even darker sky above you, the lights of possibility behind you.

Don’t drink the Nepenthe too fast. It’s a mini-bottle, so take mini-sips. You’ll need it later.

Signs eleven through nineteen? You guessed it: venues from childhood, full of balloons and bullies, cotton candy and carousels, presents, pets and peppermints. Places where you found love, laughter, and precious memories if you were lucky, or nothing but pain if you weren’t. Lots of passengers make the mistake of finishing the vodka here, and boy, will they regret it.

If you exit to this earlier and simpler time, believing you’ll make different choices that’ll lead to different outcomes, beware. The results may be worse than the ones you have – had. Our formative years aren’t all that. Take it from me. I prefer myself formed, however imperfectly.

Sign twenty? It’s the first one you won’t know, with a name you won’t want to forget: LIMEN.

No, not Lymon™, the main ingredient of Sprite. Limen, plural limina, adjective liminal.

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The Latin word for threshold.

People panic here. “Stop, stop,” they cry. “Stop the car. I want to start all over.” Indeed.

After the Stranger unlocks the doors and tenderly escorts them out, his hand the temperature of a river in early October, these passengers begin life anew in the womb. Whether the womb of their current/previous mother or another, it’s their decision up to a point. They don’t all get billionaire or celebrity moms. As before, it’s the luck of the draw. Or God or destiny.

We like to think we’re the captains of our fate, Invictus personified, but life doesn’t work that way. You fight for everything you gain, sure, but there’s no way I, with my cerebral palsy and lack of hand-eye coordination, would ever have been a ballerina or a tennis pro. Not unless I was one before. Not unless I’ve had more than one turn on the cosmic merry-go-round. Not unless I picked my own horse before the ride even started. Still, you and I aren’t omnipotent.

Will you choose to remain in the car and cross the LIMEN? The first threshold of three?

If so, let all further road signs pass without scrutinizing them too closely. I’m warning you.

Sign twenty-one is in a language with letters you’ll recognize, but you won’t know the name of the place it announces. Nor should you rack your brain trying to figure it out. Some of you will try to outsmart the sign and the Stranger, but after a single burst of mental effort you’ll slump in the front seat, exhausted. You’ll be tempted to lay it back and take a nap. Don’t.

Instead, fight to stay awake. You’ll have finished your story and will begin learning his.

Images will skirt across your consciousness. Impressions. Colors and shapes. The silhouette of a boy chasing one of an ivory dove across a field of frosty grass. The boy grows into a man, and the dove lands. Comforts, coos, and comes to stay. The boy and the dove merge.

Outside, it’ll start to snow. The flakes will land on the car windows like a baby bird’s down.

Inside? You’ll bury your hands in your pockets and beg your poor teeth to stop chattering.

One more tiny taste of Nepenthe. That’s it. You must refrain from finishing the bottle.

Signs twenty-two through twenty-nine will pass you by. For the love of all that’s holy, don’t read them. The snow will cover them pretty fast, so you might not need to worry. Still, would you like to go mad once you learn the actual names of the outposts for the actual afterlife – or before-life, depending on how you look at it? If your answer’s yes, go right ahead.

You’ll pound on the windowpanes so hard you’ll break your knuckles, but you won’t break the glass. You’ll try to unlock the doors, only to find your black, frostbitten fingers falling off. You will beg your driver for mercy, and he’ll grant it. He’ll let you out where you belong. If it’s a paradise, all will be restored to you minus your memory of the Stranger and the Ride. If it’s a place of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, you’ll pay the price of eternal slumber. If it’s somewhere in-between like a waiting room, then you’ll wait until the arrival of Winter.

If, by some miracle and your chauffeur’s grace, you hold on, you’ll come to the thirtieth sign.

If the first LIMEN was the threshold of physical experience, the second is of the metaphysical.
Past this point, Heaven and Hell don’t exist. Neither does any sort of afterlife or before-life.

Past this point, you, the Stranger, and what you now know is your hearse simply are.

The snow continues inside the car, but “inside” and “outside” are terms which will soon fade.

You’re coming to the end of the line.

Keep awake. Keep conscious. Focus on each of the hues in your mind, clear as day:

Red for the blood pounding in your ears and your mortal life, which the Stranger will grieve.

Orange for the speedometer needle spinning round, and the one on the gas gauge nearing E.

Yellow for the sun, anticipation and hope, the bright, orgiastic future you never got.

Green for growth, Earth, the forsaken planet you and the Stranger have chosen to leave.

Blue for the sky and sea, for knowledge of the soul, for sweet and kind cerulean words.

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Indigo for the deeper wisdom, deeper darkness, of your third eye that’s starting to close.

Violet for connection, union, divine revelation and the higher consciousness you’ve gained.

White, or rather ivory – the color of the Mourning Dove and the Stranger’s boon companion.

Black, for the color that is now seeping across your skin and into your bones.

The colors will shift and combine into a portrait of you, warts and all. Even if it’s hideous, absolutely grotesque, it’ll be the most beautiful painting you’ve ever seen. It will materialize.

For the first time, the Stranger speaks: “This will brighten your quarters, don’t you think?”

One more sign: the third LIMEN. It also says WEIGH STATION: IN SERVICE Y/N

One last choice for you to make.

If you say yes – as I did – he will hold you to his service as a Tenant, a Leaseholder of Memory. You welcome the despairing, ragged travelers who fell asleep, thus falling short of the glory of godhood. In your Apartment you’ll host them as guests, hear their confessions and help them scrub their room clean of the wrongs they’ve done, their sins and struggles. In time you’ll help them find their own blessed space, though the Stranger demands rent:

Repentance. Remembrance. Rejoicing in the Journey, no matter how cold it once was.

If you say no, however – I pray you don’t – you’ll go to the WEIGH STATION.

Your ice-encased flesh (think of that poor naked woman in Saw III) will slough off your bones.

Your bones will fall onto the scale and crumble to dust.

Your organs will liquefy, then vaporize in a haze of the ghostly equivalent of liquid nitrogen.

Your soul will turn black and flake off like paint. It belongs to what counts as Earth’s gods.

All that will be left is your spirit – the part of you that’s you.

If you’re found to weigh more than a feather, you’ll awaken from this nightmare to find yourself in the living one you thought you escaped. You’ll sleepwalk throughout eternity, never knowing how, never knowing why you failed, yet you’ll keep on striving time and again. You’ll get up, go to work, come home, go to bed, get up, go to work, come home, go to bed. . .

Because you lied to your driver or thought you could cheat/outwit him, you’ll never find rest.

If you weigh less than a feather, you’ve passed the last test. Your spirit is freezing, however.

You’ll don a familiar trench coat and fedora, warm and waiting as you knew they’d be.

You’ll get in your new car, the safest and most dangerous there is.

The Dove will tap on your window. Let him in. Let his warm feathers enfold you. Merge.

You know all because you remember all. Nothing more can be taken from you, dear Stranger.

You are become Death.

Credit: Tenet

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