No Way Out
There is no way out. The world is a locked room and our deaths will not be a mystery. There is no way in, there is no way out. It’s a trap.
At least, that’s what Professor Charles tells me when I ask him for advice regarding my thesis. Not at first, though. He starts by asking me probing questions about Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and the novels of Agatha Christie, but as I answer his questions and my answers get more and more elaborate, clearing my head of cobwebs, helping me find my way through my topic, Professor Charles gets darker and darker. His questions get less penetrating, more general, until they stop being questions at all. His face sinks, his eyes grow stormy, and he rambles on about the pointlessness of our existences.
“None of us asked to be born,” he says, waving a hand dismissively, “and none of us wants to die.”
“But–” I try to steer the conversation back to my thesis. Right. Good luck with that.
“Even suicides,” he continues, “take their own lives out of fear and desperation, not out of any real sense of desiring death.”
“Wait, how can you–”
“Have you ever attempted suicide?” he asks me, his eyes flashing at me darkly.
“Me? Well, I don’t think that’s–”
“I’ve never tried it,” he says. “I’ve thought about it. ‘Suicidal ideation’ is what it’s called. But no matter how much despair I’ve felt, no matter how weary I’ve grown with life, I’ve been too afraid of death, too afraid of nonexistence, you see, to flirt with actually dying.”
“Okay, but that’s not really–”
“And yet, even knowing how tiring a struggle life is,” he says with a shrug, “even with my fear of death, I’ve become comfortable knowing that after I die, nothing I’ve done in my life will matter.”
I hear the grumbling of thunder outside. I glance at the small, narrow window in his office and see the sky gone charcoal grey. It was clear and sunny when I got here. Did Professor Charles summon a storm with his mood? Has his mood swung with the incoming weather? That’s not possible, is it? It’s just a coincidence?
“But what about other–”
“I know what I’ve done and who I’ve been will matter to the people who survive me, but eventually they’ll die, too.” He grabs a book from his desk, a book he wrote, and waves it around. “Even the things I’ve created will eventually be forgotten and destroyed. The human race will die out, this planet will be destroyed, and everything we’ve done will have been for nothing. And is there a way out of this?”
“Uh…” I just stare at him, but he’s finally stopped talking, glaring at me, tapping his leg with a finger. “No?”
“No!” He slaps his knee with the palm of his hand. “There is no exit! There is no way out. The world is a locked room and unlike in the mystery stories you’ve been studying, our deaths will not be a mystery.”
“Okay, about what I’ve been studying–”
“‘To be or not to be’ isn’t the question,” he says, sitting up straight like a dog begging for food. “To be and not to be, that’s what we go through. We’re here, we struggle, we suffer, and then we’re gone.” He snaps his fingers. “Afraid of the known in life and the unknown in death.”
“So you’re saying I shouldn’t bother writing–”
“I could give up my position, quit my job, go drink myself to death, but that would be as pointless as continuing on with my life as it is.” He slumps back into his chair. If it’s possible for a scowl to grow even more scowly, Professor Charles pulls it off. He falls silent again.
The silence continues. I feel more and more uncomfortable. My mouth has gone dry. I notice a glass of water on the desk, grab it without asking, give a slight shrug, and down it. Except it’s not water, it’s vodka. I choke and cough, but at least my tongue doesn’t feel like burlap now. Professor Charles is still sulking in his chair. I’m not even sure he’s still aware of me there, so I return the glass to the desk, clear my throat, and say, “Look, I just came here to talk to you about my thesis, but it sounds like you have some issues to–”
“Life after death!” he blurts out, sitting up again. “Is there life after death? Does it even matter?”
My heart sinks. Professor Charles continues to talk, but I’m barely even listening at this point. I glance around the office, looking for where the bottle the vodka came from. I’m never going to get out of this conversation, am I? I’m trapped.