‘Don’t go through the secret door,’ the old man whispered.
I stopped. Turned. I wasn’t even sure I’d heard.
‘Don’t go through the secret door,’ he repeated. His voice was gravelly. He was unkempt; a pungent smell emitted from around him, like he hadn’t washed in days and was sitting in his own excrement.
I brushed his words from my mind and strode on to my appointment.
‘Pay heed!’ he cried.
Thoughts tumbled around my brain: What secret door? Where might it be? How would I know? I looked back at him. He was laughing.
I checked my watch; I had plenty of time. I turned and retraced my steps back to where he sat.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. He grinned, showing his green, rotten teeth. His smell was overpowering. Bile rose up; I swallowed it hard. ‘What secret door?’
‘Ma’am, thank you for speaking to me.’
It occurred to me that he probably spoke those words to hundreds of people each day, yet I was the only idiot who engaged.
‘Most people ignore my adage,’ he continued. ‘To their own peril. The secret door is real. It’s dangerous. If you go through it, you won’t return.’
‘Um…’ I struggled to find words.
‘I suppose you want to know where you’ll end up?’
‘Not really,’ I said, checking my watch again. ‘I have to be going. Sorry. Is there anything you need? Food? Help finding shelter?’
‘I’m not homeless,’ he said, indignantly lifting his chin.
Why was he stinking up the footpath, bothering passers-by? But I didn’t voice my thoughts.
‘I apologise,’ I muttered as I walked away from him for the second time.
‘Lady,’ he called. ‘Don’t go through the secret door.’ He laughed, gripping his large belly as he did. ‘You’ll want to. It beckons. But fight it.’
I fled away, rushing to my physio appointment. He’s just a mad old man, I told myself.
Once my appointment was over, I walked home; I took a different route, to avoid the old man.
I wandered along the main road; a tram ambled past. I passed the obstetrician’s office and the children’s specialist clinic. Just after the Anglican church, I noticed a high fence covered with fragrant clematis. The blue petals contrasted with the green foliage. I stopped to gather clippings, hopeful I could grow it at home. As I picked at the vine I noticed double doors, hidden previously from my sight. They were wooden, painted teal but now weathered and splintered. The handles in the centre of both doors were bronze.
Why had I never noticed them before? What was behind this door?
My hand reached for the bronze handle. The man’s words suddenly echoed in my ears. Don’t go through the secret door. He didn’t say anything about opening it and simply peeking beyond. Did he?
I turned the handle and pushed open the door.
A gush of wind blustered through, picking me up and whooshing me to the other side. I landed flat on my back as the door slammed behind me. Only now I remembered other things the man had said: It’s dangerous. If you go through it, you won’t return.
I sat up, coughing. My eyes were blurry. When they adjusted, my insides scrambled as I made sense of where I was.
I screamed, loud.