Every day on my way to my desk, I passed by a door with the words “PERMANENT DAMAGE” written on it.
No one ever went in or came out—not that I’d seen anyway, and I’d been working at the firm for about a year. I asked people about the door, and the sign. They said there used to be another firm occupying our floor and the two below it. That door supposedly led to a defunct elevator that shuttled executives between the floors, leading directly into what used to be their fancy offices. Or it led to a laboratory space. Or some sort of obstacle course? The rumors abounded. Now those spaces were claimed by other firms. The words referred to the project that resulted in the shuttering of the company.
In the early days of my interest in the door, when my curiosity was more casual than keen, I picked up fragments of information about “Project: Permanent Damage.” The project’s motto seemed to be the only detail that everyone agreed about.
What if there was no such thing as permanent damage?
One of the housekeeping staff, Georgio, told me the project motto, and then he joked, “I guess there is such a thing as permanent damage after all, eh?” He laughed and said he could have told them that for free, but especially if they shelled out a few million to him the way they did for the project.
No one knew much about the company that once occupied our floor. It was a mid-sized tech company, some said. Others said it was a satellite office for a larger corporation or conglomerate. It had some generic and forgettable name. Most people seemed to think that the project leading to the company’s eventual downfall had something to do with medical advances. Regenerative gene therapy or something. Experimental stuff. According to accounts, there was a device or maybe a drug, or maybe a combination that they were testing.
The person had signed documents, so their family couldn’t sue the company. But testing was halted. An investigation was launched. Funding dried up. Maybe they couldn’t figure out what went wrong.
That was another layer added to the rumors of a medical mishap. A disgruntled member of the project team who’d been fired, or whose firing was imminent, punched in some wrong commands, or loaded the wrong amount of the drugs, or did something meant to cause a catastrophic failure that would consequently derail the project. Most rumors credit the saboteur with never wanting to hurt anyone. They were aiming to muck thinks up long before the patient came in. They were aiming to throw the team into a cycle of investigations and re-analysis to figure out what went wrong and waste time and money, and waste enough investor patience to be shut down.
Georgio was the one who told me about that person. Georgio had been working in the building back then. He’d had to find a new job with one of the firms on the top floors while the vacated floors were being renovated, and the messes made by “Project: Permanent Damage” being cleaned up.
“Vengeance is cruel,” he said with a shake of his head. “For all parties involved.”
I had started a notebook. More casual than the ones I have for all the work projects I’m handling. And also different in that it was a physical notebook. I used to like physical notebooks for projects. That’s how I used to do it in school, after my dad showed me that’s how he kept track of his work. Anyway, I started a whole section called “Georgio.” Appropriate, since he seemed to be the one who was feeding me the most detailed information about the door.
“What position did you hold when you last worked on this floor, Georgio?” I asked him one day. He seemed to know an awful lot. It could be that he was a gatherer of rumors. Or it could be that he knew these things because he’d been there to witness them.
“Same position I hold now,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“You weren’t a…researcher? On Project PD maybe?”
“Kid, are you trying to make fun of me?”
“No, sir. I just don’t want to make any assumptions.”
Most people also seemed to think that there was nothing behind the door but plaster. This is because most people believed the executive elevator theory, and it was known and provable that those executive suites had been converted. But that begged the question of why the door remained on our floor.
At lunch one day, I asked a couple of people who’d been with the firm from the beginning. They said that when the firm first moved onto the floor, the CEO had toured the floor pre-renovation and asked that the door be kept up. In the week our firm moved in, she gathered the team around the door and told them that there was nothing behind it anymore, but she’d kept it to remind herself that any company can fail at any time—but especially if it tried to get ahead of itself—and even more especially if it tried to get too tight of a grasp on the natural.
It was natural that there were different rumors about the door. It was natural that I was curious to know more. What didn’t seem natural, what had me perplexed, was everyone else’s lack of curiosity. But maybe that was natural too. Maybe passing around and embellishing existing rumors was more exciting than finding out there really wasn’t anything behind that door but a wall.
Then again, not everyone remembered being given a rousing speech by our CEO, who I’d only seen once, in a different building, in a nicer part of town. So maybe the door’s presence had nothing to do with her. Maybe the reason it didn’t get removed was an accidental oversight, or maybe someone thought it looked intriguing and wanted to leave it for the next people who occupied the floor.
(It’s like that time I moved into my first apartment, and I found some erotic letters addressed to a “Morty” in the top dresser drawer. The whole apartment was otherwise cleaned out and cleaned up. The letters weren’t stuck in some dark corner either. While I was puzzling over them, my friends laughed at me, called me naïve, and told me that the previous tenant had left them on purpose, probably to shock or amuse the next person to move in. They asked to see the letters, but I’d already thrown them out, scared that someone would accuse me of being a pervert for finding them. I’d gotten bolder, or maybe just more reckless, since those days.)
But this door, this door wasn’t a silly and spontaneous prank. This door was a purposeful mystery. There’s a door in the middle of the floor, and no one knows what’s behind it. That’s compelling enough. But the sign on the door made it even more mystifying…the sign with those just two words, no company name or logo, no project manager name, no dates, no anything else. Just those two words.
Or maybe someone liked the irony of the door marking the building, like a scar, a reminder of past damage, in defiance of the project’s stated aim. No more permanent damage.
One night, I convinced Miles—my best friend at work—to stay after everyone else left. We were getting close to a deadline, so no one thought it was suspicious. Well, no one thought it was suspicious that I was staying. Miles got a few looks.
“The only way to know the truth is to go through the door,” I said.
Miles glanced over to the north wall. We couldn’t see the door from where we were. We just knew it was there, like always. “But what if the truth is the words written on the door?” he rebutted. “What if it’s not a name but a promise?”
I reached into the shelf above my computer and pulled out a flashlight. “The defunct elevator is the most likely truth. I saw the blueprints yesterday. You were wrong, by the way. Betty wasn’t even annoyed. She said it was fun. Felt like we were detectives.”
Miles crossed his arms. “Well, that’s because she likes you.”
“Anyway, I’m inclined to trust those blueprints. There’s no way the building owner would let a large space just go to waste.”
“Unless the space has suffered—wait for it—permanent damage.”
“Miles…” I pointed the unlit flashlight at him. “There’s still time for you to change your mind and go home, right up until we cross that threshold.”
“Assuming you can unlock it after your—what was the course you took—overnight certification in cat-burglary?”
I smiled at him and waved to the opening in his cubicle. “After you.”
It looked like an ordinary door with an only a single doorknob lock. I’d looked up a video—at home, the night before, in my browser’s private mode—about how to pick a lock. But we didn’t get very far before we were surprised by a loud and purposeful throat-clearing.
We turned around to find Georgio standing behind us.
His shift should have been over hours before, but it seemed he’d picked up another for someone who called in sick.
“Good thing too,” he said. “Means I was here to stop you two from making a terrible mistake.”
“Georgio, do you have access to the keys?” I asked. “I’m just curious, you know? Once I see what’s behind that door, it’ll be out of my system and you won’t have to worry about us—me—trying to break into random rooms in the building.”
Georgio pointed a finger at me. “You? I’d trust you not to walk into an open door if you saw a sign that said ‘Do Not Enter.’ But this door has its hooks in you. Even though you know there’s no mystery to it. Betty told me about your visit.”
“She did?” Miles asked.
I peered at Georgio. “You sure do have your finger on the pulse of this building.”
To my surprise, Georgio’s brow twitched, and he glanced down as if I’d just dealt him a killer verbal blow.
He glanced back up at me. “The key to that particular door has been filed away somewhere even my boss couldn’t reach.”
“Would you let me go through the door if I had the key?” I asked.
He shrugged his brows. “No one has the key. So no one is going through that door.”
Miles tried to make a weak joke about how he knew the room behind the door was actually filled with surplus housekeeping supplies, and Georgio didn’t want them stealing those paper towels everyone loved that could only be ordered through a corporate business-to-business catalog.
Georgio wasn’t budging. It was clear he wasn’t just going to walk away and pretend he’d never seen us. But he shouldn’t have. Georgio would probably get in trouble along with us if any trouble came out of us trying to get in that door.
I shifted tactics, Miles following my lead, as we tried to convince him that we had actually stayed behind to finish a project, and had just wandered over to the door out of procrastination, and to let off some steam from our anxieties about our work. It was partially true.
Georgio seemed to accept our explanation, but still proceeded to watch us as he worked, to make sure we didn’t get anywhere near to PERMANENT DAMAGE.
We ended up actually get some work done, trying to wait Georgio out. But it got late.
Miles got a call from his wife, Starla, who suspected what he was up to. I was invited to a late dinner. I accepted despite worrying that I’d be scolded—hopefully mildly—for roping Miles into my caper.
I was not scolded.
I was bombarded. With questions.
Miles apparently had not given Starla the details of the case.
She was the one who gave me the idea for my next action, over an incredible plate of mushroom lasagna. She said she was just trying to keep us out of trouble—and keep us from getting fired for damaging company property or theft of corporate secrets, or something equally serious in return for our—or actually, my—reckless curiosity.
But her suggestion was a good one.
Or I thought so until I woke up the next morning.
It probably wouldn’t lead to anything, but I hadn’t known, until Starla told me, that members of the public could submit a request for specific information with at least one of the seven or so international agencies that investigated unusual phenomena, including fringe science. Even as I looked up contact information and request submission instructions, I wondered if I was wasting my time. But I was also glad Miles and I had actually done some work the night before, so I had the time to waste in the first place.
I had to visit a physical office to submit my request, so I went during my lunch hour.
The older guy at the front desk was nice and far more helpful than I expected from his resting dour expression. He confirmed that I could submit a request for any specific piece of information in the agency’s files, both active and archived. He told me to expect a heavily redacted report. But he also told me that I might be surprised. There was more information available to the public for free than most people knew of because they didn’t bother to ask. And they didn’t bother to ask, because they didn’t know they could.
I certainly hadn’t known.
He told me to expect a report to be delivered to the physical address of my choice within twenty-four hours. I couldn’t risk Georgio intercepting the package and getting rid of it “for my own good.” So I decided to have it sent to my apartment. And I decided to tell my boss the truth that I’d like to stay home the next day because I was expecting an important package. I offered to work from home if she authorized me to take home some project files. But after I briefed her on our progress, she waved a hand as her phone began to rang, and told me to go ahead and just take the day.
So I found myself getting up early and waiting around the next morning, checking outside my door every now and then, in case the delivery person didn’t ring my doorbell. I wished I’d asked for a tracking number. I made a quick and boring sandwich for lunch, and sent Miles a few messages. When I wasn’t obsessing over the delivery of the package, I was obsessing over what the contents would say.
I’d surmised, based on my own logic and on what I’d managed to gather from others, that “Project: Permanent Damage” was most likely a medical project. But for all I knew, the rumors could all be wrong, and the project could have been about detailing cars, or dealing with foundation damage for suburban homes.
One of my colleagues had warned me that the door—or rather the mystery of the door—was a recruitment tool. That’s why no one was ever seen coming and going from it. Those who were curious and tenacious enough to breach the door were rewarded with a higher position, at a different arm of the company, and a different location, of course. But only after some grueling gauntlet or hazing ritual that tested the physical, mental, and emotional fortitude and stability of the “candidate.”
This was the option that Miles believed in. That’s why he was reluctant for either of us to poke our noses any further into the mystery.
“Maybe it is a test,” he said, when we spoke over the phone at lunch, “a test of your ability to let go.” And then he said something pretty astute, even philosophical. “Maybe the ‘permanent damage’ is to your psyche if you can’t let it go.”
“I bet there’s a little bit of truth to all of the rumors,” I said. “They’ve all gotten exaggerated. The question is, to what degree?”
“You want to take a chance on that gauntlet being real and only minimally exaggerated?”
My doorbell rang then, and I nearly dropped my sandwich. I put Miles on hold, and felt a sudden lurch in my stomach when I got up to go to the door.
I rushed over and whipped open the door. There was a brown padded envelope on the floor, marked with my name and address, the agency logo, and nothing else. I glanced around, but the delivery person was already gone. The enveloped had a bulge at the bottom. There was more than just a report in there. I gulped and returned to the couch.
Miles stayed on the phone with me while I opened the envelope.
We switched to video, but I still described to him what I was seeing. I didn’t want to hold the report up to show him, just in case that went against the terms of the usage agreement I’d signed the day before.
The report’s title was simply “Project: Permanent Damage.” The case number was redacted. I flipped through the two hundred or so pages, and found that most everything was redacted.
I set the report aside and reached into the envelope for the only other thing it contained.
“What is that?” Miles asked.
It was a rubbery rectangular block that could fit in my fist. “Looks like one of those rubber erasers my sister uses when she’s sketching,” I said. “Oh, wait.”
A notion occurred to me. I flipped to a random page of the report and gently rubbed the “eraser” against the page over a redacted sentence.
Miles chuckled at me when I told him what I’d tried.
“If that’s how it’s supposed to work, it would have made more sense for the guy at the office to give you the eraser ahead of time, separately, so that only you could reveal the redacted parts.”
I sighed. “Yeah, but then…” I held the rubbery block up to eye level and tried to peer through it. “…what is this?”
There was nothing else in the envelope. No cover letter. No memo. No instructions. I even gently took apart the layers of the envelope’s padded part, just to make sure someone hadn’t hidden anything there.
I told Miles I’d call him back after he got home from work. And I got to work trying to “read” the redacted report, pulling out my own “Project: Permanent Damage” notebook.
On some pages, only a single word was visible. Almost as a lark, I read the visible words as if they were a secret code. But they made no sense front to back. So I tried reading them back to front. They still made no sense, but I noticed something, a pattern I hadn’t noticed when I went from beginning to end.
It was only because I moved my fingers over the words that I noticed. Some of the characters felt more pronounced. They didn’t look different. But they felt thicker to my fingers. I closed my eyes.
I moved my fingers over the page until I felt the words, and the particular characters that felt thicker.
I thought there would be more to it, but after I wrote all the letters down in my notebook, I saw I could split them up into words. It was a simple instruction, a formula to make saltwater. And then to place that rubbery block in the saltwater.
I followed the instructions, debating whether or not I should put some protections in place, shielding or something, in case I triggered an explosion. I dropped the rubbery block into the water and ducked behind my couch. The water began to sizzle. I peered at it.
But in moments, the sizzling—which never got beyond the intensity of a freshly poured soft drink—calmed down and I saw that the rubbery block was gone.
In its place, lying on the bottom of the glass jar, was a key.
“Miles, you should stay out here. I’ll need someone to go get help if something actually does happen and I suddenly disappear. I need a witness. We’ll just keep a line open.”
After hours at work again, Miles and I stood before the PERMANENT DAMAGE door. I’d made sure that Georgio had gone home for the night.
Miles nodded. He held up his phone. “If I start losing you, turn around and come back.”
“Sure, unless I find something interesting.”
“Don’t make me get Georgio back here.”
I had gloves on, and a backpack with protein bars, water, a blanket, and other gear in a gesture of over-preparation that I thought would make Miles feel better about letting me go. Instead, it only seemed to make him more nervous.
“We don’t even know if that’ll work,” he said, glancing at the key as I held it up.
I took a deep breath. I was too nervous myself to fake a confident smirk.
Miles held up his phone, his thumb poised to press the timer start.
I frowned. “Fifteen minutes?”
“That’s all I’m giving you. I wanted it to be five.”
I nodded, and he pressed the button.
I slid the key into the doorknob and turned it. The key turned easily. I turned the knob. It felt a little rough, gritty, but it also turned without any trouble.
I pushed the door open, shining my flashlight into a short hallway. At the end of the hallway was an elevator.
“One question answered,” Miles whispered. “What if it’s not safe to ride?”
The voice that answered him was not mine.
Miles and I spun around.
“How are you so quiet!” Miles said in a loud whisper.
Georgio, good old Georgio, had caught us again.
He looked at me, brows furrowed, eyes hard. “But that doesn’t mean you should use it. You said you just wanted to know what’s behind the door. Now you know.”
“You’re just told us it’s safe,” I said. “Why do you expect I’d stop now?”
“I don’t. I just had to know I did all that’s in my power to do to stop you.”
Georgio glanced down, and when he looked back up at me, his expression was softer, and resigned. “Well, just because it didn’t work out for me doesn’t mean it won’t work out for you.” He pointed down the hallway. “Whether you get on that elevator or not, I’ll be around if you need me.”
I thought at first that he was just taking another approach to stop me, but he walked away and kept walking. He was halfway out of the door before I called out a thanks to him.
Miles tipped his head toward him. “Maybe we should close this door and investigate Georgio. He’s an interesting mystery, huh?”
I strode forth into the hallway. “We can do both.”
I heard him sigh. “Good luck.”
“Reset your timer!” I called back.
The elevator opened.
I’d once gotten into a hotel elevator that had its own chandelier. I’d half-expected something fancy like that from what was rumored to be an executive elevator. But it was just a plain old elevator. The lights were working, so I turned off my flashlight. The elevator had buttons for each of the floors of the building, not just the three that the old company once occupied. I’d been planning on visiting the lower two floors. But I saw another button that looked more interesting. It was marked “22.”
The building only had ten floors, or eleven, if I counted the basement parking level. And there were no buttons for “11” through “21.”
I inhaled and pushed “22.”
I gave Miles a brief description of the elevator and narrated my actions. We could still hear each other clearly.
The elevator started moving smoothly up to the seventh floor, the eighth, ninth, tenth. Then it continued rising, and I saw what looked like daylight coming in through the cracks in the door.
“I think I’m on the roof,” I said.
“I’m on my way up.”
“Miles, I’m still rising. This must be an illusion or something.”
It felt as if I were going up, but maybe I was actually going down, or even sideways. The light, the upward sensation, they could have been fabricated somehow to disorient me, so I wouldn’t know where I really was.
A red light began to glow above the speakers.
“Rider, don’t be alarmed,” a female voice said.
I held my hand cupped against my phone and whispered, “Miles, I’m putting you on mute and slipping the phone in my pocket. Just keep listening.”
“Hello?” I said at my typical volume. “Can you hear me?”
“I can hear you,” the voice from the speaker said. “Hold on. You’re almost here.”
The digital readout of the floors had stopped at “10” even as the elevator continued moving. But just as I began to feel the elevator slow, the number changed to “22.”
I gasped in a breath as the doors opened.
I had expected to face another darkened hallway. But I was facing a brightly lit bank of elevators. None of them seemed to be in use at the moment. I stepped out of my elevator just as I hear the click of heels approach me. The floor was shiny and tiled.
The woman who approached me wore a white lab coat over a satiny blouse and slacks. She had her hands folded before her and in them was propped what looked like a tablet.
She introduced herself, bowing her head. I did the same.
“What is your analysis, analyst, of the situation that you’re currently in?” she asked, smiling.
I didn’t know her, so I didn’t know if she was teasing, or mocking, or sincerely asking. I assumed the last.
I glanced to my left, through the glass wall panel, at the blue sky and patches of cloud beyond.
“I thought we were underground,” I said. It could have been a huge, high-definition video display. More trickery, maybe. I looked at her. “We can’t be on the twenty-second floor, can we?”
“We can, and we are. We don’t have much time, am I right? About ten minutes or less?”
A flood of responses filled my head. But I hesitated. I had a feeling that Miles wasn’t the only one who’d put a time limit on my visit. I composed my response, and my first question.
“May I ask why I’ve been allowed to come up here?”
“Allowed?” She nodded. “The building is actually open to the public. It’s just a little harder to find than most. And you happened to find us.”
“Well…up to a point. I didn’t find the key. Someone gave it to me.”
“I haven’t been fully briefed on what you know,” she said. “Only on what I’m to tell you, and give you.” She handed me the tablet she’d been holding. It was a plastic framed around a clear piece of glass, or glassy material.
“Hold that up to the report, and you’ll be able to read some of the redacted parts,” she said. “There are settings on the device that would allow you to read the whole thing. But they would have to be unlocked.”
Again, I stopped myself from responding by reflex, so I could think and ask the right questions in the time I had left.
“I’ve never seen anyone coming and going from the door I used to get here. Even if I’m careful, I’m sure someone would see me. And I’m not particularly careful. Will I be able to use the elevator to come back? Back up here?”
“You’ve been more careful than you may think. Georgio is trained to be quiet on approach. The elevator is not the only way to get up here. It’s just the only way for new people to get up here.”
She said no more. I frowned in confusion.
“Is that a ‘yes’?” I asked.
“Today you are new. But if you return, you would be familiar.”
“So that’s a ‘no.’”
“What…?” I held up the frame device. “What is expected of me? And by whom?”
She took a breath. “I can answer no more of your questions. But in the time remaining to you on this visit, I can tell you some of what you’ve been wanting to know.” She leaned forward. “By the way, I know I sound robotic. I’m not a robot. It’s just…I’ve got a script to follow. I need make sure I get through all of it before you have to go, okay?”
She straightened. She took a deep breath, and the smile in her eyes faded. “We didn’t want to keep it secret. But there was an accident. There was a death.” Her brow creased. “It wasn’t a permanent death. But we took too long to revive him. We didn’t know it would work. We were only supposed to repair partial damage—widespread, with maybe less certainly. But complete damage? The ultimate damage…death? We never claimed we could undo death. We never thought we could.”
I huffed out a breath that I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.
“We knew it would be a problem,” she continued. “Healing people is one thing. Re-growing limbs, lost nerve cells, that is a miracle. But resurrecting the dead…that would be an abomination. And if you’ve seen enough horror movies, you’ve come across the ones that depict what might happen if a person is brought back. We were worried about his—the patient’s—personality. We were worried about his soul, truth be told. He was brain dead. He was gone. When he recovered—which didn’t take long—he told use that he was at the threshold. He was standing before a door leading into whatever comes next. The afterlife. He couldn’t see through the door. But he was just about to step through when he caught sight of a glow from behind himself.”
She held up her hand, her thumb and forefinger almost touching. “The slightest glow.”
Her shoulders dropped just a bit. “We believed that glow was us. The plasma charge we were using.”
She straightened again, and bowed her head to me again. “If you visit again, I hope our paths cross.”
I heard a ding and glanced over to see that the elevator door was opening.
I turned back to my host. “Would you—or anyone—tackle me if I tried to run past you?”
“I’m not authorized to answer any more questions, remember?”
I nodded, then bowed my head to her. “It was…fascinating meeting you.”
The smiled returned to her eyes. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
I jumped back when the elevator doors opened and Miles was standing right there.
“Are you okay?”
I stepped out. “What do you mean? Did you hear anything?”
“I heard everything. The only reason the building it’s swarming with every law enforcement agency in existence is because I heard your voice and knew you were alive at least.”
I held up the frame that I’d been given. “I want to see if this thing works.”
“Okay, but let’s get out of here first. It’s creepy here tonight.” He placed his hands on my shoulders, steering me toward our cubicles for our stuff. “My place. It’s Starla’s turn. She’s making mini pot pies.”
So I found myself sitting at my friend’s kitchen table, the warm oven air carrying the hearty buttery scent of a pot pie to me, as Miles and I sat down and opened the redacted report. I flipped through to see how much, if any, of the report was revealed by the frame device. On some pages it made no difference. On others, especially in the front of the report, everything was revealed.
Miles suddenly got up. “I’ll let you read it first. In case you get brainwashed or something, Star and I will keep watch and jump in to rescue you.”
I shook my head. “Always looking out for me.”
He wasn’t the only one. I had spotted Georgio at the front desk as we were leaving. He’d waved to me like normal. I’d waved back.
I started reading the “Introduction” section.
Science alone is not sufficient—at least in its current state—to accomplish what we seek to accomplish. And so we turn to a practice that has in modern times come to be maligned as fakery, a practice that we believe is misunderstood and misrepresented as near akin to magic.
I rubbed my hand over my mouth and continued reading…
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel