The Question

(1000-word story)

Mohammedan Mysticism, this sounds interesting. Edward Gall.” Gloria was up to her usual Amazon surfing. As if we hadn’t got enough books.
“Mm,” I said.
“Oh, seems it’s just an extract from Mysticism Throughout the Ages. 1946. Huh, this is just twenty-eight pages for thirteen quid, what a rip-off!”
It was gone midnight on an early September evening, and I was reading a ghost story in bed, The Horla. I could do without the click-clack of Gloria’s computer keyboard in the corner. “Come to bed.”
“Flipping hell,” she exclaimed, “Greg, you’re not going to believe this, there’s a book here, well, it’s not really a book, it says two pages. Seven thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine pounds!”
“What! That must be a misprint.” That made me put The Horla down in a hurry. I got up and went over to Gloria’s iMac and looked. Sure enough. The Question by ‘Librabis.’ There were a handful of reviews, all five stars, and from ‘verified purchasers’ too. They confirmed its brevity but gave nothing away, except to say it was ‘A spiritual essay, worth every penny of its hefty price tag.’
“Huh, some people have more money than sense,” I said, echoing my father’s favourite phrase.
Gloria turned the machine off and got into bed, kissing me with cold lips. “Maybe, I wonder what it’s about, though?”

Well, time passed, and every now and then I would think of The Question and sometimes check if was still there. It was. But the number of reviews stayed the same, as did its price. However, there was no ‘Look Inside’ feature or anything that gave away its contents in any way. It was all rather maddening.
Life carried on. I taught English at a local college, trying to instil the delights of Shakespeare and Greene into dull, resistant minds. Gloria sewed costumes for a theatre company, and we grew vegetables to sell on the local market. The money we made from it wouldn’t change our lives, but it was a way to get to know the locals and to feel more at home in the little town where we’d felt self-conscious newcomers just three years earlier.
We both had kids from our first marriages, but they had their own lives now, away at university or starting the ladder to stardom. But through the turning of the seasons, that two-page ‘book,’ The Question, nagged at a corner of my mind. What the hell was in it that made it worth eight thousand quid? I guessed I’d never find out.
Then, my father died suddenly of liver cancer and left me so much money it was like winning the lottery. My mother had passed away ten years earlier from cancer of the brain and my only sibling, Matthew, had been run over at the age of ten, so I inherited the lot, save for a whimsical bequest of ten grand left to the ‘Save the Magpie Fund.’ Christ knows why, they were nasty, noisy birds in my book. I would’ve been happy to shoot the lot of them.
“Tell you what, why don’t we order The Question!” Gloria said one evening. We’d sat through one depressing program after another until she had the courage to snap the television off.
“What, spend eight grand on a sheet of A4, no thank you!” The money seemed to be disappearing like water as it was, what with a new house and car, and cars for the kids too.
Gloria poured some ice-cold chardonnay into a large glass. Drops formed on the side. “But aren’t you interested to know what it’s about?”
Well, I was interested, damned interested, in fact, but could I afford to chuck that kind of money away? “I dunno. Look, pour me one of those out, will you?”
“Please, Greg, I want to know. Those other people say it’s worth it.”
“Hmm, maybe they’re just friends of the author, whatshisname.”
I took a gulp of the wonderful lemon-coloured liquid and felt the alcohol stab my brain like a sword. The world was all right again. “Oh, go on then,” I gestured extravagantly, “order it if you like.”

I’ll never forget the day we received The Question. I’d been at work when I noticed a text on my phone. It was about three o’clock. ‘It’s come. Should I open it, or wait for you?’
The kids were busy writing about Puck’s role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I texted a quick reply. ‘Open it and let me know what it says!’
But I got no reply. There was a staff meeting after work and it was growing dark by the time I got back home. That was odd, the house was in total darkness. Maybe Gloria had gone out, but then why not text me to let me know? And why hadn’t she texted about that damned book? Unless of course, she hadn’t opened it yet.
Inside, all was silent. I turned some lights on and went into the kitchen. There, on the table was a small Amazon packet. I picked it up and saw it had been opened. I looked around for anything that looked like The Question. Nothing. “Gloria,” I called. “Gloria, are you home?”
Upstairs, I looked in our bedroom. In a corner, the light on the paper shredder glowed a dull green. I turned the lights on, and it felt like I’d been winded. Like the time I’d flown off a sledge to land on my stomach when I was just a little kid. Blind panic whilst I was unable to breathe for what seemed an eternity but was probably only ten seconds.
Gloria lay on the bed and her face was as white as the sheets. I knew I’d find an empty bottle of pills in the bathroom. I touched her cold face and her sightless blue eyes stared into mine. If death was the answer, then what the hell was the question?

Taken from the book, The Window Crack’d and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Horror and the Supranatural

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