This week, I’m taking a break from The Dark Calling, my current, near-novel-length series, for two reasons:
1. I’m on my way out of town, even as this is being published. Nimue and I are headed to Fredericksburg, TX for their annual Oktoberfest. It’s our fifth year to go, and it’s a laid back weekend we both enjoy greatly. While I could have written something for The Dark Calling earlier in the week, I chose not to, because…
2. Of all the stories I’ve written, both published here and not, this is Nimue’s favorite. She asked me to post it here and share it with you, so that’s what I’m doing. It’s a little long to be considered ‘flash fiction‘, but I’m publishing as such anyway.
Eh, it’s my site, my rules.
(For those who are curious, I typically think of flash fiction as anything less than 2,000 words, though many would argue that’s too long to be flash. A lot of people cap flash fiction at 1,000 words. Most of mine is less than 1,500.)
Hopefully, you’ll enjoy this story as much as Nimue does.
all the way down
Snow is rare in Dallas. We get ice. Hell, we get entire ice storms. They’re maddening because no one knows how to drive in them, and the city grinds to a held-hostage-by-mother-nature halt. But snow isn’t common.
It’s snowing, though. And because so many are uncomfortable driving in it, an email has been sent out from the executive office not just allowing us to leave the office early but actually encouraging it. I look at the clock in the lower right-hand corner of my computer screen—2:37 pm—and then out the window. I work on the 16th floor. Sitting directly next to the window is one of the few perks I get. Typically the semi-transparent shades are drawn because the sun can create a headache-inducing glare on my screen, but with the overcast skies and the heavy snow, they are open. I can’t see more than half a mile at most. After that things just fade away into a wintery, white haze. It’s disconcerting, like the world itself is washed out past a certain point.
Unceremoniously, I pack my things and don my coat. Not a heavy coat, like when I lived in Colorado. This looks like a heavy coat, deep gray with a design that makes it a cousin of the pea coat, but it is actually quite light. No more than a jacket, really. I sling my bag over my shoulder and make my way out.
Most of my co-workers aren’t there, a great many of them having elected to work from home for the day, but my apartment is close by. A lot of the people I work with live an hour or more away. God only knows why they drive so far. I’m sure there are office buildings between here and where they live. I chose to come in that morning because I knew it would score me points with my boss, and anyway, I’m hoping the winter weather will hold up through the following day. That means working from home on a Friday. That’s practically like getting a long weekend.
Cubical-land is a ghost town.
Less than a minute later I’m standing in the elevator bay waiting for the elevator, a metal can that will deliver me sixteen floors straight down. I find myself thinking about how odd this is. I take elevators every day, but it’s weird when you think about it. A box on a string. You step in, it creates a controlled fall, and you step out. Most of us do it without considering just how much our altitude is being displaced.
I step into the elevator and push the round 2 button. The building I work in is situated on a hill so that the ground floor on one side is a story higher than the ground floor on the other. The 2 button lights up and I think about what I will do when I get home. I’ll log in remotely and pretend to work until 5:00, but while I am doing that I’ll also pop in a movie or maybe turn on some music and read. A few well timed emails and it will look like I’m a busy bee, as always.
The doors slide closed, the faint sound of metal scratching against metal sending unpleasant electric shocks up my spine. I wonder if the doors are working properly. As soon as they’re closed I notice the temperature in the elevator. It must be 10 degrees lower in here than it is in the rest of the building.
The elevator is in full decent, the cables overhead whizzing and clanging softly. I wonder if perhaps the elevator shaft isn’t as well insulated as the rest of the building. It feels like there’s a draft coming from below, as though the floor of the elevator is made of metal grate, and the air can flow freely through it.
My mind wanders from one random thought to another. I think of Allison and her tendency to laugh too hard at my jokes. Maybe Clark is right and she has a thing for me. Maybe I should ask her out. I think of my couch. It’s comfortable but old and worn. I wonder what it would look like with a sofa cover on it. I wonder if that would impress Allison–the bachelor with a stylish apartment. Of course, those sofa covers never look quite right. They never fit. I think about dinner, about maybe working out, about my bank account balance and the ridiculous cost of cable and the car I wish I had the money to buy.
These thoughts cascade through my mind, a tumbling, semi-linear line of consciousness, one idea loosely connected to the next. It happens in flashes and bursts, only seconds spent on each topic. I see the things I’m thinking, my assessments and conclusions only passing visions in my head. A parade of mental pictures. It is the junk drawer of my mind, the contents jumbled and knocking against each other as I open and close the drawer out of boredom.
Abruptly, all these thoughts cease and a single idea occurs to me. It’s absurd, and perhaps this quality about it more than anything else is why I give it my full attention. It is this: what if the elevator doesn’t stop at the bottom floor? What if it just keeps going?
I expect to feel and hear the elevator decelerating in preparation for my stop on the second floor, but the familiar sensation of slowing descent isn’t there. Maybe it’s my imagination, I reason in milliseconds. I just thought about how bizarre it would be if the elevator didn’t stop, and now I find myself fantasizing that it’s not going to.
Admittedly, I can be really paranoid sometimes.
The elevator doesn’t stop.
I look to the panel, thinking maybe I hit 1 instead of 2. The 2 glows brightly, and the elevator still isn’t slowing. I come to the immediate understanding that there’s a problem, a terrible problem, and that the elevator must not be braking. I know it will hit the ground soon, crashing into the concrete at the bottom of the shaft.
I perform some on-the-spot calculations. The elevator wasn’t built for impact. Surely it will collapse when it hits. Even if it doesn’t collapse, and even though I’m not in an all out free-fall, surely it will be devastating to hit the ground at this speed. It could easily break my legs. I process this in less than a second and react instinctually. I bend my knees, clinch my jaw, and prepare myself for impact.
I continue to descend. Watching the digital panel cross the great divide into negative numbers, I wonder if my eyes are playing tricks on me.
-1? There is no -1.
I furrow my brow.
I realize I’m still holding my breath, still expecting to collide with concrete.
I close my eyes. I think that maybe I did hit the floor. Maybe the impact was instant death and these unexplainable events are what happens after. I become acutely aware of my body, feeling the skin that creases behind my still bent knees. Feeling the tender membrane of my nostrils as I inhale violently. Feeling even my fingernail beds as I tighten my hands into fists.
My bag slips from my shoulder and falls to the floor, its soft thud a distant sound.
I open my eyes and am surprised to see my breath as I exhale. How did it get so cold? I hug myself and feel my phone tucked into the inner pocket of my coat.
I retrieve it and, with shaky hands, enter the unlock code. No service. I stare at the empty bars, willing them to fill.
I’m still clenching my phone, staring at the small space where there should be bars. I’m in the middle of the city, damn it. I always have coverage here. How could I not have coverage?
The elevator has neither gained nor lost speed. It’s descending at a steady click. Apart from the negative numbers on the display and the increasingly cold temperature, nothing about the elevator’s functionality seems to be the slightest bit off. It is as though it were designed to lower passengers far below the bottom floor of the building, as though the shaft had been drilled deep into the earth. I wonder how low it will go.
There is a duality in the feeling of the moment. It is both intensely real and simultaneously surreal. I alternate between rational disbelief and fantastic possible explanations. What if there is some kind of underground facility far below my office building, something top secret, and the building is just a front to distract from its existence? What if I’ve slipped into another dimension and the elevator is descending between planes, its shaft taking me straight through a wormhole? What if this is an elaborate hidden camera prank and the doors are about to open leaving me face-to-face with some b-list celebrity filming the first episode of an edgy new reality show? What if I’ve gone crazy and none of this is actually happening?
I snap out of my fantasy trace, awakened by rage. A primal anger.
I throw my phone against the number panel as hard as I can, hoping it will burst into a thousand pieces the way it would if this were an independent short film. It hits the wall with a dull plastic-on-metal clang and bounces away, bounding off the carpet and sliding to a stop at my feet.
It appears to be undamaged.
I kick the phone.
I yell for help and slam my hands against the elevator doors. I hit and scream, but the only sound I hear in response is a faint creaking and the painfully normal mechanical groan of the wench somewhere overhead.
My voice begins to crack. My throat feels raw. I stop shouting and begin to weep.
Slumped in a corner of the elevator, I watch the panel. The numbers continue to move, a perverse and unreasonable countdown. The temperature is now considerably lower than it was when I got on the elevator. I am shivering, and my hands are numb in my coat pockets. I don’t wear a watch. Instead, I use my phone to check the time. But my phone is dead, and I have no idea how long I’ve been sitting on the elevator floor. It seems like it’s been a couple of hours.
I feel my nose running, but I make no effort to wipe away the snot, instead letting it dribble over my mouth and to my chin. If this is a joke or a figment of my imagination, my current condition will certainly give the impression that I’m not playing with a full deck. The only thing left for me to do is drool.
I think about my mom. It’s strange because I hardly ever think about her. I wonder what my life would have been like if she had lived. If she hadn’t killed herself. If I had grown up with her. My dad was too busy to watch after all three of us and hold down a job at same time. Her absence, even before her death, left a hole in my life that never filled.
I rub my hands and blow into them to try to warm them. My fingers brush against my nose, and I feel how cold it is. Cold and wet, like I’m a cat.
My next thought: I’ve fucking lost it.
Looking at the panel on the elevator wall, I notice that my vision is blurred. I remember that impaired vision is a sign of hypothermia, and it occurs to me that if the temperature continues to drop I’ll freeze to death whether I ever reach the bottom or not. I wonder what kind of death that would be. I hope it doesn’t hurt too much. That would be an advantage of hitting the bottom, the whole instant death thing. At least then there would be no pain.
My shivering becomes more violent. I can feel my entire body bouncing against the wall behind me as each convulsion jerks me forward and back. It feels like the temperature in the elevator could easily be below zero. I feel like I’ve been here for several hours, and I wonder if anyone has noticed that I’m missing yet.
My life isn’t flashing before my eyes, and this bothers me. I wish I had great accomplishments to remember or unrealized dreams to mourn, but I realize that I have been living without any ambition. I don’t have regrets because I haven’t really taken any chances. I’ve played life by the numbers.
My mind reels with wild thoughts and apprehensions. I wonder if the elevator is descending right down to hell. Wouldn’t it be getting hotter if it were? I smile at this thought and then frown when I remember: Dante described the lowest level of hell as a frozen lake.
I’ve stopped shivering. My tongue feels heavy in my mouth, and thoughts come slowly to me.
I was going somewhere. I was going to read, I think, or play music. Listen to music. Is it snowing in here? Why am I still in this elevator? Is there a bathroom? I need to go.
I feel exhausted. My body falls to the side, and my head lands on my bag. It would be a pillow if it weren’t so hard. So cold. I think I might close my eyes. I wonder where the cold has gone, and then I see the frozen condensation on the inside of the elevator doors.
The numbers continue to drop, each sleepy digit like a sheep I’m counting. I close my eyes, and my body relaxes. I think of home. Not my apartment and not the house I grew up in, but some other place. Some place warm and open, some place where I am safe and on solid ground. I think about the people who would be there with me, my closest friends. Those who love me. Those who will miss me when they hear that I got on an elevator and never got off. I think about that place, those people, the security I would feel there, and I smile. My cracked lips pull painfully across my teeth like they’ve already frozen to them.
Even with my eyes closed, I know the numbers keep tumbling down.
All the way down.