Black Petals Issue #94 Winter, 2021

Dark Little Boxes
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Mars-News, Views and Commentary-Chris Friend
Basement Dweller-Fiction by Justin Swartz
The Beating of Their Wings-Fiction by Brian Maycock
Does the Bogeyman Live Downstairs?-Fiction by Clive Owen Barry
Dark Little Boxes-Fiction by C. M. Barnes
Death by Midnight-Fiction by Charlie Cancel
Forearmed-Fiction by Jan Cronos
Inconceivable-Fiction by Rich Rose
The Wolf's Den-Fiction by J. B. Polk
Treachery-Fiction by Ramon F. Irizarri
Tumour Wakes Up-Fiction by Alexis Gkantiragas
The Opal Ring-Fiction by Michael Dority
Flora and Fauna-Flash Fiction by Roy Dorman
Gnaw-Flash Fiction by Tony Kidd
Mad Money-Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Madonna of the Damned-Flash Fiction by Hillary Lyon
Special Teeth-Flash Fiction by KJ Hannah Greenberg
The Death Set-4 Poems by Hillary Lyon
Five Haiku-Poems by C. D. Marcum
Misanthrope-Poem by Donna Dallas
The Wish Tree-3 poems by Christopher Hivner
Nebulous-3 poems by Juan Manuel Perez
The Sphinx at Night-5 Poems by Meg Smith
Nameless-Poem by David Barber

94_bp_darkboxes_header_cfawcett.jpg
Art by Cynthia Fawcett 2021

Dark Little Boxes

 

C. M. Barnes

 

 

 

 

            9:14 A.M., and Michael is standing in the lobby before the elevator doors looking at his phone. He’s just gotten a text from Sandra—we need to talk!—but he’s ignoring it. He’s too focused on getting to the 23rd floor in a hurry to deal with that situation. The deposition is due to begin at 9:15, and there’s no way in hell Charles is going to wait for him. No, as a competing associate, he’ll plow right ahead and then make very sure a partner hears about Michael’s being late afterwards. This will be galling not only because it might scuttle Michael’s own partnership chances but because Charles is such a prick. He wears suspenders for God’s sake. Twenty-seven years old, and suspenders! He also has this annoying way of tossing his hair around, like there’s a constant wind storm blowing through any room he’s in that only he can feel. These affectations piss Michael off, and now he’s about to lose his future to the man who enacts them—all because he failed to get out of Sandra’s bed early enough.

          Too much wine last night. That was the problem. Too much wine combined with some anxiety medication not meant to be combined with wine. Not that sleeping with Sandra had been a good decision in the first place. In fact, it had been an awful decision, the kind he generally prided himself on not making. That’s how he’d gotten so far so early in life. But now everything is in jeopardy if he can’t get his ass and his briefcase to the 23rd floor in one minute flat.

          For a second, something ugly surfaces in the back of Michael’s throbbing skull—a fuzzy, frenzied memory from last night that’s as dark as it is unpleasant. He pushes it away. Got to stay focused. As soon as he gets up there, he’ll have to hit the ground running.

          He bounces on the heels of his wingtips and feels sweat dripping down the small of his back. It’s also dripping under his best fitted shirt and even better I’m-a-monster suit, his bad-ass, I-take-whatever-I-want! suit. Definitely his most intimidating outfit, but it’s not going to do him any good if he can’t get to where he’s going by 9:15. Otherwise, he might as well be wearing a Party Naked! T-shirt over some jorts.

          Ding!

          Surprisingly, the sound comes from behind him. He whirls, wingtips squeaking, and is so surprised by what he sees that he drops his briefcase. An entirely different set of elevator doors is opening. They aren’t metal but wood, the same dark and dusty wood as the wall. He hadn’t even seen them when he was frantically scanning the lobby for stairs. If they weren’t opening now, he still wouldn’t be able to see them. They look to be simply part of the wall itself. Except they are sliding back and away from each other to reveal a similarly wooden interior. That interior is dark aside from a single, dim bulb hanging down from the ceiling. Aside from the bulb, there are no other features in or around this new elevator, not even any buttons on the lobby wall. Just a dark space, about six by six feet, beckoning him in like a vampire being invited to climb into his own upright coffin.

          Must be a service elevator, he thinks. Maybe it triggers when the main box goes on the fritz. Who knows and, more importantly, who cares? Just as long as it gets him to the 23rd floor in time to blow Charles’ hair back.

          Michael steps into the little wooden elevator, and the doors close behind him so fast he barely has time to catch a glimpse of the disappearing lobby. Their action is smooth. Not even a creak, let alone a rumble. Just as quickly, he feels the elevator begin to fall. For whatever cursed reason, it’s going the wrong direction, and it’s going fast judging by the wicked drop in his gut. He’d gotten on at the ground floor. How far down could it possibly go? More importantly, how can he stop it? He and his briefcase have somewhere to be...

          The briefcase!

          He throws himself at the doors, but of course they don’t open, not even when he shoves his fingers into the crack and feels the splintery pain of his nails twisting. Fuck! He drops his throbbing hands and looks for a stop button, for any button, but there are no buttons inside the elevator either. It’s all just dark wood—dark walls, dark ceiling, dark floor...

          Except for the telephone. It’s in a little glass case set into the wall next to the doors and looks to be the only thing in the elevator that isn’t wood aside from the bulb overhead. It’s a shiny, plastic red and has no buttons either, is nothing but a handset on a small, metal hook. It looks more like a toy telephone than a real one, but this doesn’t stop him from ripping it out of the case and holding it up to his ear. It’s on a long, similarly red cord—a kinky, spirally cord that manages to snare his wrist even as he presses the phone’s cold surface against the sweaty corner of his mouth.

          “Hello?” he says. “Hello? Hello!

          No answer. Not even a dial tone. Thing must be disconnected. Of course it’s disconnected! Nobody’s used a phone with a cord in this city for at least a decade. But what else is going to stop this box? It still seems to be going down, and without his briefcase, Michael is finished, plain and simple. All his deposition documents are in there, and they are of a very sensitive nature. He could probably get fired just for leaving them unattended, let alone losing them in a public lobby, a lobby through which the opposing party is likely to soon pass. Christ! What if one of the other side’s suits comes down and finds it? He’d not only be done working at Milton & Lewis. He’d be done working in this city period. That is unless he wants to spend the rest of his career doing pro bono work for battered orphans. No, thank you! That’s not what he’d worked so hard for. That’s not what the I’m-a-monster-who-takes-what-he-wants! suit now clinging to his back proclaimed.

          Hello!” he shouts into the red phone again. “I need someone to stop this thing, and I need it to happen right now!”

          Still no answer. Big surprise!

          “For the record, I’ll do anything to make that happen,” he adds, now certain he is talking to no one. “Anything.”

          Again, no response—which figures. Nothing works like it’s supposed to anymore. He is only twenty-seven himself, but he’s pretty sure that the whole world has been running downhill since he cleared puberty. Not that it was his fault. He’d worked hard. He’d done what he was supposed to. He’d kept his eyes on the prize or the ball or the goal or whatever you were supposed to keep your eyes on while everyone else had screwed around and let everything go to hell.

          He’s just about to drop the phone and dig for his cell when he hears the voice.

          “Hello, Sir.” a woman’s voice says calmly. “Did you say, Anything?”

          He jerks the phone away from his ear. Only the kinky red cord twisted around his wrist keeps it from falling to the floor. He presses the handset to his face again.

          “Hello?” he says. “Who is this? Maintenance? I left my briefcase in the lobby, and I can’t get this thing to go back up. It’s definitely an emergency. Could you send me back—or, better yet, have someone run my case up to the 23rd floor? That would be amazing. Thanks.”

          There’s a long pause on the other end of the line, long enough for Michael to wonder if whomever has answered has hung up. But, unlike before, he can hear a faint buzzing, more like some faintly whirring machine is still listening, if not thinking. It’s a weird thought, but not one he’s in the mood to analyze. It’s the same with the voice itself. It was a woman’s voice, but it had a machine-like quality, not so much like a sexy AI speaker as one of those creepy, creaky, hag-in-a-box fortune telling machines that tend to show up in old horror movies. He’s never seen one of those things in real life, but he’s pretty confident they have voices like the one that just answered him, a voice that sounds like it was recorded many years ago and worn thin by countless playings.

          “You say you’re still going up, Sir?” The voice finally asks.

          “Yeah. I, uh...”

          But he isn’t. At some point during the time he’s been listening to the buzz on the line, the elevator stopped without his noticing. He can feel it in his stomach, a new stillness that means he’s no longer rising or falling, just hovering in place somewhere down a long, dark shaft.

          “Never mind,” he says. “I’m stuck now—which isn’t exactly an improvement. I still need that briefcase, and I need to be out of here and using it asap. Can you at least pop the doors?

          “We’re sorry, Sir. We’re going to need to look into your situation first.”

          “My what now?”

          “Your situation, Sir—to learn more about you.”

          “My situation?”

          “Yes, Sir. It looks like you’re in quite a situation. We might even call it a predicament.

          Michael’s jaw falls slack against the phone. Had the robot-voice lady really just said he was in a predicament? And why did she keep saying we?

          “Fine” Michael says. “Just do whatever you have to do to get this thing moving.”

          For an instant, he thinks he hears a faint ghost of laughter behind the buzzing tone. It’s hard to be certain. Could just be a quirk of an old-fashioned phone. Could also just be his imagination, his anxious imagination, the one that’s now freaking out because Charles is no doubt eating his lunch while he stands here with his thumb up his ass in this stupid elevator...

          “We assure you, Sir. There’s nothing wrong with the room you’re in. In fact, we think you’ll find it’s quite suitable for you—given time.”

          Given time? Now, just what the fuck did that mean?

          “Well, time is exactly what I don’t have, Ma’am,” Michael says as evenly as he can. “Also, I don’t know if you know this, but I’m calling you from an elevator, not a room. I don’t plan to spend the night in here. Have you run your tests yet?”

          “If you say so, Sir.”

          “If I say what?”

          “We’ll know more presently, Sir. Please try to be patient.”

          Jesus! Of all the helpline drones to pull, he’d gotten the one who was going to Mr. Bean him right out of a job. Michael taps a foot as he listens to the buzz over the phone. He taps a hand on the wall. Both hand and foot knock hollowly against the dark wood, a sound that once again puts him in mind of coffins, of knocking on the inside of closed lids, of desperate, hopeless attempts at escape.

          “Anything yet?” he mutters into the phone and is surprised to hear an edge of fear cutting through the impatience in his voice.

          “Why yes, Sir. Something is coming through. It appears you might have done something regrettable early this morning—or late last night, depending on how you look at it. Something some might even consider reprehensible, if we may use a stronger word. Does this fit with your recollection of events?”

          The voice gives way to the usual expectant buzz, and Michael listens to it, dumfounded. What could this lady possibly be talking about?

          “Something reprehensible,” the voice prompts, as if hearing these thoughts. “Any memories, Sir? If not, don’t worry. We don’t have to start with last night. We can go back further—even all the way back to the beginning, if you would like. However you would like to proceed is fine by us.”

          Us? This is getting beyond strange, and the word lawsuit starts to ping around in the back of Michael’s mind. He can’t help it. It’s purely a matter of professional training.

          He checks his watch. Somehow, it’s still 9:14.

          “Look, Lady,” he says. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I definitely don’t know who us is, but I promise you that, if you don’t get me out of this elevator in a hurry, you and your boss’s legal department are going to be very sorry—”

          “Try to stop thinking of it as an elevator, Sir.” the voice breaks in. “That only complicates things. Instead, try to focus on the idea of a room—even a box, if you’d like.”

          “It’s a fucking elevator! And, if you call me Sir one more time, I swear I’m going to find you and...and...”

          Michael trails off, unable to come up with an appropriate way to threaten violence.

          There’s another long, buzzing silence. Then, “There’s no need to shout, Sir.”

          Michael lowers the phone to his side and takes a deep breath. Is the room—no, the elevator—getting smaller around him? It can’t be, but it sure seems that way. It seems like those wooden walls, those dark, grainy walls covered in spidery black lines, have pressed in a few inches from every side. The temperature also seems to have gone up. Just a few degrees. Nothing serious, only a natural byproduct of a hot body trapped in a small space—a small, airless space. But no. There’s plenty of air, isn’t there? This thing can’t be air tight. But fuck if it doesn’t feel that way.

          Michael raises the phone again. It feels cool and slippery in his grip.

          “Sorry,” he says. “Really sorry about that. I’m just...this is just...a stressful situation. I’m sure you can understand that, what with having to field calls from people stuck in elevators all day.”

          “Certainly, Sir,” the woman’s voice says, sounding as mechanical as ever. “We completely understand. Many people struggle to adjust to the situation—at least initially.”

          “Right,” Michael says. He forces himself to take another long breath. Breath in. Breath out. Just like the therapist said. “So, where were we? Somewhere in the process of getting me out of here, I hope?”

          “Not exactly, Sir. Unfortunately, we have other business to attend to first. Quite a bit of business, we’re afraid. Why don’t we start with when you were twelve? That seems to have been an important year for you. A year of many changes. A year when many future paths were determined.”

          “When I was...twelve?”

          “Yes, Sir. Do you remember throwing that rock? You claimed afterwards that you thought it was only a clod of dirt, but, the truth is, you knew it was a rock, knew it the whole time even as you drew back your arm and let it fly. Did you know that the other boy’s brain swelled afterwards? That he was never mentally the same again? If you’re curious, he now works as a janitor at the group home where he also lives. Formally, he had been on track to become a CPA. Funny how these paths can be determined so early, isn’t it, Sir? And from such seemingly innocuous actions.”

          Michael presses the phone against his face. The handset is ice cold as it scrapes against the faint stubble of his jaw. How could she possibly know about that? He hasn’t thought about the dirt clod thing with Conner in years!

          “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says slowly. “I also don’t know why you’re even talking about it. You’re supposed to be helping me get out of here, aren’t you? That’s your job, right?”

          “A common misperception, Sir. Don’t worry about it. You’ll catch on soon enough.”

          “Catch on to what, you...you...”

          He stops himself from saying it, but just barely.

          “Watch your language, Sir. Now, let’s move on to the next item. It occurred during your fourteenth year. You found a dying cat in the woods behind your childhood home. It was a stray. Very weak from hunger. It was lying by the creek, and there was an old garbage bag twisted in the weeds nearby. You’d always wondered what it would be like to kill something larger than a bug...”

          As the woman’s voice drones on, the walls of the elevator begin to change. Michael can’t believe it at first, but there’s no denying that the black lines of the wood grain are now twisting and reshaping themselves. They are writhing in and out of each other like braided ropes of dark snakes. He blinks. It has to be an illusion, another symptom of panic, if not poor lighting. But the grain in the wood is still shifting, still twisting, still writhing until it begins to form words...

          cast...a...stone...at...age...12

          drowned...a...cat...at...age...14

          He knows he can’t be seeing them, but new words continue to form even as the voice drones them into his ear. A new line about how he once spied on a woman through her bedroom window across an alley begins to appear...

          Peeped...on...your...neighbor...at...age...19

          “What the fuck?” he whispers.

          A pungent, burning smell seeps out of each new line as it appears in the wall, like an invisible soldering iron is inscribing every letter with meticulous detail. The smell is an awful cindery stink, but there’s something even worse beneath it—a kind of rotten corruption that reminds him of old leaves and dead insects moldering in a ditch. No, underground—somewhere deep down where eye-less, white things gnaw on forgotten bones.

          “What...what is happening?” He stutters into the phone.

          The voice pauses in its litany of misbehaviors. “Come again, Sir?”

          “What’s going on? Is this some kind of joke? Am I...am I on camera or something?”

          “We assure you, Sir. This is not a joke.”

          “Then how are you doing this?”

          “Actually, you did it, Sir. We are just finishing the job.”

          “The job?

          “That’s what you wanted, right Sir? For us to complete our work as quickly as possible?”

          “But—”

          “But what, Sir? You were very insistent. Now, if you’d like, we can move on to the next phase even as we complete this one. That would speed things up a little.”

          “I hope you’re ready to go to court, Lady. When I get through with you, you...you won’t have a pot to—”

          “In your twenty-third year, you took a knife to your downstairs neighbor’s tires because you disliked his politics...”

          slashed...neighbor’s...tires...

          “—piss in, you bitch—”

          A searing bolt of pain flares down from Michael’s wrist. It comes from right below where he’s holding the phone, and he pulls the handset away from his ear. The kinky red cord is now twined deeply into his flesh. It’s wrapped so tightly that the skin over his veins has turned purple and blotchy. Small, jewel-like droplets of blood are even welling up around the twisted cord. For a second, they look like a string of tiny rubies emblazoned along the cord’s shiny hide. Then they begin to run, one-by-one, down the length of his upraised arm. They leave crimson traces down the white cotton of his shirt sleeve.

          Michael screams. He can’t help himself. It’s the brutal sound of an animal caught in a trap, an animal in the grips of something hard, sharp, and intractable. The phone cord pulls even tighter, and the blood drops around the cord turn into streams. The kinks of the cord seem to be burrowing into the very bones of his wrist. He screams again, and, as if in response, the cord starts to inch its way down his arm, peeling his bulging, empurpled flesh back as it goes. His skin begins to fall away like the thin shavings of a huge pencil.

          “Oh, my God!” He hears himself screaming. “What the fuck! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!

          He tries to pull away again, but the cord won’t let go. More excruciating, blinding pain burns along his arm. Pulling only seems to make the wiry, red kinks dig deeper. Blood runs down the fine black wool of his suit sleeve.

          “Oh, my God!”

          The cord stops descending about three inches below Michael’s wrist, just above his blood-soaked suit cuff. Everything above it is red, raw, and oozing. It has loosened just enough for him to stop screaming.

          “There,” the voice says. “See, Sir? We can do two things at once if necessary.”  

          Somehow, Michael is still clutching the phone above his brutalized wrist. He’s holding it as far away from his body as possible, but the voice still sounds perfectly clear, even louder than before. Now, the whole elevator is filled with the awful buzzing sound. It’s also saturated with the stink of burned wood and fresh blood.

          “I don’t know who you are,” Michael hisses between sobs, “or what you want. But, I promise you, if you’ll just let me out of here—"

          “We’re sorry, Sir, but you’re in no position to promise anything at the moment. You also tend not to keep your promises. But, if you’d like, we could skip ahead again to the next phase. Not that you’ll be going anywhere soon. Not unless—”

          “Unless what?” Michael gasps. A cold rivulet of snot has formed above his quivering lip. “Please. What do you want? Money? Drugs? I can get you anything you want!”

          “—we attend to the most pressing business at hand.”

          Michael gulps, staring at his mutilated arm. How has he gotten here? What could he possibly have done to deserve this?

          Then it hits him.

          “You mean the lawsuit, right?” He shouts the words at the phone with something close to glee. “The deposition! I know it’s bullshit. I know our client put a bunch of cheap-ass hip joints in people that shattered all over the place. I’m sorry about that. Really sorry. I’ll quit the case just as soon as I get out of here. I’ll quit being a lawyer period. Whatever you want. Just let me go!”

          “We’re afraid not, Sir,” the voice says almost sympathetically. “That’s also an item for which you must pay, and we’re pleased you’re making progress in identifying such items, but that is not our most pressing business.”

          “Then what is it? Is it Charles? I’m sorry I fucked his wife. I’m pretty sure she’s sorry to. We’re both sorry. Is that what you want to hear?”

          “Wrong again, Sir—although we’ll be sure to carefully account for that as well.”

          “Then what is it? Jesus! I’m bleeding out in here! Do you want me to die?’

          “You won’t die, Sir—at least not precisely.”

          Michael stares at the red phone still tied to his bleeding wrist. The little holes in the receiver look like a constellation of beady, black eyes glaring back at him. They are as dark as the surrounding wood, as dark as the words that are even now twisting and burning themselves into the wall before his eyes.

          cheated...people...out...of...their...health...at...age...27

          stole...another’s...love...at...age...27

          “What do you mean I won’t die?” he whimpers.

          His pleading voice echoes softly through the elevator like a weak wind.

          “We mean you’ll be here for as long as it takes,” the voice replies. “How long that is will be our decision, not yours.”

          Michael falls to his knees. The phone is still in his hand, the cord still buried in his wrist. His knees spark with pain as they knock against the hard wood of the elevator floor...

          Except it isn’t really an elevator, is it? It never has been—not unless you counted a dark, little box that only goes down, down, down...

          “Now you’re catching on, Sir. Congratulations! Didn’t we say everyone figures it out eventually.”

          Michael slumps toward the floor, but the cord immediately pulls him back up onto his knees. A trail of blood from his wrist is now making its way up the cord. It’s actually flowing up toward the wall, toward the gleaming metal hook that had cradled the handset, a gleaming metal hook that now very much resembles a mouth.

          It’s drinking me, he thinks distantly. Jesus Christ, but it’s drinking me...and it looks thirsty!

          “Is there...is there anything I can do?” he whispers.  

          The buzzing around him intensifies. It gets loud enough to vibrate inside his head. Then it recedes back to its usual mechanical whir.

          “Not really,” the voice says. “Not unless you’re ready to address our most pressing business, Sir.”

          Michael lets the hand holding the phone sink to the floor. The handset knocks against the wood with a dull clack. It’s still ice cold in his numbing grip.

          “I’m...I’m ready,” he says.  

          “Very good, Sir. We knew you’d come around. Now, as we said, it happened last night—that reprehensible act that you couldn’t seem to remember earlier? Has your recollection improved?”

          Michael tries to release his fingers from the phone, but they don’t move. They are numb from loss of blood—that same blood that the wall is now gleefully slurping up along the cord.

          “I don’t remember much,” he says dully. “I drank a lot, and I took some pills that make booze hit me harder than it should.”

          “But you remember something, don’t you, Sir?”

          The cord tightens again, and a flash of pain shoots up Michael’s arm.

          “Yes,” he gasps. “I remember something...something bad. It happened with Sandra. It was something she didn’t want.”

          “Be as specific as you can be, Sir. Consider yourself on the stand.”

          “I remember...I remember her not wanting...she didn’t want...”

          “What didn’t she want, Sir? You’re on trial now, and believe us when we say the stakes could not be higher.”

          “She didn’t want...she didn’t want...”

          “Admit it, Sir. Admit it now or spend the rest of eternity with us—”

          The cord tightens again, and Michael has to bite his lip to keep from screaming.

          “—in which case we’re only just getting started, Sir.”

          Michael’s blurring gaze falls to the floor. Its grains are swirling now too. They are twisting and reshaping themselves, but this time they aren’t forming words but rather shapes. Gradually, he sees that the shapes are those of tiny men, men just like himself. Except there are hundreds of them, maybe even thousands, and each of them is trapped in a dark, little box. Thousands of dark, little boxes filled with screaming men are waiting below him, each of them stuck forever down black and endless shafts...

          The cord tightens further. It seems the very hand he’d used to hold her down will now be sliced off...

          “Speak now, Sir, or suffer forever.”

          Michael raises his face to the wall.

          “She didn’t want me!” he screams. “She didn’t want me, and I made her take me anyway! I’m a monster, and I took what I wanted. God help me, but that’s what I did!”

          For a second, the buzzing stops. Then, “Thank you for your honesty, Sir.

          The floor begins to swirl faster beneath his knees. All the little men trapped in their boxes began to spin around, whirling around each other but never touching. In the middle of this maelstrom, a space begins to open, another dark, box-shaped space. Slowly, it expands out toward the elevator walls, and, as it does, Michael feels himself sinking down into it. The cord around his wrist is lowering him. It is dropping him into an even darker little room, his own tiny forever cell, his own miniature, eternal prison...

          “I’m sorry!” he screams as the cord lowers him down. “I’m so sorry! I’ll do anything to make it right! Anything!

          The cord pauses in its descent.

          Anything?” the woman’s voice says.

          Anything!” Michael howls up from the darkness. “I know I don’t deserve it, but please!”

          “You don’t deserve it, Sir.”

          “I know...I know...”

          “You don’t deserve it in the slightest.”

          “Oh, God, I know!”

          “Very well then. Look up.”

          He does, and far above him he sees the flare of the bulb dangling over his head. As soon as he sees it, it shatters into countless pieces, and a shimmering fractal of white lights rains down upon him. It cascades into his eyes, each piece of burning white glass tearing into the soft flesh of his gaze. For an instant, his head is filled with a searing, brilliant light. He screams one final time. Then everything goes dark.

 

*        *        *

          9:14 A.M., and Michael is standing in the lobby before the elevator doors looking at his phone. He’s just gotten a text from Sandra—we need to talk!—and he can’t stop looking at it.

          Ding!

          The doors before him slide open just in time to take him to the 23rd floor.

          He stares into the waiting elevator. It looks like a perfectly normal elevator. Bright fluorescent lights overhead. Dull metal walls with a little cheap wood paneling. Nothing to be suspicious of.

          He looks back over his shoulder. This time, there’s no dark, wooden wall behind him, let alone a pair of dark, wooden doors sliding back to reveal an even darker little box. Instead, there’s only a big revolving glass door leading out onto a bright city street. A car rolls past as he looks out. An old lady totters by walking a dog. The world outside just carrying on as usual...

          He feels his wrist. It’s fine. No hint of any horrible damage.

          Did you say, Anything, Sir?

          This time, the woman’s mechanical voice is only an echo in the back of his mind, but it’s more than enough to turn him around toward the revolving door. As he turns, he lets his briefcase fall to the lobby floor. Its clatter mixes with the ding! of the elevator closing behind him.

          Who cares? He knows where he needs to be now, and it’s definitely not here.

          I’m so sorry!  he texts as he walks toward the exit. I know I don’t deserve the chance, but I’m willing to do anything to try to make things right. ANYTHING!

          As he presses send, a faint, ghostly cord of pain encircles his wrist, but it fades as he enters the revolving door. Go on! it seems to say. Go do the right thing, Sir! He feels a rush of elation as he pushes the bright glass around toward the light of the street. Sandra’s apartment is only a few blocks away. He can be there in ten minutes. Then he can begin to try to make up for what he had done...

          “Did you really think it would be so simple, Sir?”

          This time, the voice is not an echo, and the revolving door jams hard against Michael’s hands.

          “What?” he says. “Now, wait a minute—"

          A familiar mechanical buzz fills the air around him.

          “No,” he says. “No. Wait. You don’t understand—"

           “Did you really think fearing us would be enough to free you, Sir? Everyone is afraid of us. It’s her you need to feel for, but that’s something a man like you will never understand.”

          The glass on either side of him goes dark. So does the ceiling and the floor. Suddenly, the only light is a lone, bare bulb over his head. It’s only bright enough to faintly illuminate the dense wood grain surrounding him. No. Not just grain but writing—line upon line of writing proclaiming his awfulness from every side. 

          Michael bangs on the wall. The wood is hot to the touch. “No!” he screams. “I’ve changed. I understand now. I promise!

          A shrill ringing pierces his ears.  

          “Answer the phone, Sir.”

          “No! Oh, please no! No!

          “Answer the phone, Sir. It’s time to continue.”

          Michael hugs his arms to the sides of his suit, but it doesn’t matter. The red cord is already reaching out for him. He has time to scream once before it closes around his throat. Then it begins to cut as it lowers him down into the dark, little box waiting below.

 

 

 

 

 

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Art by Cynthia Fawcett 2021

C.M. Barnes lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Barnes’ work has appeared previously in American Short Fiction, Digital Americana, and Arcadia along with other publications.

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