C. M. Barnes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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...
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.
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
“Hello!” he shouts into the red phone
again. “I need someone to stop this thing, and I need it to happen right now!”
answer. Big surprise!
record, I’ll do anything to make that happen,” he adds, now certain he is
talking to no one. “Anything.”
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.
about to drop the phone and dig for his cell when he hears the voice.
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.”
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’re still going up, Sir?” The voice finally asks.
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.
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?
sorry, Sir. We’re going to need to look into your situation first.”
situation, Sir—to learn more about you.”
It looks like you’re in quite a situation. We might even call it a predicament.
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?
says. “Just do whatever you have to do to get this thing moving.”
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...
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
“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
“If I say what?”
more presently, Sir. Please try to be patient.”
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.
yet?” he mutters into the phone and is surprised to hear an edge of fear cutting
through the impatience in his voice.
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
his watch. Somehow, it’s still 9:14.
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.”
fucking elevator! And, if you call me
Sir one more time, I swear I’m going
to find you and...and...”
trails off, unable to come up with an appropriate way to threaten violence.
another long, buzzing silence. Then, “There’s no need to shout, Sir.”
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.
raises the phone again. It feels cool and slippery in his grip.
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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
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
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!
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?”
misperception, Sir. Don’t worry about it. You’ll catch on soon enough.”
“Catch on to
himself from saying it, but just barely.
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...
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...
“What the fuck?”
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.
pauses in its litany of misbehaviors. “Come again, Sir?”
going on? Is this some kind of joke?
Am I...am I on camera or something?”
you, Sir. This is not a joke.”
are you doing this?”
“Actually, you did it, Sir. We are just finishing
you wanted, right Sir? For us to complete our work as quickly as possible?”
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
twenty-third year, you took a knife to your downstairs neighbor’s tires because
you disliked his politics...”
“—piss in, you
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.
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!”
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.
voice says. “See, Sir? We can do two things at once if necessary.”
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.
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—"
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!”
to the most pressing business at hand.”
staring at his mutilated arm. How has he gotten here? What could he possibly
have done to deserve this?
Then it hits
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!”
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.”
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?”
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?’
die, Sir—at least not precisely.”
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.
“What do you
mean I won’t die?” he whimpers.
voice echoes softly through the elevator like a weak wind.
you’ll be here for as long as it takes,” the voice replies. “How long that is
will be our decision, not yours.”
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
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...
catching on, Sir. Congratulations! Didn’t we say everyone figures it out eventually.”
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!
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.
really,” the voice says. “Not unless you’re ready to address our most pressing
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.
ready,” he says.
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?”
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
remember much,” he says dully. “I drank a lot, and I took some pills that make
booze hit me harder than it should.”
remember something, don’t you, Sir?”
The cord tightens
again, and a flash of pain shoots up Michael’s arm.
gasps. “I remember something...something bad.
It happened with Sandra. It was something she didn’t want.”
specific as you can be, Sir. Consider yourself on the stand.”
remember...I remember her not wanting...she didn’t want...”
she want, Sir? You’re on trial now, and believe us when we say the stakes could
not be higher.”
want...she didn’t want...”
“Admit it, Sir.
Admit it now or spend the rest of eternity with us—”
tightens again, and Michael has to bite his lip to keep from screaming.
case we’re only just getting started,
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
tightens further. It seems the very hand he’d used to hold her down will now be
Sir, or suffer forever.”
raises his face to the wall.
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!”
second, the buzzing stops. Then, “Thank you for your honesty, Sir.”
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...
he screams as the cord lowers him down. “I’m so sorry! I’ll
do anything to make it right! Anything!”
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!”
deserve it, Sir.”
deserve it in the slightest.”
“Oh, God, I know!”
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.
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.
The doors before
him slide open just in time to take him to the 23rd floor.
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.
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?
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
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...
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.
on the wall. The wood is hot to the touch. “No!” he screams. “I’ve changed. I
understand now. I promise!”
ringing pierces his ears.
please no! No!”
phone, Sir. It’s time to continue.”
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.