by Karina Andrew
Rain pounded hard against the gray city streets, as if God had commanded all his angels to pull out automatic rifles and launch round after round of water bullets down on Manhattan. People were grumbling as they pulled out umbrellas and zipped up their parkas, which Hank found irritating. It was April in New York. What did these people expect?
The rain amplified the normal city sounds, made them wetter and richer. Horns honked, subways rattled, dogs barked, and Hank was thinking about death.
“If I have to hear one more complaint about budget cuts I’m going to kill myself,” he had told his wife on the phone that morning. She told him he shouldn’t say things like that, because some people really are suicidal, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly, and imagine how she would feel if he did kill himself, and please don’t make jokes like that anymore. But it didn’t seem like a big deal to Hank. Of course, he wouldn’t really kill himself. It was just something to say.
In any case, people died all the time, and the city was too big to notice. They were all blood cells running through Manhattan’s metro veins, doing their jobs until one day they got too old and stopped doing their jobs and some new little blood cells came running into Manhattan with their freshly-earned degrees to do their jobs for them. Such is life.
Hank reached his building. He worked in a downtown building with a lot of floors that no tourist would ever look twice at, doing a job that involved looking at numbers and taking phone calls from angry people making twice his salary. It wasn’t the worst job he’d ever had.
He took the elevator up to the twenty-third floor.
“Good morning, Hank,” the secretary greeted him. He nodded and smiled vacantly in her direction before continuing to his office, where he sat looking at numbers and taking phone calls for the better part of the morning.
“I’m very sorry that report didn’t come in yesterday,” he said, holding a notepad close to the receiver and scratching on it with a dried-out pen. “I’m writing them a memo now. Yes, I’m sure they can fix that for you by eleven. Ten? Okay, no problem.”
He sorted through some more files on his desk and the rain hammered on the window. You would have thought a hurricane was rolling up the Hudson. The wind picked up around nine-thirty, roaring so loudly he almost didn’t hear the phone ringing.
“Hello?” he answered, hoping he had picked up too late and missed the call.
“Hello, Mr. Matthews? This is Liz, from advertising. We’ve got one of your people on our floor.”
“So, send him down.”
“She is the new intern.”
“New intern?” Hank rubbed his chin. “Did we have an old intern?”
Liz from advertising huffed in irritation. “I don’t keep track of the book-keepers. Just come get her, okay?” Under her breath, she added, “If she can’t even find the right floor, there’s no way she can find the right office.”
“Whose office is she working in?” Hank asked, but Liz from advertising had already hung up.
Hank let out a long breath through his nose. He leaned back in his chair and stared out the door for a few moments, hoping someone else would walk by whom he could delegate the babysitting task to, but his hallway remained empty.
Great. He stood up—a fresh round of rain pelted the window, drowning out the creaking of his chair—and took the elevator up one floor to advertising.
The intern stuck out like a tourist on Wall Street. Hank spotted her as soon as the elevators doors peeled open. She wore her light hair up in a ponytail, exposing narrow shoulders and an expression hovering between earnest and terrified. Her clothes, shoes, and bag all looked new and crisp—too crisp, as if she had purchased them specifically for this internship. Hank didn’t like college students; he could imagine this one snapping “selfies” on her phone and posting them on whatever new social media shrine kids were sacrificing their time to these days. “First day of my internship!” she would caption it with a whole army of smiley faces. “New York City sure is different from the ranch back in Wyoming!”
“Hi, Hank Matthews,” he said, extending a hand impassively.
“Kirsten Linnell.” Her grip was firm, but her voice was timid.
“I’ll show you down to book-keeping,” Hank said, calling the elevator. It had another person in it when it came back to the twenty-fourth floor, a tall, African American woman with mounds of black hair piled on top of her head. Hank stepped in. Kirsten the intern hesitated on the landing.
“You coming or what?”
“Yeah, right, sorry.” She tucked a lose strand of hair back into her ponytail and stepped into the elevator. She seemed to be holding her breath. Weird.
Hank mashed the 23 button. Thank goodness they only had one floor to go; he didn’t know what to say to the new intern, and he’d never met the other woman, who was en route to floor fifteen.
“So, whose office are you—”
The elevator went black.
The whole car lurched. Kirsten shrieked, a sound so piercing Hank managed to feel irritation through his shock. The elevator jerked to a stop. Emergency lights flickered to life overhead, casting a greenish glow over the three of them. Kirsten had fallen to the ground.
“Oh my gosh,” she sputtered. “Oh my gosh.”
“What the hell,” Hank muttered.
“Oh my gosh.”
“Would you hit the emergency button on that thing?” Hank said to the other lady, who had hardly looked up from her phone.
“Oh my gosh—”
“Just calm down, would you?” Hank said, surprised by Kirsten’s visible—and audible—distress. She didn’t seem to hear Hank, but turned instead to the elevator doors, banging on them with both fists.
“Help us!” she screamed. Her shrill voice reverberated in the cramped space, shaking Hank’s brain like a jackhammer. “HELP US!”
“This button isn’t doing anything,” the lady said, jamming her finger into it repeatedly. “Shouldn’t there be some kind of backup power source? What kind of building is this? I’ve got a meeting in five minutes.”
“Well, I don’t think you’re going to make your meeting,” Hank muttered, looking around the elevator. “The lights came on, the button should do something, too. Let me try.”
“What, you think I don’t know how a damn button works?” the lady snapped as Hank crossed the space and pressed the red button for himself. Nothing happened.
“We’re going to die,” Kirsten whimpered. “Oh, gosh, we’re going to die here.” Hank felt bad to see her panicking, but at least the shrieking had stopped.
“Nobody’s going to die. This happens when it storms. I’m sure the power will come back on in just a second.”
“Two hundred fifty-three feet,” Kirsten muttered, hugging her knees to her chest. “We’re two hundred fifty-three feet in the air. A fall from this height—our bones would shatter—dead on impact—”
“Now, how the hell could we fall? We’re safe in this elevator car, it’s not like we’re dangling by our fingers.”
Kirsten groaned, clapping her hands to her ears and squeezing her eyes shut. “I should have taken the internship in Hoboken. Ground floor.”
“Not one for heights, huh?” the other lady asked, her voice laced with sympathy. She didn’t seem the least bit concerned. Even Hank’s mind was starting to catch up to the situation. An unpleasant sensation curled in his stomach as he repeated the words “dead on impact” to himself. He thought about his wife chiding him for his joke that morning. Maybe God was cursing him for not taking her more seriously.
Kirsten was shaking her head. “I don’t do heights. I can usually handle it if I just don’t look out the window, but—but elevators really freak me out. Dangling in the shaft…I always take the stairs.”
Hank stared. “You walked up twenty-four flights of stairs?”
Kirsten nodded, eyes still shut tight. The other lady whistled under her breath.
“What’s your name, girl?”
“I’m Cynthia.” Cynthia sat down next to Kirsten and rubbed a comforting hand over her shoulders. “Don’t you worry about a thing. They’ll get us out of here. They always do.”
“I should have taken the other internship,” Kirsten was still saying.
Hank sat down, too, feeling awkward. He never knew what to do when people were upset, especially women. No matter what he did, it only seemed to make things worse.
“Why didn’t you?” Cynthia asked.
Yikes. Hank’s wife would have chewed him out for being insensitive if he’d asked her something like that.
Kirsten, however, didn’t seem to mind. She sighed, finally opening her eyes. “Because it was unpaid. This one at least offered a stipend, and I need the money to visit my sister in Thailand after I graduate. We want to spend the year travelling Asia, doing humanitarian work. We’ve been planning it forever.”
“What kind of work?” Cynthia asked.
“All kinds of stuff. Leper colonies in India, war victims in Cambodia, tsunami survivors in Thailand, orphanages in China…but now I’m going to die in this elevator, and…and—” her voice jumped an octave in pitch “—and who’s going to help the orphans?” She broke into strangled sobs.
Hank raised his eyebrows. He couldn’t believe this kid was scared of elevators but not of travelling halfway around the world to do God-knows-what in some disease-infested colony. “There have got to be plenty more volunteers willing to go help the orphans, and the…the lepers…” Hank trailed off as Cynthia shot him a dirty look. What was that for? He thought it was a comforting thought. It comforted him, at least, to know that if he disappeared, a new cog would appear to fill his place in the machine. The world would keep going as it should, and some underpaid city construction workers would be hired to replace the elevator in this building, and maybe losing three perfectly good cogs would serve as a reminder to maintenance to check the backup power source once in a while. Then his death would count for something, at least.
“I just want to do things with my life,” Kirsten whispered. She had rolled onto her side. Her left cheek pressed into the elevator carpet. “Things that no one else can do.”
That, right there, was the reason college students bothered Hank so much. They were always saying things like that. Hank didn’t understand the appeal of doing things no one else could do. If everyone did something only they could do, who would be left to do the jobs anyone could do? Important jobs, jobs that formed the backbone of society. A little mundane, perhaps, but cogs that needed to turn nonetheless.
“You will,” Cynthia murmured. Hank could hear her Brooklyn accent altering the cadence of her voice, even when she spoke softly. “They’ll get us out of here in no time. This is just a little power outage. There’s nothing wrong with the elevator itself. When the power comes back on, it’ll let us out right on floor twenty-three. It always does.”
Kirsten smiled weakly for the first time since the emergency lights had come on. “You say that like you’ve been stuck in an elevator before.”
Cynthia nodded. “More times than you probably want to know about, with your…particular phobia. You don’t need to be afraid of falling.”
Kirsten snorted. “I don’t need to be afraid of dying?”
“Well, that’s not a fear of falling—that’s a fear of the ground,” Cynthia chuckled. Kirsten raised her eyebrows a little, as if unsure whether to laugh or not. Cynthia went on. “Falling is just a part of life. We’re all just tumbling down one big elevator shaft. Who’s to say if we’re falling, or flying?” She shook her head, laughing again. “Damn. The last time I got stuck in an elevator was not nearly this existential.”
Kirsten laughed a little. It was the first real smile she’d offered since getting into the elevator and for some reason it reminded Hank of this time his wife had come home with her eyes all huge and glittery and told him that so-and-so from work had brought in the most delicious Middle Eastern food and she had gotten the recipe and was going to fix it for them for dinner.
“It’s not too spicy, is it?” Hank had asked. His wife had just rolled her eyes and laughed.
It was too spicy. So spicy, in fact, that Hank could not persevere beyond one bite, and microwaved some leftovers instead. His wife had only laughed again and ate her whole plateful despite the sweat beading on her forehead. Maybe Hank would like spicy food, she had insisted, if he would just let himself live a little.
Hank could imagine Kirsten with that same glittery look in her eyes, somewhere in Asia, holding a skinny, brown orphan kid in each arm. No makeup, her hair frizzy. So different from the sleek New York life, but maybe she’d be happier there, where there were no elevators to get stuck in.
Another few minutes came and went, and the power stayed off. Hank had left his phone on his desk when he went to pick up the intern, and he didn’t wear a watch. He knew Cynthia had her phone on her, but he didn’t ask for the time. Someone would come for them eventually. They had no way of knowing how many other buildings had lost power, and there were probably more important people stuck in more important elevators in taller and flashier buildings somewhere else in Manhattan. Bigger cogs got higher priority.
Hank didn’t mind being a cog. He didn’t even mind being a small, replaceable cog. But all of Cynthia’s talk about life and elevator shafts made his gut twist a little, like when his wife put too much sugar in his morning coffee. Call it falling or call it flying, you had to hit the ground at some point. What, then, was the difference between living and dying?
“What’d you say your name was?” Cynthia asked, interrupting his musings. Hank realized he hadn’t said at all.
“Hank Matthews. I work on twenty-three, in book-keeping.”
Cynthia nodded. “Do you like it?”
Hank shrugged. “Sure. I don’t know. It’s fine.” He paused. “When I was a kid I thought I was going to be an astronaut.”
Cynthia laughed. “I guess you don’t have a problem with heights.”
“No, I don’t mind them. And I like elevators. You get in, you wait, and they spit you out right where you need to be. You never have to worry about falling down the shaft. You don’t even have to look at it.”
Kirsten groaned. “Please stop talking about the elevator shaft.”
Hank opened his mouth and shut it again. Silence was fine by him. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to think about the shaft anymore, but his mind was already spinning down it, caught in free fall, tumbling around with the orphans and the tsunamis and the spicy food.
What if the elevator car did break free of the pulleys and cables holding it in place? Would it even feel like falling? Or would the two hundred fifty-three feet between here and the ground last long enough to let him pretend he was simply weightless, floating around in the anti-gravity chambers he’d imagined as a kid? Maybe the fall was a hoax, a scare designed to keep people away from the edge, keep cogs turning in their places. Maybe there was no fall.
He ran a hand absently over the carpet and thought about what his wife had told him that morning.
“It’s not a joke, Hank. Some people really do it.”
Maybe it would feel like flying.