Suspense | 2,408 words
Five people get into an elevator. Only one gets out...
MORNING RUSH HOUR. THE CITY AIR IS THICK WITH EXHAUST FUMES suspended in a warm mist, and the din of traffic mingled with tens of thousands of voices is palpable. Bodies brush past me, nameless, faceless; like ants in a colony they are congruent in purpose yet take notice of no one but themselves. They weave back and forth in a never-ending stream, each one going a different direction from the rest, believing themselves to be intrinsically unique, individual in reason, even extraordinary in consequence. But all I see are ants.
Before me and above me stands the most quintessential of office buildings, thirty stories encased in glass and teeming with equally quintessential office workers clad in varying shades of off-the-rack businesswear.
As I enter the ground floor lobby my ears ring with the pop of innumerable stiletto heels meeting tiled floors, punctuated occasionally by the defiant squeal of a man’s rubber sole and underlined by the faint but constant swishing of polyester blend fabric rubbing against itself. To my left, a brown leather briefcase flies open and showers manila folders and printer paper in a fifteen-foot radius. No one else takes notice or stops to help while its disgruntled owner clamors to retrieve his files. To my right, a half dozen or so tight-skirted women gather around a newsstand to ogle the latest edition of a beauty magazine. They compare whiffs of perfume samples and giggle over sex articles, all the while avoiding and actively ignoring the presence of a mousy young intern who hovers on the fringe of the group, sipping scalding latte from a Starbucks cup and giving the overall impression of one who does not fit in but desperately wishes to.
Straight ahead is the bank of elevators, rising and falling within their concrete chutes, delivering their quarry to ten sets of mirrored chrome doors on each level. I advance to door number seven and watch the LED display as it counts backwards from nineteen. I am quickly surrounded by a crowd of grumbling and impatient employees who are likewise waiting for an open car.
The mousy intern stands just behind my right shoulder. When I glance back at her, she looks up from her latte and smiles awkwardly at me.
So, I think to myself, you are my victim.
To her I say casually, “First day, huh?”
She looks both shocked and embarrassed. “Yes! How did you know?”
I shrug. Of course I know. I know everything about her. But to her I am just another office worker, so I answer, “You look nervous.”
“Does it show that much?” she replies. “Ugh. I’m a total mess this morning, aren’t I? You wouldn’t believe how hard I’m trying to fit in here.”
The people standing around us give her strange looks. A couple of them take a step back. We, or rather she, is attracting attention, and certainly not of the kind she was hoping to attract. Fortunately for her, it will not matter for very long.
“I’m Mindy,” she says to me. “Do you work at Pearson and Yolst, too?”
I don’t offer my name. I don’t have a name.
“Oh,” she says in a disappointed tone. Mindy’s shoulders slump noticeably. She returns to nursing her latte.
When the elevator doors finally burst open, everyone but Mindy and I get in. The car is packed shoulder to shoulder. Standing at the front of the pack is one of the tight skirts—she flashes Mindy a threatening glare as the chrome door slides across to conceal her face.
“What’s her problem?” Mindy mutters sarcastically. I can see that she is on the knife edge of composure, though. Another tiny mishap could push her beyond her breaking point.
As we wait for the number seven car to return, a few more ascension-bound souls join our party. Mindy doesn’t know any of them. She cowers behind her coffee cup avoiding eye contact. I’m not worried what anyone thinks of me so I gaze deliberately at each of them.
The first is an elderly man pushing a mail cart loaded with newspapers. He smiles weakly back at me. “Fourth trip this mornin’,” he explains with a nod to the cart. “Everybody wants their papers, you know.”
There are going to be a lot of disappointed people today, I think.
Directly behind him is a tall, smart-suited woman with a permanent tap in her foot and an overt cell phone addiction. For a few seconds I wonder if she notices me at all as I watch her thumbs fly across the screen. I can almost see the flickering shadow they create against the blue light that illuminates her face. Nauseating. The ding of an arriving elevator car suddenly catches her attention and her eyes fly up to meet mine. But she barely has time to contort her expression into a disgusted sneer before an incoming text message tears her attention back to the screen.
“Where is that stupid elevator? I’m late for my meeting!”
It’s the briefcase guy. He’s managed to haphazardly cram his files back into the case and is struggling to get the latch closed. Now he waits at door number seven with the rest of us, glaring at the LED display with all his might. His elbow jabs into my ribcage as he thrusts the case under his arm in exasperation.
“Sorry, man. You okay?”
I feel no pain. “Yes, fine.”
Together, we five watch the red digits count down to one. I’m amused by my own reflection in the chrome: an insignificant little paper pusher with badly moussed hair and a clip-on necktie. I fit right into this disgruntled white-collar crew. We take decidedly impatient turns stepping into the open elevator, and four fingers stab the buttons to select their floors.
The mail cart man looks up at me curiously. “What floor, then, young man?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I say. “We’re all going up.”
As the doors close and the car begins its slow ascension, I take stock of my victims and the curiosity of their situation. When I approached this particular appointment I had no idea that I would be taking on all four of them at once. Standing here in the elevator with me, one would never guess what extraordinary coincidence was about to transpire; but, then, Father Time never lies. Within the next thirty seconds, every one of these people is going to die.
I am at the back of the car, furthest from the doors. The man with the exploding briefcase fidgets anxiously to my left. Grimacing, he loosens his necktie and tugs at his starched collar, pulling the entire shirt askew. He looks a mess, and it’s no wonder considering the career-defining sales meeting that awaits him on the twenty-second floor. He is late, no less, which would be enough to put the average man off his game. But tardiness combined with post-traumatic stress disorder places my victim on the brink of a full-blown panic attack. Unbidden images of urban combat and the bloody aftermath of a roadside bomb penetrate his consciousness, eating holes in his emotional stability like moths on an old sweater. It is an oddity to me that someone suffering from his form of anxiety would venture into a stressful sales career. As he continues the frantic battle against clothing constraints, his complexion growing redder by the second, it is not difficult to guess what his fate will be.
“Are you all right?” the mail clerk asks him. “You’re turning all kinds of funny colors. I’m sure there’s no cause to get so worked up.”
“I wish that were true,” the anxious man shudders. “Man, I really screwed up this morning—sleeping through my alarm. No time for breakfast or anything.” He looks pointedly at Mindy’s Starbucks cup. “You’re lucky you got up early enough to hit the coffee shop. Ah, what I wouldn’t give . . .”
The clerk has been rifling through the contents of his mail cart and presently draws out a foil-wrapped granola bar.
“Here, I want you to have this,” he says, handing it to the other man. “I always keep one handy. Diabetic, you know. Need a little extra jolt to the old blood sugar once in a while.”
“Oh, no, I can’t take that. You better hang onto it.”
“No, no, I insist. I hardly ever need it. Besides, I’ve got a juice box in my cart, too, just in case. No, you have that. Everybody needs a good breakfast before work.”
The hungry salesman gratefully downs the granola bar in three bites, though he doesn’t appear anymore satisfied than before.
The mail clerk, however, looks rather proud of himself having done his good deed for the morning. His thoughts shift back to his wife in the long-term care unit of the local hospital. She has been there for months, suffering the effects of Parkinson’s disease, and he has watched her body deteriorate day after day while he lingers on at the same menial office job he’s had for sixteen years. They had planned to retire more than a decade ago, he and Helen, but when she got sick he knew he had to stay on just to pay the medical bills. He feels thoroughly rundown in both mind and body and begins to wonder how much longer he can continue.
Meanwhile, Mindy is just beginning her career, although she is no more pleased to be here than the clerk. A string of bad test scores this semester made her desperate as internship opportunities quickly ran out, and she only received this new position after compromising herself to her law professor in exchange for a personal recommendation. Mindy imagines that everyone can see right through her and knows she isn’t qualified to work at the prestigious offices of Pearson and Yolst. Her guilty demeanor acts like a scarlet letter emblazoned across the front of her blouse. I see her silently hating herself behind her paper cup.
The other woman barely notices Mindy—or any of the rest of us in the elevator. She has been texting fanatically since the moment I first saw her, and her busy fingers have yet to let up. One string of messages to her boyfriend about whether or not he will move in with her is overlapped by two more with girlfriends she is using to vent her frustration over her boyfriend. Business emails chime in every twenty seconds or so, each one eliciting a grunt or an eye roll as she swipes them from view. My boss is a complete moron, she texts a girlfriend. If he emails me one more time about the Reinstein account I’m going to smash his balls in his own desk drawer. She can’t stand to be inconvenienced by other people’s problems. Why should she care about them? Nobody ever bothered themselves about her: Not her parents, not her five sets of foster parents, not her friends growing up or, if she’s honest with herself, any of her current friends either. But they will be at her beck and call if she has anything to say about it.
My watch chimes. Father Time is calling in a life.
The anxious salesman clears his throat repeatedly and continues to tug at his shirt collar. He appears to grow more and more uncomfortable with each passing second. I see his tongue straining against the insides of his cheeks until it suddenly emerges from his lips, heavily swollen, and he gasps out, “Peanuts?!?”
Aha, I muse. So it’s not a heart attack for you after all, my nervous friend. Your free breakfast has done you in.
The other passengers barely have time to look in his direction before the anaphylaxis sets in. His face has transformed into a bulbous violet mask of allergic shock. Desperate for assistance, the man’s hands both fly to his throat, ripping the heavy briefcase upward. Then, like a precisely conducted symphony, I watch as the brass-reinforced corner of the case swings in a violent arc directly into Mindy’s right temple. Her knees buckle instantly as the death blow shuts down her nervous system. The last thing the salesman sees before he succumbs is her bloody cheek sinking to the floor.
Mindy loses her grip on her coffee cup as she goes down. The paper tumbler tips sideways, its now tepid contents spilling across the outstretched cell phone of the other woman who, in her surprise at the catastrophic scene, has ceased her texting rampage long enough to reach out to the mail clerk in a defensive panic. It takes a mere second for the liquid to penetrate the phone’s outer shell and infiltrate its electrical components, sending a deadly current into the woman’s hand. That one-in-a-billion chance, I think with the appreciation of one who gets to witness all the world’s freak accidents.
Three lifeless bodies crumple to the elevator floor. The lit display above the door indicates that we are passing level 11; our first stop will be 15—the old man’s selection. He looks into my eyes, his own flooded with primal fear as he sees and comprehends my stolid expression.
“You did this!” he cries, his kindly old features contorted in terror. “You killed them! It was you!”
He punches the panel of buttons indiscriminately, desperate to get out of the elevator and away from me. But I know his efforts are futile. He will not leave this elevator alive.
“You gave him the granola bar,” I say.
The final movement of the macabre symphony, a great and overarching crescendo, features the massive heart attack of the elderly mail clerk. Fear, anger, confusion, and guilt collide in the old man’s consciousness and immediately set his most vital organs into overdrive. Clutching his arm in pain, he suddenly seems to comprehend my true identity. As his face softens with impending demise, he nods understanding and yields to his fate. He slumps against the wall and closes his eyes.
At last, the elevator reaches floor 15. The doors fly open to reveal a young executive who could easily have been my colleague if I actually worked here. His incredulity is slow to register as he processes the horror show before him. His eyes are fixed on the bodies; he does not see me.
Before I exit, I crouch down and whisper in the mail clerk’s ear, “Don’t worry—I’m going to the hospital next.”