Mr. Talas felt the weight of his exhausted body shrink as the elevator hummed down floor by floor. The descent was smooth, but forceful. And with each passing digit clicking lower on the floor indicator, he could sense the growing struggle between the hurling clench of gravity and the unnatural resistance of the elevator’s mechanism.
“17th floor….16th floor….15th floor….,” a sterile, metallic voice regularly interrupted from the control box. It usually bore a mechanical, feminine voice so devoid of emotion or care that it took to announcing the descending floors with brutal efficiency.
But tonight, Mr. Talas couldn’t help but pick up on something more in the unnatural voice. An added sense, perhaps sinister. The intonation shallow and slyly deflective only to be perceived by a mind inattentive and wandering enough to entertain the absurd.
Like the scheme of a water snake just below a river surface, momentarily ceasing its slivering glide to invite its prey across a calm ford, the predatory elevator cast an environment deceptively ordinary.
Sure, the adventured, scarred naturalist eyes a smooth river crossing with an out-of-place skepticism married to memoried pain, bitten before from beneath a mockingly shallow, even current. But Mr. Talas could uncover snake traps of his own, modern ones created by stuffy offices. Unlike the practiced woodsmen, whose adventure he daily envied from within his fluorescently lit cubicle, his expertise was in the mundane. Demoralizing routine was a daily prick to vibrancy, drawing out seldom moments of surprise to the fore. The numbing, crippling regularity made him quite receptive to, and even excited by, the out-of-place.
And so, a smirk grew across his face as the elevator descended, an outward badge that signaled pride in knowing the subtle, chilling mockery of the elevator’s unnatural voice humoring him on last time. He had caught the snake in the act.
But perhaps not. His smirk grew a grin because part of him realized the absurdity of it all. He thought himself logical, well-educated, and now a fool becoming excited by superstitious fantasy.
What he did know clearly today was the demeaning sting of a secretary. The shrill voice laced with disregard, handing him a last minute assignment with devious pleasure. Her belittling poison churning again through his veins, boiling his skin and temporarily scalding away his tired fantasy to reveal a fresh wound to dignity.
“From Mr. Steward. ASAP. Don’t stay too late now,” he remembered her saying with a wry smirk, handing him a stack of papers right as he was about to leave.
“This is the last time, I’m better than this” Mr. Talas now thought. “Six years, enough with the bullshit late-nighters. My mind gets scrambled, now hearing unnatural things. And for what? Some worthless document review.”
His frustration simmered for only a moment, but becoming lulled by a controlled sense of falling, he slowly let his heavy eyelids descend. They closed gradually to their natural state, as would those of the thick wooden doors of his Sunday church—the kind that ordain cathedral churches—that shut with the start of mass bells, only to be opened with great effort.
“13th floor,” the unnatural voice again announced.
Behind the shade of his eyelids, the world was a bare black canvass. He could summon the memories of his day, paint them on it. He focused on the speed of the elevator, its growing acceleration a mixing palette for the painted shadows of the day. A splash of morning rush there, a mountain of paperwork in the foreground, a sun-touch of the partners’ red faced ire to detail foreboding perspective across his corporate landscape. Now watch them mix, his memories don’t dry. The images blend, dripping faster down the canvass with the melting motion of the accelerating elevator. The colors bleed to form anew the imagination he so suppressed, giving calming creation to his eyed, canvass creation.
Warmth overcame him and he loosened his posture, now leaning against the metallic elevator railing. Its cold touch drew his heated spirit to sensational ecstasy. His limbs went limp, completely succumbed to the faster motion of the elevator.
“13th floor,” the voice began to howl.
Suddenly, he felt no attachment to his weary body, just the warmth which seemed to penetrate his soul.
Just as this ease promised to subsume his consciousness, the elevator came to a halt. The parting doors let slip an icy draft that jolted him to all senses but vision, which was momentarily obscured by his heavy eyelids only halfway retracted. Mr. Talas crossed the threshold into the first floor lobby and his thoughts returned to the cyclone swirl of incomplete notions that so often battered him, all twisting aimlessly in his mind’s tempest. His struggle to snatch out of that wind just one fraction made him oblivious to his surroundings. Only the gentle voice of the guardsman reminded him that he did not exist on an island.
“Another late night, Bruce?”
“Another early morning,” he sarcastically replied, annoyed to be interrupted by the frail, old guardsman that occupied the secretary booth. He often encountered this guard, especially on nights like tonight when he stayed late. The guard’s bright demeanor stood in opposition to the dark shadows which danced across the glass-enclosed lobby. His cheerfulness always irritated him.
“Can I call a cab for you? I heard the subway’s been on the fritz today. You shouldn’t take the subway.”
“Save your breath, I’m sure it’s fine now.” Mr. Talas responded, hastily moving toward the door. He didn’t have time for chit-chat. He would need to get back to the office in only a few hours for another grueling day. Sleep beckoned.
“Well, good night, Bruce,” the guardsman shyly replied.
“More like good morning,” he quipped with equal parts self-loathing and disdain for small talk. In the office, he was powerless to make such curt remarks. But he thought himself clearly superior in this occasion.
“Of course,” the guard replied.
The clack of his dress shoes on the marble lobby floor hurried as he approached the glass door. Its transparency was fogged and in the dimness, he slowed to find the handle. Grasping the cold fixture, a chill ran through his spine and across his shoulder – a tingling uneasiness that compelled him to look back upon the guard with one last parting gaze.
He sat hunched and small. His shadow cast a wide image upon the towering walls of the lobby. This facade was much larger, foreboding and mighty as it flickered with the light of passing cars that gave it shape. It aligned perfectly along the wall’s decorative fixtures to almost appear with wings. He found the image so uncanny in comparison to the frail guard that sat now smiling at him.
“Oh, Bruce! How silly of me to forget.” The guard said slowly, catching his eye wandering along the shadowed wall.
“You forgot your cross.”
“My cross?” Bruce stuttered, his hand remained clasped to the door handle.
“Yes, your cross. It was left here for you to take. The cross examination from the Hedrin case? Mr. Steward left it for you to take home and review for spelling.” The guard pointed to a bursting folder of papers he now placed upon the booth counter.
“Shit.” Mr. Talas mumbled, and hurried back along the lobby.
Feigning a disinterested smile, he took up the large folder, placing it in his messenger bag. The heavy documents burrowed the bag strap deep into his shoulder and a look of discomfort streaked across his tired face.
“Heavy isn’t it?” The guard chuckled. “Yes, sir, I’ll stick to my little booth in my little lobby. Won’t be weighed down by bag or concern alike. On a clear day, when the clouds reflect off the glass ceilings, you feel so light. Like you’re flying.”
“Uh huh. I’ve got to go.”
Mr. Talas walked swiftly along F Street outside his building, his pace fueled by sinking resentment. The cluttered fictions that played on repeat beyond his eyed rationality continually gave him grief. He knew for some time that these ambitions were surely outsized. And they were often modified, whittled down here or there, but always to give shape to something enviable in his mind—a future image still of value, still a believable future self-portrait.
So he wouldn’t be a partner by 35? Fine, whittle away the excess, a successful litigator will do. Not even that, he thought? Fine. Whittle away more, the true form will be revealed. Wait, not even moderately well off? No family yet? No free time to create? What is there left but an empty hand when all the dreamed form is sheared away? Stroke by stroke, hope became fantasy and these cluttered fictions lent less inspiration to plow through the daily grind he justified as putting in his due.
The empty sidewalk sprawled before him, leaving no obstacle save for the spent wrappers and trash animated by the sticky August breeze. Even at this late hour, a waft puffed irregularly and offered no respite to the still oppressive city heat. It only minced the sweat dripping down his haggard face and invited more from beneath his baggy suit. The uncomfortable torrent of perspiration complemented the uneasiness of his mind. He longed for the cool of the subway station, its chilly solitude like a deep tomb offered calm for mind and body. A place where expectations were simple for both: wait for a train and sit in quiet.
Just a block away now, his bag seemed to grow heavier, with the oppressive air sinking further upon him. Sweat poured from his brow and caught his eye. The sting of the salted moisture triggered a quick reflex. His free hand shot up with a relieving rub momentarily blocking his vision.
As if seizing a carefully planned moment, the thick wind picked up. A half crumpled box shifted to catch his unguided feet and Mr. Talas fell to the hard concrete with a dizzying thud. The fall heralded only by his cross examination papers bursting forth from his bag to sprawl across the pavement.
He lingered there on the ground for a moment in disbelief and dejection. A long day now made even worse. He could feel his torn hand pulsating with rhythmic pain and was sure that he had sundered his suit in some yet unforeseen way.
The traumatic trance was broken with the pitter-patter of soft feet about him.
“Hey man, you right as rain?” A hoarse, smoky voice spoke.
Lifting his head up and heaving upright, he saw a man and an elderly woman before him. They both appeared homeless, in tattered clothing. The man was muscular and large. He wore a black t-shirt with its sleeves crudely ripped off. White paint was splotched about his ragged jeans, long ago dried from some paint job.
The old woman was small and hunched. Her bones wrought her wrinkled skin in an uneven and burdened manner. Hunger had advanced her age. She wore a homely light blue dress once a majestic sapphire and white, but long ago sun stained and spotted with dirt.
“Name’s Simon. Hey man, can I get some cash? Mary here, my sister, you see she’s real hungry and she got some kids too, they just round the corner. You can’t see ‘em, but I promised I’d ask a nice guy for help.”
Simon got close to him and shook his shoulder, his toothless plea giving off an unpleasant stench complemented by his great unwashed beard.
“Ah, no, no, not tonight.” Mr. Talas stuttered and shook his head, avoiding eye contact. He felt uncomfortable among beggars. It was usually easy to avoid them. He’d either ignore any plea or walk past with a quick grunted ‘no.’ But with his papers scattered about, he was left to engage in this most uncomfortable encounter.
“Hey man, you sure got a lot of papers. You must be real important.” Simon quickly hustled to recover from the initial rejection. He was well aware of the opportunity with his captive audience.
Simon grabbed a bunch of papers, crumbling them to collect quickly.
“Just don’t.” Mr. Talas commanded.
“Hey man, no worries. No grumps, I’m just chilling here. Just trying to help, ya know? Be worth a few dollars,” Simon chucked. Mary stood quiet in the shadow of a lamppost, stooping with eyes cast down. A heavy, solemn sadness seemed now to crawl across her broken face, darkening the wide wrinkled crevices that zigged and zagged along all directions from haggard eyes.
Mr. Talas quickened his effort to collect the final papers, but could not help but look at her between paces.
“Uh, dude, I’m about to make you a sick deal man.” Simon interrupted, following close behind. “You just gotta help us out here. I’m no hustler man, you can trust old Simon. I’m all business too. We’ll make a trade. I’ll tell you something you need to hear, man, for a few bucks.”
Mr. Talas ignored him with a glare.
“You really need to hear my advice, man.” Simon again implored, with a strange out of place urgency on his breath that almost tempted Mr. Talas’s curiosity.
“Man, I didn’t want to do this to you. But I’m not going to give you these papers if you don’t give me some money. I know you will. You think you’re so important, don’t you? Man, you just a desk jockey in the grand scheme of things.” Simon chuckled with a veil of derision. He showed Mr. Talas a few crumpled pages of cross examination stuffed in his jeans, an early fail safe to extort him, Mr. Talas realized.
Fury bellowed up in Mr. Talas, boiling to a brim all the inadequacies of the day now ignited beneath his sensibility, overblowing in a small matter nonetheless an easy target. Unmistakable was his anger, but to the careful—to the one who looked close enough, with a soul long sculpted by pity—it was all a rebuff to that engine of anger that long drives the just or the passionately maddened. As a child embarrasses himself with tantrums thought to be so appropriate at the spark, he betrayed his stuffy business formality for compulsive response.
“They’re mine!,” he shouted, his voice cracking a note higher than the deep menace he intended. Flinging his bag down—the cross examination papers again spreading across the sidewalk – he swung his arms widely like a madman, ripping the stolen papers from Simon’s hand.
“They’re mine, they’re mine!,” he screamed again and began hastily stuffing the papers into his bag that were again splayed across the sidewalk.
“You two are con artists, you don’t even look related. Spinning a bunch of bullshit,” Mr. Talas was rabidly shouting. Saliva and sweat projected across his mouth, frothing and dripping down his chin. “You have ten seconds before I break out!” he heaved from his chest, his anger carrying his breath away. He didn’t even know what he meant.
“You want money, you filthy pig. You money whore, good for nothing. Make something of yourself.” Mr. Talas threw a few dollars at Simon and hurried away. He brushed his suit down as his composure returned and hurried away along the sidewalk. He’d take a cab next time, he resolved to himself.
Simon stood silent for a few minutes, his eyes following Mr. Talas as he hurried away.
“Come on Mary, let’s go. No hope, one learns it through genuine charity.” Simon muttered, speaking in a now deliberate, clear tone. Almost like a different person. He turned and threw Mr. Talas’s money in a nearby trash bin.
“There’s always a bit of hope to very end. But I fear for him.” Mary spoke quietly, pity pouring over every word.
“He gave me the money after all that” Simon brushed “And didn’t even care for my advice about tonight,” he sighed softly. Mary cast her head down.
“He really shouldn’t take the subway.”
The unbearable stench of rotten eggs rushed in with the warm wind driven from the dark terranean tunnel. The subway emerged from its bowels, screeching along the rail metal – an unnerving squeal akin to nails on a chalkboard. Its sound filled the expansive chamber of the station, echoing off the concrete buried deep below the city streets, drowning out a foreboding sense. The cylinder blocks mounted higher and higher around the small platform, curving upward to meet many feet above. They cast an inescapable grey shadow. It loomed as an opaque presence, coloring patient waiters in a monotone hue.
Mr. Talas felt small on the subway platform, even smaller alone in this solemn sarcophagus tunnel. The arching ceilings, the muted red brick station platform, the impenetrable darkness of the tubes from which the snaking subways emerged: they all cast a large presence. Alone, one felt alien in this place, a bystander among a feud of competing arrogances. First, the voice of man, seeking an unnatural monument to his arrogance, saying: “we can build deeper, put a cathedral of stone underground, a home for our machines.” The second voice, that of arrogant nature waiting patiently, saying in reply: “how cute these blocks are, these toys – with one rumble, I can make my ground fall, bury all in a proper grave.
Both voices are sinister. Both voices silently echo among onlookers who wait with blank stares, their trances interrupted only by the squeal of metal bending.
“Doors opening.” The subway train announced in its sterile voice, feigning a welcoming tone.
Mr. Talas entered into the fluorescently lit cabin, the gaudy and tattered upholstery reflected the white lights creating a pale yellow atmosphere. Mr. Talas felt dirty. The air was heavy and hot.
Squinting his eyes and adjusting to the lighting, he made his way directly to a nearby poll, griping it hard in anticipation of the subway’s forward motion. His bag felt heavier than ever, its strap digging deeper into his shoulder. Stooping it down to let gravity do its work, he let the bag fall harmlessly with a thud. In the process, he now noticed his ruined pant leg from the earlier fall. The ire from the subsequent encounter – those awful homeless people, he again thought – boiled up for a moment. But like when a stove is turned from high to low, the froth simmered down and his senses returned to the grungy car. It demanded his full attention.
He felt none of the anticipated relief he desired in the subway station. Far from the relieving cold he imagined, it remained hot and sticky even underground. The subway car clearly had no functioning air conditioning. Sweat continued to pour down his face.
Grasping for some relief, he noticed a pile of grungy napkins on an adjacent seat, no doubt the last remains from the dinner rush. They read ‘Veronica’s Pizza’ on the front of each. Cheap and flimsy, but they’d do the trick. He picked up the lot in desperation to sop his paling face.
As the napkins covered his eyes, he felt a shadow pass before him, the subtle presence of another passenger. He turned around quickly and gazed down the car. He saw no one. His head turned to the open doors and heard the flapping of a crow’s wings. A black bird landed opposite of the door and stood peering in at Mr. Talas.
Had it been in the subway car, he thought? Staring intently at the bird, Mr. Talas could see worn feathers, crumbled in masses protruding from its skin. Its beak bore a tinging crack, crusted blood red. Having been observed long enough, it cawed and quickly bust into flight toward the towering ceilings above. Mr. Talas felt uneasy and even more out of place.
“Doors closing,” the subway announced. Slowly, the doors closed with a loud thud and clicked with a locking mechanism. Mr. Talas wondered why they would have to be locked so securely, but again his mind was drawn to the car.
It was long and empty with vacant rows of yellow and orange seats. They were strewn with liter from a day’s worth of busy travel. The floor was no better. It was grimy and had been long abused by spills, spit, and spite. The florescent lights buzzed lightly, except for those toward the back of the car, which flickered on and off. The stench of rotten eggs penetrated the cabin.
The cab radio clicked on. Amid static, Mr. Talas could hear the muffled conductor announce “Next Station.”
But minutes passed and the subway remained motionless. It creaked and groaned under its own weight as if trying to heave itself alive.
Minutes more passed and Mr. Talas grew impatient. Hoping to glean the delay from something outside, he walked toward the closed doors to peer onto the platform. But remembering that wretched bird and wanting to avoid its stare, he decided better of it and walked back toward his bag.
In mid-stride, the subway lurched forward with the clenching sound of metal reeling against metal. The forward start was abruptly halted with a loud screech and the subway came to a sudden stop having only moved but yards.
The stop and start caught Mr. Talas off guard. His mind was stuck on the grotesque features of that bird and he was unable to prevent himself from falling to the floor. His face landed inches from a crushed pink gum, ground deep into the faded fabric of the floor. The gum gave a decaying stench long transformed from the bubble-gum pink of its creation. Mr. Talas wrenched as he picked himself up. Feeling queasy, he quickly took a seat next to a window, his head turned upward toward to lights.
The subway again lurched forward just as Mr. Talas let off a groan. He felt the cabin pick up speed as it finally accelerated along the platform, plunging deep into the dark tunnel.
Again, the cab radio crackled to life but no voice could be heard amid the static. Turning to the nearby window, he peered out into the darkness. It was a thick and menacing breed. He could only see the reflection of the inner train cab on the transparent window. The darkness was merely a reflective foreground too solid to betray its inner intentions. His reflective view was only interrupted by the brief flick of sparks that flew from the rails as the subway drew faster into the depths of the tunnel. In those brief moments, its walls revealed themselves in their ugly grey, oozing with splotches of dark liquid. Shadows danced across those dripping, unnatural murals. Just as Mr. Talas focused on one point or another, the spark died and again the inside of the cabin grew clear.
Staring back at him was his pale, cold reflection. Blood shot eyes called his attention to its sullen depths. Haggard, he looked old and tired, many more years his age. His slim face was now sagging, shaped neatly across gently protruding check bones. His trim features had always been a point of pride. It lent a special dignity to his appearance that he long fancied as an outward signpost to the world, announcing his wit and inner grace. Body and soul intertwined, his physical features merely the vessel that would call forth his soul to the fore, showing the world his true worth. But tonight, his face was betraying him with an old exhaustion that reminded him of the homeless women he saw earlier.
Her wrinkled features again came to mind, but even her crippled appearance did not prevent the graceful, pitied depths of her soul from protruding forth. Yet Mr. Talas could not now recognize the image from within that shaped itself on his face. Hints lay only from behind his eyes.
Lost within these foreign eyes, the subway came to a screeching stop. Sparks flared from the rails and the reflective image disappeared as bright white flashes illuminated the tunnel walls, now just inches from the window.
“You’ve arrived.” the cab radio announced clearly. He sat for a few minutes, his body hyper attentive and expecting a corrective jolt of the subway moving forward to its true destination.
But only silent stillness prevailed. Stunned, Mr. Talas jolted up and frantically looked around the empty car, desperately seeking an explanation, hoping to goad the subway forth with an example of frenzied movement. At last he rushed to the conjoining door with an idea to move along the train toward the conductor’s cab. Locked tight.
He could feel his face grow pale. In one final spark of thought, he scrambled to the nearby emergency call button and rang the conductor.
“Hello? Are you there?”
Static. No response.
“Hey! Answer me!”
Static. No response.
Mr. Talas rushed to the other end of the cabin in desperation. Walking back and forth trying to think.
The emergency call button came to life again. A low voice interrupted his pacing.
“This is your stop.”
“It can’t be. What are you sayi….?” Mr. Talas broke mid-word. Incessant flapping from side to side whirled from above the cabin. Claws scratched at the roof.
Dizziness overcame Mr. Talas and he felt faint. Grabbing for the nearest chair he flung himself on the seat, his chest heaving up and down rapidly. No sooner as he sat, the hairs stood up on the back of his neck. A cold chill ran across his spine. He looked back.
On the other side of a cabin sat an old man in black. He sat hunchbacked, staring at him with unblinking eyes. Mr. Talas slowly rose from his seat, strangely compelled to approach the starring man.
“This is your stop.” The old man spoke with the same voice that came from the emergency box. Mr. Talas stood still in dread. The man’s cataract eyes pierced him, they stood forever unshaded with no eyelids. Only an unfathomable dread came from these clouded, bloodshot eyes.
“This is your stop,” he repeated.
The old man spoke these words with strange conceit. In a moments flash, he felt the unbearable weight of crushing from deep within. Mr. Talas fell to his knees and begged.
“You exhausted your chances and it pleases me.”
“But…” Mr. Talas was weeping now.
“Thought I was going 0-4 tonight. Three spiteful women just died in a crash on Jerusalem Street. Barely missed grabbing them. But unfortunately for you, I can always count on pride. You exchanged your cross for another.
“After you died, He gave you one last chance, but you passed it up.”
“How did I…die?” Mr. Talas sheepishly asked.
“In the elevator.”
The old man disappeared. Mr. Talas toppled over and crumpled to the ground. His grief was overwhelming as he lay motionless of the floor, oppressive heat bearing down on him like an anchor.
From watered eyes, he glanced around the cabin. All alone, sweat poured down his brow and an intense thirst overcame his throat.
In manic frenzy for any kind of relief, he stripped off his clothes and scrambled around the cabin, rummaging through the litter. Perhaps some left over water or soda lay hidden in the cans.
But it hit him. Paralyzed by fear and feeling millions of miles from anyone. Purely alone.
He slumped down along a window with eyes fixed forward. They no longer beheld fantasies of the future, but visages of a short life.
They would keep him occupied in the subway coffin, forever a mix of terrible longing and memories of days once lived, consisting mostly of paperwork.
A convulsive jolt awoke him. His eyes turned wide as he inhaled deeply, just as a struggling swimmer reaching the surface with just seconds to spare. The cold sweat that drenched his shirt held the fabric uncomfortably across his torso. He clawed at his chest seeking relief from the skin tight embrace.
Thrashing his arms about, he was feeling again the freedom of his body, knocking papers across his desk as his senses came revived from dream’s kingdom. Amid clouded eyes, he realized he was in his office, at his desk.
It must have been a nightmare. He wasn’t sure how else to explain his current state in the office. But all the memories of it were still crystal clear and he trembled with phantom fear, the everlasting dread he felt in the subway cabin was lurking about his being. It was as if fear was taking form, hiding unseen behind cabinets or office chairs setting a trap and waiting to spring from all those symbols of drab routine made anew in the dark. Never before had he been so skeptical of the ordinary, sensing such a distrustful unreality of visions that dance to and fro day and night within his mind’s inner sight.
Standing now on weak knees, he looked around the vacant office grasping at familiar objects to ground himself in this reality, trying to convince himself. Resolved that being outside would dissolve any doubts, he made for the elevator.
But he remembered what the old man in black said about it.
Should he take the stairs? No, he decided. This was the only way to know, to be attentive to the ordinary and fully revel in it.
The great metal doors opened and as he crossed the elevator’s threshold. Mr. Talas trembled as he stood staring at the floor indicator as it descended steadily. Every bump and twitch was magnified as he forced himself to concentrate on the physical presence of the elevator. Pain shot up his arm from his intense grip on the railing.
“Ground floor.” The elevator finally announced. He eyed the elevator with an optimistic skepticism before striding out into the lobby.
“Bruce.” A meek voice called from the guard booth just as he stepped outside.
“You forgot your cross.”
Francis Phillip Curran is a law student in Philadelphia. When he’s not sifting through dense casebooks, he writes poetry and fiction as a creative outlet. He’s only beginning to explore sharing his work with a wider audience and is happy to be making this debut with Sick Lit Magazine.