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The elevator shuddered violently, and the soft white lights flickered out for a moment before being replaced by faint red ones.
I swore under my breath as I realized that the elevator had broken down. I waited for a few minutes, but when nothing happened I began to become impatient. Going over to the panel, I bent down to examine the buttons. None of them were lit up, but I tried the Door Open button anyway. The metal doors remained shut.
I repeated the colorful language I had spat out moments before.
Being stuck in the apartment building was the absolute last thing that I needed that day. At the same time, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Things had been going so badly since the moment that I had woken up that it was a bigger surprise that the elevator cable hadn’t snapped so that I had plunged to my death.
With a sigh, I set down the box that I was carrying onto the floor. There was no point in just standing there holding it and letting my arms get tired.
I immediately went back over to the panel as a thought occurred to me. I hadn’t even considered that there might be an emergency phone. I had seen them in hotel and office building elevators. Less than a second of searching confirmed that I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.
I took out my cellphone and looked at the screen. The words ‘No Signal’ were plastered in the center of the screen. Of course there wasn’t any signal. I was standing in the middle of a metal box inside of a metal shaft. Just another indicator of how… wonderful my day was turning out.
There was a faint thud from outside the elevator doors. It sounded like a door being closed somewhere in the distance. It came from an oddly high angle, and it took me a second to work out that the elevator car must be stuck in between floors. I listened for a bit, but when there wasn’t any followup noise I went back to my sulking.
I shouldn’t have even been in the apartment building in the first place. It wasn’t like I lived there. I had just been there to visit my wife…
Ex-wife, I mentally corrected myself. Isabel had made that very clear when she had ambushed me with the divorce papers the moment of my arrival. To say that I hadn’t been happy about that would be an understatement.
We had been married for over a decade, and together as a couple since junior high. Sure, we had gone through our ups and downs, and our marriage hadn’t been where either one of us had wanted it to be, but we had agreed that we both wanted it to work. Even when we decided on a trial separation it had come with the stipulation that we would get marriage counseling.
Trial separation. What a fucking joke, right? Hey, let’s find out if we like being apart since we clearly don’t like being together! That’s not a trial. It’s an admission.
I think I knew that, too. That’s the part that was so damn frustrating. I should have known better, but I got my hopes up anyway that Isabel was asking me to come over to, I don’t know, talk things through or something. Maybe to say that we needed to try something else. I’m not sure what I thought. Anything but what actually happened.
I started to pace in the elevator, angrily wiping at the sudden moisture in my eyes with my shirt sleeve. I refused to cry like a lovesick child.
I had showed up at the apartment expecting something good, but instead she had taken me into the kitchen and sat me down at the table before putting a stack of papers in front of me. She had told me that she had spoken to a lawyer, and that because we didn’t have any kids the divorce could be quick and painless. All that we had to do was agree on how to split our assets.
She had been so matter-of-fact about it. It was like everything that we had been through together didn’t matter anymore. She had just wanted to be done with the marriage, be done with me, and she had figured out the most direct way to get what she wanted.
In that moment, I think that I hated her. It had been like I was seeing her with this… this clarity that I never had before. Either she thought that I wanted the same thing that she did, in which case she had never really known me, or she was a spiteful person that didn’t care how her actions affected me. It would have been one thing if she had discussed things with me before going to a lawyer. At least then there would have been some kind of warning. I would have known where her mind was at. This was different. This was cold and calculating and without remorse. It was all about her.
I had started yelling. I had told her exactly how she was making me feel. I don’t think that I made a lot of sense. Most of it was probably incoherent rambling. I didn’t care, though. If she was going to act like this towards me, she wasn’t going to get to do it with no consequences.
After I was done screaming, I grabbed my things that she had in her apartment. She was yelling back at me at that point. I had lost my shit, and now it was her turn to lose her head. By the time I left the apartment my ears were ringing and she was no longer speaking to me.
I stopped pacing and leaned up against one of the elevator walls. I closed my eyes. There was obviously no point in going over things again and again in my head, but the wound was too fresh.
I’m not sure how long I stood there waiting for the elevator to decide it was time to start moving again. The momentary flare of anger that I had experienced when thinking back on what had happened was gone. The only thing left was exhaustion. I wanted nothing more than to crawl back to my small one bedroom apartment in a bad part of town and go to sleep.
I briefly considered trying to get the elevator doors open, but I quickly dismissed the idea. If the car really was trapped between floors, it would be dangerous to try to leave. Even if there was room for me to crawl out through an opening, what if the car started moving again when I was halfway out? That wasn’t something I wanted to think about.
I looked up as I heard a man’s voice outside of the elevator. My first thought was that a maintenance worker had come to get me out. That was proven to be incorrect when a second voice, a woman’s, became audible. I opened my mouth to call out to them, but I closed it again when they began yelling at each other. I wasn’t the only one having a bad day, it seemed.
A door slammed shut, and once again there was silence.
No, that wasn’t quite right. There was a series of quiet noises that I could barely hear over the faint humming of the elevator emergency lights. They were footsteps walking across the cheap carpet in the hallway. They came closer before veering off to the left. A loud metal clang echoed off of the walls, and it was soon followed by the sounds of someone walking down the stairwell that ran down the inside of the building to one side of the elevator shaft.
I tried calling out to get the person’s attention now that they were closer, but there was no answer. The footsteps faded away as they descended further down the stairwell. I sighed and sat down on the cold floor. It had been worth a shot. My hip bumped against the box as I settled in, so I slid it a bit further away from me.
It wasn’t long before I heard someone coming back up the stairs. It was the woman that had been arguing in the hallway; I recognized her voice as she talked to herself as she climbed the steps. I yelled again, and after a moment I followed it with a second yell. There was still no answer. Either she couldn’t hear me, which would be strange given how I had no problem hearing her, or she was so lost in her own thoughts that she didn’t realize someone was screaming.
The stairwell door opened and shut. As her footsteps passed by the elevator I detected a new sound. I wasn’t sure what was making it, but it sounded like liquid sloshing around inside of a container. A water bottle, maybe, or fluid in a plastic container.
If enough sound was getting into the elevator for me to hear something like that, there was no way that the woman would hear me now. I quickly stood up and moved close to the doors before calling out for help. There was no answer once again, but this time I was determined to make my presence known. I cleared my throat and shouted at the top of my lungs. When I paused to listen, though, all that I heard was her muttering as she continued further down the hall.
I couldn’t believe it. Either she was hard of hearing, or she was purposely ignoring me. I turned away from the elevator doors with no clue of what to think of what had just transpired.
I spun back around when a shrill shriek pierced the elevator doors. It was coming from some distance away, but there was no mistaking it as anything other than a cry of fear. Not sure of what to do, or even if there was anything that I could, I placed my ear up against the crack between the elevator doors and listened intently.
Something was definitely happening down the hallway from the elevator. The scream was followed by a series of others, both male and female. I could just make out a series of rhythmic pounding noises that I couldn’t identify.
Over all of the clamor was a high-pitched laugh that made my blood run cold. It was the woman. She was taking joy in the suffering of the other people I was hearing. The laugh momentarily turned into a cough before it returned. It increased in volume as the woman drew closer to the elevator.
I backed away from the doors and up against the far wall. Her tone was that of someone that had come completely unglued. There was nothing resembling sanity in her laugh. Something had caused her to snap. I had never heard someone in that state before, and I fervently wished that she would just go away.
I felt like a frightened child, and I cowered against the metal wall. I’m not sure how long I huddled in that state before I became aware of an odd smell. Forcing myself to take control of my own body once again, I raised my head and sniffed the air. The scent was acridic and heavy.
It smelled like smoke.
The laughing stopped when the woman was less than a dozen feet from me. I expected to hear her use the door to the stairs again, but instead there was a thump followed by a sigh. It was impossible to know for sure, but I thought that she was leaning up against the wall next to the elevator.
She coughed again as thin wisps of smoke began to drift into the car through the crack between the doors. I covered my mouth and knelt down. That was what we were always told as kids, right? Smoke rises, so get down close to the floor.
I was starting to sweat. The temperature inside of the elevator had risen noticeably, and the heat was reaching uncomfortable levels. There was a new sound as well, one that I recognized as the same sound a burning bonfire makes as it pops and crackles.
The part of my mind that was still thinking rationally instead of simply panicking started to piece things together. The woman had gotten into an argument with a man. She had gone downstairs and had come back up a few minutes later, and that was when I had heard that odd liquidy sound. I had thought it was water, but now I was pretty sure that it had been gasoline splashing around inside of a gas can.
The woman had used the fuel to start a fire. From the sounds of the screams that were still reverberating off the walls, the blaze had trapped at least two people, and unless something changed they would burn to death.
I’m not necessarily proud of it, but I decided that I couldn’t worry about the people that were trapped. There likely wasn’t anything that I could do for them, and I needed to look out for myself. I looked around the elevator. There wasn’t a hatch on the ceiling or floor, and if there was an emergency panel anywhere I couldn’t see it.
That just left the elevator doors. I had dismissed the idea of forcing them open before, but I didn’t have any other choice. I would have to do whatever I could to open them, and once that was done I had to hope that the car was far enough between floors that I could escape onto the lower one.
The downside to this plan, of course, was that by opening the doors I would be exposing myself to both the fire and the insane woman that had started it. I might be trading a slow death for a quick one.
I had to take the risk, though. Taking a deep breath, I went over to the doors and put my fingers into the small gap between them to try to pry them apart.
I gasped in pain and quickly yanked my hands away. The metal was extremely hot, and it had burned my fingertips. Thinking quickly, I put my hands into the arms of my shirt and used the material to protect them from the heat. While I was now able to get a better grip on the doors without scorching my skin, it ended up not mattering. No matter how hard I pulled on the doors, I couldn’t make them budge.
I tried to come up with another plan as the elevator grew hotter. The air world around me started to move and swirl in front of my eyes. At first I thought that I was becoming delirious from either the heat or fear, or more likely a combination of both. It wasn’t until I felt sweat dripping off the end of my nose that I grasped that I was seeing the same effect that happened when intense heat radiated off of a sidewalk.
The woman in the hallway started coughing loudly. Within moments she was making choking noises. More smoke was filling the elevator. It rose up to the ceiling and built up like a dark storm cloud as it slowly pressed down towards me.
The blaze had reached the outside of the elevator. I had never heard a large fire up close before, and as I pressed myself against the floor I couldn’t help but compare the sound to water rushing up against rocks.
The pain of the hot metal against my skin was almost unbearable, but I couldn’t stand back up. If I did, smoke inhalation would kill me before the fire could. I ground my teeth together and shook violently in agony as a moan escaped my throat.
The woman only screamed once. Somehow that made it worse. The scream was thick and barely human. It ended with a repulsive gurgle.
The metal on the elevator doors started to glow crimson. I tried to lie to myself and say that it was just from the emergency lights. It wasn’t, though, and it was no use telling myself otherwise. The flames were heating the doors. I could actually see them flexing ever so slightly. Thermal expansion, it was called.
I barked out an involuntary laugh. With everything that was happening, how in the fuck had I remembered thermal fucking expansion?
The laugh became a cough. There wasn’t much time left. I idly wondered what was going to get me first, the constantly lowering ceiling of smoke, the burning metal, or the flames outside the doors. I hoped it would be the smoke. It would make me pass out quickly, maybe within a minute or two, and from there I simply wouldn’t wake up. There were worse ways to go, right?
The burning metal floor had become too much for me to continue to bear. Coming to a decision, one that I was sure would be my last, I pushed myself up off the floor and into the cloud of smoke.
I was nearly thrown from my feet as the elevator lurched. The red lights turned off, and the soft white overhead lights replaced them. There was a loud hum as the car began to descend down the shaft.
The smoke was gone. The temperature inside the car was the same as it had been when I had first gotten in. There were no signs of anything that had happened.
The car reached the ground floor and the doors slid open. It was a surreal moment; it didn’t feel real, and I was convinced that it couldn’t possibly be happening. Not sure what else to do, I picked up my box and stepped out into the lobby in a stunned daze.
A voice from my left asked if I was all right. I turned towards it and found myself looking at a short older man in a security guard uniform. He was staring at me with an expression that was a mixture of both concern and suspicion. For some reason that I still don’t understand, his gaze shook me out of my stupor.
I hurriedly told him that there was a fire up on one of the higher floors. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure where the elevator had stopped, but I thought that it was between the fourth and third floors. When I had finished, he frowned at me for a moment before telling me to follow him over to a small desk in the corner of the lobby.
Above the desk was a bank of monitors attached to the wall. He carefully examined them all before shaking his head and waving a hand towards them. I gaped at them stupidly. They were showing live feeds of all the hallways in the apartment complex, and there was no fire on any of them.
That couldn’t be right. I looked over each of them again and again. No matter how hard I tried, though, I couldn’t find a single piece of evidence of the fire that I knew was raging upstairs.
The guard seemed to take sympathy on me, and when he spoke it was in a sympathetic voice. He said that he was going to tell me something that he shouldn’t, and that I probably wouldn’t believe it.
Six years earlier, there had been a fire on the fourth floor. A woman named Bethany Taylor had come home from work to find her boyfriend cheating on her with another woman. She had broken her key off in the lock of the apartment’s front door to jam it closed, gone down to her car, and retrieved a half full gas can from the trunk. Returning to the apartment door, she had poured gasoline all around the area and set fire to it. It had quickly gotten completely out of control, and the entire floor was devastated by the flames before the fire department had arrived and managed to get the blaze under control.
Eight people had died as a result of her actions, including herself. Her body had been found sitting up against the wall next to the elevator, burned beyond all recognition. It had only been able to be identified through dental records.
The guard lowered his voice further before continuing. He told me that ever since the fire, weird things had happened on the fourth floor. Residents had reported hearing strange noises or seen glowing lights. He himself had been helping an elderly resident to her apartment when he had smelled smoke coming from the hallway. When he had investigated, he had seen a figure sitting by the elevator. It had disappeared when he tried to approach it.
He silently pulled up video footage on the monitors. I watched myself step into the elevator on the sixth floor, the doors closing behind me. They opened again in the lobby shortly after, and I exited the elevator. I looked at the time stamps. Less than a minute had passed between the two videos.
I thought about what the guard had told me as I left the building and walked to my car. I had no explanation for what I had experienced. Taking one last look at the building, I raised my head and stared up at the fourth floor. The windows were dark, and there was no indication of anything strange going on.
A part of me wanted to go back inside. I felt a need to verify that I had really gone through what I thought that I had. Another part of me wanted to put as much distance as possible between me and there.
I opened the passenger door and slid the box inside. I winced as I felt a stab of pain. Examining my hands, I found that the tips of my fingers were red, like they had been recently burned. I didn’t have to go up to the fourth floor to know that it had all been real. The proof was right there in front of me.
There was something wet on my fingers as well. I rubbed them together curiously. The substance was warm and sticky. I retrieved the box and held it up so that I could see the bottom of it. The cardboard was dark and soaked with liquid.
If I had known that Isabel’s head was going to leak so much, I would have left it up in her apartment. I smiled crookedly as I closed the trunk. Who would have thought that dismembering my ex-wife would have been the second strangest event of the day?