The manual elevator in the Harrington Building arrived at the ground floor as if it were descending from an earlier time. Machinery thunked and cables slithered. As it pulled level with the floor, the carriage bobbed gently, like a boat easing along a dock, guided by the lever in the hand of the elevator operator. His movements were practiced and bored. As the small group of people waiting for the elevator stepped, one by one, inside of it, he didn’t meet the eyes of any of them.
She filed into the elevator with the rest, wondering if she needed to remind him which floor she needed to go to. On her first visit, she had mumbled to him the number of her new therapist’s office, but she noticed that none of the other passengers had said anything to him. The elevator operator seemed to anticipate their floors without any prompt. Few people came to this old-fashioned building without consistent reason and they were presumably easy to keep track of. None of the other passengers said anything this time, either. The elevator operator, a stocky old man with pale skin and a gruff set to his mouth, was silent as well.
She felt uncomfortable in the manual elevator. It was nothing like elevators she was used to: shiny and quicksilver fast, with banks of smooth buttons that lit reassuringly under her fingers, carpet that absorbed sound and mirrored walls that gathered her multiple reflections, everything self-contained and frictionless.
But this elevator was all texture and revealed inner workings: wood thick with years of red paint, cables looped outside the carriage, and glass panels set in the wooden doors. There were no buttons. Just the operator, who had been the same man every time she had used the elevator. And, evidently, he knew her now. She tucked herself into the corner of the elevator, out of the way of the other passengers, and stayed quiet.
The doors clacked flat across the entrance and the elevator began to rise. Through the glass, she watched the innards of the building glide past. Each thick floor foundation was marked with the floor number. She saw the “2,” then the second floor itself, and the hallway stretched along with it, like the open side of a dollhouse made large, or herself made small.
As the elevator rose, she steeled herself for her impending therapy session. She disliked delving into the darkness of the life behind her, pulling out memories and feelings she would rather leave hidden. If she hadn’t been compelled to start the therapy, if the accident had never happened, she wouldn’t be here at all. She never would have stepped into this building and she never would have stepped into this elevator. She would have continued in what she was used to.
The elevator stopped, the operator expertly drawing the carriage in line with the floor with only the slightest of bumps. The doors opened and out stepped two of the passengers, young women with leggings and hair twisted into tight buns. To the right, she could hear the steady beat of heels on a hardwood surface. She watched the women walk towards the sound, then the elevator doors slid shut and the elevator rose again.
Her preparation for therapy mostly consisted of reviewing her collection of avoidance strategies. A lifetime of anxiety had made her collection robust. When her therapist referred to the “incident,” she steadfastly called it the “accident.” When her therapist talked about what she had done, she pretended not to understand. She operated on the assumption she could hold the therapist off until the mandated number of sessions was complete and leave everyone, including herself, with the ambiguous yet functional comfort of plausible deniability.
The elevator paused at the fourth floor, doors clattering open on the view of a plate glass window set as an indoor storefront; inside, a display of elaborately tailored costume dresses and hats. A gaunt man wearing drooping corduroy stepped out and strode down the hallway. The elevator doors closed.
When they opened again, it was the fifth floor, lined with doors with frosted glass windows and the names of instrument makers who strung violins and cellos. Somewhere down the hallway a voice flung out her scales, the empty, hard-tiled space creating ghostly echoes as accompaniment. A woman in heavy brown boots left the elevator and plodded away.
She glanced around her. There was only one other passenger left in the elevator beside her, a tall man in a worn suit and a knit cap pulled down so low on his forehead that it overcast his eyes. She turned her own eyes back to the front as the elevator lifted again, the slices of building rolling up and falling away. The number “7” flashed and the carriage rested at the seventh floor. The man in the suit exited.
Her floor was eight. She fidgeted with the strap of her purse. The elevator rose.
The number “8” showed past the glass in the elevator doors, but the elevator didn’t stop. The anxiety that had been climbing in her spiked and she gasped: “Wait! I need eight.”
The elevator operator didn’t give any indication that he had heard her. The elevator continued its ascent.
She stepped forward, reaching out a hand that didn’t dare actually touch the operator’s shoulder. “Excuse me, sir? I’m sorry, but I needed floor eight.”
The elevator operator still took no notice of her. He didn’t look at her. Floor nine went by, and ten and eleven. She had never been above eight before. She didn’t even know how many floors the building had.
The elevator stopped sharply, without the operator’s usual grace. He pulled the doors open on a lightless floor. Unlike the other floors, there wasn’t a horizontal landing and a single hallway led straight from the elevator’s opening. She could only walk forward, down the hall lined with brown molding and office doors closed on spaces of hushed darkness. The end of the hallway itself, beyond the illumination afforded by the elevator itself, collapsed into shadow. It didn’t appear to have any other exit.
The elevator operator tilted his head towards her and lifted his eyebrows expectantly.
“This … isn’t my floor,” she mumbled.
His upper back rippled in a movement that might have been a shrug. His hand stayed on the brass lever and she intuited that her options were limited. She spotted no stairwell access. She couldn’t press a button to go back down. She had to walk forward and see what she could find on the other end of the hallway.
She stepped out of the elevator. Her foot sounded loud on the tiled floor. Behind the closed office doors, the silence took a breath, watching, and waiting. Behind her, the elevator doors closed. The carriage began to sink, its warm glow drawn down with it, leaving her alone in the dark with nothing but the renewed reminder that the elevator operator always knew to which floor someone needed to go.
Jen Myers is a writer and technologist in Chicago. She has a website at jenmyers.net and is on Twitter as @antiheroine.