Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
The goldfish bobbed up and down at Madeline, occasionally turning to peer at the city through its cellophane bag as she took it home. The wind kicked up dust and debris from the gutters into Madeline’s eyes and her back ached from hauling her mother’s hefty tote over her shoulder. She was thankful this was the last load. She counted her steps as she trudged to her building, and when that got tedious she focused on taking deep breaths. Her sweat felt good against the cold night air and it took her mind off how heavy her eyes felt. Madeline cursed herself for never getting off her ass to pay the building manager an extra fifty bucks for a real parking spot.
She reached the stoop and realized that she didn’t have anything to put the fish in once she got inside her apartment. It made her mad at Peter all over again for taking Mom’s nice things and stiffing her with old lady clothes and a carnival goldfish that had somehow kept living beyond all expectations. She dumped the tote beside the rest and caught her breath. Getting everything in the elevator was going to be just as shitty. She made eye contact with the fish and pictured it surviving nuclear winter in the plastic salad bowl she was going to have to keep it in until she could find something better. Of course Mom died and the fish lived.
Madeline had just finished stacking the totes beside the elevator when Peter called, and all she could think of was the stupid frown on his face that morning when she showed up that morning wearing her ratty KILL BONO shirt. He was just as short with her on the phone as he had been all throughout the day, and just as he was beginning his bullshit plea for her to come back over to Mom’s to move more boxes, Madeline’s phone died. Her forehead burnt up as she rummaged through her purse for redeem cards. “What kind of adult uses a pay-as-you go phone?” she thought as she tossed her spent time cards to the floor and huffed outside to the pay phone.
Peter’s number was the only one Madeline still remembered by heart. She looked up to her old building, waiting for him to answer her collect call. No one was outside and Madeline wondered about the bygone era when the neighborhood had looked new and when all of it began to decay. Peter answered by resuming where they left off. “Why won’t you come back and help me?”
Madeline stopped herself from telling him that she had already busted her ass all day and just wanted to go home. She stopped herself from saying that she had never wanted to go over to Mom’s in the first place. She even stopped herself from joking about the ebola she was probably getting from handling the greasy pay phone. She was avoiding everything that she wanted to say, until she realized the line was quiet and Peter was waiting for her to say something.
“I can’t move anymore boxes tonight. I gotta get this fish in a bowl. I can use tap water right?” Peter began hemming and hawing about her duties as a daughter, but she didn’t wait for him to finish this time. “This is why you should have taken Mom’s stupid fish, Peter,” she forced out before hanging up.
Madeline entered her building wondering if she should just put the fish on craigslist. “People do that, right?” Her thoughts were cut off by a man waiting by the elevator. He was smiling at her, holding one of her spent redeem cards in his hand like it was a ticket for her entry onto the elevator.
“You dropped this,” he said. Madeline took the card out of politeness. The man kept smiling at her, expecting more from her. His Sears business suit matched the fake wood floors of the building.
“Thanks.” She wished the elevator would come.
“Any time,” said the man. He was around her age, maybe older. He seemed like the type that always came off older than he really was. Madeline wondered if he had been watching her straining to move the totes to the elevator by herself but thought he’d be a real help by picking up her useless card. She focused on the dim glow of the elevator button, occasionally feeling him stealing glances at her with that dopey pursed smile stuck to his face to signal that he was friendly.
“You didn’t wait around here to give me that card, did you?” she asked.
“Elevator’s been taking a while,” he said. He smiled again and the elevator mercifully arrived. “Well, it looks like I got a case of the spoke-too-soons.” He laughed, hoping that she would laugh with him.
It took Madeline several minutes to get all the totes into the elevator. It was a cramped compartment from a time of yore when elevators had operators in uniform that politely pushed buttons to take you to your floor. It featured two sets of doors which she had to constantly keep wedged open to move everything inside. The man didn’t help at all, but he managed to stand too close to Madeline once she hit the button for the forty-third floor. Madeline kept her eyes on the panel, watching the floors slowly creak by on the way to the top of the building. She held the goldfish in her arms and wondered if she needed to go out and get it food or if it could wait until morning.
“Duh-dunt,” the man sang, imitating the theme from Jaws. Madeline heard him, but for the sake of his dignity pretended it never happened. “Duh-dunt,” he chimed again. She faced him with the most discouraging look she could muster. He grinned and motioned to her goldfish. “King of the sea,” he said.
“It’s freshwater,” said Madeline.
“What’s his name? Granted, that it’s a he. I can’t really see underneath his fins there. Oops, there I go again. Its fins.”
“Helen,” said Madeline.
“That’s lovely,” he said, happy that she was engaging with him. “What made you name her Helen?”
“After Helen Keller. You know, the mute girl.” The man, not nearly as thick as she thought, raised his eyebrows and laughed.
“That’s the best go-fuck-yourself I’ve heard in a while,” he said.
“And yet you’re still talking,” said Madeline.
“If I come across something that deserves a compliment, I give one. Sorry, it’s just the way I am. I’m Allan, by the way.” Allan repositioned himself and smiled. “What’s your name?” He realized his error and said “Helen” at the same time as Madeline. He pointed to her and chuckled to let her know that she got him. Madeline was in awe of Allan’s persistence and wondered where she would be in her life with such bullheadedness. The elevator stopped and she felt a twinge of relief, except no one was there to save her from Allan when the doors opened to an empty hallway. The doors closed on Madeline’s hope for another passenger, but not before she noticed a strange dampness on the floor’s threshold. The building was old. Pipes leaked all the time, but something felt odd. Something was unsettled the whole day and had carried on into the starless night. The world felt like it wasn’t occupied by anyone but people like Allan and her brother. Like all the good people had gone. Like her mother.
“Really though, what’s your name?” asked Allan.
“There! That wasn’t so bad was it?” he said. Madeline sighed and told him that she had a long day and really just wanted to get the fish in a bowl and go to sleep.
“You know what the best part about long days are?” he asked. “That they end.” Allan looked proud of his wit. Madeline looked dour. “It’s not like anyone died or anything,” he said. Madeline still didn’t respond, so Allan dug deeper. “She was deaf and blind, too.”
“Helen Keller. She was blind, deaf, and mute.”
“My mom died.” Allan’s face blanched and he tried to apologize, even though he wasn’t quite sure what for. “I was cleaning her house today,” Madeline went on.
“Because she died.”
Allan tried explaining that it was impossible for him to know that, only to get steamrolled by Madeline’s contempt for her mother’s goldfish being forced upon her. The exchange ended with Allan bursting into a breathless stream of apologies until the elevator groaned. They both stopped and listened, cocking their heads at the groaning of the machinery. The elevator clunked onward and whined with every passing foot.
“We’ve been moving for a while, right?” Madeline asked. It was then that she noticed they were only on the fourteenth floor. The elevator should have already taken them to the top. Allan stared at the floor counter. The playfulness drained from his face as the counter crept past fifteen. The gears whined at sixteen. Madeline looked away from the floor counter hoping it would change how off everything felt. She focused on Helen the goldfish and thought of those long childhood nights gazing at her fish tank from her bed. It had a nightlight built into it and made a horrible hum that woke her up most nights, but the fish’s shadows dancing along the walls made everything feel like it would be alright. Helen made a simple glug with her mouth that seemed to know what Madeline was thinking all too well before the cables above the elevator snapped. The compartment lurched and it fell down the shaft.
Madeline and Allan screamed as the feeling of weightlessness overcame the compartment. The sudden pressure beneath them gave way and their feet lifted into the air. Madeline gripped the elevator’s railing as best she could but her body felt like it was getting pulled apart. She clung tightly to the fish bag as its water rose to the top. She had a sudden burst of memory from her youth about the swinging pirate ship ride at the county fair. Peter taking her all the way to the back, telling her she’d be fine. He was older. She trusted him. They sat at the end seats, her chin just above the safety rail. With every swing of the ship, she would lift higher out of her seat. Peter did his best to hold her, but she remembered crying and looking desperately to the ground for her mother. She could get the carney to stop the ride and save her. Her mother was nowhere to be found and the ship swung higher. Madeline closed her eyes, but nothing took away the image of the ground at the fair littered with cups and spent tickets blurring by as she hurtled into the sky.
They had fallen twenty feet when the compartment came to a sudden stop. There was no twisting of metal, no screeching of gears or scraping of the walls against the sides of the shaft. Madeline’s legs absorbed the impact and the railing kept her from toppling over. Allan bumped off the wall and got his bearings.
“What in the world just happened?” he asked as he pressed the button for the doors to open. He pressed several times. The clicking of the button sounded worse than the creaks of the elevator. Madeline felt her teeth grate together.
“Press it again. It might work this time,” she said.
Allan turned, his face red. “You got any more great suggestions!?”
“Why don’t you try getting out and pushing?” Madeline felt like she could be taking it a little easier on Allan, but she couldn’t stop herself. It made the situation more tolerable.
“We could be in here for hours. I don’t want to be in here for hours, do you? Your fish could die,” he said.
“That would be great.”
“That’s right. You hate fish,” Allan muttered to himself as he tore open the elevator’s call box. “Is there a number or something I have to hit first for this to work?”
“I don’t think so.”
Allan tried using the call box almost as many times as he hit the button for the doors. The line was dead. He pulled out his cell phone. “Let’s see if anything is going on with building management.” He dialed and waited. Madeline listened closely to the ringing. Allan looked at her vacantly. “It’s busy.” He ended the call and dialed 9-1-1.
“Bringing in the National Guard?” she chided. Allan listened and snorted through his nose, determined not to let Madeline get under his skin. “Maybe we just wait and try not to panic,” she suggested. He looked to the scratched linoleum floor of the elevator and pressed the phone tight to his ear, as if more pressure would change the outcome.
“9-1-1 picks up right away, right?” Allan knew the answer but wanted to hear something different. He held the phone out to her. The ring was the only sound in the elevator. “Maybe it was an earthquake. All that shaking we felt back there? We got knocked off the… elevator track, or something. Maybe that’s why the phones are busy because there was a lot of damage.”
“Looks like we sit tight then,” said Madeline. The shaft groaned again, squealing in agony. She thought a moment and batted her eyes his way. “Know any good ghost stories?”
“Don’t count on it.”
“It seems like this was what you wanted. Face time in the elevator.” Madeline felt like a kid poking a bee hive.
“I told you, I didn’t hold the elevator.” Allan took off his jacket. He spread his legs apart and thrust his hands into the seam between the doors. His body quivered as he tried to pry them apart. It was a sad sight to behold.
“Allan, come on. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not going to be trapped in here while you cut my dick off all night,” he said through clenched teeth. Madeline had poked the hive too many times and now the bees were frightened and confused. There was no honey to be had here.
“Look, I’ll back off,” she said. “Just be safe, okay?”
“Don’t worry, sweetheart. I got it.” She could tell that he loved saying that. If her stomach wasn’t already upside down, it would have made her feel gross. It was the same way Peter told her that she’d be fine on the carnival ride. The same way he told her he’d take care of everything when Mom died. The doors gave way slightly. A little crack showed, but there was no light. Allan looked back with a satisfied smile. “Impressed?”
“Well, a little.” She had to give him that much.
“That’s the Bowflex coming through.” He resumed prying before he could see Madeline’s raised eyebrows. “Use it every morning. Twice on weekends.” He stretched out “twice” when he said it.
“Great. I’m trapped in an elevator with an infomercial from the ’90’s.” Giving him shit was the only thing that kept away a creeping feeling that nothing was going to be okay.
“You jest, but…” Allan trailed off as he made one last, valiant tug. He erupted with a warrior cry to throw the doors open with his remaining strength, but the doors wouldn’t budge. Allan fell to the floor panting in defeat.
“Looks like the power of the bow let us down.”
“It was worth a shot,” said Allan between breaths. Madeline felt a rising anger.
“Now what happens when you need that energy if something else comes up? You spent it all on bullshit.” She thought of the countless totes and boxes she had hauled around all day. They had made her palms red. The metal creaked from the outside. Something was giving way again. The creaking spread from one end of the elevator to the other. Madeline wondered if the thing was going to crack in half. The top was probably still attached to some of the cables but the elevator had taken such a beating that it couldn’t hold together any longer. The creaking moved down the side of the compartment near the doors, but then Madeline heard it behind her as well. She didn’t see any cracks on the walls. The sound then traveled all the way down to the floor and she felt its vibrating beneath her feet. She listened closer, trying to hear past her own heavy breathing. Her chest tightened and her core felt empty. It wasn’t a creaking sound. It was scratching. “Do you feel that?”
“What the hell is it?” Allan’s eyes were glued to the floor. The scratches had traipsed down the panels and migrated to the floor until they were all underneath them. Allan shuffled to the corner of the elevator and the scratching moved away from him. It was all beneath Madeline. The vibrations ran up her legs and she started to quiver. The scratching intensified. It wasn’t scraping against the outside. It was trying to penetrate the floor. Madeline couldn’t understand what it was, but deep in the place where all our instincts lie she knew this was true.
Very slowly, Madeline laid down her bags. She left Helen on the floor and reached for the elevator railing. She griped it tight and lifted herself off the floor, pressing up with her legs tucked. Allan quickly copied her, and the scratching dispersed. It was trying to find them. The two looked to each other, unable to say anything. All they could do was share the same terrified stare. The scratching moved back to Madeline’s bags and soon it was all beneath the goldfish. Then it all went away for a moment, lowering back down into the shaft.
Before either of them could find any words for what had just happened, the elevator jolted as a gigantic force thrust into it from below. The floor shook and the bags all lifted off the ground. Madeline and Allan got rocked from their perches on the railing. Allan spilled to the floor and screamed while Madeline managed to hang on. They got pounded again and the metal moaned. Madeline’s arms were warm and shaking. She couldn’t control her breathing. She dreaded that the floor might give way if she fell and then she and Allan would fall twenty stories down the shaft.
The pounding stopped. Madeline lowered herself to the floor. Her arms were on fire and she couldn’t hoist herself any longer. She picked up the goldfish. It frantically zipped to and fro in the bag but slowed to a calming pace when Madeline held it close. Allan wiped blood from his nose. He didn’t clean off his hand when Madeline offered him help from the floor. She leaned against the wall and caught her breath.
“It’s like it…” he trailed off.
“It?” she asked. They knowingly didn’t waste time with doubt. Something was out there.
“It’s like it wanted the fish.” Allan couldn’t take his eyes off the little goldfish. Madeline wondered if he was using it as an excuse to stare at her chest, but Allan looked serious.
“It wanted me, too,” Madeline added. She didn’t like Allan’s eyes. She couldn’t tell what was behind them.
“But it was gunning for the fish. All that scratching beneath it? I think that’s what it was after.”
“Whatever it is, I think it’s too big to give a shit about a little carnival gold fish.” Madeline thought of Peter trying to hold her steady on the pirate ride again, his hand weakly pressed against her shoulder. It took her years to realize that it wouldn’t have saved her if anything had happened. She still felt his clammy palm through her shirt.
“Did the fish’s bag break?”
Madeline focused and felt the bag. “Shit.”
“I thought you hated it,” Allan said. His voice was distant.
“Yeah, but…” She couldn’t find any holes. She was about to tell Allan the bag was fine, but she was cut off by a loud plop. Something had fallen from the ceiling. The floor was wet and there was a dank smell in the air.
“Maybe the pipes are busted,” he said. Another droplet fell from the ceiling and hit Allan’s shoulder. It was oily and thicker than water. It oozed down Allan’s shirt. Madeline felt her shoulder. The same stuff had crept down the wall on her side and dribbled onto her. She then saw the thing through the casing of the elevator’s fluorescent lights.
It slithered along the light duct, pulling itself along and flopping forward as it groped its way along the compartment. With every flop, the watery slop that coated it sputtered down onto them. At first Madeline thought it was some kind of worm. If she was trying to be rational, she might have reasoned that it was someone’s pet snake that had escaped and grown quite large living in the nooks and crannies of the building. But she couldn’t think of it as anything other than a flabby tentacle. It had writhed into the compartment from the roof and was now feeling its way inside, searching. It had jagged needles along its stomach. This was what had been scratching beneath the floor. Madeline froze. Her heart pounded in her chest and the idea of any movement at all felt like it would give herself away and the tentacle would collapse down on top of her. Even so, Madeline had no way of stopping herself from rasping, “What the fuck is that?”
Allan was shaking uncontrollably. He returned to his corner and hoisted himself up on the railing again, but the goo from the tentacle had seeped onto it. His hand slipped over the rail and he toppled to the floor. The tentacle stopped. Allan looked up waiting for the worst, but it never came. The tentacle receded through the duct and made a wet, sucking sound as it slide through the hole it came from. Allan shushed Madeline when she tried asking if he was alright.
“I don’t think keeping our voices down is going to make much of a difference,” she said.
“It went away when we got quiet!”
“We don’t even know what it is.” Madeline knew this was true, but that same unsettled spot inside of her was whispering that it didn’t matter one bit. Allan pulled himself off the floor and spoke with the conviction of a man converting on his death bed.
“I was watching a nature show this one time. They put a dead fish in a bottle and corked it. Then they put the bottle in a tank with an octopus, and in less than five minutes the octopus felt around the bottle, sucked the cork out, and ate the fish…” Allan pointed down at Helen. It glugged at him. “It wants the fish,” he said.
Madeline tensed. He was serious. “Take it easy,” she said in her most calming voice. It was the same one that Mom would use when the aquarium night light wasn’t enough.
“No. It wants the fish. That’s what octopuses eat, don’t they? We’ll just open the door and toss it the fish and be on our way.”
“I don’t think opening the door is a good idea, Allan.”
“Well what do we do then?” Allan snapped. His face seemed to elongate as he raved on. “You know when everything is a bad idea, so what’s a good idea? Oh wait, that involves having to do something. Then maybe you’d actually have to take responsibility. Maybe my ideas are good and yours are bad. You ever thought about that? Oh no, of course not. I forgot. That would mean you actually considered being wrong. Look at how well that’s working for you, trapped in an elevator with your stupid goldfish waiting for someone to do the work for you. I’m sure you’ll find a way to complain about however you get saved.”
At this point, Madeline knew that there was nothing she could say to calm Allan down and there was just as much danger inside the elevator as whatever was lurking outside. This wasn’t harmless like the thought of poking a beehive. Fear had overtaken Allan. There would be no more reason left in him. She did her best to look calm while sizing him up. He had proven to be strong with the door, and she was exhausted.
“I’m sorry, Allan. Go ahead. Open the door.”
His grim demeanor gave way to that same sappy smile, which looked even more awful on his haggard face. “That’s more like it.” He had a bounce in his step as he turned to the elevator doors. He shoved his hands into the small gap and pushed outward. His muscles shown through his wet shirt. Madeline watched closely as Allan pried with more resolve. He wasn’t trying to impress her anymore.
“Maybe he’s just trying to survive now,” she thought. Madeline couldn’t tell if she was lying to herself. She even felt a bit relieved as the doors started to budge. Maybe she’s just negative. Like Peter told her all morning.
“It didn’t have to be this way, you know,” grunted Allan. “I was going to take you to the Chart House.” He wasn’t looking over his shoulder to talk to her like last time. Madeline’s jaw hardened.
“Just open the doors, Allan.”
“A part of me was thinking, ‘Just take the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator, get some cardio.’ But no…” The doors were six inches apart now. “I saw your tits underneath your Kill Bono shirt and thought I’d try’n get lucky. By the way, a T-shirt on a cold night? Not the best way to repel a man’s attention. Your tits practically bore holes through it.”
Madeline backed up, but there was nowhere to go. Her hand slipped against the slime on the railing. She nervously sifted her fingers through it. Allan’s body shook as the doors gave way. He finally looked over his shoulder. His eyebrows were raised with an insincere look of friendliness.
“Got the fish?”
“I’m not giving you Helen.”
“I thought we went over this already.” He stepped toward her with his hand out. He kept one hand on the door to keep it open.
“This is my fish now. I have to take care of it.”
Allan’s grasp stretched out to Madeline. His fingers twitched as he tried to extend them even further towards her. He kept his voice low, like a man trying to lure a child out of hiding. “C’mon,” he insisted. “We just have to give it something… ” His fingertips passed over the fish’s bag. Madeline pressed her back to the wall as Allan’s hand moved past Helen and hovered over her wrist. The doors grated as the metal screeched apart. “… To tide it over while we get out.” The doors to the elevator tore open. Allan winced and got whipped to the wall by a gust of balmy spray. Madeline balked at the musty smell and wiped her eyes. She was the first to see it.
A large, hideous eye the size of a hubcap stared back at her. Its bulk took up the entire doorway. It had a pink hue from never seeing daylight. Thick, translucent veins wove around its body. The eye pulsed back and forth between her and Allan, not so much moving as it was like jelly quivering in a bowl. It shifted itself, rubbing against the compartment and crushing it like a cheap beer can. Allan balked, frozen by fear and the inability to comprehend the beast’s immensity. His hand reached over to Madeline, but he was unable to keep his eyes off of it.
Madeline saw Allan’s hand coming at her in the same slow, deliberate way that the creature had tried to reach into the elevator with its tentacles. But she couldn’t move, either. As the beast repositioned its body, she caught the first sight of its horrible beak revealing itself under a flap of pasty skin. She thought of the way mom’s mouth had sputtered right before she passed, and how she laid there on her pillow with the same look but had somehow looked peaceful in death. She remembered how Mom had told her that she had never wanted Peter to take care of anything when she was gone. How he had gone against her final wishes. How long she had held Madeline with tears in her eyes after she got pulled from the pirate ship.
Madeline took the ooze that had dripped onto the elevator’s railing and slathered it all over her hands and reached out to Allan. He grabbed on and pulled like she knew he would, hoping to slingshot her into the beast to create an opening for himself to escape.
Allan’s eyes widened and twitched back and forth just like the creature’s had when he felt the slime on Madeline’s arm. She watched him slip away from her, his face contorting in shock and rage. He tried to hold tighter but her arm was too greased, and his body was weak from opening the doors. His nails scratched her skin as he dug deeper but by then it was too late and Allan’s own force sent him stumbling into the black, gaping beak. The rest happened too quickly for Madeline to really see. The beak clamped down, and just like how she had been covered in the balmy water when the creature had burst into the compartment, Madeline was now covered in a spray of Allan’s blood and viscera. She tried to wipe off quickly to get Allan out of her eyes, but it was thick. The cracking of his bones drowned out the screams as he was devoured.
Its feeding complete, the beast lowered itself away and all was quiet. Madeline stood deathly still listening to sounds of the building. She flinched at a few distant clicking sounds, but soon a wave of them came threw the halls of the floor they had stopped on and the power came on. The Girl From Ipanema played through the remaining elevator speaker and Madeline dropped to her knees gagging.
It took her only a minute or two to kip up between the two floors the elevator was stuck between. Madeline took Helen but left the totes. She cradled the bag in her arms as she shuffled down the hall and up through the stairway. If she listened closely, she could hear a few sifting sounds through thin apartment walls as she passed by. Every once in a while a groan came from somewhere else in the building, but Madeline saw nothing on the way up to her apartment. Whatever had been deep within the walls had submerged itself once again.
The blood had started to dry on her skin as she unlocked her door. Madeline lifted Helen up to her face before she went inside. She wanted to understand what had happened. She wanted to not have to talk to anyone. She wanted to go into her apartment and never come out ever again. She wanted to say something that would make all of this be alright somehow, but remembered that no matter what she did she would have to clean the bowl she was planning on keeping the damn fish in before she could go to sleep. “I really hope you don’t mind tap water.”
Helen glugged back at her. It would be okay.
Credit: Simon Nagel