What is it about number 19? Why is it so consuming? What happened on floor 19 to lead to such a mysterious fate?
Monday and the inevitable commute to work begins. I wind the car down the same roads and avenues as always, stopping and starting in the usual places, witnessing the same moving picture of life as people’s morning routines ebb and flow around me. One day’s journey can often blend into the next making it difficult to remember which particular event happened on which particular day. Everyone is always moving. I envy the commuters waiting at the bus stops as I pass them, given a precious few moments to sit still and just wait. When I finally arrive, it will only be more of the same; needless rushed meetings and creeping floor managers trying to catch you slacking. I turn into the car park and find the same spot as every other day. Pulling out my briefcase and walking towards the front of the building, I find myself savouring the last measure of quiet before I finally push through the large, revolving doors.
I step into the busy lobby and head for the stairwell. The floor is a frenzy of dark suits, ID cards and clicking heels. I move along mechanically, enveloped in the haze of noise around me. The crowd thickens at the base of the stairs as usual, backed up along several floors most likely. I cast a glance towards the useless elevators lining the wall while silently cursing the ineptitude of workmen the world over.
There is no cordon, no black and yellow hazard. I feel almost giddy. The others haven’t noticed at all but why would they? I’d never seen the things in use since I started here more than three months previously. I’d almost forgotten they were there at all.
Slipping away I head over towards them. A firm push lights up the panel and as the doors slide clear I make to step inside. Despite the clamour, a clarion chime fills the lobby for a moment and I look back nervously, but no one falters for a second. They have been at this far too long to let anything penetrate the morning routine. It seems pointless to hold the doors then. The lobby disappears abruptly as I let them enclose me.
Now, this is odd. Initially, I had meant to push 26 and head straight to my desk; the canteen was always overcrowded first thing in the morning and I had no desire to wait more than twenty minutes for coffee and a roll. But I hadn’t pressed 26 because something was very off. There was no number 19. In its place was a question mark of the same typeset and finish as the other thirty-two buttons; clearly intentional. I stand fixed for a breath while I weigh the options.
I press the question mark and the elevator shudders to life. No mirror to distract me, only the faint murmur of the gears hauling me upwards. Each number dimly illuminates in turn as the ascent continues and before I know it, they are grinding smoothly to a halt as the chime rings out.
The doors glide quietly open to reveal a long, thin corridor. Silence pours into the box as I exit, only the scrape of my shoes intruding. The difference from the lobby is profound and the lack of sound is almost uncomfortable for a short moment. A white tile floor stretches away ahead of me with tall, borderless windows lining either side. The amber sunlight glints through them in such a manner that I can see nothing beyond them except from the shadowy outlines of grasping branches. More than likely a roof garden at this level. I concentrate towards the end of the corridor and spy another set of identical elevators. There isn’t a single other door to be found and the windows have no obvious clasps or hinges.
The fire hazard implications are the first things to run through my head as I realise this floor is completely inaccessible by stair. What is the purpose of this strange passageway? I step forwards and press my face against the glass, straining to see more clearly. Outside the sun has washed everything in the same thick orange light, making it impossible to distinguish what I’m seeing. I turn back to the corridor and stand relaxed. The silence really is wonderful. It won’t make much difference if I linger here a while longer. I have work to do of course but it seems so distant and unimportant right now. I glance around to make sure I haven’t overlooked something. It’s a shame there isn’t a chair or something to sit on.
How long have I been here now? I raise my wrist and stare down at the wide face of my watch. The hands are happily ticking but no matter how long I look I can’t quite seem to make sense of the time. The numbers are slippery in my mind, refusing to stay in place. I lift my gaze and it suddenly strikes me that the sunbeams are unnerving somehow. Something is not quite right. I realise the feeling has been growing steadily since I first stepped out of the elevator. That’s it; not one of the sunbeams reveals a single mote of dust. For that matter, the floor is spotless. So clean in fact that it might never have been walked on. Had anyone ever visited this level or was I truly the very first person to have walked out on this floor? What a ridiculous idea! The building had been here for almost ten years. Yet, the uneasy feeling is still growing.
The place suddenly feels very empty. Empty is the word, but it’s not quite enough. I can feel the beginnings of panic stealing into my chest. A thought is struggling in the back of my mind. As I move to walk forwards my feet feel sluggish beneath me. I think its best that I get back to my desk. I’ve been away too long. For some reason, I start towards the elevators at the opposite end of the walkway. My eyes feel heavy and milky; it’s almost a strain to look down towards the elevator doors. I shuffle forwards awkwardly, moving slowly along the walkway. As I pass them, the windows continue to reveal nothing but the dark shapes of the trees. Finally, I find myself in front of the second elevator.
Once inside I look to the button panel and search for “26.” The numbers here are jumpy as well but I manage to make out the “2” and “6” on the right of the panel. My body feels as heavy as lead now; I struggle to hold myself up. I lean against the inner wall and push “26” with as much strength as I have left. Sliding down onto the floor I watch the doors close in on the corridor. The white tiles, amber light and dark glass shrink from view as the doors close completely. The elevator shudders and I feel the tug of acceleration as it’s pulled upwards.
I can feel the strength returning to my body. I manage to sit up away from the wall and close my eyes. I will myself to calm down even as the adrenaline continues to course around my body. I can’t understand the fear inside me but it feels real. It felt real. I’m starting to relax. I stand up and open my eyes. My vision has stabilised enough that I can see the numbers of the panel plainly. There is no question mark in place of number 19, only the “1” and “9” anyone would expect. My thoughts are still jumbled; some primitive part of my brain is trying to scream but the rational part is holding it back, keeping it quiet. The elevator comes to a stop.
I step out onto 26 and head silently to my cubicle. Everyone is going about their business as usual. No one has noticed I came from the elevator. They are all consumed by the mundane tasks at hand. I sit at my desk and turn on the computer. 17 new emails. I’ll need to reply to them all before lunch. I can’t bring myself to look at the time. Something inside is still trying to scream. Spinning my chair away from the desk I look out of the window behind me, out across the rooves of the other buildings. The sky is a clear blue and the sun is out of sight. In the corner of my eye I can see dark branches. I turn back to the desk and pull my chair closer to the computer. There is an orange tint to the light coming off the screen. The scream is louder. I find my hands absently typing. I write the number 19. I don’t know why but I get up and walk over to the elevators. I step inside. “Today is different” I think, as the doors close.