It’s an ordinary office building. That’s what you tell yourself every day. Ordinary sidewalk, with scraggly bits of green growing between the cracks and water pooling in unexpected places when it rains. Ordinary walls, stained with bird shit and dust and car exhaust. Ordinary windows, caked with layers and layers of fine dirt, so the world outside is a brown, grimy blur. Ordinary floors. Ordinary stairs. Ordinary elevators. Except…
There’s an elevator on the south side of the building. No one uses it. No one says why.
It’s closest to the front doors, just a turn and step away. The floors are brightly polished, never scuffed by shoes or marred by mud. The lights shine softly above its doors, beckoning, welcoming.
But no one uses it.
Use the north elevators, they say. It’s to the right, around a corner, tucked away. The lights flicker weakly above it. There's a haze of dirt on the chipped tile floor. There’s always a line of people waiting, waiting. It’s a guessing game if you’ll all fit, or if you’ll have to wait another five, ten, fifteen minutes to catch the next one. It always smells of stale food, yesterday’s donuts, Tim’s smoke break, Cathy’s perfume, even worse than the rest because you can smell it long after she’s gone. The smells stick in your nose, haunting you throughout your day, assaulting you just when you thought they were finally gone.
But still you use the north elevators, knowing they’ll be crowded, packed with sullen people heading to their grindstones, their backs bent from stooping over their keyboards, their eyes watery from staring at screens, their minds dull with endless work. Still you line up with them, waiting, waiting, packing inside, trying to breathe as the car lurches from floor to floor and disgorges its contents.
You don’t know why you don’t take the south elevators. No one does. It’s just a whisper, a habit, a thought formed so long ago that no one knows its origin.
Don’t take the south elevators.
It’s the first thing they say to you, when they send you the orientation materials, when they tell you what ID to bring and what to wear and where to park. Don’t take the south elevators, they say. Turn to the right, go around back, take only those.
You listen, though your eyes glance to the left as you walk in, to the shining floors and bright light, the clean scent, free of office pollutants. You avert your eyes and walk around back and line up with the rest.
But every day, you wonder. Why? Why can’t we take the south elevators?
You’re cautious. You don’t ask outright. You don’t walk up to your boss and hand him the week’s sales reports and say, “Oh, by the way, what would happen if I took the south elevators?”
You google it first. The building, the address, the city. You scan through old news reports and blogs, digging back years, years. If something happened, it must be on the internet.
You find nothing. No hint. No whisper. No sudden, unexplainable catastrophe.
You work up the courage to go to the library, to hold yellow newsprint your hands and search back for decades. But there’s nothing. No mention of the elevators, the office building, the workers. No deaths during construction, no desecrated burial grounds, no strange happenings in the area. Nothing to tell you why you shouldn’t take the south elevators.
It’s more unnerving than finding something would have been.
Still, you walk inside, and your eyes glance to the left. They linger longer every day, taking in the shining tiles, the gleaming steel of the doors.
One day, instead of going right, you go left. You don’t take the elevator. You just walk past, as if you’ve done it a thousand times. The air feels fresher here, lighter, as if it’s untainted by the humanity around it, clean as the air after a rain. You take a deep breath, and walk by.
No one notices. No one comments.
So you do it again. And again.
You linger longer each time, breathe deeper, your eyes closing in bliss. None of Cathy’s perfume here, none of Tim’s cigarettes, or the break room’s stale, tired food.
Every day you take the north elevators. And every day it wears on you. The stray elbows in your ribs from the crowd pressed close. Your back against the wall as the man from the third floor edges into your space. The stench of sweat and too-hot air fills your lungs. Their voices echo in your head, whispered complaints about bosses, sighs over children, bitching, bitching, bitching about work and life and lovers and enemies and everything in between.
One day, one day after a long, sleepless night, you take a step inside your building. You turn left. And you don’t walk past the elevator. You stop. You glance around, wary still. But no one is here to see. You came too early for the crowd to spot you. You press the button. It lights up, a pleasant white glow, and chimes gently.
The doors slide open. You step inside.
The doors slide shut. You turn and see yourself as a vague, wavy reflection on the shiny steel. You press your number. The elevator hums to life, and your stomach drops.
You know something’s wrong. The light isn’t quite right. It’s too soft, too yellow. The air – it’s cold, sharp, cutting into you.
Your hands grip the railing. Your knees tremble. This was a mistake. You don’t know how, yet, but the warnings ring in your head.
No one takes the south elevators.
You squeeze your eyes shut and hope the world will be right again when you open them. You’ll never take this elevator again, never defy the command. You’ll chat with Tim and smile at the man from the third floor and throw your arms around Cathy in simple gratitude. You’ll wait in line and breathe the stale air and squint in the flickering light. You’ll love every minute.
The elevator slides to a halt. Your stomach catches up with your body. You let out the breath you’ve been holding. The doors slide open, and you stumble out. You laugh. You’re on your floor, of course, safe and sound, and what did you think would happen?
You curse yourself for a fool and trot to your office as if you’re late, even though you’re more than half an hour early, and who knows if the office will even be open yet, or if you’ll have to wait for Barb and give her a joking smile and a shrug, so eager to get to work…
You round the corner and slam to a stop, because this is not your floor, these are not your walls, this is not your building. This is not your world.
You scream. You turn and run, dashing for the elevators you know, the ones you trust, the stinky, shaky, sweaty place you scorned. But the north elevators aren’t there, and as you stand and stare, something takes your arm. Its grip is cold, hard, unbreakable. You can’t run now, it whispers. You can’t go back.
You took the south elevators. And no one takes them more than once.