The Eighteenth Floor by Frank Morelli

“Down Below, Ascending” by Dean Pasch

My first day and I’m wearing the black wing tips—Alfanis. Been in the box since Brooks Financial, but I polished them up last night so they shined like eight balls. Had Ellen run an iron over my gray tweed. She hung it next to the bed before we slept.

I wake up early. Beat the alarm by two hours. Can’t go back to sleep so I watch the sun rise over the park and gnaw on a day-old bagel from the Carnegie.

Around seven, I toss a bottle of Evian in my briefcase and dodge the morning dog-walkers on Madison Avenue. Hop the six-train at 86th and ride into midtown where a pulse of people flows up streets and down avenues as blood through arteries. I feel alive. Like I haven’t been out of the game for two years.

A revolving door with thick, glass panels and brass trim sucks me inside like a tractor beam and spits me out in a marble-covered dungeon. Typical Manhattan high-rise. Clerks weave carts—brimming with mail—through a maze of business suits and wrestle their way onto elevators. I’m swept through the mechanical doors myself, like a minnow in a great school of tarpon. People shout out numbers until every button is lit, and the elevator lifts off into the shaft. The handle of a rogue briefcase presses against my ass and someone’s pointy elbow stabs at my shoulder. A warm, milky breath tickles the hairs on the back of my neck.

And then the lights flicker and the car groans to a halt.

“Ahhh, shit,” says a guy who’s wedged in the back corner of the elevator like smashed bread. A pair of leather driving gloves wrap around his box of pastries like a strangler.

 

At Brooks, Rita brought cannoli once a week. Usually on Fridays and always tied up in a cardboard box with a thin, white twine. Had a husband and three kids. Probably the first things she thought of when we heard the first explosion. When the tower buckled and teetered like an upside-down pendulum and the box of cannoli tumbled to the floor of my office in a pile of jagged shells and powdered sugar. When thick plumes of smoke curled sinister fingertips around wrapped-glass and turned day to night in seconds.

I grabbed her by a twig-thin wrist and pulled her down a hallway to the stairwell. Twenty-four floors up. We took two steps at a time. Our leather soles scuffled and echoed up the metal column.

Another explosion and the building lurched and threw Rita over a railing and down a flight of steps. She was limp, barely breathing. I flung her over my shoulder and limped down the remaining flights to the ground floor.

I pushed the emergency door. It opened a crack. Just enough to let the dust from crumbled plaster and drywall flood the stairwell. Not enough to permit our escape.

 

The heat of twenty-something bodies radiates off my cheeks. I feel the red rising in them. My ears are heavy with blood. The bodies move in a rugby scrum, bounce from one wall of the elevator to the other like a pinball composed of legs and arms. The box of pastries is on the floor now and leather glove guy looks pissed—his eyebrows angle-in like poison darts while his Italian cream lies splattered and squashed beneath my wing-tips. I lose my footing and reach for something to keep me upright. A blond lady’s scarf.

“Get the hell off me,” she croaks in a smoker’s voice. I retreat and latch on to a bearded guy’s brown sport coat. He grunts but doesn’t push me away. A slick globe of sweat rolls down the small of my back. It wicks into the elastic band of my underwear.

I need to get out. I need to breathe fresh, cool air. I need to see light.

 

We were hunkered down in the stairwell. I had managed to open the emergency door just wide enough for a mouse to squirt through. My shoulder ached from pounding into it like a linebacker. She was unconscious, slumped against the wall like a wet rag. It was dark and wreaked of gasoline and there was a sudden and eerie stillness that rested on our shoulders—a deadness only broken by the occasional screams that ran into corners at the end of adjacent hallways or on floors blockaded by fallen masonry.  

Another low rumble—much louder and more powerful than before, as if every molecule of land and sea were standing on end. As if the stairwell was not a stairwell at all, but the molten bowels of Kilauea.

I knew at once something was wrong. That a dark and fetid presence had surrounded Rita and me. That death was rising up around us—and all I could do was scratch at the narrow crevice of darkness between the door and the jamb and let the tears shield my eyes.

Then voices. Two of them, and another that crackled out on a walkie.

“In here!” I tried to shout, but all that came out was “Heh!” Then a set of gloved hands, strong and firm. They grabbed me by the collar and yanked me through the door as a mix of embers and insulation spilled down from the ceiling in a tuft of glowing, pink tumbleweed. Rita was still on the other side.

I saw her face one last time—serene, unmoving, catatonic—before the archway cracked and the door was reduced to rubble.

 

My knuckles are white on the brown sport coat and I guess I wear out my welcome because the bearded guy pushes me to the back of the car. I step on some lady’s lunch bag and she clubs me in the back of the head with her purse. Someone pushes me forward and bearded guy volleys me back again like a tennis ball. I feel sick. And I need to get out. And the air is so thick. And I’m ready to throw punches. And then lights flicker and then they flash and then—

Ding! The eighteenth floor. My stop. I smooth out my suit, take a deep breath. Smells like French Roast.

 

Frank Morelli

Frank Morelli


Frank Morelli is an MFA candidate and a rabid baseball fan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Philadelphia Stories, East Coast Literary Review, Jersey Devil Press, the Ranfurly Review, and Monkey Puzzle Press. He lives in High Point, NC.

 

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