Elevator story: is the noise an hallucination or something worse?
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Elevator story: a noise
This is an elevator story about a woman in a wheelchair: two people in the dark and a terrifying noise. Was it an auditory hallucination or worse?
Let’s try a classic: Two people in the dark and a noise.
We’re the two people, of course, in bed asleep after, and I’ll imagine us in a fancy hotel, someplace uncharted by us both and thus fair. So we’re in the middle of a king-sized bed, pressed against each other like two commas on a blank page. For the purposes of this story, you’re sleeping bare-chested. But that’s certainly not required – however you’re comfortable sleeping, naked or fully-clothed or somewhere in between, makes no difference to me. As the kids say these days, you do you.
A noise wakes me but not you; I’m hypervigilant, so I wake up when a butterfly farts. The noise repeats, and I peel my arm off your stomach and sit up. What the fuck is that? I think, and you sniffle lightly as in reply. I listen, and the sound comes again: a short suck of air like an inhaled breath, then a rushing metal thunk with an oddly wet finish. I envision a giant piston squashing an equally-impressive grape.
The noise repeats twice more with no indication of stopping. I decide to investigate, scooting down the bed to my trusty wheelchair. For the purposes of this story, I’m going to make it the nice new wheelchair I’m trying to get Cigna to send me, not the junkheap I’m in now. In my experience, health insurance providers are reluctant to replace any mobility equipment that isn’t being actively recalled for faulty brakes or spontaneous explosion. As a result, I’m currently stuck in a wheelchair that barely moves. This cramps my style. I don’t have fantasies of not being disabled, only of being better accessorized.
But in this elevator story, my chair rules – I plop into it with confidence. I make sure to grab a key card before I roll into the hall (I cannot believe some people forget to do these sorts of things before they leave a room. But we both know there are – people who can get through a whole day without looking over their shoulder once – and we both know I’m not one of them). Then I blow your lightly-snorffling form a kiss goodbye. I’m sentimental like that. I’m a teddy bear.
The hallway is empty save a maid’s cart packed with cleaning supplies parked outside the room next to ours – the room’s door is closed, and I hear nothing from inside it as I pass. I hook a bottle of bleach from the cart as I roll towards the noise – I’m a teddy bear who’s always down to rumble. I’m certainly not going to go investigate some unfamiliar sound without at least one chemical weapon.
Where’s that noise coming from? It happens again, and I stop to listen. Around the corner, it sounds like to me. Near the elevators. In the elevators? No, in the elevator shaft. The elevators themselves must be malfunctioning somehow. I can’t imagine how the hotel staff could possibly not notice the racket, but where is everyone? Where is anyone? Where’s maintenance? Where’s the maid I stole this bleach from? I’m a nervous light sleeper, but surely I’m not the only one this noise is loud enough to wake. Out here in the hall, it’s even louder and sounds even more like a sick thing breathing: inhale-exhale-thudsquish.
I roll all the way up to the corner with the bottle of bleach pinned between my knees. I peek around the corner like a shy little kid. It looks exactly normal, and somehow that’s what makes my blood go cold. The sound comes again, and I force my eyes cartoonishly wide, willing them to see any disturbance, no matter how insignificant. Nothing. Not the slightest shiver in the air. No smell but the normal recycled hotel air – that sweet light coolness with all the edges rubbed off like a river stone – and, on my clothes and my skin, you and me.
Pain makes me gasp, and I open my left hand – I’ve been squeezing my wheel rims so tightly that my fingernails have dug pink ruts in the meat of my palm, and it’s only when I see them that I have to admit how scared I am. I am so scared. I can hear my own breath getting faster and faster, nearly panting now, and I can hear the terrible noise’s relentless repeating, and beyond that, nothing. Something’s wrong, and I am out here alone, all alone.
Stupid. I give my head a hard shake and start backing up so I can turn around and head back to the room – whoever’s problem this is, it isn’t mine. I’ve got much better things to do while I’m here than obsess about some dumb noise that isn’t bothering anyone but me. I want to be back in bed with you. And when I hear you cry out, I don’t at first realize that you’re standing behind me. I’ve backed over one of your toes because I remember what we did earlier, and your voice here fits into that memory seamlessly. Then I feel your hand on my shoulder, and I realize what must’ve happened instantly.
“Oh, my heart, I’m so sorry!” I say, spinning around as best I can on the balding hallway carpet.
I set the bleach down on the floor beside me, a move that I notice you noticing, but before you can ask me about it, the noise comes again, and you alert to it like a spaniel. I feel a cold rush of relief. Your reaction means it’s real.
“You hear that noise?”
I ask an absurd question out here so close to the booming, rushing, squelching, eardrum-abusing elevator mystery sound that I can feel shaking my bones.
Know it is rattling my bad teeth like a handful of dice, but I can’t see even one vibrational signature of it, not on the walls or in my chair or anywhere. When I hear myself asking if you hear the noise too, I realize how much of my fear has been not of the noise itself; but fear of my own inability to determine the noise’s actualness. I was scared I was losing my mind.
You nod. “It sounds like a giant using a spittoon,” you say, and I nod back.
We’re quiet together for a moment, and the noise comes again, louder still. You hear a giant using a spittoon, and I hear a piston crushing a grape, but we both hear something rushing and metallic and wet, and when has a noise like that ever been welcome? Hmm? Tell me, when has a noise like that ever worked out well for anyone ever, ever? EVER?
I can tell that you’re scared too, by the way, you reach down to pull me closer by the armrests without taking your eyes off the corner behind me. You won’t let anything grab any part of me I don’t want to be grabbed. It’s incredibly romantic, despite the circumstances.
“We’re going back to the room,” you say, and get behind me.
You march us confidently back down the hall and away from the noise, pushing me like a grocery cart you intend to settle scores with. It makes me feel dangerous and valuable. Then I realized with a start I’d forgotten my bottle of bleach. My face burns with shame – I had one job.
“It’s okay,” you say almost too softly to hear, your voice behind me and over my head. “We’ll just ask them to bring it over when they come.”
“What?!” I say sharply and throw my brakes before you can stop walking.
You stop short, and the chair tips and almost dumps me out. The noise continues undisturbed – fwheee-fwhoo-bonksplat.
“Whoa!” you shout, and undue the brakes yourself, so we can resume.
“Sorry, babe, brakes must’ve flipped. We’ll take a look at them back in the room. And we’re here!” I
hand you my room key, so you don’t have to pat yourself down for your own.
“I was just saying,” you say, “that we can call maintenance and ask them to let us know what’s going on when they come.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” I say, and mean it.
I’m jumping at shadows, that’s all. Or whatever the appropriate disabled person’s equivalent to such an idiom might be. Squeaking at shadows. Rolling wild as a runaway.
Whatever the noise may be, one thing I know for sure about it is that it is not my problem, not your problem. Not our problem. We are both awake now and currently in possession of a welcoming hotel room with a comfortable king-sized bed. We have better things to do with our time than to freak out about what’s obviously just some dumb, weird elevator malfunction.
You get the door open, and I force my body to relax. Catastrophizing. I always anticipate the worst possible outcome to any situation, especially when things are good and I’m happy. Because I am happy. Terrified, yes, but so happy. Because I’ve been waiting years to touch you. Because I still can’t believe my luck. fwhee-fwhoo-bonksplat
“Luckily, we’re in the room furthest from the elevators,” you say. I back up to straighten my path through the doorway. “We can barely hear that noise from here.”
And I’m sure that’s true for you, for anyone normal who isn’t perpetually waiting for another shoe to drop as if they live beneath a mafioso millipede.
Still, the silence when the sound stops is enough to automatically make us look at each other for confirmation. As does the sound of the elevators all chiming at once as their doors open. By the look on your face, I can tell that it’s a sound we can both hear clear as a bell.
Martha Stallman's work has appeared in The James Joyce Quarterly, The Joyce Studies Annual, The Offing, Electric Literature, and Playboy. She lives and writes in Austin, Texas.