Steps

Write On! Fiction Prize Honorable Mention, Ages 13-18

by Aidan Chisholm

“Worry” was a gross understatement, a generous label for what was systemic mistrust initiated by my precious six-year-old amygdala. My mother brought me to the “Worry Doctor,” alias Dr. Armbrust, probably because my concern of an avalanche spontaneously blanketing our suburban neighborhood—where, mind you, snow is foreign and there isn’t a hill to be had—was best left to professionals. Each Thursday session, my hyperactive brain fixated upon a new phenomenon: hyenas loped to the periphery as I became convinced that a hammerhead would evolve to develop amphibian properties with which to exit the ocean and flop up the stairs to eat me. Though most fears were mitigated by time, one endured: elevators.

So up the stairs I went. What got to me most was the thought of a titanium behemoth halting stubbornly mid-ascension, trapping its ill-fated passengers. Its husky walls would swallow any call for help, and even if its occupants were heard, they remained behind vertical steel jaws, clenched against freedom. Not to mention a stoppage between floors! At floor thirty-nine-and-a-half, the chamber may as well be a coffin. My neurosis was more profound, though, expanding beyond this early onset claustrophobia to include dismemberment. Those weighty metal doors were enough to sever a limb, the car ascending as your right arm bled onto the mezzanine carpet.

Admittedly, any sentient being would admit that there is something disconcerting about elevators. The threat may lie in the lack of control, the only human touch being the poke of a button. A six-year-old girl enters the conveyance from the subterranean fluorescent-lit garage only to exit into the plush circus of the cineplex, redolent of liquified butter. Even with the most magical destination, the child can’t help but feel discombobulated, having stepped in, stood still, and landed in a different universe.

The thing is, there was a certain element of naiveté, of foolishness in my liftophobia. Elevator doors cannot in fact butcher extremities, a halt is likely a pause and asphyxia is impossible. What is more, I quailed at dismemberment and entrapment, when I hadn’t even guessed at the real threat. The truth was, if fate dictated—and faulty engineering or shoddy maintenance con-spired—the thing would fall.

The irony was that when trauma actually befell me, it wasn’t the elevator itself, not the steel jaws snatching me up or the pulleys holding me captive mid-flight, but something entirely else.

By the time I was thirteen, I would deny concern over hoist cables, but I still glanced to the inspection certificate upon entering. Fear was eclipsed by the looming seventh-grade dance, sea-level rise, breast buds. In fact, as I boarded the elevator en route to my orthodontist, the contraption feeding my anxiety was the braces soon to be fixed to my teeth, not the fusty apparatus in which I pressed the button marking the sixth floor. Waiting for the doors to shut, I envisioned my ruined smile in a ruined pre-dance Snapchat and thought of texting my mom to be sure she remembered the smoothie when she came to pick up her braceface daughter.

A hand shot into the nine-inch gap of the closing elevator doors, fingers extending toward me. The box stuttered as this hand—large, with long fingers, one encircled by platinum—sent the doors cowering back. The subject to whom the hand belonged was almost perfectly framed by the steel opening. The way I remember it, this character existed not in a rom-com but in a superhero thriller, as if he had not utilized the motion sensors but had made use of his biceps to pry apart the massive sheets of metal. Though this man, who had paused—reveling in a certain breed of glory—would assume the role not of the superhero, but the villain.

He did this funny thing as he stepped aboard. He pushed the button for the seventh floor and slunk up against the wall, swiveling as he angled his body toward mine. Weight distributed equally between feet, he faced not the doors but my face. He dismissed convention, the universally customary elevator behavior dictating that all passengers face the doors. He fixed his eyes on me.

With this foreign man entered foreign fear, one that grew as the elevator doors closed and we began to ascend. In this alternate reality, I longed for the elevator to malfunction, to plummet to the bottom of the shaft. He cleared his throat. He said, “Have you ever seen a naked man?”

The words diffused, filling the eight-by-eight-foot chamber so his speech echoed—or maybe reverberated only in my head. If this was fate, it was a twisted and malicious, perhaps genius, kind of fate. Or maybe it wasn’t fate at all, but karmic retribution, recompense for the time I feigned menstrual cramps to avoid running the mile, or the universe dishing out payback for having said I stayed at Emma’s when really I was at Claire’s. But lest you forget, braces were punishment enough for any karmic deficit.

And yet. And yet. This vulgar verbal encounter was just that. The elevator consummated its promise of delivering me to the sixth floor, physically unharmed, the box having transmuted into some sort of savior. The contraption had perhaps conspired as it enclosed me and that man, but there I was, freed after six stories. I exited that elevator to an evolved actuality, my fear of elevators rendered juvenile. Such a benign aversion had been penetrated by a figment of a much realer adult world. Perhaps I couldn’t think outside the elevator, of the box—so to speak—in order to fathom what atrocity could occur inside.

It was an elongated hour later that I emerged from Dr. Benton’s office, freshly fit with neon-pink, glow-in-the-dark rubber-banded train tracks.

Then, down the stairs I went.

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Aidan Chisholm is studying English and Studio Art at Dartmouth College. She has published “Don’t Think She’s a Thot” in The Roundtable, a quarterly journal publishing student research and writing, and has creative nonfiction awaiting publication in Waxing and Waning.

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