I stood on the bottom floor waiting for the elevator. There are two elevators and when one reaches the bottom floor, the other makes its way to the middle so that, when it’s called from no matter where, it’s as close to all floors as it can be without keeping the caller waiting. I’ve often thought of the vanity of that, especially here in a building where the people move out as quickly as they move in. I’ve been here for two years and it feels like I’ve been waiting just as long for this damned elevator. I don’t mind because I have nothing to get up there for, up there on the 7th, where like all the other floors, the doors are white, the people don’t talk and the night is longer than the day. It’s midnight and it’s a Tuesday in November so I travel to the 7th alone. I stare at the bulletin board for the building and it’s empty. It has notices and pictures but it’s empty. I haven’t slept properly from nearly three weeks, a successful push of late being four and a quarter hours last Monday, the effects of a bad day, a dirty gin and an over the counter sleeping pill that just made my eyes feel heavy and like they couldn’t open when I finally woke up at 02.45am.
The bell rang and the doors opened labouredly. Tonight is different and I struggled to get home from helping a lost girl I fucked a few times move house and my body was throbbing and my eyes are red as hell, at least as far as I can see in the mirrored walls of the elevator door on the slow way up. I don’t know why I keep in touch and continue to help. I like to think it’s because I want to feel useful. Or that they need someone around like an estranged husband because they’re just as lonely as the night they walked through my door up on the 7th. Maybe somewhere in here there’s a part of me that wants them to feel better while I can’t. The reasons don’t matter and I’ll be damned if I don’t look like the loser in sheep’s clothing that I am right now.
The bell rings on the 4th and the elevator stops. I’m alone but I check in the mirror that there was no-one. There was no-one but me. I’m not superstitious and there are few ghosts out there in the world, at least in the traditional sense. We’re all haunted in our own ways. But I’m alone and in steps a red-haired girl, hair tied back, wearing pyjamas and fashionable knee-high boots. It was the sexiest combo I’d seen all day but that wasn’t saying much. I only glanced at her. She looked at me with a confused, embarrassed look. She obviously thought everyone was at home in bed, their eyes closed with little to see.
‘Going up?’ I asked.
‘Yes, actually.’ she responded smiling awkwardly. ‘My boyfriend lives on the 8th.’ she said staring at me.
She steps inside and the door closes.
‘How convenient. Or inconvenient depending on how you see it.’
‘What do you mean?’
I wasn’t sure what I meant. All I know is that when this place was built it wasn’t built quite right and ended up looking more like a prison than a place to call home, the doors all lined up, modern simplicity in the concrete, a laziness I always felt. It feels claustrophobic until you go inside your door to where you’ve made it your own. Somehow that makes it feel like a place to not get to know another person even if you’re all living in the same prison and thinking the same thing.
‘How’d you meet him?’
‘Christmas party at the local. I got drunk. He already was. The rest was all history and a blur. I don’t remember seeing you there.’
‘Just moved in.’
She nodded and smiled awkwardly. For the remaining floor we stand silently looking at the big number above the mirror. She’s still looking at me out of the corner of her eye, I can just feel it. I’ve mostly been looking at her in the mirror in case I made her feel any more bashful for the little she was wearing. She was looking at me like I can’t describe. Like she didn’t follow what I was saying. The bell rang and I turned to her and smiled a little.
‘Laura.’ she said offering me a low hand. I took it and shook it gently.
‘I know. I saw you on the bulletin board on the picture of the last block party. Front row. You were wearing a little more then though. Have fun up on the 8th.’
I smiled at nothing and walked out of the doors and stepped to my apartment door, the first one next to the elevator shaft on the right side. I shuffle in my pocket for my keys. For all the reasons in the world for why I do what I do, I know no-ones getting hurt any more. The lost girl had said thank you and kissed me on the cheek and that’s enough and my conscience is as tired as my mind and my body. I hear the elevator door open on the floor above and out stepped Laura entering the apartment above instantly, near running, the door already open, slamming nearly as quickly. My keys rattle as I grasp for them so I can find my bed just inside my door. This door could do with a lick of paint but then so could I.
I walk inside and nearly trip over my cat laid on the mail. I’ll never know why that cat likes laying on paper so much instead of the comfortable bed I bought for him but then he doesn’t scratch the scratching post either and just pulls at the couch. He just sits there most of the time, just watching me when I’m here and as soon as the door is locked and my body is down, my head on feathers, he’s right there laying up against me, purring and warm. It’s almost always the last thing I hear at night and it’s both the best and worst part of the day because I’m not alone but I realise I’m going to wake up and I’ll be a different kind of alone. I don’t need those pills tonight, nor the gin, and I can feel myself drifting while barely thinking that it’s all on me. It’s my own fault but I deserve to sleep and tonight I’m going to sleep and wake up with the sun and not before.
I don’t dream but I feel things in my sleep. I don’t see people or objects but I feel different things that I remember when I wake. A weight on my chest, an ache in my fingers. I like to think that it’s my body, as wronged as it has been, either recovering in some fucked up way or taking its vengeance out on my subconscious. A bruise on my shin, a cut on my palm flexed, a vibrating hand, shaking hard, jarring me. The room is illuminated from a small glow in the corner on the table. I peered at the clock, it’s 02.00am. Fuck. I don’t care about the light, I close my eyes. I can hear distant voices, either angry or jubilant, it’s hard to tell from this far away. It doesn’t matter, me the world aren’t friends until the morning light. The table shakes again and I’m awake and there goes tomorrow. The number wasn’t one me or my phone knew but it’s the hour where your regrets can get the better of you and the regret of not answering a 2am call could make it all the greater. I answer and clear my throat.
Breathing. I think. Just breathing. Maybe wind that sounds like just breathing.
A woman’s voice. I guess it could only be a woman’s voice, shaking and teary at 2am. I try to decipher the tone and the pace to remind myself which one it might be. Jenny with the laugh like an angel, Caroline who pronounces her name Carolin, the one with the nose ring and the green lipstick speaking in a deep Yorkshire dialect who called me ‘love’, Kristina who said her b’s as p’s and her p’s as b’s, a product of Scandinavia, Martha whose voice I’d know anywhere. I needed more now I was adjusting back to the dark and the sound of breathing.
‘What’s wrong?’ I say sleepily.
Breath. Breathing breath for five, ten, fifteen seconds.
‘What is it?’
‘You know what’s wrong. What’s wrong with me.’
The voice crackled with femininity, the crack that can bring down any man who ever gave or took anything from a mystery just like her. It wasn’t Caroline, or the girl with the green lips. She said ‘with’ not ‘ wi’ ‘. Martha was already gone. Through the breaks I knew she was English and that left me with Jenny with the angel’s laugh, it’s a shame that it’s all I remember of her. That’s all I remember and I would remember if there was anything that was wrong with her or so she would think and she was as close to normal as any other girl who came before or since. I guess that’s why I only remember her laughter. But I keep remembering the girls who have this number and those who don’t and they all muddle in my mind and become one until I’m creating double-barrelled names like I’m talking about white trash from the deep South. Thankfully I never met any of those. I rub my forehead and sigh deeply.
‘I’d like to say I’m sorry that I woke you but I knew it would happen.’
‘It’s okay. Really, it’s okay, something was going to wake me anyway.’
‘I saw you yesterday.’
‘You saw me?’
‘Yesterday. It reminded me that you still exist.’
‘Is that what’s wrong? That I still exist?’
‘No. I was happy to see you until the moment you walked past.’
I stretched widely across my aching brain for people I walked by in the street, in the market or at the office. Carrie with the ugly sweater, Geraldine who has my grandmother’s face and makes me smile, Bobbi who’s a girl I’ve never talked to. Then faces, every last one I didn’t know and looked at in all their detail.
‘Where was this?’
‘You know who you’re talking to, don’t you?’
When your mind fails you, you have little left else left to fail you. So use what you have and use it well.
‘It doesn’t matter. It’s better that I don’t know who this is. That way you can say exactly what you need to say.’
‘Maybe you’re right. Maybe. But I’m tired of you people not knowing who I am, not recognising me. I’m finally done with it. This is why I need to do it. I need to do this.’
‘You needed to call me?’
‘I was going to do this whether you answered or not. In fact you didn’t answer…the first time.’
‘So why did you call again?’
‘Because you needed to hear this and to see what you do to people like me.’
‘Who are people like you? I’m sorry, it’s just a little late and a little early to be poetic in what is sounding increasingly like a threat.’
‘Good. Good. It is a threat. You’ve done this to me. You did this to us and you’re going to hear it like I wanted to hear you and you can pass it on to all the others.’
I switch on the bedside lamp.
‘Others. What others?’
‘Why are you the way you are?’
I clear my throat again. It feels full, fevered.
‘I’ve been asking myself the same question with an apparently different version of me being the one questioned. I don’t know who this is. And I’m sorry about that. But I’m pretty sure that I cared for you. There’s not a woman I’ve been with for any length of time that I haven’t cared for for as long as I’ve known them.’
‘You care so much you’ve forgotten my name. Her name. The other one’s name. All of you and all of us. I saw you and you knew I was there and you couldn’t look at me, you fucking pig.’
‘Fiona, I helped you move. I picked up that wardrobe single-handedly and moved it twenty feet to the van. What the fuck is this? If you wanted nothing to do with me, you should have fucking said. Because apart from that damned wardrobe, this is the most uncomfortable I’ve felt in some time. What can I do?’
‘You don’t know as much as you think you do and you’re not going to take control any more. You gave me this number and came back later and helped yourself. You couldn’t help yourself. You came back and then you left me to fend for myself. You took everything from me and left me with the small change in my pockets. You took everything from me and I saw you earlier and I remembered. I fucking remembered you.’
I was starting to feel a dread like I’d not felt before. It was like a burn and a singe and a pillow of nails and rainfall soaking me through. I had no idea why. I had no idea why but I believed every single word she was saying to me. Breathing. Just breath breathing on the line this time from my end of the line.
‘You recognise me now? Do you see me now, now I’m turned around and looking at you and you’re only looking at a reflection?’
I froze. I froze and couldn’t move. Little bears.
‘You need to see me.’
The line went dead. I jumped up from bed and sweat ran in front of my eyes. I jumped up from bed and threw on my coat, my clothes hadn’t been removed from getting home. I couldn’t find my keys and I ran to the door hoping I’d left it unlocked. I had. I ran to the elevator shaft and pressed for both elevator’s attentions. One was on the second, the other on the 8th, the system working perfectly. I waited impatiently and it arrived on the 7th from above and the doors opened.
I saw Laura’s eyes, I looked right into Laura’s eyes without the mirror, without the reflection and it was too late. The mirrors streaked with blood, her wrists spilling onto the grey carpet, the blade soaked and clinging to the red. I was breathing, breathing breathe heavy and debilitating. I stood and I stared into Laura’s eyes. Little bears with streaks of blood. I was awake. I was finally awake. I stepped into the lift breathing heavier and heavier, my heart barely keeping up. I pressed the button for the ground floor. It went faster and faster, the speed ripping me apart and I stumbled. I stumbled and nearly stood on little Laura. There were coins everywhere on the floor, scattered from her pockets. When it reached the bottom floor I ran to the building manager and screamed for the ambulance. I shrieked so hard I nearly burst. I was awake.
I ran back to the elevator and I was stopped by the bulletin board. I looked at the picture of the block party. I looked at Laura in the first row smiling and alive in black and white and beside her, me, drunk and falling over, my arm draped around her shoulder pulling her down with me to the ground.
I dragged her from the elevator, covering my arms and chest and feet and fingers in blood as the ambulance arrived, the sirens deafening. I stood and watched her leave, I watched them carry her away and I watched them cover her over and it was the first and last time I saw her. They asked me if I needed help and I told them no, knowing I needed it but it wasn’t due. I finally woke up at 02.45am, Laura was already gone like she had been from my mind but never again.