Tonight, the dying sun is huge and red as it drops into the embrace of the horizon, painting the sky in a panoply of oranges, violets, and pinks. It casts its paintbrush onto the dirty mounds of snow choking the narrow streets as well, rendering a floral display bursting with cold life.
The Natural will always find a way to disguise the ugliness of our world, if we mere humans will only take the time to admire its work.
I register this artwork as a small detail in my peripheral vision during my run toward home, without stopping to appreciate the view. My instinct for self-preservation is stronger than Nature’s nightly art display. Curfew is sundown, and for good reason.
Anyone not within safe enclosure? …things… happen.
Chest heaving, I shove the heavy glass door of my building open, barely beating the soft ‘click’ of the auto-lock mechanism inside the solid steel frame and the rapid decent of the iron safety bars in front of the glass facade. The door swings shut to adhere to its weighty frame with a satisfying thunk. The cage finishes its drop a moment later with an equally comforting rattle that tickles the ears and reverberates through the painted concrete floor.
In the sudden silence of the lobby, my labored breathing is deafening, and I double-up against my shaking knees, trying to catch my errant breath.
“A moment later…” a little voice chimes in my head.
The rest of that thought is too horrifying to complete.
I shift to lean against the graffiti-and-grime spattered wall, furiously sucking in great drafts of musty air. The muscles of my body demand fresh oxygen after their efforts to propel me to safety, and my lungs labor to fulfill that need.
My heart pounds furiously in my chest as it, too, labors – distributing the oxygen-rich blood the lungs are busy providing. My fingers and feet throb in time with the casket of muscle straining in my chest.
I give myself a bare five minutes to recover from the mad dash of the last minutes…to bring my raging lungs back to more normal patterns of breathing and my heart to slow its rapid pounding. I may have passed the immediate danger of being out-of-cover after nightfall, but I’m still visible to the street…and there are 11 flights of rickety stairs with floor-to-ceiling plate glass on each landing, between me and the tiny cube of interior walls I call my sanctuary.
I contemplate the derelict risers. Time, and endless feet, have eroded the carpet on the stairs from thick, cheerful swirls of color to a slimy streak of threadbare fabric the color of ashes. Those same feet have worn the wood’s glossy varnish down to mediocre grayish-brown and black stains. The hands accompanying the before-mentioned feet have wreaked equal havoc on the handrail – streaking the polished wood with infinite layers of human oils and other, less pleasant to think about, substances.
The endless circle of stairs is both the bane of my twilight sojourn home, and the reason my home is sanctuary.
…things… never happen any higher than the 6th floor.
With a sigh of inevitability, I place my hand gingerly on the slick/sticky rail, setting my foot on the first of countless steps.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Behind me. On the glass enclosure of the lobby.
Two fingers of ice slowly walk their delicate way down my spine as I freeze in place, left hand on the railing, right foot on the stair. I suck in a very slow and cautious breath, careful not to let the movement of my chest disturb my exposed back. My heart hammers in my ears, furiously pumping adrenaline-spiked blood through my veins. It’s a titanic effort of will to keep myself motionless against the beating demands of unleashed chemical instinct which is screaming at me to run, hide, conceal myself in the convenient shadows just 3 steps up.
…things… happen when your movements draw attention.
Chemistry changes tactics. If flight isn’t an option, we’ll go to option two. The roaring blood in my ears blocks out sound, demanding I turn and face the unknown adversary tapping on the glass. The fingers of my left hand tighten on the rail, and the right’s digits attempt to curl.
One more shallow breath, one more slow release, another Herculean effort to keep my fingers from fisting.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Three sharp, staccato bursts echo through the lobby. Lance through my head. The urge to turn my head ever-so-slightly, just a teasing hint of movement, so I can see the glass and the creator of that terrifying sound out of the corner of my eye, is powerful.
There are some …things… that shouldn’t be seen.
A kaleidoscope of fractured images of the dank stairwell and dying carpet dance across my vision from the unshed tears crafting prisms in my eyes. Slowly, I blink, jostling the moisture into motion down my cheeks.
One more shallow breath in…one more slow exhalation out.
The window creaks madly at the sudden weight thrown against it.
I bolt up the stairs, no longer able to control the mad rush of chemicals flooding my muscles and sinews, knowing from the stories that …things… stretch the truth of reality in a fiction story turned horribly real.
I reach the ninth step before the back of my left calf explodes into a bloody mess of shredded skin and fabric an instant before my ears register the crash of broken glass striking the concrete lobby floor. I push harder, forcing the muscles of my legs to keep working, keep pumping and contracting, keep pushing my weight against the pull of gravity to get me up, up, up!
It takes me a moment longer to realize the insane screaming echoing within the vast stairwell is coming from my vocal cords.
I grab the curved railing, swinging my body around the bend in the stairs, neatly vaulting myself over the landing and onto the next flight of risers. Frantic, screaming, wide-eyed and bloody from the knee down, I charge up toward the first of the plate glass landings. Instinctively knowing the more sections of curving staircase I put between myself and the lobby, the greater chance I have of drawing breath past the next few minutes.
The plate glass is darkened by decades of grime – reflecting perfectly my crazed appearance…
And the surreal …things… tearing up the landing below me.
My chest is on fire- my lungs straining to complete the exchange of choking carbon dioxide for clean oxygen fuel. My heart is pounding at an alarming rate, trying to cycle the blood fast enough to keep my legs pounding, pounding, pounding on the staircase. My vision narrows to single flashed images: the next stair above me, my grimy shoe, a patch of cleaner wallpaper.
I bang into a solid object. All forward momentum is halted, and I grab wildly at the object to keep myself from pitching backwards down the stairs.
The object grabs back.
A navy-on-black, 3 piece, double-breasted pinstripe suit. A bright red, (possibly) silk tie. Perfect half-Winchester knot between the tabs of a crisp, white collar. Gold watch chain snaking across the matching vest. Black leather shoes, buffed to an eye-blinding gloss. Shoestrings carefully tied in twin bows.
I feel ten very solid – but very human – fingers digging into my upper arms.
“Tsk, tsk…” The sound slides from between perfectly sculpted, pursed lips, enshrouded with a dusting of black, five o’clock shadow. “A mad dash? All that wild screaming? Such sounds coming from such a little thing? Whatever will the neighbors think?”
Five of those iron fingers slide up my arm, along my collar-bone, and tease a gold chain from beneath my clothing.
“You know …things… happen when you steal from The Company.”
All 10 iron fingers lock around my throat.