I got off at the wrong stop. I didn’t hear the train driver call the name, and I must have miscounted, distracted by the press of bodies against me as I held on to one of the plastic stirrup handles in the middle of the train. It was rush hour, but no one exited the train with me. During rush hour in the city, everyone maintains a facade of cool indifference, belied only by slowly spreading underarm sweat stains on cheap rayon blazers and by white knuckles straining to maintain a hold on bars and rails and handles as the train lurches ahead. No one looked at me as I left.
The underground station was dim and cool and empty, with a light stale breeze as the train disappeared into the tunnel. There was a faint scent of urine, and I glanced down hastily at the station floor to look for the tell-tale criss-crossing of liquid seeping along the cracks between the red hexagonal tiles. But my shoes were safe.
I reached up to adjust my purse on my shoulder. An automatic gesture. It took me a moment to realize it wasn’t there. I had left it on the train floor, heavy with books. I looked around the station for the station manager’s booth, but saw nothing.
I was on the center of three platforms in the station. The layout of the station was unfamiliar, and I finally looked at the station walls, looking for a name. But the walls were blank. Maybe the station manager was on the next floor. I saw a single narrow escalator at the far end of the platform. As I walked toward the escalator, I realized that the station really was empty–not empty as an approximation, or as a contrast to the crowded train, but truly empty. The only sounds in the station were the noise of my square heels upon the tiles and the occasional low sigh of the wind through the metro tunnel.
With no purse or phone to hold in my hands, I made my hands into fists while I walked, digging my nails into my palms. It was a relief to reach the escalator, and to put my hands upon the rubberized rails. The escalator was long and slow, and the top was shrouded in darkness. The station was new, or perhaps in repair, I told myself. That explained the lack of signs and people, and possibly explained the darkness on the next floor.
Going up a long escalator always made me a little sick, and I closed my eyes to stave off the nausea. I felt the rails hitching along at a slightly slower pace than the escalator stairs, and every half minute or so, I readjusted my hands as I felt them dragged behind me. After what seemed like a very long time, I opened my eyes and looked up. The top of the escalator seemed as far away as ever, and I still could not see clearly because of the darkness at the top. I looked back down at the lower floor, now far away. I remembered that I hadn’t seen another escalator going the other way, or any other escalators at all. Maybe I’d missed something on one of the other platforms.
I didn’t have my fare card, or any means of paying for the exit fare once I got to the top. I wondered if I’d have to give the station manager my credit card number. I couldn’t be the first person to leave their purse on the train. My stomach turned over with sudden queasiness, and I closed my eyes again, clutching the rail and listening to the groan of the escalator. I counted slowly to one hundred in my head, trying to distract my stomach from the torturously slow pace of the escalator. I just wanted to reach the top. One hundred, two hundred, five hundred. And then my wish was finally granted, and I stumbled as the escalator flattened out, the toothed steps nearly catching my shoes as the belt was swallowed by the escalator’s end. I was at the top.
When I opened my eyes, I was in almost total darkness. I could hear what sounded like tiles under my shoes. The darkness seemed to open up and spread around me. The sound of my breath was quickly lost in the vast space, with the faint echoes of water dripping, somewhere, and the faraway rattle of a train.
As my eyes adjusted, I saw a light, far enough away that it did not illuminate my steps, but just bright enough to draw me to it. I began to hum nervously, but the way my voice disappeared and then, after a long breath, echoed, did nothing to comfort me. I walked on in silence. Though I walked for several minutes, the light did not seem to grow closer, and remained a tiny pinprick in the darkness.
The darkness had an awful way of remaining just still enough to seem as though it was waiting. I was conscious of indistinct sounds at the very edge of my hearing, never loud enough to become recognizable, never quiet enough to fade away entirely. The darkness seemed to be slowly shifting around me on stealthy haunches, mouth slightly opened as it breathed. I felt the lightest of sensations on the hairs on the back of my neck, and I could not tell if they stood entirely of their own accord. I dared not turn around, and there was nothing for me if I went back, only an eternal one-way escalator. The only way out (if there was a way out, a voice whispered, light, conspiratorial) was forward. I walked on toward the light.
At last the light began visibly to draw nearer. I saw first that it was a lantern, and then, that it illuminated the outlines of a small freestanding booth, which, absurdly, featured a tall, shingled roof. In the dim light of the lantern, I saw a hunched figure inside the booth. I was so relieved to see another person that I rushed forward, though my feet were sore.
The booth was hexagonal, and was enclosed with glass below the roof. The panes were somewhat fogged, and a bit dirty, but despite that, I could still see the figure bent over something at the far end of the booth. I went around to that side of the booth. The booth was very tall, as was the man inside, and I stood on tip toe to be at eye level with the bottom edge of the glass pane. There was a half moon cut out of the bottom edge of the glass, and through the hole, I saw the tendrils of the man’s red beard, which flowed all over his chest. He was wearing overalls, of the sort that a fisherman wears, and he wore a knit stocking cap pulled low over his eyes. He did not look up at my approach. In his large hands, he held a stack of paper metro tickets, and he was counting them off one by one, their tattered edges catching on his callused thumbs. His lips moved silently as he counted.
I coughed. He did not notice.
“Excuse me,” I said, very quietly. Then, a bit louder. “Are you the station manager?”
He looked up then, and his eyes were bright blue and piercing, so bright that the booth’s dim light looked dimmer by comparison.
“How can I help you?” he said. His voice boomed out, and I thought I saw the glass panes shake.
I’d forgotten for a moment why I was there. I was so glad to see another face and hear another voice.
“My–my purse,” I said after a moment. “I left it on the train. And I’m hoping to find the station exit?”
It was a question, though I realized a second later that the question was not where the exit was but whether it existed. Everything about this station suggested a dead end with no exits.
“If you’re looking for the lost and found, you’ve come to the right place,” the station manager said. He stood up and opened the booth door to his left and stepped out.
While standing, he towered over me, his beard curling across his broad chest as if blown by a light wind. His eyes maintained their preternatural glow, a blue so sharp and icy that it chilled me. His overalls were filthy: stained with grease and salt and mud. Around his neck, he wore a lanyard attached to a badge. It said only “Harry.” There was no picture or last name.
He took my hand in his, and I recoiled a little, because it was cold and a little moist. He did not look at me but began walking across the dark station floor, and I had to run to keep up with his long strides. In walking away from the booth, the darkness seemed vaster than ever, and I closed my eyes to try to shut it out. The darkness beneath my lids was close and intimate and known. I was shivering, though there was no chill. I was afraid of this man, but I was more afraid of being alone. In running, I could still pretend we were going somewhere, though I knew I, at least, was only running away. I wondered how he could see to move in this darkness–if his ice blue eyes were lit even now.
At last we stopped, and I tripped over my own feet and fell forward past him. He raised his arm across my chest to block my fall, and I stumbled against it, somewhat winded. I could not see anything, but he took his hand away from mine. I panicked, and I heard a mechanical grinding and creaking beneath my feet. I felt an almost imperceptible tremor across the floor, and there was a belching sigh, and a rush of putrid air past my face. The man pushed me forward and I stepped into the smell, and kept walking, hesitantly, until I hit a wall overlaid with metal scrollwork. I spread my hands out and felt two walls on either side of me. Some kind of elevator, perhaps.
My guess proved correct when I heard the doors close behind me with another sigh. I turned around and blindly extended my hands, and nearly collapsed with relief when I felt the man’s greasy beard across his chest. I jerked my hands away a moment later, but he did not say anything. With a shudder, the elevator began moving down.
We were silent on the ride down. I thought I could hear my breathing, and my heartbeat, frantic as the wings of a fledgling bird, but this was impossible, thanks to the industrial groans of the elevator in its slow descent. Nevertheless, the illusion was persistent, and I kept glancing at my chest in embarrassment, half expecting to see my skin vibrating across my ribs, despite the thick darkness.
When at last the elevator doors opened, the light was so sudden and so strong that for a moment my eyes registered only pain, and I closed them again. When I squinted a few seconds later at the light, I saw that the elevator had opened onto a large circular lobby, lavishly decorated. The reflection of crystal chandeliers gleamed across the tiled mosaic floor. The mosaic was also circular in design: black and gold tiles in the shape of a sun, or perhaps a wheel, with pointed rays or spokes stretching out across the floor, each tapering ray ending a few yards shy of a door much like the one I had just exited. The doorways were separated by alcoves, each featuring a marble sculpture of woman with her back turned to the lobby. Each statue held a different pose. In some, she seemed to be caught mid-stride. In others, she was standing. In the alcove next to my elevator, she was covering her face with her hands. In the alcove a few doors down, she seemed to be pointing to her right.
I looked behind me and saw the station manager still standing in the elevator, looking curiously out of place in his dingy overalls. Though the elevator itself was remarkably unadorned, the doorway was richly inlaid with dark engraved wood. All the doorways were similar, though none were exactly alike. Though all featured the engraved wood, the sides covered with elegant scrollwork, the top of each featured a different symbol. Above mine, the symbol was plain– a simple circle. But some of the doors featured a circle with an intricate halo of rays, or half a circle, or two circles, or a circle with stars.
Where the rays met in the center of the lobby, I saw a pillar, its graceful curves supporting only a clock. The clock’s face was made of the same dark wood, and the hands were gold. The clock was built like a cube; I could see two faces from where I stood, and I guessed there were two more on the other side. It was just about to strike eleven. The pillar was also inlaid with panels of dark wood, and the edges were gilded. Above the clock, a large chandelier hung from the vaulted ceiling, its light dancing in hundreds of delicate crystals. Smaller chandeliers hung just in front of the alcoves between each door.
“This is the lost and found,” the station manager said. His voice echoed across the lobby.
“But where do I go?” I said, turning back to face him.
“That depends on what you’re looking for,” he said. He reached out and grabbed my hand, and placed something small and hard inside my palm. My fingers curled automatically around it.
“You can bring back anything you like,” he said. “But only one. Choose carefully. You have one hour.”
And then he stepped backwards, and the doors to the elevator closed almost immediately, before I could move or cry out. I was alone once more.
I covered my face with my hands, trying desperately to calm my breathing. I didn’t have long, but I could take ten seconds, I told myself. And I did, counting them off on my fingers, feeling the thing in my palm press its cold surface against my cheek. I opened my eyes and pulled my hand away. It was an hourglass, the flow of golden sand briefly paused by the angle at which I was holding it. I tipped it upright again. It was the size of the tiny cheap plastic hourglasses that come with game sets, the ones that run out after a minute or two. But this was no toy, and I could already tell that the sand was finer, and ran more slowly. It would give me the full hour. My breath misted across its gold and glass surfaces. The clock sounded the hour. Time to get going.
I walked once around the lobby, trying to get my bearings. I glanced back once or twice at the door I had exited, worried that I would somehow lose my way. The tiles on the floor were polished to an unnatural sheen, and I had the uneasy feeling that my feet were not quite touching the ground, that I was floating just a couple millimeters off the floor.
At last I stopped in front of a door two doors to the right of my exit. To the left of the door, the statue in the alcove was looking over her left shoulder. I pressed the elevator button and gazed at the statue, though I could not see her face. Her left arm was stretched out behind her, and her right arm was crooked at the elbow, and held tight and close to her chest, with the fingers in a loose fist.
The elevator arrived at the floor with a ding that resonated throughout the lobby. The inside of the elevator was dim, but not grimy like the one I had just exited. The walls were a barely burnished bronze, tawdry but clean, with just enough shine to give back a warped reflection of my face. It looked unnaturally long and thin, with the hollows of my eyes and under my cheekbones adding to its gaunt appearance.
The elevator opened onto a dingy narrow hallway, long and windowless, with several doors, all closed. The long panels of fluorescent light illuminated the dust at the edges of the speckled ivory linoleum, untouched by the ragged tracks of whatever old mop had last been used to clean the floor. The hallway was airless and silent, except for the faint buzz of the lights. When I stepped forward, my shoes made soft sounds against the floor, occasionally punctuated by squeaks when they hit a cleaner spot of linoleum. I tried the first door on my right, but it had been locked from the inside, and there was no keyhole in the knob, only a tiny hole, of the kind that can only be picked by a bobby pin, or something of a similar size. I had nothing of the sort at hand, so I moved on. I tried the door across from the first, and once again, found it locked. I moved down the hallway like this, trying each door in turn, and finding them all locked. At last I arrived at the last door in the hall, which was directly in front of me, instead of along either side of the hallway. I seized the knob in my hand, already turning half around to begin the run back to the elevator. But the knob turned easily in my hand. The room on the other side of the door was dark, and my hand fumbled along the wall just inside the door, searching for a switch, before I noticed the silvery pull chain hanging from the single bulb in the middle of the room.
My first impression of the room was that it must be some sort of cramped storage room, not much bigger than a closet. Then I saw that this was an illusion created by the stacks of filing cabinets piled floor to ceiling in a row just a few feet in front of me. The room itself must be quite large, I realized, as I turned from side to side, and saw the rows of filing cabinets stretch out away from me.
I tried the drawer directly in front of my chest, and I stepped back as it opened easily. There were no tabbed hanging folders, as I had half expected. Instead, I saw my purse, still full of books, as I had left it on the train. This had been simpler than I’d expected. I grabbed the purse and pulled it out, feeling the thin metal of the drawer bend slightly at my rough motions. I walked back out of the room. Or tried to. At the doorway, I felt a sudden rending shock go through my arm, and my purse fell from my numb fingers. The contents of the purse spilled out across my feet, and I saw a tube of mascara roll out across the floor, and stop just at the doorway. I rubbed my arm, trying to get some sensation back, and stared at the mascara as it rocked uneasily back and forth, but never crossed the threshold.
I put out my hand, fingers extended, toward the doorway, anticipating another similar shock. My fingers met no resistance, and easily passed through the doorway. Emboldened, I strode forward. Once beyond the doorway, I crouched down and reached for the tube of mascara. Though it was right at the doorway, I felt nothing when I picked it up and pulled it to me. I set the mascara down at my feet and picked up a book. But as soon as I pulled my hand back, I felt another shock go through my arm, like lightning splitting a tree, and I cried out in pain and dropped the book. I shook my hand, and bit my lip, trying not to whimper at the searing pain. After a moment, I put the tube of mascara back in the room, and then picked up the same book. There was no shock this time, and I turned the book over in my hands. Choose carefully.
I repeated the experiment several more times, the tears standing in my eyes with every shock that hit my arm. I could take one item from the room, but if I tried to take another item without putting the first back, it would fall from my hand at the doorway as my arm convulsed in pain. I realized I would have to choose the thing that I most wanted. My phone, I thought, or perhaps my wallet. My wallet, because I could easily replace my phone. However, I had no luck getting the wallet through the doorway. I could choose something in the wallet; I could not take the whole wallet. I stepped back through the doorway, unzipped the wallet and shook everything out: credit cards, photographs, old receipts and ticket stubs littering the floor at my feet. One of the photographs fell on top of the small heap: a small faded picture of my mother and I getting ice cream together at Ocean City. My dad had been in the original picture, but I’d cropped him out years ago with a pair of blunt neon craft scissors. His absence was marked only by the slightly wavy edge on the left side of the picture. I’d forgotten about this picture, had forgotten about the way I was smiling so you couldn’t see my eyes, as my mother’s fingers curled around my sunburned shoulders.
I took a deep breath, pulling back as I stood up. I couldn’t do this right now. I walked down the row of filing cabinets, jerking out drawers and giving the contents a cursory glance before moving on. It wasn’t until I’d opened several drawers that it registered that everything in the drawers was mine, or rather, had been mine: the caramel-colored teddy bear I’d thrown out the window of the car while having a tantrum on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the earring I’d lost in the mulch while gardening, the tattered fairy tale book with the missing cover. I found the cover in the next drawer. There was no obvious system of organization; in some drawers I saw old photographs and other treasured mementos, in others, I found nothing but crumpled receipts and old gum wrappers, translucent enough to display the chewed gum still wrapped inside. I began to suspect that everything I’d ever lost or thrown away was right here in this room.
The purse lay forgotten at the doorway as I began rooting through a drawer of old photographs. I was looking for a particular picture: my last birthday at home. My father had been away on a trip, so it was just my mother and me. She’d made chocolate cupcakes and stuck a candle in one for me. The picture was a blurry self-taken shot of both of us leaning together over the cupcake. We knew it wasn’t a good photo the moment we’d taken it, but it was the end of the roll, and she couldn’t find another roll, and I finally laughed and began eating my cupcake. When we got it developed, we laughed at how our unfocused eyes were looking anywhere but at the camera, and at how the glow from the candle lit up our faces from below, bringing every crease into stark contrast, making us look like a pair of kids telling ghost stories with a flashlight under our chins. It was my favorite picture, and now I couldn’t find it.
I moved on to the next drawer. The bottom of this drawer was entirely covered with keys, some still connected to their keychains. I saw my old dorm room key, my mailbox key, even the key for my current apartment, the one I’d lost last year because I kept forgetting to put it on my keychain. And, in the back of the drawer, I saw my old house key, the one my parents had given me when I turned 14. It was still attached to its keychain: a garish pink heart covered in rhinestones. A gift from my mother. On impulse, I picked it up, feeling the familiar weight of it in my palm. I thought of all the doors waiting for me on the other side of each elevator, and I wondered if this key would work on any of them. I looked at the hourglass in my other hand. Still plenty of sand left in the top of the glass. I slipped the key into my pocket and walked back down the long row of filing cabinets to the door. I stepped over my purse and all its contents, and left the door open as I walked down the hall to the elevator and rode it back to the lobby. I’d be back.
The next elevator arrived at the lobby accompanied by a sweet, intoxicating scent that I couldn’t place, almost like honeysuckle. It was arousing, and just shy of being too much. The scent filled my nostrils as the elevator went down to the next floor. I kept expecting to gag as the scent grew stronger, but felt only an increasing sense of pleasure pooling in my stomach, sending a series of tingling shocks along my nerves. My head felt light, and I licked my lips, trying not to laugh nervously. Even the air tasted sweet, with an aftertaste as sharp as cloves, though I could not identify the taste. The interior of the elevator was paneled with warm brown wood, engraved with intricate floral designs. I held onto the wooden handrail that stretched around the inside of the elevator, trying not to faint at the overpowering scent all around me.
It was a relief when the doors opened, though the scent did not lessen. But the air moved more freely here, and it was easier to breathe. I had expected another room, or hallway, but the elevator doors opened onto a large clearing at twilight. My eyes were immediately drawn to the towering white tree at the center of the clearing. After my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I saw that what I had taken for one tree was actually several slimmer trees that had grown into each other, twisting around and around each other until they became one gnarled tree of tremendous girth. The bark was very white and papery, and the branches were thrown to one side, as though from the force of a strong wind, though there was nothing more than a slight breeze. The very ends of the branches were long, straight, and thin, like a willow, and they swayed slightly in the night air, weighed down by small fruits that shone where the starlight caught on their smooth skins. The tree’s roots, thick and gnarled like the tree itself, stretched out across the clearing, reaching even to my feet as I stood at the very edge of the open elevator.
The scent was coming from the tree, and it drew me forward in spite of myself, compelling me to pick my way over the tangled roots between the elevator and the tree. The heady scent was doing strange things to my vision; I saw flickering lights and shadows in the corners of my eyes that disappeared whenever I blinked or turned my head. When I was nearly at the tree, I looked up, and immediately tripped over a root at my feet. The hourglass flew from my hand and planted itself between the roots at the base of the tree. I leaned over to pick it up, and it would not at first come free, only responding to a strong tug. The ground where it had been bore a small pockmark the size of the hourglass’s base, but a second later the ground seemed to swell slightly, and then stretch, and the mark disappeared. I turned the hourglass upright in my hand again, and the sand flowed smoothly.
I leaned against the tree, and tried to catch my breath, though I felt I had barely exerted myself. My heart was not racing; on the contrary, I found that it was beating more slowly, as if my veins were filled with honey instead of blood. I was warm, and a little sleepy, and I smiled giddily. I looked back at the elevator; it stood alone at the edge of the clearing, with no surrounding structure, only an open doorway rising abruptly from the ground. I felt a light touch upon my arm, but did not at first register the sensation of a hand brushing across my skin, not until a man’s face suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision. I turned without alarm; it seemed perfectly natural to be accosted by this thin, pale stranger next to this ghostly tree at twilight. And he was very thin, and very pale, pale as chalk, white as death, and the bones stood out in his face. He too smelled sweet, like the tree. The aroma hung about him, about his ashy grey hair and his loose clothing, which draped in ragged strips about his limbs. When he smiled, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. He held out one of the amber fruits to me, and it shimmered slightly in his hand, the fruit’s translucent skin stretched over plump flesh.
I took the fruit from his hand and breathed in its scent, closing my eyes, and feeling the memories of this strange day slip away from me: the grime and smell of the train, the vast, empty station, the empty lobby, the drawers of old photos, the hard contours of the hourglass in my other hand. I thought of the house in the country I could never afford, of the woman I’d wanted to marry, of the school I could have gone to, maybe, if only I’d tried harder. I thought of everything I’d loved and longed for and lost, but the thoughts held none of their normal sting. The scent of the fruit made my former dreams now seem like happily realized memories.
I opened my mouth to take a bite, but was interrupted by the unmistakably human sound of a groan. I opened my eyes, but the man in front of me stood as silent as ever. The sound came again, and I walked around the tree to look for its source. On the other side of the tree, between two of its large roots, lay a man, his body half sunk into the soft ground, his bony right arm extended in supplication. Thinking he needed help getting up, I offered him my hand, but he shook his head and pointed at the fruit hanging from the branches. His eyes were sunk deep in his thin face, and his lips were dry. He moved his lips, but produced no sound beyond another groan. The pale man appeared next to us, and knelt down beside the groaning man, offering him one of the fruits. The man stopped groaning and eagerly sank his teeth into the fruit, his face relaxing into an expression of bliss.
In the silence, I looked around, the fruit forgotten in my hand. A few yards away, I saw a woman’s body draped over several roots. She was gnawing at the core of one of the fruits, the juices running from her slack mouth. She, too, was very thin, and her lips were also cracked. She was surrounded by fruit cores; she had clearly been lying there for some time. Beyond her, I saw more bodies in various attitudes of repose, completely still save for the constant movements of their hands and mouths as they ate the fruit or pleaded for more. I walked out along one of the largest roots, until I had nearly reached the edge of the clearing. In the soft ground next to the tapering end of the root, I saw a face in the ground. The body had sunk completely into the dirt until only the features of the face remained above the surface. The eyes were wide open; the mouth, too, opened and shut, but no sound came forth.
I dropped the fruit, not caring where it fell, as I knelt by the face and began to scrape the earth away from the sides of the face. I saw its eyes dart from side to side, searching for the fruit that I had dropped. I tried to dig down to the ears, so I could speak to the face, to ask if I could help. All efforts proved futile; the earth had a fluid, elastic quality, and flowed slowly around my fingers as I tried to push it to the side. The face began to groan, loudly, as if it was in great pain, and when I stopped my motions, worried that I was hurting it, the eyes gazed past me, looking at the fruit hanging from the branches.
“We have to get you out,” I said, shaking my head, pleading. I once more began scooping at the dirt with my hands, cupping it and throwing it to one side. It was no use, and I knew it was no use, but I kept trying for several minutes anyway, because the sight of the face slowly sinking into the earth was more than I could bear. The earth flowed and settled around my fingers, and seemed to be pulling the face down faster than before. Only the mouth and eyes and nose remained. I stopped, my shoulders heaving in the thick, sweet air. The face had stopped groaning now; it merely stared at me in a kind of quiet resignation, and I felt guilt prick the corners of my eyes. I cast about for the fruit that I had dropped earlier. Despite the fall, its skin was still smooth and unblemished. I held it out to the face’s lips. It could not move to take a bite, so I pinched off pieces of the soft fruit with my fingers and placed them gently in the waiting mouth. Its lips closed gratefully around my fingers. I repeated the process until the eyes closed. A moment later, the face sank fully into the ground, and the ground smoothed itself out, as though the face had never been there.
I felt another light touch on my shoulder, and I turned to find the pale man crouching beside me, offering another fruit to me. I shook my head, but he held it out to me again, and I smelled its scent despite myself. I knew that I could eat it and forget all of this, forget the pain, forget myself, and for just a moment, I craved it, if only to rid my mind of the sight of that face sinking into the ground. But its sweet scent now smelled only like the sweet scent of decay, and I pushed his hand away. I stood up.
“I have to go,” I said, and realized that I was not speaking to the man, or to anyone in particular. The ground tremored slightly under me as I began walking back to the tree, and to the elevator that waited beyond it. By the time I reached the tree, the ground was undulating beneath me, the surface moving like simmering water, the roots twisting as I struggled to maintain a footing. I grabbed the tree for support, and looked at the distance separating me from the elevator. The ground showed no signs of settling, and when I looked behind me, I saw that the bodies strewn along the roots had all been swallowed up by the earth. There was nothing for it; I had to run. And I did, skittering desperately along the roots as they bucked beneath me, trying not to touch the ground. When I was inches away from the elevator, I tripped over the the end of a root, and my left foot sank ankle deep into the earth. The earth sucked hungrily at my leg, and I threw my body forward, falling into the elevator. I grasped the handrail and held on, tugging violently against the pull of the earth, finally wrenching my foot free just as the doors began to close. I rolled over and curled up on the floor of the elevator, shuddering. My foot was bare. The ground had claimed my shoe. Some of the earth had got into the elevator with me, and it flowed together into a small, viscous pool, still rippling. I pushed myself as far away from it as possible.
I managed to get to my feet when the elevator stopped at the lobby. The tiles were cool on my bare foot. Wearing only one shoe caused me to limp, so I took it off. I moved to another elevator a few doors down, fingering my old house key as I pressed the down button.
I recognized the smell of my mother’s freshly baked bread as soon as the doors opened. The inside of this elevator was plain and dimly lit, and there was a welcome mat on the floor, which I reflexively wiped my feet against, before I recognized it. The mat’s faded design featured two cardinals and a blue ribbon with curlicues at the ends against a background of fir trees. It was tacky and kitschy, but my mother loved it, and ignored my pleas to throw it away. I loved the mat now, loved everything it meant, loved when the elevator stopped in front of the hunter green door with the bronze knocker that I knew so well, and I could pretend that I was once more on the steps outside my mother’s house.
I hadn’t been here in ten years, not since I left in the middle of the night with the one small suitcase that I packed in stealth as my parents slept. I had stepped over the third step on the way down, because it squeaked, and I couldn’t risk waking my father. I couldn’t risk waking my mother either, because I couldn’t face her tears, but it was my father I was afraid of. I had eased the door open and run away down the walk into the night. Now I stood facing that same door. It looked much the same. I knocked cautiously, but no one answered. I slipped the key into the lock, and it turned easily. I put my hand on the knob and stepped inside. The door caught slightly on the blue and white striped hemp rug at the door, and the rug buckled and folded and slid away from the door. I caught it with my foot, as I always had before.
The foyer was dim and warm, only lit by the light from the kitchen down the hall. I could hear my mother playing the piano, as she always had on winter afternoons, as the light died slowly on the horizon, and she was left with only the small lamp above the piano to illuminate her long fingers as they moved over the keyboard. The piano, as I heard it now, was comfortingly out of tune, with an imperfect resonance that reminded me of calmer evenings before my father came home.
I stood for a moment there, in the foyer, knowing that behind me was an elevator leading up to the strange, brightly lit lobby, a lobby that seemed to belong to no one and nowhere, suspended beneath the floor of a vast and empty station that had no exit. And yet before me was the comfort and quiet and warmth of home, of the home I had always wished for and wanted, and only briefly experienced in stolen moments like this one. There was music in the air, and bread in the oven, and I could almost feel my mother’s gentle touch upon my cheek, her fingers lightly callused from dishes and needlework. I had a sudden mad desire to wish the last ten years of my life away, to do it over, and to somehow do it right. It’s never too late, that same voice whispered within my head. You can still go back.
I knew that somehow this was incorrect, but as I stood there, dizzy with my sudden hunger, my eyes watering with undefined longing, I could no longer think of a single reason why. It had been so easy and simple to come home all along. I knew the shape of this house like I knew the bones in my hand. The antique lamp with the bright red shade still stood, claw feet extended, on the lace runner that stretched over the long sideboard that ran along the right side of the hallway. Though it was too dim to see any details, I knew that there would be the faintest layer of dust along the table. My mother dusted every morning, but only in the mornings. I wanted to run my fingers across the table, and over every surface in the house, until my hands were filthy, until I could prove to myself how blessedly mundane this house was, with dimensions I could measure and comprehend, with doors that always led reliably to the same rooms.
I was still standing with the doorknob in my hand, and I now closed the door behind me, without turning around and risking another sight of the elevator. I didn’t want to shatter the illusion. I felt a prickling sensation in my palm, but I didn’t look down at the hourglass. I’d had about 20 minutes left when I entered the elevator, and I told myself I could take my eyes off the merciless flow of sand for a few minutes. I stepped forward into the hall, and the piano music faltered, and then stopped abruptly after a brisk run through a chromatic scale. It was my mother’s signature signoff, and she capped it with the sharp sound of the hinged piano lid closing over the keys.
I entered the kitchen at the same time as she did. I expected her face to register shock, and a moment later anger, or perhaps elation, but she merely smiled briefly at me and said, “Oh, you’re back,” before moving to the cabinet by the sink and pulling three plates from the bottom shelf.
I stood uncertainly in the doorway. Her short curly brown hair was no grayer than the day I’d left, and she was still wearing the green sweater with the appliquéd Siamese cat on the front, the one that she wouldn’t throw away despite the ragged run in the stitching along the right arm. The kitchen was the same as it had been ten years ago, with the same faded peacock and pineapple wallpaper, the same worn pale pink linoleum. It was all still soothingly hideous. My mother had no eye for interior decorating, and always haphazardly chose individual elements that suited her, with no regard for style or color coordination.
“Can you get the butter out to soften?” my mother said.
I dropped the key on the counter, and moved mechanically to the refrigerator and pulled the last stick of butter out of the box on the top shelf in the door. I unwrapped it and placed it in the china butter dish that she set on the island. I still hadn’t said a word. What was there to say, really? I’d put ten years of life between me and this kitchen, and I now suspected that none of it had been real, that maybe I’d never left after all. In all the stories I’d read about enchanted sleep, the world aged along with the dreamer, and they woke to find it changed. What kind of dream ages only the dreamer? I shut the refrigerator door behind me with my foot, as I always had before. I shook my head to clear it.
My mother walked past me and opened the oven door. A rush of hot air met the side of my face, and an instant later, the yeasty tang of the bread was even stronger. The loaf, as she turned it out onto the rack, was perfectly golden, the crust so high and round that I felt the old impulse to rap on it with my knuckles. She slapped the potholders against her hips in a pleased gesture, and said, “I got that nice cheese he likes, too.” She wasn’t speaking to me.
At the mention of the word “he,” my head snapped up and I looked at once to the clock over the doorway. Or rather, to where it ought to have been. There was no clock, and no sign there had ever been one. There wasn’t even a nail hole in the wall. I felt a brief shock of something like static electricity in my palm. I uncurled my fingers and held the hourglass up while my mother still had her back to me. The sand was getting dangerously low. I didn’t know exactly how much time I was working with, but I guessed it was a little more than ten minutes.
“I don’t think I can stay for dinner,” I said, my throat nearly swallowing the first words.
My mother was suddenly very still. Her fingers drummed once, lightly, on the glass cutting board on the counter in front of her.
“Do you have somewhere you have to be?” she said after a moment, her voice bright.
“I just–I don’t think I should be here when…” my voice trailed off. “You should come with me,” I added, and looked down at my hands. Choose carefully.
“But where are we going?” she said, and turned around, her forehead creased with anxiety. “Your father will be home soon, and you know he likes to have dinner as a family.”
I grabbed her wrist, where the thin soft skin was a bit loose over her bones. “Please, just come with me,” I said. “I just want to show you something.”
I led her out of the kitchen, hearing her slippered feet shuffle behind me on the linoleum as we moved down the dim hallway toward the front door. In the foyer, I grabbed the doorknob and paused, but only briefly. There was so little time. I wrenched the door open, and was half surprised to see the elevator still waiting for me.
I stepped into the elevator and felt my mother plant her feet behind me.
“Come on, let’s go,” I said. “It won’t take long.” The lie came easily.
“But I’m just in my slippers,” she said. Her voice was almost a whimper.
“It doesn’t matter; it’ll be fine,” I said.
“I don’t want to get snow in my slippers,” she said softly. She was still hanging back, but she didn’t try to wrench her wrist out of my hand. Her voice was as small as a child’s. She was shivering and hunched over, and she had one arm wrapped around her belly in a futile attempt to hug herself
“There’s no snow, Mom,” I said, gently. “Look.”
She began shaking her head, at first just the barest of motions, then more and more firmly.
“I can’t,” she said. “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.” She was barely whispering the words.
“You can’t what?” I said. We didn’t have time for this.
“I can’t walk in the snow in my slippers,” she said.
“Mom–” I started to argue. Then I changed my mind. “Fine. Your boots are in the front closet, right? You can go put them on.”
She didn’t move until I let go of her wrist and stepped back out of the elevator, placing my hand on her shoulder and nudging her toward the closet.
“I don’t want to be late for dinner,” she said, plaintively.
“Don’t worry,” I said.
She got her boots out of the closet and started picking slowly at the laces. I squatted down beside her to help her undo the knots, the small hourglass still hidden in my palm. Time’s almost up.
“You’re letting snow in,” she whispered, looking at the door, which I had left open.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and closed it.
She tried to shove her right foot into the boot. It wouldn’t go in at first, and she kept repeating the motion robotically. I saw that she was crying silently.
“Let me help,” I said, and loosened the laces, and eased the boot onto her foot. Then I helped her with the other boot, and I tied up the laces, my fingers moving briskly. I stood up and offered her my hand.
“Let’s get moving,” I said.
“Wait,” she said. “My coat.”
She got it off the hanger, and slid her arms into the sleeves, her thin shoulders dwarfed by the baggy coat. She looked so small that I wanted nothing more than to hold her, to curl up on the sofa next to her and watch crap television–one of those British crime dramas that are heavy on soapy romance and light on production values and anything resembling detective work.
No time, no time.
I grabbed her hand and opened the door once more. She flinched visibly, and shut her eyes.
“The storm is too strong,” she said. “I’ll get snow in my eyes.”
I couldn’t do this any more.
“There’s no snow,” I snapped. “Why do you keep talking about snow? There’s no snow, there’s no storm, there isn’t even a breeze.” I gestured at the empty elevator in front of us, but she still had her eyes closed.
“It’s cold with the door open,” she said, her voice suddenly chill and brittle as ice. “And it’s dangerous to go out in a storm at night. Stay and have dinner. I’m sure wherever you’re going, it’ll still be there tomorrow.”
“I can’t stay,” I said, feeling desperation like a live insect in my throat. “Just come with me.”
“Your father will be home soon,” she said. “You know he doesn’t like it when I’m gone.”
“Please,” I said, softly. “Please come with me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, and pulled her hand out of mine. She hung her coat back up, and, still in her boots, walked back down the hall toward the kitchen.
“It’s cold,” she called back over her shoulder. “Shut the door behind you on your way out.”
I stood in the doorway for a moment, hoping beyond hope that she would still turn around and come with me, and knowing, with nauseated certainty, that she would never leave this house. The hourglass was prickling painfully against my palm, with repeated jolts that felt like static electricity. I couldn’t stay. I backed into the elevator and shut the door, letting go of the doorknob with a quick, startled sob. The elevator moved upwards, and I ground my knuckles angrily into my eyes, swallowing my tears. The elevator opened again and I ran across the lobby to the opposite door. I didn’t have much time, but it would be silly to leave without my credit card or my phone.
I ran back down the dim hallway with the fluorescent lights, past the long row of locked doors on either side. My purse was still lying where I had left it, its contents spilled over the floor. I grabbed a credit card in one hand, and swiped at the pile of receipts and cards that had fallen out of my wallet, looking for something else that I should take instead of the credit card. My fingers paused at the photo of me and my mother at the beach, and then I saw the edge of my metro ticket peeking out from the edge of the photo. I didn’t have much left on the ticket. Just enough for exit fare. I remembered the station manager holding a sheaf of farecards in his hand, though there had been no turnstiles or ticket vending machines at the station. It was madness to think that a paper fare card could get me out of the station, but everything about this place was mad. I no longer had enough time for sanity. I could be no worse off with this ticket in my hand than I already was. I made my decision, and dropped the credit card to pick up the ticket. The edges of the paper cut into my palm as I gripped it in my fist and ran back to the elevator.
Back in the lobby, I tried to orient myself, but couldn’t remember which elevator was my exit. I tried counting from my door, but this didn’t jog my memory. At last I remembered to look at the poses of the statues in the alcoves. I found the statue of the woman covering her face with her hands in the alcove to the right of the exit elevator. But what held my gaze was the statue on the other side of the door. I’d missed it when I first got out. She was turned nearly fully around from the waist up, though her feet still pointed in the other direction. She had both arms extended, and her mouth was open, as if she had frozen in the act of crying out. There was something about her face that bothered me, and I stared at her, before realizing, with a sick feeling of belated recognition, that she had my face. I pressed the up button on the elevator, and then, before I could stop myself, I reached toward her extended hands, and touched my fingers to hers. For an instant, I felt the cold, smooth surface of the statue, and then the statue crumbled away into grains of fine sand that spilled across the floor, covering my bare feet, and spreading across the tiles. I leaped back in horror, dropping the hourglass on the floor, watching it shatter just as the clock began to strike twelve. I flung myself up against the elevator and pressed the up button several times in a row. I was too late, I wasn’t going to make it, I’d run out of time. Time time time time time. I kept pressing the button, and began pounding on the doors of the elevator, as if there was someone on the other side who would hear me and take pity on me. I was crying, the kind of dry, heaving sobs that produce no tears.
The doors opened all at once, and I fell inside. The clock stopped chiming. The doors closed, and I was once more in darkness. After a moment, the elevator moved upwards. I kept sobbing, wishing I could cry properly, wishing for anything to relieve the awful bands of tightness across my chest. I tried to breathe, tried to comfort myself by filling my lungs with the stale stench that smelled like an ordinary metro elevator.
I’d half expected the station manager to be waiting for me on the station floor when I exited the elevator. But he wasn’t there, and I saw the familiar booth light a distance away. It was easier to run toward the light than it had been to run toward the elevator, and I was surefooted on my bare feet, which were cold, but strong. I felt the ticket crumpling slowly in my sweaty palm, but I didn’t stop to smooth it out or adjust its position in my hand. In running, my sobbing settled into labored breathing; I could feel my heart and lungs pumping, a constant reminder of my immediate physical existence.
Once again, the station manager did not look up when I approached the booth. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, crouching a little, and putting my hands on my knees. The station manager was back to shuffling the stack of metro fare cards in his hands. He was humming tunelessly, his breath whistling slightly through his teeth.
“I’m back,” I said finally, still out of breath.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” he said, still not looking at me.
“Yes,” I said. “Well. No. I don’t know.” I thought of everything I’d found, and then lost again, and then realized I didn’t really want to think about all of that, not at that moment, anyway.
“I want to go home. I’d like you to take me to my exit?” I said, my voice trailing off, and turning the end of my sentence into a question.
“Do you have exit fare?” he said, and looked at me with his piercing blue eyes. I could have sworn they were actually glowing.
I rubbed the ticket against my thigh in a vain attempt to flatten it out, then handed it to him through the hole at the bottom of the booth window. He took it, examined it, then added it to the rest of the farecards in his large hands, and went back to shuffling them and humming. I waited. He didn’t move. At last, I rapped on the glass.
“I don’t actually know where the exit is?” I said when he looked up.
He got up, then, and walked out of the booth. In the last hour, I’d forgotten how he towered over me. He had to be close to seven feet tall, and he was broad in a way that made him seem taller still. He took my hand and began walking, but more slowly this time, so that I was only walking quickly instead of running to keep up. It was a short walk: probably only two hundred paces beyond the edge of the circle of light cast by the lantern. When we stopped, I took another step, and felt my forward foot hit the edge of a platform. I pulled it back, but he grabbed me under my arms and dropped me feet first onto the track before I could protest.
“Follow the track to the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Don’t turn around for anything, no matter what you see or hear. You don’t have any exit fare left.”
“Thanks,” I said, but he was already walking away. I heard his footsteps fade away in the darkness, and I was alone.
I walked forward, the darkness so thick that I couldn’t tell how close I was to reaching the tunnel. The darkness was more unsettling now that it had ever been, now that I had once more walked away from the light. My mind was full of everything I’d seen and heard in the lost and found, and I kept seeing a gaunt, hungry face melting slowly into darkness before my eyes. I blinked my eyes rapidly to banish the vision, but it kept returning, the face shrinking and expanding, distorting gruesomely. I knew I wasn’t actually seeing it with my eyes, but in the darkness, I couldn’t feel the difference between my eyesight and the sight behind my eyes. My eyes were mirrors facing back into my skull, or perhaps twin holes in my face. I could reach my fingers into my sockets and pull the vision directly from my brain. I kept walking.
I felt light sensations along my arm, as though someone was breathing along it, causing all the hairs to bend like summer grass in the wind. I shook my arms, then crossed them across my chest, and the sensations moved to the back of my neck, to my cheekbones, to the sensitive skin along my spine. I picked up my pace, cringing a little, wanting to turn around and face the open-mouthed horror, knowing that would do me no good, that I’d never be able to see in this darkness. The only way out was forward. I kept walking.
The sensations built in intensity until they felt distinctly human, like the pads of my mother’s fingers when she stroked my cheek and sang me a lullaby every night before I went to sleep. It was always the same lullaby, even through my teen years. I needed that consistent thread of comfort to bind everything together. Her touch and voice had always soothed me in the darkness, had made the darkness itself seem maternal, not like this feral thing that stalked me now. I kept walking.
And then, I heard her. My mother’s voice. Soft, plaintive in the darkness behind me. Unmistakably her.
“Where am I?” it said. “Why is everything so dark?”
This was beyond cruel. Nothing in the world could have prepared me for walking away from my mother’s voice as it cried pitifully in the dark.
“Who is that?” the voice said, sounding terrified. “Is that you?”
I kept walking. I closed my eyes as an act of will, as though I were shutting a door, though it changed nothing about what I saw.
“Wait for me,” the voice said. “I can’t keep up.”
“I’m right ahead of you,” I said. I knew as soon as I said it that I should have kept my mouth shut. It was futile to talk to a ghost, even if the ghost sounded like my mother, could caress my cheek like my mother.
“Why won’t you look at me?” it said, crying. “Why won’t you turn around?”
I bit my lip to keep from responding.
“You’re walking so fast,” it said. “You’re leaving me behind.”
Despite that, I heard the shuffling noise of footsteps in the dark drawing closer to me, then felt a hand on my shoulder. It slid down my arm, grasping me just above the forearm. I tried to shake it off, but it held on. My mother’s hand. The touch was familiar, even though I knew the source was inhuman. I kept walking.
“You never call,” the voice said in my ear. “I miss you.”
I breathed out, slowly, trying not to sob when I inhaled again. I didn’t respond.
“Do you remember how close we were?” the voice said. “I was your best friend. And then you just disappeared.”
“I had to,” I said, my voice ragged. “Because of Dad. You know why. I had to.”
“Without a note? Without a phone call?” the voice whispered. “We were so worried.”
The voice began to cry softly again.
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to betray my own silent tears.
“We’ve always loved you,” it said, brokenly. “We just don’t understand.”
“I love you, too,” I said, in the barest of whispers. “But I can’t go back.”
I wrenched my arm away from the phantom hand, and began running into the darkness.
I heard the sound of footsteps and hoarse breathing just behind me, and I ran faster.
“Stop following me,” I shouted. “I’m not going back. I’m never going back.”
The voice broke out into a keening wail that echoed around me in the dark tunnel, but I did not stop or turn around. I might never get out of the tunnel. I might run on through eternal darkness. There might be no exit. But in calling out to a ghost, I had finally given words to my own determination, had taken the shifting sands of my uncertainty, and gathered them together and formed them into adamant. I felt defiantly small against the darkness, but I knew myself at last. I was never going back.
My foot hit the rail as I ran forward. I tripped, and scuffed my hands, then realized that I had reached a bend in the tunnel. I stood up and ran around the bend, and saw, in the distance, a tiny pinprick of light. My heart leapt. Maybe it was the exit. Maybe it was an oncoming train. Either way, I welcomed it. I ran on toward the light.
Leon is a geeky queer feminist androgyne. They write speculative fiction centering queer characters. You can find them on Twitter @other_echoes, where they talk about gender, sexuality, fundamentalism, and Wonder Woman boxer briefs.