Mira Cruz’s phone died overnight. She’d had one too many drinks at Angelo’s and forgot to charge it before bed. Thus, its alarm failed to alarm at 5:30 the next morning. Thus, she started her day ninety minutes behind schedule. Thus, Mira felt overwhelmed before she even set foot outside.
She didn’t, despite all her inclinations, call in sick to work. Obligation got the best of her (obligation as a Human Resources Recruiter for One World Consulting, Inc.?). She hurried as fast as she could, cobbled together an outfit from a wrinkled black blouse, dark-green cardigan, and muted-red skirt (like a hipster Christmas elf, Mira criticized). She decided on light makeup and grabbed a pair of cold, toaster pastries before stumbling out the door. She let her temperamental, kinky red hair live where it wanted, which was everywhere at once, figuring she’d do something with it later on. Had she given much thought as to where she’d have to park, she probably would have taken the train to work. But Mira was a creature of finely-tuned habits and a disruption of this magnitude threw her so off balance it was a wonder she made it out the door at all.
But make it out the door she did, with purse in hand and shoes on the proper feet. With no morning traffic, the drive to the office felt remarkably tolerable. Mira couldn’t quite remember the last time she’d driven to this side of town without drowning in a bumper-to-bumper sea. She’d never noticed the sheer number of trees lining the highway. At one point, the tree-line receded into a tall, grass-covered hill, unmarred by any building, road sign, or road way; one lone, grassy hill, rising slightly above the surrounding landscape, soaking up light, air, and space.
And that sun...crippling. Driving eastbound, the morning sunlight bore into her. She closed her eyes every few moments to great relief, driving in sweet, brief, blind darkness knowing what pain awaited upon their reopening. It wasn’t a game Mira much cared for and only added to her agitation about being so late.
The mouth of One World’s parking garage loomed before Mira like a cavern of old, offering adventures and possibly treasure but more likely containing nothing but dead ends and dirt. Still she drove right in, much as she always did, without much thought, one hand scrambling toward the parking pass she kept clipped to her sun visor. One level down. Mira failed to notice the P1 painted in bright yellow on the wall.
Mira knew she’d had to drive quite a while to find an open space. But when she got to P15, she paid much more attention to the paint on the wall and her frustration threatened to overflow. ‘Faaaaaak,’ she cursed, hitting her steering wheel, and plotting the murder of the owner of every parked car she passed. Twenty minutes later and still she hunted for a spot. On P50 now, she stopped the car for a moment, stepped out, and looked around. How was it possible? Every space full. Air a bit musty. Noise of fans and pipes and buzzing neon lights fought for her auditory attention. Altogether ridiculous. Mira got back in her car and continued her descent.
The walls of the garage were nondescript, flat concrete until P83, where Mira noticed the concrete crumbling away. By P85, long, thick blocks of natural stone replaced the concrete. Moss and mold filled the cracks between the stones and fought for space upon their irregular faces. As she circled ever downward, Mira also saw that the overhead fluorescents appeared with less frequency. She drove down a full level, saw one or two lights, then darkness surrounded her, and she ploughed on using her headlights alone. A few more levels and the overheads were no long electric lights at all, but lanterns that barely illuminated anything. The lack of constant light was the reason why, once Mira finally found an open slot on the downward slope of P99, she failed to see that the cars she’d parked amongst were in various states of disrepair and decomposition.
Mira sat in her car and looked up at the ceiling. Above her head, where she expected to see pipes and concrete supports, she saw thick and gnarly logs lining the ceiling in a misshapen latticework. She hesitated to get out. She turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. Goddamn. Mira tried to tap her mobile to life. She didn’t expect a data signal and the device met that expectation famously: it wouldn’t even power on. Dammit. She checked her wristwatch: 11:30 AM.
Mira grabbed her purse, checked her face in the rear-view, and got out of the car. Her left, purple pump landed on dirt. Her right shoe followed and Mira bent down to examine the earth beneath her. Light, sandy-brown, small bits of rock. How had she not noticed driving on this? She stepped to the back of her car. The orange-tinted, lantern light grabbed her attention and she walked toward the lantern hanging closest to her. Shaped like a blimp, and holding three fat candles flickering to an oddly-paced rhythm, the lantern hung tight to a piece of timber that ran the length of the drive.
The ceiling was too low here. Mira looked around at the rusted-out and dilapidated car husks. Everything was packed in. Mira was 5'7" and had just over a foot and a half of headroom. What to do now? See if the elevator comes this far down. She scanned the garage for an exit sign or any other indication of where she might find a way up and out. The parking garage, or so she’d assumed before today, was essentially built around the elevator banks. On the levels closer to the surface, one walked toward the center of the facility to find both the elevators and stairwell. Trouble down here was that the ramp that brought her down ended in a ‘T’. She didn't see a ‘center’ anywhere. Mira decided to walk back up the ramp to look for the elevator bay.
As she turned around and took a step she heard something skitter behind her and off to one side. ‘Who’s there?’ she called, spinning around. No response. Not that she expected one. Likely part of a wall or ceiling crumbling. Mira continued to walk up the ramp. At the top, she took a right turn and spotted a crudely painted ‘P98’ on the stone wall. Another candle blimp shed light further up the ramp, flickering and casting odd shadows every which way. Mira heard the noise again and this time saw a shadow dart across the ramp, pause on the rusted trunk of an old Cadillac and disappear, only to make more noise, like a cough, and then dart back again, coming to rest on one edge of the lantern. Mira ran ahead to see what it was.
A small, yellow bird perched on the lantern edge; a canary. It looked at Mira with shiny, black eyes and turned its head this way and that as though trying to size her up. Mira brought her head right up to the canary’s face and tried to look in its eyes. The canary coughed, which surprised her, and she exclaimed, ‘Oh!’ This surprised the bird and caused it to flit off for a moment only to land back on the opposite edge a moment later. Mira laughed. The canary coughed once more then tried to whistle. What came out instead sounded like the phtbbbbttt of air from a deflating balloon. Mira laughed again and turned around to walk away.
She walked past the lantern then felt a quick rush of air blow by her. She spun around and saw the canary once more on the lantern. The bird coughed then and (Mira would remember this forever) opened its beak, inhaled deeply, visibly, its little canary chest puffing out, and turned its head to exhale incredibly loudly and quite forcefully...which extinguished every candle in sight like a chain of domino lights. One after another: pop, pop, pop, leaving Mira in complete and unrelenting darkness.
Mira did not move. Her bearings immediately escaped her. She couldn’t recall which way she’d been facing when the lights went out. She took a breath and moved in a slow circle, looking for any sign of light, any hint of direction. There! She felt the incline of the ramp and began to move ever so slowly up. Soon her out-stretched hands touched the shell of a car. From there she turned right, determined to keep the parked cars on her left and make her way upward.
Mira heard the growling shortly before she felt it. A low, steady vibrato coming from all around and growing loud and louder still until the rumble filled her skull and threatened to unseat the rhythm of her own heart. The sound forced her to her knees and then collapsed her into a fetal position on the dirt floor, where she held herself tight and rocked back and forth.
The growl subsided but not soon enough. Mira lay prone and in a daze. What in the hell was that? She breathed quick and shallow after the assault. Once the nausea wore off she rose to her hands and knees while trying to consciously slow down her breathing. She hung her head low to the ground, chin to chest, and fought a lingering feeling that she was floating.
After a time (and, in a dark so dark, time’s meaning was specious at best), Mira thought she might walk again. One step, two. She moved along the wall of cars. Five, nine. Mira tried to remember how many lined a wall before the level turned. But the level never turned. Twenty, fifty, eighty car husks in a row. At eighty-one, Mira sat down on the ground and began to cry. She felt a breath on the back of her neck. Two, sharp exhales right behind her. She swung an arm around to try to swat whatever it was. She screamed and lunged forward, hands held out in front of her so that she might grab or hit or squeeze or push. She never touched anything. She stood up to run and tried again to reach out and touch something. Nothing. Not an empty car. Not a wall. Something brushed against her, rough fur, a musty smell. She reached to grab hold but came back with nothing. Yet Mira sensed the presence of some great menace circling her, examining, judging. She felt short blasts of heat from its lumbering breaths and felt dampness in the air. She reached a hand out once more and this time connected with something solid, smooth, and sharp - a tooth, perhaps, or claw.
Something moist and slightly spongy probed her hand. Mira pulled her hand back and ran. No sense of location or direction. No cares about hitting a wall, a car, a pillar. Behind her, she heard breathing, large feet padding and clawing the ground, heard the thing catching up, felt its hot breath upon her back, smelled rank saliva dripping as the beast anticipated her body bursting in its mouth.
Mira’s hip clipped something in the dark which sent her tumbling to the ground. She heard the beast stumble past and scratch the ramp surface as it tried to slow down and double-back to finish the chase.
She heard the beast turn, heard its loud and moist nostrils working the air, searching. Mira didn’t move. She felt the air begin to vibrate as the beast took in a great breath and let it out in a massive roar that rattled Mira’s insides and head so hard she might pass out.
All around her in the darkness she heard crashes, bangs, and roars. And just like that, it all came to a halt. Mira opened her eyes, surprised to find that she could discern a few shapes. There was light in the distance! She lifted her head and banged it hard on something above. Mira had rolled underneath the husk of an old truck.
She watched the light from afar, watched as a second spot of light broke away and floated toward her. The light arrived, not as a disembodied demon, but attached to a hand-held lantern clutched in two hands by a tiny, hirsute man. Strapped to his back was a long pole, thicker at one end than the other. Mira studied the little man while he walked to the extinguished lantern that hung from the ceiling. He set his lantern on the ground and opened it from the top. The he put the fat end of his stick into the flame catching it afire. He used this to re-light the hanging lantern. He snubbed out the fire stick by rolling it along the dirt and gravel ramp then strapped the stick to his back, picked up his own lantern, and waddled upward towards the next hanging lantern.
Before he could get too far, Mira crawled out from under the truck bed and ran to him calling, ‘Wait!’ He turned around to see her, dusty and disheveled, trying to run up the ramp. ‘Wait, please,’ she called again. ‘Please.’
‘I’m waiting,’ the little man spoke soft and coolly. ‘But I do have ta get the lights up and up.’
‘Thank you. Thank you for waiting. Something was chasing me in the dark.’‘Sumpin’ always is,’ the man replied.
‘I hid under that truck and saw your light. Then that thing left,’ Mira tried to explain.
‘Oh grand. Them things in the dark doan much like my lights. Not a wannuvem!’ And then he spat in the dirt.
‘Who are you?’
‘Ah, sorry.’ He put down his lantern and extended his hand. ‘Chiggers. Lamplighter.’
Mira shook Chiggers’ hand. ‘Mira Cruz.’
‘Ya got down here in yer rolling contraption?’
Chiggers pointed to a nearby car.
‘Yes, drove down in my car.’
‘And the damned thing went dead?’
‘Exactly. How’d you know?’
Chiggers gestured to the car husks all around them. ‘Ya ain’t the first. Nunna yer contraptions work in the Down. Machinery don’t much like the Down.’ He chuckled.
‘And ‘them things in the dark’ don’t much like your lights?’
‘Hoo! Thatta right!’
‘You work for One World?’
‘Thatta right. Paid ta light the lamps.’
This was One World’s garage so it only made sense they would have someone on staff to...light burnt-out lamps, however quaint and utterly absurd the notion.
‘Is there an elevator?’
Chiggers shook his head. ‘Nono. Too far in the Down. No machines, right?’
‘Well, how do you get out?’
‘Got the stairs. Got the ramp.’
‘What the shit? You’re telling me you walk down here and back every day?’
‘Chiggers? Nono. I stay in the Down, deeper. Nice, plush office. Fireplace, warm bed. Lotsa perks, ya know.’
‘You live down here?’ Mira was almost offended at the notion.
‘Well, not here, but in the deep Down, yes.’
‘And how deep is the deep Down?’
‘How many more levels, Chiggers?’
‘Can’t rightly say there, Ms. Cruz. Ya think I woulda countedem all by now.’
‘What level is your office on?’
‘Two-hunndert Twenty-Five. And I don’t have ta go ta the deep, deep Down, thanksbe. No lanterns ta light in the deep, deep Down.’ Chiggers shuddered.
Mira tried to soak in the information and found herself bewildered by the implications. She might spend hours grilling the lamplighter but knew her efforts would only raise more questions. Best to focus on the immediate need to get upstairs.
‘Chiggers, will you take me to the stairwell? I need to get upstairs and after that thing in the dark - I’m not that interested in walking the ramp up.’
‘Aye. Follow me.’
Chiggers led Mira toward the row of vehicles she’d rolled under. A few cars away a small archway interrupted the wall. They went through. Mira saw a glow of light. Chiggers stopped abruptly, turned, and pushed the wall. A cobblestone landing and a wooden staircase waited inside. A small lantern, hung on the wall next to the door, its flickering flame cast spastic shadows within.
‘There ya go,’ Chiggers said with a smile. ‘If the lights go out, sit tight. I’ll be along to get the lamp shortly.’ He paused. ‘Ms. Cruz, how old are ya?’
‘Grand, grand! Then ya should have plenty-a time to get topside.’ He moved out of the way to let Mira by then let the door close behind her.
‘Wait -,’ she started, but Chiggers was gone.
Mira checked her watch. Still stopped at 11:30. No machines in the Down. She figured it would take at least forty minutes to get to the top. She began to climb the stairs. One, sometimes two at time, she walked an irregular rhythm: slow and steady followed by quick jumps upward. There were no signs, painted or otherwise, marking the garage levels. She opened one landing door to peak out and saw the same primitive ruins she left down below twenty minutes ago.
In order to gauge her progress, Mira decided to count the landings as she passed them. As she counted off the tenth one she guessed that would put here somewhere around level 70. She opened the next landing door. No luck: a dark tunnel leading to a barely-lit opening at either end.
She decided to count twenty landings next. Then forty. When her total count equaled 99 and she was still seeing wooden stairs and cobblestone landings, Mira sat down and cried. She cried because she was tired and frustrated. She cried because she had no one to talk with. She cried because she came to work today. She rested her head against the stair rail and closed her eyes. Her legs needed a break. So did the rest of her. Mira fell asleep.
She woke to find nothing changed.
Wooden steps, stone walls, lamp on a wall. Her legs ached.
Nothing to do but climb.
Stairs forever and ever. Hours passed and still Mira made no progress. Her body refused to continue. Every step a shot to her calves, a pinch in her hips. She paused and hung her head. That’s when she noticed her hand. She had trouble processing what she was seeing: another person’s hand attached to her wrist. She lifted her sleeve to see that the wrinkles, liver spots, varicose veins, and other signs of old age continued all the way up her arm. Mira reached to her face, felt the sagging and wrinkled skin there. Still denying the evidence, she sat down (with much pain) and rolled up a pant leg to reveal pale, thin, and undeniably old lady legs.
A single tear leaked from her eye. She struggled up the next few stairs where finally came concrete steps, concrete walls. She opened the next available landing door and stepped out into the late afternoon sun as it poured through the massive glass face of One World’s lobby windows. Mira closed her eyes, letting the sun bathe her before walking, step-by-ancient-step, toward the elevators.
She rode the elevator up with no company and in total silence. The familiarity of her floor greeted her in a most unsuspecting way. Mira stepped off as Leona Briggs, Marketing, came into the hallway.
‘Mira,’ Leona said, ‘Rumor has it you’ve been playing hooky today.’
Mira breathed with a rasp and spoke in a degraded whisper, ‘You...you recognize me?’
‘Sure, honey, your hair is a mess and you’re walking and talking like you’re a million years old, but -’
Mira interrupted. ‘What time is it?’
‘Five o’clock, sister. Time to hit it!’ Leona said through a toothy smile. Two more people entered the hall, bags packed and slung over shoulders.
Mira began to sob.
Leona came to her side. ‘What is it?’
‘I...I need a ride home,’ Mira said.
‘I’ll give you a ride home. No problem.’
The elevator doors slid open and the four people slowly filed in. They rode down for a bit before Mira asked, ‘Where are you parked, Leona?’
‘I’m on P5.’
‘May I wait outside for you?’
‘Sure, honey, sure.’
While Leona went to get her car, Mira stepped outside and sat on the curb in the building’s circle drive. She looked up at the warm, late-afternoon sun as raced to the western horizon. She took long, deep breathes. Mira waited ten, fifteen, twenty minutes before standing up. She would walk home, perhaps catch a bus or a taxi somewhere on down the road.
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