The staircase was golden, and allowed for one way traffic only. Ascending↑, a sign said. It pointed toward a platform at the top of the steps, bathed in light, from which an ascender would have to either jump into radiant emptiness, or stand forever. But neither of them was an ascender. He turned away, holding a hand over his eyes to block the dazzling light.
“This isn’t what you said,” Abigale complained, fingering two small, bulging glassine envelopes in her coat pocket, each containing the promise of an immaculate high. “You said this was a flophouse, that you had a room, that we could get high and drink some wine.”
“It wasn’t like this an hour ago,” said Loomis. “It was just bedbugs and lightbulbs.” He opened his fingers a bit to see what he could in the glare. “I’ve been flopping here for a year. This’s never happened before.”
The Hotel Copenhagen was actually more than a flophouse, but not much more. It had seen grander days, in the age of zeppelins and spats-footed gentlemen. Now the rough couple stood in its ramshackle lobby, as rainy light hissed off of the wet midnight pavement outside, and scratched at the bevelled glass doors.
“Well,” Abigale said, “it’s pissing out, and I’m starting to jones. I don’t wanna cook ‘n’ shoot this shit up in the rain, and then trip all night, soaked in a back alley. You said you had a place.”
“I do — I did — it’s on the third floor.”
“Then let’s take the elevator.”
“It’s busted,” said Loomis. “Has been since I moved in.” But then he heard a ding! “What the fuck?”
Abigale grabbed him by his collar, and pulled him toward the sliding doors. When the doors opened, the two of them saw a tall woman in a red uniform with gold trim and matching pillbox hat, sitting on a stool next to a panel of buttons. Her skin was white and her hair black. The gory red of her lips seemed to have been achieved without lipstick.
“Will that be down?” she said.
“Up,” said Abigale. She took a step forward, but Loomis took her arm and held her back.
An overpowering reek was coming from the car. Loomis held his nose.
“Sorry for the Eau de Sulfur,” said the operator.
“Who are you?” Loomis said. “I’ve never seen you before, and this elevator’s been out of service since I arrived, over a year ago.”
“Well then this is your lucky night, fella,” said the elevator operator. “Going down? The lower floors are very nice.”
“Up,” Abigale said again.
“There is no up.”
“Then the elevator’s still out of service,” Loomis said.
“Nope,” said the elevator operator. “It’s working just fine.” She smiled, and bared a fangy set of teeth.
“We want the third floor,” Abigale said.
“Then take the stairs, if you like,” the fangy woman said.
“But the stairs just lead up into a blinding nothingness,” Loomis said, “with no explanation.”
“You’ll have to make up your minds,” said the operator. “Up or down, up or down.” She pulled a cigarette from her pocket, and lit it with the tip of her finger.
“Maybe we should just go back out onto the sidewalk,” said Loomis. “We can wait for a few minutes, give this all a chace to reboot, and then come back in.”
“Won’t make a bit of difference,” the operator said, blowing smoke out of her nostrils. “I’ll still be here, when you come back.”
“And the staircase, too?” said Abigale.
“What’s this all about?”
“The smack, baby,” said the operator. “Round here, it’s always about the smack. Or, in your case, the fentanyl.”
Abigale felt a surge of panic. She rummaged in her coat pocket for the little envelopes that were so full moments ago, but found them empty and balled up. She took them out of her pocket, and stared at them in her fingers.
“Where is it?” She gasped.
“Gone,” said the operator. “It’s so so gone, and so are you. But I don’t blame you for being a little bit confused. That was some lethal shit.”
“I…,” Loomis said, looking lost.
“You don’t get it, right?” said the operator.
Abigale dropped the bits of paper, while memories in sealed rooms were now revealed. Dark doorways, alleys and empty eyes. Debauched street preachers, distracted from the divine by entitlement and offerings. Tweekers and boozers and cops with sticks. The roomless huddled against storefronts, injecting on the street, for all the good people of the city to see. The rain that wouldn’t stop, and her weeks old layers of saturated clothing, fusing with her flesh.
She’d bought the powder from a plump little fucker named Brian, who’d driven in from out of the neighbourhood, trying to look bad with his clean shaven dealer face, wearing his new jeans and high-tops. Then she had tracked down Loomis, ready to exchange some of the shit for a room to get high in, out of the rain.
But some part of her plan had failed. She frantically pulled layers of sleeves away, up to her elbow. She saw the spent syringe there, and watched it drop out of her vein, and onto the floor. The soulless blood ran over her inner forearm, past the wrist like a river seen from space. Loomis looked at his arm, and saw the same thing.
“When?” she said. “I don’t remember….”
“When no longer applies. You were too impatient,” the operator said. “And you shot poison into your vein. A lot of that going round. Don’t worry, Brian and I will be meeting soon enough.”
Abigale let her arm fall at her side. A lone and final drop of blood dripped from a fingertip.
“So it’s you or the staircase,” she said. “I guess I know where your elevator goes, but the stairs are still a mystery.”
The operator smoked, and tapped a finger on her knee.
“Choice is a wicked thing,” Loomis said. “Not that I’ve had much experience with it. I never knew it could get so weird.”
“Okay all right, look,” said the elevator operator. She snuffed her cigarette out under a black suede pump. “Just take the damn stairs. The boss ain’t gonna like me telling you that, but you two chumps are depressing the hell outta me. I hear it’s all sunshine and lollipops up there, if that helps — yada yada — no more wet clothes, no more burden of self, all of that kind of shit. I’ve seen some real pricks take those stairs, so why not you?”
“What if it’s a trick?” Loomis said.
“It can’t be worse than this lobby,” Abigale said, kicking her syringe into a corner. She saw the torrential rain through the glass doors. “Or out there,” she said.
For the first time, Loomis saw graffiti etched into the plate over the elevator call button, No one here gets out alive. He took Abigale’s hand.
“Let’s go,” he said, and she went along. They ascended the staircase and vanished into the light.
The elevator operator shrugged, and watched them go.
“Can’t win ’em all,” she said. Then she adjusted herself on the stool, produced a sandwich and an Elle Magazine out of nowhere, and took her lunch break.