Story Excerpt

The People in the Building

by Sandra McDonald

At an office building on Tanner Boulevard, two intelligent elevators whisk workers up from the lobby toward their employment destinations. The people headed for the fifth floor greet each other every morning with nods. The people from the fourth floor sip from their brown coffee cups and read their smartphones. The people on the third floor run an interplanetary rescue agency and sleep in their conference room each night, so you won’t see them arrive for work. The people on the second floor are all dead now.

The people on the fifth floor are mostly women, middle-aged or older, some black but mostly white. Most are mothers, grandmothers, or cat ladies. Some, like Carol Lee, are all three: her cubicle is pinned together by pictures of her adult babies, her grandbabies, and her fur babies. The people on the fourth floor run a for-profit private college geared toward military veterans, a college under investigation from the federal government for misuse of funds. The people on the third floor came to rescue the fragments of ancient gods from a nearby swamp. The people on the second floor died in bursts of agony, their dreams of a prosperous future shattered.

If your self-driving car brings you here and you position yourself in the clean lobby of glass and steel and tile, you will observe certain demographics among this morning’s arrivals. For instance, the women who work on the fifth floor are often stout, their bodies shaped by multiple pregnancies, years of sedentary office drudgery, and dozens of mornings each year celebrated with blueberry crunch muffins. They wear loose-fitting clothes with sequins and have short dyed hair, or perhaps long gray hair with girlish barrettes, and they often make the muffins themselves. They are very good bakers.

Young men with brown skin and bodies marked by war attend classes on the fourth floor made possible by special veterans programs passed with bipartisan support from Congress. Some of these men display their weapons ports plainly, and others hide them under long sleeves despite the heat of the summer. None of them bake muffins. The faculty and staff of their for-profit private college are white and Latino, and they wear suits every day except Friday. On Fridays they wear corporate polo shirts and khakis, and they always leave by four o’clock for happy hour at The Tilted Kilt restaurant up the street.

You won’t see the people on the third floor. They exist out of dimensional phase with the humans of Earth. When you pass by their suite you will see office furniture but no workers. The lights will always look unlit to your eyes. Packages left at the door disappear overnight. They were misaddressed anyway: interplanetary rescue workers have no need for FedEx.

The people on the second floor are barely recognizable corpses now, but they were young and hip and vibrant, sporting body tech in glowing colors and asymmetrical haircuts that seemed to defy gravity. They strode through their lives with a powerful sense of possibilities and a constant fear of failure. Their start-up business offered a service that would automatically destroy your sensitive email or other communications in order to protect your privacy, your wallet, and your future employment possibilities. The company was named LPOS. That is an acronym for Liberty, Parent of Science, a motto stamped on a few very rare and extremely valuable United States pennies back in the 1700s. The liberty these young people espoused was the liberty of leaving no digital trace of yourself behind.

Let us return to the lobby. One of the elevators is out of order this morning. As the office workers pile up, waiting for the remaining car to carry them upward, some head for the stairs instead. The building has two stairwells, one north and the other south, both labeled for emergency use. The people on the third floor thought this was a strict edict and, in their determination to follow human protocol, they avoided using them for weeks. Instead they rode the elevators as cold, invisible, permeable forms that left fellow travelers with a faint tingling, almost like goose bumps.

Under ordinary circumstances, the stairs would be a safe and viable option for passage. But not today. The malevolent thing that killed the people on the second floor is lingering in the south stairwell, and it is very hungry.

*   *   *

Carol Lee, who raised three children on her own after her husband died, is walking into the lobby now with a Laces and Lures cakes she made for one of the pregnant young women in her department. Today is the baby’s gender reveal party. Half of the cake is frosted pink and topped by a baby hair bow in white lace. The other half has a plastic fishing lure and is frosted blue. Carol pulled herself out of bed at four a.m. to finish making it. She is of the opinion that girls can like fishing too, and stereotypes should be avoided, but the pregnant mom wanted this cake that she saw on the internet, and Carol is always flattered when someone asks her to bake. Her secret recipe is plain vanilla cake mix doused with canned pineapple syrup. We hear it is very yummy.

Carol’s mind is on the party, which will be held this morning in a conference room on the fifth floor directly above Professor Marcus Lake’s English class. While the women pin themselves with pink or blue clothespins in order to win party favors, the students in Professor Lake’s class will be struggling to understand how a thesis statement controls the structure of a five-paragraph essay. The five-paragraph essay itself is far beyond their experience of noisy battlegrounds and freezing desert nights and the long lengths of boredom between tent poles of extreme terror. Sometimes they look out their classroom window and cannot recognize the sky.

Below their feet, separated by several inches of steel, insulation, ductwork, and wiring, is the third floor reception area. The people on the third floor never use it. Below that are the dead people on the second floor, their bloodstains having soaked deeply into the industrial carpet overnight.

Back on the fifth floor, the women at the gender reveal party will play a game called Old Wives’ Tales. Is the pregnant mom moody or happy? Does she crave salty or sweet? Does she sleep on her left or right? Answers to these questions will accurately identify the baby’s gender 50 percent of the time. The actual gender reveal occurs when a box of pink and blue helium-filled balloons is opened. All of the balloons will float upward except for the one the pregnant woman has taped to the bottom. The cake will be cut and consumed.

The people on the third floor would be perplexed at these customs. They do not understand or practice gender. For the purposes of their mission they have adopted bodies with common characteristics of male and female, which they decorate in appropriate ways when mission parameters call for human interaction. Saving the old gods in the swamp, however, requires no special cakes, balloons, chromosomes, hormones, or specialized reproductive functions.

The people on the second floor would also be perplexed at a gender reveal party, or slightly amused and condescending. They were all recent college graduates and none of them parents. They didn’t have cubicles, but instead open desks around what they called a “bullpen.” They carried tablets and laptops and mostly interacted with each other in short text bursts instead of tedious conference room meetings. Of them, four identified as men, three identified as women, and one of them, B.J., was transitioning from male to female after a long, turbulent adolescence feeling like a misfit in her own body.

B.J. is not on the second floor right now. She’s in the south stairwell, outside the fifth floor fire door, her face and chest pressed against the concrete wall as she breathes wetly through a broken nose and shattered teeth. Her fingers, clawing at the walls for the last several hours, are stripped raw to the bone. The fluorescent light bars are all shattered and dark, but the emergency strobes are flashing white. The thing that killed B.J.’s coworkers is sitting heavy and sharp on her brain like a migraine, and it wants more blood.

*   *   *

At the bottom of the south stairwell, two men tired of waiting for the one working elevator push open the door to climb to their classroom. One of them is named Rollos Reyes. He was born in Atlanta and did three tours in the desert before a roadside bomb blasted off most of his left arm. He has a prosthetic arm now, full of the latest microchip technology and brain-link functions. He and his classmate stop at the edge of darkness.

“Smells like something burnt,” says the classmate.

“Fire alarm didn’t go off,” Rollos replies. He works overnight shifts for a security company dispatch desk and knows more than ordinary people do about alarms and how to silence them.

The classmate edges backward. “Let’s wait for the elevator.”

Rollos Reyes pauses. He’s not afraid of the dark, and he has a flashlight on his phone for just this kind of emergency illumination situation. But he’s tired after a long night of trying to look busy for his supervisor, and he didn’t write his practice thesis statement for today, and the hair on the back of his neck has started to rise up the way it did whenever he thought snipers were near. Arriving early to class has never been a goal of his, anyway.

He and his friend back away, and this saves their lives.

For a short time.


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Copyright © 2016. The People In The Building by Sandra McDonald

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