Ground Floor

It was morning, but no alarm clock had yet sounded and the building was still fast asleep.  The edifice was ancient and beautiful and gave the illusion of an old man deep in slumber.  On the ninth floor, however, a door opened and out snuck a man in a rumpled shirt and jeans.  His shoes hung from his hand like a pair of dead lovebirds as he tiptoed to the elevator.  As the door dinged open, he relaxed into a confident position and strode past the old iron grate. Tossing the hair out of his eyes, he pressed the button and the elevator doors wearily leaned together, shutting.

The elevator was not as old as the building itself, an edition made long ago to keep the building ‘modern’, but still it was old and slow and grumbled discontentedly with each passing floor.  The man was caught by surprise as the elevator yawned just one floor later to reveal a fashionable, rushed woman in sunglasses.  She started to walk onto the elevator fumbling her keys into her purse, when she was startled by the man’s presence, lost her footing and fell onto the floor.

The decrepit elevator shuddered and sighed.

“Are you okay?” The man asked as she quickly fitted her sunglasses over her face, snatched her purse from him, and hurriedly gathered up a few of the scattered things he was helping to collect.

“I’m fine.  Thank you very much,” she said in a shaky voice, adjusting her sunglasses, “Could you press ground floor, please?”

“That’s where I’m headed,” he smiled.

The elevator swallowed and painfully began its decent.  It seemed to trip, and with a cough, it stopped all together.

“Not this again—not now,” The woman groaned.

“Again? What do you mean? This happen often?”  He asked, repeatedly pushing the alarm.

“Yeah.  It’s never broken down on you before?  Don’t push that, we could wake somebody.”

“Oh. Uh…  I don’t live around here—and I’m stuck in an elevator and I need to get changed for work—I’m okay with waking somebody up a little early.”

“The super’s out of town visiting a friend and the sub won’t be in for…“ She glanced at her watch, “maybe another forty minutes?  It’s a bit early for visitors, isn’t it?”

“Hm. More like a bit late I guess,” he said distractedly as he dropped his shoes.  She raised her eyebrows at him and allowed a hesitant smile to play across her face as he pulled out a cell phone.

“Shoot,” he said. He looked up at her, as if remembering he wasn’t alone, “No service,” he added with a weak smile and a gesture at his phone.

“Shoulda paid for the elevator package.”

“Elevators don’t support my carrier.”

She giggled.

“I’m Ian,” he said, offering his hand.

“Heather,” she replied, eyes on the floor as they shook hands.  She reminded him of a mouse; from her messy brown hair to her hunched shoulders and withdrawn, timid, demeanor.  She was a pretty woman in her mid twenties who emanated shyness.

Ian, to her, seemed more of an oak; tall and confident, sure and happy about where he belonged; contentedly entering his 30s.  “Nice to meet you,” he said, leaning down to tie his shoes.  She nodded, leaning awkwardly on the wall opposite him and clutching her purse to her stomach. “So, why are you up so early, if I may ask?”

“Just an appointment.”

“Oh. Okay. I see.”

“What about you?  You said you have work?  What kind of place opens this early?”

“Hospitals, apparently!” He laughed and winked at her, “I’m a nurse.”

“Huh.  No wonder you’re so good with people.”

His laugh came easily and cheerfully and seemed to warm the small space, “Well, thank you!  And yourself? What do you do?”

“Oh. Uh…  I um…  I’m a waitress at the coffee place around the corner—the jazzy one,” she looked at her feet.

“Oh!  I think I know that one!” He snapped his fingers repeatedly, “The one with the, uh, singing waitresses?”

“Yeah.  That one.”

“Ah nice—love that place!”

“I guess.  Not so much work for a vocal performance major with stage fright.”

“Well, you must be doing something right if you can afford a place like this.”

She gestured to a ring on her left hand, “I married a lawyer.  My portion of the income apparently pays for the trusty elevator system!”  She patted it affectionately and he chuckled.  The two sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes.

“Do you mind if I ask what kind of appointment?” He smiled charmingly, “I work at New York Presbyterian, maybe I could give you a lift?”

“Yes I mind,” she abruptly turned away from him to face the rich wood-paneled wall.  She clutched the brass railing that lined the tiny space tightly.

“Oh. Um. I’m sorry,” He scratched the back of his head and looked down at his shoes, “You look nice tod—“

“I’m pregnant.”

“Oh! Um! That’s fantastic! Congr—“

“No,” She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall, “Please don’t congratulate me.”

“Ohkaay… Uncongratulations?”

“Thank you.”

They stood opposite each other for a while, letting the still silence fill the elevator from the rich red carpeting to the protectively low-hanging ceiling like liquid concrete, replacing the warm yellow lighting with a steely glaring chill.  Finally, Heather leaned her head forward so that all Ian could see of her was the top of her hair.  She removed her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes.

“Be strong, it could turn out to be a good thing.”

She looked back up at him with the most beautiful pair of eyes he had ever seen: they were such a light brown that they were closer to gold, and so clear Ian could see each pattern and reflected in her iris.  He felt like he was looking directly into her soul.  Underneath her eyes, circles had settled into a place that revealed she had once been happy, and around her right eye, there was a dark purple bruise kaleidoscoped with black, green, blue, and yellow.  He gingerly reached over and attempted to brush her hair away to examine the bruise, but before he could touch her, she flinched away.

“Who did this to you?”  Concern was etched into his skin.

Heather hated pregnancy hormones; she knew she was about to cry.  She finally ripped her gaze from his navy eyes and subconsciously rubbed her stomach, “Frank.  My husband.”

Ian sighed and leaned up against the wall opposite her, gazing at her with a nurse’s pained eyes.

Heather didn’t want to.  She hated herself for even thinking about it, but she began to cry—not a beautiful, single-tear, movie-star cry, but a breathless red-faced “I hurt” cry.

Ian cautiously crept forward, and then carefully put a hand between her shoulder blades.  Heather turned her body into him and wept into his shirt.

“Do you love him?”

Heather trembled against him, letting the sobs shake her body.  Ian held her for what seemed like forever, until out sobbed the word, “No.”

He rubbed her shoulder, “You shouldn’t be alone for this.  Let me take you to your appointment.  You’re going to NYP, right?  They have an excellent maternity staff.”  She nodded, “Okay, good.  We’ll go to your appointment, then come back to my place and we’ll call a lawyer—get this guy out of your life, okay?”  The elevator gasped to life, quieting Heather’s sobs and putting a little smile to Ian’s lips.

“I can’t afford a lawyer… or a kid.”

“So you let me help.”

She stepped away from him and searched his eyes, wondering if he really wanted to help, wondering if he understood her pain, her fear, her need for a friend, “I need help,” she said in a small voice.  He kissed her forehead, “Thank you, Ian.”

“You’re welcome, Heather.”

At long last, the elevator settled into the ground floor like an old man sitting down to read a paper by the fire, and Ian followed Heather out of the elevator where they were met by a sharp breeze.  Ian shivered, “Ah!  I forgot my jacket.”

Heather turned to look at him and he saw in those eyes all of the hope he had given her, all of the hurt and grief she had endured.  Her bruise wounded him.  He hated her husband, “It’s the blue Subaru Outback in the front. Want to start the engine?” She nodded, and he handed her the keys, “What’s your apartment number again?”

“8D,” she said, a groove cutting between her brows in confusion.  He turned on his heel and sprinted toward the stairs with the fury of a tempest under his heel.

Heather walked out the front door where she felt the sun on her face and fresh air in her lungs.  She was a little befuddled by Ian’s last comment, but she didn’t care.  She turned her face towards the sun and let it warm her eyelids.  Heather smiled, the seed of hope taking root.

She quickly found the car with a stethoscope hanging over the rearview mirror and moved piles of paper and fast food wrappers to clear a space for herself on the passenger’s side.

She reached over, plugged the key in the ignition to start the radio, and sang along with the song that played as she checked her makeup in the visor.  A few minutes later, Ian wrenched open the door, violently sat down, and slammed it shut behind him, a storm under his brow.

“Where’s your jacket?”

“It doesn’t matter.” He pressed the gas and screeched out of the parking spot.  After they were safely speeding away from the old building, he leaned his head against the headrest “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap.”

“It’s okay,” she gave him a small smile.

He reached over and brushed her hair behind her ear.  He sighed as he saw her bruise, “You deserve so much better.”

They drove in silence until they got to his apartment.  He stopped the car, but neither of them moved.

“If it’s a boy, I’ll name him after you.”

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