“Heck …” he muttered distractedly. He had not seen a single of his employees leaving. Knowing them as well as he did, he was aware that each of them would have said a word or two to him before leaving. Once again, he had allowed himself to be preoccupied to the exclusion of everything else. In a real and unpleasant way, it was like an alcoholic blackout … which reminded him that he had often been called a workaholic.
Saurabh uttered a short bark of laughter, but there was no humor in it. Maybe there was more truth in that term than he had previously thought.
Saurabh took off his glasses and polished them on his shirtsleeve. Being the only person left in the now-deserted and shadow-ridden office, he felt the first cold, niggling fingers of claustrophobia walk up and down his spine. The shadows made the office seem smaller than it was, and he could feel the walls begin to close in on him. He felt the onset of another panic attack. He simply could not abide confined spaces.
* * * * * *
He did not consciously reflect on that dreadful day in his early childhood, but images of it flitted like restless phantoms across his mind’s screen. He and his brother Santosh had decided to test the extent of their own courage with a simple boyhood challenge—which of them could stand being locked up longest in the small closet in their bedroom? The theory of sensory deprivation was, of course, unknown to them, but the concept had filled them with delicious, nameless, anticipating fear nonetheless. Their mother was out shopping and wouldn’t be back for the entire afternoon; it was safe to launch the experiment.
Santosh hadn’t lasted more than five minutes in the closet’s stifling confines before he began screaming to be let out. Saurabh had been obsessed with the idea of outlasting him when his turn came, and he was duly locked into the coffin-like space. As the door shut in his face, he immediately began counting backwards from hundred to give his mind something to do. He had also squeezed his eyes shut, trying to ignore the oppressive darkness that surrounded him.
After he was certain that he had beaten Santosh’s time, he had rapped victoriously on the door—only to be met with an awful, impersonal silence. At first he thought that Santosh was playing a cruel sour-grapes joke on him. But repeated and increasingly louder knocking had still failed to get him to open up.
To this day, Saurabh wasn’t sure what happened to him that dreadful afternoon in that cramped closet. He was aware that something in him died forever, some kind of ability to cope with certain situations in life … a certain level of trust in his fellow humans. And something had been born, too—a laughing, capering demon that would pounce on him at certain times during his life without warning.
As it turned out, Santosh—as children often are—had been distracted by something and had left the scene, obviously intending to return in a moment. It was a close friend ringing the doorbell, and the two of them got caught up in a discussion about the latest cricket scores that they then decided to take to the ice cream parlor on the corner. Both Santosh and Saurabh had caught hell from their mother when she returned to find a dementedly screaming, sobbing younger son locked in the upstairs closet, but that hadn’t made much of a difference on what was to follow for Saurabh.
He had never been able to handle enclosed spaces again. This caused him no end of practical problems and embarrassments later in life. At 20, prompted by his love for a Christian girl from the coast, he had briefly converted to Catholicism and honestly tried to walk the talk. Cecilia had been an ardent churchgoer who firmly believed in the confession box—and if confession was good for the soul, then Saurabh’s soul was in pretty bad shape by now. There was no way that he could bring himself to sit in one of those little cubicles. Nor would he consider using one of those instant photo cabins or getting a CAT scan done at the hospital. He did not even use a car, despite the fact that this made him an object of ridicule—he preferred a motorcycle. At his executive club, he was good-naturedly called Uneasy Rider.
* * * * * *
And now, Saurabh Chakraborty once again felt the same oppressing dread of the deepening shadows in his deserted office. He realized that it was late enough for him to be the only person left in the office building, and this was a decidedly unpleasant thought. He grabbed the papers he had been working on, shoved them into his briefcase and bolted from the office. The walls were closing in on him in a hellish bear hug.
The corridor was empty and silent, and only one feeble bulb illuminated it. The staircase he would use to descend from the fifth floor to the basement where his bike was parked was forbiddingly dark. He could hear Porwal, the building’s maintenance-cum-security man, clanking his buckets and mops somewhere in the building. The familiar sound reassured him, but not enough to overcome his anxiety over the cavernous staircase. He had never used it without being accompanied by someone else—at the very least, he would wait till someone else was leaving. He did not have that option now.
Saurabh licked his suddenly dry lips with a tongue that seemed to have turned into sandpaper as he glanced from the staircase shaft to the elevator door that stood beside it.
There was no logic involved, of course. A thousand screaming voices in his head told him that elevators were even worse than dark staircases, that once he was in that little metal box he had no control whatsoever. Still, a short ride down suddenly made more sense than a slow, fumbling, terrifying journey down that throat-like staircase shaft.
He glanced at the elevator’s metal door again.
“HAPPY LABOR DAY,” said a computer printout, stuck over its entrance with Cello tape. Someone’s goodwill gesture. Was tomorrow really the first of May already? He had lost track of the passing days, as usual. Saurabh shook his head and tried to focus on the problem at hand. A long, solitary walk down the dark staircase, or a short ride in a confined metal contraption that he had used maybe three times in his entire life? His skin crawled unhappily as he realized that he would now have to make a decision.
Somewhere in the building, Porwal’s mops and buckets clanked again. The man was whistling a tuneless end-of-the-day ditty, and Saurabh found his morale absurdly boosted by it. Drawing a deep breath, he punched the call button next to the elevator door. A minute later, the metal jaws of the elevator gaped silently open. There was a sweaty and slightly manic-looking man staring back at him from the inside.
Saurabh jumped back and uttered a terrified yelp. The man on the inside seemed just as startled and jumped back a proportionate distance where no space existed. A second later, Saurabh laughed at himself in embarrassment. He was looking at his own reflection in the full-length mirror that covered the facing side of the elevator’s interior.
Saurabh gazed silently into the mobile sarcophagus. The inside looked far from threatening—even cheery. The small cube, big enough to hold four standing people, was embellished with fake mahogany plastic paneling. A single miniature tubelight lit up the entire cube adequately. This, Saurabh thought desperately, might not be as bad as it seemed. He had not prayed in years, but he uttered a silent prayer now: “Please let this be fast and painless, God.” Then he gathered all the courage he had, entered the elevator and punched the B button with a quavering finger. The double doors joined with a hydraulic wheeze like two hands closing in a cynical “amen” to his prayer.
* * * * * *
Saurabh couldn’t quite believe that he had arrived safely in the basement. Porwal, who was putting away the tools of his trade in the maintenance room, was taken aback to see the weird Mr. Chakraborty emerge from the elevator. It was a well-known fact that this man avoided elevators like the plague, for whatever reason.
“Good evening, Mr. Chakraborty,” said Porwal, deciding not to comment. “End of the day?”
“I certainly hope so,” said Saurabh, wiping the residual sweat off his brow and fishing for his bike keys in his pockets. He couldn’t find them. His heart rose like a throbbing brick into his throat. He had forgotten them in the office.
“Damn,” he muttered. Porwal raised an eyebrow but said nothing. He knew his place in the scheme of things.
The thought of having to ride up in the elevator again was not a thrilling one, but it apparently had to be done. He briefly considered asking Porwal to accompany him in the elevator, but then discarded the thought as too undignified. Also, after his monumental triumph over claustrophobia just a minute ago, he thought he might survive. He smiled bravely at Porwal.
“Forgot my keys upstairs,” he said, turning back into the elevator as though it was the most natural thing to do.
“Well, happy Labor Day, Mr. Chakraborty,” said Porwal before the doors closed. Saurabh smiled without registering the greeting. The elevator cage gave a slight lurch as it began its upward crawl. Saurabh tried to breathe normally and kept his back studiously turned to the mirror. He did not need to know how he looked right now.
Back in the basement, Porwal scratched his head and left the building. His moped was chained to a telephone pole on the other side of the street. He hurried over to it, his mind uneasy for some reason. The street was a sea of converging shadows, and a red, bloated, somehow ill-looking moon presided over the night from behind tattered, scurrying clouds. Blood on the moon, thought Porwal … a saying from his boyhood in Kolhapur. Something about evil being afoot when the moon was red and full …
* * * * * *
The elevator was approaching the third floor and Saurabh was beginning to feel decidedly pleased with himself. A febrile grin of uncertain courage spread slowly over his face. It really seemed like he had broken his childhood jinx tonight, and that too without any real premeditation or plan. It had just happened, probably because he had not given himself time to brood over it too much. He could see a whole life of increased ease before him now. No more endless, heart-busting stair climbing. (His doctor had commended him for it, but there was a limit to how many staircases a man could climb in his life.)
He was just figuring how much time he could save by using the elevators of the various business buildings he had to visit each week when from somewhere above him came a squeal of meshing gears. The next moment, the elevator cage jolted sickeningly to a halt. Then the light went off and he was plunged into utter, uncompromising darkness.
* * * * * *
In the next twenty minutes, Saurabh Chakraborty reverted smoothly, seamlessly to the age of six. The maturity accrued over the intervening years ceased to exist. He was once again locked in that bedroom closet, his lungs clogged with the viscous blackness around him—forgotten by his captor. Buried alive. When he could finally draw a deep enough breath, his jaws yawned open and he screamed his brother’s name over and over again. He fell to his knees on the hard metal floor of the elevator cage and hammered his fists against the impassive steel doors. He screamed until his throat seized up and his lungs could spare no more oxygen and all that came out were dry, hitching croaks. He dimly heard himself begging his brother, Porwal … anyone … to release him because he couldn’t take it and his mind was about to snap. The black air around him was too thick to draw into his constricted chest, and every demon his mind had ever exorcised was giggling at him and capering at his side.
He hammered blindly at the elevator doors, hoping to break open a space big enough to crawl through. The fact that he was stuck between floors and that there was nowhere to go to beyond these doors except more blackness and a quick plunge to a messy death below and did not register.
In his blind flailing around, his fist struck the full-length mirror. It shattered with an explosive sound and a dramatic shower of invisible shards. Warm blood flew from his lacerated knuckles, but he did not notice. His mind was exquisitely focused on the yammering terror that had possessed him entirely. It was the kind of focus that Olympic athletes win gold medals with.
Eventually, Saurabh crumpled into a sweaty, sobbing heap on the elevator floor. He did not feel the jagged splinters of glass as they punched through his trousers and into his knees. His mind had no time for minor stuff like physical pain. It was completely aimed at staying sane. Somehow staying sane …
Remembering that he had a lighter in his pocket, he fumbled it out and flicked it into guttering life.
The interior of the elevator cage was a mess of blood and broken mirror shards that reflected the lighter flame like a swarm of ground-bound fireflies. He checked his wristwatch and saw that it was only 7 p.m. Saurabh moaned in terror. Porwal would not return before 7 a.m. the next day, which meant that he would have to spend twelve hours in this waking nightmare. He didn’t think he could take it, but something in his mind was already happening to prepare him for it. Overwhelmed with extreme terror, it did the only thing it could in order to survive—it shut down.
Saurabh was suddenly, incredibly asleep.
* * * * * *
The beach at first seemed deserted, spread out in all directions around him in glorious seclusion under the hot tropical sun. The ocean surf muttered its eternal song and seagulls cawed and swooped over its emerald blue waters. The beach was studded with palm trees, and Saurabh sat with his back to one of these, drinking in the peaceful scene contentedly. He had no idea what circumstances had caused him to be on this beach, or how it happened to be that he was stark naked except for his executive tie, which was still knotted around his collarless neck. It did not seem important. What mattered was that he had apparently been sitting here for quite a while, enjoying the picturesque tranquility of the scene. His mind knew nothing of the screaming horror of a while before. Saurabh was a man mostly at peace … mostly, because even in this harmonious state, his mind seemed to be telling him that he was forgetting something. Something of vital importance. He brushed the intruding thought aside.
It slowly occurred to him that he was not, after all, alone on this serene beach. Two young boys dressed in swimming trunks who seemed vaguely familiar were building a sand castle a few yards from the water line. If their parents were around, Saurabh could see no sign of them.
One of the boys (no more than six years old) spotted him and nudged the other. They both forgot the sand castle and stared at him. Saurabh smiled and waved peacefully at them. It was perfectly alright. The boys rose and came over to where he sat in the shade of the palm tree.
“Hey, mister,” said the one who had spotted him. His face was covered with freckles. Saurabh wondered idly where he had seen him and the other kid before. He had never had much contact with kids. If things with Cecilia had worked out, he would doubtlessly have had to learn how to deal with them eventually, but Cecilia had finally found him too weird for her comfort and given him the air. But … where had he seen these kids before?
If someone had whispered the words “family album” in his ear at that moment, his mind would have made an instant connection—and then rejected it.
“Yeah, kid?” he asked.
The boy looked offended. “I have a name, you know …” but he didn’t offer it. Then, “What’re you doing here?”
“Well, just taking in the air and sunshine, I guess,” replied Saurabh. “It’s nice here, isn’t it?”
The boy nodded and looked at the other kid, who remained silent and looked uncomfortable.
“Mister, why you wearing that tie?” asked the first boy.
Saurabh thought about it. It was a reasonable question, and he was mildly annoyed at himself for not having a plausible answer. The tie was a gift from his father on his graduation from business school—an expensive silk affair. In executive circles, it was known as a “power tie.”
“Hmm … because I think I’m going to need it,” he replied, fiddling with the incongruous silk tie. He looked uncertainly up at a sky that had suddenly gone from azure blue to a somber shade of gray— a thundercloud had appeared out of nowhere and obscured the bright midday sun. He suddenly felt a disturbing sense of hopelessness and dread that he couldn’t account for. “… because I think … I think it’s important.”
Both the boys nodded now.
“Where are you from, mister?” asked the first one.
Saurabh looked about idly and saw, without much surprise, that a pair of steel elevator sliding doors had suddenly appeared where their sand castle had been. They looked absurdly out of place on the hot beach sand. A computer printout that said “HAPPY LABOR DAY” was taped above them.
“From there …,” he replied, pointing to the surrealistic apparition. The boys glanced over to the shut pair of metal doors and nodded.
“You gonna be okay?” asked the other kid, speaking for the first time. Saurabh wondered more than ever where he had seen these boys before, but the afternoon was rapidly darkening and all the tranquility had gone out of the scene. A single flash of lightning stabbed out of the growling thundercloud and illuminated the metal doors like an evil spotlight.
“I don’t know, son,” he replied, suddenly despairing. “I just don’t know …”
* * * * * *
He was ripped from the fading edge of his dream, back to where he lay in the pitch-black darkness of the dead elevator cage. Warm blood dripped from the cut skin of his hands and congealed tackily on the glass-strewn floor. It took him a long moment to reorient himself, then the full horror of the situation his mind had briefly managed to leave behind resurfaced. His right fist was clenched around his tie like a drowning man clutches at a straw. How long had he lain here? Surely dawn—and blessed release from this nightmare—was soon at hand?
He pulled out his lighter and spun its wheel. On the third try, it flickered into life and he held it over his watch. The time was 5 a.m., and he let out a trembling breath. Oh, God, only 5. Two more hours to go before Porwal would come on duty, find that the office building’s elevator was stuck between floors, and winch the cage down manually. Saurabh scrambled to his lacerated knees, folded his bleeding hands together and moaned a prayer. Please, God, let Porwal come in earlier today. I can’t take this any more.
Only a couple of hours more, he thought. Get a hold of yourself. There was little hope that Porwal would arrive early. He was a man who liked his liquor after work, and that kind of lifestyle did not accommodate early mornings. Also, it was perfectly possible that Porwal would have drunk a lot more than usual last night.
This was a strange thought, and Saurabh wondered where it had come from. Why would Porwal have thought it okay to down a few extra pegs last night? Was there something to celebrate? He concentrated—it seemed very important that he figure this out. Then Saurabh smiled. Of course.
Today was Labor Day. That was what the printout over the elevator had said. All over the world, the working class celebrated this day as their own. A bonus to spend on whatever they pleased. No work for two entire days. Relax at home or live it up at the local bar. Catch a movie with the family. No work.
No work for two days. Office buildings over the entire length and breadth of the country closed for business by inviolable government edict. Porwal at home, drunk as the Lord of all Creation. Most assuredly not at his job as maintenance man for a certain office building, not for two whole days and nights, starting today.
Saurabh’s bowels and bladder suddenly loosened and shed their malodorous contents into his expensive executive trousers. He heard a sharp, wet sound … the sound of his mind, overloaded beyond the breaking point with terror, finally snapping.
* * * * * *
When Porwal opened up the office building fifty hours later, he was indeed nursing a mean hangover. He and his buddies had gone on a monumental bender and he could recall little of what had happened over the last two days.
Well, nothing new about that, he thought as he stepped aside to let in Mrs. Gaikwad from Ace Copiers on the second floor. Back to business.
“Good morning, madam,” he said. The woman smiled vaguely at him, and he could see her nose twitching at the lingering aroma of cheap booze on his breath and coming from his armpits.
“Good morning, Porwal,” she replied. “Had a good Labor Day, it seems.”
Porwal had the decency to feel mortified, but he hid it well.
They approached the elevator and Mrs. Gaikwad punched the call button. There was no response. She punched it again. Same result—nothing.
“Oh, oh … stuck again,” said Porwal. “Bet the fuse in the cage blew again. One second …”
He went to the maintenance store and brought back the metal handle with which the elevator cage could be winched back down from the hole beside the entrance. He inserted it and began to turn it rhythmically. They could hear the elevator cage approaching reluctantly. A moment later it ground to a halt outside the lobby entrance.
“I’ll replace the fuse and you can ride right up, madam,” said Porwal as he pried the metal doors open.
Mrs. Gaikwad smiled wearily, then screamed and clawed at her face in horror as the doors opened to reveal the interior.
The cage floor was littered with gore and broken glass, but Saurabh Chakraborty’s shoes dangled a good five inches above the mess.
His purple, blood-suffused face, protruding tongue, and unnaturally bulging eyes leered at them as he hung there, suspended from the fan in the elevator cage’s ceiling by his silk “power” tie. Blood was pooled on the elevator cage where it had drained from his wrists—he had slit them open with a shard of broken mirror before …
If his father had had a sense of black humor, he might have appreciated the use his unfortunate son had finally put it to.
Saurabh Chakraborty had graduated.
Mumbai-based writer Arun Chitnis loves to explore the darker side of human existence.