The Lime County Historical Museum is the tallest brick building in the center of town. Built as a train station in the late 1800s, with 1920s black-and-white-checkered floor tiles inside, it is now a cultural and historical center, with a coffee shop attached and meeting spaces for rent. People say a ghost rides the elevator up and down the eight floors, after hours, but Elaine didn’t believe in such things. She thought they were just stories to keep the residents of the small town interested—an excuse for ghost tours in the name of history and economic development.
“We tried to keep this quiet, but once, we invited a ghost-hunting crew to see if they could figure out who was riding the elevator,” Elaine’s boss Jan told her one day. Elaine felt chills run down her spine when Jan described how, late at night, when she was in the manuscript room on the top floor, she heard the elevator start up, even though no one else was there. It stopped on every floor, and she heard the doors opening and closing, several floors below her. When the elevator reached the top, Jan ran for the fire escape stairs and got out before the doors opened.
“I just didn’t want to see what was inside,” Jan said.
“Was there ever anyone inside?” Elaine asked.
“Maybe. The paranormal crew recorded sounds. Whatever was inside tried to speak, but they couldn’t figure out what it said.
A rancid odor seeped in from a ceiling tile near Elaine’s cubicle, on the top floor. She didn’t notice it during the day, but at night, it was nearly overpowering—like a mixture of rotting sewage and spoiled meat—like carcasses decomposing in the sun. Over in the corner—near the elevator—the tiles in the ceiling were brown in spots. Elaine just thought that the old building suffered water damage, which Jan never repaired. Also, the elevator traveled up and down the floors of the building, on its own, but that phenomenon was nothing more than one of the old building’s peculiarities. Who knew how many wiring systems and renovations this building suffered? The elevator moved because of a glitch in the wiring, and the tiles smelled from neglect, Elaine thought. She was so confident in her assumptions that she worked with her back to the elevator—not quite curious enough to look at it, even when the doors would open.
Eventually, the nausea set in, at night only, when Elaine worked alone on the top floor. The smell was pervasive and clung to Elaine’s clothes, which reeked of mold, feces, and rot. Elaine asked Jan about the smell, but since it didn’t show up during the day, Jan wasn’t concerned.
“Well, it’s not healthy to work under these conditions. Who oversees the maintenance and upkeep of this building?”
“I do,” Jan said, firmly.
Elaine knew she had struck a nerve, but she didn’t care.
“You know the health department could fine you for this. I mean, what if it got out that we have people in this building—wandering about the exhibits—and docents who are older—inhaling filth and muck and—”
“Are you trying to be insubordinate? Are you threatening me with something?”
Elaine bit her lip to keep from saying anything further.
During the day, the elevator seemed like a clean and ultra-modern addition to the older building. It still smelled new, and the numbers on the buttons shined. The overhead lighting was bright—and it didn’t make any awful noise or shaking. A spotless mirror graced the back wall, and the building inspection certificate hung prominently near the doors. So, during the day, there was nothing to fear about the elevator. However, at night, along with the worsening smell, and the growing hatred she felt towards her boss, Elaine noticed more frequent trips that the elevator took up and down the floors of the building. She soon found it difficult to concentrate on her work because she was counting the trips the elevator made. On one night, she estimated that the elevator, during a span of six hours, traveled from the first floor to the eighth floor at least seventy-two times, or every five minutes each hour. And the doors would crash open loudly each time, culminating in a frenzied crescendo. Still, Elaine didn’t turn around while working. Surely, something was wrong with the wiring, and there was nothing she could do about that. Jan would never fix anything anyway, and if she mentioned it, Jan would write her up for insubordination. Instead, she just made it a habit to never ride the elevator anymore. She would take the stairs from now on.
On a particularly gray afternoon, on her day off, Elaine decided she should try to integrate herself into the town’s social scene, which was dying. Two hotel lobby bars and a few desolate strip malls remained—and everywhere that Elain went, that horrible smell followed her. It seemed that this place, where she had chosen to make her career and home, fresh out of graduate school, was a skin-and-bones version of its former self, with flies buzzing about. Still, Elaine met a man on a dating app—someone local—and decided to join him at the hotel lobby bar across from the museum.
On the dating app, Ronald appeared somewhat older, but distinguished and confident. However, the only other man walking into the bar at that moment was somewhat slouchy and balding. When he met Elaine’s gaze, he looked a little too eager—too hungry—to see her. And when he sat down next to her and smiled, she noticed that his gums were graying, and he smelled strongly of talcum powder and drugstore deodorant.
“Oh, wow! Are you a sight for sore eyes!” Ronald said. “My wife died over a year ago, and I haven’t been out since. Truth be told, she was getting to be a bore around the last ten years of our marriage. If I had been a more dishonest man, I’d have left her at home so I could go on more dates.”
Elaine asked the bartender for another rum and Coke—with mostly rum—and perhaps also a shot of tequila on the side.
“I’d love to have something to drink,” Ronald said, “but I gave that stuff up years ago. My old wife was nagging me so much. I swear she drove me to drink. Ah! What the heck? Barkeep! I’ll have a Manhattan.”
Then, Ronald raised his glass and toasted: “To dead wives and a brand new one someday—at my age, even! I’m 80!” Then, he knocked the whole thing back.
Elaine excused herself to use the restroom and sneak out the back window. Unfortunately, she knew that in a place like this, she would most likely run into Ronald again. Lonely, older men often volunteered to lead groups around the museum. So, she figured she would just have to stay on the 8th floor at all times—with the smell and the faulty elevator.
Deep into the winter, Elaine heard the elevator door open and close every three minutes within an hour. Then, every two minutes—with the smell always sickening her. Elaine still knew better than to involve Jan, so the temptation to turn around—to see what was behind those elevator doors—grew. In between the sounds of the doors opening and shutting, she thought she heard something in the distance—a disembodied voice calling, “Elaine. It’s you! I’m looking at you!”
The temptation to turn around haunted her at night in her dreams where she looked into a mirror. Without warning, Ronald’s pale, bloated, balding head floated into view, materializing from a hazy, brown cloud—one that carried that familiar awful smell, right into her dreams. Ronald smiled, revealing gray teeth and gums.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” he said.
Elaine, unable to control herself in her dreams, pulled out a knife and cut away chunks from her own face—cutting until pieces showed through: the nub of a nasal bone, the edge of a frontal skull bone—tissues and flesh clinging still. And when she was done cutting, she saw her future self, decaying, rotting—the result of snatching up the first job of her young life and staying put in a town that wouldn’t be able to sustain her. All of these things, the mirror reflected.
The rattling and shaking of the elevator now jolted Elaine’s nerves. Her hands trembled as she read newspaper clippings and tried to enter data into the computer system. In her mind, the elevator doors sounded explosive when they opened and shut—and it just didn’t seem fair that it waited until the evening—until Elaine’s shift—to travel at breakneck speeds, raging through the shaft. It seemed that something in that place wanted her to turn around—wanted her to notice, wanted her to hear, “Elaine! It’s you! I’m looking at you!” On that night, Elaine held out as long as she could, but when the doors slammed open on the 14th pass to her floor, she shouted, “Enough! Stop it!” and got up from her chair to look. This time, the doors stayed open. This time, the elevator didn’t go back down. It waited, and as Elaine looked inside, she saw her own face reflected in the mirror mounted on the back wall of the elevator. And, for half a second, she thought that if she looked long enough, she would see it cut away in ribbons and chunks, revealing her skeleton below, and she didn’t want to stay long enough to see that happen. The elevator hovered in place, with the doors open, so Elaine returned to her desk to find a heavy stapler. She threw it at the mirror—splintering it into fine, web-thread cracks. But, she wasn’t finished. She wanted to tear that mirror from the back wall. Elaine stretched and reached just beyond the threshold. The doors remained open, long enough for the elevator to fly back down to the first floor, the impact of the dropping elevator car, splitting her body in half, her torso tumbling down the shaft into the void—the doors closing behind her, swallowing.
Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here: (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/). Twitter: @ckennedyhola