by Brandon Applegate
There is a man on the elevator when we get on. Mickey recoils immediately, but this is not a surprise. He is seven and very shy. He scrambles behind my leg. I place the palm of my hand on the top of his head and tousle his hair, then slide my palm down to the back of his neck as both a comforting gesture and as a means of guiding him as I step back so the man can get off.
The man doesn’t move. He is middle-aged. His face is craggy like a split rock and stubble grows on it unevenly like moss. His eyes are grey. He is wearing too many clothes and he looks too big because of it. The smell of dirt and motor oil bubbles out of the elevator. The man looks at my face, then at Mickey’s. He gives my son a small smile like he doesn’t do it often and has nearly forgotten how. I gesture as politely as I can for him to come out. He looks at my face again and still does not move, just stands.
I try not to let my face betray my nerves. I put pressure with my hand on the back of Mickey’s neck, guiding him forward with me. We step onto the elevator. I place both hands on Mickey’s shoulders and turn him, facing us both toward the doors and placing my own body between my son and the man.
I look at the button panel. No floor is selected. “What floor?” I ask, packing my tone with as much goodwill as I can muster. The man does not speak, but I can hear him breathing. I look back at him over my shoulder. “What floor?” I repeat. He says nothing, only stares at me with those storm-cloud-grey eyes. The elevator doors slide closed. I pick twelve, my floor. I grip Mickey’s shoulders tighter. I feel him tense under my palms and I wonder if I am squeezing too hard or if he is nervous. Maybe it is both.
The man never moves. He does nothing but stare. The red numbers above the button panel count up so slowly. It feels like the elevator is deliberately taking longer than normal, but I know it is because of nerves. I look back over my shoulder and the man is smiling at Mickey again. It is a sad smile like he knows something we don’t. The man takes no notice of me. Floor seven. I stare stubbornly at the doors. I don’t want to look back anymore. Floor nine. My knuckles are turning white as I grip Mickey’s shoulders. If it hurts him, he doesn’t say anything. Floor eleven. The man’s breathing has gone quiet like he is holding it.
The elevator’s digital ding rings out in the air like the pealing of a gigantic bell and I nearly scream. I feel cold tingles all over my body as the panic dissipates like heat. When the doors slide open I shove Mickey through them and he stumbles out onto the elaborate hallway carpet. I step off quickly, not running, but only because I have made a point not to. I turn around to look at the man, suddenly terrified beyond measure that he will step off with us. Now I do scream, and I stumble backward a few steps. There is nobody in the elevator. There is nobody in the hall. The doors begin to slide closed and I dart forward, stopping them with my hand and they retreat back into their pockets. I look up. The roof panels of the elevator do not appear to be disturbed. Can people even get on top of elevators that way? I’ve only seen it in movies. I step back away from the elevator and this time when the doors begin to close they do so more slowly and with a long, loud, annoyed buzz. This time I let them shut all the way. I look left and right. The hallway is deserted, quiet, except for Mickey and me.
“Are you okay, Mom?” Mickey asks.
“Sure, Honey,” I say. I am breathing hard as though I’ve just been running. I try to slow down, take deep breaths, slow my heart. When I feel more under control, more myself, I place a hand on Mickey’s back in between his shoulder blades and turn him in the direction of our apartment. “Mickey,” I say, then hesitate. He doesn’t look up at me. I am deciding whether I should ask. I do. “Mickey, did you see that man in the elevator?”
“Yeah, Mom,” Mickey says like it’s no big deal.
Our footsteps are muffled by the thick pile carpet. We walk the rest of the way to our apartment door in silence. While I dig in my purse for my keyring, a question occurs to me. I think about the way the man smiled at Mickey. I stop digging in my purse and pause, looking at my son. He is staring forward at the door. “Mickey,” I say, “have you ever seen that man before?”
“Yeah,” he says, not looking up.
I feel cold. “Where, Baby?” I ask.
“In my room,” Mickey says. “He likes to watch me sleep.”
Brandon Applegate lives outside of Austin, Texas with his wife and two girls. He works at a technology company by day, and by night (and by weekend) he writes about what scares him.