She made a derisive sound.
“Oh, you don’t want to take the stairs.”
I woke in a strange bed, in a strange room, the previous night of drinking leaving me with a tongue that felt swollen, and an overwhelming need for a drink of water.
My friends had obviously carried me from the car to this bed sometime in the night. I sat up, my head swimming. Where am I? The last thing I remembered was sitting in the back seat of Casey’s old Bonneville, with my head in Mindy’s lap. Franklin was in the passenger seat. He was the newest member of the circle of friends – an unassuming boy-next-door type. He said he wasn’t gay, but it was hard to tell. It was odd that he’d hang out with a bunch of lesbians. General consensus was that he was in the closet. He did seem a little overly sensitive. At any rate, he had impeccable manners and seemed totally comfortable around us. So we included him in our little road trips. Like a mascot.
I had had a hard day at school, cramming for finals, and indulged a bit too much in the Schnapps, finally passing out in Mindy’s lap.
So now, here I was in this room with a small bunk and cinder block walls, and not much of anything else. I had to find a bathroom first, and then I had to find my friends. I stood up and that’s when I became aware that I was wearing a set of green scrubs, I must have gotten sick on my other clothes. So they had also changed my clothes at some point too. Great. I really like the idea of that. I haven’t shaved my legs in over a week.
I found Franklin coming out of the bathroom down the hall. “Hey, Franklin, where is everyone?”
“They had to go to a lecture.”
He swept a hand around. “You’re in the dorm.?”
“Oh. Wow. I should stay away from liquor.”
“There’s coffee in here, in the break room. Want some?”
“Sure.” I followed him into the kitchenette and lounging area, taking the Styrofoam cup he offered, and drinking with zeal, burning my tongue.
He plopped on the sofa across the room and I followed, seating myself next to him. He watched me thumb through a Psychology Today magazine, and eventually, his attention was unnerving. “Why are you staring at me, Franklin?”
He released an obviously pent-up breath. “I was just thinking about how I’d like to do things to you.”
Confused by his uncharacteristic boldness, and his apparent voyage from gayness to straightness, I frowned at him. “What? Are you trying to be funny?”
“No I’m not. Lean back here and be quiet.”
I started to protest, considered even smacking him in the mouth, but then I saw the ice pick he held in his hand. “Are you out of your mind?”
“No. You are. Now lean back like I told you.”
I obeyed, telling myself it was merely a stall until I could figure out how to handle this.
Okay. Not funny. Scary, now. He was a psycho. It was clear to me that the unassuming, slightly effeminate Franklin I knew last night had become a very dangerous and twisted individual of the serial killer variety. As he held the ice pick under my chin, its point almost piercing me, he ran a hand up my thigh and began to massage my crotch. His intentions were probably rape, torture and murder, in no particular order.
At first, of course, I was terrified. About then, I realized the only way out was to outsmart him. So I said, “Okay, I have a confession. . .you don’t have to force yourself on me, because I’ve had a crush on you since the first day we met. I’ve always wanted you, I just never thought you’d want me. I couldn’t tell my friends because we’re all gay and of course, they wouldn’t understand . . . sometimes things go beyond gender Franklin, and we have a special connection.”
He was taken aback, and stricken a bit speechless. Then he warmed to the idea and reached for me. I said, “Wait. . .I want this to be special. And I also want them all to know. I don’t want to hide. We’ve got to tell them, and then you and I have to go away some-where alone so we can be together properly. . .” I leaned up and kissed his cheek and touched his hair. “It’s too special to do it here, like this.” I took him by the hand and led him out of that remote room and down the hallway, telling him we had to find our friends and get this over with.
Finally, I found them. They were in this classroom, in the middle of a lecture, just as he had said. I stood at the door with him, still holding his hand, and got their attention. They saw how odd it was that we were holding hands and standing so intimately close. I tried to catch several of them in the eyes and make urgent faces, to let them know something was amiss, but they didn’t seem to notice, and he watched me too much. Through sign language, they indicated that they could not get out of the lecture just yet. It began to sink in, then, that they would never believe what I was eventually going to tell them. . .that he was not who they thought he was, that he was very very sick, and very very dangerous. They all loved him. And then the jig would be up and he would know I knew, and he would play it off and act innocent, and then it would only be a matter of time before he hunted me down.
No, I couldn’t tell them. I had to find a way to show them.
My thoughts were interrupted by his anxious whisper. “Let’s tell them later, and just go.”
I hesitated, but then said, “Okay. . .I guess that’s okay. . .we’ll tell them when we get back. I know of a great cabin we can go to in the mountains – why don’t you go get your car and pull around front, and I’m going to visit the ladies room right quick. I don’t want to have to worry with that later, you know. . .” I wiggled my eyebrows suggestively.
He nodded his understanding and I swear, almost blushed. “I’ll meet you out front.” I leaned up and kissed him again, for effect, on the lips this time. He seemed a bit confused, but then smiled and seemed happy. He headed for the door, already digging in his pocket for his car keys. I knew he would look back at me, so I made a production of looking at the wall marquee directory for the location of the restroom. When I heard the door open and close, I turned and saw he was gone.
Breaking into a sprint, I headed for the elevators. My attention at the directory marquee had been about finding the location of the elevators, not the restroom.
The elevator had small silver doors, like the kind in old buildings and colleges. I saw it at the end of the corridor. A bunch of people were in there, and the doors were slowly closing, and I was running down the hall, trying to get there, and watching them all ignore me. . . they wouldn’t hold the door. A rotund black woman standing with them, elbowed them aside and hit the door open button and got out, grumbling, “I hate that shit. People are so rude.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But now, you’ve lost your ride.”
We exchanged a meaningful glance, and I slipped back into my anxiety, wondering if Franklin was at his car yet, if he was waiting in the front, wondering where I was. I punched the button again and we both looked up at the lighted numbers. It was on the fourth floor and holding.
“Sometimes it takes a while,” she muttered.
I looked at the stagnant number four as she offered, “It looks like that damn thing is stuck again. And the other one broke down this morning. . .”
“Where are the stairs?”
She made a derisive sound. “Oh, you don’t want to take the stairs.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. But you don’t want to take the stairs.”
Still, there was this ticking clock in my brain and I caught myself watching the exit door for Sweet Mr. Serial Killer. “I’ll take my chances, where are they?”
She shrugged her resignation. “Okay. Down there, turn left, turn right, and then left again. Look for the green door. You can’t miss it.”
I ran. Images of Franklin appeared in front of me, behind me, a twisted, betrayed expression on his features, his hands itching to close around my neck for playing his emotions, his ice pick plunging into my ear as he laughed. Unable to hear myself scream.
I turned left. Right. Left again.
The green door.
I grabbed the knob and pulled it hard, and took a step inside, almost losing my balance. I had to grab the door jamb to keep from falling. There was no first step. The steps began a few feet down, and there was a gaping hole in between. A hole that seemed to lead down into an abyss of darkness. “Holy shit!” I jumped, and as my feet landed on the top step, I heard the echo of the elevator woman’s voice “I told you!”
I turned to look back up at the door, half expecting to see her standing there. No time to consider the oddity, I had to get out of there, find help. Lose the psycho mascot.
I turned back and took one step down, but halted when I realized that the single stairway had somehow multiplied; now, there was a collection of morphed stairways, some moving in a sideways pattern and disappearing into the walls, some tiny and leading steeply upward into the ceiling, some leading down and then back up again, and all the steps were now brightly colored in differing pastel shades. I closed my eyes, swallowing, and then looked again. They were still there. I was standing in the middle of a Dali painting, an Escher drawing, a room for traveling clowns with no destination. Is this what the elevator girl meant? Was this some sort of optical illusion perpetrated by bored geniuses at the college?
Shaking off the anxiety now simmering in my gut, I searched for an outlet; some stairway that led to a door. I followed the path of a spiral staircase that rose up over my head and around a corner. That must be it. I hopped over to that bottom step and ascended quickly, turning the corner and smacking into a wall that stood just out of sight. Touching the bruise on my cheek, I shook my head clear and turned around, and –
All the stairs were gone. I was on a step, hanging over the black hole again. I took some deep breaths and tried to calm myself. This prank was not engendering humor in me. I felt I was about to snap, fling myself into the void. But no, I was a survivor and I would find a way out of this circus.
I rubbed my eyes and took another cleansing breath. Lifting my eyelids again, I saw the pole. Like the kind in fire stations. It was only a few feet out. Swallowing any preemptive thoughts, I lunged for it, wrapped myself around it and slid down into the darkness.
My feet met floor only one story down. This had to be the second floor. That meant I might have to maneuver my way through another stairwell with God knew what sort of multi-leveled gaming. I expected a Pacman to come floating through the air: wokka wokka wokka. . .but there was a door on the other side of the room.
Carefully ensuring the floor was still there, I traversed the distance to the door, this time painted bright blue, and pulled it open, stepping out onto the landing. It was the back entrance. I now remember it was the same one I had used when I had entered the building with my friends. But that had been on the ground level, and I knew I had only slid one story. In front of me, and spanning around the building, was the same chain link fence, the same chain link gate, through which we had accessed this back door.
Beyond the chain link, I could see the tiny hardware store we had passed coming in. I remembered it because it looked like something out of the past. It was the kind of hardware store found in remote Southern areas; the kind that carried chicken wire and saddles and hunting rifles, and run by a guy wearing overalls. I tried to recall where I was, and how I could get out of here, out of this city and back to the place I called home, a small but cozy apartment in a quaint tourist village a few counties away.
I checked the perimeter for Sweet Mr. Serial Killer, and hurried to the chain link gate, lifting the metal latch and slipping through. Up the concrete steps into the hardware store, I approached the counter, dodging a wooden barrel of leaf rakes that tried to snag my hair. “Excuse me?”
The man in overalls turned from his stocking, a box of .38 shells in his hand. “Oh, I didn’t hear you come in. The clapper on that door bell is broken. How can I help you?”
“Um. . .” I gathered my thoughts. “I’m. . .lost. Can you tell me where I am?”
“You’re at the corner of 7th and main.”
“No I mean. . .where. . .what city is this?”
“You don’t know what city you’re in?”
“Well, I rode here in a friend’s car and fell asleep, and they. . .took off and left me, and now I’m not sure where I am.”
He nodded, a nostalgic smile creasing his wrinkled face, obviously satisfied by my explanation. “Well now, young lady, you’re in the fine city of Whitehall.”
That didn’t help me much because I didn’t recognize the name.
“Where are these friends of yours?”
“Oh they’re taking classes over here at the college.”
I pointed behind me toward the old building, “Back here. I’m not sure of the name of it?”
He shifted his weight onto another foot. “Are you talking about that gray building behind the chain link?”
“Young lady. . .that’s not a college.”
“What? Of course it is, I have friends who are over there right now, attending a lecture. . .I was just there. . .I’m. . .okay, I’m really trying to get away from this really creepy guy who’s chasing me, and-” I could see I was only making it worse. “Okay, if it’s not a college, what is it?”
He hesitated, squinting at me. “It’s. . .a hospital. An asylum.”
Then I was profoundly confused. He was eying my scrubs. And also ever so slightly moving toward the phone on the counter. “Let me call some help for you, young lady,” he said carefully. His hand was on the receiver.
“Don’t do that,” I told him. It came out sounding like a warning, I really just meant that I knew what he was thinking and it was not accurate. But how would I convince him now? I didn’t know where I was, I was dressed in scrubs, disoriented, and calling a mental hospital a college. I’d have the same thoughts he was having. . .
I just turned and ran out.
Taking the gravel alleyway that ran behind the hardware store, I just kept running with no idea where I was going. I thought of the college. The surrealist stairs. My friends. Franklin. Had I wound up with a bunch of crazies during my night on the town? No, I knew my friends. But Franklin was new.
A buzzing began in my head. I started to cry. The tears leaped from eyes into the wind like miniature paratroopers.
Something moved at the end of the alley. A figure. It was him. I spun and dashed in the other direction, getting a painful slap in the face from a tree limb, which caused me to stumble. That’s all he needed. He was there, his arms around me like a wrestler, and I anticipated being body-slammed and whacked with a metal chair.
I swiped my heel at the back of his knee, so that his leg folded; he lost balance, and we fell to the ground, where I wriggled free, but then there were two more hands. Four hands? He had help with him. The man in overalls from the hardware store. Some sort of weird conspiracy? Did he hire a lookout for these forays into kidnapping and violation?
A sharp prick in my neck soon ebbed into grogginess and I knew I was losing consciousness.
“You look really stupid in those overalls,” Franklin cracked.
He turned. “The wife insisted we go as The Farmer and the Farmer’s Daughter. She never misses a chance to remind me how much younger she is than me.”
Franklin chuckled, his attention back on the girl in the bed. “This was a bad one. They ought to change her meds.” He caught the other orderly staring at a picture. “Why do you keep looking at that?”
“I don’t know. I’m drawn to it. But it creeps me out.”
Franklin studied the painting, MC Escher’s House of Stairs.