Track Two: True Faith
I couldn’t help but see the elevator as very smug and quite pleased with itself, as if it had something to do with everything that had just happened. I decided it was allowed to believe that, and said a quiet “thank you” to it as we got on.
Lipstick Rick’s lips squished into an amused line and, with a raised eyebrow, he glanced from the closing elevator doors and back to me. “Did you just thank the elevator?”
I stifled a laugh, feeling stupid. “Um… it’s a long story.”
A smile slowly curled the edge of his mouth. “Right… so, you and the elevator go way back, then?”
“Waaay back,” I said, “to a whole like, fifteen or twenty minutes ago.”
“Wow!” he said with mock surprise.
“You go back that far, huh?”
“Yeah, I’m not as young as I look,” I said, unable to pass up an opportunity to throw a totally obscure, Bing Crosby, David Bowie Christmas Special reference into the conversation, even though I was sure there was no way he’d catch it. “There’s a real history there.”
“Well, obviously.” He gave a small shrug, then continued with a knowing smile, “And, really, no one is as young as they look these days.”
That was the next line in the quote! Wait a minute. I wondered, Did he just…? No, he couldn’t have! There’s no way anyone else on this planet has repeatedly listened to the entire skit leading up to David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s ‘Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy.’ Still, I pointed a finger at him and asked, “Wait. Did you just…?” I snorted a bashful laugh. It was such a dumb question, but it was too late now. “Did you just finish my quote from the David Bowie Christmas Special?”
He grinned. “So you were quoting the special! I honestly didn’t think you were, but I saw the opportunity and couldn’t help myself.”
“No way! So did I!” I let out an exaggerated gasp, about floating away to the moon. “Be still my heart! I thought I was the only one! You’ve officially claimed the number one spot on my BFF list.”
“Well, it’s about time! You know, I think our BFF bracelets need to have Ziggy Stardust and Bing Crosby engraved on them.”
Ziggy Stardust was David Bowie’s alter ego and was way better than Bing Crosby. Even with our imaginary bracelets, someone would be coming up short. I grimaced. “Nah.”
“Yeah, about halfway through saying that, I knew I’d made a mistake, but I was already committed.”
I chewed my cheek. “What about Major Tom?” Major Tom was an astronaut created by David Bowie.
“Yes! That’s fantastic! But I get the Ziggy Stardust one, of course.”
“Why do you get Ziggy Stardust?”
“Well, he is a rock star, like unto myself. And you are a…” He searched for a word. “…person.” He added with cheerful defensiveness, “You’re the one who suggested Major Tom!”
“But that was back when I thought I’d get Ziggy Stardust and hadn’t thought it through.”
“What’s wrong with Major Tom?”
“He gets sent up to space in a faulty ship! So see, by making me Major Tom, you just killed me. I just died alone in space! That’s such a sad ending for me. You should feel bad.”
“Wha—?” He seemed baffled yet he smiled just the same. I was surprised at myself. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt this comfortable around anyone, probably because I never had. I’d built about a million walls around myself in order to keep myself from ever being myself, as being myself had only ever gotten me into trouble. Yet somehow, there in the elevator, nearly all of the walls had fallen.
I was pretty sure the elevator would be taking credit for that as well.
I debated whether or not to confess that I was joking and apologize profusely for being stupid when Lipstick Rick said with a sigh, “Well, I suppose I do have some regret, but, it was either you or me. But hey, at least you get to go to space! I should think you’d enjoy that.”
A grin spread across my face. “Well yeah, but I don’t want to die in space! Have you seen Gravity?”
“Yes.” He added smugly, “There were quite a few flaws in that film.”
“Oh, psh!” I said with as much sarcasm in my voice as I could muster. “Like you would know.”
“I’m Ziggy Stardust. Of course I know.”
I laughed and leaned back against the elevator wall. It was so nice to laugh. This whole thing, it felt… I couldn’t quite find a word for it. It was absurd yet wonderful. I couldn’t believe how fast my whole existence had changed. There was something wrong with that, right? There was no way this was actually a good thing. There was a catch. There was always a catch.
With a jolt, the elevator moved. We’d been standing in it for so long without pressing a button that someone else had summoned it. It brought me back to reality. How had I forgotten—even for just a few minutes—that I had a broken arm? When I remembered it, I realized the pain was still nothing more than a distant, dull ache that only amounted to a mere annoyance. How was that possible?
Lipstick Rick said, “So, since this history between you and Mr. Elevator here goes all the way back to fifteen or twenty minutes ago, I’m going to assume that you probably don’t live here.”
I should’ve seen this coming. “No.” Before he could follow up with any unwanted questions, I hurried and asked, “Do you?”
He studied me for a moment. “Nope.” He pushed the button for the first floor, adding it to the queue.
Then what was he doing here?
The doors opened on floor seven for a stout, balding man in a thick, gray jacket that smelled like cats and soup. He raised his eyebrows at Lipstick Rick, who shot him a wide grin and winked. The man tentatively got on the elevator, glanced over his shoulder at Rick, then shook his head as he pressed the button for the second floor.
We rode in silence. My heart drummed away in my ears, one thought racing to another as I went over everything that had happened since Lipstick Rick had made an appearance. When the man left and the doors closed, I blurted, “What did you do to me?”
Lipstick Rick furrowed his brow. “I beg your pardon?”
“Up on the roof. When you… when you brushed my hair out of my face, m-my arm, it didn’t hurt as bad after.” Among many other things, I thought to myself but didn’t dare say. “It was unbearable and then it wasn’t. How did you do it?”
The elevator dinged and the doors opened. Lipstick Rick said to the elevator, “Thank you, Mr. Elevator,” and strode elegantly toward the front door of the complex with me following at his heels. He held the door open for me, and when he spoke, his tone was gentle to the point where I felt like a small child who’d just asked if Santa was real. “That is something I’m afraid I cannot answer, Emily.”
I didn’t like that. “Why not?”
He wouldn’t look at me. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple, and really not something I desire to discuss.”
I followed Rick down the street a ways before his words really sank in and as they did, the happiness I’d been feeling on the roof and in the elevator faded, leaving me like sunlight falling behind a dark cloud. My stomach turned into a heavy rock. I became very aware how cold I was and shivered. The dull ache in my arm increased ever so slightly with a fleeting pang.
He continued, “I’d rather focus on something else. Like getting you somewhere warm that has magical hot chocolate. This is definitely hot chocolate weather.”
My mind grew foggy as it lingered on a painful thought. Did I imagine it? Was everything that just happened, everything that I felt… my imagination running wild? Am I so desperate for help, so hopelessly longing for a savior, that I actually imagined a miracle? Am I that pathetic?
Of course I was. Of course it was my imagination. I felt so stupid. My heart ached. The flame I’d felt burning within it, so fragile and small, flickered. The shadows around me grew stronger, eager to invade.
I didn’t notice him staring at me. “Emily?”
“What? Oh.” I hid my inner-meltdown with a small smile. “Uh, hot chocolate. Yeah. Sure.” The thought of hot chocolate on my miserable gut sounded horrible. I bit my lip, lost in my head. No. I couldn’t have imagined it. Something happened. Something had to have. I grew a little dizzy. But it doesn’t make any sense. It makes way more sense to assume I imagined it. Ugh! I’m so stupid. I broke out the mental boxing gloves and started beating up my brain. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He has to think I’m so crazy. I am crazy. Man, I really need help… ugh, what’s the point?
“Sooo,” Lipstick Rick said, his voice a long, loud ring snapping me out of my downward spiral, “are you from around here?”
“Huh? Oh. Um, no. I…” I reviewed the day: me being shoved down the stairs, me running, then walking briskly and then deliriously, taking a bus and riding until I couldn’t sit still, then walking some more and ultimately realizing that I had no idea where I was. “I’m just passing through.”
“Oh! Okay. Well, where are you staying?”
Nowhere. “I uh, haven’t decided yet. I just got here not very long ago.”
“Is that right?” He considered this. “Huh. Unfortunate first impression of the area, you breaking your arm. How’d you do it?”
My insides seized up and with a knee-jerk reaction, I told him with a finality that I hoped he’d catch, “I fell.”
To this, he simply said, “Oh.”
Terrible, awkward silence followed. My shivering grew more intense, the movement making my arm ache. I thought about how much my feet hurt. I looked down at them, a bit surprised they were still there. I was expecting bloodied stumps. They hurt more than my arm.
He stopped us in front of a small, worn down gas station, the only thing within sight that was still open. I looked at it, puzzled. “Were stopping here?”
He smiled as he opened the door for me. “You might not think it, but they have totally… drinkable hot chocolate here.”
I stepped inside, feeling the cold melt from my face as I was engulfed by the warmth of the store. To my right, there was a row of booths lined up against the front windows leading to what had once been a quaint sandwich shop but was now closed indefinitely. To my left, there was a burly gas station attendant with a shaved head, thick beard, and neck tattoo, sitting behind the counter and reading a newspaper. He glanced up at us, a smile sneaking into his expression as he returned his attention to his paper, all without saying a word.
Lipstick Rick told me to sit while he got the hot chocolate. I did, gladly, relief rushing over my feet. I laid my head on the table, wondering what in the world was with Lipstick Rick’s obsession with gas station hot chocolate, and how he expected me to hold the cup when one arm was broken and the other was its brace. I bitterly wondered when he planned to fix my arm and then if he planned to fix it. Maybe he was the next Ted Bundy and planned to murder me instead.
That seemed likely, especially given my talent for trusting the wrong people. It was such a talent, in fact, that I was sure if it were allowed in the “Talent” portion of the competition, I could’ve easily won Miss America. But there was also a chance that he was a true saint who was sincerely trying to help.
I doubted it.
Despite all of this, the little flame that had been ignited refused to go out. I couldn’t ignore it. Even when I told myself, You should just go back to that apartment building and finish what you started, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t even lift my head from the table. I justified this surrender to hope with a sigh, then thought ninety-five-percent-sarcastically, Miracles need a leap of faith, right?
Lipstick Rick returned. He had thought through my inability to hold a styrofoam cup and loaded mine with a small straw. He sat down across from me, pushing the drink toward me, saying, “Here. I promise that this fantastically mediocre hot chocolate works miracles.”
I glared at it. “Is this how you plan to set my broken arm? With hot chocolate?”
“Fantastically mediocre hot chocolate,” he corrected. “And no. It’s not quite that magical. But I assure you, it is absolutely essential to the healing process.” He pushed it toward me a little further.
Having decided that I had nothing to lose—I was the perfect serial killer victim—I pushed past my nausea and took a sip.