Picture this: a window in a high tower with a view of a shimmering, metal sky. Spires piercing clouds, sun glancing off glass. Below: water, bleary shapes rippling beneath its surface; cars, streetlights, lamp posts. Let’s say, for example, that you are a man. Or, better yet, an old man. You’ve been staring at the water for a long time, but you only know this because your eyes hurt, strained from staring at the sun’s reflection. The room you sit in—you are sitting, by the way, in a plush chair by the window—is large, what would have once been called a loft, but now isn’t called anything. There’s a smell: mildew. Things growing where they’re not supposed to. It’s bright, but only because of the reflected sunlight. The electricity’s been out for… oh, who gives a shit? It’s not like you were using it. It’s not like you’ll need it for much longer.
Across the way: another tower, dotted with windows. There’s a fire glowing in one of those windows. Before, you might have thought it was a lightbulb burning, but you know the only thing that gives off light these days—besides, of course, the lovely, lovely sun—is fire. A person is tending to it. You know this not because you see them (though you can see a hazy shape if you really squint those eyes of yours; but don’t do that, they’re still hurting) but because the fire’s intensity waxes and wanes, and sometimes sparks fly into the air, as if logs are being dropped into it. Though of course they’re not logs. Not a log for fifty miles, likely as not. It’s probably pieces of furniture, smashed and stripped for fuel.
You stand (this hurts) and walk to the door. You open it and step into the hall. It reeks of wetness and bloat. You try not to think about what’s behind the doors you pass, but it’s a losing battle. And fuck it, what’s the point of pretending? Everyone in the building is probably dead. Except for you, of course. Lucky, lucky you, getting to be alive and aware and the star of your own little story. Where’s that stairwell?
Here it is, behind a door marked Stairs. You never really considered it before, but people used to be so good about labelling everything. In a building like this, there was never any room for mystery; everything was properly catalogued. Getting lost wasn’t really an option. You’re sad, briefly, for how deeply meaningless all that labelling turned out to be. Well, not completely meaningless, because now you’ve found the stairs! Be sure to thank all those dead people for helping you from beyond the grave. You push this door open, too.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Remember that electricity I mentioned? How it doesn’t exist? Well, the now-dead-as-everyone-else fluorescents were the only things lighting these stairs, so as you pass over the threshold and the door chunks shut behind you, you’re plunged into inky dark. The smell is more intense here. Far below, you hear the dripping of water into water. You hold the railing and begin your slow descent.
In the stinking dark, it’s easier for your thoughts to grow and coagulate like some fetid, vining plant. They pile and coil around each other, twisting and squeezing. You had a daughter, and she had a daughter. They’re both dead. Drowned, probably. Their bodies are likely drifting through the current that used to be Fifth Avenue. You last saw them minutes before the wave came, hurrying to the car parked on 56th and Lex. You refused to leave, told your daughter she was welcome to do whatever she wanted, but that you had no interest in leaving your home. They probably didn’t drown, actually. They probably got thrown into the side of a building, pulverized on impact. This is not a thought you should be having as you continue to lower yourself deeper into the guts of the building. That’s a landing; turn carefully, now. Scurry, little man, scurry away from the truth. That fire looked mighty warm.
You had no warning. No warning except for the fifty years of the smartest people on Earth telling you that you needed to be concerned. Sure, things had been getting worse. California razed to the ground. New Orleans leveled in a hurricane so bad they had to make a new category. The endless cycle of disease. But a tsunami? Here? Before everything went black, a panicked news man was talking about a volcano in the Canary Islands, cascading event, yadda yadda yadda. They can science it up as much as they want, but it’s just not something that’s supposed to happen. It’s a perversion of nature. The stuff of laughable science-fiction.
Hey. Stop moving. You heard that, didn’t you? Didn’t you hear something just now? Yes, shut up, shove those thoughtvines away. Water dripping. Your own breath.
The voice is so small, you’re certain that it’s in your head. Certain in that trick way, though. Where your brain insists on a certainty that secretly knows is the opposite. You wait for confirmation in either direction. Drip… drip… drip… “Help.”
Oh, this is a nasty turn of events. You were incorrect: there is someone else alive in this godforsaken building. A few days ago, maybe even a few hours ago, this might have comforted you. But now it presents a, whattayacallit? An ethical quandary. Standing in the dark, listening to the drip drip drip, you possess immense power. No one else is coming this way. Not for a long time. Years, maybe. This person calling to you in the dark will not receive a second chance. And suddenly, you have the most simple, terrible thought you have ever had: if you do nothing, this person will die.
Each step is a little bit harder. You can catch the rattle of shallow breath if you stand still. But standing still is not an option. Being still means losing momentum. Being still means death.
The steps have gotten slippery and the going is treacherous. The dripping and the breathing and the stink of something wounded makes you think of a cave; the home of some monstrous beast. With a sickening lurch, you realize the slickness beneath your feet is not water as you initially thought. It’s blood. It squelches and clings. Your gorge rises. A moan escapes you. The rasping breath catches.
“Please. Help.” The voice is very close now. The person is likely sitting in the corner of the landing below, bleeding. Dying.
“Help. I fell.” Getting weaker. Desperation is its own stink in the air. You reach the landing, your shoes sticking and unsticking with each step. You do not slow.
Turning the corner, the breath behind you begins to accelerate. It whines like a struck dog.
“Wait,” says the voice. Barely a murmur, already resigned. Best to put it out of your head. No use looking back, as it were. “Please…” You descend deeper into the dark, the voice dwindling behind you until it’s gone entirely. The moment the pleas recede into nothing, you’re almost certain you imagined the whole thing. An ancient, addled mind, concocting fantasies. Nothing more.
Some minutes or hours or days later, your foot plunges into icy water and you yelp. The sound echoes and the shadows shout back at you. You retrace your steps to the previous landing and find the door. The pressure bar gives beneath your weight and you emerge into glorious, painful light.
The hall is damp and humid. There is the unmistakable stench of rotting flesh. Delightful. You take a step and the door crunches shut behind you, condemning what transpired in the stairwell to memory, which will curdle into hearsay, then a scary story you only tell yourself in the deepest part of night. And that voice. For however long you last, you’ll hear it whispering in the dark.
So it goes.
You walk down the hall and push open the first door you find. An apartment—this is an apartment building, after all—empty, save for the abandoned possessions of its owner, scattered like the remnants of a shipwreck. You get this bizarre impression: it’s been waiting for you. Preposterous, of course. An apartment doesn’t wait. It doesn’t do anything except exist, and certainly there are a bunch of dead philosophers who would quibble even that point. But there it is. It has the air of someone looking up, sighing, and standing to greet you. Why would this be?
Ah. Of course. Another unfortunate wrinkle. This is the apartment of that woman who you dated half-heartedly for a few weeks, a year or so after your wife died. Let’s say her name was… Sheila? Sandra? It doesn’t matter. Whichever you prefer. Your daughter badgered you into it (“She’ll be good company!” she had said) and you relented and let the camaraderie comfort you, for a time. If memory serves—and it often doesn’t—she had been a little too fawning, a little too present. Desperate is not the word you would use, but her eagerness had turned you off. In retrospect, that was probably cruel. But judging by the waterline, she’s long dead, likely as not swept away in the first surge, pulled through one of the broken windows (they are all broken).
As you think this, you realize that the apartment is soaked. Every inch is damp, every object toppled or torn or broken. Go to the window, now. Hear the glass crunch and the carpet squelch beneath your feet. Like blood and bone. Stare down onto the street, what used to be the street and is now a river. The water is maybe fifteen feet down, and there doesn’t appear to be a current. Gaze across the water. You can no longer see the window with the fire burning, but you counted the windows before you left: 39 from street level. You count now and crane your neck out the broken window. See it there? Right in the middle, barely more than a sliver of glass from this angle.
Exhale. Look at the water. It’s quite a drop. There is a non-zero percent chance that you go into shock when you crash through the surface into the frigid depths. But what is the alternative? Build your own fire? Go back to the stairwell? No, that is not an acceptable course of action.
Gird your loins, old man. Ready?
No? That’s okay, do it anyway.
Watching the skyline swarm into the sky, feeling the water rushing to meet you, the sun caressing your face. It’s almost-
The shock of breaking the surface nearly rips you in two. Gasp for breath. Swallow salt water. Thrashing, searching, lungs searing, and suddenly you’re breathing air, hacking and spitting water that burns coming up. Fuck, this was an extremely bad idea. You can’t feel your limbs. The water is cold. Quick-death-if-you’re-not-careful cold. Your head swims, which is the wrong part of your body to be doing that. Your ancient bones groan, your skin feels tight, like it’s close to snapping. Force your limbs to move.
You were always a poor swimmer. Ever since you were a child. Remember when you were thrown into the deep end by your impatient, bored mother, a Pall-Mall hanging from her lip like a smoldering worm? God, what a hateful woman she was. But she was right about one thing: the act is easy enough. Just kick and flap your arms. No, not that way, you’re just splashing around. Take a deep breath. There it is.
The building across the way rises from the water like a battered behemoth made of glass and steel.
Fingers numb. Chest aching.
Swim, old man. Or that tower will be the last thing you ever see.
This is when the thought occurs to you. The hiccup in your plan. How exactly do you plan on entering said tower? Certainly, the windows are all broken, but what are you going to do, haul yourself through one of them? Slice your arms and chest and bleed out on the floor? That would be a fine end, wouldn’t it? No less than you deserve, perhaps. And all of this… isn’t it, in some cosmic way, just deserts?
But there’s another path. You see it as your frail body shudders ever closer: a gap between the water and window. Glass like broken teeth juts from the shattered pane; there’s maybe six inches between the longest tooth and the water. You’ll have to dunk to avoid them, but then there should be some clearance between the water and the ceiling of whatever room that turns out to be.
Hold your breath. Dive. Don’t think about those teeth. Don’t think about being swallowed. You close your eyes and pass through that gaping maw. There’s a slicing sensation along your back. Not deep, but enough to that you cry out, still submerged, and pull in a lungful of salty, frigid death.
Breach. Your head spins. You retch, expelling water, bile, and the remnants of your last meal. Do you remember what it was? A salad, I think. Caesar. Yup, there are some croutons. You’re about to faint. Don’t do that. Please, please don’t do that. You’ll drown in salt water and your own sick.
Shake your head. Reach a hand up to steady yourself against the ceiling. Your back stings, your stomach screams. Gather yourself. Take in your surroundings.
The water is murky, hard to penetrate. The wall is a sickly yellow-white that must have made the previous inhabitants suicidal. Well, lucky them, they’re probably all dead now. Wait, no, don’t think about that. Don’t think-
(how many bodies are floating beneath me?)
Ha, ha! Let’s think about something else! How about a door, can we find a door? And get the fuck out of this room? Tend to your back maybe. That means putting your head underwater again. Can you do that? Doesn’t matter, you don’t have a choice. Just do it, get it over with.
Oh, shit. Oh, god almighty.
Dozens. At least. Bloated faces, vacant eyes, open mouths. Dead.
This is a place of death.
Don’t think, don’t look. There’s a door. A blessed rectangle of bureaucratic beige. Swim.
Fingers graze your face; cold, waterlogged. You gasp and suck in more water.
Oh, no no no, don’t black out now. Push, push, push. Let your fingers
(those fingers are dead, a dead man touched me, oh god, oh god, I’m going to die here)
grip the knob.
Don’t fade out on me now. Don’t think about the bodies drifting towards you. Try once more.
The door squeaks against many tons of pressure, lurches, and caves, slamming against the outer wall and drinking in water, displacing untold weight and sucking you into darkness.
A face rushes out of the soggy gloom as you somersault through the black and you become entwined with its body. It plants a kiss at the corner of your mouth; you can feel the hard pressure of teeth against your skin.
Do not pass out. Let the water take you. Ignore the limbs wrapped around yours, strain against the weight of the skull pressing into yours.
I know, you’re running out of air, but buoyancy will be your grace. Wait to rise and-
My god, air has never tasted so good, even in this damp, fetid corridor. Yes, push that corpse away. Watch it drift, aimless, like a dejected ghost. It’s dark in here. No windows, but the light leaking from the submerged door gives you a murky sliver of illumination.
It’s a hallway, of course. It stretches into shadow ahead of you. Behind you, a wall looms some ten feet away. If you’re lucky, that’s where the stairwell is. But you already know, don’t you? The helpful people would have told you. There would be an orange light, now a barely legible brown, with one, simple word: EXIT. You see no such sign at this end of the hallway. You dunk your head anyway. There is a door, but the helpful people have given it a different name: CONFERENCE ROOM. No one to confer with here. Except the corpses.
You return to the surface with a hysterical little giggle on your lips and it escapes before you can catch it. The sound is strange in the hallway. You think again of ghosts and have to shut your eyes because they’re trying to trick you. At least, you hope that’s what they’re doing. Otherwise, there’s a white face staring at you from the other end of the hall. From the place you need to swim.
Easy does it now. Just take a few breaths. You’ve been through a great trauma, it’d be weird if you weren’t seeing things, right? Ghosts are only in stories. They’re not real. And if they were, what would they want with you?
Okay, open your eyes. See? Nothing there. Just a dark, flooded hallway. You know the drill, old man. Swim down the tunnel, sorry, sorry, hallway. It’s all very surreal, isn’t it? Seeing the sprinkler system above you, fire alarms dotting the walls. They prepared for a fire, not for a wave. This isn’t really funny, but you smile anyway, just to give your face something to do.
The light gets weaker as you paddle down the hall. All the other doors beneath your feet are closed shut; no light to guide your way. It’s okay, it’s okay. Think about that fire above you. Think how nice the company of others will be. Don’t think about the things that brush up against you as you swim. Don’t think about the shapes that drift past your body. Don’t think of the face.
Don’t think of the face.
It’s almost pitch black now, but you can just make out the sign floating above the water line: EXIT. Your old bones ache from the stress of your trauma. It will be good to rest, finally, when this is all said and done. Hell, you’ve earned that, haven’t you?
You stop and your breath freezes in your lungs. Was that in your head?
Yes, of course it was, it must be, it-
“Please. I fell.”
You tread water, your back stinging, your mind racing. It’s not real, remember? If ghosts were real, some scientist somewhere would have made a ghost catching machine or something. It’s all in your head. You’re just hallucinating, that’s what must be happening, because if it’s not…
In the corner there. Do you see it? Stop, stop, don’t look directly at it. You can’t let it know you see. But you do see, don’t you? The face. Pale skin, two shining black marble eyes, hair short and tousled.
“Please help me.” You can see its mouth moving out of the corner of your eye. Water bubbles around its lips. This isn’t happening. Just keep swimming towards the EXIT, don’t look at it, don’t-
It’s coming towards you.
Dive. Do it now.
Icy water fills your nose and ears and mouth. You’re screaming, the horrible knowledge a dagger in your throat. Find the knob. Twist and pull. It’s all rather familiar isn’t it? Your life has become an endless purgatorial loop.
A hand grips your ankle.
Beneath the water you scream, choking on salt and oblivion. Rip the door open, feel the familiar suction. Kick. The grip loosens.
Your fingers fumble over cold cement. A right angle. Another. Climb through the water and breathe the air, expel water, but don’t stop climbing.
Like a spider you scrabble up the stairs on all fours. Your breath is a wheezing scream and it’s right behind you, it’s going to get you and pull you back under it’s right there you can feel it, you can feel it.
You reach the landing and collapse. Your back is a hot line of fire, your lungs a screaming coal bellows. But you’re in luck: this stairwell has windows.
You look over your shoulder, certain you’ll see the thing that was once human crawling after you and you see-
A stairwell, brown water sloshing near the bottom.
See? All in your head, old man. Isn’t that a relief? That you’re losing your mind and not being chased by vengeful ghosts? What a delight; a real feelgood ending to this pleasant little saga. Get on your feet. How’s that cut on your back? Bleeding still? Probably infected, now that it’s been submerged in the corpse water.
You shiver, shake your head. Knowing how all that went down, you’re fairly certain you wouldn’t be able to do it again.
You look around the landing. The helpful people have left a sign on the door with a push bar: 7th Floor. Good. Only… oh, math was never your strong suit… uh, thirty-two flights of stairs. Jesus. Maybe rest for a second before embarking on that journey. Your body is near collapse.
Sitting on the steps, warming yourself in the blessed sunlight, you can almost pretend that nothing’s amiss. If you ignore the gentle lapping of water, the dead quiet of the city, you could just be an old man resting on the stairs before you continue on your way. Just another anonymous individual in a city of millions, going about your business. Close your eyes. Bask in the fantasy, just for a little. You never realized how nice you had it before the ocean came up and swallowed your home. Isn’t that always the lesson, though? Some real It’s A Wonderful Life shit. You’re ready to wake up now.
But when you open your eyes, you’re still in the stairwell. The water’s still lapping, the city is still dead. You sigh, get to your feet, and begin the long trek to safety and warmth.
How long are you in that stairwell do you think? An hour? Two? Perhaps it’s closer to a year. Perhaps, like everything else, time has stopped behaving how it’s supposed to. The sun doesn’t move as you make your way step by painful step. Your shadow doesn’t stretch, the light doesn’t shift. All there is in this horrible little world is your slow, painful progress. At the next landing you glance at the door: 11th Floor.
You stop and stare at that number as a queer certainty steals over you: this is not, strictly speaking, real. You’re not real. This is some sick, twisted little story being written by some angry, bored writer. It’s a punishment. You’re being punished for
something, though you’re not sure the punishment fits the crime. You look out the window. The sun hasn’t moved. This writer, whoever they are, could make that sun sit there for the rest of time if they wanted. They could make you climb this stairwell forever. Maybe there is no 39th floor. Maybe you’re just a rat in a maze, one so simple you’ll never be able to solve it.
Maybe you deserve it.
But then you shake your head, resume walking. That’s not how the world works. You’re not a character in a story. You have memories. You have feelings. For instance, remember that picnic in Central Park with… with Sandra. That was nice, wasn’t it? Why did you break up with her, anyway? She was so nice. She took you on picnics.
Glance at the door. 17th Floor. Okay, you’re making progress. Not an endless loop after all. This is still real. You’re still real.
Sure enough, after about a hundred thousand steps, you notice that the sun has begun to dip, and at every turn, your shadow elongates, a negative funhouse reflection.
You turn the last corner with barely enough breath to keep you on your feet. Thirty-two flights would be hard enough for someone half your age.
But there it is: 39th Floor. A vision from a dream.
You’ve come so far. Safety, at least some measure of it, is waiting for you behind that door. You should feel relieved.
But you don’t, do you? You thought you would, but instead you feel something else. Instead you feel a heavy, prickling dread. Why might that be, old man?
Perhaps it is this: there is no justice. Not really. Those who deserve punishment never get it; those who don’t get it anyway. This is the nature of your world, of your reality. So when you open that door, there will be an apartment down the hall with a roaring fire, friendly survivors, maybe even some food. And things might be tough, but you lived through it; you’ll live through more. After all that’s happened, this is not the shape justice would take.
But sometimes, maybe even most of the time, there is justice in stories. You decided all those years ago on the stairwell that you’re, in fact, not a character in a story. You are a real man, living in a real world, and what you did—or, more to the point, what you didn’t do—has no bearing on how the rest of your life will proceed. If that’s the case, open the door. There are no just deserts waiting for you. Just more of… this.
Why aren’t you moving? If you’re so certain you’re real, so certain that reality is as it appears, why don’t you just walk through that door?
Unless, maybe, you’re not so sure now.
Are you frightened, old man? Are you afraid of retribution? Are you worried about what might be behind that door? Maybe it’s a darkened hall. Maybe a white face will stare at you from the shrouded darkness. Maybe that face will ask for help. Maybe it will scuttle towards you on all fours, like a spider from the pits of hell. Maybe it will drag you down the thirty-two flights of steps, back into the water.
Or maybe there’s no fire at all. Maybe it was a hallucination, just like the face was. Maybe it’s just an abandoned apartment building, like the one you left behind. Maybe all that effort was for nothing.
Maybe your daughter and granddaughter are waiting for you.
These are all possibilities. If you are, indeed, just a character in a story, then anything could be waiting for you behind that door. A swarm of locusts. John F. Kennedy in a dinosaur costume. Sandra.
And maybe what’s most terrible is not any of these things. Maybe what’s most terrible is this moment, the one you stand in right now. The not knowing. The pure infinity of possibilities. The suspension.
Maybe you stare at the door forever.
And maybe that’s what you deserve.