It’s 7:31pm, and I’m the last person in the office. But instead of leaving, I’m standing in front of the elevator with a box of paperclips in my hand.
“Ready to go?” asks Ray.
He’s keeping the elevator door open for me. Behind him are Megan, Carla, and Marcos, all of whom look tired from working so late.
The first time this happened, I opened my mouth to say yes, then I suddenly changed my answer as I remembered my resolution to lose a few pounds.
Back then I said, “Thanks, but I’ll take the stairs.”
This time I don’t say anything.
“Suit yourself,” Ray says anyway, as if I had spoken.
He releases the door, but before it can close, I toss in the box. It lands on its corner and the lid pops off, scattering its contents like a paperclip grenade. Then the door slides shut and I’m alone again.
No one in the elevator thought this was weird. In fact, they didn’t even notice. I’ve done this little experiment many, many times, so I’m not surprised they didn’t react. I’m also not surprised to look over and see the box of paperclips back on my desk, as if I’d never touched it.
My other experiments end the same way. I’ve blocked the doors, I’ve shouted and begged, and I’ve grabbed at Ray’s arm, but nothing makes any lasting difference. My co-workers never respond, and everything resets. I always end up alone in the office, at least until the elevator reappears and Ray asks if I’m ready to go.
I’ve gotten tired of experimenting, but there isn’t much else to do around here. The phones and radios and fire alarms don’t work. All the computers are frozen. I found a cheap romance novel hidden in Megan’s bottom drawer, but I know how it ends. I ought to—I’ve only read it thirty times.
Even if I actually do take the stairwell, it’s like walking into an M. C. Escher print. However many flights I descend or ascend, every door brings me right back here, to the 40th floor.
Of course, I could always join my co-workers in the elevator. I remember once when I was a kid, I was feeling morbidly curious so I looked up elevator accidents and found out they were incredibly rare. Elevators are probably the safest method of transportation in the world, since they basically cannot just go crashing to the ground. You’re about 1,000 times more likely to die on a staircase.
But even though I know that, I also know this: each time the elevator leaves, if I put my ear to the door, I can hear the receding screams of my co-workers echoing back up the shaft.
And that’s why it’s always 7:31pm. Because I’m supposed to be with them.
Looking up from the paperclip box, I see the elevator has returned.
“Ready to go?” asks Ray.
Eventually, I know I’ll say yes.