It was on the long drive from Michigan to Denver, where her youngest daughter lived, that Marcy stopped at the gas station. It looked like it had been abandoned in the middle of a renovation. The ground all around it was dug up, and weeds as tall as her hips sprouted here and there between clods of dirt. She had to pee badly enough that she wasn’t going to be picky.
She was taking the back roads rather than the interstate because when Lenny got home from his long-haul assignment to San Diego and found both her and his pickup gone he just might report the truck stolen.
The parking lot looked like a junkyard. Somebody had ideas about repairing old cars but never quite got around to it. Marcy’s father’s house had been like that. The junkers sitting in the weeds and in the woodlot became homes to squirrels and feral cats and once, to skunks. The skunks had been the final straw. Her mother insisted he get rid of the cars; it had been easier to move.
It was a lesson Marcy had put to good use. If you had a problem you couldn’t fix, you moved on and left it behind. Like Lenny. Lenny was a big, fat, cheating, lying bastard
A sign that said ‘Washrooms’ pointed toward the back of the building. Marcy armed herself with one of the paper toilet seat covers she had picked up at the TA Travel Center and a wad of tissue.
The grey-aged plywood door had a cheap handle, like you would put on a cupboard. Marcy hoped there was a slide bolt on the inside, but then, there didn’t seem to be anyone around to worry about.
The door made a predictable squeal and banged shut behind her on rusty spring-loaded hinges. Marcy pushed her sunglasses up onto the top of her head. In front of her an unpainted cinder block wall blinked into focus as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. She turned to the left and there was nothing, just a blank plywood wall, no sink, and to the right… there was another plywood wall and no toilet. Like the outside of the gas station, the bathroom wasn’t finished. Marcy gave a snort—half exasperation and half laughter—and turned. She wasn’t too proud to pee in the weeds out back. She put her hand against the door and pushed.
It wouldn’t move.
There was no handle on this side, no latch and no slide bolt. Marcy frowned at the door and pushed again, then pushed with the flats of both hands. The door, which had felt flimsy when she opened it, was rock solid now. A dazzling strip of daylight outlined it, overpowering the feeble bulb overhead, but when she pounded on it, the door didn’t so much as rattle.
‘Hey! Anybody out there?’ She punctuated her calls with bangs on the door. ‘Hello?’
Marcy patted her pockets but her phone was in the truck. Was she going to have to wait for the next passerby? How long would that be? She needed to pee.
And then the floor started to tremble. Marcy felt more than heard a motor running, vibrating up the bones of her legs. With a jerk the room that was not a washroom started to move down. She put a hand out to steady herself against the cinder block wall but it was moving upward and she fell back against the very steady plywood door. A little pee leaked out before she could stop it.
The cinder block wall rolled by, upward, like the credits of a movie. Then came hard-packed dirt layered with chunks of bone-white limestone, and more and more limestone, until it was a solid, irregular wall.
With a gentle thud the box came to rest and the rumbling stopped.
‘What the hell?’
Cool air washed over Marcy’s legs. There as an opening, about three feet high at the base of the limestone wall and she crouched down to peer into it. A cleft in the rock, big enough to walk through, twisted away from the washroom-cum-elevator into darkness; there was no promising glare of sunshine at the end of it.
Marcy turned and looked at the makeshift elevator. There must be controls somewhere. Who builds an elevator without light-up, numbered buttons? The only surface that was not a solid full sheet of plywood was in the corner of the floor. There was a foot-square patch, like something had been cut out of the main sheet. Marcy thumped and banged at it and around it, but she wasn’t able to pop open any secret lock. Where was MacGyver when she needed him? She tried pulling up the square, but there wasn’t enough of a gap for her fingers to get purchase, and when she tried to pry with her keys, all she managed to do was break off splinters. The square was more solid than the rest of the floor.
‘Go back up!’ cried Marcy, banging on the door again. ‘Let me out!’ There was no echo. ‘My boyfriend is right behind me. He’s gonna see my truck and want to know where I am,’ she called. There was no response. ‘He’s got his dog and his huntin’ rifles with him!’
Well wouldn’t her sister Darlene be happy to see this? It would be proof to her that Marcy never should have left Lenny, and never headed out cross-country on her own. When she told Darlene she was leaving him, her sister had said that at sixty-two she was no spring chicken and she ought to overlook Lenny’s little faults and hang on to him. Darlene was a prude who thought she deserved a merit badge for only ever having slept with the same man for the past 40 years. Marcy told her sister that it was better to be alone than to wish you were, although it was a theory that she had never actually tested out.
Every time Marcy left a man—or he left her—it seemed there was another one waiting in the wings. She wasn’t the sort of woman who was supposed to attract men: she was short and plump and her dishwater blond curls had gone grey early on. But they liked her smile, and they called her sweet and cuddly and fun.
No one would ever call Darlene fun.
Marcy bent to look into the passage at her feet again. There was an uneven floor was about three feet below the opening, like the elevator had not quite made it to the bottom.
Did the passage lead out? Was it a disused but still functioning funhouse rid? Were people in the safety and comfort of their homes watching her now via hidden cameras? Or was there a chainsaw-wielding psycho at the other end of that passage wearing someone else’s skin and waiting to add Marcy’s to his wardrobe?
And then she heard something coming down the passage.
Marcy crab-walked herself back into a corner. She wished she had a baseball bat, or better, a gun, and then she remembered all the women’s self-defense advice she had read. She slipped Lenny’s keys between her trembling fingers. Truck key, house key, shed key, shop key, other keys she didn’t know. His ratty and faded green rabbit’s foot dangled at her wrist. She crouched, braced against the plywood corner, so she had a good view into the passage.
A girl’s pale face appeared around a bulge in the rock. Marcy relaxed a little, but she didn’t let go of the keys. The girl paused and looked Marcy over, then proceeded to pick her way carefully along the corridor towards the elevator.
Marcy felt less relieved when she got a close-up look at the girl. Dark hair hung in greasy strands around her face, like yarn, and she squinted at the weak light. Blue veins pulsed beneath translucent skin. A too-large dress hung from shoulders so thin they could have been made out of a wire coat hanger.
‘Are you going to come out?’ asked the girl in a papery, inflectionless voice.
‘What’s out there?’ asked Marcy.
The girl looked behind her, as if checking to see if the landscape had changed, and then looked back at Marcy. ‘The pool,’ she said.
A vision of the community pool in the trailer park where Marcy had lived after they moved from the junkyard house flashed on her mind’s eye: glittering chlorinated water and sunshine and boys and the ice cream truck. But she didn’t think this girl’s pool was like that.
‘Is there a way out?’
‘Back to the gas station? To the parking lot?’
‘It leads to the pool. That’s all. That’s all there is.’
‘I want to go back up.’
The girl shook her head. ‘It won’t go up when anyone is in it.’
Marcy stared at her. ‘How did you get down here?’
‘The same way you did.’
‘How long have you been down here?’
The girl shrugged, twined her hands together in front of her hips, so that her elbows pointed out and started twisting gently side to side.
‘There’s no way out?’ Marcy asked again.
‘You live down here?’
‘How do you live? What do you eat?’
‘Fish. Mushrooms. Lichen, but not the glowing kind. We need that for light.’
Marcy looked at the pale and undernourished girl. ‘People who come down in this elevator?’ she suggested.
The girl stopped her twisting motion. ‘There was a man once. He wouldn’t come out. He starved to death. We took his body out. Then the elevator went back up.’ The girl pointed and looked up as if she was referring to a mythical place.
‘I want to go back up,’ Marcy declared.
‘Do you have anything?’ asked the girl.
‘Anything like what?’
‘Matches. Or a lighter? Or gum? I had gum once. It was orange. It was so good. But that was a long time ago.’
‘No. Just me and my truck keys.’
‘Can I have them?’
Marcy shook her head. Apparently the girl had never read any self-defense advice to women and didn’t know that the keys’ Freddy Kruger arrangement between her fingers was meant to be a weapon.
‘Are you going to come out?’
‘I want to go back up,’ Marcy repeated.
The girl shrugged and turned away and went back down the passage the way she had come.
Marcy lowered her bottom to the floor to sit. The crotch of her shorts was uncomfortably damp. Someone would come. Someone else would stop for the same reason she had and find a gaping elevator shaft. They might curse out loud or call their buddy over to look, and she would hear them, and she would call for help and they would get her out. Or Lenny would come looking for his truck. Or the police. Someone would rescue her.
Marcy rolled onto her side so she could see into the passage better. She was looking for the glinting eyes of little hidden cameras. If they could see her, surely she could find them. After all, this couldn’t be real. But in the feeble light all she saw was rock and more rock.
Why couldn’t Lenny be one of those handy types with a flashlight on his keychain instead of the blasted rabbit’s foot? It hadn’t done the rabbit any good, and it wasn’t doing her any good either.
And then the light snapped off. Marcy caught a scream of surprise behind her hands. And she peed. Not all of it, but more than a trickle. She cursed under her breath. When someone did rescue her they were going to see that she had peed her pants like a little girl. Or an old lady.
Stress incontinence, the doctor called it. It’s age, he had said, with his condescending smile. She wanted to tell him that one day age would get him too, and his prostate would explode.
This was the same doctor who had called her in for a checkup when she wasn’t due for one, told her she had a yeast infection, which she knew she didn’t have, and gave her a shot and a scrip for antibiotics. Her friend Hester at the pharmacy told her the antibiotics were for the clap. Lenny had given it to her. And where had Lenny picked it up? Not from her, that was damn sure.
‘Alright, let’s be calm and reasonable. There’s nothing here in the dark that wasn’t here in the light,’ she said out loud. ‘I have two problems: I am stuck down here, and I have to pee.’
Marcy climbed to her feet and dropped her shorts and her underwear. She didn’t want to pee on the floor when it was the only place she had to sit. There was no dignified way to stick her behind out into the passage. On her knees she crawled backwards to the opening, rolled onto her back, braced her feet against the limestone like she was giving birth, and shot her pee out into the darkness of the passage.
That felt so much better. She hoped the undernourished cannibal girl stepped in it.
Dried off and dressed again, Marcy contemplated the passage. She didn’t want to get out precisely because that was the only option she seemed to have. He or she or it wanted her to get off the elevator. And then the elevator would leave without her and she’d be stranded with the pale girl cannibal.
But then again staying put wasn’t much of an option. She had a vision of herself starved to death in the elevator and the denizens of this underground chamber of horrors creeping along the passage to claim her body for dinner. The girl would pluck the truck keys from her limp fingers and smile smugly over her useless new treasure.
Or maybe they wouldn’t wait for her to starve.
Marcy finger-combed her hair and reset the sunglasses on her head. She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. She was not going to let that happen.
The cannibal girl had said: it won’t go up with anybody in it. So how did the elevator know if someone was in it? Marcy stood up and walked back and forth. Yes, there was some give to the floor. There had to be a pressure plate underneath. That’s why there were no buttons: the floor was the button. Push it, you went down; release it, you went up.
She had to get off the floor. No matter where she stood, she was pressing down on that switch.
And then she remembered the square of firmly nailed-down plywood in the corner. It didn’t lift to reveal controls: it was the exact opposite. The whole floor was a switch and it wasn’t.
Marcy squeezed herself into the corner, scuffling for the edges of the plywood square with the toes of her sandals to make sure she was on it. She held the position, held her breath, and then the trembling of the motor started. With a cry of happy surprise she let the tension of her body go, she lost her balance, and one foot came down on the main part of the floor.
The motor stopped and the elevator thumped back down.
There was a faint noise. Someone was coming way down the passage.
‘You can do it,’ she told herself. ‘You have to do it.’
Marcy crammed herself back into position, willing her round body to fit into the ninety-degree angle like a corner cupboard. Oh, to be twelve again, and skinny!
The person in the passage was not in a hurry, but they were getting closer.
Go! She silently urged the elevator.
And it did. It started to tremble and then, with a jerk, it moved upward. Marcy pressed the palms of her hands flat against the plywood walls to hold herself steady, splinters be damned. She stayed that way until the elevator not only stopped, but the trembling motor shut off.
And then she counted to three.
On three she sprang for the door. It bounced open with a squeal of rusty springs and Marcy tumbled out in to the twilight, scraping her forearms and knees first on the broken concrete of the sidewalk, and then on the gravel of the parking lot. She staggered to her feet, ran for the truck and wrenched open the door.
Marcy shot out of the lot spewing gravel behind her. She drove as fast as she dared until she reached a ramp for the interstate and a proper truck stop, lit up like a ballpark for a night game. She sat in the parking lot while she caught her breath, and pulled out a map.
No more back roads. She was hitting the interstate.