The only con of living in a skyscraper is awkward elevator rides.
I’m not boasting but I do think living in a 20 storied apartment complex is almost like living in a skyscraper. There are so many flats and so many people that its almost impossible to know the names of people who live in the same floor as you! Or maybe its possible for social bees like my mum. Not for me though- I rarely interact with anyone. Minding my own business and others not prying in my business are important to me.
I have been living in this tall building for most of my life and riding the elevator for as long as I can remember. The building has only one elevator, thus rarely it is empty.
And that evening was no different. I live in the 20th floor, so the elevator isn’t always available at my beck and call. I usually board it empty on most days, unless it’s Swati Auntie riding up after dropping off her kid at the pre-school. My mother knows her because she moved in recently on our floor. I know her because her kid, Ansh is an annoying brat.
At a glance, she is a nice lady in her early 40s with honey-colored hair and a few strands of white (perhaps because of stress). We ride the elevator almost regularly due to my college timings and her drop off time coinciding.
On our first meeting, she tried making idle conversations, which I detest, perhaps even more than my mother.
“Hi, so you are Asmita’s daughter, right?” she had asked the first time we rode the elevator together, with Ansh latching on to her.
“I’m sorry?” she looked genuinely puzzled so I sighed.
“My name is Megha. Call me Megha.”
“Oh, oh! So…what do you do, Megha?”
I rolled my eyes.
“College.” I murmured.
“Really? Which college? And what do study? Which year?”
Her questions meant no harm but god, I was at my limit.
“Too many questions.”
I nodded and she fell silent. From there on our conversations had been restricted to a quick nod or simply a hello.
That evening, Auntie and I boarded the lift together to go downstairs; me to pick up my notes and her to pick up Ansh from the playground. We didn’t talk and sank into a comfortable silence, with no idea whatsoever that this elevator ride was going to change all our lives.
The elevator bell rang at the 18th floor signaling someone new was about to get in.
No matter how many times I have done this, my heart drummed in my chest and my breathing became uneven. I hate this anxiety but what if its another familiar face? What if they start talking to me? I tried to concentrate on the music playing through my air pods to calm myself, but it doesn’t work.
The elevator door slid open to reveal a grandpa with a walking stick. I don’t know why I registered the walking stick at a glance- maybe it was because of the shiny thing at the top of the handle- holy- is that gold?
I didn’t know who the grandpa was, but apparently Auntie knew and she helped him in with a warm smile.
“How are you, sir? Your knees are okay now?”
I looked at his knees as I heard Auntie’s words.
“Oh, by God’s grace, the doctor said I’d only need a knee replacement, otherwise all good!” he laughed, his croaked voice unpleasantly echoing in the lift.
Only a knee replacement? Why this man is quite optimistic for his age, I thought as I observed him. Clad in pristine white shirt and loose khaki pants, his bald head shone and his thick white moustache was set primly. He supported himself on the walking stick which looked and perhaps was darned expensive.
“Then is it alright for you to go in this condition?” Auntie’s concern cut into my thoughts. I was mildly annoyed.
“Maybe not, but I need some air. Who can stay cooped up day and night? I most certainly can’t!” his eyes were quick and immediately his next statement was directed at me.
“Oh, hello young lady, I didn’t quite notice you here.”
“Hmmm.” I desperately tried to bury myself in my phone.
“You must be Asmita from 20th floor?”
“Yeah, she’s Asmita’s daughter, Megha.” Auntie answered for me. Thanks Auntie.
“Oh yes yes, how are you doing beta?”
Oh my God, this is turning into a pain in the neck. Why are old grandpas allowed on the elevators?
I nodded. But grandpa had other plans for me.
“How’s your mother? And your father? I haven’t seen him around.”
I froze. My mind went blank. He didn’t have to bring him up.
I think I must have looked weird because the next thing I hear is Auntie’s sweet voice asking me if I was okay.
I would have pulled myself through and told her I was fine. But the elevator had other plans for me.
The elevator stopped at the 15th floor. The customary bell rang and the doors slid open to announce the new visitor.
“Oh, Ekaansh, glad you are here, Megha here is not feeling good,” Auntie started even before I could get word in.
“What happened?” he asked softly.
“I am fine, auntie, no need to trouble others.” Perhaps I was a lot harsher than I intended to be. Auntie was taken aback. She moved away from me to collect herself.
Ekaansh looked disappointed but didn’t say anything.
I’m glad that he didn’t. it would have only aggravated the circumstances.
I leaned on the wall the behind me and closed my eyes, trying to calm myself. First the old man asking uncalled questions and now him- he had to get into the lift today only?! It all seemed like an elaborate trap.
In hindsight it definitely was.
I heard Ekaansh and grandpa making a conversation.
“You should visit us more often, you know Nani misses you; she gets all fidgety every time the doorbell rings ,” Ekaansh joked.
“Ah, yes, but my knees- you know.”
“But grandpa, you are out here riding the elevator!”
Old man burst into laughter while Ekaansh smiled ruefully.
A bunch of hypocrites, I thought though I really didn’t know whom I was referring to.
Ekaansh was a childhood friend with whom I used to play- though he is a year older than me, he was my best friend and the only person I properly knew in the building because I didn’t really have any other friends- at home or at school. He made me laugh and laughed himself. We spent ours together sharing everything little thing about ourselves. I even told him about my father. But I think he didn’t tell me all of himself. Perhaps it was only me, in our friendship, that trusted him unconditionally.
His mirthful smiles and giggles however faded over the years.
And so did our friendship.
I remember it was the 10th floor when the bell rang for the third time. But this time it was odd. The moment the door opened to reveal the man who entered the elevator, I instinctively knew something was wrong. He was dressed oddly too- as if he was out to man a circus. A pointed hat and a tail coat trailing wherever he goes and a funny banana printed shirt coat and trousers.
Perhaps Auntie sensed my anxiousness too. She stepped forward and greeted him.
“Hello, I haven’t seen you around. Do you live on the 10th floor? Or are you out to visit someone?”
Whatever he said took us by a storm- and in my case, it took me by my neck and slammed me on the wall.
“So, I bet you are wondering why I've gathered you here,” he looked around and then hit the emergency stop button.
“Woah, woah, what do you think you are doing? Sir I need you to get off the elevator on the next floor when it restarts.” Ekaansh told him firmly to which the man seemed unfazed.
“I can’t get out. And neither can you, until you do as I say.”
“Are you a terrorist? What do u want?” Auntie screamed.
Nonsense! Why would a terrorist hijack a lift when there’s an entire building out there?
“Now, if you listen carefully and do as I say, then you’ll get off safely and so will I. I’ll vanish from your lives and will never be seen again, do u get it?” the man squeaked.
What a funny voice, I thought, can’t believe he is in charge.
“Sir my knees are weak I can’t stand for too long…”
It was as if grandpa changed his entire personality in a second. Now he’s pathetically begging for his life.
“Then sit. Over there.” The man pointed at a chair and it was at that moment I knew that whatever was going on isn’t a prank or whatever.
When Auntie and I entered the elevator, it was empty. And all this while as the four of us stood and talked, we and our belongings were the only living and non-living objects in the lift.
But there it was- a chair. A chair ready and waiting as if it always had been there.
This was 100% real and somehow the only way to get out of this was to do whatever this man says.
Ekaansh too perhaps came to the same conclusion. He sighed and asked what we need to do to get out of this mess.
“oh that,” the man began, “it’s simple. Confess.”
“Confess what?” I asked for the first time since the man came on board, and even the man looked surprised.
“Whatever you have been lying. To yourself and to the world.”
“But I have lied my entire life, I don’t remember!” the grandpa burst out, ready to weep.
Wow, old man I didn’t expect this of you.
“Noooo,” the strange man drawled, “you don’t have to ‘fess up every lie you have said. Just the ones that have affected you and your surroundings enough to direct a change in the course of your life.”
“but how will we know which one…” Auntie trailed off. I looked at her and she didn’t look too well so I scooted closer to her to give her some support.
“Oh! For that we have devised a system,” his squeaky voice continued.
“We will start from the 20th floor,” he snapped his fingers and before I could even comprehend what was happening, the screen inside the lift showed ‘20’.
“Since there’s four of you, each of you are allotted 5 floors. If you ‘fess up properly then the lift will descend by 5 floors. The screen here will show you the levels. In any case, if any of you withhold or cheat then, good luck to you all- because all of you will be stuck.”
“That means we all need to confess properly in order to get out…it’s a team game,” I murmured.
“Bingo! Additionally, if you are lying, the lift will ascend by 1 level.” He added.
“impossible…impossible someone outside will find out that the lift is not working…right?” Auntie looked as white as a sheet.
Ekaansh shook his head.
“you should have figured it by now. This man is not ordinary. We are here trapped. And the only way to get out is-
“To play his game.” I finished.
“Bingo!” the man clapped and jumped.
“Now shall we start?”
“Who wants to go first?” he asked.
I could see in all of our face that none of us really wanted to. Heck even I didn’t want to.
The old man croaked at this very moment.
“Swati and Megha live on the 20th floor. You start!”
I swear to God, I’ll push him off a cliff the next time I see him.
“Good idea,” Ekaansh agreed. “Auntie, what about you?”
“Me? What about the youngsters? Shouldn’t the youngsters go first?”
“But aren’t you and grandpa the adults here? Shouldn’t you take responsibility?” Ekaansh disagreed.
“You speak too much!”, Auntie snapped at him.
Ekaansh and I looked at each other in surprise. I didn’t expect auntie to give in to her temper so easily….wait what is she hiding? Is there something she has done that she doesn’t want the world to know?
“lets have a vote then,” I suggested, “those who want auntie to go first raise ur hand.”
Three hands except auntie’s shot up.
“Damn you all! Damn you creatures!” she screamed.
Is this the woman I ride the elevator with every day?
“so Swati please start.” The man announced gleefully. I slumped against the wall and closed my eyes again as she started.
“Ansh is another man’s child.”
“WHAT?” The old man screamed.
“Shut up sir, we are here not to pass judgements.” Ekaansh warned the old man and for once, I was grateful to him.
“I didn’t tell my husband, but every Friday, where I take him to the day care, I drop him off and meet his real father. It was a sudden thing, and the father doesn’t know about it either- and everyday he greets me and plays with Ansh along with all the other kids and i….”
Auntie trailed off and her voice cracked. I’m sure she was about to cry.
The man clapped.
“Heartbreaking, it must have been.” Auntie glared daggers at the man and so did I.
“But you go down 5 levels! Good job!”
As if on cue the elevator plummeted to the 15th floor.
I sighed. There was no way out. And it would be cowardly, especially after Swati Auntie’s confession.
“Are you sure?” Ekaansh asked me softly. “I think the old man should go first.”
“Why do you care? As long as we are descending...” I trailed off. Instead I focused on my shoe laces.
“You are right. Why do I care?”
“Youngsters go first, and save this old man”, grandpa croaked. I was disgusted by his pettiness already so it didn’t matter who went first. I’m going to go ahead and do it.
The strange man in banana coat asked me once more,
“Are you next? Because I have a feeling that the old man will lie.”
I didn’t respond to him. I was too busy trying to rearrange everything in my mind. I was about to say things that I have never spoken about to anyone.
I turned around to see Ekaansh’s worried face. I decided to ignore him. Auntie too looked at me eagerly. A wave of disgust washed over me as I parted my lips to tell the tale.
“My mother killed my father.” My sixth sense could feel the three of them flinch.
“She was a patient at the asylum my dad worked at. The doctor there fooled him by saying that she was completely cured and that he could marry her. My dad loved her and married her. Soon they had me. We were happy for a while but my mother’s mental state started deteriorating. But still my dad took care of her…but what did he get in turn? Death.”
“So that night wasn’t an accident?” Ekaansh asked.
I shook my head and slowly lifted my head to see the screen light up to show level 13th. I bit my lip.
“Seems like you haven’t said all of it, my dear.” The man informed as he munched on the banana- where did he get that banana?
“There isn’t anything else.” I asserted. I don’t want to talk about that again, especially not here in front of him.
“The screen doesn’t lie, dear.”
“C’mon,” It was grandpa this time, “It doesn’t matter. Swati here could do it. You can too.”
“Shut up old man.” Auntie murmured.
I hesitated. But there was nothing I could do. The priority was to get out.
“I…” I took in a deep breath and finally let out what I wanted to say all these years, aloud.
“I miss our friendship, Ekaansh. I miss being with you. I wish… we could go back and reset whatever went wrong...I miss….you.”
“I miss you too. And I’m sorry for whatever I did.”
I turned around but my vision was blurry because of all the tears.
“Megha.” He softly called my name and took my hands in his, “I never meant to hurt you that day. I wanted to fit in with the other boys and I didn’t realize calling you such things would…I- I am so ashamed of myself. Please forgive me.”
“It took us so many years, didn’t it?” I brushed away the tears that were falling.
“We were always stubborn.” He said and pulled me into a hug.
I got my friend back.
It was the odd man’s voice that interrupted our moment.
“That was so touching. So, the last one left is the old man-”
“Wait, this boy didn’t-”
The man pointed at the screen and I was astonished to see that we were now at level 5.
“Grandpa, speak up.”
All three of us gathered around him.
“Don’t you dare lie.” Auntie warned him beforehand. “You are quiet the manipulative snake, aren’t you?”
“Don’t go around calling people what you are yourself!” He spat back.
“Grandpa c’mon, all of us did it, it’s not that hard,” Ekaansh encouraged him.
But the old man was a tough nut to convince. Finally, a threat from Auntie that she will kick his knees, did the trick.
“My father left the family business to us- two brothers. I was the elder one, but the younger one cheated me off.”
The screen glitched and the next thing we knew we were on level 6.
“That’s not what happened, isn’t it?” I asked him.
“NO! He cheated…”
“Listen here you. No need to keep up with your farce. We are more buck naked with our truths than any naked person can ever be. So quit it.”
Grandpa was sweating profusely. The man handed a fan to Ekaansh- wait where did he get a fan?
“Alright, alright. I broke them up- his fiancée and him. When I saw his lover, I was so overwhelmed by her beauty that I wanted her for myself. So, I hired a woman and framed my brother to portray as if he was cheating on her. But even after breaking their marriage, she didn’t love me. She married another man. Your Nani…Ekaansh..I loved her. I still do.”
“What the..” Ekaansh was more than angry. He was raging. Furious. He would have almost beat the heck out the man if Auntie’s scream hadn’t alerted us.
“The man’s gone! The door! The elevator!”
We were at ground floor. The elevator door opened up. A bunch of people were waiting for us to get out and were looking annoyed.
“Did we make it?” I asked, dazed.
“I think so too.”
We hurriedly got out of the lift and checked the lobby clock. I was pretty sure we were at least in there for an hour, if not more. But not even 10 minutes had passed in the ‘real’ world, if I may say it.
“What a weird evening,” I murmured, “I feel so tired.”
“Yeah, me too. We should talk about this over coffee. What do you think? Ekaansh smiled.
I nodded and smiled too.
It has been ages since than evening. But once in while we still talk about what happened. Grandpa asked forgiveness from Ekaansh’s Nani on his deathbed and he died peacefully. Auntie, well, came clean about everything which soon led to a divorce. She however no longer lives with us. She moved to a new apartment with Ansh. She did thank us, before she left.
I admitted my mother to an asylum and no longer do I have to worry about getting murdered in my sleep. She is doing much better.
Ekaansh and I are still in touch though he had to shift to a different city because of work. We still manage to meet once a year.
I often do think about that man. Who was he? Was this experience real? But yes, it was. Then why are things not adding up?
I don’t question too often though. Whatever happened, happened for good.