by Faith M., 18
I think it’s too late now. Or it will be soon.
The lights turn off at the end of the day as usual, but I’m too late. I’ll have to walk in the dark. I should’ve brought my light, but it’s too late. A man pushes past me from around the corner and mutters an apology. He’s too late, too.
I shudder a little in the cold. The lifter is so far and I’m tired. Why’d I go to Middle today? I didn’t need to go. Why couldn’t I just have stayed home? Jupeter said I should have stayed home and he was right. I’m so dumb. I should have stayed. I pull my scarf closer to my chin and breathe deeply. Why does Middle get so cold at light-off?
The lights switch off and darkness engulfs the buildings. The only light is coming from a lifter. I clutch the ends of my scarf in my hands and walk faster towards the light.
I reach the lifter and a man stands inside, aggressively pressing the down button. He looks like a Low.
“What a farmer button. I’ve gotta lot a stuff to do,” he murmurs to himself.
“Hi,” I say, and he doesn’t turn to me. I take a deep breath and gently raise my voice. “Um… do you know if any of the lifters are working?”
He smiles a little but doesn’t say anything. I reach over and press the up button.
“None of ‘em’re workin’, miss.”
“Guess the Nameless’ll get us. Or we can jus’ stay here in the lift ‘til first light.”
“My husband will worry about me.”
“Nothin’ I can do. They turn the lifts off at light-off. I’m gonna check the other lifts.” He smiles a little. “Maybe one forgot it’s not supposed to work.”
My eyes widen and I open my mouth, but only a soft whisper comes out. “Don’t leave.”
Halfway through the door’s threshold, he stops and turns to me. “What?”
I swallow. “I don’t like being alone.”
He smiles a little. “I can stay.”
I stand there and stare forward at the lights lining the inside of the lifter for a few minutes until I slide down the wall and pull my knees to my chest. He looks at me. I look at him, then back at the lights.
“Don’t look much like ya oughta be married,” he says, leaning against the lifter door and tilting his head to the other side.
I feel my cheeks flush red. “What?”
“Jus’ that you’re so young.”
“Oh. Yes… I married right out of education.”
“Didn’t wanna wait ‘round a bit?”
Why is he talking to me about this? “No.”
He peels himself off the door wall and slides down next to me, leaning against the corner of the lifter. “Must’a really loved ‘im then. You’re lucky.”
I look out into the inky darkness outside and feel the cold creeping along my skin. I pull my jacket tighter around myself.
“You’re a High?”
I glance at him. “Yes.”
“What’s High like? Highest I’ve been’s Middle.”
“It’s nice, I suppose.”
“Ever been to Low?”
I shake my head.
“Huh. Well, it’s nothin’ special, so I guess that oughta make sense.”
“What are you doing in Middle? Aren’t there laws against Lows outside the Level?”
He sits up a little. “I’m not the kinda guy to follow all the rules.” A sideways smile tugs his lip up. “I’m a transporter for the Mill. An’ I’ve got a friend in the Restaurant.”
I raise an eyebrow. “And that is why you’re still in Middle? Past light-off?”
His smile tugs the other side of his mouth, and he sighs. “I’m not all that good at timekeepin’.” He tilts his head to the side a little. “Why’re you here past light-off, huh?”
I stick my hands in my pockets. “I was at the market a little too late. I’m not very good at timekeeping either, I suppose.”
He looks at me, then into my eyes. “Don’t see no bags or nothin’.”
“I didn’t end up buying anything.”
He nods slowly and leans back, resting his head on the wall and closing his eyes. “Wonder what you’re husband’s thinkin’ right now?” he asks.
“Probably nothing.” He opens his eyes and pulls his head up, looking at me, his brow furrowed a little. “He’s probably asleep… probably doesn’t even know I’m gone.” The cold seeps into my jacket and I shiver.
“Cold?” He sits up and pulls his jacket off his back. “Wanna wear mine? I’m never cold. Low’s always kinda cold, so ya get used to it real easy.” I open my mouth but the words get stuck, so I shake my head instead. “No,” he says and places the thin jacket around my shoulders. “Not much, but better than your shiverin’.”
I smile a little and look out into the darkness and something moves; or, I think something moves. It’s so dark, but I swear. A silhouette of darkness thicker than its surrounding ink shifts and the black ripples. The darkness is dancing. Cold runs down my back and my face flushes. The cold soaks my skin and I feel wet, despite my scarf, my jacket, and his jacket. High never gets this cold.
“Ya okay?” he asks and leans towards me, following my gaze. “Nothin’s out there.”
“I know,” I whisper, but I don’t think he can hear me. I think I’m too quiet. “I’m just tired, I suppose,” I say and he leans back.
“Yeah, me too.” He sighs and stretches out his left leg, and it brushes my foot. “Why do ya think your husband doesn’t know you’re gone?”
I rub my hands against my knees and some of the cold slides away. “I went to the market and didn’t tell him.”
“Why’s it matter if you tell ‘im or not?”
“He prefers to know where I am.”
“But he went to sleep without ya. Doesn’t sound much like he cares.”
I swallow and rest my chin on my knees. My eyelids are heavy and the lights in the lifter are so bright. A high pitch buzz, possibly from the lights, pierces through my head.
“He cares. I mean, I told him I might go. I just didn’t tell him when I left.”
He hangs his elbows on his knees. “That’s why I’m not married. No one to tell where I’ve been or where I’m goin’.”
“But that’s so lonely.”
“Don’t matter much to me.”
I turn my head to face him. He just smiles at me, so I turn to face the darkness. “How can it not matter?”
He gestures to the outside. “I’ve been out there, an’ isn’t nothin ‘bout bein’ alone that can scare you.”
I sit up a little. “But, when you’re alone, you can get hurt. And there is the uncertainty of it, you know. I don’t know. I don’t like it, I suppose.”
“I get that. But how’re ya gonna stand up if you’re always leanin’ on someone else?” I pull my knees closer. “Take this lift. Alone, it’s just a lift. It won’t go nowhere without someone else. It’s just a lift. But you’re not a lift. You’re just a person. And a person can take a lift and then the lift has a reason. It don’t matter if you’re alone or not, the lift can take ya where ya oughta go.” He laughs a little. “Unless it’s light-off. Then you’re stuck.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
He smiles and leans forward, resting his forearms on his knees. “The world’s your lift. It’s always there an’ you can take it if ya want it. You can press the button yourself. Ya don’t need nobody else to press it for you.” He sighs a little and looks back into the darkness. “I mean, ya can let someone else, but when ya get wherever you’re tryin’ a get, it wasn’t you that really got ya there. You didn’t try for it. You didn’t do nothin’.”
“What if you don’t want to do anything? What if you’re tired?”
He runs a hand through his hair and then slides it down to hold his chin up, balancing his elbow on his knee. “Tired of what? Of tryin’? Ya can’t say ya tried when ya really didn’t, ya know. I don’t mean no offense, but standin’ there, lettin’ someone else press your buttons can be tirin’, yeah, but it isn’t tryin’. There’s a difference.”
I sigh. “I try. I do. I try so hard.”
“Try to do what?” He waves his arm. “To hide down in Middle? What’re you hidin’ from?”
“What are you running from?”
“Not runnin’ from nothin’.” He pushes himself to his feet. “Not gonna sleep here if I don’t gotta. I oughta check the other lifts.” He glances at me. “You’ll be okay without me or do ya wanna come with?”
I swallow and look around at the small metal box that has been our refuge. Its harsh corners are sharp and the ground is rough and hard. I nod and he reaches out his hand. I grab it and he pulls me up.
The dark is cold, and in the faint glow of the lifter behind us, I can see the cloud my breath makes.
“It’s dark. See where I’m headin’?” he asks. I can see his silhouette, but the farther we go from the lifter, the less discernable he becomes.
“Not very well.”
“Okay.” He reaches out and I feel his hand touch my arm, and slide down to my hand. His hand is warm and rough. “That better?”
I nod, but he can’t see me, so I mumble, “Yes.”
He leads me toward a dot of light in a field of blackness, but as we approach it, it becomes a square.
Something brushes past me, or I think something does, and I gasp. He stops and squeezes my hand softly. “You okay?”
“I don’t like the dark very much.”
“I get ya.” The square becomes a long upright rectangle and the light softly illuminates our faces. “Hope this lift works,” he whispers.
He lets go of my hand and we enter the lifter. The buttons are lit up. Maybe it will work. He presses the down button and there is a loud ding. A wide smile spreads across his face. I smile, too.
The doors close and the lift rumbles to life.
“Hope your husband’s waitin’ on ya,” he says.
I smile a little. “I hope so too.”
The lifter stops and the door slides open. He runs a hand through his hair and waves with the other. “Guess this’s goodbye,” he says.
He steps out into the darkness of Low and turns around. “See ya.”
“See you.” But I probably won’t. I’ll probably never see him again.
The doors close and I press up. The lift rumbles and ascends to High. I look down and see his jacket still draped around my shoulders. He must have forgotten. I hope Jupeter doesn’t notice. It is cold and I’m so tired.