Greater Plagues

Fireman Holding Hose during Daytime

Once when he was younger, Jake had been trapped inside a hospital elevator as it climbed repeatedly to the building’s top floor and then fell to basement. He still thought of the experience sometimes and of how his perception of his own behavior during those fifteen minutes aboard the elevator had changed so much in the intervening years. How what had struck him immediately afterwards as heroic grace under pressure now seemed part of a lifelong personality defect.

He’d been at the hospital that day visiting his grandmother, who was by then on her deathbed, and had boarded the elevator to grab a drink from the hospital cafeteria downstairs. On board, as the doors opened for Jake on the fourth floor, were two old ladies and a young woman, who was holding a baby. Everyone smiled in polite acknowledgement. The young mother seemed anxious. She was probably only a few years older than Jake, 18 at the most.

Jake rode downstairs to the ground floor rather than exiting at the second-floor cafeteria because he didn’t want to make the women stop for him a second time. He was always overly concerned with affecting other people and underwent frequent contrivances not to be a nuisance.

When the elevator reached the ground floor, rather than opening its doors into the lobby, it continued descending into the basement. From there, it rose again towards the eighth floor and then journeyed down again to the lowest level.

At first the occupants just assumed someone had hit the wrong button or that someone upstairs had called the elevator again. Neither of these explanations made any sense, but a sentient elevator run amok wasn’t logical either.

“What is going on with this thing?” one of the two old ladies asked and then began pressing all the buttons to try to get the elevator to stop, but this had no effect on its upward- downward trajectory.

The other lady advised her to continue pressing the buttons despite the obvious futility. “Hit the emergency stop button,” she said. “Did you try the stop button?”

“There’s an emergency phone box,” Jake remembered, presumably from some TV show or movie he’d seen where people trapped on an elevator had communicated with their rescuers using the elevator’s emergency phone. When he opened the box, however, he found that the phone receiver had no cord connected and that the box was full of dust and cobwebs. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said.

It was then that the young mother began to cry. Which then caused her baby to cry. Out of ideas, the two old ladies began to complain about lax elevator maintenance and general hospital incompetence as though this were all symptomatic of gradual entropy from a time in their youths when machines functioned perfectly. “These people get paid to inspect these things and they just cut corners because no one’s checking up on them. And they know they can’t get fired because of the unions,” one of them said indignantly. Jake thought maybe the hospital’s private owners bore responsibility, but this was clearly no time to debate labor vs. management with two senior citizens.

Instead, he turned his attention to the crying mother and began trying to keep her and her child calm. He began making funny faces at the baby to make it smile, which eventually worked. Next, he started saying things like “Which floor do you think the elevator will go to next? Top floor? Bottom floor?” in mock inquiry, which got a tearful laugh out of the mom. When he noticed the camera in the top right corner of the elevator, he began to pantomime silly actions for it using, as props, the disconnected phone receiver and even the baby, whom he’d begun holding. The young woman stopped crying and began to settle down. The baby giggled and cooed. Even the old ladies stopped griping and stood placidly waiting to be retrieved from the elevator.

Soon, the elevator came to a stop. Someone outside must’ve noticed its unusual path or maybe someone in security had been looking at its camera feed. Then, the doors opened onto the lobby, where a small group of people had gathered to see what was happening. The two old ladies exited first and demanded with indignation to speak to someone in charge. Mother and child were next, and a few of their family members awaited concerned. Finally, Jake stepped out of the elevator, where it seemed no one had noticed his absence. His family must have assumed he was still in the cafeteria or just spacing out somewhere, which he was known for.

Jake had assumed there would be firefighters, members of the media and apologetic hospital PR spokespeople offering goodwill and gift shop vouchers, but there was nothing of the sort. Even the few people who had gathered quickly got bored and wandered off in various directions. It was anticlimactic.

Jake took the stairs back up to his grandmother’s room and told his mother and assorted aunts and uncles what had happened. They all agreed that he’d been very brave for keeping his wits and making sure no one panicked. His young cousin asked why Jake hadn’t climbed out through the hatch at the top of the elevator and then shimmied up the shaft to safety using the elevator’s greasy cable. Jake admitted that action movie heroics hadn’t occurred to him.

“How were you so calm?” his mother asked, “I would’ve been terrified.” My little hero, she called him, and, ever since, that had been the narrative of the day: Jake fearless and unrattled by the menace of out-of-control technology, protecting helpless women and children. And this is how he tended to imagine himself through his teen years and into adulthood.

When the revolution came twenty-some years later, Jake found himself wandering through the empty streets of his adopted neighborhood, oblivious to the curfew that had been put in place or to the violence overtaking that city on the other side of the world and moving irrevocably in his direction.

He’d ventured out that night to attend a dinner party and walked along the quiet streets on that mild winter evening with a bottle of Bordeaux and a few loaves of bread. Jake was distracted by romantic possibility with a new acquaintance. He quietly hummed a song to himself, and, if there wasn’t quite a spring in his step, there was at least a nonchalance in the way he carried himself.

He did notice the uncharacteristic quiet, the absence of the honking horns, barking dogs, raised voices, assorted clangs and crashes that normally scored the city’s soundtrack. He assumed the stadium on the other side of the city must’ve been filled with fans and revelry, leaving his part of town comparatively sedate.

As he neared his destination, he stepped around a barricade that was blocking the street, unaware of its significance. Construction zone, he guessed. Beyond the divider, he noticed an increased presence of law enforcement but not how bewildered everyone was at his appearance at this moment on this street looking so unperturbed. He certainly didn’t seem like an agitator or a criminal, just a strange, blithe foreigner wandering through the fray. He nodded and said hello in something approximating the local language to the police officers and soldiers he passed along the way.

Jake only snapped to awareness as the first projectile exploded in front of him on the road. It was a can of Coca- Cola filled with gasoline and a tattered piece of white cloth acting as its fuse. He found it more odd than unsettling and continued to stand with his head tilted to one side staring blankly at the flame rather than running for cover as the intersection around him began to fill with combatants.

No one was really sure later on whether there had been a legitimate prison break or the local government had ordered the jails opened to inject chaos into the movement and punish the revolutionaries for their insolence. When the smoke finally cleared and the dead were being counted, causation was almost irrelevant.

As Jake watched with fascination from the sidewalk, his immediate environment became a war zone. The bright lights of small explosions lit up the darkening sky up and down the street. Although he didn’t feel any sort of actual fear, he sensed that the dinner party would now be canceled and, more important, that he should probably just go home, so that was what he did.

Back in his apartment, he tried to reach friends in the area by phone to make sure they were safe, but there was no mobile service, no internet and no television. He had no way of finding out what was going on.

He stayed up most of that night draining the Bordeaux and taking in the madness below from his third-floor bay window. People he’d never seen around before began trying to force their way into random buildings on his street only to be overpowered and beaten back by his neighbors, who’d formed a sort of ad hoc security force. He watched as one man was repeatedly pummeled with a camera tripod and a wooden chair leg until he stopped moving. His body lay near the curb leaking what had to be blood into a storm drain.

He noticed how many people out there had fashioned their own makeshift weapons. One man emerged from a cloud of smoke and walked down the center of the street swinging a chain above his head. He reminded Jake of some kind of video game level boss to be defeated, and Jake actually laughed aloud at the sight of him. Another man lunged at passersby with a pool cue, to which he’d fastened a hunting knife using duct tape for a makeshift bayonet. It was frightening, but there was also something so aberrant about it that it felt too ridiculous to be real.

Around 3:00 AM, a tank rolled up the street in front of Jake’s building followed by a large battalion of armed soldiers. This dispersed the few remaining people still battling in the streets and more or less restored order for the night. By that time, Jake had been in and out of sleep in his chair, relatively confident of his own safety inside his apartment.

In the morning, he noticed people wandering around the streets outside his building, cleaning up and trying to fall back into their daily routines. He got dressed and grabbed a few shopping bags for the market in case he needed to stock up on supplies.

On the sidewalk, he ran into a neighbor whose name he could never remember but who spoke reasonably good English. The man was hosing dried blood off the sidewalk and had begun filling a few plastic bins with broken glass and splintered wood.

“Ah, Mr. Jake. Good morning. Glad you’re well,” the man said, smiling.

“Thanks,” Jake said. “You too. What happened here last night?”

The man gestured around them towards the burned cars and debris and said, “This? Oh, this was a long time coming. You can only push people so far for so long.” Then, he stared right at Jake for a few moments and said, “But don’t worry: you’re safe here.”

“No, I know. I’m OK,” Jake said.

“Yes,” the man said as though thinking it over. “You’re so calm. Always. A real cool customer.” It wasn’t clear if the man meant this as an honest assessment, a compliment or an accusation.

Jake pointed to the blood on the sidewalk. “Is…everyone OK? Your family…are they?”

“Oh, yes, they’re fine, thanks,” the man said. “This was a man we caught trying to get into the building last night.”

“What happened to him?” Jake asked.

The man just shook his head and went back to cleaning up the mess. He told Jake that he’d better get to the market soon before it ran out of supplies and that a curfew would begin again in a few hours.

At the store, people were filling their carts with bread and rice and water. The shelves weren’t empty yet, but it was

clear supplies would run out by the end of the day. It was also clear the other shoppers were distressed, but no one was shoving or raising voices or panicking in any way. They were just trying to gather supplies as quickly as they could before curfew.

In one of the aisles, Jake ran into a woman he once spent a night with looking rattled and lost in thought. She was the only other foreigner, and they noticed each other immediately. She held a small basket filled only with soda water. “I like it with bourbon,” she explained. She picked up a box of microwave popcorn from a shelf, read its nutritional information and then returned it.

“I would leave,” she said, “but I’ve heard the flights are all overbooked, and people are sleeping outside the airport. Plus, my landlord’s a dick and wants me to pay him for the next three months. He’s worried I’ll leave and never return. He has a point; I am considering doing exactly that.”

Jake said, “You know, if you need a place to stay, I have a second bedroom. It might be safer than where you are.”

“On the wrong side of the tracks, you mean?” she asked.

“That’s right,” Jake said. “It wouldn’t be a problem. This will blow over in a few days anyway. And I have supplies other than soda water.”

She looked down at her basket and its contents and started laughing. Then, she said, “Look. If you’re just trying to sleep with me, that’s fine. We can go do that now. It doesn’t matter to me. Is that what you’re after?”

Jake was surprised. “What? I…no. I thought it might be safer. I thought you’d feel…”

She smiled. “Thanks. I’ll consider it. I could use a hero. I’ve never been more scared in my life. I’m losing my mind.”

By the end of the week, it was over. Jake had spent a few more nights watching order disintegrate on the streets below and awoke each morning to the process of renewal as his neighbors cleaned up and accepted what had occurred. And then, one day the curfew was lifted, communication was restored, and the evenings returned to the normal bustle of city life among markets and cafés with people going about their business as though nothing had happened. There were noticeably fewer people, owing to high casualty rates and the number of people who’d had enough and fled the country, but the atmosphere was very much what had been before the uprising.

One Thursday night a few weeks later, Jake had drinks with his group of friends in the pub they frequented. They raised their glasses to two group members who’d been killed and thought fondly over a friend who’d emigrated to somewhere safer.

One friend regaled them with epic war tales of his own bravery on one those worst nights. “I hadn’t been in a fight since I was a kid, but I was out there kicking ass side by side with my neighbors. It was exhilarating. It was like being in the army.”

“I was crying in my bedroom and drinking myself hysterical,” another friend said. “I was convinced it was just a matter of time before they broke down the door and came for my family.”

“What about you, Jake?” the first friend asked. “I assume you were just watching it all without emotion like it was some TV show.”

Later, Jake thought more about that comment. That’s exactly what he had done. Although the danger outside his apartment had been very real, he’d never felt like it was happening to him. Nothing he’d done could be described as heroic; he hadn’t protected the neighborhood like so many others had. Instead, he mostly continued his routine as though it were an unremarkable, lazy Sunday. He woke up around 7:30 and, not having to go to work, made breakfast and read a book while drinking his morning coffee. At midday, he went to the market and picked over whatever was left. In the evenings, he made himself dinner, washed up and then sat by the front window either reading or watching the chaos unfold outside.

He wondered why he’d felt no terror about what was happening. No adrenaline rush. No affiliation, obligation or protective instinct. He hadn’t felt much at all other than the clear sense that he was in no actual danger and that this whole situation, as unprecedented as it was, was going to be OK.

He recalled that elevator ride when he was a kid and thought about how he’d experienced the same certainty then that nothing would happen to him. That tragedy was something that happened to other people. “This isn’t heroism,” he thought. “It’s dysfunction.”

And now years later, here at the end of everything, Jake stands strong and stoic, an old man who’s finally run out of escapes. He wonders again why he feels no fear at this moment of final inevitability. The death sentence. The terminal, irrevocable diagnosis. The holocaust. The suicidal resignation of a broken man on a ledge. The terrestrial body hurtling towards the planet. The extinction event. The resolution.

He remembers something he read once about an airplane crash where survivors of the initial impact remained strapped in their seats as the plane burned, waiting impassively for the flames to reach them. The only people who made it out alive were those who’d unbuckled their seatbelts and ran for their lives. Years later, those survivors had been haunted by their final vision of the airplane before it was consumed by flame. Of people sitting calmly in their seats buckled in and waiting for death like an in-flight meal.

Jake watches the tree-line burn and the buildings collapse into ruin. He sees the sky turn black as the sun is blotted out forever. He feels the malignancy growing and metastasizing inside him. He thinks of his whole family now long gone from him and steadies himself on the ledge high above concrete destruction below. And he thinks to himself, “Panic, goddamnit. Scream in terror. Weep. Feel something.” He wonders if not now then when? And yet, even at this last moment, he still knows somewhere deep down that everything’s going to be just fine.

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