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art by Junior McLean

The Elevator

Erik Igoe was born and raised in Wheaton, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He is studying English at the University of Illinois at Springfield with plans to teach high school English courses. The Elevator is his first published short story, and he has a novel, entitled Sion, that is currently in the final stages of editing.

Dry air settled quietly over an open expanse of sand, rustling furls and eddies into small, invisible tide pools. Some swept against the base of the Elevator, perhaps a bit hopelessly. The Elevator did not mind, for it had stood, eclipsing an ever-moving band of desert, for centuries, and would continue to do so for centuries more. Its paint, once so proudly kept, was weathered. Dull. Rust had found a permanent home in the neglected, resilient metal.
The age of the Elevator did not ward curiosity. Dozens of lucky and wealthy were brought to its shadow every year, eager, anxious. Some thought they knew what to expect, others arrived readily content. And what they faced no one, save few who had ridden the Elevator, could tell.
They never told, of course. Riding the Elevator was a privilege not shared.
A lottery allocated the Elevator's seats. Those with the means to bully or buy additional tickets from uninterested friends were more often represented. Still, this did not stop the occasional hopeful from discovering a bland, generic envelope in their mailbox.
It was in such an envelope that a young boy, Veri, learned of his selection. He had almost thrown the letter out, for it so resembled the unwanted bulk of advertisements and overdue credit warnings. As he'd turned from the neighborhood's communal pile of waste, his eye caught the lackluster Elevator insignia stamped in an upper corner, faded as if the rubber was in need of fresh ink. The contents were impersonal and vague. A location, a time, an identification number. No congratulation, no vow of secrecy. Just facts.
Veri waited days, weeks, months, for his assigned time. He told no one, and no one assumed. He was, after all, a poor boy from a poorer family, destined to mediocrity. He was neither great nor valuable, and he certainly did not believe himself worthy of riding the Elevator. In fits of anxiety, he would convince himself that, upon arriving in the desert, he would be turned away. His ripped clothes and dirty face were loud enough to assume that he was, as was fact, only a few steps above the ever-more-common street urchin.
The day arrived like days do, cold and quiet. He hadn't slept the night before. Fear, anxiety, any number of familiar, uncomfortable emotions had kept him alert. His brothers, with whom he shared a bedroom, had been annoyed by his bedside light. They hadn't asked what was wrong, what weighed so heavily on Veri's mind. Instead they shouted for darkness and peace. Veri tossed and turned in the dark, knowing it was fruitless. When the sun rose, he was already cleaned and dressed. The cab was to arrive an hour after sunrise. He was ready for it.
The cab, as it turned out, was not a cab at all, but a bus. Inside, two older people had already found seats. Veri entered, fingering his envelope, clinging to it as if it were the only thing keeping him there. Which, he thought, it was. The driver took it without a word or smile, scanned it, and nodded Veri to the back with a soft grunt. He took a seat away from the other occupants, who were watching him curiously. One leaned over and whispered something to the other. She giggled. Veri blushed.
By the end of the following hour, the bus had collected three others: an older, darker man, and two women, one obese and unkempt, the other smoking a cigar. Veri found it odd that a woman should smoke a cigar. No one had yet talked to him.
The obese woman took the empty seat next to Veri. He pushed away to make room. Comfortable, she looked down and smiled. A fake, greasy smile. Veri tried not to cringe, knowing it would have been rude.
"What's your name?" the woman asked.
Veri told her.
"Are you alone?"
He nodded.
"I suppose they don't let anyone come with you, even though you are so young." She had a slight accent, like the women Veri saw in the market sometimes that liked to buy the cheap jewelry and clothing sold by the sleazy venders. "How old are you?" she went on.
"Eight," he said.
She hummed and tsked, muttering to herself about how a child so young shouldn't be off on his own. Veri didn't understand why she thought this; he was often alone.
"My name is Milly," she said suddenly, breaking out of her musings. "It's short for Milton, which is my last name. First name's Edith, though, so no one calls me that. And since Milton is a boy's name, it's Milly." She grinned again. Slimy.
Veri watched her. Cautious. She seemed the type of woman who would pinch his cheek or wrap him in a hug without asking. Sometimes the tourists in his village would do that while telling him how cute he was and how they were going to bring him home with them, feed him until he was plump and greasy like they were. They rarely fed him and never took him home. He had become wary. Milly was like them.
Ahead of them, Veri could see the long stretch of desert that marked the borderline between the place he knew of as home and the place he was told he must never go. There was very little out in the desert, his father had told him, and it was dangerous.
Through the low-lying clouds of unsettled sand, Veri made out the thin, dark line of the Elevator. Some fifty miles distant, but still just visible. He had seen pictures of it, an old, rusty piece of garbage, but never thought to get any closer. Not that he would have been able to get very close. Security fences were constructed around the property, five miles on a side. Or so the rumor went. He wasn't sure what to make of it.
"Do you know what to expect?" Milly asked. She had been silent for several minutes. Veri had almost forgotten that she was there.
He shook his head.
"I suppose no one does, but I can tell you what I heard. And my source is reliable."
The others in the bus stopped conversing. Everyone wanted to know what Milly had heard.
"The reason why no one ever talks about what they've seen at the Elevator is because they never come back," Milly began. "It goes up and up, out of this planet, and to a space station in orbit. And, from what I've heard, this space station is a true paradise. They call it Sion, or Zion, whichever you please. People live like they're meant to, in gardens with nature."
"Well now," the older, darker man interrupted. "How is it nature if it's in space?"
Milly frowned, annoyed. "I suppose they took a chunk of nature from the planet here and put it up there." As if it was obvious. As if such things could be done. "So people go up the Elevator to paradise. Utopia! Sion. That's why no one ever talks about it. Cause they can't! They never come back." She nodded emphatically, smiling her smile.
"If that's true," the older woman with the dark man said, "then how did we all get selected? We didn't pass any test or anything."
"You can't let everyone into paradise," Milly replied. "Then it wouldn't be paradise anymore. It'd turn into the mess we've made of Earth."
The people in the bus began whispering to one another, throwing the atmosphere back into a clutter. Static.
Veri watched them speak, afraid to join in. Milly bent down into a bag and pulled out a container of food. She began eating it noisily. Veri wished he could move away.
What if Milly were right? Veri worried. He hadn't told anyone that he was going to the Elevator. If he never returned, his parents would worry. His brothers and sisters would worry. He wondered if the Elevator people would let him write a letter or make a call. They couldn't force him to go without letting him contact someone, he reasoned.
He mulled this over, growing more and more concerned as the bus bounced along the poorly kept road. It was uncomfortable. The seats were not very well-padded, and he could feel the springs poking into his behind. Beside him, Milly was pushing the last of her meal into her mouth.
"I'll tell you what we heard," spoke up the dark man. "Ada here was told by our pastor that the Elevator is God's final gift to man. Now, I know you all can't be believers like us, but hear me out. Maybe Milly isn't so far off the mark, anyway."
"Let me tell it, Evan," interrupted Ada. The dark man nodded, gesturing for her to go on. "Our pastor, he told me that the Elevator was built by God to bring the few remaining worthy back to Heaven. Since He's given up on Man, the Elevator is a final gift to us few deserving folk."
"Load of rubbish," Milly replied. "How could God build an elevator?"
"Not God," Ada said. "But he sent instructions to men through his messengers. Men--good, holy men--took these instructions and built the Elevator to bring them back to God."
"If God wanted to bring some of us to Heaven, why not just do it?" Milly shot back. Veri caught the skepticism in her voice. "You fanatics…"
"Watch it, now," Evan replied. "We didn't make fun of your ideas."
"They aren't my ideas. They're what I heard."
"Oh, cut it out," the woman with the cigar scolded in a deep Russian accent. "Getting heated over it isn't going to get us anywhere. Let us have a pleasant trip, and whatever comes will. Shall we?"
"I agree," said the last man, who had not spoken until now. Like Veri, he was seated against the window. "Let's have a pleasant trip," he repeated.
"Well, what have you two heard?" Ada asked, her voice a forced calm, her head turned purposefully away from Milly.
The woman chewed the cigar for a moment, letting tendrils of smoke fall from parted lips onto her chest. "Well, firstly, let me introduce myself. I'm Konstance Tsiolkovsky. It's a pleasure to meet you all."
There was general agreement.
"So what have you heard?" Evan prompted.
"Something like what Milly heard. Are you familiar with the concept of a space elevator?"
"Of course, we're all educated people," Milly replied shortly.
Ada scoffed. "I'm not familiar with the term."
Milly snorted, amused, vindicated.
"A space elevator is an elevator that is tethered to a weight that is out in orbit. The idea is to reduce the need for rockets to get off the planet, so space exploration becomes more cost effective."
"And you believe that the Elevator is going to bring us out to space?" Ada replied.
"Why not? There aren't many other places to go when you go up." She smiled. Veri felt a warmth from her, despite the cigar.
"And what is waiting for us up in space, then?" Evan asked.
"What I told you," Milly said. "Sion."
"No, no. That is not what I heard," Konstance said. "No, I heard that we have been selected for a long-term mission to other planets."
"What?" Milly stood up. "That's insane! Why, that's kidnapping!"
"Now calm down," Evan replied, pushing his hands down at her. "Let Konstance finish."
"You all know that our planet is sick. Dying from the abuse we've dealt it these past few centuries. We've all been chosen for a long-term mission to explore other planets. To look for a place that we might move to someday."
"That doesn't make sense," Milly muttered. "They wouldn't have picked random people for something like that."
"Desperate times…" Konstance began. "Maybe there are no volunteers. Earth is in such a state now, who has the time or effort to spend?"
Again, the bus erupted into conversation. Milly leaned around the edge of the seat to speak with Konstance, leaving Veri to his thoughts. Not knowing how to feel, he turned to watch the desert roll by. He was surprised to see the Elevator was now much closer. So close he could make out its shape. They would soon be at the entrance gate.
Veri tried to reconcile the conflicting ideas. He hadn't put a lot of thought into what the Elevator might bring him, or where. Just riding was so great a feat that the possible consequences had eluded him. Now he was scared. He didn't want to populate a new planet or go to Heaven. His family was not religious, and he doubted that Heaven would have him. What if, he now wondered, he was rejected? What would happen to him? Hell? Had anyone ever been rejected before?
The bus slowed. Ahead, Veri saw a guard station pressed inside a wire-mesh fence topped with barbed wire. As they pulled closer, he could make out lightning-bolt wooden signs peppered along the fence.
The bus stopped and the driver exited. A guard approached, gesturing. Talking. Veri wondered what they might be talking about. Then the driver handed the guard a stack of papers. Veri recognized the letter from his envelope. The guard took the papers into the guard tower, leaving the driver alone. They waited. Sandy wind tugged at the driver's pant legs. He seemed indifferent.
The guard returned several minutes later and boarded the bus, following the driver. He now had a clipboard. The bus went quiet.
"All right," he began. "You've all been pre-scanned before getting on the bus, but now I need to verify who you are. Please take out some form of identification."
People rustled, searching pockets and purses. Veri stared at the guard. He hadn't brought anything. He didn't own any sort of identification. Tears rushed to his eyes. He was going to be turned away! Rejected before he even reached the Elevator!
The guard surveyed the group over the lip of his clipboard. His eyes settled on Veri. "Oh, right," he said. Milly looked up from her purse. "You are… Veri… um…"
"Yessir," Veri said quietly.
"I take it you don't have identification?"
The guard nodded. "There is a note to allow you through anyway. Your situation was pre-approved before the acceptance letter was issued. No worries, son."
And as soon as it had come, the worry was gone. Veri wiped his eyes, shocked by the sudden reversal of fate. Someone was watching over him. Perhaps, he thought, Ada and Evan were right.
The guard walked down the aisle, glancing at identification cards.
"Mister… Cahnt, is it?"
"Very good, sir."
The guard finished with the final man and turned to leave.
"Have a good trip, everyone," he said before exiting. Outside, the gate rose to permit the bus through. The driver rolled on.
"Cahnt, huh?" Milly said. "We haven't heard what you think yet."
"Call me Manny," the man said. "Everyone else does."
"So what have you heard, then, Manny?" Evan asked.
"Nothing like what you've all heard, anyway," he began in an offhand, distant way. "I don't believe that the Elevator is going to take us to some destination. I've heard that it is… more of a ride, than anything. But a ride of a lifetime. When riding the Elevator up and up, we are exposed to rare knowledge. Maybe the meaning of life."
"What?" Ada asked.
"Maybe the Elevator doesn't even go anywhere. Maybe it's all just for show. It's possible, after all. The meat of the thing is to reveal information to us."
"But… why?" Milly asked.
"Why not? If you knew the meaning of life, wouldn't you want to tell someone?"
"Maybe, but why in such a manner?"
"Because," Manny went on, "It's a distraction, you see. If everyone knew that this whole organization is in place to reveal the meaning of life, there would be an uproar. People would demand to know! But by disguising it, it becomes more of a simple curiosity."
"Boy, that's the damndest thing I've ever heard," Evan said, and whistled through his teeth. "You the kind of kid who'd do back flips to convince himself gravity ain't real."
"No sir, I don't believe so."
Milly was shaking her head, laughing. It was a mean laugh, and Veri was frightened.
Veri hadn't taken note of their proximity to the Elevator since passing the guard station, and was surprised to find that they had arrived. The bus pulled to a stop several yards from the base. A splintered wooden path ran between the bus and the Elevator, covering the sand floor of the desert. The sand had not been so easily deterred, though, and had recovered the wooden planks on their edges.
Veri exited the bus behind Milly and stared. The Elevator grew straight up from the desert, disappearing far overhead into a group of passing clouds. There was not a lot to see. The base of the Elevator was rusty and old. It didn't look as though anyone had used it in many years.
A dull weight fell on his chest. He had been expecting something more glamorous. A fanfare. Fireworks, perhaps. But here he saw the neglected shell of metal as a sign of defeat. A relic from a people far removed from himself. A people with the means and talent to build an Elevator so high that it may have reached the stars. But now those people were gone, replaced by a new people who debated the meaning behind the thing. Veri felt the weight in his chest swell, threatening to pour out in a new fit of tears--tears for the glory of the past and its death in the hands of the present.
"Please step up to the Elevator doors," a voice said. Startled, Veri looked around, trying to locate its source.
"Who said that?" Evan demanded.
"Please step up to the Elevator doors," the voice repeated. "The Elevator will be opening shortly."
"It's up there," Milly pointed to a speaker mounted on the side of the Elevator's shaft.
"Are we alone here?" Ada asked.
"It appears so," Konstance replied, and brushed past the rest.
"What are you doing?" Evan yelled.
"What it told us to do." The others hesitated a moment before following.
Gathered before the doors to the Elevator, the group was nervous.
"Who do you think made this thing?" Milly asked quietly.
"We are already pretty sure about that," Ada replied. She hooked her arm through Evan's.
"What about the rest of you?"
Konstance shrugged. "Great scientists of the past, I suppose. People who wanted to explore the universe."
"Or people who just wanted to prove that they could," Manny interjected.
"Something like this just to say we told you so?"
"Sure, why not?"
"What a waste."
"So says you."
A churning sound started behind the doors. Old machines groaning to life, fighting the rust and sand that had built up since it was last summoned to work.
Milly took a step back. "We're going to ride up on that?"
"Plenty of others have already done it," Konstance pointed out. "It's safe."
"How do you know? Maybe we never hear back from them because they all fell to their deaths!"
"Don't be ridiculous," Manny said.
The doors creaked open. Inside was dimly lit. Small folding chairs had been set along the wall. Six of them. A young black man in a business suit stood in the center of the carriage, smiling.
"Welcome to the Elevator," he said. "You lucky six have been chosen among the millions who applied to ride the Elevator. Are you ready?"
The group eyed the man. Milly was still backed away from the rest. Konstance again broke the reverie and breeched the doorway. The Elevator did nothing.
"See, it is safe," she called back to Milly. Milly looked at her from around the backs of the others.
"Oh, get off it," Evan said eventually. "We've come this far." This broke the trance, and the group boarded the Elevator.
With their seats taken, the six stared across the open floor at each other. The man who had greeted them was in the doorway, giving a lecture about safety. He would not, he told them, ride the Elevator. However, he would be in constant contact via a small intercom.
When the doors closed, several of the group let out a collective breath. Veri shifted uneasily in his folding chair. Sand had snuck into the Elevator car and was scattered around their feet. It struck him odd that no one cared to sweep it out.
A soft humming announced that the Elevator had been turned on. It would not be much longer before they lifted.
"We never asked you what you thought, Veri," Milly mentioned, breaking the silence.
Veri looked up from the sand on the floor. He frowned, unsure of what to say.
"Yeah, what do you think, young man?" Evan added.
"I… I don't know," Veri stammered. "I'll be happy with anything, I guess."
"Ha, cute kid," Evan chuckled. Ada smiled. Milly sighed.
The Elevator lurched, made a loud chrunk, and began to rise. No countdown, no warning. It just started to go up. Veri clutched his seat.
Evan and Ada began praying quietly. Evan pulled a pocket Bible from somewhere and started referencing it. Milly had found another packet of food and was eating slowly. Veri doubted she tasted it. Konstance chewed on the remains of her cigar thoughtfully, while Manny shared Veri's gaze of the sand-covered floor.
After a minute or two, a new mechanical noise startled the group. Behind Evan and Ada, a panel shifted haltingly to reveal a window. Sunlight began filling the small car. Veri blinked against it, his eyes watering in protest.
"My God," Manny said quietly, standing for a better view.
"Ha," Evan grunted loudly, sarcastically. He turned, though, and, greeted with the view, went quiet. The rest joined him.
The bottom of the window was just under the bridge of Veri's nose. He stood on his toes to see out, still urging his eyes to adjust to the glare.
He had never been in a plane or any tall buildings. The poor, small village that he'd grown up in was located in what was once known as a third-world country, but now represented the commonality of Man's glory. No such opportunities were ever offered to Veri, and now, faced with the unfamiliar vertigo, he stepped away. It was too new, too unexpected. He began shaking uncontrollably.
Konstance, sensing his discomfort, put a strong hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her curiously. She smiled down at him, flecks of chewed cigar cracking away from the line of her lips.
"This is amazing." Ada broke the silence. "How can you not believe in the divinity of God when faced with such awesomeness?"
No one bothered to reply. Konstance urged Veri forward again, pushing him slightly. He took a breath, held it, and returned to the window. This time, ready for the sensation, he managed to brace himself.
Outside, small, pathetic clouds whipped by the Elevator as it traversed the shaft. Already, the car was more than a mile above the desert floor, and gaining height with every passing moment. From this altitude, the group could see the distant ocean, unmoving and beautiful in its natural glory. A mountain range whose name had been long forgotten spread out beneath them to the east, lining the ocean as one might expect of a beach. The snowy peaks reflected the sun to the water, and the water replied in much the same way. Veri gasped, stunned by the simple, ancient beauty. From this distance, the influence of Man was hardly relevant.
And still the elevator rose. The light boundary created by the limitations of the sun made itself known to the immediate west, creeping slowly across the planet. Veri could sense the curve of the globe pulling away. Falling away. His vertigo was renewed, but he ignored it--the spectacle was too great to cower in a corner.
"You are now reaching the eighth mile of the journey," the black man's voice said from the ceiling speaker. Veri expected more information, but none came. He suspected that nothing more needed to be said.
Ada began to weep. Veri did not understand why, exactly, but he shared the inclination. The men blinked against their own tears, unwilling to let them fall. And suddenly Veri knew that it did not matter which of them had been right about the Elevator. Now they were all human, sharing the experience regardless of what they believed.
The atmosphere suddenly divided, revealing the brilliant darkness of space as a crescent wrapped around Earth's glow. Veri could make out the brightest of the stars, millions of lifetimes distant. At the very limit of his perception, he saw the edge of Luna moving away through the still-dark half of the planet.
Features began to blur. The mountain range had fallen into the surrounding land, creating a peppered green landscape outlined by a steady blue ocean. And still further the curve of the planet grew, the crescent of space progressed, and the Elevator rose.
When it stopped, the group's emotions were worn thin. The women were openly weeping, the men exasperated. Veri remained at the window, taking everything in. The planet was enormous beneath him, rotating slowly through the field of stars and space. The sun had disappeared behind them somewhere, allowing pinpoints of light to shine through the blackness.
The speaker crackled, breaking the silence. "You are removed from the surface of Earth at a distance of sixteen miles. We hope you have enjoyed your journey."
The speaker went silent. The room, too, was quiet for a moment.
And a tension rose, swiftly, startlingly. The atmosphere of the small car turned poisonous, disgusted.
"That's it?" Milly said, outrage creeping into her tone.
"This is ridiculous," Evan said, shaking away whatever glory had held him captive moments earlier. "Nothing happened!"
"It's a hoax!" Ada added. "A joke!"
Konstance, too, looked disappointed. "Apparently we've been had," she said softly.
Evan began shouting, proclaiming loudly the numbers he had spent on this trip. How he had been wronged and the important people he would call. Ada nodded emphatically, and Milly announced that she would join them in retaliation.
And Veri continued to look out the window, his mind suspended. So far from humanity, and still people remained selfish and ignorant. Materialistic. Veri could not understand why they felt so cheated.
"Veri, you must help too," Milly screamed, comfortable in her hysteria. "We'll need as many accounts of this scam as we can get!"
Veri turned now from the window to look at the faces of his fellow travelers. He knew that they would not raise allegations against the Elevator's founders. Nothing was ever promised. Ruined hopes and beliefs were no ground for retribution. And once their glorious bantering and hotly fueled indignation had passed, they would be embarrassed.
That was, of course, why no one ever talked about what happened on the Elevator.
"Veri?" Milly repeated. "Will you help us?"
Is this all that there is to Man? he wondered. Is this what we've become?
Tears took shape in the corners of his eyes. He shook his head, answering Milly, answering himself. Because there does not need to be anything else, and it is sad--heartbreaking--that only he, a poor child from a forgotten desert town at the edge of the world, understood.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 15th, 2011

Author Comments

I originally wrote The Elevator to criticize unfounded and wild belief systems, but ended up writing more about the natural and secular wonder of our world. I’d wanted to show how single-minded and ruthless fundamentalists (of any creed) can be, and actually found it difficult to make Ada and Evan and Edith Milton into the horrible zealots I’d originally conceived. They’re annoying, sure, but they’re not bad people at heart. As I wrote, they wanted to have beliefs that were no more reprehensible or unworthy than any of my other characters, and so I let them. When I write, the people I create tend to surprise me, as they did here. They told me that the world is not so much about who is right as it is how we choose to digest the things presented to us. The conclusion my characters presented me with is one I take to heart.

- Erik M Igoe
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