I briefly glance down at my watch as I sprint through the Tube station. I’m late and getting later. I missed the first train by a second. I arrived just as the doors were sliding closed and I could do nothing about it. I knew I was fucked as soon as I saw them slam shut. The only consolation was that someone else at the other carriage doors had done the exact same thing. We both locked eyes for a second. For that moment, we were brothers in arms. We were as one in our own stupidity.
The other guy took it better than me, though. He just shrugged and walked away, while I quietly raged and considered smashing the windows of the departing train with my satchel, as if it would make any difference.
I knew there was only one thing I could do now. The next train was going to take too long. If I could get out of this station quickly, I could head outside and make my way to the next station along where I would be able to get another train. It would be a connection, but it would mean I would be on time, or at least not too late. Right now, I was staring down the barrel of being ridiculously late if I waited here. It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t be getting the job if that happened. That would also mean I wasted two hundred quid on this new suit and shoes that I bought specifically for this interview.
I glance down at my watch again. I’m making good time despite my wheezing lungs. All I need to do is get to the escalator. After that, I just need to get past the turnstiles, and then I’m outside. Easy. No problem.
I grip my satchel close to my right hip as I turn the speed up a notch. I knew being proficient at the one hundred metre sprint in school would come in handy one day. My new shoes are slapping the Tube station floor as I arrive at the escalator. I grind to a halt. Not because I want to, but because a few people are milling around at the bottom. I quickly slide past them with only a few grumbles without giving it any thought as to why they might be waiting there. As soon as I barge past the final suit, I see the reason for the small crowd. The escalator has stopped.
I’m standing at the foot of the machine. From here, I can glance up towards the exit. It looks like it’s a million miles away. The thing is empty, which is strangely disconcerting. Why isn’t anyone else walking up and down? I ask myself that question, but I know the reason. It’s the same reason why I’m destroying my chances of getting this job right now. There’s something oddly unnerving about using an escalator that isn’t moving. Everyone in the world knows that. It feels similar to vertigo in some ways — that peculiar feeling of losing your balance. Honestly, I hate it, and judging by the other couple of people staring menacingly at the broken thing, so do they. I must have been staring myself because one of them addresses me, a middle-aged man in a blue pinstripe suit.
He follows his comments with a sly smile — the bastard. I nod once firmly to show I understand and put my back to the prick.
I return to facing the inert metal beast. I take a deep breath, grip my satchel close to my hip and take a few steps forward. I hear someone whisper behind me, but I dare not glance backwards, not right now. If I did that, I might lose my nerve entirely. I would dearly love to check my watch, but in reality, there’s no need. Time is ticking away. I probably only have a few minutes left to spare. I need to stop messing around and get on with it. Get the job done, I guess, whatever that means.
I take a few smaller steps until I’m standing right at the very foot of the escalator. Another deep breath later, and I find myself standing at the bottom rung of this inactive creature.
I hear the whisperer again and what I think might be a snigger. I straighten my shoulders. I’m not having that. I’m just being childish. There’s nothing strange about this. I take another step up, right leg first, followed by the left, they call it walking. Not too bad so far, so I take another step, and then another, followed by one more until I’m ascending at a decent rate. The whisperer is long gone behind me as I’m almost running up the stairs. I feel a slight exhilaration at my courage.
Everything is going so well until I see something to my right. It’s a poster, some nonsensical advert for aftershave or some such rubbish. The colours are bright and gaudy, but for some reason, it causes me to slow, and I glance down to my feet out of reflex. It hits me. I feel the vertigo. My balance is thrown off as soon as I see that the escalator isn’t doing the thing it was put on this Earth to do.
Immediately, I grind to a halt. My legs begin to tremor. To make matters worse, I glance back down the stairs to see that the crowd has grown in number. I frantically glare up and down the escalator – why, I have no idea. I’m stuck right in the middle. I know it. The crowd knows it. The interviewer won’t know it, but that job is long gone now. No chance I’ll make it in time.
I teeter in the centre, my right hand pressing my satchel against my hip, while the other holds on to the rubber railing with an iron grip. My knuckles are white under the strain. I glance down again to see the pinstripe wanker pointing his arrogant hand my way. I’d curse him if I dare to open my mouth. The bastard is probably laughing at my misfortune. At least, I gave it a go. He, on the other hand, never even gave it a try!
Suddenly, there’s a rumble, then a whine, and my whole body jolts. My heart begins to hammer in my chest. Is this salvation? I risk a peek towards the top of the escalator. In the distance, I can see a blue uniform. Someone is fiddling with the control box for this contraption. There’s another rumble, another whine and then another jolt. I continue to hold on, but I feel something at my feet. The beast is coming back to life. The escalator is working again!
Slowly at first, and then with increasing speed, the machine comes back to life, and I’m transported to the summit. Gone is the vertigo, gone is the unbalancing. I allow it to bring me to the top where I quickly burst through on to even ground. I only stumble slightly as I sprint towards the turnstiles. I check my watch. I can just make it! If I can just get through quickly! I arrive at the turnstile and dig my hand into my pocket for my ticket. To my utter dismay, I find nothing but lint and crumbs.
Elliot Harper is the author of the dark science-fiction novella The City around the World and the speculative short story collection On Time Travel and Tardiness.
His short fiction has appeared in FIVE:2:ONE Magazine’s #thesideshow, Maudlin House, Queen Mobs Teahouse, the Ghost City Review, Akashic Book’s #FriSciFi, Back Patio Press, Litro Magazine’s #StorySunday, Dream Noir Literal Journal, Vagabonds: Anthology of the Mad Ones Volume 8 and Riggwelter Press.
He currently lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Naomi, but is originally from Scarborough, England. He likes to write fiction that isn’t confined by any particular genre, but lean towards the transgressive and the surreal.
Previous short/flash/micro stories, books and blog can be found on his website:
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