“Nick.” I felt as if ice crystals had formed in my veins. “How did you get my number? What do you want?””Just to know how you’re doing.”
His voice was so familiar. The sound of it vaporized the past several months as if they had all been a dream. If I closed my eyes, I could almost believe I was back in the Dallas apartment and he would be coming back from work soon.
So I kept my eyes open, as if one blink would result in death. I stared at the weave of the cream sofa slipcover until each individual thread came into distinct focus. “I’m great,” I said. “How about you? ”
“Not great.” A lengthy pause. “Still trying to make myself believe it’s really over. I miss you, Marie.”
He sounded contemplative. Something in his voice drew out a dark, seeping guilt from my heart.
“It’s Haven,” I said. “I don’t answer to Marie anymore.”
I thought that would provoke him, but he stunned me by saying, “Okay, Haven.”
“Why are you calling?” I asked abruptly. “What do you want?”
“Just to talk for a minute.” Nick sounded resigned and a little wry. “Are we still allowed to talk?” I guess so.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think. I want you to understand something . . . I never meant for things to get out of hand the way they did.”
I gripped the phone so hard I was vaguely surprised the plastic didn’t crack. I believed him. I had never thought Nick had wanted or planned to be the way he was. There were things in his background, his childhood, that had made him a damaged person. A victim, as surely as I had been.
But that didn’t mean he was off the hook for the harm he’d done me.
I was filled with regret for what we’d lost . . . and what we’d never had. I felt sick and weary.
“Do you hate me, Haven?” Nick asked softly. “No. I hate what you did.”
“I hate what I did too.” He sighed. “I keep thinking . . . if we’d had more time together, if we could have been allowed to work out our problems instead of having your brother come in and push that divorce through so fu**ing fast . . . ”
“You hurt me, Nick,” was all I could say.
“You hurt me too. You lied to me all the time, about little things, big things . . . you always shut me out.”
“I didn’t know how else to handle you. The truth made you angry.”
“I know. But it takes two people to make a good marriage. And I had a lot to deal with — being rejected by your family, having to work like a dog to provide for you — and you always blamed me for not being able to solve your problems.”
“No,” I protested “Maybe you blamed yourself. But I never felt like that.”
“You were never really with me. Even when we slept together. I could tell you were never really into it. No matter what I did, you never responded to me the way other women did. I kept hoping you’d get better.”
Damn it, Nick knew how to get to me, how to reawaken the sense of inadequacy I’d struggled so hard to overcome. Nick knew things about me that no one else did. We would always be linked by our shared failure — it was part of our individual identities. It could never be erased.
“Are you dating anyone now?” I heard him ask.
“I don’t feel comfortable talking about that with you.”
“That means yes. Who is he?”
“I’m not dating anyone,” I said. “I haven’t slept with anyone. You don’t have to believe that, but it’s true.” Instantly I despised myself for saying it, and for feeling that I was still accountable to him.
“I believe you,” Nick said. “Aren’t you going to ask about me?”
“No. I don’t care if you’re dating anyone. It’s not my business.”
He was quiet for a moment. “I’m glad you’re okay, Haven. I still love you.”
That brought tears to my eyes. I was so glad he couldn’t see them. “I’d rather you didn’t call me again, Nick.”
“I still love you,” he repeated, and hung up.
Slowly I replaced the phone in the receiver, and blotted the tears by doing a deliberate face-plant into the sofa. I stayed that way until I started to smother, and then I lifted my head and sucked in a deep breath.
“I thought I loved you,” I said aloud, even though Nick couldn’t hear me.
But I hadn’t known what love was. And I wondered how you could ever be sure, when you thought you loved someone, if you really did.
The next day, it rained.
During the occasional droughts, Houston got so dry that, as a local joke went, “the trees are bribing the dogs.” But when it rained, it rained. And as a virtually flat city built around bayous, Houston had major drainage issues. During a heavy downpour, water collected high in the streets and flowed into storm drains, culverts, and bayous that directed the flow to the Gulf of Mexico. In the past, countless people had been killed by flash flooding, their cars overturned or swept away as they tried to cross the rising water. Sometimes flooding ruptured fuel pipelines, sewer lines, knocked out bridges, and made major roads inaccessible.
A flood watch was announced after lunchtime, and later it was changed to an actual warning. Everyone took it in stride, since Houston residents were accustomed to flash flooding and generally knew which streets to avoid during the evening commute.
Late in the day I went to a meeting at Buffalo Tower to discuss a new online system for processing maintenance requests. Vanessa had originally planned to go to the meeting, but she had changed her mind at the last minute and sent me instead. She told me it was mostly an information-gathering meeting, and she had more important things to do than talk about software. “Find out everything about the system,” she told me, “and I’ll have some questions for you in the morning.” I was pretty sure there would be hell to pay if Vanessa had a question I couldn’t answer. So I resolved to find out every last detail about the software program, short of memorizing the source codes.
I was relieved but puzzled that Vanessa had not mentioned one word about seeing me at the Harrisburg the previous night. And she didn’t ask about Hardy. I tried to read her mood, but that was like trying to predict the weather, an iffy proposition at best. Hopefully she had decided to consider the subject as something beneath her notice.
Even though Buffalo Tower was only a few blocks from 1800 Main, I drove because the rain was coming down in sheets. The building was one of the older skyscrapers, a gabled red granite structure that reminded me of a 1920s-style building.
As I parked in one of the lower levels of the underground garage, I checked my phone messages. Hardy had called, I saw, and my stomach tightened. I pushed a button to hear his message.
“Hey.” His tone was brusque. “We need to talk about last night. Give me a call when you get off work.”
That was all. I listened to the message again, and I wished I could cancel the meeting and go to him right then. But it wouldn’t take long — I would get through it as quickly as possible, and then I would call him.
By the time the software consultant, Kelly Reinhart, and I had finished, it was a few minutes past six. It might have gone on even longer, except there was a call from the security office to tell us that there had been some flooding in the lowest level of the garage. It was mostly unoccupied, since most people had already left for the day, but there were still one or two cars down there, and they should probably be moved.
“Shoot, one of them’s mine,” I said to Kelly, closing my laptop and sliding it into my briefcase. “I’d better go see to my car. Is it okay if I call you tomorrow about the last couple of points we didn’t get to?”
“Sure thing,” Kelly said.
“What about you? . . . Are you going to the garage too?”
“I didn’t bring my car today, it’s in the shop. My husband’s picking me up at six-thirty. But I’ll ride down with you in the elevator if you want company — ”
“No, no . . . ” I smiled and picked up my briefcase. “I’ll be fine.”
“Great. Okay. Call up here or go to the security office off the lobby if you have any problems.” Kelly made a face. “The way this old building leaks, your car may be underwater by now.”
I laughed. “Just my luck. It’s new.”
With most of the daytime occupants gone, the building was quiet and a little eerie, doors locked and windows darkened. Thunder was rumbling outside, making me shiver in my business suit. I was glad to be going home. One of my shoes was pinching, and the clasp of my side-zip pants was digging into my skin, and I was hungry. Most of all, J was anxious to reach Hardy and tell him how sorry I was for the previous night. And I was going to explain . . . something.
I entered the elevator and pressed the button for the lowest garage level. The doors closed, and the cab descended smoothly. But as I reached the bottom, the floor beneath me gave a strange lurch, and I heard pops and snaps, and then everything went dead. The lights, the hydraulics, everything stopped. I let out a startled yelp as I was left in complete blackness. Worse, I heard the continuous splash of water, like someone had turned a faucet on inside the elevator.
Concerned but not panicked, I felt for the panel beside the door, pushing a few buttons Nothing happened.
“Phone,” I said aloud, trying to reassure myself with the sound of my own voice. “There’s always a phone in these things.” My groping fingers found an elevator speaker phone with a push button, all of it embedded in the wall. I pushed the button, held it, but there was no response.
I counted myself lucky that I wasn’t one of those people with elevator phobias. I was remaining calm. Methodically I went through my briefcase to find my cell phone. Something icy swept over my foot. At first I thought it was a draft, but a second later I felt the wet chill in my pumps, and I realized there were a couple of inches of water inside the elevator cab.
Carefully I pulled out the cell phone and flipped it open. I used it as a makeshift flashlight, shining the tiny glowing screen at my surroundings to see where the water was coming in.
Oily-looking water was spurting through the seam of the closed elevator doors. That was bad enough. But as I moved the glow of the cell phone upward, I saw that it wasn’t just coming in through the bottom of the doors. It was coming through the top.
As if the entire elevator car were submerged.
But that wasn’t possible. There was no way the shaft could be filled with eight or nine feet of water . . . wouldn’t that mean most of the lower garage was flooded? That couldn’t have happened in the time since I’d arrived at the building. But shit . . . an elevator shaft full of water would explain why all the electrical systems seemed to have short-circuited.
“This is crazy,” I muttered, my heartbeat picking up anxious speed as I dialed the building’s main number. It rang twice, and then a recorded message began to list extension numbers from the main directory. As soon as I heard the three digits for the security office, I punched them in. Another two rings . . . and then a busy signal.
Swearing, I redialed the main number and tried Kelly’s extension. An answering machine picked up. “Hi, this is Kelly Reinhart. I’m away from my desk, but if you’ll leave a message at the tone, I’ll return your call as soon as possible.”
I left a message, trying to sound professional but urgent. “Kelly, it’s Haven. I’m stuck in one of the elevators on the garage level, and water’s coming in. Do me a favor and let security know that I’m down here.”
Water kept pouring in, swirling around my ankles.
As I ended the call, I saw that the low battery signal on my phone was flashing. With hardly any juice left, I wasn’t going to take any chances. I dialed 911, watching my finger as if it belonged to someone else. And I listened, incredulous, as the line was picked up and directed to a recorded message. “We are currently experiencing a high volume of calls. All circuits are busy. Please remain on the line until a dispatcher is available.” I held, waited for a minute that seemed to last a lifetime, and ended the call when it was clear nothing was going to happen. I dialed it again with excruciating care . . . 9-1-1 . . . and this time I got nothing but a busy signal.
My phone beeped to let me know the battery was almost dead.
With the water now midway up my calves and pouring in continuously, I stopped pretending that I was anything close to calm. Somehow I managed to bring the list of recently received calls to the phone screen. I pressed the return on Hardy’s last call.
It rang. Once . . . twice . . . I gasped with relief as I heard his voice.
“Hardy,” I choked, unable to get the words out fast enough. “It’s me. I need you. I need help.”
He didn’t miss a beat. “Where are you?”
“Buffalo Tower. Elevator. I’m in an elevator stuck in the garage and there’s water coming in, lots of water — ” The phone beeped again. “Hardy, can you hear me?”
“Say it again.”
“An elevator at Buffalo Tower — I’m stuck in the garage, in an elevator, and it’s flooding, and I need — ” The phone beeped and went dead. I was left in darkness once more. “No,” I half screamed in frustration. “Damn it. Hardy? Hardy?”
Nothing but silence. And gushing, splashing water.
I felt hysteria welling up, and I actually considered whether or not to give in to it. But since there was nothing to be gained by it, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to make me feel any better, I shoved it back down and took deep breaths.
“People don’t drown in elevators,” I said aloud.
The water had reached my knees, and it was biting cold. It also smelled bad, like oil and chemicals and sewage. I pulled my computer from my briefcase, opened it, and tried in vain to get any kind of Internet signal. At least with the glowing screen open, it wasn’t completely dark in the elevator. I looked at the ceiling, which was covered in wood paneling and tiny recessed lights, all out. Wasn’t there supposed to be an escape hatch? Maybe it was concealed. I couldn’t think of any way to get up there and search for it.
I waded to the side of the door and tried the phone panel again, as well as all the buttons, and nothing happened. Taking off one of my pumps, I used the heel to bang on the walls and shout for help for a few minutes.
By the time I got tired of pounding, I was submerged up to my hips. I was so cold that my teeth were chattering and the bones in my legs were aching. Except for the water pouring in, everything was quiet. It was calm everywhere except inside my head.
I realized I was in a coffin. I was actually going to die in this metal box.
I’d heard it wasn’t supposed to be a bad way to die, drowning. There were worse ways to go. But it was so unfair — I had never done anything with my life that was worth putting in an obituary. I hadn’t accomplished any of the goals I’d had at college. I’d never made peace with my father, not in a real sense. I’d never helped people who were less fortunate. I’d never even had decent sex.
I was certain that people facing death should be occupied with noble thoughts, but instead I found myself thinking about those moments in the stairwell with Hardy. If I’d gone through with it, at least I would have had good sex for once in my life. But I’d blown even that. I wanted him. I wanted so much. Nothing was finished in my life. I stood there, waiting for my eventual drowning not with resignation but milling fury.
When the water had reached the bottom edge of my bra, I was tired of holding the computer up, and I let it sink. It submerged and floated to the elevator floor in water so polluted you could barely see the glowing screen before it shorted out and went dark. It was disorienting, the cold blackness all around me. Huddling in the corner, I leaned my head against the wall and breathed, and waited. I wondered what it would feel like when there was no more air left and I had to pull water into my lungs.
The sound of a sharp bang on 1the ceiling caused a start that went through me like a bullet. I turned my head from one side to the other, sightless and scared. Bang. Scraping, sliding noises, tools against metal. The ceiling creaked, and the entire elevator rocked as if it were a rowboat.
“Is someone there?” I called out, my pulse thundering.
I heard the muffled, distant sound of a human voice.
Galvanized, I pounded the elevator wall with my fist. “Help! I’m trapped down here!”
There was a reply I couldn’t hear. Whoever it was kept working on the top of the elevator, wrenching and prying until a raw shriek of metal filled the air. A portion of the wood paneling was ripped back. I flattened myself against the wall as I heard cracking and splintering, debris splashing. And then the beam of a flashlight shot into the dark elevator cab, bouncing off the water.
“I’m here,” I said with a sob, sloshing forward. “I’m down here. Is there any way you can get me out?”
A man leaned into the elevator cab until I could see his face and shoulders illuminated by the reflected light.
“You should probably know up front,” Hardy said, widening the opening with a grunt of effort, “I charge a lot for elevator rescues.”