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The Escalator


by Lorna Garano


Milton stopped halfway down his apartment building's stairway and clutched his belly with one hand and the railing with the other. He felt like someone was folding his stomach into an origami figure. He sat down and took some deep breaths—slowly in through the nose and slowly out through the mouth like the doctor had shown him—and the scent of bourbon enveloped him as he exhaled. When he tried to stand up his stomach tightened and his knees buckled. He looked around to confirm he was still alone. Of course he was. It was late and no one else in the building worked the night shift. Then he realized, not for the first time, that humiliation didn't require and audience.

Through the glass paneling on the side of the door he saw a bus go by. No matter. The city thrummed with regular buses and he wouldn't be late to work. He hoisted himself up, stood still for a few seconds, and made his way outside. Within minutes he stepped on to a bus headed to The Escalator. An old fare-collecting machine that had been painted in an abstract print stood next to the driver, a relic of pre-revolutionary money grubbing refashioned into an ironic piece of public art.

Milton's eyes fell on Jacob, another security guard at The Escalator, sitting in the middle of the bus. The glow of Jacob's M-tablet illuminated the slight smile on his face. He sat down next to him and Jacob canted the device so that he could see the article he'd been reading. “Prion Diseases Cured,” read the headline. Milton felt his stomach knot again. He squeezed his fists and made his face blank by loosening his lips and un-wrinkling his eyes. He took the shallowest deep breaths he could manage so that Jacob wouldn't notice his descent into panic or his alcoholic exhalations.

The National Health and Medicine Cooperative today announced that they have at long last found a cure for the dreaded prion category of diseases, the most common of which is bovine spongiform encephalopathy or “mad cow disease,” which sparked panic last year when a sudden spate of cases appeared across the globe. Prions are misfolded proteins that wreak havoc on the nervous system impairing cognition and coordination and sometimes triggering bizarre behavior patterns or blindness and deafness. Earlier attempts at treatment were unsuccessful, but now, with state-of-the-art gene silencing technology scientists have developed a way to shut down the genetic programming for the devilish protein. In effect, they have switched it off, like an M-Tab. Plans are underway to provide community medical centers with the staff and resources needed to begin screening and treatment. Other diseases caused by prions include kuru or “laughing sickness,” Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, fatal familial insomnia, and Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker Syndrome.

    “I suppose there'll be a pluck order waiting for us,” Milton said.

“Of course. Want to bet which one it's going to be?"

Milton forced a laugh, even though he knew Jacob was serious. 

Jacob went back to his M-Tab.

The bus turned into the crescent driveway of The Escalator, whose rooftop solar panels absorbed only darkness now. Milton didn't like to think about how he had wanted to work at The Escalator because of the building, which was functional and beautiful—a symbol of old dichotomies being smashed. “No more false choices!” That had been the rallying cry of the revolution that had swept away the old society that was so unjust, so wasteful, so ugly. He especially didn't like remembering how much he had loved the spiral structure that made up the east wing without imagining that it was where the un-women were held. He could only stand the stupidity of that when he was drunk and able to forgive or pity the good-natured oaf who had worn his skin in earlier times.

There was one memory, in particular, that drunk or sober Milton couldn't bear. When he had interviewed for the job at The Escalator he told Maria-Theresa, the Security Manager, that the building had such intuitive curves that he could see a marble being dropped at one end of it and traveling across its expanse, uninterrupted, and only dropping off at the building's edge. “The lines are so fluid it looks a if the building itself is in motion,” he had added. That was less a memory than a specter of humiliation that preyed upon him according to its own cruel whims.  

Milton saw the streak of red and blue shirts just as he scanned his identity badge. “C-184, pod 18,” blared the loud speaker and the building was suddenly bathed in blinking red light. Un-woman down, Maria-Theresa cried at Milton and Jacob as she ran past them with the defibrillator. Milton ran after her, the adrenaline that had build up that morning combusting in him so that he was the first to reach her.

Un-Laura lay on her side, bent at the waist and knees, so her body made a “z” shape. Milton knelt down next to her and felt her pulse. Strong and regular, an impervious metronome. He turned her head so that he could open her eyes and a piece of paper flowed out of her mouth in a rivulet of saliva.

Stretcher. Make way! he heard from behind.

Milton shoved the note in his shoe and stood up. He wiped his wet fingers on his pants and stepped aside as two EMTs placed un-Laura on the stretcher and then on the back of a cart and sped away to the infirmary.

“Good work, Milt,” Maria-Theresa said.

“You'd never know there was a gazelle in that body,” Jacob put in and the rest of the crew laughed.

“Oh, you're here, Jacob. You were moving so slow it was like you were going backward. I was going to look for you in the Tassler wing,” Maria-Theresa replied.

More laughter.

“Anyone know what her problem was?” Milton asked, trying to sound disinterested.

                  “Probably just pre-pluck syndrome,” Maria-Theresa said.

         “PPS? C'mon. Do we still believe in that…?” Milton was going to say “crap,” but he realized just in time that this might offend Maria-Theresa, the woman who had treated him with such kindness. “How could they know when they're going to be plucked? We don't even know who it's going to be until the last minute.”

“If you've got a better explanation, I'm all ears. We see it more and more. An un-woman just loses it and the next thing you know she's plucked,” Maria-Theresa said.

The crew dispersed throughout The Escalator. Milton, Maria-Theresa, and Jacob headed to the central security station. When Milton opened the door, the pluck order was blinking on the Security M-Tab.

            CAUSAL EVENT: Prion cure

            ORIGINATING DEPARTMENT: National Health & Medicine Cooperative     

            PLUCK: Un-Laura

            METHOD: Incineration

Milton stopped reading. Un-Laura would be set ablaze. He knew the procedure. He'd seen it with un-Erica last year. She had been tied to a chair, wrapped in a linen shroud, and her head doused with kerosene. Then her hair was set on fire. Milton could still remember the oddly synthetic smell of burning hair and how the fire had consumed un-Erica's head. He remembered her jaw burning off and the teeth that were left behind for the maintenance crew to sweep up.  Jacob had joked that she looked like a giant matchstick before the fire traveled downward and turned her body molten.

Milton felt his arms go cold and his vision became blurry. He sat down and tried to hide his panic.

“You okay,?” Maria-Theresa asked.

Milton opened his mouth to say yes, but couldn't speak.

“Here we go again. Milt—they're bred for this. What part of that don't you get? These are the descendants of whores and obstructionists. Cut the drama, man,” Jacob said.

“Time for bed check, Jacob,” Maria-Theresa said and made her eyes hard.

Milton stood up and said “I'm okay. Thanks, MT.”

“Milt, sit down again. The last thing I need is you falling over.”

Maria-Theresa put her hand on his shoulder.

“Listen, Milt. You've got to stop taking this so hard. There's some truth in what Jacob said. It's not a surprise.”

“It's just so soon since the last one.”

“It's been two months, Milt. Two months. When I first started here the pluck orders came down once a week—if not more. That's when we were still pumped from the revolution and progress was on everyone's mind. Universal education—un-Leslie; Diabetes cure—un-Tessa; Wind-power—un-Joyce.”

Milton felt a spike of rage at Maria-Theresa.

“It was an explosion of progress in those days, Milt.”

She looked into Milton's eyes and said “Look, this isn't your supervisor asking you, it's your friend: Do you need to see the doc again?”

Milton shook his head and said “no.”

“I'm good,” Milton said.

Maria-Theresa looked at him with a question in her face.

“Seriously, I'm good, MT.”

He flipped his M-Tab to “on duty” and walked away. When he realized that thinking of the note in his shoe made him limp slightly, he corrected his gait and picked up the pace.

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The Vatican was heavy on drums, which is why Jacob loved the band. He heard their signature staccato pounding as he opened the cellar door and walked down the concrete steps.

Someone turned down the music as soon as they caught sight of him. He heard grumbling from the men who were packed into the basement.

He cut his way through the group to the M-Tab hooked up to the massive screen.

The room grew silent and he smelled sweat and the odor of beer. He pulled out a rubber band from his pocket and tied his hair, which hung to the middle of his back, into a ponytail. Then he plugged the data card into the M-Tab.

He turned to the group of men, most of whom had sat down and were sipping drinks.  

“About time, asshole. We've been here for over an hour,” a hacker named Chad yelled.

Jacob snatched the data card from the M-Tab and held it up. “I could just leave,” he said.

“No you can't. Remember how much we paid you for it?” Chad answered.

“The price can easily go up next time for you fucking freaks,” he said.

“Don't think you can bleed us—” Chad started to say

“Let's get on with it,” someone else in the crowd demanded.

He plugged the card back into the M-Tab and the screen lit up.

“It's you. You're next,” Jacob whispered to un-Laura. The shot was taken from behind him. His dark hair lay against his red shirt. A few grey strands were threaded in it. “Me?” she replied. “Yes, a friend told me. A friend who knows. I can't tell you how, but trust me he's always right. He knew when it was un-Erica's time. You two were tight, weren't you?” Un-Laura ran a shaking hand through her hair, which was so thin that a stripe of white scalp ran down the middle of her head. She wobbled a little and Jacob helped her to her bed. He covered her and left her cell. The door closed with a soft click. Un-Laura grabbed her knees and then shot up. She began walking in circles in her cell with her hands over her ears. Her chest heaved up and down. She turned out the light and began to sob. The film cut to un-Laura sitting on the toilet. She fell off it and crawled on her hands and knees to her bed. She was naked now and her face shiny with sweat.

Jacob surveyed the room. The faces of the men illuminated by the screen were dreamy and distant as if their bodies were anchors for minds that had slipped into a far-off euphoria. Did the delight these men took in the anguish of the un-Women become benign because it was shared? This was another of those thoughts that Jacob had no patience for and that he often wished he could strangle before they bloomed into full cognition.

When Jacob looked up at the screen he saw un-Laura bent over slightly with her arms wrapped around her. She now wore the canvas dress issued to all of the women in The Escalator and an old sweater. She was let out by Milton—that sloppy, sentimental fool who was stupid enough to believe that no one knew he was a drunk—for her hour in the rec yard with the others on her floor. The video cut just as the door closed behind her. Jacob was getting better at editing. In fact, he thought, he was getting so good that he could demand more money the next time.

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Tequila…Coke…tequila…Coke…tequila…Coke. Milton said it silently at first than out loud the drunker he got from the tequila shots and Coke chasers. This chant suddenly struck him as funny and his body folded over in a gale of laughter.  He got up and started marching around his bedroom to: Tequila…Coke…tequila…Coke… tequila…Coke. He was soon winded and collapsed on his bed in another explosion of hilarity. He was warm from the alcohol and everything around him looked pillowy, as if it was all made cotton. He sat up in his bed and looked at how neatly his white rolls of stomach fat piled on top of each other, like a stack of wax donuts. That, too, was funny.

Milton once again unfolded the note in his shoe.  The paper was puckered from the dried saliva, but the ink was oddly unblurred. It was a drawing. Of course it was. The un-women weren't taught to read. He was surprised at how detailed the sketch of the rec yard was. It included the pear tree in the northwest corner and it was even shaded so that the early morning light bleached the eastern wall of the building that the yard butted up against.  An “x” was drawn in the southeast corner and above it floated a helicopter with a rope ladder dangling from its belly. Again, he was surprised at the artistry. The rope of the ladder was crosshatched.

He gulped. His taste buds were burned from all the drinking and the tequila was now a feeling in his mouth more than a taste. He would finish the bottle. Why not? This morning he was celebrating. He laughed until he was exhausted and fell asleep with the near-empty bottle next to him.

As always twilight pried Milton's eyes open. He drew himself up and scrubbed his body in the shower with a nailbrush until it was red. He had read that this was a good way to get the blood circulating. He stepped out of the shower and dried his hair with a towel, even though this aggravated the hangover headache.

The empty tequila bottle lay next to his bed. He put it in the recycling bin and then he went to the kitchen cabinet and took down the two other bottles of tequila and one of bourbon. He began pouring the alcohol down the sink. By the time he got to the last one his hands were shaking and he wanted nothing more than to sit in his bed drinking shot after calming shot. Milton threw the empty bottles in the recycling and began running the water. Then he sprinkled some powdered cleanser in the sink so that its cutting odor erased any trace of the alcohol's delicious scent.

He put on his uniform and headed out.

Milton passed the bus stop. He would walk to work tonight. Soon his body felt tired, but he pushed on and his breathing became clearer. He could still turn himself around. He was young enough and probably hadn't done any permanent damage to his health.

When he reached The Escalator he glimpsed the long-forgotten beauty of the building. 

“You're early,” Maria-Theresa said.

“I beat the bus.”

“You walked? From your place?”

“Yup.”

“What did you have for breakfast tonight?”

“Actually, nothing for a change,” he said and patted his stomach.

Milton flipped his M-Tab to “on duty” and started making his rounds.

He stopped at un-Laura's cell and saw her thin body curled on her bed. He shined his flashlight on her face and saw that her eyes were wide open and almost comically large for her face. He lowered the light and walked on.

When morning dawned Milton and Jacob shepherded the un-women to breakfast and then to the rec yard. Jacob went back inside to do the day's administrative work.  

Un-Laura milled around the pear tree, trying to make her movement look desultory and making a half-hearted effort at calisthenics.

“No need,” Milton said silently to himself.

The slashing of air was faint and mutedly violent at first and then, as it shed the skin of distance, it grew louder until it hurt Milton's ears and churned the air of the rec yard, with such force that the un-women's canvas dresses pressed against their frames, showing their ribs and hip bones that jutted out like fins. The ladder unfurled from the helicopter and the blades slowed.

Un-Laura started for the helicopter.

Soon, Jacob and Maria-Theresa were in the yard.

“What the fuck?” Jacob screamed.

“Milt, what's going on? Talk to us,” Maria-Theresa yelled.

He pushed his hands into his pockets and looked at Maria-Theresa, hoping no apology showed in his face.

“Milt?” Maria-Theresa yelled again.

Jacob and Maria-Theresa charged un-Laura, while two women climbed down the ladder. The top one fired two blasts from a .45. The un-women scattered to the farthest edge of the yard. Some lay down; others squatted against the wall of the building.

Maria-Theresa grabbed un-Laura around the waist and tried to wrestle her to the ground. Un-Laura used her skinny arms like truncheons and smacked Maria-Theresa's face.

“Calm down. Calm the fuck down,” Jacob screamed and grabbed un-Laura's hair. She began kicking him in the shins and attacking Maria-Theresa's knees on the backswing.

“Milt, get the fuck over her,” Maria-Theresa bellowed.

“What are you doing? Get your ass over here,” Jacob shouted.

A third shot blasted through the air. The women were now on the ground.

Marie-Theresa shimmied and then crumpled.

 Un-Laura began to climb the ladder, her face freckled with Maria-Theresa's blood.

The woman who had fired earlier pointed her gun at Jacob.

“No, he's the one who warned me,” un-Laura shouted from the ladder.

The women looked at each other.

“Not him,” un-Laura yelled again.

Not him? Jacob had warned her? For the first time that day, Milton felt confusion and then fear flood his body.

The woman who had killed Maria-Theresa looked to her armed companion, who nodded toward the helicopter. She ran to the ladder and started climbing up. She forced un-Laura to move and soon they were both in the craft.

The other woman walked deliberately over to Milton with long strides. Milton noticed she had a scar on the side of her face and that, unlike what he initially thought, she was not old. He started to shake and grow lightheaded. “I'm not drinking anymore,” he blurted, too scared to realize how ridiculous this sounded.  The woman squinted her eyes. Milton looked around and saw the un-women dotting the rec yard, as immobile as moss in their white canvas uniforms. The woman raised her gun. Milton started to run back into the building. He made it as far as halfway down the main corridor before the woman, who was not old, fired and Milton, in the space of less than a second, felt his fear dissolve into a suddenly pristine mind.

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