A Short Story
She turns away from the elevator doors when she hears him coming, his labored breaths deafening in the acoustics of the hallway. As he trudges up to stand next to her she can see steam coming off his ragged grey shirt, and there are still burn holes and grime caked on his trousers. She grimaces. The stench still hangs on his skin.
“You’re late,” she says, accusation in her voice. The man shakes his head and leans heavily on his knees.
“The doors haven’t opened yet. I’m not late.”
“You came after me. You are late.” He ignores her last words and coughs violently. The girl winces. “What’s wrong with you?” she asks, and there is no empathy in her tone. The man simply leans against the wall and closes his eyes, breathing.
“I’m tired,” he says tonelessly before rubbing a dirty sleeve over his dirtier face. “What else?”
“You look terrible,” she tells him with deadpan scrutiny, taking a half step away from him. “You couldn’t have cleaned up before you got here?”
“What’s the point?” He slides down the wall and groans at the action. She is annoyed with his weakness. “We clean up, we get filthy again. Endless cycle. I should just cut out the middle man.”
“He’s not going to let you up looking like that.”
“He doesn’t have a choice,” the man laughs. Sarcastically. Sardonically. “Who else is going to go with you?” She just sighs and he opens his eyes to look up at her, noting the agitation in the stiff way she crosses her arms. “Beatrice.” He says her name and she looks down at him. “I’m sorry. I really am just tired.”
“I know you are,” she snaps. “But so am I, and I at least put some effort into keeping up an appearance. You could try a little harder.”
“Because that’s how this operation works.”
“And who gives a damn about this operation?”
“And why should we?”
“Because it’s our job.”
“And who ever said we had to do this fucking job?” he suddenly explodes, sitting up straight, his fingers curled into fists. His voice is booming, commanding, but Beatrice just rolls her eyes. She’s used to his tantrums. “When did we ever sign up for this?”
“I’m not in the mood for this today,” she tells him, and there is so much weariness in her tone. “Can we just focus on getting into the elevator?”
“I don’t want to get into the elevator.”
“When do we ever want to?”
“I want to stop, Bee. I can’t keep going in circles—,”
“Stop whining, you’ve been doing this for years.” She breathes deeply. “It should be second nature.”
“It should be.” But she doesn’t sound convinced of her own words. “It’s gotten easier.”
“It’s gotten harder,” he insists. Beatrice is about to reply, but then she hesitates as she stares at her garbled reflection in the elevator doors.
In truth, she agrees. For years, for decades, for countless days at a time they would venture out into the circles, fighting and scraping along the same path. One would thing the way would get worn down over time, become easier and familiar. But every time was like the first: hard and painful and exhausting.
“It has,” she admits out loud, and she unconsciously looks up and behind her, to make sure no one else is there to hear her blasphemy. The man stares at her from the floor.
“You feel it too?” he asks, and she nods.
“Every single day. It gets harder and harder. Shouldn’t it become easier?” She whispers the last part, because the question isn’t for him but for her. He answers anyway.
“I don’t know.” They wait in silence for a moment, both of them looking off in different directions, their expressions so similar in the blank way they stare. “Have you ever thought about leaving them?” he suddenly asks, and his words pull Beatrice out of her contemplative stupor. She frowns at him, surprised.
“I was just…wondering.” He shrugs. “Each circle is so vast, and they get lost so easily, like dumb little dogs. Sometimes I lose sight of them and then I think about turning around and just…walking away.” He looks disgusted with himself even as he speaks, and when he looks back up he sees the same disgust on her face, but there’s something else there, too.
“That’s horrible,” she says. He drops his eyes. “You’re horrible, Virgil.”
He shrugs. “I know.”
More silence passes. The elevator doors are quiet and unmoving.
“Have you ever actually done it?” she prods, curiosity screwing up her features. “Have you tried to abandon them before?” Virgil starts to laugh but it quickly escalates to a cough and he’s on all fours and spitting out ash before he gains the wind to speak.
“Of course not. I can never bring myself to actually look away.”
“That’s good of you.” She rubs her arms like she’s cold, but she never gets cold. “It means you really are a good man.”
“Cowards are not good men. They’re just cowards.”
“Cowards are better then bad men.”
“Cowards can also be bad men.”
“Bad men could just be bad men.”
He starts to reply, but then sees the futility of the argument and let’s the subject drop. It’s Beatrice who brings it up again, and her words genuinely shock him.
“I’ve done it,” she says abruptly, and the quiet surrounding them instantly turns thick. He looks up sharply, but she’s still staring at her reflection.
“I tried to, at least. I lost sight of a girl in the fifth circle and I turned around and started to head back. I didn’t even look for her. She could have needed me, been caught by the Damned, pulled into temptation…I don’t know.” She sounds regretful, ashamed and repulsed at her own actions. But there is also a nervousness in her tone, and it’s there because they both know that a part of her doesn’t regret her actions at all. And that frightens them.
“What made you turn back?” he asks, struggling to his feet. She looks down and his eyes widen. “He made you?” He’s horrified and scared, but she shakes her head quickly.
“He doesn’t work like that. He doesn’t make the decisions for us.”
“I beg to differ.” Virgil speaks like a man with a grudge and not at all like the level-headed scholar he used to be. “So what happened? You felt guilty?”
“Yes.” Her reply is simple, and they both sit in it for moment before she says any more. “I didn’t even make it to the edge of the circle. I didn’t have to imagine her screams or her empty prayers to turn back. I just…I felt bad.”
“That you had left her alone?”
“That she couldn’t find the way out.” She finally looks away from the elevator, finally too sick of her distorted reflection to stare at it anymore. “Who cares if they’re alone or miserable or in pain? I don’t. I only care that there would be no end for them. That there’s a way to get out, but they wouldn’t find it because no one can find it. We barely find it time and time again, and it’s our job.” She looks down at her hands. There are so many scars, old and brand new. A souvenir from every trip. “I wonder…why do I feel responsible for these people?”
“Because no one else will.”
A quiet sound of displaced air creeps out from the closed elevator doors. Beatrice and Virgil quickly stand to attention. Like soldiers.
“Does that make us good people? Taking responsibility only because there’s no one else who will?”
“Because it sounds selfish.”
They look at each other. She sees him in all his grotesque glory, covered in the muck and mold of ages and stinking of a perilous journey that does him no good. He sees her as a scarred monument, something that has withstood the elements of time not because it chooses to but because someone put it there eons ago and left it to fend for itself.
Virgil gestures to the sadness between them. “Do you think any of this is selfish?”
The elevator doors open and the two step into the metal lift in complete silence. There are no buttons on the walls, but once they are in the doors close and the elevator rises.
An hour passes. And then two, maybe a few more.
Maybe none at all, because they learned long ago that they’re not relevant to time.
They usually take the journey in silence. Sometimes sitting, sometimes standing.
They sit this time, and Virgil tries to share a memory.
“Do you ever wonder about Dante?” he asks, but Beatrice holds up a hand right away.
“I don’t want to hear that name right now.”
Virgil swallows the memory and goes back to his silence.
The elevator never slows from its steady pace, there are no lights or signs inside, but they always know when it comes close to stopping. Already Virgil is regretting not cleaning up before hand, and he tries his best to clean his face on his dirty shirt. Beatrice doesn’t want to help him, but eventually she scoots closer and uses the back of her shirt to clean away most of the ash and blood. He says ‘thank you’ and kisses her hand, and she says ‘whatever’ and helps him to his feet. They don’t touch for the last few minutes before the doors open.
When they step out it’s into the same huge, black room that they always step into. There are no windows, and even though there’s only darkness above they know that there is no ceiling, just a seemingly infinite expanse that goes up and up and up. The floor is made of marble that is dusty and dirty and cracked and old, and the walls show the remnants of pillars and alcoves that could have housed something nice at one time in history.
Beatrice and Virgil walk across the room, their footsteps echoing as he says what he says every time they return to the place.
“He still hasn’t put a sofa in here.”
She ignores him, as she always does, and before long they reach the opposite side of the room, where a large wooden door stands closed and locked from the other side. Virgil always checks through the eye slit, and when he pulls back the sliding panel he sighs.
“It’s a guy,” he says, disappointed. “You might think he’s cute.”
“I don’t care,” she says, but a small part of her does. The responsibility she would inevitably feel was always easier when she liked the person.
She unconsciously messes with her hair as he waits for the lock to sound and he’s allowed to open the door. Sometimes the lock moves right away and they can go on with their duties. Other times it would take hours for the lock to move, and the person would usually be a bubbling mess when they walked through. But it was never their call; it was never in their control whether the lock moved or not.
Very few things were.
This man was proving to be an easy burden though, because within a few seconds the lock clicked and Virgil was yanking on the iron handle with his bloody, chapped hands. The man walked through with little hesitation but much apprehension, and when he saw Beatrice standing there and waiting he frowned.
“Who are you?” he asked, and from the door Virgil sighs.
“Why do they always ask who you are when the door opens, but if I’m standing there it’s always ‘where am I’ or ‘what’s going on’?”
“Because you look like that,” she says, eyeing his unpleasant appearance. “And I come off nice.”
“You’re hardly nice,” says Virgil.
“Who are you people?” asks the man.
“Hm. You are kind of cute,” says Beatrice.
With a grunt Virgil shuts the wooden door and the lock slides back into place on its own. The man’s calm is now waning, and fear is finally starting to settle in. He is panicking now, asking questions and screaming and crying without either of them saying anything. While the man is convulsing on the floor and choking on his own distress Beatrice rubs his back, because she has learned that comfort helps, even if it’s not genuine. Behind him Virgil just watches the guy cry and makes a comment about needing a sofa again.
“Just open the elevator,” she tells him. “I can take the first four while you clean up.”
Virgil frowns. “So I have to cross five circles?”
“You’re supposed to be the first guide. I’m doing you a favor.”
He trudges off and Beatrice stays with the man. She tries to be patient, to let him calm down, but he just seems to restart every time he’s about to stop. She closes her eyes and knows that she’ll see him cry and break down again, because every circle that she will lead him through will be more horrible than the last. And then she remembers her first few journeys, and how she would cry and break down often, but she would wait until she was alone and no one would see her. She didn’t want to scare anyone, didn’t want the people who followed her to be more frightened than they already were. So she had kept her trials and tribulations quiet, kept the Damned from seeing her terror, kept the Demons from feeding on her fear. She had silenced herself and did her job.
The job that He had given her.
The job that He had given Virgil.
Since that first moment when Dante had passed through into the realm of the Fallen, and had woven false tales of their righteousness to God.
“Stop crying,” she says, and shakes the man by his shoulders. “The sooner you stop the sooner we can go, and the sooner you could get out of here.”
“Where is here?” he tries to ask, but his words are garbled and come out in fragments. Beatrice just yanks him to his feet and starts dragging him to the elevator, where Virgil is waiting with all the patience of a millennia.
“This is Hell,” she says, and the man trips over his feet when the word settles in. Beatrice is not gentle when she tugs him along. “And Virgil and I will lead you through it so you can get out. Now pull yourself together and let us do our jobs.”
They reach the elevator and the man is wide-eyed with fearful wonder. He looks up at Virgil and Virgil glares down at him. “Why are you helping me?” he asks. She pauses and stares at her partner, their eyes meeting in mutual monotony and fatigue. He looks back at the man and shrugs.
“Because honestly, no one else will.”
The man expects more, probably something heartfelt and philosophical. Maybe he expects an explanation for his problems, for their existence, for the elevator doors that are closing the three of them in and slowly moving down. The way he cowers in the corner and stares at them both says that he wants them to comfort him, to speak to him, to make him feel better than he does.
But they don’t do any of that.
Can someone from the sciencey side of tumblr please explain this ?
This is called shape memory. It’s made from an alloy of titanium and nickel (I believe it’s called nitinol). It has the ability to “remember” the shape it’s taken.
When cold you can bend it whatever which way, but once you heat it (or in this case put it in what I presume is hot water) it will take the original shape.