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Twenty-Three Floors

Living on the twenty-third floor was a bloody pain. I don’t like the lift, going down the stairs was bad enough, but walking up them was torture. The hallway was so narrow, you couldn’t carry anything down the hallway without walking like a crab. The lounge room was horrid: paint peeling in dandruff-like flakes and dirty brown carpet. At least my bedroom was pretty. The only room decorated with style – polished timber floor, sky blue walls, a mirrored wardrobe and a window that overlooked the local park lands.

Mum and I came here after dad left. I had to transfer and move away from my school friends. I miss them, but mum says, it won’t take too long to make new ones.

“Yeah right! No-one likes a chubby nerd like me, do they Coco?” The cat twitched her ears and looked up, started purring and flicked her bushy tail across the quilt. She stretched her paws and leapt onto my lap. I nestled into her fur and her purring became louder as she batted the curly red strands of my hair.

The day was warm and the sun was cheerfully glowing – a good day to be outside and the walk to the vet will be nice. After a struggle, I managed to put Coco in the carrier, but she wasn’t happy – her meowing sounded throughout the apartment.

No stairs today, the carrier was too heavy. The wall-clock ticked noisily, my stomach churned and flipped. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.

It’ll be fine, just breathe. I jumped when the lift arrived. My breath caught in my throat and I couldn’t move. My feet were stuck to the floor. The doors opened, then slowly started to close. I wrenched my feet from the floor and just beat the closing doors.

Not alone, bugger! Another girl was in the lift. Her blonde hair was in a long ponytail and she wore luminous rainbow gym gear. Thank God, she’s not looking at me. I heard the girl’s steady breathing, so different from mine – shallow and breathless. My heartbeats hammered in my head, and behind my eyes, I closed them. Only twenty-three floors.

The floor beneath me jerked and shook violently, my stomach dropped. I lost my balance, and fell hard onto the ridged flooring, the carrier flew out of my hands. The steel wall was cold behind my back and the air was pushed from my lungs. My eyes instantly open, I saw Coco crouching next to the carrier, her pitiful cries echoed in the closed space. The girl whimpered and I saw her sprawled on the ground in the opposite corner, she had a small cut above her eye, blood and tears trickled down her cheek. I breathed deeply and moved towards her as she sat up, “Are you okay?”

She stopped sobbing, but the tears still fell. “I think so.”

I walked to the toppled carrier. “I’m here, Coco.” Freeing the frightened cat, I held her close, she nuzzled and clawed my arm. “Ouch!”

The girl came over and cautiously touched the cat, “Is your cat alright?”

“I think she’s okay, but her nails are like daggers. That’s why I’m taking her to the vet.” Looking up at the girl, I pointed to her eye, “Did you know you’re bleeding? Here’s a tissue, I always carry heaps.”

Taking the tissue and dabbing at her head and eyes, the girl said, “Thanks, at least I’m not bleeding too much. I’m Zoe. That was crazy, it’s been ages since the lift stuffed up. I hope they fix it soon.”

“They better, I’m terrified of lifts. I’m Emily. I’ve only been in them once or twice, and that was when we moved in, they scare the shit out of me.” I rubbed my chest, “It’s hard to breathe in here.”

“It’s okay Emily, it’ll be fine.” Zoe leaned closer and put her arm around me, “I’m in these lifts all the time and they’re usually good.” She reached her hand towards Coco, and asked, “Hey, can I pat your cat? I had one like yours, but he crossed the Rainbow Bridge last year.”

“I’m sorry about your cat. Yeah sure, you can pat Coco, she loves cuddles.” Zoe sat next to me, the light wasn’t so bright in the corner. Zoe patted Coco, who lay on my lap. The cat started purring again. “She likes you Zoe, usually it takes her awhile to get used to new people. She must know you’re a cat person.”

“I love animals, but cats are my favourite. We’ve always had cats in my family, dogs too, budgies and finches – oh, we had a turtle once. I’m going to be a vet one day.”

“Wow!” I tickled Coco’s ears and under her chin, “I know, you should come with me to the vet today. unless you’re busy of course.” Please, please say you’ll come.

“That’s a great idea, I’d like that. I was only going for a walk anyway, I’ll walk with you.” Zoe smiled.

“We’ll walk together then,” Zoe moved closer and our shoulders touched, Coco stretched over both laps – ever the attention seeker.

“Hey, that explains why I’ve never seen you before,” Zoe said. “I live on the thirtieth floor and use the lifts every day. You must be really fit using the stairs all the time.”

“Ha, that’s funny, no-one’s ever called me that before. I get chubby, fatty and nerd, but never fit. I’ve never thought of it like that before.” My cheeks filled with heat and I could see the reflection of my eyes in hers, sparkling brightly.

The red emergency light bathed us in a warm rosy glow. I forgot I was in a lift while chatting with Zoe, and the minutes slowly sailed by. The light flickered and we both looked up, then everything went black. Our screams filled the void, Coco hissed, then sprang from my lap. The darkness was suffocating, and I couldn’t breathe. Zoe held me, I could hear strange sounds coming from my mouth and shudders ran through my body. I felt goose bumps on my skin.

She whispered, “It’s okay Emily, just breathe slowly and it’ll pass. My mum has panic attacks too.”

Seconds submerged in quicksand, then the fluorescent lights instantly dazzled. Eyes fully opened, I was temporarily blinded. The numbered display shone vivid blue. Zoe and I huddled in our corner, Coco in another, her hackles raised. I shielded my face and saw light radiate through my eyelids. I opened my eyes to see the darkness had disappeared, my chest was still heavy, but was becoming lighter. I breathed more deeply and the tightness in my chest and throat lessened. My terror dissipated, then fell away. My head no longer throbbed and I felt the warmth of Zoe next to me.

I turned to her and said, “I think I’m okay now. Thanks Zoe.” I stood up and my legs no longer felt unsteady, the tremors had gone and my skin felt normal again. Zoe helped me get Coco, and I placed her back into the carrier, this time without a struggle. We faced the doors of the lift.

The lift lurched again and the floor shuddered, but there was movement. I squeaked a little, but Zoe still had her hand in mine, so I squashed the fear and slowed my breathing again. The display showed a steady descent. I sighed and felt much better, Zoe smiled and looked at me. We both giggled. A metallic-sounding Siri announced, “Ground Floor”. The lift was still and the doors opened. Before they could close on us, we ran out with the carrier between us, almost colliding with an elderly man as he was about to enter. We yelled out, “Sorry”, as we ran around the corner and into the foyer.

Reaching the rows of chairs, I collapsed with a bump into the overstuffed sofa, I sighed and nervously laughed. Zoe giggled as she sat beside me and we cradled the carrier between us.

Exhaling noisily, I said, “I could kill a coffee after that, what about you, Zoe?

“Definitely, and donuts. They’re my favourite.” A paw poked out of the carrier and played with Zoe’s ponytail.

“There’s a nice café on the way, and they have the best donuts.” I stood up and reached for the carrier, Zoe grabbed the other handle.

“I’ll help carry her, Emily.”

I smiled, “Thanks Zoe, maybe when we get back, you can come to my place.” Winking, I said, “Coco might need more cuddles after the vet”.

As we went through the front doors, I turned to Zoe and said, “But I’m not getting in the middle lift.”

Zoe leaned over and whispered, “Me neither.”

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