The elevator door opened. Matt surveyed the space inside. A metal box with walls painted to look like wood grain, a stainless steel hand rail wrapped around three sides at hip height, dirty red linoleum on the floor. He contemplated taking the stairs. What’s eight flights anyway?
“Hold that, please.”
He put out a hand and held the door. A woman strode past him into the elevator, turned and smiled. She looked like a young Rosario Dawson, but with a pixie cut. She was dressed like she might have been coming from a job waiting tables, black cotton pants and white collared shirt.
“Thanks. You comin’?” she asked, cocked her head to the side.
Matt blinked and stepped into the elevator without giving it another thought. That was a mistake. The moment he turned and the door bumped closed, he felt a vice tighten around his rib cage and a wave of panic rose into his throat, thick and suffocating. Sweat broke out under his arms, all down his back.
“Where to?” the woman asked.
Matt opened his mouth, but no sound came out. “Eight,” he finally managed, barely above a whisper.
She pressed it, and then hit the button for the tenth floor.
“Oh God,” escaped his lips, and he closed his eyes as the the elevator started with jolt, like a racehorse bursting out of the gate.
“Hey, you okay?”
Matt nodded. Breathe. Breathe, dammit. He wanted to grip the flat, metal handrail, but couldn’t make his hand leave his pocket, where his fingers were curled around his prescription. His other hand clutched his jeans at the hip, white-knuckled. He opened his eyes, saw the woman in his peripheral vision. He thought maybe she was looking at him. He loosened the grip on his jeans, wiped the sweat from his palm.
“Don’t like elevators much, huh?”
Inside he laughed at the understatement. Outwardly, he could only shake his head a little, mouth “No.”
“My daddy was like that. In the end, he had a heart attack climbing the stairs to the second floor. Not here,” she added. “Not in this building.”
The elevator felt like a sauna. Sweat trickled down his side from his armpit, broke out at his hairline and above his upper lip. His eyes darted to the numbers above the door.
“Halfway there,” she said. “We’re gonna make it.”
He tried to push his mind from his own panic, tried to think about what the woman thought of him. Wuss. Crazy person. Something to talk about to her co-workers later.
He felt something prying his stiff fingers from his side. Her fingers. She slipped her small, warm hand into his large, damp one and squeezed it. He squeezed back.
“It’s gonna be okay. Almost there,” she said.
Matt moved his head slightly, shifted his eyes to the side to look at her. She was smiling, but not in an amused way. She was pouring strength and courage out of her brown eyes and into his. His jaw unclenched and his lungs emptied in a long sigh.
He tightened his grip—too tight, he thought—as the elevator made its nauseating little rise and fall before halting. The doors opened. He had to put all his effort into retrieving his hand, locked to hers as it was. He did, and looking at her he blushed crimson.
She reached to hold the door open for him, and he stepped out, cleared his throat. “Thank you,” he mumbled.
“It ain’t nothin’” she said, and beamed at him, like a warrior-goddess. “But I’d take the stairs down if I were you.”