© 1990 by Wendy Webb. Reprinted by permission.

hey were like cats, teeth bared, clawing their way out.

He could feel the hair on his neck bristle in defense. It was too late. Soon they would be all around him. Crowding. Pushing. His hands started to shake. Beads of sweat popped out on his forehead.

They became piranha in a feeding frenzy.

He stood frozen in place, helpless to stop the flood of humanity pulsing towards him. Another door to the grand ballroom swung open releasing its occupants. The business meeting was over and he had left too late. They would surround him, violate his fears. Suffocate him.

He took a deep breath and felt his chest tighten. He pushed, forcing the air out and heard the shrill crowing of a wheeze. He knew that the veins in his neck would be bulging.

They were around him, swallowing him whole into the gaping maw. He closed his eyes against a surge of nausea and wondered how much longer he could stay standing.

“Get out of the way.” The voice was hostile, menacing.

“Hurry,” another voice said. “I want to beat the traffic home.”

He felt a briefcase hit the back of his thigh and shuddered at the touch. A rolled up newspaper raked across his sleeve. A kaleidoscope of smells burned his nostrils: perfume, sweat, cigars. He felt the pitch and yaw of the crowd and he knew he was moving with it. The only thing worse than his fear of crowds was his fear of heights.

But he was better now, he told himself. Better than he used to be. Therapy had been of some help. At least for a while. So he had avoided elevators, escalators, airplanes and until now, crowds.

The mob reached a bottle neck and slowed to a shuffle. If he could just reach the door, breathe a little fresh air.

“Are you okay?” The tall, slender, red-haired woman, only inches from his nose, peered closely at him. “You look kinda sick.”

“I’m … okay. Just … need … air.”

“Maybe I can help.” The red-head took in a deep breath and bellowed, “Move on. Sick man,” then faced him with a wry smile. “Cheerleading paid off.” The smile turned to a grimace as a handbag hit her in the shoulder. He heard her mumble “Animals” as she was enveloped by the throng and ushered off unwillingly to another part of the building.

he bottle-neck loosened, and people swarmed to take up the space. The crush intensified throwing him against a wall. Propelled by the mass, he slid sideways across the face of the wall. He could feel the velvet roses of the gaudy wallpaper scrape against his clenched fists. Then suddenly it became metallic cool, hard and unyielding. He tried to turn but felt a give and stepped back so as not to fall.

The voice was prerecorded. Inhuman. “Door closing.”

He stood transfixed as the door to the elevator slid shut on quiet tracks and began its ascent.

“Level two,” it announced.

He jabbed the buttons and saw them light at his touch.

“Level three.”

Adrenaline surged through his body. His knees began to shake. He lifted a trembling hand and punched the red disk marked “Emergency.”

There was no response.

“Level six.” The glass, cylindrical prison rose silently on its cables.

Sweat poured from him, through his shirt, his jacket. It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered now was to stop this thing, to get off. He would take the stairs down. The narrow tube of an inside stairwell resonating with his footsteps would be a joy right now. If only he could get to the steps. If only …

The phone.

Of course. There was always a phone on elevators. And there was always a voice waiting to help on the opposite end. He would call and explain his awkward situation. He hoped his voice wouldn’t crack when he spoke.

“Level ten.”

He wiped a sweaty palm on his trouser leg and reached for the small silver door marked in blood-red letters “Phone. For emergency use only.” He tugged, felt the spring loosen, and threw open the door. He picked up the blood-red receiver and held it to his ear. His eyes scanned the instructions and stopped when he saw the small hand-scrawled notice attached to the dial. His mouth dried to dust as he read and reread the message: TEMPORARILY OUT OF ORDER.

“Level sixteen.”

He closed his eyes against the flood of panic, and felt himself slide to a sitting position on the floor. He took a deep breath and forced a look into the lobby area. The people had become small insects, becoming yet smaller. Tiny, tinier, tiniest. He had considered entomology as a major at one time, but was forced into something more practical. Forced?

“I’m telling you son, don’t waste your time with bugs. Let the Raid men handle them. They’re the experts. They don’t need you.” His father had paused for a deep breath and yet another of his tirades. “Business. Now that’s the thing to get into. It’s practical.” A frown crossed the old man’s face. “For God’s sake don’t slump. Sit up. And whatever you do, don’t let your voice crack when you open your mouth.”

Tiny, tinier, tiniest. He could barely see the lobby now. Soon they would be in the jam of traffic fighting to get home. And he? He would be riding the elevator to whatever destination it had decided on.

“Level forty-two.”

Forty-two. Do I hear forty-three?

“Level forty-three.”

He would have laughed out loud if it had been some TV sit-com character entombed in a run-away elevator but it wasn’t. It was he who was locked in a glass cage forced to face his fears. He looked out through the glass. The people had become specks of dust. They were barely moving now. He puffed a breath on the glass and wrote his initials in the moisture, then sat up suddenly. He blinked with the realization and felt a smile starting.

He was going to be okay. He was going to be okay. He’d weathered the crowds of the lobby; looked out the glass of the moving elevator and saw the safety of the ground fall away. He even had the nerve to initial the glass with his own breath. It was all so simple now. He wondered why he never realized it before. He could hardly wait for his next therapy session. There would be so much to talk about.

”Level seventy-six. Door opening.”

Seventy-six. It was a long walk, but he could do it. It had been worth the wait. He scooted through the door before it could close on his courage, and felt a stiff wind cut through his jacket. A button popped off and fell silently away.

he muffled voice came through metal doors sliding together on its tracks: “Door closed.”

He inched a foot forward and felt the concrete come to an end. He didn’t have to look to know that an elevator call button wasn’t there. Would never be there.

The only way down to safety and a next therapy session was gone.

It was then the elevator cables let loose a high-pitched scream that merged with his own.

Wendy Webb is a small (though not too small) woman which is amazing, because she has enough talent to sustain an army of giants. Actress of stage and screen, writer of plays, short stories and novels, director of plays, editor of horror anthologies, teacher of writing, directing and nursing, rescuer of animals; determined chef; and a health care professional who has practiced her trade all over the world, often working with emergency medical teams following major disasters.

Anthologies edited by Wendy Webb include Phobias, with Martin Greenberg, and Gothic Ghosts with Charles Grant. You can find short stories, mostly of the horror variety by her in several of Charles Grant's anthologies, as well as Women of Darkness edited by Kathryn Ptacek, and When the Black Lotus Blooms, edited by Elizabeth Saunders.

While her acting is mostly in theatre these days, she had worked with the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, and was the star of S.P. Somtow's cult movie "The Laughing Dead."

Her notable Beluga Stein fantasy/horror/mystery novels from Marietta Press