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"Elevator Music" by Lauren Kardos

According to Yelp, most tourists depart the haunted hotel downtown in disappointment, but you’ve always been luckier than most. You knuckle the elevator’s R button, hoping this rooftop happy hour will be different, though it feels like another man-child selecting a risqué setting to impress. I don’t believe in the supernatural, challenges your online profile. Tinder dates don’t care that it’s not proof you’re seeking. Their predictability offers a nightly reason to traverse these shafts.

After waiting for an empty car, the sliding door dissolves the art deco lobby. A waft of tangerine, then a disembodied inhale vacuums up your next gulp of air. The performance begins. Like past journeys, the snail of your ear tunes a tiny harmonica. You tamp down the urge to peek over your shoulder.

How did your piano instructor run scales, and why does this aural memory strike you on the conference mezzanine like a cartoon anvil? Your soft palate lifts in a Do, your lips mimic the peel of a Re, but no sound escapes. Vibration hovers under nostrils and peripheral vision buzzes.

Warbling in soft, then growing, ascending, as if all noise in the universe was this noise, as if your ears were fiery asteroids entering into the atmosphere with this listening, this hearing like you never heard before, the ghosts sing in turn. First, it’s the workout bop repeating across your playlist algorithms in the last month. Next, the indie folk band’s encore at their reunion concert last week, that ballad that made high school survivable. Next, the nursey songs your grandmother mouthed as she let you win Pretty Pretty Princess.

Third floor, twelfth floor, twenty-seventh floor, the serenade propels you against the railing, scrabbles you into corners. Orange car air freshener, lemon verbena hand cream, key lime pie, the afterlife odors walk you to a cliff edge of nausea. The emergency stop button you always attempt around floor thirty-six, but up and up you rise with this invisible cabaret for one, panting in time to the beat.

And as the car slows, your stomach dropping with momentary weightlessness, the finale always buckles your knees. An echo of the song you’ve avoided for twenty-three years, the one your mother would put on the stereo when chopping stew veggies, the one she’d slow dance to in the hallways with dad before bedtime. The same song on an album in her six-disc CD player, pulled from the wreckage after the drunk driver neglected the stop sign on Red Onion Hill.

The door telescopes open. The twilight breeze whisks away the citrus. Half-turning from the bar, a man waves you over, his clothes more rumply and smile less shiny than online photos. Your mother doesn’t like this one. Staccato whispers ricochet off the car’s mirrored walls, but you distill your mother’s subtext. Don’t waste breath on someone who won’t love you like their favorite song.

You could believe in the spectral chorus until the men of the internet shapeshift from sarcastic to serious, until you have courage enough to harmonize with the spirits, but belief won’t bring your mother back. Hitting the L button, a tuning fork A note and grapefruit gusts close the door. You rub your ears for the descent. All the better to hear.

Lauren Kardos (she/her) writes from Washington, DC, but she’s still breaking up with her hometown in Western Pennsylvania. The Molotov Cocktail, Rejection Letters, HAD, (mac)ro(mic), Best Microfiction 2022, and The Lumiere Review are just a few of the fine publications where her work lives. You can find her on Twitter @lkardos.

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