Is imitation really the highest form of flattery?
Nicole flew down the long hallway, high heels clicking against linoleum.
“Wait!” she called, waving her free hand. “Wait! Hold the elevator!”
Too late. The doors slid shut.
Stopping to catch her breath, she glanced around. The staircase to her right was out. She’d never make it to the 35th floor on time or alive for her interview.
Had she parked in front, she’d have had four elevators to choose from instead of one, but her GPS had stopped being helpful once she’d arrived in the Rhode Island-sized parking lot. After circling twice, she’d parked in the first open space she saw.
She prayed for a sign and looked up. There it was.
Smiling, she dashed toward it and pressed the button. The doors opened. She stepped in and hit number 35.
As the elevator ascended, Nicole closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The thirty-three-year-old was not usually nervous before an interview. Her confidence and impressive resume won her positions quickly. But the economy was different now. Jobs were scarce. She’d been laid off for six months, and her husband, Lance, who worked construction, had seen his hours cut to less than part time. They’d exhausted their savings, and with two children under five to support, she needed this job.
A glance at her watch told her she’d arrive with exactly five minutes to spare. She ran her fingers through her short, dark hair and watched the numbers go up.
10. 11. 12.
She cleared her throat and straightened her flower-printed scarf.
13. 14. 15.
She rolled her shoulders, moving her head from left to right to loosen the tension.
Her eyes popped wide.
She’d never noticed her companion.
Nicole took in a pale, almost unearthly face peering out from a waterfall of platinum hair. Two bright, cobalt blue eyes stared out over round, porcelain cheeks. The lips, nearly bloodless, stretched out in a wide, maniacal grin.
Swallowing hard, Nicole took a step back. “Hi…"
Slightly louder, Nicole continued, "…there. I’m Nicole. What’s your name?”
The girl continued to stare unblinkingly. The smile didn’t waver.
Nicole took in the white T-shirt, blue pants, and oversized brown sweater, and assessed with relief that the dainty hands protruding from the sleeves bore no weapon.
Okay. Calm down. This is Manhattan. She’s probably strung out on drugs or something. Just hit another button and get off.
“Okay, well, I’m just going to take the stairs the rest of the way.” Keeping her eyes on the girl, she reached toward the panel, body tense to react to any sudden movement.
Glancing up, she jabbed the button for the 24th floor just as number 23 lit up.
A loud buzz ripped from the wall speaker and Nicole screamed, dropping her briefcase to jam her hands over her ears. The small metal chamber lurched and shuddered, sending Nicole toppling backward in her 3-inch heels. Reaching out, she grabbed the rail and slid to the floor as the gears continued to scream, grinding the elevator to a halt. The overhead lights flickered once, then went out.
The alarm stopped. Nicole’s heart pounded in her ringing ears.
“Hello?” Nicole whispered into the vacuum of silence. “A…are you alright over there?”
As her hand swept along the tile, trying to locate the briefcase that housed her cell phone, her fingers slid on something gelatinous and sticky.
She swallowed the urge to gag. Spit? Worse? She didn’t want to know.
“Hello?” Nicole repeated. “Are you okay?”
To her right, Nicole felt the handle of her briefcase. The sound of leather against linoleum echoed off the walls as she pulled it toward her. She flipped open the dual clasps and jammed her hand inside.
Cell phone. Cell phone. Come on.
Relief flooded through her as her fingers closed around the familiar case of her smartphone. Ripping it free, she pressed a button and the screen came to life, casting an eerie, greenish glow inside the four walls.
When she swept the light to the other side of the elevator, the acid that had been churning in her stomach hardened like a stone.
The girl hadn’t moved an inch, and she was still smiling.
Flattening herself against the wall, Nicole concentrated on forcing her trembling fingers to work.
Address book. Contacts. Lance. Press button.
The call connected.
Please pick up. Please pick up.
The call disconnected.
She pressed ‘call’ again. Again it dialed. Again it disconnected. Her signal strength showed no bars.
Ignoring a sudden wave of dizziness, she swept the light around once more. It glinted off a glass panel housing a red emergency phone.
Nicole lunged for it, yanking open the door and pressing the receiver to her ear. “Hello? Can anybody hear me? I’m…” she glanced behind her… “we’re trapped in the service elevator somewhere between the 23rd and 24th floor. I think the power has gone out. Please help.”
Her pleas were met with nothing more than a distant crackle of static.
Nicole slammed the phone back into its cradle and slunk to the back of the compartment.
The girl’s eyes followed.
“Who are you? Why don’t you answer me?”
The girl remained silent, not even breath seemed to escape through that glittering smile.
As her hands balled into fists, she felt the urge to break those perfect teeth against her knuckles. She stood and advanced on the girl. “What are you staring at!? What is your problem!?”
Nicole’s shrieks bounced off the enclosed space and landed harmlessly on the other passenger. She didn’t even flinch.
Nicole’s heart threatened to beat its way out of her chest. “Can’t you understand me!?”
The girl cocked her head.
Tasting the stale air she sucked into her lungs, Nicole forced herself to calm down.
Lowering her voice, she delivered the following words slowly and carefully: “We. Are. Trapped. In. An. Elevator.”
The girl’s smiled faltered.
A lump formed in Nicole’s throat. “Do you understand?”
Her companion lowered her head.
Softening, Nicole placed a hand on the girl’s forearm. “We have to get out of here. Please tell me you understand that.”
The girl’s head jerked upward. “We have to get out of here. Please tell me you understand that.”
Nicole screamed, staggering backward. Bone and metal clanged together as her spine struck the railing.
The voice the girl had spoken in had been Nicole’s.
“How….how did you do that?”
“How….how did you do that?” Came the echoed reply.
“That’s not funny.”
“That’s not funny.”
Clamping a now slick and cold hand over her mouth, Nicole turned toward the back wall. Working in silence, she concentrated solely on trying to contact the outside world by text, social media, and phone call, but her cell refused to cooperate.
She had the red telephone pressed to her ear once more when her cell phone beeped and buzzed in her other hand. A surge of relief flooded through her, then froze in her veins as she looked at the LCD screen.
Tears pricked the corners of her eyes. “No. No...no please.”
“No. No...no please.”
The cell phone beeped once more before powering down, plunging them both into total darkness.
“No!!!!” The scream tore from her throat.
“No!!!!” The girl echoed.
Nicole beat her fists against the metal doors. “Help! Somebody help me! I’m trapped in here with a lunatic! Help me!! Help!!!”
Nicole’s every scream echoed back on the voice of her companion.
After a few minutes, or perhaps days, her voice grew hoarse.
Her body, limp with fear and exhaustion, sagged and slid to the floor. She clamped her arms around her knees, fighting to keep her bones from shaking out of her skin. Not bothering to push away the strands of sweat-soaked hair from her forehead, she lay on her side, hugged her knees to her chest, and did something she hadn’t done since Sunday school twenty years before; she recited The Lord’s Prayer.
After the fifth repetition, her companion’s perfect echo became a strange kind of comfort.
As the minutes passed, she found herself sinking gratefully beneath the blanket of warm, damp air. Her muscles relaxed. Her breathing slowed.
As she fell into unconsciousness, the corners of her mouth twitched.
“Alright, it’s back online!” Ted shouted, clapping the man next to him on the shoulder.
Dr. Theodore Robbins raised an eyebrow. “We need to get her out of there immediately.”
The elevator arrived in the basement with a cheery 'ding'.
“I’m sure everything is fine, Doc,” Ted said. “The power was out less than an hour.”
“Why are the doors not opening?” The doctor asked, stepping forward. “Can you pry them open?”
Ted hit the ‘up’ button and the doors slid apart with a hiss.
There she was, Doc’s million-dollar baby, perfect and intact. She was still standing upright in the position he’d loaded her in, head down with blonde hair falling to either side of expertly-sculpted features. Ted knew the jolt of the sudden stop would have had no effect on the robot. She was much too heavy.
The mechanic smirked. “See? No harm done.”
Dr. Robbins went to the life-like girl and grasped both her shoulders in his slender hands. He acted as though this was a child who’d been through a frightening ordeal, instead of an expensive prototype being transported down the service elevator to avoid attracting attention.
A soft murmur caught Ted’s attention. He turned toward the sound and gasped. “Doctor, there’s a girl in here!”
Dr. Robbins turned, eyes narrowing behind his bifocals. “My God, she was trapped in here with Gabby.”
“My God, she was trapped in here with Gabby.”
Ted’s heart leaped. Pulling off his hard hat, he slapped it to his chest and made a sign of the cross.
The doctor seemed unmoved by the robot girl’s perfect imitation of his voice. “She’s still in ‘mimic’ mode. I thought I'd switched that off.”
He reached under the wave of long hair and, with a few deft movements of his fingers, the robot powered down with an eerie drone that reverberated off the cement walls.
Ted took in the state of the human girl. It wasn’t just the glassy eyes or how helpless the grown woman looked curled up like a child that remained with him long after the ambulance came to cart her away.
It was the smile. He would never forget the smile.