Floor Nine

In early Spring of this year, I, like many Americans, was desperate for a way to get back on my feet. I was lucky enough to get a job processing tickets in a tech support phone bank for a prestigious accounting software company. Our high rise tapered as it neared its apex, like an elongated wedding cake. Each floor was slightly smaller than the one below it. Our company occupied floor eight, the second to the very top.

The building was half empty, not an unusual phenomenon in this economy. Among them: a small law firm, a tiny cell phone technology startup, and a venture Capital Firm focused on markets in Asia. The floor above us had been, according to reports around our office, vacant for over ten years.

I was on month three of my new job when Danny, the gum-popping loudmouth in the cubicle next to me, asked me whether I'd heard about the floor above us.

"What about it?" I asked. I added that I knew it was empty.

"But do you know why it's empty?" he asked.

He went on to describe Qixot, a late nineties dot com success story. They occupied floors six through nine just after the building was finished in 1997. I waited for Danny to finish but it sounded like he was waiting for me to remember the place.

"It'll come to you," he added. His round face poked up over my cubicle wall. He grinned. "I'll give you a hint. Chemical fire." 

I spent a few moments wracking my brain, then gave up. "I have no idea. Tell me, or whatever."

Danny wheeled his chair around the wall and sat down next to me. He put his arms down and folded them like a preschool teacher just before story time. I noticed a brown folder in his lap. He relished telling the tale to someone who hadn't yet heard it. I heard some grumbles and moans from our colleagues around us just as Danny began.

"Ok, so, 1999. Remember that year? All kinds of 'big idea' companies were popping up. Venture capital was everywhere. Investors jumped at anything, right? There was talk about how the tech world was going to unseat everything else, how the Valley was going to spawn generations of visionary geniuses. Money was everywhere."

I interrupted. "I got this part. Spare me. I was there. Was there an accident, or what?"

"No, no accident." Danny replied. "It was deliberate."

He went on.

"So, the CEO of Qixot, Brian Dorning, had this incredible business model. His model set the tone for the dot com revolution. It was that business model that is now looked on as kind of bullshit, but at the time, it really set peoples' minds on fire. It was this whole, 'we have no business plan' mentality. It was all, 'Business plans are for chumps and we're going to make you a shitload of cash, and rather than cash fueled by products, or even some service, it's all money made from ideas. The CEO, he was like, sixteen years old when he dropped out of Harvard Business School. Knew how to get people amped up about nothing. Smart little fucker."

"What does this have to do with...?" I stopped, and waved my hands around.

"It has to do with when little Brian Dorning locked his colleagues and a few unlucky investors into a sealed clean room and set a chemical fire. They all died. The fire was so well contained at first, it took ten minutes to set off the building's main fire alarm."

"I didn't hear about this anywhere!" I exclaimed. "I think you're full of shit. You're shitting me."

"Nope." He opened the brown folder and pulled out several newspaper clippings from that time. Sure enough, crazy headlines, dated November 19th through 21st, 1999: "BUSINESS PRODIGY DEAD AT 19," "GRISLY SCENE AT QIXOT'S EXECUTIVE SUITE," "END OF AN ERA."

I waved Danny off, and said, "Well, thanks for that. Now I'm gonna have nightmares." In response, he tossed the clippings back into the folder with exaggerated aplomb, and wheeled his chair back around the wall.

I spent the rest of the afternoon on autopilot, taking calls and knocking out tickets. The whole while, my mind was dominated by this hole in my memory about this dot com superstar and his doomed company, and its horrifying end. Why hadn't I heard about this? At the time of the nineties dot com explosion, I was far from a prodigy. I was supremely jealous of my peers, some of whom had retired in their twenties. I looked at myself back then, and saw nothing but decades of thankless servitude in front of me. All the while, these lucky guys were already paying for five bedroom homes in cash and travelling the world in private jets. I was resentful for a few years, but I snatched a stealthy bit of schadenfreude from the crash and burn of the first tech boom and got over it. Now, like everyone else, I was merely getting by in a changed economy.

A month after Danny told me the story of Qixot, he was shit-canned. I can't say I didn't see it coming. He was always chatting people up and his job performance suffered. I did sort of miss the guy. Hell, Danny didn't even belong at our company. He was a few years younger than me, far too alive and full of ideas to find himself in our software sardine can. All my other colleagues had that mid-forties 'glazed over' look, like they'd stopped giving a shit about anything once they hit middle age. It was depressing to be around, especially considering my encroaching middle age, so I tried not to think about it.

Despite being on one of the highest floors, I never took the building elevator down at the end of the night. It usually halted at every single floor, even after eight pm. Late shift engineers and workaholics flooded in from various floors beneath ours, on their way out to smoke. They all smelled of b.o. and cigarettes. As a manner of avoidance, I took the stairway instead, which was always deserted, and usually bounced on into the first floor lobby before the poor saps in the elevator reached it.

The one downside to taking the stairs was that it was a one way journey, and always downward. For months I nagged the property management company to give me a key that would let me to go up the stairs from the lobby to floor eight. I hated riding the elevator up in the mornings, but building security insisted I could never have a key, so I gave up.

On Monday of what would be my last week with the company, I heard something odd: a loud, sustained noise from overhead. It sounded like a large piece of furniture dragging across the floor.

"Is someone moving into floor nine?" I asked. No one responded. "Hey guys. Guys. You hear what I said? Is someone moving in above us?"

Finally, Lester, a forty-something accountant, gave out a long sigh.

"No... I hear nine looks like one of those unfinished Nakatomi Building floors from Die Hard." he said laconically. "It's a bunch of steel and workbenches and insulation and shit. There's nothing there."

I didn't think too much of it. Some air conditioning units with faulty seals often let out long, sustained whining noises not unlike the dragging of furniture, so I chalked it up to that and moved on.

Throughout the week, I heard the noise a few more times. It got louder and more sustained. The more I heard it, the less it sounded like air escaping from a seal. Even a few of my colleagues gazed up curiously after a particularly brutal dragging sound went clear across our suite.

That Thursday, my boss asked me to go over seven months worth of deduction statistics, forcing me to work late. By midnight, I was locking up the empty suite and pushing through the door labeled 'STAIRS." I was exhausted and a bit pissed off.

I hummed a little tune to myself with each step to try and elevate my mood. The stairwell was a drab gray chamber, looking like a windowless stone tower. The motion sensing lights on my floor switched on as I turned each landing. I gazed up, thinking about the noises I'd heard. The floor nine landing was lost in shadow. I trotted down the stairs and as I passed each floor, a loud 'click' signaled another motion sensing light, and bright light flooded each floor on the way down.

I was rounding the fourth landing, already starting to feel better, when I heard the violent swinging of a metal door echoing down the deep stairwell from many floors above. I stopped in place to be sure I wasn't hearing things. A quick smack of metal cracked through the air - a shocking echo - as a door somewhere up there slammed shut. Immediately after that, pounding footsteps lit up on an upper stairway. Someone was in a hurry to get down those stairs.

I don't know why, but something felt wrong. I panicked a little bit, and moved down the steps more quickly, past the third floor. The footsteps pounding the stairs high above must have belonged to someone who had either consumed a ton of coffee, was late for a date, or was furiously pissed off, and I didn't feel like sticking around to find out which. The harder my feet hit the steps, the louder and faster the steps above me became. By the time I pushed out the swinging door and into the lobby, I was sure the person was only a floor above me. Feeling like an idiot, I ran to my car and sped off.

The following day, I was asked to work late again. I finished up and hit the stairs close to 10 pm. I jogged down the steps quickly this time, never pausing to listen for noises. At first I thought it was the echo of my quick steps, but it was clear by the time I got to floor five that someone was on an upper landing and heading down in my direction again. I quickened my pace.

Then, hysterical wheezing laughter. It was distant, but clearly someone's voice. It came from above and was married with urgent footsteps. This laughter - I stopped briefly to hear it and chills ran down my shoulders - sounded an awful lot like a nervous dog's whine. I tried to run down the stairs and my legs went numb, so I used my arms to grab the stair railing and forced my legs down the steps as fast as I could go.

The laughter was incessant and fierce, a man's, just two floors above me. Whoever he was, I think he knew I was there, and he was coming for me, angry and delirious. I hit floor two and stopped cold. A voice rose up from below. I couldn't make out the words.

This voice just below me could have been a woman with a low voice or a man with a falsetto. I couldn't tell. I backed again the wall on the second landing, still, sweating, panting, frightened to death. The steps above got slower. The laughter above, two floors up, turned to a sob. I was trapped like an animal, and surrounded by locked doors.

The steps above stopped. Silence above. The sobbing snuffed out.

The voice below, the one preventing me from escaping out into the lobby, then said something clear, something that had me doing what I wouldn't have dreamed of doing moments earlier: running up the stairs.

"Hey!" it said. The voice had gotten lower, much slower, and sounded like an adult trying to speak like a baby. "Don't screw me! I'm.. gonna.. throw.. acid.. in your face!!"

That did it. I ran back up the steps, throwing my hands in front of me. I bum rushed each landing I reached, my arms flailing. I tried, urgently, to remember some of the mixed martial arts moved I knew, but nothing came. I would have done anything for a baseball bat, or a plank of wood, sitting on a landing, but they were swept and bare. Every door on the way up was locked. I kept running.

On floor seven, I turned the stairway and glanced down through the hole that shot down through the cavernous well, all the way down to the first floor. I saw him. The psycho chasing me had stopped, like me. He was wearing a Halloween mask, and had leaned back and was staring right up at me from a few floors down. Just a mask, staring straight up through the stairwell, right up at me. The mask was fucked up - a kind of grey zombie thing with black scraggly hairs spilling out from the scalp. I took one look at the thing and darted up to the next landing, then the next, then the next. I grasped at doors on my way up, finding one after the other locked, locked, locked.

I had reached the top floor. There was a thin strip of caution taped tied between the railings. The motion light on the landing didn't switch on. I had no time to think. Every other door on the way up was locked. I grasped the handle on the floor nine door, and it swung open.

Howling protests from below. I slammed the door shut, drowning them out.

The hallway before me was as Lester had described: skeleton-like, half-finished, black plastic sheets over everything, tool boxes crammed into corners. I made a right turn and faced another hallway, just the same - drywall and concrete flooring, lines and numbers with chalk scrawled everywhere like a mad scientists' lair.

I heard a whooshing noise behind me as the stairwell door was breached. I grabbed a hammer from one of the toolkits, then a Phillips screwdriver, and brandished them in both hands, edging back. There was another door in this hall, covered in day-glo wallpaper. It stood out from the rest of the hall, looking damned out of place. I had nowhere else to go.

I was still panting furiously. My heartbeat stole my breath with each beat. No one had turned the corner yet. Maybe maskie had wandered down the other direction. I hoped so.

I only had a mind for moving forward. I opened the day-glo door and into a plush carpeted romper room.

The room, as far as I could guess, hadn't changed at all in over a decade. It was wide and long and seemed to take up most of the floor. Most of the light in the room was cast by a light source through a glass wall at the far end. Bean bags were everywhere, just about every color. There were no cubes, just open desks. Early model iMacs - the candy-colored cases that resurrected the company - stood on little desks strewn about in no particular order. The carpet was a fluffy green shag. There were at least ten Nerf guns lying about my feet,  along with a few discarded lava lamps and piles of game software. Most notably, in a large helvetica font, phrases were stamped up all over the swirling, colorful wallpaper. I could barely read them, but the phrases were memorable and trite: "NO LIMITS." "DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE." "THE SMARTEST GENERATION."

I was damned lucky for two reasons. One, I had gained access through an unlocked door. Two, I was able to lock myself in as I entered. I was still terrified, but my brain fog cleared and the survival instinct made way for critical thinking. I had a cell phone. I needed to dial 911, call the police, and wait for them to come get me out. I placed the screwdriver in my pocket and whipped out my phone with one hand.

Denied. There, in that room, my phone refused to even turn on.

I walked to the end of the room, past the minefield of giant M&M beanbags, toward the light. It seemed the entire far wall was entirely made of glass, a white room beyond it. There was a single glass door set into the window.

Just as I neared the wall, I saw some words to my left on an undamaged wall, with an arrow. It read: "THINKING ROOM." Below the big letters was a handwritten note, obviously in sharpie. The years had turned the note grey, but it was still readable. It said: "Do not consider entering unless U are willing to submit to UR big idea. This is a clean room!" (The words 'clean room' were underlined several times.) "Drain the outside when you enter."

The room should not by rights exist. This is where it all happened. Everything looked out of place. I started to feel sick. I clutched the hammer and backed away. A sonorous hum, outside in the hall. It could have been voices, or some equipment turned on. I couldn't tell.

I should have been wide awake, frightened out of my mind, but instead, I felt woozy. All at once, a loud boom and a bright blast of light exploded past the glass wall, a loud song began to play, and the monitors behind me all flickered to life. I heard a voice on the monitors. I was paying more attention to the fire, but I heard a familiar voice saying:

"We must strengthen our lead in technology."

The wall of glass must have been metallic, because it didn't break. The sparking inside the room reminded me of large pieces of aluminum foil in a microwave. The wallpaper began to peel and melt where it met the metallic glass, and the reds and purples in the wallpaper ran down to the carpet like viscera.

The song was at full dance club volume. It was something from another era, a song by Third Eye Blind or Seven Mary Three or Three Doors Down, one of those generic three-word bands so popular in the latter part of that decade.

I had to make a choice. It was either staying in this day-glo wonderland, threatened by a chemical fire and cheerful pop punk from the nineties or confronting a masked acid-wielding psycho in the hallway - I wasn't sure which was worse. I headed for the door.

The iMac monitors were laying something like a news broadcast. The voice from earlier was a former President, giving a speech. As I got closer, I made out more words. 

"America is working again. The promise of our future is limitless. But we cannot realize that promise if we allow the hum of our prosperity to lull us into complacency. How we fare as a nation far into the 21st century depends upon what we do as a nation today. So with our budget surplus growing, our economy expanding, our confidence rising, now is the moment for this generation to meet our historic responsibility to the 21st century." 

The song stopped. The far wall was a smoldering hearth. I thought I began to hear screams emanating from behind the glass. The side walls were a growing mass of embers and charred, twisted wood. Something fierce had gone up here, and the damage was only now beginning to extend to the rest of the room. 

I caught my breath and pushed out through the door. As soon as I swung it open, a low growl emanated immediately from my left. The masked man was still there. I pushed my jaw out, wielding my hammer and screwdriver, and spun to face him. He was shorter than I realized, covered in burnt flannel and jeans. He stood between me and the end of the hallway, arms at his sides. Strips of his clothing and the flesh on his arms were dangling off him like rags. Also, it wasn't a mask.

"Jesus!" I reacted. "What the fuck?!"

His voice still had that mock-infant quality to it, almost like a drawl. It sent shivers up my spine as he spoke.

"You an "ideeah" man?" he asked. 

I shook my head.

"An IDEEEAH man?" he repeated, tickles of sarcasm rippling through his torn-throat growl. "Are you. Well, ARE YOU?"

I had no comeback. I stammered, 'huh?' a few times, but I had no ideas for this lunatic. Something hit me just then, though, and I went for it.

"I do have an idea!" I blurted. "But I left it in the thinking room. If you check the thinking room, you'll find the idea!"

The figure's head twisted sideways, like a canine hearing a dog whistle. I had gotten his attention.

"You burned us all in theah. You burned us because you said we had no ideas. You ran out of ideas, Brian, and you... you RAN out after, after BURNING us. You see? You see?" He held out his arms, then ran his hands up his hideously disfigured face.

"I rebuilt it, there's a new thinking room in there, and the ideas in there belong to you." I urged.

What I was saying made no sense to me at all, but the words felt right, and I had his attention. If I could lure him to the Day-Glo door, I could pull of an end run maneuver and head for the stairs.

"I can't... get in there." he whined.

"You can now. You have my permission!" I told him. I stood up straight and clenched my tools a bit tighter. "Go on in. Take my ideas. Use them."

I needed him to get past me so that I could make a run for it. He stepped forward, eager and giddy, and I back up to the end of the hall. As he opened the door, I big blast of heat and music hit us both, and he started dancing, half in the door, a hideous mockery of whoever he once was. The song ran out over the hall. It was unmistakable: "I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys. Flames curled out around the door. I could see past the hideous figure and into the room. It was an inferno, and the sound of twisting metal, like a fallen tower, rang out over the music.

"I... remember this one!" he exclaimed. Small hints of hope in his pained, ruined voice.

I didn't hesitate another moment. I ran past him, made a quick left at the end of the hall, then headed for the door, dropping the hammer and shoving the screwdriver into my pocket again. The noise that followed me was immediate and indicated there were others with him now. I still heard the histrionic singing of the song with the cacophony of voices acting as a kind of sick chorus. I recognized the high laugh from the stairwell among them. They were all right behind me.

I slid down the railings with both hands, swinging and dropping my legs over the side on each floor. The door burst open above me and a chorus of laughter and screams flooded the chamber. A rainstorm of footsteps cascaded through the well. The voices laughed maniacally. They weren't speaking or saying anything, just screaming. I stumbled a few times, knocked my knees up badly, readied my legs for swift kicks in case anyone met me on the bottom floor.

The lights in the stairwell had all gone out, so they lit up again with loud clicks, one by one, until I was at the bottom. I slammed through the first floor level door and out into the lobby, furiously cartwheeling my legs as far as they could take me, until I reached my car.

I laughed uncontrollably for the first half of my long drive home, then cried the rest of the way. I quit my job that weekend, never in fact returning to the building. Months later, I moved away and started my own company in a distant city. It had been impossible to see until then, and I would have told you otherwise most of my life, but I was just full of ideas.


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