Echo -The story Stephen King never read

Sheldon was not the same when he left the elevator at the lobby as he had been when he entered fifty floors above, just a moment before. He didn’t notice, crossing the wide lobby and stepping onto the pavement like every day. The week had been long and he wanted to get home, only pausing briefly to buy himself a coffee on his way to the train station. The Underground was crowded and he almost dropped the drink twice before boarding and taking one of the last available seats. A middle aged woman glared at him for a moment, as if he was supposed to offer her his seat. She looked away when he put his earphones in and pressed play, a selection of Wagner’s more bombastic moments driving out the noise of the carriage.
There had been a girl in the elevator when the doors slid open on Sheldon’s floor. Eighteen or nineteen years old she looked like a tourist, although the viewing floor at the top of the building had been closed for an hour. Maybe she worked in the café up there. Sheldon turned his back on her, standing in front of the doors as they slid closed. He didn’t need to press any buttons, the light for the lobby was already lit. They rode the fifty floors down to the lobby in silence, the girl leaning in a rear corner. Sheldon had forgotten about her by the time the doors slid open again.
The Underground journey lasted ten minutes, barely enough time for him to finish his coffee. He was tall and broad, the crowd parting easily for him as he made his way to the escalators. It was the same in almost every area of his life, except the traffic that meant it was easier and quicker to catch the train home rather than take a car. His salary and position in the company afforded him a chauffeur whenever he wanted, at this time of day it could take half an hour or more to pick a way across the centre of London. It didn’t hurt the projection of affable normality he liked to wear in the office either, just one of the guys.
The girl popped back into his head as he went through the ticket barriers and emerged into the evening air. He hadn’t realised part of him had continued thinking about her, the train journey to and from the office was the only time he allowed his mind to wander. It wasn’t uncommon for inspiration to strike during the short journey. He recognised her from somewhere. The thin lips and large eyes were familiar, like a close friend he hadn’t seen in years—out of place in his new life but one he had once been used to seeing everyday.
He let the girl’s face turn over in his mind as he walked from the station to his home, stopping briefly along the way to buy a bottle of wine. It was a warm, calm evening, the sun only just starting to set. Apart from a dog walker on the other side, the wide, tree lined street was empty and silent. The houses were all large, only a few of them split into individual flats. The cars parked outside were expensive without ostentation. Sheldon kept his in a nearby private garage, he only drove it occasionally. Lise’s convertible was parked outside their house, he had no idea how often she drove it or where she went when she did. It wasn’t uncommon for them to go days without seeing each other, communicating if at all through emails and text messages.
“I’m home,” he called, closing the front door. The hallway was wide, a coat stand on one side and a small sideboard on the other. He dropped his keys in the bowl on top of the sideboard and looked at himself in the mirror, checking his hair was in place. “Hello?” he went to the stairs and shouted up. There were three storeys, plus the basement level. “You home?”
“Yes,” Lise called back from the third floor. “I’m having a shower. Be down in a minute.”
He knelt and unlaced his shoes, the hand stitched leather too expensive to just kick them off, and placed them under the coat stand. Then he took off his jacket and tie and hung them on the stand. It didn’t matter if the jacket creased, it was time for the suit to go to the cleaners anyway, or a charity drive. He’d had it for a couple of years. Retrieving the wine from the sideboard he padded through to the kitchen, turning on the television fixed amongst the cupboards. The news was on but he didn’t take it in as he fetched some glasses and the corkscrew. His mind was still on the girl from the elevator.
Perhaps he had seen her in an advert. Pretty young girls were plastered everywhere in the city; on hoardings and bus stops; the curved walls of the Underground and magazine covers. He was only thirty-five, plenty young enough for his head to be turned. The girl in the elevator hadn’t been tall enough for a model, barely reaching Sheldon’s chest, and her cheekbones not sharp enough. She wasn’t right for the strip clubs he sometimes took his overseas guests to, as much because they expected it as anything else. The girls in those places were generally taller, their breasts much larger. She certainly wasn’t from any of the more exclusive establishments he took the real bigwigs to, he didn’t frequent the ones willing to use girls that young looking. It was too dangerous.
He was still thinking about her when Lise came down the stairs. Her hair was up and she’d done her make-up, a little heavy around the eyes to go with her black dress. She’d been a goth when they’d met a decade ago and the influence was still there. People had laughed when they first got together; even at twenty-five, Sheldon had dressed and acted like an executive. He’d already been on the fast track. They had a connection. He didn’t know why, just that they had. For all the clubs and other places he went, Sheldon had never strayed. His wife was beautiful, loving her was the one thing that kept him whole. The days they spent apart only made the feeling stronger. There was no room in his heart for anyone else, never could be.
“You okay?” she asked, breaking his chain of thought.
“Yeah,” he smiled and rubbed his eyes. He had opened the wine but not poured any, he picked the bottle up. “Just tired is all, it’s been a long week.”
“Are you about to bail on me?” she fixed him with a stare, taking the glass he offered.
“I wouldn’t dare.”
“Better get moving then, our reservation’s at eight. You’ve only forty minutes to shower and change. I don’t want to be late, we’ll miss the show.”
Sheldon was distracted throughout the meal and show, barely tasting his food or hearing the songs. The girl’s face was caught in his mind, like a snippet of a melody he couldn’t place. He tried to force something from his reluctant memory, delving into his childhood and teens for some memory she appeared in. He was certain that he knew her—if he could fix her to a moment in time, a specific memory, he’d remember her name. With her name, everything else would slip into place. He’d know who she was. It made no sense looking for her in memories from so long ago but he’d exhausted every current possibility he could think of and his mind wouldn’t let go. Perhaps, he told himself, he’d known her mother and the resemblance was perfect.
After the show he argued with Lise, the taxi driver going as slow as he dared so he could eavesdrop. It was the same as it always was, she was angry that he’d been distracted and distant all evening, he told her work was hard. The argument fizzled out and he went to sleep in the guest room, lying awake until almost dawn despite all the wine he’d drunk. When he finally did sleep, he dreamed of the girl from the elevator. In the dream she did more than stand in a corner behind him, she came up close behind and whispered something in his ear, something that made him wake in a cold sweat.
The dream stayed with him for over a week, echoes of it disturbing his sleep for the first few days. He never heard what the girl said but every time it shocked him awake, gasping as a throbbing pain spread through his chest. The first couple of times he thought he was having a heart attack and nearly woke Lise to help him. The sensation passed after a few seconds, leaving him so shook up he didn’t think he’d be able to sleep again. Somehow it only took him a few minutes, and then the dream would start again.
Lise flew to New York on the Sunday after they argued, the wound bandaged with mediocre sex. She had her own career as a fashion photographer. Sheldon spent the evenings she was gone going through their old pictures, clicking through the amassed folders Lise had uploaded, dozens of them. There were thousands of pictures, plus all the hard copies she had in albums and boxes in the office. Some of those had even been taken by Sheldon, he’d always been happy letting someone else capture the moment. The girl was in none of them. There wasn’t even anyone who looked like her. He took the whole of Tuesday off to finish the search. For a few hours it bordered on obsession, then Lise came home. She’d been drinking on the plane and was feeling frisky.
Sheldon forgot about the girl quickly after that, telling Lise and a few friends that he’d had a weird dream about a girl in the elevator at work. They laughed and shared their own strange dreams, it was the liveliest dinner party in a long time. The following weekend he flew to America for a week, securing the last details of a hostile takeover. For a month or two after that he got occasional twinges, the girl’s face popping into his mind when he was tired and his defences down. For a year he avoided using the elevator he had seen her in, there were three others to choose from. Eventually he forgot why he was doing it, the dream and the girl washed away into his subconscious, and started to use it again.
The takeover and the ones that followed went well, his star continued to rise in the company, promotions and bonuses coming his way. A month after his thirty-sixth birthday, three before their anniversary, Lise told him she was pregnant. A daughter followed just before Christmas and they hired a nanny to help. Sheldon took a few weeks off work, just enough to show he was a family man. He knew it was cynical but it was as long as he could stand. The fragile creature they put in his arms felt no more special than any other. His heart didn’t leap when he looked at the wrinkled face, eyes still not open. Not the way it did when he looked at his wife.
In the months after the birth, when the baby did little but cry, he dreamed a few times of the girl again. By the time he woke the dreams were disjointed and meaningless, but they left him feeling anxious and unsure. There were mirrors in the elevators of his building, lining the three walls, and they featured in his dreams, the only definite fragment that stayed with him. If the climb hadn’t been so far, the behaviour so unusual, he would have taken the stairs. He considering having the mirrors torn out, but that was just as bizarre. Instead he pushed the nerves down, telling himself that he didn’t need to know where they came from or what they meant and rode the elevator in silence. His co-workers gradually learned not to get in the elevator with him if they could avoid it, although nothing was ever said aloud. After a while the mirrors stopped making him nervous, he’d forgotten about the dream again. No-one ever rode the elevator with him again, anywhere. He learned to use the time to find a little peace, clear his mind and ensure his plans were all safe and secure, that he would win every time.
Lise died when their daughter was six, not long after they moved to New York. It was sudden, an aggressive cancer that stripped her to the bone in less than a year. Sheldon held his daughter’s hand during the funeral but he wasn’t really aware of it. He didn’t let himself cry, returned to work after just a week. The staff took care of the child, learning with the other employees that the old persona was gone.
He was cold and hard now, removed from those below him and their concerns. The years passed and he increased his share, expanding his control until the company was fully his. He read the bi-annual reports he was sent about his daughter, a passport photograph attached to each. She did well at her schools, the places he sent her for the holidays with her carers. He wrote to her on her birthday and sometimes at Christmas, taking the time to do it by hand on expensive paper. Sometimes he read the replies she sent back, under increasing duress as she got older. They saw each other a handful of times, never for more than an hour or two. He had a few photographs in his office, set dressing that he rarely looked at. The only face he ever saw in the dead memories was Lise’s, a luxury he only allowed himself occasionally. The hole that opened around his heart when he did wasn’t something he couldn’t allow himself to feel too often.
It was almost thirteen years to the day since Lise died that Sheldon felt the deja-vu as he stepped into the elevator on the viewing floor. It was the first time he had been to the building where his career started in over five years and he had come up here for a moment or two to reminisce. The building, once the tallest in London was being sold, they were all waiting for him in a boardroom below to sign his name. From the viewing floor he could look out over the city, the curving river—the building was still one of the tallest and the view spectacular. He could look towards the setting sun and the stark silhouette of London’s new tallest building, the one he had ordered built. The new headquarters.
The feeling didn’t start until he was inside the elevator, turning his back on the interior to stand in front of the doors. He started to reach a hand towards the close button but it was too late, the doors had slid shut and the elevator was starting to drop. He could see his blurred reflection in the burnished metal of the doors, the second, pale face behind him, creeping closer.
It took him a second to recognise her. The elevator was dropping too fast but he didn’t notice. He turned and looked at the girl standing in the corner, all the things he’d forgotten flooding back in. Something seized in his chest and he fell back against the doors, bouncing into the corner by the control panel as the lift continued to plummet, sliding to the floor. The girl stayed in her corner, just a few feet away. She looked exactly like she had the first time he went through this, and he knew who she was, if only through photographs.
“Don’t worry,” his daughter said. “I’m not really here, I’m at school, in my room. The girl I share with has gone home for the week, she’s got a funeral. Doesn’t matter, except this is the first chance I’ve got to do this. If it works, everything gets better. That’s what the book says. If it doesn’t, everything stops. Either one works for me, it’s all up to you. You’ll either listen to the echo or you won’t. I have to try.”
A second bolt shot through his chest, an unmistakable mix of numbness and tingling spreading down his left arm. He tried to keep his breathing regular, clutching at his chest, but his lungs were in spasm. She looked down at him, a look of mock sadness on her face. Her shoulder length hair was in pigtails, dyed blonde except for the pink locks she let hang around her face. She was wearing a skinny-fit band t-shirt and jeans, bunched up around her ankles where they were too long. Her lip, eyebrow and ears were pierced, bangles and leather bands hung around her wrists, already saturated with the blood pumping from the long gashes in her forearms.
Sheldon had seen this before, been here before. He wanted to block it out the way he had last time, refusing to believe what he’d seen. There was no escape this time and his chest lurched again as she crossed the short distance and leaned over him, the blood dripping from her wounds onto his suit. The elevator was still falling, plummeting through the floors. She smiled, cold and angry, as she bent even closer, pressing her face close to his. Her eyes looked glazed and her skin was blue, her breath ice cold on his skin. This close she seemed to flicker. A field of static crackled out, making his skin crawl and the hairs left on his head rise.
“I know you can hear the echo, years and years ago,” she said. “If you listen, pay attention to me, you’ll stop this happening. This can be a warning, not a fact. I hope you get it right this time.”
The elevator came to a jarring halt and Sheldon flopped out onto the hard lobby floor, wheezing and clutching at his chest. As people ran to help he watched his younger self walking away, the experience already boxed and forgotten—a moment not worth dwelling on. He tried to speak to his rescuers, then to shout after the past, desperate to be heard. He couldn’t find the breath, barely croaking a syllable before his heart failed completely.
An hour later the doctors called it, just a moment or two before their counterparts a half world away did the same, closing the dead girl’s eyes. Sheldon’s were left open by mistake, turning glassy as they stared at the white ceiling.