Going Down
by Chandler Morrison, October 10th 2022

Calliope keeps looking at me from her place on the stage and it feels like the end of the world. I can’t hear the words she’s singing into the microphone because the acid rain in my head drowns everything out. The others onstage with her—the guitarist, the bassist, the drummer; women, all of them—they might as well not even be there. It’s only her. It’s only ever been her.

 

There’s at least two hundred of us crowded on the rooftop, our shoulders smelted together as everyone moves like tongues of flame to the melody of her music, but her eyes keep finding mine. It feels that way, at least. She can make you feel singled out with only a glance in your direction. It vaporizes everyone else into nothing. You’re left cold and alone among columns of desecrated ash, and all of your hopes about life, about yourself, they all narrow into a singular desperation hinged on the possibility that she’s looking at you. That she notices you.

 

The bouquet of roses I’m clutching in my fist suddenly seems absurd when she finishes her set. The crowd begins to disperse, the spell lifts, and I’m standing there holding flowers like a schoolboy. In my head, in the ever-unspooling fantasy, I was going to push through the mass of bodies and present the roses to her like some kind of totem signifying all the things neither of us can say. People do things like that in movies. People do a lot of things in movies. Real life is so much less romantic, but you never figure that out soon enough.

 

I turn away from the stage, avoiding the haunted light of her cutting gaze, and stagger to the edge of the rooftop. The tall glass partition is so polished it’s as though you could step right through it and plummet to the traffic-crammed street hundreds of feet below. In the distance, the Hollywood sign is pale and desolate among dark hills pocked with orange flame. Listless helicopters circle low over the glittering city, their searchlights sweeping aimlessly. This high up, it's easy to feel removed from everything. It makes the holocaustic devastation inside you all the more potent.

 

There’s a girl beside me. Late teens, early twenties. Her vacant stare is beholden to her phone screen. When I nudge her, it takes her eyes a moment to focus on me. Like she’s waking from a dream.

 

“Yeah?” she says. Impatient, irritated. I wince behind my sunglasses but thrust the flowers out to her anyway. She blinks at them. “Like, what even is this,” she says.

 

“It’s nothing. They’re just flowers.”

 

“I have a boyfriend.”

 

“It’s not like that.”

 

“I’m not going to fuck you.”

 

“It’s...really not like that.”

 

Her eyes narrow as she scrutinizes my face. “Okay but, like, what even is the deal here? Did you bring these for someone and she rejected you so you just thought you’d shove them off on the first pretty girl you saw? What’s your angle?”

 

The cruelty in her face, her voice...it’s so much like Calliope’s that it’s almost nostalgic. It has a sweetbitter tang I can taste. Like grapefruit. Like loss.

 

“I don’t have an angle. You’re not the first pretty girl I saw.”

 

“I mean, come on, dude. Flowers? Who does flowers anymore? Like, okay, boomer. What era are you even from?”

 

I look back out at the fires in the hills and wonder for a moment what it would be like to burn before I realize I already know. Again, there’s that sensation of apocalyptic finality. Like everything is ending. Like nothing means anything anymore. It’s the oldest feeling I know. The world is ending all the time, but it always feels like the first time and the last.

 

There’s nothing to do but drop the flowers to the ground. I can’t hold them any longer.

 

“Well,” says the girl, blinking at the discarded flowers lying between our feet. “That was a little dramatic.”

 

Walking away, I can feel Calliope watching me from somewhere among the hot mass of bodies. There’s an urge to look around, to catch another glimpse of her and cling to it, but there’d be no salvation in that. I’m burning either way.

 

My ears pop in the elevator as it rockets down. The doors open on the eighty-seventh floor—a movie theater, I think—and three boys in their thirties file on board. Their soft, doughy faces look tired and lifeless. They’re all wearing Marvel T-shirts. Each of them is holding a superhero action figure. I want to ask them what they’re doing, where they’re going. If they feel anything at all. They don’t seem any more real than the plastic toys in their hands. I want to tell them this, too, but it wouldn’t make a difference.

 

The doors open again to a dark, uncrowded bar on the seventy-fifth floor. Nobody gets on, and the moviegoers look at me with bored expectation. I hadn’t planned to stop here but I get off anyway because I don’t like the feeling of their bland, dewy eyes on me.

 

A friend of mine, Summer Priestly, is sitting alone at the bar. She doesn’t look surprised to see me. I take a seat next to her and order a tonic water. The bartender waves my credit card away.

 

“I thought you might be here,” Summer says. “I heard Calliope was playing a show on the roof. You just can’t stay away, can you?”

 

“You know how it is,” I mutter. “Moths, flame. That whole thing.” I sip my drink. The bitterness bites like something earned.

 

“Did you talk to her?”

 

“No. I was going to. I decided against it.”

 

“Well. That’s good, at least.”

 

“It doesn’t feel good. It feels like the end of the world.”

 

Summer rolls her eyes. She lifts her martini to her lips, pauses, and then sets it back on the bar without taking a sip. Her cold gaze levels at me. “You always say that. This is, in fact, a pattern for you.”

 

“I’m aware. But this...this one feels different. Worse. It feels so much worse.”

 

“You always say that, too.”

 

“Do I,” I say, with a barbed edge I hadn’t intended.

 

“She’s no good,” Summer says. “You know that, don’t you? She’s actually pretty awful. She’s mean and manipulative, and she’s been toying with you for as long as you’ve known her. That’s a pattern, too. These terrible women who use your heart like an ashtray.”

 

“I want to believe I don’t have a heart.”

 

“Yeah, I know that’s what you want to believe. But what do you think you’re feeling right now? A tummy ache? Jesus.”

 

“What are you doing here?” I ask, desperate to change the subject. “I know you didn’t come to see Calli.”

 

“Some writing convention on the fiftieth floor. I couldn’t stand to be there longer than an hour. There were so many knockoff versions of you running around. Dressed in all black, wearing sunglasses. A few of them even had cowboy boots.”

 

I cough out a humorless laugh and raise my glass. “Cheap imitation. I guess I should be flattered.”

 

“No. You really shouldn’t.”

 

“I wish you were always around to tell me how to feel.”

 

“Who says I’m not.”

 

I take another sip of my drink even though I don’t want it anymore and glance at the dance floor. A few shadowy couples are swaying to a slowed-down pop remix of a song about throbbing erections. The whirling, technicolored disco lights keep passing over their darkened faces, and they’re like zombies. Dead fish eyes, mouths hanging slack.

 

“Where did it all go wrong,” I hear myself murmur.

 

“Where did what go wrong?” Summer asks, looking at me with something like concern.

 

“I don’t know. All of it.”

 

She doesn’t say anything, and in a way I’m grateful for that. I finish my drink and stand up. “I have to get going,” I tell her. “Text me. I’ll be around.”

 

As I’m walking away, she calls after me that I look too thin. I pretend I don’t hear her.

 

I stop in the restroom on my way to the elevator and stand in front of the mirror. I take off my sunglasses and stare at my hollow reflection, trying to recognize the person looking back at me. There’s a vague desire to reconcile him with the person I once was. The person I’d been when I’d come here nearly five years ago to this city at the edge of the world. Five years, not even, and it feels like forever. In my eyes there’s a distant flicker of something lost, but I don’t know what it is or how to find it. I don’t know how to care.

 

Gripping the edge of the sink, staring hard into the stranger in the glass, I try to will myself to cry. I want to feel tears on my face. I want to know I’m still real. That there’s still something left. Thinking of the moviegoers in the elevator, and their toys, I wonder if I’m all that different. I wonder if, somewhere along the way, I became empty plastic.

 

Back in the elevator, the doors open again on the forty-fourth floor. I wander out and amble down a long corridor that opens into a large auditorium packed with shouting people. They’re all wearing T-shirts emblazoned with angry messages. Many of them are carrying picket signs. Everyone is facing a stage with a large podium at its center, but there’s nobody on it.

 

I nudge a guy standing nearby who’s wearing a purple baseball cap turned backward and a brown shirt covered in Sharpie-scrawled profanities. He turns and regards me with the same dazed, blank expression I’d gotten from the girl to whom I’d tried to give the flowers. “What?” he barks over the din of yelling voices. He has a face the color of frozen poultry. “What do you want?”

 

“What’s going on?” I ask him. “What is everyone so angry about?”

 

He seems baffled by this. “We don’t know,” he says. “They haven’t told us yet.”

 

“Who? Who hasn’t told you?”

 

Gesturing helplessly at the empty stage, he says, “You know. Whoever’s behind the curtain.”

 

A few feet away, a pregnant woman starts beating a skinny teenage girl with her picket sign. The girl crumples immediately, but the pregnant woman keeps striking her. I take a step back as the pooling blood around her head creeps toward my boots. The vast, empty void in the pregnant woman’s eyes is startling. Juxtaposed against her violence, it’s almost beautiful.

 

I push through the crowd and somehow end up backstage, behind the curtain, but there’s nobody there. There are stacks of cardboard boxes and endless yards of unraveled caution tape, and nothing else. I bend to one knee and take a length of the caution tape in my hand. It’s slick and rubbery between my fingers.

 

Crouched there in the dark, I’m hit with a sudden rush of shame. I picture Calliope standing over me, sneering. What are you doing here? she’d ask, her treacly voice sticky with poison. What do you think you’re going to find?

 

“Nothing,” I say to the emptiness. “Nothing.”

 

I stop getting off the elevator after that.

 

A young girl of about six or seven gets on at the twenty-seventh floor. She’s alone, wearing too much makeup. Her face is runny and smudged with mascara tears. When the doors close, she looks up at me and says, “Amelia Earhart didn’t exist.”

 

All I can say is, “Whoa.”

 

“You probably think I’m lying because you’re fucking brainwashed,” she screams at me.

 

The doors open again at the eighteenth floor. Two guys in hazmat suits are standing in a dark, empty food court where everything is covered in clear plastic tarpaulin. One of them holds his gloved hand up and says, “You can’t get off here. It’s contaminated.”

 

“There’s been an outbreak,” says the other one.

 

“An outbreak of...what?” I ask.

 

Before they can answer, the little girl shrieks at them, “Margaret Thatcher was a fucking MYTH. History is a LIE.” She darts out of the elevator and scrambles across the food court, her small feet clapping against the plastic sheeting. The two men stare at me for a moment before chasing after her.

 

The doors close.

 

On the ground floor, I hurry across the deserted lobby and out into the night. I light a cigarette as I wade through the ankle-deep refuse. The aroma of the burning tobacco mixes briefly with the stench of garbage and smoke and exhaust before being smothered by it. Clusters of hungry, washed-out eyes watch me from the shadows, their owners howling over the sounds of traffic. Rag-adorned vagrants clamber over cars stopped at the intersection of 7th and Figueroa, weeping and shouting as they leave filthy handprints and streaks of grime smeared across hoods and windshields. They don’t seem to hear the blaring of the impotent horns.

 

Looking up at the building from which I’d come, I wonder if Calliope is still up there. I wonder what would have happened if I’d stayed, if I’d talked to her. If I’d given her the flowers instead of leaving them on the ground so far above me. I wonder if any of the decisions I make can stop things from falling apart.

 

When I pull out my phone to hail a Lyft, the app asks me, Where are you going?

 

I look at the building again. The hard planes of metal and glass driving into the sky shimmer as if stricken by intense heat. Glancing around at the confused bedlam surrounding me, my own inner turmoil feels smaller. Digestible, even. Like I could swallow it and the acid in my stomach would boil it down into nothing. Maybe, I think, I’m bigger than this place. Maybe things fall apart so we can stay glued together.

 

Casting my cigarette away, I return my phone to the inside pocket of my blazer and go back inside, jogging across the lobby to the elevator. My hand reaches for the button with the upward-pointing arrow. Finger extended. Touching the button’s smooth, glazed surface, I hesitate. I look over my shoulder at the glass doors leading out to the street. To the chaos. Already it seems far away. The volume is turned down. In the eerie quiet, the anarchic, burning rain within me suddenly becomes deafening again.

 

I stare at my finger resting on the elevator button, and I notice there’s one beneath it. One with an arrow pointing down. I don’t remember it being there before. I thought street level was the last stop. I thought I’d gone as far down as I could go.

 

My finger drops to the down arrow and pushes it.

 

The doors slide open. Music is playing inside the elevator. I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t Calliope’s.

 

I step inside.

 

The doors slide shut.

 

As it carries me down, I shut my eyes and disappear beneath the earth.

 

Heat rises.

 

I am going down.