You turn to Eric. "We should find the stairs."
Maribel wipes her mouth and gets shakily to her feet. "Tony's right."
Eric nods. "Yeah, I don't want to walk past any more of those windows."
The three of you look around, searching for any sign of a stairwell. Maribel points at the ceiling on the opposite side of the expansive space, in the far corner where a green "Exit" sign glows.
"Okay," you say. "Let's do it."
You lead the way. The other two keep their distance. They're letting you go first in case there's another bomb.
You're the canary, going into the gold mine.
You pass by cubicles, filing cabinets, computers dark and powered off. The Exit sign glows green against the shadow of the corner, and you feel your eyes sticking to it even though you need to focus and be alert to any potential threats. A cool breeze brushes your cheek, startling you--it’s coming from the open window where Neo met his fate twenty stories below.
“Almost there,” Maribel whispers behind you. It’s so quiet, you can hear Eric breathing as he follows her.
Only a few more cubicles to pass.
A dark monitor flickers to life. You jump like a cat, your heart exploding out of your chest. The monitor glows blue, then red. Words flash onto the screen.
Behind you, a loud crunch. The three of you spin in unison. The ceiling above a desk explodes downward in a billow of dust, crushing the desk below it. Another ceiling tile explodes, closer this time, sending a monitor flying like a Frisbee.
“Run!” Eric screams.
You turn and run.
Another crunch, nearer this time. Maribel shrieks. You spare a moment to look back. A piece of drywall has lodged itself in her neck. She pulls it out with shaking hands. She’s covered in dust. A small river of blood trickles down her shoulder. It’s like the picture--it’s the blood that was covering her arm.
“Go!” she screams.
You turn and run. She catches up and grabs your hand, and you make it to the door together.
What if it’s locked?
BOOM. Another explosion from the ceiling. A filing cabinet topples. The room is filled with dust and drywall, and you can barely breathe.
The doorknob turns and you push the door open. You topple into the darkened stairwell, Maribel right behind you.
“Eric,” she cries.
You both turn to look back. You can’t see through the dust and drywall. With a crunch and a whoosh, another section of ceiling tile explodes down, and then the room goes quiet, leaving an eerie, crooning wail in its wake.
“Eric,” she calls. “Eric!”
The wail is coming from the walls, from the room itself.
The ceiling collapses.
Maribel screams and pulls the stairwell door shut behind her as an avalanche of drywall and wood and desks from the floor above crash down. You both sprint for the stairs and take them three at a time. At the landing, you stumble and fall, banging your head and elbows, but you push yourself to your feet and follow Maribel down. Behind you, the walls shake and you wait for the entire building to crash down on top of you.
Maribel’s breathing is ragged behind you. Yours is too, an asthmatic dragon, and you chase each other down flight after flight, the steel steps lit dimly at each landing, the area underneath cast into flickering shadow. Above and behind, the continued, booming sounds of destruction echo like faraway shotgun blasts. Each landing is numbered, and you count them obsessively as you pass them. Sixteen, fifteen, fourteen, twelve--
You stop for a brief moment, befuddled, staring at the number twelve, before Maribel pulls you forward. “There’s no thirteen, it’s unlucky,” she pants. Her arm is coated in blood, just like in her picture, and her skin is waxy pale, streaked with sweat and white drywall dust.
All is quiet now, and your steps slow as you follow Maribel down.
Her steps slow, too. You know what lies ahead must be a trap.
At the fifth floor, you reach out and grab Maribel’s hand. “Wait,” you say. Your voice is a whisper.
She pauses and looks back up at you.
“Do you think it’s safe to go out through the first floor?” you ask. “Isn’t that where he expects us to go?”
She nods. “I think we should try the second, or the basement. Second floor we could go out a window if we have to, and a basement has to have a second ex--” Her eyes go huge. She looks at something over your shoulder and lets out a scream.
You spin. Eric is on the landing above you. His eyes are wild. He runs down toward you. For a split second, you think he’s running from the explosions like you are, that he survived after all and is joining you at last, but then you see the axe in his hand.
He’s on top of you. The axe goes up. Maribel screams again. You duck, try to push him back, but he’s above you and has momentum. He shoves past you, hefts the axe, and chops it into Maribel’s chest, between her breasts into her heart.
Her face goes white--slack--and she topples backward down the stairs. You rush forward to catch her, stupidly, like you can save her. She’s on her back on the landing of the fourth floor. Her eyes are wide and fixed, the axe solidly buried right in her heart. There’s less blood than you’d expect. She looks like a wax model.
“Why?” you cry, your voice high like a young boy.
Behind you, Eric leaps forward to close the distance. You cry out, jump over Maribel, and--