The Stalled Elevator


sf_nicole_icon.gif sf_zachery_icon.gif

Scene Title The Stalled Elevator
Synopsis With the evening having gone from bad to worse, Nicole seeks reassurance from her husband.
Date November 3, 2020

The Linderman Building

Naturally, Zachery Miller arrives at his wife’s office by the elevator. It isn’t stalled at all, as her Doris Anderson had told him over the phone. It gives him a clue as to what he’ll find when he navigates the dimly lit open work space that leads to the windowed corner office with the placard on the door reading:

Nicole Miller
Executive Director of Administration

The lights are on in the office, judging by the crack he can see at the bottom of the door. He’s invited, expected, and so it makes no sense but to press on. The overhead lights are off, leaving only the desk lamp and a tall five-armed floor lamp from the 1950s, with only two of its bulbs on, to light the room.

The glow of the floor lamp seems like a spotlight for the way it illuminates Zachery’s wife, hunched over on the couch with her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands, crying softly. The warm light she’s bathed in is a stark contrast to the cold sorrow of her mood.

Nicole looks up at the sound of the door closing, rather than opening. The dark rivers of liner and mascara that have run clear down to her chin, smeared and re-smeared and simply continuing on undeterred speak to the fact that she’s been at this for some time.

“It happened again,” Mrs. Miller tells him, voice barely raised above a whisper.

It is with regret that her husband lowers himself down on one knee in front of her, but with concern that he looks her in the eyes. Concern for both of them, sending tension into his shoulders.

"Breathe." He says with a practiced, calm tone of voice, even if the keenness with which he observes Nicole is not. He reaches to put one of his hands in between hers and her face, a gentle breaking of a pattern. He follows his own advice, too, taking a moment to recover from having rushed over. They can calm down together. Maybe. "Relax your diaphragm. Tell me what happened."

The breath comes in, but is exhaled in a series of miserable whimpers and half-sobs before she’s able to get it under control on the second attempt. The hand that slips between hers and her cheek is held to tightly, her eyes closing as she works to follow the sound of his voice and his instructions. Not relax everything, but just this one thing. It gives her permission to stay scared, which is what she needs.

“We were setting up for the concession speech. I had the phone in my hand to call my counterpart with Chesterfield’s campaign when… Next thing I knew, it had all happened. Isaac was in the middle of his speech for the cameras, and I didn’t remember any of it.” Another shuddering exhale. Nicole opens her eyes again, shaking her head in disbelief. “Am I crazy? Nobody indicated there was anything wrong. And I was in front of cameras. If something had been wrong, someone would have noticed. Someone would have said something. Doris would have said something. And that’s assuming Isaac wouldn’t have just had me led away from him so I wouldn’t fuck things up.”

Nicole lets her other hand move from her face after wiping some tears away and smearing more make-up, reaching out to curve her hand along the side of her husband’s neck, her thumb at the underside of his jaw like he can anchor her somehow. “What’s wrong with me?”

Make-up and tears alike get thumbed away from the other side of her face, as Zachery looks between her eyes and says, firmly, "I'll tell you what I always tell you. You're not crazy."

Usually, he has more to say than just that. In the pause that follows, he shakes his head, as if it will likewise help him shake off some errant thoughts.

He finds his confidence again, and easily, jutting a shoulder up against her hand at his face. First things first: "Have you seen the footage?"

She wants to believe him. That she isn’t crazy. That he thinks she isn’t crazy. Nicole can’t quite manage it, though. Still, she nods her head, quivering lip and all. His question brings her to shake it again after. “No.” Her brow creases, frustrated that she hadn’t thought of that herself.

“Maybe you can pull something up on your phone?” Nicole draws her hand away from Zachery, reaching to the side table to grab a tissue to wipe at her face with.

A throaty hum of confirmation is all Zachery offers in return before his hand leaves her face, and he rights himself to fish his phone out of his pocket.

While he searches his mind and then the internet, his jaw sets. "On the way over, I had a thought. Dismissable, completely, clearly, but…" He pulls away mid-sentence, beginning to pace before continuing to say, "I was thinking maybe there's something in our food, or—"

He turns, fixing Nicole with a look she hasn't seen from him before— despite maintaining a steady voice, the quiet, roiling beginnings of panic pinch his brow. "Have you thought about foul play?"

Nicole looks up from her work when he puts forward the first part of his theory. “Our food?” It’s an incredulous notion to her. “Our schedules are so erratic. We never know when we’re going to get something to eat, or if that’s going to happen. That would be a—”

Her mouth clamps shut when he turns to look at her and she sees the panic in him. That is easy to recognize, even if she’s never really seen what it looks like on him. If anything, it makes it all the more chilling.

The breath leaves her lungs in one hard, audible exhale. Nicole tips her head to one side, gaze sympathetic while still managing to convey the faintest air of are you kidding? “Duckling, someone tried to kill me almost three years ago to the day. I’m always thinking about foul play.”

"… You're right," Zachery says flatly and without thinking, before a second pass at his answer comes with his back straightening and his expression worked back into neutrality. "Of course, you're right. And it wouldn't be both of us."

Except for the fact that if not for him, there would be no 'both of us'.

But the past is the past. And this is now. So he smiles, breathing out a quick and wry chuckle to match his wife's incredulity. Only then does he seem to remember the phone in his hand, moving immediately to sit back down next to Nicole, with the necessary footage at the ready on his phone, offered out to her. "Scrub through? When was this?"

“Unless they aren’t trying to get both of us.” Nicole exchanges a worried look with Zachery. “What if it’s me, and you’re just… collateral?” God, would she be able to forgive herself? If someone hurt him trying to hurt her? He’s her hero. Her savior. He does good for so many, and she’s…

Nicole shoves that shame right back down where it belongs, with the mothballs and other things worth forgetting. Like what Suzie Rutledge said about her haircut in the third grade.

Fuck that little bitch.

The phone being pushed in front of her pulls Nicole out of the tailspin she was nearly falling into. “Right. Uhm…” Taking the device, she draws her finger across the bottom of the screen slowly, pulling the position of the time indicator along the track to the proper moment, recognized outside of herself from the moment she’s seen procuring her phone in the background of a different shot. Before either herself or Isaac have stepped up to face the press for his speech.

“There,” Nicole says, hitting play. “I’ve just dialed Chesterfield’s manager. That’s the last thing I remember for a while.”

Not that there’s anything on the footage to suggest that. The conversation, from what can be seen in the background, is fluid, the phone handed off to the senator while she stands back a polite distance for him to congratulate his opponent. She takes it back when the call’s complete and gives one of her reassuring smiles and a squeeze to his arm.

Then she stands at his side while he faces the music, and the cameras.

Nicole shakes her head slowly. “I don’t remember any of this. Any of it.” In the video, her head nods at the appropriate moments, she smiles when it’s called for, bows her head when that’s the better response. “I really did teach him well, didn’t I? He delivers that so beautifully.” And without her having been aware to prompt him.

Or, rather, she was aware — somehow — and didn’t need to prompt him.

There’s a pride that shows in Nicole’s face, even if her own disquiet makes her smile a tremulous thing. In the video again, Nicole’s head lifts as Isaac nears the end of his speech, and while her expression remains neutral, Zachery recognizes in an instant the way that his wife’s eyes shift in short glances when she’s confused by something, but covers it exceptionally well. He knows that’s when she became aware of herself again, even before she tells him.

“That’s when I came back.”

While the speech is wrapping up and Senator Faulkner is taking questions, Nicole exchanges a few words with her assistant just at the edge of the camera’s view. “That’s when I asked Doris to deliver the message to you. I made Isaac bring me back here. He’s the only one I trusted.”

If she only knew.

Alas. Telling her now would help nothing. And this life they've built - apart from this particular issue - has been so ideal. Why shatter it now.

Zachery continues to watch the phone a few seconds longer than necessary before replying in a clipped fashion, "Fascinating. In the worst of ways."

He reclaims his phone, replacing it with his free hand laid atop hers and deciding promptly, "This is what we're going to do. I have a list at home, of neurologists and experts in the field of memory disorders. I will call them and explain our situation but as a theoretical case, acting as an in-between for a hypothetical couple. They're doctors, they'll love a mystery."

“Isn’t it.”

The worst of ways, indeed. Nicole absently curls her fingers as his hand finds hers, her gaze gone distant as she tries to map out the long-term repercussions of this course of action he’s proposing. She’s a strategist. A planner. This is how she holds on to her own sanity.

It isn’t helping now.

“If the press catches wind of this, I’m finished,” Nicole declares, voice soft and her mind far, far away. “Isaac will have to motion to have me removed from the board in order to save face. I’ll lose everything. Everything. Everything I’ve dedicated my life to.” But what’s the alternative?

Nicole’s head lifts. The clouds clear away. She’s back with him again, turning her head to catch his eye. “But if I get pregnant, I can go to the country. Rest. Nest. No one will question frequent visits with doctors. I’ll be applauded for looking after our child’s health.” She nods resolutely. “This is how we’ll do it. This is how we’ll get away with this.”

God, what a world she lives in that she can’t even look after herself without fear of being destroyed in the Wall Street Journal or other such nonsense. And how normal she finds all of that. Nicole Miller is obsessed with appearances. Her legacy.

It’s why she’s the successful wife of an even more successful surgeon, rather than in a fashionable partnership with a certain florist.

"And I can schedule PTO," Zachery replies with newfound cheer and a returned smile, "like they've been telling me I haven't claimed enough of because apparently I enjoy my job too much. Great, so we've got a plan. We get through this as we do with everything else. Setting our own pace and fully informed."

Suddenly, traces of that panic from before work their way back into his fixed smile, and into the way his next words leave him slightly too quickly. "I should tell you something."

Yes,” Nicole agrees. They have a plan, and it’s going to shelter them from prying questions. What could be better?

Well, a lot of things, as it turns out. Nicole looks up at her husband, any elation she may have been feeling has been quickly quashed, replaced by worry. “What?” she asks, wide eyes searching his face for clues. “What’s wrong?”

Zachery inhales, corrects his posture and sighs. But none of these things quite whisk away the concern still knitting his brow when he says with a slant of reluctance, "This is going to sound ridiculous. Because all this time's passed, and all this time— it must have been a sick joke. I took it for one."

But that's enough stalling. His eyes dart to the side in idle recollection, before leveling a somewhat more grim look at his wife. "I received a message. When you were under, after you were injured. I didn't get to see it until after the procedure, but I was… advised," he word leaves him with heavy emphasis, "to perform poorly, that day. Clearly, I did not. And there were no repercussions. But…"

The worry drains away along with the blood in her face. It used to be her leaving those messages. “What do you mean someone advised you to perform poorly?” They weren’t dating then. Didn’t even know each other. He was just a name in her Rolodex. An asset she didn’t need to know, and he didn’t need to know her face. Didn’t need to know where the orders came from.


She knows he won’t know.

Not precisely, anyway.

He shakes his head, a helpless thing for how keenly he studies Nicole's face, and for how his expression is wrangled under control to show only what genuine emotions he's already let slip and no more.

"If I had the answer to that, don't you think I would have brought it up first thing after you woke up?" He asks, feigned hurt and all. "That I would have just swept it under the rug like it was nothing? I wasn't sure what to make of it," he lies, "but when nothing came of it, what was I supposed to do? Put out an ad in the paper, asking to meet with the person who told me to murder a patient?"

“So I’ve been right. All this time, I was right.

A tear slides down Nicole’s cheek. “Do you have any idea how many people told me it was all in my head? That the whole thing had just been an accident and that I just keep jumping at shadows? That I just had some kind of inflated sense of self-importance to think someone would want me dead?

She shakes her head quickly to absolve him of any guilt he may hold over not having said anything. “You didn’t know me at the time. Why would you tell me anything?” If anything, he should have told the cops, but anybody with enough audacity to send that kind of message to a surgeon of Zachery’s caliber also has the means to make sure he would have felt some intense consequences for informing the police. She can’t blame him for keeping mum on the whole affair. “It’s okay, duckling. I’m not mad at you. Not even a little bit.”

Panic subsides, a little with each breath. Zachery sits, and watches, and listens, and lets Nicole draw her own conclusions.

It is still with visible relief that he finds the confirmation he's looking for, in her words and her forgiveness, and the last of his panic disappears with a sigh. "I would say I didn't deserve you, but… here we are." He reaches to thumb the tear away from Nicole's face. With necessary lie told and the construct still holding, there is gladness in his eyes. "Clearly, I do."

“You do.” Nicole cringes in on herself a little in the way that people do when they’re holding back tears, but she does it with a grateful little smile on her face. She may just have been told something awful, but it was a confirmation that she wasn’t just making things up. That’s something.

There’s a slow, steadying intake of breath. A centering exhale. “Am I gonna be okay?” Nicole asks. “What if you just had one bad dream but I’m actually…” There’s no finishing touch put on that sentence. They both know where she’s headed. She shakes her head slowly. “Sorry. I’m… being morbid. Should we go home?”

Zachery holds up his hand at the apology as if to question it's necessity, then offers that same hand out in front of him for her to take. Something else to help anchor herself back to the now - or at the very least, to him. "You're alright," he says, gently insistent.

"Whatever's going on, we're in it together. And we're going to figure it out." He smiles, even if none of it reaches his eyes. "So what we're going to do on our way home, is calm down. Yes?"

“I promise at least to try,” Nicole grants. She knows calming down is not a given. Especially for someone as high strung as she is. Relaxation feels like allowing work to go undone. But she takes his hand and uses his leverage to help herself to her feet, and then to draw herself in to embrace him.

“I love you,” she whispers into his hair. “Let’s go home. I want some wine and to cuddle up on the sofa.”

Only once she is unable to look at his face does Zachery dart an uncertain look left and right, wrapping his arms around her with all the conviction his face is currently lacking.

"I love you too." He's proven that, hasn't he? And he'll continue to do so.

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