Elevator. Elevator. Elevator.
The elevator was Jin’s first concern. The elevator consumed Jin’s morning. It dominated his thoughts every day before work, even if the word itself didn’t cross his mind. The elevator dictated his mood and actions from the moment he opened his eyes until he arrived at it. Even then, Jin couldn’t breathe unless the elevator doors sealed, with him inside—alone.
The elevator wouldn’t let up and allow Jin to relax until its doors actually met. Jin learned early on how someone could interrupt those doors at the last second. They could use a hand, a foot, a purse, a briefcase, or pretty much anything they happened to have available and were willing to risk losing.
A lady used a stroller once, with baby inside.
Jin’s goal was the same every morning: get to the elevator before anyone else. Get to the elevator before most people started their day.
Enter it alone.
The elevator was Jin Tsay’s greatest source of anxiety and stress—greater than Veil.
That day was no different; no day was different.
Jin was mindful of his sleeping wife as he slid from underneath the covers. (After he stole a sneaky kiss from her soft skin, of course.) He grabbed the meticulous pile of clothes that were prepared by his doting Suren, which she left on a chair next to the bedroom door; he entered the bathroom around the corner to begin his daily routine; he was absolutely quiet as he shut all doors and took each step. Jin did all of those things without once making the slightest detectable sound—any sound that could possibly disturb his Suren’s sleep.
He wasn’t sure how certain aspects of their lives achieved such a perfection of organized silence. It wasn’t as if he and Suren ever spoke of such things. That was probably one of the reasons he loved her. Suren intuited everything Jin required to achieve his goals, although she never knew what his goals were, and never once did she ask about them.
Not once did she ask; she just knew him. They didn’t plan how each morning should unfold or what would be most efficient. There were no discussions about what steps were required to ensure every morning went so smoothly. Suren Tsay sensed precisely what Jin required, so he could be up and out the door, without so much as rousing her, in time to make it to the damned elevator before anyone else could encroach.
Jin never spoke to Suren about the elevator. Never. He never even spoke about Veil itself, except to say the project existed.
Still, somehow Suren managed to entwine their lives together in such a way.
That morning—like every morning—Jin was silently steered out the front door by the intuitive forethought of his sleeping Suren. Everything Jin required was laid out before him, and he followed an unobstructed, sequential path through their house. Jin followed that path in the same manner of silence that Suren used as she plotted it for him.
First, Jin was led from their bedroom into the bathroom, where he quietly groomed and dressed. Next, to the kitchen, where he poured his coffee from the fresh, steaming, programmed pot. He added a bit of sweetener and a splash of soymilk. Jin grabbed the breakfast sandwich Suren prepared the night before, which was wrapped and lovingly placed on the top shelf of the fridge.
While the microwave warmed his food, Jin read the morning greeting Suren left for him before she went to bed. Jin jotted her a tender response. He wished Suren a good morning in return, hoped she had a good day, and expressed his singular love for her. They shared their daily words through a notebook that remained on the kitchen counter for the sole purpose of such exchanges.
He regretfully added a postscript …
By the way, my love, we need milk.
… which wasn’t penned as a reminder or a prompt. Rather, it was offered as a considerate confession and forewarning, should she drift toward the carton when she arose from her slumber; he didn’t want her to open the refrigerator door with expectation, only to be faced with disappointment. He wanted her to get the bad news from him first.
Jin made sure to finish his note in time to open the microwave door before the timer ran out, to avoid the noisy ding. He carried his breakfast and paper cup of coffee to the foyer, where he snatched up his briefcase. Jin was then out the front door.
Jin trusted the trail his Suren prepared for him. Her path led to the same ending every morning: Jin Tsay left their home meticulously groomed and uniformly dressed, with his coffee, breakfast, and briefcase in hand. Each time, from the moment he opened his eyes, Jin’s routine lasted somewhere between seventeen and twenty minutes.
That day, it took Jin eighteen minutes and sixteen seconds.
That day was no different.
That morning—like every morning—Suren Tsay quickly fell back into a peaceful sleep once she heard her Jin leave and shut the front door. (After she rolled onto Jin’s side of the bed to bask in his lingering warmth and scent, of course.) Although she could never tell him, Jin woke her every morning when he kissed her cheek, or her forehead, or her neck, or whatever patch of skin he hoped he could press a kiss onto without waking her.
After he left their bed and shut the bedroom door without so much as a click, Suren wouldn’t hear another sound from Jin during his morning routine. She wouldn’t hear another sound until Jin shut the front door and locked it, and she could tell he even did that as quietly as he could. He was always so mindful of her.
Suren could never tell Jin how his kiss woke her every morning, nor did she want him to suspect it. So, she pretended to be asleep until she was certain he left for work. If Jin had the slightest inkling he ever woke her with that kiss, he would stop giving it to her. He would never want to disturb his Suren’s sleep…
…and Suren never wanted her Jin to stop stealing that kiss.
She was in deep sleep by the time Jin reached the entrance of the Metro station. As he approached the tunnel, Jin was already prepared to gauge the probability of him reaching the elevator before anyone else.
Jin used the echoes of his footsteps in the tunnels of the D.C. Metro to calculate the potential for him to arrive at the elevator first. No matter how long he and Suren lived in the District, those magnificent honeycombed tunnels impressed him every time he arrived. However, what struck Jin more were the echoes of his dress shoes as they clicked against the hexagonal tile floors of a completely empty station. It wasn’t merely the sight of a vacant station that eased his elevator anxiety but much more so the degree in which those honeycombs resounded his footsteps.
Jin desperately wanted to believe the steps he produced sounded sharp, prestigious, and authoritative, such as those made by a colonel’s high gloss, black Oxfords. To Jin’s dismay, no matter how forcefully he walked or how wide his stride, his echoes distinctly matched those of a woman’s high-heels. He arbitrarily blamed that sound on his short stature and small feet. If not for the fact that the echoes were only so prominent because the station was so empty, their pitch would have likely embarrassed Jin.
As he stepped off the dizzyingly long and frustratingly slow escalator and onto the Metro platform that day, Jin was somewhat relieved by the emptiness of the station and the echoes of his footsteps.
tsk-chk tsk-chk tsk-chk tsk-chk (… tsk-chk … tsk-chk …)
Just the right echoes. No one in sight.
Relentlessly fastidious, Jin gently dropped his paper coffee cup into a recycle bin, so as to avoid an embarrassing stain caused by the jerky, jolty Metro. He then boarded the waiting train. Its cars were all dark and doors all closed, except for the first car, which remained lit and open as the train idled. Essentially, it was Jin’s own personal train, and although he would never let himself think it, he felt it. As soon as he boarded, the doors closed behind him and the loudspeaker dinged to alert passengers of departure. Or in that case, to alert Jin.
He sat in the front of the car and faced forward. He placed his briefcase on the floor of the Metro; although the train was completely empty, it eased Jin’s mind if he could feel that no one walked off with it, so he made certain it touched his calf. He looked straight ahead. He did not read a newspaper, flip through a magazine, review work documents, or listen to music. Just like every other day, he sat motionless and stared straight ahead until the train reached his destination and the voice from the loudspeaker announced the arrival at the station.
He grabbed his briefcase, exited the train, and rode the long, slow escalator up and out of the underground tunnel. As the escalator approached the top, Jin made a mental note to buy flowers for Suren from the vendor who’d be positioned near the entrance of the Metro when he left his lab at the hospital later that evening. He brought home flowers with enough regularity for Suren to appreciate the thought but without it being so common it seemed contrived or a habit. He hoped it didn’t rain that day since, if that were the case, the flower vendor would be replaced by one selling umbrellas.
Jin stepped off the escalator, walked approximately twenty feet from the station, and entered the hospital. He gave his daily nod and smile to the familiar security guard stationed at his right, and he rushed directly ahead to the elevators. The emptiness of the lobby didn't go unnoticed, but as he learned long ago, he couldn't relax until the doors shut completely, with him inside—alone.
The elevator on the right was open and awaited passengers; the elevator on the left was strategically placed on a higher floor, where it also waited for passengers. Neither of those details went unnoticed either, although years ago Jin stopped noticing that he ever noticed those details at all. He knew an open, empty elevator on the right side, plus a lit tenth-floor indicator above the elevator on the left side, meant one thing: he was definitely first. First to arrive for the day.
All those signals slightly alleviated Jin’s anxiety.
He swiftly entered the open elevator, turned around, and pushed the button for the 14th floor. He then repeatedly pushed the ‘Close Doors’ button. Jin wasn't sure if pushing that button actually decreased the delay for the doors to close, but the satisfaction he felt as he pushed it outweighed any wasted effort.
The elevator doors slid shut, although they did so torturously slow. After the doors finally met, Jin released his daily, audible sigh of relief. If anyone else were in the elevator at that moment, it would've sounded like Jin held his breath for quite some time and finally exhaled; the immense relief he experienced wasn't much different than that.
The relief wasn’t much different at all.
He inserted a key into the slot above the floor button panel and turned it to the right. All the buttons lit up, and the woman's voice that usually announced the elevator's arrival at each floor instead directed Jin to enter his security code. He entered the code, and all but the 12th and 14th buttons went dark. There was no 13th button and, for all anyone knew, no 13th floor. An unbelievably small number of people knew about the existence of that 13th floor at the hospital.
That was the whole elevator problem: no one knew about the 13th floor. It was completely hidden, but it was in plain sight and unquestioned. Out of quirky superstition, plenty of buildings around the city labeled the 13th floor as the 14th, so the practice was commonly accepted to the point of being ignored by everyone except those who weren't raised in a city. Even in those people, it only caused mild curiosity, usually quelled by a few moments of common sense.
If anyone inquired as to why, when one rode the elevator or climbed the stairs, the distance seemed greater between the 12th and 14th floors than between other floors, they all received the same answer: the ceilings of the 12th floor were higher than on any other floor. If anyone ever questioned that explanation, they never spoke up in doubt. Most people simply shrugged it off and resumed caring about something else.
Instead of some movie set quality, well-lit, heavily guarded and technologically secure lab with opaquely frosted windows and solid steel doors that hissed when they opened, Jin was provided an entire hospital floor. And not just an entire floor but also a lab whose very existence remained remarkably hidden and top secret. As sci-fi, stealthy, and James Bond-ish as that might’ve made most people feel, for Dr. Jin Tsay it only served to make the first forty minutes of his day nearly unbearable.
When the project started, there were countless times that Jin had to ride the elevator up and down, up and down, up and down. He had to continue the ride and wait for the moment when he was the only person inside the elevator and therefore, could use his key to access the 13th floor covertly. Once, he spent nearly an hour waiting for the elevator to empty, and on more than one occasion he was reported to security for seeming suspicious.
For someone of Jin’s disposition, the attention and embarrassment, not to mention the wasted time, were unbearable. After the atrocious attacks of 9/11, when people—especially in the District—became paranoid and suspicious of absolutely everyone and everything, Jin decided he had enough. Although completely out of character for him, he submitted an official request for a meeting to resolve the issue.
Jin’s request resulted in no such meeting. Instead of a meeting, what Jin received was a written response that the Metro line between his home and the hospital would make one train available an hour prior to the scheduled start time. The notice stated that the early train would not be announced publicly; it would only travel between those two stations; and only Jin’s personal Metro pass would allow early entry into the station near his home.
The plan was practical, since he was barred from commuting to or from the hospital in his own vehicle—or any vehicle, for that matter—in order to remain totally inconspicuous. For the most part, the new protocol worked. Only twice was Jin faced with another elevator passenger after the Metro started to run early for him. Luckily, those passengers exited before they reached the 10th floor.
While the arrangement did nothing to alleviate Jin’s anxiety, even as he arrived at a Metro station he already knew would be empty, it did come close enough to a resolution for him. Plus, what he learned in the process was more valuable: he was alone in the Veil project. There were to be no face-to-face meetings, no regular communications, no occasional updates or debriefings. Jin was contracted by the military to do a job, and all they were interested in was the end product of his work.
Just as he preferred—Jin was alone.
The elevator moved; Jin relaxed.
His mind, rather than suffocated by anxiety and stress, was free to focus on Veil. He had test data he needed to analyze in order to finalize and submit the development report that was required of him, all before he could proceed to the implementation phase. With one successful, seamless test run of Veil behind him, Jin's brain clocked overtime on the next step. The step that would take Veil all the way from theory to a final device.
While he wasn't yet sure what his role would be since he’d developed and perfected the technology and methodology, he was certain of one thing: they would need him. No one but Jin could extrapolate the data into usable instructions on how to transform the theory of Veil into a technological reality: a Veil device. That was what tickled Jin the most about the upcoming phase. It was the chance to turn all his years of theory, research, experimentation, development, and design into a device.
His theory. His device. His creation: Veil.
The elevator slowed, which signaled its arrival at the 13th floor.
Jin's anticipation of the day's work caused him to do something he absolutely never did in front of another person. He didn’t understand why he did it, and it made him somewhat ashamed. It was also something he couldn’t control and almost didn’t want to control.
Jin vibrated all over.
His left hand tightly squeezed onto his briefcase handle; his empty right hand balled into a fist; his butt cheeks clenched; each of his muscles tensed.
Jin trembled all over, in a full-body fit of sheer, absolute giddiness.
Every inch of him vibrated, and he couldn’t wait to get inside the lab to start his work.
The elevator stopped; Jin relaxed; the doors opened.
Jin’s gaze and focus were fixed upon the lab door in front of him. He stepped out, tripped, and fell down onto one knee. His right palm flattened against the cold polished concrete as he caught his balance.
Jin raised his head. His eyes didn’t focus on the gun barrel pointed at him but on the figure behind with the outstretched arm.
In that moment, as Jin Tsay’s entire life was ripped away by a bullet, he had two thoughts.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish