Ben Winston

The office sits in the center of a hallway between two enclosed stairwells, which makes fire drills interesting. There’s always this hesitation when you step out of the office, when one foot points one way down the hall, and the other foot points the other way, and you have this worry that if you take one step—any step with any foot—your legs will tangle like a pretzel and you’ll fall to the floor and gum everything up.

On one wall of the office is a map, with the whole floor sketched in thick black lines with a red circle smack in the middle of the office captioned YOU ARE HERE, and then a red line drawn in with Sharpie that exits the office and turns right, following invisible marching orders towards the stairwell leading to the front of the building. This makes sense—of course we should leave through the front of the building, with the big windows and the directory and the occasional security guard (depending on the time of day and day of the week). It’s designed to be a bridge, a smooth transition between Here and There, between the outside world and the microcosm of this building.

But then I turn and walk to the other side of the office and see the same sign with the same floorplan and the same YOU ARE HERE red dot and the same red line tracing the same escape route except this route turns left when it leaves the office and proceeds to the stairwell that descends to the back of the building. This also makes sense. We work here, so there’s really no reason to deal with the hullabaloo of the main entrance—after all, it’s not really there for us, but for visitors and clients and people wandering by looking for a bathroom. I can’t help but think, does this second option make more sense than the first? Less? How do you choose between two seemingly identical destinies?

At an impasse, I’m forced to borrow a measuring device—a wheel at the end of a handle that clicks for each meter it rolls. It’s garish and yellow and would be hard to explain to my coworkers (who are happy just going one way or the other without considering the implications or the consequences, and would think me mad for not only considering them but for trying to discover a solution, the solution) and so I’m forced to take the instrument apart and smuggle the wheel in a suitcase and the handle up my coat sleeve like an oversized splint and hide both under my desk behind the wastebasket and a stack of books. I begin taking walks around the office at regular intervals, tabulating the comings and goings of my coworkers—who fidgets their way out the door at the earliest opportunity, who becomes mired and absorbed until long after dark—and when the last straggler finally leaves and the following walk finds me alone, I reassemble the contraband and take to the hallway.

It takes six measurements on four consecutive evenings—rolling the yellow wheel slowly, precisely—before I’m confident in my findings, and even then my mind doesn’t want to believe it. From front to back and back to front, wall to wall, is exactly twenty-six clicks, which is twenty-six meters, and the thirteenth click is dead in the center of my office door, which means it’s exactly thirteen meters in either direction to a stairwell, which leaves me nowhere.

I decide to count the number of steps it takes to get from the top of either stairwell to its respective exit, assuming the natural pace of one step per stair and a total of three steps on every landing between flights. I do the walk three times for each stairwell—first counting the steps in my head, and then out loud, and then stopping at every change of environment (from a step to a landing or a landing to a step or crossing a threshold through a door or a doorway), taking note of my progress, and each time ascending and descending unnerves me more and more because the only thing I can conclude is the walks are exactly the same, from a distance perspective. Five total flights of stairs, with the first flight being thirteen steps and the next four alternating ten steps and then eleven steps, two steps on every landing (in addition to the step it takes to reach a landing), seventeen steps from the top of either staircase to the center of the office door, and nine steps from the bottom of either staircase to an exit.

If I were blind, I wouldn’t care. The walks would be identical, and I imagine it would be trivial to trick me into thinking I was using one staircase when in fact I was using the other. But they weren’t the same walk, not at all. They may have identical distances and identical vertical displacement and may start or end in the same place—depending on if you’re arriving or leaving—but for all I can tell they aren’t even on the same planet.

I begin cataloging visual differences—a spot of wall paint on the ceiling, a floor tile laid sideways, distinctive water damage—something I can point to or photograph and frame and admire as proof of uniqueness. But my notes become jumbled: sharp cracks in the walls of the front stairwell later find themselves in the back stairwell, likewise with scuffs on stairs and gathered red dust from construction projects long abandoned. Sometimes when I summit I can’t remember where I began; sometimes descending puts me somewhere I don’t expect.

While their physical distances don’t differ, their emotional distances wax and wane based on variables I have yet to replicate. A walk up from the front might take two minutes, but a walk down from the back just moments later might take nearly three. Sometimes walking up the back feels like a twelve minute ordeal, whereas descending the front a few hours later feels instantaneous. I read something somewhere about magnets, how their properties could theoretically affect the curvature of space and therefore the passage of time through that space, and I wonder how likely it is that the stairwells are not only magnetized themselves but magnetized differently from one another as well as sporadically differently from themselves from day to day. This seems far-fetched, but to be sure I try mapping out the building’s wiring, and when that gets me nowhere I begin carrying magnets of different strengths in my pockets, noting the mass and the polarity and the time it takes to make each segment of the journey and the journey itself.

I make no grand discoveries; the magnets only leave me with blank bank cards and odd holes in my slacks’ pockets. But still I think about the measurements, the stairwells, until they seep into my subconscious and then my unconscious and then my dreams. They start off simple enough but unravel themselves into an Escher-inspired nightmare: staircases going up at shallow angles, sideways at steep angles, looping upside down endlessly, the vectors of gravity changing angles as dramatically and meticulously as a snowflake’s crystals. Escaping is paramount but impossible.

Night after night I mark the point I appear in the dream with one of my shoes or a glove or a coin from my pocket, then pick a path—Up the stairs or Down—which shortly reaches a branching on another vector, a new Up and a new Down, and I try to keep all my decisions straight in my head but eventually I lose myself and feel turned inside out. The marker passes on the ceiling above me, then on a wall below me, then disappears completely for a time. When I finally reach it again—which I always do, despite not consciously backtracking—I wake up in a paralysis, covered in sweat. It’s always the same number of steps from placing the marker to reaching it again, no matter which direction I walk and which branches I follow. Needless to say, I stop sleeping.

Sometime later, my boss calls me into his office and shuts the door behind me. His eyes look bloodshot, and I wonder if he hasn’t been sleeping, either. I wonder if it’s been bothering him too—this symmetry and the differences within it —and if he knows that I’ve been investigating thoroughly, trying to get my mind around it, measuring all four floors in as many dimensions as I can, looking for a clue to crack the perfection or another example of it within the building and not finding either.

But when he opens his mouth to speak, it’s not about the peculiarities that exist in the structure suspending this office forty-three feet off the Earth and how those peculiarities make his stomach drop and his groin twinge like he’s constantly being released from the peak of a roller coaster yet never moving an inch, but rather he mentions how sloppy my work has been lately and how I’ve been missing from my desk for long intervals without explanation and how my sporadic schedule—sometimes leaving as early as lunch and sometimes staying as late as one in the morning—was unacceptable, not to mention concerning, and was everything Okay?

Of course, everything was not Okay, not at all, because at some point during my investigation I drew detailed floor plans for the entire building on graph paper, where every square on the paper represents a square meter, and I’ve been cross-referencing those to blueprints I was able to get through the library and while I hoped to have missed something—more than I hoped for anything else in my life—the measurements are all identical, to the millimeter, and there on the fourth floor, smack in the middle of the two stairwells, sits, conspicuously, this office. Just the thought of being wedged between two identical worlds gives me the shivers and makes me feel as though I’m the reflective paint on a mirror: the miniscule precipice.

But this isn’t what my boss is asking when he asks if everything is Okay. He means am I brushing my teeth twice a day and flossing at least once in a blue moon and getting my annual physical and eating three servings of vegetables a day and drinking plenty of water and moderating my alcohol consumption and getting eight hours of sleep (and if not eight then at least six and a chance to sleep in on weekends) and calling my mother more than just on holidays and her birthday (though especially on holidays and her birthday) and am I choosing sexual partners responsibly and if not am I at least wearing protection and being respectful and paying my electric bill on time and paying my gas bill on time and paying my phone bill on time and paying my credit card bill on time (and in full) and if I’m not contributing much to society as a whole am I at least not detracting from it? This is what he means, but the only answer he expects is Yes and so I tell him Yes. He tells me to get back to work and I return to my desk, covered in foreign paperwork and inscrutable notes in my own handwriting.

I don’t remember the last time I worked, nor what I was doing whenever that was.

When I see the boss later he nods knowingly. His eyes are no longer bloodshot and I wonder if they were ever bloodshot or if I was just seeing the red rivulets in my own eyes reflected in his. But then the shirt he’s wearing strikes me as unfamiliar, and I can’t remember if he was wearing it earlier today or a different one, or if our discussion even happened today or at some point in the distant past. I feel as though no time has passed. I wonder how much of my life has elapsed ascending or descending one of the two staircases, if the shift in time I feel on them could be dramatic enough to span hours or even days. Could I live forever in the span of a single step? And what happened when my foot finally found the next stair? How many forevers could there possibly be? How many could I possibly endure?

Suddenly, I’m lying on my back in the hallway outside the office, my feet against the door and my head against the opposite wall, when I’m startled by a loud beeping. I’m not sure how I got here, but my eyes are closed and I wonder if I was sleeping. I try to remember drifting off or dreaming but my head is foggy, filled with numbers and steps, and when I open my eyes the whole world is foggy, and I realize it’s a cloud of smoke and the beeping is an alarm and the building is on fire.

Above me, the ceiling is obscured, the smoke extending down the hallway in both directions, pooling by the dark windows at each end. I can’t see any flames from my vantage point, but smoke pours through the cracks in the doors to both stairwells, like two dragon nostrils.

And where would that put me?

It’s all too perfect, even with my eyes closed, so I stare at the smoke directly overhead—a small slice of a larger picture—and study the patterns: billows coming in from either side, crashing like waves; long, thin streams streaking randomly down the walls. Clouds build, dissipate, reform. I cough once, then again. Each exhale disperses the smoke while simultaneously adding to it. A line of soot forms along the wall, darker where the smoke lingers and lighter where it sails along, and while I watch it materialize on the walls I feel a similar line form behind my teeth. I’m coughing more and I’m getting hot—the flames must be close, but I don’t move from the spot in the hallway. Where could I go, honestly? Once again, there is no right choice for which staircase to take, but for the first time there is a wrong choice—two, in fact.

I think of the maps hanging in the office, the two identical floorplans with the red lines that go in two different directions, and how both of them are wrong. It’s funny and I laugh, except it comes out as a cough, and I wonder what it would take to get rid of those red lines, whether they were drawn on over the laminated map and could be scrubbed off with some isopropyl alcohol and some steel wool or if I could get the paper out of its plastic sealing and use whiteout or if I had to print brand-new maps with just the YOU ARE HERE stickers and no red lines at all, but then I run out of time to do anything and I drift off, but before I can lay my marker and begin counting steps in my next forever I swear I can hear my foot hit the floor with a dull thud.

Ben Winston works with motherboards by day and storyboards by night. More of his fiction can be found in Drunk Monkeys and in a banker's box in his bedroom. He's also the curator for Vibrant Margins (a small press book club) and drinks entirely too much coffee.