I look down at the little girl, her blue eyes brimming with tears.
“Oh, hey, please don’t cry,” I say in as calm a voice as I can manage. “Everything will be fine. I know you can’t see her, but I’ll bet your mom is right behind me. Can you be brave?”
The girl doesn’t answer. She clutches a stuffed animal of some kind to her chest.
“Who’s your little friend?”
She looks with uncertainty at her toy.
“I’ll bet your mom told you never to talk to strangers. That’s really smart, and usually a very good idea. But this is a special situation. You might be the last person I ever get to talk to.”
“Why?”, she asks, her voice sounding tiny even in the ancient, cramped elevator.
“Have you ever seen the Winnie the Pooh cartoon where that silly old bear gets himself stuck in Rabbit’s door?”
A timid smile.
“Well, that’s me. I’m stuck in a door, too! Just like Pooh!”
She giggles a bit.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Jenny,” she tells me.
“Jenny. I like that name. When I was a little boy I had a very good friend na–”
The lights flicker. There is a thud and a screech of metal, and the elevator cab slips another inch. Jenny lets out a yelp and squeezes her eyes shut.
I’m starting to get dizzy. My arms hang down inside the elevator, my legs lay on the floor outside. There’s barely any room to breathe. The pressure on my chest is immense, like nothing I’ve ever felt before.
“Jenny,” I manage to whisper. “If the elevator moves anymore, I want you to turn your face into the corner and never look back.”
“Mommy makes me stand in the corner for time-out when I’m bad.”
“Yes. Just like time-out.”
“Am I bad?”
“No, sweetie. You’re not bad. It’s just that when the angels come to take someone to heaven, the light shines so bright it hurts your eyes.”
She tips her head. “You’re going to heaven?”
“Maybe.” (Any second now.)
“Can I come with you?”
“No, Jenny. Your mom needs you here. I–”
A pop of electricity and a whiff of ozone. The lights go out.
“Have you ever had a really bad dream?”, I ask her. “A nightmare that seemed so very scary that it was almost real?”
I see her nod her head in the dim emergency lights.
“That’s what this is, Jenny. It’s just a dream. No matter what you see or hear, remember that it’s all pretend. Bad things like this don’t happen in real life.”
Short, panicked breaths, impossibly fragile sounding.
“Say it for me, Jenny.”
“Bad things like this don’t happen in real life. It’s just a dream.”
“That’s a good girl. Don’t forget.”