There exists a unique caste system in America; A subtle social hierarchy that determines one’s worth by their station in life. They lurk in the shadows, those who have been spit out by polite society; hidden away like a dirty secret far from the light. Forgotten, but not gone. I found this out the hard way, at a young age.
Flap. Slap. Slap. Flap. Brush, brush, slap.
“Brilliant! Angel, you are a natural!” Stephen Daye burst into rapid clapping as his daughter Erika ceased her tap dance practice and grinned, her blue eyes glowed at his words of approval. Her black braids on either side of her head seemed to have stardust sprinkled on them as the reflected the stage lights above her. She wore a sparkling white dress, matching white velvet ribbons in her hair, and black and white tap shoes.
“Practice makes perfect though. Keep your arms tight and controlled when you swing them. Let’s run through it one more time before dinner. One-two-three-four-six-six-eight,” Stephen repeated as he tapped the beat.
Erika’s distorted double, reflected in the highly polished wooden stage, floated below her as she danced.
When practice was over, Stephen and Erika walked toward the old elevator that would take them up to the family’s ten room apartment. They passed a man in denim overalls replacing a fuse.
“Hello Uncle Jerome!” Erika said. “Did you see me tap dancing?”
“I heard it, Shirley Temple’s got nothin’ on you,” Jerome said, winking.
Stephen threw back his head and laughed. “We know, that’s what started this. Angel saw the movie The Little Princess with Shirley Temple, a while back, and she decided then and there to take tap lessons so she could dance as well as Shirley.”
“I’m getting quite good at it,” Erika tossed one of her braids back over her shoulder.
“No doubt,” Jerome smiled, his teeth bright in his dark face.
“Are you still coming up for dinner?” Stephen asked.
“Sure am, just need to finish up a few things. Be there soon. I’m gonna take the stairs though,” Jerome said as he watched Stephen and Erika get on the elevator. “Don’t trust that old thing to hold my weight.”
The elevator seemed to move slower than ever, creaking and shaking the whole way up.
“They are doing a play at my school. A Suessical, that’s a musical based on Dr. Suess books. I am going to audition tomorrow. Mrs. Larmer said you and mommy have to sign the permission slip. I gave it to mommy, she said she thinks it’s wonderful, but I had to wait an ask you. Can I?”
“Of course! I think that’s wonderful news! Your first play! What role are you auditioning for?” Stephen asked.
“The Cat in The Hat, of course,” Erika sighed dramatically, as if he should have known. “I talked Paul into trying out for Conrad, and Melanie is going to audition for Sally,” Erika said, referring to her two best friends at her private school, Lycée Français De New York. “I’m going to get the lead, know why?”
“Because I’m the best singer!” Erika took a deep breath, pushed her diaphragm out like she had seen her mother do, and la-la-la-ed a scale in dramatic soprano, displaying a greater range than even her mother, who was the most talented coloratura soprano of her generation. Erika is only twelve, Stephen thought. Her voice will only improve as she matures.
“And I’m the tallest in my class, I should get that role,” Erika continued to chatter about her upcoming musical.
“Hello Stephen,” His red-haired wife Katherine greeted him with a kiss as he walked into their apartment. “Erika dear, I was watching your practice, I moved that hidden panel so I could see the stage. You looked and sounded divine, just divine!”
Katherine was several years younger than her husband, had high cheekbones and sculpted features. Her beauty and her voice, along with her talent, had propelled her to become one of the most celebrated acctresses of her generation. Erika had inherited Katherine’s features, but her father’s coloring.
“Thank you, Mommy. It was fun. What’s for dinner?”
“Fried chicken, and brussel sprouts, since I know you like those,” Katherine replied.
“I don’t like those.”
“Erika,” Katherine sighed. “I distinctly remember you telling me that brussel sprouts are the only vegetable you like.”
“That was last week. I don’t like them anymore.”
“Erika,” Stephen said. “Don’t argue with your mother, and go set the table please. Jerome will be up here soon.”
“Thank you,” Katherine murmured against his shoulder as she put her arms around him.
“It smells like the chicken is burning” Stephen said.
“No, I think the stove is smoking, it’s old and there is sediment that won’t come off,” Katherine replied.
But after she turned off the oven, smoke continued to fill the apartment. “It’s getting worse,” Stephen coughed. “I don’t think it’s coming from the stove.”
“Mommy, daddy, where is all the smoke coming from?” Erika asked. “And what is that crackling sound?”
“Hang on, let me check,” Stephen said, and he jogged to the apartment door and opened it slowly. The walls outside were alight.
“We have to get out!” Stephen shouted as he ran to scoop up Erika and grab his wife’s hand. “Cover your mouths!”
They ran for the elevator and Stephen slammed the gate closed as he got in behind them. He mashed the button to make the elevator descend. It creaked and moved down a few feet, then screamed to a halt. There was a loud whip-like snap as a cable broke and the elevator tipped sideways in the shaft, knocking the family off their feet.
Stephen struggled to his feet and tried to pry open the gate. It opened a few inches, but then stuck fast. “Damn, it won’t open, something must have broken off and fallen into the track.”
“Daddy, I’m scared!”
“It’s going to be okay. I’m sure Jerome has called the fire department by now.”
“Oh God! Stephen the wires are burning, they’ve caught all the wood on fire!” Katherine cried out.
Hungry flames devoured the wood all around them. Sparks from burning wires fell into Katherine’s hair as she coughed and gasped. She grabbed Erika and patted her cheek. “Stephen, she’s passed out!”
The heat became an inferno. Katherine’s hair was burning, and burned Erika’s face where it lay across it. Stephen tried to put them out, but darkness took all sight, sound, and knowledge from him.
Jerome was pounding up the stairs at that moment, a handkerchief tied over his mouth and nose, but still the acrid smoke choked him. The hallway was a blaze but there was a narrow path. Jerome gripped his toolbox in his hand, unwilling to leave it behind. The Daye’s apartment door stood open. He ran in and hollered their names. No answer.
They must have gotten out, I’m sure of it. He thought and hurried back the way he came. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the elevator gate was partially open. He skidded to a stop, and then saw the elevator box was tilted sideways and back in the shaft, allowing him to see the motionless, burning forms of the family inside.
“Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh Lord,” he muttered as he flung the toolbox down and snapped it open with trembling fingers. He scrabbled for the hacksaw, dropping it with his sweaty palms before snatching it up again. He grunted as he sawed through two of the slats.
Jerome threw the hacksaw aside and dropped to his stomach to extend his arm through the opening he made. Erika’s face was burned all along one side, and Katherine’s hair was nearly burned off.
He grabbed Erika first, taking a fistfull of the bodice of her dress. She was limp as a ragdoll, but Jerome twisted and manuevered her through the opening as gently as haste allowed.
He ripped off the handkerchief and patted her face gently, extinguishing the flames. He tried to be careful, but pieces of her skin sloughed off.
Jerome laid Erika down on her back on the carpeted hallway and turned back to the remaining pair. He had just put his arm through again when he heard a whip like screech and felt the elevator shake. He yanked his arm back a second before the last cable snapped, and the elevator freefell to the basement, several stories below.
“Stephen!” He wailed. Stephen Daye had been his best friend since their school days. For many years, Jerome had been the maintenance man and theater manager, Stephen the head stage manager. He had held Erika when she was just a tiny baby, the day they brought her home from the hospital.
Jerome left his toolbox where it lay and picked her up in his arms. Her head lolled limply as he turned and ran down the narrow staircase as fast as he could.
“I’m gonna get you out of here, Erika. Hold on, hear?”