Sky Lobby to Big Bubble in Under Five Minutes
by Jason Brandt Schaefer
David O’Corley did it, so we had to beat him. Ain’t nobody thought it could be done, but he had the pics on his phone to prove it. There it was, his finger on the red button, them digital numbers on his Timex just under the five-minute mark. He even took a screenshot so you could see the time at the top of his iPhone. He’s got a matching one from Sky Lobby before he made the run, and the math worked, but some folks still didn’t believe him. They said he just camped out and let his watch run or took the pics on different days. But they’re all idiots and they know better.
The time me and Lin Nguyen beat him, it was blistering cold out and overcast. I’m talking like forty degrees. And school had just started back up. We had a Friday off, so we took my dad’s old F-150, the one he gave me for my sixteenth birthday, and said we were going to the Galleria. But we took it downtown instead and parked it in that ten-dollar lot across the street from the Greek restaurant. The one in Heritage Square with all the bikes and umbrellas around it. It’s like it don’t matter how cold it gets. There’s always a bike or three locked up out there. Now, I ain’t no cyclist. I’m a city cowboy. I’ll walk a hundred blocks before I ride a bike in this traffic. That’s crazy talk. Especially in weather like that.
Before we even get across the street to Chase Tower, Lin’s asking me “Hey, what if the bayou is frozen over?” And I have to tell him, “Man, that damn bayou never freezes.”
Then he asks me, “But what if Big Bubble doesn’t work? What if the machinery’s like all bound up or something? Metal swells and contracts, dude, it’s science.”
Then I roll my eyes and grab his elbow while he’s trying to keep his black hair fixed in that cold-ass wind and turn around quick like a bunny and I tell him. I say, “Well, goddamn, let’s go see if it does before we make the whole run for nothing.” It wasn’t going to count if Big Bubble didn’t go off. Everybody knows that.
So we go down to the bridge over the bayou. The end-point of the race. Brown water’s flowing just fine like I said, and we find the button behind that what you call it? The entryway where the sidewalk meets the bridge. It’s tucked right there in the bricks. No sign. Nothing. Just a plain old red button. You push it, and a underground pump shoots a blast of air into the middle of the bayou from underwater. Been there forever, but like nobody knows about it but us kids who run the race, and even then it’s tough to find if you don’t know where it’s at.
Me and Lin look down to where the water’s going to blow up with the bubble, and a couple guys are strolling along the cobblestone. Older folks it looks like. In their fifties maybe. Who could tell? They’re snuggled up in their parkas and winter hats and holding hands and then they stop to make out. Me and Lin smile at each other like we’re growing horns, and he pushes the button. We don’t know whether it’s going to work in that cold, but man, I’m glad it does. That bubble busts out the water like a alligator sneezing, and one of the dudes yelps like a puppy and jumps into the other guy’s arms. They start to looking around like where’d that shit come from? Super mad and confused. They’ve never heard of Big Bubble or seen what it can do. And we both hide behind the bricks to keep the guys from seeing us laughing, and Lin says, and I’ll never forget. He says, “Oh, God. That one woman, she scrame so hard, I bet she pissed her pants!”
I liked to piss a couple drops myself laughing at what Lin said. I’m like, “Dude, those are both guys, weirdo!” He’s not from here, but I got a couple gay uncles on my mom’s side. No big deal. And I’m like “And what you mean ‘scrame?’ Like ‘screamed?’” I almost die laughing.
I make him stand with his back to me on lookout so I can squirt in the bushes right quick to make sure I don’t do it in my pants. When I finish, we check again, and the couple’s looking in the water long and curious, and the shorter guy’s trying to explain what he thinks might’ve happened, but the taller one’s pulling on his partner’s coat like let’s get out of here, and I seriously think about pushing it again just to mess with them. But we got business to attend to.
We run around the opera house back the way we came and pass the Wortham Center then cross the street at the Alley Theatre real careful so as not to draw attention to ourselves. You can’t run like crazy both ways. Someone’s bound to catch you. We go down Texas Street till we hit the Chronicle building, and there it stands in all its glory reaching into the clouds like a giant pencil made of silver and glass. Chase Tower. We cross the courtyard, two sets of three long concrete steps, and stroll on inside.
Chase Tower’s got seventy-five floors, but the six public elevators when you walk inside all go up to sixty and don’t stop nowhere else. That’s so you ain’t got business folks stopping you on the eighth floor then the fourteenth floor then the thirty-ninth floor then the fiftieth floor, and I guess so they ain’t got to deal with us plebs. We just get the one button that says “60” nice and big. And the other button’s got a star next to a big letter “L.” Really the race is all about buttons. You push five total. Punch 60 up, take the pic at the top, L to come down, hit Big Bubble after the run, then the second pic for proof. Clouds to the water on just your feet.
When we step on, me and Lin look at each other and know to play it cool. Act like tourists like everyone else. That’s what we’re thinking. This one kid, super young like five or six and in a Astros cap, tugs on this big white lady’s pink shirt and yells all excited and too loud for the elevator, “Momma, it’s like a race car!” And his mom hushes him but yells back just as loud “I know honey, but, use your inside voice!”
The other guy, this nervous-looking black dude like a hipster banker or something, he’s wearing rolled-up slacks and them Justin Timberlake shoes, the black-and-white ones, but he’s got on a business coat and big glasses. This guy’s eyes get all wide but only for a second, and he pretends he didn’t just hear this mom and her kid belt out some goofy shit. Me and Lin, we got to clench our teeth to hold in our snickers.
So the elevator stops and the doors open. You can see the tops of the skyscrapers disappearing off into the distance. This kid’s still tugging on his mom’s shirt and they get out and so does the uptight black dude but we stay on. The woman fusses with the kid for a second and the guy starts to fiddle with the zipper on his backpack. When they notice we’re staying put they pause for a second like what the hell are you doing? But we don’t say nothing. Lin shoots them a polite little wave and hits the button to go back to the bottom then gets ready with his phone to take a photo of the time on my Casio while I hold my wrist over that number “60.” When the metadata or whatever matches the time, that means it’s legit. You can fake a watch, but you can’t fake a smartphone. Them shits know things you don’t know about yourself.
The doors close, the chime dings, and Lin snaps the pic. 3:12. He checks the metadata to make sure my watch ain’t off and hands me the phone. I put it in my pocket then do a little jog running in place to get revved up. Lin’s rubbing his hands and jumping up and down. Then he pulls the elastic sleeves of his jacket up to his forearms and unbuttons the cuffs of his shirtsleeves and rolls them up. My heart’s thumping like I’m a squirrel and the elevator hits bottom and I visualize the run in my head. The roads I’ll have to cross and what the right opening looks like. I take a breath. And the doors open.
I’m the first out and Lin’s behind me and even though I’m speed-walking I’m already ahead of Lin and heading for the door and before you know it I’m there and pushing it open and then I’m on my feet sprinting to the right and down the steps in two big hops and I’m on the sidewalk looking dead-ahead but a little to the left in my peripherals watching for traffic and I notice hell there ain’t a damn car on the block! So I jump the gutter and out into the street and across but at a diagonal since there’s no traffic. Then I hit the pavement again, just kissing the very tip of the block, hurdling a patch of grass and jumping back into the road. There’s a car coming to my right but I hold out a hand as I dash in front of it and it works. He slows down and I keep going. Back up the other block, crossing it again at a diagonal, a couple of cars and a truck come up from the left and I have to pace them from the sidewalk while they pass just to make good time. I haven’t looked at the watch yet but it feels like it’s been at least two and a half minutes. I don’t dare look. Waste of time and bad luck.
The cars have all passed and I’m in the street again. This time using the crosswalk. Three or four big strides get me across cause it’s a small street and I reach the curb and only as I’m leaping do I realize there’s a group of three college girls strolling together right in front of me and I screech to a halt but it don’t work and I barrel through them knocking down the tall one all the way to the ground and they scream at me like, “Hey watch it!” and flip me off and it feels like one of them hit me in the back with her purse or maybe something harder but I can’t tell. I zing across the last road and then along the sidewalk and my heart’s pumping so hard I can barely breathe but I’m only a block away and it feels like I might make it. I shoot back into traffic, cutting off a red four-door to my left, and the driver leans on the horn and yells at me like the girls did while this silver Tacoma comes at me from the right. I let him go ahead and while I’m rushing through the car’s exhaust, I notice there’s a woman right in front of me walking this big Boxer and there’s a duded-up country cowboy on her left.
I do this running-back barrel-roll to keep from hitting them full-on and falling over the dog but I feel my thumb catch on something and it almost yanks me to the ground. But I shove off of her to keep my balance and my thumb comes free so I keep going. I don’t hear nothing but my heart pounding in my ears and my shoes smacking the ground and then I’m in the shadow of the brick arch and then through it. I find the button and rip the phone out of my pocket and open the camera app and push the big red button and watch for the bubble, my wrist hovering over the place where it busts out of the water, and then it does. I snap a pic of the foam with the digits on my watch at 3:16. And twenty seconds. Then I do a little shuffle in celebration, my palms pumping the air.
While I’m catching my breath I hear someone hollering behind me in this deep voice and I realize it’s the country cowboy who was next to the woman with the dog. That big Boxer. And I realize it’s me he’s hollering at. Hysterical almost. Then he gets up the nerve to march my direction and I’m dead stiff. His cheeks are red. There’s a vein popping out on his forehead. I can see it even under his Stetson. He’s pointing a finger at me, this kind a horrified look on his face but more angry. And I wonder, “Where’s the dog?” But by then the cowboy’s rustled up to me and he grabs me by the shirtsleeve and says, “Come on boy. Come see what you done.” But I throw his hand off my wrist cause I’m bigger than he is. Taller anyways. And I ain’t about to go. But faster than a snake he grabs my shirt collar instead and yanks me off my feet and I have to. I try to wrestle free while he’s dragging me back to the intersection but my shirt’s so tight I can feel it choking me. “Come on now. You done it,” he says and jerks me again. “Might as well see it.”
In between heartbeats I retrace my thoughts to try and make sense of what’s happening all the while squirming to get free but I can’t. A part of me recalls the sound of rubber screaming against the asphalt. Maybe the dog barking or something. I catch sight of Lin across the street flapping his too-big feet down the sidewalk, his little belly bouncing. He stops to catch his breath, puts his hands on his knees and doubles over. But when he stands up and sees me snagged in the cowboy’s grip he stiffens. He takes it all in with his mouth slack and his eyes so wide I can see the whites. He lifts his hands to his head and buries his fingers in his black hair seeing something I don’t.
The cowboy drags me towards a black Lexus parked in the street with its flashers on. It’s a nice one. Couldn’t be less than fifty grand. He hauls me to the front of it and there on the cold asphalt’s the battered woman. Her big Boxer licking blood off her shoulder. I notice she’s wearing a blue jacket cause the sleeve’s about tore off. So’s her jeans. All scraped up. And her face looks like someone sand-blasted half of it. The Boxer’s shaky and nervous. Bouncing back and forth over top of her. Barking at the other cars coming down the street. Barking at the rubberneckers further down the sidewalk. Barking at the folks about to cross. Barking at the driver, a Indian guy standing over her with a face like he can’t believe what he just did. Dog’s barking at everything really.
Just about the time I hear sirens, the cowboy shakes me again. “See that? You see what you done?”
I want to tell him to cut it out and turn me loose but since he’s so strong I just say, “Yes sir I see it,” and hope he lets go. I watch the dog bounce over its owner. Or the body of its owner. Too soon to tell whether she’s still alive but her hand’s still gripping the leash. The Indian driver yells in what you call it? The India language to the person on the other end of the phone. Probably his wife or girlfriend. I’m guessing wife since he looks about forty and I can’t remember when he pulled out the phone or was he already on it?
Lin comes across the street about the same time the ambulance pulls up ahead of us and asks what happened like he couldn’t see for himself. And the cowboy answers him like his lesson wasn’t through. “Were you a part of this, son?” He shakes my collar, his grip still tight. “Were you chasing this boy here?”
Since he has his attention on Lin I spin around and kick the cowboy in the knee and he lets go. I scream, “Run, Lin!” and shove him ahead of me while the cowboy falls over backwards holding his knee in both hands. Me and Lin make it to the front of the ambulance before a paramedic with like monster arms catches us in a bear hug. He’s this huge Hawaiian-looking guy. Probably works out like eight days a week. He’s seven foot tall if he’s a inch but he comes off soft like he’s your big brother.
“Calm down,” he says. “Calm down, gentlemen.” He’s got us backwards by the shoulders and drags us both to a patch of grass. “Let’s sit here for a minute.” And he urges us down and takes a knee. He locks his black eyes onto mine and then Lin’s. His face inches away while we sit breathing like racehorses. He looks back behind him to the group of paramedics beginning to surround the woman and then back at us. “Do you know what shock is?” His breath smells like coffee and Denny’s sausage and his cheeks are dotted with little holes.
Me and Lin are breathing so hard we liked to make a storm cloud with our breath. I turn to Lin but his eyes are on the grass and his head’s beginning to sink between his knees.
“It’s caused by high levels of adrenaline,” the big guy’s saying. “Sometimes makes you do things you wouldn’t normally do if you were calmer. If you had time to think a little.”
The cowboy limps up to us and I start to squirm but the paramedic tells me to relax. “Good thing you caught ‘em,” the cowboy says. “That one there nearly broke my kneecap.” Behind him someone on the ambulance team’s getting into place to direct traffic and another one’s walking the Boxer off to the side and trying to comfort him as he pulls against the leash. Maybe it’s a her. I don’t know.
Without getting up the big guy holds his palm up to the cowboy. “Easy, sir. Give them some room.”
“That little shit pushed that lady into the street just so you know.”
The paramedic stands to his full height making the cowboy look like a little matchstick in a hat. “Please give these children some room. I won’t ask you again.”
The cowboy gives him a nasty sneer and eyes him from head to toe sizing him up. He settles on the paramedic’s name tag. “Well, Dr. Richardson. Fine generation we got coming down the pike wouldn’t you say?”
“I’m not a doctor, sir. Just a first responder.”
“You planning on responding to this knee here?”
Richardson crosses his arms. “If you’re walking, nothing’s broken.” And he points to me. “The kid’s wearing sneakers, man.”
When the cowboy sees my Nikes I look down at my feet. Kind of ticks me off Richardson thinks I ain’t tough enough to hurt the guy. But it seems like he’s helping us out so I re-tie my laces just to make a point.
The cowboy shakes his head at us. “Don’t worry, son. I won’t press charges. Come tomorrow you’ll have enough to deal with as it is.” And he marches off, his limp fading fast.
I don’t really know what he means but Lin seems to. He leans way back and lays in the grass, his chest still going hard, up and down, up and down.
Richardson takes a knee again and puts on a pair of blue doctor gloves and checks Lin’s pulse in his wrist. “Can you hear me?” he asks.
Lin don’t say nothing. He’s the whitest I’ve ever seen.
“What’s his name?” he asks me and I tell him.
“Lin? Lin, can you hear me?”
Lin chokes out a little noise and says, “Yeah.”
“Everything’s going to be alright, Lin. You understand me?”
He asks Lin if he has asthma and of course he says no cause he don’t. He’s just losing it. More than me even. I ain’t going to lie, I’m starting to cry a little. I look back over to where the paramedics are working on the woman but Richardson takes my chin with two fingers and turns my face back to his. “Let them handle that situation. Right now it’s just us.”
That’s when I start to shiver. The sweat’s chilling my spine and I remember wishing really hard the sun was out instead of the gray clouds.
“You cold?” Richardson asks and I nod, no shame. “Look, I need you to stay right here so I can treat you for shock. You understand?”
I’m over it at this point so I say okay.
“I’m going ten feet away to the ambulance to get some blankets. When I get back you think we can talk about what happened?”
I can feel my lip shaking but I don’t know if it’s cause I’m cold or something else. “Okay,” I say again.
Richardson goes off and I turn to watch his buddies work on the lady. They have her in a neck brace and they’re laying that orange bed down next to her. Off to the side the dog still looks a little excited but another paramedic’s petting him and he’s sitting in the grass. Lin sits up and groans.
I tell the cops the whole story just how I’m telling you while we sit with them blankets over our shoulders, big old Richardson half-treating, half-protecting us. When I mention trying to do the race in under five minutes, Richardson grins and asks, “Well, did you beat David O’Corley’s time?” When I tell him I had, by four seconds, he laughs and gives me a pat on the back but it’s like, kind of mean-spirited. “Ever thought of running track instead?”
The cop taking notes don’t seem half as impressed and Lin has his face in his hands.
I ask the cop what’s going to happen with the dog and the cop says they’re going to take it into custody until they notify the next of kin. I tell him I want to take care of it while the lady’s in the hospital and the cop says no they got that handled. The dog’s safe. I don’t know why but that’s when I really start to cry.
We never told David O’Corley about breaking his record and I didn’t tell Tanner Johnson about the whipping my dad gave me when we got back home from the police station but like the whole school heard about it anyways. Me and Lin didn’t hang out after that. His mom transferred him out and put him in some bilingual Vietnamese private school in the Heights. I never heard whether the woman lived but I wasn’t allowed to drive without one of my parents in the car until after graduation and we didn’t talk about what I’d done ever again.
My second semester when it was about time to get a new cell phone I found the photo of my wrist underlining the bubble in the bayou. Kids ain’t doing the race no more and they closed down the elevators to Sky Lobby. I don’t know if it’s cause of me and Lin. We were on the news you know. Or cause those lucky bastards who work in the building didn’t want no one else taking in the view anymore. Anyways I swallowed hard and deleted the photo. Game over. The fastest run of all time. No one’s ever going to try and break my record.
Jason Brandt Schaefer is a writer/editor and musician from Wilson County, Texas, currently living in Boulder, Colorado. His literary work appears in The Macguffin, Past-Ten, and Skink Beat Review, and his original songs are streaming on all platforms under the band name Jason Brandt & the Build-Out. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA in English from Southern New Hampshire University. When he’s away from his desk, you can find him playing saxophone in the Denver metro or climbing rock and ice in the mountains of the American West.