Broken Buzzer

The panel was crusted with dirt, and many of the names had peeled off. Most of the buttons were chipped, cracked, or permanently mashed in. Next to the name I was looking for, a round hole gaped like a tiny mouth. It was about the size of a nickel and pitch-black inside.

I studied it, tracing a finger around its gritty edge, my resolve shrinking like chilled mercury. Dark holes always made me nervous. It wasn’t fear of what they might conceal but the weird, furtive life they seemed to possess. This one, as I stared at it, felt less like an absence than a presence, staring right back. I tried the glass door, hoping it would somehow be unlocked – it wasn’t. Beyond it, brown wooden stairs rose between two foxed white walls. I held my phone up to the hole as a flashlight and tried to see inside.

“What are you doing?”

I spun around as a man with a pizza box stepped in from the street.

“Nothing,” I stammered, darting back from the panel as though caught in some indecent act.

He gave me a pitying look and brushed past me in the tiny vestibule. A cap that said “Sal’s Pizza” shaded his round, ruddy face. Most of the imitation leather had flaked off his jacket, which smelled of fried food and nicotine.

“Were you trying to buzz this person?” he asked in a gruff, phlegmy voice.

Before I could answer, he jammed his short, fat index finger in the hole.

“The button’s always in there,” he said. “You just have to feel around for it.” He grimaced slightly as he wormed his finger deeper inside.

“It’s fine,” I said, a flutter in my voice, “You don’t have to-”

“Sometimes it doesn’t work right away,” he added, knuckle-deep now, “so you have to press it multiple times. I start slow, then gradually go faster. The key is to be gentle and- ARRGH!”

His gravelly scream thundered like a shotgun blast. I scrambled back, thudding against the wall. He dropped the pizza and tugged at his hand, eyes bulging, tendons popping from his neck as his face twisted in pain. His finger was stuck, though his expression – flushed, frantic, strangely coital – suggested worse. With all his weight, he flung backward, almost falling as his hand wrenched free. Most of it.

A crimson rill streamed down his arm as he held the hand in front of his face. Ragged skin and torn muscle hemmed a stub of bone where his finger had been. Blood squirted from the wound, stippling the panel and walls. Gaping at his ruined hand, he screamed again, then bolted out the door.

The speaker on the wall crackled.

“Who is it?” a sexless voice, garbled by static, asked.

I just blinked, wiping a red streak off my glasses, but a second later, with a mechanical chirp, the glass door unlocked. I looked at it, then at the white, blood-speckled box on the floor, suddenly aware of its warm, pungent aroma – extra pepperoni probably. I wasn’t hungry and doubted they’d be either, but maybe I’d run into whoever had ordered it and get a tip.

I opened the door with my left hand and picked up the pizza box with my right, pinching it between my two good fingers and thumb. The salmon-colored nubs that had once been my index and middle fingers had healed, but weren’t much good for grasping.

This is my last visit here, I told myself.