By Peter M. Ball
Rat opens the double doors and the stairwell smells of baking, the air thick with dull warmth and the smell of yeasty dough. He wrinkles his long nose and wonders if it will be like this for the entire way down, or if the doughy stink will gradually transform itself into the aroma of fresh-baked. He hopes not. Rat worked in a bakery one summer, and he hasn’t enjoyed the smell of bread since. It reminds him of the finger burns and the thick coats of lard painted into hot bread trays to keep the dough from sticking as it cooked.
He flexes his fingers. The big backpack is so heavy it’s cutting off the circulation to his arms, so he has to remember to keep his fingers moving.
Someone has bolted a sign to the mahogany balustrade, warning people not to throw coins or pebbles down the centre of the stairwell. The guidebook says this is for the safety of fellow climbers. Every year someone is struck on the head when they’re 130 flights below, and there’s no chance of getting help in time when you’re that far down.
There’s another sign that warns people not to jump. Rat’s guidebook says this isn’t, in fact, the warning to the habitually stupid that it appears to be on the surface. Originally it was posted as a warning to the suicides that come to contemplate the twisting drop of the stairwell’s core. It is easy to assume the stairwell has an end because that’s what stairwells do, but the fact that no-one has ever reached the bottom leaves the question open. No-one ever thinks of stairwells as being bottomless, not even the people who stand on top of big buildings like the Empire State where the ground is a distant and hazy memory over 1,800 steps below. There’s a hierarchy to such things determining what truly can go on forever. Wells? Yes. Pits? Yes. Trenches in the seabed where giant squid may live? Sure. But stairwells? No. Never. Hence there’s a sign, a warning, to make the suicides rethink before leaping.
Rat isn’t thinking about jumping over the railing. He turns around and looks at the first step. It’s a foot high and four feet wide, a lump of grey marble that’s cracked and covered with a random assortment of tags and graffiti. Rat looks at some of the things people have written and snorts. It’s easy to write graffiti on the first step; it’s the lower ones that require commitment. He wonders how far he’ll need to descend before he reaches virgin territory.
The guidebook says that the lowest step anyone has reached is 120,828 steps down. People have probably gone lower, but they haven’t come back. It’s assumed that the suicides make it to the bottom.
If there is one.
If they were lucky.
The stairwell requires a lot of assumptions. The guidebook tells you to get used to that.
Rat figures the guy that hit the low-point 120,828 steps down probably had better things on his mind than leaving graffiti. He shrugs off the backpack and starts searching for his sharpie. It’s a big backpack full of cunning pockets and hidey-holes for passports. The sharpie is in one of the cunning pockets Rat never uses, right next to the outer pocket that contains the plastic baggie filled with Marlo’s ashes.
The smell of the uncapped sharpie is soothing. Its mentholated tang cuts through the yeasty heat. Rat chews on the cap for a few minutes, thinking, then leans over and writes But I love you on a blank patch of the first step. His handwriting is awkward, full of childish loops and a tendency to curve without the benefit of a ruled line.
Rat wishes he had something better to write; But I love you seems trite, and it probably didn’t need to be said. He’d lost arguments with it before, with Marlo and others. He could have skipped the first step and used the first 500 to think of something better. He could have used the time to think of something poetic and elegant.
“No,” he says, and his voice echoes down the stairwell. “No poetry.”
Poetry would defeat the object. Just because something is trite, possibly even expected, doesn’t make it any less true. He hasn’t spent the last month preparing just so he could sacrifice truth for elegance. Marlo deserves better than that. So does he.
Rat puts the lid back on the sharpie and returns it to the backpack. He snaps everything shut and makes sure it’s secure, twice. He’s only packed three sharpies. It wouldn’t do to lose them; he may need all of them before his descent is done.
He pulls the backpack onto his shoulders again, sagging with the weight. His hands are slippery. The air’s not that hot; the guidebook says it’ll get hotter, but Rat sweats easily. He spent a whole week planning ways he can stay hydrated. One hand rests against the railing, holding him steady. Rat places his left foot on the next step and lowers himself down.
“Two,” he says, thumb hitting the click-counter at his belt. He keeps clicking away as the descent begins in earnest. “Three, four, five, six…”
The guidebook is small enough to fit in Rat’s pocket, but he keeps it tucked into the backpack. Just in case.
They found the guidebook together, Rat and Marlo. It was hiding in the bottom of a used book bin, out the front of a Salvation Army store. Marlo found it; Rat has never been a big reader. The guidebook is the only book he’s ever read all the way through. It’s the only book he’s ever attempted to read more than once.
“Check it out,” Marlo said. “A book about the Endless Stairwell.”
“What?” Rat said.
“The Stairwell. You know about the Stairwell, right?”
Rat shook his head. He’d never heard of the Stairwell before Marlo found the guidebook. That wasn’t unusual. Rat rarely knew about the things Marlo knew about. Marlo was smart. Rat was smart, too, but he didn’t think on his feet. Marlo said his talent lay in cunning, and Rat was okay with that.
“We should go one day,” Marlo said. “Promise me we’ll go.”
Rat didn’t promise. He thought an endless stairwell sounded stupid.
Rat meets six young couples coming up the stairs, all before he reaches step 500. The couples are young and giddy, with young men dressed with understated elegance. They are men dressed in casual clothes that are meant to look impressive. One of the couples has a camera.
Another couple, the second-last couple Rat passes, looks dour. They stand on separate sides of the steps, maximizing the space between them. Rat is forced to cut between, muttering an “excuse me” between clicks of his click-counter.
Rat’s surprised by the number of couples he passes, but he shouldn’t be. The guidebook says that step 657 is a popular place to propose, a landmark right up there with Niagara Falls and New Year’s Eve fireworks.
When he reaches step 500, Rat uncaps a sharpie and thinks about the dour couple, unhappy in their long climb back to the surface. He leans over the step and writes That would have been us, I think, if only things had gone differently. He stands up and looks at his scrawl. Better, but still not great. Rat wonders if this really needs to be said.
“Five hundred and one,” he says, “Five hundred and two.”
He descends. There are no more couples. He has a smooth run between step 500 and step 657.
The romance step; the step where proposals happen. The guidebook gushes about its ambiance.
Rat schedules a rest stop on step 658. He drinks his water and looks up the stairwell, trying to work out what makes the step just above him so special. The step smells of old prophylactics. When Rat peers over the banister, he can see used condoms stuck to the side of the stairs. The stink mingles with the dough smell, turning Rat’s stomach. There’s nothing special here; grey marble with a worn patch on the centre; endless graffiti that links two sets of initials with a crude heart around the outside and the number “4” between the names.
Rat digs Marlo out of the backpack, cradles the plastic against his cheek.
“Will you marry me,” he says. “You should say yes, you know. It’s traditional to say yes when you love the person who asks you.”
The baggie says nothing. It’s cool against his cheek, but he feels cold talking to it.
It’s hard to have a conversation with Marlo these days. Somehow, it just doesn’t seem right.
Rat digs the ring out of a pocket in his jeans. There’s only one diamond, small and flawed. It should have been better. Rat was going to propose to Marlo outside a cinema after a really good film, but the moment slipped away before he got the chance. He puts the ring on the romance step, the proposing step, right in the corner where step meets wall. Its yellow band is pale, hard to see against the darkness and the marble’s whorls.
“Last chance, babe. You should have said something if you wanted the ring.” Rat takes a long sip of water and shoulders the pack. “Six hundred and fifty-nine…”
At step 1,000 he writes out the lyrics to a Leonard Cohen song and underlines the refrain. He stops 500 steps later and writes out the number of times he thinks Marlo faked orgasm during their time together. He stares at the number, unsure of its accuracy, then adds a question mark. At 2,000 steps he admits in writing that Marlo was right, that he did sometimes fantasize about dating her sister.
There is a plaque on step 2,109. It tells Rat that he’s climbed the length of the Sears tower. Rat doesn’t look at the plaque; he knows what it says because he’s read the guidebook.
He stops again at step 2,500. He writes: I wish you were here. I’d like to kiss you right now.
Rat stops when he reaches step 3,000. According the guidebook, most people turn before they reach step 3,000. A lot of people lie about reaching it. Rat takes out a sharpie and writes: I wasn’t sure if I would cry for you, but it appears that I can.
It’s a lie; Rat hasn’t cried yet. Rat isn’t a crier, not really.
He stops and camps on step 5,418. He drinks water and pecks at trail mix for dinner, saving the substantial fare in his pack for further down. Nights are cold on the Stair; the guidebook has warned him of this. He unpacks a green sleeping bag and nestles against his pack, using it as a pillow. He listens to the wind echo as it slides down the stairwell.
A Rastafarian is there when Rat wakes up, lounging against the balustrade while Rat struggles to open his eyes. Rat looks up, noting the long line of the Rastafarian’s body, the black dreadlocks that brush against the marble step.
“Your hair must weigh a lot,” Rat says. The Rastafarian grins, and his teeth are a flash of white amid his face. Marlo dated a Rastafarian once. She used to tell Rat stories about kissing him, letting her hands get lost in the tangled chords of his hair.
“It’s light,” she said. “So much lighter than you’d expect hair like that to be.”
Rat wonders whether it was this Rastafarian. It seems unlikely, but so does an endless stairwell. Rat is prepared to embrace the unlikely at present.
“Good morning,” the Rastafarian says. He has an English accent, upper crust. Rat keeps waiting for him to say “Mon”, but he doesn’t. The silence seems awkward.
“Hi,” Rat says. He sits up, still wrapped in the sleeping bag. “Sorry, am I in your way?”
“Not at all,” the Rastafarian says. “Maybe you were, once, but I’ve adapted, yes?”
The Rastafarian drops into a crouch, his face filling Rat’s vision.
“Up or down?” the Rastafarian says.
“Down,” Rat says.
“How far?” the Rastafarian says.
“As far as I can,” Rat says. “Then a few steps further, just for good luck.”
“Brave,” the Rastafarian says.
“Maybe,” Rat says. “Maybe I’m just stupid.”
The Rastafarian grins again. His dreadlocks are pooled around, spreading over step 6,417. He looks at the backpack that Rat’s been using as a pillow.
“Big pack,” the Rastafarian says. “You’re prepared, so you aren’t stupid. Foolish, maybe, but not stupid.”
The Rastafarian looks at Rat, his brown eyes so dark they look like giant pupils. Rat squirms.
“So,” Rat says. “Up or down?”
“Both,” the Rastafarian says. “Neither. Depends on my mood.”
“You’re a strange man,” Rat says. The Rastafarian nods, dreadlocks sliding across the marble. He stands up and offers Rat a hand.
“Come on,” the Rastafarian says. “Big day ahead.”
Rat nods. He lets the Rastafarian lift him onto his feet. He folds the sleeping bag and stows it in the backpack while the Rastafarian watches. It’s hot again, the air thick with yeast, but the Rastafarian smells like hair-oil and cinnamon.
The Rastafarian ascends. Rat descends. Both of them have their hands on the mahogany banister. Rat can hear the Rastafarian’s hair swishing against the marble as the Rastafarian walks away.
Step 6,500: I never wanted to hear about your exes.
Marlo loved her Rasta boyfriend because he scored her free weed. She’d told Rat as much when she was explaining her ex-boyfriends. The revelation made Rat feel inadequate. He’d never scored Marlo weed, free or otherwise. The only greenery he’d given her was a potted plant, and that died on her windowsill after three weeks of neglect.
Step 7,000: I loved you. I didn’t love you. I can’t really remember anymore.
Rat stops for lunch. It isn’t much; a cheese sandwich on rye bread, slightly squashed after two days in the pack. It tastes great. A day-and-a-half over, and Rat is already sick of trail mix. The cheese is waxy, a little flavourless, but it hits the spot. He wasn’t supposed to eat it today, but the stairwell is hotter now, and the cheese wasn’t travelling well.
He sips water from a flask. It’s tepid. He digs through the pack and pulls out the guidebook, looking for the pink post-it tag that marks Rat’s notes for the second day.
The guidebook says that this is the toughest part, the second day of descent. It’s the part where most people start to think about turning around, heading back up to the surface in order to escape the heat. A day-and-a-half of climbing means you’ve lost sight of the top of the stairs.
Rat stands up and leans over the balustrade. He looks down. He looks up. The guidebook is right–both directions look the same. He knows the top is up there, somewhere, but he can’t see it.
Rat checks the clicker. He has covered 8,369 steps. He could turn around now if he wanted. No-one would really know. It’s not like he told anyone his plans. It’s not like he should be ashamed. He’s already eaten the sandwich he was saving for the third day. Most people turn around on the second day of climbing. Rat has always been good at giving up.
He can’t think of anything to write on step 8,500. He sits on the marble, chin in his hands, staring at Marlo’s ashes. Eventually he uncaps the sharpie and writes Happy birthday. It doesn’t really work. Rat crosses it out. Then he writes Happy Birthday Happy Birthday Happy Birthday.
Marlo always said that repeating something thrice meant you didn’t really mean it.
The world’s second-longest stair is in Switzerland, dug into the side of a mountain. Rat knows this because the guidebook told him, and because someone has put a plaque on the appropriate step. The world’s second-longest stair has 11,674 steps.
Rat stops to read the plaque this time, trying to feel like he’s accomplished something.
He doesn’t. He just feels sore. His legs are burning
He stops for the night on step 11,700. He writes I’m sorry. I did love you on the marble because he’s too tired to think of anything better. He sets up his sleeping bag and uses it to cover the declaration. He tosses and turns all night, bothered by the heat. The yeasty smell gets worse at night. It makes Rat’s nose twitch.
Marlo was going out with one of Rat’s friends. He probably shouldn’t have slept with her that first time, even after she said she was broken up. He wasn’t always called Rat, but he’d earned himself the name and it suited him too well to go away.
On step 12,073 he sees his first suicide. The body whistles past, not even screaming anymore. Rat’s surprised by the way the arms and legs twist, struggling against the fall.
On step 50,500 he writes There were many expressions you used that drove me crazy. I still think of killing someone every time I hear the words “done and dusted” in conversation. Nothing is ever done. Nothing is ever dusted.
He is on his second sharpie. He killed the first after forgetting to replace the cap while writing on step 15,000.
He runs out of sandwiches on the forth day of climbing, but there’s plenty of trail mix and tins of beans. The plan was to descend until he ran out of things to say. Rat never bothered thinking about how he’d ascend once the task was done.
On step 120,000 he writes Fuck cancer. He crosses this out and writes It wasn’t my fault. Deep down, he believes neither of these things, despite the fact that he should. The doctors were wrong; it wasn’t the cancer that killed her.
The heat turns slick and humid 300 steps later. His rubber soles squeak against the moisture coating the ancient marble.
At step 120,828 he pauses and pulls the guidebook out of his backpack. He flicks through the worn pages, looking at the detailed notes he’s scrawled into the margins. Pauses on the photograph of the step he’s reached. The point of no return, the deepest step anyone’s reached and still returned to the surface. He’s followed the guidebook’s advice when it comes to supplies. His pack is lighter now, easier to handle, but he could still return.
Rat tosses the book over the balustrade. He looks up the stairwell, then down. Sweat streams across his forehead, soaks through his T-shirt. Rat’s been wearing the same outfit for days. He’s pretty sure he smells.
“Hello?” he says, and his voice echoes across the stairwell. His throat is dry, so he drinks some water. More than he should, regardless of his decision. Rat figures he can extend his supply a little this far down, assuming he’s willing to lick condensation off the stairs.
He pulls Marlo out of his pack and holds her in both hands. Better to do it now, regardless of the decision. This is where they were headed when they’d first planned to come here. Too many things could go wrong once he moved into uncharted territory.
“We made it, babe,” Rat says. His thumbnail punctures the plastic and sets the ashes free. The cloud disperses across the empty space, descends on the breeze. Slow-moving, delicate, waiting for the next suicide to freefall through its mass. Even in death Marlo is beautiful. Rat misses her more than anything.
He sits down on step 120,829 and grieves, shedding tears for the first time.
Step 121,500: We were never meant to be happy. I’m no longer sure that matters.
On step 200,000 Rat commits an act of poetry. He chooses to keep descending. Poetry bothers him less this far down the stairwell.
Rat knows three things to be true. The first is this: he will run out of food and water before he runs out of things to say. Two: what goes down need not emerge at the surface. Three: there will be no ending. The ending lies above, at the first step, in the life he’d live if he walked away. Endings are destinations and the Stair has but one, found only by backtracking and returning to the beginning.
The heat gets worse as he hits the lower depths. The balustrade is hot enough to redden his palms. Rat sheds clothing, equipment, leaves his sleeping bag on a step. The sharpies leak in his pockets, bleeding ink across his thighs.
Peter M. Ball is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. His publications include the novellas Horn and Bleed from Twelfth Planet Press, and his short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Interfictions II and previous issues of Apex Magazine. He can be found online at http://www.petermball.com.