THE SEVEN CHAIRS
by Beth Clifton
*Selected Series Editors' Pick
One day, just as she was getting the casserole out of the oven, granny’s husbands came back from the dead. All seven of them, besides the one still living. They knocked on the door, first politely, then with their fists. Granny put the pot on the table and shuffled to the door, telling whoever it was to show a little patience, she wasn’t as young as she used to be. If she was surprised to find the impatient visitors to be her seven dead husbands, she didn’t show it. She received them as if she had been expecting them, though they stank of the damp earth and rot.
She hurried about the kitchen gathering up more bowls and spoons. She set me to work on the chairs.
There were only three chairs at the kitchen table. There was, however, a chair in the hallway for sitting on when taking off your boots, one in the corner of the parlor, one at my grandfather’s desk, and a rather rickety one at Granny’s sewing table. I thought that was enough but Granny shouted at me. And where were we supposed to sit? She said. The table was set for ten. So I pulled out the antique sofa from the front parlor. She wasn’t best pleased about that but said it would have to do. She covered the seats with newspaper in case her husbands seeped onto the velvet.
She began dishing out the casserole but none of her husbands, except the one still living, could be coaxed to sit down. They all wanted the chair at the head of the table, my grandfather’s chair.
That’s my bloody chair, said Granny’s first husband, who was a skeleton. I built it with my own hands.
No, it’s my chair, said her second, who looked like an Egyptian mummy. You never once sat in it. You were dead before your arse even touched the seat.
Then the third husband spoke up, though he first had to pull the thread that held shut his lips. I think you’ll find that chair is mine, he said, I sat in it the longest. It knows my arse best.
The forth claimed it was his because he’d died in it, and the fifth and sixth for they’d polished, sat and fallen asleep blind drunk in it as much as any of them.
The seventh said, being the last of them to occupy it, it was rightly his.
My grandfather stood up and shouted above them all. He never liked that chair himself, it was badly made, gave him back aches and the wooden seat had been worn down to the shape of someone else’s fat arse, he was buggering off to go eat his meal in peace. He took his bowl and his spoon and left.
Looking at the empty chair, Granny had an idea. She remembered a book she read when she was little. After every spoonful, the husbands would move one chair clockwise, and in that way each would get a turn in the master’s chair. She and I sat on the sofa. She said I wasn’t allowed to play.
I wasn’t a husband, for one, and she wasn’t going to let them ruin her good sofa if she didn’t have to. I was to stay put. The meal was eaten in two turns round the table, and though each husband complained of its gamey taste, they all agreed that the taste of game was better than the taste of bitter almonds.
Afterwards, they helped us put back the furniture, then left in the order they died in, each giving their widow a kiss on the cheek as they went out the door. We heard their merry singing fade as they staggered back to their graves.
As soon as the bowls were washed and put away, Granny took up the axe, chopped the chair into little pieces and threw them into the fire, then she did the same with my grandfather.
by Adam Carter
An imagined excerpt from The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens (1884)
PROSECUTION: You testified you caught a sea turtle on your fourth day adrift?
STEPHENS: That is correct, sir.
PROSECUTION: And you shared this turtle equally amongst the four of you, yet no further succor appeared?
STEPHENS: Indeed, sir. The turtle was shared equally, as the tins of turnips before.
PROSECUTION: How many days passed before you decided to assuage your hunger elsewhere?
STEPHENS: We went eight days further with neither food nor water. Twenty days adrift in all.
PROSECUTION: Whom amongst you first broached the topic?
STEPHENS: There was little discussion.
PROSECUTION: How could you fail to discuss such a thing?
STEPHENS: The desire to live at the cost of another is difficult to put into words.
PROSECUTION: How was the decision made?
STEPHENS: The boy was the weakest. He drank seawater despite our admonitions.
PROSECUTION: Why not leave the matter to divine providence? Draw lots from the offal of the turtle?
STEPHENS: We had already eaten its bones.
by Shaurya Arya
I only remember feeling a tad bit woozy, like I was freefalling, for a split second. Only a moment ago, as I had thought to slip through a tiny break in the traffic to the other side of the street, I heard the screech of car tires. That is when the world around me went out of focus and, in less than a second, returned. As I breathed in deep to bring my surroundings into focus again, I saw the car was nowhere in sight. Around me, the traffic chugged along; it took me a second to realise I was standing in the middle of the street. A motorbike zipped by, inches away from me. It caught the rear-view mirror of another car on its way.
I found a break in the stream of cars and broke into a run to get to the other side. Relief washed over me. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, composed myself (the fear of that temporary freefall was still lurking somewhere at the back of my mind), and turned around to get to the park I had come to for my evening stroll.
That was half an hour ago.
The thought that I would be dead now—or severely injured, at the very least—was still moving through my head. But I could laugh over it now. Chalk it up to one of those instances that, in the years to come, would make for an interesting story. I even utter a little chuckle.
I shake my head. Better to forget it.
Hurriedly, a man walks past me. His hand brushes against my side. My chuckle turns into a sharp cry. For the briefest of moments, I experienced what I did back on the street; freefalling. The sky overhead, in the last thirty minutes, has turned from its evening blue to twilight indigo. The lamps in this section of the park are yet to be lit up. I look down, and see the little contact he made has stained my yellow Daffy Duck shirt.
“What an idiot,” I say under my breath. I wonder if he heard it, but he doesn’t turn around.
I take a step forward and hear a snatch of a conversation behind me. The voice is still far away, but, with each step, it’s approaching me. Someone is speaking on the phone. I feel a tad bit irritated—maybe a residual feeling from the encounter I had a few seconds ago—that the quietness of my surroundings was being disturbed. By this time, when the light starts to bleed away from the sky, the population of strollers and joggers in the park is substantively diminished. The park is still an hour from being closed for the day, and the quietness this little window provides is why I take my evening walks at this time.
The worry in this man’s voice pricks my ears. I don’t mean to eavesdrop, but his voice tears through the stillness of the surroundings. I realise he is making an effort to keep his voice as low as possible, but to me he is audible. Perhaps he doesn’t realise that I can hear him. Maybe he doesn’t see me? I bend my head as I walk; as a means to not make eye contact with him if he walks past me.
“I’m scared,” he says, the apprehension in his voice unmistakable. I think I hear a catch of a sob in his voice. He’s whispering, but I can hear him loud and clear. “What do I do?”
The speaker on the other end of the line says something, which I hear as a kind of rasping. It’s fairly incomprehensible, but I think I heard the words, “Why did you have to…”
I wonder, not for the first time, if he realises that I’m within earshot. Even if the darkness is prohibiting him from seeing me (which it shouldn’t, because the tinge of blue in the sky overhead still remains), the sound of the gravel crunching under my feet should indicate my presence. And, yet, he is speaking fairly uninhibitedly…
“Help me,” he says, his voice threatening to break into a cry. “Help me, please.”
My pulse has quickened, my heart is hammering within my chest. Conflicting ideas blast through my mind. Should I maybe turn around and show myself to him? Or should I make a dash for it?
The gravel crunches beneath my feet.
I hear another snatch of rasping from the other end. And then the man behind me says, “I just left him there. On the road.” This time, he does cry. “What… You’re asking me what he was wearing? I don’t know. Yellow shirt, I think. Some cartoon drawn on it. I DON’T KNOW!”
I sense him coming closer to me, closing the distance between us. There is no way he can’t see me now. A second or two later, I realise he is only a couple of steps behind me. My heart skips a beat. I stop walking, stop breathing. I close my eyes, my head bent.
A sensation similar to what I felt on the street washes through me. Of being sucked into, of freefalling. But a split second later, I’m back in the park. And I see the man emerging through me, as if I was but mere air he walked through.
by Samuel Best
*CW: Description of graves, death, and decomposition
We had been walking in the woods for over an hour when we found the graves. At first we’d thought they were tree stumps, lichen-green and half-sunken into the earth. But then we grew closer, and the trees opened up, and we saw what they really were. Two little headstones, the writing long since weathered to nothing. They sat crooked, the hungry soil not sated by the bodies but working still on claiming the stones until no sign was left.
We stopped in front of them, you taking the left one and me the right. One plot apiece. Yours was the larger of the two, mine the smaller and more heavily eroded. The sunlight dappled around us, the air thick and heady; the smells of the forest like a fog. The earth underfoot looked no different to the rest of the forest floor but I worried about my feet sinking into the ground, wondering how far beneath me a suit of old bones was lying. I shifted and felt the softness with my toe. The spring and life of the earth.
Somewhere deeper in the wood, a bird called. Its music hung in the air, echoing around us as more animals joined. The dissonance built and built until the forest fell silent for a moment, before the sound of hundreds of wings filled the sky and birds of all sizes did their best to blot out the sun. I looked up and saw one—a crow, perhaps, or a rook—circling its way back down among the trees, before disappearing out of sight. Birds like that always made me feel like I was being watched. I bristled as, somewhere, a beady eye flicked between us.
When I looked back to you, you were crouched, trying to dust off years of limpet-like lichen. The stone underneath was dark and still unreadable, but the more you brushed away the more something else did take form: an angel. Roughly carved and lacking any eyes or mouth, yet still discernibly a body with wings. I thought of the birds again and shivered.
As your hand moved, I saw small slivers of lichen and stone crumbling into the grass. Reaching across, I picked up a piece of something and rolled it between my fingers. It was grayed and yellowed by time, but as I touched it I realised what I was holding was not a plant or stone, but bone. Marled, awful bone.
The small shard, tarnished with an age spent underground, fell from my hand as I screamed. The sound set the sky ablaze with birds once more, and the forest was filled with a furious flapping and squawking. You recoiled from the grave as I shouted, hands scrambling for purchase to push yourself backwards, your feet kicking up more fragments of bone and soil and lichen. I realised then that my first impression – that the ground had been hungrily sinking the gravestones into itself – was entirely wrong. The earth was not devouring the stones at all; it was doing its best to spit the dead back out.
Beneath us the rolling ground seemed to churn and it seemed that everywhere I looked I saw bleached fragments—stones or bone merged into one in my mind—and this charnel forest seemed to stretch on endlessly. The sky was black with wings above us and in blocking out the sky the woods came alive with haunting shadows. We ran back, hoping to follow the route which had led us there, until our lungs burned and we had to stop. A stitch in my side seemed to stretch and bend my ribs. I pushed my hand against my skin and felt the bones underneath, hard and aching.
I thought about years from now, when they would be all that was left of me, and wondered if the soil would keep me buried, or roil and sicken at their presence and spit them up at the feet of another unlucky soul.
by Wiebo Grobler
Musical instruments were created to entertain idle hands, and we all know whose playground that is. In the end, all humanity managed to achieve was giving the devil a voice, and by God, what a beautiful voice it is. Hypnotic, inducing a multitude of feelings through the body. Hairs stand on end, eyes brim with emotion as poisonous words fall from his toxic tongue, whispering venom through wicked lips into my ears. It carries me away to nightmares and dreamscapes of self-loathing and doubt which have plagued me for as long as I can recall.
I don’t remember much of my early childhood, in fact I don’t remember any of it. My first memory was from when I was six, found wandering the streets in old, outdated clothes and an ancient leg brace on my left leg. Doctors said I showed signs of type three polio. I had to undergo several tests as type three polio was supposedly eradicated several decades ago. The doctors remained baffled whilst I was sent to various orphanages and foster homes.
I couldn't speak much, but I learned quickly. Nevertheless, I always felt like I didn’t belong. I was teased as a child and as an adult it’s only grown worse. People politely avoid me. They think I’m strange and I suppose, I am. I’ve always had this yearning, for what, I don’t know.
I received a good education, was placed with loving and nurturing families, but there was always this absence of—something.
I worked my way through social workers and psychiatrists growing up, all with good intentions, trying to help, but there was nothing they could do. Labelled as anxious, depressed, socially distant, how could I tell them about my dreams? Dreams filled with music so beautiful I would wake most mornings weeping at its loss. Memories of a time and a place that no longer exists, couldn’t possibly exist.
I tried to teach myself flute, pan pipe, penny whistle, and all the smaller wind instruments to replicate the song, but once I wake the melody flees my mind. I’m unable to grasp it no matter how hard I try, like walking into a room and completely forgetting why you’re there in the first place.
I don’t expect anyone to understand, it’s an addiction, an affliction of the worst kind. A shadow of a monster which constantly darkens my mood and mind. I see him in my peripheral vision everywhere I go, I hear him like tinnitus each time I close my eyes and I feel him, a cold shiver, a prick of hairs at the back of my neck—goosebumps on a hot day.
I push my way against the stream of people on the pavement heading home. Hoodie over my head and headphones on to drown out all the external noise.
The music slows down, and the singer’s voice turns into a demonic incantation. I step to one side and open my Walkman. The tape looks fine and I know the batteries are fresh. 2022 and I still used a Walkman—I just feel more comfortable with older things. That’s when I hear it. Short, sharp familiar notes.
I follow the sound down an alley, where in the dark; something stands waiting.
It beckons me closer, and I can do nothing but oblige.
Stepping out into the dirty yellow light I was unable to tell if it was male or female, but I didn’t care, all I knew was that it was beautiful, exotic and frightening.
Much taller than I, it moved closer like liquid silk. Small shark-like teeth framed by beautiful full lips and large brown eyes filled with malice and flecked with mischief holds me locked in its gaze.
It runs the back of its hand over my cheek and I tremble like a pet that’s been craving affection and finally receiving its master’s attention. Its hand smells of cedar and patchouli, bringing back flashes of children’s faces, familiar children, friends. Running down a street following a tall dark figure playing the most beautiful music. The music of my dreams. I was unable to follow, my leg hurt too much and slowed me down. I followed their footprints to a cave. I remember the rats, so many rats and then nothing but darkness.
He lifts my chin and tilts my head up with two long fingers. "So long you were lost to me, but now you are found and look how you've grown."
Reaching into its cloak it pulls out a flute, made from a material so dark it sucks the shadows towards it like smoke.
My nightmare begins to play, terror and ecstasy explodes through my body. The song which has haunted my dreams for so long was the call of this creature.
The music could not be denied. There was a pressure on my extremities. My leg brace creaks and moans and snaps along with my legs just beneath the knees. My arms follow and twist below the elbows. Falling down on all fours, my spine extends and bursts through my coccyx, my jaw elongates, and my front teeth buck forward, dark fur sprouting all over my body.
"Come my child. Your brothers and sisters are waiting."
I follow, scuttering after him. He was taking me home, my pied piper.
by Amy R. Martin
*CW: Emotional abuse, domestic abuse, murder
After the last child leaves for college, the wife takes her first-ever voice lesson. For years she’d seen the high school music teacher’s flyer on the bulletin board at the library, and she’d finally worked up the nerve to tear off one of the tabs and give the woman a call. She’d always fantasized about singing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” in a dark roadside country-western bar.
The husband scoffs. “You can’t sing,” he says, then goes upstairs to take a nap.
As she boils water for chamomile tea, the wife practices her ascending and descending major scales starting from Middle C, just as she’d learned, to improve her pitch memory and expand her vocal range. She is quite sure her husband has never heard her sing.
Soon, the wife adds a weekly painting class at the community center. She starts with watercolors: lavender fields, the lighthouses at Peggy’s Cove and Cape Hatteras, an autumn morning, irises. Her mother had always loved irises. She’d once sent her mother an iris made of Waterford crystal for Mother’s Day, but her father had accidentally broken it.
“Such showy flowers, don’t you think?” She asks her husband from where she sits before her new easel in their kitchen.
“Hm,” he says from the recliner in the living room.
“Van Gogh made several paintings of irises when he was at an asylum in France, the year before he died,” she says. She says his name van-KHOKH, which comes closest to the Dutch. “He called painting the ‘lightning conductor for his illness.’”
“You’re not hanging that up on our walls, are you?” Her husband says, looking distastefully at the gashes of purple, the slits of yellow and green, her irises rudimentary, half-finished, or maybe half-started.
His words are like paper cuts in the soft spaces between her fingers.
“I want to make art.”
“You’re a bookkeeper.”
“I was a bookkeeper. But I only did that to help you. You’re the accountant.”
“You’re not an artist.”
“I could be. I could be anything.”
“Hm,” he says. Soon his eyes fall shut, and his mouth hangs open.
A week later the wife picks up the free community paper at the hair salon and discovers that the local theatrical academy is holding auditions. Coming up this season: A Child’s Christmas in Wales. The Dinner Party. Death of a Salesman. And her favorite: Much Ado About Nothing.
“Do you remember when we went to the West End in London, all those years ago?” She asks her husband. Her eyes glisten as she thinks of bygone times.
“No,” he says.
“You fell asleep. We saw Alan Rickman in Private Lives.”
“Must’ve been boring then.”
The wife frowns. Women are like elephants; they mull over the bones of the dead. Men are like weasels, she thinks, though she doesn’t know anything about weasels.
“I’m going to try out,” she says. Her words are flung like ceramic plates.
“You’ll embarrass yourself,” he says.
“It’s community theater,” she says. “You don’t need to be a professional.”
“Not real actors then,” he says. “For what play?”
“Much Ado About Nothing.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. You’re too old to play Beatrice.” He laughs. He is either pleased that he remembered the name of one of the leads, or he thinks he made a joke. He turns to trudge upstairs.
“It’s two o’clock in the afternoon,” she says flatly.
“So?” He says.
He has taken to sleeping in the middle of the day.
Long ago, the husband had an affair with a girl a few years older than their oldest daughter, the wife remembers. She was exactly half his age. But everyone knows the half plus seven rule. A person should never date someone whose age is less than half his own plus seven years.
The night she found out, she stared at the blades of the ceiling fan, first following one blade with her eyes, around and around, then keeping her eyes still and unfocused and letting the blades blur into a murky stain on the ceiling, all through the night, while he snored beside her.
She lied and told him she forgave him, but she hadn’t, and anyway, he’d never asked for her forgiveness.
The wife wonders what that girl would think of her silver fox now. His paunch precedes him into a room. There is a mug on his desk with an Excel spreadsheet on it and the words, “Freak in the Sheets.” When he is not looking at rows and columns of numbers, he is sleeping.
Which is why it is so easy to surprise him. He doesn’t see it coming.
The wife surprises herself, too. She didn’t know she knew how to use her new palette knife. As she sings “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” he gurgles. “Uhh,” he says. “Uhh.” He almost gurgles in time to the beat of her song. As if it were a duet. She didn’t even know she knew the lyrics. It had been years since she’d seen “South Pacific.”
As she walks out of the bedroom and into the upstairs hall, she wipes her hands and fingers on the wall, then stops to admire the curving patterns she makes on the eggshell paint beneath the recessed floodlights. “Out, damned spot!” She thinks she says aloud. If she stands close enough to the wall, her painting has texture. Impasto, she thinks. This piece could hang in the MoMA. She would name it something grandiose. End of an Era, perhaps.
With one fingernail, she dislodges a pill bug-shaped morsel of him from beneath another fingernail and flicks it away onto the berber, where it bounces.
When the police come, the officers lead her to the sofa and bring her a glass of water from her own kitchen. The wife closes her eyes, remembers her mother’s death, then contorts her face and says, “it was self-defense.” She thinks in a way it was. It is always good for there to be a nugget of truth. Stanislavski would be proud.
One of the officers, the woman, asks about her children. She points to their portraits, which decorate the living room wall. The wife smiles. “That one,” the wife says, pointing to the round face of her youngest daughter, “is studying Scenic Design. She is an artist.”
“Nice flowers,” another officer compliments her irises.
The wife beams.
by CG Inglis
At the foot of the stairwell is a door. Within its rectangular window a jacketed torso appears, and then a shoulder. As the latch turns, the door swings open. A middle-aged man follows, his hands laden with a number of plastic shopping bags. The walls and ceiling of the stairwell are painted a dull shade of peach. The stairs are all raw concrete.
The man begins to climb. His boots scrape against the grit and dust that has been allowed to accumulate on the stairs. The weight of the bags strains his shoulders, and the plastic handles are digging into the flesh behind his first and second knuckles. A surgical mask covers the lower half of his face, its edges already damp with sweat.
He lives alone in an apartment on the 10th floor. He has lived there for more than two years, and he has never set foot in its elevator. He does not like to be around people, their bodies especially. He can’t stand the way their features contort when they speak, or their odor, or the millions of invisible things that are crawling on and inside them. Even in his own apartment, with the door bolted and the windows shut, he is helplessly aware of the presence of others. He lives in a tower stuffed with bodies, all of them living, breathing, sweating, excreting.
He ventures outside only for the sake of food. He could have his groceries delivered, but then he would have no control over the selection of produce. Worse, it would mean a stranger at his door. Much better to don a mask and make the trip to the nearest market. He goes at night, just before closing, and rarely sees another customer.
He longs to live somewhere unsoiled by the business of life. This impossible space exists in his mind, like a man-sized egg. If he could only penetrate its shell he would be happy, a blob of human yolk, unthinking and unmade.
He isn’t crazy; he knows there is no such place. The real world demands compromise. So he does his shopping at night and takes the stairs rather than the elevator. No matter how heavy the bags, lugging his groceries up the stairs is infinitely better than cramming himself into a metal box alongside another sweating body.
On the landing of the second floor he encounters a dark stain of what might be dog urine. The contents of his stomach announce themselves in a barely-repressed eruption of bile and gas.
Clamping shut his eyes, he forces himself to totter past. It wasn’t always like this. He has never been what other people call normal, but as a child he could look at a cut of meat without the urge to vomit. He has gone to therapy. He understands that he was broken when his father killed himself. It’s only natural, his therapist explained, given what he experienced. Trauma can manifest in all kinds of ways.
Opening the door to his father’s apartment, the stench nearly brought him to his knees. It was as if the air itself had gone rancid. Suddenly, breathing was a shocking, tactile thing, and it was all he could do to work his lungs.
He discovered the body in the living room, minus the top half of its head. A rorschach of black blood was splattered across the wall. His father’s arms hung limply at his sides. On the floor next to his white, hair-flecked feet, lay the rifle.
He could never unsee this, but that wasn’t what broke him. It was the wriggling in the hole where his father’s face had been. The crawling, cream-coloured maggots, gorging themselves on his meat.
“Enough,” he mutters.
It does no good to remember. Concentrating on the weight of the bags and the growing numbness in his fingers, he continues his slow ascent. The third floor is mercifully free of stains. Through the glass partition in the door, the man gazes into a hallway free of movement. Setting down the bags, he permits himself a short rest. With his right hand he massages the knuckles of his left, curling and straightening his fingers. He rotates his shoulders, wincing at the pop and click of his bones in their joints.
From behind there is a sharp bang, as if a door being opened and quickly falling shut.
The man freezes. His ears strain for the sound of coming feet. He has been in this situation before. His best bet is the nearest hallway. From there, he can either wait for the intruder to pass, or (holding his breath) retreat down the hall should they happen to exit on the same floor.
The ringing silence persists for one heartbeat, and then another. Finally it comes: the slap of a shoe on concrete. One floor beneath him, or maybe two, another step is taken. He doesn’t have much time. Scooping up his bags, he moves to the door and presses down on the handle with the tip of his elbow, but the latch refuses to turn. The man frowns, shifting the bags just enough to wrap a palm around the handle. Still the latch doesn’t budge, even as he applies the full force of his weight.
He shakes his head, unable for the moment to process what should already be obvious; somehow, the door is locked.
Bottling his confusion, the man turns from the door and rushes up the next flight of stairs. Once more his hand flashes to the handle, and again the latch catches. Sweat seeping from his pores, the man’s fingers slip the handle and he ploughs shoulder-first into the door. He bites back the urge to scream. There is a sour taste in the back of his throat. The bags in his hands are cruelly heavy.
At his back, the feet continue to clap against the stairs. If he is overtaken here, his only choice will be to press himself against the sweating concrete. He will be helpless, the intruder free to breathe on him. To touch him.
The peach-coloured walls are pitted and ruptured. Here and there, small, spidering cracks have formed. The man pictures the burst capillaries in his father’s cheeks. They always stood out when he drank.
The man’s back is slick with sweat; like a second skin, the fabric of his shirt clings to his chest and the nape of his neck. The surgical mask is a damp cloth against his face. From below comes a burst of laughter, high and melodic. A woman? He imagines her hair, the moist touch of her breath. Stomach heaving, he goes on, two steps at a time, panting now.
He has lost count of the floors. All of the doors are locked. Through glass windows he stares into hallways that may as well belong to another world.
The muscles in his shoulders cry out for relief. His fingers, red and swollen, throb in time with his pulse. His boot catches the lip of the landing. Releasing his grip on the bags, for an instant they hang suspended in air.
Then the bright explosion: tin cans, pre-packaged vegetables, a glass jar shattering on the concrete in a pulpy spray of sauce. Through a soup of tears the man gazes at the red mess.
The woman laughs again. Her feet clap the stairs, one step after another, ruthless and serene. The man cranes his neck to peer down the empty stairs. Why won’t she show herself?
Abandoning the food (tainted now, filthy), he attacks the stairs in a mad scramble. Using the handrails, he propels himself upward. The remaining floors pass in a blur.
The doors begin to look like thumbnail sketches, pinched and warped and impossibly distant. Beneath the man’s boots, the concrete has grown gelatinous. The fleshy ceiling sags low, lined with swelling veins. He is bent almost double now, crawling on hands and knees.
His body is coated in a sticky, searing substance. Stomach acid, he thinks. Ripping the mask from his face, his nostrils fill with the scent of rotting flesh. Maggots crawl in the corners of his eyes. Bit by bit, he is being consumed.
She laughs into her phone. Climbing, the tips of her fingers glide along the handrail. The dust on the stairs and the stains in the corners barely register. She is on her way to the storage room on the building’s top floor.
On one of the landings she discovers a mess of shattered glass and pasta sauce. Someone’s groceries, abandoned in a heap. She clicks her tongue at the thoughtlessness of others.
As she arrives at the top floor, her foot sinks into something soft and mushy. Turning up her heel, she looks with revulsion at the brown smear on the underside of her shoe.
What’s wrong? Her friend asks.
Nothing, the woman says. Just some garbage someone left on the stairs.
She scrapes her shoe against the concrete.