Steps

Steps


My brother lost his wife and infant daughter on a cold October morning. I was asleep at the time. You know how some moments stick with you? I will always remember that cold rush of emotion after rolling out of bed and reading that first awful text message—confusion, anger, disbelief. You name it.

“Rushed to hospital this morning. Lots of bleeding. Angela and Giuli passed an hour ago.”

The confusion came first. Angie was not due to give birth for weeks. I didn’t even know they picked out a name yet. The anger came from the possibility that this could be a prank. My brother had a weird sense of humor. But who would joke about this kind of a thing? The disbelief came from the tiny picture that populated my screen—the only existing picture of my poor niece—a tiny, beautiful baby, with a pink headband, and heavy-lidded eyes pulled tightly shut.

“I was able to spend some time with her,” he said. “She fought for a while after her mom went. But I think…I think Ang wanted her back.”

My entire body went numb.

“My girls are gone, man.”

I rolled back over to check my own newly pregnant wife. She muttered something small in her sleep. Selfishly, I checked her breathing, because I just couldn’t help myself.

“I wish she could take me, too.”

That was the text that jolted me. I guess you could say it inspired something for me to do. Something that made me feel a little less than useless. I had to get to him. I had to help. I jumped out of bed. I shucked on some jeans. I found a shirt on the floor, ran outside without so much as brushing my teeth (who the fuck could think of dental hygiene at a time like this), and hopped into my car. I sped through every red light, turned left when I should have gone straight, got caught in traffic. The journey took me about twenty minutes, when it should have been five, and I didn’t even have the capacity to be upset by time, because I just kept repeating, over and over again in my head, like some sick demented mantra, How, how, how?

I couldn’t get the picture out of my mind. They had time to put a bow in her hair. She had hair. She was a girl. A beautiful, charming little girl. Oh God, and what about her mom? She was so young. Too young. Nobody prepares to go that young. How, how, how?

I arrived to find my older brother in a heap on the steps to the hospital. He couldn’t stop crying long enough to tell me what happened. But it didn’t really matter, I guess, in the end. Shit like that never really matters.

What’s gone is gone.

What’s dead is dead.

The rest is just details.

I won’t lie to you and say those first few weeks were anything short of impossible. I have never experienced something so traumatic in my life. I couldn’t begin to imagine how my brother felt. I couldn’t come close to relating, and it would be an embarrassment for me to even try, so all I could really offer was damage control. Protecting Anthony from himself became my only priority. I moved in, for the time being, if nothing else than to keep an eye out.

Some days he refused to eat. Some days he refused to get out of bed at all. And I was all right with that. As weird as it sounds. I couldn’t form a definition of normal in this type of situation. Nobody could. Anything that he wanted to do was fine by me. If that included sitting in bed all day with a bag of Cheetos…so be it.

The only thing that I insisted was that he attend therapy. There is no pill or medicine to wipe away that kind of grief. The only thing that can help is time and talking. And if he wasn’t going to talk to me, then he needed to talk to someone. Thankfully, we agreed on that much. He met a shrink every other day through video chat. Leaving the house was too much struggle in those days.

I wouldn’t say the turnaround was immediate. It took about a month before Ant had any interest in the outside world at all. I thought the pills helped. Maybe it was the talk therapy. One morning, he flicked on the TV in his bedroom and started watching the news. Two months in he started helping with day-to-day chores. Then one night, somewhere around the three-month mark, I actually saw him smile about something. A joke, he claimed, something that he saw on the internet. That was a good day.

“I have a project,” he said to me over coffee soon after. “The therapist wants me to have a project, and I’ve got one.”

I didn’t ask what the project was, and he didn’t tell me. That was fine. I learned to not try and pull details from conversations. The therapist insisted it would be better to avoid prying. A judgmental tone could erase all of our progress, as she so eloquently put it, so sometimes it’s just best to let sleeping dogs lie. Following her advice, I smiled like a stupid dickhead. Like the news didn’t affect me, like the news didn’t concern me, like it was just another day in paradise.

“That’s great, man. Happy to hear it.”

Maybe I should have done more. Fuck that, I absolutely should have done more. I know that now. But Anthony was excited for once. Excited was a revelation those days. He took my response with a thumbs-up and headed out into the garage. An engine started up. His black truck zipped out of the driveway and peeled down the road into town. And then he was gone.

I thought about following him. But I wasn’t able to escape the guilt of the idea. There was a trust element between the two of us. He trusted me to be there for him. I trusted him to not do anything stupid. I texted my wife for validation, and she agreed. So, I waited.

And waited.

Anthony came home about two hours later with a trunk full of wood. I headed outside to greet him, desperately trying not to look eager, and he sort of just shrugged me off. I let it go.

“Building something?” I asked.

“Yup,” he answered over his shoulder.

“What are you building?”

“Something she would have liked.”

I wanted to ask more. I should have asked more. But I couldn’t force myself to question his confidence. I kept thinking about what the shrink said. I kept thinking that one wrong comment could send us back into hibernation for another three months. I didn’t have another three months. And I didn’t have the heart to tell him that. We needed to move on. Rebuild. Grow stronger. Whatever stupid little cliche keeps you warmest at night, we needed to reach that point. And if building some weird shit in the backyard got us there…so be it. 

“Good luck.”

I went back inside and heard a hammer connecting with nails soon after. 

The sound reverberated throughout the day. I kind of forgot about it after a while. It became background noise. I had work and bills and quite a few other things to occupy my mind. The hammering kept up throughout the day and into the evening. Power tools joined in sometime thereafter. 

I finally made it out into the backyard sometime around nine o’clock at night. 

That’s when I first saw the staircase. 

I didn’t know if “staircase” was even the right word to describe it. He didn’t attach a railing. The planks were nothing more than untreated wood slabs. Each step was tied to the other with loose brackets and supported by cut-length metal poles shoved haphazardly into the ground. No concrete to hold them in place. No weighted support of any kind. I didn’t think anybody would have been able to put any weight on it whatsoever without the entire thing collapsing. 

“Anthony?” I shouted. “What are you building?”

There were over thirty steps at that point. The entire thing had to be ten feet tall. It wrapped back in on itself like a spiral so as to not enter his neighbor’s yard. Ant pushed a ladder to the side of it to help him build. He was standing somewhere near the top. Therapist be damned—I couldn’t hide my judgmental tone any longer.

“What the…” I shouted. “What in the hell are you doing, man?”

“Give me a sec,” Anthony called from somewhere up in the sky. His footsteps reverberated down the shaky ladder. “Coming down.”

When he finally met me at the bottom, he was ecstatic. Every inch of his body seemed to vibrate with energy. I hadn’t seen anything like it since we were kids. He wasn’t even sweating, which I found weird, considering he was overweight and desperately out of shape.

“I’m building her staircase,” he babbled. “It’s going to be perfect. It’s going to be the staircase.”

“I see that.”

“Angela would have loved this staircase, man, you know that.”

I barely understood the connection. I did recall a fight between the two of them, years prior, in which Anthony wanted to buy this very house but almost didn’t, because Angie hated the staircase. Beyond that…I had no idea what he was talking about. There was no great infatuation with staircases in our family, to my knowledge.

“You can’t keep this thing here, man, the town—”

He cut me off by turning back toward the ladder.

“Don’t worry,” he quipped. “Almost done.”

I stared at my brother from the bottom of his ridiculous creation. I thought about calling the therapist. I thought about calling the cops. But it was late. And I knew only one of them would actually answer.

“Come on, man. Let’s go to bed. You can finish it tomorrow.”

He looked at me like he might have told me to fuck off in better days. I debated trying to force him inside. Instead, he dropped his hammer and nails on the spot. He wordlessly went for the door and grumpily padded over to the couch and collapsed on its rusty springs. I heard him snoring soon after. Somehow, my appeasement worked, at least for a little while. 

I woke up a second time at eight a.m. sharp. The hammer and nail echoed from the backyard. Somebody was knocking at the door. Assuming it to be my wife, I answered in my boxers. Two uniformed White Valley police officers waited for me on the other side.

“Good morning, sir. Are you the homeowner?”

“Uh, no, sorry. I’m his brother.”

“Are you aware of what’s going on in the backyard?”

I turned around to fully witness the fucking monolith hanging above us. The damn thing had to be twenty feet tall at this point. It stretched so high that it dipped into low-hanging clouds. The wood and metal framing swung dangerously in the wind. Somewhere behind a particular cluster of loose boards, a hammer and nail banged away, keeping a flawlessly monotonous rhythm. We also heard whistling.

“Oh shit,” was all I could manage to say. I guess I thought it would get a laugh. It didn’t. Officer Krupke did the rest of the talking.

“Sir, you have exactly twenty-four hours to take that thing down before an official complaint is filed with the city. Once the complaint is filed, you have a week before the homeowner risks losing this property. Do you understand and are you capable of relaying this message to your brother?”

He handed me an official-looking piece of paper. I nodded and took it.

“You have to understand…my brother is grieving.”

The officer looked back up at the staircase.

“We’ll be back tomorrow.”

And with that, they were off. 

I darted into the backyard and screamed for Anthony to get down from his death trap and talk to me. 

The hammering stopped. His footsteps shuffled down the steps.

When he hopped down to greet me, he looked even happier than before. Not tired, not angry, not sad. Just…giddily happy. It was weird. Have you ever tried to be angry with someone who is so visibly happy? It’s not the easiest thing in the world.

“What’s up, little brother?” he asked in a songlike tone. “Beautiful day.”

“Cops came,” I answered indignantly. “You’re gonna forfeit your house if you keep this up.”

He laughed. I couldn’t understand why. I chucked the police notice in his face.

“Doesn’t matter.” He chuckled. “All done now.” 

He patted me on the back one more time before heading back inside. 

“What’s done?” I called over his shoulder. “You have to take it down and get rid of all this shit. We have to get a dumpster. I know a guy. A friend of mine went to school with one of…”

He ignored me and went inside. I followed.

“Did you hear me? You’re going to lose the house. Angela’s house.”

He laughed again. 

“Maybe tomorrow. I’ve got a week, though, don’t I?”

He flipped the paper back at me and disappeared into his bedroom. Once again, I thought about following and finishing the conversation, but I didn’t. I regret it now.

Anthony slept through the afternoon. 

I called my wife. I called our mom. I called our dad. I even called the useless fucking therapist, and all of them said the same exact thing: Give him a day. Keep an eye on him. If he doesn’t take it down tomorrow, we’ll do something, but give him until Monday. Just relax. It’s the first thing he’s enjoyed since they died. The cops can’t take his house without a fight. You’ve got time.

Anthony slept into the night.

I went into his bedroom to check on him around ten. Then again around midnight. He was fine. Snoring soundly. He even knocked my hand away when I went to check his breathing. 

I went to bed in a sleeping bag in his room around two. It had been a couple weeks since I slept in there within him. But it seemed necessary. Between the good mood, and the weird sleep patterns, and the fucking staircase…the whole thing made me uncomfortable. I didn’t trust it. I had to watch him.

I heard footsteps about an hour later.

It was only one step, at first, but it was loud. Loud enough to shake me from the beginnings of a restless sleep. I reached for my glasses and checked my watch. Anthony snored soundly. A second step echoed through the house quietly.

The third one shook the nightstand.

Then four, five, and six came in rapid succession. Almost like a scurry. Seven, eight, and nine were much more calculated. Almost unsure. 

The rest of the footsteps came at an outright sprint. 

I nearly wet my fucking pants. Every hair on my body stood up like a live wire. I shot out of the sleeping back and rushed to check on Ant. There wasn’t much time. Everything seemed to happen quickly and slowly at the same time. A final footstep shook the nightstand again. Almost like a jump from a staircase to a landing. A giggle drifted through the windows.

I shook Anthony hard. I slapped his face. I whisper-shouted at him. Nothing worked. I want to stress, at this point, as I always must when relaying this part of the story…he wasn’t dead. His chest moved up and down steadily. He just wasn’t responding to me. I couldn’t remember a time when he slept this heavily.

The patio door opened downstairs. 

Footsteps followed. An overwhelming feeling came over me, which I couldn’t quite adequately describe. Almost like something foreign entered the house. Something that didn’t belong. Something unnatural. I wanted to fight it, but I didn’t have any weapons. I wanted to run from it, but Anthony wouldn’t move. My options were limited. And so, I did the most cowardly thing. Something that I’m still ashamed of today.

I hid in the closet.

The footsteps came down the hallway rapidly. Confidently. Like they seemed to know where they were going. A door creaked open. Between a gap in Anthony’s dress shirts, I saw something impossible. I couldn’t believe it then, and I struggle to believe it now.

I saw Angela.

Only it wasn’t.

The frame of her body was still there. Her dark brown hair dripped over pallid gray skin. But it was almost like staring at an X-ray. Angie’s face was faded, but her bones were illuminated. A trail of dirt led from the entrance all the way to the bed. 

Her bed. 

A shape waited at the open door, a brown teddy bear by its side. I couldn’t bring myself to look at it. I knew that bear all too well. I bought it the day of the funeral.

Angela, or the figure that could be called Angela, hovered over my brother’s bedside. He was babbling sleep talk…random phrases and numbers that didn’t make any sense. Without warning, Angie reached back and slipped her hand into my brother’s chest. He let out a cool gasp. But he didn’t seem bothered when Angela pulled out his heart. He seemed at peace.

I tried to scream. I tried to rush at them from the closet. But it was like life was moving in slow motion. I couldn’t reach them. I couldn’t move at all. Anthony, or the figure that could be called Anthony, stood up and smiled. His bones were illuminated. His skin was gray. A shape rushed up to greet him. The same shape I couldn’t bring myself to look at. He wrapped her up in his arms. She giggled. And then they were gone. 

Footsteps painted a picture of their journey. Down the hall. Through the patio door. Up the steps. Without so much as a goodbye.

I chased after them. I ran outside, fully expecting to ascend the steps myself, fully prepared to fight. But the staircase was gone. All of it. Wood, nails, even the ladder.

And so was my brother.