This is a short story I wrote last year. It was part of a challenge to write something from a single picture. The picture I got was of a bunch of creepy-looking stairs. So this is what developed from that. Enjoy!
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“Junior, beware the Stairs!” the old man mutters under his breath, “Aye, that’s what I’ve been told all my life. You’ve seen them, boy,” he turns to me, “but only by passing down them are we given a name…Oh, I’ve always wanted a name, but I couldn’t bring myself to risk the ominous Stairs.”
I gaze up into his worn face. No wonder I have never heard anyone call him by a name…. His eyes swim with tears.
“They called me coward for not passing down them, and rightly so. Oh, if only they had killed me then! A coward isn’t fit to live!” There is pain reflecting in his eyes, and my heart constricts. How I long to comfort him, to assure him that he isn’t a coward…but it is not Time.
I stroke his knee, sympathizing with my eyes, and he knows it.
“You’re a good boy.” he smiles, “A good boy who deserves a name, whether or not you can say it.”
Not able? I want to laugh. Whoever said I was not able to speak? I certainly didn’t. But the fact is, if a half-starved orphan shows up mysteriously on a doorstep and won’t talk, they assume he can’t talk. Not that I object. Being assumed mute has its benefits…especially if I cannot remember the past that these nosy villagers want me to tell them.
“You will be brave tomorrow, won’t you, my lad?” the old man – I silently dubbed him Grandfather – pleaded. Of course. What is so dangerous about these Stairs anyway? I nod encouragingly and pull gently on his hand.
“What? You want me to go to?”
“No, my boy, I am too old to go down them.” he sighs, “It’s too late for me.” No! I shake my head emphatically and tug on his hand again. Please come with me. It is not too late. I will go with you!
“I cannot.” Grandfather sighs again, “I have been nameless all my life. I’m too old to change now. Besides, I have not enough life left before me in which to enjoy a name. No, lad, I cannot go.”
Tears spring into my eyes, and I open my mouth to protest, but I cannot. It is not Time. I sigh.
“Still trying to speak?” Grandfather asks tenderly, “I wish I had your persistence. May it carry you safely down the Stairs to a new name and future tomorrow.” he pats my shoulder, “Come on, now, it’s time you were in bed.”
* * * *
The next morning comes all too soon for me. Despite my brave smile, I am afraid of the Stairs. What dangers lie down there? I am unable to eat anything, so we go to the Stairs early.
“The Statesman is waiting for you at the bottom.” Grandfather says, “He will help you choose a name from the List. I wish I could wait for you down there too, but Unnameds aren’t allowed. Now go, my boy, and be brave.”
I step towards the ominous Stairs, and tug his hand, pleading. Please come with me. Gently, he shakes his head and releases his hand from mine. I cannot be afraid. One step down. Two. A deep unshakeable uneasiness begins to creep into my soul. What is there to fear? I try to shake it off, and keep going.
Three steps down. Four. The walls begin to feel like they are closing in. Claustrophobia sets in, and my heart hammers mercilessly on my ribcage. There is no danger! But no matter how hard I tell myself that, I cannot drive out the inexplicable fear that is growing steadily.
Five steps down, six! A mist rises before my eyes. I can’t see! I want to scream, to turn and run away, but I hear Grandfather urging me on. I can’t stop now! I rub my eyes, trying to clear up the mist, then feel my way forward.
Seven, eight, nine steps! My heart lurches in terror, and a black darkness settles on me. I can’t go on! I can’t, I can’t! I must. One more step! Two more! Don’t be afraid, don’t think! Keep going, don’t give in… I am ashamed of my unreasonable fear. What is wrong with me? Nothing has happened yet…and yet I am terrified.
Step, step, step. I am sweating violently now, and my feet are unsteady. Suddenly I stop. I can’t go on! Something is physically keeping me back. A terrifying, invisible, looming something. I can’t go on! It won’t let me pass! It is choking me…I can’t breathe, I can’t move!
I have to go on! I can’t stop now!
“Be brave, lad!” Grandfather calls. Somehow, it gives me new strength. I glance back at him. He smiles encouragingly at me. Steeling myself, I take another step. It requires every ounce of will, but I do it! Another one! And another one! I am going to suffocate! One more step! With the last strength left in me, I throw myself down the last stairs and collapse at the bottom.
The doorknob…weakly I reach upward for it, and turn it. The door swings open, and just like that, the fear, the ominous something – everything! – vanishes, like light dispelling shadows. Gratefully, I stumble forward and fall into the arms of the awaiting Statesman, breathing deeply. Air! Glorious, beautiful air!
“Well done, lad!” the Statesman praises.
I want to shout for joy. I can just see Grandfather smiling down at me. I beckon to him. Come on. You can do it. No…he shakes his head, but I insist this time. I nod decisively and open my arms to him. Come.
Unable to refuse me, he slowly begins the descent. One step, two steps, three steps, four. I watch the fear in his eyes, and urge him onward. Come on, Grandfather, you can do it!
He tries to smile, but I can see that he is breathing hard. He stumbles, and catches himself against the wall, fear blazing in his eyes like an uncontrollable fire. Come on, Grandfather! Don’t give up! I reach towards him, ready to help him down the last steps. He totters forwards, nothing but the momentum keeping him going. Then suddenly he hits the wall of fear. He can’t stop! I gasp, as he pitches forward, rolling down the last stairs.
I scream. “Grandfather!” I run to his side and help him up, before I even hear myself. He stares dazedly at me.
“Did you really speak?” he whispers. I can feel my eyes grow wide.
“Did I?” I laugh nervously. It must be my Time. It is strange hearing my voice for the first time…the first time I can remember. My tongue slurs the words I ought to know so well. “Come on, Grandfather, choose the name you have earned.”
“A name?” he asks distractedly, staring at me, “I do not need to, lad. You have already given me one.”
I am puzzled. “I did? What name?”
“Grandfather.” he smiles gently, “You have called me that twice now. At my age, there could not me a more honorable name than that. And you? What name will you be called by?”
I think for a moment. What name befits an orphan who cannot remember his past?
“You have let me give you a name.” I say slowly, “So it is fitting that you should name me.”
Now it is his turn to contemplate. I watch the thoughts turn over and over in his head as he stares hard at the ground.
“Well lad,” he finally looks up, “then I would be happy to call you Bern – it means ‘brave’. It is a good name, long neglected by the public, and I would be proud if you would bear it.”
“I would be glad to, Grandfather.” I laugh, and hook my arm in his, as we joyfully return home.