Loading...

“Split-Level,” by Tessa Yang

Staircase Sketch (pylypchuk25)

The house was a three-bedroom with a square backyard, one short flight of stairs descending to the basement and a second leading to the upper floor. The living room was drafty, so she caulked along the window frames. The garage had mice, so he bought traps—the ones with the sticky paper that resulted in a slower death for the struggling rodents, but which spared him the sight of any blood. They performed these tasks with cheerful efficiency. They were goal-oriented people. “Thing-doers,” she liked to say at those first, early parties where they were the only married couple, where they spoke in triumphant first-person plurals about their home improvement projects. They were people who got things done.

He was the first one to notice the extra step, stumbling over it on his way to the kitchen one morning. His feet recognized it before his brain. He had to go back and count: four, five, six. He wondered if he was losing his mind. The past month had been stressful. Their sickly newborn had spent the first week of its life inside a lighted box at the hospital like a rare museum artifact. Then it came home, it became a he, a living creature to dote on and fret over and sometimes secretly despise as they rushed to and from his crib, dead-eyed with exhaustion.

But the staircase to the second floor continued to grow. Up to eleven steps by the time his mother visited and informed them that they did not have the baby on a schedule—the baby had them on a schedule. She didn’t mention the elongated staircase, though his wife had embraced the anomaly with enthusiasm, marching up and down the steps with a five-pound weight in either hand, determined to return to pre-baby shape in record time.

Over the years they called in experts. Carpenters, architects, structural engineers. A clairvoyant wanted to feature them on her TV show, certain they were hosting a spirit who reached out with ghostly fingers to manipulate the steps.

They stopped having friends over. It was embarrassing, trying to explain. They wanted to sell the place, but who on earth would take a house with 43 stairs? The people at her office complained when the elevator shut down, and that was only two flights.

They resolved to ignore it. It was the same strategy they offered their son when his little sister parroted his phrases. Just ignore her. She’ll get bored and go away. For a while it worked. The stairs seemed to max out. She returned to school, working toward her MBA on the company’s dime. He went part-time and learned to cook like Ina Garten—gazpacho and shrimp scampi, coconut cake on gleaming metal stands. Weekends, they rented movies, avoiding Netflix because they distrusted this growing culture of instant gratification, but also because they liked the sight of their children galloping pink-cheeked between the racks of DVDs.

Then his father died. It took something out of him. He became fussy and fearful. He obsessed over their children’s diets. On evenings she had class, she worried he wasn’t feeding them enough. She took to sneaking junk food into their backpacks. Her daughter gobbled these treats on the bus ride home each day, tonguing the traitorous cheese dust from beneath her fingernails. The packages in her son’s bag always returned unopened, yet in an act of some great cosmic injustice, he remained overweight.

The staircase began to grow again. Three, sometimes four steps a night. It curled in tight spirals. He thought of a nautilus; she, the twisted ladders of DNA. Their daughter was fond of the stairs. She had a name for each one. They could hear her greeting them as she ascended to her bedroom—“Hi Mitsy, hi Scooter, hi Phil—” her voice fading into the heights, then silenced. For their son, the stairs were the torment of gym class all over again. He begged to sleep in the first-floor study. His father worried about all the things a boy could get into. His wife told him to stop hovering and hired a team of baffled movers to maneuver her son’s bed down the 97 steps.

In the past year, she’d begun sleeping with the woman who delivered the mail. “For the free stamps,” she told her husband when asked why she’d done it. She had expected the telling to ignite something between them. Instead it only sat there like a sidestepped piece of roadkill, awaiting pick-up from the people who were paid to do that sort of thing.

They were forced to take rest stops on the journey to the second floor. Their bodies had started to protest the climb: her hips, his feet. At the midpoint, they could hear neither the stutter of video game gunfire from their son’s first-floor bedroom, nor the shrieked Japanese of their daughter’s Anime shows upstairs. There was only the house—an orchestra of shudders—and their own frail voices as they pitched ideas, the same ones every night.

They could install an elevator.

They could move, permanently, downstairs.

They could take the financial blow and abandon the house.

But by the time they reached the second floor, aching and sweaty, it was all they could do to collapse into bed.

Lighting bolts cut through his dreams. She saw an endless snake of roller coaster tracks, writhing through a fiery sky. When the scene morphed and they found themselves teetering at the top of the stairs, it was not always clear whether they were dreaming or not—for if it was a dream, it was so lifelike that when she sprang over the railings and began to free fall, when he dove headfirst from the topmost step, there was the perfect crystallized panic, followed by the gut-swooping relief, of having relinquished oneself to an irrevocable mistake.

About the Author:

Tessa Yang is an MFA candidate at Indiana University where she serves as the Associate Editor of Indiana Review. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clockhouse, The Writing Disorder, and Lunch Ticket. Her short story “Runners” was a finalist for The Cossack Review’s October Prize and will appear in Issue 7. When not reading and writing, Tessa enjoys playing Frisbee and counting down the remaining days until next year’s Shark Week. Follow her on Twitter: @ThePtessadactyl.

Special Note:

This story was a finalist in The Conium Review‘s 2016 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Leesa Cross-Smith.

Image Credit: © pylypchuk25 – stock.adobe.com

“Excerpts from the Fairy Tale Land Times,” by Charlie Brown

Small house in tree hollow sketch

From “Police Blotter:”

The Bear Family in the Nearby Wood area reported a home break-in yesterday at 3:22 p.m. While away from their house, an intruder committed petty theft (bowl of porridge) and vandalism (rocking chair) before being discovered in the bedroom. The intruder, described as a human child, then fled the scene. She is approximately six years old with blonde hair and no other distinguishing characteristics. Possibly armed.

 

From “Griselda’s Helpful Hints:”

Q: One of the best things about the beanstalk in my husband’s garden is that we find the occasional human. My husband always wants me to grind the bones for bread, but I want to try something new. Any suggestions?

A: While we acknowledge that bone bread is a staple of any giant’s diet, you’re missing out on some interesting exotic flavors. Use a microplane to shave the bones over a salad or pasta for an umami kick. Or, if you have the time, smoke the humans and add them to the pot when you cook those beans from the stalk. It will add a fatty richness, especially if you happen to get an American.

From “Ask an Evil Stepmother:”

Q: I already have trouble sleeping, but now I have back problems. My prospective mother-in-law put a pea under my mattress and I still ache two weeks later. How can I marry into this family when they are capable of such abuse?

A: Oh, do blue bloods like to whine. Look, I realize in-breeding has made you royals as delicate as china dolls, but I’m going to give it to you straight: toughen up, princess. You may think it’s a happily ever after now, but what are you going to do in twenty years? Can you feed the new hot chick a poisoned apple? Will you get your new husband’s kids “lost” in the woods near the cannibal witch’s gingerbread house so the adults can get some alone time? How about giving the all the chores to that left-behind little ragamuffin so your kids can get the good stuff? Can you do that? Not with that attitude, missy.

 

About the Author:

Charlie Brown is a writer and filmmaker from New Orleans. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he recently received his Masters in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California and also runs Lucky Mojo Press and Mojotooth Productions. He has made two feature films: Angels Die Slowly and Never A Dull Moment: 20 Years of the Rebirth Brass Band. His fiction has appeared in The Writing Disorder, Jersey Devil Press, The Menacing Hedge, Aethlon, and what?? Magazine and the forthcoming anthology The Portal In My Kitchen. He currently teaches journalism and composition at various community colleges.

Special Note:

This story was longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions.

Image Credit: © Danussa / Dollar Photo Club

“Prayer Group,” by Charlie Brown

Praying Angel Sketch

She came from Massachusetts. She looked different and we were worried. But we let her join our prayer group.

We made some conversation. We had our sharing time. There was coffee in the boiler, donuts in the box. But long it had been since we had somebody new.

We all sat in a circle and talked about the weather. She said she followed moon cycles as they connected her to earth. She was excited by constellations and, gee, the sky was so clear here. She said she was a Taurus. She ate a jelly donut.

We asked her for privacy and gathered by the coffee. We talked and thought about it. Massachusetts had Salem, and didn’t Salem have those witches? We knew nothing of astrology, and she was quick to bring it up. She had taken the last donut.

The reading for tonight was from the Gospel of John. She talked about the Greek, how it was written for the diaspora. When we asked of Massachusetts, she said the community was open minded. Ideas came up at prayer group where they interpreted the stories. They were not fundamental.

We looked at her in silence. We had let her into prayer group.

We asked her for privacy and gathered by the coffee. Witches came from Massachusetts, but did they go to prayer group? We tabled it right then and went back to the circle.

She talked while we all read. She had opinions about everything. She looked so at ease, while we were all on edge.

We asked again for privacy. She said that made her nervous. While we gathered at the coffee, she asked us lots of questions. Were we angry at her presence? Was it wrong to have opinions?

We came to a conclusion. She joined out of desperation. She was obviously possessed.

We turned just then and spied at her from the table. She smiled so weakly as she fumbled in her purse. She asked if she should leave. She removed her ring of keys.

We told her she should stay and surrounded her quite quickly. We found a jump rope and bound her. We gagged her when she screamed.

We decided to say a rosary. We chose the Sorrowful Mysteries. We prayed and laid on hands. It took fifteen minutes.

We knew about possession. A man had spoken at prayer group. The possessed would talk rapidly, looking stretched with few wrinkles. Her skin was already smooth, so we couldn’t be so sure. But she spoke very quickly as the gag was removed.

She apologized for her opinions and begged to go on home. She said her head was hurting and the pain was really bad. Another sign of possession.

We said another rosary. We chose the Joyful Mysteries. We prayed and laid on hands. It took half an hour.

She cursed us then to pieces, yelling we were out to get her. She was clearly paranoid. All signs she was possessed.

We went to the church and brought back holy water. We doused her by the handful. She screamed as the water hit her, but she was dry in ten minutes. We blamed it on the demon.

We started a novena and she got real silent. We laid on hands and felt the air chill. We all stood and chanted. We dribbled more holy water.

She wilted and then looked at us, her face shining with peace. She nodded, seemed renewed. We sang a song of praise. She asked to be untied after she sang along.

We drank a cup of coffee. We had a silent prayer. It lasted a full ten minutes and it filled us all with joy. We hugged and hurried home while she laughed, waving goodbye.

But we still don’t know why she never came back to prayer group.

About the Author:

Charlie Brown is a writer and filmmaker from New Orleans. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he recently received his Masters in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California and also runs Lucky Mojo Press and Mojotooth Productions. He has made two feature films: Angels Die Slowly and Never A Dull Moment: 20 Years of the Rebirth Brass Band. His fiction has appeared in The Writing Disorder, Jersey Devil Press, The Menacing Hedge, Aethlon, and what?? Magazine and the forthcoming anthology The Portal In My Kitchen. He currently teaches journalism and composition at various community colleges.

Image Credit: © kuco / Dollar Photo Club