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The Hole Below the Twelfth Step

There are thirteen steps leading to my apartment on the second floor of the PennHills Building in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. The first eleven steps I scale with ease, an Olympic sprinter climbing for the silver. It’s that twelfth step: something off about it. It feels shoddy, perhaps weak wood. It makes a noise when you step on it like a hungry baby, a dog with a broken tail, groaning, grinding.

I’ve phoned the management office twice a day to complain, implore, warn.

“What’s the problem now, Sam B-6?” asks Myrtle, the apartment manager. Her voice sounds like a vacuum cleaner with a bag full of dust and fuzz and dirt from shoe bottoms, ready to pop. Myrtle’s been a chain smoker since the womb, getting the habit from her mother.

“There’s something off about step number twelve. I know what you’re thinking. God. It’s that nutjob again. My ex would probably agree with you.”

I feel her pause, holding back a long sigh. I hear her Zippo click. She inhales, breathing in a lungful of corrosive, miasmic death.

“We’ve had maintenance out there twice.”

“They missed something. I’ve got smart feet, lady. Do you know how many times my toes have tingled just before stepping off a curve, warning me to stop? Saving me from some barreling bus or truck. I once stopped a lady with a pram next to me, just before a Waste Management truck jumped the curb.”

She exhaled more miasma, remembering how nice it was to share.

“Magic feet. Got it.”

She didn’t sound like she was taking my sensitive, psychic feet seriously.

“I’m trying to save you some trouble here. That stair is going to go taking anyone standing on it sledding down to the boiler room. Then some TV lawyer is going to clamp their jaws down on your ass, and you won’t have a dime to buy a pack of Virginia Slims.”

“Are you threatening legal action, B-6?”

“No. No. I’m trying to help.”

“I’ll try to get Ed out there,” she said.

“You don’t understand. I just don’t feel safe—”



I called out from work the next day. Truman High had plenty of substitute math teachers on call. I waited at the door of my apartment, listening out at the hall for the heavy hoof clops of Joe-Maintenance-Guy. I balanced on a fold-up chair, staring at the tarnished doorknob, opening the door a crack when I heard a noise—mostly neighbors going back and forth like a clock pendulum. A few times I nearly warned them, convinced as soon as their foot hit the twelfth step they’d crack the building in two, collapsing it into a pile of brick and drywall and pipes and people and little babies. I just knew the next time was going to be it. Implosion.

Meredith B-7 with those hawk-gray eyes spied me spying from my door.

“Sam. What are you doing?”

I didn’t close the door. She peered in, tomato curls dangling over her nose. She had warm bathwater eyes.

“Looking for the little man from the draft board? The second coming?”

“You’re not using that step? Right?”

She washed my skinny, whipped body with a gaze.

“I skip and jump over it every time.”

“Good,” I said through the crack.

“Why don’t you let me in?” she said. “I’ll make us some dinner. I just dropped Bobby off at his dad’s.”

My hand reached to the knob, to release, to allow, entreat, create a vacuum to suck her body in.

“I’m a bit tired,” I said. “Maybe later.”

The water in her eyes spilled down the drain.

“Ok buddy. Just knock twice on the wall if you want some company, but not too hard. You’re liable to bust through in this old firetrap.”

“Sure as sugar,” I said.

I shut the door, folded up the chair.

She’d reminded me I hadn’t eaten during my vigil, so I went to the kitchen and found a pizza box shoved into the bottom of the fridge from two days before. I grabbed a plate out of the stack in the sink, rubbed it down with a paper towel and stuck the last two slices in the microwave. I grabbed a beer, sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall, using two boxes of books as a table. I flipped on the History channel, something about Sherman’s march to the sea.

I chewed the pizza—the tomato sauce bitter, the cheese tasted like licking a wallpapered wall, bland wallpaper without little ducks. The grease smeared my lip and chin. I wiped it clean with a paper towel, but my face still felt sticky. I washed each bite down with a beer chaser like I was gagging down cough syrup.

I grabbed my cell phone. Just checking the time, I thought. I wasn’t going to phone anyone. I had one of those cat clocks on my wall with the swaying eyes and tail, but it lost a couple of seconds each day. So I had to check my cell. A few seconds accumulate. Lives begin and end in moments.

I had no intention of calling Jenny.

Quarter after five.

Jenny would be sitting down for dinner. I ordered my fingers not to dial, but I have rebel fingers, anarchist hands. They do as they like.

A baby-doll answered with a baby-doll voice:  “Brewster Residence. Alyssa speaking.”

“Can I talk to Jenny, please?” I said.

“Sure. Hold-on-a’ah-minutde, mist’ah.”

I heard the girl talking in the background:


My stomach clenched, nearly ejecting the pizza and beer. I swallowed it down, but some of the vomit got into my sinuses.

Then I felt Jenny’s presence on the phone, the headset in her gentle embrace, the microphone just at her butterfly lips, floating milkweed breath blowing to my ear through electrons flying at light speed between us. She was right here again. How could my wife be so far in Colorado?

“Hello,” she said—sweeping me away, easing my stomach, untying the knots in my soul.

I heard plates clinking on a table, a gravely, ogre’s voice speaking to the kids.

“I miss Billy,” I said.

Sigh. Oh sigh. Blowing on the phone in gales.

“Ron wants me to get a restraining order,” Jenny said.

“Of course he does. He’s a lawyer. That’s how he solves things.”

She whispered so Ron couldn’t hear:

“You don’t think I miss him? I was his mother. Jesus Christ. Not a day goes by with Ron’s kids, watching Sesame Street, speaking in their little voices when I don’t have to stop and hold onto something because I’m going to pass out.”

“Doesn’t look that way,” I said.

“I’m so tired of being judged. What was I suppose to do? Bury myself next to him. And you? I had to move on, and you weren’t helping me. Ron was there for me.”

“Everything would be just fine and fine if they’d fix that step,” I said. “You left me.”

I felt her shaking her head over the phone, closing her eyes when she did, slipping away a little more each time.

“It was two years ago. I’m tired of the guilt. I’m married again. Ron is there for me. He doesn’t get lost in self-pity.”

“You abandoned your husband.”

Jenny, who is that on the phone? I heard in the background. She didn’t respond.

“You abandoned me long before. Jesus Christ. You ever going to come down from that cross?”

“Is that Sam? You tell him—”

“Don’t call anymore,” Jenny said. “If you need help, get a shrink or a canary, someone who will listen to you and not need you to listen back.”

“Wait. Before you go. Please.”

She huffed, hesitated.

“What Sam?”

“How much does Ron charge? I want to sue the apartment because they won’t fix the stairs. Maybe you could wrangle me a discount?”

The connection died. I clapped the cell phone shut.

I threw on my blazer. I was going to drive out there and talk to her, see her. I was going to tell her about my nightmare, the same one repeating over and over like spinning hands on a clock. I couldn’t do it over the phone. I had to see her, and maybe she’d touch me. I could sometimes see Billy in her face, especially in the cheeks.

I shut the door then hesitated at the steps. I inhaled, jumped over the twelfth at the top, then fled to the door. Damn. My keys. I’d left it on the boxes in the bedroom.

I took to the stairs, prepared myself at the eleventh to leap, but my legs wouldn’t respond to my brain’s commands. The wood had been replaced by a vat of cement, sucking my feet in and hardening fast. I stood there, staring at number twelve. It rose up like a Kilimanjaro, blocking me from getting to my apartment.

Waiting. Trapped in the vice.

Maybe Jenny would regret yelling, take a flight east, come and take my hand and lead me home. She’d tell me how her womb ached still for Billy, that her life was severed when his tiny clockwork body stilled from the cancer in his blood. It had been our blood that soured. We gave it to him, damned him to a brief life. I blamed her for at least half of it.

I sat on the eleventh step, leaning against the wall. The briny, putrid odor of a neighbor’s cooking brought on nausea, and I covered my nose, mouth with the black sleeve of my blazer. I sat there till the windows in the front door dimmed, a black curtain falling on the hall. My eyes closed. In only moments of sleep, the dream cycled through my head.

It played thrice until a voice reached in, pulling me from the nightmare.

“Sam? Not peachy keen?”

Meredith kneeled at the top of the staircase. I couldn’t reach her passed the chasm of step twelve. The black hole waited to suck me down and crush me. I figured it out just then. It wasn’t the step. There was something here unseen, lost in the veil beyond the eye, a geometric point like a singularity. I had found that pit in the world where all things collect when they are lost: house keys, important paperwork, that favorite toy, the memory of the face of your mother before she died. The hole of lost things began here at the twelfth step. I could reach in and pull out all misplaced and stolen matter and energy since the dawn of time. It floated off the ground, constantly expanding. The next person to step on the stair would crack the wood and fall in, and people lost could never be found.

Was that where Billy had gone?

“Here honey,” she said. “Take my hand. I’ll make us some coffee.”

“No. I don’t want you to be lost too.”

How to make her understand?

“Honey. What can I do to make it better?”

“Because you’re lonely too and think because we’re both divorced we could share our misery.”

She still reached for me.

“I know it’s hard getting close to someone again,” she said. I hadn’t realized before just how sturdy she was—solid footing, good calve muscles exposed through her Capris. She didn’t wobble, rooted into the floor.

“I hear you at night yelling in your sleep,” she said. “My bed is just on the other side yours. I reach out to the wall and try to hold you.”

“I close my eyes and I’m dreaming,” I said. “It never stops playing behind my eyes. My son.”

“I didn’t know you had a son,” she said. “Does he live with his mother?”

“He couldn’t take his eyes off his toy plane, running down the hall from his bedroom. He hit the stairs and tumbled right down, snapping it. He got a wicked gash on his temple. It had to hurt, but he didn’t cry. Not my Billy. So stoic. Tough.”

“We drove him to Saint Mary’s for stitches, and it was weird because he just kept bleeding. They find cancer like that, funny little accidents.”

She reached for my shoulder.

“In the dream, I’m chasing after him, trying to stop him from hitting the stairs. I see him go down, but when I get there, he’s gone like the staircase ate him up.”

“I had no idea. Please. Let me take you home and make you some coffee.”

“It’s going to snap, and you’ll be lost forever.”

“I’ll show you,” she said, plunging her foot down on the step.

The wood cracked, vibrating through my body. The stair bent then snapped, and her foot lost balance. She wobbled forward, throwing her arms to the walls to catch hold of something but not getting enough traction.

I reached for her as I did Billy in my dream. Her foot caught in the twisted wood, and her body turned as she fell. I braced on the wall, breaking her fall, reaching to keep her head clear of the banister.

She gurgled, trying to yell out I guess. I caught her, kept her from plummeting down the rest of the staircase, holding her. I could feel her heart race like a drum through her ribs. We both nearly tumbled down the stairs.

She felt my arms around her, felt little pain, still awake, still alive, and she sobbed into my blazer.

“I’ll get you home, Meredith.”

I lifted her, carried her as I stepped over the hole in the world. I didn’t dare look down into the dark bag, knowing I’d go mad if I saw the eyes of the lost souls frozen forever in the heart of the singularity.

I carried her to her apartment, opened the door and thought for a moment from all the packed boxes and dirty dishes that I had mistakenly stepped back into my flat.

I laid her on her couch, checked her leg for bruising.

“How did you know it was going to break?” she said.

“Magic feet,” I said.


T. Fox Dunham lives outside of Philadelphia, PA. He is a cancer survivor, a historian, and an author published in many international magazines and anthologies. He is currently finishing his first novel, The Adam & Eve Experiment and writing for Beam Me Up Podcasts. His motto is: deconstructing civilization one story at a time.


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