Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Short Story Challenge and THE HAUNTED STAIRCASE

   So last week I told a good friend that she could pick the topic for my next short story.  Note I said "topic" - SINGULAR.  Instead I got a challenge to take several very . . . well, shall is say "diverse" elements and weave them into a tale!  Never one to refuse a challenge, I accepted and finished this little story in less than twenty-four hours from the time the challenge was issued.  I'm actually proud of how it came out, but you guys can be the judge!  Here were the elements I was instructed to include:

- 1986
- a boss who is afraid to leave his office
- a staircase where three people died
- a hot secretary who wears a different wig every week
- spicy cookies
- a marketing scheme involving Peru
And . . .
- a rabbi with PTSD

And here is the story I came up with.  Let me know what you think!

A Short Story by Lewis Smith 
“Want a cookie, Boss?”  
The secretary’s voice stirred Mubert Brittleton from his concentration.  He heaved a sigh and looked up at her.  Brittleton was middle-aged, overweight, balding, and had an unfortunate tendency to perspire when he was stressed.  And these days, it seemed he was always stressed.  In fact, he thought, he couldn’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t stressed.  He’d never figured out what dark interior cavity his father had pulled the name “Mubert” from, but wearing it had cost the younger Brittleton a childhood full of teasing and bullying from his classmates.  Girls ignored him, and jocks shoved him out of the way, and the brainy students looked down on him because he wasn’t particularly bright.  Mubert had finally found a girlfriend during his senior year of high school, a mousy, shy bookworm named Rhonda, and they had married in 1970, when he was twenty-four years old.  She had been the brightest point of his existence, but they had only had five years together before a drunk driver stole her life away and relegated him to a life of loneliness as a commodities broker.  He had eventually come to manage his own small company in this rundown brick building on the low-rent end of Cincinnati, but he struggled to pay the rent, keep the lights on, and pay his employees.  At the end of the day, he could put groceries on the table of his small, neatly mowed frame house just outside of town, and that was it.  Truth was, most days he couldn’t eat those groceries because of the ulcers that bedeviled him. 
“I’m sorry, Trina, what did you say?” he asked.  He’d been staring at the Peruvian accounts again, trying to figure out how to dig his way out of the hole he’d put his business into. 
“I brought some cookies from home,” Trina Galloway repeated.  “Do you want one?” 
He smiled.  Trina always put him in a good mood – she was young, pretty, buxom, and her hair was done up exactly like Kathleen Turner’s in Romancing the Stone, one of his favorite movies. Except that today her hair was blue.  Monday it might well be dark red, or teal, or jet black.  Her hair color changed every week if not more often, and he knew enough about women’s hair to know that no one could dye their hair a different color that often without destroying it, so he knew that Trina must have a very large wig collection.  He often wondered if she was bald underneath, or just wore her real hair short enough that it never peeked out from under her endless parade of hairpieces.  One of his fantasies involved sneaking up behind her and yanking her wig off to find out. 
“Sure, Trina, that sounds nice,” he said, taking a cookie from the Tupperware bowl.  He bit into it and chewed a moment, then looked at her oddly.  She was grinning in an impish way.  He swallowed and spoke. 
“What kind of cookies are these?” he said.  “They nearly burned my tongue off!” 
“Cinnamon, sugar, and cayenne pepper,” she said.  It's an old family recipe from my grandmother.  She called them her sugar firebomb cookies.” 
Mubert took another bite.  After the initial shock of an unexpectedly spicy cookie, he found that the flavors actually blended well together.  Good thing he had a bottle of Maalox in his desk, he thought.  His ulcer might not like this nearly as much as his mouth did. 
“These are really pretty good when you get used to them,” he said.  “Thanks!” 
“You’re welcome,” she said.  “Have a couple more!”  Before he could protest, she placed a napkin on his desk and put two of the ‘sugar firebombs’ on it. He smiled and thanked her again, and took another bite as she walked away, swaying in all the right places.  She was way out of his league and he knew it, but a guy could look, right?  After she’d returned to her desk, he bent over the Peruvian accounts again. 
It had seemed like such a good idea, selling the new Apple desktop computers at a discounted rate to an emerging nation with a growing economy.  But unfortunately Microsoft had gotten the same idea at the same time, and even though Brittleton knew that the Apple product was better, his rivals had a bigger advertising budget, and he was stuck with two warehouses full of computers that he couldn’t sell.  The ‘1984’ ad that had moved so many Apple products here in the states a couple of years before just didn’t have the same appeal to South American audiences, and neither did anything else his firm tried. This whole mess was going to drag the company into the ground if he couldn’t find a way to fix it.  He turned the radio down – they were playing Toto’s “Africa” again, a song whose lyrics mystified him utterly – and called his foreign sales rep to strategize. 
One call led to another, followed by more number crunching on his IBM adding machine, and then he dictated a lengthy letter to his advertising department in Lima.  He was still staring at the ledgers when Trina poked her head in again. 
“See you Monday, boss,” she said.  “Hope you have a nice night!” 
“Five o’clock already?” he said.  “Wow, time really got away from me today.  Thanks, Trina, and you too.  Any plans?” 
“My sister and I are going to hear Journey in concert tomorrow,” she said.  “They’re not as good since Steve Perry quit, but I still love the music.” 
“Sounds groovy,” he said, and internally winced at how old that made him sound.  “Have a great time.” 
He watched her leave again, admiring her curves and wondering what would happen if he asked her out.  He’d been on exactly three dates since his wife died, and none of them had gone well.  He simply wasn’t an attractive man, and he knew it, and that made him nervous, and being nervous made him sweat.  Women might like sweat on musclebound construction workers, but in his experience, a sweaty, potbellied, balding man might as well have a sign around his neck saying “Women beware!”  He smiled as he tried to imagine what a date with Trina might be like, but then he heard her footsteps hit the front staircase and his smile vanished. 
That staircase.  He spent every day trying not to think about it, and sometimes he succeeded.  But in the back of his mind he knew that at the end of the day that he would have to either walk down that narrow, shadowed set of steps to the front door of his business – or else stay in the office again.  Here lately it seemed as if staying in the office was becoming the more appealing option. 
When he had rented this building five years before, the realtor, a bivocational Jewish rabbi, had shown him up the steps and into the small suite of offices.  Even then that narrow flight of stairs had given Mubert the willies for some reason he couldn't put his finger on.  The single bulb lit the stairs well enough, but the ceiling was dim and shadowy, and some of the corners were dark - so dark that you couldn't see all the way into their recesses if the sun was not shining outside.  That particular afternoon, he hadn't really paid attention, except to note that the staircase was unusually chilly, colder than the street outside and the office upstairs. 
"This space was last rented by a real estate firm," Jacob Horowitz was explaining, "but they lost a bundle in the S&L crisis and had to move out.  We've not been able to rent it since, but I've had my crews keep it clean, and locked up tight.  Should be nice of a business the size of yours." 
The door to the street had swung shut behind them with a bang, and the rabbi jumped, and then laughed bitterly. 
"Fifteen years since I left 'Nam and I still hit the deck when I hear a car backfire," he says.   "I guess the battlefield stays with you all your life.  Wind must have caught it.  Well, take a look around and tell me what you think." 
Mubert was impressed with the office space and told Jacob as much, so the deal was pretty much sealed before they left the building.  The rabbi turned realtor agreed to meet Mubert the following morning right there at the office with all the paperwork that needed signing, and they had enjoyed a cup of coffee before heading their separate ways.  He had not even noticed the shadows above the staircase as they headed back out into the street that afternoon. 
But the next morning, when Brittleton had arrived at the empty office building, he found the door standing open.  He had stepped on in, figuring that Jacob had already arrived and was waiting for him inside – which, in a manner of speaking, he was.  The rabbi's body was crumpled at the foot of the stairs, his neck twisted at an impossible angle, and an expression of sheer terror on his face. His briefcase was between his feet, and Mubert figured he must have tripped over it somehow near the top of the stairs and fallen back down, breaking his neck as he landed.  Mubert had been in such a hurry to run out the door and call the police that he had only registered for a second that something briefly seemed to move in those dark shadows above the stairs.  When he recalled it later he figured it was just his imagination. 
The realty firm had sent out another agent, and Mubert had concluded the deal – he was sorry for Rabbi Horowitz, but really the office space was too ideal for his needs to reject it out of hand because of a tragic accident.  In fact, he had been so busy that first year that he had almost forgotten the first death on the staircase – until the second one occurred. 
Harry Sharpsburg was a vendor representing a line of snack foods that he wanted Mubert's firm to distribute in several Pacific Rim countries.  They had just finished a very productive meeting one morning, almost two years after Mubert had opened up shop in the walkup office suite.  The deal was settled with a handshake, but not yet in writing, when Sharpsburg left that afternoon.  It had been raining all morning, and the steps were perhaps a bit slick – or perhaps the vendor had gotten his feet tangled in the umbrella he was carrying.  No one knew, because no one actually saw him fall down the stairs.  Roberta, Trina's predecessor, had come back to Mubert's office to type up some notes he had made during the meeting, and most of the other staff was out to lunch.  But the clatter and thud had brought them both running, and what they had found – and what Mubert saw – was unforgettable and disturbing in equal measure. 
The tall, thin vendor was doubled up at the foot of the stairs, his hands over his face, the umbrella bent and broken beneath him.  He was still twitching faintly, and when Brittleton pulled his hands away, his features were twisted in an expression of horror that reminded him starkly of finding the rabbi's body two years before.  Roberta was shrieking hysterically, and Mubert stood to try and comfort or shush her – he wasn't quite sure which – when he heard something.  He wasn't sure what it was, only some sort of vague rustling coming from above his head.  He shot his glance upward, and saw the shadows in the corner moving.  It only lasted for a second, and his impression was that the darkness was somehow folding in on itself, collapsing, and turning into an ordinary shadow.  It was terrifying and compelling at the same time, and he stared at the corner long after the roiling motion had disappeared and normal darkness replaced it.  Then he had shaken himself out of his morbid reverie and ran upstairs to call the police. 
The death was judged to be accidental, and life in the office returned to normal over the next few weeks.  From time to time Mubert found himself standing on the stairs, staring into the shadowy corner, waiting for a movement that never happened.  Gradually the strange compulsion faded, and some days he was able to go straight up the stairs without so much as a glance upwards.  He might have attributed both deaths to clumsy feet and a steep, narrow staircase . . . had it not been for Shirley the intern. 
It was another gloomy day, some six months ago, when the staircase claimed her. Shirley Graves, a sweet, plump, business major from the nearby state university, had been a godsend to the office that spring.  Mubert had actually made up his mind to offer her a permanent position when she graduated if she wanted it.  This particular morning the office was full and buzzing with people as several shipments were either due to be processed or already en route.  The coffee pot had emptied by ten in the morning, and when Shirley went to brew more, she saw that they had run out. 
"I'm running down to the corner store to buy some coffee," she had called out as Mubert walked by, on his way to a meeting with two of his sales reps. 
"Grab me a Snickers," he had said – the last words he ever spoke to her.  She had nodded and waved, and turned to trot down the stairs at her usual brisk pace.  He turned back towards the conference room, and was at the door before the blood-curdling shriek echoed from the stairs. 
He ran as fast as he could – Mubert was actually rather quick for a pudgy fellow – and for the third time in five years, he saw a crumpled body at the foot of the stairs.  But this time he also saw something else there – a blackness that was wrapped around Shirley's body, a tendril of it thrust down her throat, squeezing her tight as she spasmed and struggled.  But then as fast as he registered it, the blackness withdrew, leaving her broken body twitching feebly, swiftly sliding up the wall and folding in on itself as it went.  By the time the first sales rep from the meeting joined Mubert at the head of the stairs, the blackness was gone as if it had never been there. 
He didn't mention the bizarre shadow in the police report, nor in the multiple accident forms his insurance company had him fill out.  After all,  who would have believed him?  From that day forward, though, the stairway filled him with horror.  In fact, he refused to walk down or up it alone.  He waited outside until Trina or one of the others arrived and walked up with them, and usually made a point of leaving with them.  But today he had been so busy he had not even noticed the others leaving, and Trina's goodbye had not registered in time for him to suggest walking out with her.  That meant that he was now alone in the building . . . with IT.  That was how he thought of the thing that he had twice glimpsed, this creature that literally lived in the shadows and preyed on those who got too close to its lair unaccompanied.  He did not know what it took from its victims; only that it left their bodies dead and broken. 
He stood up and paced around his office for a few moments, trying to decide what to do.  He had a blanket and a cot in his office closet, and a clean shirt also.  But this was Friday – did he really want to spend an entire weekend here in the building, all alone with that shadow-haunted staircase between him and the outside world?  He was nervous now;  sweat stained his armpits and dewed his brow.  As he paced, he looked around and saw the phone book in the corner.  That was it!  He could call someone! 
But who?  He really didn't want any of his employees laughing at him, but who else would come to an office building in a commercial neighborhood at five thirty on a Friday afternoon?  He set the phone book down on the edge of his desk, and it fell off, landing front side down.  On the back were several ads, including one for Tony's Pizza, a rather nice eatery a few blocks away.  That was it!  He'd call in a pizza and have it delivered, and then walk down the stairs with the delivery man and head on home.  Perfect – he'd get home safely, he wouldn't have to tread the haunted staircase alone, and his employees would not think that their boss was going paranoid on them. 
He sat down in his chair and dialed the number.  Some teenage girl picked up on the fourth ring; he placed his order and she repeated it back – a large, beef and mushroom pizza with extra cheese and light sauce – and he hung up the phone with a grin.  In an hour, he'd be home safe, watching movies on HBO, chowing down on pizza, and wearing a nice comfortable cotton shirt instead of the rapidly wilting dress shirt he'd worn to the office that morning. 
The building was dead quiet in the October evening; the furnace had been turned off during the warm afternoon, and the only sound was the muted traffic noise coming in from the street and the occasional pop or groan as the old bricks and timbers settled on themselves.  Mubert tried looking at the ledgers, but his eyes were heavy and the numbers kept trying to crawl off the page.  Finally, the bell rang and he buzzed the door open from the top of the stairs. 
"You order a pizza, sir?"  the salesman was a young black man, clean-cut and strongly built. 
"I did indeed," Brittleton replied.  "Stand right there at the foot of the stairs and let me grab my briefcase."  He retrieved his papers and closed the case, then trotted down the stairs as the young man stood there patiently. 
"That'll be twelve dollars even, sir," the boy said.  Mubert dug out a ten and a five and handed them to him, taking the box in his free hand.   
"I just didn't feel like going home and throwing something in the oven," Brittleton said, smelling the rich aroma coming from the box. Then he noticed something didn't seem quite right, so he opened the lid and peeked. 
Jalapeno peppers!  The pizza was covered with sliced jalapenos over the sausage and cheese.  Peppers were Mubert's one great weakness; he loved them even if they set his guts on fire.  He had made  a point not to order them, getting more bland toppings instead, but here they were. 
"This isn't what I ordered," he said.  "I got beef and mushroom with extra cheese." 
"Fo' real?" The driver said.  "Dang!  Now I have to go back to the store." 
Brittleton thought  for a moment.  There was no way he could eat this pizza without a bottle of Maalox handy, and his last bottle was upstairs in his office.  He really didn't want to stop at the drugstore on the way home, either. Then he got an idea. 
"I'll go ahead and take it," he said, "but I need you to wait here for a minute, OK?  Here's an extra ten if you stay right here at the foot of the stairs till I get back." 
"Ten bucks?  Just to wait here?  You got yourself a deal, mister!" The delivery man said with a grin. 
"Excellent!"  Brittleton fairly trotted up the stairs.  He knew he would regret it tomorrow,  but those peppers smelled intoxicating.  He grabbed the bottle of Maalox out of his desk, stretched for just a moment, and headed back to the stairs.  He was halfway down when he noticed that the pizza guy was gone.  He paused for a second, baffled, and then some motion above him caught his eye. 
Something black and glistening was unfolding from the ceiling, and it was so beautiful it held him rooted to the spot.  How could he have been afraid of this thing?  It was like oil and velvet, black, yet all colors at once, swirling, moving, like the unfolding of the world's most exotic orchid, growing here in a suburban office building.  It slowly lowered itself from the ceiling until it hung, suspended a foot above his head, and still unfolding.  Something was emerging from its inky depths, features slowly resolving themselves as he watched in rapt silence.  As he stood there,  a face emerged from the inky plasma - a face with eyes red as fire and fangs that glistened in the faint light of the hallway.  Wonder was replaced by fear, and Mubert opened his mouth to scream – but an inky black pseudopod shoved its way down his throat and choked out the sound.  Twitching and jerking, his body was lifted off the steps for a few seconds – then dropped with a thud.  Mubert Brittleton rolled down the staircase and came to rest in the vestibule.  He was dead before his body reached the bottom of the stairs. 
"Tell me again what happened," the police officer said softly to Damon, the pizza boy.  The kid was clearly shaken up, but the experienced officer wanted to make sure he had recorded the boy's statement accurately. 
"I brought the man his pizza," the young man told him, "and he said it was the wrong order.  But then he said he would take it anyway if I would wait for him downstairs, and gave me a ten.  I was standing here when I heard those two cars hit each other out in the street.  I set the pizza down on the stoop and ran out to make sure them girls were both OK.  They were fine – it was just a fender bender - but when I came back, boss man here was laying just like you see him!" 
"Thank you, Mister Johnson, that will be all.  If I have any more questions, I'll give you a call.  You can get back to your job now," the patrolman said.  Damon wasted no time hopping in his 1980 Ford Pinto and taking off. 
"So what do you make of it?" His partner asked. 
"Mister Brittleton was in a hurry, tripped over his own feet, and broke his neck," the first officer replied. 
"But what about that horrible expression on his face?" The younger officer persisted. 
"Who knows?" His jaded companion replied.  "Maybe fatty was scared that his pizza would get cold before he could eat it." 
With that he snapped his notebook closed and waited for the coroner's wagon to arrive, but he made a point to stand outside the building, under the bright porch light.  That stairway was altogether too dim for his tastes.