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Grandma always told me that you shouldn’t look at the staircase, just the next step. Look up and you see how far you have to climb. Down, how far you can fall.
So, just pay attention to the next step.
Makes life more manageable.
I could definitely use some manageable.
“You’re never going to make it.”
I don’t bother looking toward the voice. I know if I do, I’ll see Lucy. Which is the opposite of helpful. “You’re dead.”
She laughs. “That’s a cheap shot. You’re generally more original. Feeling a little bit defensive in the face of your failure?”
Just focus on the next step. “I wasn’t taking a shot. Simply reminding both of us that you’re not really here. You’re ash. We spread you over the bay.”
“I wanted to be buried.”
My eyes fly to hers. “You did not.”
That familiar smile beams back at me. “Of course not. Spending eternity in a box?” She shudders dramatically. “Creepy. But I made you look.”
And now I can’t look away. My throat burns at the sight. “Leave me alone. Please.”
“Like you left me?”
“No.” I tear my gaze away from hers. Back to the stairs. “I won’t do this anymore.”
I take a step up, focusing now on the one after that.
Lucy skips up past me. “You know, I still remember when mom and dad brought you home from the hospital. You were such a wrinkly little mess. All the crying and flailing. And I remember thinking that I was going to protect you. I was the big sister. I was going to make sure that nothing ever hurt you.”
I make it to the top of the staircase as she speaks. Her words are the same as they were when she was alive. No new information. Further proof that she’s not really here. I’m alone.
The only way to stop being alone is to get past these stairs.
I’m so tired of being alone.
I move to the next flight up.
Lucy keeps pace. “Silly that it never occurred to me to get the same promise of devotion on your end, I guess.”
I keep my eyes on the next step, but I can’t stop from responding. “I didn’t leave you. I went for help. There’s a difference.”
“Not really. I still died alone. No, I’m sorry, that’s a little too sanitized. I still burned to death alone while you were out chatting up firemen.”
“I couldn’t lift everything off of you. I wasn’t strong enough.” Don’t look at her.
Lucy laughs again. But it’s mean now. Not her real laugh. “Believe me, you don’t need to remind me of your weakness. I’m well aware.”
I don’t bother wiping the tears off my face. They’ll just be replaced by more. I can’t make out the next step through the blurriness. My foot doesn’t quite catch and I begin to fall back.
Lucy steadies me.
“See? I’m always there for you. Why is it so hard for you to do the same?”
I stare into her eyes. As I speak, I can taste the salt. “Because you’re not her.” I push away, gaining another step. “She’s gone.”
“You’re that sure?”
“She would be trying to help me get out of here. She was always trying to help me. Lucy would never want me in this hell.”
“I don’t know. Remember that time you decided to play Rockettes with my brand new Barbie doll and ripped her leg right off? I kind of wanted you in hell then.”
Lucy takes my hand, holding it gently as we both continue to climb. I want to yank it back. I don’t want to ever let go.
“She wouldn’t want me here.” Another staircase completed.
“Maybe, but a person can go through some pretty serious ideological shifts while they’re feeling their flesh seared from their bones.” The casual tone of her voice makes the words that much worse.
I stare at the steps. “She’d want me happy.”
Agreement comes quickly. “Absolutely. But did it ever occur to you that we were happiest when it was just us playing together? We could do that here. Spruce this place up. They may be a pain in the ass to climb, but the stairs are actually pretty cool looking. We always wanted to live in a place with a weird aesthetic, remember? Isn’t that how we ended up in that fire trap? But no fire here. Just us, together. Plus our legs are going to look awesome.” She pauses, stopping my motion as well. Her voice is softer now. “It’s much harder to be happy out there. So much hurting. And we’d never see each other.”
“But you’re not her. This isn’t real. I’m not supposed to be stuck here. I’m supposed to be getting better.” The tears are flowing harder now. I don’t want to stop them. Maybe this time I’ll finally rid myself of them all. “I just want to feel better.”
Lucy smiles sadly. “Then you should go. I won’t try to stop you any more.”
She lets go of my hand and I run, racing up another flight. My brain screams at me not to, but I turn around anyway. Lucy stands where I left her, making no move to follow.
She nods. “I’ll be okay. Alone isn’t so bad.” She looks away for a second, her eyes shimmering when they return to mine. “I love you, nerd.”
The familiar good-bye has me taking a step in her direction. Nothing seems sure anymore. It’s not her. I know that. It can’t be.
No, it’s time for me to finally get out of here. I stare at the step in front of me. Just take it. My feet don’t move. I need them to move.
I glance back at Lucy. She still stands there, watching me with a calm sadness.
Focus on the next step.
Just like Grandma always said.
But Grandma never did specify a direction.