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The Thing at the Base of the Stairs (Short Story)
The Thing at the Base of the Stairs
I knew the shadow waited at the base of the stairs. It was always there each time I passed by. He would turn his macabre smile my way. Always smiling each time I saw him. I say him but there was not a gender about the thing. The black eyes shined like those of a cat, feral, striking me with a fear deeper than any I had ever known.
When I was but a child I did not understand the Watcher. He would stand at the base of the stairs, always with that grin, always with his head turned toward me no matter how I turned. And then, as I stepped onto the first stair and the crooked board let out its moaning the Watcher would turn his body toward the wall, still watching me with every step as he vanished.
There was no puff of smoke when he disappeared though in his wake came a burst of air with the iciest of chills. This was no trick perpetrated upon me and not the delusions of a young mind or of a mind deprived of sanity. No, for if it had been madness I would have been able to tolerate the Watcher or even be cured of his constant visits by the miracle of medicine. It is therefore the most terrifying and happy truth that the Watcher is a very real thing.
I hesitate, as I have often when contemplating writing this down, to call the Watcher a person or even an entity of any kind. I have referred to it as a him but that I suppose is simply due to the convenience of that pronoun. Whether the Watcher is a living thing at all or something altogether different I know not.
My parents never saw him, although my Grandfather, on more than one occasion, reported seeing a smiling phantom lurking just behind the cellar door. Though already decrepit with age I remember well his stories, told in his raspy failing voice, whispers of the Watcher in the Dark, never helping and never harming – but always there, always smiling and never blinking.
It was a merciful thing that at the age of eleven my parents saw fit to leave that house in Boston far behind them. Following an industrial job in the city of New York we soon found ourselves in Philadelphia living in a modest house near the Delaware River. My childhood had heretofore been a haunted one and not just by the thing at the base of the stairs but also my illness and frailty. The doctors had done all they could but medicine in the 1930s was not what it is today.
In Philadelphia I was exposed to another story, a far older story, of witchcraft and devils that reminded me of the story of Salem so ingrained in all of us while growing up in Boston and also reminded me of the shadow I had left behind. The devil, they said, had been born of an ordinary woman who had left her husband to be with a black man, a runaway slave. The story had hints of racism not uncommon at the time but it was far from the only tale. Some versions claimed that the woman was a Witch who had lain with or been taken in the night by an Incubus, a lustful and demonic love affair. Others said the monster was the spawn of darkness, born by the dark magic of the forest itself, a product of a pre-human era lost to the ages before man.
The creature birthed from this unholy union or unhallowed age, no matter how the story was told, was devilish in form, gaunt and with wings wrapped tight around a thin skeletal frame with eyes more piercing than its blood-curdling cries heard deep in the still and uninhabited Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Described to me by the other children as the better parts of a vampire bat and a mythical satyr, with the demonic head of a goat and the most maniacal grin I found myself more than a little unnerved by the story. The Jersey Devil, they called him, claiming that once every ten years he crossed the Delaware to haunt Penn's Woods.
The ghastly description frightened me. Then, when I was a still a child, war came to Europe and soon America became swept up in the conflict. It was then, at last, in 1941, at the age of only thirteen, that I saw the Watcher again. Only weeks earlier my fever had reared its head once more though the effect had thus far been very minor. He returned one night while on my way to bed. I saw that grin come through the walls teeth first, always those bare teeth, as if his lips were not there at all they were pulled up so tight.
His eyes were like almonds in their shape but they possessed an otherworldly depth and shine despite how small they were in comparison with ordinary human eyes. Standing face to face with him I studied his features with my heart gnawing at my chest like a caged animal attempting to flee. You could drown in the cosmic depth of those eyes, ever watchful, their inky blackness only outshone by the even darker shade of black at their center. I could see those pupils move, twisting back and forth with rapid motions though his head kept its focus upon me.
Only now did I notice that he was wearing some sort of clothing, a torn and tattered piece of cloth draped over his nearly weightlessly thin form. His skin seemed an ethereal shade of azure blue or purple surrounded by a somehow luminescent dark smoke that danced with tiny pinpricks of white around him. It was as if he had brought all the stars in the cosmos with him, in those eyes and in that black mist. His teeth parted though his lips did not move as if about to speak.
What had I done to invite such intrusion? It had been more than two years since the Watcher had haunted me. Had he followed us from Boston? What was his interest in my family and I? The Watcher stared at me, ultimately saying nothing, and I stared right back until finally my focus broke and I collapsed to the floor at the base of the stairs. The world blurred around me becoming harder and harder to grasp.
When I awoke I heard a gentle voice calling to me,
“Sam,” the dreamlike whisper spoke with mounting clarity, “Samuel.”
Finally my eyes opened and the comfort of unconsciousness began to fade. I was not in bed as I thought I might be at first but instead was still at the base of the stairs. And there above me was the Watcher. I nearly fainted back into the darkness but the scarcely living thing waved it's hand over my head and looked at me with an almost worried expression. There was concern on its face, though the expression was hard to discern amongst those ghastly features that so defined the repugnant thing.
I could see its feet now though they didn't seem like they belonged to him at all. One was a hoof of sorts and the other a grasping claw that looked more it belonged on some giant flightless bird with strange scales and long nails that were discolored and chipped. The creature's hand had grown so near to me I could feel the edge of those dark tendrils of mist, so impossibly cold as to defy real description.
“SAM!?” the voice echoed, now somehow different, more real – my Mother!
I thought I might be going mad as the creature pulled back its hand as if startled. I reached up and felt my own head, I was hot with fever, my body burning while the rest of me felt as cold as a creeping glacier. Thick with sickness I sat up and vomited all over the bottom stair staining the carpet a bloody burgundy as I tried to stand.
My vision blurred once more and the voice called out to me again and then came my Mother, racing down the stairs but I was no longer on the stairs. I was soaring, flying, cutting my way across the crimson skies of some far away world. I shook and shivered assuring myself that I was dreaming as the with the drumbeat of wings pounding in my ears and voices, a thousand voices, a multitude drowning out the frantic beating of my frightened heart.
“Here in the world of the unliving we stand. As Watchers in the dark, the ghostly hand. The fear and love of all men's hearts, the blessing and wrath of all the gods. We observe the endless churn, of water soak and fire burn. To change a moment is to alter time, but time is lost beneath Red Skies. Red Skies beckon children home, filled with blood and tears and bone. The fate of all those lost who see, here beyond eternity.”
I remember a sensation, as I passed into unconsciousness out of a mixture of sickness and fear, a terrifying sense that a hundred grasping hands were all over me, the sensation of skin is one that dreams can fake, like many sensations, but it was all too real.
I woke the next morning in my bed with doctors on all sides probing and administering trying their damnedest to find what was wrong with me. I heard them tell my Mother that my fever must have broken in the night and that they could find no trace of illness within me. I also heard them say that I had been found by the river's edge atop an impossibly high tree and that a fire truck complete with a long ladder had to be called in to retrieve me. After this incident I never had trouble with my fever again and, in reality, have never been truly ill since, not in any serious way.
The Watcher never appeared to me again but I have heard stories of him and those like him and read some of the folklore all of which carries with it a mix of dread and a strange sense of gratitude. In the darkest corners of the world there are stories of beings like the Watcher whose desires are seemingly unknown or unknowable. Monsters are something that most educated men and even most children leave behind to the world of fantasy and fiction at an early age. Their intents are considered evil and their appearances menacing.
But I understand the Watcher now, NOT as part of some greater system of good or evil but as part of a world beyond all of us. Beyond life and beyond death, beyond the limits of our petty superstitions and religious affiliations, there lies a hidden world of monsters. When that world interacts with ours the result is usually to be frightened of it, to embellish stories of it and to fit it into the folklore that we ourselves are familiar with. Ghosts and goblins, demons and angels, we see the hand of god and the meddling of the devil himself. The truth is we live in a haunted world but not haunted by the things we think or imagine but by something far stranger and far older than we even can imagine.
I believe he is out there watching, and more like him, intervening at their own discretion with methods and reasons beyond our understanding, whether on the side of good or evil, at the tide of war or to preserve the peace, who can say? Whether it is in the form of the Angels of Mons appearing on a battlefield to cover the retreat of defeated soldiers or the sightings of a gaunt man with glowing eyes and massive wings preceding the collapse of a Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The world beyond is here and it is always watching.
Someday you might hear the call of that world, and see the crimson skies that reign above it. Maybe you will peer into the black eyes of those that have seen the edge of forever and come back smiling.
Maybe you too will see the thing at the base of the stairs.
Maybe he already sees you.
I wrote this in October 2013 because I was fed up with constantly having writers block. There was a time in my life when writing could be my passion and focus but with a full time job and real world shit to do coupled with intense bouts of writers block cuts into all of the ideas I have. I've gone back and edited it adding some details to make it a bit more compelling.
So this is a simple and I hope creepy story demonstrating what Lovecraft called mankinds greatest fear, the fear of the unknown. The idea that the supernatural or otherworldly forces that exist in the Cosmos and the Cosmos itself are MOSTLY INDIFFERENT toward humanity and are so powerful and so beyond our control or understanding as to be terrifying.
This plays at our fearful realizations, that the world around us doesn't care about our feelings or morality, that aliens or demons or monsters or angels or gods might not have any ultimate destiny of plans for us, might simply treat us the way we treat other species on our own planet and that our perceptions of such things are so woefully skewed as to be meaningless. Our interactions with such a world, whether beneficial or harmful, would necessarily be a source of dread. The world is largely out of our control and those supernatural things we expect to save us may have no such desire.
Naturally the title is based on something I was afraid of as a child, always worried that a monster would be at the base of the stairs (or UNDER THEM) and just the sight of it would kill me. A fear that was inspired by a nightmare I had as a kid where a grinning clown doll was set on the couch at the base of my stairs and as I went to go down them it turned its head and looked right at me.
Hope you enjoyed reading this story! Leave some feedback below!