My complete stories & my book ORPHANS

Top of the Stairs
by Stephen Schlich



A broken board at the top of the stairs protested loudly as an anonymous foot put weight on it. It was that final step at floor level, rotted and weak and ready to toss some hapless stair climber to a mangled landing in the dim hallway below. Friends had learned to avoid it or use the elevator. If the elevator was working. At any rate, footsteps with a creak meant a stranger.

This inadvertent alarm was valuable to Walker's peace of mind, especially since the accident. Living in a wheelchair was hell after twenty-eight years on two good, sturdy legs, but it was a hell he lived nonetheless. The creak's absence always diminished the fear that built as unidentified footsteps climbed his stairs.

Except when Sandy forgot.

Tap ... tap ... tap ... Walker had been asleep, but the sound jerked him out of it instantly. He hoped that Sandy had forgotten the step, prayed that it was Sandy this time. He argued to himself that the sound had been cut short, as if she remembered, and pulled her foot up at the last moment. Yes, let it be Sandy. He didn't want to deal with a stranger today.

Tap ... tap ... tap ... Walker followed the footsteps in his mind's eye, measuring them against the spatial relationships of the apartment hallway. He was like a blind man who compensated with other senses: What Walker couldn't go see, he had learned to go hear.

Six paces from the top stair. A knock at the door—

"Sandy? Is that you?"

Silence. There was no knock, no reply to his call. He tried to climb out of bed and was wrenched back to reality by the pain from his legs. Damn it, why do I keep forgetting? But he knew why: six weeks since the accident. Six eternal weeks in a goddamn wheelchair stacked against the memory of twenty-eight years of freedom ... no wonder he forgot!

A key turned in the lock and the door opened. Walker felt a wash of relief. Sandy had been dig­ging for her keys and didn't hear him, that was all. No cause for alarm. The door closed.

"Sandy! Are you home?" Dumb question.

Silence again: No steps, no voice; only the wind's soft reply as it ruffled the curtains of his room. Walker felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. He held absolutely still for a full two minutes, breathing through his nostrils and looking from the clock-radio's second hand to the bedroom door and back. The footsteps at the front door and their maker, now on his side of it, remained still.

"Damn it, who's out there? Tell me or I'm calling the police! Sandy, is this some kind of w joke? It's not funny!"

Walker leaned over, ignoring the hot stabs of pain from his legs, and pulled the phone onto the bed. After a click, the dial tone droned reassuringly. He put the receiver down. Not yet, I'm still okay, right?

The footsteps began again. They were hesitant, as if the owner were thinking on her feet. Her feet, Walker prayed that those footsteps were hers. They went into the kitchen and the sounds were all familiar: refrigerator, sink, cabinets. They were sounds that Sandy would make.

"Sandy, damn you, answer me! It's Carl. Say something!"

She might be giving him the silent treatment. It had happened before. Sandy knew how cruel silence was to him, she had known that long before his injury. And for all her sophistication, she could be very cruel.

He felt his temper rising and thought briefly, a cripple can't use a temper, who listens? It didn't slow the blow-up; nothing ever did. He beat his fist on the headboard and threw the phone to the floor.

"Sandy! You answer me this minute! I need some help!"

The kitchen sounds continued. Walker dragged his legs to the wheelchair side of his bed. He rested before the final assault, waiting for the shooting pains to back down a little. They didn't back down much. He finally steeled himself and hauled his torso into the chair, seat first.

As he backed away from the bed, his heels fell off and banged against the metal restraints of the foot stirrups. Agony squirted his brain full of angry red ink; the world came back in slow sheets of throbbing reality.

But he sat in the chair now, mobile.

He wheeled angrily into the living room, because he didn't want to consider the implications if the footsteps were not Sandy's. The throbbing in his legs beat a clumsy, hideous rhythm to his pain center.

It was Sandy. Yes. She sat at the kitchen table with a thin sandwich and glass of skim milk and scanned an issue of Cosmo while she ate. She looked pale in a black leotard and jeans. Her straight brown hair framed her face limply; a provocative smile moistened her lips. She didn't look up.

"Talk to me, you bitch!"

He got no reaction. She didn't flinch, didn't blink, didn't nod, or acknowledge that he existed at all. He felt desperation slither across his psyche.

"Sandra, don't do this! Or at least tell me why. Whatever I did, I didn't mean it. Not really. You know me. I lost my temper or something. Look, I'm sorry, okay? Talk to me, please!"

She pushed Cosmo aside and laughed into the air. She mesmerized him; she had a certain texture that drove him wild. He couldn't stay mad at her. She was beautiful. Her uneven chin, small chest and big ass weren't attractive in themselves. But Walker could have cared less. She used what she had effectively. Most effectively.

She drew men like garbage draws flies.

And that carried his anger full circle. He cursed the intense, sensual smile that had drawn him to her and, to his dismay, drew everyone else as well. It was the symbol of her virtue and her promiscuity, the unstable Mobius around which he loved/hated her.

She made it easy to hate her today. She carried the sandwich tray and the milk glass to the sink, and passed him on her way to the bathroom without so much as a glance. Walker heard the cabinet, the hairbrush, the toilet. She was going out!

"What're you doing in there? Where do you think you're going? I'm your husband, Sandy. I have a right to know!"

Her hairbrush clattered to the floor and he thought for a moment that she would come out for a confrontation. But then the shower spat loudly and he knew that she still ignored him. He sat in his wheelchair and boiled.

She went out on him; he knew that. He could even accept it, now. But she'd done it all along! Before the accident he had ripped into a frenzy when he found out, but things had been different then. He hadn't been a cripple then. She didn't flaunt it to him then—he'd have killed her. Funny thought.

Sandy came out of the bathroom nude and slipped past Walker into the bedroom. He wheeled to the doorway where he could see her.

"I'll block your way until you tell me where you're going. You'll have to go through me to get out of here!" He could have been talking to the wall.

She pulled on clean jeans—no underwear—and tied a crepe blouse around her waist so that it opened all the way down the front. A loosely knotted scarf garnished her neck. Walker recognized the outfit: her cruising uniform. What she wore when she planned to take it off later. He'd done the peeling enough times himself, before they were married.

She came out of the bedroom fast and he rolled backward furiously to keep himself between her and the door. Instead, she went for the phone. He realized that it must have been ringing. Why hadn't he heard it?


Walker jumped at his own name and then realized she was talking to the phone. Somewhere beneath his anger, part of his mind wondered why she would expect his call when he was right there in front of her.

"Oh, David!" She was relieved. "You gave me a start. I thought Carl had come home early."

David! David, that mealy-mouthed hairdresser who spent too many afternoons helping Sandy priss in front of a mirror. Walker knew the little bastard was hot to make his wife, but he hadn't realized that she wanted him, too.

"No, don't worry. He won't be home until tomorrow noon. Yes, I'm sure. We've got the whole evening to ourselves!"

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and pulled the phone cord down between her breasts. The conversation descended into giggles and non sequiturs. Walker felt enveloped in a cloud of confusion. Won't be home until tomorrow? Wait a minute ...

He felt the old, deep anger welling up again. He was sweating. You lousy slut! You'd do it right in front of me, wouldn't you? You say I don't give you any real love, and then you run to that shit of a hairdresser. I ought to kill you! I ought to—

The world moved in a vertigo of stop action:

The door burst open. Walker hadn't even heard the footsteps. He hadn't blocked the door. He sat frozen in his chair as the pain of memory bit into him.

The man who came through the door tore the phone from Sandy's hands, listened to David for a second, and jerked him out of the wall, all in a breath. He tugged her savagely by her scarf while he kicked and punched her.

"Go out on me again, you bitch! I'll teach you to go out on me!"

Walker's mouth lay open. The man was him!

The Walker-with-legs twisted Sandy's scarf tighter around her neck and beat away her attempts to hit back. He'd cut off her wind. She couldn't scream. Her lips twisted and became dotted with spittle as she gasped for air. He dragged her into the hallway.

Walker-the-cripple watched the scene in sullen silence. He hadn't meant to hurt her so badly. After a rotten aborted failure of a business trip, he had come home to find this. His temper got the best of him, what else? Scare her, that's all he'd wanted to do. Rough her up a bit. He wheeled to the doorway to watch.

Walker-with-legs pulled her head over the railing with his throat grip. She flailed at him, pushed off the railing, and tumbled them both to the floor.  She kicked and punched but couldn't break his grip.  He still controlled her air.  He hauled her up by the scarf, they stumbled in front of the stairs—

And it gave way. The top step cre-e-eaked for the last time ever, and it took an eternity because it sucked her ankle down into it as it collapsed and both of them, ohnogod, both of them plunged into the darkness below.

Walker-the-cripple closed his eyes as the bodies crunched and cracked down the twenty-eight stairs to the next floor. One stair for each year of his life. He hadn't wanted to kill her, not kill her...

Sandy's death had been ruled accidental. She was in the ground before he regained consciousness, and no one looked at the twisted, broken neck closely enough to notice strangulation marks. He was lucky, they told him. She cushioned his landing. He was crippled but alive.


Walker-the-cripple's head dropped to his hands. Tears wet his fingers, not for his dead Sandy but for his own dead legs. Never to walk again, never to know the exhaustion—and exhilaration—of a stairway. She was better off, peacefully dead in some painless world.

He knew that was a lie. He knew that he would cling to life the way he clung to his pillow when the pain got bad. He knew that he would gulp his Darvons and try to move his legs because every second of his life was one more than that slut Sandy would ever enjoy.

He became aware of movement.

The chair had been parked at the door's threshold. Now, somehow it had slipped over. He was rolling unchecked toward the top of the stairs. It was a straight shot with no obstacles that ended in a screaming plummet to the floor below!

The brakes! Find the brakes!

He found them. They were jammed open, solid as rocks. He pulled at them desperately. The tongue-and-groove floorboards squeaked under his wheels as he rolled toward the stairway's mouth. His fingers chafed against the wheels. The hard rubber and steel drew blood. Yet the chair did not slow down.

He twisted in his seat. Sandy's face cackled behind him, a grotesque mask of bleeding cuts and fractured bones. Her twisted hands gripped the back of the wheelchair and pushed it the last few feet to the stairs.

The last thing he saw before he went over was the repaired top step, the brand-new board that could not possibly have creaked since its predecessor had cost him his legs six weeks before.

He closed his eyes and waited for the impact.

Published in the February 1982 Issue of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine
copyright (c) 1982 by Steve Schlich

My complete stories & my book ORPHANS

GRAPHICS from the Feb 1982 publication in
Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine