The sky has never been as far away as it is now. There is an open square of it at the top of the stairwell. A blue summer day shines down from the box of sky, but flight after flight, it is still miles away.
There are blisters on her heels, warm and ripe. She can smell herself. She is covered in sweat, but she feels cold. Her chest is tight. The stairwell hums around her in a low and steady way like an electric fly trap. Her left foot cramps and she stops on a landing between stairs. The landings are twelve square feet and made of flat rectangles. Everything in the stairwell is bland and quiet. The walls and stairs are mashed potato white. It smells of fresh paint glaze, sterile polyurethane cover.
Her breaths are slow, but she doesn’t want to stop. She wants to touch the sky. Her bladder aches. She is thirsty. Hungry. Tired. She bites her lip so hard that she tastes blood and it fills her mouth with unabated bitterness.
The stairwell is endless, and the more she focuses on it, the more it seems to grow in both directions. She looks up at the sky and exhales as a shudder of pain rips through her bladder again.
“Oh God,” she whispers.
At the next landing she squats, bunching her dress around her stomach. She closes her eyes, and a hotness spreads through her neck and cheeks as she empties her bladder. It burns like a rash from poison oak. She stands and her dress swings around her knees.
At the next landing there is a faint tickling against her legs, and when she looks down she sees a small red fox brush against her ankles. It has a huge blossoming tail and a small nose which it points in the air at her. Its eyes are small black buttons.
“Stop this,” he says.
But she keeps climbing, wiping away the wetness beneath her eyes so he won’t see it. “I need to get to the top.”
A blister on the back of her foot has split open. She stops to rest. The wound smells infected. She removes her sneakers and throws them over her shoulder after tying the laces together. The mashed potato cement is cool beneath her aching arches. “I’ll get there,” she says. “In time.”
But the more she climbs, the less she believes it.
The red fox climbs with her until they reach a landing where there is a young boy. Only he’s not on the landing, he’s stuck half in and half out. The top part of his body is visible, but the rest is obscured by one of the walls. He’s cut in half at the waist, but she’s sure his legs are still there, resting just as awkwardly behind it. He juts out horizontally over the floor, his head dangling to the side.
He waves as they approach. “Hello! Beautiful to find someone!”
“What happened to you?”
“I hate to be alone.”
The fox licks at the boy’s face and the boy laughs, scratching the fox behind the ears. He sounds like a thread of silver silk unraveling languidly from its spool. She sits down next to the boy and places his head on her thigh to keep it from dangling so helplessly. The cartilage in his ear crinkles against her flesh. “How can I get you out?”
The boy stops to stare at her. “From what?”
The fox growls until the boy resumes petting him. His lips stretch into a grin and the boy’s small hands tangle in the fox’s bushy tail. They nuzzle each other. The boy closes his eyes and sighs loudly.
She doesn’t understand why they are so happy, or how they can be oblivious to the hundreds of stairs above them, or the way the sky just sits there waiting. “I should go.”
The boy smiles, “The sky can wait.”
“I’m in a hurry.”
“Would you get me some food? I’m very hungry.”
He smells sweet somehow. Young. His great blue eyes open wide and fall upon her like the rays of light from the sky box and she wants to bring him with her but she can’t. “I don’t have any food. I’m sorry.”
“There’s some right here in the wall.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is! Taste it!”
She backs away from them and the boy’s smile fades as his eyes fill with tears. The fox turns to the wall and his tiny paws scratch at it until slices begin to fall onto the floor. Juice splatters down. A soft watery smell wafts out, and the boy picks up a broken chunk of the wall and offers it to her.
The juice looks so sweet. “Just a little bit,” she mumbles. “Then I have to go.”
She steps forward and takes the piece of wall from the boy. It is bland, but wet. Like the white part of a watermelon; crumbling pieces break off against her tongue and slide across her parched throat. She goes over to the wall and pulls off another chunk. Another and another. Her thirst is so deep that she may never be able to quench it.
“I have to go now.”
Wall juice wets her hands and mouth. It runs down the front of her dress and she wipes her hands on her thighs as she steps back. All at once she feels the pain in her legs and throat again. The numbness of her feet. It is so far to the top.
The boy starts to cry. “I don’t want to be here alone.”
She looks at them for a moment. Then turns. Her knees creak softly. They pop and crackle as she rises, one stair at a time. The thirst is back. She looks up at the blueness above her and the way the light pours in through it. If only they could understand the importance of not getting stuck.
“Stop!” the fox calls after her. His tiny button eyes follow her and his lips pull back in a snarl. “You’ll die before you get there!”
She climbs higher and higher until the fox and the boy are barely visible.
C. Wait is a Vermonter currently living in New Jersey. Sources of inspiration include Hugh B Cave and Basil Copper. When she is not writing, she enjoys traveling, hiking, working with kids, and someday hopes to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.