Retrograde Stairwell - A Short Story by Chris Mason
A distorted series of thumps echo down the walls, as Dean, heart pounding in his ears, climbs the stairs two at a time. Reaching the fourth floor landing he finds the old man that may or may not be his old man, heaped across the bottom steps. Dean supposes he might had some kind of coronary or maybe he simply slipped due to a gammy leg, either way the chase is over. Dean catches his breath and puts down the plastic bag he is carrying with a metallic rattle cut short. He leans over the body and with all four fingers cupped slightly, he puts his hand underneath the old man's nose. There is no breath on his skin. He straightens up his back, bomber jacket bunching up around his shoulders. The poor bloke is dead. Now that he is able to get up close, Dean considers that the face, although bloodied and grazed on one side, has a distant familiarity to it. He closes his eyes and tries to dredge up the last image of his father's looming features from the perspective of a downy-haired six year old self. The recently deceased seems almost certainly too young, despite being struck by the niggling resemblance he saw in the old man movements, back when he was animate. Dean runs a hand across his stubbly scalp as he thinks. There is a subtle animal expression to Dean that people often mistake as a lack of intelligence but is in fact a result of the naturally ever-present aspect of his thought process. Dean's mind is always fixedly linked to his surroundings, he has a keen disregard for those immaterial tenses of past and future and a general policy not to question why events happen the way they do. But no matter how he tries to get a handle on what is happening at this moment, he is overwhelmed by the eeriness of the situation for reasons tied in with his past. It's not as if Dean follows home every pensioner he sees, clinging to the hope that this time round it'll be his long lost Pop. Up until now he has given precisely zero consideration to the idea of a family reunion and certainly not one like this, but after seeing the old man in passing outside the petrol station not half an hour ago, a morbid curiosity took hold of him and Dean acted on impulse. Half cut and toting a bag containing a partial six pack of super strength lager through the evening streets, he pursued the man past the shops and across the industrial estate, running on nothing more than basic brain functions and a vague intent of confrontation. Now though, as he stands alone with the corpse in the stairwell of the high rise, all his zeal for an argument has drained away and Dean is left only with confusion and despair. A stranger or his blood relation, with another life lived? Why is he here and why now? Dean's father left the family unit thirty four years ago, it was assumed by all involved that he had off'ed himself. In the morning after his disappearance a young Dean had found, floating in the kitchen sink, the molten remains of what was thought to be his father's birth certificate and passport and all the family photos, including the negatives. As a man of few words this was as good a suicide note as any. His mother never really came to terms with it and had her doubts about his passing. She eventually upheld the pretence of moving on with her life and a succession of new men arrived on the scene, because that's what she thought Dean needed growing up. Still Dean shunned any sense of paternal longing, the memories of his father became distant and dreamlike, almost as if he never existed at all. He gave no thought to where his father had really ended up, all that mattered was the fact of his absence. Whether or not this man and his long gone father are one and the same, Dean, with a frustrated expulsion of air has to concede that there is no way to know for certain, in fact the whole thing seems bloody stupid. He is now hard pressed to imagine what it was he thought might have happened if the man had lived long enough to speak to him. Looking at the man once more he decides to leave. No one has seen him here after all and he is sure that someone else, another resident most likely, will find the body. It makes no difference to him now. Dean picks up his plastic bag and starts back down the steps. He gets halfway and is crossing the landing on the first floor when he stops. He feels a goading sensation crawling somewhere close to the surface of his skin, he pulls up his jacket sleeve and with unkempt nails scratches a red trail across a faded tattoo on his forearm. He will remember this, perhaps every time he climbs a stairwell he will be hit with the recollection of abandoning the dead old man on the fourth floor. He turns around, ready at first to start the ascend back up, but instead he decides to stretch out his arms and leans backwards over the step. The last thing he thinks before gravity carries him onwards is that perhaps, if he is lucky, he might brain himself on a step on the way down and knock the memory of the old man from his mind. Dean screams when he impacts the concrete steps, his body is pummelled by each jagged projection and his limbs flail uncontrollably on his descend. He tries to grab the railings and stop himself but the momentum is too much. As he nears the bottom he is caught under the eye by a step and his head immediately flourishes into a hot pain that gives way to the throbbing sensation accompanied by the swelling of soft tissue. When he comes to, Dean is face down on the wet tiled ground floor. Moving even the slightest, causes an excruciating twinge in his side and he is in no doubt that he has a broken a rib or two. His face feels like an uncomfortable mask and his vision is dark at the edges and distorted, he comes to the realisation that he can only see out of one eye. All about him are cans of beer, their aluminium bodies dented and split, expelling frothed liquid over the stairs and floor. Eventually Dean struggles to his feet, the pain is all encompassing. Holding firmly to his side he falls through the double doors of the high rise and into the outside world. The evening air is cool on his facial wounds. He slumps against a low brick wall for a moment to rest up. He feels dizzy and nauseous. Staring down at the dust blown pavement, specks of blood drip from some part of his face and fall squarely into his tunnel view. His whole being is concentrating on the difficult task of breathing, Dean doesn't remember breathing being such a chore before now. Something else too, a protean thought shifting in and out of focus amongst the explosions of pain. Something else he can't quite recollect, but that he feels is important he does.
Chris Mason lives and writes in Essex. His stories have been performed by White Rabbit and published by The Pygmy Giant. He won the 100 Minutes with Spread the Word competition in 2013.