The Stairway Going Down

He stood looking at the hole in the ground. He could feel his hand trembling. He knew he was terrified and was embarrassed, even though there was nobody there to see.

A stairway going down.

That phrase was loaded with all the psychological freight of his own claustrophobia, heightened by his choice in literature, which tended to feature terrifying places, and by hundreds of dungeon adventures from fantasy role playing. The adventure party would be practically out of supplies and wounded to the point of death. Then the gamemaster would intone: “You see a stairway going down.”

They’d pretend to lack imagination and tease one another about using the last of their power to climb down the stairway into the darkness.

Dim. Dark. Dank. Damp. Dirty.

This is a work of fiction. All persons and places are products of my imagination. Copyright © 2011, Henry E. Neufeld.

All connected to “down” and all seemed to apply to the stairway in front of him. But this wasn’t a game. This wasn’t fantasy. He was actually standing in front of a stairway. It went down. It was dim. No, that wasn’t adequate. It was dark, it was damp, it was dirty.

I could just go back to the car and call the police, he thought. I could get help. But the image was still in his mind. The light flashing to the sky as though someone had fallen holding a flashlight, or perhaps dropped one. He’d actually stopped to go and investigate. Then he was sure he heard crying, or perhaps moaning.

The wisest course of action, he knew, was to get help. Why did he think it was urgent? What good would it do to get injured. Then he could easily end up way down some hole and nobody would know he was there.

On the other hand he heard the words of his parents, his brothers and sisters, and associates. “A hero in his own mind.” “He can handle the fantasy world; the real world is beyond him.” “The more heroic the character, the more cowardly the player.”

He had to go down that stairway.

The first step was the hardest. No, that wasn’t right. It was the second. Or perhaps the third. Actually, it was always the next step. He hated the word “down” more with every step. He had even forgotten why he was trying to go down this stairway. He just focused on the next step.

Suddenly he slipped. He threw up his arms, and hit something, then he was sliding, and he could hear rocks, or perhaps bricks falling around him. Then he landed hard. He was in complete darkness. It was bricks, not rocks. He could feel them all around him.

It was his worst nightmare. Underground, in a cramped area, and finally buried alive. And here he was, living it.

There was a moment when he thought he couldn’t think. He thought his mind and body were both frozen. Then he realized he was thinking about not thinking. Then he realized he was thinking more clearly than he had ever thought before.

While he could feel bricks around him, he was still breathing easily. He felt that he was bumped and bruised, but he didn’t feel like he was bleeding. He didn’t feel any dampness. If he was really buried under a pile of bricks he wouldn’t be in as good shape as he was.

He tried to move, and found he could. There were quite a few bricks around him, but only a few on top. It was painful to move, but not so painful that he couldn’t do it. He suspected nothing was broken, or it would hurt more.

My mind has been making all this worse than it really is, he thought.

A few moments of movement and tossing bricks, or rather mostly pieces of brick to the side, and he was able to stand again.

Now where was he? He looked back, and he could see that there was still a small hole, but it offered plenty of room to crawl through. He should have a flashlight with him, but he didn’t. He did have a lighter. Why he carried a lighter, he could never explain. It was one of the things he kept in his pockets, most of which were not very useful. He wondered if he’d done it because he was so afraid of being buried underground.

He lit the lighter, and saw that he was very near the body. Hardly had he thought “the body” than he realized that this was even more of his own nightmare scenario. It occurred to him to wonder if he was dreaming.

Then he saw the flashlight several feet further on. He walked over and picked it up, flashing the lighter a couple of times to light the way. It was a waste of time. The flashlight was history.

Then he went over to the body. He felt around the man’s neck (at least he thought it was a man), and thought he felt a pulse. Then he realized he really knew of nothing to do, and couldn’t really be sure he’d know the difference. He’d just heard you should be able to feel a pulse at the neck.

Now was the time to do what he should have done in the first place, and call emergency services. “What goes down must go up,” he said, laughing as he mangled the common saying. Then he crawled up through the narrow hole and onto the stairs above.

He was standing at the top of the stairway going down before he realized that he was no longer trembling. I could go right back down there, he thought. But he knew he needed to make that phone call. Where was his cell phone? Oh. Right there in his pocket, next to the lighter, complete with an app that would turn on the little LED light.

I won’t mention that part to anyone, he thought, as he dialed 911. It wouldn’t do to have them realize he could have called the police at any time.

The police wondered why he had gone down the stairs at all. “How was I supposed to know whether there really was anyone down there? I hadn’t really seen anything,” he explained.

They explained to him that the “body” was a local gentleman who had gone for an evening walk and gotten lost. There used to be a few houses here with basements, and this was one of them. It’s a good thing for him you saw him drop that flashlight.”

“Yeah, it is,” he said. But he didn’t mean for the guy who had fallen.

He felt like a new man. He could handle reality, even in down in dim, dark, damp, dank spaces.

Maybe next time he’d even remember he had a cell phone!

(This story has been submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Down)