Fourteen steep steps lead up to the second floor, where my apartment is. Every time I mount or descend these stairs I count them, sometimes aloud but usually to myself. I don’t mean to, any more than I mean to count the sidewalk cracks between the front door and the bus stop (eighty-one) or the number of bus shelters between my stop and the office building where I work (twenty-three). It takes approximately seventeen steps to cross the office lobby, and while this number may vary slightly, if the number turns out to be even I always work an extra little step in there to make it come out odd. Even numbers make me nervous.
If you’ve ever known anyone with this disorder — these days they call it a disorder, though in the old days they just called you plain old crazy — you’ve probably guessed that my desk is spotless and impeccably organized, every object in its proper place and accounted for. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t freak out if something’s been moved or if there are crumbs on the keyboard or anything. Sometimes one of my coworkers will rearrange everything, to try to get a rise out of me, but I always just calmly put it all back where it belongs. It’s a disorder, not a psychosis: I can deal with the fact that the world is not perfect, even if there’s a part of my brain that wishes to holy hell it was.
That day had started out like every other. When I got home from work, I opened the front door of my apartment building and begin to mount the stairs, counting in my head as I did. Sometimes when I do this I get interrupted partway, like if a neighbor heading comes down in the opposite direction; for this reason I usually keep my head down and don’t say hello to any of them. Sometimes they insist on greeting me, and while this doesn’t really bother me, it does cause a little burst of static in my brain, a little mental hiccup if you will, and when that happens I have to go back to the bottom of the steps and start over. Usually though I just get over it and continue on my way after taking a moment to calculate what number stair I was on when I was interrupted. Like I say, it doesn’t really bother me all that much.
On this particular day, as the toe of my shoe tapped the front of step three (I need to tap the front of every step before actually mounting it, it’s just another one of those things), I looked up to see a woman coming rather quickly down the stairs. She wore high heels which made this really irritating sound on the wood, like an army of click beetles ticking and scrabbling around inside a tackle box. I winced but recovered and smiled nervously at her. Her makeup was smeared across her face and there was a long gash across the front of her dress. Despite the cold weather she wasn’t wearing a coat or jacket, or much clothing at all for that matter. She didn’t return my smile or say anything, which was fine, except that I suddenly blanked on which stair I was on. Like I say, this is not usually a problem, and I looked up the stairs to count how many were left so I could subtract that number from fourteen and therefore arrive at the step I was on, which was three.
Just then, someone else appeared at the head of the stairs. A man.
“Tina!” he yelled. “Get your fat ass back here!”
He ran down the stairs, nearly slipping on a few, and when he passed me on stair three, he bumped my shoulder, almost knocking me off balance. He smelled of alcohol and something I couldn’t place. I didn’t have time to react before he was down the stairs and out the door. Shaking my head, I continued on up, slowly. It had been a long day. Four, five, six, seven…
I had one foot on the seventh step with the other hovering above the eighth when I heard a sound from above. I looked up. Over the edge of the top step appeared a hand. The fingers curled over the lip of the step and tensed up, then relaxed. Foregoing my usual tapping of the stair fronts (as well as the little double knock I give the banister every time I do so), I ran up nineteneleventwelvethirteenfourteen… and there before me was the body of a man that had pulled itself along the hallway, leaving the carpet stained dark behind it. I crossed myself, then tugged my earlobes one at a time.
The man looked up at me.
“Help me,” he croaked.
“I’ll call for help,” I said, but he shook his head. A bubble of blood grew from his open mouth and popped, spattering the tip of my shoe. He reached up to me but I didn’t want to touch his hand, which was the only part of him not covered in blood. I would have taken it but blood or no I was sure it was slathered in all kinds of germs, not that this is really a problem to me, really, I realize that germs are a part of everyday life and that really there’s nothing to be afraid of at least as far as germs are concerned, but then there was that part of my brain that while I was trying to decide whether or not to risk the germs and take his had was also thinking about that eighth step, that seventh step, that eighth step, and trying to remember if I’d actually set foot on the eighth step or had merely been just about to, and if I’d tapped the step or not and if so if I’d tapped it once or twice, since you know it has to be two taps for odd numbered steps and one for even numbered steps, to be accompanied by a coordinating knock or knocks on the banister, and when I say it’s really not vital that these actions be taken during the mounting or descending of a flight of stairs, when I say I don’t actually need to carry out these actions, when I say that things are fine even when the routine is interrupted, I guess what I actually mean to actually say is that when one loses count, when one gets off track as far as counting steps is concerned, well what I actually mean to actually say is that this is when things can really kind of go to hell if one isn’t careful.
“Look, I’m calling the cops,” I said to the man, who didn’t seem to be listening. I ran back down to the seventh step and stood there, but then climbed back up one to the eighth (from the bottom, that is; if you’re counting from the top, you could say I was still on the seventh) and then I kept stepping up and down between the two as I took out my cell phone and called the police. I kept stepping and looking at my watch while I waited. Ten minutes went by, fifteen minutes, a half hour. In the meantime I started to hear this drip, drip, and I looked up to see that the blood from the man had run towards the top step and pooled on the edge and then started to run over the edge in little drip, drip, drips, plopping onto the next step down. I started to count the drips, and syncopated my stepping with the sound. It was soothing. Forty-five minutes passed and the cops still didn’t hadn’t shown up when the front door flew open and two men burst in.
“Okay Chief be smart be smart,” one of the men snapped, leveling a pistol at my head. The other man brushed past me up the stairs. Both men were bald and both wore Chicago Bulls jackets and sweatpants. One of them had a mustache.
“Yeah, looks like he didn’t make it far,” he said, nudging the body with his toe. He unrolled a large sack. “Well, might as well get to work. Come on, gimme a hand up here.”
“What about this guy?” his friend asked, nodding at me.
“Yeah, you’re right. Come on, Chief, up the stairs. You’re gonna help us out here.”
I just stood there, one foot on seven and one on eight.
“What’re you deaf or somethin’? Get your freakin’ ass up those stairs and help us get rid of this pile of shit up there. That is unless you wanna be the other half of a matching pair.”
“I… I can’t move,” I said.
The gunshot echoed in the stairwell. I jumped. Dust trickled from the new hole in the ceiling.
“Can’t move, eh? That’s a good one. Now let’s see what else you can’t do.”
“Leave him be,” the other man said. “We don’t have time for retards. Come up here and help me.”
“I’m comin’, don’t get yer panties in a twist. Don’t move, chief,” the other man said, poking me in the belly with the gun as he passed.
I stood there as still as I could as the men stuffed the body into the bag. They grunted as they worked, and their sweat shone in the light of the piss-colored bulb. I counted silently, partly out of habit, partly to ease my fear. I couldn’t keep from touching my ears, and that led to patting my head, and that led to blinking twice then resting then blinking again, and that leds to doing a little shuffle, and that
“Hey Chief, thought I told you not to move. Jesus, what’s with this guy? You havin’ some kinda a seizure or something?”
“Come on, let’s just get this thing outta here.”
The men lifted the body between them and started to descend the stairs.
“One side, string bean.”
The swaying bulk of their load nearly bumped me off balance as they passed in the narrow stairwell. I’d counted to 216 when the man in back pulled his gun from his jacket and pointed the barrel at my head.
“Sorry, Chief,” the thug said. “Boss said no witnesses.”
Before he had the chance to pull the trigger, I started counting backwards. 215, 214, 213… the man put his hand back into his jacket, and when he pulled his hand out it was empty. I kept counting, and watched as the men walked backwards up the stairs, bumping me again, laying the body bag down in the hallway above me. As I approached zero, I counted slower. The men also slowed down, pulling the body from its bag in slow-motion, as if performing a gorgeously lethargic dance. I dragged my counting out even further and the men nearly froze. When I hit zero, things came to a halt. The men stood motionless at the top of the stairs, and I stood perfectly still with one foot on step seven, the other on step eight.
For a long time we all just stood there.
I started counting again. Once again the men bagged up the body, then started heading down the stairs with it. The first man passed me, jostling me once again with the body. As the second man passed, I stuck out my foot.
They all went tumbling, the two brawny men cursing as their heavy package rolled on top of them. In the midst of the confusion, I leaped onto the back of the second man, thrust my hand into his coat, and pulled out his gun. I whacked him on the back of the head with it, hard, and pointed the barrel at his fellow thug, who in the meantime had extricated himself from the dead weight of the body. He cursed and reached into his own jacket, and that’s when I shot him.
One, two, three times. He fell back against the wall and slumped to the floor. I stood there looking down at him, touching my ear, then the other ear, then the tip of my nose, with the butt of the gun. One, two, three. From outside I could hear the sound of distant sirens.
I looked at the gun, then at the dead man on the floor. I’ve just killed a man, I thought. It didn’t seem real.
Looking at the blood spreading across his chest, I thought, I can’t live with this. There has to be another way. I paced back and forth, blinked twice, knocked on the banister. If it worked once, maybe it could work again.
As the sirens stopped, and flashing lights shone through the window in the door, I started to count backwards.
When I once again got to zero, I took a deep breath. The thugs had once again backed up the stairs and were busy taking the body out of the bag. I started counting again, watching time move forward again. I think I’m getting the hang of this, I thought as I counted. Tripping the thug had worked fine, I just had to make sure I didn’t lose my head this time.
There was a pop as one thug dislocated the dead man’s shoulder to fit him into the bag, then they tied the end and started to lug it down the stairs.
Once again, I tripped the second man as he passed. Once again, I fished around in his jacket for his gun. I didn’t hit him on the back of the head this time, seeing as he’d already knocked himself out when he landed.
“Don’t move!” I screamed at his compatriot as he struggled to his feet. As he cursed and reached into his jacket, I fired a shot over his head, sending plaster cascading onto his scalp. “Keep “em where I can see ‘em,” I snarled, just like in the movies. He slowly put his hands in the air. “March back up those stairs,” I growled. I figured I’d lock both men in my apartment until the cops arrived. Maybe tie them up or something. I wasn’t so good with knots though. Duct tape maybe.
I kicked the second thug. “You too, ‘Chief.’ On your feet.”
The two men marched up the stairs. I felt confident enough to stick to my routine of tapping and knocking on the banister. Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen. Once upstairs, I was appalled to find that a group of neighbors had gathered in the hallway, having come out to investigate the sound of the gunshot.
“What the hell are you people doing out here? Get back in your rooms!” I yelled. I didn’t recognize any of them, but then, I’m usually concentrating pretty hard when I leave and enter the building.
“Who’s that?” one of them asked another, not even bothering to whisper.
“I think it’s that strange man from 229,” a fat woman in curlers answered. “That guy who’s always twitching.”
Seeing that I was distracted, the first thug reached for his piece. I fired just as he squeezed the trigger. The man collapsed and his shot went wild. Someone screamed. The fat woman in curlers slumped to the carpet. The other thug, shaking his head woozily, nevertheless was sufficiently roused to pull out his gun and fire at me. The bullet missed. I leaped at him, grabbing his arm, as he squeezed off shot after shot. I heard another scream, then another, before I finally shot him point blank in the chest. I was splashed with hot blood. It just kept coming; I must have hit an artery. I pushed his body away and stood there, listening to the wails of the neighbors as they cradled the dead in their arms.
This was not exactly the outcome I’d hoped for.
I sighed, and once again began to count backwards.
“Sorry, Chief,” the thug said. “Boss said no witnesses.”
The thug at the bottom of the stairs pulled the trigger and my mind exploded into sharp pain burst of white light infinite loop of numbers higher than I can count millions billions trillions feeding back into a single dot of nothing
The police found me slumped on the stairs, a round red zero in my forehead. The thugs and their burden had disappeared into the night. Blood and brains ran down the wall behind me and puddled on the stairs. The cops blocked the front door with two yards of yellow police tape, and instructed the twelve tenants who gathered around not to leave before everyone had been questioned.
But no one saw anything, and there were no leads, and the mystery of my death never got solved.
Eight of my relatives came to clean out my immaculately kept apartment and divvy up my things more or less equally between them. The landlord installed a new security system, complete with video surveillance, and the lives of the tenants went back to normal.
As for me, I’m still here, one foot on the seventh stair, one on the eighth. The tenants sometimes complain of a knocking, or a clumping, or a rhythmic shuffling sound coming from the stairwell, and I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not me. I’m just standing here perfectly still, not moving an inch, not making a sound. Not taking a single step up or down. If you live here, you might want to tread carefully if you come in late at night; you don’t want to wake your neighbors. And be sure to count the stairs beneath your feet. That seventh (or is it eighth?) step really creaks like hell.