by Michael Chin
Photo credit: Lewis Dakin
Do you remember the smell of burnt bacon? You used to say the smoke stung your eyes, so you stayed as far from the kitchen as you could in the morning. You said you couldn’t see right for hours once it had sunk into your corneas.
Do you remember the morning of the storm? The low roll into a clap of thunder?
Of course you do.
You played a horribly flat version of “Fur Elise,” all out of rhythm, all because you were desperate for our stepfather to let you quit your piano lessons (you were far better than you ever let on). Figuring out the chord progressions to Bruce Springsteen songs by ear and sneaking them in amidst the classical music.
I remember “Atlantic City.” Your wordless take on the refrain, everything dies, that’s a fact. Maybe everything that dies someday comes back.
I had no breakfast to cook in the kitchen. No piano practice. I ran between the kitchen and your music downstairs. I ran to my knapsack to check that I’d remembered everything, fearful of my teacher, Mrs. Furman, who would strike me if I forgot my homework. It was you who’d warned me that you saw her do it when you were a third grader.
We walked up the stairs together. We didn’t turn on the lights, although it was so dark. I stumbled at the foot of the stairs and you walked straight into me and the both of us fell over. You cursed at me. You usually did, even then.
I remember the flash of lightning. I remember man on the stairs.
His face was paper white and he had long black hair that spiked out at sharp angles. We both screamed in those seconds when we looked up at him. While you were still getting up, I looked up into his eyes. I’d always imagined the deepest reaches of the ocean might look like that– a place where light couldn’t reach, or where serrated rock and slippery membranes clotted to form a hideous leviathan. It was a moment when we both understood the sensation of death, and there was not one fragment of peace in it.
I might have thought that this was all imagination. Perhaps there was no man at all, and I had just experienced a trick of light. But you saw him, too. We clutched each other’s arms. You dug your nails into me. I shook.
Another flash of lighting. No one there.
Then a crashing sound from upstairs. I already knew it was the kitchen. You took my hand and we climbed the stairs. I felt a chill seize me as we climbed past the space where the man had been.
We found our stepfather on his back. A hand lay over his chest. You told me to call 911 while you turned off the stove, and bacon grease sprayed up from the frying pan to burn your forearm.
Mom told us he’d had a stroke and that there was nothing we could have done. She reassured us it was all the bacon and stress from work that had caught up to him, but I remembered his goose-pimpled flesh when we found him. My step-father’s eyes had been open wide, mouth frozen hard in a slack-jawed grimace. Not surprise, or even pain. Scared to death.
We didn’t tell her about the man on the stairs. We never talked about it. Maybe you’ve forgotten about the man from all those years ago.
I need to remind you.
I need to remind you because I saw him tonight, during another storm on another staircase. I was on a bleary-eyed two a.m. walk up to my one bedroom after a lonely evening at the bar. A flash of lighting, again. This time, it was longer. Brighter.
And he was gone. I’m writing because I’m not sure I’ll make it through the night. If I do, I’ll wake to an ambulance or police siren. That old Mr. Chester upstairs is gone, as is the single mother across the hall. God forbid one of her children becomes a victim.
The authorities will claim that natural causes is to blame.
Don’t tell me I’m crazy. Don’t say I’m scared of stairs or storms. I’d rather hear back nothing at all.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and writes and teaches in Corvallis, Oregon. He won the 2014 Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for Fiction from the University of New Orleans and has previously published fiction and poetry in over twenty journals, including Bayou Magazine, The Rappahannock Review, and The Pacific Review. Find him online here and on Twitter @miketchin.