Floating StaircaseRonald Malfi
The beauty of this mystery . . .
Published 2011 by Medallion Press, Inc.
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is a registered trademark of Medallion Press, Inc.
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment from this “stripped book.”
Copyright © 2011 by Ronald Malfi
Cover design by Michal Wlos
Edited by Lorie Popp
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Typeset in Adobe Garamond Pro
Printed in the United States of America
Title font by James Tampa
ISBN 978-1-60542-436-1 pbk
ISBN 978-1-60542-448-4 pdf
For their input during the writing of this novel, I bow to Kerry Estevez, Juris Jurjevics, Dave Thomas, Don D’Auria, my wonderful editor Lorie Popp, and James Tampa. Thanks also to Adrienne Jones, Robert Dunbar, Greg F. Gifune, Susan Scofield, the good folks at Horror Drive-In and Horrorworld, Diabolical Radio, Pod of Horror, The Funky Werepig, Susan Rosen, and Wendi Winters. And, of course, my friends and family.
Lastly, thanks to all the fans who have sent me e-mails about this book, hungry for the story it tells. You have all warmly embraced this little tale long before it was ever set free in the world.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
“Because he is my brother, I will suffer a thousand deaths to vindicate his.”
—Alexander Sharpe, The Ocean Serene
“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald,
in an undated letter to his daughter
THE PURITY OF THE TERRITORY
It has been said that nature does not know extinction. In effect, it knows only change: nothing ever truly disappears, for there is always something—some part, some particle, some formidable semblance—left behind. You can boil water into vapor, but it hasn’t disappeared. Curiosity killed the cat, but condensation brought it back.
Therefore, such logic should enlighten us to the understanding that if something should happen to develop—should arrive, should become thus, should suddenly appear—then it has always been. Forms evolve and devolve but things always are. There exists no creation and, consequently, no destruction—there exists only transformation. It is a collision of electrons and positrons, this life: the transformation of matter to rays of light, of molecular currents, of water to vapor to water again.
When I was twenty-three, I wrote a novel called The Ocean Serene. It was about a young boy who, having survived a near drowning, has a door of repressed memories opened in his brain, but in truth it was really about my dead brother, Kyle.
I wrote it in the evenings at a small desk in my depressed one-bedroom apartment in the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Georgetown (across the street from a smattering of university buildings and just a few blocks from where The Exorcist had been filmed many years before). A mug of coffee—black, no sugar—expelled ribbons of steam to one side of my word processor while an ashtray sprouting the flattened, yellowed elbows of cigarette butts sat on the other side. The central air did not always function properly, and I would occasionally crank open the bedroom windows to allow fresh air in. In fact, I remember opening the windows and smoking countless cigarettes and drinking cup after cup after cup of oily coffee more than the actual writing of the manuscript.
I wrote in a fog, in a haze . . . as though a length of gauze had been gently draped over the undulating contours of my brain. After writing the first draft, it took the accumulation of a couple more years and some deep personal reflection before I could once again tackle the manuscript and assemble it into something honest. For whatever reason, I felt this nagging drive to write it as honest as I could. So I wrote the first draft, then tucked it away and busied my mind with other matters until, moons later, I felt I had attained some fraction of personal growth—both in my writing and in the way I interpreted and understood the world—to revisit it. While the story was undeniably an exercise in speculative fiction—a horror novel, in other words—it was as real to me as the memories I carried of my childhood. It was difficult to relive the past. Age brings with it a certain Kryptonite that drains our faith like vampires, and reading the manuscript again almost destroyed me.
But I rewrote and finished it in a fever. It was done, and I couldn’t help but feel relieved. It was tantamount to the spiritual and emotional exhaustion felt after my younger brother’s death. I did not understand why such a thing had eluded me during the writing of the manuscript, but it struck me like a mallet to a gong after finally completing it. And I found I did not know how to feel about what I had just done.
Without combing through the manuscript for typos and inconsistencies, I sent it to the acquisitions editor of a small specialty press with whom I had maintained a formal yet consistent dialogue over the past several months. While I waited to hear from him, I began to doubt myself—not the book, just myself—and wondered if I’d done the right thing in writing the book. I couldn’t tell if I’d commemorated the memory of my younger brother or if I’d cheapened it, ruined it, made it a circus accessible to anyone willing to pay the price of admission.
Weeks later, during an onslaught of rainy weather so violent and unrelenting it seemed the world was preparing to end, the editor informed me that the book had been accepted for publication. He had a few changes, but he said it was a good, strong story written in a good, strong, lucid voice. The book was slated for a hardcover release in the fall.
“One question,” said the editor.
“Alexander Sharpe?” It was the nom de plume I’d used on the cover page of the manuscript. “Since when have you decided to use a pseudonym?”
Over the phone, I tried to sound as casual as possible. “Wanted to see if Mr. Sharpe would have better luck in the publis
hing department than I’ve had. I guess he does.”
But that wasn’t the truth.
I couldn’t tell him that I needed to distance myself from it while at the same time I also needed to embrace it. It would make no sense. To me, it seemed a stranger was better prepared to introduce my dead brother’s story to the world than I was. A nonexistent stranger at that. Because I was biased. Because I could not detach myself from it, and to not detach myself from it would be to corrupt the story’s honesty into loathsome self-pity. And I would not allow that to happen.
Because all good books are honest books.
I celebrated with friends, who bought me shots of gasohol and tried to get me laid despite my recent (though undisclosed) intention to finally propose to my longtime girlfriend, Jodie Morgan, and then I celebrated alone with a full pack of cigarettes, a flask of Wild Turkey, and a stroll around Georgetown. Perhaps out of a need for affirmation, I found myself outside one of the neighborhood bars in D.C., punching numbers on a pay phone. It rang several times before my older brother, Adam, picked up.
“I think I just wrote a book about Kyle,” I said, drunk, into the receiver.
“Well, it’s about goddamn time, bud,” Adam said, and I felt myself grow wings and lift off the pavement.
On occasion I found my mind sliding back to that late autumn when I sat and smoked and wrote about my younger brother’s death. I remembered the change of seasons predicated by the changes of the leaves in the trees; the windswept, rain-soaked nights that smelled swampy and full of promise; the retinal fatigue suffered from hours of staring at the throbbing glow of my monitor. It was the only thing I’d ever written that caused me to suffer from sleepless exhaustion. I roved with the flair of a zombie through the streets late at night and subsisted in a state of near catatonia while at my day job as a copy editor for The Washington Post (making just enough money to stave off my landlord while maintaining a sufficient stockpile of ramen noodles and National Bohemian).
One evening found me dodging traffic on the corner of 14th and Constitution in downtown D.C., the solitary pedestrian caught in a freezing downpour, until I wound up drunk and with my teeth rattling like maracas in my skull at the foot of the Washington Monument. I proclaimed to the phallic structure, “I will eat you,” a phrase that to this day still boggles the mind, whether spoken to a stone monument or otherwise. Then I saluted it and, pivoting on my heels, turned across the lawn toward 14th Street. The series of events that eventually returned me to my apartment that evening remain a question for the ages.
The book was my gift to Kyle, but the writing of it was my punishment; the hours spent curled over that word processor hammering out the story were my penance. Having never been a religious person—having no belief in God or any variation thereof—it was all I had. And in thinking back on that time, I was reminded of the exhaustion that accompanied every moment.
I was thirteen when Kyle died.
And it was my fault.
We hit flurries coming out of New York, but by the time we crossed into Maryland, the world had vanished beneath a blanket of white. Baltimore was a muddy blur. Industrial ramparts and graffiti-laden billboards seemed overcome by a deathly gray fatigue. Bone-colored smokestacks rose like medieval prison towers, the tops of which were eradicated by the blizzard, and cars began pulling off onto the shoulder in a flare of hesitant red taillights and emergency flashers.
“We should stop, Travis,” Jodie said. She was hugging herself in the passenger seat and peering through the icy soup that sluiced across the windshield.
“The shoulder’s too narrow. I don’t want to risk someone running into us.”
“Can you even see anything?”
The windshield wipers were clacking to a steady beat, but the temperature had dropped low enough for ice to bloom in stubborn patches on the windshield. I cranked the defroster, and the old Honda coughed and groaned, then belched fetid hot breath up from the dashboard. With it came the vague aroma of burning gym socks, which caused Jodie to rock back in her seat and moan.
“I hope this isn’t an omen,” she said. “A bad sign.”
“I don’t believe in omens.”
“That’s because you have no sense of irony.”
“Turn the radio on,” I told her.
The snowstorm didn’t let up until Charm City was a cold sodium smear in the rearview mirror. Two hours after that, as the car chugged west along an increasingly depopulated highway, the sky opened up and radiated with the clear silver of midday. We motored on through an undulating countryside of snow-covered fields. Houses began to vanish, and telephone poles surrendered to shaggy firs overburdened with fresh snow. The alternative rock station Jodie had found back in Baltimore crackled with the lethargic twang of country music.
Jodie switched off the radio and examined the road map that was splayed out in her lap. “What mountains are those up ahead?”
With only the faint colorless summits rising out of the mist, they resembled the arched backs of brontosauruses.
“Lord. Westlake’s not even on the map.” She glanced out the window. “I’ll bet there’s not another living soul out there for the next twenty, thirty miles.”
Despite the hazardous driving conditions, I stole a glimpse of my wife. Aquiline-featured and mocha-skinned, her springy black hair tucked beneath a jacquard cap, she looked suddenly and alarmingly youthful. Memories of our first winter in North London rushed back to me: how we’d huddled around the wood-burning stove for warmth when we couldn’t get the furnace to kick on while watching an atrocious British sitcom on cable. London had been good to us, but we were excited by the prospect of returning to the States—to my home state, in fact—and finally owning our own home.
The past decade of struggling to make ends meet had paid off when my last novel, Water View, rocketed in sales and managed to attract a Hollywood option. The film was never made, but the option money put my previous book advances to shame, so we decided to trade in our draughty Kentish Town flat for a single-family home. It hadn’t occurred to us to come back to the States until Adam called to say he found us a house in his neighborhood. The previous owners had already moved out and were desperate to sell. At such a bargain, it promised to go quickly. I conferred with Jodie and, blindly putting our trust in my older brother’s judgment, we bought the house, sight unseen.
“Are you nervous?” Jodie said.
“About the house?”
“About seeing your brother again.” She rested a hand on my right knee.
“Things are okay between us now,” I said, though for a moment I couldn’t help but remember what had happened the last time we’d been together. Except for the clarity of the memory, it could have been a dream, a nightmare.
“We haven’t been around family for Christmas in a long time.”
I said nothing, not wanting to be baited into talking about the past.
“I think that you’ve somehow driven us off the face of the Earth,” Jodie said, blessedly changing the subject.
“It’s gotta be—”
“There,” she said. There was an edge of excitement in her voice. “Down there!”
In the valley below, a miniature town seemed to blossom right out of the snow. I could make out the grid of streets and traffic lights like Christmas balls. Brick-fronted two-story buildings and mom-and-pop shops huddled together as if for warmth. The main road wound straight through the quaint downtown section, then continued toward the mountains where clusters of tiny houses bristled like toadstools in the distant fields. The whole town was embraced by a dense pine forest, through which I thought I could see the occasional glitter of water.
Jodie laughed. “Oh, you’re shitting me! It’s a goddamn model train set.”
“Welcome to Westlake,” I said. “Next stop—Jupiter.”
I took the next exit and eased the Honda down an icy decline. We came to a T in the road, and Jodie read the directions off
a slip of paper I’d stowed in the glove compartment. We hung a left and drove straight through the middle of town, digesting the names of all the businesses we passed—Clee Laundromat, Zippy’s Auto Supply, Guru Video, Tony’s Music Emporium. The two most creative were a hair salon called For the Hairing Impaired and an Old West—style saloon, complete with swinging doors and a hitching post, called Tequila Mockingbird.
Jodie and I groaned in unison.
We turned down Waterview Court and followed it as it narrowed to a single lane, the trees coming in to hug us on either side.
“Did you notice?” Jodie said.
“Waterview. It’s the name of your last book.”
“Maybe that’s another one of your beloved omens,” I said. “A good one this time.”