Did I write this story?

[originally posted to facebook, March 24, 2019]

Okay weird request: I remember a short story, and I remember thinking this is my favorite short story. I think I read it as a kid (maybe in a textbook?), but I don't remember the title or author. I did some googling and couldn't find it. So my friend Ryder said, "Just write it." So I did. Is this familiar to anyone?

He was in danger of missing his appointment, which was on the 23rd floor, and now he realized that he would have to take the stairs. Cursing silently, under his breath, he checked his watch and looked up at the gray concrete steps, the yellow tiles on the walls, the metal railings. Then he slowly inhaled, puffed it out quickly, and started running up.

Even though he knew he was going to be late, it wasn’t long before his run slowed to a trot, and then to a walk. “Why don’t I go to the gym more often?” he thought, “I’m paying for it.” Then he tried to be a bit more optimistic. This was his exercise. It was actually good for him. It was like using a Stairmaster, except it was real - probably there were subtle nuances to climbing actual stairs that weren’t perfectly simulated by the machine. Besides, he had a sense of purpose now that the Stairmaster at the gym lacked, a destination and a time limit. That motivated him, and wasn’t motivation the big problem with going to the gym? If you looked at it that way, he was actually lucky that he had to take the stairs today. It was like a few minutes of recess, an invigorating jog in the middle of the day - refreshing, actually. He picked up the pace again.

And certainly they would understand if he was a few minutes late. Why, everyone had to take the stairs today - perhaps they themselves would be delayed. Perhaps everything was backed up. Once he got to the 23rd floor, he would probably just have to sit on a couch, waiting around awkwardly, with a receptionist staring at him. Then wouldn’t he feel like a fool for having exerted himself this much! And he’d be all sweaty and gross. Probably smelly. His speed flagged, and he had to force himself to keep running.

Actually, he was surprised that he didn’t see more people walking up and down these old echoing stairs along with him. Come to think of it, he hadn’t seen anyone. He was all alone. It probably would have helped, just to make eye contact with another person who had to sustain the ordeal of these damn stairs. They could give each other a knowing, sad smile, and there would be some kind of recognition - that would give him the strength to go on.

Maybe they could exchange some pleasantries, some sarcastic remark, something witty. Hmm, what would he say? “Nice stairs, today, huh?” No, that was terrible. He was so bad at coming up with these kinds of remarks, and it just seemed to come naturally to some people. Some kind of metaphor, or simile? “These stairs are like a...” “like a...” Hm. What were they like? Something that goes back and forth, around and around... a tornado. That’s no good. That’s not funny at all. “These stairs are like a tornado.” What kind of idiot would say that?

Gradually he came to realize that he had lost track of which floor he was on. Hadn’t there been numbers painted on the walls? He felt that he vaguely remembered a one, a two, a three. But at least up here there was nothing - just identical red metal doors. “Why didn’t I keep count? Idiot!” He had to be up to the 13th floor... maybe the 14th or 15th. Or maybe it just felt like that. Maybe he was only on the eighth or the ninth. Even so, he had to congratulate himself. He had climbed a good distance - he must be about a hundred feet in the air. If only there were windows, the view here would be quite spectacular. As soon as he reached the 23rd floor, he told himself, he had to find a window right away. It would be beautiful, and it would mean so much more because he had gotten all the way up there on his own two feet. You could really feel the height of the building this way. Isn’t it ridiculous - and awful, in a way - that we go up and down tall buildings all the time without really pausing to reflect on what a remarkable thing this was? Again, he felt blessed to be taking the stairs.

He realized that he really should figure out what floor he was on. But the thing was, he had gotten into a kind of rhythm now. His pace was good, not too fast, but steady. He had to congratulate himself on that, as well: after that initial sprint, and that moment to catch his breath, he had settled into a brisk, functional stride. He felt like a machine, his body working automatically, allowing his mind the freedom to wander, and he didn’t even feel that tired.

And there was even almost a kind of song to it. His feet went “clunk” 9 times, and then he could round the landing in three more steps, for a total of 12: clunk clunk clunk clunk, clunk clunk clunk clunk, clunk! thump thump thump. Eventually, yes, he would have to open one of these red doors, and ask someone inside what floor he was on. But not yet - partly because he wanted to put off that minor embarrassment, and partly because he feared that if he broke this rhythm, it would be very hard to get back into it. When he got close to the 23rd floor, then he would stop, and ask someone.
He had been breathing through his nose this whole time, but at this point he had to open his mouth. Why not? There was no one else here. He might as well allow himself to breathe heavily. He needed oxygen, after all, or he would get lightheaded. As soon as he gave himself this license, he started panting loudly, and even groaning quietly. A little “Ah” had come out of him, quite independently of his will. Well, there was nothing wrong with that. Didn’t athletes do that sometimes? He thought about tennis players he had seen, yelling loudly as they lunged at a ball.

But he shouldn’t dwell on the physical exertion, he told himself. That only made it harder. He should try to think about something else. Ah yes, what would he say if he saw another person on the stairs? Something universal, something anyone could relate to. “I hope your feet don’t hurt!” No, that sounded downright weird. Come to think of it, his feet did hurt, though. So he shouldn’t think about it. He was starting to sweat, too.

What floor was he on now? He felt sure that he must be on the 18th floor or so - and cursed himself again, realizing that even after he knew he had lost count, he hadn’t even kept count since then. Well, no time like the present. When he got to the top of the present staircase he said, “One” aloud, and told himself that he would stop and walk through one of the red doors when he got to “Four”.
He was breathing in rhythm with his footsteps now, and grunting a little with every breath. He gave up on trying to think about anything else, anything other than getting to the next landing. “Just get up there,” he told himself. It had been easier before. Perhaps the adrenaline had been rushing then.
“Two.” Okay, just two more flights of stairs. He could do this. It didn’t seem that hard. Clunk clunk clunk clunk, clunk clunk clunk clunk, clunk! “Three.” Almost there. Close enough, he could stop running now, and just walk up the final flight.

“Four.” He finally stopped. He bent forward, resting his hands on his knees for a few seconds. Phew. His heart was beating pretty hard in his chest. He had to just get his wits about him, and stop panting, before walking through the door. He checked his watch. It was not yet 2 o’clock! Amazingly, he wasn’t late. After the panting subsided, he took one last, deep breath, straightened up, brushed himself off, and prepared to meet them.

With a newfound confidence, which he probably wouldn’t have felt, if he hadn’t gotten this exercise, he reached for the door handle. Locked! He tried to squeeze the thumb piece, yanking the door back and forth against the frame, but nothing budged. Very well, this probably wasn’t the 23rd floor anyway. He could go up two more flights and try the next red door.

He was still breathing pretty hard, and even walking now, his legs felt heavy. But he made it up one flight, to the landing (thought “Five!”), turned around and walked up the flight in the other direction to the next red door (“Six!”). He tried the handle here. Locked again. Oh boy. He walked up two more flights, saying “Seven” and “Eight” aloud, and tried the door again. Nothing.

Perhaps he had gone up too high. Come to think of it, he thought he might have overshot the 23rd floor. There was something... different about these upper floors. In some way that he couldn’t put his finger on, it no longer looked like an office building. Maybe the developer hadn’t found anyone to rent any space in these upper floors. They felt empty, unhuman. Well, there was one thing for it. He started walking back down the steps: seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.

He tried the red door here. It was also locked. Hm. He walked down two more flights of stairs and tried the next red door. Locked. And suddenly it hit him: the red doors were only on the north landings. The south landings had no doors at all. What if what he had been counting as a floor was only half a floor? What if he had climbed 23 flights of stairs, but he still had 23 flights of stairs left to climb? It seemed impossible... each floor would have to have about 20 foot ceilings. But, maybe. He didn’t see any other way. He would have to keep going up.

* * *

He rounded another landing. He had lost track again. He had calculated that when he started counting, he was probably on what he thought had been the 18th floor, but which was probably only the ninth floor. If so, then he should now be on the 23rd floor, or past it. He was slowly walking at this point, not even trying to move quickly, leaning heavily on the metal bannister, and wheezing the whole way. But he had finally made it, hadn’t he? How high was he? He must be over 400 feet in the air. How tall was this building? He had tried every red door on the way up. Every single one was locked. No matter. He was here now, for his appointment. He tried to smooth out his shirt, but he was drenched with sweat. He glanced at his watch. It was still not yet 2 o’clock. That was impossible. His watch must have stopped. But it was still ticking....

He almost dreaded to try this door, but he forced himself to, and when it proved to be locked, he just laughed. Well, that was it.

But maybe he had been wrong when he told himself that he was on the 18th floor, all those hours ago. Or was it hours ago? Maybe he just had two more floors to climb, or four....

He started walking up the next flight of stairs, more out of habit and lightheadedness than any kind of determination. He trudged, step after step, rounded the south landing, and took the next flight of stairs to the next red door... no. Nothing.

That was it. He just had to get out of here. No appointment was worth all of this. Clearly he was lost. Who knew what floor he was on at this point? Maybe he was in the wrong building. In any case, he was no longer looking for the 23rd floor. He was only looking for the first floor. He just wanted to go home.

He started walking down the stairs. It was so much easier to walk down that he started walking faster and faster, almost running. Then he lost his balance and would have fallen if he hadn’t grabbed the railing at the last minute. Now he walked down but at a much slower pace, and found that this was actually quite difficult - maybe even more difficult than walking up.

* * *

Where was he now? He had walked down at least 40 staircases, he estimated. He must be in some kind of sub-basement. He had fallen down two flights of stairs. Strangely he was not hungry but he was beyond exhausted. He turned around and started walking back up, and then stopped, peered over the railing. From this angle he couldn’t see very far, but there was no top or bottom that he could see. He crawled to the corner of the landing and collapsed.


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