UP THE STAIRS • by John Lander

Coming up the stairs to my apartment, I see another me out on the patio. He’s in the corner, faint as smoke and totem-still. I drop off my briefcase, change clothes, and sit down next to him on the bamboo mat. I know better than to say anything, lest he disperse with that sudden, insistent absence of a magician’s dining table stripped of its cloth, or a match blown out in the dark. Instead, I close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the complex with him.

Traffic murmurs, car alarm chirps, leaf-blower roars, nuthatch splashes and trill jay splatter; sometimes my doppelganger chimes in with his own short, lilted whistles. I don’t understand it, but he must be doing something right because the birds always seem to answer back. I used to try to join in, too, but my lips are disobedient and my tone’s off-key. Plus, I’d inevitably make passersby look up at the balcony and notice me in the shade, by myself, trying to talk to the birds.

Once the sun’s down, though, he tends to start rambling whispered stories, like the one where I meet Lily — “…a golden sunset swinging to the high-hat beat of a jazz band playing a rooftop party crowded with hats and plants and legs and conversations, and all of that dims, it dulls, grinds down to a halt when she steps outside: she’s a vision, a stunner, a goddess glowing with vitality. Stones skip inside you and you keep waiting for them to sink, but they just go on tapping the strings in your stomach. You lock eyes and hope against hope you’ve got a chance, and when she smiles back at you, soft and demure, suddenly the stones aren’t skipping any more. No, now they’re roaring, thundering against your sternum, and it feels like they’re going to burst right out your chest…”

Of course, that always ends with me driving in a downpour. He never says where I am, what car I’m driving, or even where I’m going, but I know Lily’s with me, and I know I lose control; she loses an arm and her legs.

I’m also responsible for mangling my son — unnamed most times, Tommy at others — on a desert lake. I’m towing a banana boat, swerving maniacally, speeding up to make him wipe out back there because that’s the fun of those things, but of course some bastard I never see coming mows him down right in front of me — Lily wails and bawls and collapses in a heap, but remains otherwise intact in that one.

Other mes have daughters, too. They seem to get the worst of it. I lose track of Bethany and find her at the bottom of a crowded swimming pool; I hold Bailey’s hand one minute, let go to pay for ice cream, and the next time I see her she’s an emaciated wraith — white and spectral — beneath a blue morgue sheet; Betty leaves me three words on a suicide note: Your Fault, Daddy; Brittany doesn’t look before crossing the street; Bess succumbs to leukemia when she’s seven.

Lily’s never mentioned in any of those. No mothers are, and I haven’t had a date since I moved here eighteen months ago.

One-night stands, sure, but that’s not why I relocated: Vegas was fun, but I never planned on settling down there. Now I’m in the middle of the Texas Hill Country, listening to a ghost, a face in the fog, the figure behind my steamed bathroom mirror, while he rattles off deaths to inexistent loved ones. I wish I’d walked away that very first night when I found him — I almost did, you know. I almost packed up and moved to another place, but I got curious like a fool and went back out. I learned to sit quietly, to resist a response when he tossed rhetorical questions into the shadows. I listened, and now I’m stuck praying for a fairy tale. I wonder how long it’ll be before I just settle for the one without considerable tragedy, the lesser evil. Of course by then, I’ll probably have missed my chance and it’ll have happened to a younger me, or else I’ll hear the whole story — beautiful wife, healthy and happy kids, a peaceful old death — and never know her name, my safety net, my catalyst. I’ll ask him for it in desperation, and he’ll disappear like he always does. Then it’ll just be me out there again, a story in the dark, alone, waiting for my ending to come up and find me.

John Lander lives in Austin, Texas. Some of his other work can be found at Thieves Jargon, Boston Literary Magazine, and MicroHorror.

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