Anne told Edgar that she was barren on the day that the stairs appeared.
The stairs were tall, so tall that nobody could see where they ended. They were white, without a railing, and as narrow as the space between the stirrups at the end of an exam table. They appeared in the middle of the afternoon, in the center of the park. It was a Tuesday.
The doctor had said Anne didn’t have any eggs. She wasn’t old, and it didn’t make sense — she should have had a truckload of eggs left — but she didn’t. The doctor, smiling up from between Anne’s legs with his big tobacco teeth, said that her ovaries were empty. Then he slapped her on the leg as if she was a horse; instead of giving her a sugar cube, he had handed her some pamphlets on adoption and surrogacy.
Nobody wanted to climb the stairs, not even the brave children who could swing so high that they went all the way over the top. They clung to their mothers and watched the stairs with wide eyes. Many of the children stared with their thumbs in their mouths, even those children who should have outgrown the habit, even those who would have bullied other thumb-suckers for acting like babies. The children and their mothers and everyone else watched as the police strung yellow tape all the way around the foot of the stairs. The tape said DO NOT APPROACH DO NOT APPROACH DO NOT APPROACH in bold black letters.
Edgar left Anne. He apologized without meeting her eyes. He said that he loved her, that he would always love her. Anne thought, but did not ask, how he could walk out on someone he would always love. He told her that he needed children of his own. Adoption, he said, was not an option. He laughed a little at the weak wordplay, and his laughter stung Anne as badly as if he’d thrown a fistful of gravel into her eyes. It took him a shockingly short amount of time to pack his suitcase, and he slipped away to Denver with such ease that Anne wondered if he hadn’t somehow known she was barren all along. If he hadn’t been planning his flight from the start.
The stairs appeared in the summer, and by fall, people had started to ignore them. There were other things to think about — the harvest festival and the start of the school year. The novelty was gone, and interest waned. The stairs were hard to ignore, being right in the middle of the lawn in the park, but the authorities assured the townspeople that the stairs were not a threat. People can adjust to anything.
Anne learned to buy groceries for one. She cried the first time she baked lasagna in a bread pan; that was the only time she cried for Edgar. She wondered if she should cry more, but after the lasagna had been eaten, her eyes only watered when she sneezed. She missed having a touchstone. A person who knew she was alive. But she didn’t miss Edgar so much, and she found that she appreciated the quiet that entered her life in his absence. She counted, once, and made it five whole days before she had to talk to anyone. It was the bagger at the grocery store; he looked at Anne and said “paper or plastic?” When she answered “paper,” it felt like she’d lost a staring contest. She got home and put the paper bag on the kitchen counter, and she laughed until her stomach hurt, and decided that maybe she shouldn’t like the quiet so much.
In December, interest in the stairs revived again; it was as though the town realized that they were not going away. They were an eyesore, some people said — probably a stupid art project gone too far. Others pointed out the lack of visible supports and said that the stairs were an architectural miracle. Surely they should be preserved. Studied. A letter to the editor was published in the town paper, asking why it was that trying to look to the end of the stairs made one’s head hurt in a trembly, hung-over way. A second letter was published a week later, pointing out that cameras attempting to film or photograph the stairs could not find a focal point.
Anne decided to take a drawing class at the rec center. She had liked drawing as a girl, and she wanted to meet new people. Perhaps, she thought, she could make a friend there. All anyone wanted to draw was the stairs, but the teacher made them draw bowls of fruit and flower arrangements. He said that stairs were dull subject matter, although he always said it with his eyes downcast and nobody believed that he really knew how to draw the stairs. Anne found that she was alright at drawing, but not great at painting, and that she hated the smell of clay.
There was a meeting about the stairs at the town hall. Lots of people yelled. The mayor did her best to listen to everyone, but no decisions were made. At the end of the meeting, she made a little speech about how proud she was of the town for actively participating in governance. The people applauded, but without too much enthusiasm. They walked out into the crisp chill of early February and tried to figure out if the meeting had gone well.
Anne slept with the art teacher. She hadn’t planned to, but then she did. It happened after a class in which most of the students signed a petition asking the teacher to help them figure out how to draw the stairs; Anne was the only one who did not sign it. The stairs reminded her of Edgar, and she did not care to think about them, much less draw them. The teacher opened a bottle of sticky-sweet wine that was tucked away in his desk drawer, and then they had sex on the floor of the art room. After, when he asked if she’d had an orgasm, she put her hand on his cheek and smiled without answering. It seemed like the kind thing to do. The next morning, when she went to take a shower, a piece of a broken green chalk pastel fell out of her hair.
The mayor announced, via the front page of the town paper, that there would be a celebration. A festival, to commemorate the first anniversary of the Appearance of the Stairs. This had not been among any of the suggestions at the town hall meeting, but the idea was well-received; after all, who doesn’t love a festival? The first-grade class at the elementary school began practicing a song, and the ladies of First Baptist Revival formed a bake sale committee.
Two weeks after sex with the art teacher, Anne checked her calendar, then bought tampons at the grocery store. She asked the bagger for paper before he could ask her preference. A week after that, the box of tampons still sat under her bathroom sink, blue and shiny and unopened. Two weeks passed, and then three, and then four. Time progressed as it always does, which is to say without regard for human concerns. Anne opened the cupboard and stared, affronted, at the box of tampons. She wondered what they were trying to say by lingering there, untouched.
The festival was a success, and it was understood that it would happen every year. The Stairs Festival, they called it. The cookies sold by First Baptist Revival were very good, and the song that the first-graders sang was cute, and the music and local art and warm sun were all delightful. At noon, everyone gathered as a scrawny sapling was planted a few yards from the bottom step of the stairs. Nobody knew when to clap.
Anne bought a pregnancy test and left it under the sink with the tampons for three weeks. Every morning, when she stumbled out of bed and sat on the toilet, she would think, you should really take that test, Anne. But then she would look at herself in the mirror and think of her shriveled-up ovaries, empty as plastic bags floating on the wind, and she would leave the pregnancy test untaken. It was impossible. Even so, she stopped drinking wine at night and added spinach to her single-serving dinners, for the folic acid. Just in case.
Nobody ever climbed the stairs. Most of the townsfolk assumed that the stairs had been summitted by someone, but the reality was that everyone felt the same way when they looked at the stairs: a little unsettled, and a little proud, and very, very small. That feeling did not inspire the courage required to mount the first step. Had anyone been paying close enough attention to the stairs, they’d have noticed that the gleaming white steps displayed not a single scuff; they were still as pure and untouched as the day they’d appeared.
Anne finally gathered her courage and took the pregnancy test. It was the kind with a digital screen, which made Anne feel like it would be more accurate. She held the stick between her legs and tried her best to pee for five straight seconds, per the directions printed on the box. She managed three and hoped it would do the trick. She took the test with her to the doctor two days later — a new doctor, one Anne hoped would not make her feel like a farm animal — and showed it to the nurse who was taking her vital signs.
Everyone talked about the festival; no one talked about the stairs anymore. Talking about the stairs led to talking about where they came from, how they got there, and whether anything should be done about them; and everyone privately preferred to leave the how and the why and the what-should-we-do undiscussed. They probably would have been troubled, had they realized that they all agreed in exactly the same way on exactly the same thing: it didn’t matter, because they had the stairs now, and that could never be undone.
At her third appointment, Anne lay on her back with warm jelly on her stomach. She turned her head to the side and tried to ignore the discomfort of the ultrasound. The doctor tapped on the keyboard a couple of times, and then a sound filled the room. One-two and one-two and one-two every second, without stopping. A blurry bean-shape twitched on the screen in time with the throbbing. The doctor printed out the picture on the screen and gave it to Anne to take home, after telling her how to recognize the head. The nurse congratulated her, and Anne didn’t know whether to say “thank you,” so she didn’t say anything at all.
On the walk home from the doctor’s office, Anne stopped in the park. It was empty except for her. She sat down on a bench and looked at the grainy black-and-white picture in her hands, and tried to recognize the head. She wondered if she should tell the art teacher. She wondered if she should call Edgar. A spot appeared on the picture, wet, and Anne touched her face to find tears there. She stuck her fingers in her mouth and sucked the salt from them, tucking the picture into her purse. She realized that she had nobody to share her news with. Maybe she could tell the bagger at the grocery store.
There was a sound like something heavy, falling down and bouncing in the grass. Somewhere to her left.
She looked up and saw, out of the corner of her eye, a flash of yellow. The police tape, at the foot of the stairs, flapping. Maybe that was the sound she’d heard? But no, there it was again: a low sound, not the snick-tack of the tape catching the breeze. It must have been coming from behind the stairs — some kid with a boom box. Did boom boxes still exist? Anne wasn’t sure. She stood and walked toward the stairs. The sound stopped.
Anne stood before the foot of the stairs, the yellow police tape between her and the bottom step. She strained to hear the sound, and there it was again - just at the edges of her hearing, like a figure hovering in her peripheral vision but dashing out of sight when she turned to look directly at it. A rhythmic throbbing. She took a step forward and felt a tug at her bellybutton — it was the police tape, stretching. Just as she realized that she was straining against the tape, it snapped, and then there was nothing between her and the stairs.
As she drew near to them, the sound became clearer. She was almost certain of what it was, but not certain enough. She crooked her neck, closed her eyes as though that would make her hearing stronger. One step closer, she was sure, and then she would be able to hear the sound all the way. Then she would know what it was.
She lifted her foot, and when she tried to put it down, it did not land all the way. She opened her eyes and looked, and yes. She had her foot on the bottom step.
She held her breath, looked around. Nobody was there. Nobody could see her. Nobody could stop her.
The sound was louder now, and steady, if muffled. It was that rhythmic throb, that thudding, one-two and one-two and one-two every second. Exactly the same.
She looked behind her at the little sapling the town had planted in the park to commemorate the Day the Stairs Appeared. The leaves fluttered like a hundred handkerchiefs on the bow of a ship. Anne turned her back on her town, lifted her foot, and began to climb.