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Up the Steps

F. Brett Cox is the author of The End of All Our Exploring: Stories (Fairwood Press, 2018) and Roger Zelazny (University of Illinois Press, 2021). With Andy Duncan, he co-edited the anthology Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic (Tor, 2004). In addition to his fiction, his poetry, drama, articles, and reviews have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He is an active member of SFWA, HWA, and the Cambridge Science Fiction Writers Workshop. A native of North Carolina, Brett is Dana Professor of English at Norwich University and lives in Vermont with his wife, playwright Jeanne Beckwith, their dog Molly, and their cat Finnegan.

28. You stand at the bottom of the steps, each worn smooth by over a century of devotion. God's love is manifest in all things; so you were taught and so you believe. Yet the steps rise before you in seeming indifference. They do not care how, or if, you get to the top. Neither are they concerned about the wash of malevolent noise that lies behind you, barely within hearing. Consciousness and purpose lie solely within your head and heart. You lower yourself to your knees on the bottom step, bracing yourself with your hands three steps above. The almost frictionless surface feels more like stone than wood. You begin your crawl to the top.
27. On the second step you already hurt. You wish you had knee pads, shin guards. That would of course defeat the purpose of the ritual. And where, now, would you get such equipment? Still. It hurts.
26. You decided to come to this place to enact this ritual, undergo this penance, almost unconsciously as you fled the collapse of Quebec City, whose inhabitants mistakenly thought a retreat to the Old City, its fortifications intact, would save them. It did not. As the edge of the step presses into your shins like a dull knife, you remember the rendered bodies, the geysers of blood, the shrieks of the fallen. The despair of the final few who huddled uselessly within the Citadelle. The noise of the swarm as it overran the ramparts and covered the ancient fort like a stinking quilt.
25. The noise is now just a little closer as you push up to the next step. You chose before the catastrophe to return to the province of your birth. If anyone were left to question this decision, you would have no answer. You could have gone someplace else. But you didn't.
24. The first miracle was getting out of the city alive. The second was finding a car with the key nudging out, barely visible, from under the driver's seat, and just enough gas to get you to within a long trudge to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre. During your approach there was no sign of the hordes, and for a blessed interval, the world was silent. Then the noise, all the more horrible for being barely audible, and you quickened your pace as best you could, past the basilica towards the steps.
23. You wanted to enter the basilica and pay final tribute to its splendors, but there was no time. The steps were all.
22. It was your great-aunt Abrielle who convinced you. She asked each year to come to this Scala Santa--she would never make it to Rome; she would not fly and grew seasick confronted with the motion of a public pool--and go up the steps. As she grew older, the requests became demands. Your parents, more indulgent than her own children, brought her, and your two sisters, and you. But mostly her. Her wheezing progress up the steps its own miracle, her body audibly slapping the wood, your own eyes in later years focused on her sensible shoes as you tried desperately not to look at her buttocks shifting back and forth as she made her way to forgiveness.
21. The fronts of your trouser legs are damp; your scraped legs are starting to bleed. The noise is closer, now fully audible. You are less than halfway to the top.
20. The first time you witnessed Abrielle's penance, you were young enough to think it a game, a race, and your parents quickly grabbed you when you tried to follow her up the stairs. When she reached the top, you applauded. Your sisters laughed at you all the way from the basilica north to the ski resort that was for them the only destination that mattered.
19. Your parents never refused to make the stop during the family vacation to let your great-aunt affirm her faith. Over the years, their support grew more grudging; as your sisters grew older they increasingly applied themselves to their phones and eventually could not be bothered to comment one way or the other. You never applauded again. But your admiration and awe were renewed annually.
18. The noise behind you grows louder, but you have to pause, if only for a second. Your arms tremble as you try to take some weight off your knees. Tentatively, you put your weight back on your knees, stretch your inflamed back, reach your hands out. You teeter and for one panicked moment think you're falling backwards. But you don't.
You reach to grab the handrails on the walls of the stairwell but they are too far away and your hands slap the next step. Aren't childhood sites supposed to seem smaller when you return to them as an adult? You do not remember the stairs being so wide.
17. As you crawl to the next step, you finally lose your balance, but forward. Your forehead bumps hard against the edge of the step that lies three above you. Strangely, you feel nothing.
16. But by the next step you can feel the blood running into your eyes.
15. Your high school friends, more concerned with the discovery of sex. Your college friends, refusing to lend credence or sympathy to the terror that consumed you with each moment of doubt. Your coworkers. Your wife.
14. Do not think about your wife.
13. There is a sound at the bottom of the steps that is not part of the swarm-noise. A fleshy slap reminiscent of great-aunt Abrielle, but without the wheezing. You try to move faster.
12. Mercifully, your parents died before everything fell apart. When it finally sank in they were both gone was the second time you ever considered returning to climb the steps. But you didn't.
11. If there had been just a little more gas in that car and you had not had to walk so far at the end, your legs might have been in better shape and you would already be at the top.
10. It hurts.
9. It hurts.
8. It hurts.
7. The last time you heard from your sisters they were texting you conflicting recommendations of affordable yet comfortable lodging in the Old City, assuming--correctly--that you could not afford the Hotel Frontenac. Emma in Saskatoon, Lucy in Boston. You wonder if the hordes extend to Saskatchewan. You know what happened in Boston.
6. The swarm has arrived. You think you feel a cold hand grab your ankle, but you make it to the next step, so that might not have happened.
5. You can clearly see the statues at the top of the stairs. The savior and the judge.
4. Hands grasp your feet, but you pull yourself away and up one more step.
3. Abrielle died, old and at peace, long before your parents. On the drives to and from the Scala Santa she would tell stories about her childhood, your ancestors, stories that had nothing to do with the church or the steps. The news of her death was the first time you considered returning to climb the steps. But you didn't. You cannot remember why you also failed to attend her funeral, but you regret it.
2. An agonizing cold pressure penetrates your battered shoe and consumes your right foot.
1. You kick free of the thing that has torn off part of your right foot, stand balanced on your left in front of the statues. You turn around. The stairwell is full. The noise is deafening. The stench would bring tears to your eyes, but you already weep with joy. You made it. You raise your arms, and for a moment--final miracle!--the things that fill the stairwell cease all movement and noise. You lean forward slightly, arms spread, hands open, and in the moment before you fall into them, you think of Abrielle, and smile.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 4th, 2022

Author Comments

On a summer trip, my wife and I visited the Basilica of Saint-Anne de Beaupre near Quebec City. To the side of the basilica is a small building with a replica of the Scala Santa of Rome, a staircase of 28 steps. Pilgrims demonstrate their devotion by climbing the steps on their knees. What else would occur to me than to imagine someone enacting the ritual with something dreadful coming up behind? I am grateful to the members of the Cambridge Science Fiction Writers Workshop for offering sound advice and assurance that this odd thing was, indeed, a thing for all its oddness, and I am grateful to the editors of Daily Science Fiction for agreeing.

- F. Brett Cox
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