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The Seventh Step

A submission for the 3 AM Challenge

By Megan MalcolmPublished about a month ago 11 min read
Top Story - June 2024
The Seventh Step
Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

“It’s a different room every time. Sometimes it’s my grandma’s house from when I was little. Sometimes it’s my college apartment. Sometimes it’s somewhere unfamiliar, but always there are the stairs. I know I have to go up, but I’m afraid. I can feel my heart pounding and I feel sick, but I don’t know why. It’s like my body isn’t mine anymore, and I start up the stairs, and I’m thinking ‘No, stop!’ but I just keep going. When I get a ways up, I try to take another step but, instead, I fall backwards. I can feel myself in the air, just in a panic, nothing to hold on to and no way to stop, just falling, falling, falling until THUMP! And then I wake up.”

A dry cough from the left side of the room brought Beverly back to herself. She realized she had been staring, glazed and unseeing, and ranting for some time at the podium with a room full of vaguely concerned faces staring back at her. She cleared her throat.

“Ahem, yes, I wake up. I try to fall back asleep, but I never really do. I just sort of toss and turn, maybe dozing, but then it’s time to get up for the day. It's been happening a lot, and it's driving me crazy. I know that this is all part of it, right? You all said that sleep can get a little screwy, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Recovery is work but it’s worth it. I feel better overall, I know that, but it’s hard. I just wish I could get a good night’s sleep without drinking.”

There were nods around the room, and that felt good, but Beverly saw that she’d had the floor for over five minutes, and she turned beet red as she quickly stumbled through a wrap up and made her way back to her seat. It was just so unlike her, laying it all out like that. She wasn’t even totally sure how her strange dreams had come up; she had meant to do a quick check in, get enough of an “atta girl” to keep her going for another week, and be done. Somehow it had gotten away from her, which she hated.

The young man at the podium was crying, and Beverly realized she didn’t know why. She’d been miles away, lost in thought again. Seeing his tears, though, she felt unmoved and, frankly, uncomfortable. An uncharitable voice in the back of her mind lamented the weakness of young people these days, but Beverly shook the thought away. She wanted to be present, the way the others seemed present. She wanted to be dabbing at her eyes in solidarity like so many around her were. They were truly there, truly together. Beverly herself felt more like one of the old folding chairs, like the peeling yellow paint on the walls, or the flickering fluorescent lights overhead. She was there, but she wasn’t there. She wasn’t sure she knew how to be.

By Zoran Nayagam on Unsplash

The young man returned to his seat, and the group had a moment of silence, then said the serenity prayer. Beverly had a fleeting sense of Sunday school, of stiff Mary Janes and a different room full of folding chairs. Then the meeting was over. She gave a tight smile to the few group members who tried to engage her in small talk, then found Sharon, her sponsor. This was a woman who would have terrified her anywhere else, with her biker chick fashions and her full sleeve tattoos, but here, Sharon was her rock. Wrapped in her sponsor’s warm, leathery hug, Beverly felt for a horrible instant that she was back in her dream, in the moment that her feet left the stairway, floating into deadly weightlessness, and her breath caught. Faraway, she heard Sharon’s voice.

“...a long way, and I’m so proud of you.” Her hand, covered in rings, clapped down on Beverly’s back, and the density came back to the room. Still, Beverly couldn’t bring herself to speak.

Sharon’s eyes, thick with black liner, were understanding.

“Get out of here, Bev, we’ll see you next week. You have my number.”

And Beverly left.

By Henrique Paim on Unsplash

The park around the community center felt too big after the intimacy of the meeting. The sky was too high and the air was too thin, and she felt her toes curl inside of her shoes as if to grip onto the ground, to keep her tethered to the earth. Just as her breath started to quicken, Beverly heard the light double honk of a car horn from the parking lot and looked over to see Ed, her sweetheart of nearly a year, waving at her from his window.

It felt strange, at her age, to say she had a boyfriend. Walking over to his well-kept, sensible sedan, Beverly thought that there was not much about Ed that was “boyish” at all. Though it had been some time, she remembered dating boys: brash, wild, charming, moody boys. She’d even married one of those boys, turning boyfriend to husband in the oldest trick in the book. Unlike the boys from dates past, Ed was calm and stable, a level headed man of warmth and wit. So he was her sweetheart, which suited him. Though she had to admit, it was strange, being with anyone other than Bob.

The first year after Bob had passed had been bleak. It felt as though one day he was simply missing, like he could come back at any time. After the shock came the pain, then a numbness which was somehow worse. Friends and loved ones had come out of the woodwork, but Beverly wasn’t one to make a fuss. She found ways to fill the time. She managed, she made it through, time passed, until she realized that her friends’ invitation to “gal time” at happy hour actually sounded like fun. It became a weekly tradition, and that was how she had met Ed. It was that noisy restaurant and his less-than-perfect hearing that had led to his nickname for her. She had told him her name but he had heard her say…

“Lovely! There you are!” He opened her car door in a move so old fashioned that she felt herself blush. “Are you ready for lunch?”

“I am,” she said, settling in as he closed the door. She smiled, thinking of how her son had teased her when she had told him over the phone about Ed. Laughing, he’d pointed out that she’d refused to go see a therapist, but now she was dating one, before telling her that he was ‘truly happy’ for her. Truly happy. What a thought.

Ed took his place behind the wheel and started the car. He reached over to take her hand with a smile as he pulled out onto the road.

“You don't have to talk about the meeting unless you want to. Does Thai still sound good?”

“Thai sounds great, and the meeting was fine. It still feels foreign to me, but I managed to share today. Sharon was proud.” Beverly chuckled and turned to look out the window.

“And how about you? Are you proud?”

Beverly bit back her impulse to give a non-committal response and change the subject. Her toes curled in her shoes again, and she took a slow breath before responding.

“No, I don't feel proud. I feel embarrassed, honestly. I started talking about my sleep and those awful dreams, and I got completely carried away. I feel… worn out, I suppose.”

Ed gave her hand a light squeeze.

“I can understand that,” he said, and it felt like a hug. They rode in a cozy quiet for a few moments before he spoke again.

“Are you open to a question about your dreams? No pressure, of course, but you know I love dreams and I've found myself puzzling over them.”

Beverly smiled. “Ask away, Doc.”

“Is it always the same stair?”

For no clear reason, Beverly felt a chill up her spine, like a draft of cold air had caught her by surprise. She didn't want to think too hard about the stairs, as those dreams had started to feel close at hand lately, like she might at any moment find herself pulled back in. But she wanted to answer him, so she gingerly sorted through her memories.

“When I first started having them, it was random. Sometimes I would only make it up one step. But now I think it's always a few steps up. Probably close to the same stair every time.”

“I wonder what would happen if you count them? Might be nothing. But it might be interesting!”

Another squeeze of the hand and Ed seemed to know that she needed a different topic of discussion. So they chatted about weekend plans and other easy things, and the weight of meetings, and dreams, and the empty hours that she had once filled, glass by glass, bottle by bottle, all moved to the back seat for a time.

...

She managed to keep it tucked away until she was alone again, a pattern which could almost be comforting in its regularity, but it wasn’t. Back in the home she’d shared for so long, just her rattling around in the familiar rooms that now felt too big. She made a cup of tea. She tried to meditate but it made her antsy, so she wiped down her perfectly clean counters instead. She turned on the television for the noise and tried, unsuccessfully, not to think of how she got to this place.

Bob had been the drinker, she was never one for it herself. Her parents had been exacting teetotallers, her childhood had been austere and rigid. That was part of what drew her to Bob: he was loud and funny and colorful. He wasn’t so much a breath of fresh air as a hurricane, but he made her laugh and he’d shown her love in his big, joyful, affectionate way. Of course, there had been times where she had to do damage control for Hurricane Bob. The “jokes” that went too far, the fight with Ben that had nearly come to blows, the dinners that he missed, the important dates that he forgot. Bob had loved her, he had loved life, and she felt that it was only fair that she should help him with his troubles. But then he was gone, and somehow his little habit had become hers.

She hadn’t noticed it for a long time. She had made excuses for herself the way she’d done for Bob. She slept through that Mother’s Day brunch because she was getting over a cold. She had a drink or two before dinner with Ed because dating made her nervous. She just needed a splash in her coffee to take the edge off of another sad morning alone at the breakfast table. Thinking about it made Beverly want to curl into a ball and hide. No, that wasn’t true. Thinking about it made her want to crawl into a bottle and hide. So instead she turned off the lights and TV and went to bed.

She thought, as she often did lately, how grateful she was that they lived in a single story house. Climbing the stairs to go to bed, only to climb them again in her sleep, would have been too surreal. As she drifted off, she thought about what Ed had said about counting the stairs, and she resolved to try.

...

The first night was a wash. She was back in her grandmother’s house again, with the faded roses on the wallpaper and low conversation in a nearby room. The stairs were creaky, with a worn carpet runner over tired wooden treads. She realized too late that she was already climbing, dread rising with her, and she heard herself shout ‘Wait!’ but she was halfway up, then in the air, pins and needles running along her skin as she fell. The rest of that night was spent on the couch, dozing between cooking shows.

The second night was different. She was in a grand hallway she didn’t recognize, but it reminded her of a museum or an opera house. The walls were curving, white, and tall, and she could hear the echoing of her footfalls as she approached the pale marble stairs. Fear close behind her, she started to climb. Focusing on the numbers seemed to help, so that when she got to seven and was moving on to eight, she was surprised to find herself falling. Surprised, but not afraid. She woke up, read for a bit, and miraculously, fell back asleep.

It was like the heavens had opened. The next night was nearly the same: she started to climb, she counted as she went, and the panic didn’t come, even as she fell. She got some water when she woke and then went back to sleep. In the morning, she was almost giddy to tell Ed about it over breakfast.

By Tracey Hocking on Unsplash

“That is fascinating, Lovely! And I'm thrilled to hear about your sleep,” he said as he topped off her orange juice. “So it’s the seventh stair every time?”

“Seems like it, yes.” She sipped her juice.

“Does that mean anything to you?” His tone was gentle.

Beverly sighed.

“It does. I put it together the first night actually. The seventh step. That’s the one I’m on. The one I’m stuck on.”

Ed thought for a moment, and Beverly watched affectionately as he carefully chose his words.

“I don’t want to overstep, and maybe Sharon is the better person for this conversation, but I’m grateful you’re sharing this with me. Is it ok for me to ask another question?”

Ed took her hand as he spoke, and Beverly smiled at him. Bob would have loved that pun. ‘Overstep? Get it? The dreams are about stairs! Haha!’ She could hear him so clearly, she could practically feel him, and she felt in her heart that, somewhere, Bob was happy for her. Truly happy.

“Ask away, Doc,” Beverly said, “but I think I already know. You’re wondering what step seven is.”

He nodded. She took a deep breath.

“Well, according to Sharon, in so many words, the seventh step is about asking for help. And that’s never been my strong suit.”

Neither of them spoke for some time. They just held hands at her breakfast table as the birds sang outside.

“You deserve to be helped, you know.”

By Guillaume QL on Unsplash

That night, as she fell asleep, she thought about her next meeting. She thought about Sharon, and Ed, her son, her friends, and all of the other kind people who surrounded her, who wanted to buoy her up. In her dream, she was in a beautiful forest, a stairway rising on the path ahead.

“Please. Help.” She thought as her foot came down on the seventh step.

And then she continued to climb.

Short Story

About the Creator

Megan Malcolm

She/Her

Former spooky weirdo kid, current spooky weirdo adult.

Prone to disappearing for months at a time... let's pretend I'm cultivating an air of mystery!

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Comments (8)

  • Dr. Jason Benskin28 days ago

    Congratulations on having your story featured as a top story on Vocal! This is a remarkable achievement, and it's clear why your work has received such recognition. Your storytelling is truly exceptional. The narrative was not only compelling but also beautifully crafted, holding my attention from start to finish. The way you developed the characters and plot was masterful, making the story both engaging and thought-provoking. Your unique voice and perspective shine through, setting your work apart. It’s evident that you poured a lot of passion and effort into this piece, and it has certainly paid off. I look forward to reading more of your incredible stories in the future. Keep up the fantastic work! Best regards, Dr. Jay

  • Congrats for top story!! Well-deserved! 🎉🎉🎉

  • Wow I read this with my heart in my throat! What a dream! I like stairs, though symbolically they can mean so much, and number 7 also is super powerful, charmic. I got chills too, but it seems she found the answer and kept climbing on.. I really wonder what she discovered.

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  • Pawan Shukla29 days ago

    Good morning, I'm thrilled to present Revsyntech's exceptional website development and digital marketing services, custom-tailored to your specific requirements. As the premier managed service provider company in Noida, we specialize in delivering results-driven strategies. Our top-notch website development services are recognized as the Best Website Development Services available. Furthermore, we offer the best revenue cycle management software and are renowned as a leading Software Development Company. For more information, please contact me at [email protected] or 0120-4310475. Best regards, Pawan Shukla Revsyntech Pvt. Ltd.

  • I struggle with asking for help too and seven is my lucky number. So that made me think a lot and I was able to relate so much with Beverly. It's soooo sweet that Ed calls her Lovely! Congratulations on your Top Story! 🎉💖🎊🎉💖🎊

  • Margaret Brennan29 days ago

    absolutely incredible. I love it. I do believe we can control the outcome of our dreams which often leads us to answers for the questions we have tried so hard to hide.

  • MikMacMeerkatabout a month ago

    I really love the way you describe things. Its hard in a short story format to convey a feeling and get the reader to empathize with your character but I really connected with your writing Below are some of my favorites. "Beverly herself felt more like one of the old folding chairs, like the peeling yellow paint on the walls, or the flickering fluorescent lights overhead. She was there, but she wasn’t there. She wasn’t sure she knew how to be." "The sky was too high and the air was too thin, and she felt her toes curl inside of her shoes as if to grip onto the ground, to keep her tethered to the earth" "She was back in her grandmother’s house again, with the faded roses on the wallpaper and low conversation in a nearby room" I love how you are able to describe the setting whilst conveying emotion at the same time.

Megan MalcolmWritten by Megan Malcolm

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