Portrait of a Staircase
Nothing brought Mrs. Pepperton more joy, more hope and a sense of faith in the world, than the oversized, curving staircase that rose haphazardly from the first floor to join the second floor of her house.
It was not just a staircase, mind you—not like the many dozens of staircases that one ascends and descends in their lifetime, merely leading you from one place to another. Nothing like the ugly iron stairs one can find on mounted fire escapes on the backs of buildings or the rickety wooden stairs that lead to a front porch.
Sure, many houses and skyscrapers and temples and monuments and ruined castles everywhere contained staircases of all kinds and beauty, but this staircase, Mrs. Pepperton’s staircase, was not like all those other staircases.
Her staircase told her stories.
Every time she placed her foot down on a stair, images in her mind would swirl about, as if her imagination were a shaken snow globe, and through the snowfall, she could perceive a quaint and beautiful scene of a life slightly altered from her current one.
In fact, the very first time she had set eyes on the staircase, a murky but sublime vision came to her: of her and her husband and her two, maybe seven, children posing on the staircase for a family portrait. Each family member would be wearing a colorful sweater that complemented the younger family member’s colorful sweater below him or her, and they would be staggered out over the staircase at various lengths, each with their arms draped over the curving iron banister.
And of course they would all be smiling at the camera.
It was a glorious, and heartwarming, snapshot of Mrs. Pepperton’s life laid out before her like a sensible table setting. Her staircase lent her a life beyond being the daughter of a garbage collector and her husband a town-sweeper for the county sanitation department.
And it did not matter in the least to her if the rest of the house surrounding the pièce de résistance—the cute little phrase she eventually thrust upon the staircase—was truly dreadful: like how there were only two bathrooms, both of them upstairs, directly across from each other, one with a toilet but without a bathtub, and the other with a bathtub but without a toilet; or that the worn-down hardwood floors throughout the house exposed spiky shards of wood that often rendered a bloody foot or two; or that one side of the house was boiling hot while the other a tundra, leading to the labels “Hellside” and “Heavenside” to describe where one was oriented in the house.
And it did not matter to Mrs. Pepperton that the rooms were tiny, as if a giant had picked up the house and smooshed the entire abode together like an empty carton of milk.
Yes, the bedrooms barely held two twin beds (only the master bedroom could do so, comfortably), or the kitchen, too, was no larger than your average broom closet, the fridge shaped like a grandfather clock and the stove containing only two burners—a front one and a back one. Or the corkboard placed over the kitchen sink that was labeled the counter while the the small two-by-three-foot window off to the stove’s left acted as the “trash can.”
And yes, yes, yes, the yard outside the home had its own set of problems—a perpetual weed problem that no amount of weed killer could kill. It was almost admirable to Mrs. Pepperton how strong and robust the weeds around the house were—she almost envied them, particularly the ultimate weed: the young five-foot honey locust tree, with its spiky thorns covering every square inch of its branches and trunk, as if thin knives were protruding from its bark; it was a rare and dangerous form of weed indeed, a weed that caused more pain and suffering than your average thornbush and always put Mrs. Pepperton in a perpetual state of fear when the children played outside.
And yet, despite all these massively inconvenient shortcomings—let’s not forget that the house “passed gas,” as Mr. Pepperton put it, with strange and unexplainable burp- and fart-like noises coming from the vents, still—despite this: Mrs. Pepperton knew from the exact moment the real estate agent had ushered them through the square-shaped front door, that none of it mattered.
Only the staircase mattered: the metaphorical glue for which all things Pepperton-related would cohere around.
THE APPEARANCE of their first child, Paprika, yielded a wonderful and breathtaking family portrait on the staircase, the gruelly gray eyes of the newborn staring into the camera as Mrs. Pepperton tightly grasped the baby in her enlarging arms. Mr. Pepperton stood a stair above her in a shiny golden sweater, his lip curled in a grimacing smirk, and the staircase shimmered around them—a perfect picture for a Christmas card.
Mrs. Pepperton and Mr. Pepperton alike delighted over the photo, and delighted more so over their young daughter, their futures filled with happiness and promise, and sure enough, with sweet Paprika, there soon arrived a slew of rather fortuitous events.
Mr. Pepperton got promoted to Senior Town-Sweeper, a formidable role that carried with it many perks, including free trash pickup every third month, and even a small star-shaped badge that often got him considerable leeway in many public settings. Not a single town resident batted an eye when the Peppertons cut in line at the grocery, for example.
Mrs. Pepperton, too, saw her career start to flourish, when she began selling her tiny cakes to the neighborhood. While the cakes were no bigger than a human fingertip, they caused a considerable uproar, with Ms. Amelia, the much-feared neighborhood watch officer, commenting, “It was over before I knew it, but for that one split second, I was in cake heaven.”
It was also around this time that the Peppertons were given gold-and-blue ribbons for their Excellence in Community-Building Skills, which led to reporters from The Daily News Report and The News showing up at their doorstep begging for an interview.
Mr. Pepperton had always been naturally against the press, especially The News, believing such institutions only existed to exploit the stories of the common people around them (Mr. Pepperton believed that once a person’s story was told, it was lost forever)—but through some hemming and hawing—and a considerable amount of sexual seduction—Mrs. Pepperton finally convinced her husband that an interview might be an ideal path for the family.
Mrs. Pepperton led the town-renowned reporter from The News Gazette, Joan Jibber, around their backyard fielding Jibber’s many questions while Mr. Pepperton sat on the porch sipping on his lemonade, oblivious to baby Paprika chewing on a rusty nail sticking out from the porch floorboards.
“So, tell me, Mrs. Pepperton. How does somebody like yourself, a model citizen who created her own business from scratch, married to a model citizen, who made himself into a well-respected town-sweeper, how does somebody like you do it?”
Mrs. Pepperton raised her eyes to the honey locust, a golden leaf twinkling in the sun, its thorny skin getting sharper by the day, and thought long and hard about such a question.
“Can I show you something, Ms. Jibber?”
Joan Jibber’s fat lips fluttered and twitched. “Show me what?”
“Follow me,” Mrs. Pepperton said, and led her into the house where they stood before the grand staircase.
“How magnificent,” Joan Jibber cut her off.
Mrs. Pepperton’s heart pounded through her blouse. “I know. This is how I do it.”
Joan Jibber stared for a moment more, and then turned to Mrs. Pepperton with stunned eyes. “May I . . .”
Joan Jibber set her notepad and purse down on the dirty floor, and took a hesitant first step on the staircase, then took another step, and then finally a third step, lightly grasping the iron railing as if it were made of thin glass.
Joan Jibber’s steps were careful and measured, and Mrs. Pepperton could clearly see that Joan’s mind was in a different place, a different state of mind, a fantasy world that Mrs. Pepperton was all too familiar with.
“What do you think?” Mrs. Pepperton asked her, but Joan Jibber did not respond and kept mounting the stairs slowly one by one.
Eventually, Joan Jibber reached the landing at the top of the stairs, proceeding to stop, turn around, and go back down the stairs in a hypnotic shuffling of her feet.
“Are you sure you don’t want any lemonade, Ms. Jibber? I must warn you that my husband does like to use salt instead of sugar, which is not to everyone’s taste, but at least it wets your whistle.”
But Joan Jibber continued down the stairs and to the bottom, only to turn around again and go back up the stairs.
Mrs. Pepperton didn’t utter another word as she watched Joan Jibber go up and down, and it wasn’t long before the sun set, and her husband came strolling in with a half-empty glass of lemonade, Paprika trailing behind him with the rusty nail protruding from her lips.
“What is she doing?” Mr. Pepperton asked, watching Joan Jibber.
“Going up and down the stairs,” Mrs. Pepperton responded matter of factly.
“Should we do some—”
“I don’t think so,” Mrs. Pepperton interrupted. “She’ll stop when she wants to.”
“Okay, then. How about dinner? It’s 7:38,” he said, glancing at the wall clock.
Mrs. Pepperton nodded her head ever so slightly, and proceeded to spread out the picnic blanket (i.e., the dinner table) at the foot of the stairs, retrieving an assortment of food items from the fridge such as raw potatoes and frozen corn.
“Paprika, dear. No, no. What did I tell you? No nails.”
But Paprika grunted at her and kept chewing while the Peppertons dined quietly on the dirty floor at the foot of the grand staircase, watching the great Joan Jibber go up and then back down the stairs in a stupefied daze.
SOME TIME PASSED, likely years, given that Paprika was now a full-sized walking human child who migrated from only eating nails to also eating bolts, screws, and discarded metal signs for consumption.
Also, somehow, during this time period, Mrs. Pepperton birthed three more children—it happened so quickly and so unexpectedly that she wasn’t sure if one of the kids was hers or just some child who magically appeared in the house without her noticing.
It didn’t matter. She loved most of her new children: Alimony, Silhouette, and Princely.
In the meantime, Mr. Pepperton’s career advanced as he got promoted from Senior Town-Sweeper to Head Town-Sweeper, a move that normally “took a lifetime,” according to him, but a move that also resulted in him working ridiculously long hours, sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes in the middle of a Sunday, and other times for weeks at a time. She wasn’t quite sure when she would see him, and when she did see him, he was often sleeping in unexpected places.
“Why are you sleeping in the food cabinet?” she asked him one time.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I was tired.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Pepperton’s tiny cake business tanked as she did her best to manage a household full of four children, all of them with robust and annoyingly life-filled personalities, except for Alimony of course, who continued to amaze Mrs. Pepperton with his admirable ability to bore the world around him.
Before she knew it, another Portrait Day arrived, and it was a grand affair, as Mrs. Pepperton expertly lined everyone up one by one, dressing them in the brightly colored sweaters she spent most of the year knitting, except for Alimony’s. His sweater was gray, black, and brown, to fit his stale-cracker personality.
The photographer, the same one whom Mrs. Pepperton hired when they first took the portrait with baby Paprika many years prior, waved her hands about.
“Faces here!” the photographer called out to them. “Everyone look at the camera! Hey you—the kid with the raven-black hair. Look at me.”
“Silhouette Pepperton, look at the camera right away!” his mother barked at him.
Per their usual behavior, Silo had their back to the camera, a peculiar trait the small child had somehow convinced them self of—believing that their face was not on the front of their head, but instead on the back.
The photographer threw her hands up in frustration. “Wait a second. It’s her again.”
Sure enough, down the stairs came a decrepit and thinner-lipped Joan Jibber, who continued her unsettling waltz down the stairs.
“Can’t you do something about her?” the photographer asked. “I’m not being paid by the hour here.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t. We just have to wait for her to pass.”
And so they waited patiently for her to move on by, giving Mrs. Pepperton another opportunity to fluff Princely’s golden-blond hair and to comb back Alimony’s terribly mundane brownish-yellowish-blackish-grayish hair.
“I’m hungry,” Paprika said. “Is this over yet?”
“You need to be quiet, Paprika.”
“I said hush. All you talk about is eating.”
“Okay,” the photographer finally said. “She’s near the top of the landing. Let’s resume the picture.”
“All right, everyone,” Mrs. Pepperton said, clapping her hands twice. “It’s time to take the picture. Silo, turn around. Paprika, pretend you’re pretty. Alimony, be human. Princely, keep being perfect.”
Just as the photographer went to snap another photo, she threw up her hands yet again in frustration. “Where’s Mr. Pepperton? I just realized he’s not on the staircase.”
Mrs. Pepperton peered around. “Where could he be?”
“I don’t know!” the photographer practically yelled. “But this is unacceptable.”
“Was he ever here? Kids, do you know where he is?”
Silo turned their back to her. “He’s probably dead.”
“Not dead,” Paprika said, chewing on a piece of flint she’d kept in her pocket. “Asleep.”
“What’s the diff?” Silo asked.
“I do, Mother, believe he is hiding,” Alimony offered in his clean, radio announcer–like voice.
“Do zip it, Mony,” her mother said with a dismissive wave of the hand. “I guess we will need to find him?”
They scoured the house, looking for the man who went by the name of Mr. Pepperton but after hours of searching, even having little Silo crawl through the heater ducts, there was neither sign nor hair of the man.
Her mother resigned herself to this new reality. “He must have gone to work and never come back,” she mused out loud.
But she knew that no previous Portrait Day was ever canceled, and she wasn’t about to cancel this year’s Portrait Day because her no-good-for-nothing husband worked too much.
“We will do the portrait without him. It will serve him right,” she concluded, and rounded up the kids, and tracked down the photographer who was at this point outside, asleep on the front porch.
After getting all the kids lined up again and dealing with their ungrateful antics—apparently Paprika had spit out some blood and rubbed it on Princely’s forehead much to her and Silo’s amusement—the photographer was finally ready to go and, with a countdown of four, snapped the photo.
“You owe me for a full day’s work,” the photographer said, glancing up at the wall clock.
“I will pay you when you bring me the photos,” Mrs. Pepperton said, and sure enough, two days later, the photographer arrived with the photos, for which Mrs. Pepperton promptly paid her in coins—Paprika’s chewing coins—and then Mrs. Pepperton eagerly examined the photos, only to see that they were perfect. The lighting, perfect. The sweaters, perfect. The staircase and its powerful aura, perfect. The smiles on her children’s faces, perfect. Even Alimony had cracked a semi-acceptable smirk. She couldn’t have been more thrilled.
Sure, her husband was nowhere to be found, but someway, somehow, another Portrait Day was in the history books, and it had been a huge success in Mrs. Pepperton’s mind.
SOME MORE TIME passed—years, months, days, one stops counting eventually. The next Portrait Day was right around the corner yet again, only a week away. Mrs. Pepperton had been waiting especially hard for this one—probably because she felt as if her life were falling to pieces, and in some cases, it literally was.
Earlier that month, the Heavenside of the house caved in for no apparent reason, besides faulty infrastructure perhaps?
Though Silo—fifteen now—claimed it was something more.
“It’s a sticky, viscous force beyond nature’s understanding that has injected itself into the walls and then expanded outwardly,” they told their mother through the back of their head.
“What the hell does that even mean?” she responded, but Silo never turned around, never uttered another word, and then promptly moon-walked out of the room and away from the conversation.
Her husband had also disappeared entirely, though the money for his job continued to arrive in the mailbox, leading her to believe that he was either an entirely different man now, or that somehow he was still living in the house without her, or any of the kids, knowing it. She did often wonder whether she would open a closet door or a cabinet to find his face peering back at her, but none such thing ever happened.
Meanwhile, Paprika’s propensity for metal had only skyrocketed the older she got. Originally, Mrs. Pepperton had thought that her metal consumption was only a phase, just like how Mony had chewed on his fingers, often to the point of drawing blood, until he was four years old, or how her Golden Boy’s unhealthy obsession with chewing on the tails of dead snakes lasted until he was seven years old.
But the arguments that had ensued between Mother and her firstborn daughter went from emotional to epic in proportion, to the point that Paprika took drastic measures to ensure her mother did not win, emotionally speaking.
After one fight, she leapt from the staircase one day, resulting in three broken bones and a cut down her arm from the splintered-infested floor that she fell upon, realizing quickly that it wasn’t the bones as much as the blood that caused her mother to cry out, “My baby! My baby!”
Then, months before Paprika was due to leave the house for college, she announced she was no longer going and was instead moving in with Hermann—the town metal scrapper. Her mother slapped her across her face and told her to grow up.
“Alimony went to college at sixteen!”
Stung by both the pain of her mother’s words and the pain of her mother’s hand, Paprika calmly went up the stairs, past the decomposed Joan Jibber, and squeezed herself through the master-bedroom window, swan-diving onto the honey locust outside, resulting in a thousand cuts that touched nearly ever square inch of her body.
Through the window, Mrs. Pepperton watched as a waterfall of blood cascaded down, and something snapped within her, like a light bulb filament that had been dimly lit for too many years finally shattered—and she marched outside and stood before the honey locust, the weeds up to her knees, glaring at the groaning Paprika, whose arm was impaled on a sharp branch.
“You think you can make a spectacle,” Mrs. Pepperton said calmly. “Well, you’re not welcome here anymore.”
And Mrs. Pepperton promptly turned around, headed through the square front door, and slammed it with all her might, only to find her Golden Boy sitting on the stairs, quiet as he usually was, his blond hair billowing and angelic looking.
Except there was something different about his face. He had just turned twelve, so he was hitting puberty, which was clearly evidenced in the way he lifted his upper lip in a sneer. Seeing that first sneer made Mrs. Pepperton sick to her stomach, and she could only hope that she would never see that look again.
Luckily, as this particular Portrait Day arrived, it hadn’t happened again, and while Paprika had been carted off to some medical center far away, and her husband maintained his invisibility, and Alimony, that boring cretin, now had a high-powered government job, there was only her and Silo and her Golden Boy.
“Smile,” the photographer said in her weathered, craggy voice. “It’s time for me to go,” she croaked, peering up at the wall clock.
Despite the absence of her husband and two of her children, the photos were still brilliant; Golden Boy shined; Silo had done their best to smile from the back of their head; and Mrs. Pepperton gleamed with pride, her eyes somehow alive despite the circumstances.
DESPITE THE PAINFUL outcry of her bones and muscles, Mrs. Pepperton made it a goal to mount the stairs at least once a day. Damned if she was going to let old age get the best of her!
Every time she walked those stairs, her mind would wander upon many things. Most often, she would reflect upon the previous Portrait Day, and the one before that, and go so far back in her mind to the very first one, the one when Paprika cooed in her arms and her husband was still around.
A few years ago, while she still could afford it, she had framed all of the Portrait Day photos and mounted them on the wall by the staircase, so when a person ascended, or descended, the stairs, they were able to see the ever-changing Pepperton family from one year to the next.
As she moved slowly up the stairs, she took her sweet time examining the faces as they morphed and changed over the years. When she got to the portrait of her husband missing, she always clicked her tongue in annoyance.
Her missing husband. Had he ever left the home? she wondered. He must be somewhere in the house, but where?
She didn’t believe for a second what she had heard through the town whisperers—that he was a street musician in some faraway city, that his name was no longer Mr. Pepperton but Mr. Tepperpon, that he was blind and played a flute so poorly that he received a considerable amount of sympathy money. Mrs. Pepperton had always been wary of such gossip, in particular any gossip that involved her husband, so she could only conclude that he must be in the house somewhere—tucked away, soundly asleep.
Paprika was gone, too, and had been ever since she threw herself on the honey locust. Mrs. Pepperton had heard more whisperings at the grocery a few months prior, but this time from a reliable keeper of knowledge—Ms. Amelia—that Paprika was still alive out there, spotted in a junkyard with others of her kind, her body brandished with a million tiny scars. After all these years, though, something about that gossipy tidbit gave Mrs. Pepperton a sense of relief, knowing that Paprika had no choice but to follow the desires that she wanted to follow.
Silo had also vanished into the unknown, but they were sweet enough to let their mother know that they would be going someplace that even they didn’t know where they were going. “Destinations do not always yield returns,” Silo said to her—whatever the hell that meant. She respected their decision and gave a quick peck to the back of their neck, as she watched them walk backward down the porch steps, past the bloodstained honey locust, and down the street, gone forever.
And then there was her Golden Boy, Princely Pepperton the First, the perfect child, who, day by day, sneered more and more, his face contorting into grotesque facial expressions, until it permanently stayed that way. When he turned sixteen, Mrs. Pepperton discovered him to be excessively drooling, and at seventeen he took his true form—defecating on walls, growling at the slightest sounds, chewing through wires, and skittering out from unexpected places during the night.
To see his true form was one of the most difficult, and harshest, realities Mrs. Pepperton had ever faced, but she succumbed to its truth. All that remained of her Golden Boy would be his sounds of grunting as she drifted off to sleep at the foot of the staircase, his heavy breathing and grumbling noises heard distantly through the crumbling walls. She at least knew he was near, despite his less-than-perfect true form.
Eventually, it was just her and the staircase and an empty home. Portrait Days now existed merely as dreams, almost as they had existed when she first imagined them with the real estate agent.
Now all she could summon herself to do was lie at the foot of the staircase and dream of these other times and other places.
So, one can only imagine how surprised, how jolted she was, when she heard a knock on the door on a random Saturday afternoon.
At first, she waved her hand disgustedly at the knock and resumed her resting, until the knock came again and with a tiny bit more force.
She waved yet again, and this time, the door creaked open, and a handsome-looking man materialized in the doorway. His hair was slicked back, his suit impeccably clean and likely more expensive than all the money that Mrs. Pepperton had ever had in her entire life.
“Who are you?” she managed to squeak out at the stranger.
“It’s me. I’m here,” the man with the nice, clean, melodious voice said to her.
She tried to sit up, but her whole body ached with fury, and she quickly dissolved into a terrible fit of coughing.
“Please, let me help you,” the man said, holding his hand out.
His hands were just as smooth as his voice, likely well lotioned, the old Mrs. Pepperton noted, knowing that her own hands were nothing short of sandpaper. She allowed him to help her up eventually, and she whispered to him, “Why are you here?”
“It’s Portrait Day, of course,” he said. “I’m here for Portrait Day.” There was almost a cheer in the way he said it, and Mrs. Pepperton felt her heart race a tad bit.
She had forgotten. There was always a Portrait Day, every year—when her whole family gathered together, adorned in matching colorful sweaters, and they would stagger themselves over the long, curving staircase.
“Where’s the photographer?” the mother managed to say before another coughing fit came over her.
The spritely man patted her lightly on the back, and then pointed toward the door, where the photographer stood, just as hunched over as she was, just as worn down and beaten down by the past.
The man glanced to the wall and sighed. “We need to hurry up, though. It’s 7:38. We only have her for a few more minutes.”
And so he removed his suit quickly, like a costume change in a play, and before Mrs. Pepperton could blink, he was in black pants and a bright-gray sweater.
He guided her halfway up the stairs, and they watched as the photographer slowly scooted toward them carrying her oversized camera.
“One picture, and I’m done,” the old photographer said. “Smile. Four …. three … two … one …”
But Mrs. Pepperton’s eyes moved beyond the camera, and out the window to the honey locust tree in the yard. The tree had grown monstrously big, she noticed, but the thorns that had once wreaked havoc on her thoughts had magically vanished.
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Ryan Jenkins is a writer of weird fiction based in Richmond, Virginia, where he lives with his partner and daughter. Previously a managing editor at Tor Books, Ryan currently copyedits novels on a freelance basis. His most recent story was published in Goats Milk Magazine, and he has a forthcoming story appearing in Strange Wor/ds. Read the author’s commentary on his story.