An Unexpected Descent

by Hila Katz

It was Mark's idea. As my big brother, he always had the final say about anything we did. That Tuesday in early July, he said we should stand at the door to the stairwell and let out a scream as soon as Mr. Jordan started going down the stairs.

We lived on the second floor of a four-story walkup.  Mr. Jordan, who was eighty-something, lived on the third.  His daughter visited him once a week, his cleaning lady twice a week. Mom had sometimes said that a man his age should be in a nursing home or at least a building with an elevator, but he'd been living in his apartment for years and didn't want to move.

He had a routine.  Nearly every day, he left his apartment at exactly noon and took a long time going down the stairs; then he'd return after a few hours and slowly climb back up.  We didn't know where he went – maybe to the library or to the park to doze off on a bench. That day, Mark decided to lie in wait for him.  At a minute to noon, we headed for the stairs.  Mark cracked open the door to the stairwell and told me to stay quiet until he gave the signal.

We heard the door to the third floor landing open, followed by the scuff of Mr. Jordan's feet and the tapping of his cane. As soon as it seemed like the old man had started down the stairs, Mark pulled me next to him, counted to three on his fingers, and let out a scream, a wild and horrible shriek.  I joined him.

The stairwell had a strong echo.  Right after we screamed, I heard thumps and thumps and thumps.  The cane clattered, and someone groaned.  Then Mark pushed me back into the hall and grabbed my hand.  We ran back to our apartment.  "Stay here," he said.  I sat in front of the TV, which was still on, while he ran back down the hall. When he returned, he had a funny look on his face, like his mouth had been sewn shut at a weird angle.  I looked at him, waiting for him to tell me what was going on, but he ignored me.  For a little while we watched Batman, and from time to time my stomach squirmed when I thought about Mr. Jordan.  Then Mark suddenly muted the TV.

"Listen," he said, and when I tried to grab the remote, he put his hands on my shoulders and shook me.  "Listen," he said.  "We don't know about anything.  We were watching TV.  OK?"

"What happened?" I said.  But I knew what had happened.

"Nothing.  Just remember, when Mom comes, we were here watching TV the whole time.  That's it."

He raised the volume on the TV, and we watched quietly, until we heard a scream.  Seconds later, Mom rushed in.  She was a teacher and had most days off in the summer.  She'd gone out for groceries, and she dropped the bags at the door before calling 911.  Mark started putting them away, and I got up to help him.  I tried not to listen to what she was saying on the phone; I made a lot of noise, shaking the grocery bags, banging open cabinets, and slamming drawers.

The rest of the day passed quickly.  From our bedroom we watched the police cars and ambulance.  Then a body getting taken away, covered.  At dinner, Mom said with tears in her eyes that he should have been in a nursing home. Dad drank a beer and said the old man had been stubborn and foolish.

Mark was 10 and I was 7, but that night we went to bed at the same time.  We lay awake in the dark.

"Did we kill him?" I said.

"Don't be stupid.  We didn't touch him," Mark said.

It was very quiet.  Mr. Jordan had often walked around over our heads, his feet scuffing and his cane tapping.  Some nights he'd kept me from falling asleep.  I thought of what my mom had said, how he shouldn't have lived here, and then I listened to Mark as his breathing changed, and he rolled over with his face buried deep into his pillow, the way he usually slept.  I fell asleep too.

The next day we didn't leave the apartment; it rained, so we had an excuse.  The day after that, it was sunny again, and Mark said we should go play outside.  I didn't want to, but he told me not to be a baby.  On our way out, we stopped at the door to the stairwell and stood there for a few seconds, until Mark shoved it open and pulled me in after him.  We didn't stop and look around, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see that nothing had changed; the stairs looked the same.

We kicked a ball around the courtyard of our building.  It slammed into walls, sometimes into windows.  I was having a good time, even though it hurt when Mark kicked the ball into my ribs.  But then Mr. Jordan's daughter walked past.  She was wearing an old brown dress, and her hair was messy from the wind. She smiled at us, but her eyes were red and small.

Later in the afternoon we heard her above our heads, rummaging around in her dad's apartment.  Mark turned the TV up louder, but I could still hear her.

"What does she want with his things anyway?" I said.  "He was just a stupid old man."

"He's better off dead," Mark said.

"He was stupid," I said.

It was hours before Mr. Jordan's daughter stopped making noise, and at dinner that night, I thought I could still hear her from time to time, shoving furniture around and stacking boxes.  I couldn't eat.  I thought about confessing, and what I would say if I did.  Mom gave me an opening by asking me if I was feeling well. 

I shook my head.

She reached over to touch my forehead.  "You don't have a temperature," she said. "What's wrong, Jakey?"

I put my fork down.  "We killed Mr. Jordan," I said.  "Mark and me did."

Mom frowned.  Dad looked at me like I was nuts.  Mark looked like he wanted to pound me into the floor.

It was Mom who spoke first.  "What are you talking about?"

"We killed him," I said.  My voice was shaking.  "We made him fall."

"You're kidding," Dad said.

"Did you push him?" Mom said, staring at me.

"No.  We scared him.  We screamed really loud."

My heart pounded through the silence.

Then my brother sighed.  "Jake doesn't know what he's talking about."  He rolled his eyes.  "The stairs echo.  Sometimes when we're in there we make noise.  We didn't kill anyone."

I turned to him, but he wasn't looking at me; he was smirking at my parents.  "We waited until we heard him," I yelled.

"Keep your voice down," Dad said.  He stood and went to get a beer from the fridge.

"Did you try to scare him?" Mom asked. She was looking at Mark, who rolled his eyes again and speared a chicken nugget.  Then she turned to me.  "Did you?"

"Yes."  I thought about it, and realized that I hadn't really wanted to.  I'd just gone along with Mark.  "No."

Mark popped another chicken nugget in his mouth and snorted.

"Chew with your mouth closed," Mom told him. She looked at me again.  "Did you see him fall?"

I hesitated.  I hadn't seen anything.  "No. But–"

"He's imagining things," Mark said.

"Let him talk," Mom said.  She turned to me again.  "Did you–" she began, but Dad cut her off.

"Come on, do they look like they could hurt anyone? He's imagining things.  It's the first time anyone's died in the building."

Mom kept staring at me.

"We hear noises in the stairs all the time," Dad went on.  "We're not the only ones in the building."  When Mom pursed her lips, he said, "Anything could have caused him to fall."

 Mom looked between me and Mark, then sighed.  "Maybe he had a dizzy spell."

Dad settled back down at the table.  "It's like you've been saying for years; he should've moved out a long time ago."

"If his daughter cared just a little bit more about him, she'd have made him," Mom said.

 "Long story short, we didn't do anything," Mark said.  He shrugged.  "We were watching Batman, I think.  I don't know what Jake's talking about."

Mom reached over and touched my hand.  "It's a little scary when someone you know dies."

"He was old.  He had a long life," Dad said, smiling at me.  "It's terrible that he died the way he did, but it wasn't like he was young.  It's kind of a miracle he lasted as long as he did, living here."

After dinner, when Mom and Dad weren't looking, Mark punched me on the arm and called me a loser.  Then we all watched TV.  As usual, I went to bed earlier than everyone else, and Mom came in to kiss me.  She called me her sweet and sensitive boy.  I lay awake long after Mark went to bed too. From upstairs there was only silence. Nothing should have kept me from sleeping.

BIO: Hila Katz is a freelance writer living in New York City.  She has an MA in psychology and a background in cognitive research.  Feel free to contact her through her professional website, Words in Bold