In a Room at the Top of the Stairs by W. Tyler Paterson


The dune grass grew in like surgical blades across the mound, the full-grown strands bending in the breeze acting as a diversion to the pain underneath.  Bowie walked barefoot through the patch despite the number of No Walking – $500 Fine signs and felt another stalk slice through the soft skin of his right sole.  He had lost sight of the cottage his father had rented when he waded across the ankle deep inlet onto a beach with signs that read No Trespassing and Private Properties.  The low tide exposed more of the beach where small sea creatures began to rot and fester under the hot August sun.

Bowie enjoyed the smell, the salty decay of those dumb snails and crabs, a scent that was so thick that it hung in his nose all day like a recon soldier in a ghillie suit.  When his father’s new girlfriend – the third this year – talked about how great a day at the beach was, Bowie snickered at the idea that she really loved a dried up fish carcass missing an eye with bones picked clean by seagulls.  Most days, he wondered what his father saw in the short, loud woman.  What made her or any of the other women so special that he stopped spending time with his twelve-year-old son?

“Bow, I need you to turn your music down,” his father had said that morning.  The man threw open the door without knocking, which made Bowie think he might catch the buckle end of a belt. “Missy has…a headache.”

“Then she should stop getting drunk,” Bowie said.  He folded his arms across his chest and flipped his head sideways so that the long brown hair moved out of his eyes.  His father leaned forward and stuck a long callused pointer finger into the boy’s chest, poking just above the graphic of the tee shirt where a tarantula was doing battle with a rattlesnake.  It was Bowie’s favorite shirt and he didn’t like people touching it.

“Keep that mouth going, see what happens,” the man said.

“Whatever, she’ll be gone in a month anyways,” Bowie said.  But hearing the words out loud made his chest quiver.  His eyes began to puff.

“No beach for you today.  At all!” his father shouted, his voice louder than the music.  The man slammed the door as he left, which shook the walls and made Missy yell out to keep it the fuck down!

Just before 10:00 AM Bowie walked downstairs, through the kitchen where his father was sitting and rubbing his temples, and threw open the door to the outside.  The boy walked into the sunshine without a word from his father.  He walked barefoot across the scorching blacktop streets to the beach and then took off down the coast without so much as a second thought, his feet cooled by the fizzing waves lapping against the shore.

Now he was passing by houses that had more than a single story, their paint fresh and kept up with.  Just beyond the dunes were large screened-in wrap-around porches with long wooden tables bleached white by the sun.  Bowie imagined a large family eating there, the sound of the ocean in the background, their laughter blending with the caws of seagulls.  Another house had blue surfboards and red sit-on-top kayaks. They were lined up in the grass and leaning sideways along the concrete foundation.

There didn’t seem to be any people around on that private stretch of beach.  Bowie looked for sunbathers or swimmers, for cars in driveways, for open windows with music playing that might lead him into a conversation. He’d been dying to talk with anyone about his favorite album Battleground by the band Fang Tooth.  He had talking points locked and loaded.

It’s not as heavy as Breach the Fortress, but it’s more refined, he would say and try to pass off the opinion as his own and not that of an online music reviewer.

 They capture the anger of loneliness, he wanted to say, a thought that had come in the small hours of the morning while listening to his father shout down one of the former crying girlfriends.

 The album is best when played loud, he would explain while cranking the volume up, and then thump his chest in time with the kick-drum.

 Yet, the only sounds he heard were the natural discourse of a calm summer day at the beach and the dream of a conversation trickled away like blood from the cuts on the bottom of his bare feet. 

Bowie wondered how people could own a house but not live in it, that their lives were so good that they could choose between multiple homes and rotating families. He hopped off the dunes and took a few slow steps toward the swinging weather door of an empty porch. 

 “Hello?” he called, pushing his face against the screen and looking inside.  Bowie could make out a brick fireplace, dark wood paneled walls, a large television that was off, and sandy brown couches.  It led into a dining room with a heavy looking dark table, wooden chairs tucked against the perimeter like children being punished.  Just to the right of his line of sight was a staircase, the edges holding scattered bits of sand and dust.  But the windows were open, the thin curtains swaying against the soft breeze.

 “Can I use your bathroom?” he called again, listening for any sign of life.  There were no thumps of footsteps, no rustling of chairs, nothing except for the shriek of the wind pushing through the screen of the porch.

Bowie tested the knob on the weather door and found it unlocked, so he pulled it open and stepped inside taking in the sea-foam green patio furniture and coral pink shag rugs on the porch that faced the ocean.  It was cooler inside by a just a hair, the sunlight unable to scorch the shaded space.  The dark interior of the other rooms allowed the boy to imagine a vacation that wasn’t lived strictly out of suitcases and fast food meals.  He pretended there were cousins running through the rooms, aunts and uncles unbothered by their play, and a happy balding grandpa that would sit in the shade of the porch and listen to the ballgame on an old beat up radio.

As he stepped further into the house, each step cautious but purposeful, Bowie saw that there was, in fact, a bathroom at the summit of the staircase.  The porcelain toilet bowl and ivory white sink glowed with reflected sunlight.  The boy stepped onto the stairs and grabbed hold of the thin railing, the sand sticking to his bloody feet, the wood creaking under his weight.  He began to traverse while listening for any signs of a car that might suddenly pull into the drive or a family returning home from their morning adventure.  All was silent and still.

The house had four bedrooms on the second level, Bowie paused halfway up to count them.  There was one on the right-hand side, and one across the hall from it.  Behind him were two more bedrooms that overlooked the ocean, or so he believed.

There was an open window in the bathroom and a coiled Venetian blind thumping against the frame.   He watched it move in and out as though it were alive and guided by the same human impulses that had led him into this home.  It beat against the window because it had to, because the frame was there, because just existing wasn’t enough.

Bowie stepped off of the last step and stood in front of the bathroom door watching the window, and then he froze.  His blood started to tingle.  Sitting in a room at the top of the stairs on the edge of a bed was an old woman watching him.  Her wild, wiry hair was so white that it was nearly see through, her eyes sunken and pink.  An oxygen tank pushed air in short bursts through long translucent tubes like alien veins up into her nose.  The woman’s skin was sagging and wrinkled.  She wore a pale yellow nightgown that had been washed far too many times, the edges frayed and coming undone. 

“I’m sorry,” Bowie said, paralyzed.  The words slipped out like a whisper.  The woman hadn’t blinked, but her eyes were moving, scanning the boy.  Bowie stared back and noticed that one of her legs was swollen with thick blue veins, the other leg – a crudely stitched stump at the knee.

There was a full bedpan at the foot of the bed, the dark yellow liquid rippling against the breeze, brown lumps like islands slowly dissolving.  It took a moment for the stench to hit, the flow of air continuously sucked out the windows, but it was the unmistakable smell of human waste.  Bowie felt his throat start to bubble.

“Richard?” the old woman asked.  Her voice sounded full of dust and stale air.  “I’ve had an accident.”

Outside, a car door slammed and Bowie twisted his neck to see that a white pickup truck had pulled into the driveway.  A door downstairs opened followed by what sounded like the shuffling of work boots across a linoleum floor.  Then there was a pause. 

“Someone here?” a man’s voice called out as though filled with gravel.

Bowie unfroze and booked it down the steps, his body feeling filled with helium until he was up onto the dunes, the sharp blades tearing at his sprinting feet.  He leapt into the soft sand and charged the water’s edge as the sun made the air too hot to breathe.  Small puddles of water tickled his toes as his feet slapped across the shoreline towards the inlet, towards a populated beach, towards his father.

The current was starting to rise and the tide was coming in.  The inlet was knee-deep, the currents like warm infected urine.  The salt stung the cuts as he waded through, and then filled with coarse sand as he reached the other side.  Bowie didn’t stop running until the houses along the shore started to look familiar, the umbrellas of other vacationers started to appear, and the view of the harbor was more in line with what he had spent the last few days gazing at. 

Bowie sprinted up the hot, loose sand disregarding the sharp wheezing noise coming out of his mouth.  The hot blacktop felt like needles on his carved up soles as he tip-toe ran the remaining block and a half to the rental cottage.  He could see the side door open and the television on, his father slouched in a chair and staring blankly at a screen projecting the sunny seven-day forecast. 

The cool linoleum was a welcome relief, but the scramble to get inside had been louder than he meant.

“You better have clean feet!” his father shouted without turning around.  There was a rocks glass on the table beside him half full of a dark, clear liquid.

“Noise!” Missy yelled, still in bed.

Bowie ran to his small room and slammed the door.  He yanked the blue comforter off of his bed, wrapped it around his shoulders, and fell onto the carpeted floor trembling.  He waited for his father to come in and ask what was wrong, to ask what had gotten the boy so shaken up, to ask again why he felt so compelled to sabotage nice things for everyone.

Bowie waited, and waited, and waited in silence.  No door opened, no chairs shuffled, and no curious eyes graced the keyhole.

Outside, the August wind was lifting kites with long colorful tails high up into the crystal sky, the connected string invisible from a distance. The laughter of children and their parents followed the strings up and away from a world where nothing bad could ever happen, a dreamer’s world that promised flight, and into a sky that would never threaten rain while hardworking people were on vacation.


W. T. Paterson is the author of the novels “Dark Satellites” and “WOTNA”.  A Pushcart Prize nominee and graduate of Second City Chicago, his work has appeared in over 70 publications worldwide include Fiction Magazine, The Gateway Review, and The Paragon Press. A number of stories have been anthologized by Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Thuggish Itch. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to “Get down from there!”


Published 12/5/19