The Stairs

It was just past midnight when Felicia stepped out of her second floor window and into the sky beyond it. She grabbed her backpack, but nothing else—no shoes, no clothes, no toys. It was not summer yet, just before it in mid-May, and she was surprised how easy it was to walk on the warm air. It lifted her with each step, and she rose up and away from the house without hurrying. This was the night she had been waiting for.

In eight years of life, she had walked many directions: turning left from her house to the market, turning right to go to school, straight out her front door to play with her friends, and out the back door to visit the creek. She had even gone below her house a few times, sneaking into the musty basement where boxes sagged with moisture and cold drafts hid in the corners even in the hot summer months. But she had never walked up from her house, up and away from her bedroom window to see it all from above.

She turned around and saw it now. The roof was a mottled gray, and the sides of the house were pale green. She could see her parents’ window from here. Their curtains were open, and the moon slanted across the foot of their bed. Under the white sheets, she counted four legs asleep, unmoving after midnight.

Below her, the branches of the backyard tree stretched out toward her bare feet. She saw the roof of her school in the distance and the neighbor’s house next door, asleep like her own. Ahead of her, the stars were scattered in the inky sky, unaware that an intruder was climbing up towards them through the warm May air.

Seeing the dark roofs and knowing what was under them, Felicia thought about going back. She could climb back to her open window and back into her white-frame bed. The sheets might still be warm, and her drawings on the walls might still be rustling in the soft breath of wind.

Earlier that night, when she was lying in bed making plans, she had let the window’s breeze fool her into thinking that the whole world was warm and that the soft wind reached every height and corner of the world. It coaxed children into making memories and adults into recalling their own childhood summers.

But the night sky above her neighborhood was cold. It did not have the same warm breeze which seemed only to skim the surface of the world below. As she climbed higher, she felt her toes get cold, her hands get lazy, and her body faintly calling her to sleep.

She was eight, and she despised sleeping. She worked each night to make her mind stronger than her body—to stay up past midnight and see the stars as they rose around the moon. Most nights, her mind didn’t need much help. She had stacks of books and a pad of paper and a favorite doll to combat whatever drowsiness her body cast out. But here, halfway between her house and the clouds, she had no books or crayons or stories to prod her awake again—it was just her cold, bare feet and a mile to the earth below.

“I’ll just lay down for a minute,” she thought. She knelt down in the sky where her feet had been firmly planted and felt the stability of her staircase beneath her hands, her torso, and finally her face.

When she woke up, the stars were beginning to lose their fight with the sun. She opened her eyes when the first light hit her face. Scrambling to her feet, she tested out her steps again. Her feet held steady as she stepped forward onto the next stair. She had a bit more time before the night passed, and she had to hurry or she would be exposed outside, high above the town but below the clouds.

Felicia shifted her backpack on her shoulders and took off upward, this time at a run. The invisible steps carried her feet toward the peeking rays of the sun. The clouds hung low after the last night’s damp wind, and she charged forward, knowing what gift she wanted this night to give her.

When she reached the lowest clouds, she could barely see the stars anymore. The moon was gone from the sky, and only a few brave stars remained behind, beckoning her to hurry as the sun swept them off their blue tabletop and out of sight.

She stood below a ceiling of clouds and for a moment, the sun was gone again, hidden behind the puffs of white that uncurled above her head. She reached up. The cloud wept dewdrops on her fingers as she lost sight of her hand in its haze.

After a moment, the cloud burst into color as the sun bounded a bit higher in the sky. The light changed the cloud from gray to pink, the land below her from shadow to cornfields, and the houses in the distance from black, empty squares to homes of people getting breakfast ready.

Felicia reached into her bag and pulled out a round jar she used for catching fireflies. But fireflies were bad pets, and they made her sad when they stopped lighting, unable to flit away from her in their cage. So she had let them all go free the summer before and the jar sat empty on her bookshelf all winter except for a few blades of grass and twigs.

She unscrewed the metal lid and held the jar high. Swooping it through the pink cloud above her, she scrambled to get whatever cloud she could inside. Then she put the lid back on and looked. Inside her jar, the cloud, pink and white, pulsed softly. It rose to the lid, hovering over the grass and twigs, a miniature cloud ruling over its own small world.

Smiling at it, Felicia glanced away and saw the land below, illuminated more minute by minute with the advancing sun. She looked back behind her and saw her own home, down and far away, thousands of invisible steps before she would reach it.

She put her cloud in her backpack and ran with her hands gripping its straps, letting the jar thunk on her back as she ran down. The closer she got to the ground, the more clearly she saw where she would land if she fell. She saw the playground behind the school, swings and slides looking ominous with their metal poles. She saw a car driving down a road and remembered the sting of the pavement across her knees when she toppled off her bike last fall. She ran faster and watched hungrily as the houses grew clearer. The sounds of lawns being mowed reached her ears, and the smell of grass came a moment later.

She was close enough to see her own house. Her parents were awake and the back door was open. Just as she got near to the house—she was hovering above it so close that she could see the roof’s rough texture—her mother looked out the kitchen window toward her. The stairs crumbled, and she fell with her pajamas catching and her backpack thudding onto the outstretched arms of their backyard maple.

Her mother did not see her fall—she only saw a movement in the tree, and a moment later, a pair of bare feet climbing down. She dropped her rag at the sink and ran to Felicia’s room. Seeing the open window, she ran out the door and into the dew-soaked grass of the back lawn.

Felicia was crouched over her backpack, examining her firefly jar. The cloud was still pulsing inside, casting small shadows on the grass and twigs below it.

When she heard her mother coming, Felicia shoved the jar inside her backpack again and zipped it up. She looked at her mom’s face, mixing between anger and disbelief.

“What are you doing out here?” her mom asked.

“Exploring,” Felicia answered. Her mother looked at the tree and then back at Felicia.

“If you’re going to go outside, you have to tell us. We need to know where you are.”

Felicia nodded, and together they walked over the wet grass and back into the house, her backpack thudding softly against her back, and her bedroom window still open two floors up.  

Story by Natalie Mills

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