Halfway down the stairs, p.1

Halfway Down the Stairs, page 1


Halfway Down the Stairs

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Halfway Down the Stairs

  Halfway Down




  Gary A. Braunbeck


  San Francisco

  “Crybaby Bridge #25” Original Version Copyright © 2015—Gary A. Braunbeck

  “He Didn’t Even Leave A Note …” first appeared in A Little Orange Book of Odd Stories

  “Attack of the Giant Deformed Mutant Cannibalistic Gnashing Slobberers from Planet Cygnus X-2.73: A Love Story” Original Version Copyright © 2015—Gary A. Braunbeck

  “Househunting” Original Version Copyright © 2015—Gary A. Braunbeck

  “All the Unlived Moments” first appeared in Future Crimes

  “At the ‘Pay Here, Please’ Table” first appeared in Rose of Sharon and Other Stories

  “Consolation” Original Version Copyright © 2015—Gary A. Braunbeck

  “Bargain” first appeared in Dueling Minds

  “Shikata Ga Nai: A Bag Lady’s Tale” first appeared in Phantasm Japan

  “Patience” Original Version Copyright © 2015—Gary A. Braunbeck

  “Always Something There to Remind Me” Original Version Copyright © 2015—Gary A. Braunbeck

  “Return to Mariabronn” first appeared in Hauntings

  “Cyrano” first appeared in Frankenstein: The Monster Wakes

  “The Great Pity” first appeared in Chiral Mad 2

  “In Hollow Houses” first appeared in HWA Presents: Whitley Streiber’s ALIENS

  “Afterward, There Will Be A Hallway” first appeared in Five Strokes to Midnight

  “For Want of a Smile” first appeared in Single White Vampire Seeks Same

  “Curtain Call” first appeared in Dracula in London

  “Ungrateful Places” first appeared in Dark Discoveries

  “A Little Off the Top” first appeared in Barbers & Beauties

  “Tales the Ashes Tell” first appeared in Library of the Dead

  “Just Out of Reach” first appeared in Cemetery Dance Magazine

  “El Poso de Mundo” first appeared in Cemetery Dance Magazine

  “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” first appeared in Eldritch Tales Magazine

  “Redaction” first appeared in The Dark Phantastique

  “Chow Hound” Original Version Copyright © 2015—Gary A. Braunbeck

  “John Wayne’s Dream” first appeared in Out of Tune

  “The Ballad of the Side-Street Wizard” first appeared in Merlin

  “We Now Pause for Station Identification” first appeared as a chapbook from Endeavor Press

  “Rami Temporales” first appeared in Borderlands 5

  “The Sisterhood of Plain-Faced Women” (original uncut version) Original Version Copyright © 2015—Gary A. Braunbeck

  “Union Dues” first appeared in Borderlands 4

  “All But the Ties Eternal” first appeared in Masques 3

  “After the Elephant Ballet” first appeared in Angels

  “Cocteau Prayers” originally appeared in A Little Orange Book of Odd Stories

  “Dinosaur Day” originally appeared in Graveyard People: The Collected Cedar Hill Stories, Volume 1

  “In the House of the Hangman One Does Talk of Rope” originally appeared in Eldritch Tales Magazine

  “Iphigenia” originally appeared in Deathrealm Magazine

  “Duty” originally appeared in Vivisections

  “All Over, All Gone, Bye-Bye” originally appeared (in a slightly different form) in Graveyard People: The Collected Cedar Hill Stories, Volume 1

  For Tom Piccirilli


  A choir of ill children will always whisper the last kinds words as every place where you drew breath hums with your absence. Miss you like hell, my friend.

  Oh, yeah – fuck cancer.

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

  JournalStone books may be ordered through booksellers or by contacting:



  The views expressed in this work are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.

  ISBN: 978-1-942712-59-6(sc)



  Printed in the United States of America

  JournalStone rev. date: December 4, 2015

  Cover Art & Designs: Chuck Killorin

  Edited by: Aaron J. French

  What People are Saying about Gary A. Braunbeck

  “Braunbeck’s fiction stirs the mind as it chills the marrow”

  --Publishers Weekly

  “Braunbeck is much more than a superbly-skilled storyteller; he’s a prose poet in action, a consummate composer whose versatile instrument is the English language in all of its colors, shades, and nuances. He is potently aware of its range and power, orchestrating its effects with the sure hand of a master. Popular fiction doesn’t get any better than this.”

  —William F. Nolan, author of Night Shapes, The Marble Orchard, Helltracks, and co-author of Logan’s Run

  “Gary A. Braunbeck is simply one of the finest writers to come along in years. His work is chilling, touching, moving, and above all, compassionate and human. He elevates the genre with everything he writes.”

  —Ray Garton, author of Live Girls and Sex and Violence in Hollywood

  “Braunbeck’s writing has enormous range, feeling, surprise, and insight…He mixes pain with humor, tenderness with violence, rage with compassion. He’s going to be one of the big and important ones.”

  —Ed Gorman, author of The Poker Club and the Sam McCain series

  “Gary A. Braunbeck is one of the best and most original writers to emerge in the last several years. His work is powerful, thought-provoking, terrifying, and not for the emotionally stunted.”

  —Elizabeth Massie, author of the Bram Stoker Award-winning Sineater

  “Braunbeck is one of the brightest talents working in the field…his time to be recognized is at hand.”

  —Thomas F. Monteleone, author of the Bram Stoker Award-winning The Blood of the Lamb and The Reckoning

  “Part of the pleasure in reading him is a certain amount of suspense in not knowing precisely where he’s going to go next… An intensely gathered writer whose voice is unmistakable and unforgettable.”


  “For years I’ve been a fan of Gary Braunbeck’s fiction. He always writes with grace and style.”

  —Rick Hautala, author of The Mountain King and Bedbugs

  “If you need evidence that our field is as vital and challenging as ever, just look to Gary Braunbeck.”

  —World Fantasy Award-winner Ramsey Campbell, author if Ancient Images and The Doll Who Ate His Mother

  “Many writers are clever, but few have the talent and heart to expose the weary sorrow that we all feel at times, and that we all fear is lying in wait for us around the next corner of our lives. We may never thank him for it, but connecting us with that sorrow is Braunbeck’s greatest gift, for in its shadow we are always reminded to reach for the light.”

  —Christopher Golden, author of Tin Men, The Boys Are Back in Town, and Snowblind




  Halfway Down the Stairs

  Halfway down the stairs

  Is a stair

  Where i sit.

  There isn’t any

  Other stair

  Quite like


  I’m not at the bottom,

  I’m not at the top;

  So this is the stair

  Where I always stop.

  Halfway up the stairs

  Isn’t up

  And it isn’t down.

  It isn’t in the nursery,

  It isn’t in town.

  And all sorts of funny thoughts

  Run round my head.

  It isn’t really


  It’s somewhere else


  -- A.A. Milne


  Gary A. Braunbeck

  This collection marks a series of firsts for me: it is the first time that the majority of these stories have ever appeared in a collection of mine (not counting the new stories scattered throughout the first section); it is the first time that stories in one of my collections will have introductions—not by me, but by an array of exquisite writers who were kind enough to offer their thoughts on specifically-selected stories (I will be limiting my introductions to the separate sections only); and it is the first time that I have assembled a collection of stories since turning 55, an age I did not think I’d survive long enough to see, hence the title of this collection and the poem from which that line was taken. I’ll leave it to you to work out the implications of the metaphor (it isn’t that subtle, trust me).

  As I assembled these stories and the generous introductions provided for them, I was suddenly struck with the realization that—and I know how silly this is going to sound so no letters or e-mails, please—that there are people out there who actually read my work. I know there’s a major “Well, duh!” factor involved with that statement, but if someone had told me 38 years ago that one day legends like Ramsey Campbell and Graham Masterton would be saying such glowing things about my work, I would have asked them what they’d been smoking and if they had any extra—and these two gentleman (both life-long writing gods of mine) are only 2 of the many writers from the fields of horror, mystery, fantasy, and science fiction who became an enthusiastic part of this project. But here’s the thing: every last one of the writers and artists who offer intros herein have read my work—and here’s that realization again—beyond the single story they introduce. That may not seem like much to you, but it kind of boggles my you-should-excuse-the-expression mind.

  I mean, let’s face it, Harlan Ellison had it right, when you get right down to it: writers tell lies for a living, so there are readers out there who gladly sacrifice their beer (or pizza, or burgers, or what-have-you) money in order to allow me to spin the damnedest yarns, and I cannot tell you how grateful I am for that. I know that what I do isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things; it doesn’t help eradicate world hunger, or child abuse, or cancer, or loneliness, or any of the countless little cruelties that we so offhandedly inflict on one another on what seems a quarter-hour basis, but I like to think that it at least provides a brief respite from the weight the knowledge of such things places on our individual shoulders and consciences; I like to think that it gives people their own private spot halfway down the stairs where there is nothing but them and the music of their minds that is perhaps enriched, however briefly, by the stories they take there with them.

  I am thankful for and grateful to each and every last one of you who reads my work. Here’s a book of offerings you might consider taking to your special place not at the bottom nor at the top, just the special place where you stop to catch a breath and be somewhere else instead.

  Part One:


  “Hey, hey, my my ….”

  —Neil Young

  “All this I came to report.”

  —Patti Smith

  “I will take this one window

  with its sooty maps and scratches

  so that my dreams may remember

  one another and so that my eyes will not

  become blinded by the new world.”

  —James Tate, “Fuck the Astronauts”

  I was originally going to call this section Potpourri but, when I looked at the overall tone and content of the stories, I decided that it was way too cutesy a title. What you’re going to find here is a selection of stories that vary from the recent (“Crybaby Bridge #25”) to the older (“All The Unlived Moments”) to the brand-new (five of these, among which, “Attack of the Giant Deformed Mutant Cannibalistic Gnashing Slobberers from Planet Cygnus X-2.73: A Love Story” is very close to my heart, for reasons that will become obvious). They range from horror to mystery to science fiction to suspense; there are longer pieces and there are short-shorts; there are straightforward narratives and some pieces that are more experimental in nature; in brief, the stories in this section are all over the road. Kind of like my thought processes, but let’s not get into my dreadful personality problems this soon ….

  Crybaby Bridge #25

  “Little child, take no fright,

  In that shadow where you are

  The toothless glowworm grants you light …”

  —James Agee, “Song”

  The legend says that there are twenty-four ‘Crybaby’ bridges in the state, and many are the numbers of people who have gone to investigate the mystery. It’s a simple, harmless haunting they find once they arrive. There are five steps to each investigation: 1. Park your car in the center of the bridge at midnight; 2. Turn off the ignition; 3. Roll down your windows and listen; 4. Once you hear the sound of a baby crying—sometimes screaming—from below the bridge, close your eyes and count to sixty; 5. Open your eyes and see the hand- and/or footprints of dozens of babies’ ghosts on your hood and your windshield.

  Some people find that they can’t start their cars right way after this, but wait a few minutes and it will start. Another variation instructs you to bring an extra set of keys that you leave in the car when you climb out and lock it. Walk away from the bridge for a little while; when you return, you will find that your car is running, its doors unlocked, and an infant’s “binky” lying on the dashboard.

  No one knows for certain why these bridges are haunted by the cries of babies, but theories abound: one bridge is not far from the abandoned building that, back in the day, was a home for “wayward girls” whose families sent their unmarried daughter away to have their bastard baby far from the curious eyes of townsfolk—who knows what the matrons of the home did with those children who were stillborn, or came into this world far too sick, or perhaps even deformed?

  The legend claims twenty-four, but there is one crybaby bridge that no one ever knew about, save for the middle-aged man who drives there on a rainy October night. This particular bridge has long been condemned but children still ride their bikes over it and the odd teenager will still drive his jalopy across it on a dare. Condemned, forgotten, but the bridge still stands.

  The man drives his car slowly toward the middle of the bridge, listening to every creak, every groan. The rain is pelting down, making visibility nearly impossible, even with the windshield wipers going on full power.

  For several minutes the man just sits in his car, engine idling, watching the wipers thunk back and forth across his field of vision, clearing the dancing water for only a moment before another wave from above replaces it. Thunder rolls. Lightning flashes and cracks. Below the bridge, the Licking River is raging, swollen well beyond its banks. In town, there is worry of flooding. The man in the car doesn’t care. He is beyond caring.

  He turns off the engine and removes the keys from the ignition. He opens the door and steps out into the storm, pushing himself against the wind that has doubled in its intensity. He presses his body against the rickety guardrail and looks down at the angry waters. Hi
s face looks as if it’s going to collapse back into his skull, pulling all flesh and tissue deep into the shadow of bone. He grips the car keys in his fist, pulls back, and hurls them into the night, not bothering to watch as they are taken and beaten by furious the river below. Gripping the rail, he leans out, listening.

  At first there is only the bellowing thunder and snapping lightening, the two seemingly colliding overhead in a Wagnerian explosion of fury. It is underscored by the screaming, rising water below. The man forces himself to tune them out, to ignore them, to expunge them from his awareness. He soon succeeds, and everything within and without him is focused solely on hearing the sound. He doesn’t have to wait long.

  From below, somewhere between the bottom of the bridge and the surface of the screaming river, he hears it; softly, at first, so softly that it could be mistaken for a siren sounding in the distance, but within a few seconds it becomes the unmistakable sound of a baby crying; perhaps because it’s hungry, or cold, or needs its diaper changed, or because it is alone and terrified and confused. The man bends from his center until he is nearly doubled over. Perhaps he cries out in answer to the baby; perhaps he screams from rage or anguish or another form of dark and deep despair; who knows? No one else is there to hear it.

  He straightens up, leaning his head back so the rain will wash away something from his face, or maybe even cleanse him of something intangible and unspoken. But he speaks anyway.

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