I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Do not enter the Eternal Staircase after 8 PM.
No outside food or drink is permitted within the Eternal Staircase.
Black-soled sneakers, high-heeled shoes, and flip-flops are prohibited inside the Eternal Staircase.
(Yes, we used to allow dogs. Too many dogs shit in the Eternal Staircase.)
If you feel lightheaded within the Eternal Staircase, alert a staff member immediately. Eternal Staircase staff can be identified by their blue polo shirts, blue visors, and our official “Watch Your Step” lapel pins.
(Do not engage with staff members without official lapel pins. They are likely a Disgraced staff member. Disgraced staff members spent too much time in the Eternal Staircase and were asked to leave. They keep returning anyway. We don’t know how to get rid of them. They are not helpful.)
Absolutely NO RUNNING down into the Eternal Staircase. Running in the Eternal Staircase is a criminal offense and will be punishable by law.
Do not remain in the Eternal Staircase for more than three consecutive hours.
Do not descend deeper than the yellow ribbons marked “Go Back!”
Welcome to the Eternal Staircase, and remember— Watch Your Step!
June worked the afternoon shift. Harebell worked the midnight shift. Their shifts overlapped for three hours at sunset. Sunset was a busy time at the Eternal Staircase and required extra staff. The lilac and coral and opal of the sky would reflect off the blue tiles shelling the stairs, causing the spectacle to melt with dark, multicolored light. Sunset was also when visitors were most likely to trip on the Eternal Staircase, and when the most trash was dropped, and when June and Harebell could easily vanish into the crowd to drink brandy from Harebell’s flask behind the hotdog stand.
“Would you rather have eyelashes for teeth or have to work here forever?”
“Could I pluck the eyelashes out or put dentures over them?”
“Would other people in the world have eyelash teeth? Would there be a community of eyelash-teeth havers?”
“No. You’d be the only person ever born with eyelash teeth.”
“I’d still go for that.”
“There’s no guarantee things are any better at other jobs.”
Harebell scratched her ear with a bobby pin, then used it to clip back a chunk of powder-pink hair. Twenty feet away, a kid dropped a plastic guzzler cup, spilling neon slushy down the Eternal Staircase.
“Ah fuck,” said June, jumping up.
Harebell kissed two fingers and held them to the sky. “An offering to the deep!”
June pulled a soak rag from the staff kit in her fanny pack and headed toward the spill. Harebell didn’t move to help.
The Eternal Staircase contains an undetermined number of blue granite steps, arranged in a circular well, roughly the circumference of a football field. Every individual navy stair is slicked with a mosaic of 1,424 small blue tiles, each the size of a fingernail. The well grows narrower the deeper you descend. Mathematicians claim that the Eternal Staircase’s gradual narrowing must be an optical illusion, as the Eternal Staircase never seems to fully taper off. No one has ever reached the bottom of the Eternal Staircase. There may or may not be a bottom to the Eternal Staircase, but if there is one, the Eternal Staircase certainly does not want anyone to know.
No one worked at the Staircase for more than a summer. Well, almost no one. Weird things happened to people who stayed too long. Ennui. Bouts of dizziness. Violent dreams. Dreams about animals with multiple heads or no heads at all. Suspicious numbers of molar cavities. Night blindness. There were all sorts of urban legends about the Eternal Staircase. Where it came from. Where it led. What it could do to you if you weren’t careful. June and Harebell thought it was bullshit. Maybe the weird dreams thing was true, but, beyond that, everyone quit by September because it was just a gross place to work.
Charlie, the manager, wore the same paisley button-down every day and called all women “Sweetie” instead of their names. He owned a plot of land out west that he claimed was a genuine gold reservoir (though he had yet to find a single flake of gold there), and he was always making people look at photos of the acreage on his phone. Charlie paid minimum wage and not a cent more, and hired only girls he thought were hot. Half the time the paychecks bounced, and he had to wait until the hot dog stand had enough money to pay the employees from the register.
Then there was the work itself: huffing up and down the Staircase, mopping up ketchup and Cheeto spills, getting yelled at by road-tripping tourists who threatened to sue after stubbing a sandaled toe on a stone step. It could have been labeled “character building” if it weren’t so sleazy.
Harebell was the exception to the summer rule. While June had only been there since school let out, Harebell had worked there a year and a half.
“It’s temporary, though,” she insisted, rolling a joint in the shadow of the hotdog stand. She licked the paper edge, sealed it shut. “I’m going to move to Portland, open a tattoo shop. I bought a tattoo gun online, been practicing on grapefruits. I’ll do one on you if you want.”
“Yeah?” June said. “What should I get?”
“Whatever you want, baby. Whatever you want. I have to practice—then, when I’m good enough, I’m out of here.”
Peanut Dave popped his head out of the hot dog stand. “Can I get one?”
When he wasn’t slinging hot dogs, Peanut Dave drove a van with “Guinness World Record Peanut Butter Eater, 1992” painted on the side. There was a slot cut into the van where people could leave donations. Charlie strictly forbade this solicitation—but if you want an autograph, just ask and Peanut Dave will provide.
“Sure, D. But I get to choose what you’re getting. And you can’t look till I’m done.”
“Skin’s skin,” he said. “We’re all gonna rot one day anyway. Draw a dick on me, I don’t care.”
“Give him a peanut,” June said. “Or a hot dog.”
“A little something to remember me by before I go.” Harebell winked at him.
There was a small casino on the south side of town and a gaggle of small art galleries feather-ing Main Street, but nothing measured up to the Eternal Staircase. Most of the town’s economy relied on tourists trickling off the highway to gawk at the spiral of tiled steps, which gaped like an animal’s maw. It was the town’s pride and its curse, in equal measure. While the residents relied on the Eternal Staircase for financial security, they had to spend their lives pretending to care about it. There were shops selling postcards of the Staircase, little shot glasses with the Staircase etched into the side, key chains that read “Watch Your Step!” Even the high school mascot was a single rectangular navy stair named Trip—a poor rival for the neighboring town’s Killer the Whale. The Eternal Staircase seemed to cast a blue haze over the whole region, and you couldn’t get out from under it until you crossed the county line.
June and Harebell had lived near the Staircase their whole lives. They had dozens of friends who’d quit jobs at the Eternal Staircase and left for the city. Most boomeranged back. People raised near the Eternal Staircase had a hard time adjusting to life without it. Townies hated the Staircase, but whenever they went too far they felt like something was missing. The land elsewhere made too much sense. There was nothing to fall down and keep falling.
There are two ways to tell what Harebell is thinking. First: ask her. Second, if the first doesn’t work (it rarely does): check her hair. Harebell developed a complex and deliberate visual code based on the Danger Babe Semi-Permanent Hair Dye catalogue. If she’s happy or flirty, her hair is Cotton Candy Pink. If she’s restless, it’s Lemonade Ice Pop. On Stoplight Red days, she’ll yell at you without provocation and steal lawn ornaments from strangers’ houses to sell on eBay. Blizzard Blue is when she’s horniest, though it could also mean she’s overslept, or just binged a good TV show. Slime-Time Green days are suspiciously friendly, with a monkey’s paw generosity. Those days never end well, like the time Harebell invited the whole Stairwell staff out to dinner, only to vanish from the falafel shop when the bill arrived. She didn’t apologize—frankly, she thought they should have taken one look at her and known better. Anyone who couldn’t predict Harebell’s future actions based on her past cosmetic choices simply wasn’t paying attention and deserved whatever was coming.
Activities at the Eternal Staircase:
(Nothing is known about the history of the Eternal Staircase prior to its purchase by the current owners in 1989. Do not attend the lecture if you plan to ask any questions we cannot answer.)
Visitors who experience the sudden urge to descend deep into the Eternal Staircase—very deep, deeper than our staff can follow—must vacate the attraction immediately. Return to your car. Drive far away. Do not stop for groceries. Go home.
“I’ve been working on something.”
Harebell dropped a backpack with a broken zipper into June’s lap. The opening was tacked shut with a dozen safety pins, which she left June to unclip, one by one. Inside the bag was a baby. That’s what June thought at first anyway. She took it out, turned it around in her hands. It was a lump of clay, the size of a basketball. Still soft. And it was human, in some ways—it had a face, certainly, with a long nose and moony eyes. But it also had four stub horns poking out of its forehead, and the beginnings of dark, squishy wings.
“It’s a demon kid,” said Harebell.
“Yeah. I got that.” June covered its face with the bag.
“Cool, right? I’ve been getting into sculpture. Thought I could leave it on a doorstep somewhere uptown. Spook some yuppies on their way to work in the morning.”
“Maybe they’d adopt it,” June said. “Raise it as their own.”
“You know where I got the clay, though?” Harebell lifted an eyebrow and slid her mouth to the left of her face. It was a look June had come to recognize, for the sake of survival more than intimacy. It meant Harebell was up to some real weird shit.
Harebell pointed down into the Eternal Staircase. June knew what she meant—she meant deep in the Staircase. Past the park limits. Into parts of the Staircase that would get you Disgraced immediately if Charlie knew you’d gone down there.
“Hare, don’t get yourself fired. If I have to spend all day hanging out with Peanut Dave instead of you, I’ll throw myself down the stairs.”
“But look, it’s so cute!” Harebell uncovered the clay baby, lifted it up and nuzzled her nose against its clay nose. A dot of red earth smeared off on her. She wiped it on June.
The trouble had started a week earlier. Harebell was short on rent. She began taking on doubles. The normal six-hour shifts already spanned twice the doctor-recommended length of time to spend in the Eternal Staircase, and now Harebell was there twelve hours a day at least three times a week. She started slipping up. Forgetting to take her birth control pill. Leaving bleach in her hair too long on Lunar Platinum days. Missing appointments. But it’s not like Harebell ever worked hard. She always shrugged the real dirty work onto whoever else was around. Now, she had twice the time for workplace neglect. She was bored. She started wandering deeper and deeper into the Eternal Staircase to pass the time. Started bringing artifacts back up with her—shards of pottery, a fistful of metal guitar strings, a small silver pocket mirror. Things that had been lost to the staircase years, maybe decades before. Sometimes, bones. Her broken backpack grew heavy with junk, rattling like a tambourine as she moved up and down the stairs. Whenever she returned from below, her eyes were obsidian orbs, pupils stretched so wide the whole of her eyes had gone black.
“What’s even down there that’s so worth it?” asked June.
“Nothing,” said Harebell. “I mean, actual nothing. Can you imagine? Nothing that goes on forever…”
“There’s got to be a bottom eventually,” June said.
“Does there?” asked Harebell.
Once, June saw a man fall on the Eternal Staircase and snap a leg so clean that the bone folded in half as if there were an extra knee. When she touched the leg, it was rubbery and warm like a hot water bottle. The man refused to be carried out until he had watched the sunset. Charlie gave the man a lifetime visitor’s pass to the Eternal Staircase. June hoped he would never come back.
Visitors: Note the four large clocks posted around the perimeter of the Eternal Staircase. Please check regularly to avoid overstaying the three-hour recommended visitation limit.
Sometimes, what feels like five minutes within the Eternal Staircase is actually hours. Sometimes, what feels like hours is actually many, many days. Before we installed the clocks, there was no way to tell if you had been in the Eternal Staircase for an afternoon or multiple years. The Eternal Staircase is just that fun!
Some people think the Eternal Staircase leads down to Hell. Officially, this has been neither confirmed nor denied.
The sun dipped down early. Harebell’s hair was Violet Riot. She had stolen a book on the history of leopard print and given it to June. June loved leopard print. Harebell hated leopard print. She hated a lot of things that June liked: Paul Simon, the word “thistle,” bananas, the banjo. But she didn’t fully hate June. And June didn’t hate the taste of brandy on Harebell’s mouth as she leaned in and kissed her. Sweet and smoky. She hooked her tongue around Harebell’s, and Harebell giggled into June’s teeth. Beneath the liquor was something else, another flavor. A taste like earth, like clay. Like something buried, or unburied. Across the Eternal Staircase, the neon of the entry gate flickered, “Watch Your Step!”
There’s an urban legend people tell about the Eternal Staircase. They say a man once fell in love with one of the glossy steps. He visited the step every day. He brought flowers to the step, adorning it in roses and baby’s breath and pink tulips. He scattered small offerings across the step—metal charms and chocolates and silk ribbons tied into plump bows. He would lay on the step for hours each afternoon, whispering to it. The keepers of the Eternal Staircase let him be. Maybe they had looser rules back then. Maybe they found the man charming. Maybe they wanted to know why this one step was any different from the endless others. It went on like this for a time, and all was well. But then one day, the man arrived at the Eternal Staircase only to find that during the night the grounds-keepers had cleared away his flowers and talismans and gifts. The man couldn’t tell which step was his step. They say the man wandered the Eternal Staircase for weeks, for months, searching for his step. They say he crawled the Staircase on his hands and knees until they bled. He never found his love. Or if he did, he passed right over it without recognition. They all looked the same.
We’re trying to tell you that this has all happened before.
You go up the stairs and go down the stairs. You pay ten dollars for a metal slinky and watch it somersault forever. You’ve been to the Grand Canyon, the White Sands National Monument, the Statue of Liberty. You’ve seen the world’s largest pistachio at a truck stop in New Mexico. Here, you ask a stranger to take your picture sitting on the steps. The next day, driving down I-95, you reach into your jacket pocket for the blue tile you bought at the gift shop. Your reflection fumbles for space in the tiny square as you journey onward, away from the Eternal Staircase and the town that carries it. Further, toward something new.
If you’re wondering whether June’s in love with Harebell, it’s safe to say she’s not not in love with her. That is, she’s bought at least two pairs of combat boots to impress Harebell, and those things aren’t cheap, so you can draw your own conclusion.
Once, June had a dream that Harebell had a forked tongue. In the dream, they were making out until June realized that the left half of Harebell’s tongue had gotten bored and ditched her for the arcade. June was so embarrassed that she started crying, and the tears were all little tongues, wriggling down her cheeks like leeches. If quantity of tongues equals severity of love, then June might have a problem.
Is Harebell in love with June? No. Harebell is only in love with herself. And the Ramones. And maybe the Eternal Staircase.
Visitor, this is not the kind of story we would tell you if it were unimportant. Luckily, it contains numerous incredibly important elements:
1. Two girls kissing behind a hot dog stand
2. An abyss
3. A sketchy roadside attraction by the highway
4. A decision that may not be a decision at all
Every one of these is important enough to merit us telling you. Imagine if we did not tell you about the Watch Your Step key chains, where would you be then? Imagine if we failed to warn you that sometimes, decisions are made for us. That sometimes, staircases make our decisions for us, whether we want them to or not.
Some people don’t believe that eternal staircases exist. They think staircases were just dreamt up by authority figures (parents, cops, local politicians) to scare kids out of loitering after dark. But that’s what we’re here for. To assure you that eternal staircases are very real—as is pretty much everything else you’ve been warned about.
Four-hundred-thirty-eight. Four-hundred-thirty-nine. Four-hundred-forty. June stopped. She had never been any deeper than this, and she wasn’t pushing it now. Something always stopped her here. She credited it to self-preservation instinct. Intellectually, she figured that whatever was farther down was just more of the same. More dark steps, jagged like a handsaw or a row of dog’s teeth. But something in her body believed differently. A slight quickening of her pulse, a tightening in the stomach. Her muscles saying, No. Saying, If you go farther, you might not come back. Saying, Here is an invisible line that must not be crossed.
“You coming, baby girl?” Harebell trotted deeper into the well, just ahead of June. She only looked back at June for a second before continuing.
They’d been planning to do this forever—sneak in and spend a night inside the Staircase, no tourists, no creepy boss, just June and Harebell and the canyon of steps, the stars…
“This is a good spot.” June plopped down on the four-hundred-fortieth stair. Her knees buzzed from the descent. The deeper they went, the more elastic the air became, the more her thoughts shuffled like playing cards. June pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes and tried to catch her breath. When she was a kid, ill with a fever, she called this sensation “Little/Big.” Silence rattled too loud. Noise pinched to a muffle, or clamped shut. Every object felt either impossibly minute or so leviathan it would devour her. Once, home sick from school, she became convinced that a loose thread on her pillow was multiplying so quickly it would bury the whole house.
“You alright, Junebug?”
“I’m fine.” June shivered. “Let’s sit down for a minute. C’mere.”
Harebell slid down beside June and leaned back so her head lolled in June’s lap. In the shifting twilight, her hair seemed to be every color at once. They shared a pair of earbuds and looked at the stars. Joni Mitchell sang about clouds. Above them, real clouds undulated with moonlight, becoming wolves and sports cars. One looked like a bottle of hot sauce. One looked like June and Harebell, blended at the seams so they melted into each other like slivers of wet soap. One cloud looked like an exit sign, blinking. June fell asleep.
Warning: Some visitors to the Eternal Staircase experience a side effect called “Step Sickness,” due to an optical illusion created by the attraction’s unique geometry. Step Sick guests may be unable to tell if they are heading up the stairs or down the stairs.
Should you lose your directional orientation while visiting the Eternal Staircase, do not panic—there is a simple test you can do to find an exit. Simply remove one shoe and drop it on the nearest stair. Whichever way it falls is down. Walk the opposite direction. Do not bother putting your shoe back on. Abandon it. There are other shoes in the world.
(The Eternal Staircase management does not reimburse for lost shoes.)
When June awoke, she was hungry, and Harebell was gone.
June’s stomach growled. Or she thought it was her stomach. She couldn’t be sure whether the hum rose from her body or from the belly of the Eternal Staircase. “Hare?” she called again. “Seriously, where are you?”
A figure emerged from below.
“Right here.” Harebell was smiling, swaying from side to side. “Just exploring a little, don’t freak out.” It was too dark for June to see much more than an outline, but even in silhouette, something wasn’t right. Harebell’s limbs were too long, her fingertips almost dragging on the stairs. Her neck stretched double its length. June blinked and when she opened her eyes, the normal Harebell had returned.
Harebell had a plastic lighter in hand, which she flicked absentmindedly with a thumb. Light, dark. Light, dark. “God, I’m bored. Aren’t you bored? All the hours we’ve spent scraping gum off these things,” she split into giggles, “working doubles. This cheap fucking place. And down there…” The lighter sparked. Light. Dark. Light. “Don’t you want to know what’s at the bottom?”
Harebell’s eyes were glassy, her words slurred. Her hands trembled like leaves in summer rain. Each time she flicked the lighter on, the flame illuminated her for a moment, and with each illumination, June’s heartbeat sped up. Flash; four protrusions jutted from Harebell’s skull. Horns… thought June before the darkness returned. Flash; Harebell’s eyes were gone—just smooth, pale skin where they should have been. Flash; Harebell was naked, and a grapefruit-sized hole had bloomed in her stomach—June could see right through it, to the staircase boring deeper and deeper beyond. Flash. Flash. Flash. Moving toward her, Harebell stumbled on a step and caught herself at June’s feet. She dropped the lighter, and June grabbed it, stuffing it in her own pocket. In the steady darkness, Harebell’s silhouette stopped its flickering. June’s eyes adjusted again to the night. The horrors were gone. Just Harebell, shaking.
“Damn, Junie, you’re so fucking beautiful. You know that? I love how beautiful you are.”
“Come on.” June hoisted Harebell up, an arm slung around her waist. “Let’s get out of here.”
Harebell gaped down into the Eternal Staircase. “But I haven’t seen it down there,” she muttered. “I haven’t seen the bottom.”
“Maybe some other time. But not tonight.”
Harebell hissed at June like a street cat, and June reeled back. Harebell cracked into giggles again, a thin sound like a bell with a broken clapper.
“Okay, Junie. If you want, baby, you can go back up.”
“We’re both going back up.” June took Harebell’s arm, and then, softer, she said, “Please Hare. Please…” June kissed the shivering girl on the cheek. Harebell didn’t argue after that.
June bore Harebell against her as they climbed back toward the rim. Going up was much harder than going down. June’s heartbeat thudded against her ribs, Harebell’s warm weight heavier than it should have been. A tug of war. June pulling one way, the Staircase dragging the other. Harebell looked behind her the whole way back.
If pregnant, asthmatic, or prone to bouts of prolonged heartache, consult your doctor before visiting the Eternal Staircase.
Do not visit the Eternal Staircase with a sweetheart. They will grow to love the Eternal Staircase more than you. They will accidentally say the Eternal Staircase’s name instead of yours while you’re having sex.
Make the Eternal Staircase a part of your vacation today!
Visitor, we’ll tell you how it ends, though you already know. This story always ends the same way. Everyone hates the ending. But the story is told and retold anyhow.
One girl clocks in for work on a Tuesday night and never clocks out. She is officially marked as Disgraced in the employee register. For a few months, she’s spotted now and then—trying to steal food from the hot dog stand, trailing her fingertips through dust gathered on sun-warmed steps, sleeping on the western rim. Splotches of hair dye stain the public restroom. But soon the sightings grow less frequent, then end altogether. The belly of the Eternal Staircase rumbles against mid-winter winds, as if digesting a meal.
The other girl quits. Uses the money she’s saved working at the Eternal Staircase to buy a cheap car with a wheezing radiator. Drives it away from the Staircase toward a far-off city. New York or LA. Gets a job writing for a lifestyle magazine, gets an apartment, a boyfriend. Dreams of Harebell still, some nights, but forgets upon waking.
At least, that’s how we think the story ends. That’s how it ended last time. Maybe this time it ends differently.
If a stairwell goes down, it also leads up. It just depends which direction you’re walking.
Come to the Eternal Staircase, insomniacs. Come, bored teenagers from the cages of your small towns. Come from your weeping. Come from your miles of driving through bleached desert, lush forest, from America’s junkyards and factory lots. Come with your cursed maps. With your vices and wants. All highways lead to the Eternal Staircase if the Eternal Staircase wants you. Come, you who were born with the Eternal Staircase rocking you, a pull so strong it pulsed beside your own small heartbeat. Come into the blue-black light. Come closer. Walk with us.
We only offer this invitation out of politeness. In truth, the Eternal Staircase chooses who it swallows. And if called—you will come.
GennaRose Nethercott is the author of The Lumberjack’s Dove, selected by Louise Glück as a winner of the National Poetry Series, and Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog: A Story in Cootie Catchers (Ninepin Press). Her writing has appeared in the American Scholar, the Offing, PANK, and elsewhere. Nethercott’s debut novel and short story collection are forthcoming from Knopf Vintage.
Originally published in
Our winter issue includes interviews with Tashi Dorji, Danielle Evans, Walton Ford, Guadalupe Maravilla, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, the Ross Brothers, and Aaron Turner; DIY cookbooklets from Dindga McCannon; poetry by Rae Armantrout, Imani Elizabeth Jackson, and Allison Parrish; prose by Langston Cotman, GennaRose Nethercott, and Brontez Purnell; a comic by Michael DeForge; protest drawings by Steve Mumford; and more.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee