For young Joey Stepp, the ritual happened whenever he encountered a set of stairs. He had to touch every step with each foot twice. First the left foot, then the right foot, then the left foot and the right again. He repeated the pattern on the next step. If he didn’t perform this ritual… He shuddered to think what might happen.
His teachers were polite about it. Most pretended not to notice. But his classmates mocked his stair climbing techniques. He wanted to stop. He didn’t want to be an outcast, but if he didn’t do it, bad things would happen.
How bad? A plane crashing and killing all of its passengers. A school building catching fire and burning to the ground. A tidal wave wiping out a beach full of people.
He didn’t know why. He just knew it, like he knew the sky was blue or the sun would come out tomorrow.
Grown-ups couldn’t understand. His teacher, Miss Brown, tried to talk to him about it, but he couldn’t explain it to her, just like he couldn’t explain it to his parents. They didn’t even bring it up any more. The only one who did was his older brother Pete.
On a warm afternoon, Joey ran eight blocks to the high school to watch Pete at football practice. Pete’s girlfriend, Karen, sat at the top of the bleachers. She was the prettiest girl he had ever seen. Pete had been dating Karen throughout high school. He had overheard them talking about how they were going to attend the same college.
Joey went to sit next to Karen. She was always nice to him. He began walking up the steps, left, right, left, right, one step at a time.
After finishing a drill, the entire team stopped and gawked at Karen. Everyone except Pete, who had a mean scowl on his face. He removed his shoulder pads and marched toward the bleachers.
Pete walked straight to his brother. “What the hell are you doing? Come on, Joey. You’re not a little kid anymore. This thing you do is ridiculous. Enough, already.”
Blood rushed to Joey’s face. His voice took on a whining quality. “But I gotta do it, Pete. You don’t understand.”
“Understand, what?” Pete asked. “The whole thing is stupid.”
“But if I don’t, something bad will happen. Real bad.”
“Something bad is going to happen,” he mocked. “Listen to you. What’s going to happen that’s so bad?”
“I don’t know. Something awful.”
“Come on, Joey. You see me walk up and down stairs like a regular human being. Does anything bad happen to me? I’m on the varsity football team. I get good grades. I’m dating the hottest chick in school. I think that’s pretty good. Look at Mom and Dad. They don’t do it and nothing bad happens to them. Dad just got a promotion. So you see, nothing’s going to happen if only one of your feet touches a step. Hell, you can skip a whole step.”
Joey’s face went white and his lips quivered. He shook his head vehemently.
“You’re going to have to grow up, Joey. Pretty soon you’ll be in high school, and you don’t want everyone to think you’re weird.”
Near tears, Joey shook his head and finishing his pattern before sitting down.
He idolized Pete, but that wasn’t going to stop him.
Several weeks later, Pete saw him doing his stepping pattern at home. He stormed into the kitchen.
“This is God-damn ridiculous!” Pete shouted. “When is Joey going to stop this crap? Every time he walks on stairs, he does that silly routine. The kid’s a freak.”
“Cut it out now,” his father said.
Joey reached the bottom of the stairs and buried his face in his hands.
“No. Enough is enough. You know how many times people ask me what’s wrong with my brother? This isn’t normal.”
“What Joey does makes him feel better,” his mom said. “I don’t see what the problem is. It doesn’t harm anybody.”
Joey crept up and watched.
Pete put his hands on his hips. He paced around the room shaking his head. “You don’t see the problem? Do you really want people to think Joey’s a freak for his whole life? You expect him to be able to go to high school, go to college and get a job, when he does that? And that’s not the only thing he does. What about the thing with the light switch? Or how he has to empty his glass and fill it up every time he drinks water? He’ll never be normal if he keeps doing this stuff.”
“Come on, Pete,” his father said. “You’re being too hard on your brother. He just has his quirks. Other people do unusual things. I know a guy who has to tap every letter on the keyboard before he’ll start typing. It’s odd, but nobody at work makes a big deal about it. Joey will grow out of this before long.”
Pete put his hand to his forehead. “He’s not going to grow out of it. And it’s your fault. Both of you. You’ve been babying him ever since I can remember. Joey does whatever crazy shit he wants to do.”
“Pete, watch your language,” his mother said.
“Sorry. Joey can do whatever he wants and you guys never do anything about it. Well, guess what? He’s not a baby any more. He has to grow up. If you guys aren’t going to do anything, then I will. I’m not going let everybody ridicule him.”
Joey walked away when Pete stormed out of the kitchen and out of the house.
Over the next few weeks, tension increased in the Stepp household. His mom tried to make everybody happy, but Pete barely spoke to his other family members. Joey tried to keep away from his brother, but he would not change his ritual.
Pete spent more and more time with Karen. Joey missed his brother being around, and it was his own fault.
Joey still went to all of his football games and cheered from the stands. On the afternoon following his last football game, Joey had the television on when Pete walked into the house.
Joey stood. “Hey, Pete. Great game. You were awesome out there.”
Pete put his jacket away. “Thanks, Joey.”
“Hey, I borrowed the new Madden game from Parker at school. Do you want to play against me?”
“Sorry, I have to work,” Pete said. “Karen’s going to pick me up in a bit. I’m going to make myself sandwich. You want one?”
Joey shook his head, then flipped through the channels as Pete went inside the kitchen. He looked at his watch. He had to get his homework done before his parents got home. They always got mad if he didn’t. He turned to go upstairs to get his books.
“Damn,” Pete said from the kitchen.
Joey stopped in his tracks. “You okay, Pete?”
“Yeah, I just spilled some lemonade on the floor.”
Joey walked upstairs and grabbed his math book. He walked down the stairs in his typical ritualistic fashion when he saw Pete with a big scowl. He had six more steps to reach the bottom.
“Joey, what the hell did I tell you?” Pete said in a low voice.
He did not answer. Instead, he continued walking with deep concentration.
“Joey, look at me. This has gone on long enough, and we’re going to stop this, right here and now. Got it?”
Joey shook his head and continued. Left, right, left, right, next step.
Pete grabbed his shoulder. “This is bullshit. Everybody walks downstairs like normal and nothing bad happens. You’re going to walk with me like a regular person.”
“No, I can’t do that.” Joey’s voice wavered. His heart pounded and his lips trembled. “Don’t make me. Please.”
“You’re going to do it, Joey, and that’s it. No compromise. Come on. Don’t make me carry you.”
Why was Pete doing this? Tears streamed down his face.
“Stop it! Crying’s for girls. I don’t want people to make fun of you. You can get away with this when you’re younger, but you’re getting older and it isn’t cool anymore.”
Fighting tears, Joey said, “I don’t care about being cool. You don’t know what will happen if I don’t do this.”
“What’s going to happen? Tell me.”
“I don’t know. I don’t even want to think about it.”
“Look, Joey. You’re going to have to trust me. I’m your big brother. I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you. Remember when your science project was ruined the night before it was due? We stayed up past midnight and put together an awesome project. Remember when you broke Mom’s jar? I put it back together, and she never found out. How about that time when that kid tripped you and gave you a bloody nose? After I was done with him, he never bothered you again. I’m not going to let anything happen. You can trust me.”
Joey stood silently, no longer crying. “A-are you s-sure?”
“I’m absolutely positive.”
He trusted Pete. His big brother had always looked out for him. He closed his eyes and held his breath. And then he did the unthinkable. He walked to the next step, then the following and finally he was at the bottom standing next to his brother.
“See? It’s okay. We’re still standing. I’m fine. You’re fine. The world hasn’t stopped rotating on its axis.”
Joey nodded. “I guess.”
“And the next time, I want you to do the same thing. Hey, you can walk up and down with one leg at a time. Skip a step. Go crazy.”
Joey chuckled. Pete put his hand through his hair and messed it up.
“All right. I have to go get ready for work.” Pete walked upstairs. Joey opened his math book and started working on his problems. A few minutes later, Pete emerged wearing his work uniform. “Hey, after I come home, maybe we can play some Xbox.”
“Cool,” Joey said.
Pete entered the kitchen. Thirsty, Joey went to get a glass of water. His eyes bulged when he saw Pete’s left foot land on the spilled lemonade on the floor. Pete slid forward, his right foot lifting off the floor. He attempted to grab the kitchen counter and snatched a towel instead. Joey screamed as his forehead smashed the edge of the counter, and he landed on the kitchen floor with a thud.
“No!” Joey cried.
Pete let out a low-pitched moan. His eyes flickered open and then closed again. Blood poured out from a massive gash in his forehead and trickled into his mouth.
Joey shrank against the wall in horror. His brother was dead.
Pete put his hand to his face and opened his eyes. Using the handle of a cabinet, he pulled himself up. After a few moments, he wiped the blood off his face with a towel. He turned on the faucet and washed his forehead as his blood flowed down the drain.
Joey approached slowly. “Petey?”
“I’m all right. I’m just a little groggy.”
Pete went to the bathroom. He removed the bloody towel and looked at his wound. The flow of blood had slowed and the wound did not look bad. He took off his shirt and wrapped it tightly around his head like a bandana to stop the bleeding.
Joey was almost in a trance. “I knew this would happen. I knew this would happen…” he repeated over and over again.
Pete grabbed his brother. “Snap out of it.”
Joey was near tears. “Why did you make me do it?”
“Do what?” Pete’s brow creased. “What are you talking about?”
“Why did you stop me from walking down the stairs?”
“What, that?” Pete said. “This was an accident.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“Not only was it an accident, but it was my own damn fault. I spilled some lemonade and didn’t clean it up. I didn’t see it and I slipped. It was bad luck.”
Joey shook his head. “No, it wasn’t.”
“It was. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s to take care of things right away. If I had wiped up the spill, none of this would have happened. So forget about the whole stairs thing and remember to clean up after yourself. If you were right, then I would be dead. But I’m still here, just a little messed up.”
Joey babbled about how he’d never do that again, as if he were pleading to a higher being. Pete tried to calm him down, but the kid was in a state of near hysteria.
Pete returned to the kitchen to clean up his blood when a loud boom sounded from outside. “What was that?”
Joey looked at his brother, snapping out of his trance. “I don’t know.”
Pete walked to the door with Joey following close behind. Before he opened the door, an explosion shook the house. Pete staggered backward and knocked into Joey, causing him to tumble to the floor. He grabbed the sofa next to the front door and tried to steady himself. His entire body trembled.
“What do you think that was?” Pete asked, his voice wavering.
Joey did not answer.
“Let’s take a look.”
Pete opened the door and shrieked. In front of his house, there had been a head-on collision. One of the cars belonged to Karen. He ran to the car, which was blazing out of control. In his desperation to save his girlfriend, he suffered massive burns. When the fire truck arrived and they extracted Karen, she was long dead.
Eric Appier walked into Angela’s office and shut the door. “I just saw Joe Stepp walking up the stairs. What’s that all about?” Eric had only recently started working as a sales manager at Harkins, Inc. and was still getting to know his employees.
Angela put down a stack of papers. “You’ll just have to ignore Joe. He does some off-the-wall stuff. When he encounters stairs, he has to touch each step with both of his feet twice. We’ve just learned to live with it.”
Eric frowned. “Why in the world does he do that?”
Angela shrugged. “I don’t know. He says that if he doesn’t, something bad will happen. I think something happened to him when he was young.”
“What a flake,” Eric said. “I knew there was something wrong with him the first time I met him. Well, that’s going to change. There’s no way I’m going to have one of my salespeople doing ridiculous nonsense like that. What are the customers going to say? He’s going to stop and I’m going to make him.”
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