The Stairwell

Week after week I saw him. He slowly descended, step after step, holding onto the railing for dear life as people absently rushed past. The elevator in our crumbling complex had failed some time ago and now this stairwell buzzed with activity. People raced and skipped over steps and puddled landings to reach their destination before the dank smell settled firmly in their noses. But not him.
I watched him from the top one morning. Briefcase in one hand, the other attached firmly to the rusty rail, he creeped down the concrete steps with wide eyes and slow breaths. His once pressed suit hung wrinkled from his stiff shoulders. He pulled into himself more with each person who brushed past. I wondered briefly why he was alone. Many times we’d shared the elevator to our floor, his smile wide as he tightly grasped the brunette’s hand and kissed it sweetly.
As I descended behind him, he stopped and waited for me to pass. I stood beside him under the flickering overhead light. Our feet rested side-by-side, toes hanging over the edge to shadow the next step. He glanced quickly in my direction then stared right back toward the floor.
“Good morning,” I greeted, leaning forward to catch his eyes. “I saw you walking and thought we might walk the six flights down together. It’s a long way to the bottom when you’re alone.”
A shy smile graced his face and he nodded slowly. I stepped down and waited. He hesitantly eased his right foot out and let it drop to the next rest, allowing his left to carefully follow. And so it repeated until we reached the first landing. He timidly eyed the next step as we edged forward.
“I’m Rachel, by the way,” I grinned, holding my hand toward him.
“John,” he mumbled, eyes glued downward with his hand still fused to the railing.
I shrugged internally and stepped down to begin the next descent. He followed.
“I remembered you from the elevator,” I spoke, breaking the unsettling noise of the failing light and constant drip, drip, drip to floors below. Another step down. “You’re three doors down from me, I think. Where’s the woman you’re usually with?”
He stopped and turned toward me, his eyes screaming and body rigid. “I…”
My face heated. “No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be so nosey. We’ve only just met.” Backpedaling, I smiled shyly and started again. “So, umm, where do you work?”
It was like pulling teeth, but with each easy tug, he relaxed and opened up a little more. When we finally reached the bottom, the sight of daylight streaming through into the stairwell brought a slow sigh from his lips. His face brightened as we stepped out and the sun shimmered over his messy golden hair. We waved goodbye as we went our separate ways.
The next morning I caught up to him at the fifth floor entrance. After a short greeting, we descended to the sound of scattered chatter and echoing steps. Our mornings began the same for the rest of the week.
On Monday, he was waiting for me at our entrance. His suit had been pressed and hair combed in attempt to tame its wild ways. As we started down the steps, I noticed his movements quickened. His knuckles remained white as he gripped the railing, but his feet were ready to move forward. Our conversation flowed easily and he cast his eyes toward me rather than toward the next drop.
When we reached the final step, I was so lost in chatter that I failed to notice the slick puddle underfoot. I stepped down and felt my pump slide forward as if on ice. My foot slid from under me as my body tumbled backward, but thankfully I only injured my pride. John acted just in time to catch my waist and break my fall.
“Did you know,” I howled between giggles and embarrassment as I stood and reached out my hand, “that two-thirds of all falls on stairs happen on the first or last three steps?”
He shook his head as he took my outstretched hand.
“Did you know,” he smiled while rising to his feet, “that thanks to you I have to go change my stinking wet pants?”
Our laughter echoed up the empty stairwell.
“Thank you,” I grinned, wrapping my arms around his neck and resting my lips shyly on his cheek.
After a sharp intake of breath, he sighed. “Thank you.”
John squeezed my waist tightly and turned toward the stairs. I stepped back and picked up his discarded briefcase, dusting it off and handing it to him.
“Do you want me to walk with you?”
He waved me off. “No, I don’t want you to be late. It’ll only take a minute.”
I nodded. With a quick embrace, he turned and moved swiftly, taking the steps two at a time. As his footsteps drifted away, I smiled.
Upon return from work the next evening, there as a group huddled in front of the elevator. The light above the door descended: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. People packed into the small room like sardines, content to infiltrate one another’s personal space just to avoid the sticky, moist stairwell. My heart sank when my mind drifted to John. What would happen to our mornings? Would he take the stairs? Wait for me by the elevator? Our morning chats would be significantly shortened with this new development.
A hand on my shoulder jarred me. “Hey there,” he smiled, messy mane blowing in the breeze. “Finally fixed, huh?”
“Yeah, finally,” I rolled my eyes.
The ding of the door opening caught my attention, urging us to enter the shiny square. I punched our floor and leaned against the wall with eyes closed.
“Long day?” he asked from my left.
“Always,” I snorted with a shrug.
A few seconds passed before I felt warm fingers lace with mine. My eyes opened slowly to see John’s shy face redden.
“Is this ok?” His eyes widened as he started to withdraw his hand.
I squeezed tightly and inhaled his woody scent, a pleasant change from the musty stairwell. My smiling eyes met his.
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