Saskia van Rijn lies across the entrance, guarding her domicile, and doesn’t bother to move. Len has never seen her thin, but she’s bloated to twenty pounds in the last few months. Len’s wife says it’s mental—a switch in Saskia’s brain doesn’t function to tell her she had enough food already.
Len carries a cardboard box in both hands—his soldier’s pack—but instead of ammunition and food ration, it holds his coffee cup, books and pictures. The news he has received earlier this morning cling to his shoulders like arthritis, impossible to shake off.
Len steps over Saskia, nearly losing his balance. Good thing they left him health insurance for a while—transitional, they call it, and the government calls it Cobra, both names threatening and suspicious when you are fifty and the economy is shaky.
Twelve steps below, it’s chilly and it smells of cat’s litter. The fluorescent light flickers, but soon he will have time to fix it. Len drops the box on the carpet, next to a fresh stain—oh, Saskia, sweet Saskia! A framed award for his tenth patent and a textbook “Advancements in Microelectronics,” with his name on the cover, spill onto the floor. They will be safe for now; it’s damp here in the summer, but now the air is dry.
He wipes the dust from a plastic chair with a rug Saskia sleeps on, rubs his hands together to get rid of her black, white and brown hair, and sits down. He stares at his fingernails. They are too long, and the ring finger is discolored from a chemical burn. He slumps against the back of the chair and closes his eyes. The world above him continues its rotation, but Len sits still. If he dies here, will he dry up and turn into a mummy?
In the back of his mind, he realizes that the process of mummification requires an outside help, and that Saskia’s paws are not suited for such fine work, but he chooses to disregard this fact.
Will anybody find him? His wife never comes down; she’s afraid to descend below the surface of the earth before her time comes. Will anybody care that he’s missing? He is certain that the traces of his existence are slowly disappearing from the face of the earth. The phone in his former office is being disconnected, his e-mail ID is being erased, his name is being removed from the company’s roster. Yes, he will be a mummy; he’ll haunt his former boss. He practices a mummy’s voice, “I shall return. Prepare to die.”
His boss has no idea what being fifty means. He is thirty-something; he still thinks he’d live forever and can find any job he wants.
Something soft bumps against Len’s shin. His heart skips. He hopes it’s a rat, even a giant rat, and nothing worse. He opens his eyes. It’s Saskia. He swallows. His hands shake.
She puts her paws on his knee and screeches in the voice of an unemployed urban banshee. Hunger glows like a thousand candles inside her eyes. How dare she interrupt such a grave moment for something as prosaic as food? Yet her hunger is contagious. His stomach begins to churn. He gets up. She runs upstairs in front of him, kicking with her arthritic paws in her elegant white socks. Left side limbs, right side limbs, left side limbs, right side limbs, moving like pistons of an indestructible machine. Only cats, giraffes and camels run this way. When she reaches the landing, she turns and glares at him.
He sighs. He grabs the rail with his right hand. Gravity sucks out his resolve like a hungry maw. The first step is the hardest. The next one will be easier. He sincerely hopes so.
“Twelve Steps Down” first appeared in broadcast version in the audio magazine Bound Off. This is its first public appearance in print and is published here by permission of Mark Budman.