Step by Step, by Mariah Epps

Corey says she is the king of the underworld. I tell her she can’t be the king of anything.

“Why?” she says. She sounds how Corey would sound if her voice was raised two octaves and yanked through a sieve. Everything is a little bit hysterical.

But I refuse to talk to her like she’s “crazy.”

You’re a girl,” I say. I shrug like it isn’t a big deal. That’s been my plan so far, I keep reducing everything to the level of inconsequentiality. But if you have to do that enough times, I guess it means there is something wrong.

Corey is splayed out on her electric-blue striped bedspread like a psychotic starfish. I wonder if I think it looks psychotic because people keep telling me that’s what Corey is now. She freaked out some people at school because she didn’t go to class or eat for two days. She wouldn’t stop talking about upside-down shoes. She was telling everyone they were all going to find out soon. That something was coming. That there were upside-down shoes in the underworld.

Her parents pulled her out for the semester and she came home. People keep talking about it, saying that she lost it because that girl Renee Holly went missing. Corey and Renee are- were – pretty close. No one will visit her but me. She doesn’t seem to remember that last winter we had a fight that we didn’t resolve before she left again.

She keeps telling me about upside-down shoes, over and over.

I want to tell you something. It’ll be better to find out from me.”

I’m supposed to listen to her, I think. But I’m determined to act like I always do. “You already told me, Corey.”

Dana!” Her voice is shrieky. This isn’t a good day. Sometimes, Corey remembers what they tell her in therapy.

Fine.”

Corey drops her voice low. “Listen. They’re going to come for you because you’re my friend.”

Corey-”

They want to be up here. They don’t have me yet, but they’re coming for you now. They want control. We walk with them. Step by step…”

Do you want to get pizza?” I say, desperately. But she can’t stop once she starts.

I’m doing the best I can. But if your toes hurt, just run. Please, Dana.”

I wonder if I should get her mom. Mostly, I’m tired.

I’m going to get pizza, okay?” I say. “I’ll be right back.”

Did you hear me?” Corey says.

What kind do you want?”

If your toes hurt, run.”

When I’m outside I let out a shaky breath. She scares me when she’s like this. I want to have the old Corey back. Corey, my friend. I don’t want tiptoe around her like there’s a landmine or have to satiate her with gentle what-do-you-mean?s. Some days it seems impossible. There are tears in my eyes and I can’t tell if they’re from self-pity or helpless empathy. My toes hurt.

My toes hurt?

I stop there, but remind myself that I’m not the crazy one and press on.

The sidewalk across the street from Corey’s house goes right past my house. My mom used to call it the roller coaster road when I was a kid because the roots of the big trees in many of the yards have rippled and cracked the cement. She would pull Corey and me across it in my wagon. I always wanted her to go just a bit faster.

I think I trip over one of those roots. Or maybe it’s my own feet. Either way I’m falling, but I’m aware of my foot sinking down as if it were sinking into sand. I’m falling face first and throw my arms in front of me, bracing myself for the impact.

I am swinging. I am a pendulum attached at the feet. It takes me a second to realize I haven’t hit anything. Blood is rushing to my head, pounding like a thousand galloping horses with metal hooves. Woozy, I look down.

I am standing on a mirror, a mirror covered in clear water. It is glinting like glass but moving like liquid. I can see myself on the other side. I’m muddled and on the cusp of panic but I can’t make myself move. My toes hurt.

Dana!”

I glance toward the sound of my name, but the blood in my head rebels and I’m nauseous. I don’t know what I’m looking at, but I know that I am wrong within it. There is dankness I can smell, stale ungroomed earth. Are these people walking and running all around me in crisscrossed dripping catacombs? Are we all walking on reflections of ourselves?

Dana!”

I find her. It’s Corey. She’s in trouble. There are seven people with their hands on her, they are blank-faced, they are detaining her. Dragging her toward a wound in the rock, the scar of a cavern. Is she wearing satin? She’s screaming at me.

Your shoes! Your shoes are upside-down!”

When I look down again the world is toppled. I can see that I am really looking up. All of the people walking, and me, are dangling; our shoes are upside-down. Pendulums attached at the feet.

Who is the person above me? If she is among the big rooted trees and cracked cement than where am I? She lifts her foot and mine moves with it. She takes my steps.

I scream.

I wake up on the sidewalk. I can barely open my eyes.

She’s bleeding.”

I think I can stop it.”

Can you hear me, Dana?”

When I can see, there is a woman who looks just like Renee Holly. I think she is the only person I’ve ever known who went missing. Two other people are there, but I don’t know them.

Don’t worry Dana. We won’t let this happen to anybody else.”

What?” I manage to say. My head hurts, bloody hoof prints on my brain.

You’ll be the last one. I know you’re confused, but there’s still work to be done.” She smiles like a mother, and it terrifies me.

Any friend of the king is a friend of ours.”

-Mariah Eppes

Featured in Vol. 3 Iss 4
Featured in Vol. 3 Iss 4
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