The Staircase

“So what’s this one supposed to represent,” Apolonia Pena asked the park ranger.

“I can’t speak on behalf of the park, but I think it is a ‘shapeshifter,” the ranger said. “At least that is what Grandfather told me when I was a child.”

“It’s frightening,” Apolonia said.

“It is,” said the ranger. “I also think that Elders used it to make children behave, sort of like the boogie man.”

“So it could be a ‘made-up’ petroglyph?” she asked the woman.

“No, I wouldn’t say made up,” The ranger answered. “More like an ancient memory passed down from generation to generation.”

“Still, it’s scary,” Apolonia said as she and the other park tourist followed the ranger further up the canyon.

It had been a beautiful day, long and filled with picture-taking and long winding trails. Apolonia’s mind was full of adventure and images from all she had seen this day.

As she got back to her car, she sat and studied the park’s tour book. It was Apolonia’s final day of real vacation, and the next day would be all about traveling home.

She looked at the vehicle’s clock, 4:30. There was still a couple of hours of daylight left and time enough for at least one more adventure.

The ‘Staircase,’ a three-hundred-foot trail that wound its way up a cliff, had caught her attention. She wanted to see it and set off down the gravel road to find the thing.

It was not hard. The cliff, with its massive yellow-red rock, loomed to her left as she parked the car and walked to the short trailhead.

“I have time,” she said as she started up the steep trail.

As was her habit, she began counting her steps, “One, two, three, four, five…”

“217,” she said as she felt a stiff breeze push at her.

Hugging the wall as best she could, she counted, “398, 399, 400.”

It was beginning to grow cloudy and a certain grayness set in over the landscape. At step 509, Apolonia paused to look down.

Things looked different from where she stepped. Apolonia could not believe how high she was up on the side of the cliff, and she suddenly felt her heart beating hard and fast.

Still, she pushed herself upward, 743, 744, 745, 746. She could see the summit ahead, and she had to force herself to put on foot in front of the other.

Finally, she made it to the top, scrambling for the flat surface before her. To her fright, the space was only a foot wide, with a yawning crevasse below.

She sat down and caught her breath. Looking towards the skyline, she saw nothing but a jagged, rock-filled landscape, punctuated by the deep shadowy furrows of the many canyons between the ridges.

Still, her heart raced only now she could feel the sweatiness of her palms as she contemplated her hike downward. She looked at the distant ground below and heard the voice in her head whisper, “It would be easier to fall than to descend the trail.”

The voice left her even more frightened. Apolonia had never had such a thought before.

Slowly, she stood up and stepped, “One.”

She stopped, frozen, understanding that she was terrified of both the height and the voice and the words that still clung to he mind. She sat down again.

“I can’t do it!” she screamed as the sun dipped beyond the horizon and the sky grew even darker.

She sat, unable to move up or down, crying. By the time she had gathered herself, the sky had turned a dull black.

Below, Apolonia heard the howl of a coyote. Her mind drifted back to the image of the shapeshifter, and she shivered involuntarily.

Again the coyote howled. This time it was joined by others.

A cold sweat rolled down Apolonia’s back, and she suddenly found herself shivering violently, though the night air was warm. She wiped her tears away, laughing at her silliness and the thought of what a fright she must look with her mascara smeared over her cheeks.

Still, the coyotes howled and yipped, seeming closer than before.

She stood once again and continued downward, “Two, three, four…”

At her ninety-second step, she felt something brush against her face. She screamed at its touch.

“A bat,” she said. “Only a bat.”

She hugged the rocky wall as she heard more of the winged creatures come and go about her. She held her breath and closed her eyes, listening.

“One simple step to the right, and you’ll be off this cliffside,” she heard that voice say inside her head.

“No,” Apolonia screamed as she sat down again.

In less than half a minute, she stood and began her downward walk once more. Again Apolonia counted, only louder, trying to drown out that horrible, suggestive voice that was her own.

“93, 94, 95, 96…”

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