"Exclusive Scoop" - short story from Secret Stairs
This story was originally published in Secret Stairs, an Amazon best-selling anthology. The submission call from Silver Empire Press stated that all stories had to centre around mysterious stairs in the woods, and included this passage: "your story can be in any genre. One author I contacted told me I wasn’t likely to get many Romantic Comedies – but if you’ve got a good one, submit it!"
Naturally, I took this as a challenge.
by J Trevor Robinson
The sound of rustling had been following Vivian since shortly after she walked into the woods. She didn’t remember the sound from her dream the night before, and wondered - if it had been there, would she still have come? She thought that yes, she would. The journalist in her couldn’t resist the lure of the story ahead.
The dream had lead her from her apartment along the path to the Don Valley Brick Works. Vivian felt a pull guiding her off the path and deeper into the woods; that pull had nagged at her all day, distracting her from work and demanding her attention. She knew that what she was looking for would be among those trees. Under ordinary circumstances she would never go into the woods so late in the day, but Vivian felt it was somehow right.
Autumn was just beginning to hit Toronto, covering the ground with a light carpet of dry leaves. The rustling was coming from something disturbing those leaves. Vivian knew a bit about the local wildlife, from researching an article for BlogTO. Bears simply didn’t live this close to downtown, so she didn’t have to worry about those. It could be a coyote, but it sounded too large; it could be a deer, but it sounded too assertive. Carefully, she put her hands on the instant camera hanging on a strap from her neck. She spun around to face whatever was following her, hitting the shutter button to blind it with the flash.
A voice Vivian knew all too well weaved a web of inventive profanity as a tall, broad-shouldered man rubbed at his eyes. “What the hell, Viv?” he asked.
Vivian tried to tell herself that the fluttering in her stomach was from being startled, and put as much cold steel into her voice as she could. “Mr Shaw. There are nearly twenty thousand acres of parkland in this city, why did you have to turn up here?” The photo whirred out of the bottom of the camera, revealing hotshot reporter Mason Shaw midway through the act of throwing his arms in front of his face.
His green eyes were blinking wildly, dazzled by the flash, and his square jaw set itself into a scowl. “I could ask you the same thing, Viv.” After rubbing his eyes again, Mason gave her a quick up-and-down look, and she was annoyed to catch herself wishing she’d put more effort into her appearance. Her wavy brown hair was pulled back into a very practical ponytail, and she hadn’t bothered to put on makeup.
“Camera, notebook, and I see your flashlight sticking out of your jacket pocket,” Mason observed. “Here for a story?”
“Judging by all of your equipment, I’d say you are too. That, or you’ve started dressing like a robot in the forest for fun,” Vivian said. He was covered in recording equipment, cameras and microphones bristling from a series of straps across his chest and shoulders. Mason was a reporter for the Cross-Canada Observer, one of the largest independent news outlets in the country. Vivian was a journalist as well, doing freelance work wherever she smelled a good opportunity.
Mason sighed. “I suppose it’s too much to hope that we’re not here to look into the same thing?”
Vivian took another critical look at him. He had always been diligent about getting the facts, but the sheer amount of equipment was complete overkill unless he was filming several videos at once. His eyes darted around, he didn’t normally slouch so much, and he was fidgeting with a shoulder strap. Vivian’s eyes lit up. “You’re here about the stairs, aren’t you?”
Mason nodded. “They’ve been popping up in wooded areas all over town, and nobody’s got any idea why,” he said. “Did you see the police department’s sorry excuse for a statement?” The Chief of Police hadn’t even confirmed the existence of the stairs, only putting out a press release reminding thrill-seekers that they would be prosecuted if caught trespassing in city parks after hours. The general public seemed to have no idea what to make of them; some people insisted they were haunted, others thought it was just an installation-art stunt, others still claiming that they had amazing turns of fortune near the mysterious stairs.
“There’s more to it, though,” said Vivian, a wide grin on her face. “What makes you think there will be stairs out here? I checked: there isn’t so much as a tweet about any appearing in this area.” She was enjoying watching him squirm. “You had a dream about this place.”
“Of course not,” he scoffed. “Like you said, there are no stairs here yet, but these woods should be a prime location. It’s a stretch of parkland with enough seclusion to hide them as they get set up, but close enough to an activity centre to attract people.” He cocked a thumb over his shoulder towards the Brick Works. True to the name, it had been an active brick factory for over a century. In the mid-1990s, it had been converted into a park and educational site to teach people about ways to include nature within a city environment. “It’s only a matter of time before the people responsible for these stairs come here, and if I stake the place out, I’ll be able to get the truth.”
“You had a dream,” Vivian said in a singsong voice. “Big rational Mason Shaw ran out to the woods based on a dream!”
“Based on an intuition,” Mason countered, half-smiling in spite of himself. “Based on perfectly ordinary, not-spooky-at-all intuition. There’s a difference.”
Both smiling, they looked at each other for a long moment. It felt good to be talking again. Then Mason lifted his hand to rub his eyes again, and the reminder of why they hadn’t been speaking hit Vivian again like a slap.
“No wedding ring tonight?” she asked. The smile drained off of Mason’s face. “What, did you think that the midnight stair-builders might be hot college students?”
Mason sighed. “Come on, Viv. We’re having our first real conversation in months and you have to bring that up?” he asked.
“That’s exactly why I had to bring it up,” Vivian countered. The shame burned just as badly as it had in the spring; she had been in Vancouver to visit her sister, and ran into Mason at a trendy cafe.
“You never did give me a chance to explain,” Mason said.
“What’s to explain? You were having a nice day out with your wife and daughter, when in waltzed your secret side floozy. It was such a lovely surprise meeting them, considering you never told me you were married.” Vivian turned away from him and continued stomping into the woods; the past was the past, and she had a job to do. She walked in silence, broken only by the crunching of leaves.
“You know what? Fine. Be that way,” huffed Mason, hurrying to catch up. “If you don’t want to listen, why should I waste my breath?”
All around them, the trees were just beginning to change colour. In the green canopy above them, orange and yellow patches burst like a photograph of fireworks. The late-day sunlight streaking through the leaves was beautiful, and Vivian tried to focus on that instead of Mason. He made it difficult by sneaking glances at her when he thought she wasn’t looking.
“So,” he said abruptly. Vivian rolled her eyes. “Did you see the Springsteen documentary they had at the Bloor Cinema last month?”
“No,” Vivian said, hoping that would stop the conversation before it started.
“You would have loved it. They had footage from when they were recording Darkness On The Edge Of Town, from right in the recording studio. It was amazing; there were these interviews with the band about what they were thinking and the stories behind the songs...” Mason trailed off, and Vivian could guess where his train of thought had led: to memories of long nights in her apartment, sipping wine and listening to classic rock on the radio.
After another minute of silence, Mason tried again. “Still working the old-fashioned way with the instant camera and notepad, huh?” he said, sweeping one of his high-tech cameras in an arc from left to right. Vivian caught a glimpse of the digital display as it faced away from her, and saw the washed-out green colour scheme of the picture.
“Is that night vision?” she asked, wondering what he was expecting to find. “Besides, I like taking my notes the old-fashioned way. I find it gives my work more of a classical, personal touch.”
“Trust me, I remember your personal touch,” Mason said deadpan. Vivian spun around and jabbed a finger at his face.
“You don’t get to crack jokes like that, not after making such a complete fool out of me,” she spat.
“And you could have let me tell you what was going on, instead of freezing me out and started taking potshots at me in your articles!”
“Oh yeah?” asked Vivian. “Name one!”
“Gee, let me think!” Mason said, making a show of stroking his clean-shaven chin. “How about the health and wellness series you did for that home fitness blog? Let me see, what was that colourful description you used for the stationary bike; ‘a cardio machine for neurotic control freaks,’ I think it was.”
Vivian huffed. “And what does that have to do with you?” she asked.
“You know that I use the bike because treadmills give me shin splints,” Mason said, glowering.
“Oh, do you? Goodness, I must have forgotten,” Vivian said with perfect innocence. Then her expression darkened. “While we’re on the subject, don’t think that I missed your feature about the Southern Ontario Gem Show. Anyone reading that would have thought those people were nothing but tinfoil hat-wearing nutcases!”
Mason thrust his hands into his thick curly hair. “They think that rocks can heal people! Rocks, Vivian!”
“Oh, you wouldn’t know a holistic remedy if it bit you on the ass!” scoffed Vivian. “Although it might finally dislodge the stick you have crammed up there.”
Mason opened his mouth to reply, but something over Vivian’s shoulder caught his attention first. He brought up one of his cameras and started recording as she turned around to see a set of stairs in the middle of a small clearing up ahead. They looked like they had been transplanted from a middle-class suburban home, with dark wood and a plush beige carpet runner up the middle. There was a gentle curve to the stairs, and an engraved banister on only one side. Carefully, the two reporters approached the stairs. Vivian took photos of it as she approached, tucking the plastic squares into her jacket as she went.
“There’s a small closet door over here,” said Mason as he walked around to the far side of the stairs. Vivian saw light spill around the corner of the structure.
“They’re clean,” remarked Vivian. She held her flashlight between her bicep and her body, aimed at the bottom steps while she took notes on her pad. “No leaf litter, no dirt, not even animal scratches on the wood.” The other light turned out to be the flashlight app on Mason’s phone. He did a double-take when he saw Vivian already standing on the fourth step.
“What are you doing, get down from there! We’ve got no idea if this thing is even sturdy!” he said, waving his phone in the air. “I don’t know about you, but I have no bars out here. How do you think we’re getting out of here if you break your leg?”
Vivian stuck her tongue out at him and jumped in place; her boots made a solid thump each time she landed. Mason sighed and shook his head, then joined her on the stairs and together they climbed to the top. Though the stairs were an average size for a house, standing outdoors at what would be a second-story height was disorienting.
“Wow,” Mason said softly. Vivian just nodded in agreement. Even as they admired the beauty of the forest around them in the last rays of sunlight, an unseasonable chill seeped into their bones. As fascinating as they were, there was something wrong about these stairs. Without thinking about it, they stepped closer together for warmth as a cloud passed in front of the setting sun, casting darkness over the clearing.
Mason inched closer to the edge and looked at the forest floor below. “It’s a ways down, isn’t it?” he said, leaning out into space. “You never think much about how high stairs go, really. The fall probably wouldn’t kill you, but it would certainly hurt.” His whole body jerked forward suddenly, and Vivian reacted just in time to catch his hand. Instead of falling off the stairs, Mason just straightened up again and laughed nervously. Vivian remembered the odd compulsion that had brought her here, and wondered how much of that little prank had been Mason’s idea. They were standing very close together now, and she could see a flush climbing into his cheeks. Looking down, she noticed that she was still holding his hand. She reminded herself what he’d done to her and unwrapped her fingers from his.
Instead of drawing away, Mason stepped closer to her. He took her hand again and put his other hand on her shoulder. “I’ve missed you,” he said as the trees swayed and shook. Before he could pursue that thought any further, he looked up at the moving branches. Vivian understood the confusion on his face, because she had noticed the same thing he had: there was no wind to move the trees.
A branch cracked in the darkness. Among the trees and through the dimness, she could see that someone else had found the stairs as well. A slim figure dressed in white stood just outside of the clearing. “Excuse me!” she called out. “Vivian Bacall, journalist. Do you know anything about these stairs?” Without answering, the person stepped behind a tree. Vivian descended the steps to go talk to them properly.
“Hello, sir? Ma’am?” she called, approaching the tree where she’d seen the person disappear. As she got closer she saw a white blur in the darkness flit from another tree several feet away to behind a third tree. She turned to look and saw it move again, and again; each time, the tree it emerged from was not the tree it had just stepped behind. The darkness was playing other tricks on her eyes, as well; the figure seemed to be getting taller each time she saw it.
“Vivian, don’t get too close,” said Mason, descending the stairs as well. He had his fancy recording equipment running, recording green- and red-filtered videos of the trees around them. The glow of the screens illuminated his face from beneath in conflicting colours. Vivian lifted her own camera and tried to catch a shot of the visitor, lighting up the forest with the flash.
It was a mistake. The sudden light dazzled her and Mason both, leaving the clearing even darker than it had been before. Despite the spots in front of her vision, Vivian could still make out the figure dashing from tree to tree, faster now. Without warning, it loomed up from the side of the stairs over Mason’s shoulder.
Close up, Vivian could see how wrong she had been in assuming that it was human. It had a humanoid shape, but the fingers ended in long and cruelly serrated claws. The arms had too many joints and bent in impossible places. Spectral white hair covered the drastically sunken chest, above which sat a head that seemed to be nothing but teeth.
“Mason!” Vivian screamed. Without wasting a backward glance, he charged forward. The motion took him away from the creature as it swung one horrible arm. Claws raked through the space where Mason’s head and shoulders had been, and the beast’s maw opened to let loose a howl that shook the trees.
“What was that?” Mason asked, looking wildly around and pointing his cameras in random directions. The thing had disappeared, and the woods were silent in the wake of that scream.
“I have no idea. We can talk it over once we’re a long, safe distance away from here,” said Vivian. She oriented herself using the stairs; the banister side had been facing them when they arrived, so that would point them in the right direction to get back to the Brick Works. Vivian grabbed Mason’s hand and started leading them both in that direction as another sudden howl reverberated around them.
“Nothing that lives in these woods could make that sound,” Mason insisted. “An escaped animal from the zoo, maybe? We could be dealing with a mountain lion.”
“That was no mountain lion,” said Vivian between breaths as they ran. The sound of wood splintering under violence chased them through the dark. “You didn’t see it; it was some sort of monster, or ghost, or something.”
“Vivian, there’s no such thing!” Mason said.
“Well, ‘no such thing’ nearly tore your head off,” Vivian retorted. She snatched the developing photo out of the camera and thrust it backward at Mason while they ran. She didn’t look to see his reaction, but he didn’t say anything more about zoo animals. Trees loomed up out of the blackness with barely enough time to avoid them. Up ahead, they could just barely see a light in the darkness. “Look, that must be the path! We’re nearly there, come on!”
They put a burst of energy into sprinting forward towards the light, and the trees gave way around them as they skidded to a stop on the leaves. “We must have gotten turned around,” Mason groaned. The stairs stood implacably in front of them, illuminated from a source they couldn’t identify, which winked out just as suddenly as they noticed it.
There was silence for just a moment, and then the howl echoed through the woods again; not nearby, but impossible to say how far away. “Alright, let’s think about this,” said Mason. “We can’t reliably leave, and we don’t want to be caught in the open by whatever’s out there. We need shelter.” He looked around. “Up a tree?”
Vivian shook her head. “With the arms on that thing, I’m sure it can climb trees.”
Mason snapped his fingers. “The door!” he said. “There was a door on the far side of the staircase, we can hide in there. It’s our best shot.” Vivian looked around, couldn’t see a better alternative, and nodded. They raced around to the other side of the stairs; the howling grew louder, as if the beast was stampeding towards them through the woods, and Vivian could just make out a white glow among the trees getting closer. The wooden door that Mason had spotted was unlocked, but the inside had several deadbolts they were able to slide into place. The howling rushed up to the other side of the door, and it shook under the weight of the creature trying to beat it down.
Vivian took out her pocket flashlight again to explore the room under the stairs. Like the stairs themselves, the space was clean. “There’s nothing here!” she said as the pounding on the door continued. The deadbolts rattled in their fastenings.
“We have to hope it gets bored and leaves,” said Mason, his face bloodless and white. A scraping noise from the other side of the door conjured an image of the thing’s wicked claws gouging into the wood, and Vivian swallowed.
“In case it doesn’t…” she started, then hesitated. She stepped closer to Mason and laced her fingers through his, both of them still staring at the door. “In case it doesn’t leave, I want to say… I lied. I did go to the Springsteen screening. I saw you there, too.”
“You did?” asked Mason. “Why didn’t you come over and say hello?”
“Listening to that music again got me thinking about us, and how we were before I found out you were married. I knew that if I talked to you in that theatre, we would end up in bed together again,” she said. “So I bolted as soon as the credits started to avoid you.”
Mason let out a nervous laugh. “Well, if we’re being honest, I should tell you: I’m really not married. I never have been. That woman you saw was an actress I hired, and the kid was her niece.”
Vivian rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right.” The creature outside howled again and struck the door, making them both flinch.
“No, really,” Mason said. He dug into his pocket for his phone, still showing no network connection, and pulled up the video gallery. “I was out in BC to do an exposé; a politician out there was trying to outlaw homeschooling and private schools, while sending his own kids to a pricey boarding school in Oregon. The report is getting broadcast next week.” He found the video he wanted, and hit play. It was test footage from a hidden camera, Mason and the woman Vivian had thought was his wife doing sound checks and reviewing their plan to talk to the target.
Another video, apparently from the same camera, showed a well-dressed man on an outdoor patio. “That’s him,” offered Mason. “It turns out, he was taking huge donations from lobbyists to push the sort of law they wanted. We pretended to be a family to get close enough to him to get the dirt I needed.”
On the video, the man excused himself to go to the restroom. Shortly afterward, Vivian saw herself enter the frame, and got to watch her own face from four months ago. Surprise and happiness to see Mason there were quickly replaced by betrayal and rage, while Mason’s recorded voice tried in vain to assure her it wasn’t what it looked like.
“I couldn’t explain at the time,” said the real Mason. “He could have come back any second. Then you wouldn’t answer my texts or take my calls, so I couldn’t explain afterward. And then you started sniping at me in your work, and… well, then my pride got in the way. Like with the Gem Show article.” He smirked. “But those people are still nuts.”
Splinters flew into the room as glowing white claws burst through the door. Vivian could feel Mason’s hand shaking, or maybe it was hers. Maybe it was both. The creature tried to grab the wood and tear it apart, but couldn’t get purchase and withdrew to try again.
“Damn it,” Mason said. “If I’m going to die, I’m not going to do it with any secrets. Being apart from you all summer has been hell. Vivian, I love you.”
The admission rocked her, bringing back a flood of memories: stolen kisses in movie theatres, late nights wrapped in the sheets together, whispered jokes in museums, and how at peace she had felt the weekend when they had rented a car and just left the city with no destination in mind. She thought of the time together they had already lost, between her stubbornness and his elaborate deception for the sake of a story.
“You bloody idiot,” she breathed, then turned to Mason. “I love you too.”
With the beast outside still trying to destroy the door and nowhere for them to escape to, the pair smiled and leaned in for their first kiss since the spring. They each breathed in the smell of the other as if there were nothing else in the world, relished the electric contact of their lips, and held each other close as if they could shield each other from the fate that was trying to tear down their one source of protection.
They stood locked in that embrace for a long time before ending the kiss. Vivian laid her head on Mason’s chest, listening to his breathing and the pounding of his heart through his jacket. Gradually, she realized those were the only things she could hear. There was no howling, and the assault on the door had stopped.
“Mason,” she whispered. “I think it left. Listen.”
He cocked his head, and a small smile reached his lips. “You may be right,” he said. Carefully, he moved closer to the door and held a camera up to one of the ragged holes the thing had made. The night-vision display showed nothing out in the darkness. Vivian reached for the deadbolts.
“Are you sure?” asked Mason.
Vivian squeezed his hand and smiled. “No. But there’s only one way to find out,” she said. They unlocked the door together and stepped out into the night hand-in-hand. Sure enough, the forest was peaceful, as if nothing had even happened.
A flurry of sudden noises made them both jump, but it was only their phones alerting them to an hour’s worth of notifications. Mason dug into his pocket and quickly brought up the navigation app. “Come on, we can get out of here. The edge of the forest is that way, let’s leave before anything else happens.”
“Hold on a minute,” Vivian said. She lifted her camera and took a photo of the gouges and holes in the door, the flash bringing the grain of the wood into sharp relief. “Now let’s go,” she agreed. They hurried out of the clearing, putting the stairs behind them as quickly and quietly as they could.
As they left, the grotesque form of the beast climbed up the sheer side of the staircase and sat on the top step watching them go. Convinced they would not turn back, it began to change; the claws softened, the multi-jointed arms shortened and became flowing white sleeves, the sunken chest filled out to ordinary human proportions. The gaping mass of teeth rearranged itself, becoming a gentle smile in an otherwise featureless face. Where the beast had sat was now what could be called an illuminated outline of a human being.
The outline kicked its feet back and forth in a playful way, then stood up to take the stairs down two at a time. With the wave of a robed arm, it mended the damage it had done to the closet door, leaving the stairs looking as pristine as they had before. The anachronistic staircase would stand ready and waiting, as would all of the others, for hearts and minds to come and find what was right in front of them.
The outline skipped happily around the perimeter of the clearing, pleased with another job well-done. It stopped to examine a fat raccoon that had come to take a look at the glowing figure, and for a moment it flashed the beast’s terrible fangs at the little animal. As the raccoon ran away, the outline faded to a shimmer in the air, barely visible; the work was worth doing, of course, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be fun.