THE 12th STEP
For as long as anyone in Sunrise could remember, there were 11 old stone steps near Oquirrh Lake.
Sunrise had existed as a town for a hundred years, tucked away quietly on the far side of Oquirrh Forest, but even before the first house was built, the steps were there. The fact that there were only eleven steps was a source of speculation and gossip: old wives said that the eleven steps were built by a man with eleven children who had wanted to dedicate each step to a child. The town historian said that the steps were a numerological marvel, specifically chosen to align with sacred stars in the sky. The schoolteacher said it was because eleven was an unusual prime number, the town drunk said it was because eleven was his lucky number, and the old hermit refused to discuss the eleven steps, insisting that there were actually twelve steps for anyone who stopped to count.
The children of Sunrise had counted the steps, however, any time they were fortunate enough to make the journey through the woods to the lake with their parents. The number was always the same, and it became a game to sing a little song as you went up or down the lake steps.
One small step
for just us two
three four you,
you, you, and you!
Five and six
give way to seven,
like eight nine ten
The eleventh step was always accompanied by a big leap up or down before running off into the woods or towards the lake to continue an afternoon of fun. The number might not have made sense, but it did for the children of Sunrise.
One late summer afternoon Harriet Kilgallen, aged nine, was making the journey back towards the lake after a wonderful picnic with her family. Her mother had instructed her not to forget the beautiful blue ribbon she had taken out of her hair, but in her haste, Harriet had left it sitting on a small bench near the sandy beach. As her parents packed up the last of their supplies a few hundred feet away, Harriet was tasked with retrieving the ribbon and promptly returning to her family.
Almost to the steps, Harriet heard a voice call out to her from the woods. The voice was quiet at first, but became a little louder with each new sentence until it made sure Harriet knew it was talking to her.
"Hey there, little one," the voice said. Harriet strained to see where the voice was coming from and, in the thick of the woods, she thought she could make out a strange man in dark clothing. "Would you like to see something special in the woods with me?"
Harriet was a smart girl, and knew immediately that this was a terrible idea. She turned her head and ignored the man, continuing towards the stone steps. In the distance, her parents seemed to be talking to each other distractedly as her brother played along the edge of the forest. Harriet wanted nothing more than to get her ribbon and return to her family immediately.
"Little one," the voice said again, this time more sternly. Harriet could tell immediately that the man was angry at her lack of a response. "Didn't your parents ever tell you it was rude to ignore strangers?"
Harriet turned her head slightly towards the man. Her parents had always encouraged her to have good manners, but she knew that this was not the situation that they had in mind. The man in the woods noticed.
"Little one," the man said, and this time Harriet could tell there was nothing but anger in his voice, "come over here this instant and let me see you." Harriet was now very uncomfortable and very afraid. She turned around to abandon her ribbon and return to her parents, but as she did, the man darted out of the woods and between Harriet and her parents.
In the distance, Harriet's father turned and saw the man near his daughter, and began sprinting towards them. Seeing this, the man from the woods dashed at Harriet, arms outstretched, shouting the whole time. In her fear, Harriet turned to run away, and ran directly to the old stone steps.
One small step, Harriet instinctively thought, clearing the first step down. Behind her, she heard the man laugh a little, and she knew that he was familiar with these steps too.
For just us two, three four you, you, you, and you.
Behind her, she heard the man angrily laugh. "One small step," he said, and Harriet realized he was much closer to her than she thought.
Five and six give way to seven, like eight nine ten before eleven.
Harriet looked down at the ground, prepared to begin running for her life, when she noticed something strange.
A twelfth step.
In the brief second that this step registered in her mind, Harriet was confused. She had walked this staircase dozens of times, even today, and the rhyme always matched. There were always eleven steps, and now there were twelve. But this was no time to puzzle over the steps. Harriet temporarily paused her run and cleared the final twelfth step before finally making it to the ground and beginning to run.
Behind her, she heard, "eight nine ten before elev--," and then an unusual pause.
Harriet turned just in time to see the man from the woods look down confused. He had begun running on the eleventh step, and now, discovering an extra step where there once was one, lurched forward, falling quickly.
He hit the ground face-first, his body making a heavy impact against the ground. Harriet continued to run for a second until she heard her father, much closer than before, call out to her.
"Harriet, come back," he called, and she turned to look. Her father was sitting on the back of the man from the woods, who was still face down and appeared to not be moving. In the distance, Harriet's mother came running with a small group of men, some of which were carrying long pieces of rope and chains.
Harriet stopped and headed back to her family, fear still running through her body. As Harriet's mother and the men arrived, her father turned to the taller of the men.
"He's dead," Harriet's father said. "Broke his neck coming down the steps. Must not be from around here, since he didn't know those steps." The man nodded in agreement as Harriet turned her eyes to the steps and began to count.
1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11.
Up the hill beyond the steps, Harriet thought she noticed a bony, skeletal figure in dark robes walking deeper into the woods with a limp, unhappy looking man, but the figures disappeared quickly into the brush and out of her sight.
Nothing here, Simon thought, unhappy turning to the next page. Maybe in the next one. Simon made it a point to look away from the book as he climbed down the stone steps one by one. Ten steps. Huh. Did the stairs get shorter because I'm in a rush?
Nevermind, Simon thought, glancing back down at the book and turning the page...