The girl nodded excitedly, pointing. “Definitely. Lake Forest Cemetery, see?” I nodded resignedly. Mary was the kind of girl who was always obsessed with something. Lately, it was the supernatural. So when she heard of this “stairway to hell” thing, so bugged me until I agreed to join her.
The two of us picked our way through the cemetery. “The article said it was near the Civil War section,” Mary said, a large grin on her face. I rolled my eyes, trying to hide how nervous I felt. I mean, the whole premise of the thing was sort of creepy.
We found it soon enough. “Wow,” Mary breathed, although personally, I didn’t see what was so amazing about it. It was just a narrow stairway, covered in leaves. Mary stepped onto it. “It’s cold!” I frowned.
“It’s the middle of fall. Of course it’s cold.” I stepped on the staircase, eager to prove her wrong. I shivered. “It’s like the temperature…” I trailed off. The temperature felt the same, but this awful chill just swept over me. “I don’t know,” I admitted, at a loss.
“Aha! The skeptic is faced with mystery! What now, Miss-I’m-so-smart?” I glowered at her, stepping away from the stairs and trying to rub the goosebumps away from my arms.
“Just because it’s a little chilly on the stairs doesn’t mean-“
“Ah, I see you’re curious about the staircase.” The voice was so close behind me that I jumped. Spinning around, I saw an old woman standing at the top of the steps. She was actually quite a ways away from us. How did she sound so close…?
“Y-Yeah… This is the, um…” I turned to Mary, who was usually so confident. This woman was unnerving to me, but to Mary? That seemed to be a bit of a stretch.
“The stairway to hell,” the woman stated, shuffling closer to us. “Surely you know the myth? I couldn’t imagine why you would come to this place unless you did, being from out of town and all.”
“W-Well… The myth is that… A soul buried here starts at the bottom… And walks to the top. If they see a light, they go to heaven. If they don’t, they’re doomed to walk back down the stairway, knowing that hell waits for them at the bottom.” Mary’s voice started off weak, but gained strength as she retold the myth she had studied.
“Right. But what happens if the souls refuse to walk back down?” The old woman paused, waiting for a response. When she didn’t get one, she nodded her head. “Just as I suspected. Few people know about the second part of the myth.” She sat down on one of the steps, seeming unaffected by the same chill as Mary and me.
“Second part?” Mary was curious now, I know. She got that whole “you-have-new-information-and-I-must-know-it” look that she always gets.
“Yes. It’s said that some souls, when faced with the long walk back down the stairway, refuse. They stay on the stairway, looking for someone who can take their place in the house of the damned.” Upon hearing this, Mary carefully stepped off the stairway, shivering.
“Take their place?” Mary echoed the woman’s words, confused.
“Yes,” the old woman replied, flashing a smile full of rotten teeth, “You see, if someone comes back to the cemetery at night… Well, it’s just an old myth anyways. Best not to worry yourselves over a silly old tale.” The woman stood and began to shuffle away, back up the steps.
“Wait!” Mary followed the woman around a corner, then came back. “She disappeared.” I shook my head, not believing it.
“She probably hid, trying to scare us. What a load of bull!” I rolled my eyes, trying to put on a brave face. Mary would taunt me forever if she knew how frightened I was by that old woman.
“Well, there’s only one way to find out…” Mary was getting that crazy look in her eye again. Trying to divert it, I wildly shook my head.
“Oh, no. No, no, no. I know what you’re thinking, Mary. No.” She looked at me, grinning.
“Why? You scared?” My reaction was immediate denial.
“No!” Glowering, I grumbled, “It’s just stupid, is all.”
“Yeah, right!” Mary laughed. “You’re scared!”
“I am not!”
“Then prove it!”
“Fine!” I immediately wanted to take the words back, but knew that if I did, I’d never hear the end of it. Sighing resignedly, I mumbled, “Let’s do it.”
How I wish that I had taken those words back.
It was foggy when we came back to the cemetery that night. “It’s dangerous,” I said, “We could, like, trip over a gravestone or something!”
“Shut up and come on,” Mary said, and I had no choice but to follow her. We made our way back to the stairway from memory. Mary didn’t hesitate, stepping on the stairs without question. “See? No ghosts!” She skipped along the bottom step. “La, la, la, you can’t get me!” She giggled, sticking her tongue out at me, and I felt stupid. I put one foot on the step to join her…
And then jerked away as Mary screamed. “It’s hot!” I knew that she couldn’t be faking it – the screams were too real. “It’s hot, it’s hot, it’s hot!” I stared in amazement as smoke appeared from the ground, and a gnarled old hand reached out from the ground and pulled Mary into it. I heard the old woman laugh, and saw her standing on the stairs. Slowly, she shuffled towards me.
“I’m free,” she whispered in my ear, her breath dead and stale. Fear overcame me. With the smell of brimstone and the old woman surrounding me, I fainted.
That was months ago. I woke up in my bed, as if nothing had happened. But when I went to Mary’s house, she was gone. Her mother was frantic, and called the police, but no trace of her was ever found.
I still see her, though. I’ll catch glimpses of her in the mirror, out of the corner of my eye, staring at me. Occasionally I’ll drive to the stairway, and stand at that bottom step during the day, staring at the burnt patch of ground that Mary disappeared into. I’ll hear her screaming my name.
I think she’s lonely. And I think she wants me to join her.