Depicts suicide, suicidal ideation, depression, car accidents.
Ocean’s twelfth therapist isn’t fully licensed in the state of Maine. Her office is an RV parked behind the Hannaford, from which she also sells crystals, blueberry jam, and sex. Her advice is erratic and mystic, largely unhelpful, but Ocean doesn’t mind. She doesn’t want to be helped.
A therapist is, in her estimation, a person you can pay by the hour to listen to you talk about your dead husband. Ocean exhausted all her other outlets six or seven months ago, when her mourning crossed the invisible river between tragic and annoying. Her friends and relations were frustrated by her aggressive sadness, her refusal to proceed along the stages of grief they’d read about online.
“At some point, you just have to let go,” her sister told her one day. Ocean told her sister to fuck off, which she did.
They make it three sessions before Ocean’s new therapist says the same thing. Ocean tells her to fuck off, too.
“Look, everybody’s lost somebody. And they get over it and they go on.” Her therapist is looking at her with what Ocean suspects is personal, rather than professional, disdain. “You think your man was so special?”
Privately, Ocean does. She was raised by a pair of starry-eyed hippies and, while Ocean uses real soap and pays her taxes now, she’s never shaken her childhood faith in the grand and beautiful design of the cosmos—fate, fortune, luck, soulmates, et cetera. She believes that she and her husband were meant for one another, that their love was a species distinct from the small and ordinary love of small and ordinary people.
Which is why she finds it so intolerable, so fundamentally incorrect, that he would crash through the guardrail on Route 1 going eighty-five miles an hour. Sometimes she can’t decide which she misses more: her husband, or her good luck.
Ocean’s therapist is shaking her head. “You’re going to be unhappy for a long time, hon.” As prophecies go, Ocean feels this one is pretty low-hanging fruit.
She checks the time, and her husband’s face glows up at her for a half second before the screen goes black again. Sixteen minutes left. “I’ve been thinking about this one time, back when we were both working at the truck stop. I was taking out the trash and Ethan was on his smoke break. There was this stray cat that used to come around—not a kitten or anything, one of those old, tough toms with oozy eyes and one ear. Most people threw stuff at him. But Ethan didn’t. He knelt down and fed that cat his whole breakfast burrito. Every bite.”
It wasn’t the moment Ocean fell in love with him—she’d been falling in love with him since his first shift, when his curls stuck out of his hairnet like the frilled antennae of a moth—but it was the moment she knew she was right to do so. “He wasn’t trying to impress me. He didn’t even know I was watching. He just did it because he was so—”
“I’m sure he was.” Her therapist sighs for a long time, watching Ocean with eyes like a pair of brass scales. She must come to some conclusion, because she leans closer across the chipped linoleum and asks, “What would you do, to get him back?”
“Anything,” Ocean answers, and it’s the truth.
She expects to be told that this is unhealthy—a word all eleven previous therapists have used liberally—but her newest therapist merely pulls an oversized handbag into her lap and produces a yellowed business card from some inner pocket. She hands it to Ocean.
Ocean holds it in the striped gold light that comes through the RV blinds. Matte lettering spells THE HOUSE OF STICKS. There’s no website, no phone number.
“Take the dawn ferry. Show the operator this card and don’t forget to tip.” They still have nine minutes on the clock, but her therapist stands. Ocean tucks the card in her jacket pocket.
Her therapist follows Ocean down the RV steps and flips the sign from OPEN to CLOSED. She catches Ocean’s eye, almost by accident, and her face contorts with an unfamiliar expression. Pity, maybe. “It’s a long way down,” she says.
The ferry comes out of the mist like a Polaroid developing. A shadow, then a shape, then a flatboat big enough for three cars and an operator’s booth. Ocean watches it arrive with a pleasant feeling of purpose, a sense that she is finally correcting a cosmic mistake.
She drives up the ramp and puts the Corsica in park. No one boards behind her.
Halfway across the bay, she leaves her car and knocks on the booth window. “I’m supposed to show you this?” Ocean flattens the business card against the window, her wedding ring clacking hard against the glass.
The operator looks at the card. He grunts once. A coin tray slides out at Ocean’s elbow, and she fills it with wadded bills and loose change, everything she had left in the house. He sorts through it, returning the bills but keeping two silver quarters.
Ocean waits for further instruction, her reflection pale and uncertain, but none is forthcoming. She clears her throat. “So you’ll uh, wait for us? On the other side?”
The operator’s eyes—small and bloodshot, infinitely weary—settle on Ocean for the first time. After a very long pause, he nods, and Ocean understands that he does not expect to see her again.
There’s no address on the card, but half a mile from the pier Ocean finds a white saltbox with the words THE HOUSE OF STICKS printed on the mailbox. There’s a sign taped to the door listing hours of operation and requesting that packages be delivered to the back entrance. Ocean enters without knocking.
Inside she finds a small waiting area and a reception desk. The woman behind the desk passes Ocean a pen and clipboard without looking up from her phone.
Ocean had assumed her journey was an exceptional, and therefore solitary, event, but at least half the chairs in the waiting room are occupied. She squeezes between an exceedingly morose young man and an elderly woman. The morose young man slides his guitar case aside and heaves a theatrical sigh, as if he would like to be asked if he’s okay, so he could say he isn’t. Ocean concentrates on her paperwork.
There’s a lot of it: permissions and releases and consent forms, photocopies of photocopies now so blurred they resemble grave rubbings more than typeface.
Ocean returns her clipboard and hovers at the reception desk. “Hi, excuse me, but I had a little trouble reading some of this. Can you explain how it works, exactly?”
The receptionist looks away from her phone with a sigh suggesting she is not paid enough for this sort of harassment. She licks her index finger and flips through the clipboard pages. “Looks like you’re getting the standard deal. You go down and find your”—she double checks the first page—“husband, you bring him up, he stays. So long as you meet the conditions listed here.”
The receptionist turns the clipboard around and taps a brief, bulleted list. The conditions don’t strike Ocean as particularly challenging; she signs and dates the final page.
The receptionist presses a small silver button, and the door behind her clicks open. She’s already looking at her phone again.
Behind the door there is a set of stone steps. They look very old to Ocean, white stone, their middles slick and sagging beneath centuries of feet. There are handrails on either side, the brass made lustrous by thousands of hands, and beyond them there is nothing at all.
Ocean can’t see where the steps end.
Ocean experiences a moment of doubt. She imagines many of the people in the waiting room would turn back at this point. Their small and ordinary love would falter in the face of death, and they would give up. They would let go.
Ocean clenches her fist around her ring and takes the first step.
It’s a long way down.
In the first hour, Ocean’s hamstrings cramp. In the second hour, she thinks fondly of the water bottle she left in the car. By the fourth or fifth, she starts worrying about food. She can no longer see the door behind her by then, just an endless series of steps receding into the distance.
Every now and then she encounters other people on the stairs, some headed down, some on their way back up. Most of them are alone.
Her phone dies on the second or third day, and after that she loses track of how long she’s been walking. The only sign that time is still passing is that she’s getting hungrier and thirstier, but eventually even that fades, leaving her feeling insubstantial, almost transparent, a mere shade of herself.
Still, she doesn’t turn back. To turn back would be to render herself unexceptional, a regular person with a regular husband, both subject to the routine tragedies of the universe. It would mean that her first eleven therapists were probably right, and also that she would never again kiss the crow’s feet at the corners of her husband’s eyes. (This last occurs to her a little belatedly, as an afterthought, but she rearranges the list in her head so it ranks more highly).
The stairs end abruptly and without fuss. Ocean finds herself standing in someone’s basement.
The walls are cinder block and the ceiling is spotted with mildew; the air smells like the damp earth beneath a stone. In the corner there are two people sitting on a plaid couch, not looking at one another. Neither of them is Ocean’s husband.
Ocean strides by them without saying anything and shoves through a metal door. The next room is a root cellar lined with jewel-toned Mason jars, where a middle-aged woman is singing softly to no one. After that comes a bomb shelter, then a cave, then a catacomb, every kind of dark home humans have ever built beneath the earth. Ocean is running now, scanning strangers’ faces before slamming into the next door.
Eventually she stumbles into a room that resembles the basement of her grandmother’s house, where her cousins used to gather on Thanksgiving to get high. There’s a twin bed and a boxy TV playing a Law & Order rerun. A man is watching the screen, the hollows of his face bathed in blue light, but his eyes aren’t following the characters.
Ocean makes a sound. The man looks away from the TV, and Ocean watches him turn to her in exaggerated slow motion.
Her husband is older than she remembers him, the crow’s feet deep and black beside his eyes. He always tanned easily, but now his skin has a clammy, translucent look, like the underside of a fish, and his hair has thinned. Ocean decides, easily and firmly, that he’s still the most handsome man she’s ever seen in life or death.
He sees her, and he flinches—a tiny, involuntary contraction. Ocean lets the motion pass through her like a wrong note in a recital or a flubbed line in a play, an accident the audience must ignore for the sake of the show.
There’s something acid and vicious boiling in her stomach, but she knows her lines. She takes a single step forward. Her breath catches on the shape of his name.
A part of Ethan has been waiting for her to show up—he once listened to Ocean talk the cable company into forgiving three months of late fees and adding six channels, so he naturally assumed death would be a temporary impediment for her. But he isn’t prepared for the sight of her. All that heat and light, that furious intent, sewn into the skin of a fragile white woman in her early thirties.
He winces, and her afterimage glows on the backs of his eyelids. “Hi, Ocean.”
She says his name again, already running toward him.
He stands to meet her and she slams into his chest like a small comet. “I can’t believe it—Ethan, God, I missed you—” Ocean sobs into his shoulder, clutching at his shirt, her entire body shaking. Ethan holds her, running his thumb between the wings of her shoulder blades. The motion is mechanical, instinctive, like petting a cat.
She pulls away, but her palm finds his. Her grip is too tight. “Come on, I can get you out of here. Just follow me.” Her voice is low and urgent. Being loved by Ocean always felt like this, less a decision than a demand.
Ethan doesn’t feel much of anything these days, but he’s surprised by a surge of nostalgia, a wistful fondness for the way it felt to deserve all that imperious, overwhelming, infuriating, infinite love.
He disentangles his hand from hers as gently as he can. Ocean looks down at her empty palm like it’s one of those metal brain teasers, a thing that doesn’t make sense.
“Ocean,” he says. “I can’t go back up there. I’m sorry.”
“What do you mean?” Ethan doesn’t answer, so Ocean clarifies. “What the fuck do you mean?”
Ethan is looking at the thin carpeting. “Look, I know that’s not what you want to hear. I know you came all this way—”
“I walked into hell for you.”
“I didn’t ask—”
“And now you’re telling me that you can’t walk out with me. For some reason.” That vicious thing in her stomach is rising, licking up her throat. She realizes, somewhat to her surprise, that it’s fury, and that it’s been there for a long time.
She chokes it down, drags an effortful smile across her face. “I don’t know what you’ve gone through, but it’s going to be okay now. You just have to trust me.”
Ethan’s is watching her with the same expression her therapist wore: pitying, a little guilty. “Ocean,” he says again. “You know it wasn’t—it wasn’t totally an accident, right?”
“What do you mean?” Ocean’s voice sounds tinny in her ears.
Ethan looks back at the carpet. “I mean that I sort of came here on purpose.”
Ocean thinks: okay.
Okay: so maybe Ocean did know that. Maybe she knew Ethan never went over the speed limit and had great reflexes. Maybe she knew he’d been distant for months beforehand, slipping away like water from her cupped hands. Maybe she’d been having dreams where she stood waist-deep in a cold river, and when she looked down she saw his face beneath the current, pale as a star.
But he didn’t leave any evidence behind—no note, no weapon. He’d left her the gift of doubt, and she didn’t know how grateful she was until he took it away.
The fury is rising sick and fast, like bile, but Ocean manages to lift one shoulder in a shrug. “Well, I came here on purpose, too. To save you.”
That gentle, pitying look. “Sweetheart, if you could have saved me, I wouldn’t be here.”
He reaches for her as if he’s going to tuck her hair behind her ear the way he used to, but the anger is filling her mouth now, pressing against her teeth. “Don’t touch me. Don’t—” She hates the wobble in her voice. “Fuck you, Ethan.”
She turns away from her husband. She slams through doors until she finds the root cellar again. She smashes jar after jar against the cinderblock, until the whole wall is gummy and oozing.
She returns a few hours or days later, Ethan isn’t sure which; he has trouble telling time down here. There are flecks of gooey color spattered on her clothes and small red cuts on her hands.
“Hi,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Ethan says, but it isn’t. After she left he’d felt restless and hot, like a dead limb waking up. He couldn’t sleep or follow the conversations on the screen.
Ocean walks around the bed and stands between him and the TV with her arms crossed. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you. Can I try again?”
Ethan shrugs. Ocean tries again.
She takes a rational approach first. She lists the advantages of going up with her (soft serve ice cream on the beach, yard sales, Sunday morning sex) versus the advantages of staying behind (none). She talks about mental health resources and recovery and the privilege of a second chance.
Next comes the emotional appeal. She tells him about the twelve therapists and the sister who isn’t speaking to her anymore. She tells him how lost she is, how sad. She tells him, again and again, how much she loves him.
Ethan doesn’t doubt it. Even now, numb and depressed and dead, he can feel her love like gravity, pinning him down. It used to feel good, but then some crucial structure inside him had cracked, and he could no longer bear the weight of it.
Eventually Ocean runs out of words, and Ethan says, “I’m sorry. I just can’t.”
“Why not?” He can tell she’s trying hard to sound understanding and sympathetic, but that she’s mostly just pissed.
“Because I can’t be…I’m not the person you need me to be, anymore.”
Ethan isn’t sure he ever was; Ocean decided early on that he was clever and good, special in some indefinable, intoxicating way, and he’d done his best to make it true. But her version of Ethan wouldn’t sneak to the bathroom at three in the morning to Google anhedonia and disassociation. He wouldn’t spend his days off drifting from room to room, feeling the hours pass in sudden sickening gulps. He would never leave her, because he would never need to.
Ocean is looking down at him with her jaw set. “Remember back when we first met? This one time, you were on your smoke break, and that stray came around. You didn’t know I was watching, but you—”
“God, Ocean, I knew you were watching, okay?” He’d been helplessly, painfully aware of her every movement back then, as if there were a golden thread stretched taut between them. He knew the sound of her breath and the scuff of her steps, the Dollar Store smell of her shampoo and the prickling heat of her gaze on the back of his neck.
Of course he knew she was watching that day; of course he’d fed the damn cat. By that point he’d have done anything at all to keep the stars in Ocean’s eyes.
That’s why he didn’t tell her when everything started going sour in his head, why didn’t call any hotlines or make any appointments. Instead he found himself driving too fast, closing his eyes on the state highway for brief stretches. When his tires finally left the asphalt, he felt nothing but relief, that he would no longer have to live with himself, and a faint sense of heroism, that Ocean wouldn’t either.
Except it didn’t work. Here he is, still stuck with himself, and there she is, watching him with those stupid, stubborn stars still flickering in her eyes.
He takes her hands in his. “Just go. Please.”
He feels her waver. A bitter sort of satisfaction fills him: he always knew she would leave once she saw how he really was.
But then her hands clutch hard around his. “If you’re not coming with me, then I’m staying with you.”
“Down here?” Ethan doesn’t mind it down here—he doesn’t mind anything, anymore—but Ocean always loved the sun. In winter she followed the light from window to window, like a cat, and on the first fine day of spring she always stayed out until the tops of her shoulders were hot pink.
Ethan tells himself it won’t last long. This is merely her third appeal—a grand gesture designed to guilt him into compliance—and when it fails, she’ll leave him alone.
He scoots over on the mattress. Ocean settles beside him.
If Ocean is honest with herself, which she rarely is, her decision to stay was more of a grand gesture than a sincere offer. She thought it would take a day or two, maybe a week, before Ethan’s essential goodness overcame his brain chemistry. He wouldn’t let her languish down here for long, surely.
But here she is, languishing. There are no clocks or calendars down here, but she feels time rushing past them in a ceaseless current, eroding her at some cellular level. They watch TV together, but there’s never anything good on. They talk, but not about anything important. They sleep, but they’re never tired.
Every time they wake up, Ocean asks Ethan if he’s ready to go yet. At first he makes apologies, tries to explain, but after a while he just shakes his head. Eventually he ignores the question altogether.
Ocean hates being ignored. It abrades her pride, suggests that perhaps she isn’t as important as she thinks she is.
She asks more and more often, unsure which of them she’s punishing, until finally Ethan cracks. “Tell me,” he sighs. “How would it work? What are the terms of this deal?”
Ocean tries not to look overeager. “It’s easy. You just follow me up the stairs. We can’t talk to each other or hold hands or anything, and I can’t look back, but that’s it.”
Ethan smiles, not pleasantly. “And you think you could do that?”
“Of course I could.”
“You could walk and walk, all that way, with no proof that I was still behind you.” His smile is ghastly now. “You wouldn’t doubt, wouldn’t want to check, just to make sure—”
“Of course not.” Ocean’s lips feel numb. She can feel tears rising for no reason. “I trust you.”
Ethan’s tone softens, that terrible smile fading. “No, you don’t, sweetheart. Not anymore.”
“No,” Ocean whispers. “I don’t.” It feels like a thread snapping between them. It feels like the truth.
“Good.” Ethan looks away from her, nodding at the wall with the tendons of his neck stretched tight. “Neither do I.”
Ocean thinks: okay.
She twists her wedding ring off her finger and sets it on the plastic top of the TV. Then she leaves, pushing through the door without looking back. She knows he won’t follow.
She keeps going until she’s standing in that first basement again, looking up that long staircase.
She’s crying hard now, but all she feels is a furious embarrassment. She thought she and Ethan had something unique, a special place in the grand and glittering design of the universe. But if that were true, how could he leave her all alone up there? And how could she leave him down here? Perhaps they were only ever ordinary, subject to all the ordinary tragedies of the world.
Ocean stands at the bottom of the stairs for a long time, feeling the threads between them snapping one by one.
But still: she can’t seem to take the first step. She just stands there with a silly montage playing in her head: Ethan’s sullen moods and sudden smiles, Ethan’s curls, Ethan’s fingers when he rolls a cigarette, certain and clever.
Apparently a final thread remains between them, spun from some stubborn substance that persists after everything else—trust, hope, pride—is gone, refusing to let either of them go.
It does not occur to her that it might be nothing but ordinary, everyday love.
Ethan isn’t expecting his wife to come back this time, but she does. She slips through the door, face patchy pink, and walks to the TV. Ethan watches her with a dull pain between his ribs. She’s frowning, looking for something that isn’t there.
Ethan clears his throat and holds up his hand. Her ring is wedged around the first knuckle of his pinky. She smiles when she sees it, and the pain in Ethan’s chest sharpens.
Ocean steps between his knees and takes his hand in hers. She pries the ring off him and slides it back into the pale dip at the base of her finger.
She sits besides him without letting go of his hand, and they watch Wheel of Fortune until they fall asleep.
Ethan expects her to be gone when he wakes up, but she’s still there, and still there the next time.
She doesn’t fidget or sigh anymore. She doesn’t ask unanswerable questions—like why? or how could you?—with that acid betrayal in her voice. She doesn’t even ask if he’s ready to leave, anymore, but just sits beside him, her thigh pressing alongside his.
It fills Ethan with a restless, unsettled energy. He can’t sleep, so he talks sometimes. About nothing at first, and then about how it used to be, and how it became. She was never a good listener, but she listens now, holding his hand palm up and tracing his lifeline with her thumb.
Ethan starts taking long, aimless walks, more and more often. One day he returns to find Ocean sitting beside a stack of mold-spotted magazines. She’s tearing out the best pictures—baby orangutans, rock climbers dangling from slim ropes, sandy beaches with candy cane lighthouses—and taping them to the cinderblock walls.
She looks over her shoulder at him and shrugs. “I found them three rooms over, in a library basement.” She could never abide a bare white wall; their house had looked like an underfunded art museum.
Ethan stands looking at the magazine pages for a long time when she’s done. It’s a very Ocean thing to do: covering up an ugly truth with pretty lies. It used to seem miraculous to him, like spinning straw into gold, until he began to worry what she would do when the gold faded, and she finally saw the ugly truth of him.
But she sees him now, surely. And she hasn’t left yet.
It occurs to Ethan, looking at the pictures she hung on the wall, that she isn’t going to leave.
Ocean is asleep by the time Ethan climbs in bed. He slips his arm beneath her head, breathing carefully around the pain in his chest.
She rouses. “I decided it doesn’t matter, you know. Why you fed the cat.”
He breathes a laugh into her hair. “I only did it to impress a girl.”
Ocean burrows deeper into her half of the pillow. “Yeah, well, I don’t think the cat cared.”
Ethan laughs again, but he lies awake, turning the thought gingerly in his hands. It has a circular, seductive logic: because she believed he was a good man, he became one, and she became right.
He doubts Ocean believes it anymore—the stars in her eyes are dim, dead things, now—but she stayed anyway. She’ll stay forever, wasting away in this unchanging dark, not to prove a point or win an argument, not to fix him or guilt him, but just to be with him.
It strikes him as another ouroboros, even more simple and seductive than the first: because she loves him, he becomes worth loving.
He waits for her to wake up, feeling the pain spread from his chest to his limbs, a sweet and terrible ache.
Her eyes open, and he takes her hand. “I’m ready.”
Ocean is standing at the foot of the stairs again. This time, Ethan is standing beside her.
She says, after a while, “It’s a long way up.”
“Yeah.” He’s holding her hand very tightly.
“We don’t have to do this. I’ll stay with you.”
He smiles, lopsidedly, fondly. “That’s sort of why I’m going.”
Ocean swallows several times. “I won’t look back,” she whispers.
“I know,” Ethan whispers back, and she knows he’s lying. “I won’t stop.”
“I know,” she says, and she’s lying, too. She’s riddled with doubt and terror, choosing to trust him without any evidence at all. But that’s what trust is: a function of doubt, an act of faith.
Ocean meets Ethan’s eyes and sees love there. Not certainty, not even much confidence, but Ocean supposes that makes sense. If love isn’t preordained and perfect, if it isn’t written in the stars or divinely decided, then it’s just an act of trust, repeated. It’s an endless staircase climbed in the dark, the steps worn smooth by all the lovers who have climbed and fallen and climbed again, long before you.
It doesn’t seem like enough; she decides it is.
She lets go of her husband’s hand. She turns her back to him. She takes the first step up.
A former academic and adjunct, Alix E. Harrow is a NYT-bestselling and Hugo-award winning writer living in Virginia with her husband and their two semi-feral kids. She is the author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, The Once and Future Witches, and various short fiction.