WATCH YOUR STEP


BY JON MORAY


Ryan was seventeen years old when he first learned his grandfather had spent, at that time, twenty years in a mental ward. His parents finally broke down and revealed the truth about his grandfather; he was not dead but institutionalized.


That day, Ryan accompanied his dad on a visit to see his grandpa and on the drive over, his dad forewarned him of what to expect and what landed him there.


After clearing security, they were escorted to where visitors could meet with patients. While they waited, Ryan’s right leg twitched with nervous anticipation, as echoes of wild yelling emanated from a patient on the other end of the cafeteria sized room.


A metal door with a small wire glass view panel creaked open and Grandpa was led in by a muscular ward employee. Grandpa hugged his son while spying Ryan with wild eyes. Grandpa was seventy-five years old, bald on top, white on the sides and whiskers that scratched Ryan’s cheek when they embraced.


“It‘s about time I meet my grandson,” Grandpa said, with a bright, crooked smile that looked as if he was sucking a mouthful of Lemonheads.


“Nice to meet you, sir,” said Ryan, shyly.


“Don’t call me sir. I’m your grandpa,” the old man demanded.


Ryan’s dad interrupted. “How are you feeling, Dad?”


“I’ll be fine if you take me out of here.”


“Dad, you know I can’t do that.”


Sweat beaded Ryan's forehead as he mentally evaluated his grandfather.


Suddenly, Grandpa asked, “Do you know what put me in here, boy?”


Ryan shook his head as if it were on a pendulum.


“Dad, we don’t need to talk about it.”


“My grandson has the right to know why I’m in this nuthouse,” he shouted.


“My dad told me why, Grandpa.”


“He probably just glossed over it. Pay attention, because you’re going to hear my story, from my mouth.” Ryan’s dad rolled his eyes and huffed in resignation.


“It’s true I hear things in my head. I’ve heard voices, birds, and animals. That didn’t bother me. What made me cuckoo was the footsteps,” Grandpa expressed, with raised bushy, untrimmed eyebrows, as if he were telling a horror story.


“Footsteps?” asked Ryan.


“I was in my early thirties when I first heard them. They were very faint at first. The older I got, the more defined the steps were, like a stalker walking on a hardwood floor in a hard-boiled mystery. I got older and the steps got louder. I tried to run from them but the faster I ran, the faster the footsteps sounded. I tried everything until it finally engulfed me and the only way I knew how to alleviate the sound was to take my own life. I tried to jump off a suspension bridge but was rescued by a bleeding-heart bystander. Medication in this joint is the only remedy that manages the sound of the clacking steps.”


“Dad, I think that’s enough.”


“Okay, okay. Let me just end by saying, Ryan, you will probably start hearing footsteps. Your daddy claims never to hear them and maybe this illness skips a generation, because my grandpa warned me before he hung himself.”


“Dad, please!”


“Alright. Just one more thing. Ryan, watch your step. Okay, now I’m done.”


“Thank God,” Ryan’s dad exhaled. “I promised to take you to the park on property.”


“That sounds great. I haven’t been outside in over a week due to the weather.”


The trio enjoyed the sun kissed, breezy outdoors, and that was the last time Ryan would see his grandfather alive.


Ryan was now in his late thirties when one day, while reading a crime novel, he heard a slight tapping in his head. At first, he thought it was his heartbeat, but eventually, the sound was more easily identifiable. It was the same footsteps as Grandpa described at the institution years earlier.


Ryan was able to ignore the sound for a few years, although the footsteps were looming louder. He was now in his mid-forties and had reached a point where he would have to address the issue. Medication and meetings with a psychiatrist at 45-minute intervals helped but the footsteps were gaining momentum. He took up running that seemed to keep the shadowing steps at bay, but the unrelenting sounds lurked like an annoying mosquito when he stopped. He was reaching a breaking point. Something had to give.


Ryan awoke from a restless night of tossing and turning and sat at the end of his bed, holding his head in trembling hands. The footsteps were pounding in his head like a bass drum. He sobbed as he rose to his feet and began banging his head against the wall to knock himself unconscious. He was teetering on madness as he broke into a run out of his apartment. Without a plan, he desperately scaled the stairs up to the roof. He forced opened the door with his shoulder and motored toward the parapet.


“I can’t take it anymore,” he screamed, as he neared the roof edge. The footsteps in his head coordinated with his steps. Ten feet away from the edge, a protruding roof drain broke his momentum and caused him to clumsily trip and fall headfirst into the parapet. The footsteps in his head made a scraping and swoosh sound that traveled over him and off the roof. Ryan, out of breath and disoriented, struggled to rise to his feet. As he gathered himself, a sudden realization hit him. The mental footsteps were gone. He stumbled away from the parapet and stopped, intently listening for the steps, and smiled when there were none. Grandpa’s cryptic warning flashed back to him as he walked away, whistling a familiar tune.


Jon Moray has been writing short stories for over a decade and his work has appeared in several online and print markets. When not working and being a devoted family man, he enjoys sports, music, the ocean, and SCI-FI/Fantasy media.

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