The Light at the Top of the Stairs


Written for the Flash Frenzy round 51 contest. It’s a little rushed, but I think I made it in before the deadline. The prompt is the image shown, by Aswin Rao.

If not for laundry day, she would have died along with everyone else in her apartment. She remembered the buzz of the dryer, the scent of fabric softener, and the feel of warm cotton. Then the lights flickered out. The concrete floor shook her off her feet. Plaster dust filled her nose. And from up the stairs, the thud of the heavy door swinging shut.

She woke within a red dungeon. Emergency lights lit the stairwell, and little else. For the first time, she noticed the sign on the laundry room door: three yellow triangles, and barely visible beneath decades of grime, the words “Fallout Shelter”.

Her phone and the lights were dead. The heavy steel door to the basement laundry room was jammed shut. Throat hoarse from shouting, she slumped against the cold cinder block wall at the foot of the stairs and counted.

One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi.

Thousands of Mississippis blurred together. After an eternity, the dim red lights faded to black. From time to time, she crawled through the darkness. No food, no water: only laundry supplies filled the basement racks.

Thirsty. Hungry.

When she slept atop a pile of her clothes, nightmares of death and torment haunted her. Her friends’ voices screamed out to her in the darkness. Their faces appeared in front of her, gaunt, skeletal, irradiated. Hallucinations of familiar old haunts taunted her, then collapsed in a blazing inferno. When she awoke, darkness pressed against her eyeballs.

Uncountable years passed. Surely she was dead?

One day she awoke to find the door standing open. A river of white light poured down the stairwell. She stared uncomprehendingly up the stairwell, bathing in the glory of the light. What awaited her at the top of the stairs? Had everyone been killed? Did her city lie in smoldering ruins? Was she dead, and on her way to eternal bliss?

After an age, she found the strength to stand. Step by step she ascended, not knowing if Heaven or Hell awaited. Either way, it was an escape.

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