“Why do you do that?”
I turned around, halfway up the stairs, and pretended I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Slap your leg?”
We were in his basement, which had a same-leg staircase.
“Wanna play horse?” I asked.
He paused for a second, and then said, “Sure,” before running past me up the stairs.
I don’t know how it started, these little games. But they still linger. The initial motivation might be gone, but they’re worn in place. Products of habit. Annoying tics that my wife can’t stand.
“That is the dumbest thing you do,” she’s told me more than once as I stand over the toilet, still peeing as it slowly refills after a flush.
It’s always been easier for me to believe in the devil than god, even though the existence of one necessitates the other. Raised catholic, the imagery of religion surrounded me. We went to church. We observed the holidays. We said grace before meals, but only when eating with grandma. It wasn’t one of those oppressively religious households, but the Bible was always a room or two away.
It’s natural to question things as a child. I was no different. And I must have been about seven years old the first time I challenged the devil.
I stood at the bottom of the stairs leading up to my bedroom.
“The foot that hits the first stair will also be the one that hits the top,” I said to Satan. I tapped my right thigh to signify my choice, much like when my father would call the pocket for the eight ball at the end of a game of pool.
I started toward the top, one stair at a time.
I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was eight years old. My brother and I came down the stairs on St. Nick’s, which was like the appetizer for Christmas. It took place the first week of December when our stockings would mysteriously be filled with candy and a small gift. Except this time, the stockings were empty.
“But you told me last week there was no Santa Claus,” said my Mom, which was true.
“Yeah but I didn’t know.”
I bring this up to illustrate that when I made that first challenge to the devil, magical thinking was still completely within my realm of possibility. The idea that Satan could open up a portal at the top of the staircase and suck me straight to hell was as real as the socks on my feet.
Right, left, right, left…
Each stair bumped up the BPMs on my heartrate another notch.
Finally, I reached the top. My right foot landed safely on the second floor.
It wasn’t long before I learned that the basement stairs were an opposite-leg staircase. I also learned every staircase at school as well as all the staircases at my friends’ houses. Every time I went up a set of stairs, I’d make a bet with the devil and solidify it with a light slap on the chosen thigh.
The first time I lost, I stood perfectly still and looked at my feet. I imagined a bright flash of light, flames, and then a meaty hand reaching from the depths to snatch me by the ankle and drag me down.
But that didn’t happen. Every win, every loss—neither of them proved anything. I’d continue my bets and challenges as if maybe I’d just caught Satan at the wrong time on the previous loss. Maybe he was busy, but this time he’d pay attention.
Playing basketball by myself, I’d set up behind the hoop and around the corner from the garage. An impossible shot.
“If I make this, you can’t take me to hell,” I’d mutter to myself and then miss.
I began racing the toilet by flushing it before I unzipped my pants. If I could finish before the water went all the way down, he couldn’t take me to hell.
This went on for so long that I didn’t even notice the taps on my thigh, or the fact that I’d instinctually flush the toilet before I was finished. These challenges, these bets, these dares to Satan himself. I wasn’t a brave child. I don’t know why I’d go after the most evil entity ever imagined. Why not start small and work my way up?
I don’t bet my soul anymore, although I still unintentionally act out the wagers. Early flushing, paying attention to which leg starts the climb up the steps and which one finishes it—these ineffectual challenges are ingrained deeper than the religion they originally set out to challenge. I haven’t been to church in years. I haven’t considered the fate of my immortal soul because I no longer think it exists.
I guess that means I don’t have anything left to bet. It also means I didn’t have anything to bet from the outset of these challenges. Is that why Satan never took me up on my bet at the bottom of each staircase? Why show yourself when you have nothing to gain?
I grew up in fear of something I had proven—in my own stupid way—to be non-existent. And I can’t help but notice that this habit isn’t totally gone, even if I don’t explicitly put something on the line.
What fears do I currently hold that will eventually be proven a myth? What terrible outcomes that I continuously imagine will turn out to be impossible?
Growing older is supposed to bring maturity and knowledge, but isn’t there an equal chance that our unfounded fears just evolve along with us? Becoming just as mature, balancing out our gained knowledge and trapping us within the infrastructure of baseless beliefs?
Maybe we’re just tapping our thighs all the way through life.
Josh Rank graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and has had stories published in The Emerson Review, The Feathertale Review, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere. His first novel is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press in 2023. He is hiding somewhere outside Nashville, TN. More ramblings can be found at joshrank.com.