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The Stairway

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Chapter 2

Jeremy’s eyes shot open, and he sat up, alerted. Through blurred vision he glanced at the clock to read 7:12 PM. Damn, I’m late, again. He ran over to his bathroom mirror to make sure his hair did not go all funny while lying down, and once he confirmed that he looked suitable, he headed down to the dining room on the first level.

As he had suspected, he was the only person absent from the table aside from Stefan.

“Ah, there’s our final colleague. Mr. Singer was it?” the man who Jeremy suspected was a priest said.

Jeremy nodded. “Sorry I’m late… please, call me Jeremy.” He then sat at the vacant spot between the priest, and the younger, geekier guy from earlier.

They had already started on drinks and appetizers from the looks of it, but Jeremy did not care much for the socializing. He was eager, however, to check out Stefan’s private menu. When the waitress came around, Jeremy ordered a beer.

“I’m Cameron, by the way,” the priest said and extended his hand, which Jeremy shook. “I guess we can quickly introduce ourselves since you missed that part earlier.” Cameron then looked to the geeky man on Jeremy’s left.

He flustered up while sipping his margarita. “I’m Josh Buchanan, Ph.D. candidate for geology at Columbia.”

The man who had been tapping his fingers during the meeting was next. If Jeremy recalled, his name was Rus. “Hi Jeremy, I’m Dr. Emmand. I practiced medicine as a GP for fifteen years, and now I teach at Stanford. Stefan and I go way back, from when I was still in med school.”

The older woman followed the table’s direction. “My name is Dr. Emily Porter. I’m an archaeologist. Stefan reached out to me early on with his findings, and we’ve been in contact since.”

And lastly, the younger woman that Jeremy sat across from at the meeting. “I’m Kris. I’m a journalist at UT. I’m also a Virgo and I do not like long walks on the beach.” Everyone laughed. Attractive and funny…

“Nice to meet everyone,” Jeremy then said. “Stefan already pointed out that I’m a photographer. That’s about it, really.”

Jeremy’s drink showed up, and before long everyone started talking in their own circles. Jeremy eavesdropped on every speaker where he could, absorbing their opinions on Stefan’s proposal.

They then ordered dinner. Jeremy picked the chicken cordon bleu, and a second beer to wash it all down. He expected the conversations to die off once everyone started eating, however, there seemed to be a bit of a debate going on between Josh and Cameron, and then Emily jumped in.

“Let’s be real, here,” Josh said, “does anyone actually believe that we’re going to find heaven? On top of that, he wants to traverse the eighth highest mountain in the world. I’m a geologist, not a rock-climbing enthusiast.”

“It sounds like it won’t be too bad,” Cameron said. “People do this trek all the time. Even if we don’t find anything, we’re getting paid handsomely.”

“It just seems a bit too… farfetched for me,” Josh said. “Like, reality TV show-worthy. And you,” he pointed to Emily, “you expressed some doubt earlier, did you not?”

Emily shrugged. “I’m with Cameron, as of right now. It sounds like it could be bust, but I don’t see the harm in checking it out. I’ve gone on excavations with a lot less to go on and a much smaller payout.”

From what Jeremy could tell, it seemed as if Josh was hoping he was not alone in his reluctance. Jeremy, more than once, thought about sharing his concern, but Josh had already touched on all the major talking points. And still, Jeremy was not even convinced he was going to accept come morning time.

Once they had finished eating, Jeremy felt the table-talk waning in interest, and once the first person left – which happened to be Josh – he decided to say his ‘good nights’ and leave.

On his way to his room, Jeremy decided to linger in the hallway overlooking the main lobby. The chandelier sparkled through its hundreds of crystal-like fixtures, radiating the floor below. His eyes moved to the staircases, which went up an additional floor and Jeremy wondered if that was where Stefan’s quarters were. 

Jeremy crossed his arms and leaned over the edge, considering his predicament. And that was when Kris Dawkins, the journalist, snuck up on him. “Not ready for bed yet?” she asked.

Jeremy shook his head, as she stood next to him.“Still a little jet-lagged I suppose,” he answered.

“So… photography, huh?”

“…Ever since I could hold a camera. Journalist, right?”

“Correct,” Kris answered. “I just recently received my masters from UT. I see now why Mr. Lauder reached out to me… I wrote my thesis on the growing dissent between religious communities in the third-world due to urbanization.”

“An interesting topic,” Jeremy said. He was impressed. “I get why you wanted to verify his sources. Cameron, I believe his name was, he never told me what it was he does, but he’s rockin’ the whole priest thing.”

“He is, yes. A priest, a journalist to write on the findings, and a photographer to capture it all,” Kris said. “The two Ph.D. holders and a field doctor… sounds like a balanced group.”

“You may or may not have a photographer. I still haven’t decided.”

Kris turned and looked at him with a smirk. “Why not – was the amount not enough?”

Jeremy said, “No, it’s not that. I just… don’t entirely trust Stefan, I suppose. The job seems suspect.”

“Oh, come on, you aren’t scared of a little hiking are you?” Kris smiled.

Jeremy tightened his jaw and said, “I took a dangerous job when I was younger, thinking it would be a springboard for my career. I ran with an independent company, briefly, that wanted to illustrate the conflict between the Burmese military and rebel fighters. I worked closely with the rebels, moving around from village to village until one day I was captured by Burmese soldiers. I think I was lucky to have survived the firefight that took place in that village, let alone the weeks as a prisoner.”

“That’s so scary,” Kris said. She looked at him with keen interest. “How did you get away?”

“The organization I worked for helped cut a deal with the Burmese government. They paid for my ransom, and destroyed all my work.” Jeremy had to lie. There was no way he could tell the truth to someone that he just met. The lie itself was still interesting. At least Jeremy found that people were impressed by it.

“I’m happy that you managed to get out of there. I can’t imagine being held prisoner somewhere like that – or anywhere for that matter.”

“After experiencing all of that, I vowed that I would never take dangerous jobs again. I’ve since found freelance work with World Lens. I try to pursue other interests on the side, but that doesn’t always pay rent.”

“Do you think Stefan wanted you here for your background in serious situations?” Kris asked. She turned her gaze to the lobby below.

“I think it’s because of my interest in myths and legends, actually. I have a fascination with spirit photography… well… I should say what people portray as spirit photography. There are so many claims of ghosts and supernatural events caught on film or camera, however, most of the time there are logical explanations.”

“You’re a debunker, then?” Kris asked, amusement forming on her grin. She turned from the balcony, and crossed her arms. 

“People claim that I’m a debunker, but that’s not my goal. I simply have a fascination with the truth, and because of this it will always be controversial, especially when so many people are willing to believe in things they have so little evidence on.”

“Have you ever witnessed anything strange, anything that you couldn’t explain?” Kris asked.

“In all my years I have only witnessed one thing that left me puzzled. It scared me at first, but then I found an interest to pursue it further. Once you experience something like that, it opens your eyes to the possibilities of what’s really out there; life… death… existence, and everything in between. I’ve been looking to the skies for UFOs, searching lakes for monsters, and capturing attics for ghosts ever since. It’s just… I haven’t found many compelling cases to suggest that these things exist.”

“I suppose, with things like this, it’s in the eye of the beholder,” Kris said. “I’ve always wondered about things like that, but never formed a concrete belief. My parents raised me as a Catholic from a young age. I’m not sure if Catholics are encouraged to believe in such things, but my parents spoke against it with iron tongues. It just didn’t fit into their narrative.”

She continued, “It’s interesting to think about – religion and the supernatural, that is. We are supposed to take it on faith that God exists, and that there is an afterlife. Should we even be searching for answers of God’s existence, then? Science will always pursue the validation of these claims, and that can’t be stopped. But what if we discover that beyond a reasonable doubt that God does or does not exist? It would change the world forever.” 

“You mean if we find this stairway to heaven?” Jeremy said.

Kris nodded. “People have been searching for proof for as long as they’ve had the thought. Finding some evidence either from the Bible or from the scriptures or lessons passed down. A lot of these people are scientists, but also people who believe in God and Christianity – not that the two are always mutually exclusive. Weird isn’t it? What are they hoping to achieve?”

Jeremy twisted his mouth and shrugged. “Whenever people’s beliefs are challenged, they get defensive, I’ve found. People with strong faith want to prove that God exists, because people claim that there is no God, especially in today’s climate with so many different religions and beliefs… or lack thereof. This is what humanity has always done. It’s how we find the answers to anything. We used to believe that the Earth was the center of the solar system or even the universe, but now we know it isn’t.”

“I guess that’s true. I just find it defeats the whole purpose of faith.”

“Are you still a practicing Catholic?”

She shook her head. “Going to school challenged my beliefs too much. And then I saw what people can do to each other… and what communities go through. How could any God allow such a thing?”

“If we find out the truth, then, about this stairway, you don’t care either way if we prove or disprove that there is a heaven?”

“It almost sounds like you believe we will find something.”

Jeremy failed to hide his smirk. “I don’t, but, again… I’m still undecided.”

“Come on,” Kris teased, prodding Jeremy’s shoulder with her finger. “It’ll be fun. Just think, in perhaps a month’s time, allegedly, you will be one million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars richer.”

Jeremy moved his gaze to the main floor below, in deep contemplation. Maybe she’s right… what’s the worst that could happen? It couldn’t possibly be as bad as sleeping in pig shit in Myanmar for three weeks straight with nothing to eat but soup broth and stale bread. He looked into her harmless green eyes, and struggled to decline.

“All right, you win.”

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