“Don’t run up the stairs or you’re going to trip.”
Gemma’s parents had all kinds of warnings for her, no matter where she was in the house. That was their version of good parenting – being human caution signs at every point of possible peril. As much as they tried though, they failed to protect her from the real dangers in their house. In fact, her parents couldn’t see those dangers at all.
Gemma did. She saw the man who lived by their front steps, the side of his head dented from some kind of accident. She could see the dog that slept in front of the fireplace and barked whenever she came near. And, worst of all, she could see the little girl who lived under the stairs.
The girl had long stringy black hair that hung down her back in knots and clumps, the kind of hair Gemma’s grandmother would have described as ‘looking like nobody owns you.’ Her white dress was splattered with rusty brown spots, the colour familiar to Gemma even though she wasn’t sure why. And her long fingers reached for Gemma’s feet whenever she was coming up the stairs from the basement.
There was no risk on the way down, everyone knew that. On the way up though? You had to run so the girl didn’t reach between the steps and grab an ankle so she could pull you down with her. So Gemma ran up the stairs every time.
When Grandma was alive, she could see them, too. She was the own who had explained that Gemma needed to avoid the ghosts who seemed to be about her age. Those were the most dangerous because if they caught her, they could force her spirit out of her own body and take it over. That’s why Gemma was especially careful of the girl under the stairs, she knew the risks of inattention.
Her parents though, they only saw the dangers of rushing up the stairs, of tripping, of hitting her head. They weren’t aware of the dangers of moving too slowly. And, that Monday, her mother was only trying to be a good example when she walked up the stairs ahead of Gemma, moving as slowly as she could.
When she talked about the accident later, Gemma’s mother was astounded that her daughter hadn’t been more badly hurt.
“Even though we were going slowly, she somehow got her foot caught in the space under the riser.” She would explain. “She slid right up to her knees, feet hanging down under the stairs. It was a wonder she didn’t go right in underneath.”
Her friends would shake their heads at this, at Gemma’s sheer good luck. “She’s been right strange since it happened, you’d hardly recognize her. It’s some hard to get her to go downstairs at all, and she rushes right back up like she’s on fire. I think she’s afraid it’s going to happen again.”
They would all cluck about that for a while before going back to their tea and biscuits. Children didn’t make any sense in the best of times. When they were frightened, they were worse.
Under the stairs, Gemma spent most of her time crying. Crying and waiting for the girl to walk slowly enough for Gemma to reach up through the stairs to grab an ankle and reclaim her body.