I remember asking, when I was six or seven years old, why the basement stairs had fourteen steps going up but thirteen steps going down. “You’re skipping the top step on the way down,” was my dad’s answer, in his patient tone. My first-grade self had protested that I wasn’t skipping a step, and I was the best counter in my class, I could count all the way to a hundred.
But to a little boy of six or seven, Dad knew everything, like how the sky was blue because it reflected the ocean, or how wooly worms knew what the coming winter was going to be like, or how giraffes were so tall because God made them that way now I need to get this work done and if you’re not going to help then go and play with your brother.
God, how long has it been since the last time I came home? The old farmhouse hasn’t changed much since then. I was surprised that everyone could still fit inside, despite all coming back with a spouse and children. It feels awkward, having the whole family in one house. Like I’m always in somebody’s personal space, no matter where I go.
Maybe that’s why I’m down here. Creeping down the basement stairs in the dead of night. All the relatives are asleep. Michelle and the kids are up in my old room. Mom and Dad must have spent a small fortune on air mattresses.
Why am I down here, counting stairs, phone flashlight in hand? I guess a part of me wants to see how many steps there really are to this basement. It’s a stupid notion, but then, here I am. I’d never even thought about the basement stairs since the first grade. Funny what you remember at a family reunion.
Smells like rust and old mothballs down here. That hasn’t changed, either.
The sudden buzzing of the phone forces a yelp from my throat, and reflex launches the device forward. The phone clatters to a stop on the third or fourth stair from the bottom, flashlight function helpfully illuminating a two-or-three square inch section of foundation. I pause, catching my breath before wondering who the hell is texting me at three-something in the morning.
Whatever. It’s not that important. What’s important is I’m in the dark now. I carefully reach my hand over until I can feel the gritty yet damp cinderblock wall. Dad should have put a handrail in here.
This was a stupid idea. I should just turn around and go back to bed. Who cares how many steps there are in my parents’ basement? It’s cold and musty down here, and I’m just in an old T-shirt and boxers.
No, my phone’s down there, and I need to go get it. Thank God I had it in a case.
Upstairs, the fridge kicks on. It’s a familiar hum, even if the appliance itself was swapped for a newer model. I remember coming home from a long summer day of play and opening the fridge for an ice cream sandwich. Mom would warn that we could only have one each, or we wouldn’t have room for supper. Maybe when we get home, I’ll buy a box for the kids.
When did my heart start pounding? It feels like it’s banging against my ribs, like a mad dog throwing itself at the bars of its cage. I guess I’m still on edge from the phone ringing. I’m almost to it. Just a couple steps more.
There it goes. Everyone in the house could always tell when someone was going up or down the basement stairs. There was always that one step that creaked in that nails-on-chalkboard timbre that you could feel on the back of your skull. If there wasn’t somebody awake upstairs, there definitely is now.
No, they’re all asleep, I tell myself. The refrigerator drowned most of it out. Michelle didn’t even stir when I rolled out of bed to come down here. Nobody heard me. I’m fine.
There you are. I stoop down to get my phone. I inspect it for cracks, see if it still works. I barely manage to unlock it, my hands are shaking so much.
It was a damn Amber alert. All that fuss because someone couldn’t keep an eye on their kid.
I instantly feel guilty for the thought. God knows if it were one of mine, I’d want everyone to be looking for them. My mind flashes for a moment to an imaginary scene where Lydia and Aaron are tied to chairs underneath some psycho with glasses and a pedo-stache. I push the image away. What is wrong with me?
Well, we’re this far, might as well go the rest of the way. Just one more step and I can put this thing to rest and get some sleep.
There’s a sudden noise, like a whimper. My foot stops in midair. Did that come from the basement? I shine my light out over the basement floor, but there isn’t much to go on from my angle. I take another step down the stairs.
What? This can’t be possible. There are fourteen steps! I know it! Where’s the last one?
My feet are resting on solid concrete. Another whimper comes from around the corner. I step cautiously into the basement, barely holding onto my phone, heart doing jumping jacks in my chest. I catch a glimpse of some kind of chain bolted to the floor, but before I can get a closer look, my phone battery decides to die.
Above I hear a door close. I freeze in place, desperate not to make a sound. Whatever is down here with me starts to cry softly as footsteps clomp down the stairs.
Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Creak. Step. Step. Step. Step.
I guess I always figured there were thirteen.
Jacob Dowen started writing at age eleven, and has carried his creative passion throughout his life. His writing covers multiple genres and formats, from fantasy novels to horror flash fiction to nature poetry. Jacob is a member of the Salem Writers’ Bloc and the New Albanian Writers’ Group.
Jacob lives in Salem, Indiana, and works at Amazon Fulfillment in Jeffersonville, Indiana.