My dad was an architect and they could be a superstitious bunch. Many of them will skip building Floor 13 and jump right from Floor 12 to 14. If you’re building a new house, everything from the color of the paint on the porch to the type of flower planted outside might affect the “luck” of the home. For the most part, dad told me those quirks were more tradition than anything else. All but one.
“Never buy a house where the staircase has eleven steps,” he warned me one summer night years ago after he’d had a few drinks.
I grinned. “Yeah, and always buy a new broom to go with a new house. I know the drill.”
Dad shook his head and looked out at the summer stars. He seemed far away.
“I know it sounds like the rest of the bullshit, Steven,” dad said. “But this...this is one that I think is true. I can’t tell you why, you wouldn’t believe what I’ve-...you just wouldn’t believe me. Do me a favor, though. Count the steps when you buy a house some day down the line. If there’s eleven, buy something else.”
I promised I would but it was a teenage promise made on a clear night when the weather was fine and the world felt far away. There was a girl with red hair and a gunfighter grin on my mind. She occupied my daydreams all that summer. Not much room left for such a small promise to take root. So I forgot. God damn me, I forgot.
Dad passed away last year. If he’d still been around I’m sure he would have checked on the house that caught Molly and my eye. It was a colonial with an acre of yard and a wraparound porch. There was an oak in the back, tall with branches like bridge beams. The perfect foundation for a treehouse. It was a suburban dream, ideal for a young couple and for our kid on the way.
I loved everything about the house. Large windows drank in morning sunlight. The deck was old wood, solid and stained and dotted with columns. There was an office for me and a fireplace for Molly. Best of all there was space, empty now, but nearly vibrating with potential. Wherever I looked, I saw images of kids and dogs and memories waiting for us to catch up.
I was distracted by new beginnings. So I didn’t count the steps when the real estate agent showed us upstairs. Not then. Not until after the ink was dry on the purchase and our rented Uhaul was parked in the driveway.
Coming from an apartment, Molly and I didn’t have too much stuff. But the doc told her not to lift too much or exert herself and I was stubborn enough to figure I could handle it myself. So move-in day was dragging. Fumbling to see over the edge of the nightstand, I was halfway up the stairs when I heard a heavy footfall behind me.
“Hey Moll,” I said, shifting to look back, “I can handle the upstairs stuff if you want to get started with-”
The stairs were empty behind me. I felt it then, for the first time, a sense of unease mixed with guilt. As if I’d done something wrong or forgotten something important.
“Hey Molly,” I called out.
“What’s up?” she answered from downstairs.
“What are you up to?”
I heard the sound of glasses clinking. “Unpacking kitchen stuff. You need a hand?”
“No. No, I think I got it.”
I moved slowly up the stairs, listening after each step. After I reached the top and sat the nightstand down, I turned back and finally counted. My heart sped up a little with each step I looked over. I could hear my dad’s voice inside my head clearly, as well as the promise I made him. The promise I’d just broken.
“One two three four five, wait, shit,” I said to myself, pressing out breath in short bursts. “I skipped one. Fuck this.”
I began to walk down the stairs carefully, noting each step. As my foot touched number eleven at the bottom, the last step, I felt a draft brush against my neck. Almost like fingertips. I whirled around so quickly I nearly tripped.
“You alright?” Molly called out.
“Fine,” I lied.
I was watching up the staircase. Nothing about it was sinister or even remarkable. Smooth wooden steps with a banister going halfway up the side then a wall rail the rest of the way. I wondered if we should get a rug for it.
“New house jitters,” I told myself, going back to the Uhaul for another box.
The rest of the move-in went smooth. Every time I headed up or down the stairs I would go slow and listen. But I never noticed anything else that day. I also recounted each time I went upstairs but the number of steps never changed.
A week after moving in, Molly and I were woken up by the sound of someone running up our staircase. The footsteps were startling and loud, each one like a hammer against a board.
“Jesus, Steven, what the fuck?” Molly shouted, climbing out of bed.
I scrambled to our bedroom door and turned the lock, keeping my back against it.
“Call the cops,” I said, listening for any sounds outside the door.
Molly took her phone and hunkered down between the bed and the wall. I moved quickly from the door to our closest. My hands were shaking and it took me several seconds of violent fumbling to dial in the combination to the lockbox. I came back into the bedroom with a gun inherited from my dad, feeling both safer and more in danger at the same time. Molly and I sat huddled together watching the door for eight long, ugly minutes. When we saw the police lights flashing under our window, I put the gun away and crept downstairs.
On the last step, I felt something yank at my hair. When I turned, there was nothing behind me. Only an empty stairwell, bathed in hall light. I could nearly taste my pulse, a greasy, panicked thing. The police knocked. Hard. I backed away, never taking my eyes off the stairs until I was at the front door.
The cops didn’t find anything. No intruder. No signs of forced entry. Nothing but a new house with two terrified occupants who would spend the rest of a sleepless night downstairs.
The staircase looked so boring in the morning light. I was worried Molly would brush off my idea, ask me to give the house another chance. But Molly beat me to the punch.
“We need to leave,” she told me, a protective hand against her belly.
My Molly. Her red hair now had a few strands of silver but she still had her gunfighter grin in the good times. And in the hard times, she had clear eyes. She was steady.
“Okay,” I told her. “Okay.”
That morning contained some loud phone calls and some quiet moments where Molly and I just sat on the couch and looked at the house we were giving up. It didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. I knew, looking at Molly as she began packing, that she carried my home with her wherever she went.
“I’m going to go talk to those fuckers in person,” I said. “Those real estate creeps are hiding something, I’m sure of it.”
Molly was lying on the couch, her sleepless night catching up. I glanced over at the stairs.
“Moll, if you need to rest, that’s fine just...promise me you’ll stay down here, okay?”
She opened one green eye, gave me the shadow of a grin. “Don’t worry, cowboy. Wild horses couldn’t take me back upstairs.”
I spent the rest of the morning arguing with a roomful of real estate agents. Gradually, it became clear that the house they’d sold us had an uncomfortable history that wasn’t readily disclosed. No brutal murders or Satanic rituals, just an awful lot of accidents and small tragedies. Mundane horrors that were easy enough to explain on their own but made for a troubling pattern.
Mouth dry from raising my voice, I left the real estate office at 1:04 pm in a better mood than I’d come in. Maybe Molly and I wouldn’t be able to get out of the sale scott free but it was looking like we’d be able to rescind the offer with minimal losses. I know the time exactly because that’s when I called Molly. She didn’t answer. The whole drive back I kept calling. Every time it went to voicemail, the dread swelling in my stomach like a cancer pulled a little tighter.
I found Molly dead at the foot of the stairs. She was twisted and bent like a doll dropped on the floor. Thick violet bruises covered her body. I held her for several minutes before calling for help. She was so clearly gone.
The entire time I waited for the ambulance to arrive, I heard the slow creak of steps moving down the stairs until they were at the bottom, inches away. I couldn’t see a thing. Just empty stairs and bloodstains.
My morning was well-documented, the confrontation at the real estate agency meant that I couldn’t be home when Molly...at her time of death. I overheard the cops talking; the medical examiner said it looked like Molly was dragged up the stairs before falling down. Or being thrown.
I wasn’t arrested, only told not to leave town. To stay home. That’s fine. I can hear it pacing the stairs as I write this down. Sometimes it takes soft, deliberate steps, the wood groaning under a heavy, unseen weight. Other times it runs, it wants me to hear it. Now and then it mimics the thuds of something falling down the stairs.
Molly. I’m so sorry.
It’s taunting me, daring me to come up. On my drive back from the police station I stopped to fill several canisters with gasoline. I can smell the gas now. It reminds me of summertime, of fresh-cut grass and of a girl with red hair and-
I’m going to burn this house down and then I don’t know what I’ll do. But at least there will be one less staircase with eleven steps. The next time you find yourself climbing up to the bedroom or down to the basement, do yourself a favor. Count.
If your foot stops on eleven, leave.