The fourteenth stair always creaks, so I step over it on my way up. I’m following an echo, a thread of sound you can’t hear so much as feel. The fifteenth step gives a little groan but before you know it, I’m at the top of the staircase and tiptoeing down the hall. The echo fades somewhere in the wine colored study, leaving me alone in a cold room. Whatever I was chasing is gone.
I’ve been in this house a while. I can’t remember how long. More than a week, less than a month, maybe. The days all bleed together, endless stretches of nothing occasionally punctured by a pulse, a featherlight flutter, blink and you’ll miss it. You get used to the solitude. It’s a living, anyway.
The family that hired me cleared out pretty quickly after I arrived. I barely even remember them, though there’s a man that comes by sometimes and walks around downstairs. He kind of unsettles me so I just wait for him to leave. He interferes with my with my work, which is hard enough as it is.
You see, I’m a medium. People hire me to find paranormal activity in their homes and make contact with the spirits. So far I’ve felt a few but not the one I’m looking for: a woman with unfinished business. The spirits here are generally friendly. They might start off angry, but once you make contact you can either get them to leave or soften them up a bit. It’s basically the same thing. A settled spirit won’t make a fuss. Sometimes they even stay and protect the house.
At least that’s what I’ve been told. This is technically my first gig, though I’ve always had the gift. I can sense a spirit, that’s no problem. The hard part is being patient. They move at their own pace. “Spirit time,” I call it. But that’s fine. I’ve got nothing but time.
I was waiting for a while to break into this. I was told a job has to feel good, so I was actually really happy this one came up. See, I grew up in a house a lot like this one. Old, Victorian, with a draughty attic, creaking floorboards and splintering mahogany walls. I feel like the spirits can sense that connection. But who knows.
This house is a little different than mine though. It seems even older, if that’s possible, and it’s got a great big willow tree out front. You can see it out the window from where I’m standing, leaves dripping off the branches like candle wax. Our house had one too when I was little, a huge hulking thing. It’s where I got my name.
Willow roots are famously tough, my parents said. And they can survive pretty much anything. But the trees wither and die after a couple decades. They’re no great oaks. So maybe they aren’t so tough.
I’m not hungry but I decide to go to the kitchen anyway. If there’s a spirit lingering, they probably don’t want me hanging around. Part of this whole medium business is knowing when to push and when to back off.
I head downstairs and skip the fourteenth step by habit. I used to skip the fifteenth step too, but it feels dangerous somehow, so now I just let it groan under my feet. Better a groan than a creak, I figure.
I wander around for a bit, threading through the house, from the mossy carpet of the dining room onto the dirt-scrubbed tile in the bathroom. I like the bathrooms best because spirits are always giving back there. A fogless mirror after a shower, a rumbling toilet tank, a double drip from the faucet.
After an hour I’m back upstairs under the slanted ceiling in the unfinished attic. I’ve been up here a lot. I think she wants me to be. I feel like she spent a lot of time here, running the length of the house, rummaging through the mismatched ski poles, board games and old yearbooks. I would have.
Right as I pick up a snowglobe I hear the groan. The fifteenth step. That means they want me. I sigh but work my way down the ladder, down the hall. There’s more. Voices. It’s the man that comes by but also a woman. It kind of annoys me. I can’t exactly work like this. Still, I want to hear.
I groan on the fifteenth, step over the fourteenth and wait at the landing.
“Oh, she’s here,” the man says and I roll my eyes. Of course I’m here. Did they think I went to the movies every night? The woman just sort of whispers back through a tight voice that feels familiar. We might have met.
“Tell me how your daughter died,” he says.
“Oh,” the woman chokes out. “It was that darn creaky step.”
I look behind me and the whole house turns cold. “Willow probably skipped it and tripped down the stairs,” she sobs. “The fall broke her neck.”