It Sits on the Stairs
David J. Lovato
“Well, our time’s just about up,” I said.
“Thank you, again,” Jackson replied. He wiped at the corners of his eyes; he hadn’t fully cried in weeks, but he had teared up. “Can we schedule the next appointment?”
“Actually, I don’t think that’ll be necessary.” Jackson looked confused. “I think we’ve made plenty of progress, and in my opinion, you don’t need to come in anymore.”
A smile cracked on his face. “You sure?”
“If you disagree, let me know. But I think you’re ready to take on the world, Jackson.”
He stood up, crossed the small space between my couch and his, and shook my hand.
“Thank you so much, Dr. Rubins.”
“It’s not all me,” I said. “You’ve done great work these past few months.”
I tried to remind all my patients of that, but it was truer for Jackson than anyone I’d ever treated. He’d come so far from his stay in the psychiatric ward. When I first met him, he was confined to a small room, where he spent most of his waking life carving a message into every surface he could:
It sits on the stairs.
“Dr. Rubins,” Jackson said. The smile left his face, the vigor drained from his handshake. “What if… What if I see it again?”
“You won’t. It’s not real, Jackson. It never was. And you’ve moved past it." Jackson let go of my hand. He stared into nothing, which worried me. “You know you can call me at any time, for any reason. I’m here for you, Jackson. So are your friends and family.”
Normality returned to his face, his posture. “You’re right. I can do this. Thanks again, Dr. Rubins.”
“Good luck, Jackson.”
Jackson Yates was easily my most famous client, and one of my toughest. But he was one of my strongest, and as the months went by, I thought of him less and less. I had other patients who needed my attention. When he called me just after 5 A.M. one morning, I answered the phone without even paying attention to who was calling.
“Dr. Rubins,” I said.
A man was sobbing on the other end of the line. I sat up, more awake, and looked at the contact info. Yates… yes, I remembered.
“Doctor… It’s back. I see it.”
“Jackson, where are you?”
“I’m at home. It never moves, I told you that.” He sobbed, every word came out strained, like he had to drag it from his throat. “It just sits there. On the landing. Oh God, I can see it right now.”
“Jackson, have you stopped taking your meds?” “No.” I didn’t believe him. How could I? “Jackson, listen to me. There’s nothing on your landing. Nothing there. Whatever you think you’re seeing—”
“It was faded at first. Like a trick of light. But once you see it, you don’t unsee it, Doctor. That’s how it was the first time. Then it started back up again.” He broke into tears. “I tried not to, I tried…”
“Jackson. There’s nothing on your stairs. Maybe you think you see something, but there’s nothing there. Tell you what, take a picture, and send it to me.”
I thought back to his sketches, his descriptions: long fingers, empty eye sockets, the whole thing pale white like a skeleton, but smoky, wisps and tendrils flowing off of it. …Did something creak in my house? Of course not.
“I have the picture.”
“Can you see it?”
“Yes,” Jackson said. “Even in the picture. I see it.”
“Send it to me.”
A few seconds later, my phone vibrated. I was apprehensive, but if Jackson could be this strong, surely I could. I opened the picture.
“…It’s an empty staircase. That thing doesn’t exist, Jackson.”
“What do I do?”
“Jackson, let’s try what we talked about. Do you remember when we talked about what you could do if you ever saw it again?”
He paused, and even his sobbing diminished. “Yes. Walk past it.”
“Just go upstairs. Pay it no attention. You’ll realize it’s all in your head. Do you think you can do that for me, Jackson?”
“Yeah, Doc. I think I can.”
“I can come over, if you need.”
“No, no. I have to get through this. I can’t let what happened before happen again. I won’t.”
“You sure, Jackson?”
“Yes, Doctor Rubins.”
“I’ll stay on the line, okay? Just take this one step at a time.”
“One step…” I heard shuffling, like he had been sitting on the floor by the wall, and now slid up it for support. “Okay. First step.”
“You got this, Jackson.”
He took a step, sniffed hard, waited… and took another. Then another.
“You’re doing great,” I said.
“It’s looking right at me.”
“No it isn’t. It isn’t real.” Another step, and another. Then I noticed something.
“Jackson, how charged is your phone?”
“Do you ever lose reception at home?”
“No, I’m in a good spot. Why are you asking?”
“…Just making sure the call won’t drop,” I said. It was only partially a lie. I could hear faint static, but it was nothing. It would pass, surely.
Another step, and another, and the static grew louder.
“I’m on the first stair.”
“You’re doing fine, Jackson. Can you take another step?”
I heard the wood groan beneath his foot. He waited for a long time, and then I heard another step—barely. The static was so loud. But he was doing wonderfully, I couldn’t distract him now.
“Oh my God, Doctor Rubins. Oh God.”
“Jackson, what’s wrong?”
“It’s right in front of me. Just one step up, on the landing. I can see it so clearly.”
I could barely make out his words through the static.
“Jackson. It isn’t real.”
“…I know, Doctor. But it looks real.”
“I know it does. But you can’t let it control you.”
“Yeah.” He took another step, then started crying. “It’s on the landing with me.”
“Then take another step, Jackson. Keep going. Leave it behind you.”
“…Yeah. You’re right, Doc.”
Seconds passed, so slowly. Then, through the white noise pouring out of my phone’s speaker, I heard another soft footstep. Then another.
I grinned widely. “You did it, Jackson.”
“Doctor Rubins, I—”
The soft static turned into a high screech, like microphone feedback. I ripped the phone from my ear; it was so loud I could still hear it. Then it went dead as the call dropped.
I dialed Jackson’s number, but the phone went straight to voicemail. I left him a message, then tried again. Nothing. I stood up off of my bed and grabbed my coat from where it hung on the closet door.
Jackson’s front door was locked when I arrived. When he didn’t answer it, I called the police. I gave them Jackson’s information; considering his past, it wasn’t hard to get them to take me seriously. They brought in a battering ram and knocked in the front door, and even from behind the patrol car, I could see Jackson’s body at the bottom of the stairs.
When they cleared the scene, they invited me in to identify him. It was so hard to see Jackson like that; lying at the bottom of the stairs, his head twisted completely around, his left leg snapped, a jagged piece of bone sticking up into the air, still dripping blood, tattered pajamas clinging to it.
The human mind is so fragile. I imagine he went downstairs to get a drink of water, just like anyone might on any given night, and then this thing his mind conjured up came back to haunt him. He must’ve slipped and fallen. Jackson Yates, once my greatest success story, almost even a friend, and now this.
The next few nights, I lay awake thinking over our sessions. The things he said, the way he talked… I had no doubt that this creature was real to him. But there was something off about it, something different from most of my patients who suffered from delusions. Jackson seemed somehow more… true.
I told the police I’d left some notes in his bedroom. Since the scene was no longer active, the police chief, an old buddy of mine, didn’t mind giving me the house key. As silly as it was, I decided I wouldn’t go near the place at night, so the next afternoon, I drove over to Jackson’s house and unlocked the front door.
The stairs were just beyond it. The blood had been cleaned, so there was a shiny spot just at the base of the stairs, but the steps higher up were dusty, worn- looking. And the landing…
It was empty. Of course. I thought long and hard about the things he’d said. Jackson was convinced he wasn’t crazy, that he had tapped into something or some place humans aren’t meant to see, and once you do, your world overlaps with it, it stretches thin and things poke through.
Before I knew it, an hour had passed. Now and then I thought I saw something, maybe a tendril of smoke, maybe a finger… but it was always a trick of the light, or just a shadow blending in with the little corner table resting on the landing. Now I was only thinking of what I was doing here. I turned to leave—
And stopped. Did I just…? No, of course not. I stared at the landing some more. Still empty. When did it get so dark in here?
My eyes crossed a little. Jackson explained one time that it was like one of those picture puzzles, where you cross your eyes to see an image, and it might take a while, but you’ll eventually see it, and then it gets easier every time.
But why would I want to see this?
Maybe because part of me believed Jackson was telling the truth. Maybe part of me needed to know that he wasn’t delusional, that there are things we don’t understand, things not touched on in any of those hundreds of books on the shelf in my office.
“Okay,” I said to myself. “I’ll walk in his shoes.”
One step, then another. I was on the bottom stair. I forced myself to lift my leg, move it forward, put it on the next step. Up I went, until I got to the step before the landing. One last look, I scanned for anything. But I was alone; I’d never been so alone. Up I went.
Onto the landing. Then the next step; somewhere around here was where Jackson tripped. Up another step. I closed my eyes, held my breath, half expected some ethereal hand to reach out of that other place, grab my ankle, and rip my feet out from under me, just like it did to Jackson.
But that was crazy. And nothing happened. I went up another step.
Up and up I went, feeling more confident with every step. At the top I could see the door that led to the upstairs bedroom, where Jackson once slept, where he knew peace for a few short months before his tragedy. And that’s all it was, a simple tragedy. I stopped outside his door. My eyes began to water. Poor Jackson.
I turned around, and screamed when I saw it sitting on the stairs below me, waiting for me to come back down.