Residual

by Steven J. Gray

Photo Credit: Steven J. Gray

The opportunity arrived and they couldn’t turn it down. Seb had been eyeing the house he grew up in for years. It was on the market once before, well before he was in any position to be considering a home purchase. That didn’t stop him from looking at the real estate listing obsessively, pouring over every photo, resurrecting old memories long forgotten. His family had moved around a fair amount, but this house was always home. He was born there and it was where he had lived until age ten. His mom had stayed at home with all of her kids, seven in total. Seb was the youngest by a large stretch, so much so that for about a year before his father’s accident it was just the three of them in the house. All of his siblings had moved out and started their own lives. His brother closest in age to Seb was ten years his elder.

Seb and his wife, Anna, had been living in Burnham, just a few miles from his childhood home in Riverton for several years. She had also moved around a lot growing up, but they managed to stay in their first, modest home for five years before welcoming a daughter, Chloe, into the world. They needed more room. They began passively looking at houses online. One evening they curled up on the couch to peruse real estate listings and there it was: the house he had grown up in. The home his family was whole in. 

He heavily debated whether or not this was a good idea. They discussed it obsessively. He loved that house. All of Seb’s memories of his father lived in that house. For that very reason, he was also hesitant. Could he handle it? Could he live with the bombardment of awakened memories? He had been happy in this home. It was just hard for him to look back even after so many years. He missed his father. Something else inside him stirred at the thought of moving into that house, something mysteriously unsettled and unsure. He should have listened.

The process of selling their house and buying another went far more smoothly than they expected it to. Within a few months of having their initial offer accepted they were packing up and moving to Riverton.  Friends and family came to help move boxes and furniture. Everyone was so happy to see the family return to its home; everyone except Seb’s mother who never once had a kind word to say about the decision. She was quick to point out everything that was wrong with the house when they had lived there: a bad well, leaking septic, rotting wood on the porch. 

Chloe was about to turn one as they settled into the old house. She was on the verge of walking and learning new words daily. They set her up in Seb’s old bedroom at the top of the stairs. Anna and Seb took over the room next door. What would typically be considered the master bedroom was on the first floor, but Seb couldn’t do it. Something about sleeping in his parents’ old bedroom felt wrong, so it became the dining room. Seb even installed a vintage chandelier over the table in an attempt to erase the room’s past. He seemed to subconsciously do this more and more. Something was off. He wasn’t at all happy here. He was on edge. Everything prickled his senses. He was hyper-aware of every creak and crack the old house made and was annoyed by them. As much as Seb had wanted to relive the past before buying the house, he now wanted to forget. And then, within a few weeks of moving in, the madness began. 

Seb had set about tinkering after the unpacking was complete. He installed the chandelier in the converted dining room, painted the bedrooms, replaced a cracked window, and tightened a baluster near the bottom of the staircase. That last chore he oddly had to do daily. Every day that single spindle on the third step was so loose it was on the verge of falling. The first time he found it loose after having fixed it the day before he figured he’d botched the repair. On day four he started having illogical thoughts like whether the Earth’s rotation could be to blame. On day eight he gave up. Old woodwork. A stripped screw. Humidity. Perhaps it was something within the construction of the stairs, which he had no desire to disassemble.

This wasn’t the only odd pattern though. The baby had started getting a bit fussier before bed. Every night ended the same way. Just before bedtime she’d point to the top of the stairway which was exposed to the living room, say something that sounded like “dad,” and then within a few seconds would be crying hysterically. If they happened to be out of the house, or even somewhere else in the house, she was fine. Most nights they played in the living room before bed though, and on those nights, this scene played out the same way. Her head would turn and her eyes would move to the top of the stairs.

“Dad.” A brief pause. Epic meltdown.

Seb’s mother refused to visit. She was the only one who was unhappy about the homecoming. Seb assumed that it was all just too much. She had never been back in the house after his father passed and he could understand why it was so hard for her. He had had his own reservations after all. A part of him thought she would come around though and she just hadn’t. Through some coaxing Anna got her to come to Thanksgiving. A few of Seb’s brothers came too. It was surely the largest gathering of the family in the house since Seb and his mother moved out after his father passed. After dinner, everyone started to clear out. Seb’s mother stayed to play with Chloe. As usual, they were in the living room when it happened. His mom watched as the baby looked up the stairs and pointed to the top. 

“Dad,” she said with no intonation.

His mom’s head whipped around to the old grandfather clock in the corner of the living room.

“7:03,” she whispered and then got up and walked to the bottom of the stairs. She reached out a trembling hand and touched the baluster on the third step causing it to fall to the wooden floor. When she turned back to face her son, her face was white. Her mouth opened and she looked as though she would speak, but instead, she ran down the hall and out of the house. 

For days Seb tried to reach her, but he could not. He and Anna didn’t sleep. They watched Chloe do this night after night. They started studying her movements. And then they started studying the stairs. One night the light in the baby’s bedroom was left on. Anna swore she saw something when Chloe pointed up the stairs. She couldn’t say what. A shimmer. Maybe a shadow. They became convinced Chloe was seeing something that they could not. 

Weeks passed. They became obsessed with the stairway. They tried lighting it differently and keeping it dark. They even tried videotaping it with an infrared camera. Something was happening, but nothing was clear. On Christmas Eve they decided to take an overdue break from the stairs. Anna prepared a delicious meal and then they settled in for a night of holiday movies. Seb’s phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket. It was 7:02 and his mom was calling. 

“Mom?”

She was sobbing on the other end. Hysterical. He could hear her trying to say something, but he couldn’t make it out.

“Mom! What is it? I can’t understand you! Are you okay?” Through her panicked sobs, he finally made out the words.

“You… you… you look so much like him.”

The baby turned her head. Her eyes moved to the top of the stairs. It was 7:03.

“Dad,” she said as she pointed up the stairway.

“I.. I didn’t… it was an accident,” his mom stammered as the lights in the house began to buzz and flicker.

Seb looked up the staircase and standing at the top in the unsteady light was an opalescent figure. It was his father.

“I was so angry with him… I didn’t mean to…”

Suddenly an unseen force knocked the apparition off its feet. The spectral image of Seb’s father tried to grab for the rail, but his balance was gone. After the failed attempt to catch himself, he fell backward, down the stairs. His neck snapped back with a crack as his head hit the third step, knocking the baluster out of place.

Chloe sobbed.

Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student