Under the Stairs

by Katherine Bonnie Bailey

The 4 x 6 room under the stairs holds magic. It's a magic I don't understand, but my daughter feels it.

At first, I scolded her for hiding in the unfinished space. Don't disappear like that, I said. It scares your mother. And that closet is filthy. It's meant for storing boxes and winter coats, not little girls.

She cried, cross-legged on the floor. Her blonde hair, almost to her waist and tied with a blue ribbon, dragged the boards when she looked up at me, picking up dust.

But the knots go away in there, she said.

The knots. I'd heard about them before. So had her doctors. The knots are wrapped around her ribs, preventing her from taking full breaths. They are strong, like steel wire, and they don't untie easily.

You're supposed to take these, I said, rattling the clear orange bottle half-full of oblong pills, when you're tied up inside. You know that.

Her cheeks glistened, a soft, embarrassed pink. I fed her a pill.

Now the knots will fall away, I said.

She wasn't convinced. An elfin smile, a trickster's smile, betrayed her. She would sneak back in as soon as my back was turned.

Why? The frustration builds. Why do you want to hide in that closet?

It's my place. It's strong. It's safe. The pain right here, she said, pointing at her stomach, it goes away under the stairs.

Your bedroom is your place, I said. It's all yours. And it's strong, and it's safe. It's built of brick and wood, just like this closet. Except it's filled with your toys, and your bed and your clothes. That doesn't help?


No, I repeated.

Sometimes I give in to her whims, when I'm too tired to argue.

This time, I'm too tired. If the magic works for her, who am I to fight it? So I clean her safe space, removing floppy cardboard boxes and bulky jackets, scrubbing the floor with lemon-scented cleaner until I feel dizzy, until it gleams. A musty smell clings to the walls, embedded as deeply as the nails that hold the house together, and no matter how much scent I use, it lingers underneath. I move on.

I dust the shelves that run along the back, and run a rag over the hooks on the ceiling. But when I take a broom to the spider webs in the corners, she stops me.

Her hand on my arm, pale blue eyes meeting mine, I talk to them, she says. Long lashes beat against rounded cheekbones, a full-fleshed, healthy face of youth. She's serious.

Talk to whom? I ask.

To the spiders. There's nothing you can't say to a spider.

There's nothing you can't say to me.

Their webs are beautiful. Shining strings, like Christmas decorations.

We can put up real decorations. Lights. Wallpaper. Ornaments.

She doesn't move her hand. I relent.

The webs stay, and my child crawls in on hands and knees. She turns to look at me, and draws her legs up, wrapping tanned arms around her shins. She wears black tights under a blue cotton dress patterned with snowflakes.

She's beautiful. Perfect. She looks just as I did as a child.

Shut the door, mama. I'm not afraid of the dark. That elfin smile.

If only I could follow her inside.

BIO: Katherine Bonnie Bailey is a freelance writer currently residing in Tennessee. She writes articles, web content, and fiction. Fiction publications include stories in Flash Fiction Magazine, The Citron Review, Shotgun Honey, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and various other publications.