As a child, I lived for seven years in a haunted house; it was notorious on the street, to the point that neighbors would not let their children come and play with us, though we were always welcome in their houses. There was no story, no explanation, just the house itself, a dark square fact.

It was a century old, two stories tall, built in one of those redbrick suburbs that grew up concentrically around London when the trains connected the villages to the City. We had some relics of the old village of Forest Gate: the commons, still broad and open; the old High Street, with a butcher, a greengrocer, a jeweler, and other small shops; a few churches, centuries older than the houses around them.

As our house had no history, so also its ghost had no name. Nobody saw things. No faces appeared suddenly in mirrors or peeked out of empty rooms; no figure of an unknown person ever stepped through a door; no voice ever cried from the shadows; we were never touched by an unfamiliar hand, reaching for us out of the dark. The house was haunted by its own potential, by the knowledge that any of these things could happen, and all of them might happen, at any time. The house was haunted by fear – the fear of itself.

If it had ever spoken, that voice always latent in the house, I knew what it would say; sometimes I heard – no, did not hear, but felt – the rush of an indrawn breath, the prelude to a scream, and I would drop my Lego blocks or look up from my book, waiting for the inevitable shout, the cry of No! An absolute denial, negation, rejection of all things; that was what the house meant to say. But it never did; never quite.

I felt the house’s fear most strongly in the places between the rooms. I never hesitated on a threshold, but banged doors open and slammed them shut; in passing from one room to another, I raced my fear down the hallways in a pounding run, no matter how fiercely my stepfather bellowed at me for banging like a herd of stampeding elephants. I was nothing like even a single stampeding elephant, but possibly the house set his nerves on edge, too, though he would never admit it.

Hallways and doorways were bad enough, but the stairs were worse. I ran up them, knowing that if I slowed or stumbled, something in the house would seize me by the ankle, and then – but my imagination took me no farther than that. Running down the stairs would not help me, since the strongest location of the thing was on the bottom three steps of that stairway. To avoid it, I jumped from the fifth step. Not an athletic child, I hated heights and depths, never learned to cartwheel or swing by my knees on the monkey bars, avoided any activity that entailed the risk of falling. But a dozen times a day I took that dangerous leap. Our cats flew up the stairs and bounded down them in the same way, and our dog never came upstairs at all.

I don’t believe in ghosts, or spirits or hauntings. Living in that house, I could not dare to believe. To believe would have been to see, to open the door to something worse than seeing: to believe would have been to be seen. The only thing worse than seeing the ghost is when the ghost sees you. But that was long ago, another continent, another century, another life. So I can look back, now, and give a face to my fear.

If there was something in the house, it was sorrowful and small, dangerous only in its loneliness and its grief. Fear of it smoothed my mind blank whenever it came near me, but now I look back – now, as a mother of children who sometimes, in disappointment or rage, shut themselves in their rooms and cry or sulk for their own private eternity – and I can see it, a young creature, not much larger than I was. A child, sitting on the stairs, sulking, sobbing, and refusing to move, her heart torn open in a way inconceivable to the adults around her. Something that they considered inconsequential, insignificant; if sad, the sadness of a day, not a lifetime. A broken toy, a damaged friendship, a dead kitten, who knows?

“Come,” they must have said, “forget.”

But she said, “Never – never – never! I’ll never forget, I’ll never move from this step, never!” And she never did.

Oh, I know she left the stair eventually. After a while, a couple of hours at most, she must have dried her eyes, walked up the stairs to comb her hair and wash her face, gone on with her life. But she did not stand up whole. Some part of her, some bubble of tragedy, stayed behind, fists clenched, eyes burning, through all these years.

Those who were closest to her, who might have recognized her and comforted her – me, my sisters, my friends – we dreaded and shunned her, and we left her, locked inside that tortured hour forever. I’ll never move from this step, she said, and some part of her sits there still.

Sonja Condit Coppenbarger is a writer, musician and teacher in Greenville, South Carolina. She plays bassoon in the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra, and teaches at North Greenville University and the South Carolina Governor's
School for the Arts and Humanities. Her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming on,,, and

I grew up in the house in the story, and was always terrified of the stairs, for no real reason that I can remember. The actual ghost in the house was a crying baby in an upstairs bedroom - never the room you were actually in, but the next room.



Copyright 2009