Sheila is afraid of the body at the bottom of the stairs.
One day, about to open the basement door, Sheila sensed that if she went down the stairs she would find a man’s body. At first she imagined only a lumpish human shape. But then she thought about it long enough to flesh out the picture in her mind. He was lying in a modified recovery position, though more face down than on his side. His left arm extended, his head resting on his bicep; his right arm on the floor in front of him, elbow bent, hand near his face. She couldn’t tell how old he was. He wore a brown suit.
Even as a child, Sheila was not afraid of monsters under the bed or in the closet. But the image lingered, and she thought about the man every time she needed something from the basement.
He wasn’t a ghost, poltergeist or demon. He just lay there, stubbornly present, always in the same position, but not threatening in any way she could express.
Who is he, she wondered, increasingly nervous. She found she hesitated at the top of the stairs. He was real to her, but she didn’t tell anyone. She believed he was communicating — or needed to communicate — something to her. Yet his presence also felt like a judgement.
This happened around the time Derek was away from home for longer stretches, travelling for work, often for a week or more at a time. In fact, the same day Sheila first imagined the body, she expected Derek home after a week away. He was due on a late flight, and it was mid-afternoon when the man appeared to her.
But he didn’t actually appear to her. She remembered it that way, but it was just a picture in her head. Though she had quickly conjured up a physical presence. She felt heat rising off his body, a chill in the musty basement air, and there was a faint sour smell, too, of perspiration.
That day she had hesitated only a moment, then took a deep breath and headed down the stairs, stopping once to peek around the corner and scan the space below. Nothing. Only their basement as she had last seen it — a single room with a low ceiling, cobwebs in the joists and everything where she expected it to be. The washer and dryer, an assortment of sports equipment and half-finished projects. The freezer hummed in the corner. Where she had imagined seeing the body was cluttered with boxes of discarded toys and dishes to sort and give away. No room here for a body, she thought, yet she could see that the position and location she imagined him to be in suggested he had fallen down the stairs, or had been pushed. She made her way to the dryer to retrieve a basket of clean clothes, to take upstairs to fold.
Later that evening, Derek called to say his flight had been delayed. It would be past midnight when he landed, and then he’d have to get a cab. It was a bitter cold Friday night in December. She’d just told Chloe and Nate to turn off the TV and get ready for bed. They’d ordered pizza, the empty box still on the dining room table. She shook the crumbs into the garbage and put the box by the basement door to take downstairs for recycling. When the kids were in bed, she took the dog out, turned off all but one light by the front door, then went to bed and read for an hour, restlessly, knowing she wouldn’t retain much.
Expecting to lie awake in the dark, instead she fell into a heavy, woolly sleep, from which she surfaced occasionally to look at the clock and wonder about Derek. But sleep soon carried her off again, it was warm and delicious, and she burrowed into it, and each time she came to, it was more difficult to climb back up.
Very late in the night she heard the key in the door and Derek’s footsteps on the hall carpet. In her mind she followed him up the stairs, noticed the bathroom light turn on and then off, all the time struggling to stay awake. After some time she felt a cold rush of air — he’s turned back the covers, she thought — then his weight press down, and another gust of air as he lifted the blankets over him. Finally, she heard him exhale.
She reached across the short span of the cool white sheet, found his hand, and placed hers over it. She slid her foot toward him and realized at once he was nearly frozen. She inched over until the length of her body was pressed against his, and waited. She could tell by his breathing he was already asleep. And she could feel her skin absorbing the cold, and her own body throwing off heat, to restore warmth, and some kind of equilibrium.