The Staircase

– Lauren Kelly

At times my grandparents’ home felt like a museum, or a tomb.  Other times, it flickered to life and filled with familiar sounds and smells – grandmother’s perfume, soft voices rushing to re-tell favorite stories, the smoke of scent-free candles, or a roast cooked to perfection.  It was one of those potent nights.

It came to life when we were here, Margo said.  It reminded her of evenings almost half a century ago, when she first took her position as the house keeper of the estate, when lively voices bounced down the oak wainscoting in the hall to the thirty-foot domed foyer ceiling.  It reminded her of little girls’ feet skittering across the polished parquet floors, and their laughter as they used the antique cups and silver while playing tea in their mother’s sitting room.  She recounted these memories once again as I walked with her to the kitchen to sneak a second helping of French apple pie. 

I’m sure my grandmother knew where we were going; she still noticed everything as she had for all of her eighty-five years, but sneaking to the kitchen while everyone chatted after dinner was part of the fun.  It was our ritual since I was a little girl, and one I refused to break, even if it left my fiancé, Brian, stranded in the library with my parents and grandmother.

Margo and I shared a slice of pie.  We stood leaning against the breakfast bar, our elbows on the counter as we chatted between bites. It was only a few minutes before my mother came to join us. She scooted between us, and dipped a spoon into the open container of whipped cream.  There were no rules in these moments, no comments about poor manners as the kitchen filled with hushed giggles.  In these moments, my mother and I were both still little girls.  In these moments, we seldom mentioned the missing little girl, but we all felt her there somehow.  She didn’t elbow her way in for a piece of pie or join us in our story telling or laughter, but she was with us all the same.

My mother scarcely mentioned her sister. At the time, she’d only answered one question for the local paper with a curt, “I don’t know.”  Over the years, she ignored the calls of journalists and cold case investigators. She told me once that she “just knew” and that nothing good could come from talking about it anymore. 

Margo told me it was because my mother felt guilty, and that they all felt responsible in some way. When someone is lost, those left behind always wonder what they could have done differently she’d said.  She explained how things like that didn’t happen back then. There were no Amber Alerts, or even grainy black and white photographs on the back of milk cartons. Children didn’t just disappear.

When I was younger, no one spoke of Aunt June, but I saw her pictures all around my grandparents’ home.  There were photographs from vacations at the beach, of her and my mother wearing matching dresses as toddlers, and a professional portrait on my grandfather’s desk.  It was his favorite – mine too.  At first I thought the young girl in the white collared blouse with the short dark brown curls was my mother.  I first asked about her at Christmas dinner when I was five years old.  “She looks like you, Mom.  But she’s not? Who is she?”

That one question hushed the entire table.  Everyone put down their glasses and rested their knives and forks on the corners of their plates – everyone except my mother.  She continued eating.  After chewing on her next bite of turkey for a few moments, her fork shook in her hand and jiggled down to her plate.  My grandfather cleared his throat, smoothed his napkin across his lap and leaned toward the center of the table.  He first looked to my mother who continued staring down at her half-eaten dinner.  Then he turned to me.  “Annie, that is a photograph of your Aunt June.  She’s not with us anymore.” 

“She died a long time ago,” my grandmother added. 

With that, my grandfather slammed his fists down on the table.  The place settings rattled and the boat of gravy toppled over, spilling the brown liquid onto the white lace tablecloth.  “I’m sorry, I’m not ready for this,” my mother mumbled as she jumped up from the table, and ran from the room.  The beading on my grandmother’s dress swooshed as she followed, a few strands getting stuck between our two chairs and a few torn beads fell to the floor and rolled beneath the table.  After a long sigh and a thank you to Margo, who rushed to clean the puddle of spilt gravy, my grandfather followed them both out of the dining room, stopping only to rest his hand upon my shoulder for a moment. 

My father loosened his tie and took a long sip of his wine.  “It’s all right, Annie,” he said. “They’re not upset with you.  They’re just sad.  One day when you’re older, your mother will tell you all about your Aunt June.”  

I’d never seen my grandfather upset before, and I wanted to cry from the shock of it.  I didn’t know what I had done to make everyone upset, but I wished I could take it back.  Margo spooned another helping of cranberry sauce onto my plate and left the room.  Alone with my father, we both resumed our dinner and he asked if I’d like to go into the city and go ice skating at Rockefeller Center the next day.  

That evening, I played with my new toys beside the fireplace as the grown-ups, Margo and the other household staff included, enjoyed a few bottles of champagne.  I had two new Barbie’s: Dream Glow Barbie and Holiday Barbie.  With their long blonde hair and similar puffy sleeved dresses, they looked like sisters.  I decided they would be and I named them Kathy and June. 

As the years passed my mother mentioned her sister a handful of times.  Sometimes, like that Christmas, she left the room to avoid the conversation.  Other times, she mentioned her as though no one was listening, like she was just making a mental note to herself, maybe trying to remember – or forget.  But for the most part, if she did think of June, she kept it to herself.  

Tonight was one of those rare moments when my mother broke her silence.

“June always loved a good party,” she said. “She would have been crazy about your dress.”

With that, tears dripped down the tip of her nose into the whipped cream. Margo put down her fork and wrapped her arms around her. My mother looked like a little girl then with her head cradled in Margo’s breast.  Margo brushed Mother’s hair back from her face and looked up to me with tears brimming around her own, clouded brown eyes.   I stretched my arms around them both.

The pain was like the laughter. It filled us all, as we stood huddled together. My fingertips grazed Margo’s braid of long grey hair and I fought against the tingling in my own eyes. These weren’t my tears to cry. I wanted to catch theirs.

“Something about weddings,” my mother said. 

Then the tears were gone, just like June.

My mother took a few moments to clean up on the powder room, and then we rejoined everyone in the library.  My father poured everyone drinks, including Margo, who, since my grandfather’s passing four years before attended every dinner rather than serve it.   

“Scotch or champagne?” my father asked.

“Macallan, please,” I said.  

“Frank, go fetch the thirty from Earl’s office.   There’s a dozen bottles in there still and Lord knows we won’t be able to drink it all,” my grandmother said.

“We can try.” Margo laughed and joined my grandmother on the gold patterned settee.

“I can get it,” I offered.

“No, no, dear, let your father go get it.  Come here.  Let’s talk about this wedding.” 

I took a seat on the sofa between my mother and Brian, and we discussed details of the upcoming weekend, beginning with the arrival of Brian’s parents the following morning.  Even in all of the excitement, I couldn’t help thinking – June always loved a good party.  She was always there.  I tried to force her shadow from my mind and focus instead on the buzz of excitement – of life – within the house.  

Grandmother insisted discussing the wedding details late into the evening.  Her attention to detail was thoughtful, yet tiring, and it wasn’t until almost eleven that we set down our drinks and went upstairs to bed.

* * *

My room was located at the far end of the hall, and after I dressed for bed, I paced in front of the door, waiting for everyone else to fall asleep.  Once the house was quiet and still, I slid off my slippers and went back out into the hall.  The door clicked shut when I released the knob, and I paused beside it for a moment, listening for any sound within the other bedrooms.  The television hummed in my parents’ room, the muffed voices of late-night news anchors giving their evening report and my father’s snores buzzed over it.  I could have slipped unnoticed into Brian’s room, two doors down on the left, but I headed forward to the stairs.  I crept down the staircase, moving from one step to the next with quiet care.  At the bottom, I gripped the fat wooden ball on the end of the banister and twirled around it onto into the foyer, a childhood habit.  It still felt freeing, a grand entrance. 

I felt the surge of blood rush through my chest, the same as the first night I snuck downstairs while my grandparents slept.  I was six, maybe seven, when I first ventured down into the dark, grand rooms exploring in the night.  It felt forbidden that first evening when I crawled out of bed to search to corners of the empty rooms, searching for clues, trying to find out who she was and where she went.

My father was right, I would learn all about my Aunt June, but I would have to find out for myself.  No one knew what happened to June, and when I was young, Margo told me what she knew, but there was little to say.  Unable to accept that there were no answers, I searched for them in the dark house.  It wasn’t until the first time I searched my Grandfather’s study that I began to understand.  I crept there again through the familiar maze of doorways, and turned on the brass banker’s lamp on his desk.  His office remained the same as when he was alive, just as June’s bedroom had for years after she went missing.   The only change was the oak desk’s clear polished surface.  Prior to Grandfather’s death, it was filled with paperwork, stock reports, and newspapers.  Now it sat empty, collecting a fine film of dust between its weekly cleaning.  

I slid open the top drawer and pulled out the key, it was in the same place I first found it years before.  After unlocking the side drawer, I pulled out the old stack of files piled inside.  The first time I read them, I didn’t understand what they were or what they meant, but over the years, I pieced together the information, just as my grandfather had when he hole-punched and filed the pages.  I hadn’t seen them in years, not since the summer of 2008, when I lived with my grandparents, the year before my Grandfather passed away.  As I flipped open the first folder, curiosity pulled at me just as it had the first time I read through the typed reports and my grandfather’s hand-written notes.  I knew them all by heart, but I re-read them anyway.

The first file contained the initial police report and statements detailing the spring day in 1967 when thirteen-year-old June was last seen walking into town to meet friends for a movie.  She didn’t return to attend Sunday dinner with Margo and my mother. By the time my Grandparents returned from the city that evening, Margo had already phoned the police.  Each time I read through the series of events, I expected to find something new, somewhere else to look, and this time was no different.  I wasn’t the only one who remained curious despite the dead ends.  My Grandfather spent time not just mulling over old reports, but also attempting to find new information.  I turned to the files with his research throughout the years: reports from several different private investigators, copies of bus routes into the city, and profiles of known criminals that were seen in and around town in the days surrounding June’s disappearance.    

None of the information provided insight into what happened.  There were limited witnesses, only a neighbor and his wife who drove past June as she walked into town, and Margo and my mother.  They’d last seen her when she was leaving the house.  Margo was curling my mother’s hair when June skipped down the staircase in her favorite light blue dress saying she would be home for dinner at half past six.

I was the same age when I finally understood the reason for my mother’s guilt.  She could have walked with her younger sister that day, but she decided to stay home instead.  I wondered if that memory, that guilt, was what she thought about in those moments when she appeared absent, staring past whatever she was doing, mentioning her sister as though no one else was in the room.  

Sometimes I still liked to stand at the top of the staircase and picture June hopping down the steps like when my mother last saw her.  When I was a teenager, I preferred to imagine her sneaking off and pretend she ran away to a new exciting life.  I no longer liked to pretend.  Instead, I maintained only my own false memory of her floating down the stairs to nowhere.  

Now I preferred to think of her as lost.  It was simpler.  She was misplaced somewhere between her time and mine.  One night when my grandfather found me in his office, with his files spread around in a semi-circle across the floor, he’d said it might be easiest to think of her that way – lost.  Then he told me not to mention all the files to my grandmother because she didn’t like digging up bad memories.  It was then he told me he liked to pretend that June was lost to us but happy wherever she was.

At the bottom of the pile was a newer folder; one I had never seen.  The date on the front indicated it was from shortly before Grandfather’s death.  It held yet another report from a private investigator.  This one was different.  It contained profiles of women living throughout the country; women who matched the age-progression sketch of June.  He was still looking for her, all the way until the end.  None of the profiles provided any hopeful leads, and I wondered how, after so many years, he retained hope where there was none.  I supposed hope was preferable to the truth – that he would never know.  Maybe he preferred to think of her as lost, even if she didn’t want to be found.  No matter the answer, or lack thereof, the files were his own shrine to June – his way to keep her alive.  They all dealt with her absence in different ways, and I searched for her, a girl I never knew, within the dark halls and locked drawers as if she were mine to find.

Before returning to my room, I detoured to the small storage space door on the side of the staircase, filled with boxes from long ago.   As I knelt on the floor beside it, I heard someone moving on the floor above, the slow whisper of a door opening and water running in the bathroom.  I waited for whomever it was to close their bedroom door again before I opened the small creaky door.

I reached into the dark and pulled out the first box inside the door.  Grandmother caught me looking at it one evening when we stumbled across it while searching for an old suitcase for a trip to Aspen.  She seemed embarrassed at first, but then she told me how it was her way of remembering the past, to save just enough of it tucked away, where she could look at it from time-to-time.  I wondered if my mother had something of her own, a piece of June, hidden somewhere.

Even in the dark, I knew the contents of this box just by touch.  It held what was left of June’s belongings: the flattened fur of a stuffed bear; the grainy paper of old books and letters from friends; and the smooth surface of a round jewelry box.  I opened the lid of the jewelry box and searched the contents until I felt the silver charm bracelet between my fingers.  

I crept back up the stairs to my room and unzipped the garment bag for my wedding dress.  After I hooked the charm bracelet underneath one of the layers of tulle, I zipped it up again.  It was something old that I could borrow.  She could still be there to celebrate with us and enjoy a good party.  

Lauren Kelly

Lauren Kelly (née Kiefer) relocated to the Washington, D.C. area from New Jersey in 2006.  She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia and is now a MFA candidate at Arcadia University Her work has appeared in Cynic Magazine, Calliope Literary Journal and the Barely South Review.  When she’s not traveling or playing with her cats, she works in the legal department of a rental housing trade association. Lauren can be found at or @lauren_a_kelly