It was true that Mel was quieter, though. She appeared to have withdrawn into herself a little. As the days went by, she became more withdrawn, her behaviour more erratic. She'd forget where rooms were in the house, or there'd be a moment of confusion on her face when I asked her to go and find Liam, or she'd be sitting at the table and forget to eat. I'd sit in the kitchen and listen to her, playing on the stairs, going up and down, up and down, counting the steps out loud. Always she would get the number wrong. And always she'd get to step seven, and there'd be a pause. A minute of silence. Before the eighth step.
One night I counted the steps with her. We made it all the way to the top. Fifteen. Then all the way back down. Three times. I showed her that she was wrong. She cried herself to sleep that night.
Then one day, Liam came to find me. "Mum?" He stood at the kitchen door, fingers twisting round themselves. His face was white. He jigged nervously up and down on this toes. I put my pen down and turned my chair to face him. "Liam? What's the matter? Are you okay?" I put my arms out and he clambered onto my lap. He put his skinny arms around my neck and I held him close, stroking his curls down smooth. "Mum," his voice was muffled in my shoulder. "Can I sleep in my fort in the loft tonight please?" I leant back and turned my head towards him, and he sat up and stared at his hands in his lap. "It's a school night, Liam."
"I know. I won't stay up late or anything, promise!" He looked up at me, pleading. "I've set up a proper bed and everything, come and have a look!" He slipped off my lap and grabbed my hand, dragging me out of my chair and to the stairs. Mel was sat at the top of the stairs, with Mr Bear sat next to her, conducting some serious conversation with her favourite cuddly toy. Liam let go of my hand and ran past her without looking at her. He didn't pause when he knocked the toy off the step and down the stairs. I caught Mr Bear and handed him back to Mel as I went past. When I got upstairs to the loft, Liam was sat on his makeshift bed amongst cardboard walls, hugging his knees. His body cast a long shadow against the back wall from the desk lamp he had plugged in next to his pillow. I gently pushed aside one of the boxes. "That wasn't very nice, Liam. You should have apologised to Mel for messing up her game."
"Sorry," Liam muttered into his knees. I carefully manuvered myself into position on his mattress, tucking my feet close to my body to avoid knocking over a wall. "So why'd you want to sleep up here?" Liam shrugged. "I just wanna."
"I don't wanna sleep next to Mel. That's all. Can I sleep up here, pleeease, Mum?"
"Liam, what's wrong with Mel?" I turned to face him. "Something's wrong, but I can't work out what." Liam shrugged. His face still buried in his knees. "I dunno."
"Liam? Please help me out here."
"I don't know. But..." He turned to look at me. "Something's wrong with her eyes." I nodded. "Okay." I stood up, keeping my head bent to avoid knocking it on the low ceiling. "Of course you can sleep up here. Stay here as long as you like. But if I see the light on past 8 30, you're moving in with me, got it?" I smiled down at him. His face echoed mine. "Thanks Mum!"
"Don't forget to brush your teeth."
Mel was still playing on the stairs with Mr Bear. The hallway light was off. The street light from outside created a sharp shadow pattern through the banisters that sat in crooked shapes across Mel's shoulders. I sat down next to her. "Bedtime, Mel-bell." Mel hugged Mr Bear close to her chest. "But I don't wanna go to bed."
"It's a school night, Mel. You know the rules." When she didn't move, I put a finger under her chin and tilted her face towards me. She stared at me with those big blue eyes. "Bedtime." For a split second, the eyes flared green. I let go of her chin and flinched back, shocked. Then she blinked, and her eyes returned to blue, and she tilted her head back and screwed them up and whined, like she usually did, about how Liam got to go to bed later than her, and anyway, she wasn't sleepy at aaall yet! But for that spilt second, I'd seen in her eyes an anger and annoyance that was competely out of proportion with the situation; an anger that was almost adult-like in its strength.
I put her to bed. Tucked her up with Mr Bear and Dolly-de, and a bedtime story. She wriggled and giggled throughout the whole process as normal, and I found myself wondering if I'd imagined it. If Liam's remark about her eyes had me seeing things. It was ridiculous.
After I'd checked Liam's light was off, I made my way slowly to the stairs. I counted them as I went down. Step: one. Step: two. Step: three. There were fifteen steps. Always had been, always will be. The trees outside tapped long fingers against the pane of the kitchen window, and the sound skittered along the floor of the empty hall and up my legs and back. The wind shook a dirge out of the leaves. I turned. Put one foot on the first step. Counted out loud. "One." Next step. "Two." Next step. "Three. Four. Five. Six." When I got to step seven, I held the word and the step like Mel did, prolonging each before bringing my foot down towards step eight. "Seveeen..." My foot hovered in thin air, my body almost tipping itself over in its attempt to keep its position. Then just as my foot began to come down towards the eighth step, I found myself falling. Falling through blackness and cold, with the air whistling past my ears, my arms and legs flailing out, my mouth opened in a scream- my foot hit the eighth step with a jarring thud that echoed throughout the hall. I toppled over, my hands slamming onto the ninth step. My breath came short and ragged. "Eight." Pulling myself upright, I continued up the stairs. "Nine. Ten. Eleven." There were fourteen steps. I sat on the top step, staring at the stairs, my body shaking, until the grandfather clock in the hall struck twelve. Then I dragged myself to my feet, and made my way to bed.