THE THIRTEENTH STEP • by Richard M. O’Donnell

A teenage girl is home alone at night for the first time when a storm knocks out the lights. She calls her father.

“Are the lights on in the neighborhood?” he asks.

She looks out the window. “Yes.”

“Then it’s a blown fuse. All you need to do flip the main breaker.”

“In the basement?!”

He laughs gently. “Yes, honey. In the basement. Right at the bottom of the stairs.”

“But it’s scary down there.”

“You’ve been down there hundreds of time.”

“Not in the dark. I’m not going down there.”

“Okay, but I’ll be gone at least another couple of hours. Do you really want to sit in the dark until I get home? No TV. No internet?”


“Then you need to throw the breaker.”

“Where’s the flashlight?”

“Oh. It’s on top of the fuse box.”

Under her breath she says, “Way to go, Einstein.”

“Use the light from your cell phone.”

Over the line, he hears his daughter walk from the living room into the kitchen, and then listens to the creak of the basement door as it opens.

“It’s pitch black down there.”

“I’ll talk you through it.”

He can hear her breathing quickening.

“Honey. You want to babysit? Knowing how to change a fuse is all part of the job. You can do this.”


But she still hesitates.

“Tell you what. There are exactly twelve steps. I’ll be with you for each one. Easy as pie.”

“You know I hate pie.”

“Smart ass. How about it’s a piece of cake?”


“Any flavor you like…”


“You’re procrastinating.”

“Okay, okay. Let’s do it!”

“Here goes then. Step number?”

His daughter lifts her foot up. “One.” She steps onto the first stair. “One down,” she says, proudly, but whispers to herself, “eleven to go.”

“See how easy it is. Now together, step?”

They both say, “Two,” and she takes a second step.

“Good girl. See, you can do it. Okay? Three.”

Once she has her stride, it becomes easy. She counts loudly, “Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven.” But she hesitates on the last step.

“What’s wrong, honey? The fuse box is only a step away.”

“I think someone’s down here.” She pans her cell phone around the basement, but its light is so dim she can’t see anything.

“Nonsense. It’s probably the water heater.”

“I hear breathing.”

“It’s just the gas heating the tank. You can do this. One last step. Ready?”

“Okay, Daddy.”

“On the count of three: one, two, TWELVE!”

“I made it!”

“Good girl.”

“But there’s still another step.”


“I can feel the empty space with my toes. Here goes.”

“Honey, there are only twelve steps.”


“Honey? Honey? There are only twelve steps. You must have miscounted. The fuse box is directly to your right. The flashlight’s on top. Honey?”

The line is still connected, but there is no sound, none at all, not even the background noise of the storm. He leaves the connection open and races home. When he arrives, he finds all the lights are on. He’s relieved because this meant she fixed the breaker. But when he gets inside, she’s not there. He climbs down the basement steps and calls for her, but there is no answer. Just to be sure, he counts the steps. There are twelve. Quickly, he searches every room. Nothing, even in the attic. But his cell phone shows that they are still connected! The silence is deafening. The phone company cannot explain it. His daughter’s and his phone remain linked together, so long as he doesn’t hang up. So he keeps his charged, and it is never far from his ear. Officially, his daughter is a runaway, but he believes she’s lost in the basement. Every night he turns off all the lights and stands atop the basement stairs. In the darkness he slowly counts, calling out her name with every step: one, two, three, four… With each footfall he prays that this time he’ll reach the thirteenth step.

Richard M. O’Donnell‘s works have appeared in Sniplits, North Coast Review, Binaryorganic, Mind Fair, Kaleidoscope, Heartlands, Many Voices, The Gamut, Diskazine, The Alchemist, Telescope, Intro and The Plum Creek Review. His short story collection, Rice Wine, was published on Disk 1983, and he has received two Ohio Arts Council grants. His has a MFA from BGSU. He is the co-founder of The Oberlin Writers Group where he is working on a mystery novel, Measure Twice, Cut Once. His online publication links are Placebo Effect, Genesis of the Easter Seals Society: The Memorial Trolley Car Disaster, and Desperate Reference.

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