Happy Halloween! I hope you all like ghost stories!
Warnings: This story depicts some domestic violence and cursing, but nothing too graphic.
I hadn’t slept well since learning that my mother had passed three days ago. We were never close. Actually, I hadn’t seen her since my wedding seven years ago, but that somehow didn’t make things easier. She’d had a difficult childhood, and so she’d raised me sternly, the only way she’d known how to bring up a child. I suppose death made it easier to be forgiving.
Seven years. I contemplated the number. That’s how long I’d been married. Chris and I were engaged for a year. Picked out this house after we’d been married for two when Chris deemed it was time for us to start trying for children. I’d learned that going along with his plans was simply easier than arguing. At any rate, it’s a lovely but modest four-bedroom. One bedroom is my office, one’s a guest room, and one’s the nursery.
It was the room I liked the most. It was my haven—the place where my demons didn’t seem to follow me. I spent hours there, rocking in my new glider chair, swollen feet propped on the ottoman. I read aloud. Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! was my favorite. I liked to think that the baby could hear me and was soothed by my voice. Chris thought I was a bit nuts, of course, but I’d been reading up on it. There was a lot of evidence suggesting infants are positively affected by voices and tones outside the womb.
I met Chris at a Christmas party a decade ago. He was an orthopedist and more than a bit close-minded. He didn’t put much faith in anything, really. His job was to mend bones, but I happened to know that he was rather adept at breaking them as well.
“There you are.” I looked up Chris’s appearance in the doorway. One hand drifted protectively to my swollen belly as I lowered the book. “Ready to go?”
I forced a smile. I’d become adept at forcing smiles. Placing the book aside, I looked one last time at the crib and pretty ivory farmhouse bedding I’d selected. Reluctantly, I followed my husband down the stairs and out the door. He placed a hand on my back possessively, not protectively—I’d learned the difference years ago—and guided me into the passenger seat. Chris always drove. Like everything regarding my husband, it was easier not to make a fuss about it.
As the BMW pulled out, ushering me to my mother’s funeral, I glanced up at my lovely white-slatted home and the nursery window one last time. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but there appeared to be a figure hovering beyond the white lace curtains. I pressed my hand against the cold glass of the car window and blinked to clear my vision, but then we were pulling away, ambling down the bleak path on this likewise bleak day.
* * *
The funeral drained me physically and emotionally. At almost nine months pregnant, I couldn’t handle being on my feet for long stretches. My back and feet ached. The child in my womb—my baby girl—felt like she was squishing all of my internal organs, which made it difficult to breathe. I couldn’t handle relatives—mostly distant, virtual strangers—offering their condolences while Chris stood idly by, playing the part of the supportive husband.
The wake was held at my mother’s house, which she’d left to me—and which I planned on selling. I never thought I’d set foot in here again. It was a modest three-bedroom in a ramshackle neighborhood. Poor but well-kept. It was one of those old houses with a floorplan with no hallways; the rooms simply boxed in the main parlor. My father left when I was just a little girl, and my mother busted her butt as a nightshift nursing assistant to make sure there was food on the table. She was meticulous, organized, and highly religious. When I rebelled as a teenager, she hadn’t known how to handle me.
I’m not sure what propelled me to open the door to her room, which was the one to the right of the parlor. The same old patchwork quilt, faded with age, was spread neatly across the double mattress. A single cross adorned the wall above the wrought-iron bed frame, the only piece of décor on the yellowing walls. Her bible was open on the old oak dresser, and I briefly wondered if it shouldn’t have been buried with her. I experienced a pang of guilt that I hadn’t been the one to decide the funeral arrangements. I realized, quite suddenly, that I had no idea who had since I’d found out about her death. Her church friends who were hosting the wake? The nice neighbor lady I’d just met?
She might not have been an ideal mother, but it struck me at that moment that I was a terrible daughter.
A movement in my peripheral caught my attention, and that’s when I noticed the young girl sitting at my mother’s vanity. Dressed in black funeral attire and with a head of long, light brown hair, she couldn’t have been older than six or seven. I think I’d noticed her at the funeral. Had to be the child of one of my cousins.
When she smiled at me in the mirror, I attempted to return it, but I knew it didn’t reach my eyes. “Hi, sweetie, you really shouldn’t be in here,” I said as gently as I could manage. I was a bit taken aback that I hadn’t immediately noticed the child’s presence in my mother’s room. She must have been sitting unusually still.
Nonplussed, the girl hopped to her feet and straightened her black dress. She smiled at me as she passed, leaving me alone with my mother’s things. Once she was gone, I approached the vanity that the child had just vacated. There was an ornate box I recognized from my childhood. I recalled sneaking in here and going through it more than once, and as such, I knew it contained photos, jewelry, and other knickknacks that my mother had saved over the years. I hesitated for only a moment before taking the box. I’d have to go through my mother’s things at some point before selling the house. Or maybe I’d just hire someone to clear it all out. This was all I really wanted of my mother’s.
* * *
Even though it was barely after six o’clock by the time we left my mother’s house, it was so dark out that it might as well be midnight due to the shortened days. The temperature had also dropped considerably. As soon as we got in the car, I could smell the alcohol on Chris. Since it hadn’t been served at the wake, he must have brought it.
I bit my tongue as he pulled onto the darkened county road that cut the shortest path home. I knew better than to say anything. However, as the bends became sharper, and he narrowly avoided driving us into a copse of trees—he was going way too fast—I could no longer hold my tongue. “Chris, honey, would it be all right I drove for a change? I’d really like to. I’m just restless from the funeral.” I held my breath.
“Why don’t you just take a nap, dear? I’m sure you’re exhausted.” He only ever called me dear in a sarcastic, deprecating tone.
As he took his eyes off the road to look at me, a car came around the next bend, and Chris had to swerve to avoid hitting it; he honked, let out a string of curses, and rolled down his window to flip off the other driver, even though Chris was the one who’d impeded the other lane.
My heart was pounding in my chest at the near-miss. My arm curled instinctively around my belly. “Chris, please,” I whispered. I hated the desperation in my voice. I hated the tears in my eyes. More than anything, I hated that this is what I had become—a simpering woman, afraid of her own husband and who had abandoned her mother.
The backhand came so quickly I didn’t realize it until the pain exploded behind my eye in a rippling haze and split my lip open.
“Goddammit, Elsie!” he roared as I cowered against the door in fear and pain, one hand shielding my face, fearful of another attack while my other stayed curled around my belly. “Look what you made me do! And you could go into labor anytime! How the hell are we supposed to explain your face, huh? Don’t you think?”
Yes, I thought. I thought I might vomit from the pain or pass out, but just as that entered my mind, I noticed something on the road. Sitting upright, I wiped the tears from my eyes, and which promptly widened at the sight of a person, a small child in the headlights—
He cursed loudly as he slammed on the breaks.
I waited for the impact that never came, simultaneously thankful for my insistence on safety as the belt kept me firmly in place when the car squealed to a halt.
“Where’d she go? Where’d she go?” Chris was mumbling.
I shook my head. I was trembling as I unlatched the belt and clamored out of the car.
“Else? Where the hell are you goin’? Get your ass back in here.”
I ignored him as I walked around the car and stood in the twin beams. I was sure I’d seen a small child in the road. Chris had seen her, too.
I shivered as I glanced at the trees bordering the road. The air was calm, windless, and the cloud cover rendered it an unusually dark night. The effect was disconcerting. Ominous. “Hello?” I called toward the trees.
Not even the chirp of an insect returned my call. I hugged myself tighter and walked to the side of the road.
“Elsie. Elsie! The hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Just checking,” I called back.
He continued to call for me, but I ignored him as I stepped off the road and into the undergrowth. I’m not sure what propelled me to do so. I couldn’t explain it if you asked, but something beckoned me further into the forest like a siren’s call. Behind me, I could hear Chris finally exit the vehicle—his footsteps and cursing were loud in the preternaturally still night air—as I moved deeper between the trees, ignoring the scrapes of my skin on brambles and bark. I had left my jacket back in the car, and the chill bit my flesh, but I ignored it.
“Elsie, when I catch up to you, you’re gonna wish you’d listened!” Chris called from somewhere behind me, but for once, I wasn’t scared of him. I moved purposefully forward, propelled by that unseen force. Occasionally, I caught snatches of girlish whispers and giggles in the dark. And it was dark. And it was cold. And I was pregnant and alone. And I was being stalked by a predator who called himself my husband. Yet I wasn’t afraid because I somehow knew my life was about to change for the better.
I broke through the trees and emerged in a clearing. The clouds had parted enough that the child standing in the center was sufficiently illuminated in pale moonlight; it was as if she’d been waiting for me. It was the child from the wake. The one who’d been in my mother’s room. I approached her and stopped within touching distance. She was solid, but I wondered whether she was some otherworldly apparition. How had she come to be in this forest? Why had she been in the road?
“Who are you?” I settled for asking.
She merely smiled. And promptly vanished, as if she’d never been there. I stared for one stunned moment. Blinked. I couldn’t comprehend it.
Before my mind could attempt to process this event further, however, my lumbering husband broke through the trees, having finally caught up with me. He was winded and sweating. “Goddamit, Else. What the hell’s the matter with you? Look, I’m sorry about hitting you. I won’t drink as much. I’ll try to do better. Shit.”
He stopped in front of me. I smiled; reached up to touch his face, which I had once so adored. “I know. And I forgive you. Dear.”
In a swift motion, I grabbed him and shoved him into the old well directly behind me; it’s where the child had led me, for this specific purpose.
The well was deep, but not so deep that the fall killed him. He was screaming death threats at me as I calmly turned and walked back to the car.
At home that night, feet propped up on the ottoman in my nursery, I opened my mother’s box, using my swollen abdomen as a desk. In it was her rosary, several of my baby teeth, my first lock of hair, and some other odds and ends. There were faded photos from her girlhood. One was taken at her first communion. She wore a black dress with white lace trim and pearl buttons. She had long, light brown hair and a mischievous smile.
I returned the girl’s smile. “Hi, Mom. I’m sorry for being a shitty daughter. Thank you for saving my life.”
© 2020 K.A. Raines
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