Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Fiction

Cause For A Haunting

Kate took the hatbox to the dining room table, lifted the top, and removed the items: a glass brooch, a wood carving of a beaver, an empty perfume bottle, a blue silk scarf. It was the photograph she picked up: four by six, black and white, but well preserved beneath glossy finish.

A man and woman stood in front of a small, red-bricked house—this house, but minus the coniferous shrubs and mature trees, it appeared different. Bleak almost, the coziness that had lured Kate and Shawn absent. A middle-aged couple dressed as if for church. The woman with dark hair rolled back from a high, pale forehead, a pretty face starting to thicken, looked unsmiling into the camera, arms folded awkwardly across her waist, eyes sad crescent glitters. The man was much taller, broad and slim in a dark suit. He leaned close, eyes focused darkly on the woman.

Worry and fear, Kate thought, staring at the face of the man. Love and despair.

She flipped the photograph and read the square printing in black ink on the back: Jake and Sarah Anderson, 1949.

• • • •

The previous owner, Richard Kerns, had presented the hatbox with an air of ceremony. “Passed onto you, Kate, along with the house and its ghosts.”

Shortly after moving in, Kerns had decided the house was haunted, and from his position in administration at the public library, had delved into its history.

The house had been built in 1930 by Jake Anderson himself, a civil engineer destined to work until retirement as a nine-to-five city building inspector. In 1931, he married Sarah Hamilton, and they lived together in the house for the next fifty years. At the age of seventy-six, Sarah died of a brain aneurysm in the acute care wing of the local hospital. Jake followed six months later, lying down after dinner at his sister’s house across town and quietly expiring of a coronary. They had no children.

Since no one had ever died in the house, or been a victim of violence within its walls as far as was known, Kerns remained perplexed over the haunting. He was nevertheless pleased to be in possession of a home frequented by the dead. He stayed for the next seventeen years, renovating every inch of the small, 1,300-square-foot interior, building the landscape to lavish proportions with his green thumb. Now he was retiring to Costa Rica.

• • • •

Kate heard the back door open, grocery bags clanked down on the counter.

“Shawn,” she called. “Come here.”

He came immediately, eyes going to her stomach, followed by his hands. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Look at this.”

She sensed irritation, dutifully stifled. He took the photograph. Looked for all of three seconds. “Original owners? Tense looking couple.” He dropped it on the table and surveyed the rest, lifting the beaver, touching the smooth length of its back before setting it down, peering again at her stomach. “I got you some vitamins. The pharmacist said these shouldn’t cause nausea as long as you take them after a meal.”

She groaned. “It’s getting enough nutrients. I’m eating like a horse.”

“Just try them, okay?” He lifted her chin, turned on the full power of his green eyes. “We want this baby to have the best start possible, don’t we?”

“Yes. Okay.” She puckered so he had to kiss her, kissed until he pulled away first. She looked at him and pouted. “I’m sorry for being difficult, but I feel like a whale, and I’m bored. I shouldn’t have left work early. Most women wait until the last possible minute so they aren’t sitting around like this.”

“You were on your feet all day at the store. It wasn’t good for the baby. Can’t you knit something?”

“I don’t knit, Shawn.”

The summer had left him tanned, hair streaked blonde. He looked like a California surfer, but it was a disguise, she knew, for the sensitive English teacher he really was, upset when kids didn’t like him, someone writing on the board: GRANT US MERCY FROM MERCER. Some mean boy, she was sure, not one of the girls who hung around after class wanting to discuss symbolism in Wuthering Heights.

“I was thinking,” she said. “I could write an article about the house. About it being haunted by Jake and Sarah Anderson. The local papers might be interested.”

She watched his face skip down a trail of thought she had little trouble following: Skepticism that Kate, who had done nothing more ambitious since high school than work at a downtown import shop, could write anything coherent. The suspicion that Richard Kerns was not merely eccentric, but mentally unbalanced (they’d seen no proof the house was haunted) and he didn’t want people thinking his new wife was similarly flaky. But the points in favor—it was a diversion, and she’d never get it published anyway—won out, and Shawn smiled.

“That’s an idea.”

“Richard mentioned the woman across the road has been here since the forties. Neighbors were closer in the old days. I bet she knows something.”

“Just don’t get overtired. You can write on the sofa with your feet up, okay?”

“Okay.” She kissed him. “I love you.”

“Love you too—both of you.”

He went back to the kitchen. Kate had the infantile urge to stamp her foot. How can you love her? You don’t even know her. Maybe she’s an evil little demon. Maybe she’s a two-headed monster.

She picked up the picture again. The yearning on the man’s face filled her with kindred feeling. A sharp kick at her navel made her gasp. She barely resisted the urge to take her thumb and give it a poke right back.

• • • •

She lay awake, lower spine aching dully, thinking about waking Shawn. He would have rubbed her back until sunrise, anything to keep the incubator running happily. But he had work in the morning.

A warm night, the window was open. There were two bedrooms on this small, upper half-story, separated by a short hallway and a bathroom. Shawn had already painted the other room pink and white, purchased a good crib, and hung a musical mobile of geometric shapes in bold primary colors, recommended to penetrate the blur of infant eyesight and stimulate the wee brain.

Due in three weeks, Kate despised the mountainous rise of her stomach and longed for the end. At the same time, she feared the event like an impending plague. Where were the expected maternal emotions? She couldn’t dredge up a modicum of love for this creature that kicked at her insides like a demented little goat.

“Bronwin,” she whispered, trying it out. “Bronwin Mercer.”

When they’d been told it was a girl at the ultrasound, Kate had suggested Lily. Shawn wanted Bronwin. She hadn’t argued. It was only fair. He was the one jumping for joy, like he’d been waiting for fatherhood since ninth grade.

Before this abrupt trip into marriage and imminent parenthood, they had been involved for fourteen months. Kate madly in love, ready to have his name tattooed across her chest; Shawn congenial but remote, unwilling to talk about commitment.

She turned her head and gazed at him. Shadows streamed around the perfect planes of his face. The pregnancy had been an accident—who could have predicted he’d react like this? She had almost taken care of it without telling him. Sometimes she still wished she had. A chill slipped over her. What would it do to her to see him release the full throttle of his love on a gurgling mound of fat?

She heard something, tilted her head and listened. A woman crying. She gripped Shawn’s shoulder and he sat up like a surprised vampire. “It’s time?”

“No—listen! It’s Sarah Anderson!”

“Jesus, Kate.” But he held himself still. He heard it all right. His chin jutted and he crawled out of bed.

They crept through the upstairs, Shawn in the lead, scanning the area ahead as if searching out some prankster. Kate trailed, expecting around every corner to see the luminous specter of a woman bent over weeping.

Downstairs, they flicked on lights as they went. No effect on the ghost; it just kept on crying. The sound had a hollow, otherworldly echoing. Eternal grief, Kate thought.

Shawn headed down the basement. At the drainpipe by the laundry tub the grim set of his face dissolved. “It’s coming from the pipes, just like I thought.”

She squatted and bent as much as possible over her girth to listen. “I don’t think so. It was stronger upstairs.”

“It’s the pipes. That explains the echoing effect.”

Kate stood up. “Sarah!” She called out on impulse. “Sarah Anderson! Is that you?”

Shawn frowned. “Okay, that’s enough. I’m going back to bed, and so are you.”

• • • •

Richard Kerns had talked about the crying. No pattern. Nothing for months, and then he’d hear it every night for a week. Once he had come home in the afternoon to a weeping that was nothing short of hysterical.

Then there were the cooking smells, quite pleasant, Kerns reported, filling the house when he wasn’t cooking a thing. On numerous occasions he had found things moved, but just slightly out of place, as if someone had been looking around curiously but considerately.

But in all his time in residence, there had only been one actual appearance. Kerns had been in bed—here he coughed and smiled tightly—with a friend. It was early evening and though the room was dim, there was enough light to see. They heard a gasp, and Kerns looked up to see a man he recognized as Jake Anderson hovering at the foot of the bed. On the face of the ghost, Kerns said, was a mixture of horror and disgust. The apparition had backed away, as if shocked and frightened to have come across the living, and vanished into the shadows of the hallway.

“A homophobic ghost,” Kerns declared. “I guess we gave him quite a scare.”

Kate had laughed while Shawn rippled his forehead for the counterpoint.

“More likely a browsing burglar who was surprised to find two adult males at home, and made a light-footed getaway.”

• • • •

The crying stopped abruptly when they were halfway up the basement stairs.

Back in bed, Kate spoke wistfully. “Behind every haunting, there’s a story and a reason. Do you think Sarah cries because she wanted a baby?”

“Kate, it’s the pipes. Anderson built the house himself, and he screwed things up, connected where he shouldn’t have. There’s no way of knowing exactly what he did without ripping up the ground, but the noise is coming from another house. When the pipes are full, of water or sewage or whatever, the sound is blocked. Tonight, they happened to be clear at the same time as some woman in the vicinity was having a crying fit. No doubt the same poor, depressed individual Kerns had been hearing for years.”

Kate considered Jake Anderson’s narrow, intelligent face. “He was a civil engineer. This is a good, well-built house. Everybody says so.”

“Sure, it’s a solid little house, but engineer doesn’t mean plumber. Anybody can build a house. The guy was no genius. He worked for the city all his life.”

Richard Kerns had not considered the inability to have a child sufficient cause for return from the other side. She didn’t kill herself or anything, he’d said, when Kate had suggested it. She lived a fairly long time. She must have gotten over it.

“Didn’t everybody want children back then?” Kate said now. “Why didn’t they adopt?”

Shawn sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Didn’t you grill the woman across the street?”

“She wasn’t very open. I got the feeling they were friends. I should never have told her I was writing something.”

Alma Cleary, out pruning rose bushes in a big straw hat, had been guarded about the Andersons, but eager to talk about her own dead husband, five children, and dozen grandchildren scattered across the country. She had looked Kate’s stomach over with a practiced eye and announced it was a girl. Isn’t that uncanny! Kate had said, and listened to a slew of boring advice about diapering and feeding, but about the Andersons, she could not extract a useful thing.

“It’s not like her husband would have been against adoption. He loved her so much, he would have agreed to anything.”

“How you get this big story from one old picture is beyond me.” He set one hand on her stomach. “I want you to calm down about this ghost business. Nothing’s happened that doesn’t have an explanation. Now, do you think I could get a wink or two before the alarm goes off?”

She listened to the rhythm of his breathing drift into sleep. Beneath the pale sheet, the hump rose up before her. She stared at it with guilt. Poor Sarah had wanted a child with such fever that twenty years after death she was still crying. And here was Kate, all of twenty-four, with a full womb and a closed heart.

• • • •

Nothing could have prepared her for labor, for the pain that broke right through a mere epidural, for the sensation of being ripped in half for twenty hours straight. They finally performed an emergency C-section, Kate at that point not entirely conscious.

She surfaced to Shawn standing over her. “She’s beautiful! Eight pounds three ounces. Perfect! It was tense for awhile there, but everything turned out fine.”

“I’m not fine. I’m hurt bad. I need something strong.”

“I’ll find a nurse.”

She strained to reach the cup on the bedside table. Her tongue felt swollen, lips coated with slime. Pain hung over her lower half like a throbbing thunderhead. Just as she had managed to grab the cup, bring the bent straw to her lips, and suck down a few inches of warm water, a nurse came in like a gust of wind.

“How are you doing, love?”

“I need a shot.”

The nurse smiled and cranked up the bed, bending Kate at the waist, making her moan. “There, there. You’re fine. All ready now? Here we are! Here’s Jeanette with your new girl!”

Another nurse pushed in a domed contraption on wheels.

“No! I need a shot. I’m not ready. Where’s my husband?”

“Just remember what you learned in class.” The gown was whipped down. A pink bundle came at her like a torpedo.

“Wait! No, please!”

“Isn’t she a beauty? Now hold onto her. You’ve got to use both hands. A little nervous, are we? One arm supports the head. The other across like this. I suppose that’ll do. Try to relax. Now move her mouth across like this. What a nervous new mom we’ve got here! We’ll do it this time. There, she’s taking it. Oh, look at that, Jeanette, an easy one.”

“Oh, god,” Kate whispered.

“No need to hold your breath. Breathe.” She moved her hands like a conductor. Kate rounded her lips and drew in air.

Arms like wood, she peered down, took in the purple-pink profile, the fat cheek pumping, a tiny, dimpled fist pressed into the pale curve of her breast. She stared at this creature working to drain her. A strange, demanding sensation, not exactly pleasant. Yet there was something, some nebulous promise on the horizon.

She adjusted her arms and tilted her head to get a better look. So here she was, the little drop-kicker. Well, she wasn’t half bad. Cute, actually.

By the time Shawn returned the nurses had left. “Isn’t she something?”

“Yes.”

“Our little Bronwin.”

She cleared her throat. “Lily.”

Shawn winced. “Calling girls after flowers is so common. I thought we agreed—”

“She’s got your last name. I get to pick her first. I want Lily.”

***
Eleven days later, while Kate napped, and Shawn trimmed the hedges at the back of the yard, Lily was taken from her crib in the pink and white room.

The police believed the intruder had entered through the back door, unlocked with Shawn out in the yard. Aided by the racket of the electric hedge-trimmers, the kidnapper had simply gone upstairs, picked up the baby, and left by the same route. It had happened very quickly, while Kate slept in the next room. But the police believed the perpetrator had known there was a baby in the house, and had gone in prepared to take it.

Prints were lifted from the railing of the crib, the staircase, and several other areas in the house. No matches turned up. All reports of people and vehicles in the area that day had been investigated, and though nothing had come of it yet, the police were confident new leads would emerge.

As time went on, they were less confident. In every part of the world, children go missing. But of course they don’t just vanish—someone takes them. In the majority of cases, a parent or relative, but in a very small percentage, including the disappearance of Lily Bronwin Mercer, a stranger.

After a while, Kate stopped calling the detective in charge of the case everyday, and Shawn went back to work, the kids abnormally quiet and cooperative, tears from some at the mere sight of his haggard face. At home, he was clingy and guilt-stricken.

“It’s not your fault,” Kate said, again and again.

But she was tired of comforting Shawn, weary with the effort of working not to hate him. Absurd to cast blame, she might as well blame herself, asleep in the next room while her angel was stolen. The only one at fault was the one who had taken her. But she was relieved when Shawn returned to work, and she was left alone with her grief.

Though the days stretched out torturously. She ate too little and slept too much. She got up late and wandered around listlessly, turned on the TV, flicked it off again. So many babies on TV.

One afternoon she came out of a doze and smelt meat sizzling, garlic, oregano. No one in the kitchen. In the basement she knelt at the drain, recalling Shawn’s theory of accidental connections. But it wasn’t coming from there.

Grateful for the distraction, she ferreted around. She hadn’t thought about the ghosts since Lily’s birth. The smell was stronger on the main floor. Onions and green peppers added in, her nose said.

Then the crying started. Kate stilled and listened. But it wasn’t a woman crying this time. It was a baby. It was Lily.

She stumbled around, bumping into furniture and corners. She climbed the stairs, the sound intensifying. She rushed into the pink room, bent over the empty crib, and found the sound weaker.

“Lily!” She started to scream. “Lily! Where are you?”

On the staircase where it was strongest, she pressed against the wall, could hear her baby crying, not as if trapped on the other side, but at the other end of a long tunnel.

Then it stopped. The house went silent. Kate collapsed on the stairs, panting. Lily’s cry cut off as if a door had been shut. The smell of the food was fading.

It should be seen as hopeful, the police had pointed out, that the perpetrator had no criminal record. More probable that it had been someone desperate for a baby; usually, in such cases, a woman. But the prints, the experts agreed, were more likely those of a big man. A man who loved a woman, Kate thought, and gasped.

She ran outside, darted across the road, pounded until the door opened and Alma Cleary stared back.

“Why didn’t the Andersons adopt? Please, tell me, Alma. I’m not writing anything anymore. I swear I’m not.”

The bony shoulders shifted. “I suppose it doesn’t matter now. But it was never fair. The trouble started when Sarah kept miscarrying. After she’d been in the asylum, well, they never used to consider a person reliable after that.” Her brows lifted and she smiled. “But then they were blessed. Ah yes, better late than never. I’ll never forget the morning she came over to show me. Oh, the face of joy!”

“What?” Kate swallowed. “But Sarah never had a baby. They never had any children.”

Alma looked at her strangely. “Why, yes they did. A girl.” She frowned. “Died in a car accident when she was in college. Didn’t seem fair after all they’d been through. But life isn’t always fair, is it? I don’t have to tell you that. Come in for a while, Kate. I’ll make some tea. You’ve never left my prayers. Any word about Lily?”

Kate lurched off the porch, left Alma staring after her. Back home, she called the school, and told the secretary it was an emergency.

“Listen, you were right. It’s never been ghosts in this house. There is a connection between two houses. Only it’s the same house, this one, in the past and the present. A shunt, or a tunnel, or something. Jake Anderson knows how to come through. He came through and took Lily. They’ve got Lily, Shawn.”

A moment of stricken silence, then he spoke slowly. “Kate, honey, I’m going to come home. First I’ll call Doctor Finch, and see if he can get you in—”

“It’s already happened! The past has been changed. Alma said the Andersons couldn’t adopt because Sarah had been in a mental institution. Then she said that later they did have a baby, a girl! Our daughter! Jake took Lily and they pretended she was theirs!”

“But they did have a daughter. Come on, honey, you knew that. Kerns told us. He thought the girl’s death in the car accident was the reason for the haunting.”

She doubled over as her memory forked, and she saw it too, Kerns telling them about the daughter dying.

“You’ve got another memory, Shawn. Try to get to it. One that starts with Kerns telling us they didn’t have any children.”

“Listen to yourself. We’ve got to get out of that house. You know I love you, going through this nightmare has bonded us. But we have got to get on with our—”

She hung up. Upstairs she dumped the hatbox on the bed and snatched up the picture.

Sarah Anderson was no longer looking into the camera. Her cheeks curved into a smile, eyes cast down, directed at the bundle in her arms, white blanket trailing. Jake Anderson, in the same dark suit, now stared straight into the camera, face set and defiant. Kate read this expression the way she had the one before. You’re young and healthy. Have another one. We needed this one more.

Her hand trembled. Anderson’s face flickered like a dying bulb. In her head the pieces fell into place along with a strange calm.

No genius, Shawn had speculated, and he was probably right. It couldn’t have been deliberate. Kate thought it must have been an accident in two parts. First the building, then the first time he’d stumbled upon it, and went through. She imagined his terror and confusion, his massive relief when he found his way back to his own time.

On the staircase Kate knelt, running hands over the plaster. It would not be as simple as a panel, or a trap door, or a tunnel on the other side of a wall. It might be more like a fold in the atmosphere, a curve in space, or some construction she could not yet envision. But it didn’t matter—eventually she would find it.

When Shawn came home, she would explain that a spell had come over her, but had passed. She was fine now. No more craziness, and certainly no need to talk about moving. In fact, suddenly she was feeling much better.

Kate considered the gun she would buy, and learn how to use. Something from the 1940s. When she was done there would be a third and final fork in the road coming in from the past, where the only Andersons with access to this house and time would indeed be ghosts, with good cause for a haunting.

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Patricia Strand

Patricia Strand

Patricia Strand is a Canadian writer living in Kitchener, Ontario. Her work has been published in On Spec, Tales of the Unanticipated, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Storyteller, as well as in Best of the Rest 3, and Exact Fare 2 anthologies.