There's Something in the House
by Thomas Kent West
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
She really wanted a glass of wine. It had been almost nine months since she’d had even a taste of alcohol; not that she’d been dependent before, but there was something unbeatable about a glass of pinot noir after a long day, relaxing in the bath with some Fleetwood Mac. And, recently, all her days seemed long: her stomach was bloated, her skin sagged, her feet hurt constantly. She realized, only too late, that there was something innately horrifying about being pregnant. Alongside the miracle of it all, of course.
She lit some candles, put on some music and lowered herself, carefully, into a bath, sans-wine. Everything seemed like a chore now that she was in her third trimester, even something as simple as getting in the bath. One slip, she knew, and she’d put the baby in danger. She had nightmares about it; slipping and falling on her stomach, the baby popping like an abscess, spurting all over the floor...
She shook her head, as if the motion would physically shake the intrusive thought out of her. Instead, she took a bottle of lotion from the shelf and rubbed her stomach where it peaked above the water. The stretch marks were getting worse, scarlet lines that looked like claws dragging over the baby. She applied the lavender lotion, caressing her child gently, humming along with the music.
When the water had turned uncomfortably tepid, she slowly, carefully worked her slippery body from the bath. Careful, careful, she thought. The anxiety nearly dizzied her. She stepped onto the wet tile and reached for a towel.
In the mirror, she saw a man behind her, masked in shadow. He was just a form, a reflection. The candlelight revealed a twisted, wicked smile.
She screamed, and as she turned, the wet floor beneath her gave way. She plummeted downwards, belly-first, towards the cold tile, and knew that it was all over. She was going to lose her baby, just as she had her two other babies before. No! She can't lose another, a voice screamed inside her, not after she’d made it so far. She threw her hands before her, trying to break the fall.
Someone caught her. Strong arms, familiar arms, and pulled her upwards. She breathed heavily, pushed wet hair from her eyes, and looked into the face of her husband.
“Woah, woah!” he said, smiling sheepishly. His face had returned to normal; there was no hint of a wicked grin, no wreath of shadow. She caught her breath, then slapped him in the chest.
“You could have killed me! The baby!” she said. For a moment she was truly furious. Then she looked at his big brown eyes, still crinkled with laughter. There was the man she’d married: full of joy and mischief. How long had it been since Ben had pulled a prank on her? College? Highschool?
His face dropped, suddenly becoming serious. And there was the man he’d become: always serious. “I’m so sorry – are you alright?” he said, his hand moving instinctually to her belly. “I just wanted to surprise you.”
“I’m… fine,” she said, forcing a smile. “I’m glad you’re home.”
“You know you shouldn’t take baths when I’m not here,” Ben said, face stern but loving.
“I know,” Beth said.
Later that night, she lay in bed. Ben was in his office, working; even after coming home from a week-long sales trip to Chicago, he had work to do. She missed the nights they’d spend in bed together, talking about everything or nothing at all. She missed the smell of him on her. It was in these moments of lacking that she despised the baby, despised what it was doing to her body. Would he be with her in bed if she weren’t pregnant? Touching her, feeling her slender body? For a brief, shameful moment, she wished the baby would just go away.
That’s when Ben walked into the room. Instantly, she knew something was wrong. For one thing, he wasn’t wearing the clothes he had been wearing a few minutes ago. He was wearing an old college t-shirt, one she thought he’d thrown out years ago. That, and he came through the door from the hallway, not the one that led to Ben’s office. And he was smiling. Grinning like a madman. He was handsome as ever, in that college t-shirt and jeans. For a moment, she wondered if her wish had come true; maybe that little grin meant he was about to crawl into bed with her. She smiled.
“I thought you had to work?” she said.
Ben said nothing. He laughed; it was a strange laugh, high and childish.
She patted the bed next to her; maybe he’d hit their store of weed before bed. “Come on big guy, come cuddle up.”
Ben cocked his head, then laughed again. Suddenly, the laugh made her uneasy.“Ben, are you okay? Have you been smoking-“
Then he ran. He nearly skipped out of the room, vanishing into the darkness. She called after him, wondering what the hell had gotten into him. Then, from the other bedroom door – the one that led to Ben’s office – Ben reappeared. This time, he was wearing the same clothes as he was when he got home: a rumpled button down and loose tie.
“You changed,” she said.
“What?” he asked, annoyed.
“You changed your clothes,” she said.
“No… look, why were you calling my name?” he asked, exasperated.
She looked to the other door, where Ben had just run towards the basement. “How did you get back to the office?”
“What are you talking about?” Ben asked.
“You were just here. In your old college t-shirt. You were smiling, and, and, laughing, and then you ran down towards the basement. How did you have time to change your clothes?”
Ben waved his hand. “Look, I don’t have time for this. I have a report due tomorrow. Have you been drinking, Beth?” he asked, “you know you can’t drink with the baby.”
“No, no, I…. I saw….” She said. Ben looked at her, sighed, and left.
Weeks passed. Her belly grew, and soon her doctor confined her to bedrest. Since no other strange things happened, she convinced herself that it had been a hallucination. Her doctor had insisted that such things were uncommon, but not unheard of, during a pregnancy. He gave her the usual prescription for hysteric pregnant women: rest and relaxation. And so she rested, and relaxed.
One night, she woke to Ben slipping into bed beside her. He’d been working late again – he was always working late – so she’d gotten used to that feeling. Except, usually, he would slip under the covers and turn away. This time, he cozied up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. She tried to remember the last time he’d done that and couldn't.
He smelled clean, like baby powder. She felt safe and warm there, nestled inside him. A little family, Ben and her and the baby, wrapped up like nesting dolls.
She mumbled, “I love you,” and readjusted the covers. Ben didn’t say “I love you,” back. Instead, he laughed.
And that’s when she remembered. In her half-sleep state, she had forgotten.
Ben was on a business trip.
She whipped around, only to see Ben there. And yet, not Ben at all. Something was indescribably wrong about the thing in her bed, its arms wrapped around her, perhaps just a little too long. He wore his college t-shirt and grinned madly. His arm – that arm she was so sure was his – was still wrapped around her stomach, caressing the baby. Almost lovingly.
She screamed, pushing him away in a frenzy. She rolled off the bed and onto the floor, in the last moment curling over her stomach. The baby, she thought, as she landed on her head. Then the world vanished completely.
She awoke in the hospital. Ben sat next to her, looking crumpled and tired. When he saw she was awake he ran to her side and grabbed her hand.
Something – panic? rage? – filled his voice. “What happened?” he asked.
“The baby,” she said, groggily, “is my baby okay?”
Ben nodded, tears stinging his eyes. “He’s gonna be alright,” Ben said, “they did an ultrasound. He’ll be okay. But what happened?”
She stared at him, unable to speak the words. Finally, through tears, she said: “There’s something in the house.”
Ben frowned. “What do you mean? Someone was there? Someone did this to you?”
She shook her head. “You did,” she said. “Or… something that looks like you.”
Ben stared at her, then shook his head. “Beth, you’re not making any sense. Is this what you went to the doctor about? Are you seeing things?”
Beth began to shiver. Then the words came pouring out, over and over. “There’s something in the house, there’s something in the house!”
Ben grabbed her, but she tried to shake him off. She just kept chanting, chanting, as if she were seeing herself from outside her body. There’s something in the house. There’s something in the house. There’s something in the-
“50 cc’s,” the nurse said, injecting something clear and viscous into Beth’s IV. Another nurse held down her arms, strapping her to the bed. Ben backed away, staring at her as though she’d gone crazy.
But she hadn’t gone crazy. She’d seen it. Felt it. Something was in the house. Then the drugs hit her system, and she slipped into a dreamless sleep.
“We can’t keep sedating her,” a woman’s voice said, “not while she’s pregnant.”
“What’s wrong with her, Doctor? She’s never been like this,” Ben said.
“Perinatal psychosis. Rare, but not unheard of. Her pregnancy has caused a psychotic break. The best thing we can do now is induce labor. Get the baby out, and she might return to normal.”
“In this condition? Are you insane? She can’t give birth like this!” Ben said.
“We’ll give her an epidural. If that fails, we’ll move on to a cesarean. If we wait for her to enter labor naturally, that’s more time in which she could hurt herself. Or the baby.”
A pause. Through her closed eyelids, she could imagine Ben thinking, his head in his hands. His voice was as soft as a whisper.
When she woke, the room was empty. She looked around for Ben, her head lolling groggily from side to side. Eventually, a nurse came in, holding a small bundle wrapped in blue.
Her baby. Healthy and whole, crying out into the world.
The nurse leaned down to show Beth her son’s face. Then Ben came in, almost running. He looked from Beth to the baby, and the look of worry was replaced by a soft smile. Their baby was okay.
Ben walked over to the nurse, speechless. His eyes were wide with emotion, almost shocked. He took their baby in his arms and began rocking him back and forth. The nurse smiled at Beth. “I’ll give you two a minute,” she said. Then she left the room, closing the door behind her.
Ben looked down at the baby in his arms. Beth found that tears stung her eyes. “We did it,” she said, “we did it, Ben.”
Ben was still speechless. He stared at the baby in his arms, and his grin grew wider. And wider. And then he began to laugh. A mocking, childish, laugh.
“No,” Beth said, shaking again, “No!”
The creature looked at Beth, then raised a finger to his lips. He shushed her, then ran from the room, taking her baby with him.
"Thomas Kent West is an American speculative fiction writer. He is the winner of Rue Morgue’s ‘Artifacts of Horror’ Contest and the Black Hole Entertainment Short Fiction Prize, and his work has been featured on “The Other Stories” fiction podcast, the Michigan Daily, and elsewhere. You can read more of his work by visiting him on Twitter @ThomasKentWest or at ThomasKentWest.com."
The Care Dog
by Edward Ahern
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
The food concourse at the Burnham mall was gap-toothed with vacancies. Ralph, as he always did, had brought Sheila, her large Care Dog tag swinging from her collar. As they walked toward a MacDougal’s a bulky, middle-aged man stopped in front of them. Sheila barked and started growling.
“Heel,” Ralph ordered. Sheila didn’t respond and kept snarling; neck fur raised. Ralph put more tension on the leash. “Heel!”
But the black lab stood stiff and bandy legged. Rather than back off the beefy man took a deliberate step toward them. Sheila, still growling, backed up.
Ralph forced a smile. “She’s never like this,” he blurted. “She’s gentle with everyone.”
“Not everyone apparently.” The man said. His assurance contrasted with unfashionable clothes—baggy black slacks, white dress shirt, and rubber soled arch-support lace-up shoes.
“My apologies, Mr.…?”
“It’s Father. Father John Mellon.”
“I’m Ralph Fields, Father. I’m sure she won’t hurt you, she’s my comfort dog.”
“I suspected as much. Who knows, perhaps we’ll become friends.” He took a quick half-step toward Sheila, whose nails scrabbled on the tile floor as she tried to lurch backwards.
Ralph moved between the priest and the dog. “I go to St. Benedict church, father, which parish are you with?”
Father Mellon smiled wryly. “None and all. I’m the diocesan exorcist at St. Eulalia cathedral, but my style is a little unorthodox and usually I just get moved around from parish to parish when they need someone to say masses.”
“Oh. I didn’t know we had one. Well, sorry again father.”
“Don’t be.” The priest hesitated. “I can be reached through the bishopric if there’s anything you’d like to talk about.”
As soon as Mellon turned and took a few steps away, Sheila, tongue lolling, padded up to Ralph and cocked her head, a sure sign she wanted him to pet her. Which he did. “I should have known, girl, he’s dressed in the official priest-in-civvies outfit.”
Once home again, Ralph walked immediately to Alice’s sewing room. “Funny thing just happened, dear” he began.
Alice didn’t look up from the whirring machine. “Funny happy or funny weird?”
“Weird. Sheila went a little mental at the mall, snarling and almost lunging at a priest, of all things.”
Alice stared up at him. “A cassocked priest?”
“Nah, he was in plain clothes. But it’s the first time in the month we’ve had her that she’s hasn’t been almost too sweet.”
“Since you’ve had her. She barely tolerates me. And I still don’t understand why we had to spend all that money for an emotional support dog when I’m under perpetual contract to provide TLC.”
“You provide love, Sheila keeps me sane and panic free.”
“For merely two thousand dollars. And without any training or performing any specific tasks.”
“She makes me a lot less anxious.”
Alice’s eyes went back down to her sewing. “Whatever you say dear.”
It was Ralph’s turn to prepare dinner, which he did. As he and Alice sat down in the dining room to say grace, it struck him that Sheila was never present when they said the brief prayer, and only showed up a little later to try and mooch scraps.
“Interesting,” he thought. “I wonder.”
After doing the dishes he went to their bedroom, opened up a jewelry box and took out his mother’s rosary, blessed many times over the years. Then he walked back out to the kitchen where they kept Sheila’s bed. He’d wanted to have her sleep in the bedroom, but Alice had issued a firm no.
It was early for her evening walk, but Sheila raised her head expectantly. Then Ralph pulled the rosary out of his shirt pocket and waved it in front of her. Her howl was close to a shriek.
Sheila averted her eyes and scuttled up the side of the kitchen floor and into the dining room, still howling. Ralph followed her, waving the rosary. Sheila’s howls turned to snarls and she snapped at him. Ralph pulled his hand away in time and pocketed the rosary. Sheila immediately went quiet and slumped to the floor.
“Jesus,” Ralph muttered, and Sheila whimpered.
Alice came running in, and Ralph waved her back. “It’s just—just a disagreement, she’s quiet now. Alice stepped toward Sheila, who issued a low growl. “That dog’s not right,” she said.
For the first time in months, he poured himself an evening drink and sat down in his study to think. Sheila eventually came in and lay next to him. He began to mutter to himself, a reliable sign that his panic was rising.
“It’s a dog, not a person, how can it react like that to religious stuff? Dogs don’t have souls, do they? I can’t keep a devil dog, but how do I return it? Can I return it, or would dumping Sheila set me off?”
As he drank, Ralph’s thoughts revulsed back to Alice, who recently was becoming distasteful to him. She kept him under foot, kept him isolated…Ralph, shook his head but didn’t lose this new dislike of her.
Then he remembered the priest from the mall. Father what’s his name—Mellon. Something or other Mellon. He pulled up a number on his cell phone for Eulalia Cathedral and called it, expecting to get a recording. But a human answered. “St. Eulalia.”
“I’m Ralph Fields from St. Benedict parish.”
“I need to speak with Father Mellon, is he staying there?”
“Miraculously, yes. I’ll take a message for him and give it to him tomorrow.”
“Please!” Ralph blurted out. “It’s really important that I speak to him this evening if possible. It’s—it’s a spiritual matter.” Ralph immediately regretted the lie, but hoped it would work.
A pause, then, “I’ll see if he’s still up. If he’s not it’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
“Thank you so much.”
Ralph held the phone tightly for the better part of ten minutes, then, “This is Father John Mellon.”
“Father, thank God. I’m Ralph Fields, we met this afternoon when my dog took such a dislike to you.”
“And I was so fond of it. Why are you calling, Mr. Fields?”
“Sheila, my dog, she just reacted violently to a rosary.”
“You’re sure it wasn’t a food allergy? You teased it perhaps?”
“No, no Father, it’s a real reaction. And I’m dependent on her for reassurance.”
Mellon was silent for a few seconds. “Mr. Fields, are you able to leave the house without the dog?”
“Sometimes, if I have to.”
“Come to the cathedral rectory at 10am tomorrow. Without the dog. Meanwhile I need to do some reading.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“Don’t thank me yet.”
The next morning Ralph was let into a rectory office at ten, and waited fifteen minutes for Father Mellon.
“Hello Mr. Fields. Can I call you Ralph?”
They shook hands and sat. The cassocked priest carried a small recorder that he turned on. “My apologies, but this is required. First, I need to know where you purchased your support dog from.”
“The Enlightenment kennels. They have an excellent reputation.”
“Almost too good.” The priest went through three dozen more questions—when the dog was purchased the name of the person who sold him the dog, on and on.
“What’s all this about, Father?”
“You won’t be relieved to know. You’re not the only one to bring up Enlightenment and their rep, Jorge Consuegra. There’s been another case, a woman. I wouldn’t have caught on to it except that she’s also a painfully devout member of the diocese.”
“What are you getting at?”
“I’m not sure yet, Ralph. But I am theologically sure that while animals are innocents, both they and humans can be spiritually infected. I’m going to need your help with something you won’t like.”
Ralph stiffened. “What?”
Mellon shifted topics. “Both you and the woman are devout and vulnerable. Have you been having alien thoughts lately? Hatred? Greed? Lust perhaps?”
“No, nothing, just my usual anxiety.”
“Nothing? What about your wife? Alice, is it?”
“Noth—ah, just a little marital discontent. It’ll pass.”
“Maybe not, if Sheila’s promoting it as a first stage of possession. I need you to make an appointment with Consuegra and take me with you to Enlightenment.”
“That answer requires a little background. Demonic possession focuses on the most devout, which is why saints are so often tormented. But the church is undergoing major declines in attendance and strength of belief. This makes it harder for us, but also harder for the demons, who have fewer and less pious targets. So, if you’re a demon, what do you do? Go after the most vulnerable and still devout. And how do you do that? Maybe, just maybe, emotional support animals that contain familiars. And something in demonic possession of a human to install them.”
Father Mellon smiled. “But there’s a quick and cleansing way to determine that. I need to be in handshake range of Mr. Consuegra. Can you, do it?”
“What could I say to him?”
Mellon shrugged. “It wouldn’t get far past hello. Just call and tell him that Sheila is showing some contrary behaviors that you’d like to discuss in person. If my hunch is right, he’ll be quick to say yes.”
“And you won’t hurt him?”
“Not in the way you mean. And it’s maybe your best chance to have Sheila just be a dog.”
Ralph made the call while still sitting in the rectory office, and Consuegra surprised him by saying yes for an appointment the next day. Father Mellon, sensing how nervous Ralph would be, offered to drive, and picked him up the next morning in a Nissan sedan aged somewhere between beater and classic.
“Remember, Ralph, say almost nothing until we’re in close quarters, preferably in his office. He won’t like my being there, so just say I’m your legal representative- that’s not too much of a lie.”
“What can you hope to accomplish?”
Mellon displayed his sardonic smile again. Ralph wondered if he’d had a career in sales before the priesthood. “We’ll have to find out.”
They walked into the foyer and Consuegra, a short, gaunt man came out to meet them. He scowled at Mellon, and didn’t offer to shake hands. “Who’s this, Mr. Fields? I thought you were coming alone.”
“He’s- he’s here for support.”
“What’s this about? Sheila is one of our best emotional support dogs.”
“Please, could we talk in your office?”
Once in his office, Consuegra waved at two chairs on the other side of his desk. “Have a seat.”
“Thanks,” Ralph said and moved toward the chair. But Mellon quick-stepped closer to Consuegra, pulled out a miniature squirt gun and sprayed Consuegra’s head and face with water.
Consuegra screamed, his skin seeming to bubble into boils, “A priest, you brought a priest! I’ll rip out your soul and shit into it.” The room temperature dropped twenty degrees and a rank odor pervaded. Ralph coughed.
Mellon pushed Consuegra into his chair. “Stay down, foul one.” He took out a small crucifix, and faced it to the moaning man. “This isn’t just a cross, it’s a ciborium. It’s going to hurt like your hell unless you release the animals you’re tormenting. Once you do, I’ll leave.”
Consuegra tried to resume humanity. “What are you talking about?”
“I don’t leave until the animals are free of their evil presences. If you lie to me now, I’ll chase you down with some helpers who’ll keep you in permanent agony. We’ll be checking Enlightened’s records, so every animal, you rank spawn of hell.”
“Fuck you, wanna be child-molester.”
Mellon smiled again. It wasn’t pleasant. He grabbed Consuegra’s hair and held his head against the back of the chair, then pressed the cross into his forehead. Consuegra screamed again, not like a man, but like a shatter-voiced soprano.
Mellon lifted the cross. “Again? I really love this part.”
Ralph cowered in his seat, his eyes rocking between the two men.
Consuegra’s features contorted. “And you’ll leave if I release them?”
“I said I would. Oh, and I’d find a new gig for yourself. The holy word will be going out. You and your pillow mates are on report.”
Consuegra’s skin reddened as the demon glowered from, then he nodded. “All right, it’s done.”
Mellon turned to Ralph. “Ralph, make that call to Alice, please.”
Ralph took out his cell phone and tapped onto her listing. “Alice? It’s me. Listen, could you please go over to Sheila and pet her? Then just tell me her reaction.”
He held the phone in silence for a minute, then,” Really. Just all warm and cuddly like she’s never been with you? That’s great, thanks.” Ralph hung up and nodded to Mellon.
Father Mellon patted the top of Consuegra’s head with the squirt gun. A few drops dripped out and Consuegra winced. “Time to go, Ralph.”
As they were leaving the office, Father Mellon turned back around. “You know I can’t leave you possessing poor Consuegra, baptized Catholic and all.”
“But you swore you’d leave.”
“Said I’d leave, didn’t say I wouldn’t come back. Be seeing you.”
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had four hundred fifty stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he manages a posse of eight review editors. He’s also lead editor at The Scribes Micro Fiction magazine.
Late One Summer
by Richard Ankers
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
Lady Death came calling late one summer's evening. She swept across the meadow like a cloak of black frost, flowers wilting in her wake, cicadas screaming, coming to a rest at my peeling, wooden gate.
I rubbed at my eyes like a cartoon character, stared from my whisky glass to Lady Death and back again.
As the sun dipped beneath the low rolling hills in a last flash of sparkling diamonds, I placed my glass aside, levered myself out of my grandma's rocking chair and stepped off the porch. Lady Death never moved. Only the gentle flapping of her ragged shawls as they caressed the lush grass beyond my manicured lawn gave her away.
A cold fear took me then, a trembling hesitation. I found myself unwilling to close the distance between she and I. The flagstones I'd laid with weathered hands seemed as rocks protruding from a crashing, obsidian ocean. I wobbled, a tipsy sensation flooding my mind and body, but held steady. Lady Death shifted in her stance, a display of impatience I had no desire to cure.
"Evenin', Mister Johnson!" hollered young Jonny Smithson, the paperboy. I often saw Jonny returning home from batting practice, his family the only ones who lived further into the back of beyond than I.
"Evening, Jonny!" I called back. "Lovely night for a ride."
"S'ppose." He laughed and biked away.
He never saw Lady Death there. Why would he? Jonny was just setting out in that labour called life whereas I neared its end. It didn't mean I wanted to leave it any more than he did, just that fate decreed I would.
I lowered the hand I hadn't realised I'd raised and placed it and its twin firmly in my trouser pockets. Lady Death would find no greeting from me.
The last speck of light departed with a rose-tinged flourish, revealing a sky packed full of stars. I ignored Lady Death's freezing presence and eyed the cosmos with the same interest with which she eyed me. I couldn't see her eyes, of course, but I felt their iced stare. Beyond the veil of ripped lace that covered them, those jet-black orbs assuredly observed me. I shuddered and craned my neck higher. I'd always loved stargazing. It made me feel less alone. Cloudless, the night unveiled itself in resplendent finery, a whiff of wisteria and the hooting of an owl a perfect accompaniment to, except for Lady Death's lingering ghost, a spectacular evening. She seemed unimpressed when I returned my eyes to her, tapping my gate with bony fingers, their clickety-clacking a stark reminder of the situation.
Three deep, steadying breaths later and I stood less than two yards from my nemesis.
"Evenin', Mister Johnson!" hollered young Jonny Smithson, the paperboy.
Like the bullet he was, Jonny shot past. He must have been late home from batting practice.
"Evening, Jonny!" I called back. "Lovely night for a ride."
"S'ppose." He laughed and sped away.
There was something about the way he biked off, something unnatural, too fast, almost like a fisherman had hooked him and was reeling him in before he could break the line. I wanted to shout out, be careful, but I knew he wouldn't hear. He never heard.
I returned my attention to the impending doom that was Lady Death. She'd stooped down to cup a dandelion in full seed. With the care one might have afforded prized crystal, she picked the thing from where it grew, lifted it to her shadowed lips and blew. Nothing happened. How could it? Death had no breath to expel.
A great swell of regret swept over me then. For some reason, I felt so sorry for Lady Death that I might've wept, or screamed, or both. The inability to complete so simple a task as blowing away dandelion seeds was a travesty. That's what I thought, anyway. As if in agreement, her bony claws trembled with rage or fear or both. She released the dandelion, which tumbled over the gate, glided to earth, withered, then died.
I hung my head as a cool breeze dampened my exposed skin. The south wind often brushed the evening meadows with late summer dew. I'd sit on my rocking chair swilling whisky, sometimes straight from the bottle, one moment staring out across dry, dark grasses, the next, wetted wisps of night. Beautiful in how it happened so fast. Yet another of God's little miracles. That was my opinion, for what it was worth.
A chirping cicada snapped my mind back to the present, its wings a broken violin. That's what I'd thought it was until realising Lady Death drew her index backwards and forwards across the top of the gate. I wanted to shout stop that, give over, be on your way, but fell dumb before that most mystifying of beings.
"Evenin', Mister Johnson!" hollered young Jonny Smithson, the paperboy. Jonny shot past like a stone from a slingshot. Most probably late home from batting practice.
"Evening, Jonny!" I called back. "Lovely night for a ride."
"S'ppose." He laughed and peddled away.
Jonny hadn't seen Lady Death's looming presence. He might as well have been hitting a home run, eyes glued to the ball, oblivious to everything but the impending swish of his bat, his moment of triumph.
If Lady Death had noticed Jonny, she gave no sign. Instead, she wavered on the periphery like an obsidian sheet hung out on a windy day. Her flapping, unheard by human ears, scared an owl that hooted and flew away. A stoat squeaked and scampered across the dirt road. A toad capitulated with one last croak. She laughed at the latter, expanding and contracting like some cancerous lung.
I was grateful for Lady Death's petty exuberances, more grateful than I'd been of anything in my entire existence. She'd cut Jonny some slack, I was as sure of it as I was the borders of my yard. And that's when I did something I thought I should have done a long time ago.
"Please, won't you come in?"
Lady Death dipped her head in regal fashion, something flashing beyond the veil that obliterated her visage. She waited for me to unlock the gate, then swept into the yard, over the flagstones, and onto the veranda, where she sat opposite my rocking chair on a stool I used to put my feet on. If it hadn't been Lady Death herself, I might've asked her to move, but decided against it on account of being cursed for all eternity.
I perused my flourishing garden as I made my way to sit beside her like a Captain inspecting the troops. Offering her a glass of whisky, which she refused with a waved claw, I retook my seat and downed the mahogany liquor in one.
"Lovely night," I said.
Lady Death nodded.
"Not a big talker."
She shook her head.
"Do you come here often?" I enquired, then slapped my head in exasperation, knowing full well she did.
In the end, I decided to just sit there and make the most of another beautiful evening. The company might've been unusual, but Lady Death was not an unpleasant character to be around. I savoured another glass, inhaled the crisp air and fell silent.
"Evenin', Mister Johnson!" hollered young Jonny Smithson, the paperboy. He came to a skidded stop outside my garden gate, sending loose dust and dirt into the air where it congealed like a muck-strewn ghost.
I thought it odd that Jonny had stopped. He never stopped. I waved all the same. "Evening, Jonny! Lovely night for a ride."
The lad cocked his head to one side as if confused by my words. He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve, adjusted the sports bag he always wore tight to his back, and straightened his cap. "Every night's good for a ride, Mister Johnson. That's what I think, anyway."
"I expect you're right."
"I was hoping you might," he replied, and smiled the nicest smile I'd seen since my Margaret passed. "Don't suppose I'll be seeing you again."
His words were so matter-of-fact, not a question but a simple declaration of truth, that I just smiled back like the gap-toothed old fool I was and toasted him with my finally empty whiskey bottle.
Jonny nodded a return and adjusted his cap to avoid it flapping from his dark locks. He waved a goodbye like his hand was stuck in glue, then slowly biked away.
Richard M. Ankers is the English author of The Eternals Series and Britannia Unleashed. Richard has featured in Expanded Field Journal, Love Letters To Poe, Spillwords, and feels privileged to have appeared in many more. Richard lives to write.
Memories of Miss Mindy Tulane
by Jen Frankel
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
“This is the eye I see ghosts with,” said Miss Mindy Tulane, war veteran and sometime librarian. She opened her left eye wide, yellow-bright but unseeing.
Terrified, the child across from her let out a cry. His sleeping mother jolted upright and slapped him.
The small boy took a deep breath and began to wail. The mother, mortified, pulled the child by the arm from the compartment.
Miss Tulane disapproved of corporal punishment. This little terror, however, had grabbed the letter she was reading right out of her hands. Snatching it back from him had ripped the paper.
Then he called her blind eye weird. The eye often made people look twice at her. To the children she read to in the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, she was a sorceress, equal parts magical and terrifying. But never just weird.
Miss Tulane knew she should feel guilty that the child had been punished for something that was essentially her fault. But her thoughts had always run far deeper than her emotions and, truth be told, she rather appreciated having the compartment to herself.
To ensure the letter was still legible even if damaged, she unfolded it and read again:
Dear Miss Tulane,
I admit that your letter has stirred some rather ambivalent feeling in me, returning me to a very difficult time in my life. Yes, I will show you the artifact, but no, I will not tell you any more until you arrive. There are more ghouls than genuine souls that visit me, and I must protect myself from opportunists.
If that circumscription meets with your agreement, I shall expect you at your earliest convenience. Please bring the object you mentioned as a show of good faith. Without it, I shall probably turn you away.
Mr. A. Bagnall.
Miss Tulane folded the letter and returned it to her purse. Then she took out the object which intrigued her correspondent, a small pin enamelled with the word Halifax in bright red. It was the only thing that Miss Tulane owned that mattered a jot, because she had no idea why she owned it at all. Why Halifax? Why a cheap trinket linking her to that place?
No, she decided. It didn’t bother her that the child had been punished. He deserved to be, even if it was for the wrong thing. On the other hand, the lie she told him did trouble her. She placed a great deal of stock in honesty, because truth was something she struggled with daily. This fib was more straightforward than most she’d told. She did not see ghosts with her blind eye. That would have been foolish. She saw them with her good eye.
As she sat primly in her compartment, the train wending its way north through the Adirondacks, she thought of the boys she’d transported during the Great War. She’d been little more than a girl herself, driving an ambulance through the mud-rutted tracks of the French countryside. There had been horrors enough in those days. After what she’d done in life, perhaps it would be more surprising if Miss Tulane did not see spirits.
She didn’t recall the absolute first time she witnessed the phenomenon, because she’d never cared to. It sufficed that as long as she could remember, she had been able to see the spirits of those about to die.
It should have been terrifying, or at the very least unsettling. They appeared to be tethered to the living bodies, hovering translucent images of their originators. The spirits grew increasingly more solid as death neared, their twisted faces giving every indication of great distress. They did not speak, but they clung to their dying selves as some unseen force was pulling them backwards, away from the object of their desperate hope.
As death became final, she would see a look of comprehension, or at least of some terrible finality, enter the eldritch, glowing eyes, and—as if a thread tying them to their corpse had at last been severed—they would depart at what Miss Tulane thought of as “a fair clip,” and vanish into the air.
Miss Tulane didn’t lie about the ghosts, because she’d never told anyone about them. Not until that odious child, and look how badly that had gone. Her lies served a purpose: they kept others safe from the horrors she knew.
Customs officials boarded the train when it reached Canada. Miss Tulane tried to look less tense than she felt, but she passed scrutiny without a second look. Her current passport identified her as Hildegard Restall, 46, of New York City, NY. She had borrowed the name from the grave of a dead infant the first time she needed to travel after mustering out of the army.
Unable to afford a sleeper car for the Montreal—Halifax leg of the journey, Miss Tulane dozed in her seat, as erect in slumber as she was when awake. Initially, taking passage on a steamer to Halifax direct from New York had seemed like the most efficient way to travel, but there had been nothing sailing at an expedient time. Although she would never admit it, this was a relief because there was another secret she had kept through all these years.
Miss Tulane found her ghosts more pathetic than unnerving or fearful, but being at sea terrified her.
When her service in the military had required water crossings, she used sheer force of will to keep her phobia in check. The nights were the worst. Each and every one she spent aboard a ship, she confronted the same frightening images in her sleep.
The nightmare had a curiously peaceful beginning, a sense of slight claustrophobia, and darkness broken by hazy beams of light. She could hear the lonely tolling of a distant bell over the faint sound of a child singing “Beautiful Dreamer.” The terror began when she started to fall. She plunged downwards, the descent slow but interminable. Death reached up for her from somewhere far beneath. To find peace, she needed to accept it, succumb to the end of her life. The longer she resisted, the more her fear grew, the greater her discomfort.
When Miss Tulane reached land again, the dreams stopped.
Aboard the train, she slept like the dead.
After three days in transit, Miss Tulane’s nerves were raw. Not even mortar bombardments during the Great War had affected her so badly. Only her fear of water exceeded her current state. As the locomotive neared its terminus, Miss Tulane grew increasingly worried that her discomfort was obvious to those around her—a hellish thought!
As Miss Mindy Tulane inched toward the Canadian East coast, toward the sea, her stomach churned and her limbs became heavy. Unable to stay still, she paced up and down the train. The same young porter finally stopped her and asked if she was all right. Embarrassed, she retreated to her compartment.
Reaching Halifax, the porter offered his arm to help her down. She wondered if the young mother had explained the misunderstanding over the letter, or if the child had defended himself at all. What would any of them have thought if they knew Miss Tulane had only lied about the eye, not the ghosts?
Her temper was short and her mood foul when she departed her hotel the next morning. The nearness of the sea oppressed her. Every moment in this city seemed to erode her self-image of a woman who possessed unimpeachable equilibrium and resourcefulness. It didn’t help that for the first time in years she’d had that dream, the one of drifting inexorably into darkness and death. She blamed the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean.
Although there were cabs in front of the building, she chose to walk, glad to delay her journey’s end. She set out by foot.
Finally, Miss Tulane compared the return address on the letter with that of a small storefront off Barrington Street. Bracing herself, she went inside.
A bell tinkled as she entered, but no clerk emerged to meet her. Miss Tulane noted that the shop was devoted to the relics of nautical disasters, rather than more general antiques.
Miss Tulane ran a hand over a decayed board with the faded name of a ship, The Lorelei, painted in red, cracked and peeling. She shivered, imagining it resting at the bottom of the ocean.
A man cleared his throat, rousing Miss Tulane from her daydreaming.
“Good afternoon,” he greeted her, a hint of England in his voice. “May I help you, Madam?”
“Miss,” she corrected absently. “My name is Miss Miranda Tulane. I exchanged letters with you recently about an item that might connect me to my… ancestry.”
“Yes, of course,” he said.
He took her hand and pressed it with his own, surprising her. He looked ten years older than she, well-used by sun and salt water. She had seen the same hardened look on many naval men and civilian sailors alike, the same darkness in the eyes.
She took stock of how intently he stared into her eyes, both the good and the blind, and thought that he might be dangerous.
“This way,” he said, and released her hand to lead her. “I am, as you rightly supposed, Arnold Bagnall.”
She followed him with heavy steps. The air felt thick and difficult to breathe.
Miss Tulane was suddenly aware of a strange howling. She didn’t need to look at Mr. Bagnall to know it existed entirely inside her own head. She thought immediately of the small icebergs in the mid-Atlantic that sailors called growlers. Air escaping from pockets inside them as they moved south sounded eerily like animals.
She heard something else, deep in her mind, along with the wail of the growler, a heart-stopping, dissonant groan of metal, scraping and rending.
Even more distressingly, she was unable to keep up with Mr. Bagnall although the shop was not large. When she reached the showroom in back, she halted.
Mr. Bagnall, realizing that the lady was no longer following him, asked, “Miss Tulane, are you all right?”
Slowly, Miss Tulane’s amber eyes moved to his severe, lined face. Impulsively, she told the truth for the first time about what she saw with the good one. “I suppose not, Mr. Bagnall,” she said. “You see, I am prone to visions of spirits from the afterlife, and one is standing at the end of this room.”
Again, Miss Tulane avoided complete honesty. She did not mention that the ghost she saw beside the hulking cabinet at the end of the room was that of herself.
Although she had come to believe that ghosts were always tied to their own corporeal forms, this sight laid false all her notions. How could her own spectre be here when she was most certainly alive? How could it be hovering, its arm reaching into a case of pitiful treasures salvaged from a doomed ship? Most importantly, why had it taken Mindy’s face upon itself?
Mr. Bagnall himself took her admission in stride. Could it be that he saw ghosts as well? He led her deeper into the room toward both the looming glass showcase framed in dark wood and the apparition. A carved plaque above the central doors featured the name of the most famous shipwreck of them all: HMS TITANIC.
“It’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of her sinking,” Mr. Bagnall said. “When I received your letter, I found myself immediately transported back to 1919.”
The year after the Great War ended.
“In that year, I finally mustered out and returned to Halifax,” he continued, “half a man, changed almost too much to be recognized. Halifax had changed too. You know about the explosion of 1917?”
She knew, vaguely, of the carnage of that day and nodded. What a horrible time to be in this lovely town: the ghosts of the dead and dying would have been thick as fog. To have come from the devastation of Europe to a hometown changed so catastrophically? Traumatic as well.
“I lost friends and family that day,” he continued. “Me, I worked as a wireless operator in the Great War. So the fate of Vince Coleman, the dispatcher who sacrificed himself for the safety of so many in that disaster, still haunts me. After the fire began in the harbour, he remained at his post, sending warning messages until the explosion took him. Do you know about the wireless operator on the Titanic? His determination was responsible for the rescue of what survivors there were.
"When I returned to Halifax, I began my collection of her artifacts, as a measure to heal myself. You may know that more than a hundred of her victims are buried here.”
She nodded again, unsure of what to say.
“May I see it? As per the terms of our agreement,” he asked.
Miss Tulane removed the Halifax pin from her purse and set it in his hand.
He examined it with a frown. “This I recognize: a tourist souvenir, distributed only in the early 1910s. I fear you have not been completely honest with me, Miss Tulane.”
She had written to him of arriving for the first time in Halifax—or what she believed to be the first—in 1916 to travel to Europe with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. Therefore the pin would no longer have been in circulation. She could make a case for it being a junk shop find, or a gift. Miss Tulane, feeling caught, straightened her suit jacket unnecessarily, and also her spine. Fingers of cold pressed along it and into the spare meat of her back. She had survived the most filthy and heinous of wars, and damn it all if a collection of antiques or its owner would defeat her.
With a deep sigh of frustration, Mr. Bagnall removed a small wooden box from the display. He set it on a table between them. The ghost, lured along by some mystic urge, followed it and took up a position in the air above it. Miss Tulane tried to ignore the shade, but it kept drawing her the way the box drew it. A little chant began in her mind. I am not dead, so it cannot be me.
As she turned her attention to the box, a solution presented itself. A twin! A twin sister, dead at sea. That could answer the riddle of her phobia of ocean travel.
Dead in Halifax? Dead in the explosion of 1917? But then, why would the apparition look like her as she was now? And how had it come to be here? A thought struck her: the child singing to her in her dream—could it be this woman, this possible sister?
Mr. Bagnall lifted the artifact’s lid on creaking hinges. Now, she saw it was in fact a music box of a style not made since much earlier in the century. Patches of red felt clung to its interior. As the lid rose, so did a china ballerina, settling into place with a faint twang of its spring.
Terror surged in Miss Tulane.
Turning the key in the side of the box, Mr. Bagnall said, “The miracle is that the mechanism still works. It was salvaged in the early days after the tragedy from the wreck’s flotsam.”
“I thought the Titanic’s location had never been found,” said Miss Tulane hoarsely. She wondered if she should beg him not to release the key.
“Rather, it was lost,” he said, choosing to ignore her obvious discomfiture. “Fishermen knew at one point at least the general area where it sank, but only a few were callous enough to take home what they found floating there. No, they did not dive to it,” he continued, mistaking the hollow look in her eyes for a query. “By report, it must be below at least two miles of water. If it had settled on the Grand Banks, there would have been a chance, but it must be in the cold, deep water to the south. That’s what the old-timers say, at least. But for a time, you could find debris floating on the surface in those parts: deck chairs and cases, umbrellas, other items. It must have been among those. As you can see, I’ve devoted much of my life to hunting down and collecting what others took from the site. But this child’s plaything, it has brought me more pathos than the others combined. Maybe we both will solve a mystery today.”
An even greater dread gripped Miss Tulane as Mr. Bagnall released the key, allowing the ballerina to begin her revolving dance. From the box itself emerged a series of plinks as the cylinder inside turned. She recognized the tune immediately.
“‘Beautiful Dreamer,’” she said, more horrified than before. “My favourite song.”
After the mechanism ran down she asked, the words emerging in a whisper, “What connection does this have to me?”
He shut the box delicately as if it had not survived so much worse, and turned it over. On its base, a brass plate had been fastened. Despite some corrosion, it read clearly, “To my darling Abigale from your adoring nanny Miss Miranda Tulane.”
And then Miss Tulane did the inconceivable, and fainted.
She awoke on the carpet, thinking for a moment that she had chosen a terribly uncomfortable place for a nap.
Nearby, on a chair, Mr. Bagnall looked at her with dispassion. He had clearly left her where she had fallen. The apparition hovered over the table, focused as before on the music box.
“Well, Miss Tulane,” he said, “I gather that you have been lying to me, and not just about your acquaintance with Halifax.”
Inside, she felt a stirring of fear as her life’s foundation of lies crumbled before her one good eye. “Beautiful Dreamer” rang in her head as she sat up and forced herself to reply.
“Mr. Bagnall, my great secret, which I have kept not just from you but from everyone, is that I have had no memory at all of my past before the Great War. Until now.”
His eyes turned querulous, but he still made no move to help her to her feet.
To her great embarrassment, Miss Mindy Tulane burst into tears.
“Abby,” she said, remembering, finally. “Brown ringlets and a hellion’s temper, but sweet when it warranted. I suppose I took on my strength of resolve in response to hers. I gave her the music box the day we sailed. My own parents died when I was younger than she was then, leaving me in the care of the state. In those days, girls were ejected from the Orphan Asylum upon reaching the age of sixteen, and could expect no more to be done for us. I didn’t mind. I wanted an adventure. I found a job with a family in New York and travelled there for the first time in 1911.”
She looked up at the ghost, whom she now noticed had a blind eye too, the mirror of her own. Its pale face contorted in rage, as if angry at her for being alive. Still, it nodded, goading her to continue. “I had been with the family for such a little time! We travelled across the Atlantic in January by the south route, and were set to return aboard the Titanic. I failed them so terribly.”
He kept his silence, forcing her to go on. “There was a little boy, too. Harold—Hally. Abby’s brother. We sailed in second class, but their father knew many of the first-class passengers. His employer had bought our passages. He was the one who came to wake us when the ship began to founder.”
The memories came fast now. The sound reverberating through the ship, through which the children had somehow slept. The sight of the ice, pink and blue in the starlight, passing outside the porthole window. Their mother’s frenzy as she packed, while Miss Tulane dressed the children, making a game of it. She was determined not show the children her own fear, so her body had tensed around it until it shrank into a hard ball of terror in the pit of her stomach. She had never been truly frightened again since that night. Truth be told, she had never felt much of anything.
The turmoil on the boat deck ran at a such a pitch that she felt unwilling to add to it. As for the children, she vowed to stand between them and the alarming truth. She placed herself there with conscious intent, even between them and their hysterical parents. The children would not see her terror, no matter what happened. The lies had begun that night.
Then, the rush of the water, its coldness. The way the children’s hands were abruptly no longer in hers, how the screams of the people in the water around her were drowned out by the screams that seemed to emanate from the ship itself.
She saw her first ghost somewhere between the shock of the water and the moment she realized she was going to die. The green, unearthly lights of the great ship fell away beneath her, as if she instead had taken flight. Only the lights of the stars in the water showed the falseness of that illusion. The “unsinkable” monster of a ship, had gone down into the water of the north Atlantic without a ripple. How could that be?
A piece of debris struck her in the left eye, and swelled it shut. The chill kept it from swelling more, and froze the blood in its tracks down her face.
Her life belt kept her head above the calm surface, but occluded her vision as well. She kicked, trying to turn herself in a circle to search for her employers and especially the children, but her feet were already going numb. In minutes, she could not feel them at all. Within half an hour, she could hear no more screams either.
But the ghosts, they were thick around her. They clung to the bodies of the dying, bobbing in their belts. They rose from the depths below long after the ship herself had vanished, its lights either extinguished or merely too deep in the black depths to see.
They brushed past her, travelling backwards into the night, their faces always turned toward their own lifeless bodies.
Miss Tulane hyperventilated in the cold, felt her tears freeze on her cheeks, and sang “Beautiful Dreamer.” Long past all hope of rescue, a man’s voice called out, “Anyone? Is anyone alive here?”
She found out later that her rescuer was the ship’s fifth officer, a boy not much older than herself. Aboard the rescue ship, the Carpathia, she saw him once at a distance. As he went by, a woman’s spirit departed backwards into the sky. The juxtaposition formed the illusion that he had drawn her ghost away with the force of his passage, but that was all it was: an illusion.
Her ghost was there though, chained by the past—or by something stranger—to a gift she had given to a child who had died before eight years of age.
How was Miss Tulane alive? How could she have been apart all these years from her own spirit? Was this somehow the source of her notable courage and stability? Was her soul attached to Abby’s music box, as punishment for allowing that child to die so horrifically?
Only time would tell, she reasoned, if Miss Mindy Tulane reunited with her shade and continued on as a more complete person. If so, she would be glad of the years when she had not worried about the death and turmoil she had witnessed. Or, on the contrary, she’d discover that she had never left the doomed steamer at all, and at some unknown time, she would find herself flying backwards into the sky, away from a body that would again crumple to the floor of Mr. Bagnall’s shop. Away from the music box that must, somehow, be her true corporeal form…
Her nightmare came to mind: Darkness surrounded her. She felt terror, but also resignation. She was going to die. All that remained was to accept the fact.
Arnold Bagnall stared at Miss Tulane as she travelled deep into her thoughts. Compassion came into his eyes as he recognized her as a fellow traveller through the worst life could offer. When he spoke, it seemed like a truth she should already have known. “I served as a wireless officer during the war, but on the Titanic, I was fifth officer, drawn to you by that song. When I pulled you from the freezing water, it was clear that you could never have been the one singing. Your skin was blue, and the blood from your eye had crusted around your lips. I have no idea how you were still alive. You were the last, the very last we rescued.”
It seemed reasonable to Miss Tulane that the music box could never have found its way back to her except through someone also connected to that horrible event. They had the war in common too, and Halifax, the city to which the Carpathia had brought her…
“Mr. Bagnall,” she said finally, as the last of the memories flooded from her, leaving only the sound of the music box repeating inside her head, “do you suppose this is all because I allowed those dear children die?”
Instead of answering, he turned his gaze to the place where Miss Tulane’s spirit hovered, clearly seeing it himself for the first time. His breath caught, and Miss Tulane wished she had the courage to reach out and comfort him. But all her strength was gone, lost in the past. She and Mr. Bagnall had been drawn together, against the odds. Could it be that there was a great meaning in their meeting again after all this time? She was certain that the apparition portended something greater, something not just about Miss Miranda Tulane and her years of shallow emotions and lies. The sound of that music box playing “Beautiful Dreamer” and the child singing along to it (was it dear Abby, or herself?) grew louder in her head, echoing in her ears and threading a pulse of blood to her useless left eye.
And then, with growing horror, she knew without a doubt, knew there was a shadow rearing up over not just this country, or North America, but the world. She relayed it in a shaking voice to the shop owner, speaking louder than she would have chosen, but needing to drown out the song:
“Mr. Bagnall, war is coming again. And this time, it will be worse.”
Jen Frankel loves to tell tall tales full of twists and magic, and a splash of horror. She is the author of the Blood & Magic series and the Amazon-bestselling Undead Redhead, as well as hosting literary open mics for writers online and in person.
On Twitter: @jenfrankel
Books available at Amazon
Literary open mic on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/writeonliveevent
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.