Stay With Me
by Iseult Murphy
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai Podcast.
I didn’t know why Mom thought I’d like to live by the sea. Maybe she thought I’d like the illusion of space after the hospital, or that all the blustery sea air would drive the last cobwebs of Richard from me. I couldn’t afford to live in such a fancy apartment with its sea views, even though Mom got a great deal on the rent. She told me the owner was eager to get away after his relationship ended, so he let the apartment for a ridiculously low price.
It seemed fitting that the forsaken widow moved into the abandoned home.
Richard never liked the sea. Its depths, teeming with unseen life, terrified him. It must have reminded him too much of his own demons, tormenting him below the surface of his conscious mind. Maybe Mum thought the proximity to the water would help me forget him, since we'd made no memories on the beach.
The living room looked out on the shore, but the rest of the rooms either faced the road or the concrete courtyard between the apartment blocks. The whole apartment smelled of bleach, which I found comforting. It reminded me of the hospital with its disinfected walls and corridors. Mom brought the remnants of my possessions, neatly boxed up with labels, and sorted them into their corresponding rooms. The things she didn’t know what to do with she left in the hallway. Most of it was Richard’s stuff. His work clothes, his papers and books from the office, the heavy boxes full of melted tin soldiers that still smelled of smoke.
I thought she’d forget to pack his things when she brought my stuff from the old place to the new one. She wanted me to let go of Richard and move on with my life. She worried I’d obsess about him and get sick again, but it was all I had left of him. Everything else was destroyed with the house.
There were no curtains in the living room or on the small window beside the front door, but there were blinds in the bedroom. I sat on the bed until it grew dark, staring at the boxes of my thrift store clothes and bargain cosmetics that Mum dutifully packed up and carted around while I was in the hospital. I didn’t want any of it. I decided I wouldn’t even bother unpacking it. It didn’t speak to me.
I wished I was in the old apartment, with its dark pokey rooms and the smell of smoke wafting rich off the tin soldiers as I forced them to march across the kitchen table. It was always so cold, but I didn’t mind because Richard was there. I’d put up with anything to keep him with me.
How was he going to find me now? I was so far away from where we lived together, and the sea wind would blow the smoke away from the soldiers.
I wandered through the rooms again. I gazed at the twinkling lights of the distant houses on the other side of the bay and listened to the waves crash against the rocks below. I realized there were cold spots in this apartment, too, and rubbed the goosebumps on my arms. A whisper of breath brushed against my neck and I tensed, frightened, not because it was happening again, but because I was afraid it wouldn’t.
A sigh and noises elsewhere in the apartment. Maybe the normal creaks and groans of the building. I didn’t know its rhythms. When I went into the hallway, I caught a shadow slipping into the bedroom.
“Richard?” I hardly recognised my cracked, hoarse voice, my vocal chords damaged by too much smoke inhalation. A low husky voice that Richard would have loved.
There was no response. The cold spot no longer lingered beside me. I felt no phantom caress my hair. I shook my head. It was my imagination. I was all better now. My medication was too high to allow me to be anything else.
I went into the kitchen to make tea to warm myself. Just as the kettle boiled, I heard a thump in the corridor. The pile of boxes in the hallway had toppled, spilling Richard’s belongings across the beige carpet. Hope swelled within me. This was a sign. I scooped up the items, handling them tenderly as I returned them to the boxes and lifted the containers into orderly rows.
They felt heavier than they should, so I looked inside to find the reason for the sudden weight gain. Odd shaped objects lined the bottom of the first box I examined. Heavy and cold, they felt familiar to the touch. The texture reminded me of handling ham joints at Christmas and inexpertly stuffing the turkey, cramming butter under the skin and rubbing it into dead flesh.
I reached in with both hands and grasped one object, lifting it up to be revealed by the pale light of the single low-watt bulb.
A foot, human, the toes carefully painted pink, the leg roughly hacked off at the ankle.
I dropped the foot and tossed the box aside, flinging out treasured possessions to get to the bottom of the next box. An arm, or something that looked like an arm, rested awkwardly at the bottom under Richard’s textbooks. The hand waved as I lifted it out, the fingernails painted the same seashell hue as the foot.
I didn’t want to check the next box because I knew it would contain my head, and I wasn’t ready to face my accusing stare.
Why did Richard show me these horrible things? Had death brought him no peace? Had his pain atrophied into hatred?
I took my tea into the bedroom and sat at the end of the bed. The tea was stone cold. I must have forgotten to boil the kettle.
They told me I wasn’t really seeing Richard, that he was a hallucination brought on by grief. It was unhealthy. They said I should let him move on. It would be what he wanted. Apparently, it wasn’t unusual to have a psychotic break after experiencing trauma, but that I was all better now.
I didn’t want to believe them. Richard had been with me. He had been real. The fact that he didn’t follow me to the hospital proved that to me. He couldn’t find me so far away from our house, and then the apartment.
Maybe the doctors were right. If not about Richard, then about me. I hadn’t helped him in life, why would I be enough to keep him with me in death? These horrific visions must come from my own mind. Survivor’s guilt, the doctors said. Hallucinations so real I could still feel the chill of dead flesh on my hands.
I saw movement in the vanity’s mirror. Someone stood at the bedroom door. As soon as I turned, the shadow moved swiftly down the corridor towards the living room.
I looked in the vanity mirror, hoping that the shadow would return. Perhaps he was too shy to reveal himself directly. Maybe mirrors could be portals that allowed spirits to make themselves known.
The bank of mirrored wardrobe doors behind me reflected my back in a row of slump shouldered soldiers. Richard wouldn’t recognise me anymore, with my burned out voice and overweight body covered in cheap charity shop jumpers and jeans. I hardly recognised the body in the bank of wardrobe mirrors or the heavily jowled face in the mirror before me, the eyes dull and red.
The reflection in the centre panel of the wardrobe mirrors didn’t match its companions. Instead of my wide, round back it showed a front view of a woman sitting upright on the bed in a baggy black jumper with a panda on the front and a pair of pink and grey leggings. She was slim, with blonde hair sticking out in a short frazzled halo around her head, hands folded in her lap, her expression blank. Her eyes were ringed with bruises, like the panda on her chest, and tear trails glistened down her cheeks. A large clown smile of smeared red lipstick made an angry gash across her face.
I leaned closer to the vanity and gazed at that middle reflection. Who was she? A figment of my fractured mind or a glimpse into another time or dimension? As I studied her, the other woman lifted her head and looked at me in the vanity mirror, her slack lips slowly rising in a smile that followed the lines of lipstick drawn across her skin.
Jumping to my feet, I spun to the middle door of the wardrobe to confront this intruder, but the bank of mirrors had unified and all showed me the repeated image of a plump woman with shoulder length greasy brown hair, a baggy jumper and a pair of faded denim jeans.
I checked the vanity mirror in case the apparition had fled in there, but all the reflections were mine.
When I went into the corridor, the door to the boxroom stood open. A chill breeze eddied out, and when I looked through the dark doorway, I could no longer see the bed and bedside locker inside. It had become a black hole. I sensed a presence there, dark and foreboding, and heard the sounds of a saw cutting through flesh and bone. The stench of blood made me gag, and I looked away because I didn’t want to see what lurked within the room.
I knelt beside the boxes, looking for the severed limbs, but they were gone, even though I could still smell their rancid aroma.
Running footsteps thudded on the carpet and a body brushed against me as a shadow flickered across the walls.
I knew it wasn’t him. He didn’t play tricks, not in life, and not when he visited me in death. It wasn’t his way to hide or play coy. Maybe he had passed on. Maybe he was still waiting for me in the old apartment, or had returned to the ruin of our house to kick through the debris until I came for him.
This was the woman from the mirror. Abandoned like the apartment. Unwanted and left alone.
I stood, keeping my back to the boxroom. Its icy breath felt like the chill from an open freezer door. The noises of some brutal slaughter continued, but I couldn’t force myself to look.
Perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me because it was my first night of freedom from the hospital. My first night alone. I hated to be alone. I knew that was why Richard stayed with me, even though he couldn’t keep on living.
I went into the living room and turned on the lights, transforming the window into an opaque pane that reflected the bare room with its cracked brown leatherette suite and yellow walls. The coffee table in front of the sofa had gained a homemade seashell bracelet. It wasn’t mine or Mom’s, and it hadn’t been there earlier. Perhaps it belonged to the woman who had lived here before me.
I felt her standing beside me, breathing heavily onto my neck.
The doctors said ghosts were my subconscious trying to reveal some deep truth and teach me an important lesson about myself. They didn’t believe in spirits. It was all chemicals and psychology with them.
I picked up the bracelet from the table. Thin leather cord threaded through crudely bored holes in the shells held the whole thing together. I wondered if they were from the local beach, carefully gathered by the woman and her lover on romantic walks in happier times. I rubbed my thumb over the ridges on the shells, then held the bracelet to my nose. It smelled of salt and seaweed, with the faint hint of floral perfume on the leather.
The yellow corduroy cushion pressed hard and lumpy against my back, and the armchair creaked and sagged as it took my weight. I looked at the window and saw the woman leaning over me in the reflection. Tall and thin, with salt frizzed hair and seashell pink nail polish, she no longer had the bruises around her eyes, but red lines like faded lipstick marked her neck and wrists. She stared at me with such longing.
If my subconscious was sending me a message, I didn’t understand it. I wished Richard was with me.
When I turned my head, I couldn’t see her, but I could feel her hovering over me, pushing like a cool wind against me, nudging me with gentle but consistent pressure. Maybe, if I closed my eyes, I could pretend she was Richard.
“Who are you?”
When I opened my eyes, she was gone from the window, but I could still feel her.
“What do you want?”
Perhaps she was shy. Richard had no problem talking to me. I wondered if there were people living in my old apartment and if Richard ever talked to them, if he was still there. Selfishly, I hoped he didn’t, but I wouldn’t want him to suffer alone, excluded, waiting for me to return and worrying about where I’d gone. I hoped they talked to him, in that case, so he wouldn’t feel abandoned. It was terrible to be abandoned and alone.
“How can I help you?”
The air moved around me. For a second, the room shimmered and changed. I saw pink rose patterned curtains over the windows, and pictures of horses on the walls. A faux fur throw rested over the back of the nasty brown couch. The room was warm, loved, lived in. Someone took pride in the touches. A large conch shell sat on the table in front of me.
The woman was back in the window. She looked into the reflection, meeting my gaze through the glass.
“Let me stay,” she mouthed.
How could I turn her away? Perhaps she was waiting for her boyfriend to return. This was her home. I was the temporary spirit haunting it.
“Yes, of course. You are welcome to stay here for as long as you want.”
She solidified beside me. Younger than me, only early twenties, with a waiflike vulnerability. I saw bruises on her arms and the chop marks along her wrists and throat. Her eyes were dark, but she smiled. She seemed happy.
Her body weighed nothing as it came to rest on top of me. Her coldness made me shiver. At first she hovered over me, her body superimposed over mine, and then she slowly sank into me, melding with me until we were one. Together. No longer alone.
Iseult Murphy is a chronically ill, multi-genre writer from Ireland. She has published several novels and over two dozen short stories. Her short fiction has appeared in NewMyths, the Drabblecast and The Creepy Podcast. Find out more at Iseultmurphy.com.
A SPECIAL, SPECIAL THANKS TO THE JUDGES OF THE HAUNTED HORROR CONTEST:
Catherine A. MacKenzie's
writings are found in numerous print and online publications. She writes all genres but invariably veers toward the dark—so much so her late mother once asked, “Can’t you write anything happy?” (She can!)
She’s published two novels: Wolves Don’t Knock and Mister Wolfe. Two volumes of grief poetry commemorate her late son Matthew: My Heart Is Broken and Broken Hearts Can’t Always Be Fixed. She has also published other books of poetry and short story compilations, all available on Amazon or from her. Her latest publication is an anthology with 75 authors: No One Should Kiss a Frog. She’s also compiling stories for two anthologies about loss. Check her website for submission details - http://writingwicket.wordpress.com
Cathy lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
is a published poet and author of 25 published books. Her stories have been featured on the Kaidankai podcast and by Sweetycat Press, Ravens Quoth Press, Clarendon House Publications, Spillwords, and other publications. She served as Editor for Valkyrie Magazine. She was selected as “Best In Collection” 2023 by Ravens Quoth Press and she also won the Emerald Award for her poem “Dancing Girl” awarded by Sweetycat Press. She prefers writing horror but also writes science fiction, paranormal mystery and fantasy. She lives with her family in Florida.
is Deputy Director for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Smithsonian Affiliations (SITES | SA), where she provides executive leadership and direction for overall planning, development, and management of SITES | SA programs and activities. She is currently leading the organization in the implementation of a new strategic plan to catalyze public engagement and spark learning, enjoyment, and wonder by connecting the resources of the Smithsonian to a vital network of museums and other educational and cultural organizations. Prior to this role, she served as the Deputy Director for Smithsonian Affiliations and Interim Deputy Director for Exhibits, Finance & Administration for SITES.
Bram Stoker Award nominated author and editor, Douglas Gwilym has been known to compose a weird-fiction rock opera or two. His short story "Year Six" is on Ellen Datlow's recommended reading list for Best Horror 14. He co-edits The Midnight Zone—forthcoming edition, Novus Monstrum, a collection of never-before-seen monsters, featuring original stories by greats, and new voices, in strange, dark fiction. He reads classics of the proto-Weird on YouTube and has been guest staff at Alpha Young Writers workshop. His short fiction appears in LampLight, Lucent Dreaming, Dark Horses, Shelter of Daylight, Tales from the Moonlit Path, Penumbric, Creepy podcast, and Tales to Terrify.
hosts the Kaidankai. She is a journalist and author whose fiction and non-fiction work has appeared in outlets around the world. One of her fondest memories is hanging out summers in a tree or in the back corner of the library reading ghost stories.