The windows were open.  A day which felt like April even though it was February had warmed the many rooms of the house, and now as the sky turned pink with the sun’s descent, a soft breeze had risen, sending dead leaves scuttling along the sidewalk outside and causing the sheer curtains within the house to float and fall in time with the wind’s swells.

She liked the feel of the air circulating around her, the way the floors felt cool beneath her bare feet and the way the loose strands of her hair lifted with the current.  She’d felt cooped up these last few weeks; ice and snow and anxiety had kept her indoors, the sky a perpetual gray that seemed to mirror her own state of mind.  Today, though, today had been a nice reprieve from the cold and the overcast skies, today had been a literal breath of fresh air, and though the twilight evening was quickly dropping off into the edge of true nighttime darkness and the warmth of the day was evaporating with the disappearance of the sun, still she kept the windows open, still she let the crisp eddies of air move through the stuffy rooms of the house, still she closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, as if hoping that by taking in enough of the clean air she could somehow cleanse her spirit of its recent grief.

She no longer worried about things like making sure the doors were locked or checking that the gates were properly fastened.  Every window in the house being open to the darkness might once have caused her a great deal of anxiety, especially being there all alone, but her mind had stopped fretting over such things

Danger did not concern her any more.  The thought of pain, of danger, of death, did not cause the slightest trouble in her mind.  Everything, every person, every purpose worth living for, worth caring about, had been taken from her.  If the reaper himself had walked into her bedroom at that very moment, she thought, she would have stood calmly, put aside the book she was reading, and walked happily, numbly, into his welcome embrace.

In truth she was not actually reading the book.  She had held it, open to the same page, for several minutes now.  She had settled herself into the chair in her bedroom with the book some time before – an hour, perhaps, or more, when there was still enough light coming through the window behind her to illuminate the words, though her eyes must have scanned the same paragraph a hundred times without knowing what she was reading.  Now that full darkness had settled, she could barely make out the lines of text against the background of the page.

The light in the upstairs hall was on.  It was always on, had always been on since they had bought the house three years ago.  They had left it on so that if one of the children needed to get up – to go to the bathroom, to get a drink, to seek out their parents after a bad dream – they would be able to see where they were going.  She’d had a great fear, when they first moved in, that one of the children – or perhaps even she, herself – might go stumbling in the darkness of the hall and straight into the opening at the top of the stairs, down that steep incline to the floor of the entryway below.  She had no such fears now.  She could find her way through that house in utter darkness if she needed to.  But she hadn’t switched off the light. 

She hadn’t changed a single thing since that day.

In the pink room at one end of the hallway, her daughter’s stuffed animals still sat in anticipation of a game that would never resume.  In the green room at the other end, model planes hung, swaying in the breeze, over an unmade bed and a pile of laundry that her son would never put away.

There on the floor, just to the side of her dresser, a dark shape that she knew to be her husband’s pajamas, dropped there in his hurry to get going on that fateful day, still sat, untouched.

She couldn’t bear to think of them, of her family, but could bear even less the thought of somehow erasing their last moments from the memory of the house.  So things remained, just as they had been.

She was sitting in the darkness now, the triangle of yellow light from the hall spilling into her bedroom but not quite reaching her.  Her eyes were closed, her breathing slow and steady. She was listening carefully to all the myriad sounds that drifted in through the windows: the creaking of the branches of the cedar trees along the side of the house; the distant sound of cars in town; the call of some bird, confused perhaps by the warm winter day; the long, mournful whistle of a train passing by in the night.

The slamming of the door made her jump, upset her carefully crafted peace of mind.  Her eyes flew open as an annoyed breath huffed out of her nostrils.  The bathroom door, just across the hall, had shut.  

It was obviously the wind that had done it, the wind creating conflicting drafts throughout the house, and rather than being unnerved she was simply irritated by this intrusion of sound and movement on her otherwise serene environment.

She stood up, crossed the hall, opened the bathroom door.  It was colder within, the night air filling up the small room, the white tiles absorbing the chill and reflecting it back at her as she stood motionless in the center of the room, goosebumps prickling the bare skin of her arms.

She would have sighed, had she wanted to expend the extra energy; instead she closed the bathroom window in silence, then proceeded around the house, walking from the light of the hall into the darkness of the bedrooms and back again, closing windows as she went.  She stepped slowly but lightly down the stairs to the main rooms of the first floor, closing the windows there, too, til the house was sealed up once more like the tomb she knew it to be, and then she returned to her bedroom, to sit once more in her chair, her book forgotten completely, dropped onto the floor next to her, facedown, its spine creased, its title unreadable in the darkness.

Ten minutes passed, her mind lulled by the steady hum of the central heat now escaping through the air vents in the ceiling, lulled almost into sleep, or that thing which passed for sleep in the life she now found herself living.

The door slammed again.  

Her eyes opened; the rest of her body remained completely still.  Her gaze locked on to the bathroom door across the hall.  Her heart, having skipped a beat or two at the first startling of the sound, dropped back into its steady rhythm as she stared, curious, at the four panels set into the door, at the glass doorknob against its brass plate.

At the light reflecting ever so slightly off the doorknob as it turned.

A quick inhalation of breath, and she leaned forward a few inches, eyes squinted as she focused on the knob.  

Turning, turning, frustratingly slowly, until she heard it: the click as the latch disengaged.

Then the creak as the door opened inward: one inch, two inches, a clear stop as if it had come up against something solid.

She stood, shaking with anticipation and adrenaline, with a fear of and hope for something she dared not name, and stepped forward, her feet moving from the plush carpet of her bedroom to the smooth wooden boards of the hallway, her hand reaching out in front of her toward that doorknob to grasp it…

Every door in the house slammed shut at once.

Her hand, inches from the bathroom door, jerked back reflexively, and she cradled it against her chest with her other hand as if it had been injured.  She turned where she stood, her eyes roving from one closed door to another: the bathroom, her daughter’s room, her own bedroom, the hall closet, her son’s room, a complete circle of the upper floor.

Behind her, a creak as her son’s door opened.  A few inches at first, a pause, then more, until the door stood half ajar.  A shifting of the shadows within, a silhouette, a recognition half-formed, the exact height, the exact shape of…

No.  She took a step back, stopped suddenly as the door to her daughter’s room let out its familiar squeak.  Her eyes darted toward it.  Light from the streetlamp beyond bathed the room in a hazy amber glow.  She watched as small fingers gripped the edge of the door, and her heart  gave a thump so hard she bent forward in pain.  The top of a head appeared, golden hair shining in the light, one blue eye peering out as if her daughter were about to jump out, giggling, and shout peek-a-boo!

She saw movement in front of her, a flash of light in the dark bathroom as the shape of her husband scraped a straight razor over stubble, the metal reflecting back the hall light as it slid up and down, up and down.

To her left, the light of the hallway dimmed as the shadow of her son emerged from his room, footsteps like empty echoes on the wooden floor.  To her right, as the light flickered, in jolting movements her daughter’s form jerked toward her.  In front of her, the bathroom door opened further, and her husband’s heavier tread joined that of her children as they moved closer, surrounding her.

Come with us, Mommy.  Her daughter’s voice sounded in her head though the shadow in front of her did not open its mouth.  Come on, Mom, you don’t want to stay her all alone, do you?  The shape that was almost her son tilted its head as his voice filled her mind.  The silhouette in front of her stepped forward, her husband’s voice in her head: Come along, darling.  

Her family!  They were here!  They couldn’t be, she knew this, knew with certainty and finality that they were buried beneath six feet of cold dirt in the cemetery just outside of town, and yet they were here, with her, and they wanted…

A clammy fear gripped her heart as she looked at the converging shadows.  A twisting vine of icy apprehension pooled around her bare feet and circled up her legs.  She shivered violently.

“Oh, my loves!” she sobbed, and she reached out toward the thing that both was and was not her son.  A bloodred flame erupted in the recesses where his eyes should have been, and she snatched her hand back in pain as a low rumbling laughter filled the air around her, vibrating the floorboards beneath her.

“What? No.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper, barely discernible over the rising laughter and a wind which came from nowhere and rushed through the house, unnatural and biting cold.

She shook her head, trying to dislodge the vision, the feeling, the awful nightmare that this must be.  Her stomach clenched not in fear but in grief, in sorrow, in anguish at the loss that she had kept herself numb to for months, a torment that rose suddenly within her, a tidal wave song of pain and despair so strong it drowned out the laughter and the wind, the shadows wavering before her, these shadows of her own loss, these apparitions of her own consuming sadness, these harbingers of the darkness she had kept so long at bay.

Come with us, Mommy.

She looked at the staticky shape which was not her daughter but spoke with her daughter’s voice, and she knew, deep inside her, that no happiness existed in this world for her any longer, knew that the things worth living for had deserted her, knew that life was too much, too long, too horribly empty to endure for another year, another month, another day.

“Yes,” she said, knees buckling beneath her.  “No,” she said, stumbling backward.  “My loves,” she said, as her foot came down behind her into the empty space at the top of the stairs.

“My darlings.” Her last words came out as a whisper as her body went, head over heels, down the steep staircase.  Her head hit the tiled floor with an undeniably lethal thump.  Her sight swam in and out of focus.  Pain pierced every part of her body.  Above her, at the top of the stairs, the hall light flickered.  Shadows gathered, two, then three, joining together into the horror that was a mother’s worst nightmare: her grief come to life before her eyes.  The shadow swooped down upon her, pressing it’s impenetrable darkness against her, until she could see nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing.

Thirty Years Later

“What’s the story with that house?” the couple asked.

The realtor followed their line of sight to the house on the corner, it’s paint peeling, roof sagging, yard overgrown.  She sighed.  That eyesore drove down the property values of the entire neighborhood, and scared away prospective buyers of the surrounding homes.

“A real tragedy, that,” she said, unlocking the door to the house she was supposed to be showing them.  “The bank owns the house, has for years.  No one wants to put in the work to fix it up.”

The man’s eyes stayed locked on the old house.  His wife looked up at him curiously.  “Is it for sale, though?” he asked.  The realtor sighed.  “It could be.” She hoped he’d leave it at that.

“I bet you could get it for a steal, though, couldn’t you?  Take the money you saved and put it into restoring it.  I bet it’d be a real beauty with a little TLC.”

The realtor shook her head.  “You really don’t want to go getting mixed up with that house.  Trust me.”

“Why?” the man asked, giving her what she supposed he thought was a charming grin.  “Is it haunted or something?”

“Or something,” the realtor responded, but the man’s grin just grew wider.  “Oooooh,” he said, and his wife giggled.  “Tell me more.”

The realtor crossed her arms across her chest and stared at the house in question.  “Fine,” she said. “Years ago, a family lived there.  There was an accident one day, as the father was taking the kids to school – a horrible car crash just a few blocks down.  The dad and the kids were killed instantly.” 

“Oh, that’s sad,” the wife said, but the husband gestured for the realtor to continue.

“The wife – the mother – seemed to be OK.  Well, as OK as you can be in that situation.  She sat through the funeral, the graveside service.  Let everyone in town shake her hand and pat her back and express their condolences.  Then she went home and sort of locked herself away for a while.  No one thought much about it, no one wanted to disturb her grieving.  Then one day, when someone finally did stop by, there was no answer.  They could just make out her shape through the lacy curtains that covered the front windows.  The police were called, the door broken down.  She’d been dead for awhile at that point, a couple of weeks at least.  She was at the foot of the stairs, body broken, head at an unnatural angle.  Some people thought it was an accident.  Some people thought she threw herself down the stairs in a fit of grief.  They say she hadn’t changed a thing in the house since her family died.  Their breakfast dishes from that day, still sitting on the table with the leftover food rotted onto them.  Dirty clothes still in the hamper.  Toys still strewn about.  Sad, disturbing stuff.

“Well,” the realtor took a deep breath before she continued, “after a few months, the house went back to the bank.  It was sold several times, for less and less each time, but no one ever stayed long.  They say…they say the doors open and close on their own.  That cold breezes blow through the house even in the summer.  That a woman – a ghost woman – appears sometimes on the stairs, and that sometimes people feel pushed near the the top, as if something is trying to make them fall.  But mostly… mostly they just hear crying.  The crying of a grief-stricken mother.”

The realtor shivered at her own story.  The man looked thoughtfully up at the old house.  “I think we’ll chance a ghost for a good deal, won’t we, Babe?”  He put his arm around his wife and pulled her close.  The realtor shrugged.  “I’ll see what I can do about finding a key, if you really want to check it out.  But it won’t be today.  I’ll have to make some calls first.”

The man rubbed his stubbly chin with one hand for a moment before answering: “That’s alright.  You see what you can do.  Let us know when we can get in to see it. I don’t mind putting in a little work on a house, do you, Babe?”  His wife shook her head.  “And I don’t mind a ghost or two, as long as she keeps quiet while the game is on!” The man laughed and led his wife away down the sidewalk toward their car.  

The realtor watched them drive away.  She let her gaze wander back to the old house.  In the nearest upper floor window, a curtain fluttered as if someone had stood looking out and had just walked away, letting it drop.  The realtor stared for a moment longer, then shook her head and hurried to her car.

Upstairs in the old house, just beyond the window, a shape that both was and was not a grieving mother hung weightless in the air, a shadow on the wall, a loss given shape, a sorrow given form.

© 2022, Heather Miller