The Places Between
by John Gatley
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
She was beside him. The movement startled him. She looked down into the street and said, “I knew straight away. You would have to be a dummy not to know. The world looked different and, besides, I can remember it. Dying, I mean.”
That shook him and he looked down at her, the mid-afternoon sun fell through her body like a pane of stained glass. It seemed to bleach her, to dim her. The direct sunlight even seemed to soften her curious floral scent, as if it were evaporating away her only remaining physical identity like a finger print fading from a foggy mirror.
“I’m sorry,” Bill said.
She shook her head.
“Was it an accident?” he asked. He knew most of the time it wasn’t. People were wonderful creatures, but occasionally they were mean to the core, mean and scary and selfish. Especially lately, Bill thought.
“It was,” she said. “She didn’t mean to, I don’t think. She just forgot. To check the furnace. That’s what the men who came after said, anyway. They blamed it on Carmon Gamoxide, whoever that is. They called it a soft death. I know because I heard them say it.”
It took Bill only a moment to sort it out. If you’ve had kids or spent any amount of time around them, you figured out how to decipher their unique interpretations of language. He saw it clearly then. Undoubtedly, if he wanted, he could go to the Wayworth Public Library and look up articles on it. Surely the local paper, the Wayworth Word had covered it. That didn’t matter now, though.
“Who forgot?” he asked. “Maddie, who forgot to check the furnace?”
“My step-mom,” she said, “Beth.”
“Is she here, too?”
Maddie shook her head. “I think she, you know, survived. I think she just got sick.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to go?” Bill asked her again.
She shook her head.
“Because of your brother. Because he is still here somewhere?”
“Sometimes,” she corrected him.
He agreed. “Sometimes.”
Bill stepped away from the window, and she followed like a shimmering shadow.
“There are two people moving in soon,” Bill said, “a new family. They have a baby on the way. Are you going to be good to them?”
“Are they nice?”
“Nice as most,” Bill said.
“I won’t bother them,” she said so sweetly it broke Bill’s heart. “Honest. I just want to find Ethan.”
That was good, Bill thought, and he told her so.
She looked at him, those giant bright blue eyes seeming to swallow him, and she asked, “Are ghosts sometimes bad?”
Bill thought about all the bad ones he had ever encountered and nodded. He did not tell her how bad they could be, but he thought she knew. He had a feeling she knew most of what she was, and what she could do, if not all of it.
“I won’t be bad,” she said. “I just want to find Ethan and help him and stop him from screaming so much.”
“Can they hear his screaming?”
“You mean the ones who lived here?” Maddie asked. “Lydia and them? No, they can’t. At least I don’t think so. When he screams the world goes a little dark for me. For them, too, I think. They fight, and they have bad dreams, but I don’t think they hear him. No, I don’t think so at all.”
“That’s good,” Bill said. “Would you mind if the new family moved in?”
Maddie shook her head, and then smiled a sweet smile turning her full face towards him as if he were Santa Claus and had just asked what she wanted. She said, “Not at all! I don’t like when it’s empty. It’s boring.”
That made Bill think of all the times Nikki had proclaimed her boredom to him. “You’ll be good, right?”
Bill thought of Nikki and responded with, “Pinkie promise?”
Maddie smiled at that and extended her right pinkie. He took it and they shook. It was like dipping his finger into a small puddle, cool and ephemeral.
“You can’t break a pinkie promise,” she said.
“No, you can’t, Maddie,” he said. “No, you can’t.”
When Bill pulled himself up into his truck twenty minutes later, he took out his little notebook and found the phone number he needed. He dug his cell out of his pocket and dialed. The woman answered on the third ring.
“Mrs. Fagan? This is Bill Ortiz, your home inspector.”
“Oh, hi, Bill, how did it go?” she asked, her voice holding a margin of trepidation Bill recognized from other first-time home buyers. She was worried and, like most people who worry, she was thinking the worst.
“Great,” he admitted, “Just great. A few things, but they’re minor. Could use a new garage door, the man door, not the electric. A little of the flashing could be replaced around the back side of the house. Otherwise you’re good. I think you’ll be happy with it.”
“No mold or termites?” she asked. Her voice went from the trepidation of a first-time home buyer to the concern of a first-time mother. Bill knew that tone, too.
“Nope, no mold, and no termites that I could see, but you’ll have to wait for the termite guy on that score. We’ll have a report to you in a day or two.”
“The radon test is scheduled for tomorrow. Other than that, you should be all set.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Okay, well, have a great day.”
“Wait, there’s one more thing,” Mrs. Fagan started, and Bill pictured her on the other line, standing in her apartment in Locust Run one hand holding the phone the other caressing her swollen womb. He wondered if she would ask. Sometimes they did, not knowing that he had the answer.
“Never mind,” she finally said. “Just everything looks okay, right? A good place to raise a child?”
Bill looked up then to the second story window at the front of the house. It was the window in the bedroom he had been in less than ten minutes ago.
She was there now, Maddie in her peach dress and matching bow. Maddie who was waiting for a brother who would never grow older or understand what was happening or where he was. Maddie who would be listening to those screams and cries, and looking for him for how long? Years? Decades? Until they tear the house to the ground, and maybe a little after that. Trying to understand what drives a spirit was as hard as understanding their living counterparts.
Bill waved at the little girl. She waved back. He found he loved her and wished her well.
“Don’t worry about it,” Bill said into the phone. “The place looks good; really. It’s been my experience that if you are good to the house then the house will be good to you.”
“Okay,” she said. “Thanks.”
Bill was still looking at Maddie, her big blue eyes looked so visceral, so real, so true. He said into the phone, “Take care.”
He started the truck and pulled away from the curb and rolled down Maple Avenue towards Droslin. Paul Butterfield poured from the speakers, his harmonica screaming even with the volume down low, and it was to that mournful wail that his thoughts wandered to the lost little boy who had been Maddie’s brother.
That infant trapped between worlds, between the layers that make up this place and the others like mold hidden in the places between walls: unseen, unknown, and brooding. He prayed Maddie would find him and that together they would move on, and he wished that there was something he could do. He felt as useless as he did when he watched tragedy unfold on the news, able to see the horror but not able to help.
It was almost six o’clock by the time Bill finished up at the Mineton place and started the drive home to Martin. He had found nothing unusual at either of the day’s other sites, but his thoughts had lingered on Maddie. Now all he could wait to do was to see his own little girl and, as always, such thoughts brought with them the remembered pleasures of holding her, and dancing with her, and smelling her sweet soft hair as she laid her head upon his shoulder. He would have given anything to feel those things in that moment.
Bill lived in a single on a quiet street. He parked in front of his place and set the emergency brake against the slight incline of the hill. He turned off the truck, pocketed the keys as he got out and, before closing the door, he looked up at his house. No, his home, he always thought of it as his home.
Linda had moved out years ago and flown back to Florida to be with her mother, a trip that had turned from one week into seven years without so much as a fight from Bill. He knew why she had left, and sympathized. She thought he was crazy, and loss is a wound for which there is no fixed treatment. We all grieve in different ways, he had thought then and still did.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he had promised Nikki all those years ago, and he didn’t regret that promise. Home is, after all, where the heart is, and his heart was and always would be with Nikki. Linda had never been able to understand and he could never find the words that would explain it. They had left it as unresolved as their marriage, and they had both buried any chance at understanding it all those years ago.
There was a single light on inside, one he had left on that morning. The little lamp in the living room, the soft yellow glow that illuminated the cream curtains of the wide front bay window looked inviting and warm.
Nearby, one of his neighbors was running a lawnmower. The soft hum of the motor and the smell of cut grass on the air reminded Bill of when Nikki was a baby, and he and Linda would push her through the wide tree-lined sidewalks of Martin as they talked about everything from the music on the radio to family gossip to the nature of stars.
They had been good days. In some ways he could relate to that infant brother of Maddie’s. Bill was caught, by his own design, in the world of the present, the place between what and who he had been and who and what he could be.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said to himself as he closed the truck door. He reached into the bed of the truck and pulled out his jelly bucket. Nikki would be waiting inside, and he would make grilled cheese and they could talk until he fell asleep about her hopes and dreams and the events of his day.
He slid his key into the front door latch, unlocked it and walked into the brightly lit living room.
“Hey, baby,” he said aloud, “I’m home. Had a weird day. You mind if I make grilled cheese?”
The place was neat and ordinary, a worn couch with a worn afghan folded across the back of it. A TV so old it still had a tube in it sat in the far corner, and a pair of chairs stood by the bay window where he and Linda used to sit down at night to eat dinner and watch TV before Nikki.
Bill set his keys on the little mail table inside the door. He kicked off his boots, wincing a little at the pungent odor of his own feet, but also relishing the familiarity of it. He tucked them under the mail table as was his habit and he walked towards the kitchen.
He called out to Nikki again, but she didn’t answer.
He grabbed a can of Coke from the fridge and took it upstairs. Usually, if she didn’t answer, she was in her room. At the top of the steps, he turned on the hall light. Another habit.
The upstairs hall was a narrow corridor that led to the three bedrooms, the bathroom, and the door to the attic steps. The walls were adorned with pictures. Nikki as a baby, Nikki’s first day of school, Bill and Linda holding a five-year old Nikki at Disney world. They needed a dusting.
The door was closed. He knocked once, listened a moment and then went in.
She was standing at the window looking out into the backyard; Bill could make out her silhouette in the negative space created by the denim blue evening sky beyond the glass of the window. Nikki was tall and lean, her blonde hair falling softly past her shoulders in haphazard natural curls that glowed in the soft light of summer.
“Hey, baby,” he said and took a sip of coke, “How was your day?”
She did not turn to him, but she said, “Boring, as always. I missed you.”
“I missed you too, baby,” he said. He wanted to hug her. “I met a girl named Maddie today at work. Do you want to come downstairs while I cook dinner? I can tell you about her. I want you to help me figure out how I can save her and her little brother.”
“Okay.” She moved suddenly from the window, and he could smell the sweetness of her, Gardenias and crushed cloves, that sacred smell that made his heart ache.
Together they went downstairs, and he made himself dinner, setting a single plate on the kitchen table as they talked.
Copyright © 2016 by John Gatley