Cora shivered, despite the warmth of the small electric fire in Marie’s flat. She heard the clatter of cups being set out, and wanted to scream, and ask Marie to hurry up, but it would have been impolite. The woman seemed to come from another time and was quite prissy. She was forced to leave the children with an old friend. Promising to be just an hour, after garbling off some weak story about a sick relative, she looked at her watch and then towards the kitchen.
“Well, here we are.”
Marie appeared with a tray baring cups, saucers and matching milk and sugar bowl. She took her time spreading out coasters and napkins, until Cora felt she would scream. The warm stream of amber from the pot’s sprout made her stomach somersault. This pregnancy made her turn against things she had once enjoyed, tea being one of them, but she took the proffered cup and sipped.
“Do you take milk or sugar?”
“No, thank you. This is fine,” she was afraid, if she reached for either the woman would notice her trembling hand.
No one could fail to notice the dark ringed eyes or the pallor of her skin.
Are you looking after yourself?” Marie asked, and was sorry for asking, as she watched Cora’s eyes fill up.
“I’ll get the papers you wanted.”
Cora heard the opening of a drawer but did not look up. Instead, she hung her head, mortified at her loss of control. An envelope was placed in her lap and a soft hand covered hers and held tight.
“I want you to know you’re no longer alone.”
With this, Cora started to sob. Tears ran unchecked, and she tasted their saltiness on her lips.
“There, there, child,” Marie stroked her hair. “Tell me all about it, and let’s see if I can help.”
Between sobs Cora managed to tell her about the ghost, about the things happening all around her and how Liam wanted her to get rid of the baby. She told her about the workman, and his story of how Ms. James was sent away.
“My parents are old, and their health is failing,” she explained. “Anyway, they’d only say I’d made my bed and must lie in it. They never liked Liam; you see.”
“And with good reason,” Marie sighed. “I’m looking for a new job. I’ve taken all I can from that man.”
“You’re lucky. My marriage has become a life sentence for me, and I cannot bear to think of what it is doing to the girls. If I do not find a way out soon, I will go mad. He’s already accusing me of that, being mad, I mean.”
“Come now,” Marie took the envelope from her. “Let us try and track down this Ms. James. The sooner we speak to her, the sooner we know what we’re dealing with.”
“We?” Cora looked up.
“As I said, my dear, you’re no longer alone.”
Marie spread the documents along the coffee table and sorted them into order. There were several medical forms, signed by prominent doctors on the health of Miss. Emily James. All attested, that while she was physically sound, psychologically she was unable to care for herself. From the date on the forms, they saw Ms. James was just over seventy and was committed to Hillcrest Rest Home, a facility just minutes away from Marie’s flat. Cora saw, to her horror, it was Liam’s signature on the committal form.
“I hope she’s still alive,” Cora said. “It’s over,” she counted on her fingers, “Six months since she went in there.”
“I’ll make an excuse. Say I have a dental appointment and we’ll go there tomorrow afternoon.”
“Thank you, Marie. I feel much better knowing you’ll be with me, but I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”
“It’s no trouble. In a way, I feel I owe it to Ms James. I kept quiet once and an innocent man suffered. I won’t make the same mistake again.”
The headlights of Cora’s car swept up the drive but did little to dispel the darkness. The trees on either side reached across forming a dark tunnel. She put her foot down on the accelerator, wanting to be out of their shadow, and feeling as though she was driving into the mouth of Hell. In this case, she was right. Liam’s car was parked at the front door. The curtains in his study were not drawn, but the light was on. The red lampshade and the terracotta coloured walls made it seem like the room was bathed in blood.
She reached into the back seat and tried to rouse the sleeping children. At any other time, she would have lifted them inside, but not in her condition. They fussed and grumbled, but she finally managed to get them to wake.
The front door groaned open, despite Cora’s efforts to make as little noise as possible. Warning the children to be quiet, she swept them across the hall and up the stairs. They were on the first flight, just beneath the stained-glass window, when they looked up to find Liam standing on the top step; a hammer in his hand.
“Where were you at this hour?”
For a moment none of them spoke. Even Shelly, who would usually run to her father, sensed something was wrong.
“Well, I’m waiting.”
“I had a tummy ache,” Laura said. “And Mam took me to the doctor.”
“You seem well enough now.”
“It was nothing,” Cora ushered the girls past him. “Just trapped wind. I was afraid it might be appendicitis.”
“Wasting money again,” he grabbed her arm. “I want a word with you, when you’re finished putting them to bed.”
“I’ll be down as soon as I can.”
“See that you are. I’ll be in my study.”
Laura and Shelly got undressed and into their nightgowns in silence. Though they each wondered why their Mam did not tell them to brush their teeth, neither asked why. Cora took her time, switching on lights and closing curtains, until she could no longer delay.
“Sleep well, my angel,” she tucked the covers under Shelly chin.
“Night, Mam,” the child snuggled down and was instantly asleep.
“Now, you, madam,” she smiled down at Laura and tried to ignore her dark, troubled eyes.
“You have to be brave, Mam, like the picture,” she pointed towards the gallery. “Pretend you’re her and Dad is the monster.”
“I’ll try,” Cora promised.
She picked up the discarded clothes and draped them across her arms. The gallery was lit in the blues and reds from the window, and she moved between the shadows, praying for strength. The clothes gave her a few minutes respite, as she walked to the kitchen and dumped them into the laundry basket. The door leading to the cottage was closed with stout beam, but just for a moment as she glanced behind her, she could have sworn a young woman stood framed in the doorway; a young woman like the one in the window.
Liam sat with his back to her, his feet resting on a stool. His shoes and socks were scattered about the room. The warm, sweet smell of the cognac he drank reached her before she saw the glass.
“Have you seen sense yet?”
“You mean about the baby?”
“You know bloody well what I mean.”
“Liam, please,” she pushed the study door closed. “You’ll wake the children.”
“Fuck the children and fuck you,” he threw the glass across the room.
The heavy crystal tumbler glanced across the side of her face and she gasped as it sliced open her skin. For a moment he watched the trickle of blood running from the wound. Though she felt the warmth move down her face, she never moved to wipe it away.
“I’ll tell you one last time,” Liam spoke through gritted teeth. “Get rid of that thing or by God, I’ll do it myself.”
“Touch me and I’ll kill you.”
“Oh, I’m really frightened,” he smiled, but there was no look of merriment.
The blood on her face and neck glowed against the whiteness of her skin. Her eyes were wild in anger.
“For God’s sake, clean yourself up,” he turned away, disgusted.
Cora walked to a table and pulled wades of tissue from a box. Her face stung, when she wiped at the cut and her collar and the front of her sweater felt wet. She smelt the sweet, coppery blood.
Annie stood outside the study door her hand clasped on the handle. The scent of the woman’s blood seemed to penetrate through the wood. This one, this man, was like all those who had gone before him, a destroyer of life. She felt the anger well within her and knew if she allowed it to overwhelm her, then she would return to the shrunken, burnt corpse she really was. All around her the spirits whispered, lulling her, begging her to be still, to wait. But she wanted to kill him, to slowly tear him apart. To feel his blood upon her hands and hear his last gasp. She wanted him to suffer the way she had.
“Outside, hidden by the trees, The Dark One smiled and willed her on. He did not dare enter the house. The woman with her symbols and images of his enemy, made him unwelcome.
“He must die,” he whispered. “Finish him and you will have your family back. Go on, Annie. It will be a mercy and you will save the child.”
Annie heard his words and the rage roared. She brushed aside the entreaties of the spirits. The Dark One was right. She would save the child and be restored to her family. It was her faith and if she should be damned then, at least her family would be saved. She drew back from the door and made ready to merge through the wood, when…
“I told her to be brave like you.”
The child’s voice sounded from behind her. Annie froze, not daring to move until her features returned to normal.
“It is you, isn’t it; in the window?”
Annie turned to find a little girl, the one called Laura, standing on the stairs. Silhouetted as she was by the moonlight and with her hair flowing across her shoulders, she looked like Dora.
“Go back to bed, child,” Annie whispered.
“I knew it was you,” Laura tip toed down the last few steps and came towards her.
The sound of her mother’s anguished sobbing echoed from inside the room, and Laura’s eyes darted from Annie to the door, unsure of what to do.
“This is no place for you,” Annie put her arm around the child’s shoulders and led her back up the stairs.
“Is my Mam going to be all right?”
“She will be fine. Come along now. It is late.”
“I knew it was you, in the window, I mean,” Laura said, as Annie tucked her into bed.
“Perhaps, a long time ago,” her heart ached at the familiar scent of the child.
It was the first real thing she smelt since she had awoken. Until now everything smelt of the earth. The raw, blood-sweet scent of soil seemed to surround her.
“Did the monster kill you?”
She was taken aback by the question, and had it come from her sisters she would have lied and pretended it was not so. But this child had the sight and she knew nothing good would come from lying to her.
“Yes, I tried hard to fight him, but in the end he won.”
“So why are you here? You can’t really be dead, if I can see you?”
“I am dead to the light. I come from a twilight place where I wander by day but am awake and I suppose, in a way, alive by night.”
“It’s all very strange.”
“Yes,” Annie smiled. “Very strange.”
Laura snuggled down under the covers.
“Will you stay with me until I’m asleep? I get frightened when my Mam and Dad argue.”
“Yes, I will watch over you and keep you safe. I promise.”
Annie sat there, in the darkness and listened to the even breathing of the child. The memory of her sisters and their loss became a physical pain within her, and she clutched at her heart. With her sensitive hearing she picked out every word of the conversation from below.
“I’m telling you for the last time,” Liam warned. “Get rid of the baby.”
Cora still held the tissue to her face. He turned his chair towards her and put his feet up on a footstool, his eyes fixed cruelly on his wife. Her eyes travelled down toward the soles of his feet. There against the white of his skin, a black cross was tattooed on each foot.
“My God,” she whispered.
“I think they look quite good. Had them done on a night out with the lads,” he got up to fix another drink.
He filled his glass and stood rocking back and forth on his heels.
“Do you know what I am doing?”
“What, I don’t understand.”
“Every time I move like this, with every step I take, I’m walking on the symbol of your Christ.”
Bile rushed into her throat, and she had to swallow hard. He retraced his steps and her stomach churned at each footfall. Finally, she could bear it no longer and she vomited splattering the carpets and his toes.
“For fuck sake,” he tried to sidestep away. “That’s it. I’m out of here,” he picked up his socks and shoes.
The muscles in Cora’s stomach ached and her throat burned. She wiped away any remaining residue from her mouth and brushed the damp hair from her forehead. Liam meanwhile was standing in the shower, hosing down his feet. She heard water gurgling through the pipes and traced his footsteps, as he raged around overhead. Soon he came thundering down the stairs and strode into the room, car keys in one hand, and an overnight bag in the other.
“I’m going now, but I’ll be back in the morning. If you have not come to your senses by then, I swear, I’ll beat it out of you.”
The door slammed and outside the wheels of the car crunched on the gravel. The sound faded and the silence came flooding back to envelop her. She was sobbing, as she fetched cloths and a basin of water to clean up the mess. He would try to beat the child out of her, but he would not find her an easy victim. She thought of the kitchen and its array of shiny, steel knives. Let him try to hurt her child. She would bury one of his precious knives in his chest; reef it through his black heart. The carpet was now free of vomit, but still she scrubbed on. Unaware of the threads scraping and cutting her knuckles or her tears mingling with the dirty water.
Liam guided the car along the driveway towards the main gate. His fingers griped the wheel so tight the knuckles showed white. He meant every word he said. He would be back in the morning and one way or another; he would get rid of that thing she was carrying.
Annie pushed aside the curtains in the children’s room and watched him leave. Her throat ached from tears and the sound of the woman’s sobs became a lament for the loss of the innocent. When he returned she would be waiting. No matter what hour, she would return from her twilight world and tear him to pieces.