Horla Fiction (June 2021)

 

FAMILY CONNECTIONS

by CECILIA KENNEDY

 

WHEN the roads narrowed, and the rain poured down, the U-Haul truck in front of me—the one carrying all of the things—the one my husband was driving, skidded to the side and cracked a streetlight. The truck opened, and everything fell out into the flooded streets, but my husband was safe. No one else was hurt. The police wrote him a ticket anyway, our welcome into the tiny town where streets are named after the families who put down roots there—ones that could be traced back. But not ours, except for maybe tangentially—someone on Michael’s side of the family—someone who worked in the hospital here back in the early 1930s.

*

In church, no one shakes our hands during the sign of peace. When we walk home, local families from the neighborhood line the sidewalks, the children scattering like leaves. Michael has it in his head to introduce himself—and me—to our neighbours. They smile and nod and invite everyone around us over to their home for a Sunday picnic. We walk back to ours, alone.

By now, the countertops, which held fast to their red Formica past have given way. The stubborn walls are covered in thick coats of paint, but somewhere between the garage and the basement, we left the original wallpaper intact: a curly, pattern in pale blue swirls of leaves and flowers, against a once-white background, all stained and yellowed. Just there, in that space, between the garage, kitchen, and basement doors, something seems to hover. When I carry in the groceries or take the laundry down to the basement, I move quickly. Something tells me to move fast while lightly touching the stained, velvety swirls. Sometimes, they look like waves.

*

Thin stems of maple leaves squirm like worms on the pavement. I’ve taken to daily walks now, turning right from my doorstep and picking up the side streets all lined with gingerbread houses and geese made of stone. Eventually, I pass the hospital on my right, with its green copper dome and flat, limestone bricks that tower stories high above me. Tiny archways frame every other window near the top. The revolving doors, on the ground level, are a whirl of activity—people coming in and out.

Leaving the sidewalk, I head straight for the parking lot and take a left to circle back, and when I’m near the opposite side of the building, I stop for some reason. I’m not sure why. Even on this side of the building, there is a parking lot, and people stop to talk—as people in tiny towns do—and I feel something—a kind of static in the air. My skin prickles. Both of my palms tingle, and my heart beats rapidly. Something rumbles in the distance, above me. Something like thunder, but the skies are clear. The subtle whistle of a rushing wind runs down my back, ending in a loud crash. When I turn around, a large boulder splits the pavement. More rushes of wind follow, along with rocks, stones, and bricks that fall at my feet. They fall from the building above at great speeds and heights, and no one reacts. Every crash sends me leaping into the air. Screaming, I run from the sidewalk, my heart in my throat. The people around me stare, but I know they saw. I know they at least heard. Yet, to them, my reaction is strange, overdone, unnecessary.

*

When I get home, I enter the garage, rushing past what Michael and I call the “haunted corner” where the stained wallpaper lives, and the spying thing I sense lingers. On the countertop, I see that Michael has left all of the important bills and mail, and I’m instantly upset.

“I’ve told you that the countertop is not a place to put bills or work things. We have an office desk upstairs.”

In the living room, Michael sits with a drink and stares at the wall. His face is tense. His body rigid with rage.

“What’s wrong?” I ask. But I know what’s wrong. He hates his job. He hates everything about this place—and I do too.

I leave the living room and let him stew, locking myself in the bedroom. Since we’ve moved here, we’ve spent a lot of time apart, in separate rooms of the house.

*

“It’s the divorce house,” a neighbour says. She doesn’t really want to talk to me. She just saw me passing by, on my daily stroll, and I did more than just wave. I turned and started up the walkway towards her yard, where she’s pulling weeds. I’ve turned, I suppose, out of loneliness.

“I lived there once,” she says, pointing to my house. “I lived there with my first husband. The place just felt weird, you know? The silence between us just. . . grew.”

I nod my head, and she goes back to pulling weeds.

Turning once more, I continue down the walk, to the right, past the hospital, where I circle back to see if it was real—to see if the brick and boulders are still there—evidence that something fell or was thrown—evidence of a near miss. And, sure enough, I feel the static in the air again. My palms tingle, and I see the boulder that cracked the pavement and that no one has bothered to move. My foot brushes up against a limestone brick that’s crumbling in parts, but still intact. I can see the arched edge around the window above is missing a brick: the one at my feet. Something tells me to pick it up and take it home. Something also tells me not to, but I run my fingers over its smooth surface and feel its weight in my hand. My palm radiates with electricity as I carry the brick home, rush past the haunted corner, touch the wall, and deposit it in the basement, on top of the washing machine.

The cellphone, which I left upstairs, is ringing, so I climb the stairs and pick it up. It’s a collector, again, threatening to ruin our credit if we don’t pay for the damage the U-Haul truck sustained during the accident. Our insurance agent said we didn’t have to pay it—nearly $20,000—which is all we have saved up, so that we can move out—and into our dream house. This one isn’t it. The one we want, we can’t quite picture, but it’s definitely by the ocean.

*

Collectors call every day now, and Michael gives in.

“This wouldn’t have happened,” he says, “if you hadn’t insisted we put everything we own into one truck. It was lopsided and leaning.”

“Don’t blame me!”

“Now, we can’t afford to move. We’re stuck here,” Michael says as he shuts the door to the bedroom. I sit alone on the couch in the living room, listening to the traffic outside and the birds that chirp near the window. But a new sound appears—one that’s vaguely familiar and hums in the walls, hanging in the air, drawing me closer to the corner near the garage and the basement. Something tells me to touch the wall first before descending the stairs; the velvet scratches my skin.

The lone light, hanging from the ceiling in the basement, flickers and sizzles. The brick, which I’ve left on top of the washing machine, spins like a planchette, and when it stops, it points to the wall behind the washing machine. Something tells me to grab the sledgehammer and knock down the wall. Something also tells me not to, but as Michael paces the floors above, I pound at the wall, which eventually gives way, crashing into another room that’s covered in dirt and rust. A rickety chair rests on its side on the floor. Michael’s pacing stops, changes direction, and moves down the stairs.

“What the hell?” he asks, when he’s seen what I’ve done.

“It’s another room.”

He shakes his head and turns to walk back up the stairs.

“We’ll just close the door,” he says. “This place looks worse now.”

*

At night, I hear pounding. A rhythmic, steady pulse, like a techno-beat, and my heart races unnaturally. Michael hears nothing, but I do. So I get up and follow the sound to the basement, where the lights flicker and crackle. Another light, brighter, shines from the hole where the extra room is. This time, the chair is gone, the air is cold, and I see a wiry operating table, outfitted with hand cranks at the base to position patients—the latest model of its kind in 1930. I start to run my hand over the surface of the thin padding on top, but something hits me hard in the back and crashes to the floor. When I turn around, I see the brick—the one I carried

home from the hospital. Just as I reach in front of me to pick it up, I hear something like the shuffling of feet, and when I turn around, I see people—translucent, hologram-like figures dressed in hospital gowns. Their faces are pale and blue.

“We’re cold,” they say. “So cold.”

My heart races. Something tells me to leave, but something also tells me to stay, and—out of the corner of my eye—I see a nurse in white. She holds the brick and smiles, and I think I recognize her from Michael’s family photo album—the one that survived the downpour of rain through the U-Haul truck. My heart beats steadier when I realise that I—and Michael—do have a place here, and a connection to family, just like all of the others. And I want to embrace her, believing that she’s here to tell me she blesses and welcomes our arrival. Eagerly, I return the smile, but a shadow grows across her face. She pounds the edge of the brick into the palm of her right hand, like she’s getting ready to teach me a lesson. Raising her hand, she launches the brick at my head. Ducking, I run from the basement, eyeing the velvet wallpaper, unable to slow down to touch it.

*

Michael believes me now. He thinks he’s seen her wander the hallways at night, a brick in her hand.

“It’s simple,” he says. “We get rid of the brick and close up the wall. A drive to the countryside can’t hurt, either.”

When we pass the hospital, on the only road that leads to the freeway, I roll down the window and toss the brick out. Michael and I laugh like we used to, and the sun shines through the trees. In a cabin in the woods, we gorge ourselves on junk food, and take the winding roads back to his mother’s house, where she spoils us with a hearty meal.

“Mom, do you remember Margaret? Margaret Jackson, on your mother’s side?” Michael asks.

“Yes, the nurse. She used to work in the town where you live now.”

But my mother-in-law’s smile is tight. It’s good to be proud of family, but something tells me the smile is not pride. It tells me you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.

“And what happened to her?” Michael asks.

“Oh, well, she worked until she died—a natural death. Nothing tragic. . .” She suddenly chuckles, pours herself a manhattan, and pulls up a chair—looking as if she can’t stand it any longer, like she’s brimming with secrets—to hell with the dead. “I wasn’t going to say this, but it’s quite delicious—the rumours, you know?”

“Rumours?” Michael asks.

“Oh, yes! Well, they’re silly, but I suppose this could have happened.”

In the space of two or three manhattans, my mother-in-law tells us how Margaret may have hit patients over the head with a brick, dragged them back to her house—some house nearby, she didn’t know which, but she’d heard that Margaret fancied patterned velvety wallpaper—and in that house, she earned money on the side serving as a nurse to a doctor who practised lobotomies.

“Oh, the scandal!” she says, laughing, nearly spilling her drink.

The warmth of the bourbon in my drink leaves, turning my veins to ice.

*

Through the garage we enter, passing through the haunted corner, but the chill lingers. I touch the wallpaper, hoping to clear the air. Hoping to be left alone. Michael kisses me firmly on the lips.

“The brick is gone and soon, the wall be fixed.”

He goes to the basement with his tools, but it’s not long before I hear a sickening thud and a scream that escapes from Michael’s lungs. Hurrying to the basement, I find the lights crackling. In the unsteady glare, I see the human forms in hospital gowns milling about shivering, their lips thin and blue, their heads sliced open. The static noise transitions into the buzz of flies that hover over the open wounds, and that turn to crowd above my head and Michael’s. We run for the safety of the main floor, and Michael grabs the camping gear from the attic.

“We can’t move, but we can’t stay here.”

The yard, we figure, is as good a place as any to survive for a while—to maybe get the house blessed or try to use what Michael earns now to knock out walls and build them again—until we can move.

But when we sit in the grass, and look around, we see the pointed edges of limestone bricks, peeking out of the soil—rooted down so many years ago—our legacy—our family street so to speak. We close our eyes, the flies still buzzing in our ears, and picture the place we’d live if we could. The drone of the beating wings rises in waves, and we swear, that if we listen carefully, we might hear the ocean.

 

 

***

 

Cecilia Kennedy earned a PhD in Spanish at Ohio State University, USA, and taught English comp and Spanish in Ohio before moving to Washington state with her family. Since 2017, she has published stories in literary journals, magazines, and anthologies. Her work has appeared in Maudlin House, Coffin Bell, Open Minds Quarterly, Headway Quarterly, Flash Fiction Magazine, and others. The Places We Haunt (2020) is her first short story collection. Additionally, she’s a columnist for The Daily Drunk, an editor for Flash Fiction Magazine and Running Wild Press, and humor blogger: Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks (fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/).

Title photo credit –  Taylor Young on Unsplash

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