Under the pink-tinted streetlights while driving down 23rd Avenue, I began to feel as though something was amiss. It manifested itself as an itch under my skin. The headlights flooded against the rain, blurring the autumn foliage. One cold raindrop licked my skin as I gripped nervously at the steering wheel. Ana, my wife, sat beside me.
“Slow down Jorge,” she said. A bank of fog lingered like a curtain over the bridge. I slowed down, feeling the thump of each wooden board under the rolling tires.
Once we were over the bridge, I poured on the gas. Ana turned to me, eyes wide, mouth gaping, a touch of blood-red lipstick on her teeth. “Stop!” Then I saw what she saw; a flash of white, I slammed on the brakes, and the car swerved forward in an s-shape striking the creature before finally stopping. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ana gripping her seatbelt strap over her heaving chest.
“Are you all right?”
“…I think you killed it!”
“I’ll be right back,” I yelled, quickly exiting the car.
By the light of my cell phone, I could make out its sharp and bloody teeth, and the long, curled, hairless tail. The animal’s fur reminded me of one of our Persians waiting at home for us, and a tremendous feeling of guilt set in.
I hesitated before tossing its body into a weedy ditch. Then, it was gone, as if it never existed.
I pulled up to the curb, the car brakes squeaking as they do in inclement weather. It was my first visit to The Gray House.
“Is that Addie?” Ana asked, pointing at the second-floor window.
I glanced up, but all I could see was a child’s silhouette.
“It must be.”
I sounded the brass door knocker, engraved with the name Jameson, three times. My sister Belinda opened the door. “Come in, welcome.” Ana gave her brief hug before stepping inside. Belinda asked us to remove our shoes, placing them on a shoe tree. I noted the white walls and the hardwood flooring; she led us to her parlor where a log crackled in the fireplace.
Ana sat on a black leather couch, and I sat next to her. “I’ll be right back with some hot tea, and I’ll let Jake know you’re here. He’s just doing some last minute work on his business taxes,” she said.
I walked around the room. It was immaculate. Even the French windows were flawless. I couldn’t fathom all the hours she must have spent cleaning.
In a silver frame on the mantle was an old photograph of Belinda and me. In it, I am riding a red tricycle on the driveway; she stands close by in tears. Belinda likes to remind me that she is crying because I had just run over her toes. I always point out to her that it was an accident.
She returned with a tea set and sugar cookies on a tray, Jake followed her. “Welcome,” Jake said, offering a firm handshake.
Ana and Jake exchanged greetings while Belinda placed the tray on a table.
The tea smelt darkly luscious. Adding a teaspoon of sugar, I hastily took a sip, scorching the roof of my mouth.
Ana must have noticed a pained look on my face. “Are you all right?”
I nodded. “I’m okay.” My tongue ran over the burn.
“How are things at the college?” Jake asked.
“Busy, very busy. I have a lot of students,” I said,
I took a bite out of my sugar cookie, “exquisite,” I said holding my half-bitten cookie up.
Belinda turned to Ana and said, “Just feed him cookies, and he’ll be happy.”
We all laughed.
“Speaking of happy,” Ana said, “when is Addie coming down to visit?”
“Coming down?” Belinda replied. “She isn’t, she’s not here. Her dad has her this weekend.”
“Well, if she isn’t here, then who was that at the window when we pulled in?” Ana asked.
Belinda’s face went pale. She turned to Jake and he nodded. He stared down at this feet. His legs stirred restlessly.
“I don’t know who you saw,” Belinda said sharply.
“But there was a child looking down on us from the second story. I’m sure of it. Right, Jorge?”
I nodded. “I don’t know what you saw. I must check the oven,” Belinda snapped before striding away.
“I apologize,” Jake said, “she’ll be all right, soon.”
“Then, what is it?” I asked.
“It’s hard to explain,” he replied.
Ana wrinkled her brow in a bemused expression.
“Come stand with me by the fire,” I said.
I inspected a few books on the mantle. There was one with a yellow cover about historical houses in the area. Curious, I ran a finger over the G’s until I found The Gray House.
Reading on, I discovered the house had been built in 1872 by William Gray, a successful buggy and automobile manufacturer. He had lived here with his wife and four daughters. Belinda and Jake returned, and I quickly closed the book.
Belinda appeared more tranquil, while Jake anxiously moved his hand from her waist to her shoulder. She eyed the book in my hands.
“That will make things easier to explain,” she said haughtily.
“Explain?” I asked.
“We’ve seen all kinds of things, strange things since we’ve moved in,” Jake answered meekly.
Ana was intrigued, “Oh?” she murmured.
“Sometimes doors open on their own, or we’ll hear tiny footsteps walking down a hallway,” Belinda’s eyes flickered.
“Sometimes when I am at my desk late at night I swear I can hear a child, a girl singing softly to herself. I usually tell myself it’s just the wind, my mind playing tricks on me, but we’ve all heard it. We’ve seen things, like the sound of a ball bouncing in a room, and when we open the door there nobody or nothing there.”
“You mean the house is haunted?” I asked.
“All I know is what I’ve seen,” Belinda said. “What I’ve heard. You saw her, right.” Belinda turned her eyes on Ana. “You said so yourself, Ana. It’s a little girl.”
“A little girl,” Ana repeated to herself. “Yes. A little girl. Who is she?”
“According to a local legend, the girl is Gray’s youngest daughter, Sarah, who died of tuberculosis in the early 1900s. She just wasted away, the poor thing.” Through her gaze, I could see Belinda was thinking of Addie.
“It’s become quite unnerving; we’ve decided to move,” Jake said, rubbing Belinda’s shoulders.
From Belinda’s desultory expression, I could tell she no longer wished to discuss it.
“Come,” Jake said, “Belinda’s made hot buttered rums for us to enjoy!”
The evening amorphized into a blur of candlelight, a warm feeling settled over the night, but I can’t seem to remember what was said.
I remember sitting at a candlelit dinner, eating baked chicken and enjoying the honey glazed carrots but I can’t remember what we talked about exactly. We never said another word about the little girl. but. I remember the dread I had, thinking about Addie. How she was sharing a bedroom with a dead girl; I wondered if Addie had seen or felt anything.
The next thing I remember I was in the backseat of the car with Ana driving. My own snoring woke me up. I looked up and the streetlights blurred past. My eyes were having a hard time focusing. I sat up, and slumped against the seat. I saw something in a blur, something unexpected from my childhood. A cemetery.
And I kept thinking. I thought about that poor devil I left dead in the ditch and I thought about that little girl. “Why does she haunt the place?” I managed to croak out.
“Why? Her soul never found peace. It’s stuck between worlds. There must be something it still wants to do in this world, who knows what; maybe you just better sleep it off. We can talk about it in the morning.”
My eyelids felt heavy; I wanted to say something else about the cemetery we had just passed, about how Belinda and I visited that cemetery with our father when we were children, how our family was laid to rest there.
I remembered how Belinda and I would sometimes sneak away from the grown-ups and walk between the tombstones. Sometimes we sat down on the graves and pretended that we were dead; and that the names on the tombstones were ours. I thought about how as children we never imagined we would ever fear to find our names among the dead. Or how we were never disturbed at the thought of the dead being unable to leave the world of the living behind, and haunting our houses, walking our floors, singing even if we refuse to listen.
Mario Duarte lives in Iowa City, Iowa and is an alumnus of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His poems and short stories have appeared in aaduna, the Arachne Press, Carnival, Corazón Land Review, Slab, Huizache, the RavensPerch, the Steel Toe Review, and Storyscape.