The veranda steps groaned as the movers dragged our things into our newly-purchased, sprawling, dilapidated house. I stood in the shade by the car, drained by the heat. My head throbbed, my feet ached, and I felt fat, sweaty, and resentful. The baby kicked, and I glared down at my distended stomach. I wished I was back home, with air conditioning and a cold cocktail.
John rushed back and forth, giving instructions and grinning like an idiot.
I took a long drink from my water bottle. It was blood-warm.
Motion fluttered in an upstairs window. A teenage girl with dark, elaborately curled hair frowned down at me. She was wearing a filmy, white dress that seemed to flow into the thin curtains. Her eyes met mine. She mouthed something–I’ve never been much of a lip reader–then she vanished.
Chills cut down my sweaty back, and I dropped my water bottle.
John was at my side in an instant. “What’s wrong, Donna?” he asked.
A moment ago, I would have given him a list. “N–Nothing,” I stammered. “Just my imagination playing tricks on me.”
He kissed my forehead and laid a hand over my belly. “Maybe you should sit down. I had them put your rocking chair on the porch. I’ll get you some more water.”
He filled my bottle from the tap. It was only a little cooler, and it tasted like iron.
I stood in what was to be my office, staring at the mess of boxes. I walked over to the window and looked out at where I’d been standing when I saw the girl. I trailed a finger down the limp curtains. She’d been standing right here.
A cold, transparent hand appeared over mine.
I screamed, and the hand vanished.
John thundered up the stairs. “What happened? Are you okay?”
“This house is haunted,” I said.
John blinked at me. “What?”
“There’s a ghost. She just touched my hand.”
John frowned. “Are you sure it wasn’t just a draft?”
“Yes, I’m sure it wasn’t a damn draft! It’s a ghost! I saw her yesterday, and today she touched me!” I hugged my arms tight around my belly. “I want to go home.”
John sighed. “You promised that you wouldn’t do this.”
“That was before there was a ghost.”
“You’re just feeling unsettled because this is such a huge change. Unpack. You’ll feel better once you have some familiar things around. You just need to recontextualize. This is your home now. This is where we’re going to raise our baby.” He took my hand, covered the skin that the ghost had touched with his warmth.
I wanted to tell him to stop talking down to me. I wanted to insist that the ghost was real, that I’d seen her, but it seemed so absurd, standing next to him in the sunshine.
“You can be happy here,” he said. “You just have to try.”
I nodded, forced a sickly smile. “I did promise.”
“There’s my good girl. Want me to stick around, help you deal with these boxes?”
I nodded. Part of me wanted to tell him off for his condescending tone, but I wasn’t ready to be alone again. “I’d like that.”
John started his new job at the hospital the next day. I was alone in the house. I spent the morning organizing the kitchen, getting the flowerbeds ready for planting, hanging clothes in the huge closets. Avoiding my office.
But if I avoided it all day, I knew John would notice. And he’d say something. And I couldn’t think of anything to respond with.
So, after my lunch–peanut butter and pickles on a toasted English muffin–I took a deep breath and faced the haunted room. I opened a box full of books and started arranging them on the shelves.
The ghost knelt next to me and scanned the titles.
She was pretty, with a dusting of gold freckles on her white cheeks. Her eyes were the deep, clear blue of a cold mountain lake. Her white dress billowed and flowed when she moved, and faded to nothing at the edges. She trailed a finger down the spine of one of my college textbooks–a book about the formation of stars.
I took a deep breath. She wasn’t threatening me. Maybe she was a friendly ghost. “Hello,” I said. The word sounded silly, out loud.
Her eyes flicked to my face, then down to my wedding ring, and past, to my pregnant belly. Her gaze returned to my face, cold and angry. “You should know better,” she said. “You’re an educated woman.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“You don’t want to be here,” the ghost said. “You don’t want that baby. You’ve let him trick you into giving up all of yourself for his happiness.” She stared down at her almost-transparent hands. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
I cupped my hand over my belly and felt the baby move, another life incased in my body. Fear shivered through me. “You’re wrong,” I said. To her. To myself.
She shrugged, pulled one of my books off the shelf, and paged it open. “We’ll see.”
I sat on the porch till John came home. He looked tired. I hesitated to bother him with this. I was afraid he’d brush me off again.
“There is a ghost,” I said.
I walked to the edge of the porch and looked down at him. The top of his head was sunburned. “You asked me to have your baby. You asked me to come here with you. Now I’m asking you to believe me.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it. He took a deep breath. “Okay.” He took my hand and brought it to his lips, then held it to his cheek.
“I’m not making her up. I’m not backing out of my promise. I want to be happy here, but I can’t if you’re going to treat me like this.”
John nodded. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I should have listened and not just dismissed you.”
We went inside he put a frozen pizza in the oven. “Why can’t I see her?” he asked.
“I don’t think she likes you much.”
John stood, still fully clothed, next to our bed. He scanned the room. “Is she here?”
I shook my head. “I can’t see her.”
“Good.” John started undressing.
“Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s not here.”
He glared at me. I’d never seen him get dressed so fast. I started laughing. It felt good.
“Stop that!” he said. “There was a weird cold spot in the shower this morning. What if she was in there with me?”
“The house is haunted, and your big fear is that the ghost might see you naked?” I asked, falling back on the bed, giggling.
He crawled in bed beside me and put his head on my chest. “Well, so far she hasn’t been violent. But she might have been in the shower.”
“How was your day?” I asked.
He shrugged. “First days are always hard. But everyone was nice.”
I kissed him and fell asleep believing that everything was going to be okay.
The ghost stood at the foot of the bed when the alarm went off. John groaned and rolled to his feet. He looked right through her, then he shuffled into the bathroom.
“So, he believed you,” the ghost said. She watched him for a long moment, then narrowed her eyes. “That changes nothing.”
“It changes everything,” I said. “He didn’t force me to come here. He asked me to give it a chance. I said that I would.”
The ghost sat on the foot of the bed. “So?”
“So I asked him to believe me, and he did. He didn’t just pretend to. He did. So I can’t just pretend to give this life a chance. I have to try to be happy.”
“That’s idiotic. You shouldn’t have to try to be happy. You should just be happy.”
I laughed. She sounded so young. “It’s never that easy.”
John poked his head out of the bathroom. “Did you say something?”
I shook my head. The ghost was gone.
After John left, I made myself put on one of the cute pregnancy outfits my mother-in-law gave me. I stuff my laptop and a couple old copies of Popular Science in my purse and drove to the local coffee shop. I ordered an iced decaf and an egg white frittata, then I stood by the counter and scanned the room. Two couples, one old man reading the newspaper, an assortment of people typing away on their laptops. And one woman about my age, sitting in the corner flipping through a National Geographic. I took a deep breath and approached her. “Hello.”
She glanced up at me. “Hi?” Her southern drawl was thick, even in the single syllable.
“I’m Donna. I’m new in town, and I was wondering if you’d mind some company?”
She smiled at me and closed her magazine. “Sure, honey. Have a seat. I’m Lacey.”
By lunchtime, Lacey and I were fast friends. She had two kids, her husband was a doctor, too, and she worked as a substitute teacher. She asked me to join her book club and invited us over to a picnic on Sunday.
I picked up some groceries on my way home, and went inside humming.
The ghost cornered me in the kitchen. “He’ll hurt you eventually. I know he will. They always do. Always.”
I slid eggs and carrots into the fridge. “You’re wrong.”
“I–I wish I could believe that,” she whispered.
I bent to pick up the milk, and pain stabbed through my middle. Something warm and wet spread down my legs, and my knees crumbled beneath me.
Was the baby coming? It was too soon. Months too soon. Panic and pain tugged at my thoughts. I tried to stand up, but my body wasn’t working.
We hadn’t activated the landline, and my cell phone was in the car.
Another pain spiked through me. “Something’s wrong,” I said. “It hurts.”
The ghost knelt next to me, her eyes wide. “I want to help.”
“Get John,” I said. Blackness edged my vision, and blood spread across the clean linoleum. “He’ll know what to do.”
The ghost vanished.
I passed out.
Hands clutched each of mine. One was warm, the other cold. I recognized the soft beeping and empty smell of hospital air.
The ghost and John were both staring at me. “Is the baby okay?” I asked. My lips were dry and my whole body felt heavy.
The ghost looked away. John squeezed my hand. His eyes were red. “She’s not. She just–just wasn’t ready.”
I slumped back. Emotions crashed around inside me, but they cancelled each other out. I just felt numb. “Am–am I okay?”
John smiled and wiped away a stray tear. “I think so.”
I closed my eyes. “Good.” Long moments passed. Tears leaked out from under my eyelids. “Can I see her?”
John and I stood over the tiny grave. “I want to try again,” I said. “Not right now. But later.”
John nodded. “I’d like that.”
I leaned my head against his shoulder. “I hated being pregnant.”
He barked a startled laugh. “I know.”
The ghost walked up the hill toward us. She was almost invisible in the sunlight. She carried a tiny bundle.
My heart caught in my throat.
“You said you wanted to see her,” the ghost whispered. She pulled back the blankets, and I saw my daughter’s face. She blinked and scrunched her face. A tiny hand wormed its way out of the blanket and reached toward me. I extended a finger, and her tiny, cold hand wrapped around it.
John held me. I was afraid that if he let go I’d shatter into a million pieces.
The ghost tucked the blanket back into place. “I’m going to go with her,” she said. “You two–you don’t need me. Just–keep trying to be happy.”
“Thank you,” John said. “If you hadn’t been there–”
But she was gone.
Days slid by. Lacey came over on her days off and we’d work on the house or sit around and watch TV or just talk for hours on end. I set up my telescope, and managed to get a little work done.
Life moved on.
I tried to be happy.
Most days, I managed it.
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. Her fiction has been published by over a dozen different venues, including The Living Dead 2, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction, and she has appeared on the Best Horror of the Year Honorable Mention and Tangent Online Recommended Reading Lists. She reads slush for Clarkesworld Magazine, works as an assistant editor at Electric Velocipede, and helped edit the Triangulation Annual Anthology from 2008 to 2011. Her Kickstarter-funded short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.