by Laura Kathryn Rogers (@2014)
“I don’t know about these new neighbors.”
“Herb, you don’t even know them yet.” Betty sighed, moving a checker. “Your move.”
“I don’t think I want to know them,” Herb said grumpily.
“Well you don’t have to stare at them so much, one of these days they’re going to notice, and…”
“And What? Betty, I think you must be the biggest bleeding heart on the planet. Ever since Jefferies bought that place this neighborhood has gone to the dogs! Your move.”
“They aren’t so bad, Herb. Just kids. Now, look, you’re not even trying. I win again.”
Herb grinned at his wife. “I let you win. Just like always.”
“Hah.” Betty said. “Play again?”
“No, Love, think I need a walk.”
“Don’t you be going over there and causing trouble.”
His response, if any, was lost in the wind that seemed to suddenly stir up as he left the table.
It was a long night for Kim Butterfield.
Eric, her husband, was totally willing to enjoy the benefits of fatherhood, taking millions of pictures, of Alice, their four month old daughter. Spoiling her with every imaginable toy that a baby might (or might not) want, taking her to show off to friends and family, and spending hours holding and playing with her.
He just wasn’t invested in waking up every few hours to help with feeding or changing. They both worked demanding, full time jobs, and she recently had gone back to work from maternity leave. She was exhausted all the time, and Eric didn’t seem to understand why.
Again, tonight, while he snored blissfully, Alice had woken up, fussing, and would not be comforted. Kim had an important staff meeting at 8 in the morning. She didn’t need this. Was it okay for a mother to say that?
She thought about waking her husband, but knew he would fuss, probably more than their daughter. She got up, wrapped herself in her warm lavender robe and went to the nursery where a wiggling, sodden wet angel with Kim’s hazel eyes and everything else Eric awaited her. Alice reached out sweet, chubby arms to her and Kim melted. How could she resent something this precious?
Baby changed, comforted, in her Snuggly across Kim’s chest, Kim went to their kitchen and warmed formula. She’d always regretted that she was unable to breast-feed. Something in her milk that Alice was alergic to. Kim looked out through the arc-shaped window into the gloomy, cloudy night. If one was able to see out into that night, you could see the wonderful ‘view’ of the city cemetary. Why on earth had she let Eric choose their home without her?
Kim shivered, though the temperature, clearly digitally displayed from the window, (one of Eric’s gadgety additions to their home, ) clearly displayed 68 degrees. Comfortable. Or, it should have been.
Alice shifted in the Snuggly and made a hungry gulp, impatient for her bottle. Kim put the formula in the microwave, got it started, and shivered again. Was she getting sick? Just what she needed before a busy meeting.
Kim, an advertising executive, was proud of her newest accomplishment. It was genius, even if she did say so herself. A borrow of the cliche: “If the shoe fits…..” And below it, photos of Sammy Sam’s new fall line of track shoes. Everyone on her team at McFall’s Advertising had loved it. Now, to get Sammy Sam, CEO and chief designer of the shoe company, and notoriously picky, to love it.
Eric came to the doorway, rubbing his eyes, looking for the world like a sleepy teddy bear. They’d been married five years, but Kim had not lost the automatic feeling of tenderness that warmed her when she saw him, whether it was a five day or five minute seperation. They had their moments, but their marriage worked, and worked well. And now, little Alice to complete it. She had much to be grateful for.
“Since when are you into country music, baby?” He asked, going to the refrigerator, pulling out his personal container of juice, gulping some of it down, and putting it back. This was their one bone of contention early on–solved by him having his own drink containers and promising (and mostly keeping the promise) not to drink out of those meant for everyone else.
Kim frowned and took the bottle out of the microwave, testing the liquid with her finger. Satisfied with the temperature, she pulled Alice out of the snugglie, sat down at the kitchen table, and begain to feed her. “What are you talking about, country music? You know I can’t stand it. Gives me the heaves.”
“Maybe I was dreaming.” Eric said, running his hand through messy copper curls that never seemed to be in place, unless he kept them very short. Alice had inherited the hair and Kim, regrettfuly (to her) born with baby fine, straight brunette hair, envied them it and found it beautiful.
“What did you dream?” Kim loved to hear about dreams, and to try to interpret them. Perhaps it was the Cherokee blood in her. Such other-worldly things attracted her. Eric, ever the stoic, and doubter, usually didn’t buy into his wife’s forways into such things. An architect, forever thinking about the ‘here and now’ and logic found such fancies slightly ridiculous. However, he tolerated his wife’s quirky qualities, but would never have explored them on his own.
“Maybe I didn’t dream it. Hear it?” Eric tilted his head towards the hallway which led to their bedroom, the nursery and the guest room. It was a song by Willie Nelson, singing about the fabled blue eyes crying in the rain. Both of them heard it.
“That’s weird.” Kim said. “No one lives next door to us that way. And there’s the park this way. Then, the college…..Who?”
The wind picked up again, and the sound of thunder came low, and grumbling in the distance. Eric smiled, satisfaction on his face. “I have it. It’s this house. The way they built it. We’re on the hill. When the wind is up, you could probably hear sound from miles away. No telling where that’s coming from.”
Kim smiled, taking the bottle away from Alice, who was already sound asleep, finished with the meal, but sucking on the empty nipple. No need to have her take in air and wake to a stomachache. Praying for a peaceful remainder of the night, Kim handed Alice to Eric. “She’s all yours, Papa. Put her to bed and come find me. I need some snuggling with my Man, even if Willie Nelson is serenading.”
The next morning, Kim woke, amazingly fresh and energetic. Sammy Sam, happy with a double Cappuccino, listened to and loved her ideas. He signed on the dotted line, and Ed Severn, her boss, was ecstatic.
“That’s a 10 million dollar account, Kimbers!” He said, using a nickname he’d fashioned and that she hated, but tolerated. “Take the rest of the day off–and love on that baby girl of yours! You’ve done us good!”
Kim, shocked, but more than willing to take her usually time-stingy boss up on his offer, practically ran towards the parking garage before he could change his mind. The drive out of the city seemed to take almost no time, and soon she was in Stevensburg, the tiny bedroom community that boasted one stop light, one grocery and blissful peace and quiet.
Her baby-sitter, Evian (named after the water by her parents,) seemed concerned when Kim came through the door. “Just home early. You go and enjoy yourself!”.
Kim paid her the same amount she would have paid for the full day, thrilling the teenager, and making Kim feel like she was passing along her good fortune at work. She rarely called Eric at his office, knowing how much both of them disliked distractions on the job, but this, she thought, justified a little rule-breaking.
Eric was thrilled about the ad presentation’s reception, as she knew he would be, and he suggested dinner in Collingston, a quaint college community that boasted of excellent restaurants, antique stores and other cultural attractions. Kim agreed, hung up, and went to see if Alice was awake from her nap.
Alice snored, content, with a small Raggedy Anne in her arms.
Kim frowned. This was something new. Being the one who usually cleaned and organized the nursery, Kim knew all of the baby’s toys. Her parents were deceased and her family were scattered everywhere, they didn’t stay in touch.
That left Eric’s large, rambunctious family who treated Alice like a crown princess. They were way too generous with gifts, but hadn’t given the baby toys recently. Nor had Eric brought her anything home lately, which was rare. Who????
The phone rang, startling her. Kim took her cell out of her pocket and answered in a business tone. “Hello?”
“If you had not have fallen, I would not have found you….Angel flying too close to the ground…..”
The phone went dead.
“Oh, there you are, Herb.” Betty said crossly. “I hope you have an appetite. I made your favorite. Meatloaf, Baked Potato, Yellow Squash, and Buttermilk Biscuits. There’s some Heineken cooling for later.”
“And, Pineapple?” Herb asked, hopefully. Betty smiled at her husband, nodding. “Of course. Pineapple Upside Down Cake. I never forget.”
“No you don’t, Love. All these years, and you never forget.” Herb said, bending low to kiss his short wife. “I’m quite the lucky man.”
“So, you’re sure?” Eric’s face was a mix of concern, logical questioning and confusion.
Kim took a deep drink of her Merlot. “I’m sure. This isn’t one of my weird theories. I heard it on the phone. This phone.” She pulled out the lavender I-Phone out of her pocket. “And what’s weird, no number came up. You think that if the person didn’t want me to know who they were, you’d get a ‘private’ or ‘unknown’ message. But its just like the phone didn’t ring at all. Like the call never happened.”
“Well, I know it was startling. Hon.” Eric said, “Maybe it was a phone glich. That new phone of yours is supposed to be able to do everything except drive you to work. And they may be working on an app for that.”
Kim smiled in spite of herself. “Who knows?” She held up her wine glass and touched it to his. “Let’s not think about it. Let’s enjoy the evening. Evian will be glad to get the extra babysitting work tonight.”
Kim and Eric got home to lights on everywhere, and a police cruiser in their driveway. The officer, a young fellow that Kim had known most of his life, Drew Bryant, came up to their car as they leaped out. “Everything is fine! The baby’s fine. You just have a hysterical teenager in there. Evian is sure your house is haunted.”
“Haunted?” Eric sputtered. “Haunted? Evian has been babysitting for us since Alice came home. She never thought the house was haunted before. Has she gotten into a little….ah, something?”
Officer Bryant rolled his eyes. “She said she saw toys floating through the air towards the crib, and Alice sitting up and reaching up to be held. But no one was where she was reaching. ”
“When Evian went to get Alice, something knocked her backwards. Knocked the breath out of her. And she said she saw Alice come up out of the crib and hover in mid-air. Rock back and forth. Alice was just happy as a clam. Evian was out of her mind with fear”
“Dear God.” Kim said, pushing her hand to her chest.
“Wait, it gets better.” Officer Bryant said. “Then Alice, according to Evian, just politely floated back to her crib. Evian saw the covers go over her like someone was tucking her in. And that damn Raggedy Anne Doll–no, the Raggedy Andy, goes right into her arms. Evian said she must have passed out then. She woke up and called us. The baby is fine, Kim. Go on in, you’ll see. Sleeping like an angel.”
“Thanks, Drew” Eric said, following Kim who’d gone running into their townhouse.
Just as Drew said, Alice was sleeping soundly, with a new doll, a Raggedy Andy, in her arms. Kim noted that the Raggedy Anne was on the other side of the baby bed, like a happy room-mate.
Also in the crib, was a toy that Kim remembered as a young child, one she had loved but had lost in a family fire, which had claimed most of the family’s precious items. An etch-a-sketch. Words on it. Kim had tried to write on her childhood toy, but had never made anything more than fanciful scrawls.
Careful writing, of an almost calligraphic style was on this one, however. “Uncle Herb loves you.” It said simply. Kim felt her knees weakening, and then, she fell to the floor.
At the emergency room, Kim winced as the last stitch was completed. Eric stood beside her, holding Alice, the stress of the last few hours carved into his face.
“She’s lucky, Eric.” Dr. Burgess, the evening ER physician was saying, “If she had hit that table just a bit harder, or at the edge…..”
Dr. Burgess, generations older than Kim or Eric, had the irritating habit of talking about Kim to Eric, rather than talking to her about her injuries. Kim suppressed the irritation and looked in her purse for her debit card to pay the cashier.
“She has a concussion. I’m saying she needs a week at home. No work. Her work is right there in your arms, anyway. Don’t understand these modern women…. But for this week, let your babysitter do the heavy care for the baby. Kim needs to stay in bed. Doctor’s orders. I’m writing for a painkiller for when she needs it. And she probably will need it.”
“I’m not sure we’re going to get the baby-sitter to come back.” Eric said, reaching out to his wife to help her stand. “Evian was hysterical. She thinks the house is haunted.”
Dr. Burgess made a wry face. “Well, you know these kids. Nutty generation. Everything is going to hell in handbasket. Now, when I was coming up….”
Dr. Burgess, fond of comparing the modern world to his utopian memory of things past, was about to be on tear. Eric guided Kim out of the room and took the debit card from her “Let’s get you settled in the car.” He said, gently. “I’ll do the rest. “Is it okay for her to sleep?” He asked the elderly doctor.
“Yes, the first few hours are the crittical place not to sleep. She’s past that. The scans don’t show any intercranial bleeding. Just watch her. If you can take some time off, it would be good. Or hire in someone from one of the home health agencies”
“I have plenty of vacation time. I’ll take care of her.” Eric said, walking Kim out of the emergency department.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d swear….” Betty was saying, hands on a gingham blue apron, scowl on her face.
“What would you swear.” Herb asked, looking up from his hand of cards. Now it was Betty who wasn’t concentrating.
“That’s there’s another woman.” She said.
“Well, in a way, there is.” Herb said, a smile pulling at his face. Betty gasped. Herb pursed his lips in mock disgust. “Now, don’t look at me like that. She’s 4 months old.”
Kim was in the half world, the place between dreaming and full wakefulness. She was in a house that was modest, but very comfortable. It had blue patterned, hand made curtains at the kitchen windows.
There was an obviously hand made kitchen table of thick oak with matching chairs. The room was simple, every bit of it made from materials at hand, nothing from a store. She went to the kitchen drawers and saw that they were tongue in groove, no nails used. Such a place today would be fabulously expensive, now that ‘simple’ was a huge fad.
This, when made, however, since it seemed to be very old, would have been cheap, because the owners could not afford the fashionable things of the time. This simple, lovely style would have been sneered at then, not envied.
Kim looked around. The stove and very ancient looking refrigerator were the only appliances there. No microwave, no weather gadgets….she walked down the hall. The bathroom was very rustic, but it appeared to work. She went to the room where Alice’s bedroom had been….this was their home, but different somehow.
In the room, was a child’s bed, perhaps for a child four or five years old. On it, a Raggedy Anne and Andy sat, looking somehow forlorn. Lonely. The little girl furniture was all handmade, lovingly painted. Yet there was loneliness here…deep, deep emotive emptiness. So deeply felt that Kim wanted to weep.
She saw a heavy set woman, with a beautiful face, large green eyes, a relatively unlined face. Wiry gray hair. A blue gingham apron over wide, motherly hips. The face was kind, smiling. Somehow, Kim felt she could trust her. The lady sat down on the child’s bed. Looked for a moment at the empty place where a child should have been.
“You have to forgive him, Kim. May I call you Kim? Thank you.” The woman said, as Kim gave a slight nod. “My name is Betty.”
“He, ah, we, lost our little girl. Christiana. She was four. There was a flu epidemic. Especially unkind to the very old and very young. She was our only chance–we married late in life. I had her when I was 50. There was no chance of having another child.
“Christiana was our light and our world, especially Herb’s. She was only four when she got sick, he wouldn’t let anyone but the doctor near her. Especially towards the end. I knew, everyone else knew, but Herb just wouldn’t accept it. She died in his arms.”
“I am so sorry.” Kim said. “I can’t imagine….but who?”
“You’re living in our home.” Betty said simply. “Or, what was our home. The guy, Michael Jefferies, who bought the property, and most of the county, a scoundrel who thought he could buy anything and everyone, waited until Herb needed an operation and there was no other way to pay for it but to sell everything. He bought our property and tore down the house.”
“The operation didn’t work. Herb died. I moved to a retirement center, but Herb came for me about ten years later.”
“Came for you?”
Betty smiled gently at the younger woman. “My heart. I looked up one day, and Herb was there, reaching out his hand for me. I really was glad to go. I had really missed him. Anyway, nothing was on that property. Even the grass didn’t seem to want to grow well there. Then, Jefferies built the townhouses. Eventually, the two of you bought one. And brought Alice home….”
“Who are you? How do you know Alice? What do you want with us?” Kim demanded furiously. “Did he make me fall down? Hit my head?”
Betty’s motherly voice took on a soothing tone. “Of course not, dear. He pushed you over. That’s why you didn’t hit the edge. He means you no harm.”
“But who ARE you?” Kim insisted.
“Dear…..we’re your neighbors.”
“But we have no neighbors…except in the………”
“That’s exactly right” Betty said gently. And disappeared before Kim’s eyes.
Kim was then completely awake. Everything around her was the home she and Eric had made together. Her head was throbbing.
She went to the living room, and saw Eric in the recliner with Alice, the baby sleeping on his chest, his arms securely around her. Kim felt a bit shaky and stood still, waiting for her balance to return to her.
“Maybe you should just sit down, dear.” The voice seemed to come from inside her head rather than in through her ears. She turned around and saw an older man, nearly bald except for white tuffs of hair sticking up over his ears.
His face was flushed and his large blue eyes seemed a bit watery. He may have been 70 or 700 years old. He wore faded jeans and a red-checked flannel shirt. His hands were in his pockets and in one of them she heard him jingling something, perhaps keys.
“First off, I want to say I’m sorry.” Herb said, never moving from where he stood.
“Look, I’m a grouchy old man, and my wife just gave me three kinds of hell about my hi-jinks. I’m sure you know how to do that too…with your man.”
Kim had to smile in spite of herself, and in spite of her fear and the headache.
“I mean you no harm. I just miss my girl. Christiana looked a lot like your Alice. I think I was jealous. You and your man, you’re just starting out. You have everything that was taken from Betty and me. Betty seems to think that as long as we’re all stuck with each other we might as well get along.”
“I see.” Kim said, wondering how much of this was real and how much was concussion.
“No, not quite dear. I was hoping you’d let me and Betty assist in the raising…or at least the loving of your little Alice. No one would ever know. We’d be very discrete. Your babysitter would never see me giving her gifts again. What do you think?”
“So that was you…the toys.”
“Well, er, yes. You see, our Christiana doesn’t need them. When God took her away, he took her straight to heaven. We can’t get there. Betty says it is because I’m holding on too tight to this place, and wanting Christiana to come back to us. I don’t know. I’m just an old man, and I can’t learn new things. And Betty, well, Betty stays with me. I’m lucky to have such a good wife. Right or wrong, she stays with me.”
“So, you want to live here?” Kim asked.
“Oh no.” Herb said. “We live next door. With about four dozen others. Only most of them pretty much keep to themselves. But you don’t have to worry about them. They hang around their own people for the most part. Pretty quiet bunch.”
Kim considered it a moment, and nodded. “Maybe you’d better not let Eric see this, Mr. Herb. He only beleives in what he can understand.”
“Then, we can help out?” Herb asked, hopefully.
“Yes. But why don’t we keep it between me, you, Alice and your wife? And if the Willie Nelson thing is your idea of a lullaby….could you switch to Paul McCartney?”
“Deal.” Herb chuckled, shaking his head. “Paul McCartney. I really thought that boy ought to have gotten a haircut.”
He turned to go down the hall, and stopped. “We’ll make good neighbors. But, maybe you should let us visit you, not the other way around. The cemetery doesn’t make for good socializing.”