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Finalist for the 2009 WSFA Small Press Award
Also included in The Year's Best Fantasy and Science Fiction 2009


Silent As Dust
    by James Maxey
Silent As Dust
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

The Company I Keep. I'm judging a talent show in the attic of Seven Chimneys. The theatre is a maze of cardboard boxes, gray with grime. The moonlight through the round window serves as our spotlight.

First up is Dan, a deer head with five-point antlers and a startled look in his glass eyes. Dan sings "Jailhouse Rock" as if it were a blue grass ballad, accompanied by Binky, a sock monkey with a quilted banjo.

Next comes Professor Wink, a 65-year-old teddy bear with one eye and half his original fur. Professor Wink is a juggler, keeping aloft a crochet mallet, a broken lava lamp, and the ceramic manger from the Christmas decorations. When all three items are in the air, he grabs an old bowling ball and tosses it into the mix with a cool grace that earns him points.

The last act is Tulip. She's a baby doll with no left leg. Her act is to climb high into the lofty rafters of this old Victorian attic, then leap. She unpins the threadbare dishtowel someone diapered her with long ago and flips it into a parachute. She drifts toward the floor, reciting the Gettysburg Address. For her finale she lets go, and plummets to a safe landing in a white plastic bucket.

Tulip is an unusually talented baby. Also, alas, a noisy one. She lands with a loud clatter.

I hold my breath.

Darcy's voice from the room below: "Don't tell me you didn't hear that."

"Ish muffin," Eric mumbles, sounding as if he were on the verge of sleep. The mattress creaks. Then he says, "It's an old house. It has noises."

"Something's moving in the attic," Darcy says.

"Maybe," Eric concedes. "Don't worry about it."

"What if it's a raccoon?" she asks. "They carry rabies."

The light flips on beneath me. Thin pencils of light shoot up through cracks in the corners of their ceiling. I creep across the rafters, light as a breath, placing my weight with practiced precision on joists I know will not creak. I hear Eric and Darcy in the hallway, near the pull-down stairs. I reach the main chimney and slither behind it, into the shaft that leads to the basement.

The springs twang as the attic steps are lowered. Light chases me as I drop into the passage and wedge myself against the bricks. I go corpse quiet. I've taught myself not to cough, fart, belch, gurgle, or sneeze. My breathing is soft and silent as cotton gauze.

Eric has clicked on the single light bulb, with its dangling chain. The bulb is coated in cobwebs; a burning smell wafts across the attic. I'm upside down in the shaft, behind five feet of brick. The yoga practice pays off. I don't feel strained. I'm free to follow the conversation as Eric pokes around the attic, griping to Darcy, still in the hall. A bright beam flickers around the top of the shaft. He's got a flashlight to supplement the bulb. If he looks in the hole behind the chimney, my presence will be difficult to explain. As he draws closer I see the ancient red brick surrounding me. I normally make this journey in utter darkness.

"This is stupid," he says, mere feet above me. On the surface, he's talking about the search. But I hear the subtext in his voice. For two weeks they've been arguing about having a baby. Darcy's ready, Eric isn't. Every conversation now is colored by this central disagreement.

"Keep looking, please," she says. My sensitive ears place her at the foot of the stairs.

"What if I find something?" Eric grumbles. The light diminishes as he turns away. "Suppose there is a raccoon up here. Then what?"

"Stomp on it," she says, half-joking, I think.

"It's not a spider," he says, exasperated. He's moving around, nudging boxes with his feet. "It's not anything. I stand by my original opinion. It's the house. It's old. It creaks."

"I know what I heard," she says. "It wasn't the house."

"Maybe it's one of the ghosts," Eric says, moving closer to the chimney again. "I don't recall anyone dying in the attic, but it's easy to lose track."

Suddenly, there's enough light in the shaft I can see my shadow spilling down the long wall before me. This is it. "Oh my God!" he shouts, as the light jerks away. "You won't believe what I just found!"

"What?" Darcy asks, sounding scared.

"My old sock monkey! Mr. Bojangles!"

Oh, right. The monkey was named Bojangles. Where did I get Binky from?

"I'm coming down. An army of raccoons could hide up here. We'll call an exterminator tomorrow. Have him put out traps, if it makes you feel better."

"Okay," says Darcy.

The light clicks off.

My breath slides out of me in a long, gentle release. I loosen my grip on the brick and slink my way back down the shaft toward the cellar. I'm tempted to go back to the attic. That stupid Tulip and her noisy landing almost got me caught. I'd like to pull out her other leg. Fortunately, there's still a sane person sharing my brain that knows, deep down, I was the one who threw Tulip into the bucket. I was having one of my spells again. From time to time, boredom puts me in tight spots.

My name is Steven Cooper. I'm a Seven Chimneys' ghost. I've haunted the place for three years.

If haunted is the right word. Since, you know . . . I'm not technically dead.

Could Have Been a Tour Guide. It can get confusing talking about Seven Chimneys. There's the town of Seven Chimneys, a little speck on the map an hour's drive outside Charlotte. The town has barely two thousand people, most living in mobile homes or old millhouses. In contrast to the modest surroundings, the core of Seven Chimneys is a picturesque village that reached its prime a century ago, with a main street dominated by a dozen Victorian mansions restored to top condition by wealthy Charlotte refugees looking for the laid-back, small town life.

The grandest of these mansions is Seven Chimneys, the house. Thirteen-thousand square feet of towers, wraparound porches, and decorative woodwork. Seven Chimneys isn't a true Victorian home, since the building started shortly after the Revolutionary War. Three brothers, the Corbens, released from George Washington's army, traveled to the then-nameless town and built homes close together on a single acre lot. The Corbens prospered, churning out doctors and lawyers and inventors over the coming decades. The three homesites began to sprawl as slave quarters were built, kitchens added on, and, eventually, the houses merged together into a single Frankenstein's monster mansion with seven chimneys . . . thus, the name.

Sometime before World War I, Franklin Corben, the railroad king, prettied up the place with a Victorian facade and extensive remodeling on the interior, adding electricity, plumbing, etc. Parts of the house in poor repair were walled off.

The hidden rooms, the dead spaces, became useful during prohibition. Behind a secret panel in the library, there's a room with a well-stocked bar and a slate pool table that I don't think Eric knows about. He does, however, know about the wine cellar that had its entrance bricked over, with only a hidden trap door inside a pantry to give access. He was the first person to show me the coal chute at the rear of the house that leads to a furnace, and behind the furnace the narrow tunnel that leads to a room with a bathtub in which actual bathtub gin was fermented. The place is covered in dust and spider webs now, forgotten by history. But not by me.

A Close Call. I'm down in the root cellar doing yoga with Professor Wink. I'm naked; I haven't worn clothes in two years. My pants got snagged once in the chimney and I was stuck for two days. Up above, I can hear a bustle of activity. Eric is kind enough to let the locals hold weddings at Seven Chimneys. The floor boards thud and bump with their movements. It makes it hard for me to stay tuned into Eric and Darcy's conversation. They're talking about getting a puppy. Although, of course, the puppy conversation is only a substitute for the whole baby thing.

I've warmed up with the Cobbler's pose. Now I bend into the once impossible Camel pose as if I'm made of rubber. Professor Wink, even boneless, can't hold this pose.

"It's not like we're here most of the time," Eric argues. "A puppy needs attention. It needs time that we don't have."

"We can make time," Darcy says. "There's more to life than work. A dog will keep us focused on what's important."

Eric counters with, "Maybe after my schedule changes, but that's no time soon. Look, the world will still be full of puppies a year from now. Let's think about it then."

Someone heavy walks overhead and I miss Darcy's response.

The artfully named "Half Lord of the Fishes" pose has me twisting my torso around to the point I can see my bony, callused butt. It's hard to believe I learned everything I know about yoga from a picture book I swiped from the library.

After a few minutes I realize I've completely lost Eric and Darcy's voices. I'll have to wait to find out if they've decided anything.

I finish my routine in the so-called Corpse pose, flat as a flounder, every muscle in my body in a state of utter release. Professor Wink is good at this one.

Then I realize someone else is here. I look toward the stairs and find a little girl standing there, staring. She's wearing a white, frilly dress; she looks like a flower girl. She's quiet, quieter than me.

We stare at each other for an uncomfortably long time. I'm anticipating her scream. Any second, adults will rush down the steps.

Then, to my great relief, she silently turns and walks up the steps, vanishing back into the shadows. Probably, she'll tell people about the naked yoga ghost in the cellar. I'll be part of the folklore. It's a living.

How I Use The Bathroom. I'm not always hiding in the attic or under floorboards. Thirteen-thousand square feet, occupied by two people, means a lot of the house never gets looked at on a daily basis. Eric and Darcy have three housekeepers and a crew of landscapers, but none live onsite. Eric's an ER surgeon; he works insane shifts at Charlotte General. Darcy's a corporate acquisitions attorney and is out of town half the time. If they did get a puppy, they'd probably hire someone to watch after it.

Once the cleaning crew finishes their daily duties, I'm free to climb up from the cellar and roam around the main part of the house. I use the bathroom in the small toilet near the library. Since it's Tuesday, I shower. I stopped shaving when I moved in. Now, a pale, wild-haired man stares back at me from the mirror. I'm thin as Ghandi. My body has become a grand collection of calluses. It's a yogi's body, the body of a holy man, limber and tough and purposeful.

They've Never Noticed My Gleaning. I'm not hungry tonight, but I eat anyway. Eric and Darcy's refrigerator sports an assortment of half-eaten Chinese takeout.

After my meal, I creep into the library. My senses expand to cover all of Seven Chimneys. I'm tuned to Darcy's breathing as she sleeps in the master bedroom on the third floor. Eric didn't come home tonight; on his busier days, he sleeps at the hospital. I worry Eric is putting his career ahead of his marriage. Darcy deserves better. I read in the library until the predawn hours. When Darcy's breathing shifts the slight way it does every morning before her alarm goes off, I carefully reshelve the books. I tiptoe to the kitchen, slip through the hidden passage in the pantry, then wiggle through the narrow gaps in the floor joists that lead to the main cellar, and the base of the big chimney.

Exactly the way I remember doing as a child.

Eric and I Go Way Back. I've been listening to Darcy and Eric argue about the damn puppy again. As usual, Eric prevails. Eric always prevails. The world has bent to his will since we were kids.

Eric and I have a bond that dates back over twenty years. Eric Corben was born to the wealth and privilege that accompanies his family name. I was born in a crumbling shotgun shack. Eric's father was an attorney and mayor of Seven Chimneys, the town, for five terms. My father was an unemployed drunk. My mother cleaned the bathrooms of Seven Chimneys, the house. I would come with her. Eric and I would play. We explored all the spooky corridors of Seven Chimneys. Or, so we thought. We never knew about the hidden bar. We found the shaft behind the chimney, but never had the courage to climb it.

Until we started school, Eric and I weren't really aware of the class differences between us. Alas, in kindergarten, cliques formed. Eric was part of the cool crowd, wearing new clothes and showing off the latest hot toys. I was the same age, but several inches shorter, and went to school wearing Eric's hand-me-downs. We would have grown apart if not for a tragic coincidence. When we were both eight, Eric's mother and my father died in separate car crashes. We didn't really talk about this shared bond. But, from then on, we had each other's back.

In fairness, Eric had my back more than I had his. He'd make sure I wasn't the last kid picked for the kickball team. He let the school bullies know I was off limits. I returned the favor in high school by letting him cheat off tests and writing papers for him. Eric wasn't a dummy, by any means. If anything, public school bored him. By sixth grade, he was already weighing his college choices. He let me write his report on Huckleberry Finn because his attention was focused on James Joyce's Ulysses.

Eventually, college separated us. Eric went off to Harvard. I stayed home and attended Corben Community College. He graduated and went to medical school. I graduated and landed a job as assistant manager at a convenience store. I still had hopes and dreams . . . until Mom came down with breast cancer. I stayed home to care for her. Mom fought cancer for six years.

In a second coincidence, Eric's father had a heart attack while attending Eric's graduation from medical school. He turned blue and died surrounded by five hundred doctors. On the same day, my mother passed away in ICU, after three weeks of unconsciousness. I was holding her hand as she passed.

I went to Eric's father's funeral. He came to Mom's. I met Darcy for the first time. I learned that Eric had just accepted the position in Charlotte; he'd been planning on buying a condo, but now he and Darcy had decided it made more sense to move to Seven Chimneys and commute.

After the funerals, Eric went home to Seven Chimneys, now the richest man in the county. I went back to the 1960s era silver Jetstream trailer I'd been renting after the bank foreclosed on Mom's place. I was three months behind on rent. When I pulled into the driveway, I saw the padlock. My landlord had taken the opportunity of my mother's funeral to lock me out.

My Art Museum Breathes. In the middle of the night, I tiptoe into the master bedroom. I like to look at Darcy while she sleeps. That sounds creepy but I'm not a pervert. What I am is a man with a decent mind who never escaped the shackles of poverty. I've never traveled to Italy for a summer, like Eric has. I've never been to Paris, where they honeymooned. All I know of the great art of the world I know from books, and from the Corben art collection, which boasts a Renoir, three Wyeths, and a Rembrandt.

None are as lovely as Darcy. She's art, given breath. My time spent at her bedside, staring at her face, is the closest I will ever get to the Louvre. Her eyes are moving beneath her eyelids. She's dreaming. Of Eric, I wonder? Or puppies? Or ghosts?

Her breathing stills and her eyelids flutter. She turns in her sleep. Catlike, silent, I slink to the doorway as her eyes open. I'm halfway down the hallway before she can possibly focus. I don't know how the rest of the world can be satisfied by art that doesn't have the possibility of looking back.

Ordinarily I Like Dogs. Friday, Darcy brought home a puppy. For the last seventy hours, the dog has barked. If I'm in the attic, he barks at the ceiling. If I'm in the cellar, he barks at the floorboards. He pauses from time to time to eat or nap, but even in his sleep, he growls. Eric and Darcy are practically in tears, not knowing what to do about their insane little dog.

On Monday, Darcy skipped work to take Yippy to the vet. She tells Eric that the puppy didn't make a peep at the vet's office. The second he's returned to Seven Chimney's, he's back at the main chimney, barking, staring, as if there's some unseen stranger lurking behind the wall.

Maybe I should shower more often.

The first few days, I hoped the dog would get used to me. Now, I don't think he will.

"I told you a puppy was a bad idea," Eric says.

"You always have to be right, don't you?" Darcy snaps. I hear in her voice the beginning of the end. It would break my heart if they got divorced because of this.

On Tuesday, they both leave for work. The housekeepers go out to lunch with the ground crew. I'm alone with the puppy.

I feel bad about what I did to shut Yippy up. He had such sad eyes. Professor Wink tries to console me with the idea that maybe I saved Eric's marriage. But maybe I haven't. I don't have a track record of getting things right.

My Life as an Action Movie. I was drunk on vodka. I was driving in the mountains in my 1982 Dodge Omni, taking curves at 60 miles an hour in a driving rain. I was coming up on the White River Gorge. I wasn't wearing my seat belt. This was three years ago.

My Omni went through the guardrail. I went through the windshield.

For a long moment I hung in the air, weightless. The rain-slick hood of my car floated before me, close enough to touch. Slowly, our arcs diverged. The car dropped toward the swollen river a hundred feet below. I fell toward the tip of a tall pine, twenty feet down. I imagined I might impale myself on the tree. Instead, I tangled in the upper branches and the whole tree bowed, carrying me at decreasing speed another thirty feet until the trunk snapped, dropping me into a thick cluster of branches in a neighboring pine. I slid across the soggy needles, falling into the limbs of yet a third tree. I dropped in a painful series of snags and snaps, until I landed, crotch first, on a long bough that sagged beneath my weight, lowering me gently to the moss softened rocks by the riverside.

I stood there, stunned, as I watched the twisted scrap metal of the Omni vanish into the floodwaters. I was bleeding from a hundred scratches. My clothes were little more than tatters.

I leaned against a tree trunk, going limp, slipping down until I was flat against the soggy earth. I think I was crying; quite possibly I was laughing. As best I can remember, I said then, of my attempted suicide, "Son of a bitch. I can't do anything right." Maybe I'm imagining that. It seems suspiciously cool-headed, in retrospect.

Darcy's Pregnant. It's a chilly March morning when I hear Darcy break the news on the phone to her mother. I do the math; the last time they made love was on February second. Probably they fooled around on Valentine's Day, but they flew to Bermuda that weekend, so I can't be sure. There's a chance this baby will be born on Halloween. I wonder if they'll open the house for the ghost tour this year.

I don't know if Eric will be a good father. He's not the best husband. Yes, he's caring, and Lord knows he's rich, and movie star handsome. But, he's never around. He only thinks of his career. He's not the sort of person who would give up six years of his life to care for his dying mother. I wonder if he'll tell Darcy to have an abortion.

Ghost Stories. There's a picture of me in the paper. I've been careless again. I was in the attic Saturday, looking out the window, watching the tourists who invade the town for the Apple Festival on Main Street. Lots of people take pictures of Seven Chimneys. I forgot to duck.

I'm clearly visible in the window. You can make out my long hair and beard, and my sunken, skeletal eyes. If you stare at the picture long enough, it's easy to reinterpret my face as the reflection of clouds on wavy glass.

The paper recounts the civil war legend of Crispus Matherton, a union soldier who'd been left for dead on the battlefield, only to stagger into town days later, disoriented, his wounds riddled with maggots. The sheriff was going to jail him, until Anne Corben intervened. Anne took the stranger home, saying even a Yankee shouldn't suffer so grievously. She bathed his wounds, dressed him in fresh linen, and fed him a hearty meal of red beans and cornbread.

That night, she smothered him with a pillow. Her husband, Colonel Randolf Corben, had been decapitated by a Yankee shell at Petersburg six months earlier.

A half dozen other ghosts keep Matherton company. Franklin Corben, the railroad guy, choked on a cocktail olive. He's been spotted by firelight in the library, reading the first edition of Leaves of Grass normally on display in the glass case. Sometimes, the book is missing from the case, and found on the coffee table beside the leather couch. I admit, I've moved the book a time or two, pausing to study the priceless words.

I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,

I am not what you supposed, but far different.

Sometimes, in the gravelike silence of the predawn house, I wonder: Perhaps I am Franklin Corben, and my whole life is some odd afterlife fantasy. Perhaps I am also Alicia Corben, the six-year-old girl who was raped and strangled in the cellar. Or maybe I'm Anthony Adams, the convict who swore revenge against Judge Harlan Corben and was blamed for Alicia's death. Adams supposedly wanders the grounds looking for his head after he was lynched by an angry mob. They dropped him too far. He dangled only a few minutes before his head came off.

There's also the possibility that I'm old Cyrus Washington, the slave who saved Anne Corben from the fire that destroyed the kitchen. He was rewarded with his freedom, but never moved away. He lived in the main house in a private room for decades until he died of carbon-monoxide poisoning from a malfunctioning gas lamp. They say he was a hundred and twelve. Supposedly, his ghost dialed the fire department in 1987 when the wiring in the back bedroom went cablooey and set the wallpaper on fire.

John Arthur Corben drowned at Pearl Harbor. His spirit found its way home when his medals were sent back to his mother. He was a gifted piano player, and sometimes, in the quiet of the night, the soft strains of Mozart are faintly heard from the grand piano. Perhaps I'm him.

Or perhaps I'm Steven Cooper, a man whose life made no impact at all upon the world. A man forgotten, unworthy of ghostly legend, a man who did nothing of significance with the breaths of air he drew. A man who lives like dust under the floor of another man's life.

A Long Walk in a Cold Rain. When I walked back to town the night I drove off the bridge, I felt invisible. The fire truck and a dozen police cars raced past me. You might have thought that they would ask the bleeding man in torn clothing what he knew about the accident. In their defense, the night was dark. After the rain stopped, the clouds hid the moon and stars. The responsible thing to do would have been to call someone and tell them not to waste time dragging the river.

I never made the phone call. Instead I walked to Seven Chimneys and pounded on the front door at five in the morning. Eric wasn't home. He'd gone to Boston to take care of some business, though I didn't know that at the time. I was soaked. I was turning blue from the bruises. I felt dreamy and numb; busting through the windshield had left the whole world with a gentle clockwise spin. When I closed my eyes, I felt weightless.

I crawled into the cellar through the window that doesn't latch. I found some Tylenol in a guest bathroom, and went to sleep on a bed stuffed with goose feathers, snuggled beneath two musty old quilts. I slept for what seemed like days.

I'd been living in Eric's house for two weeks when he and Darcy moved in permanently. I thought about revealing myself, telling my story, but, at the time, it struck me as a fairly pathetic tale. What's more, I knew Eric would say something wise and caring, something perfect, the way he always does. I worried that Darcy, who I'd only met at the funerals, would look at me with pitying eyes and wonder how her new husband had managed to befriend such a loser. So, I didn't find the courage to come out of my hiding place in the cellar that first day. Or the first week. By the time I'd been living side by side with them for a month, unseen, unheard, unsuspected, revealing my presence would have been awkward.

My Days Are Numbered. Of course, Eric reacts to Darcy's pregnancy perfectly. He's thrilled, you can hear it in his voice. Any doubts he might have had are gone. A white spike of jealously pins me to the attic floor. Eric lives a charmed life. He's not a parasite living off the crumbs of his childhood friend. He's married, building a career, and now he's going to pass on his genes to a new generation, fulfilling his highest biological purpose. The great wheel of life turns, and he's riding that wheel. I'm somewhere beneath the tread, crushed out of existence.

Only, I do exist. I have a life, of sorts. And that life is going to get complicated. Darcy's decided to leave her job. She's going to do consulting work from home. Her mother is coming down to help when she's further along. The house is never going to be empty. Darcy's always the one who hears me when I slip up. If her mother is half as sensitive, I'll never be able to relax.

They sound so happy down below. I hug Professor Wink, needing the company. I look into his dark, wise eye and silently ask where my life went wrong. Oh, right. The cancer mom and the deadbeat dad. The vodka and the White River Gorge. The fact I make a better ghost than person.

Suddenly, Professor Wink gets a gleam in his eye. He's thought of a fiendish plan.

The Fiendish Plan. The key, of course, is to make Seven Chimneys more haunted. Gamble that Darcy won't raise her child in a gateway for spooks.

I leave the Whitman book on the table almost every night. They put a new lock on the case. It takes me three nights to pick it. I have time on my hands. For good measure, I occasionally build a roaring fire in the fireplace. I leave a half-finished martini on the coffee table.

There's an ancient Victrola in the attic, and a cobwebbed collection of warped records. The Victrola doesn't work. I take it apart. I fix a broken gear with crazy glue and a paper clip. At four in the morning, on the night of July Fourth, Eric and Darcy are awakened to the warbling strains of Mozart. They come upstairs to find John Arthur Corben's army uniform unfolded beside the Victrola. I've soaked the uniform in salt water for three days. It smells like the sea.

Alicia Corben's room has barely been opened in seventy years. I normally steer clear of the place. There's an air of melancholy that hangs over the ceramic dolls lined neatly on the shelf above the small bed. When I enter the room, I catch a glimpse in the mirror. In the dim light, through the fog of dust, the whole room looks ghostly, me most of all. I'm only thirty, but my blonde hair looks colorless and gray. The face that peeks from behind my whiskers is gaunt. My body is more skeleton than muscles; my skin sags on my bones. I'm guessing I've lost fifty pounds, and I wasn't fat before.

I shake off the reflection and search Alicia's closet for a dress. I find the perfect one, all frills and pink ribbons, the color bleached with age. It's September; they've designated the room beside theirs as the baby's room. They already have a crib set up.

I leave the dress in the crib.

One of the maids finds it the next morning. Her scream is so loud, I scan the newspaper the next day for reports of earthquakes and tsunamis.

Cooler Minds Prevail. In my cleverness, I overlooked the possibility of third party interference. It's mid-October. By now, I had hoped Eric and Darcy would be long gone, moved to a new McMansion nearer to the hospital, a place fresh built and free of ghosts. It is not to be.

Eric is blasé about the whole affair. He's grown up with the ghosts and the legends; he's heard creaks that sound like footsteps, the wind playing in the chimneys that sound like human whispers. He admits to Darcy, yes, he thinks the house is haunted. It's been haunted for generations, and the ghosts haven't hurt a soul, and have actually been useful, assuming Cyrus Washington really did call the fire department. Eric thinks it's kind of cool. I hate him.

Darcy's mother, Marsha, has arrived in time to take the opposite approach. She's a devout atheist; it's an article of faith that the house is ghostless. What the house isn't, she argues, is secure. The slapped together architecture of Seven Chimney's makes the alarm system installed in the seventies a joke. Marsha doesn't believe in ghosts; she does believe in pranksters. She thinks local kids are finding a way into the house and pulling these stunts. She's persuasive. Even I start thinking she might be right.

Marsha proposes a simple, obvious idea. Put security cameras throughout the house.

I am so screwed.

Fortunately, one of the maids claims to have a psychic aunt. The maid's name is Rosa; her aunt is the oddly named Tia Tomato. At least I think she said Tomato. Her accent is hard to follow. Rosa tells Marsha that sometimes the dead have unfinished business. Sometimes they don't even know they are dead, and linger on, confused and lost, growing increasingly warped and frustrated. For a reasonable fee, she'll bring Tia Tomato around to try to explain the situation to the ghost and/or ghosts.

Marsha fires her on the spot. All my months of hard work, down the drain, because now even Darcy is convinced that Rosa was staging the haunting in a scheme to shake them down for money. I'm pissed at Rosa, though I know she should be pissed with me. I have to remind myself Rosa really wasn't guilty of anything; she's out of a job due to my mischief.

In the aftermath, I lay low. I want the talk of installing video cameras put on the back burner. Darcy goes into labor a few weeks later. She's whisked off to Charlotte. I have the house to myself. I take a long, hot shower. For the first time in years, I shave. I cut my hair, cropping it short to the scalp. I gather up all my trimmings in a plastic grocery bag. There's a lot of me to throw away.

In the mirror, I see the man I used to be. Do I see the man I might be again?

Crib Death. The baby's been home for two weeks. It cries a lot; it's almost as bad as the puppy. I get some relief when they take it out to the car and drive around the neighborhood. Apparently, the baby sleeps like a baby when they drive.

In fairness, it dozes off at other times as well. Starting at two in the morning, the baby can reliably be counted on to slumber for at least a few hours. During this time, Eric, Darcy, and Marsha sleep like corpses.

It's three in the morning on a Saturday. I'm at the foot of the crib, staring at the infant. They've named him Franklin. Franky, he'll be called. If he's anything like Eric, by the time he's six, he's going to explore every inch of this house. He's going to take a flashlight and poke around the cellars. He'll spend hours in the attic, clawing through two centuries of clutter. He'll play with Tulip and Professor Wink and Bojangles.

I'm afraid of Franky.

Kids know all the best hiding places. Kids imagine their house is full of hidden panels and trap doors and secret passages -- and this particular kid will be right. One day, he's going to find me.

Approximately one baby in a thousand dies from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. They pass away quietly in their sleep for no reason at all. This is today, with modern medicine. Think about this house, dating back to Colonial times, when babies had the mortality rate of goldfish. I don't know of actual numbers, but I'm guessing a dozen babies have died in Seven Chimneys. A hundred, maybe.

It's a dark thing to stand beside a crib contemplating a hundred dead babies.

I reach out my hand, holding it inches over Franky's pink little face.

I linger a moment, my hand unable to move closer, as if an invisible hand has caught my wrist and holds it with supernatural strength.

I can't swallow. My mouth is dry.

I can't do it. A puppy is one thing. If I do this, though, I'll cross a line. I'll no longer be a ghost.

I'll be a monster.

I release my breath, silent as dust.

Franky really is a cute baby.

No longer blocked by the moral barrier, I lower my hand to stroke his pink, plump cheek.

Again, my fingers stop short. It's not my imagination. Something is holding my wrist.

"I'm not going to hurt him," I mumble, saying it half to myself, half to the unseen thing gripping my arm.

I watch as dust swirls in the dim moonlight, and a second shadow appears on the wall beside my own. Bony old fingers the color of coffee materialize on my wrist. My eyes follow the arm upward, to find a skeletal old man, his face dark beneath a halo of white hair. His expression is stern; his eyes are thin slits.

"Cyrus?" I ask.

He says nothing.

"I won't hurt him," I say.

Then, a third shadow, and a fourth. A soldier stands beside me, gray and grainy as old film. He's soaked. Water pours from his clothes, chilling my bare feet.

Beside the soldier, a little girl with sad eyes shakes her head slowly. She looks familiar; was she the girl in the cellar? She's little more than mist; I can see right through her to the mirror on the back of the door.

Then I realize I'm seeing only a sweater over a chair in the mirror; in the moonlight, it drapes like a girl's dress. My feet are cold -- it's an October night in a house with hardwoods like ice -- but they are dry. The soldier was nothing more than the shadow of a tree.

And Cyrus? Cyrus is still standing there, now solid oak, and he whispers, in a voice of rustling leaves: "We're watching you, boy."

He vanishes as the headlights of a passing car sweep across the room.

I rub my wrist. My whole arm is numb. I decide that Franklin's chubby little cheeks are best left uncaressed.

After a quick trip to the attic, I go to the laundry room and steal some clothes. Eric's jeans invoke a certain sense of deja vu; it's not the first time I've worn his used pants. His old tennis shoes are too big for me; I compensate with two pairs of socks.

Then, I'm out the door, into the open sky. Leaves crunch beneath my feet as I walk across the lawn. On the front porch, a line of Jack-o-lanterns grin, a few still faintly glowing with the last flickers of their candles. I reach the end of the sidewalk and glance back one last time at Seven Chimneys, before crossing the road and taking my return step into the wider world.

Beneath my arm, I cradle Professor Wink.

I can tell he's going to miss the place.

Me, not so much. Even with thirteen-thousand square feet, some places are just too crowded.

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