by Marta Randall
short fiction

"Here, darling, I fixed you a nice turkey sandwich," Mrs. Nichols said, disturbing the quiet of the workroom. "And a bit of macaroni salad, just the way you like it. Doesn't it look nice?" She thrust the tray between Robert's face and the drawing board. 

Robert's fingers clenched around his pen; his hand ached. "I'm not really hungry," he said. " I do have a deadline." 

Mrs. Nichols snatched the tray back. "I just thought you should -- you work so hard." Her voice quavered.

He laid the pen down and looked up from the drawing board. Her chin trembled; she wore one of his old, discarded bathrobes. His shoulders tightened. 

"Mom, it's the first commission I've had in two months, and the deadline's tomorrow--" 

"Well, I'm sorry. I just want to help you, you don't have to snap at me like that." 

"I'm not -- " He caught his breath and let it out slowly. "Sorry. All right. Put it on my desk, I'll eat it in a minute." 

"Good," she said happily. "I brought enough for both of us. You go ahead and work, I won't bother you." 

He closed his eyes while the tray thumped onto the desk, a chair scraped back, china clattered. Anything he said would only lead to tears, accusations, and, if he persisted, an afternoon of slammed doors and blaring soap operas, the dissonance of her unhappiness. She hummed to herself, cheerfully out of tune. He sighed and picked up his pen. 

Before him, calligraphy spilled in elegant lines across the paper, translating the stark typeset of the advertising copy into a work of art. A simple enough piece, similar to the works that used to slide in a seemingly endless line below his pens before computer graphics nibbled at, bit into, eventually ate his business. Now the work came slowly, if at all -- perhaps a blessing, his mother said, since the arthritis in his hands had worsened. Besides, she said, they could both live on her pension, now that he was back at home. Back at home. The pen shook and he lifted his hand away before ink splattered over the work. 

"Oh, Bobby," Mrs. Nichols said, around a mouthful of sandwich. 'We must go shopping this afternoon, we're almost out of chicken pot pies. You know how you love chicken pot pies. Just yesterday I noticed that we only had two left, I said to myself, we'd better get to the store, Bobby will miss his chicken pot pies."

Robert laid the pen down again. 'We can go tomorrow, Mom. After I finish this -- " 

"No we can't. Don't you remember what tomorrow is?" 

He pushed away from the drawing board. "No, Mom. What is tomorrow?" 

"The thirteenth, of course," she said. "Friday the Thirteenth. You know I can't leave the house tomorrow. It's not safe." 

"All right," he said. "I'll go by myself."

"Oh, Bobby, you know how much I love going shopping with you." The quaver returned to her voice. "And it's not safe for you, either. You know that."

"Mom, that's just superstitious -- " 

"It's is not! You're just like your father, I told him a million times but no, he always knew what was right, just like you, and look where it got him! Dead, that's where it got him, and good riddance!" 

Robert's temper snapped. "Damn it, if I don't get this job done on time, I'll lose the last client I have. I told you that. Don't you ever listen?" 

"Don't curse at me!" she wailed. 

"I'm fifty-two, Mom! I'm too old to find another job, there's not a damn thing I'm qualified to do except this!" 

"That bitch made you be like this," his mother sobbed. "You never yelled at me before that bitch sank her --" 

"That bitch was my wife, mother. Her name was Linda, mother, remember? Linda? My wife?" 

"She made you hate me," Mrs. Nichols cried, and ran from the room. Robert snatched up a plate and flung it after her. It crashed against the door jamb and splintered across the floor. Mrs. Nichols screamed. 

"Oh, God, I'm sorry," Robert said, running after her. She stood in the hallway, fists pressed against her cheeks, and screamed again. 

"Mom, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it. Please, Mom, it's okay, please ..." 

Mrs. Nichols collapsed against his chest. "Oh, Bobby, I love you so much, I would never do anything to hurt you. I'm only trying to do what's best, you know that." 

"Yes, Mom," he said, staring over her head at the wall. "I know that. I know." 

She sniffled and drew back. "Then you'll drive me to the store?" 

He nodded, defeated. "Sure, Mom." 

She smiled, her eyes flat with triumph, and stripped off the bathrobe. Under it, she wore her street clothes. 

"Now?" It wasn't a question.

"Yes. Okay. Now." He went to find his car keys. Perhaps the trip would shut her up for the rest of the afternoon, and if he worked into the night he'd have the job done before the courier came at eleven tomorrow morning. If she let him. If she didn't succeed in ruining his career, as she'd ruined his marriage, as she'd ruined his life. 

He pushed the thought away. It didn't help, nothing helped, nothing changed. He held the keys in his hands, breathing deeply, trying to loosen the knot of anger in his belly. 

"Bo-bbee!" she called from the driveway. 'What's taking so long? Bo-bbee? I'm getting cold!"

He went out into the early spring drizzle. Mrs. Nichols stood by the garage door, clutching an umbrella. She had not entered the garage in twenty-seven years, since the evening she thought she heard strange noises and, the next morning, found a dead mongrel under the Chevy. The garage was now Haunted, just as the Henderson house on the main road, was Haunted; when she rode with him, Robert had to take back roads into the village. Parker's Hardware kept ladders leaning against the storefront so they had to shop at a big box store twenty miles away; the pet store had once sold black kittens and was therefore off-limits; everybody knew that Reverend Polk had hanged himself in the church bell tower forty years ago, which ruled out church going, too. 

The car started, stalled, and started again. He sat in it for a moment, letting the engine warm, while his mother wailed for him in the driveway. The garage smelled of rotted wood. Twenty-seven years -- she deserved to be haunted, he thought. Hell, if he died before she did, he'd haunt the hell out of her. She'd always had more respect for the dead than for him, anyway. 

"Bobby! I'm freezing!" He backed the car out of the garage and held the door open for her, then stared at her seatbelt until she crossed her arms and glared at him.

"I'm not going to wear it," she said. "It cuts across my neck, it's uncomfortable. Why do you want me to be uncomfortable?" 

"It's the law, Mom," Robert said. "If you don't wear your seatbelt and they catch you, it's a fifty-dollar fine. Put it on."

"They're not going to catch me," she said, reaching into her purse. 

Fuming, he slammed the car into gear and roared down the slick driveway and onto the tree-lined road. She maintained an offended silence, pulling her makeup kit from her purse. Her silence didn't last beyond the first abandoned farmstead. He clenched his teeth.

"Mrs. Tomkins lived in that house," Mrs. Nichols said, "before they put her in that nursing hom. Thank God I'll never be in one of those but of course she went down hill very fast after her daughter moved away. You used to play with Ginny Tomkins when you were both just little kids, it was so cute ... "

His hands ached; he relaxed his grip on the steering wheel. She told the same story every time they went into town, as though he had never heard of Mrs. Tomkins, as though he didn't have work waiting for him, as though his final client wasn't disappearing while she prated and pattered and applied rouge to her cheeks. 

" -- just the cutest thing in the world, Mrs. Tomkins would laugh and laugh you were so cute. There you were, just over a year old, toddling around her house pointing at everything and saying 'No, no,' it was just so cute, Bobby, and -- " 

"Has it ever struck you," he said, "that the first word I knew, the word I heard more than anything else, the word that shaped my whole damned life, was no? Don't you think that's sad, Mother? Don't you think that's a goddamned shame?" 

"Don't curse at -- you missed the turn!" she shrieked. "We can't come this way, you know we can't go by -- turn around!" She grabbed the steering wheel. "Turn the car around!" 

"Mother! No!" He jammed on the brakes, trying to fight the steering wheel away from her, while the tires skidded on the wet pavement and the car slewed toward the trees. Mrs. Nichols screamed, hands clenched on the wheel, and it seemed to Robert that the world slowed down, that the car moved with a ponderous inevitability as it crossed the road, nose-dived slowly into the ditch, and moved sideways to meet the woods. Oak, he thought clearly. We're hitting an oak tree. I never thought -- 

He woke in his workroom. Late afternoon sunlight slanted through the windows, over the unfinished calligraphy on the drawing board. He moved to touch it, then paused, his hand hovering over the paper. The house was very quiet. 

Curiosity filled his world. He tiptoed to the open door. Where was she? Napping? No, she took her naps in the living room, in front of the television set, always falling asleep just before the end of her favorite soap opera while bright voices extolled the virtues of floor wax and packaged cupcakes and prescription anti-depressants. The television was silent, its screen blank. He stared at it, fascinated, examining the front in detail before he peeked behind to see the slim black power cord falling to the wall socket. From there his curiosity took him to the shabby Turkish rug, thence to the hall floor and the faded walls. A bird sang outside, three sharp notes in the silence. Where was she? The kitchen? 

The kitchen door was closed. He reached for it and hesitated, reluctant to lose the blessed quiet, then shook his head and put his hand to the door. His hand disappeared through the wood. 

He snatched it back and stared at it, then at the door, while the image of an oak tree flashed through his mind, the memory of his mother's scream as his side of the car crashed into the tree, as she was flung through her open door. He looked down at his body, at the neat, pressed slacks, the sports shirt bulging slightly over his belly, at his bare feet. Then, carefully, he reached through the door again.

Damn, he thought. She was right. Ghosts do exist -- I'm a goddamned ghost. His extreme curiosity mutated into extreme amusement and he put his hand into and out of the door again, grinning. I'll make friends with that dog-ghost in the garage, we can chase bird-ghosts, or go down to visit Henderson, see what kind of ghosts he has. Hell, we can party with Reverend Polk, scare people during choir practice. He laughed aloud; the sound echoed from the walls.

"Who is that? Bobby?" Mrs. Nichols shouted. 

He slid through the kitchen door. How much time had passed? Was she home from the hospital, bandaged and bruised? Would there be a nurse or, now that he was dead, would they put her in a home? The thought repelled him; he wanted her here, with him, with his ghost, counting away the long years until her own death, locked in the house while he peered at her from the walls, laughed at her from the fireplace, whispered in her ear as she tried to sleep. While he told her all the things he'd been too terrified or too cowardly to tell her before. Anger blossomed in him until he wondered if there was an end to the hatred his ghost-body could contain. 

"Bobby!" she shrieked, sobbing. "Where's my baby boy?" 

He passed through the pantry into the dining room, through the china cabinet into the living room. He paused half-way through the wall. She stood by the sofa, her back to him, sobbing. A lot of time must have passed, he thought; she didn't look hurt. 

"Hello, mother," he whispered. 

She spun around, eyes bulging, hand clenched to her mouth. Her wailing hiccupped, forgotten, into silence. 

Robert smiled hugely. "Don't I look good, Mom? Don't I look like myself? I'd check it out in a mirror, but I don't think I reflect anymore."

Mrs. Nichols took one step back, staring at him. 

"God, I love this," Robert said. "It took fifty-two years, but I've finally shut you up. Did I ever tell you how much I hate your voice, Mom? You never have one interesting thing to say, maybe you never had one interesting thing to think. But oh, how you can talk. What's the matter, Mom? Cat got your tongue?"

"How -- how can you say that to me?" Her voice squeaked. 

"That's not all I have to say, Mom. Oh no, I've got half a century worth of things to say. You never wanted me to leave, and I promise you, Mom, I never will." Robert laughed again. "You ruined me, Mom. I want to see how long it takes to ruin you."

"I never -- I only wanted the best for you," Mrs. Nichols said. Tears pooled in her eyes. "That's all I ever worked for, to make you happy, to keep you safe. It's a terrible world, Bobby, it's hard and cold, your father never knew that, he always wanted out, just like you did, Bobby, but I protected you, and all you give me back is pain, you never stop to think of what it's been like for me, watching you try to leave, watching you let that bitch take over your life -- "

"Shut up," Robert said. 

"It's not my fault she ran away, she saw that I wouldn't let her suck you dry and she left, that's why she left, thank God there weren't any children but you're too selfish to be a father, Bobby, just like your -- " 

"Damn it, Mom, I'm a ghost! Don't you understand? You're goddamned haunted!" 

"And that's all the gratitude I get;' she sobbed. "Shouts and curses, after all I've done for you, after all -- " 

Hysterical, Robert thought. It hasn't sunk in yet, but it will. Maybe tonight, while she sleeps, after she remembers what happened. 

"Giving you everything I had," she wailed. "Everything, Bobby, and you never so much as -- '' 

"Fuck you,"' Robert muttered, stepping back through layers of paint, of wallpaper, of lath and plaster. 

"Don't you curse at me, Bobby Nichols!" she screamed. And followed him through the wall.


© Marta Randall 1986, 2002
originally published in
short fiction