Steve Lockley and Paul Lewis have been working in collaboration for more than ten years, starting with co-editing the acclaimed horror anthology series Cold Cuts. Since then they have produced the novels The Ragchild and The Quarry and the novellas King of all the Dead and The Ice Maiden. In addition they have co-written a number of short stories including The Winter Hunt which was runner up for the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction in 2001. They are currently looking for a home for a collection of their short fiction.
He woke with a start so violent it almost threw him out of the chair. Gary blinked and looked around the room, confused. The lamp was on, the TV off with only the red stand-by light to show that it was still alive. A paperback lay face down on the floor, spread out like a dead bird. Then he remembered; he'd been reading. Must have dozed off in the chair, when -
When something - a voice? - had roused him. But of course it couldn't be a voice. He was alone in the house. Alone, that was, apart from Ellie.
'Ellie!' he gasped, thinking the worst, eyes drawn to the monitor plugged into the wall socket next to the dormant TV. That's what must have woken him, Ellie calling out her baby gibberish that he, half-asleep, had heard as his name.
Panic set in, as it always seemed to. He ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time, before bursting into the nursery. He'd half expected Ellie to be awake in her cot, holding on to the wooden bars and trying to pull herself up; that was her usual trick. Instead she was asleep, on her back, legs sporadically kicking. Gary bent over the cot and listened. Small sighs from her slightly open mouth informed him that she was breathing just fine. Another fear allayed, Gary straightened and left the room, pulling the door behind him but not closing it completely.
He went down to the lounge and retrieved the paperback from the floor, then sat back in the chair and turned the pages until he found the last part he could remember. It was Bill Bryson's latest humorous travel book, this one about Australia. Gary used to like horror. Now he could only cope with light reading, preferably something funny. Apart from Ellie he had precious little to raise his spirits these days.
He looked up sharply. It had been the faintest whisper, but he was sure he had heard it. Heard her. Angela. But, of course, that was impossible. The monitor's red light stared unblinking at him. He knew he'd imagined it, but that did not make it seem any less real. Grief did that to you, he guessed. Fucked you up in more ways than one so that you weren't just left to cope with cold reality but with fantasies as well. Angela had been dead more than six months. Nevertheless, night after night he would find himself surfacing from a dream-haunted sleep to feel the warmth of her next to him. Every morning when he opened his eyes, he knew that she was there beside him, just as long as he did not look at her and break the spell. If it wasn't for Ellie he'd be tempted to stay that way, looking at the ceilings, the walls, the window, anywhere but the place where his dead but still warm wife lay.Some illusions, though, were made to be shattered.
Such as the illusion of long life and happiness.
He yawned. It was late, close to midnight. Almost time for Ellie's feed. He climbed the stairs, carrying the Bryson with him. He went into his room and lay on the bed, thumbing through the paperback. No point trying to sleep now. Better to wait until he'd fed and changed her, put her back down in her cot. Then he would turn in, and grab whatever shut-eye he could until the baby woke, hopefully many hours later.
It was tough, raising a kid alone. But he managed. Angela's parents helped out now and then, but always begrudgingly. He knew they blamed him for what happened. Fuck 'em, he thought. They knew Angela better than he did - she'd lived with them for twenty-odd years, with Gary for five - and they hadn't seen the signs either. Fortunately, Gary's own parents and his sister were incredibly supportive, baby-sitting most days when he was at work, evenings too if they were needed. They doted on the baby and Gary knew he was lucky to have her. She was all he had, now that Angela was gone. He closed his eyes, shuddered as his mind flashed back to that awful moment when he had come in from a particularly shitty day at the office, itching for a fight just to rid his system of a pent-up sense of frustration, then opening the lounge door and finding her sprawled on the floor, left hand clutching a bottle of paracetamol. Some of the pills had spilled onto the carpet.
He could still remember the pattern they'd formed.
'You should have seen it coming. Didn't you know something was wrong?' Angela's mother had demanded of him, on the day of the funeral. Well, sure, wasn't hindsight a wonderful thing. And, yeah, if he was brutally honest with himself, Gary knew she'd changed after Ellie had been born. Long, brooding silences broken by angry outbursts. One day she seemed incapable of rousing herself to respond to anything he said or did. The next she'd fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. Gary had put it down to tiredness and the abrupt change in lifestyle.
Post-natal depression. That's what they told him later.
Later. After she'd killed herself. Yep, hindsight sure was wonderful.
And yet, despite himself, he felt as guilty as hell.
Gary closed his eyes, listening out for voices that did not come, hearing only the occasional sound of gurgling from across the landing. He had thought about bringing Ellie's cot into his room, but decided against it. He was sleeping badly enough that he would often read well into the night in the hope it would help him to slip into another less terrifying world. It rarely did.
From downstairs he heard a voice, calling his name.He shivered, tried to ignore it, knowing it was just another fantasy, an illusion that resisted his best efforts to smash it into a million pieces.
He shivered again, realizing with a faint sense of surprise that he was doing so not out of fear but because he really was cold. The room, comfortably warm when he'd brought the book upstairs, now felt like ice. His breath formed a ghostly image of itself in the air. Weird. It was later October, admittedly, but that was hardly the bleak midwinter and, besides, the weather had been unusually mild.
There it was again. This time he was certain it was no illusion. Had his mother or sister let themselves into the house for some reason, using the keys he'd had cut for them? If so then something must be hellishly wrong for them to turn up this late instead of phoning him. Dragging himself out of bed he tiptoed across the landing, listening to the faint, persistent voice. Maybe it was next door's TV. The walls in these houses were way too thin for his liking. Then again, the Wilsons were a quiet couple, elderly and inoffensive. He couldn't imagine them being awake at this godforsaken hour, let alone watching TV. They were radio people.
Gary eased open the nursery door. Ellie had kicked the covers from her. As he watched, her mouth opened and she yawned, then settled again. Satisfied she was deep asleep, Gary started downstairs, rubbing his hands together briskly to warm them as he walked. It really was cold. Either the weather had taken a sharp turn for the worse, or the heating was screwed. He paused in the hallway, reaching out for the light switch before checking himself. If there was anyone in the house, as unlikely as that was, the last thing he wanted to do was alert them to his presence. No, he'd wait in darkness and in silence. If he heard anything he'd creep back upstairs and call the cops from bedroom phone. No point taking chances. He had Ellie to worry about.
The door to the kitchen was open but no sound came from it. Instead the voice seemed to be coming from the lounge. He could hear it only sporadically, and it was so soft as to be almost inaudible, but Gary knew it was a woman's voice - Gary - and the questions he'd so often asked himself suddenly popped into his head.
What if I'd gotten home just a short while earlier? What if Angela had taken the pills as a cry for help, not meaning to kill herself, calling out for the baby and me in those final moments when she knew help was not coming? How had she felt in the seconds before the darkness took her, knowing what she was leaving behind?
He saw her reach out with her left hand, still gripping the small white bottle. She was reaching out for him, lips moving silently to form his name, over and over. Gary rubbed his eyes to erase the image, then reached for the lounge door handle. He paused momentarily, telling himself he was being stupid, better to go upstairs and call the cops, but he couldn't help it. He had to see who was behind the door, even though a part of him knew the answer. Nothing. He would find the room just as he left it.
He grasped the handle and twisted it. Eased the door open. Stepped inside. Inside all he could see was the red stand-by button on the TV.
A shiver ran down his spine and he felt a sudden weakness in his knees. 'Angela,' he whispered though he knew that she could not be there. He gripped the doorframe to steady himself as bile rose in his throat. His fingers fumbled for the switch on the wall, then he blinked at the explosion of light. There was no one there. Deep down he had been certain there would not be and yet he had heard the voice. Faint and tinny, but he had heard it clear enough. From upstairs he could hear the sound of Ellie stirring, making baby noises as she roused from sleep. Then there came a faint echo and a dawning realization as he noticed the red indicator light and saw the baby monitor, still switched on. He knelt down beside it, listening as Ellie laughed and kicked in her cot. A smile rose on his lips involuntary as, for a moment, he forgot all his cares. Beyond the sounds his daughter made there seemed to be … something else. He wasn't quite sure what. Just a faint whisper, the slightest susurration. It was nothing, he told himself. Probably static. Thinking about it, wasn't it possible the sounds he was sure he had heard earlier had been a radio signal - from a passing taxi maybe - rather than a product of his admittedly overheated imagination?
Speaking of overheated …
The room was cold, as cold as the bedroom had been. He crossed the lounge to the radiator, pressed his hand up against it. No problem there; the skin almost burned on contact. Timer had to be out, then. The boiler must have kicked on long enough to send hot water through the system, but not long enough for it to have taken the chill off the room. When he had chance he'd adjust the timer. The pipe that fed into the radiator suddenly pinged, making him start. Gary shook his head, not quite believing that he could be so jumpy. He smiled a small tight smile of embarrassment, glad no one else had been around to witness his skittishness. Just as well he had given up the horror novels. His nerves already felt overstretched.
He heard Ellie shift in her cot again. Her baby sounds became louder, spurring him into action. Time to get her fed, bathed and dressed. The mundanities of fatherhood, he thought wryly. But he welcomed them all the same. Looking after Ellie had become the central part of his life, anchoring him in reality after the trauma of losing Angela. He clapped and rubbed his hands together in a kind of right then gesture, and headed into the hallway towards the stairs. Then he stopped dead, not believing what he had heard. Ellie. Saying the word for the first time.
It was dark by the time he arrived home. Gary felt tired enough to drop. The office had been same old same old - a steady flow of work, enough to keep him busy, not enough to make him sweat - but his sleepless night had taken its toll. Nancy, his sister, was pulling her coat on when he stepped into the hall, droplets of moisture dripping from his own coat to the floor. 'Wet one,' he said, stating the obvious. For a moment he flashed back. Before, when he arrived home, Angela would greet him with a warm 'Hey, baby' and a kiss right on the lips. Gary pushed the memory away. He hated the way his mind would sometimes ambush his emotions.
'Sure is.' Nancy buckled her coat and pulled a shapeless knitted cap onto her head. 'Sorry, got to dash. We're going out for a meal tonight.''Special occasion?' Gary asked, worrying that perhaps he had forgotten a birthday or anniversary.
'Nope. But it's Greg's pay day and I didn't feel like cooking.'
'Sounds reasonable. Everything okay here?'
'Fine,' Nancy said with a quick smile. 'Ellie's in her cot, flat out. She's been as good as gold all day. But, hey, you might want to get the heating checked. It got awfully cold in here this afternoon.'
Gary nodded. 'Yeah, I know. I think the timer's out. I'll get it sorted.'
He paused. 'I don't suppose you noticed anything else playing up.'
'Uh-huh. It's been working fine. Why'd you ask?'
'It was making weird noises last night. Static or interference, or something.'
'Well it seems all right now. Anyway, gotta go. See you tomorrow.'
She went past him to the door, pausing long enough for Gary to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. 'See you in the morning, okay?'
'Yeah. Thanks again.'
'Don't mention it,' Nancy said, and then she was gone.
Gary felt his shoulders slump as the door closed behind her. Another night alone. He had hoped Nancy would have stuck around awhile. He could do with someone to talk with. But of course he couldn't begrudge his sister a night out. She had a family of her own, after all. Greg was a decent man and they had two fine boys. No, she had her own life to lead and Gary was just grateful that she was around in the day to look after Ellie for him while he was at work. Having said that, he was in no doubt that, had she known how down he was feeling right now, she would have called off her night out to be with him. She was that kind of woman. Totally selfless.
Not like Angela, right?
He almost cringed with shame immediately the thought occurred to him. Yet he couldn't blame himself for thinking it. Okay, it hadn't been her fault that he'd been left alone, struggling to hold down a job and raise a baby at the same time. Angela had been ill. He understood that. Post-natal depression. They'd explained that to him later, in the hospital. He really did understand. But that did not alter the fact that she had left him all by himself. In his lowest moments - and boy was this one of them - he simply could not shrug off the idea that she had taken the easy way out, had turned to the pills and the oblivion they brought rather than turn to her own husband.
'Are you sorry for what you've done?' he whispered to the empty room.
The hiss of the monitor was the only reply he got.
He fixed himself dinner; grilled chicken and vegetables. Since he'd recovered from the initial shock of finding himself widowed Gary had been determined to cook his own food rather than rely on frozen dinners. Like the day-to-day demands of looking after a kid, it was another way of chaining himself to the real world. For the same reason he did his own laundry and cleaned the house rather than hire someone.
He ate at the kitchen table, then took a beer from the refrigerator and sat in his favorite chair, idly flicking through the TV channels. Nothing much there to hold his attention, just crummy movies, plastic-fake game shows and news bulletins that swung wildly from the crass to the deeply depressing. Gary switched it off, fetched another beer and immersed himself in Bryson's Australian adventure. Before long the alcohol and the jocular tone of the book relaxed him to the point where he caught himself dozing off. He put down the beer and the book, settled back and closed his eyes. Why not? He needed the sleep and, besides, he would hear Ellie when she woke. Darkness pulled at him like a fast-flowing river. Gary let it sweep him away.
Later, he would never be sure if he'd dreamt the words or heard them.
Hush little baby, don't say a word.
His eyes flicked open. For a moment he had no idea where he was.
Mommy's gonna buy you a mocking bird.
It's her, he thought wildly. There was no doubt about it.
He blinked against the light. As his eyes adjusted he saw how the walls and surfaces of the room glistened. Immediately he became aware of how cold the lounge was. Not like last night; that had been a mere chill in comparison. No, this was the kind of cold that could freeze the breath in a man's lungs, turn the marrow in his bones solid. His face and hands stung with it. The monitor's indicator light was a red smear behind a thin layer of frost. 'Ellie,' he croaked as panic set in, forcing himself to his feet, struggling against the weariness in his legs. It was as though the cold had drained not just the heat from his body but every ounce of strength from his muscles.
The hallway was warmer, but only marginally.
'Ellie!' he called, voice stronger now, as he willed his way up the stairs, the frosty carpet crackling beneath his feet with each step he took. He heard a voice and his confused mind puzzled over it, until he recognized it as his own
He stumbled into the near dark of the nursery with only a nightlight to save him from tripping over toys jettisoned from the cot. 'Daddy's here,' he whispered, lifting Ellie into his arms, cradling her to his chest. 'Everything's all right now.'
But even as he uttered the words, he knew he was wrong. Ellie did not move, did not make a sound. Her body felt too slack. Please God. He reached out with one frozen hand and flicked on the lamp, dimly aware of the tears that cut hot trails down his cheeks. Ellie's eyes were closed, her little mouth open but unmoving. A string of spittle connected her lower lip to her chin. Gary lowered his face and kissed it away.
Her skin was as white as alabaster, as cold as her father's dead heart.
He must have dialed 911 without being aware of it. When the paramedics arrived they almost had to prise her from his fingers.
Days passed. Time failed to heal the wound; it went far too deep for that. Gary did not so much live his life as force himself through one day, then the next. He considered himself a shell, as empty as the house he inhabited. When Angela died at least he'd had Ellie to help him through the worst. Now he had nothing. Nothing, and no one.
Occasionally he thought about ending it, but something inside him made him struggle on. Something that could have been a reserve of strength he had not known he possessed, or could just as likely have been pure bloody-mindedness. The way he looked at it, if he took his own life then Angela would have won. He'd figured out what was happening. For sure he'd had enough time to think it over.
Nancy had begged him to move in to move in with her and Greg and the boys. When he'd declined, his mother, perhaps mistakenly thinking he did not want to be around other people's children when he'd just lost his own, had pleaded him to stay with her. Only until the shock and the grief had started to ease. Again, he'd declined.
Gary couldn't tell them this but he felt no shock and no grief.
He just felt numb, as if the icy cold had taken up residence inside him.
Dawn began to break and a dim light filtered through the curtains. The monitor's red eye stared at him. He'd left it on since the night he found Ellie forever asleep. Night after night he sat in the chair, waiting to hear her voice.
Yep, he'd figured it out.
Are you sorry for what you've done?
That's what he'd asked the empty room that night.
And now he honestly believed she was.
What he thought - and sometimes he had to remind himself just how crazy this sounded - was that Angela was still tied to him and to Ellie. Before her illness she'd been a loving wife and a doting mother. Maybe now that the darkness had lifted from her mind all she wanted was to be with her family again.
That's what he thought.
Outside a chorus of birds heralded the sunrise. Fatigue overwhelmed him. He felt himself drift into sleep.
'Hey yourself,' he murmured, opening his eyes just long enough to see the words create misty ghosts in the half-light. He closed them again, barely feeling the cold, and smiled as Ellie said the word he'd been longing to hear.
(C) Steve Lockley and Paul Lewis 2004
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.