By Charles Joseph Albert
Mary Fitzgerald was beginning to drift off to sleep when she heard the familiar sounds of a key in the deadbolt followed by the heavy, athletic gait of a young man walking down the hall to the bathroom. The light switch clicked, a stream of water resounded into the toilet, then a flush, a faucet creak, and the medicine cabinet door opening and shutting. These comforting sounds that parents listen for at the end of any night their boy is out late.
Her calf muscle gave one final twitch, and she plunged into sleep. But it wasn’t the restful sleep of a mother whose boy was now safely home. She began the dream where Brian’s bloody face stared out at her from a body bag in that Chicago morgue. She had that dream every night for the past three years. Since that day at the morgue.
The next morning as she slowly came out of the fog of sleep, Mary couldn’t help but wonder whether those noises in the hallway last night had been part of the dream. She hasn’t been asleep yet, had she? And yet they had sounded so real. Real enough to make her long to wake up, to greet him. But she had deliberately not moved. She had wanted to drift off. Not because she knew the noises weren’t real. But because she had wanted to believe in them, she had really wanted the possibility that Brian was making those noises somehow. His ghost? Or maybe she’d gone back in time. Or if there was some weird dimension where he hadn’t died. It didn’t matter, as long as there was even the tiniest possibility that he could be there again. She’d be willing to lie as still as necessary, to believe as hard as she could…
Mary didn’t peek into his room. Or look at the front door. Or even look in the bathroom. It was better if she could just pretend that the impossible was really a possibility, even though of course she knew better. He was dead. His ashes were on the mantle in the living room.
And yet… She had to go to the bathroom after breakfast, and it seemed silly to go all the way back to the bathroom in her bedroom. She stepped into the hall bath and regarded herself in the mirror: her red hair, now greying, cut in a no-nonsense bob, was starting to grow out. She’d need to get it cut soon. And her fair skin was starting to show her age, although she wasn’t forty yet. And her weight…
She sighed, hitched down her panties—
—and almost sat down in the toilet water. How did the seat get up? Unless Brian—he used to always…
But of course, it wasn’t Brian. Must have been some other guy. Though Mary couldn’t think of any other guy who’d been in the apartment. Not recently, anyway.
She flipped the seat down, finished in the bathroom, and pulled her purse off of the coat rack in the hallway on her way to the door. She turned to undo the deadbolts on the apartment door and almost dropped her keys. Her vision went woozy for a moment, and she had to put out a hand to steady herself.
The top deadbolt was locked, but none of the rest of them were. Exactly the way Brian used to leave it, despite Mary’s constant nagging. Brian used to bust her, say she was extra super picky about always doing all the locks.
The entire walk to the number 7 bus stop, Mary turned these things over in her mind. It was possible, of course, that all of this was just in her head. Somebody else left the seat up. Maybe she forgot to lock the other deadbolts on purpose when she came home yesterday, one of those psychology slips. And maybe the sounds really were just a dream.
She convinced herself that it was all in her head, and by the time she got to work, she was laughing at her own foolishness. She stepped out for a smoke break at ten and told the whole thing to Barbara, from accounting. She and Barbara were roughly the same medium height and full figure, and just as fair-skinned. People often took them for sisters, which might have been why Mary opened up about something she would have normally kept to herself.
“Can you believe I was so silly?” She laughed, shaking the ash off her cigarette and looking out into the street, away from Barbara’s face.
But Barbara gave a deep inward breath and clucked her tongue. “Oooh—I don’t know… That sure sounds strange.”
Mary took a casual puff, but felt her pulse quicken. Still, she wanted to be talked into it, so she shrugged.
“Like… that is some deep shit there, you know?” Barbara took a puff, nodding.
Mary watched her smoke twisting away in the cold breeze. She smiled, distrustful of a warm feeling that Barbara’s words evoked.
“You—your place’s got to be haunted,” Barbara said. “You don’t want to mess around with that shit.”
Haunted? Mary jerked her gaze to Barbara’s face. She looked hard-angry, almost.
“Oh, come on,” Mary said. “I don’t think it’s anything like that. Probably just all in my head really. I mean—I missing you know? He was everything to me. And I still can’t believe he’s gone. Even though I was there at the morgue. I saw him. No doubt who that was in that body bag.”
“And now his ashes are on your living room shelf? That’s why we don’t keep dead people in the house, where I come from. Now you’ve got his ghost coming back haunting you. You—you need an exorcist, that’s what.”
“Barbara! I don’t need an exorcist.” She cast a glance at Barbara and swallowed. “That stuff’s all just my imagination, sure.” She was trying to be polite, but really, Barbara gone too far.
Mary knew she shouldn’t have, but she added—blurted, really, “Besides, even if it was a ghost, he was my boy. I wouldn’t exorcise him.”
She said it as though there were other people that she would consider exorcising. They finished their cigarettes and went back in. Mary, now a little irritated with Barbara, wished she never brought the thing up. Barbara had gotten too excited. She was taking it the wrong way. Mary didn’t remember exactly where Barbara’s family was from, but it was one of those Eastern European countries where they believe in demonic possession and all kinds of crazy stuff.
The rest of the day they didn’t say much. Barbara seemed distracted. And when Mary got home that night, she found out why. Barbara was waiting for her outside her apartment door.
“Barbara, what are you….” Then she noticed that a priest was waiting with her. “Oh no! Oh, no you don’t.”
She put her key back in her purse and stood there, arms crossed.
Barbara spoke first. “Now you listen to me, Mary. You don’t know what you’re messing around with here. These ghosts, they’re the undead. I know you loved him when he was alive, and he was your whole world. But he ain’t supposed to be here no more. It ain’t natural.”
The priest seemed to take no notice of what Barbara just said, and instead smiled and extended his hand.
“Miss Jackson, I’m Reverend Holly. I’m here to help your child complete his path to our heavenly father.” He was a tall, lean fellow, reddish hair turned to grey and a wispy grey line of a moustache on his top lip.
“Then I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place, Reverend Holly,” she said steadily. “I don’t particularly believe in your heavenly father, and Brian was an atheist through and through. There isn’t any chance of that boy going to whatever father you’re talking about.”
She turned to Barbara. “Now, Barbara, if you two will excuse me, I would like to put this food,” she held up her grocery bags, one in each hand, “in the freezer. And make myself some dinner before it gets late.”
Barbara held up a large cloth bag containing some sort of box. “Oh, don’t you worry about dinner, Hon. I got enough for all three of us.”
Mary froze. She was surprised at that.
“Now, even if you ain’t a Christian, I know you won’t leave two hungry, cold people on your doorstep. So how about if we come in, and I fix us up a nice quiet meal. After that, if you want us to, we’ll go ahead and leave. We don’t got to exorcise nobody tonight. Ain’t that right, Reverend?”
Mary made them promise two more times that they weren’t to try any exorcisms before she let them in. Then she set three plates and silverware out on the little formica table in the kitchen and put away her groceries while Barbara warmed up the stew and biscuits and set it out on the table with a nice red wine.
Reverend Holly said grace, Mary looking on dourly, listening carefully to make sure he didn’t try to slip any phrases like “begone, spirit” or “away, Satan.” She wasn’t able to relax until he ended, and, passing her the biscuits, said, “What can you tell us about your boy, Sister Mary?”
“Oh! Brian!” She took a biscuit from the plate and watched him swing it around to Barbara. “He was a handful, I can tell you. Always had been. Since a young age. Too much of his father in him, that one!”
“Was he involved with—” Mary turned to meet his prying eyes, perhaps a little too defensively, for he faltered and seemed to change the direction of his question. “—with a young woman?”
“He had a few girlfriends if that’s what you mean,” she said. She considered him carefully and then added. “But he was a student at City College. And he had ambition. He didn’t have time for girls. Or any of that other foolishness that young men around here find themselves in. Drugs. Gangs. Crime.” She turned to Barbara. “Isn’t that right, Barbara?”
Barbara shrugged. She responded with something tepid, some “Of course not, honey.” But it was true that she had only met Brian once or twice, and never for more than a minute. Only when he’d dropped by the office to pick up the spare key, or to get money for a book, or something. On the other hand, Barbara should know that Mary had never once complained about her boy being involved with drugs or gangs.
Mary wished she could take that smarmy reverend’s question and shove it back down his fool mouth. But Barbara wasn’t much back up, so Mary looked at herself through the priest’s eyes and saw—just another deluded mama. The kind that are always outraged and in denial on TV when their boys are shot dead in a drug war, or arrested for murder, or what all.
And sure enough, the priest’s mouth was easing into a smile that he tried hiding behind a fourth helping of biscuit.
“Now, you shay that,” he mumbled through his full mouth, “and that’sh good. The way a mother should feel about her boy.” He swallowed his mouthful with a sip of his wine, and continued. “But the truth is that Satan is strong in the young, even the best of them. They haven’t seen enough of life to know his ways. Oh, I know,” he said to her objection, “that you don’t believe in Satan. And neither did Barry, I’m certain.”
“Brian,” Mary said. “Brian. Of course, I’m sorry.” He rose from the chair, waving his water glass vaguely at the mantle behind him. “This is his remains?” She sat looking at him, not answering. “Brian, Brian. His name isn’t on the urn.” He traced the decorations on the urn with a finger.
“Brian,” he said again, musingly. “Lord have mercy on your soul.” His forefinger had been wet, for he left the wet trace of a cross on the urn.
“Lord, have mercy,” Barbara murmured.
He turned suddenly back to the two ladies still seated. In his abrupt movement, he splashed a few drops of water on both of them.
“Be careful!” Mary burst out.
“Lord have mercy!” Reverend Holly repeated.
“Lord, have mercy!” sang out Barbara, more fervently.
“Christ, hear us!” was then called out and repeated.
“What the hell are you two doing?” Mary said, standing up. “God the Father in Heaven, hear our prayer!” They ignored her.
It had all been a trick. They were doing the exorcism after all! Mary leapt forward and tried to snatch the urn out of the reverend’s hands. He twisted away, still muttering his ritual, faster now. She tried reaching around him, and he twisted the other direction, his “Holy Mother of God” and his “Saint Peter” jerking out of him with his efforts, Barbara still answering.
Mary was desperate now—she didn’t give a damn about their holy mother of god crap, but she was afraid that Brian might. What if he thought they were here because she asked them? What if he got the wrong idea, and never came back?
“Brian! Brian! Don’t listen to them,” she yelled out.
“All holy disciples of the lord!” yelled out the reverend.
“Brian! Don’t go away! I don’t want you to go!” Mary cried out, her voice cracking. “Intercede for us!” moaned Barbara.
“Briiiaaaann!” Mary screeched. “Don’t!” she grabbed the urn. “Go!” she pulled. “Away!” She got both hands on the urn, and Reverend Holly lost his grip. But it slipped out of both of their hands and crashed to the floor. A great cloud of dust exploding from it in slow motion. Mary falling backward against the counter. Barbara shrieking.
Then life began moving at fast speed again. Barbara jumped up from her chair, moved out of the cloud. “Getty behind me Satan!” she said, frantically brushing the dust off of her dress. She grabbed her coat, stuffed her bag with the half-full Tupperware, and was at the door.
The reverend somehow managed to drain his wine glass while getting his own coat on. Mary watched them in a kind of fog. He made a sudden face while swallowing, as though he’d just swallowed part of Brian, and indeed there was a ring of dust around where his glass had sat a moment ago at the table.
Mary staggered forward: she had to brush Brian off of them! But Barbara’s eyes opened wide in terror, and she fumbled her way through the deadbolts and out the door in a heartbeat, the Reverend right behind her.
Mary turned back to her dinner table then, to the epicenter of Brian spread out on the kitchen linoleum. She moaned again, “Brian! Brian! Don’t you listen to those people!”
She knelt in a daze at the sink cabinet, and her hands seemed to find of their own mind the little brush and dustpan she kept under there, and with slow, loving motions, she herded Brian’s ashes off of the table and chairs and floor and back into the broken halves of the urn, carefully picking out the dust and foreign bits, though allowing her tears to mix in with them, for after all hadn’t he been born of her tears, hadn’t he lived in the presence of her tears—both of joy and of pain, mind you—and hadn’t he been the reason for all of her tears since he died three years ago, that death that she had always been afraid would come for him, that she had anticipated in a thousand different ways, as any parent will in their worst nightmares, and now Mary carefully lifted the two halves of the urn and put them in a clean salad bowl from the dish drainer, crying and laughing because Brian had always hated salad, and as she placed it back on the mantle she whispered, “Now son, you just come back anytime you want, don’t you listen to those crazy people, you come home to your mama like you’re supposed to, you hear me?”
And she was sure that he would.
About Charles Joseph Albert
Charles Joseph Albert works as a metallurgist and does his writing on the commute by trolley. His work has appeared recently in Vallum, Write City, and the Apeiron Review. His first novel, “The Unsettler,” is being released by installments in SERIAL Magazine. A story collection, “A Thousand Ways to Fail” and a poetry collection “Confession to the Cockroaches” are both for sale on Amazon. Be sure to follow him on Goodreads!