BY GENEVIEVE RYAN
Copyright is held by the author.
HARRIS WAS lying on the couch, awash in the flickering light and too-high volume of at TV show he wasn’t watching when Stephanie drifted through the foyer. She didn’t look at or address him. She just passed the doorway into the living room, then briefly reappeared on her way up the staircase to the bedroom hallway. The scent of flowers drifted back down to Harris in her wake, thick and cloying.
“Jesus, Steph,” muttered Harris, “that perfume. Did you shower in it?”
If Stephanie heard him from upstairs, she didn’t answer.
Harris sighed and struggled into a sitting position. He fumbled at the bottle of Scotch on the coffee table, sloshing another portion into his tumbler before downing the drink in one. He grimaced as it burned its way down to his stomach.
Harris glanced through to the foyer again. Nothing there. No sound or sign of movement from upstairs, either. The scent of flowers had faded away. Harris wondered why Steph hadn’t turned on any of the hallway lights. His glazed eyes stared at the TV as he tried to sift through the haze of his own thoughts towards the answer.
Suddenly, Harris snorted. “Steph isn’t even here, moron,” he mumbled. “You losing it, or what?”
Satisfied with this, Harris slouched back into the couch and thought of little more until his eyes slowly drooped shut and he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
A few nights later, Harris was driving home from a dinner with his in-laws. It had been, as all such dinners were, interminable. It had always surprised him that someone as captivating as Steph could come from such agonizingly dull parents. Her dad, Pat, had little to contribute to a conversation other than to update everyone about his latest golf game and re-tell the same increasingly embellished stories from his glory days as an airport security officer. Steph’s mom Deb, meanwhile, appeared to have no personality whatsoever beyond a love of Sudoku and British crime dramas.
This time, the only saving grace was that Harris never drank much when he was around Steph’s parents. Pat always drank too much when he had guests for dinner. Harris preferred not to be like Pat, and so abstained. There would be no hangover tomorrow. The first clear morning of the week.
“The things I do for you, Steph,” Harris muttered to himself as he turned onto their street. “There’s not a lot of people that could convince me to use my free time checking in on and actually spending a whole evening with those two.”
Harris’ mood softened somewhat as he reflected on Steph’s parents, and their need of him.
“They sure do miss you though,” Harris murmured as he parked in the driveway. “You’ve never been away from them this long before. It’s not been easy.”
He had just gotten out of the car when he happened to glance up and see the figure above. A pale face framed by long, dark hair, barely visible as she looked down from a bedroom window. Harris froze, his hand still on the car door. It couldn’t be. He closed his eyes, shook his head, and looked again. She was gone. The house was dark, no sign of movement within.
Harris sighed and let himself into the house.
“Hello-oo!” he called in a singsong voice as he entered. “Anybody ho-ome?”
Silence from the empty rooms.
“Nobody here but us chickens,” muttered Harris. It was, as Steph always told him, one of the dumbest jokes in his repertoire.
If it’s so bad what’re you chuckling at then, Chuckles? Harris would always fire back.
The familiar, inane joke calmed Harris’ nerves somewhat and his heart resumed a more regular pace. The house was empty but for him. The figure in the window had been a trick of the light – a distorted reflection from some streetlamp or the light from a nearby house, no doubt.
When Harris crawled into bed a short while later, the pillow smelled faintly of flowers, sickly and sweet.
The next night found Harris sitting in the nursery. He sat in the rocking chair by the same window where, last night, he hadn’t seen Stephanie. His thoughts were a thousand miles away as he stared blankly at the white crib and pile of flat-pack boxes from the as-yet unassembled change table. The only light came from the streetlamps outside.
Harris had almost drifted off to sleep when the overwhelming scent of flowers invaded his nostrils. His eyes snapped open to find Stephanie with her back to him, standing by the crib.
He drank in the impossible sight of her – long black hair drifting down to her hips, and a nightgown that brushed her knees. Slightly pearlescent legs, and feet that didn’t quite touch the floor. Her left hand hung by her side. The tips of her fingernails – longer than Harris had ever seen her wear them – shone in the ambient light. Through her translucent body, Harris saw the outline of Steph’s right hand resting on her belly, the high slats of the crib and, beyond them, the crib’s bare mattress.
There were so many things Harris wanted to say. They stopped his breath as they welled up inside him.
I know it hurts. She would have been here by now if only —
Harris felt his throat tighten as tears pricked at his eyes.
I wish we could have met her. I wish it was really you. I wish I wasn’t dreaming, or drunk, or both.
Steph’s back straightened slightly as her shoulders tightened. The scent of flowers shifted into something darker. Rotted petals and putrid earth. It crashed into the room like a tidal wave, invading Harris’ senses so suddenly that it was all he could do to rise from the chair, hand clapped to his mouth as he raced for the bathroom.
By the time Harris came back, Steph was gone. There was only the light of the streetlamps outside, tingeing the white crib faintly orange. The stench that had driven Harris away had vanished too, leaving no trace as he breathed the barely-there scent of a room never lived in.
She came back every night in the week that followed. She felt more real and present each time, seeming almost solid enough to walk on the ground rather than float through the air.
Always, her arrival was heralded by the scent of flowers. Always, she drifted past Harris on her way to the nursery, strands of black hair drifting in her wake. Not once did she look at him. If she was even aware of Harris’ presence, she gave no sign.
Each visit ended like the first – with Harris retching into the toilet, sick with the scent of rot. Each time he staggered back to the nursery, Stephanie was gone. Until the sixth night.
On the sixth night, Harris had managed to stumble past the nursery to their – his – bedroom and collapse into their — his — bed. He woke hours later to the piercing wails of an infant.
“The baby,” Harris gasped as he woke. He moved on instinct. For just a moment, Harris forgot that Steph had died weeks and weeks ago. He forgot that his daughter had never been born. He forgot the bleak emptiness of a house once full of his little family and more recently full of mourners, and about the concerned relatives that came and went. He forgot that, for the last six days, the house had been empty save for him and the shade that lived in his head.
“The baby,” Harris said again as he rushed to the nursery.
The wall of smell that greeted Harris at the threshold to the nursery stopped him cold. The viscous, vicious stench of dead things rotting under a hot sun poured into his mouth and nose. The shade stood by the crib, her back to him, left hand perched on the crib’s rail. The pale fingers were barely visible against the white-painted wood, given away only by the long, dark fingernails gleaming in the dim light.
The baby that wasn’t there kept screaming. Its cries tugged at something deep and instinctual inside Harris. It galvanized him, pushing him past the threshold stink of death into a world where he was a father whose baby needed him.
“Stephanie, the baby,” Harris began as he stepped into the room, “what’s wrong with —“
His words ran dry as the shade turned to him for the first time. Her face was gaunt, almost skeletal. The hectic glow of red embers burned from deep-set sockets. Her lips parted with a hiss and her vivid red tongue, garish against the spectral white of her face, flicked over pointed teeth. The front of her nightdress was spattered with stains the colour of dried blood. One hand lifted from her belly, fingers curving into taloned claws as she reached for him.
Harris didn’t remember much of the seconds that followed. He remembered only the sheer terror that woke every nerve in his body, the feeling of hurling himself down the stairs, the awful certainty that the shade was no longer in the nursery she was right behind him, and the terrible relief as he stumbled out the front door and slammed it shut behind him to collapse, sobbing, on the front lawn.
Eventually, Harris managed to pick himself up from the ground and brush himself off, but he couldn’t go back inside. Each time he reached for the door handle his nerves failed him. Eventually he wandered around to the backyard and fell fitfully asleep in a deck chair, where he remained until dawn.
In the early morning light, Harris groaned and tried to stretch out the kinks in his back. He sniffed at himself and grimaced. His sweat reeked of Scotch and sour beer.
“Pull yourself together, man,” he muttered as he let himself in through the back door. He puttered around the kitchen, starting the coffeemaker, putting away dishes from the last week, silently scolding himself while pretending he wasn’t afraid to go upstairs.
“What would Stephanie think if she saw you like this?” he demanded of himself. “You’ve got to get a grip. Get back to the land of the living, for Chrissakes.”
That night found Harris back in the living room, once again oblivious to the blare of an irrelevant TV show. This time, he wasn’t drunk. This time, he was alert, expectant. He was waiting for her. It was time to put the shade to rest.
This isn’t real, he told himself as she passed through the foyer. She isn’t here anymore. As she moved up the staircase towards the nursery, Harris followed. He would end this drunken fever dream once and for all. The scent of flowers lay thick across the staircase and bedroom hallway.
Stephanie never wore perfume, Harris reminded himself. And, as an afterthought: it smells like flowers on a grave.
He was at the doorway to the nursery. As always, she had her back to him as she hunched over the crib. Harris didn’t wait for the scent to change. Something told him he had to get to her before the flowers died and went bad.
One step towards the crib. This isn’t real. The flowery smell intensified.
Another step. It’s all in your head. The scent gained a jagged edge that hadn’t been there a moment before — the onset of decay.
One more step and Harris was reaching for the shade, confident his hand would pass through her. There was no perfume left now. Harris’ hand landed on her shoulder, as solid and undeniable as the waves of putrescence assaulting his senses.
She isn’t real Harris thought as the shade turned to him. Her hands were already closing around his throat and her talons dug into his neck as she dragged him towards her open mouth, full of sharp teeth and a lashing, expectant tongue.
Geneviève lives in Toronto where she works for the government helping newcomers to the country to find better lives. Although she has been dreaming up stories since she was a kid, she has only just worked up the courage to start sharing them with the rest of the world. Her goal is to keep contributing to short story publications for now, and may delve into longer fiction in the future.
When not writing, she can often be found going for long runs, reading fantasy novels, or playing board games with her friends and family.