This story was first published in May 2017, for a digital magazine called Storyteller. It was inspired largely by W.W. Jacobs’ classic “The Monkey’s Paw”, though I think I threw in a dash of Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep” toward the end. To the best of my knowledge, the publishers of this magazine folded only a couple months later. So it goes.
I have this memory.
It’s my fortieth birthday. My sister and her husband have taken me and my kids out to dinner, and they’ve bought the biggest cake I’ve ever seen.
As I’m blowing out the candles, my youngest daughter Gabrielle shouts at me to “Make a wish, Mommy! Make a wish!”
I don’t know about you, but when a six-year-old tells me to make a wish, then by God, I make that wish. It doesn’t matter how big a skeptic I am the other 364 days of the year, I can’t say ‘no’ to Gabi’s little fantasies. I make that wish, and the flame on the big wax ‘40’ goes out, and I imagine his face. I recall his voice, and I wish I could see him just one more time, have just one more conversation with him.
I’ve thought about this memory quite a lot recently. I think about it every year as the anniversary approaches. Both the anniversary of my marriage to him, and the anniversary of that night. The night he came back wrong.
* * * * *
I am a pretty big skeptic most of the time. So, when I woke up the morning after my big 4-0 and found myself alone in bed, I wasn’t terribly disappointed. That’s just how the world works, after all. Wishes are only in storybooks and Disney movies. Cinderella gets wishes. Aladdin and Jasmine get wishes. Mrs. Charlotte Booth of Sudbury, Ontario, does not.
Not right away, at least.
It was a snowy morning in early January, about six weeks after my birthday. I’d sent my three kids off to school as usual, and was in my home office, working through a stack of bills on the desk, when my phone rang on the desk beside me.
The noise was a shock in the silence of the house, and I nearly knocked over my coffee as I jumped in my chair. I checked the caller ID – it just said UNKNOWN NUMBER – and turned the volume down. Then, I answered the phone. “Hello? Charlotte Booth, speaking.”
For a minute, the only sound was the low, silent hiss of an open line with no one on the other end. I was about to hang up when the breathing started.
It was shallow and raspy, like two sheets of sandpaper rubbing together. On every fifth breath, a wet, sloppy whistle joined the orchestra. I could imagine the caller’s windpipe was obstructed, and the air only broke through when the caller forced it along on a wave of phlegm and saliva and God alone knew what else.
Something about that breathing unsettled me deeply. It sounded sick, wounded even. It sounded like the caller felt an obligation to breathe, and they would just as soon give the activity up if they had the choice. The breathing sounded unhealthy and painful and wrong, like whoever was breathing shouldn’t be breathing. The hairs stood on the back of my neck and I closed my free hand into a tight fist, my nails digging into the soft flesh of my palm, as I swiftly ended the call.
I told myself it was just some neighbourhood kid playing a stupid prank. I honestly wanted to believe it, too, but I got another call the next day, and two more the day after that. They all followed the same pattern: UNKNOWN NUMBER, silence on the open line, and then that wounded, sloppy breathing. No words of greeting. No messages. No other sounds than that damn breathing.
I wished Jack were here. He would have known how to settle this. He wouldn’t even have to raise his voice: with three blunt, whispered words, he could have sent this jerk running for the hills.
But Jack wasn’t here. That was the whole point of my silly little birthday wish. Jack was gone, and I had to stand up for myself, like a big girl.
So, that’s exactly what I did. When the next call came in on Day Four, I was ready to give my friend on the other end a piece of my mind.
I hastily swallowed my coffee and picked up the phone on the second ring. I didn’t even wait for the breathing to start before I snapped, “Okay, whoever you are. This has gone on long enough! I don’t know who the hell you are, or what the hell you want, but I am sick and tired of it! If you don’t stop calling me, I am going to make a formal complaint to the police!”
When I’d said my piece, the breathing stopped for a moment, as if the caller was carefully considering his response.
“Well?” I barked. “Don’t you have anything to say to me?”
He did. The breathing picked up again, but it was slower and more measured. Then a weak, quivering voice whispered, “Ch—Char—Charlie… Charlie…? It… it’s me…”
I gasped. The voice was barely audible, but I still recognized it instantly. I would have recognized it anywhere. After all, hadn’t that voice been going through my head when I made that silly birthday wish? Wasn’t it the voice that I wanted whispering three words of warning to the mystery caller?
The voice continued to gasp and groan as all my defiant resolve crumbled away. “I’m… Charlie, I’m sorry… I didn’t… never wanted to scare you…”
“J-Jack?” I stammered. “Oh, my God, Jack… is that you?”
“It’s me… Charlie… Really me…”
I shook my head and blinked furiously. I could feel the tears coming, and they were starting to blur my vision. My voice broke and I gasped, “No… no… you’re dead.”
“Right again…” the voice croaked. Then its wheezing breath was broken up by a series of spastic gasps and pants, which gradually transformed into a spluttering, sickly cough. It was trying – and failing – to laugh.
My husband was dead. Master Corporal Jack Booth, “D” Squadron, Royal Canadian Dragoons, had been in an armoured Humvee in Kandahar Province at 4:36 pm local time on December 3, 2009. These details are seared into my mind forever, and I can recite them as easily as I can my own name and date of birth. When the IED went off, I was halfway across the world, just drying off after my morning shower.
They had told me it was a small mercy that Jack was killed instantly. He likely would have felt no pain, they said.
Bullshit. I knew it was bullshit then, and I know it’s bullshit now.
It had been over two years since my husband died, senselessly and randomly, thousands of miles away from the people who loved him the most. And now he was calling me on the phone.
I covered my mouth with my free hand and kept shaking my head. I sat in that deaf, dumb, shocked silence for over a minute while my dead husband wheezed at me over the phone. Finally, he coughed again and said, a little clearer this time, “Charlie… please… talk to me…”
I couldn’t say anything to him. I didn’t dare. Without making a sound, I ended the call and turned off the phone. Then I left it on the desk with my coffee and ran to the bedroom. For the next half hour, I just sobbed noisily into the linen.
Every day since the IED, I had told myself I would give anything to speak to Jack one more time. But not like this. Never like this. I had a horrible vision that he was calling me directly from that Kandahar roadside. Shrapnel piercing his vital organs, dirt and sand in his eyes, his mouth, and his bloodstream. Tendons ripped and torn by pieces of his own Humvee. I envisioned him with another man’s teeth embedded in his skin, and one of his eyes hanging from the socket by a single nerve. It was sliced open by a shard of the Humvee’s windshield, and ocular fluid was pouring onto the ground at his feet, mixing with the blood that pumped from a deep gash in his leg.
I forced this idea out of my head and beat the pillow with my fists. It just wasn’t fair. That wasn’t my Jack. That would never be my Jack.
* * * * *
The next time he phoned, I didn’t hear him. I was in the basement folding laundry and listening to my iPod, when the landline started trilling upstairs. As I took out one earbud, a pair of light, fast footsteps ran to the phone, and I heard Gabi answer with a very bright “Hello?” I kept an ear open for the conversation – Gabi always got so excited about talking to grown-ups on the telephone, and it was oddly charming to hear her talk their ears off.
There was a momentary pause, and then Gabi said “Hello?” again, a little less keenly this time. Another silence followed, and a third “Hello?” And then it clicked. I knew who must be calling. I threw down the towels I was holding and ran upstairs. With a dawning sense of dread, I heard the breathing in my mind – that interminable, wheezing, sickly breathing – and I thought, Oh, Christ. He’s really determined now. He knows he can’t get me on my cell, so he’s going to be calling the house now. Oh, sweet Jesus Christ and all the saints…
I burst into the kitchen and made to snatch the phone away from Gabi, but she was already hanging up. For a second, she looked a little startled to see me running like the devil was at my heels, but then she smiled at me. “Hi, Mommy!” she said. “Are you done the lawn-dy?”
“‘Laundry’, sweetheart, ‘laundry’,” I corrected her. I was trying my best to look calm, but I’m sure I failed miserably. My heart was going a mile a minute, and I could feel a reactionary, panicky sweat coming out under my arms and my breasts. With some effort, I managed to smiled back at Gabi and gently tugged her away from the phone, while trying my best to make the action look unconscious. “Who, uh, who was calling?” I asked.
My daughter shrugged. “Wrong number, prob’ly.”
“You didn’t… hear anything on the other end of the line, then?”
She shook her head. “Uh-uh.”
Thank God for small miracles.
He didn’t call again for two weeks. During that downtime, I sprinted through a whole gamut of emotions. At first, I was relieved. Then, I started to miss the calls. Whatever they had been, however awful they were, they did ultimately come from the man I loved—or whatever was left of him.
About a week in, I started to wonder if I had done something wrong. Ultimately, Jack had committed no crime beyond making a phone call. I didn’t know how, but maybe he didn’t either. Maybe this was the “unfinished business” they always talk about in ghost stories, where the dead cannot rest until they do one Very Important Thing™.
And then I pitied him. It must be the worst kind of Hell, I thought, to be stuck in a world where he had no right to be, afraid to reach out to anyone except the person who knew him best, and then to have her reject him when he did try to reach out. I told myself that when he called again, if he did call again, I wouldn’t hang up on him. I wouldn’t turn him away. I would do everything I could to help him through this bizarre, impossible dilemma, and give him the strength he needed to move on.
* * * * *
When he did call again, two weeks after he had called last, he did not use the landline. I think he had learned his lesson by then.
It was midafternoon on a Wednesday. I was sitting on my bed with a cozy blanket stretched out over me and a good book in my hands. I was trying to relax in the final hour before I had to pick the kids up from school, but I couldn’t get Jack off my mind. Every few minutes, my eyes would dart from the book I was reading to my phone, which was on the bedside table, and I would lick my lips nervously. I’d been doing this for I didn’t even know how long, and I don’t think I had managed to read more than four pages all the way through in the last twenty minutes.
When the phone rang, I practically threw my book down so I could answer it. Of course, I was going to dread this. I knew, way deep down inside me, that whatever passed between me and Jack would leave me feeling haunted and dirty, but I still needed it. I felt a bead of sweat trickling down between my eyebrows, and I said, “Hello?”
It was a strange kind of relief when I heard that wet, wheezing breathing. It was like waiting for the killer to burst out of the closet in a scary movie. You never wanted it to happen, and then you were glad when it did, because it meant you wouldn’t have to wait any longer and sit there with your own terror.
Jack gasped and coughed twice. “Charlie… Charlie, are you there?”
I bit my lip and nodded. “I’m here, Jack. I’m here.”
“Can… are we going to talk this time? Can we talk, please?”
I bit my knuckles and choked back a little sob. “Yes, Jack, we can talk.”
“I’m sorry… about what happened with Gabi… it was my mistake… stupid, stupid mistake! When you wouldn’t pick up your cell, I got desperate… but I shouldn’t have risked… I don’t want the kids to… they shouldn’t hear me like this…”
“It’s okay, Jack. It’s okay,” I assured him. “I should be apologizing for… for hanging up on you. I was so scared; I-I-I didn’t know… didn’t know what…”
“Hey, come on, kid. Don’t sweat it. I don’t understand half of it myself. I guess we’ve both made mistakes…”
“I guess we have.”
There was silence for a minute, and then Jack said, a little slower, “Charlie, why I called… the first time…”
“I couldn’t leave things… the way we left them. You, alone, with the kids, and me on the other side of the planet. I couldn’t stand it, being there one second and gone the next, and not even being able to warn you. I called you because… I want to say goodbye. A real goodbye.”
I nodded, and the tears came. “Okay, Jack. Okay, you can go on. I love you, and Rory and Caitlin and Gabi love you, and we always will, and I promise I will never, ever forget you. But I will let you go now. You can move on, and I am glad I was able to hear from you once more.”
There was more silence, but this time it felt heavier. More awkward. Then Jack returned with, “Charlie… what are you talking about?”
“I’m letting you go,” I said. “I’m telling you, you can move on. Isn’t that what you want?”
I could hear a faint series of clicks, and something that sounded like a plastic bag rustling in a light breeze. I imagined these were Jack’s decaying, atrophied tendons knocking about as he shook his head.
“I want to do it properly,” he said. “I want to see you. I want to kiss you. Just… touch you one more time…”
My stomach dropped out of me, and I felt ice water pumping through my veins. I could handle speaking with him, but… but seeing him? My skin crawled at the very thought of it. No! No, I couldn’t see him! I certainly couldn’t touch him!
“I’m—I’m sorry, Jack, but that’s where I have to draw the line. I can’t do… that.”
“But this… this is what you wanted, right? This is what you wished for… You wanted to talk to me again. You wanted to see—” He started coughing violently, and I held the phone away from my ear. The coughing was wet and chest-rattling, and I could hear him expectorating blood with each violent, spasmodic exhalation.
The coughing stopped after a minute, and Jack continued to speak as if nothing had happened. But he didn’t have me fooled. He sounded even worse than before, like the very act of speech was slowly killing him. Or re-killing him, as the case may be.
“You… you wanted to talk to me, Charlie. Isn’t that what you always said? When I wasn’t there in the bed beside you? You would give anything just to have me beside you… one more time…”
“But not like this!” I screamed. “Listen to yourself, Jack! You’re dead, and you sound like it! I—I know what I said, but I was wrong! You’re dead, and you need to stay dead! I don’t want to talk to you anymore, not if you’re going to be like this! Not if you’re hurting like this!”
“But Charlie, baby, that’s just it: I don’t hurt. Not when I can hear your voice. And if I could see you, just… just one more time… I think I wouldn’t hurt ever again.”
I wanted to scream at him, to tell him to stop being stupid and just be dead, but I couldn’t stop crying long enough to take a breath. In the meantime, I could hear him on the other end, wheezing softly and waiting for me to get it out of my system.
“Please, Charlie… it’s okay. I’ll just come the once. Only once. And then we can both move on.”
I buried my face in the pillow so he wouldn’t hear me cry, but I didn’t say anything. Jack just kept going.
“I’ll come on our anniversary, Charlie. The fourteenth of February. Won’t that be perfect?” His voice was hurried, almost pleading, like he was trying to convince himself that it would be okay as much as he was me. “You don’t even have to say anything if you don’t want to,” he continued. “You don’t have to touch me, if you’re uncomfortable. We can just… be in the same room again. That’d be enough for me. What do you say, Charlie?” Jesus, it was like Of Mice and Men, the way he was trying to sell this champagne-and-rose-petals vision. Tell me about the rabbits, George…
Before he got any further, I hung up and turned my phone off. I wrapped myself tighter in my blanket and got up, locking all the doors and windows as I walked through the house.
February 14. My dead husband had just given me an ultimatum about when he would be coming to see me. February 14. It was the 4th now, so that meant I had about a week and a half to get my things together, get the kids’ absences arranged with their schools, and get the hell out of town. I was determined not to be anywhere near our house when Jack came to visit.
Naturally, the kids were a bit suspicious when I told them we were going on vacation. It was the middle of winter, they said. There was nothing to do on vacation, they said. My oldest, Rory, had just started middle school that year, and he made a hell of a fuss when he figured out he would miss the first school dance of the semester. I tried to placate the kids with photos of the cottage I’d picked out on Airbnb, but it didn’t work. Quite frankly, I didn’t blame them for being so belligerent. If my mother had told me she was pulling me and my sister out of school in midwinter so we could sequester ourselves in a cottage in the middle of nowhere to hide from my dead father’s ghost, I probably would have called the men in the fancy white coats.
The cottage was on Salt Spring Island, off the west coast of BC. It was 1000 sq. feet in the middle of a dense forest, not far from the water, and had no cable, internet access or cell service. There was an outhouse on the back edge of the property, and power was supplied by a gas generator standing in a wooden shed amongst the trees. If Jack found the house in Sudbury empty on the 14th, and if he couldn’t get in touch with me, I figured, perhaps he would finally take the hint and leave us in peace.
We arrived at the cottage on the morning of the 10th, and the kids didn’t stop moaning until the12th. They threatened to run away back to Sudbury a couple times, and I dared them to go, but we settled into a routine soon enough. I’d brought a deck of cards with me, and I managed to hold their attention once I taught them how to gamble (for Skittles, of course).
The fourteenth finally arrived. At half past seven in the evening, we were all in the living room, and I was trying to teach them the finer points of rummy. Rory and Caitlin, my middle child, were struggling a bit to get the hang of the game, but Gabi was proving to be a natural talent. In fact, she was kicking all of our butts.
As I reshuffled the cards for the third game, a sudden breeze blew in from behind me, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. The back window was open, and as I rose to shut it, I shivered and felt goose pimples creeping up my arms as another gust blew in.
I shut the window and heard the landline ring in the kitchen. It was an old rotary model with chipped paint, a battered handset, and a frayed wire that had been insulated with duct tape in a few places. My guess was that it was the original phone that had been installed when the house was built sometime in the 1970s. The phone’s ringer had a hollow, metallic note to it that filled me with dread; the ring sounded incomplete, and perhaps my mind unconsciously associated that incompleteness with Jack, who in undeath was becoming a wasted shadow of himself.
I picked up the phone anyway.
Silence. And then that slow, awfully familiar wheezing. I gripped the receiver tighter in my hand, and I’m sure I could feel my knuckles going white. I truly couldn’t escape him. I’d gone halfway across the fucking country, and I still couldn’t escape him.
I lowered my voice so the kids wouldn’t hear. “Jack, please… I don’t want to do this…”
He pleaded with me. “Why did you have to run, Charlie? Just once. I just want to see you one more time…”
“But I don’t want to see you. Don’t you understand that?”
“You don’t know what you’re saying, Charlie. Just look me in the eye once, and you’ll see… You’ll see it’s all okay. And then we can go our separate ways. Please…”
I raised my voice a little. “No, Jack, for God’s sake! Please, just… why can’t you just be dead?”
“That’s what I’m telling you! I can be if you’ll just let me see you!”
I lost my patience, and I screamed at him. “I won’t let you see me, Jack! I don’t want you to see me, and I don’t want to see you! I don’t want you calling me, and I don’t want you coming here! Ever!”
“But Charlie…” he said, “that’s the thing… I’m nearly there already…”
I dropped the receiver and ran to the front door. I opened it and looked out into the snow-dusted woods around the cottage, biting down hard on my knuckles to keep myself from making all the angry, terrified, explosive noises I wanted to make. A hundred or so yards away, at my two o’clock, branches and twigs swished and snapped as something tramped through the thicket of trees.
Caitlin joined me at the door and asked, “What’s wrong, Mom?”
I didn’t take my eyes off the trees up ahead. I saw snow fall from a branch as something breezed past it.
“Go upstairs, kids,” I said breathlessly. “Go upstairs and play your game.”
“Why?” Caitlin demanded.
I turned around and shrieked at her, “JUST GO!”
Without another word, my kids scooped up the cards and hurried upstairs. All their eyes were like dinner plates, and they were boring into me as they went. When I was alone, I slammed the front door shut and locked it. I did the same to the back window, and then I picked up the telephone receiver, still dangling from its cord and bumping against the leg of the table on which it sat. Then I could hear Jack’s voice, louder than ever.
“Charlie? I know you can still hear me, Charlie. You can’t stop me from seeing you.”
I heard heavy footsteps crunch-crunch-crunching through the snow outside, and I realized he was serious. Jack was serious about seeing me again before he went to rest, and he truly was not going to take no for an answer. He was coming.
I pled with him. “Alright, Jack, alright! You can see me! Come to the window! I’ll sit on the couch and you can look in! Does that sound okay?”
“No. I want to look in your eyes, Charlie. And I want you to look in my eyes. I want us to see each other. See that it’s still okay.”
Crunch-crunch-crunch. I could hear the footsteps over the phone, and in the distant snow outside. They were getting closer.
I set the phone down again and looked out the front window. Whatever was moving through the trees, it was getting nearer and nearer still. I thought I could see a head wearing a black beret, bobbing up and down as the body it was attached to kept walking.
“Mommy? What’s going on?”
I turned around. Gabi was sitting on the third stair from the bottom, hugging her knees to her chest. She sounded worried.
“Sweetie! What are you doing down here?” I quickly drew the curtains and stood in front of the window, trying to block the view through it.
“I hadda come an’ get Mr. Tickles.” She pointed toward the couch, where a fuzzy brown teddy bear with a bow tie was lying against the armrest.
I quickly ran over to the couch and picked up Mr. Tickles, then handed him to Gabi. “Ok, here’s Mr. Tickles. Now, go back upstairs, sweetheart.”
“Why?” she asked. “Whatsa matter?”
Crunch-crunch-crunch. I heard more footsteps out in the snow. He was still coming.
“Nothing’s the matter,” I lied as I pulled Gabi to her feet and tried to shoo her upstairs.
Crunch-crunch-crunch. He was just outside the door now. As Gabi tried to worm her way past me, I heard Jack walking up onto the front porch.
Shuff-shuff-shuff. He was wiping his shoes on the front mat. I kept trying to get Gabi up the stairs, but she resisted. “Mommy! There’s somebody at the door!”
I snapped at her. “That’s what I’m afraid of!”
“Aren’t you going to answer it?”
“NO!” I screamed. “I CAN’T!”
Gabi finally squirmed past me and ran to the front door. “Coming!” she announced.
It took me a second to register her absence, and the next time I saw her, she was already unlocking and opening the door.
I hollered at her. “No, Gabi, don’t!”
But I was too late. Even as I pleaded with her not to open the door, my words were lost in a cacophony of sound. Gabi screamed. The wind howled. Rory and Caitlin ran down the hallway.
I never saw the thing that stood at the door, but I heard it shriek and groan while Gabi was screaming. It was an awful, wet sound, a song of grief that was half-drowned by blood and phlegm that caught in the thing’s throat.
Gabi kept screaming and fell backwards, dropping Mr. Tickles on the floor. She scooted backward along the floor and started crying. The thing on the doorstep kept up its anguished, grieving wail.
I shut my eyes tight and ran toward Gabi, guiding myself by the sound of her horrified tears. At the bottom of the stairs, I reached out and slammed the front door shut in what was left of my husband’s face, then pressed my whole body against it in case he couldn’t take the hint. Over the sound of the blood pumping in my ears, I think I heard myself shout, “GO! Get out of here now! I don’t want to ever see you again; do you hear me?!”
The reply from outside was another one of those ugly, drowning wails. I heard Jack choke and gasp something that sounded like, “Charlie, I’m sorry! Please let me in! Please?”
Gabi was still sobbing, so I picked her up and held her tight against me, still keeping as much weight as I could against the door. “Go, Jack! You’ve done more than enough damage for one afterlife!”
Another monstrous wail came from outside, and I heard more footsteps pounding through the snow, away from the cottage. I briefly looked out the window and saw the same shadow from before, crashing through the trees as it ran from us.
Gabi’s lap and legs were wet, and I could smell urine even before I saw the stain on the floor. She buried her face in my shoulder and sobbed while I whispered soothing shushes into her ear. I didn’t even care that she was peeing on my clothes.
Rory and Caitlin came pounding down the stairs, shouting and gasping and swearing. One of them locked the door, and then they both wrapped themselves around me. They were hugging me as much as they were hugging Gabi, whose wails had diminished into a muffle sob that soaked my shoulder.
As my knees gave way and I sank to the floor, with Gabi still in my arms, I cried too. I heard myself whispering, “At ease, soldier.” Then I added, “For the love of God, please be at ease.”
* * * * *
When I woke up the next morning, I found two police officers on the doorstep. I didn’t invite them into the house, because I didn’t want to wake the kids. Instead, we walked to the roadside, where they’d parked their car, and they told me a story.
An island local had stumbled upon human remains in the wee hours, in a roadside ditch less than a kilometre from our cottage. The body was badly decomposed and dressed in the tatters of a Canadian Army uniform. The police had made an ID from the dog tags, and they traced me as next of kin.
“Now, here’s where we’re having trouble, Mrs. Booth,” one of the officers said to me. “The Army’s records say that your husband was KIA in 2009. So, what’s he doing out here?”