A Shimmer in the Parlor
by Amanda Crum
Where the stairs creak, Eliza stands waiting.
She can move freely about the house but only remembers particular sections; she comes aware on the landing after gliding through the kitchen, with no memory of the in-between. There is a whiff of fear in it that reminds her of sleepwalking, of the mornings in her youth when she awoke to find that her own dirty feet had smeared the clean sheets with mud and pine needles.
The stairs offer a perfect view of much of the house and so she stands there for long periods of time, watching. It’s not enough to smell the bacon burning in its own fat, to hear the children’s voices rising up to the ceiling like doves from softly wavering grasses. Seeing is also belonging.
“I’m coming! Just grabbing my books!” Cooper, the littlest, bellows as he runs up the stairs at full speed. He is a button-nosed, towheaded thing too small for his age, and Eliza loves him the best. She breathes in deep standing in his wake, watching dust motes dance on the landing in the lovely golden light that only seven a.m. brings. He smells of maple syrup and cotton buds.
She hears him rustling around in one of the bedrooms above her and a moment later he tears back through, unafraid of the steep staircase or his mother’s wrath. He slips through Eliza and glances back over his shoulder, briefly. It’s passing, his gaze sliding over her without register, but it is enough to get her through the day.
Of the four Clark boys, Andrew is the only one Eliza has never seen in person. Shipped off to war before the family moved in, he is only a rendering in her mind, helped along by photos hung in stair-step fashion on the walls. The pale blonde hair bestowed to the three younger boys began to darken once Andrew’s face began to change--losing the baby fat in favor of a strong jawline--and Eliza thinks he probably had more than his share of girls calling on him before he left.
She fears for him, even misses him, despite never having known him in life or catching his scent in the hallway. It is something connected to the ache his mother feels; Eliza can feel it too, a slow burn that fizzes in her abdomen like soda. Once, she came upon a pan of blackened biscuits in the kitchen, still smoking and hard as stones, and moved to the porch to find Shirley sobbing into her apron on the steps. At that moment, more than ever, Eliza wished for the sense of touch. She had never seen shoulders so full of sorrow.
She herself had never had children, and was well aware that she had made the right decision. She was a maudlin woman in life, prone to blue moods that left her unable to even rouse herself from bed some days, and her husband knew as well as she did that motherhood would never have suited her. Still, some nights--when the moon was particularly pretty, or when she came upon a field full of wild horses on one of her walks--she would feel her womb throb like a heart and her throat would fill with longing. She had so much to give.
Halloween comes, and with it, lots of blue days that darken swiftly to evening. The trees surrounding the house drop their freight of leaves completely and rattle like bones in the wind. Eliza watches the trick-or-treaters move through the dusk from her perch at the top of the stairs, where a floor-to-ceiling window presides. The children are among them, Cooper and Paul and Ben zig-zagging from house to house holding pillow cases already bulging with candy, their mother and father calling after them to slow down. Overhead, power lines lace up the heavens. Eliza can feel them shivering with electricity, sparking on the back of her neck. Downstairs, the lamps give off the same energy, but in smaller bursts. Hums and crackles.
A storm is coming. Eliza moves from window to window, making sure they’re all closed up tight. In Cooper’s room, she lingers for a moment. His drawings line one wall, books on another. The blankets on his bed are hastily pulled up, not tucked in. She lays down, wishing she could pull them up over her; not because she is cold, but because she wants to feel what he feels. In another life, another world, he could have been hers.
When the lightning begins outside, a curious thing happens: Eliza can feel the pillow beneath her head. It’s muffled, insubstantial, like listening to music underwater, but it’s there. She sits up on the bed and reaches out tentatively with one hand, trying to ignore the soaring feeling of hope shooting through her, and is rewarded with a fistful of down. For the first time, she makes contact with something in the real world.
She leaps off the bed and moves quickly around the room, touching as many things as she can. It is akin to grasping a book with numb fingers, but there is something happening that she can’t define. Tears slip down her cheeks as she whirls like a dancer, flicking fingers across the artwork tacked to the wall, sliding her palms against the matted fur of stuffed animals, wrapping her hands around the bedposts as lightning cracks the sky over and over. Downstairs, the family bursts in, grateful to have finished with their Halloween duties before the rain comes, and Eliza runs out to the stairs. She wants to shout to them that something big has happened, that everything has changed, but they are talking over one another in their excitement and wouldn’t hear her even if she had a voice.
By the time they’re near enough to touch, thunder rolls across the sky, away from the house, taking the storm with it as quickly as it came. Eliza stretches her fingers out as Cooper passes and they go right through his shirt. She feels nothing at all.
Time flits by. The skies remain clear for days, weeks. Eliza stays close to the stairs, keeping a watchful eye on the lamps in the parlor. She has never felt fear since she left her body, but there is something keeping her from getting too close to electricity. She wants that feeling so badly that she is terrified at the thought of never having it again.
The older boys keep busy with school, staying after for football practice; Cooper, who has never been athletically inclined, comes straight home to draw or play with his green plastic Army men. Eliza hovers near, watching his little hands and marveling over the soft skin at the nape of his neck. She understands that what she’s feeling is love, as pure as virgin blood or a first snow, and it hurts.
On a mild and sunny afternoon, Eliza feels Shirley’s sadness wrap itself around her stomach, reaching all the way from the kitchen with cold fingers. She suddenly finds herself thinking about all the people in the world who have laid eyes upon Andrew’s face, strangers whose lives have been entwined with his even in some small way. Her heart feels like it might curl in on itself with the knowledge that he has a life so far away from her, and she realizes that these are Shirley’s pains that have somehow found a way inside her, and just as she’s thinking about moving further into the house to avoid this intrusion on a mother’s agony, Cooper comes downstairs and heads straight for the kitchen. She follows him in her silent way, watching.
Shirley swipes a hand across her eyes and turns from the stove with a radiant smile on her face. “Hey, Coop. What are you up to?”
He takes her hand, and Eliza is curiously sure that he knows what his mother is feeling; that he has, in fact, felt it himself since he got home, curled up in the pit of his stomach like a restless dog.
“Can we make cookies?” he asks.
It is the exact right thing. Shirley relaxes and nods her blonde head, clearly grateful for the distraction. “Of course we can. It’s a perfect day for cookies.”
They eat them on the back porch in medium sunlight with cold milk, Cooper licking his fingers free of chocolate afterward. When his father joins them, there is no talk of sadness or worry, but Eliza can see it shimmering above their heads like heat rising from a blacktop.
“They’re putting up the Christmas tree in the square today,” Jim says between bites. “I thought maybe we could head down there after dinner and watch them turn on the lights.”
“Yeah!” Cooper says. “And I want to make out my Christmas list, too.”
“No need for that, Santa already knows you just want socks this year,” Jim deadpans.
Eliza watches Cooper run into the house and up the stairs, his mother’s melancholy forgotten in the wake of holiday anticipation. Jim takes Shirley’s hand across the steps, squeezes once, twice. She reciprocates and leans her head into his shoulder, distilling sadness into relief. Eliza can remember that feeling, the comfort of strong arms.
The holidays come, and with them a surge of energy that affects the lights all over the house. Eliza can’t feel any difference, no numb fingertips; it’s the family, spilling their excitement and love into the atmosphere. Andrew is unable to come home, but he sends letters to each one of them detailing his life Over There, and Shirley is noticeably more relaxed after reading hers. The boys get everything they asked for and give their parents handmade gifts, which Jim and Shirley exclaim over and display on the mantel: a painted birdhouse from Cooper, a clay pencil holder in the shape of a pig from Ben, and a large cutting board for the kitchen from Paul, who is taking woodshop this year.
Eliza watches it all with a smile, feeling a sense of dread at the end of the night when everyone prepares to retire to bed. Tomorrow, she knows, will be a little dimmer, as the day after Christmas always is. The cookies won’t be as soft and the pine needles on the floor will have to be vacuumed up. The days will be cold with nothing to look forward to.
She checks on the boys after everyone is in bed, lingering as always over Cooper. He doesn’t stir when she brushes spectral fingers across his forehead; for the rest of the night, she wrestles with whether or not that’s a good thing.
In spring, the rains come, and with the deluge comes a bad omen.
Eliza had watched two days ago as Jim and Cooper carried a ladder out to the biggest tree in the backyard, an oak that was beginning to flourish after a hard winter. Cooper had the birdhouse swinging from one shoulder on a length of rope; Jim carried a bag of birdseed in his free hand. They set up the ladder at the base of the tree, unknowing of the ghost overseeing their work, and Jim hung the little wooden structure from the lowest branch. Eliza knew that robins nested in the tree every year, coming back faithfully to raise a little family.
Now, Cooper stands over the remains of the mother robin, shredded feathers waving softly in the breeze. The rain has given them a respite, however brief, but the air is chilly, and it’s this that saddens the boy: knowing that the bird died in the cold so close to the warmth of her nest. Eliza watches as he walks slowly over to the tree and finds eggshells scattered in the damp grass. The cat that caused so much destruction is gone, but signs of his presence are all around, prints in the soft mud and shredded bits of nest in a trail leading away.
Later, in the parlor, Cooper climbs wordlessly into his father’s lap and cries. It is not something the Clark boys do easily, due to some unspoken agreement between them that boys and men should not be vulnerable. Jim is himself not one to show his emotions often, but Eliza understands that it’s only because he doesn’t want to scare Shirley with uncertainty. Now, as he feels his youngest child’s chest hitch under the weight of heaviest grief--first grief, much like first love, is the blade that cuts deepest--Jim allows himself to unravel just enough. Father and son comfort one another in their shared sadness, and for that, Eliza is grateful.
She is also worried.
When June comes, storms begin to roll in. The Midwest has a long and notorious history with those clouds and that wind, churning up swaths of destruction miles wide, and Eliza is gratified to hear the family talk about precautions. The skies fill up with bruise colors that smell of ozone, threatening the town, but for days they release nothing more than thunder. It rumbles across the plains as though to remind everyone who’s in charge, and Eliza stays indoors as much as possible because outside, the atmosphere is so filled with static she can see sparks fly from the hem of her dress. The fear she felt previously has now been replaced by worry about her own desires. Now, it is not the fact that she lost something she wanted so badly that upsets her; it is knowing what she would do to get it back.
The family stays busy, planning out an exit route and cleaning out the cellar to free it of dangerous glass canning jars, and when Shirley’s left arm begins to ache on a Sunday morning, she at first believes it to be a symptom of all the hard work she’s done. She continues to cross chores off the list, ignoring the pain as she has learned to do over the years.
By three p.m., Shirley is dead.
Eliza stays in the attic for six days, unable to be with the family in the marrow of their grief. She cannot face Cooper. It matters not a whit that he can’t see her; she feels she should have known, should have seen the omen for what it was. She bears the burden for nearly a week, listening as the boys cry into their pillows. Cars come and go out front, bundled with mourners and family members and well-wishers. None of them see her standing in the window, one arm wrapped around her abdomen as though she is in pain.
On the seventh day, the storm that has been threatening all week begins to wind up again. When the gale starts to whip through the beams of the house, moaning against all the in-between places, Eliza ventures downstairs. It has been quiet all morning, but now the air is charged again. Each lamp she passes hums and glowers, so she keeps her hands tucked closely to her sides.
She can feel, in a vague peripheral way, that Jim and the older boys are upstairs in their respective rooms. There is sadness hovering over them, but also a sense of relief now that the funeral is over. Now, they think, the wound can scab over.
She finds Cooper in the parlor, playing with his Army men as the storm gathers outside the window. He lines them up on the hardwood floor in a game of his own making, muttering commands under his breath. Eliza knows that he is playing as a distraction, that if he abandons the toys and moves to any other spot in the house he will cry again, and he’s trying desperately to avoid it. She watches his small hands for a moment and thinks of how very strong he is; she aches for the strength he will have to find over and over throughout his life. When the lightning begins crackling, she feels it between her fingers and holds up one hand, marveling at the sparks flickering from each finger. When Cooper sighs and begins rearranging his figures, she brings her hand down to watch.
Behind him, Shirley stands silently.
Eliza remains still, unsure if she’s been seen. Shirley seems engrossed in watching her son, much the way Eliza herself has been; admiring the perfect curve of his nose and the silky hair so like a baby’s. Time begins to slow as the rain comes, lashing against the windows in a torrent. When Shirley finally looks up, she seems unsurprised to see Eliza. Her face registers only the kind of pain reserved for mothers.
Eliza moves close, keeping a sad little smile on her lips, and when she reaches Shirley, she takes her hand gently. The sparks jump between their fingers; Shirley looks down with eyes wide, Eliza begins to weep. The two of them finally complete a circuit after months of near-connection, and when Eliza pulls away, she knows it’s time to go.
The rain slows, then stops completely; thunder grumbles its dissent on the way out. She stops on the threshold, watching as Shirley reaches out gently to touch her son’s hair, rifling her fingers through the silken strands. He stops playing for a moment and looks up with a sweet smile on his face, his heart flaring a signal that Eliza can feel in the spaces between her ribs. She knows he cannot see his mother, but he can feel her touch in a way that matters, and that is Eliza’s gift to him.
When Jim comes downstairs, he feels curiously lighter. Cooper gives him a bright smile and jumps up from his toys for a hug.
“Hey, Coop.” Jim picks him up and breathes in deep the smell of maple syrup and cotton buds. “Whatcha doin’?”
“Just playing. Dad?”
“Can we make cookies?”
Jim considers, knowing what it means. Cookies were always their thing, Cooper and Shirley’s thing. To be asked is to feel the sun after a long, cold winter.
“Sure, buddy. Let’s make cookies.”
He slips Cooper to the floor and they make their way to the kitchen, but not before Cooper can turn and look briefly over his shoulder. Behind him is a shimmer in the parlor, a comforting prism of light after the storm. Then it is gone.
About the Author
Amanda Crum is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in publications such as the Bluegrass Accolade and Dark Eclipse and in several anthologies, including Beyond The Hill and Two Eyes Open. Her first chapbook of horror-inspired poetry, The Madness In Our Marrow, was shortlisted for a Bram Stoker Award nomination in 2015. She currently lives in Kentucky with her husband and two children.