Since Sarah had had Travis, her mother had called every day. Sometimes two or three times a day. “I hope you’ve decided to do the right thing about your job?” “Do you need help with the baby?” “I’m an expert.” Her voice was nasally in person, and the static from her phone exaggerated it. Her mother was indisputably experienced, but she’d shipped her six kids off to swimming practice every night so she could “cook dinner,” but the only smell in the house was the chlorine dripping off Sarah and her siblings when they got back from their nightly swimming lessons. Her mother was calling again, but Sarah declined. She’d had enough for one day and Dave was out of town on business. The last thing she needed was more stress.
She popped in her headphones and sock hopped from Travis’s nursery to the laundry room, swaying to Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft.” She was shoveling wet clothing from the washer to the dryer when the first knock came.
There were three frame shaking clunks, like a man battering on the door. She paused the music and headed down the stairs. She wasn’t expecting anyone. The floorboards creaked and groaned under her weight.
She looked through the peephole and saw all the way to the street. The fallen leaves scraped against the sidewalk as they blew past. She leaned over and opened the curtain of the window overlooking the porch. The pumpkin they’d set out with its triangular eyes and nose, with its jagged teeth, was the only thing out there. It must have been the wind she thought, though she couldn’t imagine what it had blown against the door.
Sarah looked up the stairs. She touched the baby monitor on her hip. Travis had only been sleeping for a couple of minutes. She could have a glass of wine and finish the laundry. He wouldn’t even know she was gone. She headed into the kitchen.
When they’d bought the house last year, her mother hadn’t been one of their supporters. “You’ve got to think about what’s best for your future children,” she’d said. “You can’t live in a city forever.” Sarah had been pregnant when they started looking, but they hadn’t told anyone, especially not her mother, until she’d hit the three months mark. Her mother had made her father, who pinched pennies like only an immigrant worker could, buy a plot in the cemetery for each of her three miscarriages.
If Sarah had miscarried, and thankfully she hadn’t, her mother would’ve put her on display. Anything Sarah told her mother was transmitted at ungodly speed to all of her siblings; the women in her mother’s bridge group and, of course, each of their children; and the whole county would be outside with her mother quietly telling them not to tap the glass case around her grieving daughter.
She heard it again. The door vibrated in the wood. She was quicker to turn off the music this time. She walked over to the door, and this time she opened it. The fall air in New England had the smell of the falling leaves and the feel of the dropping temperatures. It charged her as she scanned the neighborhood. No neighbors walking. No cars passing. No one there, and nothing that could hit the door. She made sure to turn the deadbolt before she went back to the kitchen.
She touched the baby monitor on her hip. If she went up to see Travis, the walls of the nursery would still be Seashell Blue, the color she thought would stimulate the baby most. Travis would be swaddled and asleep in his cradle.
He would look weird to her because he had no mobile. Her mother gave them at every baby shower she went to, but David had read that babies perceived mobiles as birds of prey. She’d agreed with David at the expense of her mother’s feelings. She didn’t think she could be a great mother, just better than hers.
She sat in the chair facing the hallway, so she could see past the stairs, to the front door. She laughed. If she’d told her mother she was scared, she could hear the lecture her mom gave all of her daughters. When Nazi soldiers had ripped babies away from Jewish mothers and thrown them into the fire, the mothers had followed their children into it. Her mother would say that she would have run into the fire after them, and that they needed to be prepared to do the same for her grandchildren. When her mother first made this speech at Christmas, Sarah’s eldest sister Mary had broken into tears she was so taken back by this proclamation of love from their mother. The rest of them nodded uncomfortably, laughing about it over the dishes, later. Her mother had thrown Sarah into the pool when her brother Jack was drowning. She had saved her perm while Sarah saved Jack.
Sarah pulled the cork out of a bottle of red wine, the cheap kind that she drank in college, and poured it into a glass. She didn’t turn the music back on this time.
Her mother said that she let her children cry as infants to teach them to sleep through the night. She told Sarah that to do the same, that it was the only way to teach kids. David agreed, but Sarah knew it was laziness more than agreement.
It surprised Sarah that their mother could talk like that. She was a woman seemingly made out of irrational worries. The kind of woman who sensed “an unruly presence” in Sarah and David’s home and wanted to exorcise the house, or better yet move them to the suburbs where Travis could play catch in a yard.
The pounding started again. Louder. Sarah thought that the door would bow. Without the music to dampen the sound, she flinched at the sound of each blow. No wind could have rocked the door that violently.
Sarah closed her fists. Her husband was in Detroit on a business trip. She and Travis were home alone with whatever was trying to get in.
And then she heard footsteps on the stairs. The floorboards groaned louder than they had when she was walking, but she could see the door. It hadn’t opened. The footsteps stopped in the middle of the staircase.
Sarah was as quiet as she could be. This is irrational she told herself. Nothing was on the stairs. Still, she picked up a knife, the longest one in their rack. She squeezed the black handle and rested the shining blade on the table in front of her.
The footsteps went higher. One. Two. Three. It had to be in Sarah’s head. No one could be in the house. Her hand shook as she brought the baby monitor to her ear and listened. She rolled up the volume with her thumb and the crackling of the speaker and Travis’s breaths got louder. Nothing was in the room. She would hear it. If someone was in the house, she would hear him on the monitor. Travis would scream.
There’s no one here, she told herself. Her ears picked up the silence outside of the baby monitor like the sound she’d heard as a girl when her mother told her to press a seashell against her ear. She shouldn’t be this afraid. She was an adult now. Loan payments, not poltergeists, kept her up at night. But here she was, sitting at her kitchen table terrified of these footsteps on the stairs leading up to her baby.
They reached the landing. If she went upstairs, her mother would regale her siblings with a tale of Sarah confronting a ghost for her Travis. Sacrificing herself the same way the Jewish women who’d charged into the fire after their children had. But Sarah lay the knife flat on the table. She sat alone with knowledge that she wouldn’t save her son.
Ryan C. Bradley’s work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review, The Rumpus, Slattery’s Art of Horror, Gothic Blue Book V, regularly in Wicked Horror, and others. In 2015, he won the 2015 JP Reads Flash Fiction Contest. His first novel, Friday the Furteenth, was serialized at Channillo.com. You can learn more about him at https://ryancbradleyblog.