HONORABLE MENTION, Summer 2016
The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
BY MELANIE NAPTHINE
When the knock came, my first thought was for the baby, only just gone down. It wasn’t till I had my eye to the peephole and registered the darkness on the other side of the door that it occurred to me to wonder who on earth could be calling at 11:30 at night. Not Darren, who was in Sydney for the week for work, and who I’d spoken with not twenty minutes earlier. Unfortunately the globe in the porch light had blown a week or so back. Our house was also at the end of a court in a housing estate still under development. Half the houses on the street were nothing but framework and the street lights were up but not yet functional. So I could make out only a shapeless shadow through the peephole.
I opened the main door. The screen door was locked.
Two children stood there. One looked about fourteen—or perhaps gave the impression of being around fourteen might be a more accurate way to put it. He was probably only the size of an average ten-year-old, but his face was years older than that. There was no shyness in the eyes that met mine. Beside him was a small girl of perhaps seven or eight. She was staring past me into the hallway, like a possum stunned by the light.
“I was wondering if we could use your phone,” said the boy calmly. “We’ve just gotten off the train and our parents were supposed to meet us, only they weren’t there.”
He spoke just a shade quickly, perhaps worried I’d close the door on him. His sister continued to look elsewhere, with a touching docility, as though he’d done a good job so far of hiding from her the fact that they were in any kind of trouble.
“Don’t you have a phone?”
“It’s dead.” He took a blank-faced Galaxy from his pocket and held it up to show me.
“But . . . do you live around here or—”
“We live over there.” The boy waved a vague hand.
There were a few inhabited houses on the estate, even three or four on our street. But we were the last house in the unfinished court and several streets away from the railway station. Which anyway I didn’t think had trains passing through past 11 on a weeknight.
But they were just children. The girl’s legs were bare and though it wasn’t especially cold—early April—the air was sharp.
“What’s your parents’ number?” I asked. “I’ll call them.”
The boy said, “That’s probably not a good idea.”
“Why?” I glanced behind me. I’d fancied a small noise might have come from Milo’s bedroom but in the silence that followed, it wasn’t repeated.
It was the girl who said softly, “They’ll be angry.”
“Because you’re a stranger.”
I had to laugh. “But you knocked on my door,” I pointed out.
The boy shrugged. Hard to tell in the dark, but I thought I saw a bruise-like shadow beneath his left eye, and a new possibility occurred to me.
“Why were—where were you anyway, that you’re coming home this late at night? You weren’t—were you— running away?’
I said it smilingly, and glanced away at the end of the sentence, so as not to frighten them by suggesting I attached much importance to the answer. Though already I was canvassing options in my mind: police, social services, my friend Immy who worked with homeless teens. It really was too cold for the girl’s legs to be so uncovered.
But the boy answered me no. “We’ve been at our grandmother’s.”
Which, in the darkness, sounded almost too fairytale to be true. It was ridiculous to be wary of children, cold and lost. But their being at my doorstep at this late hour was so inexplicable, I had to look past them to the street for a car containing villains for whom they were the decoy. Or wonder if the well-spoken boy could possibly be a thug using his small sister for cover. If only Darren had been home! It wasn’t my own safety I was worried about of course. I was newly enough a mother that everything seemed a threat to small Milo, so insecurely asleep in the room closest to the front door. But also newly enough a mother that abandoned children tugged at my sympathy in a wholly unprecedented way. If that had been my lost son begging for help . . .
“Here you go.” I turned the key in the screen door with one hand and cracked it; with the other hand I held out my phone to the boy.
He hesitated; it was the girl who took a quick step forward. For a wild moment I imagined she was going to charge past me and into the house but she stopped just short. She snatched the phone, then stared at it as if she didn’t know what to do with it. The boy took it from her and began pressing buttons. The sounds the numbers made as they were pressed were startlingly loud in the silent night. I glanced down the road: our nearest neighbours were about five houses up and on the other side of the street, but all was dark at their place and there was no way of knowing if their car sat on the other side of the garage.
The boy had the phone to his ear. I could hear the ringing at the other end. It seemed a long time that the three of us stood there, listening to the amplified ringing of a phone who-knew-where, while a stiff wind stirred up dust from the construction site next door and sent a shiver up my bare arms.
The boy shook his head.
The girl said, “I need to go to the toilet.” Her knees were pressed together so as to catch her thin dress between them. The pattern on the dress was familiar: the Osh Kosh leaf dress from that autumn’s range. This was not, then, a neglected child. But in between the intention to take a step back and hold the door open a little wider that she might pass, and the execution of this intention, a thought occurred to me.
“Where are your bags?”
“What?” A quick little shiver passed over the boy’s face, which I read as irritation directed at himself for having been surprised into impoliteness, since he immediately corrected himself. “I mean, what bags do you mean?”
“That you took to your grandparents’ place.”
“We left them there,” said the girl. Her trembling legs stilled, she straightened her dress with one hand.
“At your grandparents’? Why would you leave them there? Where do they live anyway?”
Like the girl’s dress, the boy’s sneakers looked expensive, though Milo was so many years from teenage footwear that the brand was unfamiliar to me. But if they were taken care of in the matter of clothing, their parents seemed cavalier about their children’s physical safety. The question about their bags was like a link in a chain: it led to another and then another question, that I found myself firing at the pair in tones of equal wonder and exasperation as the extent of their parents’ remissness started to become properly clear to me.
Because the looseness of their arrangements for their children, and their subsequent failure to seize their phone in a panic of worry and readiness for rescue, was beginning to look like conferring responsibility for those children onto me. And I was tired. Alone, but for a fractious, teething baby, for almost a week now, with a chaotic house not even completed yet (there was the new oven still to be put in, and the tiling in the bathroom, that had been shoddily done and needed replacing, and the driveway paved).
“Shepparton,” said the boy, and the answer seemed outrageous.
“Shepparton! You’ve come all that way, just now? But you must have had to change trains. Why couldn’t they pick you up from the city? Or put you on an earlier train? It’s not safe to be travelling on this line, this time of night.”
“There’s only two trains. Early or late,” the boy explained patiently. “Our mother works. She couldn’t meet us if we arrived in the day.” His calm answer seemed a rebuke to my spurt of irritation. But I wasn’t out of questions, though the girl was shifting from foot to foot again.
“But why would you leave your bags?”
“She meant at the train station. They were too heavy to drag all the way out here. By ourselves.”
The obvious question—why my house—was yet to be asked, but for whatever reason I was reluctant. Instead I wondered why they didn’t try the other parent. Both looked at me oddly, as though I’d said something stupid.
I explained, “Whose phone did you just try? Your mum’s? Or—”
“Well, can you try your mum’s phone then? Maybe your dad has his switched off, or it’s out of charge or something.”
The girl looked at her brother. He must have confirmed something in some hidden way because she said then, “We don’t have a mum. Just Dad.”
Which put a totally new complexion on the matter. You didn’t, obviously, expect of a lone father what you might of an intact family, or even of a mother alone. I thought how certain friends would cringe to hear me say it, how even Darren would argue that I was being sexist, but that was just how it was. I saw, now, how the girl’s dress sat too high above the knee, that the boy’s sandy fringe obscured his eyes.
“Well then. If he’s not answering his phone, I suppose I should really call the police.”
I didn’t say it to frighten them. It was only the obvious solution. I imagined a distracted man, who worked long hours to buy expensive shoes for his children, who kept track of them as best he could, but who was liable, absent a wife or a secretary’s help, to mix up dates and times, to forget to listen to phone messages. Possibly he wasn’t even expecting them till the next day, or week.
But the children both said, “No,” so quickly that my image of the man had instantly to be refined. The money was not strictly well gotten perhaps, or he was apt to forget himself in drink.
“Well,” I said helplessly. “What then?”
“You could walk us home,” the girl suggested quickly.
“We have a key,” reassured the boy.
“You could bring your baby,” the girl added, as though guessing the reason for my hesitation. But this wasn’t the whole reason, and anyway—
“How did you know I have a baby?”
“Um.” The girl chewed at the inside of her cheek.
The boy said, “I can hear him crying.”
I listened: the wish of the wind, the faraway purr of traffic on damp roads, the tiny plash of one drop of leftover rain falling from the guttering.
Then it came, but as though from farther away than I knew he was, or else he was tangled in blankets perhaps—the sound of Milo sobbing. There was no explaining the dread that came over me then. The riot of images that tumbled in my head like a film I’d never consented to watch. Milo taken, Milo hurt—worse. It was just the surprise of it I suppose, in the quiet night and when I’d been just about to say—
“You can go and get him,” said the boy.
“Can I use your toilet?” wanted to know the girl.
“I’ll wait here,” said the boy, as though to reassure me. To the girl he added, “But you’d better take Stinky James too. He must need to go.”
“Who’s Stinky James?” The words were out before I’d properly thought them, most of my mind on Milo, every nerve in my body attuned to his cry. I felt the very hairs on my skin bending towards his room just off the hallway. But wondering also what to do with these unusual, difficult children on whom I was somehow reluctant to turn my back but whom it would be strange and cruel to lock out in the cold while I cuddled my own child close.
The boy took a half-step sideways; the girl looked down. I was stunned to see between them a smaller child, not more than two or three, wearing only a t-shirt and a nappy, mouth plugged by a dummy. His hazel eyes—nothing like his siblings’—were narrow with sleepiness, his shoulders slumped low. He swayed a little as he stood there. I couldn’t understand how I’d missed his presence. It may have been dark, but the child’s skin was pale as paper. And was any child so small so quiet for so long? Milo—
“That’s what we call him,” the boy explained.
“Oh God. Bring him in. He must be freezing. I can’t believe—Just wait in there,” I pointed to the lounge room just off the front hallway, “while I get the baby.”
If I’d been nervous at their apparent desire to get into the house, once the door was opened properly to them and I stood back to make way (glancing behind me towards Milo’s room, still pierced by his cry, which was somehow louder with the door pulled wide to the bare, empty street), then their slowness to seize the invitation should have been reassuring.
The boy came first, the girl behind him, holding the hand of the youngest. Whose nappy, I noticed, sagged troublingly.
In his crib, Milo was scrunch-faced and feverish-looking. He’d worked himself up to the point that even my lifting him made no hitch in the rhythm of his screaming. I held him against my chest and felt my heart slow, just to have him safely against me. I shushed and rocked, and his crying seemed to float somewhere beyond me, a distant buzzing I barely heard and which thrummed the nerves not at all. I closed my eyes.
I don’t know how long I stood there, rocking. I didn’t forget the children but, out of my sight and with Milo safely in my arms, the uneasiness I’d felt earlier seemed silly. It was odd, inconvenient, and a little sad, and I’d have been happier had Darren been there. But as tales of neglect went, really it was one of the milder, as opening the paper any day of the week would prove. They were fed, they were clothed—mostly—they spoke with the crisp diction of the well educated. A father not coping—the loss of the mother was perhaps recent?—was really to be pitied rather than condemned. As Milo’s screaming slowed to sobs, and then to a shuddering, even breathing, I felt my own shoulders loosen. I would lay my baby back down, go back out there and offer the children something to eat, a hot drink, have them try their father again and if that failed, call the police. I felt ashamed of my prior prevarication. My only excuse was the late hour and accumulated tiredness. But I would not want the world to know that three lost children had come to my door and almost been turned away into the cold night.
Milo flung his arms wide as I lay him down but then was still. I returned to the lounge room, quaking inwardly at every creaking floorboard, grateful for my visitors’ quietness.
But they were not there. The house was aggressively quiet. I imagined them silently opening the bathroom cupboards, running dirty fingers along the labels of the bottles. But the bathroom was dark and empty. I moved down the hallway towards the kitchen, where I thought they might have gone in search of food. But I walked quickly, nerves alert, and somehow was not surprised to find that room, too, in darkness. I circled back to the lounge room. Still empty, and I had to assume that they’d taken fright, or perhaps only gotten bored or restless while I took so long tending to Milo, and abruptly left. Or maybe I’d been had: I scanned the lounge for missing valuables—not that we had many—but everything seemed as it had been.
I thought to take a quick peek out on to the street, to see if they might be still standing uncertainly on the doorstep, or else hitting up any other houses further down the court. A black corner of my heart was grateful to have been relieved of the burden of dealing with the unwieldy problem, and if they had moved down the street, I didn’t intend to call them back. If they pinned me to it, I’d help, but if they were willing to slide out from under my responsibility, I wouldn’t hold myself blameworthy.
But when I put my hand to the front door knob, I found it locked. I knew I’d not locked it, had not even closed it, letting the children in. I’d been in such a hurry to get to Milo, I’d left it wide open for them to come in, and I’d moved down the hallway before the last of them had.
There seemed a thudding in my chest, strange echo of the knocking that had begun all this. I turned around, but the hallway behind me was still. I looked through the peephole to blackness, but kept my eye there several long seconds. Because the next place I had to look was the one I couldn’t bear to. My heart’s knock slowed with my reluctant footsteps, pulled back down the hallway as though I were on a string. At the door to Milo’s room, closed now, though I had left it open, I paused, and listened, just listened, to the quiet reaching a crescendo.