I have lived in this house for twenty-six years. Twenty-six years of living, of loving, of laughing, of growing. Twenty-six years of grieving, of torment, of pain. Sometimes I think my house is haunted. Sometimes I think I am the haunted one.
Wolfstone Haven is a sleepy, higher-middle class suburb. Here, the hedges are trimmed often, the picket fences are white-washed, and the flower beds are pristine. Newcomers are welcomed with open arms and baked apple tartlets, every detail of their lives then scrutinised by their neighbours until suitable rumours are established and spread through the Haven until all are convinced it is true. My husband Tom committed suicide six months ago. Hung himself in the cupboard upstairs at the top of the landing. It was still the talk of the town.
I find myself staring out of the kitchen window, my hands seeped in a tub of sudsy water and dishes so hot to the touch my flesh burns, but I don’t care. I think of him – of our marriage; a failure though it was. It had seemed we were near the bitter end, and better off that way too, but I would have rathered our bickering any day to the silence that now consumes this house. The house that was once our home.
I lay out a new tablecloth – blue and white polka-dots intertwined with little roses. There are matching coasters, and I have placed a teapot with a fresh brew in the centre of the table. The children are seated at the dining table, picking at the breakfast I have so lovingly prepared for them as though the scrambled eggs are poisoned, and the toast so dry it may lodge in their throats and choke them. They wanted pancakes.
Ungrateful bastards, the lot of them.
The love I have for my babies is unrequited. I understand they are still grieving and pining for their father, but my patience had worn thin. They have always preferred him to me, I’m sure of it. If it had been me, strung up like that in the closet, they would never have blamed their father, or stopped loving him as they had me.
Grace wails in her high chair, hurling her plastic cup to the floor, invoking a tantrum. Pieces of egg yolk are matted in her blonde curls. She’s always fussing, and sometimes I am deaf to her cries. Only Tom could ever quieten her. I could never quite take to my youngest child. Grace was the one child I utterly refused to breastfeed.
“Please, Nessa. She's hungry. She won't drink from the bottle.” Tom had begged, proffering her to me swaddled in sheets as though she were a gift.
“Leave me alone, Tom.”
“You feed her then, go on! She’s getting nothing from me, nothing!”
He had stormed out with Grace as I sobbed. The very thought of feeding her made me feel physically sick. I was sweating at the anticipation of it. I did not want her there, nestled in my bosom, taking more from me than I was willing to give.
Grace is not my baby. She isn't. We share many of the same features, the same light hair, the piercing blue eyes, the sumptuous lips – but I am convinced that she is not mine. I carried my child for nine months, birthed her. Of course I know the truth. The hospital have made some grave error and handed us the wrong baby. Some other lady must have mine.
I discussed it with Tom once, and he insisted that I was quite mad and in need of a doctor. Postnatal depression, they said it was. I cried every day for the first year, but Tom would not let me give the child away. How I despised him for it.
I’ve been taking anti-depressants and a bunch of other drugs for some time now, but sometimes I forget. Once Tom died, I came to the realisation that I might never be truly happy again.
“May I be excused please, Vanessa?” Charlie, my baby boy at the tender age of eight, holds up an empty plate for my inspection. I suspect he has hidden some of his food rather than eating it. He’s gotten very thin since his father died. His dark hair only makes him look paler, and his ribs are beginning to protrude outwards. I will have to force-feed him soon, before the neighbours begin to question whether I’m starving the boy. “Vanessa?” he repeats. I ought to smack him right on the mouth. Why can’t he just call me 'Mama' like he used to? I blame Tom for that, filling the children's heads with fuel against me, and ending his life before taking it all back. He didn’t even leave a note.
I nod at Charlie, and he quickly leaves the room without giving me so much as a second glance. Amy, the eldest at fourteen, stands up as if to leave also, headphones firmly placed in her ears and music at a volume loud enough that everybody in the kitchen can clearly make out the lyrics. I’m disgusted at how profanity-laden the girl's taste in music is. Amy has broken my heart.
We were close once. Amy is every inch of her grandmother, with deep brown hair and grey eyes and a crooked smile. Amy is my first child, and my favourite child. We have not spoken a word to each other since Tom's passing. Amy blames me solely for her father's death.
“He killed himself cause of the way you treated him! I wish you killed yourself instead.”
She’ll be sorry she ever said that to me.
I clear the breakfast table as the children get ready to leave for school. Amy attends the high school, dropping Charlie off at the primary on the way. Neither of them kisses me on the cheek, or even waves goodbye. I watch them walk further down the road, becoming more animated the further from me they stray. I feel myself love them a little less.
Grace sits in her playpen, staring at me with that gormless expression of hers. My stomach swirls. The tears begin to spill as I wipe my eyes with the back of my hands. Grace cannot know I am crying, that I am weak. When I can’t bear to look at her any longer, I sprawl across the couch and try to will myself to sleep. I love being asleep. At least I see him in my dreams. Finally, I feel myself drift off.
Something is wrong.
We’re in the bedroom, me and Tom. He’s sitting on the bed, glaring at me.
“I am so sick of you! Sick of you being here in my house!” I scream.
“Nothing is ever good enough for you! You’re sick, Nessa! You’re sick in the head!”
“I’m not sick, I’m depressed! You depress me Tom, you know that? You make me miserable! You just make me wanna go and kill myself!” I pace the room, throwing his clothes into an open suitcase on the bed.
I remember this day. This conversation.
“I love you Nessa, you and the kids.”
“Well we don’t love you, so leave. Take your shit and leave!”
“And you can take that fucking baby with you! Go!”
“Oh shut up!”
I approach the bed and slap him hard across the face. I want to cover my eyes, but still I can see. I want to cover my ears, but still I can hear.
“You are not a man, Tom Walters! You’re not a man!” I punch his face with closed fists and tug on his hair. With a strength I did not know that I possess, I throw him backwards on the bed. “You are not a man you are not a man you are not a man you are not a man you are not a man you are not a man!” I continue to hit him, making his nose bleed and scratching his face up. I punch him repeatedly in the chest and head, in the ears. He does not raise a hand to me. I don’t stop. Every minute feels like an hour. I can’t breathe. My brain screams at me to stop, but it’s as though I am outside of my body, watching myself destroy the man I married. The man I loved.
“You are no man of mine, Tom.” I say, and I spit on him. Like he’s worthless. Like he’s nothing. And I leave him that way, storming out and slamming the front door.
And I know what happens next.
He sits up on the bed, bloody, bruised and covered in my spittle. He sobs. He tears the blankets from the bed, lifting the sheet and beginning to tie knots. I know how this ends. He flings open the closet door and throws his knotted sheet over the bar we use to hang the clothes. He fashions a noose and I wish I could tell him to stop. He drags the velvet stool from our bedroom and clambers up on it, tying the noose around his neck. There is a small eternity before he kicks the stool over. He struggles as he hangs, turning a funny shade of purple. I cannot intervene. I cannot stop him.
A memory. Not a dream.
I find him hanging, lifeless. A bellow comes from deep within me as I clutch onto him. I stain his sleeve with my tears. I don’t think they will ever stop.
* * *
I don’t remember how I got here. I sit in front of the mirror, combing through fresh curls. Our song plays on my stereo, and my heart wrenches. I’m losing time. I want to be with him again, to have his arms wrapped around me, his neck nuzzled into mine. I must have done my nails. They are filed and painted, and make-up is plastered across my face. My lips are coloured a deep red. I smile at my reflection, check for stains on my teeth. I’m wearing a dress I don’t remember purchasing, let alone putting on. I look beautiful.
There is one problem, however, with my appearance. On the hem of my dress, there is a brown stain. I wet my finger and attempt to scrub it, but it holds firm. I curse myself. The doorbell rings.
Charlie has returned from school. I fix him his favourite lunch, ham and cheese sandwiches with crisps on the side and a tall glass of milk. He is still in his school uniform, his grey slacks and wine jumper. I sit opposite the boy, watching him eat, and when he finishes, I pat him on the shoulder before giving him a soft squeeze.
“I want us to read a story together.”
“Yes, I believe it’s on your curriculum, is it not? Take out whatever book is in your rucksack. Go on, sweetheart.”
Charlie appears confused. “Teacher wants us to read inside our heads now.”
“No matter. Read to your mummy.”
He looks at me dolefully, unsure.
“She’s still down for her nap, read for me dear, mummy is tired.”
Charlie fetches his book and lays it out on the table, opening it up and reading aloud. It is the first time I hear my son read. He has great oration skills. His father would be delighted to hear him read. I drape my arm around his shoulder and rest my chin on his head, smelling his hair. Pine and leaves. He must have been climbing trees after school.
“And, the boy went home to eat his dinner, it was a nice dinner, it was made fresh.”
His voice wobbles. “Can we stop mum?”
“No Charlie. It's important we spend time together. We need to come together as a family now. It’s all over.”
“Yes dear. We can be a family again. We’ll be with Daddy soon.” Charlie looks me up and down, wide-eyed. He begins to cry. “Hush dear,” I say, tears welling up in my eyes as I watch him, “Mummy loves you, mummy loves you very much.”
I hear the door click open as Amy enters the house. I hear her sharp intake of breath, her attempt to cover a scream.
“Charlie? Vanessa?!” Her voice is hoarse as she calls out our names. “Vanessa, I – what, what happened here? Where’s everybody? Is everybody okay?” She speaks all at once, shivering, eyeing me up and down. I see her gaze steady on the blood of my dress. “Where’s Charlie?”
I turn around, but Charlie is no longer at the dining table. “Oh. He must be doing his homework. Charlie?!” I call out his name, but he doesn’t respond.
“You’ve got blood on you – there’s blood – in the kitchen.”
“Don’t you like my dress, dear?” I spin around, smoothing out my dress.
“Mum. Don’t be rude now, baby, mummy is in a good mood.”
“Where’s Charlie and Gracie?”
Amy backs away, her hand grazing the walls. There is something very, very wrong. I realise I’ve been looking through her instead of at her. I rub my eyes with my firsts. I can feel every heartbeat. Every breath. There is blood on the floor, on the walls, on the ceiling. I can smell it. I bring my palms towards my face, examine the blood beneath my fingernails.
“What’s happened Amy? Have I hurt myself?”
“Have you been taking your medication?”
“It made me so fuzzy! I couldn’t think.” I’m pacing now, and I don’t know how to stop. “Can you check on the children? Please? I think we need an ambulance. I don’t want them to see the blood. I don’t want to worry them.”
Amy’s body is still. It’s as though she wants to run, but her legs are stuck to the ground. She strides away from me, thundering up the stairs. I bite my nails, the metal taste causing bile to rise in my throat.
Something is very very wrong.
I hear Amy scream. A guttural, animal sound I’ve never heard before. I follow her up the stairs, each step heavier than the last. I don’t want to see. Don’t want to look. I already know what I’ve done.
Amy is horrified. She lets out a cry, attempting to cover her mouth.
“You’re sick, mum.”
“I think I’ve done this really terrible thing, baby. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I slump down onto the carpet. “I’m just so tired, Amy.” I say. She holds her mobile phone to her ear, and she’s talking, but it’s almost inaudible. I can’t hear her anymore. I just want to sleep.
Jessica Brien, is a 23-year-old writer from Dublin who is currently working on a debut thriller novel. Jessica’s short story, ‘Dead End’, can be found on Idler.com and ‘Soup for Starters’ was shortlisted for the HG Wells Writing Competition in 2021 and was published in their annual anthology entitled Mask.
Of the story featured here, Jessica says:
‘No. 62 Wolfstone Haven correlates with the theme of menace as it has themes including mental illness, anxiety and isolation, motherhood and grief. In this story, the real menace is a sick mind.’