“Too sad. Really, it is simply too too sad.”
Edna nodded as Margaret rambled on, her attention focused on the goodies spread across the driveway and lawn: piles of clothes and dishes, end tables, an armoire, antique statues, weird African masks. Mr. Turner’s job at the bank had paid even better than she had expected.
Still, Margaret was right. It was too sad, and she should not be reveling in this opportunity —
Oh my goodness.
Edna waddled quickly across the driveway, bouncing around a couple of trunks and a waist-high statue of some heathen Indian god with too many arms.
The crib was utterly perfect. A beautiful cherrywood with spindles, and both the headboard and footboard were carved with … oh, how sweet. A woman in a toga holding a baby. An inscription in what Edna guessed was Latin edged the top of the headboard. The Coughlins down the street were heathen Catholics. Perhaps they could translate it for her.
Oh! It even rocked!
She gave the crib a tentative push with her hand. It slid smoothly back and forth, with not a single squeak.
“Oh, how lovely!” Margaret exclaimed, coming up beside her. “But, do you think …? I mean, is that the one …?”
“I would imagine so.”
“Well, are you certain that you want it, then? Doesn’t that seem a bit, well, morbid? Tempting fate?”
“Oh, don’t be such a superstitious goose, Margaret. It’s perfect.” Edna smiled, skimming her hand along the headboard. She rested her other hand on her rapidly-expanding belly. “Simply perfect.”
“All of it? It’s all going into storage?” Frankie lifted his hat to scratch at his scalp as he looked around the living room and into the dining room and kitchen beyond. Small house, but they sure had a lot of stuff.
Beside him, John double-checked the order on his clipboard. “Yep. ‘Cept the stuff on the back porch. Owner is taking that with him.”
Frankie shook his head, admiring the armoire and fancy couch with curling arms and matching end tables. “This is some nice stuff. Wonder where they got it all?”
John shrugged and set the clipboard aside. “Come on. I wanna get this done. Minnie’s sister and mum are coming over for dinner and I’m expected to make an appearance.”
Frankie snorted. “See, this is why I’m still single.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“Go to the diner, get myself a sandwich, then go home and listen to the Yankees. In peace and quiet.”
Piece by piece — couch, chairs, big clock, dining table, more chairs, that nice armoire — they carried everything outside and stowed it away in the moving truck. As mid-afternoon approached, they stopped, hungry and sweaty, and sat down on the front lawn to eat sandwiches and pickles and drink some cider.
When John got up to use the facilities (not like the owner was there to object), Frankie wandered back into the house, through the rooms they had already cleared, to the bedrooms near the back.
The owner was taking his bed with him, and a small chest of drawers, and a lamp; all of that was on the back porch. But there was still —
He eyeballed the crib in the second bedroom. Expensive piece of work. Just the sort of thing his sister Nancy could use, but could never afford, not on that idiot Clark’s salary.
Frankie scratched his head again.
John tumbled into the room, voice high with excitement. “Hey, you’re not gonna believe what I just heard.”
“Yeah, I was talking to the lady next door through the window — ”
Frankie squinted. “From the bathroom?”
“Yeah. Anyway, this is that house.”
“That house. You know, the one where the lady went bonkers after her kid died.”
“This is that house?”
“Yeah. Her old man’s putting everything in storage and moving upstate to be near the looney bin where his wife is locked up.”
They stared silently around the room, taking note of the tiny chest for toys, the bright pictures of lions and giraffes, the mobile above the crib.
Frankie rested one hand on the headboard. “This is a nice crib. Bet my sister would like it.”
“What?” John squawked.
“Hey, ain’t like they’re gonna miss it or need it again, right?”
“Forget it. I ain’t helping you steal that.”
“Then don’t help. Or you take those end tables home to Minnie. Don’t think I didn’t see you eyeballin’ ‘em.”
“’S what I thought.” He slid one hand along the railing, setting the crib to gently rocking. “Nancy’s gonna love it.”
“… fire began in an apartment building on the north-east corner of 2nd Avenue and Bristow Street, and spread quickly. It took firefighters from all over the city nearly five hours to contain the blaze, which destroyed four buildings, leaving some one hundred and fifty residents homeless.
“According to authorities, the fire was started by Clark Millhouse. Neighbors describe him as a quiet man, who had become increasingly agitated following the death of his infant daughter last month. The reason Mr. Millhouse set the fire is still under investigation. In the meanwhile, Mr. Millhouse has been placed under arrest and is being held in the psychiatric ward ….”
“Stephen, for heaven’s sake, slow down! This stroller is the size of a tank!”
“Sorry, babe.” Stephen paused at the corner of the warehouse, and impatiently tapped his foot, watching as Deanna navigated the stroller through the crowd and around haphazardly parked cars.
Word had certainly spread, and quickly. It wasn’t every day that an IRS auction like this came up: an entire warehouse of stuff, hidden away since … well … decades, apparently. There was no telling what all was in there, but the brief listing on the IRS auction site included everything from antique religious artifacts to full dining sets to a mint condition Corvette.
Not that he could afford the Corvette.
He could dream about the Corvette, but, no, the three hundred bucks he had in his pocket had to go to more practical items.
Deanna finally caught up with him. He kissed her forehead, then gently pushed the blanket out of the way to get a better look at Gemma.
She blinked owlishly up at him, hands fisted. She snorted and wiggled when he stroked her cheek.
“Sorry,” he apologized. “I had no idea it would be this busy. Maybe you should have stayed home.”
“Don’t be silly. We had to get out of the house.” She patted her belly. “I need to work off some of this baby fat, and Gemma needs to see more of the world than the same four yellow walls every day.”
“Tropical Canary,” he corrected.
“Whatever.” Deanna grinned and gave a stroller a heave. “Come on. Maybe they have some cool candlesticks.”
“You do not need more candlesticks.”
“Sure I do. I don’t have any Fourth of July-themed ones yet.”
Fortunately for the three hundred dollars in his pocket, there were no holiday candlesticks. There were, however, some very nice Baroque-style candlesticks with a naked lady forming the pillar. When Stephen pointed at them and waggled his eyebrows, Deanna just laughed and jotted the lot number on her hand.
They weren’t even a quarter of the way through the merchandise, sunlight rippling through the windows high above, when the auctioneer stepped up on stage and began yelling out numbers. Assistants lugged pieces both large and small up beside him. There were a few bidding wars (one over the Corvette, another over some Indian statue). The ugly African masks went for super cheap, a pile of antique books went for about what he expected, and the old flaking mirror went for waaaay more than any reasonable person should have paid.
“Psst. Psst! Stephen! Come look at this!” Deanna waved at him from three aisles over, her head barely visible above a stack of tables.
Making his way around a gaggle of retirees and a couple of pretending-to-be-bored teenagers, Stephen found his wife standing on the edge of the “baby” section: rocking chairs, changing tables, small children’s desks, lots and lots of toys, and —
“Isn’t it gorgeous? It’s even got carvings.” Deanna stroked the crib’s footboard, her other hand absently rolling the stroller back and forth.
“Hhnn, yeah, I guess.” He crouched, frowning. “Looks like it has some smoke damage, though. Wood’s darker right here.”
“That just means we’ll get it for cheaper, right?”
He slanted her a look. “Maybe. Assuming no one else has fallen in love with it.”
An hour later and two hundred and thirty-two dollars poorer, Stephen loaded the crib, the naked lady candlesticks, and the stroller into the back of the minivan while Deanna, still humming happily, strapped Gemma and her carrier securely in the seat.
“It’ll go beautifully with the tropical canary paint in the nursery,” she was saying as he carefully backed out and pulled forward. “I bet we could find some cherrywood picture frames, too.”
“Hey, now, that color scheme was your choice — Holy — !”
Stephen slammed on the brakes, Deanna squeaking as their seat belts dug in. A shiny silver car swerved hard around them, narrowly avoided another minivan, and tore around to the front side of the warehouse.
“Jackass,” Stephen muttered. “Is Gemma okay?” He twisted around in his seat to find Deanna already checking the baby.
“Yeah, looks like.” Deanna stroked their daughter’s chin, wiping away a bit of drool. “Wonder why he’s in such a hurry?”
“Maybe he wants the naked lady candlesticks.”
Deanna rolled her eyes. “Home, Jeeves.”
It took Gemma all afternoon to settle down in her new crib. They laid her down in it as soon as Stephen maneuvered it into the nursery, and she shrieked.
They swapped out the mattress and the sheets. No luck. They filled the crib with her favorite stuffed animals, twirled her mobile, sang to her. Finally, she stopped twisting and crying, her face red, and lay there, exhausted, blinking up at them.
Deanna patted her daughter’s belly. “Poor little thing. Think she’ll be okay now?”
“Yeah, looks like she’s cried herself out.”
Gemma twisted in the crib again, bouncing her fists.
“Come on.” Stephen took his wife’s hand. “I am starving and tacos sound awesome. Don’t worry, we’ll leave the door cracked open.”
Shaking her head in exasperation, Deanna followed him into the kitchen. Dinner with a bit of dancing, then cuddling on the couch. They flipped a coin and ended up watching a science fiction film with laughably-awful special effects. Gemma didn’t make a peep the whole time.
“This. Is. Awful,” Stephen whispered.
“Oh, shush. I loved this when I was a kid. Come on. The best part is just coming up.”
“Does the hero shoot himself with his own laser pistol, which is actually just a couple of painted pvc pipes?”
Bang! Bangbangbang! Bang!
The front door shook in its frame, the picture on the wall beside it bouncing.
“Mr. and Mrs. Sands? Please, open the door! It is urgent!”
“ — the hell?” Stephen leaped up from the couch. From the nursery, Gemma let out a loud whimper.
“Get Gemma.” He edged towards the door as the pounding continued. Grabbing the baseball bat from the umbrella stand, he peered at an angle through the peephole.
Tall guy. Dark hair. Brownish-copper skin.
The man’s head whipped up, hazel eyes narrowing at the peephole.
“Mr. Sands? This is very important. Did you purchase a baby crib at an auction this morning?”
“Mr. Sands, please, this is critical. Your child is in danger! Do you have the crib?”
“What do — what do you mean danger?”
A quick look over his shoulder to find Deanna standing in the doorway of the nursery. Her face was drawn, her eyes wide. She held Gemma in her arms, the baby … listless.
Stephen’s chest went cold.
“Mr. Sands, please, open the door.”
“I — go away! I’m calling the cops!”
The door frame shuddered. Stephen backpedaled rapidly, lifting the bat. Behind him, Deanna screamed. He heard the nursery door slam shut even as the front door shuddered again and cracked. Another loud crack-bang and it flew open, hinges askew.
The man strode into the house, his long dark coat flaring, his tie flapping. He lifted something long and shiny, pointed it at Stephen and said — something — some word that Stephen didn’t understand and then Stephen was flying backwards through the air, arms flailing, bat spinning, until his legs caught on the back of the couch and he went tumbling.
He heard screaming. His back hurt. He needed to get up —
More crack-bangs. The nursery room door this time.
Deanna was screaming his name.
Stephen dug his fingers into the carpet, pushed with his feet, got up on his elbows. Bat. Where was the bat?
Deanna was still screaming, but it was closer now. And then she was suddenly there, crouching down beside him, Gemma tucked against her chest. She closed one hand around his arm, helping him to his feet.
She was crying. “He’s crazy! He shoved us out of the room! I don’t — Gemma — she’s not — I don’t — ”
He found the bat. “911! Call 911!”
Stephen stumbled around the couch, sidling towards the open door to the nursery. He could see weird lights flickering across the yellow — tropical canary — walls, giving the room a sickly greenish hue. And … chanting? Definitely chanting. Not Spanish. Latin? It slid along the edge of his brain and made him twitch.
He finally reached the door and peered around, bat raised high.
His mouth fell open. He stared.
Wind shrieked around the room, wild, picking up stuffed animals and diapers and booties and pajamas. The mobile had been torn free; it whipped around the room, bouncing off the walls, rattling and clattering.
And the man — this man who had broken into his home, terrified his wife, threatened his daughter — stood on the far side of the room, facing the crib, feet braced apart, coat flapping madly, waving a ….
… magic wand?
It was a brilliant green-white, so bright that he almost couldn’t look at it. Lights danced around the wand, bending and twisting like … shapes. Female shapes? Flowing robes and glistening breasts and the man was chanting again, voice rising against the wind.
“Dea Edusa! Dea Iuno Ossipago! Dea Cunina! Dea Cuba! Dea Paventia! Audi me!”
And the crib was … melting. No, not melting. Shifting. The wood was stretching, bleeding, the color leeching from it. The reddish-black spread through the air, reaching like spilled paint, rising higher and higher into the air. The shapes of light whirled around it, almost seeming to contain the liquid shadow, pushing it tighter and tighter, compressing it.
The wind continued to whirl and howl, the wood of the crib grew paler and paler, the reddish shadow gathered in on itself, pooling into a smaller and smaller ball until it was barely the size of his hand.
And then voices, women’s voices, so glorious that they made his heart ache and his bones shake, speaking over the man chanting in the middle of the nursery —
— and the wind stopped and the stuffed animals and the diapers and the mobiles crashed to the floor and the ball of liquid shadow disappeared.
The man fell to his knees, panting heavily.
Stephen’s back hurt and his ears were ringing. A quick look over his shoulder showed him Deanna peering at him from behind the couch, Gemma still tucked up against her shoulder.
Gemma who still hadn’t moved, hadn’t made a sound.
Dropping his bat, Stephen lunged around the couch and fell to his knees in front of his daughter and wife.
“Is she — ?”
Deanna shook her head, still crying. “She’s breathing. She’s still breathing. But she’s not — she’s not moving! I don’t understand!”
“Where’s the phone? Where’s the damn phone?!” Stephen scrabbled around frantically, feeling under the couch, under the cushions.
“That will do her no good.”
Stephen looked up as the man stepped around the couch.
He looked spent. There was a sallow tint to his skin, and dark rings underlined his eyes. His clothing was slightly askew, and his knees seemed to be shaking inside his trousers.
He leaned to the side, bracing one hand on the arm of the couch. He still clutched the whatever-it-was-magic-wand in his other hand, his knuckles white.
His knees gave out and he fell with an audible thump. His breathing seemed to get a little easier and he pried his fingers loose from around the wand, sliding it inside his jacket. “What is her name?”
“G-Gemma,” Deanna stammered.
The man reached out his hand and Stephen shoved it away, glaring, wishing he hadn’t dropped the baseball bat.
The man’s voice was low, almost soothing. “I mean your daughter no harm. I came here to help her, to save her. Please, let me see her.”
Slowly, movements jerky, Deanna uncurled her arms, lowering Gemma down against her chest.
Stephen sucked in his breath at the sight of his daughter, far too pale and far too still. Her head lolled against Deanna’s arm and her hands and legs hung limp. Her chest rose and fell, rose and fell. And that was all. No other movement, not even the flicker of her eyes behind her thin eyelids.
Stephen’s voice was barely audible even to himself. “What’s wrong with her?”
A different magic-wand-thing came out, this one some kind of black wood with veins of copper. It seemed to hum as the man held it over Gemma, the copper glowing faintly.
The man fell back on his knees, his face even more gaunt now. “I am very sorry.” His voice cracked. He tried and failed to clear his throat, the sound a pathetic cough. “Very very sorry. It was ….” He licked his lips. “The crib was infested with lemures. Malignant spirits of the forgotten dead. They are … insatiable. They … I am so very sorry. Gemma will not recover. She will never awaken.”
He pushed himself to his feet, arm shaking.
“What do you mean? Hey!”
The man paused, his whole body seeming to tighten.
“The lemures consume the souls of infants. And then they feast on the grief which follows. These … had been around for a very, very long time. There is an ancient Roman rite, but … I was too late.” He closed his eyes. “I am so very sorry.”
The man stumbled away, his feet dragging across the floor and then down the front steps.
Beside Stephen, his wife wept, hugging their silent, still daughter.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. She has been published in a wide variety of venues, and a complete list of her works can be found here.]