art by Eleanor Bennett
Ghosts in the Walls
by Shannon Peavey
***Editor's Note: Mature themes lie within these walls***
The baby in the north-side wall of Laura's apartment never cries during the earthquakes. Other times it will scream and wail loud enough to keep her up at night, even with a pillow over her ears--but when the shaking starts it quiets. Like it's being rocked to sleep.
She's asked her neighbors about it a few times and most of the time they say they don't know what she's talking about. Her next-door neighbor, Ted, suggests leaving milk out for it, since it might be hungry.
"It's a baby, not a kitten," she says.
Ted shrugs. "So leave it a bottle or something, I don't know."
And that's just goddamn ridiculous, putting out a bottleful of milk for some ghostly baby, so she thanks Ted and tucks the edges of her scarf into her coat and heads down the stairs.
"Wait, do you think it would need, like, formula or something?" Ted calls after.
"How the hell should I know?" she says, and pushes out the door into the cold and the dust settling from the quake like snow.
It's not like she knows anything about babies, after all.
The buses are out--something junked in their electronics, maybe. She passes one out-of-service at a stop, windows dark and doors hanging open. Like a dead animal with its tongue lolling.
She walks and her phone rings and she doesn't answer it. She watches people sweeping up broken glass and chunks of concrete. In one spot there's a dark stain of blood on the pavement and she asks around and finds out someone smashed their head on a flying piece of rebar. They're still living, apparently. If it can be called that.
When she passes a doorway and nobody's watching, she snugs up tight to it, pressing her palms and her ear to the door. Listening for crying inside. But she doesn't hear anything.
Laura sits on a bench by the canal and watches things fall into it: leaves, trash, pebbles. Heavy dust from the guts of buildings, the parts that are never meant to see the air. The city is choked with it these days.
Her phone rings.
She answers it.
"I've been trying to reach you all day," Max says. He sounds far away, but he probably isn't. His new apartment is only a couple blocks from the canal.
"I've been busy," she says.
"The lawyer drew up some new paperwork. They need you to sign it."
A pair of boys in hats and heavy coats walk along the edge of the canal and throw stones into it. One of them has a hat with a red pom-pom, the other a yellow one.
"Do I need to go into the office to sign it?" she asks.
She can hear the baby screaming even before she turns the corner on the stairwell, screaming like its life is ending. She unlocks her door and goes inside and lays her hand on the north-side wall, says "Shh, shh, it's okay. Please stop. You don't need to cry."
It doesn't stop.