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art by Eleanor Bennett

Ghosts in the Walls

Shannon Peavey is a writer and horse trainer from Seattle, Washington. Her work is also available in the Writers of the Future V29 anthology, and she can be found on twitter @shannonpv.
***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."
"Okay."
"Great."
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.
Feeling stupid, she goes to the kitchen and pours milk into one of her heavy stoneware bowls and microwaves it until it's just body temperature. Then she lays the bowl at the base of the wall with the air of a penitent leaving an offering.
All that night she lies awake and listens to the baby cry.
In the morning she takes the bowl--still full, skinned over with a delicate blue film--and pours the milk down the drain. Then she walks downtown to sign Max's papers. He meets her at the office and takes her hand awkwardly and says, "My God, did you walk here?"
"The buses are out," she says, and fishes in her purse for a pen.
When it's all done he offers her a ride home but she demurs. If only he would stop trying to be so damn nice about the whole thing, she thinks.
She's halfway home when the shaking starts, and at first, she doesn't notice it. Then her feet drop from under her and her knee hits the pavement and skids and glass falls in a shower around her, powdered safety glass like glitter or fake snow at Christmastime.
"Get over here, damn you!"
She looks up and sees a tall woman braced in a doorway. Six feet tall, at least. She staggers over to the doorway, nearly falls again. The woman reaches for her arms and pulls her inside.
Near them, the sidewalk buckles and rolls. She hears a crack of bursting concrete and the synchronized wails of dozens of sirens. The tall woman hasn't let go of her forearms and they stand like that, in a near-embrace, hiding from disaster.
"Jesus," the woman says. "Jesus."
The shaking stops suddenly. From a window above them, someone shouts something Laura doesn't understand. The two of them remain as they are, frozen in tableau.
"I was on my way home," the tall woman says. "I slept with my dentist on my lunch break. He had the hairiest toes I've ever seen. Jesus."
Laura leans into the woman's grip, closes her eyes. "I just signed divorce papers," she says. "My husband and I lost our baby. Crib death. And we couldn't do it, anymore."
The tall woman holds her for a moment more, there in the safety of the doorway. Then, abruptly, she lets go, massaging her hands like the holding had been something painful.
They don't speak again. They step side by side into the ruined street and then turn and go their separate ways.
She picks her way home through the debris: cracks and hillocks in the road, shattered glass, a fallen tree. Here and there a building has collapsed, but not too many. There's not even a window out in her building.
She climbs the stairs and the baby is screaming, screaming. The sound picks some last, frayed nerve in her and when she sees Ted leaning against the wall between their apartments smoking a cigarette she stops dead and throws her purse on the floor. "I've had it." There's a heat behind her eyes but she isn't crying. "I've had it with that goddamn baby. It's got to go."
"Hey, no." Ted pushes off the wall with his elbow, spits his cigarette on the ground and grinds it out with his toe. "You okay?"
"No, I'm not okay. I just need that thing to stop crying. I need it gone."
She fumbles with her keys and goes to open the door but then Ted's hands are on her shoulders and he's drawing her back, turning her around. "You can't," he says.
"Why not?"
"Don't you know?" Ted sounds genuinely surprised. "Why even with all these earthquakes, this building doesn't fall down. You never wondered?"
"No," she says. "No."
"People need a safe place to live," he says. "We have to make some sacrifices." Ted's palms are heavy on her shoulders.
"No," she whispers.
She whirls, and Ted's not fast enough to keep her from getting through the door and sliding the deadbolt. He hammers on the door but she's already moving away. "Don't do anything stupid, now," he calls, but she barely hears him.
She brushes her north-side wall with the tips of her fingers and the baby hiccups and sobs. "I'm going to get you out of there," she says.
Laura puts a hole in the wall just above floor level with one of Max's old fifteen-pound weights. It takes a few swings but she gets it eventually. Then she uses her hands, pulling away pieces of drywall and plaster and insulation. She's white with dust and wet with sweat. Ted knocked on her door for a while, yelled in at her, but he's stopped now.
She uses the weight to punch in another section of drywall and the baby stops screaming. She drops everything and pulls at the hole she's made, her heart in her throat. She strips a gap nearly big enough for her to crawl in and then she finds it.
"Oh," she says. "Oh no."
He's well-preserved, some scraps of cloth and dried flesh still stringing his bones together, and she's very careful. Gentle, like you have to be with babies. She barely got to practice, before, but she knows that much. You have to be gentle. She pulls him out of the hole in the wall and holds him to her chest. Presses her lips to his dry skull and rocks quietly, back and forth. "It's okay," she says. He's not crying anymore.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, May 30th, 2013

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