Every man makes mistakes. Some are small, some are large. Some set you on a course you’d rather not sail, others cannot be fixed, and some actions cannot be undone.
I’d never subscribed to that. I was sure I’d managed to not only correct, but completely erase, my worst mistakes. Until, in the middle of a stormy, coastal night, I heard a woman sobbing.
I tried, at first, to rationalize that it was our baby daughter, but it wasn’t; my wife, especially, was attuned to Ru’s specific noises.
Terrified, I considered rousing Claire, who slept in my arms in our king-sized bed, so she could assure me it was just a nightmare’s echo. She was beautiful, even with her mouth open, even with a tail of her sandcastle hair tickling her nose. Her lips were dark from that long-wear stuff she was always ecstatic to find on sale, because apparently, you paid a much higher price to have your lips look fresh when you were sleeping.
I held Claire more tightly, half glad she wasn’t awake. The house’d been in rough shape when we bought it. Missing shingles, broken windows, warped porch supports, rotted boards. The widow’s walk railings had collapsed, one section clinging to the pitch by a proverbial thread. It clearly wasn’t the dream house I’d promised to make up for everything, but she’d called it “a grand old dame with chattering floors, creaky stairs, and stubborn doors that always have an opinion.”
But the sobbing—that was new.
It seeped into my marrow.
I shifted Claire, trying to wake her.
“What?” She lifted her head.
The crying suddenly stopped.
I didn’t know what to say. “You have the cutest snore.”
“Whatever it is, it’s okay, baby. I love you too.” She put her head back down on my chest.
Shortly after that, the crying began again, and I couldn’t go back to sleep.
The kitchen smelled of strong coffee as Claire, in her black slip, rummaged through a cabinet. Ru had clearly rejected her breakfast; orange smears rouged her cheeks and zebra’d her highchair’s tray. I spied the open baby food jar and rubbed Ru’s burgeoning hair. “Carrots? I wouldn’t eat them at this hour either.”
“It’s five o’clock somewhere.” Claire clutched Gerber Blueberry Buckle. “Okay, Rubygirl! We know you like this one. Yes?”
I pulled the carafe from the Kitchen Aid despite the fact it was still brewing. Coffee hissed on the heater coil.
“Really?” Claire kissed my cheek.
“I’m going in early.”
“Will you be out late again tonight?”
I sensed something beneath her tone.
“This install’s a real albatross.” I filled my Curation is Chaos travel mug.
She was disappointed, and I suspected she wanted to shower with me. We discussed things we somehow couldn’t in the world beyond that wave-patterned curtain, and our compass often spun crazy places.
“Is something going on with you?”
There it was. “No.”
“What happened last night?”
I didn’t want to scare her—she was still on leave and was going to be home with just the baby. “I thought I heard something.”
She seemed relieved. “Wasn’t just my cute snore?”
“No.” I slid the carafe back into the machine.
“You sure you’re okay?”
I slurped from my mug. “Better now that I’ve got this.”
“Okay.” The Gerber jar thwucked as she popped the lid free. “Have a good day.”
“I will.” I kissed her and headed out the door, felt her lingering gaze.
“If you eat the carrots,” Claire sang to Ru, “you get yummy dessert!”
If only life were that simple.
In the 1840s, the Franklin Expedition—British ships looking for the Northwest Passage—vanished. We know they got mired in ice, probably poisoned by lead in their provisions, and froze to death due to insufficient clothing.
Where they really screwed themselves, though, was before they’d even left civilization. The last Europeans to see them alive reported watching the ships’ officers shoot albatross out of the sky.
Seamen believed albatross were the souls of lost sailors—good omens, supernatural gifts from the universe. The universe doesn’t like when it hands you something and you abuse or waste it, and that’s pretty much what I’d done to Claire.
The moment I met her, the world was set right. The romantic poets were correct, though: loving someone that much not only blows your life into exhilarating, inspiring color, it’s also overwhelming, terrifying, and can bring tragedy with it. Who am I, really? What if I fail her? What if I fall out of love? What if she chooses someone else and breaks my heart? What if I have to watch her suffer in illness or pain? What if she dies?
Exactly why, after we’d gone to a wedding, I’d lied to her, told her I didn’t love her, endured the broken-hearted sobbing—and pledges never to give up on me—for hours. I found another girl, one I didn’t care about, who could satisfy my lust, go to parties, share vacations. Eventually, though, I wished she was Claire. So I went back—and left again. For a decade, I’d return, then pull away, date someone else. After the gut-punch of my father’s death—we were close—I saw, plainly, that my life was merely an existence. I went to Claire one last time. Despite the ring, it took months to convince her that it was real, that I wanted her and only her. I was fulfilled, and the need to protect and provide only grew stronger after Ru was born.
To this day, though, I can see in Claire’s eyes, on occasion, just for a fleeting moment, that she’s waiting for that kill shot.
I can tell you art does, indeed, imitate life. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the sailor who killed the albatross was forced to wear the dead thing around his neck, to burden him with guilt over his inexcusable deed.
The woman’s sobbing echoed while I wrote interpretive material for the Franklin Expedition’s upcoming exhibit. I couldn’t help but feel the universe was lying in wait, ready to do the same thing to me.
“Why are all of our neighbors so strange?” Claire, in one of her A-line dresses, poured me a Rittenhouse. “I saw a woman looking in the window this afternoon.”
My insides chilled. “What?”
“Scared the crap out of me. Then I turned around and she was gone. Here, baby.” She handed me the glass of rye.
I couldn’t decide if I didn’t want it or if I wanted the entire bottle; I sat down at the kitchen table. “Thanks. Was it Grenadine?”
Grenadine—the realtor who’d sold us the house—lived next door, and she’d proven to be a busy-body.
“No. I’d know if it was her.”
It was true. Grenadine was eccentric, and like her name implied, the bright red in anyone’s ordinary seltzer of a day.
“This girl was—kind of pale. Maybe in her twenties? Hair in braids.”
Claire had worn her hair that way the first time we were together. I’d told her it just looked like she was trying too hard to avoid adulthood.
“That was a neighbor, right?”
“You know I’m not a fan of braids on any woman over the age of eighteen.”
“That’s creepy, and not funny.”
“It is, actually.”
“Creepy? Or not funny?”
She cracked a smile. “You.”
“Come here.” I pulled her down onto my lap, smelled her honeydew melon soap. “I don’t want anybody but you anymore. I’m telling the truth.”
She nodded. “You’ve just—you’ve been so distant lately.”
“It really is this exhibit.” I tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. “The real dishes these guys ate on that were miraculously in near-mint condition when they came up off the ocean floor? Yeah, well … something happened when they shipped ’em, and a bunch of them got here broken.”
She frowned. “Oh, shit.”
“Oh. Yeah.” I sipped my drink. “National Maritime’s blaming us.”
“I get it.” She patted my shoulder, then got up and went to Ru’s highchair. “Ew! Time for a change, little one. Yikes.”
I watched her heft Ru into her arms and take her upstairs.
I heard more than one set of footfalls. Claire’s. An echo.
I shot from my chair, went to the base of the staircase. I saw no one. “Claire?”
She was already in the baby’s room. “Yeah?”
Claire sang a soft melody about someone waiting to love you against the schwick of detaching diaper tapes.
The footsteps resumed. I heard the ancient latch on the attic door click-squeal.
I bolted upstairs.
Claire, Ru in her arms, jumped. “Christ!”
“Sorry, I—” I trained an eye on the door to the third floor. It was ajar. “Did you—open up the attic?”
“No.” She gave me Ru, then peered down the hall. “Huh. Humidity?”
She padded over the threshold, closed and latched the door, and returned with open arms.
“No,” I said. “I want to spend a little time with her.”
Claire smiled. “Great! Then if you’re on duty? I’m having a glass of wine.” She galloped down the stairs.
On the roof, I swore I heard someone pacing, but then, it stopped.
We’d found this place by accident. Ru’s arrival had sparked a desire for someplace special to settle; neither Claire nor I’d had childhood stability. My dad, the historic site administrator, dragged us from post to post; her parents were marine biologists, so she’d live on an island, then a boat, then another island where she’d have to adjust to a new culture all over again.
We’d been trolling the Connecticut coast and weren’t hopeful. I worked for the seaport, she for the aquarium, and we were sure that house with a sea view was beyond the budget. One afternoon, we got caught in a storm-blast. We were blinded by gunmetal sheets of rain, our top-heavy Kia hydroplaned, and the eighteen-wheelers on I-95 made it too dangerous to wait in the shoulder. Claire was terrified; Ru was screaming. When I saw an unfamiliar, unnumbered exit, I took it.
We emptied onto a narrow road abutting a cliff that plunged to the rocky coastline below. Just beyond the sign Welcome to Seaglass Haven ~ Where the past is cloudy and the future is clear, the road widened, diverged, and became a neighborhood of widow’s-walked Victorians, Gothic Revivals, and Second Empires. We sought harbor in an empty driveway, surprised to see a For Sale—See Grenadine sign.
“This is it,” Claire said.
There was no phone number, so we called our realtor. “We don’t carry listings there. That town’s pretty exclusive.”
The storm raged, but we felt safe. Claire whipped out her phone and snapped pictures through the windshield.
We both jumped when there was a knock on the passenger side and a woman’s face leered from beneath a red rain hood.
Claire rolled down the window, hitting my cheek with a cool mist and perfuming the car with salt and beach rose.
“You folks okay?” Maroon mascara caterpillared down her cheeks.
“We were—actually, wondering about the house,” Claire said.
“Well, I’m Grenadine.” She thrust a veined hand, tipped with unusually long nails, toward the sign. “So I’m your lady, and welcome!”
A white-hot bolt of lightning so close I saw stars and a skull-splitting crack shook the car.
Ru shrieked. Claire unbuckled her seatbelt, turned to soothe her.
“We’d better get out of this.” Grenadine jingled a set of keys. “How ’bouts a tour?”
Claire and I exchanged glances, and I could see that I’ve got a secret glitter in her eye—the same one she had three days before she told me she was pregnant.
This time, I knew the secret was we’re buying this house.
Claire snored. I was jealous. The sobbing kept me awake, shook the very walls, accompanying a metronomic pacing on the widow’s walk: back, forth. Back, forth.
It was possible the house was haunted by the soul of a woman who’d spent many despairing nights watching the horizon for her lost seafaring love. Not that I truly believed in ghosts, but I couldn’t think of any other explanation. Either way, our roof had originally been built with sorrowful intent.
Claire wanted to make it a retreat, even though I reminded her that one good gale could slam our furniture through the new railings and over the cliff to the rocks below. I liked the idea, however—our place; we couldn’t let Ru near it until she was in her mid-teens. But, for now, she wasn’t walking, and so a deadbolt on the door—one which could only be opened with a key we’d keep in the safe—was low on my list. Either someone was up there, or it was a ghost.
The character of the sobbing changed, became an almost guttural wailing. I’d never felt that kind of torment. Claire had. She’d described it as an explosion in your chest and shards of glass shredding your insides, then a lead that fills your body to the point at which you can’t move, and when it’s over, you die inside; every exhausting day is endless, pointless, and painful. Even a smile hurts.
Enough. I had another big day tomorrow. I needed to get some sleep.
I slid out of bed, threw on a T-shirt, and crept down the hall. The wailing got louder as I approached the door to the third floor. I worked the latch. The wood groaned like I’d awakened it from a sound sleep, and I flipped the wall switch. The bare bulbs that hung from the rafters buzzed before flooding the practically empty attic in a copper light.
Fortunately, the stairs to the widow’s walk were modern—a former owner had rebuilt what’d probably been something so narrow and steep it was life-threatening. The ancient door at the top, though, still needed replacing. I always had to shoulder it to get it open.
The wailing stopped.
I stepped onto the deck. The smell of the sea—salt, lavender, slightly fishy—was strong, and the damp wind cut through me. The roar of the waves on the black rocks, at the base of the cliff, was surprisingly loud, and the night was clear—I could see Aquarius and Sagittarius in the night sky. But I saw no one. There was just the newly built, freshly painted white railings, and the boards beneath my feet, many of which we’d replaced or stripped but hadn’t yet stained.
“I know you’re up here.” Get this over with. “Show yourself.”
I shivered. This is ridiculous. Probably all in my head.
I turned to go inside, and I heard a woman’s wicked whisper: Come home.
I startled. Everything in my body didn’t want to look.
When I did, no one was there.
Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the Franklin Expedition’s captain, John, had, herself, been an Arctic explorer. Three years after his disappearance, the British Navy abandoned the hunt. She didn’t. She funded several search parties and even bought her own ship. History paints her as one of the strongest, most tenacious women of her time, but there are tales of her perched on the rocks, gazing north, weeping with outstretched hands.
Claire had no interest in surviving such pain again. In the shower that morning, she told me she’d die in my place.
I’d drizzled her honeydew melon wash on a bath sponge. “That’s the easy way out.”
“What do you mean?”
“You wouldn’t have to feel the grief. The truly brave thing to do would be to keep going.”
She mulled this for a moment. “I couldn’t handle living without you.”
“Sure you could. You’re the strongest woman I know.”
A muscle below her left shoulder twinged, the signal she was about to cry. “Wasn’t I without you long enough?”
“I’m sorry. Stupid.” I hung the sponge back on the caddy. “I don’t know why I said it.”
Lately, I didn’t know why I said a lot of things.
Claire’s phone call interrupted my thoughts. “You need to come home. Now.”
“Is everything okay?”
She burst into tears. “What did you do?”
I felt punched in the stomach. “What?”
“Just come home!”
I pushed my car well beyond the speed limit—even on the cliff road. A police car coasted away just as I careened into the driveway. Claire stood near the half-dead beach rose bushes, holding Ru tightly in her arms. I scrambled from the car. “Are you okay? What happened?”
“You need to tell me.” She scowled. “I saw the woman in the window again, I heard her come in the front door and go upstairs. She was in this house! How dare you!.”
My gut seized. “Claire. Who?”
She was already marching inside, ignoring Ru’s fuss. She banged up the stairs to the attic door. Scrawled on it in white paint were the words Please come join me.
What the fuck?
Claire was unrelenting. “You are seeing somebody. Sticking your dick in crazy again! Who is it? Is it the girl I saw in the window? Is she stalking us?”
Ru was full-on crying now. Claire ignored her.
“No! No. There’s nobody. Please believe me.”
“You promised. You promised you wouldn’t leave me for somebody else this time.”
“I kept it. I swear, baby. I did.” What the hell is happening? “But, you know, I’ve been hearing crying at night, and—”
“Seriously?” She bounced Ru up and down, which only seemed to make her scream louder. “So it’s a ghost.”
“I didn’t say that. I just said that—”
“You know what? I’m going out. Clean this up, and we’ll talk about it when I come back.” She pivoted, finally trying to comfort Ru as she tromped away.
Stunned, I imagined Claire, hurling silky chemises, A-line dresses, and sale-priced lipsticks into a suitcase. I looked at the writing. There was something vaguely familiar about that cursive. But that was the least of my concerns now.
I needed proof Grenadine had sold us a haunted house.
Our Victorian would never be the garish eyesore that was Grenadine’s—a regular boardwalk of cotton candy pink, barker red and amusement blue. Right then, it pissed me off even more. I stomped up the porch, banged on the screen door. “Grenadine!”
She appeared, all smiles and gliding like a jellyfish in a fluorescent dress of flowing scarves. “Well, hello, Brock, I see the place is—”
“What did you not tell me about the house?”
She blinked. “I’m not sure what you—”
“It has a ghost.”
The expression in her eyes shifted to fear and surprise. She peered beyond my shoulder, as though ensuring no one overheard. “Come in.”
Her house was the same layout as ours, but everything was rendered in colorful high gloss shades of lavender, sunflower, and pool. I smelled tangerine and the sea; palm-colored sheers fluttered about the open kitchen window.
At the sink, she filled her teapot, set it on the stove. “This town was built by widows who knew the pain of abandonment. If you’ve ever left a woman behind and broken her heart, she’ll show up.”
On the table in front of me was a disturbing pile of what looked to be bird bones. “I married the only woman I ever really hurt.”
“That’s why we only sell these homes to happily married couples, and I’m the one who decides.” She sat down across from me and lit a stick of incense.
I choked on the ribbon of sage and pepper smoke.
“Occasionally, though, I call it wrong, and we get an upstart. You must have another woman in your past that you deeply hurt … one who died.”
I thought of the other women I’d broken up with. Some had been disappointed, some angry—but none were the sob scenes that’d always been Claire. And none, to my knowledge, had died, although I had to admit: I hadn’t a clue about what’d happened to any of them.
Grenadine palmed the pile of bones, dumped it into a purple teacup, shook it.
I didn’t have time for this. “So … what do we do if we have an upstart?”
She eyed me, held up a skinny hand. Then she emptied the bones on the table, touched each one lightly with her long-nailed fingers. She knitted her brow, looked confused, then troubled.
It gave me the creeps.
“You need to make her come out, and you need to talk to her.” She looked me in the eye. “You need to make peace.”
The teapot screamed. I jumped.
She got up and went to the stove.
“Will this work? Because my wife thinks I’m having an affair.”
“It’s okay.” Her eyes were full of pity. “She’ll understand soon that you’re not.”
Claire hadn’t returned. I stood on the widow’s walk, feeling ridiculous, yelling at the night sky. “I know you’re here. I … I didn’t even know you died, and I’ve come to say that … that I’m sorry? See if we can … make peace?”
A pinkish mist glowed at the opposite railing, and the profile of a bride appeared. Her skin was in shreds; gossamer flakes tittered in the breeze.
She turned and faced me.
It was Claire. The way she’d looked on our wedding day, braids wrapped around her head beneath a crown of beach roses, A-line gown flattering her form.
Except the beach roses were dead, the gown was stained and yellowed, and I could see all of Claire’s bones through her opalescent, disintegrating skin.
My breath caught in my throat and I felt compelled to vomit. I backed away, desperate to escape, to slam that door between me and that horrible thing.
“Oh, stop. You don’t have to be afraid of me.” I saw the roots of her teeth through milky lips. “It’s me. It’s Claire.”
No. I was hallucinating. Or … or this ghost is making herself look like Claire. I dredged my memory for the names of some of the other women; maybe if I said her name, she’d transform. But I could recall none. So all I said was, “You’re not my wife.”
“That’s right. I’m not.” She smiled sadly. “You left me at the altar. That night, I killed myself.”
This was insane. I hadn’t been engaged to anyone but Claire. And I’d been there. I remembered her coming down the aisle of Greenmanville Church, photos in front of the Charles W. Morgan, the celestial reception theme. Even the taste of the raspberry cake filling, which we’d paid extra for, since we’d gotten married in November. “Look. I don’t know who you are, but you’re not Claire. I married Claire. I married Claire, and we had Ruby, and we bought this house, and you don’t belong in it.”
Her eyes burned with emerald fire. “No. You bought this house. The life you think you’re living? It’s the life we were supposed to have, but you cheated us out of it. The universe doesn’t like when you waste its gifts. It wanted to show you what you threw away, and your time’s up.”
I heard footsteps. Real Claire, clutching Ru, was poised in front of the widow’s walk door. “Brock, what are you doing up—” she gasped. “What … what is that?”
“Just get out of here, babe. Just take Ru and go back downstairs.”
Real Claire didn’t move.
“See?” I said to Wedding Claire. “That’s her.”
Wedding Claire shook her head. “She’s not real. You’re supposed to come with me. You’re supposed to come home.”
“No. We’ll get a priest, do an exorcism. We’ll get rid of you.”
Wedding Claire sighed in a patronizing tone. “You don’t get to be happy; you don’t have a choice. If you don’t come with me, this fantasy won’t stay like this. Ru will somehow find her way up here to the widow’s walk and fall off. You’ll watch Claire writhe in pain and die over eight long years. And then? You’ll be completely alone. No sweet bird follows the ship whose sailors will kill it.”
I didn’t know what to believe, but I knew one thing: I didn’t want Ru to die, and I didn’t want Claire to suffer, and I couldn’t bear to watch either. I wouldn’t make it.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll go with you. Just please … Please don’t hurt them.”
Wedding Claire threw back her head and laughed. “You still don’t get it, but whatever.” I heard the snap-creak of her bones, saw the nubs of her spine poke through her translucent, flapping skin. “Go. Say goodbye to the life we could have had.”
I swallowed, hard. My insides contorted.
I approached Real Claire.
“I can’t do this without you,” she said.
“Yes you can. Strongest woman I know. Remember?” I wiped a tear from her cheek. “I’ll be around.”
“Just please don’t let me hear you crying.” She gave a weak smile. “I don’t think I could handle that.”
She leaned in, gave me one last, passionate, honeydew kiss. I kissed Ru on her burgeoning, soft hair.
Real Claire stepped back, pressed Ru’s head against her shoulder so she wouldn’t grow up with the memory of what was about to happen buried somewhere deep in her baby brain, where traumas that haunt our adulthood dwell like phantoms in a forgotten closet.
Then, Real Claire and Ru slowly faded, curled into the sea mist, and vanished. The new white railings and the stripped and replaced boards were gone. There were only pieces of the old broken ones, littering the half-rotted deck that’d been there when we’d bought the house.
I joined Wedding Claire on the ledge. Madness swirled below.
It was a long way down.
Every man makes mistakes. Some are small, some are big. Some set you on a course you’d rather not sail, others cannot be fixed, and some actions cannot be undone.
I gripped my dead bride’s hand, the ghostly shreds of her flesh like tissue paper against my palm, and I leapt.
Kristi Petersen Schoonover has long been fascinated with the Franklin Expedition and the idea that no one should kill an albatross. Her work has appeared in many publications, most recently in Wicked Women and Orca Lit. Her books include the short story collection, The Shadows Behind, and the novel, Bad Apple. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, serves as a co-host of the Dark Discussions podcast and as founding editor of the dark literary journal 34 Orchard, and is a member of the Horror Writers Association. Follow her adventures at kristipetersenschoonover.com.
photo by Ishan @seefromthesky and Louis Reed (via unsplash)