Once the waxy dusk went black, the color rotting away behind distant mountains Claudette might never see again, the men in red coats came to work down in the narrow road. This was the third night they had done so. They huddled there between the decaying building and the newer one, around some obscure task. Claudette had yet to glimpse what the five of them were so intent upon, or even what they looked like, and the dark seemed to mute their noises. Occasionally one of them would stop and glance up toward her fourth floor window. She told herself she was too far away to be looked at in any real sense, but had started switching the near lamp off.
She sat at the window and watched their red coats shifting together, her hands heavy in her lap. Knotted things, her hands, hardly more useful than bundles of sticks. Her piano played on inside her head without them, hard stabs and vigorous tempi that kept the dust off her memory. Looking outside had nothing to do with her hands and how they had betrayed her, so it had become the lesser of the evils. She could lose herself counting the windows in the disused apartment building across the way, clouds knitting into half-shapes, pretty young mothers on phones. It was only an alley below, really, a shortcut between Emery St. and another she still hadn’t learned the name of, but it had a niceness to it during the day. The way the buildings held a rail of sky like a vise. It made you want to pass through it.
From her vantage point the fabric of the workers’ coats seemed a porous wool, much too hot for late summer, with no logos or utility to them she could see. They would toil at their mystery until some point after she crossed off another day and eased herself into the low-bellied bed. She never managed to see where they came from. There was no arrival of cars, no echoing of pre-work voices in the walled space, no preface. They were just there, and only appeared or disappeared when she wasn’t looking. She wondered if the Thousand Oaks facility had any reason to spruce up an alley, when what graceful façade it showed the town was on the other side, luring people in with their old folks trailing behind like resigned pets.
It’s not a facility, Mama. This was one of Lidia’s favorite mantras. I promised you we wouldn’t do elder care yet. It’s an apartment, just like anyone else in town has. Only difference is the hospital’s close and you got this cord you can pull if something bad happens. Claudette had grimaced at that yet, a little word that held everything big in it.
There had come a day, in the house she and Harold had owned half her life, when Claudette had to stand up from the piano. The pain had been something alive crawling up her arms after half a stubborn hour on the bench. Her fingers wouldn’t straighten for some time. She called her daughter and broke down in tears, confessed that she’d been going to bed with throbbing fire in her hands for months now, and her fingers, her long lovely fingers that could span six keys like a bird’s wing, had just begun to curl and bunch into things more like claws. The arthritis had finally defeated her.
A week later Lidia had put a shockingly small portion of her mother’s life in boxes—she might as well have taped Claudette up in one, too—and taken them away to a “senior apartment” in Nashville, where she could check in on her every other day. The house in Leipers Fork—too much room for one, Mama—was sold and would be divvied up between Lidia and Jason. The piano went into storage, a useless ghost hunched under a bed sheet. Two months on and she missed it more than she did all that space that had held her family within it.
And Harold. He had been dead too long to miss with any real tenderness. Four quiet years since the car crash, and it almost made her ashamed, that it could be like a scab falling off and the scar it left behind wasn’t at all dreadful.
A light went on in the apartment building across the alley, the fourth floor window respective to her own. She’d never seen a light in any of those dozens of blank closed eyes. It had no curtains, she hadn’t noticed that before, and the room within was streaked with a blurry gloom. A tall wardrobe stood against the far wall, nearly centered in the frame of the window. It could have been the twin of her own, the one that Lidia had now because it had been two feet too tall to bring here. She had adored that piece, the smoked rich oak. It felt like an insult to see one so like it now. Part of a bed was visible to the right, but Claudette couldn’t tell where the shadows began or ended, or what might be casting them. Below in the alley the men did not pause, did not look away from their hidden work, but somehow they assumed more watchful postures.
She pressed her forehead against the pane to reduce a few inches from the hundred feet between the two windows. A figure lay on the bed, but she couldn’t see its face, couldn’t decide if it was in fact a figure. It could have been lumps in a blanket. The light brightened then dimmed and the shadows grew furry. She noticed that the bottom edge of the room’s window seemed inconstant, as though something were hunched just below it, trembling to lift into her sight.
She sat back in her chair, her hand lifting to clutch at the meeting of her blouse collar. Her curtains dropped shut. Her lungs hitched and her heart squirmed inside her. “Lord God,” she whispered, and for a moment thought to peek back down at the men in red coats. But instead she struggled up from the chair and shuffled toward the bed, where her pain pills were, her bones full of gravity.
Lidia came and took her downtown, bought her a new nightdress and some bracelets with stronger magnets than her current ones. They had brunch in a café whose name Claudette forgot while they were still in it, so troubled was she by the fact that her dead parents were in the kitchen, watching her, the bustle of waiters and cooks passing around them. They peeked at her through the cutout window, furtive, wary, the first shocks of true white in their hair. It could have been 1976, the day before the heart attack took her mother and surprised everyone.
“What is it, Mama?” Lidia asked, shaking Claudette’s arm. Gently, always gently, she treated her like glass these days. “You see somebody you know?”
“I don’t—” There was only a line cook at the window, clipping sheets of paper to a metal wheel. She turned back and gave her daughter a false smile, the light from the front windows too bright in her eyes. “It’s nothing. I just wish I could go ahead and dry up. Some difference it would make now.”
Lidia paled and began to cry, as blandly as she did everything else. “I worry about you, Mama,” she said. Going on fifty years and Claudette had never grown accustomed to the depths of love in those green eyes. “You don’t ever have space enough for anybody. I think we need to get Jason and the boys out for a visit. It’ll do you good.”
“Well. I guess.” She pushed her plate away with the heel of a hand. Claudette hadn’t seen her grandsons, Kyle and Twain, in more than a year and hadn’t particularly cared to. She was glad Lidia had chosen to be with a woman. Less noise in Claudette’s life. She stood as Lidia paid the check, peering around toward the kitchen. A face that might have been her father’s watched her through the round window in the kitchen door, its nose flattened against the greasy acrylic pane.
It hurt her hands to grip the photo album, to turn its cardboard pages. But she felt any reason she would have to dream up her parents was too obscured in her mind, as though things really were slipping away from her. Sixty-eight was well on the early side for dementia.
Night fell outside and made her artificial light a deeper yellow. She didn’t notice the ripening colors of the evening—to her the warm gray clicked over to blue-black like a shutter. She heard the faint stirring of the men below but needed to put things right in her mind before she looked.
But there was nothing in the pages that stirred a dark memory. These were all prosaic remembrances. The children hardly remembered their grandmother, but her father had doted on them in his gentle way until his stroke in ’81. Claudette couldn’t remember the last time she had seen him. She felt guilt for that, but not enough to dredge up anything by hallucinating the two of them at breakfast. If she was being honest with herself, she rarely thought of her parents. Her mother had been a warm stranger, and Claudette’s bond with her father had been difficult in ways she had never articulated.
She parted the curtains and let herself see the lighted window. Slowly she noticed that it was the apartment directly below the one that had been illuminated the night before, on the third floor. The shadows were thicker now, more lethargic. It was harder to see inside at this new angle, but she thought the same wardrobe, the sister of hers, stood in the rear of the room. And the bed seemed tilted up toward her now, so that she saw it was stained with mold. The same man-shaped lump lay under the blanket. She kept her chin raised, to block the bottom of the window from herself, prolonging the moment before she finally saw that there was a figure hunched below the sill, after all, its back clothed in pale green. It looked to be on all fours, but seeing only the edge of it she couldn’t be sure. The way it trembled, perhaps someone was injured and slumped against the wall. Perhaps the window was lower than she assumed, and the figure was sleeping. It was none of her business.
The fourth floor window was dark and covered now. Why was the tableau recreated below? Or had it been? If she could pretend her long-dead mother and father were peeking at her from a restaurant’s busy kitchen, couldn’t she pretend anything?
Below in the alley, she noted almost as an afterthought, the men in coats stood farther from her tonight. They were strung out in a line, bent over something she could see no more clearly than before. She stared at the window and its spoiled glow for some time, daring it, but the figure remained in its position until her breaths grew steady and shallow, her pulse fluid.
She dreamed less often and less vividly now, but assumed that deeper in her mind she still spent the nights at her piano, playing one of hundreds of things but most often “Hollow,” the allegro molto from Rachmaninoff’s second piano sonata. Harold had come up with the nickname for the piece because it was all scales and fireworks but had none of the delicate passion of a Chopin or Beethoven. She had always kept a special cold look reserved for when he said things like this, as though piano music should serve only candlelight. It’s an allegro. Don’t be so dense. It means briskly. And even Beethoven could get feet tapping, how many times do you need me to tell you?
She couldn’t bear the thought that her music had been stolen from her dreams as well.
A week before her thirtieth birthday, in the spring of 1978, a spotlight had switched on and bathed Claudette in a kind of adulation, a singling out of her. It was her Moment and the whole of her life withered into the background of it. Nearly two hundred people had listened to her play that night, only a third of the Presbyterian church’s seats but it felt like a cavernous amphitheater under a silent slow lightning storm. She was no longer a part-time piano teacher. Her fingers danced through Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. She had finished with “Hollow,” then Pärt’s “Für Alina,” the slowest, most elegiac thing that had ever been written, and she heard not one cough in all the pregnant gaps between the notes. It had been the first of many nights for Claudette, the nascent prodigy on her way to thirty-one years of this light, some of them in the Nashville Symphony.
She wept off and on most of the day, not calling her daughter, not changing out of her nightclothes. A box of crackers sat on the windowsill for what little hunger she had. Every few minutes she checked the facing windows to verify that each from the last two nights was covered. The second floor window below them was, too, with canvas drapes nearly the color of the surrounding brick.
Again there was no evidence below that the men in the red coats had been there in the night. The sun already glared and her fingers twitched, their old ghosts busy on a distant keyboard. She watched each end of the alley for figures that lingered, dreading to see her mother or father loitering behind a corner. Still the question nipped at her: Why had she seen them?
Claudette had always thought of seventy as only the first portico into darkness. But here, two years shy, she felt something like true grief, and she realized it was her first taste of it. If she could have her hands back she could play all of this far off to the rim of the earth, beyond import. She could play until age found her and her skin sagged and sloughed off her bones. They’d pull her off the piano bench and bury her next to Harold out behind the church where they’d married. It would be enough.
The afternoon whitened like an overexposed photograph, too blind and sheer, and Claudette kept her vigil. Sometime in the afternoon she thought she saw Harold on top of the old building, only a glimpse before the sun slid just behind the figure and placed it in a corona. The day burned slow into rose and orange and her head eased onto her breast.
When she lifted it, dark had adhered to everything in the room. The lamp next to her had died. She stood, an ache coiled deep in the small of her back, and watched shapes crouch and almost shuffle two, three inches to the side before settling back into a sofa, a chair at the small dining table, a coat that had fallen from its hook by the door. These shapes were too dark to be silhouettes, but she stared at them until they admitted they were only her things.
She waded into the dark. Her fingers brushed something hanging in front of her face. She choked back a moan—only the emergency cord. A thought touched her, Pull it. Tell them to get Lidia out here, put me somewhere. But she bared her teeth at it. The light switch was there on the wall, a button she could press with a palm and spare her fingers. She reached for it and the door moved once in the metal frame, as though something had gently pushed it from the hallway. Claudette held her breath for a long time before pressing the heel of her hand against the button. In the warm light she took one of her pills, dry, feeling it catch in her throat.
“Let’s see the show, then,” she told the room, and shuffled back to the window. The second floor room was washed in a light less constant than her own, the same dull gloom the room above had been smeared in, and the room above that before it. The wardrobe was lost from view now but she could see an oriental rug identical to the one that had lain next to her piano the past four decades, a pale yellow with a distinct orange diamond in the center. Too rare a design to pass off as coincidence. Her father had bought that rug for her mother before Claudette was a thought.
The steeper angle gave her only the eight feet or so closest to her, closest to the man—or a broad woman, she supposed, she’d never been thin herself—hunched on all fours below the window. The figure was shaking, shifting now as though in discomfort from the sustained position. Shadows bent and curled around it.
Claudette’s face itched, a delirious heat rising to her skin, and she looked down toward the street where the men in red coats, such benevolent things in comparison, stood around a large obscure lump, their backs to her, curved so that their coats formed one long bloody smile in the dimness. She squinted her eyes and saw it was something beneath a tarp, surrounded by smaller objects under smaller tarps. Closer, a longer, darker shape lay perpendicular to the alley walls, nearly bridging the two buildings.
When she looked up, the person on the bed—it had to be a person, bound up and tortured, likely—writhed briefly. The figure under the window lifted its back, lowered it, then began to raise its head. Claudette saw half an eye appear, crowned by a wisp of white hair, and gaze up toward her. A chill of half-familiarity touched her and she found herself seeing both her father and her husband in that cold look. She snatched the curtains shut, crying out with the pain that gripped the fine bones in her hand.
Enough of this. She would not let them scare her. That would have to be the important thing. A derelict in a condemned apartment building wasn’t anything to do with her. Workers in cheap Santa Claus coats weren’t anything to do with her. Even as she thought these things, she peeked down—one of the men adjusted the larger tarp, and in the moon’s sudden brief glimpse she saw the keys of a piano before the object was covered again.
“I don’t feel up to it,” Claudette said into the phone, furious with her daughter for being in Knoxville for her job and with herself for forgetting. “You should be here to take me.”
“Mama, I’m sorry.” She could hear the hurt in Lidia’s voice, the I’ve-let-you-down quiver that had never quite left it, not really. “We talked about you taking a cab. Dr. Kelley’s four blocks away. It’s just physical therapy, but it’s fine if you’re not feeling right. I’ll be there Friday evening, soon as I get into town.”
“I’m tired. And tired of being cooped up in here. But you go do your work. The bridge club will be here in a minute. We’re hitting the town tonight, dancing the tango.” She bit her lip. Stop this mewling, Claudette. You look a fool.
“You can’t give up on yourself, Mama. Your hands aren’t you.” In the background Claudette could hear a sudden swell of quiet as the TV was turned off. “And I talked to Jason. He wants it to be a surprise, but he and the boys are coming. Today or tomorrow, depends on if they stop off. Now don’t you tell them I told.”
“Well. Come see me when you get back. I need fresh groceries.” And she pressed the end button. The dread fell back over her then, knowing the ground floor window would be full of that diseased light tonight, and not knowing what might come after that. Only that she had to see.
The tarps and what they had covered were gone. All the windows she could see in the facing building had curtains or blinds or drapes, save two that were boarded up. The only difference was a slack cable, two stories up, running from one window on her side across to an opposite window, above a battered steel door. She wondered if the men had installed it there. She felt she knew nothing in the world. Her parents and husband weren’t lurking anywhere she could see. The ends of the alley emptied onto their streets and not one of the occasional pedestrians slowed or paused to look in or up at Claudette. Life outside might have stumbled forward and left her in her box.
Could she have seen things in the café because she had not attended her father’s funeral? Some nascent complex a shrink would stroke his chin over? The children had still been a little too young, and she had stayed home with them while Harold went. She could almost remember the look he’d given her, sidelong as he put his hat on. Not wanting to say the wrong thing and so saying nothing, as was his way. But surely there had been a reason for her refusal. Had her father angered her? No, she couldn’t think of a single harshness from him, except—
You always were stingy with your love, Poppet.
Poppet. She’d forgotten her pet name. He’d said that to her on her wedding night, after most of the guests had left, the strung lights reflected in the wet grass outside the Parthenon, Nashville’s silly little replica. She remembered that small green galaxy now, what was left of the rain that had threatened to ruin the ceremony in the park. The humidity of the night dampening her dress.
He had said something else, too, before her mother joined them. I can’t help but hope you’ll be kinder now.
The words stung more all these years later than she could remember them doing then. She pawed the curtains open again and looked to either end of the alley. The sun had started to tire in the distance. Guilt flushed her cheeks and she called it the warmth of the fading day against her face. He’d been a foolish old man, never thinking of himself.
Don’t speak ill of the dead, Claudette. Who thought of one’s own father like that? And Harold. Who spent the last thirty years of a marriage forcing a man into a separate bedroom? Lidia and Jason had still been children the last time she’d made love to her husband.
She didn’t want to think of these things and so she didn’t.
Later she stood and walked to the door and unlocked it, just so she could feel the bolt slide into place when she twisted it back. She cried out at the bloom of pain but it was a necessary thing.
She put on a light green sweater against a new chill. Back at the window she looked down and saw a vertical segment of the room on the ground floor. The drapes had been drawn back a foot or so. A deep red shifted away, out of sight. In the coat’s place she saw a row of white teeth—piano keys. One of those damned men had put a piano in the room, was pushing it back into the gloom. She thought of the wardrobe, the rug. Had someone raided Lidia’s storage unit?
Just the idea of her actual piano—an Estonia she’d saved for years to buy—in a condemned building right in front of her made her blood seethe. The emotion ran stronger than even the fear of some ominous figures playing a morbid joke on her.
Someone unseen tore the drapes down in the ground level apartment. She watched the exposed room, its one large shadow heaving its bulk as it drew in the dark, until the light came on. The piano was hidden but she thought she could make out the edge of her bench’s brocade covering, whose lemon-yellow had come so close to matching the rug in her music room.
She stood and moved toward the door, turned right toward the phone, but hesitated, unable to wring her hands like she wanted. So she sat back down. Her patience was wearing thin. Her children would have to do something about all this.
She prayed it wasn’t senility. Such an indignant ruin, but she’d never known how to talk to things she considered myths. God had no ears. Down in the alley, having crept or scuttled in during her moment of indecision, the men in red coats stood in a line, those on either end pulling on a rope. Something huge lifted off the ground and she saw it was a black sheet. Soon it halved the alley. Claudette wouldn’t have known it was there without the sickened light of the apartment below, or if she hadn’t caught them in the act.
Inside the ground floor apartment the window was half-open, another new difference. The space below the window was empty, but the bed held the same uncertain shape. It took two painful minutes to get her own window ajar. As she watched, a sound drifted out, a few plaintive, syrupy piano notes. She straightened in her chair, recognizing it at once as Rachmaninoff’s allegro molto. Harold’s “Hollow.” But it was all wrong. It couldn’t have been more off. What idiot fingers could make such an ugly sound? The player had training, which made it worse, which made the stretching out of the piece unbearable to Claudette. It sounded like someone had allegro confused with adagio. All clumsy, derivative tripe, but—
—it captured her, sitting by her window in her hated little apartment, it reached up and lifted her out of her diminished life for a long, strangely transposed moment. It nearly burst with a liquid sentiment, a cheap romantic poignancy. For an instant she wished Harold were in the room to hear this, to tell her he’d told her so. It was still wrong, though, all wrong, she wanted to scream the fact of it down to the swimming dark in that window.
Then the piano went silent. The light around it snapped off. The shadows clouded in to take its place, and Claudette heard a voice call out, “Hello!” Low and wet, a thick voice full of phlegm stretching the o into an ooh. It repeated the word again and again, until she realized it was saying something else—“Hollow”—and she went cold. But it was as wrong as the sonata movement and sounded more like “Holoow, holoow.” An ancient dying owl or an old man playing at being a ghost. Yes, but more than anything there was a profound sadness in the voice, carrying in it the same timbre of the piano.
The men in red coats had vanished while her attention was distracted. A minute, two minutes of dense silence, that malformed word still hanging in the air like a decaying echo, then the squeal of metal near where the men had raised the black sheet. Claudette stared and was just able to see the sheet ripple as something brushed against it, closer, marking its progress toward her building.
It was coming for her. It would crawl up the stairs—she could only imagine it on all fours, loping up and around and calling out that owlish word against the concrete walls. She couldn’t bear to have it outside her door, pushing, moaning at her. She stood and crossed her living room, unlocked the door with a whimper. She passed down the hall toward the elevators, away from where she thought the stairwell was, not thinking yet. There was only an image of her things in a room that for the moment was unoccupied. Her piano stood vaster for her than the entirety of her life.
She jabbed the down button at the elevator, relishing the pain of it, and stepped inside. As the doors slid closed she heard the rumor of a voice, the possibility of that elastic “holoow” leaking into the fourth floor. The lobby was cold and sterile and empty, the front desk vacant, and the night outside was twenty degrees warmer at least. She hurried around the building, pain twinging in her knees, and into the alley. The thick metal door of the neighboring building hung open, a deep black shape pasted onto the night. The dark sheet was completely hidden unless she squinted at it.
Trash lay strewn inside the building, along with dust and a silence that got into her ears, thick and pressing. But the dark was not as complete as it should have been. She walked forward until she reached a hallway, while ahead a much larger space opened up, from which she picked out the dim shapes of columns and a long counter. Down the hallway to her left a wavering light struggled out of a doorway. It looked like candlelight, and she wondered why she hadn’t figured that out before.
Claudette approached the room, a part of her reaching back to the first time she ever walked onto a stage. It was the only point of reference that felt true to her. The light flickered, her hands gathered at her throat, and the whole of the building seemed to hold its breath like a great lung. She could already see her piano, a wedge of it through the open doorway. The rug on the floor, the forgotten way its delicate pile had felt between her toes. She could almost see everything she’d never gotten around to, grand things and a host of insignificances hiding just beyond the frame of the doorway: the birdhouse she and her father had built when she was five or six, the robin that had taken residence there; the sequoias of California, which she’d seen in a film once; birthday parties for the children; Europe; grander mountains and bluer oceans; books that might have taken her somewhere beyond the brief range of her attention; these things that had never held her interest or provided the time to nurture it.
But as she drew close, the one thing the room felt bereft of was music. Hers. How could that be?
She entered with no hesitation, though her eyes went to the window and the empty floor below it, the bed and the blanket upon it. Lumps were arranged beneath the blanket, approximating the shape of a man but with too much of the anatomy. The building breathed out and she with it. There were no candles to match the quality of the light, just a wide dome in the ceiling littered with crawling bugs inside, the light shifting around their carapaces.
It really was her piano, her Estonia, its lid propped open in welcome. The gouge a young Jason had put in the side of it was there, faded into the character of the wood over the years. How long had she gone without speaking to him after that? She closed the door, turned the lock in the cheap doorknob, and sat down on her love-worn bench. A light filled her, and she could nearly imagine it not suffusing her but falling on her from the ceiling and the sky, picking her out of the great crowd of the world. She had never made it to the concert halls of Manhattan, or even Atlanta. She supposed she could admit now that she hadn’t been quite that good or that young. Yet she had felt that hot light on her. The hush and the almost spiritual awe, and what did it matter where it had been? It was worth all the sacrifice.
Claudette sighed and straightened her fingers as best she could. The pain when she splayed them, testing their span, was exquisite. The music had once leapt up from the keys into her hands, the tight strings humming inside their box. But when she brought her fingers down, tapping the key bed with the heels of her hands, a deformed noise arose. She tried again, biting her tongue to tamp the flaring ache down and racing into “Hollow,” her mind three measures ahead of her ears when she realized that what emerged from the belly of the piano was a dripping slow dirge, just as she’d heard float up to her own window earlier. So she sought that strange yearning depth and it came perfectly, unbidden to her, swelling with the stabs of pain in her fingers and wrists and forearms until she felt the marrow would burst from the shells of her bones.
She fell from the bench with a cry, the rug absorbing the shock, and she lay there panting, shuddering. An object shone faintly at her from under the window. She crawled over to the edge of the rug and picked it up, a photo of her parents and her children, fitted together like a complete idea, and Harold leaning into them like an afterthought. No, he was rushing into the frame because he’d set the camera timer, she realized. Which meant Claudette hadn’t been there.
Snow coated the trees and the eaves of her childhood home in the background. The five of them wore matching red coats, and a vague memory of some Christmas pageant came to her. Lidia or Jason crying because Mama was supposed to play the piano but had decided to stay home with her own music.
The sharp, bolting aches crept up her arms. She crouched, trembling, and something inside longed to get out of her; whether it was a wail, or the kind of cleansing sob she had never voiced, or something much more significant and whole, the cold that had always rooted in her, she didn’t know.
A terror slowly clutched her as she realized she was on all fours beneath the window, without the strength to get up. Something had given out in her back. She raised her head a few inches. With her right eye she saw her warm bright window on the fourth floor, draped with her creamy curtains. A silhouette sat there, cut out of the yellow light, the same loose bun of hair in the back as Claudette’s own. She hadn’t locked the door behind her. It was such a lonely shape, she thought, until another figure was framed in the light. Then another. Small figures, and the shadow with the bun lifted its hands up—fingers that flexed and wriggled freely in the light—and grabbed the head of one of them. Claudette gasped as the shadow pulled one of her grandsons into a hug, then gathered the other one in as well. A man’s silhouette stepped near the window—Jason—and together the four shapes made one amorphous blur that rose against the window.
Claudette opened her mouth to yell something, a warning or a plea, but only the low keening “Holoow” crept out. Her eyes went back to the photograph. Where had she been that day? The other days? Where had she been?
A noise came from the bed. Something rolling, shifting back and forth, thumping against the mattress. She lifted her eyes, the picture still pulling at her from between her weary hands, and saw the lumps drop to the floor, pulling the blanket down along with them. The corner of the bed blocked her view so that she could only listen as something tried to say “Poppet,” but the sound carried such a contrasting weight. The voice she remembered had been so patient and kind and indulgent. The next words came quickly, other voices low and liquid as an unplugged drain. The sounds of movement increased, and her life dragged itself across the rug.
Originally published in Darker Companions: Celebrating 50 Years of Ramsey Campbell, edited by Scott David Aniolowski and Joseph S. Pulver Sr.