Acres of green grass, with practically nothing in between, cover the property of the house we just bought. Gardens, walkways, fruit trees are the things of our dreams—our plans for landscaping. But for now, I’ve simply ensured that there is at least one place for a child to play. In my seventh month, my stomach has grown too large to be able to take long walks and runs, the fabric of my skin and pelvis stretches and aches too much. I find myself resting more often. At five months, I helped build the swing set and slide, with the attached treehouse and climbing wall. Corey worried that I’d strain myself, but I had energy then, and the baby moved and tumbled inside me all the while—a good sign, I thought.
From the kitchen window, the swing set calls. I open the back door and slip outside into the yard. From the swing set, I can see over the hills, where the mountains rise in the distance—and they are, at once, grand and terrifying. I sit and push my feet back and forth in the mulch until I can get a gentle, and low lift into the air. My stomach flutters with the movement, with the baby’s first swing ride.
Letting my eyes rest on the grass below me, rather than straining my sight too far, I let my chin fall to my chest and allow my vision to blur momentarily. The world around me is still. The sun is out, but a greyish, mid-winter tint hovers in the air, with the threat of thick fog that will develop overnight when the temperature drops.
And then, I think to look up—to focus—to see clearly again, but when I do, my breath catches in my throat at what I see: a figure. Solid, but grey and somewhat translucent. He’s a hunched-over man, dressed in dark clothing. His eyes penetrate mine, and his skin is ghostly white. My pulse quickens, as I stand up to ask, “What are you? What are you doing here?” He doesn’t answer. He creeps along the hill, in the grey-green grass. In his eyes, I see nothing but hatred—and I fear for my soul.
With a camera this time—and Corey, who believes me—I return to the yard. The sun turns the mountains into statues of gold this time, in the late afternoon. Corey and I sit, side-by-side on the swings, waiting.
“You have to let your vision go unfocused,” I say.
“What does that mean, exactly?”
“Just stare at the grass and think of nothing—absolutely nothing.”
We wait. We wait while the world grows still, and all we can hear is a slight breeze. I don’t know how I know it’s time to look up again, but I do. I look up. Corey has fallen asleep. I can hear him snoring; his head bobs back and forth as he startles himself awake and falls asleep again.
When I think to look up, the man is staring at me again. More than anything, it’s his eyes that I hate. They’re startling. The fact that I know that he’s dead brings me no comfort at all. Rising slowly from the swing, I snap a picture. The shape of the man fades into the sun.
Inside the house, in the living room, I look at the pictures I’ve taken. At first, I only see mountains and grass. However, when I transfer the photos to my computer and print them out, I see strange swirls of smoke and light.
“Sunspots, maybe?” Corey asks.
“Maybe—mixed with fog or something.”
I let my eyes rest on the photos, my vision unfocused, once more. Turning the swirls of smoke around in my mind, I follow the edges—and words appear. They appear in the photo, like smoke rings in cursive: “What are you doing here?” one says. Another says, “Just stare at the grass,” and I know that the apparition is real, and that he’s listening. I can almost feel his eyes upon me, even now.
The baby kicks less and less. I’m worried that I’m losing the baby.
“I’m afraid,” I tell Corey, one day, in the yard on the swing. “I’m afraid he’s a sign that something bad will happen to the baby.”
“Maybe, but there’s a chance—a chance it’s just a fluke, and he won’t come back.”
We swing together like this, scraping our toes back and forth along the mulch, and staring at the grass. And, without warning, he’s there. The eyes penetrate. Corey takes more pictures. So do I, as the man just stands there, glaring. There’s no light behind those eyes.
Again, we download the photos onto the computer and print them out in color. Again, we see bright splotches of smoke and light—and I follow the curves to read the messages. We must have taken 20-30 photos. Each one of them says, “Something bad will happen to the baby.”
For a week, Corey and I spend time in the library, researching the paranormal. We learn that some people believe that the things we say remain in the air, imprinted. Maybe the things I’ve said are simply the things I’ve said—and not anything that man has said or done. But his presence, combined with the things I’ve thought to say, create a coincidence I can’t stand much longer—and the baby remains too still. We must sell the house.
Sometimes, maybe, a house just doesn’t want you. You, and the house, and the piece of land attached to it, were never meant to be. As much as I wanted to live in that house and have the baby play in that yard—I just know I couldn’t stay. A week after we move, the baby starts to kick again—little flutter kicks that tickle my insides. A week later, the phone rings. I don’t recognize the number, but I answer anyway.
“Is this Olivia Edmonds, one of the previous owners of the house on the Lake Street?” the woman asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
“I’m so sorry to bother you. I got your name from the closing documents. My husband and I just bought the house. I was wondering if you. . . noticed anything. . . unusual about it?”
I honestly want to hang up—or run—change my phone number and leave town. I can’t be attached to that house anymore. I can’t have anything to do with it.
“Because,” she continues, “the house burned down suddenly. We weren’t in it at the time, thank goodness.”
I express my sympathy for her loss as my pulse races. She asks again if I noticed anything strange. Did I see a man that creeped about the yard? A man filled with hate in his eyes? Because she did.
“And the whole thing has been quite unnerving,” she says, “because I’m pregnant. I haven’t told anyone yet. It’s too early, but I am pregnant. In any case, when the chief investigator from the arson division shared the pictures he took after the fire died down, but smoke was still in the air, I saw something. I saw something in the smoke—like words, plain as day, spelled out.”
My skin prickles and the blood in my veins runs icy cold as she tells me. As she tells me how she traced the letters with her eyes—each and every curve—to learn that they revealed the gender of the baby growing inside of her. “It’s a girl” hung in the air in smoke and light.
Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish in Ohio for over 20 years before moving to Washington state with her family. Since 2017, she has written and published over 30 short stories in various literary journals and anthologies online and in print. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection, released June 30, 2020. Additionally, she writes adult beverage columns for The Daily Drunk, proofreads for Flash Fiction Magazine, and chronicles her attempts at cooking, crafts, and home repairs on her blog Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/). Twitter: @ckennedyhola.