Book: Led Astray: The Best of Kelley Armstrong

Previous: The Door
Next: Suffer the Children

The house is damnably silent.

I sit in the middle of the living room, furniture shoved out of the way, one chair tipped over where it fell, pushed too hard in my haste. Shards from a broken vase litter the floor. One is inches from my hand.

Amy would panic if she saw it. I close my eyes and imagine it. Her gasp from the doorway. The patter of her stockinged feet. The soft click of the piece against the hardwood as she snatches it up. Her voice as she tells me not to move, she’ll clean the mess, I need to be more careful—really, I need to be more careful. What if I’d cut myself? What if Clara had run in?

In my mind, her voice is not quite right. The cadence, the tone are fading already. Amy’s voice. Clara’s voice. How much longer before they slide from memory altogether? Before I’m reduced to playing old videos that don’t sound like them, not really, and telling myself they do, just so I can still hear their voices in my head.

I open my eyes and look at the ancient book lying open in front of me. Spidery writing, water-smeared ink, barely legible. The air smells faintly of acacia. That’s critical, the book says. The dead will not speak without the scent of acacia to pull them through the ether.

Not true.

I know it is not true because I have seen the dead. Heard the dead. All my life they’ve been there, flitting past, whispering in my ear. Never once have they needed acacia.

Yet for three months, I’ve been trying to contact them. My wife. My child. I beg, I plead, I rage and shout for a sign, any sign. Comfort, any comfort. In desperation I turn to the books, to the acacia. But I hear only silence. Damnable silence.

I look down at the shard of glass by my hand.

Daydreaming again, weren’t you? Amy laughs. Always dreaming. Always distracted. One of these days, you’re going to hurt yourself.

I run my finger along the edge of the shard. As sharp as her ceramic knives, the ones I bought for her birthday, kept in the cupboard so Clara wouldn’t mistake the white blades for plastic.

And don’t you use them either, she’d said to me. Please.

Worried about me. About us. That was her nature. Double-checking door locks. Double-checking the stove. Double-checking Clara’s car seat. Even if she’d done it herself, she always double-checked. If Clara or I so much as stubbed our toes and yelped, Amy would come running.

She’d always come running.

I take the shard, pinch it tight between thumb and forefinger. Drag the edge along my arm. Blood wells up.

“Amy?”

I cut deeper. Blood drips onto the dirty pages of the useless book.

“Amy? I need you.”

Damnable silence. Always silence.

Crouched at their graves. Talking until I realize I’m only speaking to fill the silence, and I stop. I touch the marble. Cold. Always cold, even now with the late winter sun beating down.

No flowers. I took them away as soon as they started to wither. Dead flowers by a grave seems wrong. Left and forgotten. Nothing here should be forgotten.

I bring new mementos every week. Something small. Something meaningful. A franc from our honeymoon. A seashell from our last vacation. A button from Clara’s first communion dress. A cat’s-eye marble from Amy’s childhood collection. Indestructible. As memories should be.

I come here twice a week to talk to them. I know they won’t hear me, but I hope others will. Other ghosts. I can see them flitting past the graves. Wandering, endlessly wandering, looking for someone to take their message to the world beyond.

That someone used to be me. I couldn’t set foot in a cemetery without being besieged by the dead. Now they give me wide berth. They know I come with a plea of my own. Find my wife. Find my daughter. Tell them I need to see them. Need to speak to them.

I want something from the ghosts, so they’ll have nothing to do with me. I sit here and I talk to my wife and child, and I pray my words will thaw the hearts of those shades. I pray one will finally approach and say “I’ll do this.” They don’t. They keep their distance and they wander in silence. Always silence.

The doorbell rings. I hear it through the garage walls. Someone on the front porch. Someone come to call. I ignore it and keep working on the car.

Three months, and it’s almost finished. The windshield replaced. The engine repaired. The dents pulled out.

There’s one thing I can’t fix. The blood on the passenger’s seat. No longer red. Faded to rust brown. But still blood. Undeniably blood.

The insurance company didn’t want me to have the car. Too badly damaged, they said. We’ve paid you, now let us dispose of it. I’d pulled out my contract and showed them the clause where I could buy back the wreck for a few hundred dollars. At least let us remove the seat, they said. No one needs to see that. But I do.

“Hello!” a voice calls.

I stay crouched by the front of the car, replacing the cracked headlight. The door opens.

“Hello?”

It isn’t anyone I know. I can tell by the voice. I consider staying where I am, but that’s childish. I stand and wipe my hands on my jeans.

“Can I help you?”

It’s a portly man, smiling that desperate, too-hearty smile of the salesman. I let him talk. I have no idea what he’s saying, what he’s selling. Just words, fluttering past.

“I’m not interested,” I say.

He sizes me up. I wonder how I look to him. Unshaven. Bleary-eyed. Worn blue jeans. Grease-stained T-shirt. A drunk? An addict? Can’t hold a job? Explains why I’d be home in the middle of the day. Still, it’s a decent house, and he’s desperate.

He sidles around the front of the vehicle.

“Nice car,” he says.

It isn’t. Even before the accident, it was a serviceable car, nothing more. Amy had wanted something newer.

Not fancier, she said. Just safer, you know. For Clara.

I hear BMWs are safe, I said. You’re a lawyer’s wife now, not a law student’s. You need a BMW.

She laughed at that. Said I could buy her one when I made partner. I played along, but secretly made phone calls, visited dealers, planned to buy her a BMW or a Mercedes, whichever would make her feel safer. It was to be a Christmas gift.

Christmas.

That’s what we’d been doing three months ago. Christmas shopping. The mall busy, the shoppers cranky, we’d left later than we expected, past dark. Cars were still streaming into the lot, circling for spots. A woman saw me putting bags in our trunk. She asked if we were leaving and I said we were. When I got in the car, Amy was still standing by the open rear door, trying to cheer up Clara, fussing, her nap missed.

Hon, there’s a lady waiting for our spot.

Whoops. Sorry.

She fastened Clara’s chair and climbed into the passenger seat. I started backing out.

Wait! I need to double-check the—She glanced back at the car waiting for our spot. Never mind. I’m sure it’s fine.

“You restoring it?” the salesman’s voice jerks me from the memory and I glower at him. I don’t mean to. But for a second, I’d heard Amy’s voice, clearly heard it. Now it was gone.

“Yes,” I say. “I’m restoring it.”

“Huh.”

He struggles for a way to prolong the conversation. I bend and continue tinkering with the light. He stands there a moment. Then the silence becomes too much and he leaves.

A week later, the car is roadworthy. Barely. But it will make it where I want to go, all the bits and pieces intact, no chance of being pulled over.

The roadside.

I pull to the shoulder. It’s dark here, just outside the city. An empty snow-laced cornfield to my right, a bare strip of two-lane highway to my left. In front of the car, a crooked cross covered in dead flowers. More dead flowers stuck in a toppled tin can. I didn’t put them there. I don’t know who did. Strangers, I suppose. Heard of the tragedy and wanted to mark the place. I’d rather they hadn’t.

I didn’t need that wretched memorial to remind me where it happened. I would know the exact spot without any marker, the image burned into my memory.

Coming back from Christmas shopping. Dark country road. The car quiet. A good silence. A peaceful silence. Clara asleep, Amy and me being careful not to wake her. Snow falling. First snow. Amy smiling as she watches the flakes dance past.

A pickup ahead of us. A renovation company. Boards and poles and a ladder piled haphazardly in the back.

Oh, Amy said. That doesn’t look safe. Could you. . . ?

My foot was already off the gas, our car falling behind the truck until all we could see was its rear lights through the swirling snow.

She smiled. Thanks.

I know the drill.

She reached over to squeeze my leg, then settled back to snow-watching silence.

Another mile. I’d crept up on the truck, but was still far enough back, and she said nothing. Then I saw it. A figure walking down the other side of the road. A woman in a long, red jacket.

I looked over. Ghost, I told myself, and I was quite certain it was, but I’d hate to be wrong and leave someone stranded. I squinted through the side window as we passed and—

Watch—!

That was all she said. My head whipped forward. I saw the ladder fly at us. I swerved to avoid it. The car slid, the road wet with snow. An oncoming car. I saw the lights. I heard the crunch of impact. Then . . . silence.

Now, three months later, I sit by the side of the road and I hear her voice.

Always dreaming. Always distracted. One of these days, you’re going to hurt yourself.

Yes, I hurt myself. More than I could have ever imagined possible.

I get out of the car. The tube is in the trunk. I fit it over the exhaust pipe, and run it through the passenger window. Then I get inside and start the engine.

Does it take long? I don’t know. I’m lost in the silence. There’s a momentary break as a car slows beside me. The driver peers in, thinks I’m dozing, revs the engine, keeps going. The silence returns. Then I begin to drift . . .

I wake up. The car has stopped running. I check the fuel gauge. Half-full. I try to start the car, but the engine won’t turn over. I slump onto the dashboard, defeated.

Then I hear . . . something. A bird call? I look out the windshield. Fog, so thick I can’t see anything else.

I get out of the car. The hinges squeak. I leave the door open behind me and walk around the front. The memorial cross is there, but it’s been replaced, the flowers fresh and white, the can beneath them upright and filled with daisies.

Clara loves daisies. I smile in spite of myself and walk to the flowers. More scattered around it. Still more trailing off toward the field.

As I follow them, I stumble through the fog. That’s all there is. Fog. Rolling across the field. I look down at the flowers, crushing beneath my feet. I keep going, following them.

Another noise. Not a bird call. It sounds like . . .

“Amy?” I call. “Clara?”

A voice answers. Then another.

The silence ends.

Previous: The Door
Next: Suffer the Children