Carl Groves’ eyes fluttered sleepily. He snorted and swatted one hand out towards the small voice beside his head, but he must have missed. No sooner had a short, sleepy fart escaped his sleeping butt then did it come again.
“Daddy, wake up.”
A pair of little hands grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him lightly. He ignored them for a moment, too caught up in the no-man’s land between sleep and consciousness to do anything about them, but then they shook him again. It was a shake much too strong to belong to Sarah, who was still only six, but then she had always taken after her mother in that way. Time and time again she’d tell Carl, and not without a hint of pride in her voice, that, “I’m freakishly strong, Daddy.”
Carl lazily opened one eye and sure enough his daughter stood by his side of the bed, framed in the open doorway, a thin film of sweat glistening on her forehead in the dull light of the night.
“Daddy, will you-”
“What is it, Sarah?” he interrupted, breaking all the rules he’d ever taught his daughter about polite conversation. Whatever. It didn’t matter. The rules of polite conversation didn’t apply at – he rolled over and checked the glowing red LED of his bedside clock – half past three on a Tuesday morning. “You’re going to wake your mother up.” His voice thick with the phlegm of the early hours.
“You woke her mother up,” Tal grumbled underneath the duvet.
“Sorry, hon,” he whispered, as though lowering the volume now would somehow erase the fact that his wife was now just as awake as he was. He turned back to Sarah and smiled. “Do you not think you’re getting a bit old for this?”
“You know what. Coming into Mummy and Daddy’s room in the middle of the night with stories of monsters under you bed or vampires at your window or-”
“Carl, will you shut up!”
He lowered his voice again. “-witches in your closet.”
“A little…” Sarah said, her voice trailing off into a sheepish nothingness. “But,” she brightened quickly, “it’s not monsters or vampires or witches. I know those things aren’t real. It’s a ghost, Daddy. I have a ghost in my bedroom.”
“Don’t be silly.” Beside him his wife mumbled something that wasn’t really appropriate in front of their child, but he let it go. “You’re six years old now, Sarah. Do you not think it’s time you-”
“Carl, I have to be up in two and a half hours to close on a four house deal, and if I’ve got to face Mr Studdster with a full set of purple luggage hanging around my face it’s not witches and monsters and stuff you’re going to be worried about, it’ll be me and my freakish strength.”
Carl nodded in the darkness and smiled thinly at Sarah. Her blonde hair hung around her head in short bangs, a few of which stuck to her face in patches of shiny wet. “Well?” he whispered.
“Well I’m not making it up this time, Daddy. I swear.”
“Don’t swear, baby.”
“But, Daddyyyyy…” She drew out the last vowel into a great, lengthy eeeee that had started as a whisper but was getting louder and louder by the second.
Tal shuddered next to him, her breath low and huffy. Carl sighed and threw back the duvet. It stuck to his chest and the backs of his legs as it wound in and out of his body, and he had to jerk and pull at it for a moment before he was free. Summer was awful for sleeping. If he wasn’t tossing and turning in piping hot misery, he was sneezing up a storm courtesy of the mass of fields that began where their back garden ended.
No wonder Tal had been so sad recently, because of him she was running on almost zero sleep.
At the sight of him moving, Sarah broke off the slowly climbing screech and smiled, extending one hand to Carl which he took as he lumbered across the bedroom. Yes, it was true. At six years old Sarah already knew that she had her father wrapped around her little finger and exactly what strings to pull to get him to do almost everything she wanted.
Carl wondered if she’d ever grow out of it and decided that, no, probably not. She was growing so fast that not everything could change. Well, sometimes it felt like she was growing so fast but, as he stepped out of his bedroom in the middle of the night, her little cold hand clutching at his big sweating one, sometimes it felt as though she’d been six for ages.
She was happy now, staring up at him as they made their way along the corridor to her room. Her fears of ghosts and all that other stuff forgotten just because he was taking her back to bed. It always blew his mind that she could do this – be terrified one moment and then perfectly happy the next – but that was just another thing on the long list of stuff you gradually forgot how to do as you got older. Like fearlessly jumping off a cliff into a much too shallow river that had much too fast a current, or flying down a ridiculously steep gravel path on a skateboard without a helmet, pads, or a clue as to how you were going to stop at the bottom where the path stopped being a path and started being a road, or spending a week and a half planning, designing, and building a fort in the woods of the valley, only to tear it down the next day.
When he had been just a boy Carl’s father had constantly balked at his idea of fun, had stared in genuine disbelief when he’d told him his plans for the summer, and Carl had always sworn to himself as he’d left their little house – with his knapsack on his back and his cheeks slightly flushed from his father’s chiding mockery – that it would never happen to him. But much like his nose during the stuffy summer nights, time ran on and on and on, and before he knew it he was graduating university, then he was working in middle management in JBSoftware and enjoying the high esteem his colleagues held him in, if not a particularly grand salary, and then he was marrying Tal, the beautiful, slightly short tempered, love of his life, and then she was telling him she was pregnant, and then Sarah was born and he was a Daddy and and and…
Yes, it was hard to stay young. It was hard to build forts and swim in rivers and ride skateboards when you had eighteen people working under you, a house to pay for, and mouths to feed. Most of the time it felt like his childhood was a million years ago. Most of the time it seemed so far away that it wasn’t even a memory. It was less than a memory.
But sometimes it felt real close, too.
Sometimes it came back to him, all at once in great whooshes of smell and sight and sound, and when it did he could almost feel the beat of his bag as it patted heavily against his bum as he ran off on yet another adventure with his best friend Jerry. Like when he’d sneak a cigarette in at work – he’d officially quit six years ago, which meant he’d been stealing off into the parking lot of JBSoftware for roughly five years, eleven months, three weeks, and six days – and the smell of the tobacco and the bins would mix together all at once and he was suddenly back at school, behind the cafeteria skip, with Jerry keeping a look-out for teachers as they choked a butt down between double-maths and gym.
Or like when he’d taken Sarah to Willie’s Warehouse on the other side of town, a toyshop so big that it must have once been a cathedral or at the least a giant church. The place was filled, literally filled, with anything a kid could ever want, and just like the cigarettes and the bins, it was the smell that took him back. The heavy, shiny smell of new plastic. The slightly dusty scent of cardboard packaging. And the smell of a hundred kids all piled together, excitedly scrambling over each other in an effort to be the first to claim whatever was cool that week.
And now, he thought, leading his daughter back towards her bedroom where the ghost supposedly was. Now I feel a little bit like a kid. It was easy enough to do as they crept along the hallway. The floorboards creaked with every other step he took and, as the pale glow of the moon drifted in through the landing window, it was easy to see why Sarah thought her room had a ghost in it.
Hell, did he not think that Sarah’s room was haunted too? Sometimes. Not that he had ever said anything to her, nor would he ever dream of so much as mentioning it to Tal (who would surely just laugh at him and book him on the first bus headed for the funny farm), but didn’t he? Sometimes when he was headed to the toilet did the door of her room not flap back and forth of what seemed like its own accord? If he finished work late and everybody was already in bed when he got home, did he not sometimes hear the girlish giggling of an older woman who was trying her best to stifle tears floating out from the darkness where his daughter slept? And sometimes, just sometimes, when it was Sunday morning and Tal had miserably dragged her sleepy self to church – a place Carl hadn’t set foot in for almost a year now – and he was home alone, did he not hear the most awful coughing noises drifting down the stairs? A thick, sad hack of pain. A helpless cry of choked hurt.
“Are you okay, Daddy?” Sarah asked, and he realised he was squeezing her hand.
“Yes,” he said, only half lying, as a shadow danced across the landing and his heart hitched so violently in his chest it almost cracked a rib. “I’m fine. Are you okay?”
“Yes, Daddy. Just cold.”
“It is kind of cold,” he agreed. He hadn’t noticed before but the closer they’d gotten to Sarah’s room the chillier the air had become. No wonder her hands were like icicles. “That’s why you should stay in bed, to keep nice and warm under the sheets.”
“But it’s the middle of summer. Macie Farroway at school said that it got cold when there were ghosts around.”
“Macie Farroway got thrown out of school for being a naughty little girl last year so you shouldn’t listen to what naughty little Macie Farroway has to say about anything, okay?”
“But?” Carl said, stopping outside of her bedroom door that had been left loosely ajar and taking his daughter by the shoulders. He leaned his face real close to hers and she smiled. He smiled too. He couldn’t help it. She was beautiful. So beautiful. “It may be summer here, Sarah, but what do you have to remember about where we live?”
“That it’s not the Bahamas?”
“That it’s not the Bahamas, that’s right.” He ruffled his daughter’s golden hair and she giggled. “At least it’s not the Bahamas right now. When you grow up and become a superstar singer and buy me and your mother an island it just might be, right?”
“That’s my girl. Now come on, lets get you to sleep.” Carl yawned and pushed open the door. It swung back lightly on its hinges. The bedroom window was exactly how he’d expected it to be, open so wide that it was no wonder the pace was freezing. A couple of more degrees south, he thought, and I’d be able to see my breath.
He picked up Sarah – her skin was cold enough to chill through her nightie and give Carl a rash of gooseflesh that spread out from his forearms and all over his body in no time flat – and plonked her lightly down in her bed.
She pulled the sheet up to her nose, and he wedged it in for her all the way down from her shoulders to her arms to her legs and feet, and then all the way back up the other side.
“Cozy?” he asked, and she nodded. Carl leaned out of the window and looked around in the street. There was nothing down there. Nothing or nobody. Of course there wasn’t, it was half three on a Tuesday morning. He took the handle and swung it closed, locking it on the latch. “There you go,” he said triumphantly. “It’ll warm up in here in no time.”
“What about the ghost?” Sarah asked.
“Where is it?”
“I’m not sure, you’ll have to look.”
“Well it’s not in the garden, I just checked,” Carl said, and wandered over to the closet. He pulled open the double doors and a cloud of dust billowed into his nostrils and mouth. “What the-” he coughed.
“Mummy doesn’t clean in here anymore,” Sarah said sadly. “She doesn’t see the point.”
“Mummy’s just been busy is all,” Carl said, pawing at his tongue and rubbing his face. He bent over the big toy chest and lifted up its lid. The hinges growled in a metallic squeak at him, and he made a mental note to fit her some new ones. “There are no ghosts in here either,” he announced happily, “just some dirty old dolls that you mustn’t have played with in ages. We should really think about giving them to charity, you know?”
“Yes, Daddy,” Sarah said, all tucked up under the sheets. “Will you check under the bed, please?”
“If I do will you go to sleep?”
Sarah nodded her head violently back and forth, her eyes twinkling in the light of the moon, her nose small and button like, her mouth a thin, pink line of a smile that was part his and part Tal’s.
“Okay then,” he said, and crouched to his hands and knees. There was nothing under the bed. Actually, there wasn’t nothing. There was Mr Ears, Sarah’s favourite soft toy. That’s probably why she thought there was a ghost, he realised as he leaned in to get it. She woke up without her bunny and got a fright is all.
He grabbed the toy and was surprised to see a plume of dust erupt from its little rabbit chest. “You’re getting too old too quick,” he muttered. If she didn’t even need Mr Ears to sooth her to sleep anymore then it wouldn’t be long before she was off getting a job, a husband, and a family of her own. Above him, Sarah laughed.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too, sweetheart.”
He began to pull himself out from under the bed, dragging Mr Ears with him just in case she decided she did want him, when he noticed something stuck to one of his big, grey, rabbit feet. It was a balled up tissue.
Streaked with brown. The same brown that blood goes when it’s dried and been left. He pulled it from Mr Ears’ foot and looked at it dumbly in the dim. “Sarah, what’s this?” Under the bed he saw another… and another… and another. All balled up tissues. All streaked in brown and black and the dirty red of rust and pain.
Above, there was no reply.
“Sarah, have you hurt yourself and-”
“Carl, it’s late,” Tal said from the door. “Come on.”
He jumped up and turned around, holding out the tissue with one hand and clutching Mr Ears to his chest with the other. “Look,” he said. “Sarah’s hurt herself. She’s-”
He spun back to the bed.
It was empty.
Tal’s arms wrapped around his shoulders and he flinched at their warmth. God, it was hot. “I know,” she soothed. “I know.”
But Tal was shaking her head, and shushing him gently. Tears prickled brightly at the corners of her eyes, and as she drew her mouth to his, his own vision bubbled into two, then three.
“Come on,” she said quietly, leading him out of the room and back along the corridor. “Back to bed, darling.”