There was a pounding in Jonathan’s head, the rhythm drumming in step with the beat of his heart—with every pulse, a companion of pain. He tried to open his eyes, but his face would not respond. Instead, he ceased the war with his determined lids and attempted to use his ears instead. At first there was nothing but the muted hollow that would come with being submerged in water. Then slowly, allowing the sounds to trickle in with each passing second, he began to hear it—the sound of chaos. There were screams followed by murmured conversation, the sound of sirens, all mixed with his ragged breaths. One eye slid open.
Crunched metal and shattered, blood-stained glass surrounded him, but it was her face that his eyes were settled on. Her vacant green eyes were all he could see. They stared back at him with an emptiness that took all the warmth from his body. He didn’t need to see the blood, staining the side of her face and pooling along the neck of her ivory sweater, to know she was gone. But still he reached out his bloodied fingers to grip her shoulders. “Anna!” he screamed as the reality he was living batted against him, leaving him struggling for air. She remained silent.
The next several hours of Jonathan’s life rushed by him in a series of images, too distorted to sort through and too painful to endure. He prayed his head injury was severe enough to take him with her, but he knew it wasn’t. It was a shallow cut, and only a few stitches would be necessary. He had been spared. People would say he was lucky. People were fools.
When the morning light broke apart the black night, he found himself in a gray room. He had been in this room before, looking over a patient’s dead body, wondering what went wrong and what he might have done differently. He knew how to save lives, having done it every day in the operating room where he worked. He also knew when someone was beyond saving. He had learned how to accept the loss long ago, but it was always someone else’s loved one. Now it was his own wife under the blinding white blanket, his Anna that was lost.
He couldn’t bring himself to expose her face. Not yet. The image of her hollow eyes still haunted him, and right now he wanted only to remember her eyes sparkling with energy, her laugh harmonizing the air. Minutes before the accident, they had been laughing while mimicking lines from the terrible movie they had just seen. She had an affinity for cheesy horror films, and he loved her for it. The thought that he would never have moments like those again was too much for him. He couldn’t face it, so he couldn’t face her.
“I’m sorry,” were the last words he had said before lowering his cheek to the frigid stone floor and letting his eyes slide shut. For the hundredth time that morning, he prayed they wouldn’t open.
“You can have her back,” a woman’s voice whispered in the darkness. He lifted his head off the ground, his body stiff with apprehension, a chilling wind twirling the stale air around him. “You don’t have to endure this. I can help end your pain. I can help bring her back.” The voice called to him from all directions, circling his head in a grating chorus: “Bring her body to me and she shall be returned to you.” The voice faded, and a pure white, perfect piece of paper with a single address scrawled across it in delicate script floated onto the floor in front of him. If it weren’t for this solitary object, he would have been certain the voice existed in his head—proof of an unraveling mind. But the paper was here, and he knew exactly what he was going to do with it.
The hospital was as familiar to Jonathan as his own face. It took no time at all to put on the scrubs and wheel Anna’s body to the back exit where his car was parked. Then it was time to drive. The pouring rain didn’t help, but he plugged the address into his navigator and followed the directions. He didn’t turn on any music, he just let the words I think I’m going crazy play in the back of his mind like a scratched record.
Twenty minutes and several prayers later, he found himself on a deserted street. Dilapidated buildings decorated with graffiti and broken wood lined his path, leaving him certain this would end with him being taken to a psychiatric institution. But then he came upon it—a small, square, stone building with the words the dead walk among us in red paint on the side—and he began to feel hope. He pulled over, lifted his wife’s lifeless body from the back seat, and carried her to the door.
Before he had a chance to knock, a tall, thin, veiled woman swung open the door. The sight of her sent a shiver of chills down his body, but he had no time for fear. Instead, he forced a greeting. He tried to make out her face through the gray veil, but it was an impossible task. All he could see were pale skin and dark eyes. There was no way to tell her age. Her hair hung down the back of her ivory dress in a cascading, ebony stream. She didn’t speak; she just ushered him into the room and closed the door behind them.
The sound of the rain instantly disappeared and left him feeling as though he were locked in a tomb. The air was stale, the room completely silent in a way that seemed muffled and made him apprehensive. There was no furniture, just beige walls and two closed wooden doors at the back. She pointed a black-gloved finger at one of the doors and then proceeded to lead him through it. This room was as plain as the first, except it had a long, black wooden table. She patted the table and waited for him. He swallowed his panic and placed his wife’s body on the table, still unable to look at her. Suddenly, an invisible force pushed against his body, shoving him backward until he found himself alone again in the first room. He walked to the door he had been pushed through, but a solid wall of ice stopped his progress. He couldn’t see it, but he could feel it. A trembling exhalation formed a cloud in front of him. He moved away from the door and settled himself on the floor of the waiting room. Dropping his head in his hands, he waited.
He didn’t know if it was minutes or hours later, but as soon as he heard the door reopen, he ran back into the room and allowed his eyes to settle on his wife. What he saw took all the breath from him. His wife’s eyelids were closed and pale, but her parted lips were giving way to a slight breath. He didn’t ask the veiled woman how his wife had been brought back. He knew she wouldn’t answer, just as he knew it didn’t matter. She was alive. Now all he had to do was wait for her to wake up.
Waiting wasn’t easy, but Jonathan busied himself with necessary tasks. They couldn’t stay in New York, that much was certain. He realized that the moment he drove by their home and found a police car parked in front. There was no returning, not now, not ever. He broke the law when he stole her body, and they were already looking for him. Besides, how would he be able to explain her? They had to leave and they had to do it tonight.
With her sleeping body draped across the back seat, Jonathan left the lights of the city behind, heading for the one place he knew they could go undetected. When he was a child, he had driven with his mother and father out to his great-great-grandfather’s old house, a cabin nestled in the woods near Cliffside State Forest. As he drove there now, he remembered his parents talking about his great-great-grandfather Henry and how much he resembled him—the same light brown hair and gray eyes. What they hadn’t told him was that Henry had found success as a rum runner in the 1920s and had later died in a shoot-out with a rival supplier. Jonathan had discovered this bit of information on his own when he was in college. The house had remained in the family’s possession, and he had considered moving into it once Anna and he had started a family. It was much larger than their apartment in the city, but it also needed a lot of work. Unfortunately, he could no longer wait for the improvements.
After a little over four hours of driving, they arrived. Jonathan found the spare key, hidden under a gray, oval-shaped rock that rested underneath the kitchen window. He unlocked the door and, with a creaking step, walked into the dusty confines that would now be home. The house looked the same, and after removing the white cloths from the furniture, he carried Anna in and placed her on the bed in the upstairs bedroom. The rocking chair in the corner of the room called to Jonathan, so he took his place on it and slept for the first time since the accident.
Morning light filtered in through the window, reminding Jonathan that this would be the start of the second day at the cabin, and Anna had still not awakened. Although the rise and fall of her chest confirmed to him that she was alive, he couldn’t quiet his anxiety. His stomach was in knots, twisted with equal amounts of fear and anticipation, waiting for her to wake up, waiting for her to return to him.
He pushed himself out of the rocking chair and moved toward the open window. It was so quiet out in the country. Since the day he was born, he had lived his life to the soundtrack of New York. The noise never stopped. He loved it—it told him he wasn’t alone. Out here there was nothing to be heard aside from the rustle of leaves and the thumping of his rapidly beating heart.
With his back to the bed, he didn’t see Anna’s eyes open, revealing irises that were now deep brown. By the time he heard some movement and turned to face the noise, her eyes had settled into the familiar comforting green he had known for the last five years. She had come back to him.
“Pull over!” she exclaimed excitedly, her nose practically pressed against the glass of their beat-up Camry. He had just bought the car from an older man in Ithaca. It wasn’t much to look at, with its rusted brown paint and chipped glass, which made it inconspicuous. They had been hiding out in the forest for two months now, and their only relief was taking cautious drives. That was all about to change, though. He had been working hard to get them the passports and paperwork necessary for them to leave. You couldn’t live in a place where you no longer existed.
He pulled the car to the side of the road and watched her as she pushed the door open and leapt out, the skirt of her light blue dress and her dark blonde hair blowing behind her. Every day, certain that having her back was too good to be true, he had watched her for signs that something was wrong, but she was the same Anna he had fallen in love with, the same Anna who had died in the car crash that had changed his life forever.
He hadn’t told her the entire truth; he had a hard time even telling it to himself. Instead, he told her that she had died on the operating table in the hospital and that he had broken hospital rules and done something “unethical” to bring her back. He knew there were more holes in his story than in a moth-eaten blanket, but she hadn’t asked any questions. She had simply kissed him on the cheek and said, “Thank you for bringing me back.” They had never spoken of it again.
Shutting the car door behind him, he followed her across the street to the yard sale that had attracted her attention. Anna stood in front of an antique record player, her fingers trailing along the golden horn at the top.
“I must have it,” she said as he approached, though her eyes never left the machine.
“What would you use it for? We don’t even have any records.”
“Yes we do. They’re in the attic.”
“The attic? When were you in the attic?”
Her eyes lifted to his and, for a moment, watched him with contemplative amusement. “When you were sleeping. Sometimes I get restless and find myself wandering the house. It’s a wonderful home. I’m so glad you brought me there. So, can we buy it?” she said.
“Um . . . I guess . . . sure,” he stuttered, his mind still trying to process her words. He had always been a light sleeper. This was due in large part to his job. As a doctor who was often on call, he had learned to sleep in a permanent state of awareness. He couldn’t understand how she would be getting up in the middle of the night without his noticing.
Later that night, Jonathan sat next to the fireplace pretending to read a novel he had plucked off the bookshelf. In reality, he was watching her. Something had changed today, and he couldn’t help but wonder if he had just been too afraid to notice changes before. After all, the framed photo that she was meticulously dusting, while humming to one of the records she brought down, hadn’t just now appeared, had it? In fact, as he looked around the house, he noticed dozens of black-and-white photos. Old family pictures could now be found in every room. How long had they been there?
And then there were the dresses. Looking back on the last couple of months, he could only remember her wearing the same rotation of skirts and dresses. No pants, no shorts, which used to be her chosen uniform. Before the accident, it had been months since she had worn a dress. No, he had to stop. He had his wife back. Did it matter if she preferred dresses now, or if she wanted to occupy herself with old photos and music? People change all the time. Besides, they had not been able to bring any of their own possessions with them. And now she was adapting to their new life, and he was the one feeling more and more like an outsider.
“You seem to really like those old photos,” he said, interrupting her humming. She paused, her fingers trailing along the glass of the frame before she turned to face him.
“They bring some life into this place. Don’t you agree?”
He didn’t see how having pictures of people who had been dead for more than thirty years was bringing “life” into the house, but he was the one who started the conversation and he wasn’t going to turn it into an argument.
“Sure. As long as they make you happy,” he said.
“They do.” She turned on her heel and left the room while humming “Me and My Shadow.”
Tomorrow he would buy her a new camera.
He did, and she hated it. “I like the pictures we already have,” she told him with a pout, her fingers trailing along the screen.
“Well, we can still keep those out, but don’t you want to take some new ones?”
He took the camera from her hands and turned it on. “Smile,” he told her.
Suddenly, she was on her feet. As the camera flashed, she screamed, and her fingernails raked across his face. He dropped the camera, his hands flying to his cheek. Blood trickled along his stinging skin as he watched her run from the room. After several seconds, he composed himself enough to pick up the camera. With shaking hands, he pressed the “play” button to see if it was working. It illuminated, revealing a picture on the screen, but the image was not of his wife. She was there, her mouth curled into a snarl, but another form was superimposed in front of her, one of a young woman with brown hair and matching brown eyes.
He sank to the floor, placing his head in his hands, while fear bathed in his blood. Was it a ghost? Was she possessing his wife? He should have never brought them to this house. He didn’t know what was happening, but he had to fix it. He couldn’t lose her again.
Minutes later, he gathered the courage to go to her. Slowly, he pushed open the door to their room. Her body lay under the covers, her head resting peacefully on the white satin pillow. His heart broke. He would fight for her. He would fight for them.
“Anna.” He could hear the apprehension in his voice as he walked toward her. She didn’t stir.
He sat on the edge of the bed and allowed his fingers to brush the hair from her face. Was the woman in the picture here now? He glanced at the nightstand where, just under the bronze lamp, he saw a photograph of his great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother. They were standing in front of a Ferris wheel smiling brightly, but it wasn’t their smiling faces that plunged terror into his heart. It was the woman behind them. He reached out and grasped the framed photo, drawing it closer. What he saw stole the breath from his body. She was there in the background, the woman who had shown up in the photo with his wife, staring at Henry with an expression of longing.
He forced himself to take several calming breaths before forcing himself to move. Then, photo in hand, he carefully pushed up from the bed and left the room. Taking the stairs two at a time, he ran down, stopping only upon reaching the fireplace. The fire was still faintly burning, so it only took a few pokes to ignite it. He tossed the picture into the fire and watched as the flames melted the faces staring back at him. Who was that woman? He would find out, and somehow he would destroy her. After checking on Anna a second time, ascertaining that she was still asleep, he went to the attic.
The attic was dark and difficult to navigate. He searched through old boxes, pulling out books, letters, photos and paperwork. He was about to give up when he found a small, brown, wooden box. Its surface shined as though it had been recently cleaned. He grabbed hold of it and tried to pry it open, but it was locked. A curse left his lips, and then he searched for a key that could not be found. Tired and burdened with frustration, he grabbed the box and threw it against the wall, causing the wood to splinter so much that he could easily finish the job with his hands. He pried open the box and poured its contents onto the floor.
Staring back at him was a picture; a simple, silver ring; a lock
of brown hair; and a letter. In the picture, he saw the woman who
was in the photo with his wife. She stared back at him, a knowing
smile spreading her thin lips. He returned the photo, face down, to
the bottom of the broken box. Then he reached for the old parchment
of the letter and read the written words:
She cannot do that for you. She will not give you the opportunity to continue your name. Only I can give you that. We will be so happy together. Do you not see that? Of course you do, my love. It is not you. It is her. She is keeping you from me. If she were gone, you would come back to me. I know you would.
So do not worry, my love. I will speak with her. I will tell her how much you love me. I will tell her that she must leave and allow us to be together. I will take care of her for you. Then we can be together. Just you, me, and Henry Jr.
All my love,
Jonathan read the letter twice, allowing the words to sink in. Rebecca was the spirit lingering in the house. He was certain of it. And he had to destroy her, before she destroyed him and Anna. He gathered the box and its few belongings and raced back to the living room. After reigniting the fire, he tossed in Rebecca’s remaining items, praying that her soul would burn with them.
“What are you doing?” Anna’s voice cut over him, sharp as glass, and cold as snow.
Was this Anna or Rebecca talking to him? He repressed a shudder,
rose from the floor and turned to face her. “I was just about
to join you,” he replied.
“Rebecca,” he said, and her gaze instantly settled back on his face. “You need to leave this house. You need to move on.”
Her lips twisted into a smile. Then she was laughing. This was not the laugh he had fallen in love with. This laugh was harsh and grating; it had to have been Rebecca’s. His heart pounded in his chest.
“You sound just like him; ‘You need to move on,’” she mimicked in a deep voice, and then the laughter was gone and the only remaining emotion was pain. One eye shifted back to green. Anna! She was there, she was fighting to get through!
“I don’t know what you had with Henry, but he’s not here. He died a long time ago. You will not find what you seek in this house,” Jonathan said.
“You don’t know what I seek,” she murmured before turning her back to him and moving toward the window. Jonathan glanced back at the fire and saw that the lock of hair from the wooden box had fallen to the side, unburned. He moved quickly, his eyes on her back, and crouched down to reach for the hair. His fingers wrapped around it, and he rose to his feet just as she spun around to face him again.
“He told me he loved me! He gave me a baby! And then he left me! I waited for days for him to come back to me, but he was gone. Packed up and left with his family.” A laugh without humor escaped through her lips. “His family! He chose them! I may have been the one to tie the noose around my neck, but he is the one who put it there.” She moved toward him, her face gnarled with rage.
“I’m sorry, Rebecca. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry he left you, but those actions were his, not mine.” He took a step toward the fireplace. “Not Anna’s.” Her eyes—one green, one brown—fixed on his hand, and he tossed the hair into the flames.
“No!” She lunged at him, moving inhumanly fast. He jumped to the side and noticed something silver flash in her hand. Then the sting of a blade scraped across his back. Choking with the pain, he forced himself to run. Again taking the stairs two at a time, he made it to the spare bedroom and slammed the door shut behind him, turning the lock into place. Seconds later she slammed into the door, her screams piercing the air. Jonathan sunk to the ground, his back against the wall.
“Anna! Anna, I know you’re in there! Come back to me please!”
Silence. His labored breaths were the only sounds stirring in the room.
“Jonathan.” The voice was Anna’s, broken and terrified. “What’s happening?”
He scrambled to his feet and flung the door open. There on the ground, against the opposite wall, was his wife holding her knees, tears streaming down from her vivid green eyes.
“Anna,” he breathed and dropped to the floor beneath her, pulling her into his arms. They stayed that way for hours, cherishing the feel of each other. Speaking words of love and apology. “She’s gone,” he whispered. “She can’t hurt you.”
The hallway darkened with the intruding night, but they remained. Anna leaned her face into Jonathan’s neck, breathing him in. Then her lips pressed to the hollow of his throat. He responded instantly, his lips finding hers, and with each kiss he placed on her lips he sent up a silent prayer of gratitude. Anna’s arms wrapped around his waist and she straddled his lap, causing the nightgown to expose her thighs as they squeezed around his hips. Her fingers trailed along his back and then a burning pain pressed into his spine. Blood filled his mouth, choking him. He pulled back, and Anna stared deeply into his eyes as a slow smile spread across her face.
“Anna,” he coughed. The blood dripped from his mouth. She reached out and traced a finger along the crimson line. He blinked against the pain, the shock, the impending darkness, and watched her bring her finger to her mouth. She ran it along her lips, painting them red with his blood, before placing the finger in her mouth. Her eyes closed and she inhaled peacefully. Part of his mind was telling him to fight back, but she was still holding the knife in his spine. If she let go, he would collapse, not fight.
“Try again,” she said in a dreamy voice, or was that just his mind fighting to stay conscious.
“Rebecca,” he managed to say, “leave . . . her . . . alone.”
“Leave who alone?” she replied, her eyes filled with innocence. “Your wife’s not in here. This is just her body. I wear her skin, I brush her hair, I see through her eyes. But there is nothing inside her aside from me. You were so blinded by your desire to have your beloved wife back, you couldn’t see that she never returned to you. You were easy to fool, almost too easy. In your defense, your little Anna was a rather simple girl—and easy for me to portray. Simple-minded people always are. Then again, you have to ask yourself, if you had spent more time with your wife when she was alive, would you have seen from the beginning that I wasn’t her? How well did you really know her?”
“What did you do to my wife?” His voice was strained as he fought to stay conscious.
“Nothing. She died in the accident. Her soul left that night. And that would have been the end of the story had you not come looking for her resurrection. You’re just like him. He always had to be in control, too. I knew you wouldn’t resist the chance, and I used my . . . let’s just call them my connections, to get you to come to me. It was very easy. Her death opened a door for me. But you, you brought her to the Room of the Waiting Dead, and that allowed me to escape the cage that had been my home for ninety years. Do you have any idea what it was like to be trapped inside that room with spirits that were still mourning and unable to satiate their taste for blood? You gave me the key to my freedom. You allowed me to get inside her. Now, here I am.”
Ever so slightly she turned the blade of the knife.
He gasped, “What do you want?”
“Can’t you see? I want my life back. I want the life I could have had with him.”
She pulled the knife from his back, and he collapsed onto his side. His spine was severed, that much he knew. She reached out and pushed him onto his back, then she trailed the blade along his throat.
“Remember all those times we made love?” she began. “You were just like him—the way you moved, the way you touched me.” She leaned down and licked the side of his cheek. “And now you have given me what I have wanted for the last ninety years.” The blade pierced his abdomen, and as she pushed the blade down as far as it could go, he closed his eyes and thought of Anna, his real Anna. Maybe now he would be with her again.
She forced the blade into his stomach and chest repeatedly. When she was finished, the blade fell to the ground, next to Jonathan’s crumpled form. When she was certain the last breath of life had left him, she began the ritual she had seen performed many times before, the one that had been performed on Anna.
It would be easier this time. Jonathan had not been dead as long as Anna had. It wouldn’t take as long for him to wake up. As she finished reciting the final words, she waited, her new heart beating frantically in her chest. Hours passed, then slowly, as though time was reversing, his wounds began to heal. She hovered over him, knowing what was about to happen.
His eyes flew open, and though they were the same gray as Jonathan’s, they were distinctly Henry’s. He gasped for a breath, his eyes blinking rapidly. “Where am I?” He forced the words out with a rushing breath.
“You’re home, Henry. You’re home,” she replied.
His eyes settled on her face. Confusion clouded them now, but soon he would see through the body she wore and he would know who was inside.
“Rebecca?” His voice was raspy, strained, but emitting a remnant of hope.
“Yes, my love.”
He reached up and traced his fingers gently across her cheek. “But . . . how?”
“I found a way. I told you I would always find a way. Nothing can come between us. Nothing.” She leaned down and pressed her lips to his, and he accepted her with feverish determination. Finally they pulled apart. “Come,” she told him as she rose to her feet. “I have something to show you.”
Stepping lightly through the house, Rebecca led Henry to the back room. She had kept it locked and untouched for months. Now there was no more reason to keep it hidden. She took the key from the chain around her neck and slipped it into the lock. She pushed open the door, her blood-stained hand rubbing circles along her stomach. While humming the tune “Hush, Little Baby,” she entered the nursery. They were finally together. Her time had come.
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