Millie looks up from the face of the murdered girl in yesterday’s newspaper to find her sitting beyond the magazine-heaped table, on the other side of the waiting room.
“Go away,” Millie hisses.
But though the murdered girl doesn’t fade or flicker, or even cock her head, the old woman, seated next to Millie, shakes her folded umbrella disapprovingly, clicks her tongue, and then sniffs.
Of course, the old woman can’t see the girl, but she’s obviously noticed the change in the air. Before the girl arrived, it was foggy with instant coffee and damp wool coats; now there’s a definite reek of embalming fluid, and the temperature’s dropping too.
The murdered girl is very young: nineteen, the newspaper claims. But she’s smiling, Millie realises, and not just once. There’s a second, even redder smile stretching all the way across her throat.
Millie sighs; she knows there’s little point in asking the dead girl what she wants. Even without that neck of hers, it’s unlikely that she’ll speak; they rarely do. Occasionally, in the past month or so, since they started coming back, Millie’s been aware of a kind of whispering, but none of it’s been actual words; it’s more like hissing steam.
If she’s honest, she’d half-expected somebody – some body – at the doctors, because isn’t a waiting room the type of place you’d think they’d go? When she came in, Millie had briefly wondered about the old woman until her jabbing umbrella made her reality clear, but she hadn’t expected to find anyone so young here, or so obviously freshly killed.
Most of the dead people Millie sees are old. They shuffle about in their memories of orthopaedic sandals, hanging on to walking sticks or giant handbags, reluctant to let go. There have been just a handful of middle-aged among their legion, and not more than the palest suggestion of a skinny child or two.
Although there was that thing that Millie saw, or thought she saw, at the station, on her way to the restaurant on Monday. Caught in the corner of her vision, at first she’d thought it only rubbish – a newspaper plucked from the platform by the nagging wind, or the gusting tumble of a plastic bag. But then she realized it was moving with slow deliberation, an unmistakable concentration to its creep… And before she allowed herself to fully register its tiny shoulders or the distinctive wobble of its head, Millie turned away. She had no desire to watch a dead baby crawling through the dirt between the tracks.
She managed to make it onto the train, and then to work, but the experience had left her shaken. Struggling to fold the napkins, she’d wondered if Charlie, who’d dropped by that morning, might notice how upset she was, and call her to his private room, upstairs –
“Mildred Jackson,” crackles the speaker now, “Mildred Jackson to room four.”
But for a moment, Millie goes on sitting there, as placid as the murdered girl, before she recognises her name. It isn’t just that she’s been addressed in full. Lately, since the dead returned, she’s gone back to thinking of herself as ‘Mouse’.
When Millie was little, there had been dead people everywhere. You could say they were part of the furniture, except furniture doesn’t usually stagger, or drip blood. But though they rarely alarmed her, she could hardly count them as friends, not even imaginary ones. There was too much looming and sulking need about them, and back then, she’d never wondered what they wanted, or even thought much about why they were there. They were just another mundane fact of life, like rainy Sundays, cabbage, homework…
Still, they had made Millie different from the other kids, more of a watcher than a talker, so quiet her father re-named her.
“You hardly know she’s there,” he’d say, “always shivering in corners, our little Mouse.”
It wasn’t until she hit puberty that the dead abandoned her. When Millie got her first period, they simply vanished overnight; it was all a bit like ‘Carrie’, only in reverse. But though she believed her ghosts had vanished, her quiet never completely went away.
Still, for eighteen years, Millie thought herself free, right up until that night, four or five weeks ago, when she was covering an evening shift, and realised that the rather bruised-looking gentleman on table two wouldn’t require the ‘Specials’ menu, after all…
But while Millie’s almost used to them again, they’re the reason she’s come to her GPs. She has a theory – because of when the dead first left her, and because of how suddenly they’ve returned – what if they’re hormonal?
It’s probably more madness; she’s only just turned thirty, and surely that’s far too young for the menopause, unless it’s one of those freaky early onset things?
But wouldn’t that just be Millie’s luck, when she finally has a man in her life, and a handsome, solvent man, at that – although, if she’s being honest, is Charlie truly ‘in her life’? Despite the fact he owns the restaurant, he’s her boss’s boss, and Millie’s been sleeping with him since Christmas, Charlie is married to a woman called Kathryn, and has been for six years.
And maybe it isn’t hormones that have resurrected Millie’s ghosts? Maybe it’s her guilt.
“I’ve been having strange dreams,” she tells the doctor.
It’s the closest she can come to an explanation, laying there, on a plastic-wrapped mattress, with her T-shirt rolled up to her bra, and the murdered girl hovering at the doctor’s side.
It took the girl a few minutes to follow Millie through to room four; she doesn’t seem to know how to work her limbs yet. But as Millie speaks, she sees that the girl is smiling again, as if with encouragement – that irrepressible double grin.
But the doctor ignores Millie’s words altogether.
“When was your last period?” he says.
His fingers, kneading their way across the soft plain of her stomach, are warm, but not gentle, and he doesn’t wait for her to work out the dates before asking if she thinks she’s pregnant.
“No, I can’t be,” Millie says. “We have a method. He…”
But she’s suddenly flooded with embarrassment, so flushed that she can’t finish. Even her stomach feels like it’s blushing underneath his pressing hands.
“I see,” the doctor says. He raises a wiry eyebrow, and though the murdered girl’s smile doesn’t waver, her head lolls slightly, as if she’d like to look away.
After the doctor’s fingers, his stethoscope is an icy shock. Though Millie doesn’t watch its progress, she’s aware of every cold inch of its slow path. She gazes past the doctor and beyond the dead girl too, taking in the glimmer of the ‘Sharps’ bin and the scissors gleaming on the doctor’s desk.
“It might be further along than I thought,” the doctor says. “We’d better send you to the hospital for a scan.”
Millie gasps, and the breath, gushing out of her, is colder and sharper than his tools.
“It’s cancer, isn’t it?” she says. “Is it cancer? Tell me, please.”
Charlie’s wife, Kathryn, has cancer. She’s had it for longer than Millie has known Charlie. It started in her lungs, but now it’s everywhere. And of course, it’s the reason he can’t leave –
The doctor’s eyebrows knit together.
“No,” he says. “It’s not.”
On the way to the hospital, the tram is heaving; every spare seat and buggy-space and handlebar is swinging with the dead.
Millie could do without them, quite frankly. There is perhaps – quite probably – a baby inside her. Well, not yet a baby, but a life –
Is that why her dead have been regrouping? Or is it because they know better than the doctor and it’s actually a cyst or something, some sort of secret, toxic growth…
They’ll be able to tell her at the hospital, though she hadn’t expected to be sent for the scan so soon. And is the urgency a sign? She must call Charlie –
Of course, Charlie should know, but despite having such a vital message to relay, Millie remains self-conscious about using her phone in public. All the extra grey, leering faces don’t exactly help.
The murdered girl has found a friend, it seems: a haggard, dusty-looking woman with silver hair and blind-white eyes. They’re squeezed up close on the priority seats, and every time the tram jolts, their heads knock together and begin, like wax, to merge…
The tram is making Millie feel sick, sick and tired and claustrophobic.
She thinks of the humane mouse-traps her father used to set, in the darkest corners of their house. She’s still able to picture the frantic quiver of fur through the opaque plastic. Even at the time, she’d wondered if a traditional trap might have been kinder, that endless furry trembling stopped short with a single, back-snapping, metallic ping. Maybe they should have bought a cat, except that cats are always so playful; perhaps that would have been crueller still…
Millie scrambles through her bag for her phone; her fingers feel hot and overly fleshy and as she dials Charlie’s number, she can’t stop thinking about his wife.
Once, when Millie was left alone in his office, Charlie’s mobile started buzzing, lighting up. Kitty, the screen flared, not Kathryn, but Kitty, so that it took Millie several seconds to realise they were the same. And there was that picture of her, lit up too.
Kathryn didn’t look so much sick as very beautiful, in an angular, blond kind of a way. She had wide, green eyes and pale, pinched cheeks, a model’s perfect jaw –
The voice that answers isn’t Charlie’s.
“Hello?” the woman says.
Millie hangs up immediately. The dead all look at her. With her sticky hands, she tries again.
She only has to ask for Charlie, she tells herself; there’s no need to explain anything more. Still, when the woman catches the call a second time, Millie feels even more mouse-like than before.
“Is this Charlie’s wife?” She’s actually squeaking –
And for a moment, there’s only silence in response, a black and clammy silence, like a tunnel; Millie feels herself sucked in.
But then: “You’re looking for Kathryn?” the woman says. “Who is this?”
And though Millie can’t even squeak, it doesn’t matter, because suddenly the woman’s rushing on.
“I’m very sorry to tell you,” she says, “but we finally lost her. Kathryn’s been dead now, for just over four weeks.”
Kathryn is dead.
The shock of it forms a cloud around Millie that drifts her out of the tram and over the road and up the disabled ramp into the hospital. She floats through Reception and then along the painted arrows leading to Pre-Natal, while the murdered girl and her new best friend keep a respectful distance and their empty eyes averted – although, to be honest, it’s hard to tell if their disinterest is an act of feigned compassion, or not.
Kathryn is dead.
Why didn’t he tell me?
The thought loops around and around inside Millie’s head; it’s larger than the idea she might be pregnant. It’s like a tiger chasing its tail.
Has Charlie been too traumatised to mention it? He hardly seemed traumatised in her bedroom on Wednesday night…
Maybe the woman on Charlie’s mobile has got it wrong, or gone insane? After all, no one at the restaurant has said anything either, but then, Millie isn’t sure that anyone else there was even aware of Kathryn’s sickness. In general, her boss likes to keep his relationships professional, unlike Millie.
She’s so preoccupied she barely sees the forms she’s filling out, and she trails after the nurse-or-midwife girl in a daze, following her neat, blue uniform to a narrow, box-like room. On autopilot, Millie half-un-dresses and then, once more, she’s flat on her back, crinkling another sheet of clinging plastic, with her top pushed up and her jeans shoved down. There are glaring lights and a blinking monitor, a noose of denim hooked between her knees.
The nurse or midwife looks barely older than Millie’s murdered girl, who is hissing, alongside the radiator, with her new white-eyed best friend.
As they stare at Millie in empathy or utter, blank dismissal, the nurse chatters and fiddles with her machine before squeezing a slick of glistening jelly across Millie’s waiting skin. And Millie feels her stomach contact as if whatever’s hiding there is trying to burrow deeper. But there’s no escape, she thinks, for any of us –
Kathryn is dead.
But though the nurse is bearing down once more, brandishing a hand-held scanner, Millie’s more aware of how the jelly’s drying into her. The sensation brings back Charlie on Wednesday night –
She turns quickly back towards the murdered girl, and it hits her that her dead people might have returned as a kind of omen, foretelling tragedies to come. There are certainly enough warnings plastered across the wall behind the murdered girl’s back.
One of the posters shows a hugely-pregnant woman drawing luxuriously on a cigarette, and though her bulbous belly’s been revealed in cross-section as if a lid has been removed, it’s hard to make out the foetus inside her it’s so thoroughly wreathed in smoke. ‘BAD CHOICES’, Millie reads, ‘RUIN LIVES’. She moves on hastily, to the next poster –‘PROTECT THE UNBORN’, declared in red.
And isn’t ‘The Unborn’ the name of a horror movie? It sounds more unsettling, to Millie, than ‘The Undead’…
Stop it, she thinks.
And though the scanner is crackling, its pressure even more determined than the doctor’s lukewarm hands, Millie tells herself not to be frightened – it’s only that she’s never imagined this, for herself. The idea of a baby is as unreal to her as Kathryn’s death, as all the lies Charlie must have told –
“Ah, here we are,” the nurse says. “Your doctor was wrong; it’s still early weeks. Nevertheless, I think you’ll see…”
And what does Millie expect as she turns to face the monitor? Perhaps some helpless tadpole creature or a blur of pixels, vaguely edged –
But not this, dear God, not this –
It fills the screen. It looks more kitten than mouse-sized, surely too large for ‘early weeks’, and then it’s rolling its head towards her and, yes, it is much older –
And, no, it can’t be –
Its cheeks are pale and pinched, its jaw-line perfect, and its familiar eyes, as it stares into Millie’s, are Kat’s eyes, wide and green.
Megan Taylor is the author of three dark novels, ‘How We Were Lost’, ‘The Dawning’ and ‘The Lives of Ghosts’, as well as a short story collection, ‘The Woman Under the Ground’. She lives in Nottingham, UK, but can be found online at www.megantaylor.info
Fantastic! Brilliant build-up 🙂