“What about you?”
I glanced at my husband, Bill, next to me in the driver’s seat as we made the long drive back from our honeymoon. I do not remember how the conversation got here. One moment we were chatting excitedly about firsts—our first day in our new house, our first Christmas together—and then somehow came the question of first loves.
“Well?” I prompted Bill, who had remained silent. I had easily explained to him that I had been on a date once before him. High school prom, nothing big. I could not even remember the guy’s name. Bill’s silence had me slightly worried.
“Yeah,” he finally replied.
“I…had a girlfriend a…a couple years before I met you. It…it didn’t work out.” He chuckled a humorless laugh. “Obviously.”
“There,” I said trying to set his troubled mind at ease. “Was that so hard?” My voice was upbeat, cheerful. It really was no big deal. But why did I have this wrong feeling in the pit of my stomach?
“Strange thing for newly-weds to talk about, don’t you think?” said Bill. Clearly, he wanted to change the subject.
Was it strange? I wondered as I began fishing for a new conversation starter. Probably.
Bill never let me see the house before the wedding, so for the rest of the drive I tried in vain to wrestle a description from him. But he was as determined to keep his secrets as I was to discover them, and I learned nothing until we pulled into the driveway of a quaint little abode. It was a small house, I learned as I wandered its handful of rooms, Bill following close to observe my reactions. Small like a gem, compact so that everything was perfect, every detail in harmony with the whole.
The first floor rooms—a kitchen, dining room, and den—were arranged in a continuous ring around a half-bath and a stairway. Upstairs, two bedrooms and a second full bathroom grew off of a very short hallway.
I wished we could have stayed up and enjoyed our first night in our new home, but Bill had work the next morning. I, however, did not, so I spent the next day exploring the house thoroughly. Not that there was much to explore. I tried to occupy myself with decorating and unpacking my things, but neither took very long. The smallness of the house was charming, yes, but it made for a boring afternoon. In the end, I had a lot of time to sit and think, and as hard as I tried not to, I kept going back to the awkward conversation from the drive yesterday.
Why had Bill been so reluctant to tell me about his ex? Sure, it was an awkward topic, but I had been perfectly open and honest with him. It should not have been so hard for him to return the favor. It was no big deal anyway, right? We were both over the past, weren’t we? I sure was. And he was too. He had said it didn’t work out. So why did I feel so worked up about it?
Dinner preparations saved me from my thoughts, and Bill’s homecoming banished them completely.
Of course he’s over her, I decided as he folded me in his arms. He chose me. He’ll never get over me.
The next day I tried to do some more exploring. I would really have to find a job soon if I wanted to maintain my sanity, or at least a hobby.
I discovered a tiny attic. Its ceiling was so low I had to stoop, and there would have been barely enough room for me to lie down, even if it had not been littered with cardboard boxes.
Bill’s secret hiding place, I thought to myself, a mischievous thrill coursing through me. I shifted the boxes around until I found one that looked interesting. Inside were all the letters I had written to Bill in the months before our wedding. But those were boring. I had written them. I knew what they said.
Shoving that box to the side, I reached for another one. This one was heavier. Full of books, I guessed. I was right. It was a bunch of journals, judging by their appearance, that reached back into Bill’s childhood, and came right up to his college days. I recognized one of the dusty leather covers; I had caught him writing in it from time to time.
Reaching for one of the older-looking volumes, I sat myself on the attic floor. This would make for an entertaining afternoon.
The journals did not disappoint me. At first they were nearly impossible to read, since little Bill was still trying to learn his letters. But then they became humorous, and I laughed out loud at some of the silly phrases and misspellings found in the later pages. Then I came to Bill’s teenage years, and I could start to see the Bill I knew in the words. I followed his achievements and struggles through high school, and finally reached the beginning of his college days.
There I had to stop. Just a few entries in I found a name: Angela Bistor. Bill had met her during orientation week at college, and started dating her after classes started up. I could not bear to read what he had to say about her, so I closed the book and shoved the box of journals back into the corner.
At that moment, I heard the front door open and shut. Bill was home. Dinner was not ready. Alarmed, I ran downstairs, pausing halfway down. Should I bring up the journal? I wondered. No.
Whispers. One voice, in the dark behind me, murmuring. Broken, unintelligible phrases. It was far away.
My eyes opened slowly, and the clock on my nightstand slipped into focus.
My eyes slid shut. Sleep again.
Whispers. Still just one, still just as dark. It was closer.
I was awake again. Could I still hear them? I glanced at the clock.
“Bill,” I muttered sleepily. “Honey, you’re talking in your sleep.”
“I’m not asleep.”
“You’re talking to yourself?”
“But I heard…”
“You must have been dreaming.” He rolled closer to me, putting a warm hand on the small of my back. “Go back to sleep, babe.”
Bill was doing a lot of reading each night before bed. A neighbor had collected all his newspapers while we were on the honeymoon, and now he was determined to catch up on the world, one paper at a time.
I looked up at Bill, a pleased smile spreading across my face, but it vanished instantly.
“What is it?”
Bill’s brow was bunched low over his eyes, his jaw set grimly and his lips stretched in a thin, worried line.
“Nothing.” It was the same tone he had used on the way home from the honeymoon.
“Nothing?” I pressed.
“Nothing. Just…news. Same old news.” He folded up the paper, pulling himself out of the lazy-boy and tossing it down in his place. “Think I’ll go to bed,” he muttered.
“Okay,” I replied cautiously. “I’ll be up soon.”
I waited until I heard the bedroom door click shut upstairs before retrieving Bill’s discarded newspaper. He had not told me everything, I was sure of it. Something in there had bothered him. I flipped through the pages, trying to find a headline that would have snagged Bill’s attention, something related to work, maybe.
But what I found was not a headline. It was a name.
Her name was under the obituaries.
A wave of conflicting feelings…sympathy for Bill, and a warm thrill of excitement? Eagerly, I poured over the eulogy, trying to grasp every word. Too eager? Why should I feel like this was good news?
The column focused mainly on Angela’s childhood, but where it touched on her adult life, the wording was vague and generic. While the author went into great detail on Angela’s volunteer work as a young teen, there was not even a passing comment on her later occupations. Most noticeably, however, was that there was no mention at all of the manner of her death.
Was the family trying to hide something? I wondered deviously. But I was more concerned with the third conflicting emotion that struck me as I perused the obituary: anger. Why had Bill reacted that way? He said he was over her! How could he be this upset?
Much as Bill had done before me, I folded up the newspaper and threw it back onto the chair before sulking up the stairs after my husband.
“Do you love me?” I asked as I slid under the covers next to him.
Why did it take him so long to answer? “More than anything?”
“Yes.” That one came easier.
“More than anyone?”
“Of course.” He rolled over to face me. “Don’t you know that, babe?”
His voice sounded so sincere. Why didn’t I believe him? “Tell me.”
“I love you.”
I did not tell him that I knew about Angela. It did not feel right to tell him, so I curled into his arms and went to sleep.
7 Across…Reed instrument…
“Honey, what are you doing?” I looked up from the newspaper crossword puzzle, my concentration shattered by a hum of broken whispers.
“Nothin’. Just…work.” Bill was pacing back and forth across the den behind me, staring at a pile of notes held in his hand. When he caught my gaze he settled down at the computer desk, and as I returned my attention to the crossword puzzle the rapid clickety-clack of the keyboard filled the room.
“Honey, can you be quiet, please?”
“Why, what is it?”
“It’s just hard to concentrate.”
Bill was quiet for a moment. “…It’s work, babe. I gotta do it.”
The clickety-clack resumed, along with the whispers as I tried to focus on my next clue.
…Paradise…Eden—”Bill, stop it!”
The soft murmurs had gotten louder, creeping closer until I could feel them tickling my ear.
“Stop what?” answered my husband, an air of frustration coloring his reply. He was still sitting at the computer.
“What were you just doing?”
“Working, like I said.” He was clearly annoyed with me. “Like I’ve been doing this whole time,” he added. “If it bothers you so much then take your puzzle somewhere else. I need to work!”
How dare he! I thought. How dare he lose his temper with me! I gathered up the newspaper and stormed into the kitchen, not trying to hide my angry sigh. He was the one trying to distract me…jerk.
I curled up in a chair at the table and tried to continue my puzzle.
7 Down…Less important than…overshadowed.
I threw down my pencil and sighed in frustration. Ruined, now. He ruined my relaxing afternoon. All I could do was brood.
I started suddenly, all my muscles tensed up, when Bill put his hand on my shoulder.
Okay, relax. He’s here to apologize. Let him.
But the seconds ticked by, and he said nothing. The weight of his hand began to feel heavier, almost oppressive, and still not even a breath. Finally, I turned around to face him, and as I did I felt his hand lift.
“What?” I began to ask, but stopped. Bill was not there. Where was he? He was right here; I felt his hand on my shoulder!
“Bill!” I cried, my voice not quite under control. “Bill where are you? Are you still working?”
Bill came running into the kitchen, asking, “What is it, babe?”
The tender look on his face, the concern in his voice…all traces of ill-will towards my husband melted away.
“Are you alright?” asked Bill that night after supper, coming up behind me and placing his hands on my waist in an attempt at comfort.
I kept scrubbing the plate in my hands, watching the soap suds drip down into the sink. “Yeah. Why?”
“You’ve seemed…I don’t know…on-again-off-again, like something’s bothering you.”
“Why don’t you tell me about it?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I think we need to.” He took the plate from my hands and set it down on the counter. “Tell me what’s bothering you.”
I sighed. He would not let me be silent, I knew that. “I’ve just been thinking about her.”
“You know, her. The one before me.”
“…” My angry silence was enough of a reply.
Now it was Bill’s turn to sigh. “Oh, baby, don’t let that get you upset. It was just a short college crush. There’s nothing left. No feelings for her at all.” He gave me a tight hug. “Besides, it’s not like you didn’t go on any dates before me.”
“But that was just prom, not a full-blown relationship!”
He squeezed tighter. “Still counts,” he whispered teasingly.
I struggled free of Bill’s embrace and dropped myself into one of the kitchen chairs. “Wish I’d never asked about it in the first place. You were right. It was a weird topic for newlyweds. Now it’s all I can seem to think about.”
“Well, stop thinking about it. I promise, you are the only one that matters to me.”
“Don’t wait up for me,” Bill called from the den. “I want to finish this up before bed,” he explained, his eyes glued to newspaper on his lap.
“Okay,” I sighed, and I slowly climbed the stairs, sleepy and a little disappointed. “Don’t be up too late,” I added over my shoulder, hoping the subtle plea in my voice was enough to break through Bill’s concentration.
Whispers. My ears tingled with that odd sensation, not quite sure if I was actually hearing anything or not. Even when the almost-noise intensified, and I had the brief impression of a mysterious shadow lurking closer and closer as it whispered to itself, I could not be sure. The soft murmurs grew clearer, and I got that frustrating feeling that if only the surrounding silence would just quiet down for a moment, I would be able to make out words.
And then it stopped. I woke up. I became aware of the mattress beneath me, the soft pillow under my head, and Bill’s comforting weight pressing down on the other side of the bed. I instinctively shrank away from the strange whispers of my dream, curling myself tight against Bill’s sleeping form. Bill always slept so soundly. I pressed myself closer to him, feeling his warmth, listening to his peaceful breathing, and letting his presence wash away the residual unease of my nightmare.
Then I heard footsteps, a soft even tread from the dark hallway outside our dark room. I suddenly felt that everything was too dark. Where was the gentle glow of the bathroom nightlight that always peeked dimly under the bedroom door, or the dim green light of my alarm clock?
The sound of the doorknob turning made my heart flutter and stop, and I curled even tighter against my husband as the hinges softly squeaked.
“Bill,” I whispered, nudging him too gently to rouse him. “Bill!” I shouted louder when I heard the gentle footsteps cross the bedroom floor.
“Shh,” came his hushed, loving reply from the wrong end of the bed. “I’m here. It’s alright.”
I frantically rolled across the mattress, tumbling to the floor as I shrieked “Lights! Turn on the lights!”
Faster, heavier footsteps, then a soft click, and a warm radiance illuminated the bedroom, revealing Bill, fully dressed, standing by the light switch, me, in my pajamas, curled in a corner on the floor, and our bed, completely empty.
I was uneasy. Who could help it after such a night? All the next day I jumped at every soft noise—a sudden gust of wind, the rustling of papers. My thoughts were my only company, and poor company at that.
Bill said you were his only love.
He didn’t mean it.
I just could not shake Angela off my mind. Every time she came up, Bill got all strange. Was it regret? Did he regret leaving her? I had to know.
“Can we talk?”
“Um…sure.” He put down his newspaper. “What about?”
“How did things end between you and Angela?”
“You don’t want to hear about that.”
“Yes I do.”
Bill sighed. “I…don’t want to talk about it.”
“Please?” I begged. “I have to know. I don’t think I’ll have any peace unless I know.”
Bill sighed again, resignedly. “Fine. She…got sick.”
“Not physically. Mentally. She became schizophrenic, and I just…couldn’t take it. I tried, I really did, but it kept getting worse, and in the end…she was put in an institution.”
“And that was it?”
Bill nodded. “I figured I had to move on. Two years later, I met you.” He got up to come sit next to me, and put his arm over my shoulder. “And you know what?”
“Best thing that ever happened to me.”
I let him try to make me feel better for a while, holding me close to his side, before asking “If I went crazy, would you leave me, too?”
“…No, of course not.”
Not reassuring enough. I tried to make myself small.
“Do you know how Angela died?”
“Um…yes.” His tone was shouting please don’t ask! “You knew about that?”
“I…well, I made a few phone calls, because I knew her, and I was curious. She…she committed suicide at the institution.”
I felt sick. Everything was wrong. You don’t belong to him, whispered a sinister voice in my head.
I stayed up with Bill until he was done reading his paper. I could not do anything. I felt too distorted, so I curled up in a corner of the sofa, the hollow feeling in my stomach consuming me. I did not want to go to bed yet, not without Bill. I hated the thought of being up there alone. I was terrified of being in the dark with nothing but the whispers of my dreams and the phantom touch of my nightmares to keep me company.
When we finally went upstairs and settled under the covers, I could not close my eyes. Bill muttered something as he rolled over.
“What?” I asked automatically.
“Nothing,” he answered.
He has nothing to say to you, came that sinister whisper again. I quivered under the blankets. It was true. At least, nothing he wanted to say to me. I knew what I knew only because I had forced it out of him.
I thought I heard Bill say something again, but I did not respond this time. Maybe he was already unconscious, just talking in his sleep.
For a moment my eyes gave out, shutting down in exhaustion, but I tore them back open. The darkness of sleep scared me. Bill whispered again, but this time it came from somewhere else, somewhere in the room. Not Bill.
Part of me wanted to reach over to where he lay and make sure he was still there, but previous experience stayed my hand. What if I felt something else?
He’s not even yours to touch, anyway.
The voice in head my crossed a line. Yes, Bill was mine! He was my husband! In defiance of my own thoughts, I reached across the bed and planted my hand firmly on Bill’s back.
See? Mine to touch. Not Angela’s!
But the empty expanse between our bodies felt exposed, and my arm felt cold; goose bumps slowly formed up and down my vulnerable flesh, and I withdrew my hand. Why was I so afraid?
Whispers. That was why. Had it really been Bill muttering in his sleep? Was that malicious voice in my head really my own thoughts? My joints locked up as I pondered these doubts, my body shivering in the rapidly cooling air around our bed. Why was it cold?
The air seemed alive, dripping with broken whispers. Maybe it was my own paranoia, but for the first time I identified the sounds as separate from Bill, myself, or any other person in the world, and at times I thought I could make out words.
No, I thought back at the whispers as I slowly tried to wriggle closer to Bill. He’s mine.
I ran into a solid form sooner than I expected to. Had Bill moved closer? Or was it…
I jumped out of bed and flipped on the lights, a small scream escaping my lips as I saw Bill, alone, at the far end of the bed.
The light and the noise roused my husband. “Babe, what’s going on?”
“There’s something here!” I squeaked. “It was in the bed, between us!”
Bill glanced at the empty spot next to him. “There’s nothing there, sweetie.”
“But I heard it!” I protested. “I felt it!”
But I was beyond his help. I returned to the bed, on the verge of tears, and began beating the spot where I had felt it. “It was here! Right here!” Bill put a comforting hand on my shoulder, and I collapsed, sobbing. “Am I going crazy?” I asked him. “Can’t you hear them too?”
“Hear what?” He was starting to sound nervous. He thought I was going crazy. Just like Angela.
“The voices! Whispering, always coming closer…closer…”
“Baby, there’s no voices. You must have been dreaming.”
“But I wasn’t, Bill!”
He sighed as he tried to put effort into rubbing my back. I was not fooled.
“Ohh,” I sobbed. “You think I’m losing my mind. You’re going to put me in an in-institution, just like you did with Angela.”
That’s right. He’ll put you away, and then he’ll be mine again.
“Shut up!” I screamed.
But Bill seemed unbothered by my screeching. A strange, almost understanding look came over him. Or maybe he was just sleepy. “Oh, baby, is that what this is about?” He cleared his throat and wrapped his arms around me. “Listen to me. You’re not crazy. Something’s just scaring you. I understand completely.”
“No,” I whimpered. “N-no you don’t. Y-you haven’t been hearing her, f-feeling her.”
“It’s your imagination, honey,” he yawned. “You’ll feel better in the morning, when it’s light.” He gave me a squeeze, then settled back down. “I’m here if you want to talk more.”
But he wasn’t. He was asleep before I had stopped shaking with the effort of holding in my frightened sobs.
Morning. Sun mocking me with its cheeriness. Bill was gone already, off to work. Angela was silent, waiting to see what I would do now that I was alone.
Bill still thinks of her, I thought to myself. She knows he does; that’s why she’s here.
Then came realization. I knew suddenly what I had to do, and I ran to the attic. There, just as I had left them, were Bill’s old journals, and there was the one I was looking for, sticking out from the others, taunting me with its quivering pages.
Here I am, it seemed to whisper. I’ll never leave.
“We’ll see about that,” I muttered as I pulled the old book from its box. I flipped through the yellowed pages, finding every entry that had to do with her and ripping it violently from the binding. Once I was sure I had all of Bill’s memories stuffed in my clenched fist, I returned downstairs to the fireplace.
With the pages scattered amongst the ashes, I reached for a match. Then I froze. Something cold slowly pressed down on my shoulder, a dead weight.
I did not turn. I knew what I would see. The ghostly hand squeezed tight. I couldn’t breathe. It hurt. Her grip was so solid, so real. My heart pounded like a drum as I forced myself to tighten my hold on the match and strike it.
“Leave us alone,” I whispered, barely able to force the syllables from my paralyzed lungs as I flung the tiny flame into the fireplace. It caught instantly, and as I watched the pages blacken and shrivel, The icy grip gradually loosened, until at last the cold was gone.
I sighed deeply, reveling in the air that now seemed so clean and empty and quiet. I was amazed at how quickly the fear and tension faded.
“Bill is mine.” I whispered. “Mine.”