Haunted

“It’s your fault! They told you the house was haunted, but you didn’t listen!”

Tod wasn’t convinced. Certainly a few strange things had happened since he and Joanne had moved in with their daughter Julia two weeks prior, but nothing that couldn’t be explained away.

The first incident had occurred on their third day in the house. They came back from the store to find a vase shattered on the living room floor. It had been in the kitchen. At first, they thought that they had been victims of a burglary, but a quick search through the house found nothing else amiss. Maybe it was a burglar—thought Tod—but one who had second thoughts and left without taking anything. Or perhaps a neighbor’s cat, or a wild animal, found some way in and out.

The following night Joanne and Tod had been awakened by a scream from Julia’s room. Somebody had tugged at her feet, she insisted, but nobody was there. Just a child’s imagination.

Over the next few days, Julia had developed a new imaginary friend: the ghost of a young girl named Emily. Emily, recounted Julia, had died of the flu about a year after her father and older brother both died in the war. Julia also met Emily’s mother, Elizabeth, who, bereft of her husband and her two children, died of a broken heart shortly thereafter. Tod was unsure whether he approved of the macabre direction in which Julia’s imagination was developing.

Tod was, however, extremely happy with Julia’s new school. After just a few days in the new neighborhood, Julia had memorized and often recited several poems by Emily Dickinson. Tod didn’t recall having learned of the great American poet as early as first grade, so the education system here must be doing something right. Julia, of course, insisted that Elizabeth had taught her the poems. The deceased matriarch seemed to have been a dedicated reader of poetry during her life, and named her daughter after her favorite poet. Julia’s favorite was “The Chariot,” though Tod was unfamiliar with that title. He had heard it referred to by its first line, “Because I could not stop for Death,” but that was, of course, a long time ago. In any case, Julia’s claims to have learned that particular poem from a ghost were amusing, and seemed nothing more than the regular operation of a seven-year-old’s imagination.

During their two weeks in the house, both Tod and Joanne had, at moments, thought they had seen some figure moving from the corner of their eye, but this was the most easily dismissed of all the occurrences.

The voice that evening, however, had frightened Joanne enough to momentarily drive off any doubt. Tod had heard the voice as clearly as she did—a woman’s voice advising Tod not to go to work on Monday—but notwithstanding such clear evidence, Tod was not inclined to start believing in ghosts. They had somehow experienced a mutual hallucination, he insisted. Whatever it was, Joanne was none too pleased about it, nor about the recently acquired house. With some persistence, and after a visit to each room of the house to ensure that nobody else, besides Julia, was there, Tod was able to convince her it was nothing. They settled down to sleep. Disconcerting as the voice had been, neither Tod nor Joanne gave a moment’s thought to its warning.

The following Monday, some time after Tod had left for work, Julia approached her mother. “Mom,” she said, “Emily says that you didn’t pay attention to her mother’s warning and now Dad is in trouble. But don’t worry. Her brother and her father went to help him, so he’ll be alright.”

Joanne was, needless to say, a bit taken aback by her daughter’s comments. She and Tod had not told Julia about the voice the other night, but perhaps she had heard it, too. Or perhaps it was all just a strange coincidence. “Don’t be silly,” she said to Julia.

A few minutes later she turned on the news. The main bridge into town had collapsed onto the freeway that morning. Several people had died, and a search for survivors was ongoing.

As if by instinct, Joanne picked up the phone. She dialed Tod’s number. No answer. She called the office where he worked. “He hasn’t come in yet today.” Joanne shivered. A sinking feeling took up residence in her stomach, and a pain in her chest as if her heart were attempting to beat its way out of it.

Julia noticed her mother’s agitation. “Don’t worry, Mom. Dad’s alright. Emily says so.”

Joanne wasn’t in the mood for her daughter’s games right then, but she admitted to herself that the words brought some mild comfort. She composed herself, and a few phone calls later found out that her husband wasn’t missing, even though he was on the bridge when it collapsed. He was in the hospital, but nobody could tell her what his condition was. At least they thought he was alive.

Joanne wasted no time. Within five minutes she and her daughter were on the road. In less than half an hour they pulled into the hospital parking lot. In the emergency room lobby, they found out that Tod was in stable condition, and they received directions to the pod where they could find him.

Tod was conscious and in good spirits. The doctors said that, other than a few scratches and bruises, he had a concussion and a noncomminuted tibial fracture. No surgery would be needed, and he would be able to return home that day. The injuries were remarkably light in view of the accident, considering that his car had been completely crushed by debris after falling with the approximately twenty-foot-high bridge. The ambulance technicians had said that they found him a few feet away from his car, on a relatively flat piece of fallen stone rather than buried along with everyone and everything else. This had allowed the first responders to get to him and treat him quickly, while even at this time many people were still buried under the rubble.

Todd said that the events almost seemed like a dream. It doesn’t make sense, he confessed, but the way he remembered it, it was as if the bridge were still in mid-collapse when two men were pulling him out of the falling car. They wore curious outfits that made them look like World War One soldiers. But they were gone by the time the first responders had arrived, and no other witnesses had seen them.

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