Welcome to my little supernatural story! But don't let that genre scare you away. There are no vampires, werewolves, or extreme magic. My main source of inspiration besides POTO was Paranormal Activity, mainly the third one (I've only seen the first 3), and so it's a much more subtle supernatural.
This is a darker story, but I don't think this will be my darkest Erik. I hope that it has a kind of darkly sweet feel to it—Leroux-y sweet, I guess. So there's murder and morbidity but an underlying gentleness as well. Happy Valentine's Day? Lol.
Disclaimer: I sadly do not own the characters of The Phantom of the Opera. Everything belongs to Gaston Leroux. Phantom is owned by Susan Kay.
The air smelled of late spring and rain. And something else that Irene couldn't quite identify.
Almost of death. But not the stench of decay or rot like when a squirrel became trapped in the walls of her rickety 1920's home. This odor was musty and damp, and she wrinkled her nose and wondered if there was some type of sewage problem in the nearest town.
A warm wind gusted over the green grass in front, blowing several strands of long blonde hair from Irene's bun and into her perspiring face as she hung sheets to dry. Sputtering dust and dirt from her mouth, she checked the greying sky. Storms were likely but probably nothing that would take the house down, no twisters. One hand absentmindedly fell to the lower half of her cotton housedress to keep it from blowing up in the wind. A year ago, a man in a red Chevy had driven by and whistled at her. "How I do love the view out here in Nebraska!" he'd called. "Yes, Siree!"
Little events like that made her appreciate that she currently had no men in her life and also regret it. A hopeless spinster, one great aunt had called her. Especially after her parents had passed on, the world seemed a little more isolating. They had left her their savings and the family home, and Irene had made the rest of her way by teaching and doing tailoring work for nearby families. Young women often brought her their wedding dresses for special alterations, and she was reminded of her unmarried status. Then again, Irene wasn't so lonely now-
She turned and smiled as the five-year-old child skipped down the concrete steps, a black-haired doll dangling upside down in her arms. "What is it, sweetheart?"
"It's hot! Um, can I play under the tree?"
She was referring to the blossoming catalpa tree in the front; they'd had many picnics and tea parties beneath it. "Yes. Give me a couple of minutes. And then I'll bring my book and join you. Okay?" The tree was near the road, and Irene didn't want her playing there by herself for very long. You saw things in the papers, child abductions and that kind of awfulness.
"Okay, Mommy! I'm going to get Julie, too!" Madeleine scampered back inside the white house to find her other doll. She tripped once on the last step but quickly dusted herself off and ran inside. Technically, Madeleine was her niece, but Irene had raised the child since birth. Maddy had added a touch of light to her life that she hadn't known was missing.
Once she was finished hanging bed sheets, Irene turned and watched as Maddy carried her two dolls outside and patiently waited by the steps. As Irene approached the house to grab her novel, she heard the little girl speaking to them.
"Um, yes. Yes, that's very nice. No. I don't want to. I don't want to do that. But we could eat." She glanced up. "Can we have cookies?"
"I think that can be arranged," said Irene. "I'll bring the shortbread ones, okay?"
Irene brought out the box of pinwheel-shaped shortbread cookies and watched as Maddy settled her two dolls out around the red and blue striped blanket. The white blossoms rustled overhead in the breeze, and their sweet scent muffled the earlier stench in the air. Maddy was adorable in her sleeveless yellow sundress with purple flowers embroidered on the collar.
She'd make a lovely mother someday, Irene thought as she watched the five-year-old painstakingly care for her dolls. The stray thought placed a nervous sensation in the pit of her stomach as a conversation from five years ago returned to her. And as hard as she tried to push the affair way, it had stayed with Irene, hovering at the brink of her subconscious.
Then again, how could anyone forget a thing like that?
To this day, she did not know all the details. Angela had been far too private; the two sisters hadn't spoken in months. According to one acquaintance, Angela hadn't realized she was with child until the eighth month. And then she'd gone completely mad and tried to end her pregnancy through very dangerous means. Her husband, Jeffrey, had stopped her before she'd plunged a knife into her womb, and she'd been physically restrained and sedated at the nearest hospital. Irene had been summoned directly after the birth; her younger sister, her only sibling, was not going to survive. The doctors said something had ruptured internally, but Irene still believed that her sister had simply lost the will to live. The child would be fine.
Five years ago, Irene had arrived at her sister's deathbed and Maddy's birth bed, watching as the life drained from Angela's grey-green eyes. The baby wailed nearby. Angela's husband wasn't present.
They would learn hours later that Jeffrey was hanging from a wooden rafter in their house, a three-legged stool kicked out from beneath his bare feet. Neighbors had heard the Labrador growling and forced their way inside; the dog had been frantically barking at the swaying corpse. Irene hadn't known the man well, but he'd seemed generally pleasant and soft spoken from their brief encounters. There were those who claimed that Angela had driven him mad.
Her sister's breath had been raspy and her skin had been ice cold as she clutched Irene's hand in those last awful moments. She attempted to speak, but her words came out in a sputtering, bloody cough.
"What's wrong?" Irene had desperately asked. "Calm down, Angela. What are you trying to say?"
"What is it?" Angela finally managed to rasp. "Renie, what is it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Boy or girl?"
"It's a baby girl," Irene had replied with tears streaming down her cheeks. "A beautiful baby girl! She has black curls just like you. And beautiful dark eyes. She's lovely, Angela."
"Thank the Lord. Lucky," Angela had whispered, collapsing back onto the pillow. She stared at the ceiling and smiled with only one lip curved upward. "I was lucky. So lucky. Thank you, Jesus. Oh, forgive me, Jesus."
"Lucky for what?" Angela's cold hand had suddenly wrapped around her wrist. "Ow. You're hurting me!"
Angela's smile faded, and she gaped upwards with nearly wild eyes. Her bluish lips trembled. She coughed twice, and a bead of saliva remained at the corner of her mouth. "Tell my daughter…you must tell her she must not-"
"Tell her what?" Irene had desperately asked.
"She cannot have a child. She must not ever. Never. Tell her she can't. Because I was lucky."
"Tell her that! Because it-it might be a boy, Renie. It might be a b-boy."
"So what if it's a boy? What does that matter?"
Angela shook her head back and forth, her limp curls trembling. "C-can't….She can't…."
"But it doesn't make any sense, Angela!"
With her last bit of life, Angela had practically screeched, "Tell her she can't! Promise me you won't ever let her have children!"
"I p-promise," Irene had whispered if only to lessen the throbbing pain on her wrist. And to give her little sister a last moment of peace. "I'll tell her. I promise."
"Thank you, Renie. I'm-I'm so, so s-sorry." Irene's wrist was released, but the prickly cold had remained on her flesh. Angela's eyes rolled back into her skull, and her head hit the pillow with a morbid thud. All color drained from her face, leaving her as white as the pillow. Of course, Irene had immediately agreed to take in poor Madeleine.
The memory of that night still gave Irene chills.
But now she had a thriving, bright-eyed child who held none of that horror. They were very happy together in the home out in the countryside. Irene would certainly miss her company when she began school next year, but it would be wonderful for Maddy to have more children to play with. Birthday parties and slumber parties and all that sort of fun. There was only joy now.
Irene had never passed along Angela's message. Frankly, she never planned to do so. Because it didn't make any sense. It was madness! Telling her sweet little niece that she couldn't have children because her insane mother had ordered it on her deathbed?
Irene had a firm belief in God, but she didn't believe in that sort of thing. Angela was obviously not right of mind.
Maddy was softly speaking again. "No. I said we shouldn't. Please go away now."
"Are you talking to your dolls?" Irene asked as she settled on the blanket with her book and smoothed her housedress over her tanned legs.
Maddy looked up and smiled shyly. "No. My friend."
Irene smiled back. She'd had imaginary friends at that age, she supposed. Well, an imaginary dog that she'd pretended to walk on a piece of red yarn. Lulu, she'd named it. "What's your friend's name?"
"It doesn't have one."
"It? Is it a boy or a girl?"
"Both. I don't know."
Irene chuckled at her little furrowed brow. She looked far too serious for a five-year-old. In fact, Maddy had seemed a little different since her fifth birthday, a bit more somber and quiet at times. Finally, Maddy turned back to her dolls, and the 'friend' seemed to be forgotten. They enjoyed the warm weather until the darker clouds finally rolled in and raindrops pounded their heads. Then, laughing, they ran back into the house together as thunder rumbled.
That evening, Irene put Maddy to bed early. While completing some mending for the nearby Johnsons, she listened to the news on the radio. Kennedy had won the California primary; she hoped he would win everything by November. The country needed a fresh young face. Russia was still angry about some type of military flight. If the two countries ever started throwing bombs at each other, she hoped central Nebraska would be the last place they'd hit. A typhoon in China. Irene finally nodded off over her needlework as the rain pattered on the roof and the sun set.
She was startled awake by a creak. Maddy was standing in the entryway of the living room, tear streaks on her scrunched up face. A teddy bear was clutched in her right arm.
"Sweetheart, what's wrong?" Irene carefully set her sewing to the side and held out her arms. Maddy ran forward and embraced her, curling up into a ball on her lap.
"I want it to go away now!" she said with a sob.
"What? Maddy, your friend isn't real! Richard hasn't been scaring you with silly stories, has he?" The little boy was two years older than Maddy and lived down the road. He was polite around adults, but Irene knew he would often get into mischief when their backs were turned.
"No," Maddy whispered. "My friend just needs to go away now. Tell it, Auntie."
"Auntie?" Irene nervously swallowed. She hadn't planned on keeping it a secret forever - just until Maddy was old enough to understand concepts like death and childbirth. "How do you know that, sweetheart? How do you know I'm your—" Her voice tapered off. "Oh. Never mind."
Maddy fell asleep within minutes and was breathing quietly, her cheek pressed firmly against Irene's chest. Holding her little niece, Irene hummed the folksong that was her namesake. Her father had often liked to play it on his guitar, and Irene, Angela, and their mother would sing along. Back in the days when life seemed simpler. Irene came from a long line of relatives who had musical talent—piano, voice, fiddle.
Soon, she began to doze again, the rain on the roof its own sort of lullaby.
Hours later, Irene was briefly awoken by a strange, deep sigh in her left ear. It tickled her canal and caused a row of goose bumps to form along her arms. She opened her eyes and sat up straight, turning her head back and forth. The radio played a soft ballad. Maddy stirred in her arms. "Auntie," she murmured.
"Sh. Sleep, dear." Irene continued to gaze around the room. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Only the wind shook the house, causing it to groan every now and then. It must have been that.
And yet, after that day, Irene could never quite shake the feeling that they weren't alone.