A Shadow Rising

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

T.S. Eliot

The music began a few moments after mother and daughter had taken their seats on the patio. The sun was setting and the sky was etched with pink, paper-thin clouds. A warm breeze carried the scent of flowers.

As the first notes soared across the long lawns, both of them paused, laying down their forks, looking up and around. It was quiet in the garden; there was no other sound but this. A woman sang a lullaby that was at once familiar.

"Goodness, Mandy listen," said Kate. "Who is that?"

She struggled to put a name to this singer. The pitch, the intonation, the way the voice trembled slightly, were all known to her and recognizable. But no name came to mind.

Amanda, her blonde head tilted to one side, was frowning.

"Mom, it sounds like you."

"Me?"

"Yes. Listen."

And it did. The words she didn't know, hummed in the same exact place. The way she would begin again with the chorus. The notes she could not quite reach. She felt her skin prickle. It was as if the sound came from the bedroom, Amanda's bedroom, where eighteen years ago she sang this song to soothe her baby daughter to sleep.

"It's you, Mom," said Amanda. Her voice held a pinch of fear. "How can you be singing in the house?"

"Don't be silly," said Kate, though her heart was leaping in her chest. "It's a recording. Probably on a tape. Maybe your dad recorded it."

"But who's playing the tape?" Amanda whispered.

Then came the sound of a baby crying and the lullaby began again. After half a minute it stopped. Mother and daughter looked at each other.

"Please turn it off," Amanda said. "It's not funny."

They could find no tape recorder. Kate knew that in those days, the days when she sang lullabies to baby Amanda, they had not possessed one. But it seemed important to search for - something.

"If you talk to dad tonight, tell him it's not funny," Amanda said later, as she stood on the doorstep, ready to leave for an evening in town. She was home for the summer and she had dressed up to meet the old friends she hadn't seen since Spring Break: her eyes were darkened with frosted blue liner, her blonde hair tied up and back, she wore a fake tattoo on the tanned shoulder. Her face, though, as she stood biting her lip, showed the confusion of a lost child.

"I will," Kate promised. "I'll tell him he scared us."

But she had no intention of calling Matt. This was not something he would do. He disliked practical jokes; they were not his style.

"And I'll be late," Amanda warned. "So, don't wait up."

As soon as her daughter had turned out of the driveway, Kate prowled the house, checking again in cupboards, under dressers. Nothing. The house was still and silent, though the wind began minutes later, a low growl against the walls. She switched on the television, for company.

*

The following afternoon it was piano music they heard as they washed dishes in the kitchen. Kate recognized it instantly. Amanda playing Mozart, during those early lessons when she was perhaps ten or eleven. It was unmistakable: the way she would hesitate before beginning a new section, the repeated keys. Kate moved slowly into the lounge barely able to breathe, Amanda trailed behind. The piano sat solidly in the corner, a shaft of sunlight illuminating the pedals. The lid was down. The music was in the room, but it was not coming from the piano.

"I don't like this, Mom," Amanda's voice was harsh, close to tears. "Tell Dad to stop it."

Kate placed an arm around her daughter's trembling shoulders.

"I will. Tomorrow. I promise."

The following night they heard the piano again. This time it was a more accomplished piece, a Beethoven sonata. Amanda playing with practised care at fifteen.

That evening, Kate called Dubai. It took the switchboard ten minutes to locate her husband and when he came to the phone his voice was already anxious.

. "What's up?" he asked. "Is everything okay?"

"Yes, fine. It's just - you haven't arranged some trick, have you, Matt?" she asked, and told him of the lullaby, the baby cries, the piano.

"Katie, you're nuts," he said.

"I just can't explain it."

"For God's sake, it's probably noise from the neighbour's TV. You really believe you're being haunted by your own ghosts?"

"Something like that."

He laughed. "You're losing it sweetheart. But hey, I've got work to do. Everything else okay? No other Big Crisis?"

Kate bit her lip, feeling foolish. "Everything's fine."

The next day the screams began. Amanda did not hear those. Only Kate, waking in the night would hear screaming in her daughter's bedroom, and run there, breathless, heart pounding, to find her daughter serenely asleep. She did not, of course, mention this to Amanda. The piano had stopped.

*

It is almost dawn when she wakes and hears the screams. They are close by and they are loud. They stop suddenly and she hears a voice murmuring. This time she hears strangers' voices, too. Kate races to her daughter. At the door of her child's room she sees the men, two of them, sees the knife, feels the lamp in her hand, hears the hard thump of lamp on skull but mostly she hears the screaming. Her own. And finally she understands: the sound that yesterday had been in the future, although it had seemed, like the other sounds, a part of the past, is now absolutely and totally present.

About the author:

Mary McCluskey, a British journalist, commutes between Los Angeles, London and a small Gloucestershire village in the UK. Her short stories have appeared in a number of UK and US literary magazines. She's working on her second novel. She daydreams a lot.