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Authors: Lisa Unger

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BOOK: The Whispers
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“But it’s possible, right? Emily always wanted to help people. That would mean something good has come from this. Right?”

Amanda and Eloise both started to cry again then. Would the well never run dry? And as they held each other, the phone started ringing. After that, it never really stopped ringing.

•    •    •

They called day and night. Eloise let the answering machine get it until the machine got full and started beeping. Then she unplugged the machine. The police in Pennsylvania:
We just want to talk
. The mother of the girl in the well:
I want to thank you. God, thank you so much for saving my little girl
. Then the reporters from television, newspaper, and radio, local and national:
The country wants to hear your story

She didn’t want to talk to any of them; she was not a person who had ever enjoyed attention. After a few days, they were waiting outside her house, a throng of reporters. They waited on the sidewalk when she took Amanda to school in the morning (
Are you a psychic? How did you know about Katie? Did you have these powers before your accident?
), when she got home (
Have you had any other visions?).
They camped out at night for weeks. She never talked to them, never looked at them. She tried to make herself as uninteresting as possible. And then finally, a few at a time, they went away.

The truth was that her visions had terrified her. What had happened to her was unsettling, unexplainable. Perhaps, she thought, by not acknowledging it, ignoring it, it just wouldn’t happen again. She told herself that it might be a onetime thing, a gift from Alfie and Emily, like Amanda said. Something good that came from something horrific. Not a fair trade, certainly. But, like she told her daughter, she never expected life to be fair.

It didn’t go away.

•    •    •

In retrospect, the first vision had been the easiest. Katie, at least, she was able to save. That wouldn’t be true for all of them. That first event almost seemed like a test. Could she do it? Could she handle it? Would she take the required action? Maybe if she’d botched it, freaked out, refused to call, or had herself committed, maybe that would have been the end of it.

About a month after interest in her had died down and Eloise was starting to feel “normal” again, there was another girl.

Eloise saw the thin, blonde girl first in a vision that came on while she was mopping the kitchen floor. One minute Eloise was washing the linoleum, the next she was looking at a wet ground littered with leaves. Golden late-afternoon sunlight dappled the slick debris, and the air carried the scent of burning wood.

“Get away from me!”

The cry rang out, bouncing off the trees, frightening a murder of crows. They went flapping, cawing into the air with the sound of the girl’s voice. Right away, Eloise knew that this was a different kind of vision. She was above the girl and yet inside her somehow. She could feel her fear, hear her thoughts.

The girl was running; he was right behind her. She knew him. When he’d offered her a ride, she’d taken it—even though she knew her mom didn’t want her to ride in cars with boys. But she was mad at her mom that day, sick of all the rules, the rigor of her life. She wanted a little bit of freedom, like all her friends had. Her mother was working that afternoon; no one would ever know if she had a little fun. For once. But then he wanted more than she had been willing to give. His hands had been too rough, his mouth too scratchy. When she said no and please stop, he hadn’t seemed to hear. Or maybe it was just that he didn’t care.

“Don’t be such a prude,” he said.

Now she was running from him. He was bigger, stronger than she was. There was no way she was going to outrun him; she knew that. So, rather than let him chase her down, she turned and held her ground.

“Get away from me!”

Eloise felt the vein throbbing in the girl’s throat, the adrenaline pumping through her blood, the ache of overexerted lungs. The girl picked up a big stick. It looked menacing, but it had no heft to it as if it were hollow. But maybe, maybe she could use it to ward him off. She could poke him in the eye and get him between the legs.

Calm down
,” he said. His voice vibrated with anger. “You’re hysterical.”

“Get back!” It was a panicked shriek.

Shut up
.” Now she could see that he was as scared as she was, and that it was making him angry.

Eloise couldn’t see the aggressor’s face; it was a black and ghostly blue, kept from her vision for some reason. But he was slowly moving toward her. The girl started swinging as he drew nearer to her.

“Put down the stick,” he said.

Why had she gotten in his car? Why had she taken that ride with him? It was the
boy she liked, but he had gone off with someone else. She was small and weak, with arms so skinny they embarrassed her. Eloise could feel the girl’s heart beating like a bird in a cage.

He came closer, and she spun to run again. It was the leaves. She slipped and fell hard backward onto the ground. Her head connected with something hard and sharp. It hurt at first, in that surprising way that rockets through your body. But then it passed and she felt just a spreading, comforting warmth. Then her eyes were filled with stars. Then there was nothing.

Eloise came back to herself on the linoleum floor, the bucket tipped. She was lying on her back in a lake of dirty mop water, staring at the faux Tiffany shade over her kitchen table.

Help them find her.
The voice that wasn’t a voice.

“No,” said Eloise. “No. This is
my problem.”

Things like this are everyone’s problem

“No,” she said stubbornly. “I’m dealing with enough. How much can one person take?”

But she was aware of that low buzz of anxiety, the feeling you get when you think you might have forgotten to unplug the iron or left the Christmas tree lights on. She could live with it. If she ignored it, it would pass. She cleaned up the mess and finished mopping the floor.

Life ground on. And Eloise continued to go through the motions—taking care of Amanda, doing the odd babysitting job, some cleaning for the working moms in the neighborhood. Just to keep money flowing in, just to keep busy and spare herself any empty moments. And, then, of course, there was the small matter of the trial of the man who murdered her family. She was attending that even though Dr. Ben questioned the wisdom of this.
Will it help you, Eloise? Will it help you to accept and move on?
She didn’t know the answer to that. She just knew that she had to be there. Anything else was neglect, abandonment of Alfie and Emily.

And that buzz, that anxiety, was a hum in the back of her head. Not going away. Quite the opposite. When Eloise saw the girl lying in the bathtub, in the hallway by the front door, in the driveway when Eloise took out the trash, Eloise ignored her. She wasn’t there. Eloise was more stubborn than whatever this was. Alfie had always called her his little mule.

•    •    •

On top of ignoring the girl, the trial of the man who had killed Alfie and Emily was almost too much to bear. Before it began, Eloise had entertained fantasies about buying a gun and killing the truck driver Barney Croft in front of everyone.

She’d imagined, in vivid Technicolor detail, herself standing and pulling the gun from her purse, lifting and just
unloading it
into Croft while everyone screamed and scattered around her. She could hear the shots ring out, smell the gunpowder, watch bloody holes open in his chest, his head. Her ears actually rang from the imagined sound of the weapon firing. She’d never even held a gun, had no idea where one might acquire one. And, of course, there was Amanda to consider. Eloise was all she had now. She couldn’t go to jail.

So Eloise lay in bed at night, vibrating with hatred, wishing Barney Croft every possible ill—that he’d lose everything he loved, that his family would die as horribly as hers had, that he’d get murdered in prison. The colorful ferocity of her imagination was shocking even to Eloise. She had never experienced hatred before; it was toxic. It made her ill, as if she were taking a teaspoon of arsenic every morning in her coffee. For the first time in her life, she’d completely lost her appetite. Her stomach roiled; she’d stopped eating anything but the blandest foods. Her shoulders and neck ached from a tension there that never released. Her jaw was stiff and sore from clenching her teeth. And yet she found she couldn’t release her feelings of hatred.
Could not
let them go. She
them. In fact, her dark thoughts comforted her even as they were hurting her. Meanwhile, the girl would not go away. She kept hearing the calling of those crows. It was an impossible ratcheting of tension day after day. How could anyone survive it?

•    •    •

And then, in the final days of the trial, she saw Barney Croft outside the courtroom. Eloise was coming back from her car, and he was standing outside with his lawyer. He was smoking a cigarette, talking in a desperate, impassioned way—his face earnest, his palms wide. She wasn’t supposed to talk to Croft or even go near him. Even so, she found herself marching toward him. The lawyer, a slick-looking young man with a blond crew cut and a fleshy, youthful face, held up his hand when he saw her. He moved his body between her and Croft.

“Mrs. Montgomery,” he said. He was kind, respectful, lifting a placating palm. Eloise thought his mother must be proud of him in spite of the fact that he was trying to get a murderer free. He believed in the law, thought he was doing a right, if not a good, thing. She could see all of that in him. “Nothing positive can come of this.”

But Barney Croft was pushing his lawyer aside. Eloise was surprised to see the man weeping, the cigarette fallen from his mouth to the ground.

“Oh, sweet Lord,” he said. He dropped to his knees on the ground beside his lawyer. “Please forgive me.”

And Eloise
him completely. She saw his addiction and his hardscrabble life. She saw how he drove to support his family and took drugs so that he could drive longer, so that he could do more for them. She saw how life had ground him down and how the mistakes he’d made had cost them both everything. And that this was how life worked. We were all connected, no one separate.
Things like this are everyone’s problem.

And something moved inside her. The muscles in her neck and shoulders released a little.

“I forgive you,” she said. There was no tearful embrace, no real warmth. There was, of course, no love for this man who had robbed Alfie and Emily of their lives because of his mistakes. There was just a sudden release within Eloise of rage and that sickening hatred. Her words only seemed to make him cry harder, bending all the way down so that his head touched the ground.

She walked away from him, feeling lighter, less bound up inside. And she was hungry for the first time in months.

That night she heard the girl again, not louder, not more insistent. She wasn’t a haunting specter demanding attention. But Eloise understood finally that there was no ignoring it. This was how her life worked now.

•    •    •

He had pictures. Eloise stood behind him and watched. And yet she wasn’t quite behind him; she was
him. But that wasn’t quite it, either. He was a man in a boy’s room, and he sat upon a twin bed made up in navy blue sheets. He sifted through his pictures of the girls. How he prized them. How he looked forward to his time alone with those stolen photographs.

His breathing came heavy and hot, wheezy, almost asthmatic. Some of the girls in the photos Eloise recognized—students of Alfie’s, acquaintances of her daughters. The Hollows wasn’t a big town. She’d seen some of them on the soccer field, at dances, Girl Scouts, swim team. Some of them she’d never seen before. Eloise watched as he took the pictures out from the shoe box under the bed; she felt his alacrity, his appetites. The photos were mainly school shots—yearbook portraits, pictures taken at winter social or homecoming. He had access to the school, to the girls. And yet they were always just out of his reach. He had always been on the outside, laughed at, bullied, and mocked. He expected nothing more from people.

He was a child in a man’s body, not intelligent, with little insight. He lived and worked with his father, who still thought it was okay to hit him on the head when he made a mistake. He was afraid and lonely, a misfit. His mother was gone—dead or left, Eloise didn’t know. But there was an emptiness in him always wanting to be filled. She tried to stay as far outside of him as she could. His inner life was a suffocating quicksand. Could she disappear into him? What were the rules? Eloise didn’t know. She
hold herself back, though; so she did.

He was a watcher. He stood in the shadows and watched the kids who would have nothing to do with him. Whatever his role was, he was invisible to them. And he had been watching when the girl in the woods was in trouble. He had been following her for days, saw her get into that boy’s car with the other kids. He knew the woods, cut through and got there not long after they arrived by car. He saw her run, heard her scream. He enjoyed her fear. The sound of her frightened voice excited him in a way he didn’t quite understand and knew was bad, bad, bad. He did nothing to help her.

After the others left her there, he waited, watching. Would they come back for her? Had they gone for help? Would the police come? When the sun finally set, and darkness fell, and she didn’t move, he took her. He ventured out from his hiding place and lifted her tenderly from where she lay.

She was heavy for someone so small. He carried her through the woods over his shoulder with effort, out to an old hunters’ blind that had long been forgotten.

Eloise didn’t want to see what he did to her. By some mercy, she was able to turn away from it. He’d kept some things. One of her barrettes, her underpants. Her heart-shaped locket. They were in the box where he kept the pictures of the other girls, the others he watched.

BOOK: The Whispers
10.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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