Somehow, Wanda knew it was Calvert.
The knocks woke her up at 3:13 in the morning. She rose from the cushioned depths of sleep. A second later, Wanda dropped back down into the magical dreamscapes. But before sleep could retake her, a second knock came.
Wanda’s eyes flicked open and a gasp escaped her dry lips. The shadows of the night slunk over the rumpled duvet, dark blue and moonlit. The alien coals of the alarm clock glowed dim red in the dusk. “Wha—?”
The knock again.
The name blurted out. Before Wanda had even thought about it. It bubbled up from her inner depths. Not from a place of consciousness, but from that spot of psychic intuition. At the sound of the name, the knock came once more.
Wanda rose with the grace of a marionette. She tilted her head into the darkness, ears attuned. She held her breath, and her heartbeats pulsed in her full lungs.
She frowned. Wanda swung her feet out of bed. They padded onto the smooth wood. Wanda paused and waited. She didn’t need to hold her breath for long.
There was a rhythm to it.
Clunk-clunk. Pause. Clunk.
A thought occurred to her. It sounded insane — if she were to tell this story to someone, at any rate. In the gloom of the night, with nobody but her heartbeat for company, Wanda couldn’t brush aside the notion.
The knock had the same rhythm as the words he’d said to her, every day for the past seven years. Not including the last six months, for obvious reasons.
Clunk-clunk. Pause. Clunk.
Wake up, hon.
“Cal?” The word floated away from her mouth in a cloud of vapour. Wanda hadn’t realised how cold it had gotten. Frost crinkled on her lips. Gooseflesh prickled up all over her skin. She shivered. “Cal, is that you, sweetie?”
On legs made of string, Wanda staggered to her feet. She pulled her nightgown from the back of the door and draped it about her shoulders. Back when Cal had bought it for her, one bright Christmas morning, it had just about fit her. “Gonna need to get me an XL, at this rate,” she’d said to him with a grin. Now, it went around her almost twice.
She would check the front door. For propriety. You hear a knock, you go to the front door. To do anything else would be madness. And that was a verge upon which she’d teetered for the better half of a year.
Wanda tied off the robe about her waist and sniffed. A cold clogged her sinuses. A small mucal trickle edged its way down to her upper lip. She plunged one scrawny hand into a pocket and pulled out a balled-up tissue, crusty and dry. Wanda wiped her nose. Cleared her throat.
And made her way to the front door.
She thought about the hallway lights and then dismissed the idea. In the stark reality of the overheads, Wanda might have to face the notion that her mind had fractured. She might also scare away her nocturnal visitor. Granted, Wanda wasn’t that well versed in the occult. But she assumed ghosts preferred to work under cover of shadow.
Wanda tiptoed her way down the corridor, the bare floor cold beneath her soles. She sniffed again, the back of her throat sore and fuzzy. Wanda swallowed the mouthful of saliva that had accumulated. A ball of catarrh went back with it, down into her chest.
The front door loomed, swathed in blurred darkness. It seemed to bleed from the entryway. The definitions swallowed in that soft nothingness. Wanda crept forward, the bristles of the doormat sharp against her skin. She put her eye to the peephole, but nothing crept there except the tenebrosity.
Wanda slid the chain and opened the door. The empty hallway sat before her, motionless.
“Hello?” she asked the darkness. Her voice cracked, and it came out more as Lo?
Nothing — or, rather, nobody — answered. Well, of course, they didn’t. There was nobody there. She was a madwoman in the white-knuckle clutches of grief. Awoken in the middle of the night by the expansions and contractions of a water pipe. Nothing more, nothing less.
As if on cue, from the hallway behind her, the knocks returned.
You’re not mad.
Wanda almost laughed at that. Because she almost certainly was mad. Now that it was upon her, she didn’t mind in the least. Compared to the fetal-positioned agony she’d endured, madness was a welcome change. Hell, didn’t they say ignorance was bliss? The relentlessness of reality had done her no favours. It was time she gave a nervous breakdown a shot.
Wanda shut the front door. She didn’t bother with the chain. She’d already lost the most important thing in her life. Everything else was a fleeting distraction. She tilted her head and listened for the communique.
No, she’d been wrong. Way off the mark. Had gone in the opposite direction. Wanda grinned. She’d chalk that one up to sleep grogginess.
The knocks came from the bathroom at the end of the hall.
The ajar door invited, the pale glow of moonlight spilled through the crack.
Like a woman who’s taken too much cold medicine — and maybe she had, who’s to judge? — Wanda floated down the corridor. She passed the open door to her bedroom but didn’t glance inside. What she might see scared her, curled up beneath the sheets. Eyes scrunched shut. Duvet gripped in a death claw. Mouth agape in a final gasp-snore, eyes and nose red and chapped.
Wanda drifted along, on legs that weren’t hers. She bobbed up and down, a jellyfish on an ocean current. She fought not against the tides that pulled and pushed — why waste the energy? Wanda was empty. The bottom of the barrel splintered from repeated attempts to pull from the well.
In slow motion, her hand reached forward.
She pushed the door open.
The bathroom was empty. The blue moonlight illuminated the tiled features with surreal brushstrokes. “Cal?” Wanda tried to ignore the shake in her voice. “Cal, are you there?”
Wanda froze in the doorway and frowned. Nine, one, thirteen, eight, five, eighteen, five? She racked her brain, to think of what those numbers might mean. It wasn’t their anniversary. It wasn’t her birthday, or his. And it wasn’t… that other day. The bad day. The worst one of all.
Nine, one, thirteen, eight, five, eighteen, five. Nine, one, thirteen, eight, five, eighteen, five. Wanda tapped her lip. Nine, one, thirteen, eight, five, eighteen, five.
And then it hit her.
And her emotions crumpled.
I am here.
“Oh, Cal!” She stumbled into the bathroom, eyes bleary and wet. Wanda looked all around — to the ceiling, the corners, the dark shadows. All the while, she kept the light off. “Cal, I love you!” Her words caught in her throat. “I-I miss you.” The tears flowed freely now. “God, how I miss you.” She sniffed. “I love you. I love you.”
A thin mist lay across the surface of the bathroom mirror. Part of Wanda’s mind suggested it was because of the cold temperature. But the less cynical side of her decried this. A water droplet dangled from the lip of the tap, in perpetual suspension. Within that drop, an upside-down reflection shimmered.
A breath had fogged it.
Nine clangs. I. Twelve. L. Fifteen. O. Twenty-two. V. Five. E. Twenty-five. Fifteen. Twenty-one.
I love you.
Wanda laughed, ignorant to the dampness on her cheeks and the wetness above her lip. She sniffed. “I love you too, sweetie. I love you.” Wanda grinned at the bordlerine opaque mirror. Her reflection was but a sketched silhoutte.
And was that another outline, behind her?
Eight knocks. One. Sixteen. Sixteen. Twenty-six. Twenty-two. One. Twelve. Five. Fourteen. Twenty. Nine. Fourteen. Five. Nineteen. Four. One. Twenty-five.
Wanda counted and spelled out the message. She nodded to herself as the tears dribbled down her cheeks. Halloween was the one night a year the veil between our world and the spirit world grew thinnest. Didn’t it then stand to reason that February 14 was the same, but with intertwined souls? Like two prisoners locked away in chambers of the heart. With nothing but translucent membranes to separate them.
Happy Valentine’s Day.