The ghost in my attic is Margaret, but she lets me call her Margie. She was seventy–six years old when she died, and now that she’s a ghost she sits in her rocking chair day and night, holding a tiny baby in her arms. The baby rarely moves and almost never cries. His name is Gavin, and he is thin and wrinkly and covered in fine brown hair. Funny looking, as preemies often are, but sweet nonetheless. Margie keeps him wrapped in a blanket of cobwebs, which I think is disgusting. I’ve always hated spiders.
Did you know that ghosts are like pack rats? We collect all manner of things: Barbie hairs and memories and peanut shells and dreams of death. Invoices and autumn leaves and the words on the tip of your tongue. Margie collected Gavin, and now she collects cobwebs from my attic to be sure that he stays warm.
Technically it isn’t my attic; it belongs to my husband now. My former husband. He lives in what was once my house, with his new wife and her two kids and a newborn baby boy. The baby looks like Gavin might have, if Gavin had lived.
Here is the problem with collecting. Whatever you take, the living no longer have. So a ghost with good intentions, who takes away stubbed toes and sunburns, ends up surrounded by pain. A malicious ghost ends up with cotton candy and laughter and baby smiles and — well, it’s hard to stay mean surrounded by all that. That’s why most ghosts collect harmless stuff like paperclips and lint.
Margie wanted to be good. When she was alive, she miscarried five times. There was something wrong with her, something that kept her from carrying a baby to term. When she died, she wanted to help other women, to keep them from suffering the way that she’d suffered. She found a woman, thirty–four weeks pregnant, whose baby had died because a blood clot cut off his supply of nutrients and oxygen. Margie took the lifeless baby and named him Gavin. The pregnant woman, of course, was me.
Remember the problem with collecting? I woke up one morning without my baby, and with no real explanation why. The doctors were baffled, and I was devastated. I had lost my little boy, and there wasn’t even a cheek to kiss, no tiny body for me to hold one time before I said goodbye.
My friends and family tried to help, but they didn’t understand. My husband buried his grief in work and stayed at the office late while I cried myself to sleep. No one remembered the bottle of Percocet left over from when I got my wisdom teeth removed, so no one thought to take it away from me.
Margie haunts the attic, so I mostly haunt downstairs. I spent my first few years of ghosthood collecting lipstick from the purses of my husband’s girlfriends, but eventually I got over my jealousy. He remarried, and the house is nicer with children in it. Now I collect stray socks from the dryer and baby toys that fall behind the furniture.
I’m using the socks to make a quilt for Gavin, to replace the terrible cobwebs that Margie uses. I need perhaps a dozen more socks to finish it. In the meantime, I take the toys to the attic, and give them to Margie. She died old enough that her memory is bad, and she doesn’t remember that the baby she holds is my son. She simply sits in her rocking chair and cuddles his tiny body up against her chest. She tells him how his mother would have loved him, if he’d lived, and she gives him the toys that I bring.
All ghosts are collectors, even my unborn baby boy. He collects static from the radio and warm water from the bath and muffled voices that come up through the ceiling. Anything that reminds him of the womb. He is trying to recreate me.
I am tempted, sometimes, to collect my husband’s new baby. He is pudgy and gurgly and just starting to smile. But he isn’t my baby, and I know all too well the pain that it would cause if I took him from his family. So instead I haunt the house that once was mine, and listen to the children’s laughter, and try to collect only little things that won’t be missed.
More from Caroline M. Yoachim:
Caroline M. Yoachim is the author of over two dozen short stories, including her Nebula–nominated novelette “Stone Wall Truth.” She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Asimov’s, Interzone, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.