Content note (click for details)Content note: brief images of suicide
Naomi’s wife uncorks the wine bottle, and Naomi can’t shake the feeling that an ominous ceremony has begun. The moment has gravity. Importance. Naomi suspects she’s underdressed with her jeans and concert t-shirt. Jeanne is wearing Naomi’s favorite date night outfit—the pink surplice dress with the floral pattern. It shows off her figure above the waist but turns flouncy below. While Jeanne fills two glasses with the red blend, Naomi lets her gaze trail around the hotel suite.
It’s a nice enough place, though a bit stuffy—less romantic getaway and more therapy session. Jeanne, master of ambiance, bringer of light, has done her best with it—she’s placed lit candles on almost every flat surface, even in the bathroom. The flames dance wearily, as if dead on their fiery little feet. The sitting area has a wooden bistro table at which Naomi sits in one of two ladderback chairs. Nearby, a vintage sofa that looks comfortable but probably isn’t crouches over a glass-top coffee table. An ornate writing table with perilously thin legs stands in a darkened corner. Jeanne’s satchel sits on the writing table next to a wide pencil cup. Floor-to-ceiling gold curtains stand guard over the window. Faded green ivy wallpaper adorns the walls.
In the next room, the bedroom, a candle flickers on the nightstand. Jeanne’s heeled sandals wait patiently on the floor partially beneath the bed. Her phone charges on the nightstand. Naomi will have to remember to plug in her own phone later.
Across the bistro table, Jeanne sits down and raises her glass. She looks so beautiful, this singularly caring soul who in a hundred small ways always makes Naomi’s days brighter. But she herself seems under a shadow. Naomi remembers when she was radiant.
They can fix this, Naomi knows they can. It’s not too late.
The candles’ flames flicker in Jeanne’s glistening eyes. As is often the case lately, she doesn’t even look directly at Naomi. She offers her usual toast—“Slàinte Mhath” —before taking a drink.
From the bathroom, a dripping noise. It doesn’t sound like a leaky faucet though. No, it’s heavier somehow. More ominous. Naomi stares a moment into the flickering, throbbing darkness.
She returns her attention to her wife. “Come on. This is supposed to be fun. We’re here to rekindle, right? To reconnect? So how about this . . . Here’s to us. May we never sweat the petty things, but always pet the sweaty things.”
Jeanne laughs at that, though it almost sounds like a sob. How long has it been since Naomi made Jeanne laugh–or even smile?
“Oh god,” Jeanne says. “I just remembered that toast your dad made at our wedding.”
“We were lucky that was the worst thing he said. At my grandmother’s funeral—”
“I want you to know,” Jeanne cuts in, “that our wedding was one of the best nights of my life.”
Naomi despises being talked over, but she lets it slide. How can she be mad over such a lovely sentiment? Jeanne appears lost in thought. Her mouth’s open as if she wants to smile but can’t. That one crooked tooth peeks out from her upper lip. She runs a hand through her red hair. The curls are twisted into a messy bun the way Naomi likes.
Jeanne continues, “You did everything in your power to make our wedding perfect for me. The strings of lights. The rose petals. That whole debacle about the keepsake flower pots.” She chuckles and finishes her first glass. “Decorating the portajohn.”
“I wanted everything to be perfect.” Naomi sits back and looks away long enough to glance at the writing table. Now she sees that the pencil cup is actually a pseudo-rustic flower pot decorated with a mauve satin ribbon. It’s one of their wedding favors.
She scoots back her chair and Jeanne jumps, gasps with surprise.
“Calm down. It’s okay.”
When she tries to touch Jeanne’s hand, she jerks it away. Naomi nods and walks over to the writing table, stares down into the pot. It’s empty. Why would Jeanne bring one of them here? She presses her finger inside the cavity. The hole. “We stayed up all night painting these things and tying on all those ribbons.”
From the hallway, a childish voice says, “Would you like to come out to play?”
Jeanne rolls her eyes. “Come on, parents. It’s late. Wrangle your kids.”
Naomi crosses to the door and stares through the peephole. The hallway’s empty. When she looks back at Jeanne, she has refilled her glass. She must’ve refilled Naomi’s too, though she can’t even remember what the wine tastes like.
Jeanne stares down into her drink. “At the end of the day, though, you know what made our wedding perfect? It wasn’t the stupid flower pots. It wasn’t the butternut squash risotto. It wasn’t even the vows that I wrote and rewrote a dozen times and finally just stole a bunch of sappy greeting card nonsense from the internet.”
Naomi chuckles. This wasn’t what she’d expected to hear. “For reals? You plagiarized our wedding vows?”
“No, what made our wedding perfect was you. It was you holding my hand. It was you staring at me with so much love in your eyes. It was your smile. Your support. Even when you weren’t actually beside me, I could always feel your love. The way a flower must feel sunshine.” She raises her glass. “Here’s to you.”
Naomi wants to pick up her own glass but she can’t. She’s frozen. The raw sincerity of her wife’s words has struck her to the core. She’s trapped in time, gazing at Jeanne. How can one person be so beautiful inside and out?
From the bathroom, a whimper.
Naomi jumps. “Did you hear that?”
Another whimper. It sounds primal, like a wounded animal.
Jeanne shakes her head. “You know, for the past few months I’ve spent so much time yearning, no, aching to feel that love from you again. But I’ve only been wilting.”
Familiar sadness sets in, coupled with resentment. How can Jeanne not see how much Naomi gives her? “You do still have my love. You always will.”
“The thing is, in those rare moments when I actually do feel it, it only scares me.”
Naomi walks over and stares down at her. “That isn’t fair.”
Jeanne shivers. She hugs herself, clutching her own shoulders.
Even by the candlelight, she can see Jeanne is wearing her wedding ring. At least there’s that. Naomi holds out her hand, so Jeanne can see that she’s still wearing hers, as well. A braid of yellow gold fitted inside a sterling silver base. Jeanne’s is the reverse, silver inside of gold.
Naomi shakes her head. She’s here for a fresh start but she can’t shake the feeling that Jeanne is here to say goodbye. “What are we even doing here?”
The whimpering from the bathroom continues—a strained noise like a rusty nail scraped across a window.
“I’ll be right back,” Naomi says.
She follows the sound through the bedroom to the bathroom doorway, grateful at first for the break from the tension by candlelight. The candles on the toilet tank and sink flicker violently. The shadows bob up and down. The whimpering dissolves into something ragged. Desperate. She has to force herself to step inside the room. As soon as her foot crosses the threshold, the whimpering ceases.
The bathroom’s empty. Jeanne’s toiletry bag sits on the sink. Also her toothbrush and toothpaste. Naomi hasn’t unpacked hers yet.
She’s about to leave when she notices the tub is full.
“This is some hotel,” she calls out. “They didn’t even empty the tub.” As she watches, the water darkens. Shadowy clouds infuse the water. “Or clean it.”
In the tub, something stirs. Bubbles break the surface, followed by tangled tendrils of hair. A chill runs through her. She backs out of the room, shaking her head.
On the way back through the bedroom, she can’t help but notice only one overnight bag.
Back in the living room, Jeanne stands at the writing table staring down into the pot. “I think these damn keepsake wedding pots were our first real fight,” she says, as if Naomi never left the room. Hell, maybe she never stopped talking. “They arrived late, and they weren’t what I ordered at all.”
“You wanted rustic but these were all—”
“We had a big fight over it but in the end you stayed up with me all night painting them to make them look aged and tying on the ribbons, even though I know you thought it was all so stupid. It probably was. All that effort. All that animosity.”
“I think there’s something wrong with the tub.”
Jeanne shakes her head. “Most people didn’t even bother to take one after the reception. I was ready to throw them out, but you wouldn’t let me. We took every damn one of them home. You put them all over the house, a few in each room. The thing was, we didn’t have enough direct sunlight. Half the plants started to wilt.”
She takes her drink to the sofa, where she sits and curls up her feet. Naomi joins her on the sofa, but Jeanne looks away.
“You wouldn’t let me get rid of them,” Jeanne says. “No, you . . . you color-coded them and worked out a schedule to shift them around three times a week, so that each one got some light. You . . . you juggled sunshine. That was so you. You always had so much to give to everyone else. To the world. If I had a nickel for every time I heard you say, ‘How can I make your day shine?’. I only wish you’d given more . . .” She takes a breath.
Anger churns in Naomi’s stomach. “So help me, if you say you wish I’d give more to you…”
“I wish you’d given more to yourself. You deserved some shiny days, too.” She sniffles and raises her glass. “Here’s to juggling sunshine.”
A weight lifts from Naomi’s chest. She watches her wife finish the glass and put it on the table. Jeanne rests her head on the arm of the sofa and wipes her eyes.
From the hallway, a child’s voice says, “I can’t seem to find my dolly.”
Jeanne’s breath hitches. She’s crying. Naomi scoots over. Jeanne trembles.
“It’s okay,” Naomi says. “Can’t you feel my love? Your sunshine’s right here.”
Her wife sobs in her arms, and Naomi clutches her tight.
In the bathroom, something drips. In the hallway, footsteps patter past. Naomi ignores all of it, satisfied to be holding her wife.
They stay that way for the longest time.
Jeanne sobs. Naomi comforts.
Later, Jeanne slides off the couch. Naomi watches her blow out the candles in the living room one by one. She follows her to the bedroom, where she blows out the candles. The ones in the bathroom continue to burn while Jeanne yanks back the comforter and falls into bed. She doesn’t even bother taking off her dress.
Naomi stands over her slumbering wife. She’s about to climb into bed when a man’s voice chuckles outside. Shaking her head, she hurries to the door and looks again through the peephole.
At first, nothing.
A shape glides past.
She jumps back and gasps. Placing her ear to the door, she listens. Footsteps thump down the hall. That’s when she notices Jeanne’s satchel on the writing desk. She looks at the bedroom then back at the satchel.
Next thing she knows, she’s pulling a folder out of the bag. In it, she finds listings for homes. Ranch houses. Townhomes. Cottages. All of them clearly suitable for one person. She shakes her head, sobs.
As she collapses on the couch, she barely registers what’s on the bistro table. An empty wine bottle. Jeanne’s glass, empty. Her own glass, full.
She cries until all the tears are gone.
The dripping noise stabs into the silence.
Naomi wipes her eyes and sits up. She makes her way to the bathroom, ignoring the murmurs from the hallway. Like a moth to flame, she follows the candle’s glowing light. In the bathroom, she’s not at all surprised to find that the tub is now empty.
She stands over it, lost.
Behind her, footsteps. The candle winks out.
“Jeanne, it’s not too late for us,” she says.
Hands settle on her shoulders. She closes her eyes. It’s been so long. She swallows hard, tilts her head. The hands slide down her sides. She turns in the dark, hands tangled in long hair. Dim blue light adds shape to darkness. Her lips find her lover’s mouth, and they kiss. Urgently as if to consume each other. Now slowly as if to savor every nuance. She pulls away and kisses her wife’s neck.
“I’ve missed this,” she murmurs into Jeanne’s ear.
Their hands explore each other, familiar yet foreign. Her lover edges her toward the sink, but she grasps Jeanne’s wrist and pulls her toward the bedroom. “No, let’s do this right,” she says, but she freezes at the bathroom’s threshold.
In the bed, Jeanne still slumbers.
Naomi’s breath hitches.
The wrist twists out of her grasp, and hands tug her back into the darkness. The bathroom door closes. She spins around and shoves the intruder backward toward the tub.
A splash follows.
Pale watery blue light illuminates the bathroom, casting murky ripples upon the ceiling and walls. Somehow the light seems to come from the tub, which once again is full of water. Dark swirls permeate the bath. Naomi pivots and clutches the doorknob. It won’t turn. She pounds on the door.
“Jeanne! Help! Get me out of here! There’s someone in here with me!”
When she looks back at the tub, the water is completely dark. Tangled lengths of hair float on the surface, where a ripple forms. In its center, something round rises. At first, she mistakes the shape for some kind of ball, but it soon reveals itself to be a face shrouded in blond, soaked hair, and beneath it shoulders draped with a stained nightshirt. Two arms hang from their sleeves, baring torn wrists.
Drip. Drop. Drip.
Naomi pounds on the door. Again and again.
“Please, Jeanne. Let me out!” She grasps the doorknob. It won’t budge. She twists it with all her might. Behind her, feet squelch upon the tile floor. “Help me!”
At last, the doorknob gives. She flings open the door and spills onto the bedroom floor. Driven by terror, she bellycrawls under the bed. Her flailing hands knock aside one of Jeanne’s sandals.
“Jeanne!” she whispers as loud as she dares.
Naomi lies there in the dark. Her eyes grope at the shadows. She moans and whimpers. Surely at any moment a pair of pale feet will tread out of the bathroom. Instead, the bed shifts above her. Pale light shines from above. The bedsprings groan.
A light shines in her face. Hair drops down. She gasps.
Only it’s red hair. Jeanne’s red hair. The light comes from the flashlight on her cellphone. Naomi sighs with relief at the sight of her face. Her wife’s eyes are wide with fright, but also raw with desperation.
“There’s something in the bathroom,” Naomi whispers.
Jeanne ignores her warning. “I can’t do this anymore. The whispers. The furniture, moving. My things going missing. And now, monsters under the bed. Please. No more. Let me be at peace.”
Her lover’s face ascends, followed by her hair and then the light.
Naomi is left there, huddled beneath the bed. She stares into the shadows, through the darkness. When she closes her eyes, the view is much the same. She listens for her own heartbeat. Of course, she can’t feel it. She holds her breath and counts to a hundred. Two hundred. Three hundred. She has no breath to hold.
And then she cries. At least she can still do that.
The room remains dark when Jeanne gets up the next morning. Naomi watches Jeanne’s foot slide into one of her sandals. She sighs and drops on hands and knees. Her hand gropes under the bed until it grasps the sandal that Naomi knocked aside. Jeanne rises, slips her foot into the other sandal, and walks toward the bathroom. Naomi calls out a warning but Jeanne enters and shuts the door. Her wife, rather her widow, doesn’t bother showering. From behind the door, the toilet flushes. After a long pause, foam is spat into the sink, followed by a gurgle of water.
Naomi has crawled out from under the bed by the time Jeanne exits the bathroom. The cellphone light swings with the motion of her hand. Naomi’s looking upward from the floor. Jeanne stands at the dresser where she places her phone with the flashlight shining upward. It casts on the ceiling a distorted silhouette of Jeanne’s head, then her hands held almost together. The fingers stretch long and spidery across the ceiling.
“What’s happening?” Naomi asks.
Jeanne clears her throat. “I tried to keep all those plants alive. I really did. I shuffled them around, but without you there, they started dying one by one. I wasn’t much of a sunshine juggler. Not like you. I couldn’t bring myself to throw the pots out. As each plant died, I tossed out the dirt. Each empty pot became a hole, a tiny dollhouse replica of the one your body went into. But I couldn’t throw the pots away. I was amassing this grotesque assembly of graves . . . this horrid monument to your memory.
“But then something occurred to me. I’d spent these last months certain that you were haunting me. The shivers. The objects moving. Your distant voice. Now I wondered, perhaps I was haunting you instead. Isn’t that a notion?
“I filled the empty pots with new soil and new plants, and I donated the entire assembly of graves to a hospice facility. It seemed . . . it seemed so you. I couldn’t juggle sunshine the way you did, but I could maybe spread it around. I gave away all of our wedding pots except one.”
Naomi stares upward at the distorted head and hands upon the ceiling. “What is this?”
Those long dark hands remove Jeanne’s wedding band from her finger. Jeanne picks up the cellphone and her overnight bag. Naomi crawls after her into the living room in time to hear the plink of the ring dropping into the flower pot.
Jeanne walks to the door, rests her palm on the knob. “This hotel, I read about it online. It’s supposed to be the most haunted in the state. I even requested this room specifically because it’s supposed to have a lady ghost. She’s supposedly been haunting this room for decades. I didn’t see anything, but . . . there are other ghosts that walk the halls, too. I thought . . . I don’t know what I thought.”
“Please, Jeanne,” Naomi begs. “What is this?”
This time her wife looks directly at her. “This is goodbye.” She opens the door and steps outside. “I’ll always love you. Don’t ever stop juggling sunshine.”
Jeanne closes the door behind her, leaving Naomi alone. She sits there, sprawled on the floor, listening to Jeanne walk down the hall. In the bathroom something drips. From the hallway, more footsteps. Laughter. Murmurs.
Later that morning, the door opens again.
In walks a housekeeper carrying a set of sheets. He murmurs something under his breath before striding to the living room window. He flings open the curtains, flooding the room with daylight.
So much light. Perhaps more than Naomi could ever juggle.
While the housekeeper makes the bed, she pulls herself up using the sofa back for support. She walks over to the writing table and stares down into the flower pot. Her wife’s wedding band lies inside, but it’s not alone. Naomi’s ring is with it. Startled, she raises her own hands. Of course her ring finger is bare. She nods to herself.
The housekeeper hums a pleasant melody as he smooths out the sheets. Naomi walks past, unseen and unheard. She stands in the bathroom and offers her hand.
“Come on. You’ve been in here long enough, haven’t you?”
A pale hand grasps her own. Naomi shivers but smiles.
The slumped, dripping figure strides behind her, letting herself be pulled through the bedroom and past the housekeeper. He shivers, pausing in his duties to stare through them.
“This damn place creeps me out,” he whispers.
Naomi escorts the stranger to the open door. The housekeeper’s cart is parked outside. Footsteps thump past. The dripping woman hesitates.
“It’s okay.” Naomi pulls the dripping woman into the hall. “Let’s go for a walk and maybe you can tell me how I can make your day shine.”
© 2022 by Rob E. Boley
Author’s Note: I think all of our past relationships haunt us to some degree. They leave us scarred or damaged, enlightened or more self-aware, likely both. Then there’s the physical debris of the relationship, in this story – flower pots. Those artifacts can haunt us too. This story explores the haunting from the perspective of a quite literal ghost. What’s it like to be on the other end of the formula–the one doing the haunting? For the setting, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of haunted places, particularly hotels.
Rob E. Boley likes to make blank pages darker. He lives with his wife and his daughter in Dayton, Ohio. By day, he manages and analyzes big data. Yet each morning before sunrise, he rises to strike terror into the hearts of the unfortunate characters dwelling in his novels, stories, and poems. His fiction has been seen lurking in places such as A cappella Zoo, Pseudopod, Clackamas Literary Review, and Best New Werewolf Tales. He co-founded Howling Unicorn Press with his wife, author Megan Hart, to conjure tales that thrill, chill, and fulfill. You can learn more about this weird figure of the dark by visiting his website at www.robboley.com.