Baby

A Short Story by Maryetta Ackenbom

The kitchen clock struck eleven as Sherry drifted toward sleep. She pulled the blanket around her a little tighter, to ward off the sudden autumn chill. Then, for the first time, she heard it.

“Baby! Baby!”

It sounded far away, but the voice was George’s!

Not possible. George died, her mind told her. Her eyes came open, but she kept still. She heard it again.

“Baby! Baaaby!” George had always called her that, his pet name for her.

Sherry did not feel frightened, but she sat straight up in bed, listening. Nothing more. She got up, walked around the house and checked windows and doors. When she could find nothing else to do, she went back to bed.

Now she couldn’t sleep. Was her mind playing tricks? What if he really was calling her? What if he was alive, if it was all a mistake? Impossible. She still cried when she thought of his body, mangled beyond recognition in a head-on collision. Then—could he be sending her a message from the Beyond? Wearily, Sherry plumped up her pillows, took a pill and made herself lie quietly as she listened to the wind in the trees outside her window. She eventually dozed.

The next morning she decided she had dreamed it all, but she wanted to tell someone. She called her neighbor, Joan, who had been her friend for years, and asked her to come over for coffee.

“You know,” she said as she placed Joan’s coffee cup on the table, “I had the strangest dream last night. I thought I heard George calling me.” Sherry paced nervously around the kitchen, sat, then got up again.

Joan said, “Really? I guess that’s normal. It’s only been two months. Tell me about it.”

“Nothing else, really. I heard his voice, calling me. Then silence.” Sherry shuddered, and again sat briefly at the kitchen table. She automatically reached for the sugar bowl and added another spoonful to her coffee.

“If it happens again you call me. I’ll come right over. No matter what time it is.”

“All right, dear. Thank you. Sometimes I feel so alone . . .”

Sherry put the dream out of her mind and went to the gym, a new plan of hers to help ward off the loneliness as well as the middle-age flab. She worked out for a couple of hours, then browsed through some stores in the neighborhood. When she found that she was just plodding, rather than browsing, she went home. There, she continued the onerous chore of sorting through George’s clothing. The odor of mothballs made her gag, and she had to stop as she swallowed back tears, fondling his favorite sweaters.

In bed again at an early hour, Sherry was tired enough to put her book down after a few minutes. She turned out the light and slept.

She was awakened again by George’s voice: “Baby, Baby!”

Still drugged with sleep, she sat up and said, “Yes, George?”

She listened. There was nothing else. “George, do you want something from me?”

Nothing. She shivered. She had taken to wearing George’s heavy tee shirt to bed, but it did not prevent the chill she felt.

Sherry’s mind came awake, filled with questions. What else could this be, but George trying to contact me? Why? Why is he scaring me? She decided she might need professional help. In the morning, she would think about what to do. She lay still until she slept again.

Madam Olga lived a few blocks away. Sherry had noticed her house before, a clean, middle-class brick house, nicely kept, with a discreet sign by the door announcing “Readings by appointment,” and giving the telephone number. Sherry called.

That afternoon, Madam Olga welcomed Sherry into her living room. Here, everything looked normal. Olga did not look especially mysterious; she looked quite elegant in a beige silk pants suit. Sherry felt a little out of place in her cotton shift which had become slightly too small for her. She looked around for crystal balls, Ouija boards, but saw nothing unusual. The scent of the rose petals in a cut-glass bowl on the coffee table began to relax her.

Olga said, “Let’s sit over here on the sofa. Would you like some coffee, or a cold drink?”

“No, thank you. I’d like to know what you think about a dream I’ve been having.”

“Straight to the point. All right. I remember your husband was killed recently; I read about it in the newspaper. I assume the dream has to do with him?”

“Of course.” Sherry paused. She liked Olga but she wasn’t sure how to begin. “Uh, I’ve been awakened a couple of times by George calling me.”

“He must be trying to reach you. How did he sound?”

“It was his voice, and he used his pet name for me, ‘Baby.’ The second time I sat up and asked what he wanted, but I heard no reply.” Sherry gave an involuntary shudder.

“Definitely trying to reach you, and there is some kind of a block in the way. Let me meditate on this for a few minutes.”

Olga closed her eyes and sat still. Sherry tried to be just as quiet, but kept twisting her hands together. George, if you are here, let me know what you want!

Five minutes passed.

Olga finally said, “I’m getting nothing. Mrs. Bryant— “

“Please call me Sherry.”

“Sherry, I suggest you call me when this happens again. I’m a light sleeper, you won’t disturb me. If I don’t feel something right away through the telephone, I’ll come over to your house immediately. If it’s George, he’ll probably be there for awhile, and maybe I’ll be able to sense him.”

Sherry was grateful for Madam Olga’s calm assurances. She thanked her, paid her, and went home.

Entering her house, she again heard George’s voice, “Baaby, Baaby.”

This time she was terrified. Ghosts shouldn’t be at large in the middle of the day! She stumbled toward the couch, sat and covered her eyes with her hands. “George!” she shouted. “What do you want? I’m right here, tell me, please!”

There was no response.

With shaking hands, she telephoned Madam Olga. The line was busy. She called her doctor. The secretary heard the panic in her voice and connected her immediately.

“Doctor Rood, this is Sherry Bryant. Doctor, I’m hearing voices! I hear George calling me! I’m scared!”

“Be calm, Sherry. I’ll be able to come see you in about an hour. Meanwhile, take two of those sedative tablets and lie down. Why don’t you call a friend to come be with you?”

Sherry took her pills and called Joan, who came over immediately. Joan found her trembling and sobbing, and tried to make her comfortable on the sofa with pillows and a blanket. She didn’t say much when Sherry told her what happened, she just tried to soothe her as she would a child, tucking in the blanket and patting her shoulder.

When Dr. Rood arrived, Sherry was calmer, but her blood pressure was high and she was almost incoherent. He decided it would be wise to hospitalize her for tests. Joan helped her gather her things while Dr. Rood made arrangements for her admittance.

As Joan helped Sherry to the car, a young man passed the house, leading a small dog on a leash.

“Hello,” he said. “Something wrong? Can I help you?”

Sherry heard him and looked up, puzzled. “Your voice . . .”

Joan said, “I’m taking my neighbor to the hospital, she doesn’t feel well. Are you new to the neighborhood?”

“Yes, I’m George Styles. I just moved in the house two doors down with my wife Lisa. This is our little dog, Baby.”

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The Wrong Note

A Short Story by Maryetta Ackenbom

Ellie sat, dismayed, her head low. Her guitar practice sounded way off-key this morning, and she had just struck a chord so dissonant that it brought tears to her eyes. Her fingers were still on the chord. She strummed it again. It was actually painful!

She carefully put the guitar in its place on the table. Why am I doing this? Why go through all this agony, this spiritual agony? I know I’ll never really get it.

Her teacher, a man only a little younger than her seventy years, kept encouraging her during the weekly lessons, saying gently, “Ellie, you need the exercise, the movement of your fingers and the tendrils of your brain. Just relax and enjoy it.”

She accepted that. She couldn’t stop her guitar lessons, her stretching exercises, her vitamins and ginkgo biloba. If she stopped, she’d be crippled, physically and mentally, in months. She knew it. But where was the value of torturing herself?

I’m not depressed, I’ve got to bear it. She gazed out the window at her colorful garden she could no longer care for. Thank God for the pension which just barely allowed her enough to pay the gardener. The crotons, the coleus, the fading golden roses on the trellis she had started all those. Now she could only admire them, and make suggestions to her young gardener: a snip here, more water there, some weeding among the chrysanthemums.

When did she begin to strike the wrong note in her life? She’d been so happy and carefree with Joe.

“Let’s get married,” he’d said. Not on bended knee, and not, “Will you marry me, my love?” But at sixty miles an hour on the highway in his convertible, heading for a summer holiday with his parents after college graduation.

She had paused, cleared her throat. “Well, sure, Joe. We always thought we would.”

“No, I mean right now. In the next town.”

Fifty years ago it was fairly easy to find a Justice of the Peace or a hungry minister who would marry a couple with no fuss.

So, they found him, and were married. They continued on their way and stopped at the first decent-looking motel, suitable for a honeymoon after a slap-dash wedding ceremony.

She was still a virgin, technically, although they had each brought the other to climax with loving hands. Joe entered her carefully that first time, but it did hurt. Pain, but fulfillment. How grand it was!

The motel room was drab, she noticed when she rolled away from him. Brown and orange. They had closed the heavy leaf-patterned drapes as soon as they came in. She had no idea what might be outside the window.

How grand it was no, it wasn’t that grand. A sour note had already been struck with their impromptu wedding. It wasn’t what she’d hoped for. Maybe not a long white dress, walking down the aisle in a church full of family, friends, and flowers, and into his waiting arms. But she would have liked some beauty, some nice clothes, flowers, music. Especially music.

The years rolled on, like the adagio in a symphony. Joe sold luxury cars in his father’s agency, and inherited the agency when Joe Senior died suddenly at age fifty. Ellie taught high school English. She was good at it, and good at politicking, eventually becoming principal of the high school. Money was good, good enough for season tickets to symphony and opera.

Ellie went alone, or with a friend. Joe’s favorite music was simply loud. He didn’t care when she objected to the “noise”–he just turned it off. But he could not bear classical music. So, another sour note: no music in the home.

The home. Just the two of them, rattling around in a suburban ranch house until Joe’s father died. Then they moved in with his mother, in the downtown mansion. They hardly noticed the presence of Mom. She was a shy gray mouse. But when she took ill and died, Joe went crazy. Ellie never knew, she never understood the strong attachment he had to his mother. Joe locked himself in his room for days at a time. Ellie left food trays at the door. Sometimes he would eat, but often he would not touch the trays.

The loneliness led Ellie to turn on a classical music station, leaving the volume low. If Joe happened to leave his room, she’d immediately turn it off. She noticed, whenever she saw him, that he was losing weight. He was actually gaunt. She tried to talk to him, but he ignored her.

The time he isolated himself in his room for three straight days, not eating and not responding to her pleas, she called a locksmith. They found him dead in his bed, curled into a fetal position, like a bass clef signature.

After a few weeks, Ellie recovered from her loveless grief and began to go out with her single or widowed friends. Music began to fill her house, at the appropriate volume. Visitors came, stayed for lunch or coffee. She was only forty. She began to live a new life.

She took classical guitar lessons. She splurged on a fine Spanish guitar and found a teacher who would tolerate her slow learning process.

She knew, after the first few months she’d never be able to play that guitar. It hurt her to realize that even though she had a good ear for music. Her hands would not coordinate with her brain. Also, she began to drop things. She dropped silverware, broke a number of glasses, had trouble doing up buttons. Finally, she had trouble interpreting the music notes.

Those sour notes began about ten years after Joe’s death. After putting it off for several years, she consulted a doctor. The diagnosis premature senility. But, said the doctor, she could postpone the problem by working hard to keep her mind and body active. She could have many pleasant years before her if she’d pay attention to her health.

Why am I sitting here bemoaning my fate? Why don’t I get up and do something? Go somewhere? But where?

Allie’s life now revolved around music. She pondered that idea. Where could she go where there would always be music?

Why, I’ll go to Italy. And maybe Austria. That’s where I will go, that’s where I will live, and perhaps die. My savings will support me, along with my pension, for quite a long time. I’ll go and find my music.

She picked up the telephone, found the number of the well-known travel agency, and dialed. Oh. “Leave a message at the tone.” Stunned, she replaced the receiver. The tone was off-key.

She smiled, delighted with her life again. How funny! I’ll just have to call later. She picked up her guitar and immediately found the correct chord.

Julia

A Short Story by Maryetta Ackenbom

Such a fine concert. Julia sat in her recliner, pushed it back and let the good feeling of the evening soak in. She needed to get up in a few minutes and get ready for bed, but she couldn’t let go of the evening, not yet.

Since she had given up her driver’s license a few years ago, when she turned 80, she depended on friends to take her to the musical events she loved so much. She couldn’t go often while Albert was alive. He demanded her full attention, all the time. Life had been hard with him. Even when he wasn’t drinking, he was demanding and abusive. But when he died, just after she had given up her driver’s license, she was free to do what she loved, if she could find friends willing to take her. She felt she was lucky to have the freedom, and the physical ability at her advanced age, to enjoy the cultural events in the city.

Now she had a steady ride every week to the symphony. It didn’t matter what was playing. She preferred the old classics, but anything would do. If it was a modern piece, with that awful cacophony, at least it was interesting. And she was with friends, which was another activity that she had been deprived of with Albert.

She looked around her large bedroom. It had been difficult to limit herself to one room when she turned over her house to her son, but it was necessary. Albert had not left her enough money to live on, and she had to make some arrangement with the house, her only valuable asset. Fortunately, John was looking for a place to live and loved the old house. He guaranteed her an allowance every month for the rest of her life, and he moved into the house with his wife and three teen-age children.

Even though Julia did not get along well with her daughter-in-law, she now had a decent life, better than the life she shared for so many years with Albert. The bedroom was comfortable and big enough to act as a sitting room. John had given her the use of the entire downstairs, but after a few months of running into family members busily leading their hectic lives, she stayed in her room most of the time. Her daughter-in-law’s cook took good care of her, bringing meals to her room.

Julia closed her eyes and remembered the concert, the strong chords of Beethoven, the sweet melody of Brahms. It was so pleasant. I am so content right now. What if I just let go?

Comfortable in her recliner, she did that. She let go of the life she had been holding onto so strongly. Now that her life was good, she could release it.