I knew his name from where he’d written it in the cement out back. “Henry Whitmore” was carved in the corner of the patio, furthest from the sliding door. That was the one thing I’ve loved about this place all along—that patio, and the shady backyard with the big magnolia tree. Otherwise, it’s just a creaky old bungalow with small windows and a crabgrass lawn.
We moved here from Marietta the summer I was near to bursting with Susan, our third girl, and Roger started his new job at the Corning plant. Even before things started happening, I kept thinking about that name. When I first set up the table and chairs outside and found myself staring at that block of carved cement, I took out my phone and googled, “Henry Whitmore” and “Atlanta.” Up popped a newspaper story from 1962. Reginald Henry Whitmore, sixteen, had died in a car accident. Alcohol was involved. Knucklehead.
I met him ten days later. Roger had griped about his eggs being overcooked again, so he’d left early that morning to stop at McDonald’s. The girls and I had eaten together, then spent the morning out back playing. Adrienne was just a tiny two-year-old then, but Jenny could coax her into little games like tag and hide-and-seek. I can still see their blonde curls bouncing in the sunshine, still hear all the no fairs and the ready or nots.
After lunch, I put them down for a nap and then headed to the den to unload boxes. Just as I set my grandpa’s clock on the fireplace mantle and started winding it, I noticed a sweet smell seeping into the room. It wasn’t a bad smell, but heavy, like honey and mothballs. It’s hard to explain, but I knew someone was there. And I knew who it was too.
I turned around and saw a dark figure in the hallway. It was tall, and blacker than the shadows all around it. Sent a chill through me all right. I swallowed real hard. The clock ticked loud beside my ear. Finally, I managed to say, “Henry?”
He didn’t move. But the smell grew stronger, so I took it as a yes. And then a calm settled over me. He was just a boy, I reminded myself. He wasn’t going to hurt anyone.
I cleared my throat. “Come to keep me company? Well, come on in. It’s your house too,” I said. Because it was. It had been.
That was the start of it.
As the months went by, Henry showed more of himself. It’s hard to describe, but it was like a film projector, I guess. I could see his jeans and white shirt, his side-parted hair and those long sideburns they wore then. But also I could make out our family photos on the wall behind him.
When I tried to tell Roger about Henry, he’d remind me how hard he worked for this house and what all he did for me and the girls and that he only ever wanted a boy anyway—that whole thing again.
The irony, see. He had a boy right there, if only he’d connect.
The more Henry came around, the more I talked to him. I mostly asked how he was doing, because he worried me. He seemed like a boy who needed a mama. But he never answered, and the more used to him I got, the more I talked about myself. I told him how tired I was, how the new baby was colicky, how Roger’s complaining exhausted me. Henry never said a word, but I did feel like he listened.
He could get rowdy with the girls sometimes—a bratty brother annoying his sisters. Why, Jenny like to broke her nose that time she was pedaling her bike along the patio and the wrought-iron table slid right in front of her with an awful screech just before she plowed into it. And poor Adrienne refused to go in the kitchen for weeks after she went to get some juice one day and the drawers all banged open at once.
“Such big imaginations,” I told them, and forced myself to laugh. Looking back now, I realize I shouldn’t have brushed them off like that. But they were scared of Henry, and I thought if I made out he was real it would scare them more. Then one day Adrienne said the boy who lived in the Magnolia tree dared her to jump off a high branch. I planted sage. I told Henry I’d burn it all through the house if he didn’t shape up. Things settled down after that, and years went by, like they do.
Now here we are, nearly twenty years on, and Roger has left us. He said since the girls are nearly grown there’s no need to pretend anymore. I told him I never pretended, that I still loved him, but he laughed. “You love that ghost of yours more.”
I was shocked. I reminded him how he’d never believed in Henry.
“That was before he pushed me down the stairs,” he said.
I was speechless, I’ll tell you. I couldn’t believe it. Roger had taken a spill down the basement steps a year ago. His arm had been in a sling for two months. “You blamed me for that,” I said. “You told the girls I left a towel on a step.”
“What did you want me to tell them? Casper’s not so friendly?”
I should have pushed Roger myself. Not down the stairs but out the door, years ago.
Now the house is on the market. It’s time, I know. Jenny’s in her last year of college, Adrienne her second, and Susan just graduated high school, so she’ll be off in the fall. The girls helped me pick out an apartment in town, and yesterday we packed up the last few things. That sweet smell grew stronger the emptier the house got. In the late afternoon, we sat down on some moving boxes and drank lemonade.
“You smell that?” Adrienne asked. She had a funny spark in her eye, and she was looking at Jenny.
Jenny said, “Henry.”
Oh, how that shocked me. “How do you know that name?” I asked.
All three of them stared at me, and then they started talking over each other.
“He wrote it in the backyard.”
“We all knew, Mom.”
“He would show up in the mirror in my bathroom.”
“He hid behind that tree out there.”
And like a blown faucet it all spilled out, what we’d seen and heard over the years, what was creepy and what was kind of funny now. We talked until well past supper time and it started getting dark outside. When we finally got up to leave, Susan touched my arm. “Mom, why didn’t you tell us?” she asked. “Sometimes I thought I was crazy.”
I wanted to say how I hadn’t wanted to scare them, how Roger hadn’t wanted to hear about it. But the real reason came to me then. “You’ll be a wife someday,” I told her. “Maybe a mom. All those first words and first steps—they’ll be real special. But the rest is vacuuming and cooking and carpooling.” I smoothed a yellow strand of hair behind her ear. “Henry was a wonder,” I said. And he was. A bit of magic I wanted all to myself.
Today the cleaning crew is finished, and I’ve come to see how they did. There’s no sweet smell now—just Pine Sol and Pledge. I stand by the fireplace in the den and look at the doorway, the window, all the places I’ve seen him. I sit on the hearth for a long while. Finally I say, “I’m sorry I’m leaving you, Henry.” My voice echoes along the walls and floor.
I go out to the patio and kneel down on the warm cement. I trace Henry’s name with my finger, imagining him as a little boy, writing this name with a crooked stick. Proud enough of himself to leave something behind, young enough to think the future was certain.
“You go on now,” I tell him. “There are better things ahead.”
I hope I’m not lying about that, because it does feel like something happens then. A breeze lifts my hair, and I smell the magnolia. It always blooms in June. I look over at the tree just in time to see the air shiver and sunlight beam through the branches. I swear I see a handful of blossoms fall.
It’s time, I know. Ready or not.
Cathy Cruise has published stories in American Fiction, Appalachian Review, Michigan Quarterly Review and other journals. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and she has received numerous awards, including the New Rivers Press American Fiction Prize and Washington Independent Writers Award. Her first novel, A Hundred Weddings, was named a 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Award finalist. Cruise has an MFA from George Mason University and currently works as a freelance writer and editor in Northern Virginia.