By AE Stueve
Six months after a drunk driver killed my wife, Trisha, I noticed a tapping whenever I walked into the bathroom. Since it was spring, I thought it might have been birds pecking against the window, or maybe mice rummaging around the crawlspace between the walls. But every time I switched on the light, it stopped. So I didn’t bother with it. I had too much on my mind.
Mostly, it was Bram. Since Trisha’s murder, her little black cat hadn’t left my side. Truth be told, I enjoyed him following me around, which was strange since I had only ever tolerated him before. He had a bad habit of leaving black fur wherever he sat, and he sat everywhere from the kitchen counter to my recliner. He was always underfoot, and his meow was annoying. But Trisha loved him and we both loved her, so there the two of us were, little more than begrudging roommates.
But since Trisha had left us both, we had become close. I was fine with him following me into the bathroom, pouncing up on the sink and squinting at the mirror as I shaved or brushed my teeth. Sometimes he got in my way, batting at my reflection, almost playful. Sometimes his gaze looked somehow both intense and melancholic, like he was wondering where Trisha had gone and trying to find her in the mirror.
All I could do to help him was pet his furry head and whisper, “Me too, man, me too,” through my own frequent tears.
I imagined him replying, “Jim, we can make it if we stay together.” Our shared grief was somehow comforting.
This changed late one night when I woke up from a bad dream I can’t remember and noticed Bram wasn’t in his normal spot next to me. The dim blue light from the full moon shone through the window on Trisha’s empty pillow. Strands of Bram’s black fur floated like dust motes in the moonbeam. I had to find him. I wouldn’t be able to sleep without him. I needed Bram next to me, if for no other reason than feeling his presence kept the nightmares at bay. His absence pinched my nerves.
That now-familiar tapping sounded from the bathroom again, so I headed there first. “Bram?” I called out, reasoning that he may have finally caught whatever was causing that sound.
More tapping replied.
Anxiety bubbled in my stomach. “Bram?” I repeated, ignoring my warbling cadence.
I walked down the hall toward the tapping.
“Bram?” I begged for him. Fear, a holdover from my bad dream, wrapped its grimy hands around my shoulders, urging me to stop, to go back to bed, to forget this until morning, until daylight.
But this time Bram replied with a low meow that might have been a growl. It, too, came from the bathroom. Something was wrong. I wanted to believe it was just mice or a bird that had disturbed him. But deep down, I knew it was worse.
The door stood half ajar. With a quivering hand, I pushed it all the way open. Its squeaking hinges did not mask the tapping or Bram’s almost manic growling.
I flipped on the light switch.
Bram stood on the sink, batting at the mirror. The tapping continued, and my elastic rope of nerves frayed a little more.
“Bram, what’s the matter?”
The cat ignored me. His paws danced over the mirror as if trying to find a weak spot in the glass.
Fear now nuzzled into my neck, its cold lips at my ears, begging me to walk, no, run away. It was a strong ancestral pull from the phantasmagoric, but curiosity shoved me toward Bram, toward the tapping. I took a deep breath. I tiptoed, the tapping grew manic. When my eyes followed Bram’s to the mirror. I saw Trisha’s ghostly image shining through from the other side of listless fog. I felt an urge to scream but couldn’t force the sound. Trisha’s eyes bulged, tears streamed down sallow cheeks. She pounded on the glass.
All I heard was that familiar tapping.
Bram meowed a plaintiff call and scratched the mirror while Trisha pounded.
“Trisha?” Her name fell from my lips like a crumb. She heard it and saw me, standing next to her cat, a look of dumbstruck awe on my face. Her eyes went wide when they met mine, and I heard her say two simple words that will haunt me forever:
I watched, stuck there by the sheer unreality of what I was seeing, as the shadow of a monster manifested behind her. It was a fully-formed horror, a walking nightmare, madness made flesh, a creature so terrible, that even now, years later, I know if I dwell on its nightmarish figure too long, I’ll go mad.
It lumbered toward her. I’m ashamed to say I spun around, fearing the thing was behind me, too. When I returned my terrified eyes to the mirror, all I saw was my reflection, Bram’s reflection, and the reflection of the ordinary bathroom wall behind us. The tapping had stopped. The…thing…was gone. My wife was…gone…again.
Bram mewled, stretching his neck and calling out in an unearthly, painful language that most men will never understand. But I did, I finally did. I do. I still do. There was anguish in that sound, but there was also anger. Bram was angry at the universe, angry at death, angry at what had taken Trisha. Mostly, though, he was angry at what he saw waiting for us beyond the veil. He died shortly after that. Was it fear that killed him? I don’t think so.
Because fear is what’s keeping me alive.