Content warning: The death of a child
She’d always had trouble with her youngest two, especially the girl, Caroline. Addison was easier, because he didn’t yell as much, or say strange things, or seem to act on a different moral compass from everyone else. Addison was a normal, well-adjusted child, as far as Monica knew, but he was often sick, and hardly ever went outside. That wasn’t good, but at least he had Monica’s brother Percy to stay with him and tell him stories. Percy was a walking bundle of issues in most other ways, but at least he made sure Addison was happy.
Caro, on the other hand, had had a completely normal childhood, but was one of the most unhinged people Monica had ever met. She ran feral around the island, causing all sorts of problems and angering all sorts of people, and all attempts to rein her in had been futile. She was only eight years old, too, so there was no telling what she would be like when she was older.
Well, Caro was allegedly only eight years old. Monica was holding a small portrait of a Mr Percy Carter Sr, with his son James and daughter Caroline, if the back of the frame was to be believed. The man looked like all the other paintings Monica had seen of her grandfather, showing a thin man with a toad’s face who was balding even in his thirties. The boy, James, looked enough like the other paintings and photographs of her father when he was young, illustrating his long face, dramatic widow’s peak, flared black hair, and round glasses even at the age of five and a half. They were both exactly what she’d expected to see from a painting of her grandfather and father.
However, the girl was the spitting image of Caro. She had the same bouncy blonde hair that shouldn’t have appeared in a family of people with black and dark brown hair, the same bright green eyes that sparkled with mischief and knowledge beyond their years, the same nasty grin, and the same chubby, childish arms.
Monica didn’t know what to make of the painting. Caro wasn’t her child, she was a girl who was somehow connected to the family that had been dumped at her door a few years ago. Monica already had five children, and an enormous house she shared only with them, her husband, Ambrose; and occasionally one sibling or another, so she wasn’t going to turn out a poor girl who needed a home. She’d accepted Caro as her own, and told most of her children that she was a cousin who’d come to live with them permanently. In fact, that was completely false, and Monica had no idea where Caro came from or who she was. She had written to her brother Enoch a few months ago, demanding he find out who this girl was, after a particular incident Caro was implicated in somehow that had involved one boy drowning in the ocean.
Enoch had just arrived on Nantucket Island from Boston yesterday, and he had shown up after breakfast to present Monica with his findings.
Enoch Carter was one of the two middle children of the Carter family. He was tall, with neat gray-brown hair that came to his long, pale face in a widow’s peak. There was an intelligent sparkle in Enoch’s eyes, and a tilt to his mouth that made him always seem like he was about to say something profound. He hardly ever smiled, but when he did it always seemed fake, like he was only smiling because he knew something everyone else didn’t, and that simple fact made him instantly superior.
Enoch was the one who had handed Monica the portrait, and was the one who was sitting across from her at the table right now, his face unreadable.
“How about that?” Monica asked. “This girl looks exactly like Caro.”
Enoch handed her a birth certificate. “I found this in my attic, in a box of Grandfather’s. I’m sure I went through it when he died, but this must not have seemed important at the time.”
The birth certificate was for one Caroline Carter Warren, who had been born on Nantucket Island in 1806, and whose parents were Elizabeth Warren and ‘blank.’
“The father is almost certainly our grandfather, Percy Carter Sr, or Percy Carter the first, after the birth of our brother dear. I did some more digging, found out where the baby was born, that kind of thing, to back up my hunch, and discovered that Caroline Warren spent a suspicious amount of time here, at our house, with our grandfather. Hence this painting, which was probably painted in honor of her fourth birthday, if the dates match up correctly.” Enoch took out another paper, which was a sketch of Caroline Warren. “Here she is again. This was drawn by our paternal uncle, Joseph, when he was fourteen, which means that Caroline must have been with the family at least until she was five years old. Unfortunately, these dates also validate this, which is from a few months later.” Enoch handed Monica a death certificate and a newspaper clipping. Apparently Caroline Carter Warren had drowned in the harbor at the age of five and a half, having been pulled down by a rope off a whaling ship. Her body had washed up a few days later, and she’d been buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave somewhere on the island by her mother.
“Well, that’s upsetting, but doesn’t tell me anything about my adoptive daughter,” said Monica. “I already know that people go to Heaven or Hell when they die, and I know that outliers are few and far between.”
“I found something else,” Enoch said, “that might prove you wrong. It’s another newspaper.”
He slid it forward, and Monica picked it up to read it. It was from 1857, the year Caro had appeared on Monica’s doorstep. The heading image was a picture of a tree that had randomly uprooted after being struck by lightning in a storm. That was extraordinary enough, but there was also the fact that whoever had discovered it had also found a small skeleton tangled in the roots, where it had evidently laid since burial many years earlier. The article itself mentioned Caroline Carter Warren as a child who had died many years earlier, and entertained the idea that this could possibly be her skeleton.
“It’s a skeleton,” Monica said.
“That was torn from the earth by lightning mere days before Caro showed up here. Look, Monica, I’m not asking you to believe that you’ve been housing a ghost… but look at the evidence and tell me you haven’t been housing a ghost.”
Monica sighed. “Alright, I’ll entertain the idea that I’ve accidentally adopted one of the few outliers in the Heaven-Hell system. What do you want me to do about it?”
“Well, keep her here, maybe. She could use a second shot at being a child, don’t you think? She came straight to you, Monica. You should be honored that a dead ghost girl thought immediately to become your daughter.”
She sighed again. “I should try to raise her as correctly as I can, shouldn’t I?”
“Yes,” Enoch said. He was fond of being right. “You should.”
“That’s what I’ll do, then. Are you going to stay on Nantucket for a while, or are you going straight back to Boston?”
“I’ll stick around as long as I can, if that’s not too much trouble. I’d like to look at the bay scallops around here, and document their shells.”
“Very well, would you like to stay at the house, or at a hotel?”
“I’ll stay here, if I can.”
“I gave your room to Thom, but I can have one of the guest rooms made up for you.”
“I thought Addison had my room?”
“No, Addison has Percy’s room.” Monica paused. Percy was a sensitive subject with Enoch especially. “They’re very close. He isn’t here right now, though.”
Enoch huffed. “I can tell.”
One of Monica’s older children, James, came running in. “Addison fell and hurt himself in the yard.”
Monica stood up. “Show me.”
James gave her the full story as he led her outside. “Howard’s there with him, but he’s crying, and I don’t know how bad he’s hurt. He fell out of the tree in the back, and he might have broken his ankle when he landed.”
Enoch had followed them, apparently. “I’m a doctor.”
He was indeed a doctor, and had studied abroad in both France and England, at some of the most pretentious universities in the world. Monica let him follow them into the backyard, where they found the other children standing awkwardly around Howard and Addison.
Howard Carter was a slightly overweight man of average height, with neat black hair, a thin face, round glasses, and bright gray eyes that were permanently shadowed with a lack of sleep. He had a lazy, tired smile, and a slow, thoughtful way of moving that denoted a man who spent a lot of time thinking.
Howard was a philosopher of sorts, someone who did a lot of thinking and learned a lot about a lot of different subjects so that he could talk about them. He believed in things that you couldn’t feel or see, which put him at constant odds with Enoch. They shouted at each other about what was real and wasn’t real, what was worth studying and what should be ignored. Monica tried to remain neutral, preferring to hear about the mysteries that Enoch wrote on the side to pay the bills, or see the sketches of birds Howard had done. Conflict was a part of life, but these men often took it to an extreme.
Addison, a small boy with shaggy black hair and round glasses, was laying on the ground clutching his leg. He’d evidently stopped crying, but he still sniffled when Monica crouched down next to him.
“Show me where it hurts,” she said.
Addison half-heartedly lifted his leg, and winced.
Monica could see that the ankle was twisted, so she picked Addison up and carried him up to his room, which was on the top floor of the house. His room was small but cozy, with a bed, dresser, two stuffed arm chairs under a large window, a desk, and several bookshelves. There were exposed rafters, which he sometimes tried to climb on, to little success. Monica laid Addison down on the bed, and went for the bandages that were kept in the cabinet behind a bathroom mirror.
Enoch was bent over, holding Addison’s ankle when she returned. Monica crossed her arms. “And what’s your professional opinion on this patient?”
“It’s only a sprain. We’ll elevate his leg, wrap it with bandages, and I’m sure it’ll heal.” Enoch stood up. “He’ll need to stay in bed until it does.”
Addison groaned. “I don’t want to!”
“Too bad. Look, why don’t you read something while you rest? You have so many books.” Enoch picked several books off the bookshelves at random. “The Swiss Family Robinson? Sleepy Hollow? Classic Fairy Tales? A Collection of Stories of the Unknown? That’s an adult book. Why is it here?”
Monica shook her head and took the book from him. “Sometimes Addison takes books from my room to read. You’re too young for this, Addison.”
“But Mama, I want to read it. I can handle it, I swear. I was already reading the first story, and I like it. The ghost boy reminds me greatly of Caro.”
Monica shivered, but quickly composed herself. Enoch shot her a meaningful look, which she ignored for Addison’s benefit. “Alright, but Addison, darling, books like this are usually full of things little boys like yourself are too young for. Not to mention how scary they can be. I know you don’t like being scared.”
“I like being scared!”
“No, you don’t, and I can’t have you crawling into my bed late at night when you have a sprained ankle.” Monica kissed Addison on the temple and handed him his copy of The Swiss Family Robinson. “Here, why not read this instead? I know you love adventure tales.”
Addison grumbled, but he took the book. “Will you buy me a book of whales when you go out? I want to draw them.”
“Thank you, Mama.”
“You’re very welcome. Ring a bell for the servants if you need anything.” Monica led Enoch out of the room, and downstairs. “I’m taking the rest of our siblings, as well as James and Mildred, to see a play tonight. Care to come?”
“No, thank you,” Enoch said. “I’ll stay in to observe the stars from the widow’s watch.”
“Very well, have fun.”
“Thank you, I will.”
Monica went downstairs to her bedroom to get ready for the play. Ambrose, her husband, was away on business at the moment, so she was meeting up with Percy and Angelica on her own. She put on a blue dress, powdered her face, and brushed and did up her long black hair. Monica then left her rooms to go and find the children. James, who shared a room with his brother Joseph, had been in the bath, so he was in his room in front of the mirror, playing with his curly brown hair instead of getting fully dressed. Monica cleared her throat from the hallway, and James smiled guiltily before shutting the door and reaching for his jacket.
Millie was waiting in the front hallway downstairs, making a doll move for a delighted Caro.
“My name is Catherine,” Millie said, moving the doll like she was talking. “I like to play games? Do you like games?”
Caro giggled. “I like games. Don’t you? Of course you do. Everyone likes games, after all.”
Mille moved the doll closer to her, moving one half of it at the time so that it seemed to be walking. “Let’s play a game, then!” She tossed the doll to Caro, who jumped up and ran off with it.
Monica watched the entire exchange from the stairs. Caro seemed solid and normal enough. She didn’t look like a ghost, but then, ghosts usually looked just like normal people did. They normally had serious trauma, as well, especially attached to the event of their death. She would have to ask Caro some questions later, see if she was afraid of the water. That would help to prove Enoch’s hypothesis either right or wrong.
James came down the stairs, dressed in a new suit, and hooked his arm around Millie’s. James was fifteen, Millie fourteen, and both of them were tall for their age, with straight black hair, extremely pale skin, and long, bony faces. Millie took after Howard in that she tended towards being more flesh on her bones, whereas James was so stick-thin that it was a little distressing. Millie was beautiful, too, in a way that James, who had a weasel-like face, simply wasn’t.
Monica held open the door for them, and followed the two out to the front of the house, where her siblings were already waiting for them.
First, there was Angelica, Monica’s elder sister. She was short, with long brown hair that was the same shade as Enoch’s, and a face that was an unfortunate echo of their grandfather’s. She wasn’t noticeably fat or thin, though the dress she wore and the light set off her face to look more plump than it actually was. Angelica, despite her constant frown and looks of displeasure, was one of the sweetest, most innocent people Monica had ever known, though some of that innocence had been shattered by the loss of one of her children.
Monica had lost three children in her long lifetime. She knew exactly how that void you could never fill felt, how it was to bury the children who you had birthed and held and cared for. They were always there at the back of your mind, even on good days, even when you had been living for thousands of years and this was your fifth incarnation. It still hurt, and it hurt like nothing else ever could or would.
The other sibling who was present was her third brother, Percy. He was also remarkably short, with a shock of shaggy black hair, a long, gaunt face, and an uncanny smile that made him always look like he was holding something inside his mouth. Percy had a variety of facial expressions that he would make, but there was never anything behind the eyes. You could always tell that despite the sadness or joy or disgust on his face he didn’t actually feel any of them, except maybe that last one, when staring at a plate of peas.
Percy was a sensitive subject with their family. He had always been sort of strange, what with the fact that he hardly ever slept, he inhaled new knowledge like a lesser mind might inhale air, he isolated himself on purpose, and he had never seemed to feel much of anything. Monica knew that his hair was gray, too, even if he was only twenty-three, and that he colored it to fit in better. There was always just something fundamentally wrong about Percy, something that made her skin crawl and made her want him gone, even if he was her brother and she did love him. Sort of. He had run off to college in Europe on a scholarship after a childhood that was eventful in all the wrong ways, and promptly dropped out to do as he pleased with his friends, including a girl Monica had known when she was a girl named Camilla Chambers. After that Percy had seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth for a little while, only to come back without a trade but with a lot of experience that he shouldn’t have had, and no intention of changing any of that any time soon. Their father resented him for the wasted opportunity, and though Monica knew a man judging another man was wrong, she sympathized.
Percy smiled at Monica as she came out, and took her hand to help her down the stairs. “Did I hear that someone was hurt earlier today?”
“Addison,” Monica said. “He fell out of a tree and broke his ankle.”
“Oh no! Well, I’ll send a book to your home to speed his recovery. He likes whales, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, he requested a book of whale drawings just today.”
“Good, that’s what I’ll send him.” Percy hooked his arm around Monica’s, and walked by her side down the street, the two of them leading the small group.
A short man and a tall woman, the man with darkish skin and curly black hair, and the woman with long blonde hair and pale skin, were running down the street towards Monica’s group. They came to a stop in front of them.
“Excuse me,” the woman said. Her accent was Scottish. “Can you show me how to get to this address?” She showed Monica a paper that had Monica’s own address written on it.
Percy intervened. “Just keep walking straight. You’re almost there.”
The woman saluted her, and she and the man resumed their run. Both of them were dressed like they ought to have been in the French Revolution rather than Nantucket in the year 1860, and had strange, fey looks about their faces.
“What a strange couple,” Monica said.