Hopscotch at midnight
By Michael Jordan
LINDA had been living at the new place for a week before she began to suspect that something wasn’t quite right about the house. And, like some corny, B-grade, horror movie, the trouble started with two females—Linda and her daughter—alone at home, and with the lights going out.
Linda glared at the television set, which only the moment before had been showing a tearful America’s Got Talent contestant storming off the stage.
She sighed, switched off the set, then groped on the nearby coffee table for the matches. Thanks GPL, she said to herself. Thanks for another wonderful night. Light the lamps, bolt the doors, worry about my husband in the bush, send my daughter to bed early…
She paused in adjusting the flame for the lamp, suddenly aware of the silence of the bedroom where her daughter was.
“Sharon? Everything alright in there?”
More silence, then a hesitant “Yes Mommy.” That made Linda rush to the room, convinced that her six-year old daughter was up to no good. Probably playing with my make-up again, she thought. But Sharon was staring out of the bedroom window overlooking the backyard when Linda entered the room. She was leaning forward, craning her neck as if attracted to something in the moonlit night. Suddenly she giggled and waved.
“Who is it… a new friend?”
Sharon looked around quickly and Linda caught a strange, secretive smile on her daughter’s face. “Not really mommy”. A pause, then, as if deciding to let Linda in on something, added: “Jus’ a girl in the yard. An’ a lady.”
Linda moved quickly over to the window. She peered into the night, but saw only shadows, the recently-cut grass that had already grown back almost knee high during the rainy season, and the fruit trees in the long backyard.
“Where, girl?” she asked.
“By the tamarind tree…by that branch that touching the ground.”
Linda stared at the tree, following the direction of her daughter’s pointing finger. “I still don’t see anything.”
Sharon shifted away from the window, suddenly disinterested. “They gone now.” Behind her, Linda heard the squeak of springs, as Sharon sat on the bed.
Linda turned to stare at her daughter, who was sitting on the bed and swinging a leg, the incident outside apparently forgotten.
“Sharon, you sure somebody was in the yard?
“Yes mommy. A girl was in the yard just now. And a tall lady with long hair and a white dress. The girl was playing by the tamarind tree. Something like hopscotch.”
She was pitching something and jumping. Then she stop and wave at me. Then the lady hold her hand and they go somewhere behind the mango tree…”
“And I ain’ see them no more.”
Girl, they didn’t go through the hole in the back of the fence?”
“No mommy. They just go behind the mango tree and—”
“Alright, Sharon.” The words came out sharper that Linda had planned. She shifted away from the window, and tugged gently at one of Karen’s thick plaits. “Alright baby, time for bed. School tomorrow.”
She didn’t know what caused her to awake later that night. She only knew that she was lying in bed feeling a strange, head-growing, skin-crawling sensation. She only knew that she felt that something…someone was standing by her bed and watching her.
She lay in bed, stiff with fright. She shifted her eyes around. Nothing…
But yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was standing near her bed. And now there was something else, too; the smell of something rotting, or burning; a smell that was familiar but yet eluding memory.
Then, just like that, the feeling of being watched subsided. Linda sat up, sweat-soaked and trembling. And then she realized that she was alone in bed.
“Sharon?” Maybe she was in the toilet, Linda thought, but even then, not believing it. Then she heard it. A noise from the kitchen. Someone was fumbling at the back door.
She groped under the bed for the cutlass that gave her the illusion of safety, and tiptoed into the kitchen. Sharon was at the door, pulling back the bolt.
“Sharon, what you doing, child?” Linda held her daughter’s shoulders and turned her around. And then Sharon said: “Mommy, Miss Doris and Glenis calling me. Glenis want me to go and play with she.” Her voice was low, slurred. Her eyes were opened, but unfocused.
Linda fought down her returning panic. “No baby, you can’t go now. It late,” She led Sharon back to bed, then lay besides her daughter, unable to sleep, almost in tears, wondering why her daughter had sleep-walked, wondering who Miss Doris and Glenis were…
Sharon was her usual perky self next day, so much so that Linda half –wondered if she had dreamt the whole incident. She watched her daughter preparing for school and thought, let sleeping dogs lie, Linda. But she knew she had to find out more about what had happened last night.
“Sharon…who are… Miss Doris and Glenis? They living around here?”
“Sharon, wiggling a sock onto her right foot, looked up blankly. “I doan know anybody name so mommy.”
“What you…what you were doing at the back door last night?”
Again the blank stare. B a c k…door?”
But it wasn’t a dream, Linda thought, the earlier panic returning. The feeling of apprehension continued even as she attended to her typing at the Ministry. She was reluctant to go home alone with her daughter. On impulse, she asked Maureen, the switchboard operator to come by the house, claiming she wanted to show her the new place, and to lend her a video cassette she had been asking for.
As the two women, with Sandra in tow, entered the house, Maureen muttered, “Linda, I didn’t know is here you living. I didn’t know.” There was an edge of tension in Maureen’s voice. She glanced around the living room, almost in apprehension.
Linda frowned, remembering now that Maureen had appeared to hesitate when they were entering the yard. “What happen Maureen? You know this place?”
The receptionist moved over to the suite by the television. She sat, staring at Linda.
“Nobody ain’t tell you about this place girl?”
Linda shook her head, impatience mingling with apprehension and curiosity.
Maureen’s eyes shifted around the living room. “This house suppose to be a bad place. Ah know a house like that in Kitty. Couples would go and live there, and just like that their marriages would break up. I had a friend—”
Linda moved closer and sat next to Maureen. “Tell me about this house.”
Again the wary glance around the room. “This house…is suppose to be a bad place for children. Ah dunno why. Some people say is because blood spill all over the property. Then some say is because a woman and she child dead hey a long time back. They say this woman and she husband had a lil daughter, and this child get nail stick while she was playing in the backyard. And they parents refuse to carry she to the hospital because they belong to one of them churches that believe is a sin to go to the doctor. So, they keep the child in the house, and holding prayers, while the child foot getting septic…”
“Oh gosh, that poor child…”
“They say the woman go crazy after she daughter dead. She kill sheself… light sheself afire.”
“In—in this house?”
“In this house. They say since then, couples with children can’t stay here long. They get miscarriages. They get deformed babies.” Suddenly, she glanced towards the front steps, where Sharon was sitting. “She alright?”
Linda looked at Maureen. The receptionist was leaning forward eagerly. By tomorrow everybody would know that I am living in a jumbie house, she thought.
“Sharon alright,” she said. And I alright too, she thought. She was no longer the little girl with plaits who granny use to scare with jumbie stories on moonlight nights.
But when nine o’ clock came and the lights went out- in the middle of The Bachelor this time – she hurried to bed, huddling beneath the sheet with Sharon.
Now she seemed to remember little things—things that had seemed insignificant at the time, but now seemed to take on a meaning of their own in light of what she had been told about the house.
Like the fact that the house had remained unoccupied for so long despite the absurdly low rent, the way the landlady’s eyes had kept shifting to six-year-old Sharon while showing them around the property. And when Linda had looked into the backyard and had seen the tamarind tree was laden with fruit, she had found it a bit strange that no neighbourhood child had thought of raiding it.
Her thoughts shifted to the woman. An image leapt into her mind of a tall, thin woman, eyes wild with grief and madness, knees bruised from kneeling by a child’s bed, waiting with blind faith for a miracle that would never come.
Where had she killed herself…in the kitchen? In this room?
If they scraped away the blue paint from the bedroom walls, the lacquer from the floor, would the boards be scorched beneath?
Her friend Maureen had said that the child had stuck her foot in the backyard. Had it happened near the tamarind tree? Had Sharon somehow seen the dead child and her mother? And if she, Linda, got up now and looked out of the window into the moonlit backyard, would she see them there too?
Linda shook the thought away and glanced at the alarm clock on the nearby vanity. She was shocked to see that it was almost midnight.
She shivered, shivered, suddenly aware of how cold the room had become. She pulled the sheet up to her chin. Her eyelids felt heavy. They drooped. She opened them quickly as she felt a stirring beside her.
Sharon was sitting upright, staring at the window. She was getting out of bed. Linda tried to call out to her, but could only make a weak, strangled sound. She tried to rise, but somehow her limbs refused to obey her brain. It was if a weight were over her, pressing her down. And, as on the previous night she sensed it…the presence of something…someone in the bedroom.
And with it came the smell, which she recognized now as the smell of burnt clothing, burnt flesh…burnt hair…
She lay there, not screaming, not moving, not crying as Sharon shuffled through the door. She heard Sharon fumble with the bolt of the back door, heard the door swing open. She knew that Sharon was heading for the backyard…the tamarind tree. She knew that something would be waiting there to harm her daughter. And with that thought came a deep anger, and she found herself thinking: You killed your daughter…not me. Not me! Now leave my daughter alone!
She sensed something stirring confusedly in the room
Leave my daughter alone!
The weight over her shifted…retreated. The smell was gone. She sat up in the bed gasping, trembling. Then she stumbled from the room, down the steps heading for the backyard. And then she saw Sharon. She stood beneath the tamarind tree. She was jerking back and forth, as if she was being shaken by someone. Her face was turned towards Linda. Her eyes were wide with terror.
Linda grabbed Sharon’s arm.
Something tugged back with equal force.
Linda tugged harder this time, screaming with fright and anger. And then she heard it…something that sounded like a long ugly suck-teeth. Then Sharon was pushed into her arms, and they were both running back towards the house.
Three months elapsed before Linda, living now in Campbellville, could summon the courage to pass by the house. A woman stared out of one of the window. A BMX bicycle was leaned against the steps.
Linda hurried past, wondering if the new residents had any children.