In Possession of a Mother’s Intuition

“I just don’t understand why you throw away all the scraps. You could make a stock, you know.”

Alethea grimaced as she tipped the last of the vegetable odds and ends from the cutting board into the trash, her back to the dining room. She closed her eyes. Maybe the woman would go away if she just waited…

“Did your mother not teach you how to make a stock? I can’t imagine that she would want to see you being so wasteful.”

Holding in a sigh, Alethea dropped the cutting board on the counter. She arched her back and pressed her hands in at the base of her spine to try to massage away the unending ache. The last trimester was wreaking havoc on her body, and the last thing she had any patience for was to wait out the ghost yet again. The woman could talk about nothing for hours; they had come to discover that more than once when they were trying to clear up from dinner.

But Alethea couldn’t bring herself to ignore the old woman. The old woman certainly never ignored her.

She sat catty-corner to the woman and plastered on her kindest grin. She reserved it for the Stepford wives in the neighborhood committee, for the shopkeepers that called her “sweet thing” while they winked, for the salesmen that tried to sell their wares on her doorstep — and, apparently, for the ghosts of mothers-in-law past.

“Can I get you a cup of tea, ma’am?”

The old woman smiled, the disapproval in her eyes softening. “Oh that’s very kind, but it’s much too late in the day for tea. And you don’t have to be so formal. You can call me…” That look turned to confusion, and the old woman’s mouth turned in a puzzled frown as she stared off at the wall in confusion. It could go on for a few minutes or hours, her brain too muddled in death to recall her name. For all Alethea or her husband knew, anyway.

Their starter home had been perfect upon inspection. They hadn’t questioned why the last owners stayed less than a year, or what had possessed them to undersell the house in such a great neighborhood. Then again, standard home inspections had no way of telling  when a ghost might manifest in one’s dining room.

At least their ghost was decent enough — there was no visible harm to her, nothing gruesome or frightening about her appearance. Her curly hair was pulled up in a perfect chignon, and her librarian’s glasses balanced perfectly on the bridge of her nose. She might have been in a well-maintained 80’s, or perhaps a weathered 60’s. She wore an ivory silk blouse buttoned all the way to its tied collar, the bow constructed so carefully that Alethea felt bad for noting that it was crooked.

The woman sniffed, her shoulders straightening. “Anyway, darling, I’ll show you how to make a stock here tomorrow before you throw all that away. Then maybe we can talk about the decor in here — it’s so different than I remember.”

It was true. Alethea had painted the dining room since the last time they’d seen their ethereal roommate, despite Tony’s protests that it might be bad for her. I’m here all day and I’m willing to get it done, she’d argued. I’ll have the windows open. It’s a non-toxic paint. We’ll both be just fine.

As though she could hear Alethea’s thoughts, the old woman looked to her and asked, “Did you paint this yourself?”

“It’s perfectly safe,” Alethea said, biting back her frustration. “I talked to my doctor first.”

“Oh, you don’t need a doctor to tell you that,” the woman replied, waving her hand in dismissal. “A woman knows. I didn’t see a doctor with any of the babies, until the one that died. And even then, I didn’t need a doctor to tell me the girl had passed — but Richard insisted.” The lines on her face deepened with her frown, and she exhaled softly. “Oh, you think you loved them so much until they’re gone. Then all you have is the time to think about every moment when you didn’t appreciate them enough.”

“Your husband, or your children?”

“Both, if I’m honest. Richard passed while Richard Jr. was still in diapers, not long after we lost the girl. I told the children that he had to leave us to take care of our girl in the great beyond. It seemed to give them some comfort. It was a blur after that, never really enough time. The children drifted away to their own lives before long.” She moved as though to tuck some stray hairs behind her ear even though not a single strand was out of place. “Everyone lives so far away now.”

“Where did they go?”

“Oh, everywhere. Amelia went to an all-girls school in California. You know the sort. The neighbors would whisper about her proclivities when word got out at her school, but I would never stand for it. And then Richard Jr. went up to Maine to live in a cabin and write stories — they’re quite popular, I hear, but…” She leaned forward and pitched her voice a bit lower. “I never read the books he sends. I put them on the shelf and tell all my friends how brilliant they are, but I have no idea, really.”

Alethea laughed, pleasantly surprised when the old woman joined in. It seemed like a normal moment, like what it might have been like if she’d had a grandmother. The laughter died on her lips, and she said, “I wish you wouldn’t ask so many questions about my mother when you’re here. I don’t have one.”

The old woman straightened right up, looking for all the world as stern and serious as the nuns in the schools Alethea attended as a girl. “Nonsense. You weren’t found under a rock.”

“You know what I mean. I spent more time as a ward of the state than in any family. So no, my mother never taught me anything.”

The old woman leaned forward and reached out to touch Alethea’s shoulder. Her hand didn’t connect, separated by a space that seemed nothing but cold. It sent a shiver down Alethea’s spine, but the old woman didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m sorry, dear. It must have been very hard for you. But you’ve turned out so well. And this is a good house. My children grew up here, and I bet this little one will be just as happy as they were.” The woman moved her hand to try to touch the swell of Alethea’s stomach and smiled. It made her look much more kindly, and yet much older. Their eyes met and the woman added, “You don’t need to have a mother to be a good one, darling. You’ll be just fine.”

Alethea swallowed, her vision blurring with unshed tears. “How can you be sure?”

“Oh, a woman always knows.”

The front door opened and Alethea jumped, turning to look through the arched entryway from the dining room to the living room. Of course — Tony would be back from work. Sniffing, she turned back to face the old woman, but she found herself alone again.

“Alethea? It smells lovely — oh, dear, why are you crying?” He sat beside her where the old woman had been and reached over to brush the tears from her cheeks. “Is everything okay?”

She could have told him about the old woman. He knew about the ghost as well as she did. She nodded and swallowed again, trying to regain some sense of composure. “Yes, I’m okay. Hormones, you know. One minute I’m making soup, and the next I’m crying. I just needed a moment. Help me up — it’s impossible to stand anymore.”

He did so, wrapping an arm around her waist and pulling her close to kiss her cheek. “Did you do anything fun today?”

“No.” She leaned into his solid body, relishing in his warmth and his presence. She often forgot how much she missed him during the day when he was at work. “But I think tomorrow I’ll head out to the library. I’d like to find a few recipes for making stock.”

Ashley M. Hill found her voice in science fiction when her curiosity about technology coupled with the lifelong urge to tell stories. Her interest in social and feminist issues shapes how she approaches the genre. She's pursuing computer and network repair for her day job.

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