“Let Me Know” – David Armstrong

The paranormal investigators arrived at our house the same day I was scheduled for an abortion at the East Columbus Planned Parenthood. Two of them were men and one was a woman with a purple birthmark near her right ear that looked like a burn. The heavyset man wore a digital recorder with a purse-strap. He kept touching the small gray knobs and repositioning his headphones. When he asked for quiet, the only thing I could hear was the whir of the refrigerator and the shrill whistle of air moving in and out through his nostrils.

They were making a documentary about their investigation. The director was a man named Charles Everett. He said to call him Charlie.

He shook my hand and looked at me funny when we met in the kitchen.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Fifteen,” I said.

“You’re going to be a heartbreaker.”

Mom and Dad were all smiles.

Charlie continued, “So what we need is some background. Maybe about the house, the area. Is there a history here?”

My dad swiped some crumbs off the countertop. “You know more than I do.”

“Fair enough, but for the documentary we want to get some footage from the horse’s mouth.”

“I got it,” said Dad. “You want me or Karen?”

“Probably all three.” Charlie was maybe thirty, with an elongated, childish face. He pushed his hair off his forehead, and it all fell back into his eyes.

Mom pulled a trashbag out of the can like a magician with a rabbit.

“Sorry about the mess,” she said. “We just finished breakfast.”

My mother is shy and pretty, and Charlie smiled at her differently than he did at my Dad. I don’t think this meant anything except that Mom and Dad are different people.

“Can we fix you anything, Charlie?”

“We’re fine. Mostly we’ll shoot in the den. But we’ll set up some other shots at the door to the attic. And maybe for Amy’s interview we’ll film in her room, if that’s okay with you.”

“Seems reasonable,” said Dad.

They positioned the lights in the den and got some close-ups of Dad’s signed Ernie Banks baseball and his collection of Appalachian Trail books. They also recorded room tone with the wheezy sound of Justin, the sound man, in the background.

Lydia, the gaffer, cracked jokes when the sound wasn’t rolling. She plunked a dime in Justin’s crack when he was crawling on all fours searching for the “hum” that turned out to be from our computer’s power strip. He rose up and smacked his head on an end table, and it made me shoot orange juice out of my nose. From then on me and Lydia were tight. She showed me how to tilt the LED panel to make the shot “ominous” and how to sandbag the tripod. I stopped thinking about going to the doctor for a while.

When it was my turn for the interview, Charlie positioned a few of my old stuffed animals on the bed behind me and pulled the curtains. Lydia put a dense black canvas over the window and placed a rectangular bank of flourescent bulbs in front of it. These were supposed to give the impression of cool sunlight seeping in. Lydia said fake light was better than sunshine any day. She put a translucent blue “gel” inside my lampshade, and the whole room got spooky and hot. Charlie said to try not to sweat, so I stood out in the hall when we weren’t shooting.

For filming I sat on my bed and Charlie asked the questions.

“Just look at me, and forget about the camera,” he said. “When did you hear the noise first?”

“Seven weeks ago.”

“Remember the date?”

“February. It was in February.”

I remembered the exact date, but I pretended not to. It was February fifteenth, which is the first time I ever had sex, and it was with Joseph Salzberg in our attic. I remember because it was the day after Valentine’s, and Mom said she was bummed because she thought it would be more romantic if the Ballroom Winter Festival at NorthPointe had been one day earlier. Then my parents left and Joey came over and we climbed up into the attic where I’d put down a few quilts and laid out some flower petals that I’d ripped off some daisies in the foyer. The petals looked a little sad and uncomfortable and lonely in the moonlight through the circle window with its beam like a target right where we did it.

We didn’t talk much. And right after is when Mom and Dad came home and started yelling for me, which is when Joey and I ran to my room. To lead Mom and Dad away from Joey, I told them I heard something in the attic. We all went up. They found the quilts up there, and the flower petals that hadn’t really gone anywhere, and at first Mom thought a squatter had been in our attic. But then Dad found some old boxes, which were the same boxes where I’d found the quilts, and there were black-and-white pictures of faded people in there who were sitting on that same quilt in a field of daisies, and they were smiling, and I felt my stomach kind of flip, then I threw up.

Everything happened fast after that. Dad and Mom got hooked on the ghost angle. They tried to find out who the previous inhabitants were. To keep them going I said sometimes I heard movement over the thin set of stairs that rose to the attic, and it was always at night, and my father checked every evening before we went to bed so that it couldn’t be anything but supernatural, or at least a trick of the house.

“Like two people laughing. Like they love each other,” I said. “That’s the sound.”

“And that’s all?” Charlie said.

“Maybe kissing.” I thought of Joey.

“Kissing?”

My neck suddenly felt hot and itchy.

“Can we take a break?”

“Sure.”

Lydia handed me a cold bottle of water from a little cooler my mom had supplied.

Then Mom called everyone for lunch, and Justin and Lydia turned off the lights and went downstairs, and when I walked back into my room Charlie was near my dresser with an off-white thing he called an EVP listener that looked like a baby monitor in his hand, and he was waving it around like he was checking for radiation, and in his other hand he had my fake license that said I was eighteen and the papers that the abortion counselor gave me before I signed the medical forms.

“It says you have an appointment today,” he said.

The little detector hissed in his hand and squealed. The sound was very quiet, like a newborn puppy.

At first I couldn’t think of what to do. I thought about running downstairs and lying, telling everybody Charlie touched me, but I didn’t.

Then he did touch me. He crossed the room and put a finger on my belly, just lightly, for half a second.

“How far along are you?”

I wanted to lie about that, too. But again I didn’t.

“Seven weeks.”

I looked at my feet. I was wearing purple ankle socks that day and didn’t remember putting them on.

“So, since—”

I was about to nod when the detector crackled. Through its pinhole speakers we heard a baby crying. Very small. Very far away.

Charlie stepped back.

The crying stopped. Charlie reached out and put the detector near my stomach. The crying started again.

Baby and I have turned the detector into a little game.

I say something like, “Hello, baby,” and then I put the detector up to my stomach and sometimes it makes a little giggle because it heard me. Very faint. Sometimes I read my brochures about bodily health and a woman’s rights under federal law just to see what baby thinks. Mostly baby is quiet.

It’s been a week since the paranormal investigators interviewed us, and they’re scheduled to come back tonight. Charlie said I could keep the detector if I promised not to go to Planned Parenthood. He gave me back the carbon copies of the papers that I signed with the counselor, but he kept my fake license.

The crew is in the driveway now. My mouth is as close to my stomach as I can get, and I am humming a lullaby about the mockingbird, but I don’t know the words, so mostly I just hum, and sometimes out pops a “heard” or “word.” I straighten up when my Dad opens the door to my room.

“Hey, pumpkin. Want to say hello to the crew?”

Somehow I feel like if I get up I’ll leave baby in this room here in the chair, and we’re getting along so well.

“No thanks, Dad. I’ll wait.”

I hear them downstairs, and the first one up is Charlie.

“Did you decide?”

I feel bad because I’ve been using his detector all this time, but I say no, I haven’t decided. Plus, he has my fake ID.

“You think this is a game?” He’s angry. He’s pointing a finger at my stomach. “That’s a baby in there. And we can hear it. Do you want me to tell your parents?”

I put the detector up to my stomach, and the baby makes a new sound. Smacking tiny lips in amber liquid that make a syrupy hiccup. And then another, and then a hard sound like a bubble bursting in tar.

“You see,” says Charlie. “She’s trying to talk.”

“I don’t see how you know it’s a girl.” But I think he’s right. The voice is like glass bells.

The detector clears its staticky throat, and then there it is, my baby’s tiny voice gurgling, but also stringing sounds together, and then, zip, just like that, a word: Beb-beb. Or maybe peb-beb.

“What? What’s she saying?” Charlie’s on his knees, sliding across the floor to my feet. “She’s saying words.”

Peb-beb. Behhb-ppppppp.

“Pebble?” Charlie says.

“Bed, maybe.”

“Have you been getting enough rest?”

“This is stupid,” I say. I throw the detector across the room. It doesn’t break because it hits the bed and falls off with a soft whump onto the carpet.

Now Charlie is very angry, and he shakes that finger. The crease between his eyes is off-center, and I can’t help wanting to roll it over to make a symmetry of his face.

“I’ll tell your parents if I have to,” he says.

“They’ll probably want me to get rid of it,” I say, though this isn’t true.

I want things to go back to the way they were so I can stop worrying about having a baby or not having a baby. Somehow the question—yes or no—feels like it’s changed everything already. Sometimes I wish I could fall down the stairs and I would lose the baby, and then it wouldn’t be my fault, and I wouldn’t have to make the decision, and I could also go back to doing whatever I want.

Charlie goes and picks up the detector off the floor. He hands it to me and says, “Just tell me if she says anything.”

I take the detector, but I only look at his knees.

Lydia and I have a great time again. She makes me forget there’s a baby inside me trying to say something through a ghost detector.

When Justin, the sound guy, tries to record the groaning I told everyone I heard on the stairs, Lydia hides her phone under some blankets near the attic door. Last night she downloaded fart sounds off the internet and made a playlist and plays it on the phone’s tiny speakers under the blanket. You can’t hear it over everyone talking. Then Justin tells us to leave the house so he can listen for ghosts. This is at six in the evening, and everyone  is feeling a little spooky because it’s getting dark and the ghosts might be moving around. We sit on the back patio in the dark and drink lemonade in quiet sips and whisper.

It’s a little cool, and my father builds a fire in the fire pit, and Lydia and I sit next to it, joking and trying not to laugh at the idea of Justin tracking the farts. But then the fire makes us somber. The air feels dry and humorless with woodsmoke. Lydia stares into the coals and I suddenly know. She’s the one I want to talk to. About this.

“Have you ever had a baby?” I ask.

She has a hard time looking away from the fire. She puts on a smile.

“I got pregnant once. Do you want to have kids someday?”

“What did you do?”

“You mean, did I keep it?”

I nod.

“I kept it. I wanted to. But he didn’t stick around.” She shrugs kind of comically by raising her elbows off the chair.

“Did you fall down some stairs or something?”

“No. Nothing like that. It just wasn’t a good time. I had low iron. That may have had something to do with it. Maybe not. Sometimes little babies just aren’t meant to make it. One in five, or something like that.”

She looks very sad to me now.

I want to tell her I’m pregnant. But just then Justin opens the window of the second story bathroom and yells at us. His head floats between moving streamers of smoke from the fire.

“Very funny,” he says. “Very funny, Lydia.” He holds up her phone. It’s still farting, and we can all hear it now.

Lydia turns in her chair and makes a half smile, but the fire is keeping her sad. The smoke won’t let her lips rise all the way.

“And by very funny,” Justin says, “I mean not funny at all.”

He throws her phone down onto the stone sidewalk my father built two summers ago. The plastic pieces bounce and roll, and I wonder which parts are the case, which are the phone, and which are its guts popping free and wobbling into the grass. Everyone is quiet. Justin shuts the window.

Lydia doesn’t get up, and my dad walks over and picks up the pieces in the dark.

Lydia whispers to me.

“Justin was the dad.”

Then my father brings the pieces of the phone to her and says he’s sorry. We’re all trying to keep the blank expressions that people keep when two people are fighting between themselves.

There are no noises other than the farts on the digital sound recording. Justin says that our house is a bust, very loudly, in the hallway so we’re sure to hear. My Mom and Dad look ashamed that their ghosts didn’t perform well.

Charlie hands me a bright green Gideon’s bible before he leaves. It is small. Smaller than my smallest notebook. He whispers in my ear, “I’ll let you off the hook. Those detectors pick up baby monitor frequencies. That’s what you’re hearing. Your neighbors probably have one in their kid’s room.”

He smiles and tilts his head like, forgive me, it was harmless. Then he taps the bible. “Read it,” he says. “Hope you make the right choice.” Then he’s out the door.

Lydia flips up my pony tail so it hits me in the forehead. She says, “Stay funny.”

Then they’re all out the door and Mom and Dad are in the kitchen washing up the lemonade glasses.

Back in my room I see that Charlie put my fake license in the bible. I put both things in my sweater drawer and turn on the detector.

I feel like my baby was sitting in this chair waiting for me to get back.

I hunch over and whisper.

“What do you think, baby? You a keeper or a go-er?”

The static is a tiny gray ocean on a marble-sized planet.

“What about it, baby? Speak up or forever hold your peace.”

Then I hear it. Babbling at first, but then making words. Whole sentences. Spelled out in whispers as light as corn silk.

_

Thank you to David Armstrong for sharing the complete text of his story “Let Me Know” for free on the web.  The complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

David Armstrong’s story collection, Going Anywhere, won Leapfrog Press’s Fiction Contest and will be published in fall of 2014. His individual stories have won the Mississippi Review Prize, the New South Writing Contest, Jabberwock Review’s Prize for Fiction and Bear Deluxe Magazine’s Doug Fir Fiction Award, among others. His latest stories appear in The Baltimore Review, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Potomac Review, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. A Ph.D candidate in fiction at UNLV, he’s fiction editor of Witness Magazine and recipient of the Black Mountain Institute Fellowship. He lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Melinda, and their dog, Prynne. More information is available at davidarmstrongfiction.com.