Dennis Mahoney

The Ghost in the Glass

The night she was stabbed, Anna Lee picked up her favorite carving knife: a wedding gift from her mother. She’d honed it every Sunday for the past ten years but had never even nicked her finger with the blade. She gave it to her husband, Buck, who sliced a cold potato. Evening flurries hit the window, where they melted into beads. The kitchen smelled of cinnamon and warm frothy butter. Buck used the knife and hummed “The Carol of the Bells.” She’d always found the song inexplicably disturbing.

She rubbed her hip against his leg, building static in her slip. Buck was burly, with a paunch that made him grand instead of flabby, and his walrus-style mustache expanded when he smiled. Anna Lee liked the tickle of his whiskers when he kissed her, and she liked to feel his belly underneath her in the dark. She’d imagine she was straddling a hillock or a moon, and his gravity would comfort her and ease her into sleep.

She noticed he had whittled his potatoes into people. They were crude but recognizable: a model of their family. There was Buck, a hefty spud resting squarely on its base. Then the figure of their daughter, like a rounded piece of soap. Finally Anna Lee herself, looking pleasantly curvaceous, very cold, very slimy in her outstretched hand.

“We have to boil these, you know.”

He staged a miniature escape. The two potatoes in his fingers hopped and wobbled down the table, sneaking off toward the salad bowl in quiet desperation. Anna Lee dropped the Anna Lee potato in the pot. Her husband sighed and made his two remaining sculptures bow in sorrow. Then he walked them back and dropped them in the pot with real solemnity. The water rolled and foamed. She felt a sudden wave of nausea. Then their daughter floated up and broke the surface with a bounce.


Marjorie stalked a spider in the study up the hall. She was eight, rather chubby and precocious like her mother, wearing polka-dot pajamas and a big wool sweater. She crouched on the carpet with a tumbler in her hand. A spider stood discreetly at the corner of the hearth. It had the quality and color of a miniature octopus. It looked to be a wolf spider, dominantly gray, two stripes bowing outward up the middle of its back.

She had seen it once before, in the kitchen near the pantry, but her father had assured her it was poisonless and timid. He had told her that the wolf could be mistaken for the recluse.

“Recluse spiders have a little violin,” he’d said. “Nasty reputation but they’re really pretty timid. They would only try to bite you if they’re cornered or provoked. If it’s hiding in a slipper and you squish it with your toe. Its mystique is kind of fabricated. Also kinda real.”

So she scrutinized the spider at the corner of the hearth. There was no violin, far as Marjorie could tell. She clapped the tumbler down and trapped it with extraordinary luck. She slipped a coaster underneath and held the spider in the glass. Then she ran to show her parents in the kitchen up the hall.


Buck recognized the tumbler when she swept around the corner, but before he saw the spider she had stumbled off the jamb. She took a long, wild step. She wheeled her arms with open hands. She let the tumbler go. It hovered there, a spinning piece of glass, before it landed on the table with a clink and bounced away. She looked at Buck throughout her fall, almost quizzically, he thought. She hit her head against the dull wooden corner of the tabletop. It sounded like a bottle being broken underwater. She collapsed against the floor, looking rubbery and dead.

Anna Lee dropped a bowl. Buck hip-checked the counter. No one noticed when the spider scurried off beneath the oven. Buck forgot what he was holding when he ran around the table. In his panic, he had hardened every muscle in his body, and he didn’t see his wife until the two of them collided. Their collision would have ended in an awkward sort of hug, except the carving knife, inflexible and steady in his fist, came between them in the crash and just as quickly disappeared.

Anna Lee said, “Oh,” very softly at his throat.

He felt a weird, deep tremor up the middle of his arm. She landed backward on her palms, sitting firmly on her heels, and then she settled on a pile of her hair and closed her eyes. Buck was stupefied. He looked at Anna Lee and then his hand. The knife was gone. He looked at Marjorie, who didn’t seem to breathe, and then he looked at Anna Lee, who had a handle in her side. He heard the tumbler on the floor, still chiming off the tiles, and he waited for the terrifying moment it would shatter.

“Get the phone,” said Anna Lee.

The tumbler settled in the corner. He regarded it, amazed that it was perfectly intact.


Anna Lee woke in a hospital bed. Her sleep had been the color of the lining of her eyelids—warm, blackened orange, glowing coal, fever red. She had dreamt about a tentacle unfurling in her body. She had listened to the intermittent fluttering of wings. Now her husband sat beside her, looking voided and anemic, and she stared at him and wondered if their daughter had been killed.

“She’ll be fine,” he said. “She’s only got a moderate concussion. Giant coconut, but otherwise she’s absolutely fine.”

Something vital and constricted opened up inside her chest. She thought it might have been relief, but she was startled by its forcefulness. It felt as if a tourniquet had fallen from her heart, and now the muscle had relaxed and started bleeding uncontrollably.

Her thoughts were clear and ordered but she couldn’t find the words.

“The dust of face,” she said. “A moongrave. Bodies in the candleroom.”

Yes, he nodded. Yes, as if he fully understood her. But he didn’t understand her and his eyes had turned to jelly. He appeared to be congealing from the inside out.

“Oh my God, Anna please,” he said. “Please, Anna, please.”

“Tell our grandson to do it.”

She was startled by her words.

Before she witnessed Buck’s reaction, darkness burst across her face. She thought the ceiling had collapsed. She tasted powder and asbestos, and she swatted at her mouth and tried to breathe. She couldn’t see. She felt her eyes. She felt her cheeks but there was nothing like a face, and in her panic she collapsed and there was nothing whatsoever.

When she woke again, she couldn’t find a trace of what had happened. She could see and she could breathe. Her sheets were clean and barely wrinkled. Buck was gone. The room had darkened in an unexpected way, as if the colors of the room were not inside the room at all. She smelled the snow outside but couldn’t see a window or a door. She felt her body turn to molecules, a figment of the air. She thought of Marjorie but only as a flavor she had tasted, and her memories of Buck began to simmer and evaporate.

She died an hour later, feeling haunted and alone, disappearing with the sadness of her terrible bequest.


On the seven-mile drive from the cemetery plot, through the old familiar avenues that led toward the house, Buck threw the car in neutral and allowed himself to coast. Bits of rock salt crackled in the road beneath the tires, and he skidded in the gutter, only partly in control. He tapped the brakes beneath an oak and looked at Marjorie beside him, and he balanced all his fingers on the bottom of the wheel.

She had cried throughout the morning, often loudly at the funeral. She wasn’t crying now and her serenity disturbed him. Tears and mucous were encrusted on her cheeks and upper lip. Her hands were folded on her skirt. She hadn’t talked in half an hour. She was staring at the dark, crazy branches through the windshield. Christmas lights twinkled off the houses up the street. They watched a marmalade cat cross a wide snowy lawn, barely ruffling the surface of the powder. Then it vanished. He imagined Anna Lee, slowly freezing in the dirt.

He cut the engine and the quiet made its own fizzy noise. Neither one of them acknowledged that the car was at a standstill.

“I’m sorry,” Buck announced, more profoundly than he wanted.

But she didn’t seem to hear him, didn’t shift or blink or breathe. Her resemblance to her mother, lying waxy at the wake, was so unsettling he touched her on the cheek to feel the warmth.

“It wasn’t you,” he said.

He tried to find the cat but it was gone.

He gripped the wheel and said, “She talked about your son.”


“She thought of you,” he said. “She wasn’t making sense, and then she said it. She was dreaming. But she dreamt about your family.”

He’d been dwelling on it, hoping he could make her understand. She’d survived.

“Let’s go home,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” Buck repeated.

“Take me home.”


April came and nothing thawed. Marjorie knelt before the window in her bedroom after dark. She felt the cold draft falling on her body from the glass. She watched the chimney smoke rising from the houses up the block. She saw the moonlight softening the shingles on the roofs.

She fogged the window and believed she saw a ghost. It was featureless, ethereal, a spirit of a spirit on the glass. She held her breath and backed away, understanding it was vapor, but the momentary vision of her mother had alarmed her. She discovered something else—a tiny spider on the windowpane. Its shape had been invisible, a shadow in the dark, but now its body was contrasted with the moonlit steam.

She called her father up the hall. He appeared in plaid pajamas. He’d been sleeping with his mustache crushed against a pillow, and his whiskers stood in comical, improbable directions.

“What’s the matter?”

“Look at this,” she said.

“Huh. Look at that.”

He crept beside her on the floor, squinting hard to see the spider. It was smaller than a fingernail and difficult to isolate. He startled her by fogging up the glass to get a look, and for the second time, she watched her mother rising in the steam. She pressed her ear against his shoulder and he held her round the waist.

They couldn’t tell if it was living. They decided it was real. They admired it together, understanding its mystique, using every other breath to keep the windowpane illuminated.


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