Sally sang along with her iPod as she mopped the museum floor. The gentle thwack-thwack sound of the wet mop head against wood relaxed her and, taking it steadily, she wasn’t overdoing things. David would have gone ballistic if he’d found out she was mopping, in her condition; but she knew her limitations, and – other than the bump occasionally getting in the way of the mop handle – the pregnancy had so far done nothing to inhibit her work.
She was due any day now. Her colleagues had told her to make the most of the maternity leave available, but she knew that she had to keep working otherwise she would drive herself mad sitting at home, waiting for the contractions to begin.
Sally turned up the volume when one of her favourite songs started playing, and sang along as loud as she dared. Everyone else had gone home, the museum having closed almost an hour ago. Being late October, it was already dark outside and Sally only put on the lights where and when she needed to, leaving the rest of the building shrouded in darkness.
The museum was a converted Victorian house and very little had been changed since the council bought it. The wooden beams remained in the ceiling, the flooring was all varnished wooden panels and the staircases were still the originals. It was a beautiful building, and you could almost feel the history contained within it as you walked inside.
Filled with artefacts, clothing, musical instruments and toys from the past hundred years or so, it was a treasure trove of odds and ends, where there was sure to be something of interest to any person who paid a visit.
As she mopped, water flowed between the gaps in the wooden flooring, dripping into any space that it could find and falling silently into the emptiness below.
Satisfied that she had done the best she could, Sally wrung out the mop in the bucket, squeezing out the last of the dirty water. She pulled out her earphones and stood up straight, stretching her back. Placing a hand on her round stomach, she smiled. It wasn’t long until her little boy would be making an appearance. She wondered what he would look like – his little baby face, with his cute little nose and tiny little fingers and toes…
Sally picked up the mop bucket, carefully balancing the mop inside it, and headed towards the stairs.
As she climbed them, the dark mahogany steps creaked with every step she took.
All that extra weight I’m carrying, she told herself.
She carefully pulled the bucket up with her, pausing every few steps to catch her breath. Before the pregnancy she had managed these stairs easily, but it was definitely getting more difficult. She leant against the banister. It creaked in protest, threatening to give way. She took a deep breath while flicking some stray hair from her eyes and wiping a bead a sweat from her forehead.
A giggle disturbed the stillness.
Sally frowned and listened intently. The heavy silence that followed pounded in her ears. After a minute of standing there, trying not to breathe too loudly, there was no other sound. Sally dismissed it as her imagination and continued up another couple of steps.
Then the giggle returned – childish and high-pitched; a young girl, most likely.
‘Hello?’ Sally tried calling, but little more than a whisper came out of her mouth.
She heard the giggle once more.
Sally leant the mop and bucket against the wall and slowly pulled herself up the stairs, gripping on to the banister, peering in to the darkness before her. There was no light switch accessible until the next flight of stairs, so each step up took her further in to the blackness. Every creak of every board in the stairs seemed to resound around the building even louder than usual.
She reached the top of that flight of stairs and turned the corner where the next began. There was the blessed relief of a light switch. She moved her hand in the darkness, trying to locate the switch. Having found it, she went to press it when something brushed against her shoulder. A giggle sounded close to her ear.
She cried out involuntarily and switched on the light.
There was nothing there other than the usual exhibits she had seen countless times. This was the exhibition of toys from days gone by. China dolls stared out at her from their shelves, their glazed expressions frozen in time, painted mouths giving them a permanent smile. Sally felt a shiver run down her spine as she looked from porcelain face to porcelain face, their eyes seeming watchful and attentive. Worn stuffed bears sat sulkily in the corner and a giant clown marionette peered down at her through his make-up plastered face from where he was hanging, suspended from the ceiling.
A flash of movement caught the corner of her eye and she turned quickly. She was sure she had seen a shape moving through the doorway to the left of her, but it was closed. She had not heard it opening or closing.
Like the dolls, the brass knob on the door seemed to be staring at her, almost willing her to open it.
She moved towards the door and put out a hand, inching it closer to the knob.
As her fingertips touched the cold metal, she heard the giggle again, coming from behind the door.
Her clammy fingers stuck to the knob as she grasped it and turned it.
A sudden burst of music from her pocket made her jump. The giggling halted as she moved her hand from the door and pulled her phone from her pocket.
‘Hello?’ she answered it in an unsteady whisper.
‘Are you okay, sweetheart?’ David asked after a brief hesitation.
‘I’m fine,’ Sally replied, sighing. ‘The phone just made me jump, that’s all.’
She could hear David’s tone lighten immediately. He had been paranoid about her doing anything since she became pregnant.
‘Sorry to make you jump. I’m just ringing to see if you’re on your way home yet, so I can get dinner ready.’
‘Yes,’ she said, glancing warily at the door, ‘I’ve just finished. I’m on my way.’
The following evening, Sally returned to work at her usual time. Hannah, the assistant manager, was finishing cashing up as Sally arrived.
‘How are you doing?’ Hannah asked as Sally squeezed through the doorway.
‘Not too bad, thanks,’ Sally replied, glancing at the staircase. ‘Listen, something strange happened last night.’
Sally told Hannah about the events of the previous evening. As Sally recounted the details, Hannah’s face remained serious and attentive, though Sally felt more and more ridiculous, believing that Hannah must have thought she was out of her mind. The tale told, Hannah breathed in deeply and rubbed her eyes.
‘Wow,’ she said eventually. ‘That’s spooky.’
‘You’re telling me!’
‘You do know the history of this building, don’t you?’
Hannah moved closer to Sally, leaning in to speak to her in an almost conspiratorial whisper.
‘It used to be…’ – she paused for dramatic effect – ‘…a funeral parlour.’
Sally felt cold all over as a shudder passed through her. The hairs on her arms stood up as goose bumps appeared all along her skin.
‘Really?’ she whispered.
‘Not really – I’m just messing with you,’ Hannah laughed.
Sally went to give Hannah a friendly slap for winding her up, but Hannah quickly ducked out of the way, grabbed her coat and headed for the door.
‘See you tomorrow,’ she called out, still laughing, and made her escape.
Sally watched her leave, almost wanting to call out and ask her to stay with her while she did her cleaning. But she felt foolish enough for even mentioning what had happened. She locked the door behind Hannah, as she always did when she was there alone. Then she looked at the darkened stairway and unlocked it again, thinking she may need to escape in a hurry. Annoyed by her fear, she re-locked it and walked away before she could change her mind once more.
Sally took the cleaning supplies out of her cupboard, and got the duster and polish ready for cleaning the wooden desk and panelling in the entrance. There were plenty of display cases that needed doing too.
She put in her headphones and pressed play. As she polished a cabinet that housed a collection of vases from the late 19th century, some classic 80’s rock came on the iPod and Sally lost herself in the music as she sang away to it.
The single word came crystal clear through the headphones and snapped Sally out of her soft-rock induced happy place. It was a little girl’s voice, sweet and innocent, yet terrifying by its very presence. Sally tugged the headphones from her ears and threw the iPod to the floor.
She felt a rush of air breeze past her and the sound of a giggle moved towards the staircase. She wanted to run to the front door and get out of there, but instead moved slowly towards the stairs, her footsteps creaking on the wooden floorboards, each step like a tiny scream. Placing a foot carefully on the bottom step, she heard the voice again.
The girl sounded afraid and started sobbing. Sally began to cry herself, the girl’s tears moving her, though she was not sure why.
‘It’s okay,’ she called to the voice, and kept walking.
‘Mummy!’ the girl cried fearfully, and Sally found herself rushing up the remaining stairs.
She switched on the light, illuminating the exhibition. The dolls stared at her again, but there was something different about them. It took Sally a moment to realise there were tears in the eyes of the dolls, silently sliding down their porcelain cheeks. She heard the sobbing again. It was coming from behind the door with the brass knob.
‘I’m here,’ she whispered and grasped the knob.
‘Don’t go in there,’ a voice behind her said.
She whirled around, and there was a little girl standing there; a beautiful girl with long flaming red hair and big blue eyes that shimmered with tears. She was wearing a pretty summer dress, spotted with blood. She held her hands behind her back and looked up at Sally with sad eyes.
‘What’s the matter?’ Sally asked her.
‘My Mummy’s dead,’ the girl replied.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Sally knelt on the floor so she was level with the girl. ‘Where is she?’
The girl indicated the room behind Sally.
‘I need a new Mummy,’ the girl told her. ‘My Mummy’s dead.’
‘You poor thing,’ Sally said, holding out her hand to the girl.
‘You can be my Mummy.’
Suddenly, the girl pulled a knife from behind her back and her mouth opened wide with a loud shriek. Sally stumbled backwards, cowering, pressing up against the door with the brass knob. The girl rushed at her, knife raised above her head, screeching. Sally screamed. The girl approached so fast Sally could not move away in time. As Sally felt a sharp pain and sudden wetness, the girl seemed to pass straight through her and disappear.
Sally looked down.
There was no knife wound and no blood.
Her water had broken.
With trembling fingers, she pulled out her phone and rang David.
Early the next morning Sally lay exhausted on a hospital bed, David by her side, waiting to be handed their child. Eventually the nurse came over with their new born baby and handed it to them.
‘Here she is,’ the nurse said. ‘Your beautiful baby girl.’
‘Girl?’ Sally asked, confused. ‘There must be some mistake – we were having a boy.’
‘Well, it’s definitely a girl,’ she told them, chuckling, and walked away.
Sally pulled back the blanket that covered their baby and her breath caught in her throat. Their little girl had a patch of brilliant red hair, and the bluest eyes she had ever seen.
The baby smiled sweetly as Sally let out a scream.