Originally published in Hinnom Magazine Issue 007.
It had been six months in the new house, but Anna Sullivan still marveled at the beautiful red brick as she bounced little William on her shoulder. She pressed a palm against its roughness and shivered, remembering the thin, newspaper-lined walls of the shack she had grown up in, how those strips of paper often came loose with the frigid drafts and waved at her tauntingly. When she was a little girl, her daddy had worked the coke ovens. He was a good, honest man, and she was proud of him, sure, but he never made much, was never in the position to skimp on such a luxury as a comfortably heated home during those awful stretched-out winters.
Thanks to Jim’s new job as station agent for the C&O depot in Augustus Valley, West Virginia, the Sullivans had more than enough coal for their furnace. It was mid-January now, and she almost worked up a sweat casually crossing into the den, tracing a finger along the mortar between the bricks. No, these walls would never permit the brutal winter drafts she had known in her childhood, not if she had anything to say about it—and of course if Jim held his new job, which he would.
She missed her parents, but she didn’t miss those meager years in the coal camps. In Anna’s opinion, there was never a better or more hopeful time to live in Augustus Valley than now, in 1927. In her own lifetime she had seen the place grow to become the second largest city in the whole county. The greatest and biggest coal mining companies all had offices here. Her husband had a respectable and well-paying job. William would get the childhood she had always wanted, and she now had the life her mother had sadly missed out on. Life stretched out before her, bright as the electric lamps that now lit the home—
(Electricity! What a time to live!)
—as the short daylight crept away.
She kissed William’s plump cheek. “Your Grandpappy’s smilin down on us,” she whispered into his ear. “Ain’t nothin too good for you my lil diamond boy. Nothin too good for the either of us.”
Charlie Kessenger sawed his fiddle over in WOBU Charleston’s studio and also in Anna’s den thanks to that magical wooden box from A. H. Grebe & Company. Anna hummed and stamped her foot and spun around with William to “Sally-Anne Johnson”. Soon she must prepare supper—a warm, full meal that the three of them would enjoy in this beautiful home provided to them by the C&O—but there was yet time for some dancing. As she and William twirled, she caught a glimpse of the snow as it fell outside. Once, she had feared the snow and hated it. She wasn’t afraid anymore.
Her foot nicked something sharp on the floor. She hopped over to the wall and steadied herself against it, holding William tight to her breast. Her sock was torn, and a tiny red bead grew on her pinky toe.
“Darn it!” Then, despite the cut’s sting, she laughed. She would darn the sock later this evening, after the dishes were done and William in bed and she and Jim settled down in their chairs to listen to the radio. Or—she could throw the sock away, buy a new pair!
(Choices! What a time to live!)
The scratch wasn’t serious, but she should find a rag to clean the bit of blood before it got on the nice polished wood. Toes upturned, she shuffled to the kitchen, scanning the floor for an exposed nail on her way. She saw nothing.
The next day she found it: a small protrusion a few feet from the corner of the den. Her broom had caught on it as she swept, or she might have overlooked it. She squatted down to inspect the offending curiosity further. From its soft white color, it was apparent that this was neither a nail nor even a wooden splinter. It pointed straight up from the brown flooring less than a quarter inch in height. She brushed a finger over its slightly rounded tip. It was not razor-sharp, but it was hard, and she was sure that this is what had cut her toe.
Anna couldn’t make heads or tales of the thing. Her best guess was that Jim’s shoes had tracked in this piece of white rock—perhaps limestone, there was plenty of that around these parts, right?—and his weight had pressed it into the floor. But it didn’t appear to have been pushed into any cracks. Instead, it was directly in the center of the narrow walnut plank, as if it had…well…grown there, somehow.
She tried to loosen it with her fingers, but it wouldn’t give.
There must have been a tiny knot that had fallen out, she figured, just the right size so that when the pebble in Jim’s shoe had lined up with it just right—an amazing chance, but she had seen stranger things—it fit snugly into the hole as if it had become one with the wood.
She had turned off the radio in order to not disturb William’s nap, and now the quietness of the house felt to her like a secret kept between it and this strange white pebble.
Outside, a locomotive chugged steam, lulling her into a temporary trance.
A cold sweat broke out on her neck. She shuddered and came back to herself.
Maybe there is such a thing as too much coal in the furnace.
William started crying. She rushed to him.
Jim was late. Anna and William ate without him.
“Your daddy’s a hard workin man,” she whispered to the boy as she rocked him. “He works long so you can have a nice warm house and a radio and electric lights.”
She laid him in his crib and curled up in her own bed. The bed seemed softer than usual, probably because she was so tired.
She woke again when she heard Jim’s Model T pull up to the house. He liked to drive to the station even though it was just across the street. He liked to drive everywhere, and Anna liked him to, also. She wanted folks to see that he had an automobile, even if plenty other folks had one these days. Jim Sullivan was not the kind of man who couldn’t own an automobile.
But tonight she wasn’t thinking of Jim’s automobile.
Jim undressed and lay down next to her without speaking.
He thinks I’m still asleep.
“Jim?” she finally said—softly, so as not to wake the baby.
“You were late for dinner.”
“I told you I was gonna be late, didn’t I?”
“Sure I did. I’m in charge of the depot now, remember? I gotta stay around sometimes.”
“Ain’t that what your assistant station agent’s for?”
“It’s part of the job, all right?”
She didn’t feel like arguing, so she held her peace. Besides, maybe he had told her and she had forgotten.
“You tracked some rocks in. I had trouble cleaning up today.”
“Couldn’t be. I always take my shoes off inside. You know that.”
“Maybe you forgot. I found a sharp little pebble stuck in the floor.”
Jim paused, and then, “Well, maybe it was you.”
She sighed. “Maybe so.”
She rolled over and sunk into the squishy mattress.
At the end of the week, she found another one of the stones, this one embedded in the kitchen’s nice linoleum. Her brow furrowed.
Not the linoleum!
She went outside and dug up a good-sized rock from the yard, then marched back into the kitchen and knelt down.
Careful not to wake the baby, she first tapped hesitantly on the sharp nub with the rock. Not surprisingly, it didn’t dislodge. This job wanted some elbow grease. She pursed her lips and then knocked against it with full force. On the third try, she heard it crack. She set the large rock aside, anxious to see if she had ruined the linoleum further in her efforts to fix it.
The linoleum was unscathed, unlike the little white thing, which she had chipped in two. She picked up the top half of the white stone and held it close to her face with fingers still black with the dirt from outside.
A red liquid dripped from the fragment, and she dropped it with a short scream. William began to cry from his crib.
Springing up to the sink, she hastily rinsed the dirt and red stuff from her hands and then ran to calm the boy.
“It’s all right, lil diamond. Ain’t nothin the matter with Mommy, she’s just tryin to fix your daddy’s mess. There, there, shh.”
She swung him in her arms until he quieted. She knew she couldn’t lay him down again until he was fully asleep, so she carried him to the kitchen and squatted with him on her shoulder for another look at the thing in the floor.
With her one free hand, she picked up the loose white chip and threw it into the trash as quick as she could. Then, grimacing, she took the rock and bashed what remained in the floor. William screamed at the jarring sound and motion.
“Aw, put a sock in it already, Will!” she cried as she ground the little nub flat.
Her stomach turned at the red liquid that seeped up from where the thing had been. She pressed the spot with a dishrag and bounced her crying baby in her arm until they both finally went dry.
“There, there,” she said. “That’s a good boy. Mommy’s sorry for shoutin. She thought somethin was wrong with the house, but it weren’t nothin to fret over. This is a nice house, and it’s all fixed now.”
She threw the red-spotted rag in the trash and carried William away from the kitchen, where neither of them had to dwell on the disturbing thing. Her gut had risen to her throat, and she sweated to keep lunch down. She turned on the radio and paced the den, though William had already calmed down and was near asleep.
She felt a prick underfoot—it was that other stuck pebble, the first one. Perhaps it would be better to leave this one alone, after all that. What that red stuff could have been, she didn’t have any idea, and she didn’t want to think of it anymore. She grit her teeth, forced it from her mind.
On her way to William’s crib, it occurred to her that her monthly troubles had not yet come.
She didn’t want to think of that, either.
Jim wasn’t late for dinner that evening—though after everything, Anna almost wished he was.
“How was work, Jim?”
“I’m so proud of you,” she said.
“Thanks, honey.” He paused and smiled at her warmly. “I’m proud of you, too.”
Their forks clicked on their plates. William squealed uncomfortably.
“You don’t think…” she said. “You don’t think you’ll ever, you know…”
“What’s that, dear?”
“I guess it’s silly. I just had a hard day. And it got me to thinkin, and I got afraid you might not always have this job with the C&O, and what would happen to us then?”
Jim paused and smiled again, put his hand on her arm. “Don’t fret yourself none. So long as there’s coal in this holler, the railroad will be shippin it, and I’ll still have a job. Most folks say the coal here won’t run out for at least a hunnert years, maybe two.”
“Oh.” She should have felt better at hearing this, but for some reason she couldn’t shake her melancholy. “That’s good, then.”
“By the way, Anna. I’ll be late again the next few nights.”
A few more white pebbles showed up around the house over the next week. She didn’t dare try to remove them now, not after what happened last time. That was too strange to think of.
It annoyed Anna that Jim’s carelessness was ruining the beautiful floor, but she was too tired to hold on to resentment. She didn’t want to waste what little time they had together in arguments. He was so busy at the depot these days. Also, something else lay heavy on her mind.
She turned in her sheets. The bed was too warm and she was sweaty, though it was a cold night and dry snow flew in the wind. That furnace was incredible.
“Jim?” she whispered.
He grunted in reply.
“I can’t sleep.”
“Sorry, honey. I don’t know what to tell you.”
“I know there’s nothin you can do. I just wanted to say it. I reckon I’m lonely.”
Jim leaned up on one elbow. “Well, I can talk if you want.”
Anna opened her mouth and then shut it. The wind swirled around the house’s exterior and made a hungry sound.
“I think I’m pregnant.”
The wind died down, and there was silence. Anna’s heart and breath waited for Jim’s word.
“Wow, that’s… I mean… We’ll take you to see Doctor Lilly and make sure. Anna, this is wonderful.”
“You really think so?”
“Sure I do. Don’t you?”
“Yes. I just worry sometimes.”
Jim held her and talked low in her ear. “Ain’t nothin to worry for, honey. The C&O pays me better than most. Our kids will have a good life and won’t never have to know about livin in no tar paper shacks like we did.”
“It sure is a nice life we got,” Anna said. “But sometimes I wish you was around more for the baby. And for me.”
“I wouldn’t be around no more than now if I was a miner. And in this job I ain’t riskin my life every day.”
William started crying. Anna got up from the bed to comfort and feed him, relieved for a reason to leave the sticky sheets. Nursing the baby in the den, she soon heard Jim’s snores through the wall.
In the lamp’s soft yellow incandescence, Anna’s eye picked out a new white spot on the floor. She turned her chair away from it.
But just off from where the bricks met in the corner near the ceiling, where no boot could have ever been, another white thorn jutted from the wall. She shifted her gaze down to William sucking at her breast until he finished.
“Ouch!” she cried.
William had grown his first tooth and it had caught on her nipple as she pulled him away. She softly ran her finger over it and looked at it in the dim light. Nausea stirred in her.
She could no longer avert her eyes from those tiny white growths like stalactites and stalagmites all over the floor and ceiling and walls. She measured her footsteps carefully around them in order not to puncture the soles of her feet.
“Ask for a transfer,” she blurted out over a Sunday lunch.
Jim looked at her with alarm as he swallowed his food. “Sorry, what?”
“Surely the railroad has other depots, in other places, right?”
“What? Don’t you like it here?”
How could she say it? Incredibly, Jim had made no sign of noticing what was happening to the house, though she couldn’t imagine how that could be.
I reckon men just don’t notice some things.
“I don’t understand,” Jim said. “You have to help me understand.”
William laughed. Anna couldn’t look at him, couldn’t stomach the sight of his mouth, with those new, pearly stubs rising out of his pink gums.
“Don’t you see them?”
He frowned. “See what?”
The teeth! She almost said it aloud, but she saw that he was already suspicious enough of her sanity. She leaned her face in her hands and cried.
She made no more mention of them for fear of Jim calling the doctor. She had William to take care of, and another on the way, and she could not be sent away to the asylum in Weston. She wasn’t sure what exactly they did up there, but she knew that there were plenty women like herself called hysterical and hidden away in that vault. She would not have her children grow up motherless.
The house was hot and smelled rotten and those jagged ivory things were everywhere and growing. She couldn’t avoid seeing them now, so she resigned herself to them as best she could. The upside to her surrender was that she could again face her son, whom she had always cared for but whose toothy smile she couldn’t stand for a while. She rocked him dutifully.
“Good William, my lil diamond boy,” she said. “You must be a good big brother to your lil sister. I’ll need plenty help.”
Of course she didn’t know its sex, but she hoped for a girl. William gurgled and squealed, his open mouth baring tiny white incisors.
Her soles toughened and she became able to walk without paying much mind to where she stepped. She went about polishing them all, for if she had to live with them, they might as well look nice.
She asked Jim once more about moving. This time she did it calmly, with a practiced indifference.
“Why?” Jim said. He frowned—not suspicious this time, but looking hurt. “I thought you liked it here. Only other jobs I could get would be worse and pay less with longer hours. You know that.”
“You’re right,” she said. “I know you do your best by me. I’m sorry. I ain’t ungrateful, really.”
I can get used to it, she thought. My children are safe and the coal trains will keep Jim with work for many a year.
Later he went to bed, and she followed. She reached toward the wall and ran a finger across the teeth. The feeling made her shiver, despite the stuffy atmosphere. She set William in his crib and then lay next to Jim on the mattress—squishy, warm, and moist like a tongue.