Grace Says Goodbye
It was only natural that the ghost of Cherie’s mom was glaring at her. Cherie had seen her make that same angry face when she was alive thousands of times. It had gazed at her stonily when Cherie was six and accidentally swore in church, that time when she was twelve and spilled tomato soup all over the couch, and most memorably when she was nineteen and told her mother she was engaged. It was a face of silent judgement. It told Cherie exactly how exasperated her mom was with her, without having to speak a word. Cherie thought it was only right that if her mother’s spirit were to haunt her, she would do so with her best stern glare firmly in place.
Cherie had not been expecting her mom to return to her from the great beyond. She had passed away over a year ago after many years of ill health. For the last few months of her life, Grace had lived with her daughter and son-in-law, occupying a small room on the ground floor of their home. She was ornery and difficult for the duration of her stay, resentful of the fact that she had to rely on “kids” to take care of her. Grace had been generically religious in the way that all women of her generation were. She went to church every Sunday but her daily habits never indicated to Cherie that she was a true believer. It was just something she did because she was supposed to, the same way she curled her hair or wore stockings if she went out. Cherie was laxer in her Christianity than her mother. She had been raised Protestant, but in adulthood had adopted atheism. She was only thirty-three, but nothing in her experience thus far had convinced her of the existence of the spiritual world. It all seemed like wish-fulfillment and nonsense to her. When Grace died Cherie knew that would be it. Her mother was gone. End of story. Or so she had thought.
Jake, Cherie’s tall, patient husband, was a carpenter. They had purchased an old house a few years back with the intent of fixing it up to resell. Grace’s presence had slowed down renovations a little, but Jake hadn’t minded. His mother-in-law wasn’t an easy woman, but she had been through a lot in her life so Jake excused many of her surlier habits. He even enjoyed her company from time to time; Grace had a funny, feisty spirit that made him smile.
Jake gave Cherie some time to grieve after Grace’s passing and then went ahead with remodeling her old bedroom into a bathroom. The house previously only had one bath that was up a narrow set of creaky stairs. Adding the new full bath downstairs would increase the resale value and make it more friendly to visitors. Plus, Jake thought Grace would find humor in her old bedroom’s new purpose so he wasn’t worried about offending her memory. He was, perhaps, slightly mistaken.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about the day Grace appeared. It was a Sunday. A few weeks had passed since Jake had finished the new bathroom. Cherie and Jake had a lazy start to the morning, lingering in bed to read the paper and savor warm cups of coffee. Cherie had hopped up to let Muffin, their old sheep dog, out. On her way back to Jake, she stopped in the new downstairs bathroom. She stood in front of the sink washing her hands when she glanced up into the mirror.
“Holy shit,” Cherie whispered under her breath. Her own reflection was gone. It was replaced entirely by Grace’s critical countenance.
Cherie quickly turned her head to look over her shoulder. All that was behind her was the freshly painted wall. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes for a second. When I turn around, she thought, it will be my own face. I was just thinking about her because this was her room. That’s all.
She kept her eyes tightly shut until she was fully facing the mirror again. Another deep breath. A split second of blissful blurriness when the possibility of it all being a trick, a joke, a dream of her half-awake mind stayed alive. Then, clear as the sky on a cloudless day, there she was again. An unmoving, solid presence in the small bathroom mirror.
Cherie leaned closer to the image of her mother. Grace didn’t react. She just stood still. Kept glaring. Cherie shook her head, gently at first, then a little harder. Grace did not move. Cherie reached for the tap, thinking maybe splashing cold water on her face would help.
That’s when Grace crossed her arms. Cherie screamed at the top of her lungs and ran out of the room.
“JAKE! Jake, Jake, Jaaaaake! Come here. I need you. You need to see this. Hurry!”
Jake sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of his side of the bed. He couldn’t imagine what Cherie had found that needed his attention so urgently. He gave Muffin a curious look before staring expectantly at the door. Cherie was small but fast, a habitual runner, and she should be popping up from the top of the stairs any second now. When she appeared, long blond hair wild, face pale, he became worried.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“It’s Mom. My mom. Grace. She’s here.”
Jake stayed still, dark brow furrowed with concern as he tried to understand what Cherie was telling him. “Cherie –“ he started to reply, but he was cut off.
“I know. I know she’s dead. But she’s here. In the bathroom mirror. Just staring at me. I tried to shake it off but she won’t go anywhere. Come downstairs and see for yourself.” She leaned towards Jake, grabbing the front of his white t-shirt. He let her pull him upright and then followed her towards the stairs with a chuckle.
Neither of them spoke on the short trip to the first floor bathroom. Cherie paused at the threshold, hand on the doorknob. Her eyes wide, she looked at Jake for confirmation that he was ready for the horrors that might be held within. He smiled at her in a way he hoped did not reveal the laughter he felt bubbling up in his chest but rather reassured her that he was there to support her. She was clearly upset. His wife was normally rational, calm, collected; whatever had happened in this room a few minutes ago had thrown her off kilter. He wasn’t expecting to see his mother-in-law when he walked into the bathroom, but he didn’t want to make Cherie feel stupid or small for believing he would.
She nodded at him. Then took two large, militaristic strides to stand in front of the mirror. Jake stood in the doorway, leaning his head in far enough so he could also see into the glass. Nothing was there, aside from their own reflections. He saw Cherie’s face fall in the mirror first, then turned to look at her real face instead.
Cherie’s mouth opened into a perfect “O” shape. She held it like that wordlessly for a few seconds, then closed it. Jake placed a big hand on Cherie’s shoulder. He rubbed it up and down a few times, then pulled her into his side gently. She still hadn’t taken her eyes of the mirror.
That was when Jake realized she was crying silently. Her cheeks were wet. He leaned down to kiss the top of her head then held himself there for a few seconds, taking in the pleasant scent of her hair.
Cherie wiped at her face, finally breaking eye contact with the mirror. She tilted her face up towards Jake’s. “She was here,” she whispered.
“I know,” he nodded to confirm his belief in her story. “Maybe she was pissed that we turned her bedroom into a bathroom. Doesn’t want people shitting where she sleeps.”
Cherie rolled her eyes at his crudeness, but Jake could tell she was holding back a laugh. She had always liked his ability to ease the tension in a room with a joke. It was part of what made them work so well together as a couple. Cherie may feign annoyance, but not-so-deep-down he knew she enjoyed his sense of levity. She pressed a firm hand to his wide chest. “Or maybe,” he continued, “she came to say goodbye.”
At this, tears began to flow down Cherie’s face again, faster than before. Jake pulled her fully to him with both arms, letting her bury her head in his chest. He stroked her hair gently with one hand.
They stood like that, pressed tightly against one another, for several minutes. When Cherie’s tears finally subsided, she let out a big puff of air. “Or maybe she just likes fucking with me,” Cherie mumbled into Jake’s shirt.
He laughed loudly at this. It would be just like Grace to come back and play a trick on her daughter. She had not been an affectionate mother; that much had been obvious to Jake from day one. But he thought she had loved Cherie in her own unique way. She wouldn’t be the kind to send Cherie a message of comfort after her death, to let her know she was at peace. Grace would use any opportunity to remind her daughter she was always watching even if it meant scaring her from beyond the grave.
“That’s definitely it,” he said to Cherie. They dropped the hug, stepping out of the small bathroom and back into the hallway.