With the strict brick walls of Winthrop manor, a slew of guests had most recently been chatting in the parlor, warm incandescent bulbs casting a yellow glow over Victorian furniture and through snifters of cognac. Laughs were sickeningly bright, following from comments such as, “Well of course John could’ve gone to Yale, but we thought it was best that he go to Harvard, like his father… Besides, we wanted him at a real Ivy League school.” Mr. Hainesworth was a Yale alumnus, so he began the hollow laughter which echoed around the room.
It had all been going swimmingly in this home seated in the Pacific Northwest. Dinner was a seven course meal, with nothing but compliments for the matron Emily Withrop, despite the fact that the cooking had been taken care of by a crew of chefs slaving in the kitchen for nine hours.
The patron, James Winthrop, was a portly man who contrasted only slightly with his tight-buttoned, small wife. His large frame was always wearing a suit and tie, and his daughter had once joked that the man slept in suspenders.
The daughter… Belle Winthrop, had been subjected to more of these inane family-friend gatherings than she could count. Ever since she was a child, her mother was dressing her up in clothes which she only read about in Jane Austen novels. The rules were always the same for her. Don’t speak unless spoken to, don’t say anything about your father’s business with Mr. Emmerson, don’t strike up conversation with Mark Davidson (he’s a dull boy who would drag her down to his level), and of course a myriad of other social orders.
It was with Mark that she had been making the most eye contact all evening. Most of it had been fleeting, but these days she couldn’t even look at him without feeling a rush of emotion. He had a candid chin and candid blue eyes under short brown hair just swept over to the right. He was rail thin, despite his father’s efforts to put him in boxing as a young man, and he was of medium height. Mark’s mother thought he didn’t know the secret behind his birth, but Mark had told Belle in a quiet corner of the house four years ago; his father was not Harold Davidson.
Yet that was not the secret poking at Belle’s mind tonight, and it wasn’t the reason her gaze always seemed to find Mark, and it wasn’t the reason his gaze found hers. At some point in the evening, around 10:00, a maid asked Belle, “Are you sure you won’t have any brandy?”
“I’m having Mark’s baby,” whispered Belle. Mr. Hainesworth, who was sitting to her left, looked at her in shock, and slowly everyone around the room was in an uneasy silence, with those furthest from her unsure of why they were silent.
“What’s going on?” asked James Winthrop, returning from a trip to the restroom.
“I’m having Mark’s baby,” repeated Belle.
Mark went pale, but while most in the room wore masks of utter bewilderment over their animalistic lust for gossip, no one was more reactionary than Emily Winthrop, whose dark brown eyes were burning through Belle’s soul.
“Young lady, that is nothing to joke about,” she said.
Mark’s family looked at their son in dismay, and Belle crushed any hope of joviality when she replied, “It’s not a joke. I’m pregnant. Five weeks.”
The room was silent for at least thirty grand ticks on the large clock on the wall. James Winthrop grabbed at a tall chair with numb fingers and sat down, placing his elbow on a table and his chin within his hands, his eyes staring off into the distance.
“Well, I think we should retire for the evening, shall we?” asked Mrs. Emmerson.
“Yes, I… I think that’s only proper,” said Mr. Hainesworth.
The Emmerson’s and Hainesworth’s stood up, but as soon as they did, Emily said, “Wait, please don’t leave! I’m sure-”
“Mike, Al, Clive… please leave,” said James in a deadly whisper. “Harold… you stay with your family.”
And so the Emmerson’s, Hainesworth’s, and Bishops all left, shuffling their feet and muttering their goodbyes to a dumbstruck Emily, who waved to her maid to see the guests out and then put her head in her hands.
“Please-” began Mark in his gentle voice.
“Silence,” said James, revealing an inkling of the power in his voice. “Now, emotions will run high right now, so I suggest… I suggest we all spend some time apart. I daresay this house is large enough for seven people to have their own little corners.”
“How dare your son-”
“Emily, please,” said James, again raising the tenor of his voice. “We will discuss it in precisely,” he checked his watch, “twenty minutes. Until then, I think we could all use some… fresh air.”
“Of course,” said Harold, looking at his younger son with tempered rage.
“I of course cannot stop your family from gathering all in one corner, but… I highly recommend that you do not. Alright,” concluded James, “the clock starts now.”
So it was in the halls of the Winthrop manor that all the ghosts of the evening lurked. Those who had walked in the door tonight were no longer those who dwelt in the house. Harold Davidson leaned against a wall with his head pressed into his forearm. Mimsy Davidson was around the corner, crying on a table in the library. John Davidson was trying to find his brother, who himself had stolen away somewhere. Emily Winthrop tried talking with her husband, but he insisted on privacy and locked himself in his office, leaving her in the parlor to pour an obscene amount of gin in a glass. And then there was Belle… who had gone to her room. The hallway seemed to be made of specters leaning over her as the straight sides met arched ceilings, and so she found herself in the same place where this all had started.
Mark slipped in without knocking, the same way he had all those nights after these monthly family friend dinners, and he found her on top of the bed, the same way…
“Hey,” he muttered. “I-I’m sorry.”
Belle’s hollow brown eyes stayed on the bed sheets as she said, “For what?”
“Well,” said Mark with a sigh, “maybe if I was more supportive, or called more often… You wouldn’t have… y’know-”
“Told all of the most important people in our lives about our baby?”
“Yeah,” he said, shifting a little.
“They would’ve found out eventually.” Belle shook her head, blond hair coming down and shielding Mark from her periphery.
“I know I shouldn’t have done it with everyone around,” said Belle, wiping her eyes. “I don’t know why I did that.”
There was silence for a few moments. Then Mark asked, “What d’you think they’re gonna make you do?”
“I don’t want to get rid of the baby,” she said fiercely.
She looked at him with her first smile of the evening. “I’m proud of this baby, Mark. I love you-”
“I love you too.”
Her smile got wider as she finished, “Whatever they do… just stay with me.”
He leaned back into the pillows and she rested her head on his chest. Mark was a decent man, but he didn’t have the athletic gifts and intelligence of his brother John. His father often lamented that all his genes somehow went into John, and only Belle, Mark, and of course Mimsy Davidson knew the terrible truth behind that.
They lay there until there was a gentle knock on the imposing white door. It opened slightly and a maid said, “Mr. Winthrop would like all guests to return to the parlor, please.”
The door closed and Mark said, “We don’t have to go.”
“I know my parents keep their car keys in their jackets. We can… drive away!” He got up and looked outside, where late spring’s cold breath was whipping around the pine forest. “I have money. Not much, but it’s enough to get us out of here. Maybe we can go east-”
“We can’t run away,” said Belle, though her breathing gave away her excitement at the idea. “With the money our families have… They’d find us pretty easily.”
She held up a hand, and her delicate face was downcast as she said, “I don’t want to go down there either, but we have to. For,” she pressed her stomach slightly and her face brightened.
Mark nodded and held out his hand. The two of them walked down the winding halls, the hooded specters of the ceiling still looking down on them, but they didn’t bother Belle anymore.
It took an eternity for them to reach the parlor, and of course everyone else was already gathered. John was in the corner, trying to melt into the shadows at the back of the room. Mimsy and Harold sat on a strict backed couch, the former with her hands in her face and the latter looking shell-shocked. Emily’s face hadn’t lost any of the tension it had gained in the last hour. Her husband looked severe, but again his eyes seemed to stare past everything. The two of them sat in the same tall hosts’ chairs they’d been in all night. Belle and Mark were left to sit on a fainting couch facing both families.
After they had sat, Emily said, “Would anyone like something to drink?”
James wasted no time in issuing a harsh look. “Emily, this is not the time. A matter of delicacy needs to be discussed, and I hardly think alcohol is what the situation needs right now.”
“Can we please stop with the moronic orating for one night?” asked Harold, his face tired.
“Excuse me?” James leaned forward.
“Let’s not beat around the bush. I don’t have the energy for it, and I know my wife can’t take it.” Harold took a deep breath. “Your daughter has charmed my son into making a grievous mistake-”
“Stop right there!” said James, his powerful voice on display for a moment. “You will not accuse my daughter of this affair!”
“Oh won’t I?” Harold’s voice, while hoarse, simmered dangerously. “Mark was going to Brown next fall!”
“A school you have maligned for years, might I add,” said Emily.
Harold spluttered, “Th-that’s not the point! He had a future!”
“And our daughter didn’t?” said Emily scathingly. “Belle is a state champion swimmer! She had a 4.0 GPA in high school, and she was going to Stanford. You know, the school no one in your family has gotten into!”
Harold stood up. “I will not be spoken to like that!”
James remained seated, but in a full demonstration of the power which made him a successful politician, he shouted, “Sit down, Harold! No one is to leave this room until this matter is resolved! Is that clear?”
Harold looked ready for a fight, but after a few breaths his visage crumpled again, and he fell back into the couch next to his wife. Belle and Mark were holding hands tightly, their eyes wide. James’ face remained stern, but again his eyes unfocused. Emily took a large gulp of gin.
“Now,” said James after a deep breath, “are we ready to discuss this matter?”
“You’re a silver-tongued jackal, James,” said Mimsy.
Emily’s eyes narrowed. “Do not talk to my husband that way!”
“Oh, everyone knows it,” said Mimsy, her red eyes fierce. “He can talk for hours and hours, but when it comes down to it… he’s all bark.”
“You think your pathetic insults have an effect on me?” asked James quietly. “I’ve been a politician for twenty-five years. I’ve been called much worse than a jackal.”
“Go to hell,” said Mimsy, her voice dead soft.
James smiled, and here his coldness was the most brutal. It was the kind of smile that a predator wore while stalking an innocent animal. It was the kind of smile James wore when his opponent in a debate made a fatal mistake. “Oh, and you’re so perfect then, Mimsy? Or you, Harold? Shall I reveal something about Mark?”
Immediately, Mark squeezed Belle’s hand and she said, “Daddy, wait-”
“Mark is not your son, Harold,” said James, his voice vicious. “You see, Mimsy knew you used to play around in your early days. She knew why you came home late from the office, and why you had a new secretary every month. All of those conferences, those business trips… the count just kept getting higher and higher.”
Emily chimed in, “And of course it didn’t help that you were nothing more than a secretary yourself when Harold found you, did it?”
“It must have eaten you alive,” said James, “the feelings of inadequacy. Oh, don’t think we didn’t notice the heavy pours of liquor, or the pack of cigarettes that’s always half-empty in your jacket. All the plastic surgery in the world couldn’t fix you, could it? Because in Harold’s eyes, you just weren’t good enough.”
Emily laughed, hiccuping on the booze. “So you decided to have some revenge, but by then your body was so ravaged by the drugs that you couldn’t find a decent man to be with you, so in a moment of desperation, you found some lonely drunk in a two-bit dump of a bar, and nine months later, Mark was born.”
“And of course, you still play around, Harold, don’t you?” asked James. “Who knows how many bastard children you’ve got running around the world.”
“That’s enough,” said Harold in a rough whisper. He tried to meet his wife’s eyes, but she was frozen in fear.
How did they know? thought Belle, but her question was answered by Emily. “It’s our job to know things about important people.”
A deadly silence came over the room. James looked at his watch. “So, what shall we do about the child?”
Harold looked up. “Damned if I know. We could always get-”
“We’re keeping the baby,” said Mark loudly.
Everyone’s eyes snapped towards the young couple in surprise, as though they’d forgotten the two were there. “We?” asked Emily. “There’s a ‘we’?”
Belle looked at her mother, matching the anger in her eyes. “Yes, there is, and Mark’s right. We are keeping the baby.”
“And if none of you want to help us, then that’s fine. We’re both adults, we can get by on our own.” The tremble in his voice revealed his fear, but his resolve was plenty.
The older generation looked at one another. “What will people say?” asked Harold. “It’s not right. They’re too young.”
Mimsy said, “They still need to think about their careers, and a child needs both a mother and father present in the house. Not going to school-”
“And what about school? Clearly they can’t raise the child together if they’re heading to opposite sides of the country-” Emily was cut off by her husband.
“Unless, they plan to drop out of school-”
“Which would be suicidal,” finished Harold.
Belle opened her mouth to speak, but James said, “Maybe we could find a way… to keep them both in school. Belle would only need about nine months to have the child, so she can take a gap year-”
“As can Mark,” said Harold, “and once the child is born, they can both go to school while we - as in, our two families, raise the baby.”
“Of course, we’ll hand over custody once their education is complete, but until then, it’s best if the child remains with us,” said Emily.
“It sounds like the makings of a deal,” said James, his eyes bright for the first time since the news had dropped.
“Will we need formal papers?” asked Harold. “I can draft them, if you’d like.”
“Yes, that’d be nice-”
Belle stood up. “Excuse me!”
The whole crowd stopped and looked at her. Emily said, “Young lady, I’m sure this is a lot for you, but if you’d just see things objectively, you’d know that this is the best thing for all of us.”
Her chest rose and fell rapidly. “Okay, so let’s get one thing straight. There is no all of us unless Mark and I want there to be. Now, I don’t know what we’ll do. Maybe we will take some time away to have the child. Maybe we’ll both go to college together. I don’t know, but the only way any of you are ever seeing us or this child again is if you shut up and let us take the lead!”
Mark stood next to his partner. “You can help us if you want, but if any of you love us, you’ll know Belle’s right.”
The elders were ashen-faced, but all of a sudden John came out of the corner and walked over to the two of them. His strong chin was set in a smile. “Whatever happens, I’m proud to be an uncle. Congrats, bro.” He hugged Mark first, tightly, and then Belle.
John went back to the corner, and his father said, “We… of course we love you both.”
“Yes,” said James. “I - we’re sorry for all of this.”
“I know,” said Belle.
“Oh, my baby,” said Emily, her tight face slipping away into joyous pride. She got up and hugged her daughter at the same time that Mimsy hugged her son.
James stood up and made a proclamation. “We’ll be there for the two of you… every step of the way.” He shook hands with Harold, and after the two wives had let go of their children, they stepped in and crushed them in hugs anew. Yes, there were ghosts who existed within the walls of Winthrop manor, and also in the Davidson estate, but though the people who had started appetizers that night were not the same as those who went to bed, not all ghosts are born of evil.