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The Barter

Chapter 1

She’s been waiting for something to happen, and now it has.

Bridget is sitting in the glider in Julie’s room. It’s past four in the morning and her thoughts are wandering, trailing through familiar places, picking up slight objects and then putting them down again. Julie is sick with a summer cold and cutting two teeth, waking every three hours to cry so piteously that even Bridget, a steadfast cry-​it-​outer, can’t leave her baby girl to wail in the dark. So here she is, sitting with a warm, buttery bundle of mostly sleeping girl in her lap.

And, as has become more or less customary for her, Bridget is thinking about death, plucking at it in her mind like fingers plucking at the curled edge of a bandage. Later, when she is at her most terrified, she’ll wonder whether she brought the ghost into her house somehow just by thinking about death so habitually, so unwisely.

When I should have been thinking about educational toys, I was think-ing about death. When I should have been thinking about weaning or baby swim classes, I was thinking about death. And that’s why she’s here. That’s how she found me.

Bridget wouldn’t call herself morbid by nature. If anyone were to ask, Bridget would say she is fixated on death for two perfectly good reasons: One, because she is a new mother, and motherhood—as​ everyone tried to tell her, and as has turned out to be completely true—means​ imagining the worst that can happen, every day, all day long. And two, because she’s married to an interactive game developer. All the ways a body can change shape, change definition, die, and avoid or cheat death—these​ are the things, Bridget thinks, half asleep and rocking gently, that preoccupy mothers and technologists alike.

Now that Bridget is home full ​time and thinking more about Mark’s job than she feels safe thinking about her own (the job she left behind, that is, her job as an attorney at a midsize firm up in Austin), she finds herself with more time to think about this stuff.

Gently, she touches baby Julie’s hair, the feathery spot right at the sleeping girl’s temple. The fact is, everything that other women tried to tell Bridget about motherhood has turned out to be true, and yet it still surprises her to realize that no one was lying. It is different when it’s yours; you do like other people’s babies more after you have one of your own; the weight does take nine months to come off, if it ever does; and then the worst, the most ludicrous and pat saying about motherhood there is: You don’t know what love is until you have a kid. All of it, all just as unilluminating and condescending as it was before Bridget gave birth, and all of it true. The weird, dreamy fixation on death, though. No one told her about that. But everybody must feel that, too; everybody must think about it.

No. Probably that’s just me. Probably that’s my problem.

But if everybody isn’t thinking about it (because she’s thinking about it, here in the glider with her daughter snoozing in her lap), how else to explain all the movies and shows and books about it? Every time she looks at the news or the TV, she sees something that rein-forces how vulnerable children are, to neglectful parents, to glib and hilarious sitcom parents, to breakfast cereal advertisers. And to worse, of course, far, far worse. Aren’t we all, she thinks, drowsing and gliding with her ten-month​-old​ daughter in her lap, deviled and tormented by thoughts of our little dear ones coming to harm, and isn’t it true, after a while, that those feelings of torment come to be sensations we long for—manufacture,​ even—in​ order to prove that we’re capable of feeling tormented, in the same way that conservatives and liberals long to hear each other say something infuriating? A seductive self-​ justification,­ sure—the​ former attorney in Bridget can recall con-structing stronger arguments to prop up flimsier claims.

And not just death in general, but death in particular, death as a particular inevitability for all the people she loves. Case in point: Lately it hits Bridget with increasing frequency that her own mother, Kathleen, currently alive and well and living three towns away with her second husband, might die—will​ die, is bound to die eventually—​ and­ the howling loneliness she feels at the thought is (she muses, half asleep) probably not unlike how Julie feels upon waking up in her crib, with her imperfect sense of time and object permanence. For Julie, the universe begins anew after every nap, with terror and curiosity and the aching search for the familiar: Mother. Mother.

So (pushing with one foot so that the glider’s rocking motion lengthens), what if her mother were to die. What kind of world could Bridget inhabit if it turned out to be possible for Kathleen to leave it. Or, okay, what if Mark were to die. What would she and Julie have to do, how would they have to live then—when​ she, Bridget, has just taken this strange huge step of exchanging her old life for this new one and is, for the first time in a decade or so, without any means of supporting herself, or any other creature for that matter, without help from someone else? Or, what would Mark do, for that matter, if Bridget were to die—who​ would care for Julie?

From there, Bridget’s next irresistible thought is the really un-thinkable one: What if Julie were to die. How would Bridget live in a world where Julie was not. Bright, plump, fearless Julie, with her throaty, truck driver’s chortle and her endearingly spazzy baby ways.

She can’t know it until later, but it is at this moment, just as she is finishing this peculiar logical circle in her mind, the one that has led her so naturally to thoughts of her own daughter’s death, that she first senses the ghost nearby. There is a scent in the air, a smell that someone half-asleep could mistake, at first, for the smell of summer-time, for mown lawns and flourishing shrub beds, and it moves into the room like a secret and brushes across her face like a veil, sweet and sorrowful.

In the days to come this scent will become synonymous with panic, and hiding, and heart-​stopping fear, but in this moment it is almost comforting, familiar. In the yard alongside their house, there’s a strip of ground that’s always a little bit muddy and damp, even in the heat of summertime, thanks to a creek that used to run through the neighborhood and now resurfaces between the houses only during the wetter spring and winter months, the merest temporary glimmer, like a bracelet emerging from a velvet pouch. Bridget likes to see the little creek surfacing and receding, likes the way its muddy scent floating through the window screens means the start of the green season, although both she and Mark have wondered whether it might be undermining their foundation. Their neighborhood is all new construction, quickly planned—the​ houses here aren’t bullet-proof. She knows from her neighbors that some of them have poor insulation, bad drainage. She thinks tiredly, We should get that side of the house looked at for cracks, I guess. I’ll have to talk to Mark about it.

When Bridget hears the noise out in the hallway—a​ thump, something heavy and soft meeting the wall—she​ assumes it’s Mark, even though he never gets up with the baby, or hardly ever. Mark works, she doesn’t; ergo, she gets up with the baby. The logic seems straightforward enough, even when the execution of that logic leaves her stumbling and glassy-​eyed and foul​mouthed, and when Mark complains constantly that he’s tired, which Bridget is always too tired to challenge. Still, she sometimes loves being with her little girl when the world is dark and it’s just the two of them. The turtle night-​light in Julie’s room glows warm orange, as if the world is shining through a piece of amber. To pick up a reaching, sweet-smelling​ baby girl in the orange turtle light, to tuck her head under your chin, to shuffle sleepily to the glider chair and settle in for some long, edgeless min-utes while the trees shush outside in the heat and the air-conditioning​ blows a soft, cool breeze—it​ is lovely to be clung to by a curled-up​ baby in the middle of the night. Bridget still nurses Julie sometimes, when Julie’s half-asleep anyway and won’t be made impatient by the scantiness of Bridget’s milk, which was never plentiful to begin with and which began to dry up when Julie started solids. Bridget is nursing Julie when she looks up and sees, for the first time, what has just moved through the doorway into her daughter’s room.

At first her mind supplies a nonsensical explanation, and she thinks she’s seeing a piece of furniture—a​ white couch—that​ has somehow reared up, massive and shambling and improbable, and is trying to bump into the room. But immediately, by the horribleness of its continuing movements, that first comical impression is erased. Because it is clearly human, and yet not. Even before Bridget sees what it is, what it is doing, her breath stops.

It moves as if struggling for every inch; each step has to be swung for, lunged into. Every movement costs it something.

Then Bridget sees a hand.

It hits the doorframe with a slight, soft thud that makes Julie twitch in Bridget’s lap. The baby’s weight feels like all that is keeping Bridget attached to the bottom of the world, all that’s keeping her from following her insanely accelerated heart in a flight backward out the bedroom window and into the black-​and-​green night. It takes several long moments for Bridget to realize she is not breathing, and she swallows a gasp of air.

But the air itself has changed, and she suddenly feels as if she can’t get enough oxygen into her lungs. The smell of earth, of soil and moisture and things growing out of the dark, has gathered close around her even as the quality of the air in the room seems to have thinned, as if all the nourishment has been sucked out of it. This is what it’s like inside a coffin, Bridget hears herself thinking over the terrified hammering of her heart. This is what the air tastes like inside a coffin when you wake up and find you’ve been buried alive. Bridget lunges forward in the glider and gasps for breath again, the lungs in her chest feeling flattened and strained.

The ghost, pulling herself painfully through the doorway, pauses and shifts at the sound, with a sharp, quick snap in Bridget’s direction, and unwillingly Bridget finds herself looking directly into her. Her eyes are like glittering wells, like stone-​rimmed quarries, deep and cold. Bridget feels her own hand clap over her mouth, feels her other arm scoop around Julie’s back, creating a barrier between the ghost and the girl on her side on her nursing pillow, still mostly asleep.

The ghost is a dead woman. Her hair, like her eyes, is black, and she seems to be wearing white, or to be made of something white, but it is nearly impossible to tell anything else about her because the edges of her body, her head, her limbs, seem constantly to be shifting, growing enormous and grotesque and then shrinking, angling away, diminishing to an equally grotesque size, out of proportion to what her body seems to want to be. It is like watching a maddened Picasso try to struggle out of its frame. Impossible to tell whether the ghost really has two eyes or just the combined force of two eyes, impossible to see whether she is slender or full figured or weak or strong. She seems to be dissolving and resolving through a field of static.

Now she moves toward Bridget, bringing with her that smell of damp earth. Watching her move is horrible, each step a reminder that the body can die. But watching her eyes is worse.

Bridget doesn’t think of herself as a brave person—it​ doesn’t occur to her to confront the ghost or to fight, for example, although later she will wonder what might have happened if she had. Her first instinct is only to lean forward to cover Julie’s small sleeping body. “Don’t,” Bridget pants. Her lungs are white fire. “Please don’t, please don’t.”

The ghost stops in the middle of the room and with difficulty lifts her arm, or the haze of impressions that seems to be her arm. Is the ghost pointing at her? Gesturing for her to rise? Beckoning for her to come? Begging? Bridget’s eyes are now blurred by hot tears. No no no no no.

The baby sleeps on, peaceful and unaware. Bridget can’t bear to look away but can’t bear to keep looking, either. Finally she buries her face in her baby’s side, eyes burning, chest aching, breathing Julie’s smell of sun-warmed​ skin and pee and laundry detergent. Now she’ll strike. Bridget realizes her mistake too late: She should never have looked away from the ghost, even for a second, even to blink, because now, when she looks up, the ghost’s face will be there, inches away, glaring and staticky and furious, before it becomes a huge black mouth and swallows them both whole.

Panicking, Bridget weeps into the crook of her daughter’s small arm. The baby sighs. Oh God, please save us. Save her.

When Bridget looks up again—it​ could have been moments later, or it could have been hours—the​ ghost is no longer standing in the middle of the room. The smell of wet mud is gone. Bridget kisses Julie all over: her fat thighs, her cheeks, her sweet starfish hands. Julie latches on again and nurses for a few moments, then falls back asleep. Mark finds them both there in the morning light.


The house has a strange smell the next day. A tang.

Ignoring the smell, Bridget and Julie go ahead with their normal Bridget-and​-Julie​ routine. Playtime, morning nap, out in the car for errands, back for lunch, afternoon nap during which

Bridget dozes off herself on the couch, then some distracted house-work, then some more playtime while Bridget returns a couple of emails on her phone, then yet more playtime (bored by now, so heart-​ ­failingly bored, and counting the hours until Julie will be asleep) and dinner and bathtime and bedtime and waiting for Mark to come home, which he won’t do until much later, after Bridget herself has fallen asleep. It’s as if nothing has happened at all. Bridget hasn’t exactly forgotten the ghost so much as decided it is unlikely she will see her again—the​ ghost was some product of a dream, not even a dream itself. And so, the night after seeing the ghost for the first time, Bridget puts Julie to bed as usual and goes to sleep waiting for Mark as usual, albeit later than she’d expected to, given her uncomfortable, long hours in Julie’s glider, folded in half around her baby with tears of relief and terror drying on her face.

Julie awakes crying at three a.m., and Bridget opens her eyes and sees the ghost standing close at the side of the bed, filling the room with her watery indistinctness, her coldness, her smell like a fresh-​ turned grave.

The ghost is waiting for her, black eyes neutral and expressionless.

With her heart stuttering and her eyes already tear-filled​ with horror, Bridget scrabbles for Mark’s hand under the covers.

He murmurs, “Not you.”

The ghost turns and effortfully begins slicing her way out of the room.

“Marshland,” Mark says, still in a dream he doesn’t know is a dream. He smells her, too.

Bridget lies stiff with fear until she realizes the ghost must be going to Julie’s room. Then she throws back the covers and flies out into the dark hallway, heedless and terrified. “Mark!” she cries. “Julie!”

The ghost is entering Julie’s room as Bridget hits the upstairs banister and rebounds, hip singing with pain. She’s never moved so fast, and yet suddenly she doesn’t seem able to catch the ghost in her slow, struggling deliberateness. Her breath is short again, and she can’t seem to get enough air into her lungs—it’s​ like being on top of a mountain, where everything is cruel and thin.

Mark is awake now, calling worriedly from bed. “Bridget? What happened? Is she all right?”

Get up and help us, damn it! But Bridget can’t speak: Horror and airlessness have stopped her voice. The ghost is standing next to Ju-lie’s crib, turning to face Bridget as she halts in the doorway to the baby’s room.

The ghost lifts her arm, as if pointing in Bridget’s direction. For the first time, but not the last, Bridget understands that it is a command.

To do what?

Bridget can’t keep herself from snatching her sleeping baby up and away, out of reach. Her movements are the jerky, panicked whirs of a clock reversing its wheels. And then Bridget has Julie in her arms and finds herself standing two feet from the ghost, the closest she’s come, close enough to feel the radiant coolness coming from the dead woman’s form, almost like a soft wind that her ceaseless shape-​ shifting­ seems to create, the kind of wind that would stir light curtains at a window in the half hour before a rainstorm.

At this range, surrounded as she is by a shifting cloud of static, she is even more clearly dead—dead​ and moving, dead and yet alive, dead and yet standing before her, an abomination.

“Who are you? What are you doing here? Go away!” Bridget whispers fiercely. But her lips feel numb, she’s shuddering to breathe, and she staggers with Julie’s weight and falls against the wall near the crib’s headboard. “Go away and get out of my baby’s room!” Julie is fully awake by now, jostled out of sleep and crying—wailing,​ really. Her face is a mouth; her eyes stream tears. Bridget clutches her daughter. “Go away!”

The baby cranes her neck around, still screaming, looking in all directions until she locates the source of her troubles. The ghost. Bridget’s heart falls. She can see it.

Julie points a chunky fist at the ghost—shakes​ it at her, in the way that she does when something angers or excites her.

The ghost watches Julie. In her mother’s arms, Julie begins to still herself and grow serious, staring at the dead woman.

Mark shuffles belatedly, sleepily into the room.

“What’s going on? What’s wrong? Is she okay?” Without fully opening his eyes Mark takes their little girl from Bridget and cuddles her, and as always, Julie responds by grabbing him around the neck while simultaneously craning to keep her mother in view. I can have this, but you have to stay mine, too. “What’s the matter, little Jujubee? Mmmm. Little bee. Bzz bzz.”

Julie leans into her father and extends a balled-up​ fist toward her mother, who closes her own hand around it. Bridget feels knock-​ ­kneed, dumbfounded—her​ jaw, she’s sure, must be hanging open in stuporous shock. The ghost is real. Her daughter can see it. Her husband can’t.

The ghost is still there, right next to Bridget at the side of Julie’s crib. But the dead woman isn’t looking at them anymore. Her gaze seems to be fixed out the window. Bridget can hardly bear to look at it, can hardly bear the thought that it is still here, still real—Jesus,​ no, she can’t be real, but she’s still here, she’s still here, look at the way Julie’s looking at her. She swallows, hard.

“Do you mind if she sleeps with us tonight?” Bridget asks hoarsely.

Mark sniffs and gives Julie’s cheek a game smooch. “I thought that was a bad idea, you always said. Crib death. All that. Is she sick or something?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I just want her close by so I can watch her.” Bridget puts a hand on Mark’s lower back and gives him a gentle push, trying to herd them all out of the room, back into their bed-room, where she can shut the door against the ghost and keep them all safe.

“Should I be worried? Are you worried? Don’t let me roll over on her.”

“I think she’d squawk before she’d let you do that,” Bridget says, guiding Mark and Julie out, away, but keeping her eye on the ghost, flickering in stillness near the baby’s window. As soon as Bridget’s small family is out in the hallway, she can breathe again, and she begins to really push, shoving Mark along as swiftly as he’ll let her.

“Hey. Whoa. Hey. I’m still half asleep here, Bridge. Take it easy.” She shuts the door behind them and quietly locks it while Mark settles Julie in the middle of their mattress in the near dark. Bridget turns on the closet bulb and closes the closet door partway, creating a warm triangle of light across the floor that will almost reach the three of them, snug and safe in the bed.

Julie whispers some nonsense words. She is happy, if confused. Bridget crawls into bed next to her and opens her pajama top to let Julie nurse. Mark rolls onto his side to face them and sleepily pats Julie’s hair, then Bridget’s shoulder. Nothing can reach us here. Noth-ing can harm us as long as we’re together.

“Good night, dear ladies,” Mark murmurs. Julie nuzzles in. Brid-get closes her burning eyes in relief, exhausted, every part of her body humming with satisfaction and tiredness. They’d gotten away. The three of them, all close, all safe, here in the dark.

Julie and Mark are asleep, and Bridget is almost asleep herself, breathing the heat and scent of the little blanket-​shrouded valley between parents where baby Julie sleeps—detergent,​ skin, a faint whiff of pee (she should have changed Julie first, she supposes)—when​ the bedroom door opens and the smell of dirt enters the room.


In the days that follow, the ghost invades. But slowly.

Bridget learns to avoid places where the scent of wet earth is strong. The second morning, climbing the stairs to put Julie down for a nap, smelling grass and mud more distinctly with each step, feeling a bit short of breath but attributing it to the climb (and to her own denial that this could be happening, that this could really still be happening, to them, in their neat little house), Bridget almost walks right into the ghost standing in the upstairs hallway at the top of the steps near the door to Julie’s room, still and alert.

She’s looking for something.

It’s the first thing that comes into Bridget’s mind—and​ once she has the idea, she can’t help but think and rethink it, over and over, because for now it’s a question she can’t begin to imagine how to answer: What is she after? What is she after? Julie makes a small, low sound in her throat, and Bridget kisses her head, in her favorite spot, right at the little girl’s feathery temple. It can’t be her. If the ghost wanted the baby, she would have just taken her, or tried to. She’s after something else. Got to be. Got to be. What does she want? The ghost turns toward them, and Bridget backs away down the stairs, keeping the ghost in sight—promising​ herself she would not make the mis-take, ever again, of shutting her eyes. Better to see the unimaginable than try to imagine what it could be doing while you’re refusing to look. The ghost doesn’t pursue them, and Bridget brings Julie down-stairs to sleep on the couch, which the little girl does almost right away, with her mother leaning over her in protective terror, her breath coming fast and shallow.

It’s not lost on Bridget that Julie seems less afraid of the ghost than she is herself. The ghost is, for all Julie knows, just another grown-up​ in the house. Just another strange person watching over her. For all Julie knows, they could come in all sizes and shapes, every variety of solidity and transparency. Sure. Why not? If the ghost is just another watchful presence in Julie’s life, that would explain why it seems to spend so much time flickering back and forth between the hallway, her mother’s bed, and Julie’s bedroom, a field of static rest-lessly shifting channels on itself in an endless loop between the win-dow, the bed, and the stairs, the window, the bed, and the stairs. She probably seems more real to Julie than her own father does. She’s certainly around the house more.

She’s looking for something up there. But what?

Bridget can sense the dead woman nearby at all times, even in the broad light of afternoon, but the ghost never seems to want to come downstairs—at​ least not when Bridget has been around to ­notice—​ which­ makes her easier to avoid. Like a lot of other things in Bridget’s life at home with a baby, maneuvering around a ghost in the house soon becomes a sort of challenging-but​-doable​ routine. The ghost stays upstairs all day, doing God knows what, and Bridget contrives ways for herself and Julie to stay away from her. Sometimes, when she and Julie are in the living room, Bridget senses the ghost looking down over the banister at them, flickering and watching, but when she looks up, nothing is there.

It is only during the dark hours that the ghost seems to come looking for them. Night after night, Bridget surfaces from a miserable half-​sleep to feel her breath coming shorter and shorter, the scent of damp earth approaching, even before the door to her bedroom opens and the flickering presence in the hallway makes herself known.

Sometimes it’s possible for Bridget to believe that she isn’t frightened. When she’s out of the house with Julie, mostly—at​ the neigh-borhood pool, or aimlessly wandering the aisles of the grocery store, or driving the long way home. During the hours that Bridget is not in the house, which naturally have begun to spread and lengthen with the ghost’s arrival, she can almost decide it’s funny, almost hear the jokes she would tell if anyone, anyone at all, were prepared to believe her. The thing I don’t get is why she doesn’t do some fucking laundry if she’s just going to be hanging around the house all day.

She’s looking for something. But what?

In her deepening exhaustion, Bridget can only guess that the ghost, in the fashion of most ghosts she’s read stories about, wants something specific—an​ offering of some sort—and​ what, exactly, she should do about it finally comes to her days later, on a sparkling Wednesday morning that she spends, like every Wednesday, at the coffee shop with the redoubtable Gennie, Gennie of the beautiful thick hair and the well-behaved,​ artistic toddler. The ghost wants something from Bridget’s house—something​ from Julie’s room, perhaps?­—and​ Bridget will have to give it to her. An offering. A sacrifice.

They are at a Starbucks, of course. In their mid-​Texas suburb there is no other kind of coffeehouse. The four of them, Bridget and Julie and Gennie and Gennie’s nineteen-​month-​old son, Miles, ar-rive after the morning rush and before the afternoon loiterers and poem writers, just post morning nap, and immediately squat in the plushest, most remote corner and proceed to cover it with rice puffs and little bits of half-​eaten tofu cubes and cooked apple. A guy at the other end of the room is trying to read the paper and keeps sighing loudly and glancing at them as he turns the pages. They all ignore him.

“I can’t believe Julie’s cruising already! She’s going to be an early walker,” Gennie is saying. “Yes, you!” This last is addressed to Julie, who has been wriggling ardently in Bridget’s lap, trying to reach for Gennie, just get at her, with no thought of what she’ll do once the object of her searing baby desires is achieved. Bridget knows she should try to listen to Gennie but can’t seem to stop herself from staring into space, thought after thought drifting out into blackness like a series of hapless astronauts stepping out of the capsule. She is dead tired. It’s been days.

What can she offer the ghost. What should it be. Some little thing from Julie’s room, some token of appeasement? Bridget finds herself cataloging Julie’s less-favored​ toys in her mind as Gennie talks. Floppy Bunny—too​ crusty. Laughy Giraffey—too​ crusty. Plus, Julie still sucks on his legs when her gums hurt. That horrible mon-key thing Mark’s mom gave her—inappropriate?​ Would the ghost somehow guess it didn’t matter, that she’d been given something val-ueless? But how could anything from the world of the living—​ particularly­ from the world of a plump-wristed,​ rosy ten-month​-old​ girl, with bright eyes and a beating heart and a pulse just discovering what it could do—be​ of no value to the dead?

It is a sign of something that I’m even considering this. It is a sign that some corner has been turned, Bridget thinks, as if being stern with herself somehow excuses it. But this can’t go on. This is worse than sleep training. I’m being chased out of my own house by a ghost, like Ms. Pac-Man. So she will offer the ghost . . . something​. A talisman. Or maybe it’s more like a payment. I’ll pay up. Julie is so little and easily pleased, she’ll never miss whatever it is Bridget takes away to give to the ghost—who​ will . . . what?​ Pick it up in her hands? Flow through it like a sunray? Or shove it hungrily into her mouth?

But Bridget is trying not to go into that dark place—she’s​ trying to be reasonable and practical about it, which seems possible at least while she’s here, in the coffee shop with Gennie.

Gennie takes one of Julie’s hands and swings her arm gently in space. “I thought maybe we could come up with a budget cap for the craft projects so nobody gets too crazy—you​ know some of the mom-mies will make this into a bigger deal than it needs to be. Yes, hello, sweet pea,” Gennie says to Julie, who, judging by her grasping and reaching and grunts of effort, seems to want to change mothers. Gen-nie’s son, Miles, meanwhile, is playing quietly on the floor with some kind of nontoxic wooden puzzle. “I do hate to sound judgey about other moms. I do.”

If only I could talk to Mark. If only. But even if Mark could see the ghost, which he can’t, he’s never around, and at any rate the two of them aren’t exactly in the practice of solving problems together. Not now. Maybe they were once, but not anymore.

The very first person Bridget realized she couldn’t talk to about the ghost was, of course, Mark. The ghost is invisible to him, even though she stands over his bed every night. Even though she’s there waiting when he comes home close to midnight and crawls into bed with his wife, and she’s there in the hallway when he rises early to beat the traffic in. Throughout the dark hours, Bridget is a sentry for Mark and Julie both, overtired nerves sensing and scenting, seeking the ghost, imagining where she might be. She’s never far. And every night, while Bridget lies in bed, fluctuating between stiff terror (she’s here, she’s right here with us) and helpless half-​wakefulness (the hall-way, the top of the stairs), punctuated by periodic visits to Julie’s room to stand guard over the baby while the ghost flickers near Julie’s win-dow, Mark is asleep.

More frightening than the ghost is the suspicion, which Bridget briefly entertained, that she might be utterly bonkers, a complete lunatic. But as far as Bridget can tell, she is not insane, inasmuch as she knows the ghost is real. Mark may not see the ghost, but he smells it—she’s​ seen his face change when he enters a place the ghost has recently occupied, as if he’s smelling something off and is too polite to mention it. Since Bridget’s been at home, Mark has become cagey about anything that might be construed as a critique of Bridget’s housekeeping. He made one harmless comment too many when Julie was small and still up half the night, and Bridget laid into him with real ferocity, whisper-screeching​ that he could do them all a favor and sweep the kitchen himself if he was so sick of catching crumbs on his fucking socks, which, by the way, I wash for you so what exactly is your problem exactly? It’s not a sexist thing in him, not really—he’s​ just never been as tidy or fastidious as Bridget, and even before she quit her job to stay home, Bridget was doing most of the housework. Al-most all. Mark helps with laundry and handles the trash and does ineffectual puttering things, like pruning the houseplants. Which is actually fine, really fine—she’d​ rather do it herself and know it’s been done right than have to nag Mark to be sure he wipes the little rim behind the toilet seat. It’s only when Bridget is exhausted that she minds.

And she’s exhausted all the time now.

Gennie says, “Sometimes I wish that we could all just hang out without talking about the kids, because inevitably we start comparing the kids, I don’t know how it happens but it always, always does. And then I think, well, Jesus, what the hell would we all talk about if it weren’t for the kids, you know? So that’s part of why I really want to make this work. I just want to give us something we can share and do together, as a group, without it becoming a competition.”

At this point Bridget realizes that Gennie has actually been talking to her about something on and off for a few minutes. A sum-mer project Gennie’s come up with for all the neighborhood families with little kids. And she ought to at least pretend that she’s listening to her, her good friend Gennie. (But oh God, this, this is a matter of life and death: There is a dead person in my house who stands over my bed at night, and sometimes over Julie’s, and I might be crazy or I might just be tired—of​ course I’m tired—but​ oh God, Gennie, I couldn’t tell you, I couldn’t ever tell you in a million years what I’m really thinking right now, and it’s not just because you’re what I’m not, not really, not in my heart, not even though that’s also what I am.)

It’s the art camp. Gennie has been talking about the art camp she’s been trying to organize for the summer, an idea she may have read about in a magazine or just come up with on her own, so creative and kind-​and sweet-hearted​ is she: Gennie and Bridget and the other mothers they know with young children will each take turns hosting an art camp morning once a week all summer long. Week one at Gennie’s: Make your own superhero capes, design your own side-kicks! Week two at Pilar’s: Finger painting outside on the deck and sidewalk chalk! It sounds fun. It’s a nice idea. Please, oh God, let this be the end of it, let us escape the ghost and have art camp. Floppy Bunny will be fine. In her mouth.

To prevent herself from thinking of the ghost—from​ clutching at thoughts of the ghost the way one clutches a handlebar, and for the same reasons: the instinctive physical reaction to fear, the sensation of falling—Bridget​ bends down to Julie and lands a series of kisses, swock after swock, all over the dear little musk-smelling​ head of the child in her lap. As Bridget does so, she is aware that Gennie is watching her do it, and that the look on Gennie’s face is tender and appreciative but also, and here’s the slightly menacing thing, proud. Bridget has seen this expression before, on Gennie’s face and on the faces of other mothers they know, and to her, that familiar expression says, We got you. We so got you.

Bridget’s phone buzzes in her skirt pocket, and she plucks it out from under Julie’s plumply diapered butt and peers at its screen, entertaining half a second’s hope that it’s Mark. But in fact it’s Martha, an old friend from law school who is also a mom and also an attorney (although Bridget supposes she can no longer call herself that, strictly speaking).

quick q? about estates. ur my only hope. call me!

She is too tired. She puts the phone on the wobbly little table in front of them. Gennie has taken the opportunity to check her phone, too. Like all the mothers they know, they live and die by their phones. “I know that women used to do this without smartphones,” Bridget says by way of apology, “but I can’t imagine how.”

“What, you mean motherhood?” Gennie smiles absently. She’s still reading something on her screen. “Yeah, it does seem impossible. I take a picture of Miles every day, probably.”

“I’m not even talking about the camera. Although that’s obvi-ously good, too. It’s more like the news and the weather and the clock and the messaging other humans with vocabularies. How did women get through the day, I’m asking.”

Gennie gives Bridget a half-​wink over the top of her phone—​ ­she’s tapping out a message. “They talked to other women, probably. Instead. Like I should be talking to you. Instead. Of doing this.” She finishes, looks up. “But you know, compared to our washing ma-chines, smartphones are like the least important advancement in technology for women like us.”

Bridget smiles, but her tired brain is circling the words “women like us,” like something caught in a drain. But I’m not like you, I’m not, I’m not. I like you, but in my heart I’m not.

Gennie goes on wryly, “Living without a phone might be boring, but if I had to wash my own dishes, I might as well go live in a box in a hole in the ground.”

“A hole in the ground?” Bridget shivers and stands up suddenly, pretending she needs to stretch her legs. She is adept at pretending she has been listening when she hasn’t been, a skill she developed in her former life as an attorney, and which she’s certain will be useful once Julie starts to talk in earnest. “Sorry, I’m sorry. Let’s talk art camp. I’m listening.”

“It’d be easier if we could do it in a neutral place and not at peo-ple’s houses, I know,” Gennie goes on, agreeing with an argument Bridget hasn’t even made. “But the playground’s too hot and the pool’s too crowded and the clubhouse is too much. I looked into it, believe me. But we’ll just make that a ground rule: If a kid has a meltdown at someone else’s house, no one can hold it against anyone. You know?”

Bridget smirks and puts Julie on the ground so that she can cruise alarmingly between small, easily toppled tables and find bits of napkin to put in her mouth. “You’re thinking of Sandra.”

Sandra is one of those mothers who finds a way to blame other mothers whenever her son misbehaves. At my house he never does that! Oh, but I guess I don’t leave stuff like that out for him to find. In the group of neighborhood mothers that Bridget and Gennie run with, Sandra is known as a bit of a pill, which, perversely, is just what makes her so indispensable—to​ Bridget, at least. As Bridget put it to Mark one night, crowing, a little drunk after all, “No one joins a mothers’ group—no one hears the words ‘mothers’ group’—without thinking, shit, that sounds awful—unless​ there’s a chance that they all might kill each other!”

When Bridget first quit her job, she’d had not a single stay-at​-​ home­ friend, and she knows that as new friends go, she is truly lucky to have found Gennie, and not only because of Gennie’s many lovely qualities. Gennie is the tacit leader of their small group of neighbor-hood mothers, and her friendship has paved Bridget’s way right into the center of their social set, a position she’s not sure she would have tried to achieve on her own steam. Because, actually, it had been more a sort of prurient anticipation of lurid mommy spectacles that drew Bridget into the mothers’ group at first: She’d imagined lunacies erupt-ing over snacks and playdates, and she’d imagined herself retaining the slightly superior attitude required to be entertained by them.

But the truth is she understands, even truly likes, these women of her new world. They are all kind of lonely, and they live near each other, and they want their kids to have other kids to play with, and really everybody is mostly pretty nice, in the way that people are. They’ve gotten to know each other, the mothers, at Friday evening neighborhood cookouts in the central green in their subdivision (Gennie organizes, texts everybody with details, makes sure people know what to bring), cookouts to which everybody comes early, with coolers full of snacks and drinks, and from which everybody leaves drunk, with their kids asleep and sticky in their strollers. Sandra’s the only one who says things like “I saw a kid with her nanny at the pool today and I just felt sorry for the little thing” and “I just think working mothers are kind of selfish, you know? Like, what could be so impor­tant­ about their jobs that they’d miss out on being with their own children?”

Bridget’s law-school​ friend Martha tried to warn her against be-coming too entrenched in what she calls the “mommy scene” when Bridget “opted out,” as Martha insists on calling it. “Before you know it,” Martha said, not quite winking, “you’ll have twenty things to do every day and you’ll be trying to figure out how you got so overcommitted when the whole point was to have all this time to focus obsessively on your baby. Basically, don’t hang out with any grown women who refer to other grown women as mommies. But even then you might not be safe.”

The last time Bridget saw Martha, about a month ago, they’d arranged to meet up for drinks at a Mexican place while Mark put Julie to bed, not very successfully, and Martha’s husband, Graham, put their two kids to bed, in equally calamitous fashion. If their hus-bands were a little more competent they’d have dinner more often, they agreed, and then ordered another round of margaritas. It was then that Bridget told Martha about the summer cookout-​and-​ ­drinking scene that Gennie had organized in their neighborhood, and Martha was drunk enough to sigh, “God, that sounds nice. Can I come sometime?” Which of course she could, and Bridget arranged it by texting Gennie that very moment. Then Martha changed the subject to something happening at work—she​ was at a larger firm than the one Bridget had left—and​ let slip some comment about how glad she was to have something to really do, you know? Something to keep her in the world when the kids felt overwhelming. And Bridget was drunk enough to say, “Gennie says she doesn’t understand women who get their identities from their jobs.”

Martha snorted. “She’s five years younger than you. She opted out before she ever had a real job.”

“You’re right.” Bridget nodded.

“The first time you quote me to Gennie, I’d really like to know. I’d like for you to give me a call when that happens,” Martha declared.

Mark, somewhat to Bridget’s surprise, can’t stand Gennie. “She’s too cute” is all he’ll say. To her face he’s as polite as an auditioning tenor, but whenever Bridget brings her up—which​ is, she’ll admit, weirdly often—he​ tends to grimace and shrug and be generally dismissive. While Bridget tries not to take Mark’s tepid judgment of her friend as anything more than a lack of interest, she can’t help but feel betrayed, a little, in the sense that Gennie is exactly the kind of per-son Bridget is supposed to want to be now. Gennie is a choice, essentially, that she, Bridget, made in order to benefit all three of them, and Mark should at least try to be consistent in what exactly he’s after in a wife. If it’s not Gennie’s best qualities—her​ humor, her charm, her thinness, her creativity and patience on rainy days—then​ Bridget will have to admit something she’s not prepared to admit, beyond the obvious fact that Gennie is a person and not a symbol, a convenient one that Bridget herself has constructed. She’ll never be as good at this as Gennie, even though she is what Gennie is now, even if in her heart she suspects she’s not.

Gennie checks her phone again for the time. “We have to go soon. You’re coming to the mommy yoga class, right?”

“Yep. My only exercise.”

“You get plenty of exercise just chasing her around,” Gennie says cheerfully.

“Do I?” Bridget watches Julie plump herself down on the floor, in frowning study of a found, probably unclean plastic cup lid that will within moments make its way into her mouth. She honestly can-not think of a single occasion when she’s chased Julie around. Bridget thinks this is something that mothers of boys do and assume that all mothers do also, because otherwise they’d try to trade their sons in for girls.

“Well, you’re doing something right. You look great.”

Bridget manages not to roll her eyes, but as she removes the cup lid from Julie’s chubby fist, prompting a bellow from the girl, she is forced to acknowledge that this is precisely the sort of blithe, perhaps willful generosity that Bridget associates with Gennie, because Gennie is the one who looks great. She’s actually slimmer now than she was before she had Miles—Bridget​ has seen her wedding pictures, over at the house. Gennie has milkmaid skin, chestnut hair, and a twinkly air, and wears only delicate, handmade jewelry. Just looking at her makes Bridget happy. And, of course, jealous. But mostly happy.

“Gennie, you are a force for good,” Bridget says, again without quite thinking what she’s saying, but this time she means it.

Gennie’s cheeks flush prettily, and she smiles with real pleasure. “So I guess that means I should go punch that huffy guy with the newspaper right in the neck.”


Oh, it takes them many, many long minutes to gather all of their things, all of their snack cups and sippy cups and half-​ ­finished lattes. And the act of stuffing the rest of the apple crumb pastry that Bridget has forced herself to eat only half of into a paper sack and thence into the trash causes her a real pang (three dollars, plus think how delicious it would have tasted after yoga, warmed in the car by the sun), to add to the pangs already in process: The pang of guilt for poor Floppy Bunny, destined for some ghostly subsummation that Bridget can’t think about right now, not when an hour’s worth of normalness with Gennie and the kids have pushed the ghost to the back of her mind. An ongoing, aching pang of love, constantly tolling like a huge distant bell, for her darling baby. And with it, a similar, nonstop pang of low-level​ remorse or something like it for her old life and her old job, which wasn’t God’s work but was hers, in a way that she liked. Pangs for Mark, even, of the sexual, envious, and doubting varieties. Part of the reason she’s been going to yoga classes with Gennie is to try to recapture some of her own former spryness and energy, her vim, as they might have called it in the nineteen fifties, because some stubborn part of her persists in believing that Mark might actually notice.

But in fact there is a text from Mark on her phone, as Bridget discovers once she has gotten Julie into her car seat and settled her-self behind the wheel to follow Gennie’s car to the yoga studio. (Could they have carpooled? Would it have saved a polar bear if they had carpooled? Index under “pangs: first-​world problems, caused by.”)

b home late tonite. sorry. love.

It’s not his fault.

It’s not anybody’s fault. But it would almost be easier if she be-lieved he was having an affair—with,​ say, some frisky young devel-oper at his mobile gaming company, a pixieish, overpaid recent college graduate bending over for him in the heat of the server room late at night.

It’s not another woman, though; it’s just work. She knows be-cause she was the same way before she quit her job to stay home with Julie. Bridget and Mark have been married for two and a half years now, and before Julie was born, they had still had appliances from Bridget’s bridal shower they’d never used. Vacation time they’d never taken accrued like cholesterol in their calendars; unread magazines piled up in slick stacks under the coffee table, so high sometimes that it seemed the table’s legs must be about to lift off the floor.

They still haven’t taken a vacation, actually. That’s the joke. How could they now, on one income? Ha ha ha. A week full of ha’s. It’s not his fault. And she’s not so cruel as to throw that irony in Mark’s face.

Other than the ghost, the only thing that makes Bridget feel terror, real terror, is the thought of how dependent they are on the guys—young,​ slick, prone to handing out business cards—who​ own Mark’s company, PlusSign. (It’s called “PlusSign” because it’s a digital gaming company, Mark once explained to her, in an email from the office his first week on the job. If they made dog collars or shoehorns, they’d be called “Plus Sign.”) The little boat of Bridget and Mark and Julie is now entirely afloat on the sea of PlusSign; for better or worse, they have entrusted their small family’s fortunes and future to two young men in their late twenties who made an enormously popular mobile game in which you run from house to house in an increasingly complex warren of animated subdivisions, sneaking into people’s homes and robbing them, the old-fashioned​ way, while they sleep. Stuffing their belongings into a sack—which,​ in a metaphor that Bridget supposes is the analog of Mary Poppins’s carpetbag, expands infinitely to accommodate your loot—while​ you caper and cavort and race the sunrise and other robbers. In this game, you get extra points if you stop to clean out your victim’s refrigerator.

Bridget rereads the text from Mark on her phone, then turns her eyes to the rearview mirror to gaze at Julie, snug in her rear-facing​ car seat and looking expectantly into the mirror Bridget has affixed to the car’s back window, so that both of them—just​ inches away from each other but cocooned in their separate seats and facing in different directions—can​ look at reflections of each other, just like they’re doing now, whenever the fancy strikes them. Bridget raises her phone to the rearview mirror and takes a picture of Julie, smiling into two mirrors at her mother. She sends it to Mark. She doesn’t expect a reply, although a reply would be nice. She looks at the picture of her daughter, her daughter with her clear hazel eyes and her beautiful lashes and the curls of dark hair just now growing long enough to fringe her shell-pink​ ears.

“Baby girl,” Bridget announces, “we are not going to yoga.” Because the strange fact is, sometimes she wants to see the ghost as much as the ghost seems to want to see her.

The Barter
by by Siobhan Adcock