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My Dad Was Married Once Before

broken floorboard

Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

My dad was married, once, before he met my mom. We always knew that growing up, but no one really talked about it. My mom was the only mother my older sister ever had, and she loved us both like we were her own. And of course, she loved my dad too and dad loved her. 

But he always carried his first wife with him, even if he never brought her up. It wasn’t until just before he died that he actually told me the story, and nothing could have prepared me for how dark it was. It obviously made him sad to talk about it, but I think it made him sadder not to. I suppose I’m telling it to you for the same reason, even though thinking about it gives me chills.

Dad’s first wife was named Lily. The two of them met fresh out of school and fell head over heels, as they say. She was pretty, dark-haired, tall. Apparently, she thought he was pretty too, though he never could figure out why. They shared that first love together that feels like the end of the world while you’re in it. 

They had started saving to start a family young, so when they found out Lily was pregnant with my sister, that just meant their plan was running a little ahead of schedule. They had to get married in a hurry to keep the families happy, but neither of them had wanted a long engagement, anyway. 

For a wedding present, dad bought them an old house with creaky floorboards and big windows to live in. People these days would call it a “project house.” To dad, it was just all they could afford. 

They were happy, there, for those few months while Lily got bigger and bigger, waiting for the baby to come. They put a fresh coat of paint on things to help make that house feel like a  home. They read through books of baby names together, and they even got themselves a fat tabby cat so they could practice being parents. And of course, daddy told me the day my sister was finally born was the happiest day of his life. 

But much as we might wish otherwise, things always change. And nothing changes things like a baby. My sister wasn’t an easy baby, either. From the time they took her home to the time she could walk she was either sleeping or crying, and she never cared to sleep during the same hours her parents needed to. From sunset to sunrise, seven days a week, you could hear that baby screaming clear across the neighborhood. That crying runs a person ragged, dad told me.  Not all at once, of course, because you love having a daughter. But bit by bit, as the memory of  sleep fades away, you start to catch yourself having terrible thoughts like “If I’d known being a  father was going to be like this…” 

But however hard my dad had it, it was nothing compared to what Lily went through.  Dad said she wasn’t ever quite the same after the baby came. At first, he chalked it up to the stress of being a new mama, but as time went on it only got worse. Over those first few weeks,  Lily got quieter and quieter, until it seemed like all the laughter in that house just dried up. Then, her moods started to flip. She could go from not speaking at all to crying almost as much as the baby in seconds, with no warning. Dad said that scared him more than anything else he’d seen because he had no idea how to help her. 

And of course, dad still worked his nine to five, so more often than not it was Lily who had to stay up soothing my sister through the night. Dad said he would watch from the bedroom through half-closed eyes as she paced back and forth on the creaky kitchen floor, shushing the baby in her arms. 

…step, step, creak, step…step, creak, step, step… 

He’d fall asleep watching her long, dark hair swaying as she shuffled across the dark room and back again. 

. . . step, step, creak, step . . . step, creak, step, step . . . 

It wasn’t long before Lily really started to decline. She couldn’t sleep even when she wanted to, and the medication she was prescribed didn’t seem to help. She started losing things constantly. To hear her say it, nothing ever stayed where she put it down. He remembered the fridge was left hanging open all night at least twice. And the house slowly got filthy because, as she said, whenever she finished cleaning one mess she’d find two more hidden away somewhere.  She blamed my dad for leaving his trash everywhere, but dad knew she must have been the one doing it, and somehow she just forgot. 

He said, “I worried about her, I surely did! But you have to understand, I ain’t no good  with that kind of thing.” He really looked hard at me when he told me that, like he was begging  with his eyes, “Please believe me, Janie, I wanted to help her but I just ain’t no good.” 

The best he could do for her was install a new set of deadbolts on the windows and doors to try and keep her calm. She’d started telling him about how there were people living in the walls and she could hear them moving around at night, so he took it on himself to lock those strangers out. He was only humoring her, of course. The only thing he heard at night was the floor creaking like mad as she walked back and forth in the dark . . . step, step, creak, step . . . for hours on end. And every once in awhile, the cat would hiss at God knows what out there and come running into his room to hide under the bed.

It got so bad that he started worrying a little for his own safety–not that he thought she would hurt him. She’d never. But the whole situation made him uneasy. He said there were times when he’d wake up in the night and see her silhouette in the doorway to the bedroom standing there with her hair wild and long and her posture strange and bent. He could feel her watching him, while he waited with his eyes half open, pretending to be asleep. 

My dad says the biggest regret of his life was going on that fishing trip that May. Lily asked him not to go. She said she didn’t feel safe in the house, never mind the extra locks he’d installed. He argued back that the house was fine, and she just needed some rest, and he couldn’t just break this tradition he and his brothers had kept for years. It would only be three days, and anyway, he’d call her every night to check in. 

Of course, the truth is he just needed to get away for a few days. He’d never have left if he thought she was in danger. But people get tired, eventually, and after the last few months of worry, it would have taken an awful lot to get him to give up three nights of peace and quiet. So he packed up his rods and tackle, kissed my sister’s bald little head, and said goodbye to his wife.  She held him tightly by the hands as they stood there on the stoop and told him she loved him.  “I’m trying to forgive you for leaving,” she said. “I love you, though. I really do.” 

Dad spent three days with his brothers hooking walleye out on the murky waters of Lake  Erie. He told me it didn’t feel as good as he had expected. The weather was nice, and the fish were biting, but no matter how much he tried to shake that uneasy feeling, his thoughts kept turning back to his wife and child all alone with the monsters in Lily’s head. He’d hoped to let some of his tension melt away out on that boat, but the stress aches in his shoulders only got worse as the days went by, not better.

It probably would have been different if he’d been able to call her when he got back to the lodge in the evenings like he had planned. But whenever he called the house, their phone would just ring and ring with no answer. This was in the days before everyone had voicemail, of course,  so it was possible that he simply kept missing her. He told himself she’d probably stepped out to go to the store to grab a few things after dinner. Or maybe she’d taken an extra dose of that new sleeping medication to help her relax and she was already snoring. Or hell, my sister was loud enough, maybe she just couldn’t hear the phone ringing over the sound of the baby wailing.  There was no reason to assume the worst. 

All the same, he cut the trip short on the last day and started the four-hour drive home around noon so he could hurry back to check on his girls. He told me his knuckles got whiter and whiter as he squeezed on the wheel the whole way home. He’d been able to pretend that everything was fine while the house and the baby and Lily’s strange nighttime wanderings were far behind him, but with every hour on the way back the tension in his shoulders and stomach got worse and worse. 

He was shaking by the time he pulled into their gravel driveway and ran up to the house.  He paused for a moment to take one last breath before turning the key in his shiny new lock. It was too late, of course. You knew that already, and so did he. 

He found her on the floor next to the couch, like she’d tried to slump down on it and missed. The empty bottle of sleeping pills had rolled out of her hand and halfway across the room. 

My dad said he almost died right there with her, and it was only the sound of my sister crying in her crib that brought him back. She had a diaper rash and she needed to be fed, but other than that she was healthy.

I can’t imagine how it must have felt to for him have that much horror and relief running through him all at once. I’m glad I can’t imagine that. 

The police came and swept the house and asked dad a bunch of questions and then they went away and took the body with them. For a few, blurry days, dad just went about his business,  trying to learn how to survive and take care of his daughter all by himself. After a while, he got the coroner’s report. Lily’s death was ruled an obvious suicide. She died of an overdose, and all the doors and windows in the house were shut and locked from the inside, which ruled out foul play. Given dad’s description of her mental state, it wasn’t hard to put together what must have happened. 

There was one interesting thing, though. Dad didn’t understand all the technical talk about rigor mortis and livor mortis and so on. But Lily’s time of death jumped out at him. According to the report, she had died at least a full day and a half before he got back from his fishing trip and found her there. 

Dad had taken my sister to a doctor the night he got back to make sure she was alright after being left all alone in her crib, and the pediatrician told him that malnutrition was a real concern, because babies that age can’t go without nursing for very long. But my sister hadn’t dropped any weight and overall seemed to be in good health. They told him it was a minor miracle. But I think dad had a hard time feeling like a miracle had anything to do with it. 

The police found empty bottles of formula left on the counter when they swept the house,  which no one thought was strange, at the time. Only, now dad had questions about how those bottles had gotten there and when exactly my sister had last been fed if her mother had died so long before she was found.

But eventually, he decided some questions will drive you crazy if you think too hard about them. “Please understand, Janie,” he told me. “I would have lost myself if I’d have kept trying to figure out what exactly happened–what the timeline of that weekend was. I had to let it  go or I just couldn’t have kept on.” So he let it go and kept on living, hoping he could pick up the pieces of his life along the way. But things only got harder after that. 

As the days turned to weeks, dad realized there was something wrong in that house. It seemed almost as if Lily’s ghost had stayed behind after they took her body away–the sick, frightening parts of Lily that had appeared in her last few weeks. 

It was worst when he was half-asleep, trying to get some rest while staying alert enough to hear if my sister started to fuss. Just as he’d start to doze, he would swear he heard the sound of someone moving in the kitchen . . . step, step, creak, step . . . step, creak, step, step . . . He started double-checking to make sure the house was locked up at all times, but that didn’t stop it. 

And that’s not all. Things he set down around the house never seemed to stay where he put them. He could never get the cat to calm down after that, either, and he almost asked his brother to adopt it, just to get it to stop meowing and spitting all through the night at things he never saw. 

He told me with revulsion about the time he came across Lily’s hairbrush while he was packing up some of her things and found that the hair tangled in it wasn’t the dark brown he remembered, but deep black and coarse. 

He even dreamed a few times that there was a dark figure with long, wild hair standing in the doorway to his room, watching him, and all he could do was break out in a panic-sweat and hold his breath until it turned and walked away.

He felt crazy. Like he had completely fallen apart, despite his best efforts. And worst of all, he felt completely alone, just like Lily must have felt when he told her everything she heard was all in her head. He would spend whole nights just listening to those footsteps and whispering into his pillow “I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry…” 

Things reached their peak about a month after Lily died when he actually saw the thing that was haunting them. 

It was about 3:00 AM on a Tuesday, and dad woke up to the sound of my sister crying.  But that wasn’t all. In between her screams he could just barely make out a soft “Shh shh  shhh…” 

He froze. 

“Shh shh shhh…” 

Someone was gently shushing his daughter back to sleep. 

He tore out of bed and dashed into the hallway just in time to see the figure with the long tangled hair–the one he thought he had been dreaming up this whole time–slip out of his daughter’s room and into the kitchen. 

He almost threw up on his feet right there, he was so scared. All he could think about was protecting his daughter, getting her somewhere safe. He rushed down the hallway, straight past the kitchen, and into the baby’s room. My sister was okay, thank God, still wailing in her crib. 

He took her into his arms and sprinted for the front door. Looking back, he couldn’t see whoever it was that had disappeared into the kitchen, but he didn’t dare stop. He kept on running until he’d gotten them strapped into his truck and driven all the way to my grandad’s house two towns away.

The next morning, he gathered his courage and went back to get the cat and to see what he could find. The cat was spooked and hiding underneath the bed but otherwise okay. The house itself was empty and cold. He knew there was no way someone could have gotten in. He wondered if that meant it was a ghost. He drifted from room to room, not really sure what he was looking for. A reason to call the cops, maybe. Proof that he hadn’t lost his mind. 

Personally, I think he was trying to work up the nerve to say goodbye, even if he didn’t know it yet. But there was no one there to say goodbye to. He walked into the kitchen, where the thing had disappeared. There was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing… 

He stepped onto the sagging kitchen floor with a creeeeak and felt it sink an inch beneath his foot. Two feet away, another section of floor stuck up an inch into the air. It took dad a second to process what he was seeing, but when he did the realization knocked the wind out of him. He suddenly understood that those old creaking floorboards–the ones that had never quite fit right–had rotted through long ago and were no longer attached to the house’s foundation at all. It was blind luck that he’d never noticed it before, the simple result of always stepping everywhere but the exact right spot. 

He suddenly felt claustrophobic and hot. He wanted to run away, but instead he reached down and fit his fingers underneath the boards. They lifted right out of place, almost like they were made to. He could see dirt through the hole underneath. It was a direct passage to the crawlspace beneath the house. 

Almost too afraid of what was down there to go on, he knelt and slowly lowered his head into the crawlspace. It was empty, except for some loose soil and cobwebs. There couldn’t have been more than two feet of open space between the house and the ground. The only real light down there came from a broken section of the wooden lattice that wrapped around the foundation. 

As all the blood rushed to his head, dad tried to picture it. The broken lattice, the narrow hole from the crawlspace into his kitchen… It didn’t seem likely that anyone could fit through there. He certainly couldn’t do it… 

But a thin, bony woman with black, tangled hair? A stranger willing to crawl on her belly like a snake for the chance to rise up into their home through the floor? 

Maybe. 

Dad moved out of that house that same night and never went back. 

He called the cops and they swept the place again, obviously, but they never turned up anything that led to anything. Even if they had, and even if he’d gotten that floor fixed, he would have never been able to let himself relax there again. He took his daughter halfway across the state to start again, and that was where he met my mom. Eventually, he heard the old house was condemned and torn down. 

I think my dad had a good life, overall. But how does someone go back to normal, once they’ve been through something like that? I know that my dad never really left what happened behind him. I think he felt too guilty to put the memory down even if he had known how to do it,  so the things he had been through just became a part of him. And I never knew until he told me,  just before the end. 

When I think about it now, that’s what scares me the most about dad’s story. The fact that someone you’ve known your entire life could be carrying so much horror with them every day,  and unless they decide to tell you, you might never even know.