All the Bells and Whistles

Fiction
Linda Griffin


Photo Credit: rawdonfox/Flickr (CC-by)

My name is Wren, and I’m an alcoholic. The first part of my story will sound pretty familiar to all of you, but then it gets weird. I started drinking in high school. Casually at parties at first and then I’d get my brother to buy a bottle for me. I never got drunk enough to feel out of control, but that doesn’t mean my judgment wasn’t impaired. I never got hung over and I was sure that meant I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Yeah, right.

I met Noah at a party the night I turned nineteen. My judgment was definitely impaired, but it might not have been the alcohol. Noah was very seriously adorable. I’m not exaggerating. Tall, sexy, curly black hair. He was a social drinker, and I used to hide the bottles so he wouldn’t know how much I drank. We got married six weeks after we met. Part of the haste was that he had been offered a really great job in Australia and he wanted me to go with him. So we got married and we were crazy in love and very happy for about six months.

I liked Australia at first, but it was a long way from home, and I never really adjusted to the differences. Noah caught on that I was drinking more than I admitted to. He was the first person to tell me I was an alcoholic. I was sure he was wrong because I could have quit anytime I wanted—but I wasn’t going to let him tell me when. Reality set in, and we started to fight a lot. He was still adorable, but it wasn’t fun anymore being married to him. So, I raided our savings account for a ticket home. I remember I was pretty drunk when I got off the plane.

Flash forward a couple of years, and I’m married to Michael, and he’s a great guy. Not as cute as Noah, but solid, a good husband with a good job, the whole package. I really got lucky that time, because I was still drinking way too much, and my judgment was far from perfect. Michael is an alcoholic too, but he would quit and go to AA for a while and then backslide. Even when he was going to meetings, he didn’t give me a hard time. He never drank as much as I did, but I was fine; I just had a higher tolerance.

Then one day, Noah shows up out of the blue. He was in the States for a few days on business. He called my mom, and she told him where to find me. He just wanted to say hi, but I offered him a drink, and next thing I know we’d had a few, and he was looking more adorable every minute. The sex was always the best part of our relationship, and there’s something about your first love that you never get over. Having sex with your ex-husband is a whole different thing from sleeping around; it doesn’t even feel like cheating—at least not after a few drinks. He went back to Australia, and I didn’t even tell Michael I’d seen him. He knew about my first marriage, of course; the Australia adventure made a good story.

A lot was going on then—money was tight, and Michael’s father was ill, and so on. My periods were always irregular, so I was pretty far along before I realized I was pregnant. I should have worried about fetal alcohol syndrome, but I was too preoccupied with finding myself in the middle of the hoariest of soap opera plots: Who’s the daddy?

I did quit drinking—it was the first time since I was fourteen that I had gone as much as a week without a drink. Michael took me to a few meetings, but I don’t think I was ready for it yet. I stayed sober for a few months and then convinced myself the crucial period was past and it was safe to drink again. I was still more worried that the baby would have Noah’s aquiline nose, dimples, or curly black hair, than the possibility of birth defects or brain damage. Michael had never even seen a picture of Noah, but my mother knew he had been in town about the right time, and I knew she wasn’t likely to keep her mouth shut if the baby resembled him.

Okay, so the baby was born, and it was a girl, and she was just about perfect. No fetal alcohol syndrome facial features, no brain damage, no dimples. She looked like me. I was still worried—I had read that babies don’t start to look like their fathers until they’re about eighteen months old. Yeah, really, it’s an evolutionary thing, so the dads will know the kids are theirs when they’re at the age they get active enough to interest them.

Meanwhile Michael’s father died, and a lot of things changed. He left Michael enough money that we were able to buy a wonderful house, but it also meant that my mother-in-law moved in with us. Oh boy. My drinking got seriously out of control—of course it always was, but even I could tell the difference. She drove me up the wall every minute of every day, especially when it came to the baby. She knew best; left to myself I was going to ruin her.

The house is roughly what I always imagined my dream house to be. It’s a big, old, two-story house on a nice, quiet street in a semi-rural neighborhood. It has a curving staircase and a wrap-around porch and lots of odd little cubbyholes and nice, deep closets. Character and charm to spare. My mother-in-law hated it.

So now it gets weird. The first thing was the whistling. I heard it several times before I figured out where it was coming from: the baby’s room. When I went in the room, it would stop, and the baby would be lying in the crib gazing up at me. Nobody else was in the room; it had to be her. Michael kept telling me babies don’t whistle. He implied that I was imagining things, that my drinking was affecting my mind. I knew better. One of my favorite books when I was a kid was Karen by Marie Killilea—Karen was nicknamed Wren, so we had that in common. She was extremely premature and in an incubator for a long time, and Marie would whistle lullabies to her, and Karen started whistling when she was about seven months old.

But Julie wasn’t even two months old yet, and nobody had been whistling to her. Maybe the gardener a time or two outside her window. It had no tune to it; it wasn’t exactly musical, but it was a human sound, not like steam pipes or anything. I could never catch her doing it, but I knew it had to be her. Once I heard it in the middle of the night. Her room was right across the hall from ours, and I tiptoed in, and as always, the whistling stopped as soon as I opened the door. Julie was awake, kicking her little legs, not crying or fussing at all. She was always a good, quiet baby, and apparently she could whistle, even though she wouldn’t perform for an audience.

Next it was bells. Even I couldn’t imagine that Julie was responsible for that, although it did seem to be coming from her room. Yeah, bells, little tinkling bells, any time of the day or night. I told Michael the house was haunted, and he said I was haunted. I wasn’t afraid—if a ghost or spirit or mysterious entity was in the house, I didn’t think it could mean any harm with a repertoire of bells and whistles. I’d always read that there would be cold spots when ghosts were present, but if anything, the nursery was unusually warm.

Then my mother-in-law drove our car off the road and into a ditch in the middle of the night. The car rolled over, and she didn’t have her seat belt on, and she was killed. Nobody could figure out what she was doing on the road at that hour. She was a very timid driver as a rule, and she had nowhere to go in the middle of the night. Michael was devastated, and everyone was stunned and disbelieving. The police said no skid marks were found, as if she had done it on purpose, and their first theory was suicide.

They kept investigating and came up with another theory: somebody else was driving, somebody who deliberately sent the car into the ditch and escaped. It didn’t take long for me to figure out who the chief suspect was. They took my fingerprints and asked me to take a polygraph. I was upset, insulted, but I wasn’t worried because I knew I hadn’t done anything. I was secretly glad to have her out of my hair, but I was sorry for Michael’s loss, and my conscience was clear.

I passed the polygraph, but my fingerprints showed up in very suspicious places. I knew for certain that I had been asleep in bed with Michael when the car went off the road, but the police believed otherwise, and they had even Michael looking at me suspiciously. I was an alcoholic whose consumption had recently spiraled out of control. I had never had blackouts before, but the police were convinced that I’d had one that night and that I had murdered my mother-in-law.

Only one thing was wrong with that theory: I had quit drinking the week before. Yes, I know all the buzz words. Denial. Prevarication. And I was stone cold sober the night my mother-in-law died. I’d swear on my daughter’s life. And yes, I know an alcoholic will do that and lie through her teeth. But I didn’t. I’m not. The police developed a pretty convincing case. It convinced everybody. It almost convinced me. But I had still been sober, asleep in bed with Michael, with no memory of anything else, not even a bad dream.

Beginning the night of the accident—murder, if you will—there were no bells and no whistling coming from the baby’s room for at least two weeks. I was out on bail, and the case wasn’t going to be tried for months, so I was home every day and every night, and nothing weird was happening.

The day after it started up again, the phone rang in the middle of the night. Michael went downstairs to answer it. The phone was apparently defective—it kept ringing after he picked up the receiver, and nobody was on the line. He banged it down a few times, and it finally stopped ringing. It was only because he was downstairs at that moment that he saw the flickering light outside the window. A fire was blazing in the garage. The fire department put it out before it could spread to the house, but the garage was gutted, and the car we’d rented was destroyed.

The police investigated, and yes, the fire was arson, and yes, my fingerprints were found in suspicious places. I was still sober, and Michael could swear that I was asleep in bed beside him when the phone rang. The police said I’d had time to go back to bed after I set the fire, but Michael didn’t believe it—he was never that sound a sleeper.

The thing that puzzled even the police was the lack of motive. If I had wanted to destroy evidence of murder, I would have had to torch our own car, which was locked up in a police impound lot. Why would I, or anybody else, want to destroy the rental car? They weren’t puzzled long; they figured I was a crazy drunk and probably forgot which car it was.

The worst part was that the judge revoked my bail because I was suspected of another crime, and I spent the next few weeks in the county jail. Most of us have been in drunk tanks, but this was worse. I wasn’t allowed to see Julie at all, and when Michael visited I could tell he didn’t know what to think. Fingerprints are hard to argue with.

Okay, there’s one thing I haven’t told you yet about high school. When I was sixteen, I went to a party and it got ugly, so I decided to leave. I was responsible enough to know I shouldn’t drive, so I set out to walk home, and I was abducted—yeah, by aliens. No, I’m kidding. Aliens might have been friendlier. The stepbrother of the girl who threw the party followed me out and offered me a ride home. He seemed okay, so I said yes. As soon as I told him my address, he pulled off the road, dragged me out of the car, and raped me. He was very rough and seemed to get pleasure from hurting me. I thought at first he had broken my wrist. When he was finished, he reminded me that he knew where I lived and promised that if I told anyone he would kill me. Not a nice experience and one more reason to drink myself into forgetfulness.

I never told and even though I remained friendly with his stepsister I never saw him again. While I was in jail awaiting trial for murder and arson, this guy turned up dead. He had been murdered in a pretty grisly way, and guess what? My fingerprints were all over the place. Excuse me? I had the best alibi in the world.

That little surprise got me out on bail again. The police were in a quandary. All they could think was that somebody was trying to frame me—somebody too stupid to find out that I was safely locked up. Michael was the most obvious suspect, but he had an alibi, too, and no motive. He didn’t know anything about the stepbrother or the rape.

While I was gone, Michael had hired somebody to take care of the baby, a nice, motherly woman worth her weight in gold. After about five days she quit. She said something was wrong in the house, something evil. Michael tried to pin her down, but she kept shaking her head. She wouldn’t say if she’d heard bells or whistles or what. He had to get somebody else who wasn’t as good, and we were both very glad when I could take over again.

With everything that was going on, we decided to move Julie’s crib into our room. The result was that I started hearing bells and whistles from both rooms, but never when I was in them. If I was in our bedroom, I would hear whistling in the nursery, and when I was in the nursery I might hear bells tinkling in our room. Michael didn’t hear them, but he does have a slight hearing loss from working in a noisy factory when he was younger.

I had been sober for a couple of months, but I started drinking again when I got out of jail. I knew I needed to keep my wits about me, but I convinced myself I could think better after a couple of drinks. You know the drill. Two drinks became five and five ten and so on, and I was hiding bottles all over the house, and Michael went back to AA and started giving me ultimatums. I was powerless over a lot more than alcohol.

One day I was in the kitchen and I heard bells upstairs, not the usual tinkling, but a horrible cacophony. I ran up the stairs, and as usual it stopped when I opened the door. Julie started to cry about the time I got there, and it turned out she had somehow twisted around in the crib and got her head stuck between the slats. She wasn’t hurt or in danger, just getting a little confused and frustrated. I figured wow, if this is a ghost, it’s a friendly one. If it wasn’t serenading us, it was giving me a warning.

Then I made the connection that it was friendly when I was drinking, and when I was sober my fingerprints turned up at crime scenes and the nanny quit because of something evil in the house. Oh boy, what a great excuse to keep drinking! Alcohol wards off evil spirits. It can save your life. Sobriety will land you in jail. I bet you all knew that. I was a slow learner.

So, what happened next? Oh, yeah, I told you Michael had an alibi for the stepbrother’s murder—you didn’t question that, and neither did I at first. The time of death was in the wee hours of the morning when he should have been in bed, with only Julie in her crib in the room with him. Surprise: his alibi was the babysitter. What? We couldn’t afford to hire a babysitter when Michael was home with Julie; we could barely afford it when he was at work. Well, gee, I guess she wasn’t getting paid. I guess she volunteered. I guess she volunteered to keep my side of the bed warm while she was at it. Bottom line: I kicked Michael out, and he moved in with his deadbeat brother.

So I was alone in the house with baby Julie and Casper the friendly ghost and a lot of half-empty bottles. I heard whistling and the tinkling of bells so often that I didn’t really pay attention anymore. It was another presence in the house, something to keep us company, nothing to worry about.

My mom came to visit and stayed for a few days, and while she was there, I didn’t have a drink. I went out to get groceries one morning and when I came back, she said something was wrong in the house and she was getting the creeps. I didn’t get it. It always felt perfectly comfortable to me, warm and inviting, the house of my dreams. I asked if she’d heard bells or whistles, and she said she’d heard something once, but didn’t think it sounded like what I had described. She said it was more like a grinding noise.

That night we all woke up at the same time. I assumed it was an earthquake, but Julie was screaming, so I didn’t investigate. Another shake and a very loud boom followed, and my mother came running in—she was sleeping in what had been the nursery. We went out together to look, and a huge fire was burning two doors down. A few more booms followed, as if explosives had been stored in the house. By the time the fire department arrived, it was totaled, and the houses on both sides had been damaged. Fortunately, it didn’t spread to ours.

The fire department investigated. It was arson. Explosives were found. And guess what else: my fingerprints. I didn’t have a motive. I barely knew that neighbor, and the worst grudge I could come up with was that their little boy had once looked cross-eyed at Julie. My alibi was soft: my mother asleep across the hall. As for means—the arson was skillfully done, and the explosives had been stolen from a construction site.

I politely suggested that the perp might be someone in the police department—who else would be so good at planting fingerprints? I don’t think the police were amused. If I hadn’t been in jail when the stepbrother was killed, they would have been sure I was both a serial killer and a serial arsonist. The real puzzler was who, in or out of the police department, would know about the connection between me and the stepbrother? I hadn’t told anyone. Maybe he had?

By the time the first case—my mother-in-law’s death—came to trial, most of the evidence had mysteriously disappeared. The wheels of justice move very slowly in this country. Julie was about eighteen months old by then. And yes, she was developing a dimple, and her hair, which had been sparse and light brown, was getting dark and very curly. Oops. And—I know you’re not going to believe this, but I swear it’s true: her first word was G’day.

My mother kicked up a fuss, but in the end, it saved my marriage. Yeah, I was in the process of divorcing Michael for adultery, and when he found out we got into a huge fight that ended in both of us swearing our undying love and agreeing to forgive and forget. Sometimes two wrongs can make things right. He loves Julie to pieces, even if she isn’t biologically his, and he didn’t want to lose her. We had her blood type checked to be sure and then put it behind us.

The arson cases came to trial, and the judge threw them both out because the evidence was tainted—fingerprints that had also shown up at the scene of a murder I couldn’t have committed. A scandal ensued about security in the evidence room—you may have read about that. Yeah, that was me. People got fired because of it, but investigators had no leads to whoever had committed the crimes. I was off the hook with the police, but we were totally out of luck with the insurance companies. We had to pay out of pocket to rebuild the garage and replace the rental car, and we couldn’t get fire insurance after that to save our lives.

The babysitter Michael cheated with? She fell down the stairs of her apartment house and broke her neck. She didn’t die; she’s in a long-term care facility, hooked up to machines and paralyzed from the neck down. She told the EMTs she was pushed, but police found no evidence, no fingerprints, no witnesses, and later she said she couldn’t remember saying it.

Three weeks ago, Michael finally heard the bells. They were louder than usual, clanging more than tinkling, and he hunted through the house for the source. It sounded to me like it was coming from the nursery, where Julie was sleeping again, but he wasn’t so sure. The acoustics of an old house like that can be tricky, and the sound might have been coming through the vents. He checked every nook and cranny. When he got to the basement, the sound suddenly stopped. There was an old boiler down there that we weren’t even using because we’d had a modern heating system put in. The basement isn’t finished, and we hadn’t stored anything in it except a few boxes of books and Christmas decorations.

Michael yelled to me to come down, and I was at the top of the steps when the boiler started hissing and rumbling. That wasn’t what Michael had wanted me to see though. Graffiti appeared along one wall, which we were sure had been blank when we were last in the basement. It was a crude drawing of some kind of machine—like maybe a boiler?—and scrawled across it in black letters about two feet high was one word:

RUN

We ran—up the basement steps and up the stairs to the nursery to snatch Julie up from her nap and back down the stairs and out the front door, leaving it wide open, and halfway up the street, right down the middle without even checking for traffic. The house went BOOM! It didn’t burn down, but the boiler shot up two floors, took out Julie’s crib, and went right through the roof. Pieces of it were found two blocks away.

The repairs are going to cost a pretty penny, and we’re probably going to have to sell and find a smaller house. In the meantime, we’re staying with my mother. It’s pretty crowded, and she finally got wise and found all my hiding places, so I stopped drinking altogether. I’m tired of the whole roller coaster, and I know my Mom is tired of having us underfoot. Plus a few days ago her cat died. I never did like that cat, but she’d had him a long time.

I’m finally ready to get serious and really do this AA thing. I’ve been sober for five days and… twenty-three minutes. I’m a little worried though. There’s a pattern here. Bad things happen when I’m sober. People around me get hurt. Where are you going? I’m joking!

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Linda Griffin retired as fiction librarian for the San Diego Public Library in order to spend more time on her writing. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Eclectica, Thema, and the The Nassau Review. The Wild Rose Press published her romantic suspense novels, Seventeen Days (2018), The Rebound Effect (2019), and Guilty Knowledge (2019). Twitter: @LindaGriffinA Email: lindagrif[at]juno.com