Rita shook herself out of a deep sleep, flicked on the light and slid into her bathrobe. The clock said 2:45 a.m. The doorbell at this hour? In three and a half hours, Rita would have to get up, feed and diaper Celeste, pack her up with her formula and toys and get her to daycare at 72nd Street before taking the subway to work.
She stumbled along the hallway, rubbing her eyes, trying to be as quiet as possible. If Celeste woke in the middle of the night, she’d cry for an hour before calming down again, and it would be four o’clock before Rita could fall asleep again.
It had better not be Rodney, Rita thought. It was one thing for little Rodney Powers, six, along with his even littler brother Solomon, to run up and down the hallway ringing apartment bells in the afternoon. Rita did not blame little boys for being little boys. Especially when the nearest playground was four blocks away and had been host to two fatal shootings in the last six months.
If they were doing it in the middle of the night, that would be different. As she stood by the front door, armed with a spatula she’d grabbed from the kitchen, Rita breathed a grateful sigh that there was still no sound from the baby’s room.
She looked through the peep hole and saw nothing. Nobody. She couldn’t make sense of it. In frustration, keeping the chain on, she pulled the door open and stuck her head into the hallway.
Once again, nothing. One of the hallway lights was working in intermittent spasms, making the pink and orange patterned wall-to-wall carpet look particularly ghastly.
Who had rung the bell? There were no boys in sight. No distressed neighbor asking for aspirins to bring down a fever or disinfectant because someone had stepped on a broken glass. No Mr. Bainbridge coming home drunk, jiggling the wrong doorknob and ringing the wrong bell before half-singing his apology through the door. No sound except the usual distant sirens and faraway street arguments.
One thing was strange, though. It was May, and the hall felt cold as ice. Usually this time of year the underpowered building AC left the corridor stifling and warm.
And then the cold moved. It swept through Rita and swarmed into the darkened apartment. She turned in astonishment, clamping a hand to her throat. Then she closed and bolted the door.
What had caused the rush of cold air? She looked toward Celeste’s room.
She saw a man standing over the crib. He was as real as anything. Tall, heavyset, in a black belted coat. Brown skin with deep creases under his eyes and ringing the back of his neck. Hair transitioning from gray into white. Not undistinguished.
To Rita’s shock, he looked at her briefly, nodded solemnly, then returned his attentions to Celeste. He was not touching the baby, but seemed to be drinking her in, his gaze closely scrutinizing her face and tiny limbs.
Celeste’s eyes were open and shining. She was never afraid of new grownups. She gurgled, her little hands writhing in pleasure and the expectation of being held and paid attention to.
Rita, frozen, uprooted herself by sheer force of will. She took two steps toward the baby’s room.
That was when the man spoke, his voice heavy and deeply sad, his eyes anxiously seeking out Rita’s. “Why did you call?”
Rita heard her heart thump. Once, twice, three times. “I … I didn’t.”
The man looked confused, or perhaps embarrassed. Was it possible for a ghost to be embarrassed? He turned his eyes back to Celeste, gazing on her with inexpressible sadness and longing.
And then his presence melted from the room. The cold was gone too. Rita stood in shock. Had it been real? She rushed to the crib, gripping the rails, and saw Celeste’s eyes darting around the empty space above her. The baby burst into wails, not of fright but of disappointment.
Celeste had seen him too.
“Yeah, I seen him,” said Patrice Wallace. She sat on the park bench next to Rita, who was gently nudging Celeste’s carriage back and forth to soothe her.
It was a Saturday. Even the city air was fresh and invigorating on this beautiful May morning.
Patrice was keeping an eye on her daughter Jade, who has eight and playing on the monkey bars with two other little girls from the building.
“He came to see Jade when she was a baby,” Patrice said. “He comes to see all the babies. Never does nothing to them. It was a matter of time you would see him.”
Rita had only moved in the building a year earlier, when she was pregnant with Celeste. She had never heard the story before.
“Well, how many people have seen him?”
“All the mommas with babies, can’t tell how many,” said Patrice.
“What does he want?”
Patrice shrugged. “Nobody knows. He never hurts the children. But he scares folks enough.”
“He scared me enough. Nobody knows who he is?”
Patrice paused to think. “Well, Suzie Winslow, she grew up in 27B, still lives there with her sisters. She says her momma told her the man came to see Suzie when she was a baby. Suzie always said her momma called him ‘The Doctor.’”
Doctor sounded right to Rita. There was something about him. Rita wanted to talk to someone else who had seen him.
“Is Susie’s momma still living here?”
“No, she passed, eleven, twelve years ago. She might have got that, calling him the Doctor, from Mrs. Castle. Maybe.”
Rita nodded. “She’s the real old lady with the little dog? Lives way on top?”
Patrice nodded. “She don’t come out much anymore. The dog died, month ago or so. She lives on the top floor, 34. Been there forever. But yes, that’s who Suzie’s momma talked to. Mrs. Castle’s supposed to know who the man was.”
“You think she does?” Rita said.
“I don’t know. I don’t worry about it.” Patrice glowered. “Seeing a sad man in a coat don’t scare me very much. My little girl got to play in a park where they found somebody dead under the swing set last Thanksgiving. That scares me enough.”
There was nowhere for Rita to sit. Mrs. Castle sat in the only habitable chair, facing the window looking toward the boulevard. The other chairs and sofas were piled with magazines and newspapers. A framed picture on the wall showed Mrs. Castle much younger, maybe age fifty. Next to her was a man in a blue suit and yellowing teeth who had his arm around her.
“That’s a fine baby,” said Mrs. Castle. “Healthy.”
“Thank you,” said Rita.
Rita had set Celeste, wrapped in a blanket, on the sole bare spot on the table that wasn’t covered by piles of the New York Daily News. Celeste was, thankfully, sleeping. Rita stood near her, adjusting the blanket to make sure Celeste could breathe easily.
Mrs. Castle talked for a while about her husband, who had been a construction engineer. But he had never stopped smoking. Lung cancer took him eighteen months after he retired.
“Did you and Mr. Castle ever have children?” Rita asked.
There was a long pause and Rita wondered if she had asked too personal a question. Or maybe Mrs. Castle hadn’t heard her. Rita repeated the question.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Castle. “But only one. And he died. Just a little baby.”
“Oh,” said Rita, not sure what else to say. “I’m so …”
“You lived in this building long?” said Mrs. Castle.
“A year ago, May. I had to … I had to find someplace after I got divorced.”
“And you’ve seen him?” said Mrs. Castle. She spoke the next two words quietly, with a slight mocking emphasis. “‘The Doctor.’”
“Yes, he came to see my Celeste.”
“But he didn’t do anything, just looked at her?”
“My child died,” said Mrs. Castle. “Did I tell you?”
“Yes. I’m so sorry. How did it happen?”
“Malcolm. That was his name. He had a fever. Nothing I gave him would help. I called for Dr. Marsh. He was the pediatrician. On the east side. You know, they still did house calls in those days.”
“Oh,” said Rita. “Wow.”
“Dr. Samuel Marsh. But he never came. I would have taken her to the emergency room. But it was a blizzard in the city. You couldn’t get through the streets. And the power went out. No elevator.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Mrs. Castle gestured out toward the boulevard. “It was so much white, like a sheet, not dirty. White all over. Prettiest thing you could ever see in this neighborhood. I used to like to see the snow.”
Rita spoke very gently. “What happened?”
“Well, he died,” said Mrs. Castle, biting down on the words. “Our boy. My Malcom. He died. My husband and I didn’t know what to do. No one came and he died, right here.”
“I am sorry.”
Mrs. Castle seemed to ponder this. “Can’t do nothing about it. That’s life.”
An even longer silence. They both looked at the river of cars passing below. Then, sounds of deep steady breathing came from Mrs. Castle. Rita leaned in and saw that she was asleep. Rita put her mug in the sink, washed it, then gathered up Celeste and left.
Back in her apartment, Rita thought about the name Samuel Marsh. She looked in the yellow pages and saw a listing for a Dr. Samuel Marsh, pediatrician, in the east 60s. She stared at it for a long time, not understanding. It couldn’t be the same. Finally she picked up the phone, started to dial. When a voice answered, female, saying “Dr. Marsh’s office,” Rita quickly hung up. She decided to put it, all of it, out of her mind. She succeeded, until she saw him again.
Rita awoke one night, coughing. She turned on the light. She could not see the smoke but she could feel it. There were yells of fire in the hallway. Someone furiously pounded on her door and yelled “Get out!”
She ran to the baby’s room. The smoke was thickest there and was rolling in through the edges of the closed windows. The smoke was white and filled the room except for a space of clear air immediately above the crib.
Rita reeled back in shock as she saw the area of smoke-free space move, taking shape, roughly the shape of a man bending protectively over the crib. Smoke made it hard to see, to breathe, to think. She looked where the head should be and, faintly, saw Dr. Marsh’s anxious face bending over the baby, forming a shield that caused the spreading smoke to roll away from the crib, to double back on itself, becoming thicker and thicker in the room.
Rita screamed “Celeste!” She reached through the empty space and experienced the same sensation of cold she’d felt before when the Doctor had passed through her. She grabbed up Celeste, who had started to bawl.
Fiercely embracing the child, Rita burst out into the hallway. The smoke was equally thick there. She turned left, toward the east stairway, which was closer than the west one. Dr. Marsh melted into view before her, his face and features fully visible now. He held up both hands as if to push Rita back, gesturing in the other direction.
Rita said “Why?”
“You will die if you go that way,” said Dr. Marsh. His voice was sad and heavy but this time it was imbued with purpose.
Rita chose to believe him. She turned around and ran for the west stairway. Families from higher floors were making their way downward, handkerchiefs to their faces. Rita and Celeste joined the steady procession downward.
Down on the street, Rita watched as the trucks unfurled their ladders to battle the flames that had erupted two floors below Rita’s. Soon the fire was under control.
As Rita huddled with Celeste on the only available seat, the hood of a parked car on the boulevard, Patrice and her husband and little girl found them. Patrice smothered Rita in a hug.
Like Rita, Patrice had come down the west stairway. Word had spread on Patrice’s floor. There had been a kitchen fire on the east wing. The rising smoke had made the east stairway impassable.
“A deathtrap,” Patrice called it. “Thank God you didn’t go what way.”
It was weeks before the people on Rita’s floor were allowed to return from temporary housing to their own apartments. The smoke smell still clung heavily everywhere. The walls in Rita’s apartment had to be repainted and the curtains replaced. The clothes and furniture were fumigated.
A week later, Celeste on her lap, Rita called Dr. Marsh’s office. She told the receptionist she wanted to speak to him, but couldn’t say why. The receptionist took some basic information and said she’d give Dr. Marsh the message.
The phone rang exactly one hour later. The voice on the phone was male, but not as heavy and sad as she’d come to expect.
Rita pretended she needed a pediatrician, and asked questions. Marsh had earned his medical degree thirty years ago. Rita tried to figure it out. That would have been decades after Mrs. Castle lost her child because a doctor failed to appear.
“Was your … father … a doctor, too?”
There was a pause. “Yes. This isn’t about needing a doctor, is it? Your address…? That’s where it happened. The apartment where he had the heart attack.” He sounded guarded. “Why are you really calling?”
What could she say? Rita didn’t want to cause more pain than had already occurred.
“Yes. I’m sorry. My neighbor in the building is a Mrs. Castle, and she told me a story about a Dr. Marsh who never arrived. A long time ago. I just wanted … to understand.”
The voice on the phone sighed. “I know of her case. A colleague of mine treats her. She has dementia. It was explained to her a long time ago that my father never arrived because he had a heart attack. I was just a kid myself then. I mean, this was 50 years ago.”
“Yes. I’m sorry to dredge this up. I just couldn’t make sense of what she said.”
“There was a blizzard in the city, and there some kind of power outage. So no elevator. He got there. Could have turned around and come home. I wish he had. But he tried climbing all those stairs. He made it to the twelfth floor when he collapsed. They … found him like that.”
“I’m sorry,” Rita said.
“So has she forgotten that part? Why he never arrived?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
In a way, Rita thought, Mrs. Castle was still waiting. Just as the ghost Rita had seen had been waiting and searching for a baby that needed his help.
“I get the feeling he was a good man,” Rita said.
The voice of the younger Marsh now seemed touched by emotion. “He was the best.”
Rita apologized for the intrusion and let Dr. Marsh go.
The apparition known as “The Doctor” was never seen in the building again by Rita or Celeste or anyone else.
Philip Ivory studied literature at Columbia University. He lives in Tucson and teaches creative writing at Writers Studio. His fiction has appeared in Ghost Parachute, Rosette Maleficarum, The Airgonaut, Literally Stories, Devolution Z and Bewildering Stories. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2017 and 2018. His blog is writeyourselfsane.com.