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The Barter

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The Barter

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Author: Siobhan Adcock
Publisher: Dutton, 2014

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Horror
Sub-Genre Tags: Ghosts
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A heart-stopping tale as provocative as is suspenseful, about two conflicted women, separated by one hundred years, and bound by an unthinkable sacrifice.

The Barter is a ghost story and a love story, a riveting emotional tale that also explores motherhood and work and feminism. Set in Texas, in present day, and at the turn of the twentieth century, the novel follows two young mothers at the turning point of their lives.

Bridget has given up her career as an attorney to raise her daughter, joining a cadre of stay-at-home mothers seeking fulfillment in a quiet suburb. But for Bridget, some crucial part of the exchange is absent: Something she loves and needs. And now a terrifying presence has entered her home; only nobody but Bridget can feel it.

On a farm in 1902, a young city bride takes a farmer husband. The marriage bed will become both crucible and anvil as Rebecca first allows, then negates, the powerful erotic connection between them. She turns her back on John to give all her love to their child. Much will occur in this cold house, none of it good.

As Siobhan Adcock crosscuts these stories with mounting tension, each woman arrives at a terrible ordeal of her own making, tinged with love and fear and dread. What will they sacrifice to save their families--and themselves? Readers will slow down to enjoy the gorgeous language, then speed up to see what happens next in a plot that thrums with the weight of decision--and its explosive consequences.



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 thinking 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 reinforces 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 constructing 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 unthinkable 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 bulletproof. 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 foulmouthed, 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 minutes 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.

Copyright © 2014 by Siobhan Adcock


The Barter

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