My family came over from the old country only a generation ago. Gran waddled off the boat in 1954, nine months along and ready to drop Dad the moment she set foot on American soil. She had the courtesy to wait until Granddad got her to their apartment in the Irish quarter, at least.
Despite being a modern couple in many ways, my grandparents brought some superstitions over with them. Stuff having to do with fairies, rituals to ward off bad luck, that kind of thing. Because of them, I knew a lot of the folktales by heart and could even say a few Irish Gaelic phrases, something Granddad was especially proud of.
As they got older, their beliefs remained deeply rooted, even after they were unable to make the long journey back to Ireland. The reality that they’d never return home again hit Grandad hard and he’d become moody and agitated.
He had grown ill and frail in his later years. Gran cared for him night and day, helping him from his bed, to his chair, and back again once evening came. Despite being in her late 70s, she remained spry and sharp-witted. It must have pained her to watch Granddad’s decline, but she hid it well. I still visited a few nights a week to help out as much as I was able, even if it was just keeping her company.
“She’ll show when it’s time,” I overheard Gran telling Granddad while she tucked him in one night when I was over.
He groaned softly in response.
After she’d rejoined me in the living room, I asked her if she was expecting company. She’d smiled, a bit wistful, a bit sad, and pat my knee.
“Granddad isn’t doing well, Carrie,” she said gently.
I nodded stiffly. We were all aware that he was probably in his final days.
“He’s just waiting to hear the song now. We both are, I suppose.” Tears glistened in her eyes and she wiped them quickly away.
I had to force my next words past the sharp lump in my throat. “What song?”
“The banshee’s song. She sings it for all the O’Sullivans when their time draws near.”
I frowned despite myself. “I thought banshees screamed or something.”
“Some do. Some wail. It depends on the banshee.”
“There’s more than one?”
“Oh, aye,” she said, regaining her composure a bit as we moved away from the direct topic of Granddad’s health. “Almost all of the old families have one, and each is different. The O’Sullivan banshee is said to be a beautiful maiden with long, silver hair, and her song is sad. Your great-Gran believed she’s one of the ancestors who died young and comes back to sing us to our final sleep. Grandad is worried she won’t be able to find him so far from home. I told him it doesn’t matter where he is. She’ll see him off, same as all the others before him.”
His fears, it turned out, were unfounded. Only days after our conversation, Grandad started asking Gran if she could hear it. He was smiling, unafraid, and Gran held his held his hand. He passed away the following night.
“She came,” Gran told me over the phone. “She let him know it was almost time, so I could be with him at the end.”
I didn’t believe it, but it brought Gran comfort, and that was all that really mattered.
Gran passed away seven years later. She’d moved to an assisted living community by then and I was away at grad school. If she heard any kind of song in her last few days, she never said anything about it. We buried her alongside Grandad in a catholic cemetery, took a few days to mourn, and then were forced to return to our normal routines as best we could.
It was like Gran was fond of saying: Life doesn’t stop just because Death decided to visit.
It was a rough time, but I graduated with my PhD, moved even further away from home to start my career, and eventually found my footing again. While I forgot a lot of the stories they’d told me and the few Gaelic words I’d known faded with time, I liked to think both of my grandparents still would have been proud of the woman I’d become.
I was almost thirty and living alone for the first time in a city far from my family. My job counseling at-risk youths was high-stress and required long hours on what was often too little sleep. I combatted it with a lot of coffee and sugar. It left me feeling strung-out, but oddly fulfilled.
Such unhealthy habits have a way of catching up with you, however, and I crashed, hard, barely two months after I began.
I only remember fragments of the dream I had the first time I finally got a full night’s sleep. I was in my apartment, I think. Someone was with me. There was screaming. It was coming from somewhere far off. I woke up afraid, my heart pounding, and the last notes of a woman’s cries still ringing in my head.
I had to stop watching true crime shows while reviewing client files right before bed, I decided.
Nightmares had never stuck with me long and that one was no different. Especially not when I had a handful of new clients waiting to see me. It was quickly forgotten amidst intake forms and initial meetings.
At least until I sat down with Amy Belfry a few days later.
She was seventeen, already with a police record, and teetering on the edge of returning to juvie. She’d come from a bad home, fell in with a worse crowd, and didn’t seem very interested in escaping any of it.
“You’ll be eighteen in six months,” I told her plainly. “Once you cross that line, there will be no going back. There are no safety nets for adults. We really need to start looking for ways to —”
I trailed off and the purple-haired teen cocked an impatient eyebrow at me.
“Sorry,” I said with a shake of my head. “I thought I heard something.”
I started my speech over, but stopped again in short order.
“You didn’t hear that?” I asked uncertainly when Amy didn’t react.
“It sounded like a scream.”
“Welcome to the ghetto, doc,” she said with a smirk.
I refocused on the matter at hand, but the scream stayed in the back of my mind. I’d barely been able to hear it, as if it had been coming from outside and down the street, but I was couldn’t shake that something had seemed familiar about it.
Amy left my office with a packet of resources and instructions to return weekly. Or more, if she felt like she needed the guidance. She rolled her eyes and I heard the distinct sound of a weighty folder landing in the garbage bin outside my office. I sighed, but didn’t get up. I was quickly learning that not everyone wanted my help.
I was a bit surprised then, when she returned the following week for our scheduled appointment.
“Nothing better to do,” she said after I told her I was happy she’d come back.
We spent the hour talking. I’d ask her something, she’d answer and then ask me something, I’d reply with as much information as I was professionally and personally comfortable with. If I wanted her to trust me, I had to give her something to work with.
Our second session definitely seemed to go better than the first. Little by little, Amy was warming up to me, and I felt it was only a matter of time before we would be working toward a better, legally-sound future for her.
That optimism stayed with me through the day and into the early evening, when I was finally finished and heading down to the parking garage. It was quiet and mostly empty, not unusual for that time of day. I kept my keys held like claws between my fingers and hurried toward my car. My footsteps echoed off of the stone pillars around me.
The only sound until the scream.
It came from behind me, back by the elevator I’d just stepped off of. It was angry, and when I whirled around, I expected a woman to be charging full-tilt at me.
The garage was empty, however.
I stood in place for a moment, fist clenched so tightly around my keys that they dug into my flesh. I took a step back, trying to even out my quick, frightened breathing.
Suddenly, the screaming seemed to come from everywhere. Loud, piercing, furious.
I yelped and scrambled the rest of the way to my car. I barely let the door close behind me before I was screeching out of my spot and racing toward the attendant’s booth. At the sound of my tires skidding around the corner, the security guard inside the booth poked his head out of the window. Concern was stamped across his features.
“Are you ok, Dr. O’Sullivan?” He asked.
“I think someone was following me. You didn’t hear that?” I kept looking over my shoulder, but there was never anyone in pursuit.
“Hear what?” His brow wrinkled.
He shook his head, befuddled.
I barely slept at all that night. I’d close my eyes and hear the screaming all over again. It was so hateful, almost a roar. It would have been impossible for the guard to have missed it in the otherwise silent garage.
Unless he’d had earbuds in or his radio turned up loudly, the logical little voice in my head said.
There was a high population of homeless people living around the building I worked in. It was possible I’d just disturbed one who was sleeping under the nearby stairwell and their response had been to yell at me until I left. Wouldn’t I have seen them, though?
The chill from the encounter stayed with me over the next few days, even as I tried to ward it off with work and more coffee.
Amy surprised me by coming in again that Friday. She said she just needed someone to talk to. I was only all too happy to let her unload and we worked on forming a plan of action to help her improve her situation.
As she got up to go, she paused and smiled at me. The first genuine smile I’d ever gotten from her.
“Thanks, doc,” she said.
It was one of the best rewards I’d ever gotten.
I was still floating a bit when I closed up my office that night and started down the hall for the elevator. I pressed the button and stepped back to wait while it made its slow climb four stories up from the parking garage.
The hallway was dark, lit only by some emergency lights and the glow from the receptionist’s computer, which she had a bad habit of leaving on. It could be a bit eerie, standing in my work’s lobby after hours like that. So when I heard the faintest sound of someone singing from down the hall behind me, I thought it my imagination. Still, I pressed the elevator call button a few more times.
The sound persisted.
I tightened my grip on my purse and my keys and looked around.
It was a female voice, so soft and low that I had to strain my ears to listen. It was singing in a language that was both strange and familiar. Memories I thought long gone stirred.
She was singing in Gaelic.
I half turned.
The dark outline of a woman was standing at the far end of the hall, just outside my office door. She was featureless in the shadows. The emergency light was only strong enough to illuminate the top of her head, casting a dim red glow across silver hair. Her song faded as I looked at her.
The screeching keen that followed seemed to shake the entire office.
My purse tumbled from my arms as I forced myself to run. I shoved open the door to the stairwell and leapt down the steps two at a time, screaming for help. Behind me, the door clattered against the wall as it was pushed open a second time. That awful, high pitched scream reverberated down the stairs after me.
As I flew past the door leading to the third floor, a pale face, unnaturally elongated into an enraged snarl, pressed against the glass. I couldn’t tell if she was young or old, ugly or beautiful. All I could focus on was her dark, flickering eyes, half veiled by silver hair, and the scream.
If someone had taken a chisel and hammered it into my eardrum, I doubt it would have hurt more than that scream. It sank like needles into my head until I was clawing at my face, trying to make it stop.
I stumbled down the remaining flights, always aware of the woman following me. Unable to escape her wild keen. I burst into the parking garage, but instead of going to my car, I ran immediately toward the security guard at the gate. I’m not sure who was screaming louder at that point: me or the silver-haired woman.
The guard was already out of the booth and coming toward me by the time I rounded the corner. He caught me and helped me back to the safety of the booth, where he locked both of us in and called the police.
“I think I’m being stalked,” I told the responding officer.
In his statement, the security guard said he only ever heard me screaming. There was no second woman.
Still, I begged for an escort home so that I could get some of my things and go stay at a hotel until I could get a flight out to my family. I rode in the front seat of a police cruiser to my apartment building.
As soon as I opened the car door, I heard the singing.
Slow. Sad. In a language that was both strange and familiar.
Gran’s voice whispered from the back of my mind.
The banshee’s song. She sings it for all the O’Sullivans when their time draws near.
I hesitated, perched on the edge of my seat, as realization crept across my shoulders and down my back.
The O’Sullivan’s song. The reason only I could hear the screaming. It wasn’t a person that was chasing me.
But Gran said that the O’Sullivan banshee didn’t scream or wail. She sang to warn someone of their impending doom. Why, then, had she been screaming at me? She only sang when…I was heading towards home. I tilted my head back to gaze up the front of my apartment building, to where my window would be.
Her fury hadn’t been directed at me. She had been trying to tell me something. I didn’t know why or how. I’d never heard of a banshee being a protective spirit.
The singing had stopped.
“Are you ok?” The officer asked from the driver’s seat.
I almost didn’t answer him. It was crazy. It was unbelievable. It made no sense! But I was certain all the same.
“I think,” I said slowly, “that someone’s in my apartment.”
Amy Belfry and two male accomplices were arrested when police searched my apartment moments later. They’d broken in and were waiting in the dark to ambush and rob me. The men were armed with duct tape and knives. Amy was carrying a taser.
She’d assumed because I had “Doctor” in front of my name that I’d have money and followed me home after one of her appointments.
I had never suspected a thing.
I’ve not seen or heard from the silver-haired woman since that night. I know that I will one day, and that she’ll sing the O’Sullivan song for me, just as she did for my grandparents before me.
But when we meet again, I will not be afraid of the banshee.
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