Mrs. Casper may have made her peace with me after death, but now that she was gone, her one time vitriol-spewing mouth was replaced with others. Many others. As the years went by and my brood increased, the hissed whispers grew more pointed - the tuts and groans ever louder.
"Is that the slut who lives in the old graveyard?"
"She should put a sign up - MUST BE THIS TALL TO RIDE."
"No need - she'll take anybody, that one."
"Looks like she's up the spout again - how many kids is that now?"
"Christ, must be at least two dozen."
The sad thing was... they weren't too far off.
Forgotten Hollow was a small community. Very rarely, I could find a local man who didn't know me and work my magic on him, but usually, I had to go a little further afield to find someone unknowing. Then again, now that my reputation had begun to precede me, eager, worked-up men began turning up at my door, looking for one thing - which I gave to them.
I knew they didn't love me. I didn't love them, either. But each encounter brought me one baby closer to fulfilling my goal. In public, they probably judged me for it, too - never letting on about their dirty little secret. I was shunned by everybody.
Well, all except one.
We crossed paths about once a week - when I passed by his garden, or if we were in the same aisle at the supermarket. He always took the time to stop and talk to me - ask me how things were going. Very occasionally, if I could get someone to watch the kids, we'd have a walk in the park together or grab a coffee in Magnolia Promenade. Even there, the whispers buzzed around us like the hum of hornets.
Gregory, I knew, wasn't deaf to these murmurings, but he never paid them any heed: one time even telling me that he felt no shame in being seen by my side. All that mattered to him was that I a loving mother and a caring lady, and my personal life was my own affair.
"Or a string of them," he joked - which got a giggle out of me.
By the time I conceived my twentieth child - the result of another loveless escapade - I'd found myself closing my eyes and thinking of Gregory during my various rendezvous. He caused this wonderful warm, fuzzy feeling to grow in my heart and spread through my body. Yet, I knew instinctively that what I felt for him wasn't lust.
This was love.
But for his own sake... Gregory could never know how I felt about him.
I'd ruined my own reputation. I refused to ruin his.
"Thanks for inviting me over, Gregory. I brought a fruitcake."
It was a sunny afternoon - an unusual thing in Forgotten Hollow - and I was nearing the end of another pregnancy. Baby 20 was frantically wriggling and kicking around inside me when I stepped into Gregory's house: him having passed me in the street that morning and offered me some tea and sympathy.
"How thoughtful of you," Gregory replied. "I've been baking too - sugar cookies. Please, won't you sit down?"
As we sat together, nibbling on our snacks and sharing the latest gossip, I suddenly lurched forward as I felt a sharp pain shooting across the small of my back.
"Are you all right?" Gregory asked, concerned.
"Yes, I'll be fine," I replied dismissively. "Just aches and pains. You get them a lot when you're in my condition.
"I can imagine."
I tried to settle back down, but for some reason, I couldn't. I found myself fidgeting and squirming around my chair, simply unable to stay still. Gregory tried to continue whatever story he'd been telling, but in the end, my odd behaviour proved too much of a distraction.
"Are you quite sure you're all right?"
"Maybe... maybe I should go to the bathroom..."
As I rose from my seat and walked across the living room rug, I froze, horrified, as I felt a rush of water burst forth from between my legs... my hands instinctively rushing to my belly.
"Oh God... Gregory..."
In less than a second, Gregory was there beside me, taking hold of my hands in an effort to calm me down.
"You're in labour," he deduced. "Should... should I call an ambulance, or... ?"
My knees buckled as a burst of pain flooded my insides.
"I... I don't think there's enough time," I wheezed.
Gregory nodded, understanding. Placing one arm across my back, he slowly led me towards his bedroom as my breathing began to grow deep.
"It's all right, Amelia," Gregory said softly, but with conviction. "Everything is going to be all right."
As I lay on the feather-soft bed, my fingernails dug grooves into Gregory's palm as I screamed my way through another contraction - my head lulling against the support of his open palm.
"Gregory," I croaked, "I need you to deliver the baby."
"Amelia," came the hesitant reply, "I'll do whatever I can to help you, but I don't know how to - "
"I can talk you through it."
I dredged up a pained smile.
"After all - this isn't my first time at the rodeo."
Gregory smiled back.
"All right," he answered, kneeling down at the foot of the bed in preparation. "Let's bring this baby into the world."
From that moment on, Gregory was my rock. He stayed calm as I gave him instructions in between wails of agony, doing everything he could to make sure I was comfortable.
Eventually, after what felt like a lifetime of pain and effort, a sharp cry rang out that mirrored my own. I looked down at Gregory, who, with tears in his own eyes, was now knelt up and cradling a tiny, thrashing pink bundle in his arms.
"It's a girl," he rasped, overwhelmed with wonder - looking down at my new daughter as one would look upon the rarest of treasures.
"She really is a charming baby," Gregory told me. As I sat resting on his bed, my heart skipped a beat as I watched him cuddling the little infant - now all clean and wrapped up.
"Have you decided on a name?" he went on.
"Yes," I replied. "Her name is Tae. Tae Yuri Livingstone."
T is for Tae - and you'd better make room!
(Baby 20 - Tae Yuri Livingstone)
"What a unique name," Gregory commented. "It sounds Korean."
"Her father is Korean."
After putting little Tae down in an old basket - a makeshift bassinet - Gregory approached the bed and sat down beside me. Something appeared to be troubling him. A silence hung in the air - almost as if he was afraid of speaking. Finally, with a clearing of his throat, he broke the tension.
"Amelia," he began, "please don't think I'm asking you this to judge you, because I'm not. You're free to live however you want, but... I must admit, I'm curious - "
"About why I have so many children?" I said, finishing his sentence for him.
"I had a feeling you'd ask me about that one day," I whispered.
"You... you don't have to tell me anything -"
"No," I cried, more defensively that I'd meant to. "I want to tell you, Gregory. I'm just worried that... you won't believe me."
"Why wouldn't I?"
"Well, it's... it's a strange story," I replied, hesitating. "But it's true. I promise you it's true."
"Then I'd like to hear it."
After drawing a deep breath to calm my nerves, I tell Gregory everything, sparing no details. My brush with death at the swimming pool. My deal with the Reaper. My promise to bear him 26 children, each by a different father.
I watch Gregory throughout, expecting him to laugh or brush me off, but instead, he listens enraptured, handing on to every word.
"So... you literally are having a baby for every letter of the alphabet," he said, astounded. "I did wonder why you chose to name them in a pattern like that. And you're doing it for the Grim Reaper."
"I'm not lying, Gregory. I swear I'm not."
"I believe you, Amelia," he replied. "You're my dearest friend. I know you wouldn't lie to me."
Before we could go any further, little Tae began to squirm and sob in her makeshift cradle.
"I need to take her home," I said.
"Wait here," Gregory told me. "I'll pop over to yours and fetch a baby carrier. Back in a tick."
As Gregory dashed out of the room, I walked over to Tae and scooped her up, cuddling her closely.
She really was a beautiful baby. No wonder Gregory was so taken with her. He'd looked so proud as he'd held her in his arms. So protective... so loving.
He really would be a magnificent father.
I lost myself in a daydream, gently rocking my daughter to sleep, until the sharp slam of the front door brought me back to reality, and I ventured out into the living room.
"Sorry I took so long," Gregory told me. "The kids were asking questions nineteen to the dozen. They're looking forward to meeting their new sister."
I knelt down on the cool, smooth wooden floor, strapping little Tae up safely in the baby carrier. As I struggled to stand up again, groaning, Gregory reached down and took my hands, gently helping me to my feet.
"Amelia," he said warmly, "I want you to know that throughout this challenge of yours - this labour - I'm going to be there for you. I'll always be there for you."
"Thank you," I replied, "That means so much."
"But," Gregory added, "if I may... I have a request."
"When the time comes for you to have your last baby," he went on, in soft tones, "it would mean the world to me if... if it were mine."
I stifled a gasp, shocked at this sudden proposal.
I saw the fear spreading across his face, mortified that he might have offended me.
"You... you don't have to..."
"No, I... I'd love to, Gregory."
"Oh... good!" he smiled, almost laughing with relief. "I'm so glad. I just thought that, since that marks the end of your promise, then afterwards we... we could be a family. You, me, our baby, and all of your other children. I'd love and look after them all - I promise. I'm all alone in this world. I'd love a family more than anything. What... what do you say?"
My God, how could I refuse? I was being offered all of my dreams on a shining silver platter. A man who truly loved and cared for me. A man who would accept and love all of my many children. And best of all, that man was Gregory Ridley. The charming, handsome and clever Gregory Ridley: my dearest friend, and the one I had lost my heart to a long time ago.
Then again... how did I know the Reaper would play fair? He could break his pledge and damn my soul, or demand another legion of babies, and I'd be powerless to stop him. My life, like the life of every mortal, was in his hands. He could strike me down in a second. Or my dear Gregory. Or, horror of horrors, even my own children - perhaps even those he had already recruited into his dark duty.
As I looked into Gregory's eyes - shining, wide and waiting for an answer - I knew I couldn't let fear hold me back. When I bore his child - the final child - I'd have done what I'd promised to do. I'd have earned my reward... my happy ending.
"Yes, Gregory," I told him, without a moment's further hesitation. "My last child will be yours. Then, we'll be together - until death do us part."
"Oh, Amelia!" he cried, throwing his arms around me. "You've made me happier than you could ever know!"
I was only pulled reluctantly out of this loving embrace by the whimpers of my newborn baby.
"I have to go," I told my beloved. "I'll be back to fulfil my promise as soon as I can."
"I'll be counting the hours," Gregory replied. "And don't worry..."
He winked flirtatiously.
"... I'm saving myself for you."
After gracing Gregory's cheek with a quick kiss, I picked up Tae, and stepped out into the chilling night air, scurrying home to get both myself and my baby back into the warm.
I watched Amelia through the window as she left, waving goodbye - her smile enough to make me want to drop to my knees and worship her. However, the second she was out of my line of sight, I threw my head into my hands and screamed: my fingers scraping my scalp, twisting themselves into my raven locks.
What in Hades had I done? I hadn't meant to declare my feelings so suddenly, so rashly, but something about the intense emotions of the day - delivering that newborn child, watching in wonder as she drew her first breath, the sweet way she snuggled up against me as I cradled her in my arms... it had dragged up a desire I had long suspected was inside me, but one I had managed to suppress until now.
The desire to become a father. To give life to someone.
Amelia had agreed to do it. Bless her kind and loving heart. Conceiving a child meant... lovemaking. Physical lovemaking. I admit, the idea of it excited me, especially with such a beautiful woman, but... I'd never done it before. Not with anyone. Amelia had a wealth of experience. What if I couldn't please her as a lover? She would resent me for it. The guilt of it would destroy me.
And that wasn't the only issue on my mind.
I loved Amelia. I'd shrugged it off as a silly, idle infatuation at first, but now... now I knew she meant everything to me. I hadn't known I was capable of feeling this way about anyone.
I didn't want to lose her. Not now. Not ever.
My mind racing, I flopped down into a chair - terrified that I wouldn't be able to help Amelia fulfil her promise. Who knew whether or not I was even virile? After all, up until now, I'd never given life to anything.
I'd only ever taken it away.