She stood in the shade of a huge oak tree that stood beside a long gravel drive. She breathed in deeply, relishing the cooling breeze a she waited for her daughter to return from school. She glanced up and down the somewhat busy road their home was on, looking for the large yellow beast that would deliver her little girl. After a few minutes, as the sky began to cloud over and darken, the old bus clambered down the road, and shuddered to a stop. She stepped forward, out of the shade, and watched her daughter’s head bob between the rows and rows of seats and eventually skip down the steps, looking both ways before she crossed the street.
“Mommy!” the little girl cried, running to her mother, whose arms were outstretched.
“Oh, hello honey; how was school today?” she asked, and was taken aback when the girl’s bright grin darkened a little.
“Becky told me during recess that her dog is missing. Christopher said that it’s probably dead. Becky got really mad, and Mr. Louis made Christopher stand by the wall.” Her frown deepened. “Mommy, what’s… dead?”
Oh, no. The mother had been dreading this question, but knew all the same that it would still come. But how to explain it, its impact and permanence, to a young child? Telling the truth about Santa would have been easier. She put on a smile, and ruffled the girl’s hair. “Tell you what, how about we get inside before it rains? I’ll cut us up an apple, and we can talk about it.”
Her daughter’s face brightened immediately, and she dashed down the drive, kicking up gravel behind her. The woman stood and watched yet another car speed by; fast enough to stir up the few fallen leaves there were under the oak. “That’s the same damned guy, every day. He’s going to kill someone!” she thought as she turned to follow the girl inside.
The two sat on the ugly plaid couch and quietly munched on apple slices. Outside, it had gotten prematurely dark, and rain was beginning to patter on the windows. Once the fruit was eaten, the daughter slipped into her mother’s lap, and turned to her, and expectant look on her young face. The woman sighed quietly, and, after a few moments of thought, began to speak.
“Well, honey, it’s a difficult thing to describe. Dead means that someone has stopped living. Their body doesn’t work anymore, or their brain. Do you remember that little goldfish you got at the fair last summer?” The girl nodded. “Well, do you remember when it stopped moving?” Another nod.
“I remember mommy. We flushed it down the toilet.”
“That’s right. Well, that poor fish had died. He wouldn’t be around anymore, and could never come back. Do you see?” The girl was quiet for a moment, an expression of deep thought on her face.
“I think so. So Christopher was saying that Becky’s dog would never come back?”
“That’s so mean! No wonder he had to stand by the wall.” The girl paused, thinking again. A sudden look of horror arose upon her. Eyes wide, she whispered, “Do we all get flushed down the toilet when we die?” Suppressing a laugh, the woman said no, and explained what funerals were for. After a few minutes, it was raining hard enough to sound like radio static.
“So, it happens to everybody? Even you and me?” The girl’s eyes began to tear up. Her mother held her close. “Yes honey, unfortunately.”
“No! That’s terrible! I don’t want you to die mommy!” She began crying in earnest.
“I know, I know. It’s okay. That won’t happen for a very long time, I promise. That’s the thing about death honey; it makes you appreciate everything you have and all the people around you. Do you understand?” The child sniffled a little, but nodded. “That’s my girl.”
Nearly a month had passed since then, and the subject never came up between them again. On a chilly October afternoon, the woman stood under the oak tree, as was her daily routine, and waited for her girl to return home from school on the bus. She shivered slightly, and wished that she had thought to grab a jacket before coming outside.
As per usual, the old bus shuddered to a stop around three o’clock. The driver put it in park, and the bus’s mechanical stop signs extended and flashed red. The mother watched her child come down the steps. The girl began to cross the street, and the speeding man driving that sedan blew past the bus’s signals, and struck the child as he screamed to a halt. Unable to make herself move, the woman watched the driver get out of his car, the clean white paint now splashed in dark crimson along the front bumper and front left tire. The man was yelling, apologizing and swearing, but it was too late. Her baby was gone. All that the woman remembered after that was screaming before she fainted.
The man was immediately charged with reckless driving and vehicular manslaughter, and would serve about a decade behind bars. When she heard this in the court room, all she felt was hate. The bastard got off easy. Did nobody care that her little girl was dead?
Her ex-husband, the girl’s father, came down from the city for the funeral. She couldn’t stand to look at him. Each time she did, she saw the accusing look in his eyes, could almost hear his thoughts of, “this is your fault, you stupid bitch.”
In the next few weeks, she felt completely numb. Nothing interested her anymore, she didn’t care about anything or anyone, and she felt absolutely nothing. Nothing but the deep hole in her heart that had once been filled with a child’s adoring love.
Late in the afternoon on Halloween, she took a drive to the cemetery where her darling baby girl was buried. Leaves crunched under her feet, too loud in the surrounding silence. When she came upon the grave, she knelt before the headstone. She took a small pumpkin from inside her heavy coat, and set it in the grass, along with an orange flower. “Halloween won’t be the same without you, honey,” she whispered, tears welling over in her eyes. After about ten minutes, she stood, wiping her tears away. With one last hitching breath, the woman turned and began to trudge back to her waiting vehicle.
Once she was home, she didn’t bother turning on the lights, even though it was already long dark outside. She instead sat on the plaid couch, and listened to the cars go by and the children laughing as they went about gathering candy.
After ignoring the doorbell for the third time, she stood from the couch, and wandered into her daughter’s room. Nothing had been changed or put away, despite the time that had passed. She couldn’t bring herself to do it. She sat on the small bed, and absentmindedly scanned through the small collection of books on a nearby shelf. She noticed one was missing, then realized it was on the nightstand by the bed. “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” was her daughter’s favorite story, and they read it together nearly every night. Out of habit, she picked up the book, turning it over in her hands.
Without entirely understanding why, she opened it, and started to read aloud, just as she had every night up until….
Once she had finished the story, she was surprised to find tears rushing down her face again. She set the book back down, and held her head in her hands, shuddering with repressed grief. Hours later, she had only realized that she had fallen asleep in her daughter’s room after hearing a noise.
Groaning, she sat up, stiff from sleep. She stood and heard the sound again, but more clearly this time. Footsteps? She shook her head, sure that she was imagining things. She left the room and went into her own, undressing before getting into her own bed. She was almost asleep again when she heard the noise once more, even louder still. And there was something else. Giggling. High, girlish giggling. She lay silent, listening intently. Footsteps again. Light laughter.
A chill ran up her spine, as she realized that she hadn’t remembered to lock the house up. Someone had gotten inside, she was sure of it. Shaking, she moved as quietly as she could, sliding out of bed and reaching for her cell phone. It wasn’t there. Terrified, she wondered what on earth she could have done with it. She froze, halfway between her bed and the door. The sounds were closer now. Panicking, she did all that she could think to do; hide!
She darted across the room in the other direction, and took refuge in the tiny closet. As she pulled the closet door closed, she heard the bedroom door creak open. The laughter rang out again, awful and loud, almost deafening in the silence. She backed up further behind the hanging clothes and piled shoes, when something occurred to her. Something horrific.
The laughter continued, confirming her fears, and sending her deeper into terror. That laugh… sounds exactly like… her daughter’s laugh….
She shivered and quaked in fear, as the footsteps drew ever closer. Then, she heard it.
She clamped her hands over her mouth, barely suppressing a scream. She shook her head back and forth. She wasn’t even aware that she was speaking. “No, no, no. That’s impossible! It can’t be! You’re dead!”
The closet door swung open, and she screamed at the horror standing before her. It giggled.
“Mommy,” it whispered. “What’s dead?”