Every night, like clockwork, David woke up to the sound of his daughter’s footsteps in the hallway. To be more exact, he woke up when she tip-toed over the creaky floorboard right outside his bedroom door.
David rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes, attempting to chase away the last vestiges of his dreams, and bring the waking world back into focus. The dark angular silhouettes which populated the room gradually materialized into end tables, dressers, and other mundane bedroom furniture, as David’s eyes adjusted to the dark. On the end table beside the bed the digital alarm clock obnoxiously proclaimed the ungodly hour; 3:00 AM.
The only light of any subsequence in the empty bedroom came from the ambient glow of the street lamp outside the window. The dull yellow light filtering through the branches of the old oak in the yard cast shadows like a dozen thin angular fingers reaching across the bedroom ceiling. As the summer breeze tousled the branches, the shadow fingers flexed as though in anticipation of snatching David from his bedsheets.
David groaned and rolled onto his back, tangling his long legs in the bedsheets. He sprawled like a star fish with all four limbs spread out across the queen-sized bed. Even though over a year had come and gone, David couldn’t help but sleep curled up on his side of the mattress. The sheets on the unoccupied side of the bed cooled his skin and brought him into a higher state of alertness.
Seconds crept by sluggishly, as though time moved slower at such a early our. Their passing was marked by the muted ticking of the clock mounted on the wall in the hallway. The steady rhythm of the ticking was nearly enough to lull David back to sleep. He needed to stay awake. His nightly ritual demanded that he wait until he heard Abby return safely to her bedroom. It wouldn’t be a long wait. Abby was accustomed to getting herself a glass of water in the middle of the night. She wouldn’t even need to turn on any lights to find her way around the kitchen.
Abby’s sleeplessness was a trait that she’d inherited from her father, and it had been a point of consternation in David’s marriage for years. His wife, Marie, insisted that their daughter’s unusual sleep patterns were the result of a serious medical condition, or maybe a hormone imbalance. David reminded her that it was not unusual for children to have trouble sleeping, especially in the early stages of life, but Marie was always quick to remind him which of them was the medical professional. As though being a scrub nurse made her qualified to diagnose a serious sleeping disorder. Marie had never been the kind to take no for an answer, which was why Abby went through four family doctors before she entered kindergarten. Any doctor who disagreed with Marie’s diagnosis got the boot.
Being an impressionable child, Abby clung to her mother for years, believing that there was something wrong deep down inside. She developed behaviors typical of adults with severe anxiety, which was where David drew the line. Just thinking about those times made his skin grow prickly and hot with rage.
David absently ran his knuckles across the stubble on his unshaven face. He needed to calm down or he was never going to get back to sleep. Besides, none of that mattered anymore, so there was no use in getting himself worked up.
The harsh glare of car headlights passing across the bedroom window gave the shadows on the ceiling crisp definition, turning them into sinister witch’s claws ready to rip David apart. David unconsciously pressed his back deeper into the memory foam mattress. The sound of the car engine as it rumbled past made his stomach tie into a tight ball. He held his breath until the headlights were gone, and the shadows returned to their former indistinct shapes.
David slowly released his breath. Now, that was a sensation he hadn’t felt in a long time.
For a moment, he’d been taken back to the nights when Marie would arrive home from a late shift at the hospital. There had once been a time when David would lay awake in bed waiting for the familiar rattle of the engine in her old Ford. Her car engine gave off a faint, but distinct rattling sound which the mechanic had deemed superficial, so Marie had never gotten around to getting it fixed. It was subtle enough that most people would never notice it, but David and Abby could pick out the sound of that old engine every time it came down the road.
Every night, as Marie’s car pulled into the driveway, Abby would get up from bed and go to greet her mother at the door. Then the two of them would go back to Abby’s room so Marie could tuck her into bed.
Then the car stopped coming home at night. For weeks, Abby continued to wait in the living room by the window, waiting for the old ford which would never arrive. When David would get up to go check on her, he would often find her dozing with her head resting on the edge of the bay window that faced the driveway.
When he told Abby that it was time to go back to bed she would look up at him and say, “But I always wait for Mommy until she gets home.”
How is a parent supposed to explain to a six-year-old that their mother’s car was never going to come down the driveway again? Nobody should have to explain the cycle of life and death to a child so young.
“Mommy’s gone away,” he explained, “and she isn’t coming back. She can’t come back.”
Then Abby would look up at David with her big sad brown eyes – eyes that so closely resembled her mother’s – and shuffle her little bare feet back down the hallway to her bedroom. David always felt as though he should say something else to comfort her, but he never found the words.
It took time, and a great deal of patience, but eventually David broke Abby of the habit. She still woke up at the same time every night – three o’clock seemed to be ingrained into her body’s natural rhythm – but instead of waiting by the window she got up for a drink and went immediately back to bed.
Another car rolled down the sleepy street and past David’s bedroom window. At first, he didn’t think much of it, but when he stopped to listen, really listen, bile began to rise in his throat. Across his forehead cold perspiration appeared and began to trickle down his temples. His fists balled up in the bedsheets out of sheer panic and desperation. Under the groan of a car engine, so faint that most people would miss it, David could hear the engine rattle.
The irrational part of his half sleeping mind was convinced that the shadows on the ceiling were creeping down over his headboard, biding their time until they would bounce, and then some unseen monster would laugh delightedly as it ripped him apart.
The monster would speak to him in Marie’s voice right before it bit down on the soft flesh of David’s throat, “You thought you would get off that easy?”
Relenting his grip on the bedspread, David’s hands shot up to cover his ears. The gesture was ultimately futile, for he could still hear her chuckling inside his head. He could not block out the sound of her laughing no matter how hard he tried.
The headlights of the phantom car outside his window did not continue past like he had hoped. Instead they slowed, and David could hear the tires crunching over gravel as they pulled into the driveway. It sat idling in front of the house, waiting, daring David to get up out of bed and look out the bedroom window to confirm his worst fears, but he could not bring himself to peer through the curtains. If he did, it would be like admitting his guilt and all the lies he told friends and family. Deep down he knew he was being a coward, just like Marie said all those months ago. Nothing but a coward hiding under the bedsheets like a child from the monsters in his closet.
Outside his bedroom door, David heard the high-pitched whine and metallic rattle of the storm door. All at once David felt his skin turn cold as ice, and prickle with gooseflesh. All this time waiting, but he had never heard Abby slip back into her room.
Paternal instinct quashed David’s overwhelming feelings of terror, flinging David from his bed, and sending him stumbling across his bedroom carpet in his boxer shorts. While his mind was wide awake in blind terror, his body had yet to catch up, and was sluggish to respond to his urgent need to protect his child. His hands felt almost numb as he fumbled with the door handle. The sweat on his palms acted like grease on the metal surface. When he finally managed to get the knob to turn, David flung it open with such force that the door slammed into the wall, and the knob left a fist sized dent in the drywall.
“Abby,” David bellowed as he sprinted down the hall, “Abby baby, you stay inside, you hear me?”
David’s long legs propelled him down the short hallway which led to the kitchen. The door to the living room, and the front foyer, was through the door on the opposite side. He could see the light streaming through the archway, and he could hear the rattling of the old ford’s death rattle.
Abby stood at the doorway, her tiny slender frame silhouetted against the doorframe by high beams as though she were staring down the tunnel to the great beyond. One hand was extended to hold the door open, the other hung slack at her side. She faced the driveway, her back to her father, and gazed expectantly at the idling car. If she heard David running up behind her, she gave no outward sign. She stood unmoving like a cherub statue in a graveyard, so still that David could not tell if she was breathing.
The inside of David’s throat felt dry and tacky as he snaked one long arm under his daughter’s arms and around her chest. With Abby’s wiry six-year-old frame, she weighed next to nothing, and it took almost no effort to lift the child off her feet and away from the door. Her legs spun out, bare feet striking a crystal vase – a wedding gift once upon a time – knocking it to the floor where it shattered, and sent pieces scattering in all directions. David brought Abby in towards his chest, holding her there protectively as he pressed his back to the door and glued his eyes shut.
With nobody there to hold it open, the storm door swung shut, bouncing half way on its spring-loaded hinges before slamming close with a resounding crash. Like closing a chapter in a book, the closing of the door brought an end to the rattling engine and the ghostly apparition of the old ford. The world was quiet, save for the muted ticking of the clock in the hallway keeping track of each dreadfully long second.
“Daddy, you’re squishing me,” Abby mumbled into David’s chest. She half heartedly batted at his arms with her child-sized fists until he finally relented and set her back on her feet. He carefully chose a spot where she would not accidentally stand on a razor-sharp piece of broken vase.
The living room and foyer were both dark. Either the person in the car out front had given up and left, or worse, they shut the engine off. David used one finger to push aside the heavy drapes on the bay window, which faced out toward the street and the driveway.
Everything outside was as it should have been. All the houses across the street were dark, and there were no cars on the sleepy suburb roads. David’s pickup truck was right where he left it in the driveway, alone and with no other cars to keep it company.
Was David going crazy after all? Had it all been in his head? David wasn’t certain if that made him feel better, or worse.
David turned back to his daughter, who was looking up at him with large round sleepy eyes, “Sweetheart, you shouldn’t open the door like that in the middle of the night. You never know if there is a stranger waiting out there.”
“But Daddy,” protested Abby, “that wasn’t a stranger! Mommy’s home!”
Normally there is nothing that could warm a parent’s heart more than the sight of their child smiling, and truth be told there was nothing inherently frightening about Abby’s expression. She looked tired, but the smile seemed genuine enough, even in the dark. However, the circumstances of this smile somewhat coloured David’s perception. Her smile lit by the soft light of the streetlamps cast ominous shadows across her young face, making her look far older than her six years, making her look strikingly like her mother.
Taking a deep breath to calm his jittery nerves, David knelt down on the floor in front of his little girl, “Listen to me, sweetheart. Whoever is out there in the driveway is not your Mom. That is someone mean playing a prank on us. Do you understand?”
“But that is Mommy’s car. I know it is,” her lower lip trembled. “It’s her! Mommy is finally home!”
“No, the car in the driveway is not your Mommy, sweet girl. It can’t be your Mommy.” David tried to keep his voice as even and calm as possible, but he found the only way he could speak at all was through clenched teeth.
“You just don’t want to go out and see her because she’s mad at you. She told me that you’re a bad person!” she spat back petulantly. Her features contorting, mirroring Marie’s classic expressions of contempt.
This was all becoming too much for David. Abby was always such a quiet and mild mannered little girl; David’s perfect little angel. It was not like her to talk back to him in such away.
David dug deep inside himself and found a stern authoritative voice he rarely had occasion to use, “You get back to bed now, young lady. We will talk about this in the morning.”
Abby stared down her father and made no move to go back to her bedroom. At the end of his patience – not to mention his sanity – David took his daughter by the hand and turned to lead her back through the kitchen. He wanted to be sure she was safe in her room before he dealt with the broken glass scattered around his front door. At this point he was going to consider himself lucky if he got any more sleep before work that morning.
To David’s surprise, Abby resisted being ushered back to her room, though their difference in weight made it a futile attempt. She dropped to her knees, deciding that she would rather be dragged back than walk of her own volition. David was fully prepared to throw the girl over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes if that was what it took. All he wanted was for this night to be over.
Pain shot up David’s spine, causing the muscles in his back to seize and his knees to buckle. He fell to all fours, relinquishing his grip on his daughter’s hand. His brain scrambled to make sense of what was happening. Carefully, he reached around with his hand to try and feel the spot from which the pain was originating. It was no easy task because every single muscle in his back and abdomen protested the movement. His fingers found an something smooth and sharp protruding from his lower back just below his ribcage. Blood was welling up around the wound and running down his spine at an alarming rate.
Some part of him knew from work-mandated CPR classes that he should find something to staunch the bleeding, that he should tell Abby to grab the phone and dial 911, but the piercing pain in his lower back coated his thoughts in thick black oil. When he tried to reach for them they slipped uselessly through his fingers and fluttered away into darkness, leaving him gaping and helpless as his life blood seeped down the back of his boxers and pooling on the floor around his knees.
“Mommy is upset with you Daddy,” said Abby in a calm metered tone, “she says that it’s your fault she never came home.”
David opened his mouth to speak but a string of syllables tumbled out and failed to string themselves together into coherent speech. He gaped disbelieving at his little girl as she stood next to him holding a shard of the broken vase tightly in her fist. Her eyes bore out of the darkness at him, looking black as ink in the dim light.
Abby’s silhouette shifted and undulated in the dark, becoming its own entity. It looked like Abby’s mirror image in every way, but lacked the substance of an earthly form. It was as though the darkness surrounding them had drawn together in bits and pieces to form the impression of a person – heart shaped face, a long slender nose, and heart shaped lips – but the details were obscured like an image viewed through a foggy pane of glass.
The shadow-thing reached around Abby, placing a hand tenderly on her shoulder as the two of them glowered down at David, and stared straight through him to where his guilt lay festering in a long-forgotten corner of his mind.
“I…” David pulled back his lips in a snarl that might have passed as a grin. His words were still half strangled by the pain, but through sheer force of will he was somehow able to say the one thing he wanted to tell Marie for all those years. “…I am not sorry. I’m not sorry that I killed you.”
At her mother’s bidding, Abby stepped forward and plunged the second shard of the vase deep into the tender flesh of her father’s exposed throat. The glass pierced the flesh with little resistance; so easy a child could do it. David felt when the point of the shard grazed his windpipe and was deflected by the bone. No matter, Abby didn’t need to damage the windpipe to kill him, not when there was a soft pulsating artery so close at hand. The glass nicked the artery wall just enough for the next beat of David’s heart to rip the compromised flesh open like a weakened seam of fabric. Blood gushed from the wound and painted the carpet around Abby’s feet crimson.
As David’s vision began to fail him, he found that the crippling pain in his back no longer seemed to significant; not compared to the crushing wave of dizziness and nausea. His body began to feel sluggish and cumbersome as he started to drift toward unconsciousness.
Shadows reached toward David from the corners of his vision, taking the form of spindly clawed fingers crept ever closer until his vision became a sea of writhing inky blackness. Laughter echoed around him in the endless abyss. David’s little girl – whom he had tried in vain to protect from her mother’s influence – and his late wife, together again.