It was a nice day for a funeral. The sun shone gently over the hills, the earth still bore the scent of rain from the night before, and a breeze shook copper leaves from the branches, before carrying them through the air like paper boats on a stream. Yet David observed none of this. All of his attention was focused on the glass memory of his wife’s face. She was gone now, but he still couldn’t get his head around it. He’d told his six-year-old daughter, Amy, that mommy had gone away, even though he still couldn’t accept it himself. He couldn’t comprehend that what was in the casket wasn’t Karen anymore, and instead kept expecting her to sit up, and smile, and tell them it was okay. Amy didn’t cry. That was surprising, in a way, but at the same time, it made absolute sense. Amy had never cried. Not when she was an infant, not when she found her goldfish floating at the top of the bowl, not when she fell off the swings and scraped her knee. Never. Sometimes, David was frightened by just how much stoicism his daughter could muster. He asked her doctor about it once, and she’d told him it was normal for children to have trouble with feelings sometimes. But this seemed to be more than that. As much as it troubled him to admit it, Amy was like a machine. She never cried. As she stood beside him, facing the open grave, she was just as emotionless as ever. As the first shovel full of earth landed on the coffin lid, she was like a statue. As the hearse driver took them home, Amy remained unchanged. When they got into the house, David fell down to his knees in front of her, so he was at eye level. “Are you okay, Ladybug?” Ladybug was what Karen had almost always called her. It was Amy’s favorite animal, and once, she and her mother had hatched eggs and let the larvae go in the garden, so they could eat all the aphids. “I think I’m going to go play with my checkers.” She replied. “Do you want me to play with you?” She shook her head. “Okay. Tell me if you need anything.” Amy walked upstairs to her room, black dress trailing behind her. David poured himself a glass of water, then sat down at the table, where he remained, alone with his thoughts, for several hours. She was really gone. At eight o’clock, he shifted from his trance, stood, and walked upstairs to put Amy to bed. Upon approaching her room, he could hear her talking to herself. “Mr. Victor, you need to go home now, back into the closet. My daddy is coming. Thank you for playing checkers with me. Goodnight, Mr. Victor.” David opened the door. “Who are you chatting with, Ladybug?” “Mr. Victor.” “Who’s that?” “My new friend. We played checkers, and he told me stories.” David nodded. This was probably all normal, too. Just coping mechanisms. It’d be better to go along with it. “That’s nice. It’s time to turn out the lights now.” He kissed her forehead and switched off the lamp. “Mr. Victor told me a secret.” “What’d he tell you?” He was walking to the door. “Mommy’s coming home.” Amy said. David turned around, slowly, carefully. “Amy…” He said, “She isn’t coming back. I’m sorry.” “She is. Mr. Victor says so.” Through the shadows, he could see his daughter smiling. “Mommy died. She’s gone.” “You’re wrong.” She was still grinning, like this was some kind of joke, far too sick for her little mind to come up with. “Go to sleep, Amy.” He shut the door. As he walked down the hallway to his own bedroom, David contemplated what his daughter had said. Maybe one of the cartoons or comic books she liked had something in it that inspired this. Superheroes died and came back all the time. Or maybe one of her friends had told her a ghost story. In any case, he’d have to have a talk with her about this tomorrow, just to get things straightened out, and make sure she recovered properly from this whole terrible affair. He remembered how she’d screamed when they’d gotten the call about the accident at the manufacturing plant. These things were always harder on the kids. David opened his bedroom door, and a scream caught in his throat. It couldn’t be, but it was. Laid out neatly on the bed were Karen’s pale blue work jumpsuit, nametag and all. This was what she’d worn on the day it happened. The day her hand got caught in the machine designed for flattening sheet metal. The day her left arm had been pulled in, crushed, ripped, and mangled into an unrecognizable pulp all the way to the shoulder, and she’d bled to death on the concrete floor. As David stared in shock, something began happening to the neatly ironed jumpsuit. The left sleeve started to contort, moving of its own accord. First, the cuff crumpled and twisted. Tiny tears started forming in the cloth. Eyes wide and unblinking, David took a step back. Droplets of blood were blossoming on the fabric, spreading up to the elbow, as the sleeve continued to twist and shred itself. It reached the shoulder, and in his mind, David could hear the fading whirr as the machine was shut down. Bloodstains appeared all over the blue cotton, now, making it turn deep purple. There was barely anything left of the sleeve but a tangled mess, sopping with blood. David shut his eyes, opened them again, and it was gone. He sank to a sitting position on the floor, still gazing at the now empty bed, breath coming in rattling gasps. “It wasn’t there.” He whispered to himself between shudders. “You saw it, but it wasn’t there. Grief does things to people. It’s okay. It’s okay.” He got up cautiously, as if his legs might shatter like pottery underneath him. Moving like a timid animal, he removed his tie, examined the bed closely, just to be sure, and fell asleep in his clothes. His dreams were filled with the noises of machines and the smell of blood. David woke at one a.m. to a violent, maddening pounding. Confused and half-asleep, he sat up and covered his ears. The sound was shaking the whole house. He tumbled out of bed and stood up. It was coming from Amy’s room. Still dazed, he staggered across the hall like a drunk, through the doorway of his daughter’s bedroom. She was sitting bolt upright in bed, eyes wide and strange, staring at the closet. The noise was overwhelming, thumping like a tremendous heartbeat. With each repetition, the closet door trembled, sometimes even warping and bending outward, straining in its frame. “Amy!” David shouted, “What is this?” “Mr. Victor wants out.” She replied, softly. “What’s doing that?” She was silent. David stepped carefully toward the closet door. Bracing himself, he grasped the handle, and pulled it open. There was nothing there. David didn’t breathe. He could hear his own heartbeat in his ears, louder than the pounding. He could see something, behind the clothes on their hangers, something dark, trickling down the back wall of the closet. He reached forward, and brushed the clothes aside. There, on the plaster, words were smeared in black fluid. Mommy’s coming home. “Did you write this, Ladybug?” He could hear his own voice trembling, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. “No.” She replied, giggling. “Mr. Victor wrote it.” “Tell the truth.” “I am.” There was something off about her smile. It was too wide, too excited. “Mr. Victor isn’t real.” “He is. And now he’s coming out.” “He’s imaginary. Please, Ladybug, just tell me who really wrote this.” “He’s real.” “No, he is not. You’ve got to stop this.” Suddenly, something about Amy changed. Her eyes shifted, somehow, and her voice wasn’t her own. She stared at her father and spoke. “Mommy’s coming home.” “Stop it, Amy.” David exclaimed, backing away until he bumped into the wall. His daughter’s voice grew deeper. “This isn’t Amy anymore.” She growled. “Amy, stop!” There was something wrong with her face. Her lip kept twitching, so fast he could barely notice. Smiling, sneering, frowning. Flickering back and forth between expressions faster than a strobe light. “Don’t you want to see her again, Daddy? Don’t you want her to come back?” “Stop talking like that!” “She wants to come home. She’s calling your name right now, and she’s clawing at the coffin lid. There are splinters under her fingernails. I can see her, and I can feel them, Daddy. She wants you to let her out.” Amy’s fingertips were bleeding slowly, drizzling onto the sheets. The closet door banged open and shut. “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” David chanted, his face an insane caricature of terror. “Whatever you are, leave my daughter alone!” She laughed, a hoarse, throaty cackle. Black, paint-like fluid flowed down the walls like tears. “Mommy’s coming home, and she’s going to tear you apart, you worthless, whimpering, little pig.” The thing in the bed was shrieking with laughter now. Its eyes were empty, its fingers bloody, and there was no trace of Amy. David turned and ran out of the bedroom, into the hallway, and down the stairs. Black liquid ran down the steps in tiny waterfalls. The giggles of the thing that used to be his daughter chased him like a vengeful ghost. David needed help. This couldn’t be real. He had to call someone, the police, a doctor, anyone to take him somewhere safe. He moved through the kitchen like a marionette controlled by a lunatic, stumbling and crashing into chairs as he half-ran, half-tripped through the room. When he got to the telephone, sitting on the counter, its cord coiled like a serpent, he had to brace himself against the wall to keep from falling. Panting, he picked up the handset. As he held it to his ear, he heard Amy’s voice, her real voice. “Daddy?” Almost automatically, he answered. “Ladybug? What’s going on? What happened to you?” “Mr. Victor said we had to make a trade. When you opened the closet, he came out, and I went in. I’m not me anymore. Mr. Victor is me, and I’m…” “Where are you?” “I’m lost. It’s okay, Daddy. I had to trade. Mommy’s coming home.” There was a click. Inky fluid dripped from the telephone receiver. Mr. Victor’s psychotic cackles reverberated through the dark house. The moon streamed through the windows. Someone was knocking on the door. Mommy was home.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.