You dig your fingernails into your wrist as you stare out the window and wait. A gust of wind whips bits of sand against the glass, scatters tracks of it over the pane, tracks like the red ones welling up beneath your fingertips. Outside, bright peals of laughter ring out. Costumes flash beneath a scatter of half-dead trees, orange pumpkin candy baskets bobbing behind like neon, spectral orbs. You see none of it, hear none of it, the chimes of doorbells and muffled “trick-or-treats.” No, your grief holds you captive, here, at the window, like it does every year on this night. Waiting…
Waiting for her.
You glance again at the photograph clutched in your hand. Your daughter smiles back at you with those warm almond eyes so like yours, her freckles peppered beneath in soft brown constellations over a pair of apple-slice cheeks. You trace your thumb over them and remember the feel of her skin on yours, her little body so vibrant, so bursting with life, you would have thought she would live forever. She was your world, this girl, the very heart beating in your chest. Then the cancer stole everything.
You tilt your gaze up and wait for the drifts of fog to creep in as they always do, those first few lonesome curls that set your pulse to crashing like the waves of some great storm against a rocky coast. A woman bundled in a thick wool sweater strolls by with a wobbly bumblebee in tow, a girl of maybe four, both of them practically glowing, and you think, I used to have that once…that other life…
Then you see it, a pale wisp of mist coiling around the branches of the laurel oak where you pushed your daughter on the rope swing—Higher, Mommy! Higher!—and you nearly forget to breathe. The fog thickens, settling over the lawn in blankets, great drifts of it rising until all that’s left of the outside world is a faded charcoal imprint.
She appears in flashes, like something seen through a storm: a swell of chestnut hair, skin bleached the color of marble with eyes that are deep and black, the whites long since drowned. She carries the stuffed bear you won for her at the spring carnival, love-worn with one eye missing and the fur patched over in spots.
She nears the window and sets her hand upon it, and you reach out with yours, the pads of your fingertips trembling as you press them over hers. She’s beautiful, your daughter, a vision in the lace dress you buried her in—cream-colored and embroidered with lilacs, her favorite flower. Your eyes burn over every feature—her upturned nose and the perfectly curved eyebrows. A delicate set of cheeks. Below, in the cup of her collarbone, you glimpse the moon-shaped scar from the playground accident that sent her wailing into your arms when she was five, her breath warm against your chest as you stroked her hair.
She mouths a word through the glass, her lips forming a perfect blue circle. “Mommy…” You nearly cry out because you want this moment to last forever, a lifetime, but you know it can’t; you know what comes next. “Mommy…where are you?” she says, pressing her other hand to the glass. Something in those black-mirror eyes beg you to respond, to rush outside and fold her into your arms and tell her that you’re here, that you’re always right here.
And you’ve tried.
Oh, how you’ve tried, thrashing against doorknobs that won’t turn, screaming her name as you scratch the wood bloody. And the windows like concrete, your knuckles raw and bleeding as you hammer your fists into them over and over and over. It doesn’t matter. Nothing works. Nothing ever does. All you have is this moment, this brief, precious moment, here, now, once a year at the glass.
Your daughter’s face splinters into a mask of pain and a sob you didn’t know was building climbs your throat. Hot tears bleed down your cheeks as the first few threads of her hair unwind and float into the mist like fragile strands of spider silk. Then more of it, dark chunks raining down now, just as they did with the chemo. Her skin pales and tightens around her skull like a sheet of cellophane, and you want to look away, need to look away, but you can’t. You never do. She’s your soul, and you live and die for this night. Every single moment.
“Mommy…please. Where are you? Why is everything s-so d-dark…”
A sudden rash breaks over her cheeks, veins spilling down her arms in little blue rivers, and the dam behind your eyes bursts. You tip your forehead against the windowpane in great heaving sobs, your heart carving out of your chest as your daughter dissolves bit-by-awful-bit. First her skin as it flakes to ash. Then her muscles, her bones, everything rising into the haze until all that’s left of her is the delicate set of fingerprints she left on the windowpane.
Tears patter off the photograph in your lap, everything coming back into focus now, the fog receding, pulling back as if sucked into the lungs of some giant creature hidden in the ether. The memory of her slides through your brain like a ribbon of smoke. Your little girl. Your life. You realize your hand is still on the window, still shaking, and you pull it into your lap and stare once more into the gathering darkness. Jack-o-lanterns line the street in warm gold flickers, the trees hanging above like silent ghosts. You wipe your eyes and, after a moment, you whisper what you whisper every Halloween, the night you lost your daughter forever ten years earlier.
“I will wait for you. I will always wait for you.”
This story originally appeared in Drunken Pen Writing.
Caleb Stephens is a dark fiction author writing from a rusty shed somewhere deep in the Colorado mountains. His short fiction has appeared in multiple publications, anthologies, and podcasts, including, The Dread Machine, The Wicked Library, Scare You To Sleep, and Suspense Magazine. You can learn more about him and his work by visiting www.calebstephensauthor.com and following him on Twitter and Medium @cstephensauthor.