The light from the window shifts now, from black to navy, to the pale blue of dawn. My eyes are bleary, no sleep again and I hear my wife Liz float from our room like a ghost, nestling beside me on the top of the stairs. We sit there, tears falling in silence, enough salt to fill the Dead Sea. She kisses my wet cheek and rests her head on my shoulder, but I drift elsewhere, projecting memories of our family on the empty wall ahead.
I visit all three of us first, parked at the edge of a vacant lot. We’re eating ice cream on the back bumper of our truck and dancing to music from the radio. Our daughter Alena’s hair whips back and forth as she moves, rainbow sprinkles spilling down the front of her shirt. She stuffs the last of her cone into her mouth before she reaches out to embrace me. Lifting her, I twirl us around while she spits milky giggles into my neck. Liz sings along with every word behind us.
I visit Alena and me next, underneath a canopy of blankets and pillows. We’re reading books by flashlight in the secret of our homemade fort, buried in stuffed animals and spilled popcorn and everything else Alena could squeeze in around us. She is nuzzled under my arm, and I’m reading the words to her as she mimics the actions along with me. Something about a monster and his funny hair. With the perfect growl, she tells me it’s time to turn the page.
I visit Alena and Liz after that, baking cookies together in the kitchen. I’m watching from a distance thinking to myself that if she grows into half the woman her mother is, she’s going to be trouble. Liz ricochets back and forth from the refrigerator to the cupboard, keeping everything in sync somehow. Alena’s making a mess with the flour, clapping her hands together mesmerized by the dust and she reaches out to dab some on my cheeks as I walk past.
And then I visit that night two years ago, Alena’s eyes shut laying heavy in my arms. Her auburn hair pressed against me. The summer sun melting into dusk over the trees behind the fairgrounds. I can hear the buzz of the crowd and the chimes and bells of the carnival rides, wondering again how she could sleep through the noise. I can smell the sugary sweetness of the fried dough in the air just as clearly as I can feel the pooling heat of blood dripping sticky down my chest. Mine or hers, I can never remember.
Liz leaves and disappears down the stairs and I’m not sad to be alone. We have this shared existence now. A past too broken to resuscitate; a future too barren to chase. It hangs over everything we do, both of our lives transformed by it, our relationship blotted out from its fog. I’d like to think that we’ll get through it someday, but all I see in her face is Alena. Nothing more, nothing less.
When we moved into this house a few years ago, Alena was four years old. That first night, as bedtime approached, we kissed her goodnight and slipped out of her room, fingers crossed she’d get to sleep on her own. Two minutes passed and she called out, “Daddy? I’m scared.”
“It’s ok honey, I’m here. What’s wrong?”
She was laying there, trembling, eyes welling up with tears. I flicked the light on and sat at the foot of her bed. “Do you miss your old house?” I asked, soothing her, rubbing her back.
It would take her time to get used to all the subtleties and nuances of this house now. The creaks of the walls. The rustling of the leaves outside of her window. The echoes of our footsteps in the halls.
She shook her head emphatically no.
“You can tell me, it’s ok. Sometimes talking about scary things makes them not seem so scary anymore.”
After a moment she shifted under the covers and pointed towards her closet, “The doorknobs,” she said, lip quivering.
When she spoke it out loud, I couldn’t help but laugh a little and she giggled too at first before pulling back with embarrassment. “They look like monster eyes,” she explained to me as I patted her head now, my fingers brushing through the soft of her curls.
“That’s silly Allie. Monsters are only in books and movies, you know that.”
If only that were true.
We decided to hang a couple of sweatshirts over the knobs anyway, just in case, hiding their brass below. With a kiss, I left her room and she slept straight through the night.
Any time she was scared about something after that, I’d bring up the doorknobs and we’d both share a laugh. Still, when she crawled into bed, those sweatshirts had to be there hanging perfectly in place. Pink, blue, gray, white, whichever two were clean. Alena took the blue one off the knob right before we left for the carnival and neither she nor the sweatshirt made it home that night, a monster stealing both.
It happened without warning. I never saw it coming, never even thought it possible. Alena climbed up into my arms with her cotton candy face needing a rest from our long day of fun. Somehow, within minutes she was out. Her sweet little breaths moving up and down on my chest. Her mouth slit open in a peaceful slumber. Liz was off using up the last of our change at another game, trying impossibly to knock bottles off a stand, an unclaimed giant pink penguin looming over every throw. I waited in the shadows by the exit and draped Alena’s blue sweatshirt over her back. Savoring the moment. Unable to recall the last time she fell asleep on me like this.
The noise came from behind me, pops of a firecracker I thought, probably from the kids beyond the fence. I turned for a look at the commotion and heard the first screams of terror as he ran past. A silhouette dressed in black; spraying bullets from his rifle through the crowd. A monster come to life. That’s when I felt the blood and looked down at the crimson between me and her. My blood or hers, I couldn’t tell. Please be mine, please be mine, not hers. That was the last thing I remember. Alena never opened her eyes again, my five-year-old daughter bleeding out on my six-year-old t-shirt.
I peel myself off the floor and shuffle down the hallway through the last door into the sterile tomb of Alena’s room. The bed is made neatly underneath a painted script “A” hanging on the wall, everything else kept just as she left it once.
Her Teddy is tucked away there too, alone in his chair, staring back at me with those big button eyes. I imagine him crying, spilling strands of fiber and fluff, waiting but never getting that next cup of evening tea. I contemplate pouring him some, breaking the news of where Alena has gone to, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
I’ve done that a lot lately with the anniversary of her death looming closer. Imagined everything crying in unison, grieving along with me.
Like the tree in our front yard. It would wither and droop, pouring drops of dew from its leaves like rain, soaking the ground below, missing her swinging and giggling in the morning shade of its branches.
Or the rock wall in our backyard. It would shed pebbles bit by bit, breaking and crumbling away in chunks in the absence of her bouncy little feet balancing above, tracing the edge of our property in the afternoon sun.
And these walls in her room. Their paint would run in heavy lines, globs of pink dripping and splattering on the white molding below. The layers underneath would bleed through too, mixing and melting together as they fell, polychromatic puddles forming between the toys left untouched, nobody to play with them.
These are the sorts of things she should be doing tomorrow, the things most five or six – I guess now seven – year olds might be doing on a summer Sunday. Instead, our Alena is gone, the world left crying without her. Frayed fiber, drops of dew, crumbling rock, globs of paint, mourning the loss of another child gone too soon.
I lay on her bed now, the rising sun flickering gold through the curtains, rubbing my fingers over the scar on my chest. That pooling blood belonged to both of us, dripping and swirling together, the last goodbye I’d ever get to give her. The bullet, they said, went straight through her back, tore through her heart and lodged itself in me. She died instantly. One inch to the right and with luck, we both may have survived. One inch to the left and we’d likely both have been dead.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if death came for me next. I’d hold the door open for him of course, with hopes that wherever he took me, I’d get to be with Alena again. Sometimes I wonder if I should just beckon him myself. Lure him with a rope tied tight around my neck. Tempt him with the branch hanging above her swing. The tree was already crying, what was one more soul to mourn?
But what if the place he took me next was nowhere? Just to the suffocating black of eternity, my soul lost like Alena’s, drifting forever in the dust. Then she’d evaporate even more. Another piece of her lost with me. Like dying twice. And so I kept on, the grief chained to my feet, dragging behind me like a slab of stone.
Eventually, I fall asleep on her bed, the haze of summer passing overhead. By the time I wake, everything is bathed in nighttime again. The last slice of orange sunlight is fading away outside the window and with it another year here without her.
I rub the sleep from my eyes and find the doorknobs of her closet staring back at me through the grogginess. Their brass metal shining beneath the low light. They seem as though they’re moving somehow, spinning in circles, ready to empty themselves from their chambers like bullets. And just as Alena had been once, I’m scared of them now, trembling. Wanting to call out for help for someone to wake me from this nightmare.
At her funeral, I read a letter I’d written before she was born. Before she was anything more than a white smudge on her mother’s sonogram. The plan was to seal it an envelope – which I had – and give it to her on her eighteenth birthday. And just in case I didn’t get to make it that far, she’d read it by herself one day and hear my voice again, “Dear Alena May…”
Yet there I stood, well before that birthday milestone, at the front of the church reading it aloud to an entire community instead. They were sobbing along with me as I barely choked out the words. A past version of myself pleading with a future version of Alena. She laid between us under the cover of a wooden box unable to hear these things I’d never get to tell her. I left the letter on her nightstand that day and swore to myself I wouldn’t read it again.
When I turn away from the doorknobs, I see the letter there. The envelope is sitting still in the shadows, collecting dust like me. Part of me wants to reach for it, pluck it from its place and get lost in its words again. But I still carry the weight from the last time I did that, heavy as her body was, legs buckling, unable to take any more.
Rob DelVecchio is a short story fiction writer and visual artist from Westchester, NY where he lives with his wife and daughter. He’s currently studying at the Hudson Valley Writer’s Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY and this is his first publication.