It's never easy to lose someone you love.
I lost my wife of nineteen years, Sharon to a drunk driver almost four months ago and the void that she left in our lives is still as fresh and painful as it was the day those two police officers came knocking at our front door to inform us of her death. Her death was especially painful, not just to me, but to our two children. Our eldest is a little girl, Abby, who just turned five. She became a big sister to a now-seven month old, Lily.
It hasn't been easy to cope as a widowed single father to two girls. Abby was probably the most effected by her mother's death. She went from a happy, outgoing little girl to one who rarely spoke, who shrank away into shadows and flinched whenever doors shut. She was still traumatized from losing her mother at such a young age.
When she started talking about 'Mommy' again, as if she was still there, it only confirmed my suspicions.
I entertained it for a while, feeling as if the void her death had left in our lives had almost been filled. Finally, I sat her down for the inevitable explanation of death, and the obvious pain that her mother was never going to come back.
"Mommy's still here in spirit," I told her, "she'll always be here- but not with us right now. Mommy can't come back right now, sweetheart. She's gone."
Much to my surprise, Abigail just stared at me like I was an idiot.
"Not her, Daddy. My real Mommy."
That took me off guard. My eyes widened as I looked down at my little daughter seated on the kitchen chair, kicking her legs as she busily colored in a 'Disney Princess' coloring book.
"Your-your real Mommy?" I asked, still not sure if I had heard right.
Abby looked up at me.
"Yes," she replied in a 'matter of fact' tone, "my real Mommy."
I found myself floundering for a reply.
"But- sweetie- Mommy is your real Mommy-"
"No she's not. My real Mommy is always here." Abby assuredly, "she says that she'll always watch over us That she'll always take care of us and make sure we're safe. She told me."
I was mystified and not a little unnerved by my daughter's talk. I put it down to a childlike refusal of her mother's death, of death in her life, that the people she love could just die in a moment's notice. Still, I couldn't help but be continually worried by my little girl's mental state. I desperately wanted to believe that she would grow out of her grieving, that this would just be a phase.
But Abby's talk of her 'real' Mommy persisted. That her 'real' Mommy lived in the cracks of the walls and she could see her one eye peeking out whenever she lay in her bed. That the raw meat that she was leaving out in the hallways was for her real Mommy.
My daughter's sudden unsettling behavior only made me worried for her. Still, my morbid curiosity persisted and I asked her to draw a picture of her 'real' Mommy.
"What does Mommy look like?" I asked her curiously, more or less expecting a description of my deceased wife.
My daughter seemed fixated on the white sheet of paper she was busily working on with the array of crayons strewn around her side. Her eyes were curiously glossy as she listened, her small mouth piqued in a crescent smile, as if she was hiding a secret, something only she knew.
"She's tall and skinny. Really skinny."
My eyes widened at this.
"And?" I asked, leaning in a little closer.
"Her face is chalky white and her eyes are red, kind of bulgy. She has a pretty red lipstick smile, even if it's too big for her face. And her arms and legs are black and sharp. Like a tree branch. She looks kind of like other Mommy, but white. But she says that Other Mommy isn't my real Mommy, she is."
Her picture now finished, my daughter proudly lifted up the page to meet my gaze.
"Here she is, Daddy! This is my real Mommy!"
My daughter seemed unaware of the horror that she had drawn. Despite the crude interpretation and the squiggles outside the lines, it was exactly how she described. It smiled at me past it's bloodied grin and dark, red-tinted eyes from the squiggles and darkness, determined to imprint itself into my nightmares. This thing would have scared most adults, never mind children.
It certainly didn't do anything to quell my worries.
As the months passed, Abby's behavior only grew more erratic. She would spent hours in her room, talking to her invisible 'real' Mommy and drawing dozens of pictures of them together- just me, her and Mommy, the way she insisted it was.. Her periods of silence at school became punctuated by sudden, violent outbursts, where she would attack other classmates and scream at the top of her voice.
Her unsettling turn of behavior finally culminated in a call from the school. Even now, I don't know the full details, but the outcome was undeniably gruesome- apparently there had been some altercation between Eve and a fellow classmate by the name of Eve, a former friend of hers where my daughter had slammed her to the ground and dug her nails into her forehead to the point where Eve needed stitches.
I was stunned. I couldn't believe that a child could be capable of something like that, let alone my sweet little daughter. The school agreed and amidst other incidents, offered other 'facilities' for 'troubled' children like my daughter-when it was clear that they couldn't handle her.
I was both horrified and angry when I finally faced her, still completely stunned by her sudden violent outburst.
"Why did you do something like that to poor Eve, Abby?" I asked.
My little daughter didn't look sad, or even the least bit sorry for her actions. Instead, she beamed up at me like nothing was wrong.
"'Cause Mommy told me to," she replied.
At the mere mention of the innocuous word, my temper flared.
"Mommy isn't real, Abby! You have to stop this! She's not your real Mommy! She's imaginary!"
At the sound of my raised voice, Abby shrank back in fear. I expected her to cry, but instead her eyes darkened.
Lily suddenly cried from her upstairs, crackling over the adjacent baby monitor on the kitchen table.
"Mommy was right," she hissed.
That sudden change in tone was enough to catch me off guard.
"It's her. The baby. She's the reason why everything's wrong. She killed other Mommy. She's evil- that's what my real Mommy says. We both want her to go away. "
In my horror and fury, I took my daughter by the shoulders.
"Don't you ever say something like that about your sister! Ever!"
But my daughter's face remained glazed. She didn't even budge. She just stared back at me with those same lusterless, suddenly vacant eyes. Eventually I resigned her to her bedroom for the rest of the night. I eventually retired to my own bedroom, sitting on my own mattress as I scheduled another appointment with the child psychiatrist. My daughter's old school had recommended him, saying that he was wonderful with children, but even he was having a hard time determining what her problems. The only thing that he could figure out was that my daughter was suffering from very severe psychosis, an imaginary friend brought on by the trauma of her mother's death.
Why, I wondered, why us? Why had this happened to us?
As the sky darkened beyond outside, I heard a faint giggling beyond the door. It was probably my daughter I assumed, talking to her 'imaginary friend', her Mommy. I felt a sudden chill run down my back just thinking about my daughter's hideous creation. Where had this even come from? How blinded had I been by my own selfish grief over my lost love that I failed to notice my own daughter suffering?
I blamed myself. I just wanted us to be normal again. Since she was gone, I had tried to do everything the way I thought Sharon might have done- patient, kind, understanding. But I found that the tethering of my patience was rapidly being undone by my daughter's erratic and quite frankly, unsettling behavior.
God, I missed her.
Sharp, quick footsteps broke me from my melancholic reverie. I jolted up on the bed, wondering if I had imagined it.
A faint familiar giggling confirmed I had most definitely not.
I poked my head out the door, taking a few cautious steps outside.
"Abby?" I called.
I felt as if I was being consumed by the darkness of the hallway. It was near pitch black out there, but the faint glimmer of a door handle within the darkness reminded me that Abby's door was open. So she was out.
Along with the faint, quick footsteps of my daughter, I couldn't help but feel a heavier, almost oppressive presence with me in the dark.
Almost as if something or someone was with me, right behind, just ready to lunge the second that I turned around.
No. I shook my head. That was just a deeply ingrained fear of the dark talking. There was nothing here with us. Just darkness and silence. Just silence.
And then my heart froze.
I immediately rushed down the hall, to the direction of Lily's nursery. It was in that moment of realization that something terrible had dawned on me-
Lily wasn't crying.
My hands already clammy with fear, I wrenched open the door to Lily's nursery. Much to my own pounding terror, the room was silent as well, apart from the muted musical tinkle of 'Rock-a-bye Baby' playing from the pink fairy mobile over Lily's white wood, pink-postered crib.
And there stood Abby by the foot of her crib, squeezing a kitchen knife in her tiny hand. Her nightgown and face were soaked with something that was liquid, though mostly obscured by shadow. She looked up at me, a firm smile plastered across her face.
I didn't need light to know what my daughter was covered in.
"Hi, Daddy," she beamed.
I choked back a sob.
"Oh, god. Oh, Abby, oh Christ, oh why-"
It took all my might to force the bile that was rising rapidly up in my throat down, my body threatening to spill the contents of my stomach onto the hallway floor.
She tilted my head curiously.
"What's wrong, Daddy? The baby's gone now. Mommy said it would be better this way- just the three of us now. The way it's supposed to be- the way she always wanted it to be."
My daughter dropped the bloodied knife on the floor beside her still sister's crib and embraced my waist, wrapping the length of her arms around me.
"This is the way Mommy wanted it to be, Daddy- just us, forever and ever." she murmured happily.
As I picked up my blood-soaked daughter into my arms to get away from the horrible scene, it was only then and there that I saw it- or rather, her.
The horrible, elongated but unmistakably female figure stood in the farthest corner of my infant daughter's nursery, hanging over the top edge of her crib. Her emaciated body was half-hidden by shadow, but her twisted pale face was all too visible. Straggly strands of dark hair half-obscured it's shrunken, corpse-like features and bloodied, reddened eyes. The very moment I ran past it, it flashed a hideous grin at me through it's swollen, bloodied lips, ones that reminded me of a chimpanzee's, needle-like teeth stained with familiar and sickening red.
Even when the terrible figure was out of my sight, its monstrous appearance still haunted my every broken, waking moment. That smile had been one of cold, cruel sanctification.
Whatever it had been- whatever this creature was that had manipulated my child into the unthinkable, whatever it had wanted to take, as I so realized with a dawning sense of horror-
It had succeeded.