We adopted Charlotte shortly after we got married. We always knew that we wanted to be parents and we were finally in a position financially to allow that to happen. We had so many plans and dreams for the person she might become–plans for what we’d teach her–an architecture for her entire life; blueprints stolen away from us less than a week after her first birthday.
When she died, I think I watched a part of you die also. That might have been what I was seeing because that is how I’ve been feeling too since it happened. For a very short time we were fathers. Who were we now? We’d wanted to be parents for so long and we’d both worked so hard to make that a reality… and in a moment, fate snatched that all away from us.
It’s been two weeks and we’ve both been absorbing the grief in different ways. Me: crying in quiet rooms alone. Going through photos in my phone. Trying to make sense of the senseless. You: lost somewhere else. Spending countless hours in silence. Never leaving the chair near her crib. Endlessly staring at empty yellow walls.
I think you blame yourself. I’m sure you must…because…well, that’s how I feel too. I blame myself. What kind of parents let this happen? Why weren’t we watching? How did she get the window open? Did I leave it open? Did you? How long had her little body lay in the rosebed a storey below? How long had she lay wilted and broken before we found her outside, crumpled before the bay window? It was an accident of course. There was never a reason to assign the blame because we had each taken it. Quietly assigning it to ourselves in its entirety.
We’d been floating like ghosts the past 13 days, avoiding each other. Quiet specters haunting different rooms. I couldn’t bring myself to go back into the room where you were and you couldn’t seem to bring yourself to leave it. I didn’t know how long we would be like this. Would we always be like this?
I was asleep when you came back to life. You shook me awake with a happy gleam shining in your eyes like a light. Like a ray of hope.
“Wake up.” You said. It was a whisper but it sounded so loud. A beer-logged hiss in the dark as your hands shook me roughly. The words you said were laced with slurs. “Wake up.” You said again. “Charlotte’sss back. I figured out what to do.”
“Honey,” I said, “you’re drunk.”
The mental image of our little girl’s broken arms and legs amongst all of those roses and thorns came to me unbidden. I began to cry and you leaned in to hug me.
“Yeah,” you said, “I am…but she’s back. I brought her back.”
It was nonsense. I believed you were just dealing with your grief in your own way. That’s why I tried to brush what you were saying off and asked you to just come to bed. When you turned the baby monitor on to show me what you meant, I was still looming in that space between dreaming and awake. Then I heard the gurgle and soft giggles of our daughter, and found myself yanked from that soft yawning space by the harsh hands of shock.
Thinking: this had to be some auditory hallucination. Some murky wish of my subconscious. An impossibility taunting me from between cracks in reality. My breath caught and my heart jumped into my throat at the sound. I felt an amalgamation of joy and terror. Feelings I hadn’t known could possibly occupy the same moment. “What is that?” I asked you.
Your dark eyes grew crazed like a fire was burning just behind them. You smiled, saying: “I told you. It’ss Charlotte. Sshe’s back.”
In a haze I rose from the bed and allowed you to lead me down the hall. When you slowly opened the door to her room, I doubled over. If I hadn’t grasped the railing in time, I’d have probably toppled down to the floor below. The smell was awful.
Charlotte cooed softly and giggled as you reached the side of her crib and lifted her out.
“How–how is this possible?” I said. I coughed and nearly gagged.
“I saw a shooting star and made a wish.” You said, “that’s when I knew what to do. I went to the cemetery and brought her back.”
I wanted to puke. I wanted to scream. Charlotte’s broken limbs were swinging wildly like a janky marionette, controlled by an inexperienced puppeteer. Her flailing arms and legs swung in jerky and unnaturally limp circles as she looked up at you in wonder. Her face was purple with bruises and rot. Her large eyes were a milky gray. You held her to your face and I could have sworn a black tongue, long and pitted with holes, snaked out of her mouth to lick your cheek like a dog might.
“You should hold her,” you told me, your arms stretched towards me, presenting her. But at the smell of her and the sight of the dirt falling from her in clods that broke as they hit the floor, I wasn’t sure how to respond.
Finally, something came to me. “She–she’s probably hungry. I’ll go make her a bottle. Then I’ll hold her.”
I went downstairs and quietly slipped outside through the kitchen door while the formula heated in the microwave. I got in my car and left. This whole thing is wrong. It isn’t natural. I don’t know how you’ve done this, but I’m sure it has very little to do with wishes made on falling stars. Whatever dark thing you did…whatever deal you’ve made…you shouldn’t have. That thing you held out to me was not our little girl. You can think I’m a bad partner. That’s fine. I can’t do that. I can’t raise that. I won’t. Judge me for it if you want.
I wish that you would stop texting me. Every time the phone chimes with another one of your notifications, my skin itches, crawling like something awful squirms beneath. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m not coming back there. That thing is not our daughter. I’ve never been more terrified of a child. I’ve never been more terrified of you or whatever it is you’ve done. Not in my entire life.