Unraveled

The room is dark. She has put away her daughter’s toys. The mobile she bought just four months ago lies tangled in a corner. For the past two months Maddie hasn’t stopped crying for more than an hour at a time. The pediatrician assured Silvia that everything was fine, that Maddie would grow out of it. She hadn’t. Silvia watches as Maddie’s eyes start to close. She will nod off any minute now. As long as the ghost standing at the foot of her crib keeps talking.

A week ago, Silvia saw him standing in the door to Maddie’s nursery, a gaunt figure with restless, sunken eyes. He stepped over the threshold and approached the crib, unfazed by Maddie’s shattering cries. The light from the hall filtered through his thin frame, bending at odd angles on the floor. Silvia tried to scream, but the sound died in her throat. She felt an uncanny absence hollowing out every ordinary thing in the room. The nightlight flickered and faded. The music from Maddie’s sleep bunny stuttered to a stop. The figure leaned over the crib and began to whisper. Her daughter stared up into his eyes, hiccupped once, and stopped crying. As he talked, her eyes grew heavy. Finally, she slept. When the ghost finished whispering, he disappeared.

Silvia wept from relief.

Now Silvia waits every night, exhausted from Maddie’s tears, terrified to leave her side. She wants to tell the ghost that he can stop. That she is enough. That a silver thread binds her to her daughter, thrumming, even in the darkness. Tonight, she sits as close to the crib as she can bear. She dares to stand, to step closer. His whispers are more urgent now, as if his time here were short. When he turns to her, his eyes open a door to everything Silvia has ever feared. A voice whispers in her ear: “I died alone. And screaming.” She feels herself falling, feels the silver thread tying her to Maddie begin to fray. She reaches out into the darkness, helpless against its unraveling. Then the silver thread snaps. And her heart breaks.

Today Maddie is as good as gold. When Silvia’s friends visit, they congratulate her. The hardest days are behind you, they tell her. But to each other they say how cold Maddie’s eyes seem, and how her cheeks are just a bit sunken.

When they leave, Silvia picks up her daughter and holds her close. She goes to the nursery and sets the sleep bunny to play Maddie’s favorite songs. When Silvia puts her down, Maddie looks up at her with a stranger’s eyes. Silvia settles herself in the chair by the crib. She closes her eyes and on the edge of sleep she hears it: Maddie’s cries, there, at the border between worlds. She reaches out and touches a single silver thread, frayed, but bright. And in the quiet of the night, she begins the long slow work of calling her daughter home.

Copyright Bonnie Burns, 2020. All rights reserved.

* * *

Hello!

This story appeared first in the annual Halloween podcast of Alone in a Room With Invisible People. (October 31, 2020). You can find it at 38:11.

And be sure to check out other stories in the Halloween October 2020 Storytime Blog Hop:

The Witch at the End of the Road by Katharina Gerlach
Unwelcome Visitors by Bill Bush
Holiday Guest by Sabrina Rosen
Home by Barbara Lund
Missing Parts by Jemma Weir
A Perfect Match by V. S. Stark
The Glistening Bat by Karen Lynn
II-The Priestess by Raven O’Fiernan
The Old Ways by Nic Steven
Halloween Pest by Elizabeth McCleary
Tales From the Pumpkin Patch by Marilyn Flower
Immortality by Juneta Key

Family Time

Rachel shrugged her hoodie tighter, dodging the rain drops. The scene played over in her head. Dinner burning on the stove. Her father sitting at the table, his head in his hands. Her baby brother wailing on the floor for some Halloween candy just out of reach. And her mother screaming at her to get out, get out and never come back. 

When she’d left, it was a warm fall night. But the weather had turned and now she was drenched and freezing. She needed Kate. To hold her until the feeling came back. To tell her they could be happy together. To help her shut out the terrible words. 

Rachel looked at the string of unanswered texts on her phone and shivered. She ducked into an alley to get out of the worst of the wind. And froze. A table set for two glowed in a puddle of light. Her mother and father, sitting at opposite ends, smiled at each other. Her baby brother, perched in his highchair, blew a bubble. A breeze twisted through the alley and the light trembled. 

And then nothing.  

Rachel’s mouth went dry. She backed out of the alley and ran to the subway entrance a block away, hopping on the first train that stopped. She got out her phone, pushing away the nightmare of her happy family. 

R U there yet? I’m freezing! 

She closed her eyes, relaxing into the rumble and hum of the ride. When she opened them, they were sitting right in front of her, all together on the couch, a blue glow lighting their faces. Every few seconds her parents laughed. Her brother chewed a rubber llama. 

“Mom?” Rachel whispered. 

Her mother looked at Rachel with a slight frown on her face, and then turned back to the invisible TV. 

“Mom!” Rachel’s voice was sharp, scared. Annoyed, her mother reached and grabbed a remote out of thin air.

“This show has gone off the rails,” she said and pointed the remote at Rachel. 

And then nothing. 

Trying to hold down her panic, Rachel got off at the next stop. In ten minutes, she’d be at Kate’s. She started walking, keeping her eyes on her feet, but the sound of squealing brakes forced her to look up. In the middle of the dark, rain-slick street, she saw her family one last time.

Orange paper ribbons floated in the air. Her mother carried the baby on her hip. Her father carried an ax. The Jack-O-Lantern glowed between them, ghoulish and grim. And there was Kate, eyes bright, her lips rounded as if ready for a kiss.

“Blow it out, dear,” her mother said to Kate. But she was looking directly at Rachel.

“Kate, don’t!” Rachel cried, and stepped into the light. 

She heard a loud, electric crack. 

And then nothing.

Nothing but Kate, standing right there with a silly grin, holding a pumpkin.

And then Kate laughed. “Why are we standing out here in the freezing rain?” She took Rachel’s hand in hers. “C’mon, let’s go home.”

And that was everything.   

Copyright Bonnie Burns 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Ready to hop one more time? Check out these awesome authors, all participants in the Storytime Blog Hop, October 2019.

  1. Family Time by Bonnie Burns
  2. The Exception by Vanessa Wells
  3. Number 99 by Juneta Key
  4. Edda’s Second Chance by Katharina Gerlach
  5. Very Thin Line by Rebecca Anne Dillon
  6. Henry Moves House by Nic Steven
  7. For The Ghost The Bell Tolls by James Husum
  8. Never Alone by Melanie Drake
  9. The Neighbor by Meghan Collins
  10. Storytime Blog Hop by Raven O’Fiernan
  11. Loney Lucy by Bill Bush
  12. The Traveler by Barbara Lund
  13. Evening by Karen Lynn
  14. Man Of Your Dreams by Gina Fabio
  15. The Undertaker’s Daughter by J. Q. Rose
  16. The Road by Elizabeth McCleary
  17. Storytime Blog Hop by C. T. Bridges
  18. Storytime Blog Hop by Warp World Books

My thanks to Holly Lisle at HollysWritingClasses.com. Her (free!) How to Write Flash Fiction That Doesn’t Suck course inspired this story. You can hear a recorded version of this story (and many other spooky Halloween flash fiction pieces) at Alone in a Room with Invisible People, a weekly podcast produced by Rebecca Galardo.