The sound is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, like glass being wiped, or a small dog barking. Emma blinks. Why would anyone be cleaning windows in the middle of the night? A veil of silver-speckled blackness obliterates the nightstand, the dresser, the tall bookcase in the corner. She wonders what day it is, what season it is. Eventually, she remembers; it’s Friday, and it’s still summertime. It has been exactly four weeks since the accident.
Somehow, she’s managed to wake up on Richard’s side of the bed again. She can hear him snoring, slowly and steadily. She can smell him, coffee and traces of sawdust. She closes her eyes and listens to him and breathes him in for a while.
The girls! What if the sound she just heard was their window being opened? What if her home has been invaded? She races down the hall and peers in through the open doorway. The window has not been touched.
Selena and Maya are breathing rhythmically, one inhaling as the other exhales, creating a symphony performed by only two instruments. Selena lost a tooth and a parent on the same day. She sleeps with her hands folded over her chest, a position she either consciously or unconsciously adapted from watching Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. She has her father’s dark, wavy hair and long, dark eyelashes.
Across the room, three-year-old Maya is curled up into a ball. The bottom half of her pink blanket is smooth while the tiny mound that she occupies slowly rises and falls.
She too has her father’s eyes, but her hair is soft and fine, baby fine, and at the moment, sickly sweet with summer sweat. She opens her dark eyes and looks at her mother.
Emma draws in a quick breath. “Yes, sweetheart?”
“I heard a noise.”
“So did I.”
“It sounded like creeeee, creeeee.”
“What do you suppose it was?”
“A bird?” the tiny child offers.
Maya closes her eyes for a second–while Emma fights tears–then opens them. “Mommy, can we swim in the pool tomorrow?”
Last month, Richard bought a plastic wading pool, set it in the back yard, and filled it with water that shimmered turquoise and gold and splashed an afternoon of boundless joy over the two little girls. This is what Maya is asking for, what she has been asking for nearly every morning for the past two weeks.
“Maybe, sweetheart.” Emma watches as Maya’s lids grow heavy, and as her long lashes drop down so that they almost touch the tops of her soft, round cheeks.
She returns to her room.
Richard is still in her bed, exactly where she left him, and she’s overjoyed. In his presence, she is whole. She climbs into bed beside him. The blanket covers the parts of him that have been taken away.
Emma watched helplessly as his arm was severed by the crumpled passenger door, as his head hit the driver’s side window and as blood splattered across his face, while the airbag pressed into his chest. She draws in a sharp breath and slides further under the covers, until they touch her chin. She should’ve told him to slow down. If only she had opened her mouth and said those two words out loud.
Emma closes her eyes and drifts off to sleep again, intoxicated by Richard’s smell, hypnotized by the rhythm of his snoring. She knows it’s time to let him go. But she’s not ready to do that yet.
In the morning, the girls are eating Crunch Berries. Until four weeks ago, they ate Cheerios or Life or oatmeal for breakfast, and now they are munching on bowlfuls of colorful sugar as if this has always been a staple of their diet. They haven’t looked out the window yet, haven’t seen that the wading pool has been filled, that fresh water sloshes from plastic rim to plastic rim, that the pool beckons them in with ripples of light.
Nor do they notice that their mother is watching them from the hallway outside the kitchen. They’re not speaking, but they remain connected. Every few seconds, Maya looks over to see how her sister is holding her spoon, and she adjusts her own technique accordingly.
Selena gets up from the table and carries her bowl to the sink. Sometimes, Emma forgets that she’s just six years old, until she witnesses her standing on tiptoes in order to reach the faucet. She drops the bowl with a clatter and the spoon with a clink. As her attention drifts over to the window, her eyelids disappear.
“Maya! Come quick!”
The three-year-old scrambles to her sister’s side. It takes her only a few seconds to realize that today, she will finally be able to swim.
The girls race past their mother and bound up the steps to their bedroom, abandoning Maya’s half-filled bowl of Crunch Berries, and Selena’s glass of orange juice. They have clothes to shed, bathing suits to put on. They squeal as they search their dresser drawers for two little swimsuits, for a pair of goggles, for the bottle of sun block that their parents have always insisted they slather on. Emma watches the activity from the doorway.
“I figured they’d react this way.” Richard appears beside her. He has not spoken to her in four weeks. Is it possible that the dead and the living can communicate, that her marriage can go on forever?
“Oh God, Richard. I miss you so much,” she says. She wants to cry, but tears won’t come.
Richard can’t hear Emma. He drifts away from her, toward the steps. He’s wearing swim trunks and a long-sleeved T-shirt; the right sleeve dangles at the elbow. She follows him down the steps, through the kitchen, where a half-filled bowl of soggy cereal and a glass of juice still sit on the table, through the sliding glass doors and out onto the patio.
The backyard is drenched in sunlight, and everything sparkles, the concrete slabs beneath Emma’s feet, the cast iron furniture, the ivy that has grown onto the fence, the pink buds on the tree in the corner of the yard, the little blue wading pool. The girls will say that the yard is covered in pixie dust, that it’s magical.
Richard settles onto one of the cast iron chairs and looks toward the patio door. Emma begins to sit down across from him, but instead continues across the yard and watches him from a distance, from behind the crape myrtle that has quadrupled in size since Selena’s birth and finally bears pink flowers. His lips are turned down. Maybe Emma should let him go.
He brightens when the girls come outside, their arms laden with toys: two Barbie dolls, a few pink-maned ponies, assorted Disney characters, a watering can, the missing goggles, and a Frisbee. They drop their treasures into the pool and step inside, and for the first time in a month, fill the yard with giggles and gleeful splashing. The Barbies and ponies and Disney characters coexist in a joyful world. A faint aroma of coconut drifts across the yard to the crape myrtle, and Emma breathes her daughters in. She knows she should let her little girls go, but she’s not ready to do that yet.
Selena is wearing a pink sparkly swimsuit that she picked out herself. Maya is wearing a white and silver hand-me-down, scuffed and discolored. But she still looks irresistible in it; Emma wants to touch the soft scoop of skin that’s just below her neck, but does not want to disturb her peaceful play.
In the midst of the squeaks and splashes and giggles, both girls look up and gaze across the yard at the same time. Then Selena speaks.
“Come on in, Daddy.”
Richard scrapes his chair against the concrete.
Maya repeats her sister’s words.
He stands and looks toward the crape myrtle, and for an instant, Emma believes that he can see her. Then he stretches his shoulders up toward the brilliant sky, and pulls off his T-shirt. The girls stare with reverence. The stump below his elbow is healing; it has turned from red to pink. The red patches that had been rubbed onto his chest by the airbag have faded as well, and the scars on his face are mostly concealed by stubble.
Selena and Maya step aside as Richard joins them in the wading pool. He sits down between them and smiles, squinting in the brilliant sunlight.
Selena edges closer to him, her head level with his. “Does it hurt, Daddy?” She’s pointing to his arm.
“Sometimes. Not as much as it used to.”
Now Maya sidles over to her father. “Daddy, did Mommy go to heaven?”
Emma brings her hand up to her mouth, trying to stifle a sob that Maya may or may not be able to hear. Last night was the first time anyone in her family acknowledged her presence, and she still isn’t sure if that was because Maya is so young, or because she was in a semi-conscious, receptive state.
“Yes, I believe she did.”
“I saw her last night.”
“Sometimes I feel like I can see her too,” Richard says.
“She was in my bedroom. She talked to me.”
“What did she say?”
“She said that maybe we could go swimming today.”
“Did she talk to you too?” Selena asks her father.
Richard shakes his head. “I just feel her presence sometimes,” he says.
From across the yard, Emma can see her older daughter’s face very clearly. Her missing bottom tooth has been replaced by a jagged half-tooth. “It isn’t fair. You guys get to see her, and I don’t.”
“I’m over here,” Emma says, but as the words leave her lips, they carry no sound.
“If she could talk to you, I know what she’d tell you,” Richard says.
“She’d say that she wants you to be happy. That’s all she’s ever cared about, that her children should be happy.” Richard touches his older daughter’s sparkly pink chest with his one remaining index finger. “You may not be able to see her, but she’s always going to be with you, right here.”
Selena nods but does not say anything. Her father says, “It’s okay to talk about her, Selena. It’s good to talk about her.”
“I miss her, Daddy.”
Richard instinctively pulls his six-year-old toward him with his right stump. Selena puts her face against his chest and begins to cry, very softly. Maya, too, begins to cry, connected to her sister’s every motion and emotion. Richard brings his three-year-old over with his left arm.
Soon they are quiet and seemingly content. The toys resume speaking with their squeaky voices; this time they’re addressing the giant who sits in the middle of the wading pool. The two little girls don’t mind that he’s occupying nearly all of the space in the pool; they dote on him, prance their pink-maned ponies in front of him, climb their Disney characters onto his shoulders, rest their Barbies in his hair. Richard grins as he dunks the Frisbee into the pool and lifts it up over Selena’s head. She shrieks, knowing what is about to happen, and Maya shrieks because her sister is shrieking.
Emma feels herself drifting up over the crape myrtle. On the topmost branch is a nest, where a mother bird sits with her hatchlings. She looks over, opens her beak, and emits a faint, cautionary “creee.” Soon, Emma is high above the tiny wading pool, which has become the scene of chaotic splashing and laughter. She wants to get in with her husband, with her children, but she can’t.
It’s time to go.
This was my first published short story, winner of daCunha.global’s first and only short story competition. “A Faint, Cautionary Creee” was included in an anthology, recorded as an audio and performed by actors at two public events in the U.K. In December, 2019, daCunha closed up shop. I am forever grateful for the way they showcased my work.