Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Dhost

The disembodied little voice on the phone made Gail’s breath catch, so sweet it was, so complete and so vulnerable. “Guess what, Grandma?”

“What, Corry?” Corazon. Heart. My heart.

“Guess what I’m gonna be for Halloween?”

“What, Corry?”

“I’m gonna be a DHOST!” Corry shrieked with the utter delight of it, and Gail joined in the cascade of giggles that spun out then like the shimmering tail of a kite. Quite literally, she could not believe how much she loved this child.

How much she loved Corry’s father was, by reason of familiarity and cost, entirely believable. She loved him steadfastly and, despite everything, with a brilliant core of joy. The pain he brought into the lives of everyone who cared about him and some who didn’t—and, yes, the fear—were constants, but most of the time they no longer caused her real suffering. Loving detachment, the Buddhists called it. I love you, Bryce. I keep myself open to loving you, and I protect myself from you. Both.

“A dhost, Corry? Really?” This was entirely ingenuous, for one of the best things about being a grandparent instead of a parent was that you weren’t required to correct these wonderful mispronunciations.

“Yes!” said Corry.

“Will you say ‘Boo!’ and scare people?”

“Yes!” said Corry.

“Say it to me.”

“BOO!” screamed the child, and Gail gave a little cry, and they both laughed.

“Will you be all covered up in a white sheet with holes cut in it so you can see out?”

There was a pause. Corry’s ghost costume was probably a white plastic cape with a separate plastic mask. Amused by her own snobbery, Gail reminded herself that this was a perfectly respectable way to be a ghost for Halloween; indeed, all her kids had, to her considerable distress at the time, pointedly eschewed her repeated offers of homemade costumes. Bryce had been a rubber-fanged vampire three years in a row. Or was that Matthew?

Evidently giving up any attempt to make sense of her grandmother’s silly question about a sheet, Corry repeated smugly, “I’m gonna be a dhost.”

“Will Grandpa and I get to see you when you’re a dhost?”

Corry’s “yes” was a bit less emphatic this time. Gail and Dennis weren’t exactly friends with Corry’s mother, having even less in common with her than with their son, absent the sparse shared history of pets, houses, vacations, the few memories that could honestly be called happy. But they were definitely family. Anna made sure they were part of Corry’s life, even though Bryce had left her before he’d gone to prison this time—precisely when Gail would have thought you’d want somebody waiting on the outside, and Anna would have waited. If Anna had been her daughter, Gail would have strongly advised against waiting for a man like Bryce, her beloved son.

“A dhost,” Corry repeated, maybe savoring the feel of the word or maybe having more to say on the subject. Or maybe it was just a place holder, keeping the conversation going, making sure her grandmother didn’t say good-bye. Gail waited. “A dhost,” said Corry. “Like my daddy.”

“Corry, your daddy isn’t a ghost.” Gail was almost angry.

“Yes,” Corry insisted, and Gail could well imagine her stubborn expression, little brow furrowed, lower lip protruding. So like her daddy. “He is.”

There was no point in arguing cosmology—questionable at best—with a three-year-old who couldn’t possibly conceptualize that an accepted pre-requisite for being a ghost was being dead. Her daddy wasn’t dead. Bryce wasn’t dead.

As far as we know, Gail thought against her will. How would we know? She couldn’t quite stop herself from entertaining the possibility that Corry might know something, by virtue of her youth and canny innocence and adoration of her absent father; that she could be in touch with forces the rest of them couldn’t or didn’t dare access. Didn’t she cry for him by name when she was hurt or scared, never mind that he’d been away for most of her life? Didn’t she still announce, beaming, “My daddy’s at work. He’s coming home tomorrow,” as though she understood the concept of “tomorrow”? Given her relationship with this father she surely could remember in only the dimmest, most mythical way, was it such a leap to think she might have a mystical connection to him as well?

Leap or not, Gail knew better than to indulge thoughts like that. Bryce was hard enough without adding a supernatural twist.

There was always noise in the background at Corry’s house, usually just the TV or VCR, sometimes argument or laughter. Now it spiked into gleeful shrieks. Corry squealed into the phone, “We’re carving punkins, Grandma! Bye!” and was gone without hanging up. Gail held on for a few seconds, hoping Corry would think to mention to her mom that Grandma Gail was on the phone. No such luck.

While she waited, I hope he is dead came into her mind. It would be better for everybody if he were dead. Both the thought itself and the horror of it were weakened by repetition, and it was easy enough to let them go.

Eventually she replaced the receiver on the hook and went off to do something else. Whenever this happened, she tried not to imagine and certainly not to ascribe meaning to the wasted possibility for connection dangling on the other end of the line.

Halloween was cold, of course; no matter how bright and balmy the autumn, Trick-or-Treat Night was invariably rainy, snowy, blustery, so coats obscured costumes and neither kids nor parents could stay out long enough for treat bags to get full. Every year Gail was reminded of the time one of the kids had come home after less than an hour out, shivering and miserable, and Dennis had hustled him into a long warm bath. A sweet, sad, poignant memory, especially if it had been Bryce.

Anna did bring Corry by at the end of the evening. When Gail opened the door, Corry yelled, “Boo!” from behind the plastic mask and under the hood of her jacket.

Gail and Dennis both jumped back and gasped. Anna and Corry came in, and Gail noted the younger woman’s harried look and tightly controlled tone. “Could Corry stay with you for a few minutes while I run to the store? I think we need a break from each other.” Anna tried a smile.

“Of course.”

Corry had shrugged off her bundling outer garments and was spinning in the middle of the kitchen, making her ghost costume billow and scattering the occasional piece of candy out of her plastic pumpkin. Gail hooted, “Look! It’s a spinning dhost!”

The moment her mother left, Corry sang out, “I saw my daddy!”

Gail and Dennis exchanged a look, and Dennis asked with studied lightness, “You saw your daddy tonight? Where?”

“I saw my daddy! I saw my daddy!”

Careful to be gentle, Gail tried to stop the little girl in mid-spin. “Corry, listen to me. Where did you see your daddy?”

“He’s a dhost, too, just like me!”

Dennis said, “What?” but Corry, still twirling, wouldn’t repeat it. None of them knew what else to say.

* * * *

Well past Thanksgiving, Corry insisted on wearing her ghost costume, to day care and to the grocery store and when she came to spend the night at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Anna complained but couldn’t see enough real harm in it to confiscate the thing, and Gail couldn’t, either, though it made her uneasy. Sometimes you could hear the little girl singing and talking to herself about dhosts and daddies. But when Gail or Dennis tried to engage her in a conversation about her dad, she would employ every deflective technique known to a stubborn and inventive three-year-old, from chattering instead about her new shoes to sticking her thumb in her mouth and staring silently at them with wide eyes.

There was no word from Bryce. His letters from prison, always unreliable in every conceivable way—frequency, veracity, intent—seemed to have stopped altogether. His collect phone calls, always unpredictable because of his own or the prison system’s vagaries, weren’t happening at all; Gail checked every time she came home, and found no stern message informing them that an inmate was calling and the call would be recorded and press one to accept the charges.

“I miss my daddy,” Corry sobbed. “My daddy’s a dhost,” she chortled. “I saw my daddy last night,” she remarked.

Gail didn’t mention any of this in her weekly letters to Bryce, though she was tempted if for no other reason than that, having nothing from him to respond to, she ran out of things to say. She sent him family news, not knowing whether he was, or dared to let himself be, interested. She wrote about Corry’s intelligence and creativity and cuteness, and how Corry talked about him all the time—then worried that that might make him feel worse. She didn’t, of course, know that he felt bad in the first place. Sometimes, when she was with him or talking with him on the phone or reading a letter from him, they seemed actually to connect, two such vastly different people. But now, in his protracted silence, she couldn’t guess anything about him. He might just as well be a ghost.

Dennis didn’t like to talk about his perpetually troubled son, and Matthew and Samantha, each after one or countless betrayals too many, claimed to have no use for their older brother. Gail broached the subject with Anna, with whom broaching any subject felt risky: “Corry seems to be talking a lot about her dad lately.”

Guarded as always, Anna said, “Does she?”

“She keeps saying she sees him.”

“He’s still in jail, isn’t he?” Gail supposed it was alarm that turned Anna’s voice hard.

“I haven’t heard otherwise. His sentence runs another three years.”

“Yeah,” said Anna. “Well.”

A few days before Christmas, there arrived a card for “Mom, Dad, Sis, and Bro,” no note, just that salutation which without too much of a stretch could be called personal, and “love, Bryce”—and a couple of toys and a T-shirt with flowers on it, unwrapped, for Corry. Anticipating ebullience or upset—in any event, distraction—Gale waited until the last batch of star- and snowflake-shaped cookies was cooling on the racks before she said, trying not to make it a grand proclamation, “Your daddy sent you some Christmas presents.”

Corry’s flour-smudged face lit up. “He did? Presents? For me?”

Gail brought out the small bag, trusting Corry wouldn’t notice that the wrapping paper was the same as on her gifts from Grandpa and Grandma. “Do you want to open them now?”

“Yes!”

She pulled the child onto her lap and set the packages one, two, three on the couch. Corry didn’t reach for them or squirm, just sat up straight and stared at them, one hand absently on her grandmother’s arm, the other thumb in her mouth. When Gail asked again if she wanted to open them, there was no response. When Gail tried to pull her close, she didn’t resist, but she just allowed herself to be held. When Gail asked if she was all right, she gave a single tiny nod.

The T-shirt was too small, but Corry wore it as often as her mother would let her, sometimes several days in a row, according to Anna’s exasperated report. Both toys were, Gail would have thought, bland and uninteresting, and in fact Corry didn’t really play with them, just carried them around in her backpack. Anna said she slept with the pack.

A new ritual developed: “I like your shirt,” Gail would say, and Corry would crow, “My daddy gave it to me,” and Gail would answer, “Yes! He did!” And they’d hug each other.

It was just after the new year that Corry started disappearing. She was with Dennis the first time it happened. At his knee waiting for the popcorn, holding his hand until he needed both hands to pay, then she simply wasn’t there. He bent to give her her Kids’ Pack and she simply wasn’t there. He called her name in the crowd. He searched the lobby, the video arcade, the men’s and even the women’s restrooms. No sign of her. Then he went back to the place at the counter where he’d bought the snacks, and there she was, right where she’d been, thumb in her mouth, eyes very big. When she saw him she raced to him and flung her arms around his thigh. “Where’d you go, Grandpa? Did you get lost?”

Squatting among the legs of the other moviegoers, Dennis held her tight. “Corry, Corry, don’t ever run away from me like that!”

“Did not run away.”

“You have to stay right by me all the time. You’re too little to go off by yourself.”

“Was not by myself, Grandpa.” Her voice against his shoulder was firm.

“Who were you with? You know not to go off with strangers—”

“My daddy,” she said into his neck.

Dennis held her away from him to look into her tear-streaked, somehow luminous little face. “Corry, stop it now. Your daddy isn’t here.”

“He is, too! He said to go with him, just for a minute, and he’s my daddy so it’s okay.”

“Your daddy’s not here. He’s in jail.”

She shook her head vehemently and burrowed against him. Unsure of the best way to respond, Dennis opted not to. He carried Corry who carried the snacks, and they managed to miss only a few minutes of the previews. She seemed to enjoy the movie, and he loved cartoons as much as she did.

In the car on the way home, he carefully brought it up again. “Where did you really go when you got lost from me, honey? I won’t be mad. I just need to know the truth.” Very softly she said something about her daddy. Dennis couldn’t hear the rest. He decided to try, “Where did your daddy take you?”

“Somewhere.”

Telling Gail about it later, Dennis confessed, “I guess I panicked a little. I said, ‘Where? What did it look like? What did your daddy say about it?’ But you know how she is. When she doesn’t want to talk about something, you don’t talk about it.”

Before she thought, Gail observed, almost fondly, “Just like her dad.”

Not for the first time he snapped, “Corry is not Bryce.”

Gail had not meant it as a hex. “No,” she said. “She’s not.”

“Then she started singing about the cars and trucks on the road—”

“Red truck, blue car, white car, blue truck,” they chanted together, and laughed, in uneasy delight.

“—and she wouldn’t say any more.”

In that sweet little patch of sunlight through their kitchen window, Gail put her arms around him, and they held each other, swaying slightly as if to gentle music. Each knew the other was thinking of Corry and Corry’s father and whether this would be the moment upon which they looked back as the beginning of Corry’s trouble. There were several such moments with Bryce. But the value of hindsight was minimal and imperfect; even if you saw the future, you still wouldn’t know what to do. “Three-year-olds wander off all the time,” they assured each other. “Three-year-olds have vivid imaginations. Should we tell Anna? I guess we have to tell Anna,” both of them feeling allied with Corry. “Of course we do.”

Anna’s response was grim. They never knew how she handled it with Corry, but Corry stopped talking about her daddy and she didn’t run off again. The disappearances, however, continued, in altered form.

“Look at her hair!” Anna’s usual impatience with Corry had hardened into disgust. She all but jerked the child forward, and her tug on the furry little hood was nearly a violent act. The curly dark hair, Anna’s pride and joy more than her daughter’s, was six inches shorter on one side than on the other, and ragged.

When Gail’s hand went to the ravaged place, her granddaughter flinched. “Oh, my,” Gail said mildly. “Did you cut your hair?”

Corry shook her head and started to put her thumb in her mouth, but her mother slapped it down. “Now I’ve got to spend money I don’t have on a haircut.”

“Would it be okay if I did it?”

“Do you know how to cut hair?”

Gail almost said she used to cut Bryce’s. “I’ve cut a lot of little heads of hair in my time.”

“Fine, sure, whatever. I’m late.” Anna dropped a brusque kiss onto her daughter’s forehead and strode out the door.

Corry didn’t object to having her hair cut. She let Gail lift her onto the high kitchen stool, drape a towel around her neck, spray her head with water, comb out the poor chopped locks and the rest of the tangled mass. She cried out once or twice when the comb caught especially hard, but otherwise she was silent.

Getting no response to her “We’ll make it look nice” and “You’ll look cute in short hair” and “The thing about hair is, it grows again,” she finally ventured, “I remember when your daddy cut his own hair and I had to cut it really, really short.”

This elicited a tiny, tentative giggle. Encouraged, Gail went on as she made the first terrible cut on the undamaged side and ringlets fell glossy and stomach-wrenching to the floor.

“He looked almost bald.”

“He did?”

“I have a picture of him. I’ll show you.”

“My daddy cutted my hair.”

Surely the child could feel her stiffen and try to hide it. “Your daddy?”

“He wanted my hair. He likes it.”

“Your daddy cut your hair and took it with him?”

Corry’s nod pulled the hair stretched in the comb and made the scissor-snip crooked.

“Oh,” Gail said helplessly. “Corry.”

Gingerly she talked to Corry’s mother about grief counseling, a subject far more intimate than they were used to. Anna reacted with seething incredulity, and the only change Gail and Dennis saw, which might not even be a result of the conversation, was that now Corry wouldn’t talk about her father at all.

“As you can see from this picture,” Gail wrote to Bryce, “she looks adorable with short hair. But this incident shows how much she misses you, how important you are to her. I’m enclosing a money order so you can buy stamps. Please write to her, honey.” No doubt many things competed with stamps for that ten dollars—cigarettes; drugs, she supposed; outstanding bills to the prison system for dental work, haircuts, medical care, shoes; arcane debts to other prisoners. He didn’t write.

Next it was the birthmark on the back of Corry’s neck. Over the course of her lifetime, they’d tenderly called it a butterfly, a flower; tiny, pale pink and slightly raised, asymmetrically winged, not noticeable to anyone who didn’t know it was there, it had been a sweet little family secret. Somewhat surprisingly, Anna had never seemed put off by it. Bryce used to kiss it, an image Gail treasured even as it broke her heart.

Now the birthmark was gone. Dennis noticed it when he was toweling Corry off after a bath. Using the excuse of a hair trim, Gail confirmed for herself what he’d told her. The little neck was smooth and unmarked.

“Maybe it just faded naturally,” they said to each other. This time, though they knew it was wrong, they didn’t mention it to her mother, and Gail couldn’t think how to tell Bryce.

Gail invited Corry to plant pansies with her one afternoon in early April, taking a chance on both the weather and the child. She always bought the ones with faces, black on yellow, yellow on purple, and took great delight in pointing them out to whichever child over the years had been with her. Corry didn’t quite seem to see faces but took delight anyway. The sun was high and bright in the southern sky, warm on the boards of the deck. When they dug in the wet dirt it smelled like spring. Gail’s shadow was long, low, fat. Corry had no shadow.

Could that be true? Gail brushed the dirt off her gardening gloves and, under cover of an embrace, moved the child into another and another and another angle in relation to the sun. Corry had no shadow. This time, Gail couldn’t think how to tell anyone. She wrote to Bryce about planting pansies and watched for proof of a trick of the light, an optical or meteorological illusion. But the little shadow didn’t reappear.

Within the week Corry had lost her voice. “One minute she could talk and the next minute she couldn’t,” Anna complained on the phone.

“Any other symptoms?” Gail wouldn’t have been able to explain the horror that prickled her skin and forced her to sit down. “Fever? Nausea? Stiff neck or headache?”

“Nothing,” Anna said flatly. “She’s faking.”

Days later Corry was still silently mouthing words, and now in frustration howling, also with no sound. Anna wouldn’t look at her when she did that, Gail could hardly stand to watch, and Dennis stared appraisingly and played intent one-sided word games. Dutifully, furiously, Anna took her to the doctor, who could find no physical cause and referred her to a child psychologist, at which Anna bitterly scoffed.

To Bryce, Gail wrote, “Corry hasn’t been able to talk for almost two weeks. She doesn’t seem sick, and the doctor can’t find anything wrong with her. Any ideas?”

Of Corry, Gail inquired gently while they were coloring together one evening, “Sweetheart, can you tell me why you can’t talk?”

Corry put her thumb in her mouth and shook her head.

“Can you draw me a picture about it?”

Corry started to shake her head again, then stopped, took the proffered orange crayon, and made careful lines on the paper. A lopsided circle with squiggles on top, a straight line and four slanted ones.

Watching the human stick figure take shape, Gail felt her heart race and her throat close. Her own voice sounded hollow in her ears as she asked, because she had to, “Who is that?”

But Corry wasn’t finished drawing. Laboriously she made a vertical line below the figure, and then to its left, imperfectly attached, a curve like an opening parenthesis. A backwards D.

“Daddy,” Gail breathed. She turned the child around on her lap to face her. “Corry, is that Daddy?”

A small, fearful nod.

“Did Daddy steal your voice?” She could scarcely believe what she was saying, or how plausible it seemed.

Tears in the brown eyes, thumb in the mouth, and an emphatic series of nods.

By Corry’s fourth birthday in mid-May, Anna, worried now, but still not willing to concede that this wasn’t just another way to make her life difficult, had had her seen by a second pediatrician and made an appointment with a child psychologist. At the party, the three small guests made plenty of noise, but the birthday girl, running in the sprinklers and riding her new bike and playing with the clown, squealed and giggled eerily without a sound. When Anna stood her up against the bedroom door frame to make a pencil mark for her height, they all saw that she had shrunk about half an inch since last year; no one said anything about it. There was no present or card from her father; no one said anything about that, either.

Gail wrote a short, furious, disjointed, not quite forthcoming letter to her son. “What are you doing, Bryce? What are you doing to your daughter? Today was her birthday. Did you forget? She can’t talk. She’s shrinking. Her birthmark and her shadow have disappeared.” Tempted to delete that last bizarre sentence, she repeated hastily, “What are you doing?” then saved, printed, signed with love, and mailed the letter before she could change her mind.

Throughout the spring, more of Corry vanished or faded away. She lost weight. She forgot how to do things—count, write her name, button. At certain moments Gail thought she could almost see through her. Anna was frightened now, which made her angry, rough and sharp with Corry, sullen with Dennis and Gail, so they didn’t hear much about what the psychologist and pediatrician and various specialists said, only that nobody knew what was wrong.

Then, on the Saturday before Father’s Day, a letter from Bryce arrived. Dennis brought it in from the mailbox and they sat together to read it. But he had sent no message for them, and Gail wept. The letter was for Corry. Obviously they were supposed to read it to her, and of course they had to know what was in it before they did, so Dennis read it aloud.

“Baby girl,” it began. Dennis’s voice broke, and Gail was crying freely. “This is the hardest thing I ever had to do. I’m saying good-bye. I have to stay away from you. I’m bad for you. All I do is hurt you, even when I try not to. I love you so much. You won’t ever hear from me again. I’m letting you go. Corazon. My heart. Daddy.”

Telling Anna about the letter was a betrayal, but not telling her would have been more so. Predictably, she exploded in vile and not unjustified sentiments about Bryce that they’d never heard from her before, though she must have thought them many times, must have said them to somebody not his parents, maybe—though they fervently hoped not, it seemed likely—his daughter. “Sure! Read it to her! She needs to know the truth about her father! Go ahead!” She didn’t exactly hang up on them, but she might as well have.

They sat together, too, to read the letter to Corry, between them on the couch. Dennis read it first, and, when Corry didn’t react, Gail read it again. Both of them were crying. Corry was not. After a silence very long for a four-year-old, she removed her thumb from her mouth, took the letter from her grandmother’s hand, studied it, pointed, and asked in a clear voice, “What’s that word?”

That summer Corry learned to read, gained two inches and six pounds, grew her hair long enough that Anna could wind braids on top of her head. In the heat of the sun her birthmark returned, a butterfly, a flower, and her shadow skipped on the sidewalk ahead of or behind her or off to the side like a wing.

“My daddy’s a ghost,” she sang to her dolls, the “g” sound unmistakable, heartbreaking and wonderful. “A ghost! A ghost! My daddy is a ghost!” she chanted to the jump rope beat. Sometimes when she spent the night, Gail or Dennis would hear her crying, and would go in and lie down beside her and hold her close while she whispered, “My daddy’s a ghost. He went far far away. I miss my daddy.”

More than ever, she said, “My daddy’s a ghost,” playfully, dreamily, in sorrow or in rage, as she grew accustomed to the knowledge that she really had lost him. But she did not again say, “Just like me.”

© 2007 by Melanie Tem.

Originally published in At Ease with the Dead,

edited by Christopher Roden & Barbara Roden.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Melanie Tem

Melanie TemMelanie Tem’s work has received the Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy Awards and a nomination for the Shirley Jackson Award.  She has published numerous short stories, eleven solo novels, two collaborative novels with Nancy Holder, and two with her husband Steve Rasnic Tem.  She is also a published poet, an oral storyteller, and a playwright.  In Concert, a collaborative short story collection with Steve Rasnic Tem, was published in August 2010, and solo stories have recently appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Interzone, Crimewave, and anthologies such as Supernatural Noir, The Devil’s Coattails, and Black Wings.  Melanie is a social worker and a non-profit executive director.   The Tems live in Denver.  They have four children and four granddaughters.  www.m-s-tem.com