I plunked down into the leather couch and tugged the patchwork quilt over my legs. Maria, my ex-wife, made it during the two long years of our marriage. She made it for Ana, our little daughter.
My hand petted the fabric, fingers tracing the sewed ridges, for the hundredths, or thousandths time. Maybe for the millionths time by now…
It had been vibrant and colorful, with the reds and blues and yellows thoughtfully arranged on twenty to thirty-five inches. Baby animals playing under the stars and the moon. My fingertips knew all the stitches. It was one of Maria’s most wonderful pieces. You could feel, how she poured her heart, her soul, into it.
Now it was dirty, soiled with life and death, but I’d never dare to wash it.
There was this big brownish incrusted stain on the upper corner, where the bunnies met the puppies. That things was evidence, that I killed my daughter.
My little Ana… It was her blanky.
I stared at the dark spot. The longer I gazed at it, the darker it went. It made my mouth an acidic desert-like place. My hand hovered over it. Eventually, my fingertips brushed over the dried edges of the caked brown. The oxygen got up and left the room.
That smudge was everything Ana wasn’t… She has been our sun, the glue between our hours, days and nights, the blood of our bond…
I shifted my legs, and put my throbbing stiff one unto the coffee table. My sock was torn, big toe peaking from the knitted green wool. Under my heel one of the magazine towers collapsed and spilled to the floor.
The empty baked beans can wobbled and fell nearly off. I nudged it with my toe and pushed it back. It stood still again. Now it kept the almost empty Ravioli can company.
I had a whiskey bottle wedged into the couch, nestling between my left side and the elbow rest.
That was what numbed the pain best, as long as I kept my brain fogged up. I pulled it out. The black cap went off easily. Another wasted hour without being hammered. The smell of my armpits hit me.
I stared out of the living room window. Snowing. I didn’t bother to switch the lights on. No need for electric light chasing away the shadows in the room. It couldn’t chase away the shadows that mattered most.
The grey wooly darkness of the late winter afternoon bloomed forth into the room.
My old tattered shelves went up to the ceiling. The spines of the books crowded the space on the planks. They sucked up the rest of the light seeping in. Another ghostly night stretching its tentacles towards me, to pull me under and drown me in its cruel unnatural silence. I had to get there first.
I took a big gulp from the bottle. It burned. It burned all the way down to the midnight of my soul. But it burned much less, than Ana’s absence. Cold crept from my limbs into my guts. I hated this part most. It was a race. A goddamn race. The night was coming and I wasn’t drunk. Not yet. I had to turn up the volume of the misery static in my head! Everything was better than silence.
On bad days, I heard Ana running through the house, looking for me… “Daaaddydaddy?” She’d find me and hug me with all her might. „I wuv you this much!” Then she’d throw out her little hands as far as she could to show me how much. „Wuv me too?” I told her, I loved her more than the stars, the moon, the mountains and the woods together. „How big is that, daddy?” Then I’d throw out my arms, and she’d giggle her head off.
On unbearable days I saw Ana playing outside, in the snow. She’d play princess of the woods. Her quilt blanky draped around her little shoulders, like a cape. Pink beanie on top of her blonde piggy tails, matching pink mittens on her tiny hands. Then she’d stop mid-play to wave me and blow me kisses. And I’d wave back at her before I realize, that she wasn’t there.
Outside, there was only trees and snow.
The lump in my throat grew bigger.
How was it possible, that memories could punch such immense holes into my heart? I wished someone’d barge in and knock me out already.
Two years ago, my little darling died.
Maria and I, we died with her. Our bodies and minds kept moving through this world on our oblivious courses. Maria stopped with nearly everything, except with cooking and baking. I barely ate, but Maria cooked anyway. She went shopping, and I threw out the food that went bad.
We didn’t talk. We let our tears die too. Then our marriage expired. Maria left me after eight months of constant grief, booze and silence.
I stopped sleeping. Hoping that I’d pass out, I emptied all whiskey bottles I could find. Nothing happened. I sat awake, day and night, reliving the worst day of my life.
The wind gusts swept over the tips of the huge firs around our house.
On that special sunny winter day, I went into the woods behind the shed to chop down a big dead birch tree. Ana begged I let her come along. Maria complained, but I took her anyway.
I told her to collect some cones for the fire in the kitchen. There were some lying around couple of feet away. Her pleased child song, about being a princess in the woods, hummed behind me, some paces only.
My axe flew up and down. Her humming faded and got washed away by the rising storm. As the birch fell, I couldn’t hear her anymore.
Ana disappeared. I screamed for her, running around in the vicinity.
How far could she have wandered off? The snowstorm howled, and I kept howling her name, till I coughed up blood.
She didn’t turn up… until two days later.
The search party combed the area after the storm.
It was me, who found her tiny body under a half broken fir log several hundred yards away, from the spot I last saw her.
I’d say it was just punishment. I wrapped her in her blanket, she still had around her shoulders. I scooped her up and roared for Maria.
After that, everything was kind of blur.
Maria wailing, us three jumping into the pick up, my wife behind the wheel. We skid down the icy road to Points, where the doctor was. And all I could do was to hold Ana tight, begged her to stay with me. She was so cold. Her tiny shape burnt itself into my arms, and I hardly could remember anything else. It seemed like an eternity.
Someone bent up my fingers, my arms, unwrapped me from Amy’s little broken body. The doctor talked to me. I saw his mouth move, though I never heard a sound. His rubber gloved hand unwrapped the quilt. I saw what I had wrapped up, what I had held in my arms.
That wasn’t my Ana any more.
No… It was…
It was a bloody rag doll.
I couldn’t peel off my eyes from the deformed head, the blue eyes staring to the left and the right, at the same time.
Not my Ana!
They told me that I screamed.
They made me stop, by sticking a needle into my arm, sending me spiraling into unconsciousness.
My arms flew up.
Must’ve dozed off.
What was that?
Something hit the window. I blinked. A bird? A snowball? My tongue felt fuzzy, stuck to my palate. It was much darker now.
I should have a look. If it was a bear going through my trash can, or a puma? I had to deal with that. Where did I put the shotgun? Was it even loaded? Ammo was somewhere in the kitchen.
The hard labor of standing up started, and the quilt slit down to the carpet. I put the empty bottle on the table.
The dim light shining in, outlined the furniture. It was enough so I wouldn’t bump into them on my way to the window. I stood there for a while, had to steady my spinning head, or was it my racing heart. I couldn’t tell the difference anymore?
As the world stopped moving, I hobbled towards the window.
I took me some time to reach the curtains.
Nobody outside, just the pale blueish gray cover over everything I knew. No tracks visible.
From somewhere on the left a snowball slammed against the glass. “Whoa!“ It spooked me.
Caught myself on a fistful of the fabric hanging near me, nearly keeled backwards. The curtain tore. A heat wave rolled over me, from scalp to toe. My knees wobbled a bit more, but I stood again, fairly secure. I peeked out. Something moved. Then I saw it.
And what I saw, made me sober the instant.
I held my breath.
“Daadddy!“ Ana’s voice rang clearly in my ears. “Come outside, daaady!“ She danced around in the snow, her blanky around her shoulders, her pink beanie on top of her head. “Let’s play!“ My tongue hurt. I wanted to scream, but the words were glued somewhere in the back of my dry throat.
How was this possible? Was that really my baby? Her blonde piggy tails swooped up and down as she hopped around.
“I wuv you!“ She pulled my heart strings. It stung and burnt. As if she knew, what I longed for, she blew me kisses. Then she started to sing the princess in the woods. The window was cold to my touch. It fogged up around my fingertips.
She was still there, dancing and singing. “Snowman, daddy. Snowman!“ She cheered and beamed up to me. My eyes stung, my vision blurred.
“I’m coming!“ Ana! My little darling is back! I wanted to scream. Ugly noises left my throat instead. The backyard blurred and swam. Something warm ran down my cheeks. She started to form a big snowball, stretching out her little tongue, like she used to, when she was concentrating really hard. I sobbed. “ANA!“ She giggled and waved for me to come outside. “I’m coming,“ I gestured her. “I’m coming!“ As fast as I could, I hobbled towards the entrance door.
“Please be there, please be there. Please…“ I begged and closed my eyes. My hand tore the door open, felt snowflakes landing on my hand, my face, my toe. Bone chilling cold greeted me, but I didn’t care. My eyes flew open.
“Oh, Ana!“ She stood there, waiting for me, only a few steps distance between us. “Ana! Baby! Where have you been? I was looking for you all over.“ She shrugged, like little children do, with all of her body. Embarrassed she pointed behind her, then to herself. “You were in the woods?“ I asked, barely believing it. She nodded happily.
Have I been looking on the wrong place? Was she there all along waiting for me?
Ana cocked her little head, as if catching to my thought. “Yes, daddy.“ She pulled her shoulders up. “I was waiting for you. But you didn’t come. And I was really tired and you had a piece of wooden doll in your arms, and you and mommy… You cried a lot. And I was scared, that you be mad, if I come out now.“ How could I be angry at my little baby?
I threw my legs out. Long eager steps took me towards my little darling. I closed the distance between us, arms stretched out for a hug. The snow melted under my feet, my socks were wet and I fell to my knees before Ana, but this time it didn’t hurt. I could move without effort. Snowflakes landed on my neck.
I embraced Ana, sucked in the air around her. She smelled like children ought to. She smelled of cookies, crayons and strawberry shampoo. And smoke? My arms remembered her body and welcomed it with force. I couldn’t hold back, I tugged her close and squeezed. „Oh, Ana. I worried sick, baby.“ Those words disappeared in her blanky, in her piggy tails and mittens.
“Shhh, daddy.“ Her voice was dripping in my ear. “It’s okay. Don’t cry.“ Her tiny hand petted the back of my head. It felt like heaven. I had her back, back in my arms. I’d never let go again.
“It’s okay, daddy.“ Her voice buzzed with distortion for a moment. “I stay.“ No. I imagined it. “Forever.“ That voice!
I yanked my head back to look at Ana’s perfect little face. Everything was like I remembered. Big brown eyes, little nose and a small mouth with full soft lips, pink cheeks. Where did that voice come from, then? “Was that you, baby?“ I asked her. She stared into my face. I couldn’t read anything in it. Something was different, though.
I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Her eyes! I remembered them clearly. Why did I notice just now?
They have been blue two years ago, but they were dark now. How was that possible? Eye colors did not… Change?
Her tiny mouth twitched and stretched into a sick grin. Her eyes glistened, like the eyes of a rat. They went all black, tuned to some otherworldly channel. I swallowed. “Ana? Baby?“ I didn’t sound like me. “Are you okay?“ Her eyes bulged. “ANA?“ No!
The distorted voice answered with my daughter’s mouth. “Ana isn’t here, daddy.“ The grin widened to full teeth. There were so many teeth in that mouth! “What’s wrong, daddy?“ Oh, God! “Don’t you wuv me?“ No! I pulled back, but lost my balance. The icy sensation burned on my back. The snow was powdery, slipping into every wrinkle of my pullover and pants. “You wuv’ me now, daddy?“ I gasped.
The wind picked up. Its force bent the firs. They squealed and groaned. The gust swept over the roof, whooshed ice crystals into my face, into my eyes. It stung, like pins and needles. I couldn’t see. My legs numbed, didn’t move at all. My hands trembled towards my baby.
That was impossible!
That mouth stretched beyond its anatomical possibilities. I saw so much more than her pink gum and her too many teeth. I saw bone and working muscles. “NO!“
She chuckled, as I scurried towards the house on an all four. The wind stuffed my mouth with tiny ice shards. She danced around me, singing the princess in the wood, with my Ana’s voice.
That thing wasn’t my daughter!
It was something… else.
I saw something pink reach into the furious white gusts, she giggled. Oh, God! “You are not my Ana!“ I screamed into the howling sound around me. It wiped all silhouettes away, replaced it with a wall of white. Sick laughter reached me, the kind of psycho laughter you don’t want to hear from a four-year old. Never from your own four-year old. “Are you scared, daddy?“ She buzzed.
The way she said, “daddy,” chilled my blood. The voice was deep and guttural. The hair on my neck stood on end.
Where was the gun?
I had to get the gun.
The thing, that looked like Ana, screeched. I caught a whiff of smoke and strawberries. Somewhere ahead, only a few steps away, there had to be my house, entrance door still open. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t see it.
“Come on, old man. Keep moving!“ I cheered on. “Get back to the house.“ More laughter drifted to me, over the wind gusts.
The ice whooshing past my face glistened, reflecting some soft light. I stopped. There was something bright behind me. “Don’t look back!“ I told myself. Whatever that was, I mustn’t look back.
My fingers stretched forward.
Finally I could feel and grab a piece of rectangular wood and a piece of carpet. The open door! I had reached it! The strange glow faded rapidly.
I pulled myself up, clutching at the door frame. Clouds of breath vapor puffed fast into the darkness of the house. “Stand up!“ I commandeered myself. My bad knee throbbed, it wouldn’t stretch properly. But I got up, anyway.
The wind had blown in enough snow, that it blocked the door, no thought on moving it. I propped my back against the hallway wall, swept off the framed family photo. I reached after it, but was too slow. It fell to the ground.
The sound of shattered glass ripped the silence. No! Curled fingers hovered over my broken Maria and Ana.
They gazed up to me, their eyes pierced me between the cracks in the glass. I felt pinned in place. They kept smiling happily.
That smile… They were my last link to a better world, to a good and bright place, where things worked out just fine.
Hadn’t I atoned?
How much longer?
Their smiles mocked me…
But that wasn’t their fault, not at all… Only mine alone.
The shape of my daughter fogged up in the entrance. She materialized straight from the white wind gusts.
Someone inhaled sharply.
Everything was right again, back to normal, back to perfect. It was the little girl I saw earlier through the window. She was my Ana again.
“Daddy?“ She stood in the doorway, scared. A betrayed expression crawled over her face. As if I had taken her favorite plushy away, and have been waving it in front of her, out of reach. “Daddy? Are you mad?“ Her wary words trembled over to me. She was honestly hurt, and about to cry. I knew that face, the way her chin and lower lip quivered.
“What are you?“ I shouted, not sure I wanted to know. “What the hell are you?“ There was no answer to that. No answer she could give.
Ana held her arms out, wanted me to pick her up.
I was a real jerk, asking such stupid questions.
How cruel, showing her my fear and hate — to a child!
When did I start venting on my child? What was wrong with me? I’d never do that, at least I thought I’d never do that.
But she wasn’t my baby girl, was she?
She was something else. But did that make her less of a child?
Ana grimaced, big tears formed clinging to her lashes. No.
She was a nearly my baby girl. I knew, if she started crying, she wouldn’t be able to stop. She’d get those red spots all over her face and neck and hands, and she’d keep sobbing for hours. Like her mommy used to, when she got upset.
“Daddy? Up! Up, up.“ She demanded a bit more urgent. „Please?“ I took a step forward. Couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t want to. „Pleeeease?“ Come on, old man, pull yourself together!
“Are you… Ana?“ I asked carefully. Say something else!
She nodded so eagerly, that her beanie almost came down. How strange…
My hands shook, my knees almost gave out under me. Where did this feeling come from? A warmness spread from my navel to my back, leaving me without strength. She beamed up at me with her dark eyes. They glowed with a soft fire. “Are you really my baby girl?“
“Mhm.“ She smiled wholeheartedly. She believed it. I was her father.
I wanted to believe it too.
That was crazy! But she was so real. On my doorstep, she stood there, wanting to be held. Like any other little girl would want to be held by her daddy.
Ana from the photos wasn’t here, Maria wasn’t here either. My wife would think I was crazy… And maybe I was. Even considering something this twisted…
I kept thinking, that I had gotten a second chance.
That this time, everything was going to be okay. I’d take good care of her, I’d protect her, no matter what. I surprised myself by taking another step forward.
Should I hold back? Should I run? Where to? And why? I didn’t wanted to.
Not anymore… I let my body do, what it longed for. I picked her up.
My Ana, my other Ana. My second Ana. Her innocent child smell hit me. Crayons, cookies and strawberries. I’d never want to miss that again. My knees trembled a bit, butterflies fluttered in my stomach. This time I was going to be a proper father.
“Are you hungry, baby?“ She nodded and sighed with relief. “What do you want to eat?“ There had to be pancakes dough somewhere in the cupboards. “I can make us some pancakes with syrup and chocolate chips. How’d you like that?“
She hugged my neck and gave me a big wet smooch on my cheek. “You’re the bestest daddy in the woods.“ I smiled.
Something bright and warm whirled in my chest.
I — I thought, this time…
I could be happy.