This story is by S.M. West and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Running hard and fast, away from me, her golden locks soar like kites behind her.
“Claire!” I shout, hoping she’ll stop. Look my way.
Her sweet, melodic laughter filters through the air, fading as she dips over the hill. Not once does she look behind. At me.
“Claire!” I run. In pursuit. The little rascal.
Echoing her joy, I giggle at the chase, our game. It was only yesterday, or was it last week? When we played this very game. Child’s play. It’s fanciful and seemingly meaningless, but laden with nostalgia. A treasure to relive as the years march on.
Her tiny legs carry her like the wind. She’s now a speck on the horizon. Her red dress is vibrant against the blue sky and yellowy, green grass. Panting, I gulp in air, pushing my legs as hard and as fast as I can. My chest burns. I’m alive. I can almost feel the blood pumping through my body, my heartbeat hammering against my rib cage.
Who knew the little munchkin could run so fast?
I wish I was closer.
Instantly, she’s only three feet in front of me. What? How’d that happen? A moment ago, we were a football field apart and now? Now, I can almost touch her.
Shaken at the strange, outer-worldly leap my body just took, getting to her becomes even more vital. With one final push toward her, my fingers lightly graze her arm. Glancing over her shoulder, finally, she smiles. Extraordinary.
With a blink of an eye, she’s gone.
“Claire!” I wail, desperate and confused. Frantically, I spin in a circle searching for her. Nothing.
I wish she were here.
Suddenly, she reappears, all three feet nothing of her. Blinking, she’s still here. Her blond ringlets framing her cherub face. Her big, blue doe-eyes expectant, happy to see me. Scooping her into my arms, I pepper kisses all over her face, murmuring how much I love her. She laughs with delight. Her little hands clinging to me. Secure in my arms, she squeals as I whirl and whirl around.
“Mommy, stop. Mommy.” I no sooner do and she demands, “Do it again! Do it again!”
The dizziness and excitement drains me. Lying on the grass, we stare at the sky.
“It’s hard to tell.” A female voice says out of nowhere.
Looking to the sky, I search, there’s no indication as to where the voice came from.
“Did you hear that?” Surely, I imagined it.
“Let’s play,” she responds as if I never spoke a word. Still searching in vain, we’re alone. “Hide and seek. I go first. Count to ten,” my little dictator states, scurrying to hide.
Reluctantly closing my eyes, I count.
“It takes time,” the female says.
Whipping my eyes open, I scour the vast field. Nothing. No one. What the hell? Where’s the voice coming from?
“There’s no pain?” A male asks. It’s Dan.
“Honey? Dan?” I yell, scanning for his handsome face. Nothing. No one.
I listen and wait. Nothing. No one. Am I going mad? Where am I? I simply wish and it’s so? The voices – where are they coming from?
Before succumbing to the rabbit hole of this mystery, her shout startles me. “Mommy!”
I must get to her. Running, I crest the hill, a white, sandy beach and beautiful ocean awaits. A flash of red catches my eye. My little one is poorly hiding behind a piece of drift wood. Biting my lips to stave off the urge to laugh, I play the game. I pretend not to see her. I even go so far as to loudly say, “Oh, where could Claire be?”
Eventually, her patience runs thin at my ineptness as a discoverer.
“I’m here!” She springs from her hiding spot, laughing triumphantly at my rehearsed surprise.
Playing with my daughter is not always possible. Life and responsibility gets in the way. But every time I give into my inner child, see the world through her eyes, I want more of it.
Together, hand in hand, we walk along the shore, relishing the cool water and wet sand running through our toes. A tingly warmth washes over me. Filling me with love, joy and dare I say, peace?
“Can she hear me?”
Dan. I won’t give in to the strange and inexplicable voices. Not yet. All in good time.
“I love you, mommy. You know that, right?” She says.
“Baby, I know that. I love you too. So much.”
“And even if I’m not around, I’m with you.”
“What?” Abruptly stopping, I look down at her. “What are you talking about?”
My heart squeezes. Where are we? Why is Claire acting so strange? An unease slithers like a snake in the grass, low and slow through my belly.
Her small hand cups my cheek. She has the most tender and mesmerizing eyes. Softly kissing my forehead, she gives me a bright and warm smile.
“I’ll always love you, mommy. No matter what. And I’m always here.”
Her words, cryptic but loaded, hang in the air. Their meaning fills me. Almost bursting with the sheer bliss of her love.
“Sweetie, I love you too,” is all I manage to say.
I could say more. I should say more. I feel like I need to tell her how special she is. How every moment is rare and memorable. I want to bask in this moment. Capture it for years from now, when she’s a teenager and I’m no longer the one who hung the moon. I’m her mother, the nuisance.
A balloon, reminding me of her favorite color, floats by. Her eyes double in size, the joy apparent on her face.
“Mommy, that’s me,” she exclaims, pointing as the balloon drifts away, getting smaller and smaller. Baffled, I study my girl.
“Phoebe, come back to me, baby,” Dan says softly, from above, pain etched in his voice.
My breath stutters and chest tightens at his despair.
I wish I could be with him.
Black. She’s gone. The beach, the lull of the waves and the bright sunshine are all gone. All of it replaced with only darkness, whirring and beeping noises and pain. So much pain. I’m heavy, tight, achy. I feel like I’m about to burst. Explode with the pressure and agony.
Blinking several times, my eyes adjust to the glaring, white light. With more focus, Dan comes into view. His head is hung low, hand tightly clutching mine. I’m lying in a bed. A room. A hospital.
I cough to clear my throat. His head snaps up, his usually clear, bright eyes are bleary, widening in disbelief. With dark scruff, several days worth, on his usually smooth, shaven face and his blonde hair in disarray, he appears exhausted. Broken.
“Phoebe? Oh, God, Fi,” his voice cracks. Leaning down, his dry lips kiss my forehead and then, both my cheeks. His tears spill onto my face.
“Look who’s awake,” a woman says. It’s her. The voice from above. She’s wearing cats, light blue hospital scrubs littered with cats. “Phoebe, I’m Jenny, your nurse. I’m going to get the doctor,” she reassures with a soft pat to my hand. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
“Dan,” I croak, squeezing his hand. “Where’s Claire?” He stiffens. Raising his head to look at me. It’s all there.
“Tell me,” I whisper past the lump in my throat. “Is she…” I can’t bring myself to say the words. I’d rather rip my arms off than have those words pass my lips.
He barely shakes his head, casting his eyes away from me, confirming what I most fear. Chills whisper along my skin like someone walking over my grave.
I already miss her touch. Her little hand wrapped around mine. Grounding me, holding me, needing me.
I already miss her laughter. The carefree glee in her playful sounds.
I already miss her love. The way she made me feel so lucky, so blessed to be loved by her.
I already miss her. My sweet girl.
I’m falling, falling apart. A burning intensity slices through me like the blade of a sword.
Watching me, his face is impassive as he mashes his lips together. Fighting to hold back his emotions. Futile. His facade crumbles. His big, fat tears fall faster, like a waterfall, as he releases a hysterical sob.
Unable to witness his despair. My despair. Our loss. I turn to face the open window. I want nothing more than to be back on the beach. With Claire.
I wish she were here.
A gentle breeze wafts in. Blue sky, white fluffy clouds, and…blinking back the tears, I stall. My breath stalls. I wipe the wetness from my eyes, the evidence of my pain and loss. Are my eyes tricking me? I do a double take.
A red balloon floats by.