I am the mother of five ghosts. We live in a lonely house plagued by silence, one that stands only a block away from the park where I now sit. I watch the small girl alone on the swings, staring intently as I imagine what it would be like to bring her home and call her my own. What does not being lonely feel like? I need to find out, and soon enough I’m walking towards the child, devising a plan to kidnap her on my way.
“You look lonely,” I say when I finally reach her, crouching down to meet her level. “What’s your name?”
“My name’s Hailey Martin, and I’m five,” she tells me, sitting up straighter as if she’s proud to announce her name and age. She looks up at me with curious, big brown eyes.
“I’m Deana,” I tell her. “Did you come here with your mom?”
“Uh-huh,” Hailey says, pointing towards a middle aged woman sitting in the sandbox with a younger child. “She’s over playing with my sister.”
The sandbox is on the other side of the playground, and the mother’s back is facing me. I suppress the anger that boils inside me, annoyed that she has two perfectly alive children when I tried five times just to have one.
“Why aren’t you over with them?” I ask, tearing my eyes away from the mother and her daughter.
“I’m waiting for Mommy to take us for ice cream. I like the swirly kind,” Hailey says. “What kind do you like?”
“Vanilla,” I reply, telling her the first flavor that comes to mind. Casually, I ask, “Do you want me to take you for ice cream? My car’s just over there.” I point towards my silver car parked at the edge of the park.
“Okay! Let me go ask my mom.” Her eyes light up as she stands up, getting ready to run over to where her mother is building sandcastles with her sister.
“Wait!” I say, my voice escaping louder than I had intended. I look back at the girl’s mother, thankful to see that she hasn’t turned around. “We won’t be long,” I assure Hailey. “Why don’t we just go now? We can bring back ice cream for your mom and sister. How does that sound?”
“Let’s go, let’s go!” she replies, reaching over and tugging my hand as she tries to pull me to a standing position. Hailey’s smile glowd, and her eyes spark with the optimism that only a child has.
I remember how Addison’s face looked so much like that, even after she started
chemotherapy. The memory is accompanied by a sudden pang of sadness.
“Why are you sad? Don’t be sad. Ice cream makes people happy!” Hailey says. She leans over and pushes the ends of my lips into a smile with her fingers, making me smile for real.
I stand up, “Come on, let’s go get ice cream.”
Taking her hand, I lead her to my car, careful to stay behind as many trees as possible. Adrenaline courses through my veins as I finally realize what I’m doing. There’s no turning back now, though. If I returned Hailey to her place on the swings she’d surely tell her mother, and then everything would be a mess. It’s better to commit a crime than to half commit one, right?
We reach my car, and I look around quickly before opening the back door. Addison’s old car seat still sits on the backseat, so I motion for Hailey to sit on it. She climbs in, buckling up as I close the door.
I glance back again, but I don’t see anyone who is watching me steal this child. My heart pounds as I open my door and slide in behind the wheel.
“Ready?” I ask Hailey, positioning the rearview mirror so I can see her.
She nods, a grin on her face.
I force a smile back, pulling out of the small parking lot and onto the main road, wondering how long it will take her to realize that we’re not going for ice cream.
We only drive a block before reaching my house. I pull the car into the driveway and cut the engine, avoiding eye contact with Hailey as I unbuckle and open my door. My heartbeat has slowed down, and suddenly a sense of calm has washed over me. I can pull this off, I think to myself.
When I open the back door, Hailey is inevitably frowning as she looks around the neighborhood.
“This isn’t the ice cream place,” she tells me.
“I know. We have to stop here and get my wallet, though,” I lie to her. “That way we can buy the ice cream. Come on, it’ll only take a minute.”
Hailey smiles slightly, though not as much as she had been before. She unbuckles and gets out of the car. We walk to the front door of my lonely, towering two story house with its peeling paint and wilting flowerbed.
I open the front door, letting Hailey step through first. I walk in behind her, and suddenly panic sets in as I realize I don’t know what to do next.
In the movies, the police always check the suspected kidnapper’s house first. I shouldn’t have brought her here, but there’s nowhere else to go. My plan wasn’t developed enough, and now I’ve backed myself into a corner.
Not knowing what to do, I lead Hailey up the stairs.
“I think my wallet is up here,” I tell her as we head towards the second floor. “I must have left it in the attic…when I was cleaning.”
She follows me, and then I lead her down the hallway. We’ve nearly reached the door that leads to the attic when suddenly I realize that Hailey has stopped behind me. I turn around to find her peering into Addison’s old room, taking in the pale pink walls and canopy bed that haven’t changed in sixteen years.
“Whose room is that?” she asks, taking a step inside.
“That was Addison’s room,” I tell Hailey, my voice cracking. “She was about your age.”
“Where is she?” She looks around the room and then down the hall.
“Addison’s been gone for some time now. She died of cancer when she was eight.”
“Oh,” is all Hailey says, a strained expression on her face as she tries to wrap the concept of death around her mind. After a long moment, she closes Addison’s door and takes my hand. “I bet she’s in a good place now.”
I nod, hoping Hailey is right as I lead her down the hallway in silence, avoiding her eyes as an increasing sense of regret washes over me. Pushing it away, I open the door that reveals the stairs leading to the attic.
“Will you get my wallet for me?” I ask Hailey, pointing up the dark steps. “It’s just at the top of these stairs.”
She pushes wavy brown hair from her face, leaning around me and glancing at the steps.
“I don’t like the dark,” she states, backing away a bit.
“It’s okay,” I tell her, panic rising in me as I realize that we’re taking too long. It’s just a matter of time before the police are knocking on my door, and I still don’t have a plan formulated.
Hailey takes a cautious step towards the stairs, looking up. As soon as she steps through the doorway, I close the door, slamming it shut and locking it.
I hear her scream, and I swallow the lump in my throat, pressing my hand against the door before hurrying downstairs.
My steps fall heavily on the living room carpet as I pace back and forth. What do I do now? I’ve already locked a child in my attic, and I think I can hear sirens in the far distance.
I’ve made a terrible mistake. I never should have kidnapped her. Addison would be so disappointed in me. I’m disappointed in me.
I run back upstairs.
I can make this right, I think to myself. All I have to do is get Hailey and take her back to the park. I can tell her mother it was all a misunderstanding, and everything will be okay.
It takes a few tugs to unlock the attic door, but eventually I push it open and run up the steps, the old wood creaking beneath my feet.
“Hailey?” I call, reaching the top of the stairs. I look around the dark attic, walking around boxes and cobwebs as I try to find her.
A hiccup comes from the right side, followed by a sniffle.
Following the noises, I soon find Hailey, crouched beneath the open attic window, tears staining her face. She stands when she sees me, trying to back up, though she only runs into the windowsill behind her.
“Hailey, I’m sorry I just-” I begin, wondering how one would make a convincing apology for kidnapping another person.
“S-stay back!” she shouts, her voice wavering as she hiccups again. “I don’t like it here. I-I’m going to go home..”
Hailey turns around, stepping on a box to help her up to the window’s ledge. She swings her legs over the edge, sitting half inside and half outside.
“Hailey, no!” I yell, running over. “Don’t go out there. You’ll fall!”
She looks back at me, her eyes widening with fear as she pushes herself off the edge. I hear her scream, reaching the window just in time to see her tumbling down the slanted roof head first.
“Help me!” she cries out.
I stand there, helpless, my fingers gripping the window as I watch her go over the edge of the roof.
My heart is in my throat as I sprint down both set of steps and out the front door, running past the flowerbed and towards where my car is parked.
I stop short when I reach the driveway and see Hailey. She looks peaceful as she lies on the pavement, yet she is broken like a China doll in too many places to repair.
“Hailey?” I say, my voice sounding far away as I struggle to get air into my lungs.
There’s no answer.
The sirens grow louder, but I pay little attention to them as I step tentatively towards her. She stares at me, her eyes glassy, her body small and still. Sitting down on the pavement beside her, I push Hailey’s hair away from her face, tears falling down my own cheeks.
It’s all my fault. I should have never taken her in the first place, and I should have known she would die on my watch. I’m not meant to have children, because every time I do, I kill them. The universe told me I was destined to be alone when Addison died.