Heart pumping faster than her legs, she feared she might kill her mother, feared her father would catch up to her.
Oh, no! Daddy’s getting closer, she thought. He’s s’posed to be sleeping.
Ignoring her father’s pursuit, Cora ran past the quiet houses lining the quiet street on this otherwise quiet night. Past the bungalow, home to Mr. King, who had dressed as Santa Claus one Christmas “’cause he’s too busy to do it himself,” Mr. King had explained. Past Ms. Shelley’s dark, leafy lawn, where she hosted Easter egg hunts “‘cause the Easter Bunny’s too busy to hide the eggs himself, so I help out,” Ms. Shelley had assured. Past Dr. Deaver’s home that doubled as his dental office, where he had presented five-year-old Cora with a dollar to commemorate her first lost tooth, because, well… “The Tooth Fairy’s too busy.” Past the houses that remained dark, for their inhabitants had yet to be awakened by-
“Cora!” A breath. “Stop!”
Blazing through a dead intersection, Cora spared a thought for the archetypes on whose behalf her neighbours claimed to work during their respective seasons. She wondered where they were: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. Wondered if they saw the X-ray, the way she had. She wondered if they saw the lie. Or-
Her heart stopped.
Her mother died.
Her father caught up to her.
Then a double crash against her small ribcage.
Her heart rediscovered its rhythm.
Her mother was still alive.
Her father—in spite of the closing sounds—had yet to catch up to her.
Cora’s heart had forgotten a pair of beats, one per terrible thought:
What if they knew about the lie?
What if they were in on the lie? Them. Mr. King. Ms. Shelley. Dr. Deaver. Daddy. The doctor.
And when she thought she couldn’t lose another beat:
What if mommy lied to me?
Though it was looking that way.
Cora didn’t want to think of her mother in that light.
All the more reason to run.
He was quick for someone who was not only old, but had been asleep. They had been watching television; he had allowed her to stay up as late as she wanted, a sort of gift—including all the junk food she could pack into her sugar-and-salt-coated belly—to celebrate her recovery.
The X-ray, she thought. The lie.
The plan had formed during her time in the hospital, then solidified in her bedroom (after the doctor deemed it safe enough for her to return home) into something simple, doable. Her footsteps were light, quiet—the coughing fits had faded to wheezes—and her father had taken to marathon sleeping in the wake of the loss of their beloved matriarch. The cemetery was only seconds away, past Mr. King’s, Ms. Shelley’s, and Dr. Deaver’s.
Of course, Cora had to be careful, for the last time she snuck out of the house she ended up in the hospital, where the lie had waited to be discovered.
Tonight, not seconds but minutes ago, Cora had eased away from her father, uncomfortably sleeping on the other end of the couch. She had tiptoed toward the front door, and after tense moments with the loud lock and creaky hinges, made her escape. The cold air had stabbed her body, trying to get to that special spot into which it had settled three weeks ago, trying to send her back to the hospital. She hadn’t intended to run, though she knew she should hurry; there was no guarantee her father would remain asleep.
Down the front steps.
Down the driveway.
To the right, along the sidewalk that had lead her and her father from house to cemetery every day after their first, ceremonial visit.
Daddy’s awake! she had thought. He’s coming!
Breaking into a sprint, the race for the cemetery had begun.
Now, finally, breathlessly turning into the cemetery, Cora kept an eye and ear out for zombies, though she couldn’t be bothered with them at the moment. Or any moment.
Now was her only chance to learn the truth.
She knew her mother’s name, but not the letters of which it was comprised. She knew her mother’s headstone, but not in the thick darkness. She recognized the tree against which the headstone seemingly rested, and- Yes! Made out its twisted silhouette, shaped by the streetlamp from beyond the cemetery.
The frozen grass ended. The mound of earth began, a heavy blanket over her mother (if she was there), tucked in by the small yellow excavator that had patiently waited for her, her father, and the few mourners to leave before it could discreetly perform its job.
Cora dove to her knees, and began digging her short fingers into the cold dirt, yanking out pitiful handfuls. The small craters her fists made quickly filled in with seemingly more black soil than there had been. Determined, she thrashed at the dirt.
“What’re you…” Quick breaths. “…doing…” More quick breaths. “…Cora!?”
She continued the excavation as if her father hadn’t finally caught up to her, as if he wasn’t witnessing her apparent breakdown, too stunned to take the final steps to seize her, to stop her from spraying his pants with flung dirt. To stop her from disturbing the ground, his wife, her mother.
Cora dug harder, deeper, numbness creeping throughout her hands.
I gotta know! she told herself.
Ignoring her father, who knelt before her.
I gotta know!
Ignoring her father, who took a face full of dirt.
I GOTTA KNOW!
He didn’t stop her.
‘Cause he knows I know! she thought.
Frozen razors cut hot tracks into her cheeks. She used both anesthetized hands to investigate the conflicting sensation, but succeeded only in lodging clumps of cold, hard dirt into her teary eyes.
She was angry to had shed even one tear in the presence of her father. She continued to dig, furiously, but the dirt stung her eyes. She tried to ignore the annoying pain, but gave in to wiping her eyes, depositing more dirt within them.
Again, she tried to dig…
Again, she wiped her eyes…
Tried to dig…
Wiped her eyes…
With a scream of frustration, loud and fearsome enough to scare nearby zombies back into their graves, exhausted and defeated Cora collapsed onto her side, feeling nothing.
Except her heartbeat.
Many heartbeats—pounding her chest, neck, ears, pulsing throughout her tired legs, her unfeeling hands.
Another heartbeat joined her own. Slower. Calmer.
Too tired to reject him, too cold to admit her body needed his warmth, Cora wondered if her embracing father’s own mother or father or someone he loved, someone he trusted, lived in his beating heart. Or if they had lied to him, too.
Perhaps it was the cooing, coupled with the gentle rocking.
Perhaps it was the way her heart began to slow, calm, synchronize with her father’s.
Perhaps it was the pathetic progress she—a mere girl, not a professional excavator—had made, and knew she would never learn the truth, see it for herself.
Perhaps it was the way her father whispered it was okay, all okay.
“It’s not okay!” Cora blasted, elbowing his chest. His heart. She didn’t need the ambient streetlamp to illuminate her father’s stunned, hurt expression. “I wanna see Mommy!”
In the past couple of weeks, she had come to know what the beginning of her father’s crying sounded like: a hitch in his voice, as if he was trying to prevent a sneeze. She heard it now. But instead of speaking in tears, he spoke in words. “I… I know you do. I want to see Mommy, too, but-”
“ Where is she?”
Silence from his silhouette.
“Where. Is. She?” Three numb fists pounding against his chest.
Then it came: the not-quite sneeze, followed by the awkward sobbing. “I’m sorry, I…” He swallowed the rest.
“You lied to me, Daddy.” Whatever tears she reserved, her father used. “You and Mommy lied to me.” Thinking about her mother as a liar had made her feel bad, guilty; saying it aloud made her feel outright criminal.
As she had in the hospital bed, then in her own bed, Cora replayed the lies in her exhausted, perplexed mind:
“No matter what happens, I’ll always be in your heart.”—her mother’s final words, the night before the surgery.
“That’s just Mommy giving you hugs and kisses.”—her father, shortly after the funeral, clarifying what Cora took to be a ghost in her bedroom.
Mommy giving me hugs and kisses?
How could that be if she’s s’posed to be in my heart?
Sneaking out of the house after what her father told her.
Standing in the windy backyard, receiving—and trying to return—her mother’s hugs and kisses.
Her father discovering her weather-ravaged body the following morning.
The doctor showing her the X-ray of her chest, where her new-moan-yeah no longer threatened.
“But Mommy wasn’t there, in the X-ray,” Cora said now, the tears brewing again. “I looked and looked and I couldn’t see her.” A tear betrayed her. She didn’t bother to catch it, not if her father hadn’t seen it. “So if Mommy’s not in my heart, and mommy’s not the wind, giving me hugs and kisses,” she pointed a dirt-encrusted digit at the pile of disturbed earth, “then she’s gotta be in there. She’s gotta.”
What she took for yet another tear landing on her cheek was, in fact, one of her father’s.
“I saw Mommy in the coughing, and I saw them put the coughing in the ground.” She pointed at the spot where she was certain her mother was buried in her coffin.
If whimpers were speech, then Cora might have understood what her father was trying to say.
“Mommy is in there, right?”
She tried to push against her father’s embrace, the only response he could muster.
“Right?” Cora managed, before giving in.
In spite of her father’s snug work, Cora still felt the breeze that wasn’t her mother’s hugs and kisses penetrating the thick comforter. He kissed each bathed cheek—one from him, one “from” her mother; they both knew, but never brought up—and left. Tomorrow they would have a talk about mommy. “True talk,” daddy had said.
The creaky hallway steps she had once thought belonged to a ghost disappeared into her parent’s bedroom.
Or’s it just daddy’s bedroom now?
She didn’t know.
Her parents’—her father’s?—bed squealed, then silenced.
She hated to ruin her father’s careful work, but she needed to know.
Kicking away the comforter, Cora, aware of where the creaks hid among her floor, tiptoed toward the mirror sitting atop the drawer. After minutes of careful study, she saw that her father had lied to her again, in the cemetery: she saw not a single trace of her mother within her features.
“True talk,” daddy had said.
Navigating the creak-mines strewn about the floor, Cora returned to bed, turned on her side, and stared at the nightlight her mother had installed. In the shape of a candle, its flame perpetually ablaze, albeit with the help of electricity, the small beacon of comfort had defended Cora from an assortment of bumps in the night. No longer fearing those bumps, she reached for the nightlight, but stopped.
A new fear.
A fear of her own making:
If I turn off the nightlight, how will mommy know where I am?
Artisan baker by trade, Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi has been published in over 60 literary journals worldwide. Winner of the Scribes Valley Short Story Writing Contest, he was also a finalist in the Blood Orange Review Literary Contest, and was awarded the Popular Vote in the Best of Rejected Manuscripts Competition. In addition to several short pieces, he is currently working on his debut novel.