by David VonAllmen

The sun is cut in half by the horizon, about to set. Or, it’s about to rise. I don’t know which. I think I’ve been out somewhere and now I’m coming home, so I unlock the door and walk in.

In the foyer there’s a silver-framed picture on the decorative table where we drop the mail. It’s a black-and-white photo, a close-up of a woman kissing my husband. I don’t understand how it got here, why it’s here. It’s shocking to me but at the same time I know I’ve seen it before, even the flower pattern stamped into the frame is familiar.

I drop the leather satchel I’ve had slung over my shoulder. I shiver as I take off my pea coat, and realise I’m chilled to the bone. It’s not that cold out, I must have been outside for a long time. 

My coat is purple. When I was a little girl my favourite colour was blue, when I was a teenager I decided having a favourite colour was for kids and gave it up. But now I know that my favourite colour has always been purple. Even when it was blue.

A girl in a nightgown plods down the stairs, and my brain tells me it’s Maddie but also tells me it’s not her, can’t be her, because Maddie isn’t nearly that tall. Maddie is only four years old, this girl is at least six.

'Mom?' she says, her eyes unfocused and sleepy.

No, Maddie’s seven. This is Maddie, this is my daughter. Where have I been for the last three years? I’ve been here, in this house, I’ve put Maddie and Ben to bed and had romantic dinners with James. But I’ve been distant, giving all my affection to my husband. I haven’t loved Maddie, haven’t loved her little brother, like a mother should. 

I open the satchel and look inside. There’s only one thing in there, an oddly-shaped lump, and I have to pull it out to see what it is. One of Maddie’s baby shoes and the tiny blanket we brought Ben home from the hospital in are tied together by a strip of delicate white lace. I have to study the lace for a few moments before I realise why it’s so familiar – it’s torn from my wedding dress. 

Where was I last night? I had my hand on this bundle, and was pressing it against the ground, against the grass in a park. I was alone, but spent hours talking to the wind. I was worried it wasn’t going to work. Then I was worried it was going to work. What was going to work? What was I trying to do out there talking to spirits like a crazy woman?

I look at my left hand and see no wedding band, just an engagement ring. It’s not my ring, it’s someone else’s. No, that’s not right. James and I aren’t married yet, this is the engagement ring he gave me. We’re getting married in October, which is next month.

Maddie is going to be my step-daughter. But that can’t be, I remember giving birth to her. She came too quickly and they didn’t have time for an epidural and it hurt like hell. The whole time I was pregnant with Ben I made jokes that James needed to keep the car idling in the driveway 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because as soon as I felt a twitch we were running every red light to get to that epidural in time.

But then why am I wearing this engagement ring? This ring that made me cry when James put it on my finger. I told him they were tears of pure joy, but that wasn’t entirely true. I had dreamed of sharing everything with my husband, of having someone who understood me, and me him, on every level. But the part of himself he cherished most – the love he had for his children – was always going to be closed off to me. When he told me stories of all the funny things they did when they were toddlers I would laugh loudly and try to make it convincing, try to tell myself I was as delighted by those stories as he was, try to believe I could never tire of hearing the same stories over and over. But even when I moved in, even when I started doing their laundry and fixing their lunches, even when I came to care about them and love them, I still couldn’t love them like she had. I still couldn’t love them like a mother should.

I didn’t get much sleep the night he proposed. The next night, when we told our friends, and someone snapped a picture of us kissing, I felt like I was telling a lie. And when I framed that beautiful black-and-white photo and put it in the foyer where everyone entering our house could see it, I felt like I was living a lie. 

I searched for answers in self-help books and psychiatrists and my pastor. Nothing worked. My great aunt could always tell when I was troubled no matter what face I put on for others, and in her thick Danish accent told me of the klog kone, the witches of white magic, one of whom still lived in the city and still practised the old ways.

Before I left the witch’s home, even before I paid her with a handful of freshly cut heart of wormwood and a single silver coin, the witch grabbed hold of my arm and stared intently into my eyes.

'When you open yourself to her spirit,' she said, 'you will not be able to choose what parts of her enter you and which do not.'

'But I’ll receive her memories of her children, her love of them, won’t I?' I asked.

Her grip relaxed and she exhaled. 'If she loved her children – and it sounds as if she did – and the lure you use to draw her out is a piece of them… then, yes, that will be the first part of her soul that will flow into you.'

'Will I be able to feel it? Will I know when that’s entered me and then I can stop?'

'Oh you’ll feel it alright. But being able to stop at just the right time is tricky. Bringing over only those memories and emotions you want to take in is impossible. Much else will come with them.'

It was only a few nights later that I snuck out while James and the kids were asleep. I drove to the cemetery where his late wife was buried, and held the bundle of baby shoe, hospital blanket, and wedding lace against the grass above her grave. And I focused for hours, chanting to the spirits of another realm, trying to forget the insanity of what I was doing, trying to forget that I was transforming my soul into the spiritual equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster.

'Mom?' Maddie says again, and this time her eyes focus on me, concerned.

I get on my knees and open my arms to her. She steps forward into my embrace. It’s been three years since I’ve hugged my little girl and I have to hold back a sob so she doesn’t hear.

'Yes, sweetie, it’s me,' I say. 'It’s mommy.'

David VonAllmen has written for Marvel Comics, published independent comics, written movie scripts, and even directed music videos, all to wind up back where his heart always belonged – writing fantasy prose fiction. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri, USA with his wife, Ann, and his primary school aged children, Lucas and Eva, who write some pretty good fantasy stories of their own. T: @VonAllmenDavid W:

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