The screams are deafening, I look at the clock, 3 AM, right on time. With a heavy heart, I slink out of bed and make my way down the hall. Swinging open the door I find Katie thrashing among her Hello Kitty bedspread with horror.
“NO! JULIE! DON’T GO!!!!” she screams as I stand watching in terror.
I climb into her bed, wrapping my arms around her, cradling her like an infant as we rock back and forth. All I can do is pray that she will fall quickly back into a peaceful sleep. The sooner she finds peace the more distant this nightmare will be for me today. I know in the morning she won’t remember anything, she never does, but for me, it’s a horror movie on constant reply.
“I’m so sorry” I whisper into the night. Hoping that maybe it would resolve the conflict inside of her. She smells of lilacs, sugar, and grass; innocent to a fault, I take in a deep breath and wonder how I could have protected her better.
Soon the thrashing becomes a silent whimper as she finally drifts off into a calm sleep. I start to wonder if what she tells me is true. That she can see Julie, hears her and even talks to her. It sounds insane, but Katie is adamant about it. Looking at my precious daughter I think, maybe the psychologist is right “post-traumatic stress.” After all, not many four-year-olds watch their best friend take their last breath.
I can’t change the past and there are no manuals on how to prepare for the death of a child. Lying next to Katie I feel hopeless. Her future happiness stolen from her in an instant. I failed my daughter, my family and myself.
As the night moves on I stare at the dancing shadows on the wall trying to hold the fleeting moments of life before Julie’s death. Our lives aren’t the only ones that have changed, but I’m lucky. I still get to have Katie breathing, warm and alive. I’m startled back to the present with a soft knock on the door. Max is watching the scene in front of him from the doorway. He’s handsome, my knight in shining armor, everything a girl could ask for in a man.
“Same dream,” he asks leaning on the door.
“Same dream” I answer, still holding her tightly.
“You didn’t come back to bed,” he said, with a flicker of fear in his voice. I give the slightest smile, more out of habit to calm his nerves.
“How much longer do you think this will last?” I pleaded, looking for an answer, a ticket off of this carousel ride we have been on for four years.
I could tell he was searching for the right answer, trying to comfort me the best he could.
“Until both worlds collide” a simple answer to a hard question. I can’t fast forward our lives to get to the breaking point, but I don’t deny the daily yearning to speed up the process.
As the sun starts to peek through the window I gently let go of Katie, making my way towards the door where Max is waiting. As I look into his eyes I hear a rustling behind me, panic struck out of fear that she was relapsing back into her nightmare. I turn to find Katie sitting straight up in bed, looking at us in disbelief. I wondered if she remembered, her eyes looked dazed, but not from sleep.
“Mom, are we going to go see Julie today?” She asks with an air of confusion. She’s lost in her own world and I can’t shake her from it.
As my heart sinks to these words. I still have to be a parent, even though inside I’m boiling at the idea of wanting to shake her to reality. Instead, I squeeze Max’s hand and answer like any lost, protective mother might do “Sure baby, get dressed and meet us downstairs for breakfast.”
As I close the door behind us Max takes me into his arms, we hold on to each other as tight as possible. I let myself go, allowing everything to wash over me as he supports me. I breathe him in, smelling of Tide, his arms are the only place I feel safe. Standing in each other’s embrace tiny footsteps began approaching. I turn to see our towheaded three-year-old, Zane, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Mommy, is Katie ok?” says the squeaky little voice.
“She just had another nightmare” I lie. “Did she wake you?”. I was barely pregnant with him when Julie died. I could barely explain our lives to Katie, I had no idea how to explain to him that his whole life he’s been living is part of a lie.
“Can I have Fruit Loops?” he asks without missing a beat as if it was just another normal day, but for him it was.
“Of course” I answer with a laugh as I hoist him into my arms and know that he is truly a breath of fresh air in this nightmare.
The morning progressed without a hitch. Fruit Loops, spilled milk, loud conversations and children arguing; it was a typical morning for any family. If only I could just frame this moment I thought as I looked on at my family, it was perfect in almost every way.
“Mom can we go?” she begs me with anticipation and pleading eyes.
“Get your coat on,” I say placing my coffee cup in the sink. I sigh with frustration as Katie jumps for joy and races out of the room. The simple everyday life was hindered by the complexity of this imaginary world that we live in.
“Mom, come on” Katie yells from the living room. I laughed at her enthusiasm as I chased after her. Zane plopped down on the couch instantly becoming glued to the stream of Saturday morning cartoons that played. As I reached for my bag Max leaned in for a kiss goodbye. A sweet gesture reminding me that everything will be ok.
The drive is short, only a few minutes from our house, but far enough that during the week we have some distance from the truth. Katie is impatient, I know she’s excited to see Julie, the cemetery is the only place she can see her these days.
I turn to look at Katie as I park the car; she has a smile from ear to ear as if she’s come home. As we walk through the gate together I let go of her hand she runs off into the distance, while the willow tree greets me with a wave of her branches like an old friend.
Exhausted I plop down on the bench, indulging in the distant chastity of laughter from my daughter. I know it’s not the ideal place to bring an eight-year-old, but this is where Julie is and what kind of mother am I to take that away from her?
The hours tick by as I sit thinking about what could have been. How life could have been different had Julie lived or Katie not have spiraled into this abyss. Our lives are full of “what if’s” and I wish I just had an answer to one of them. As the sun reaches its highest point of the day I check my cell phone, it’s time to head home to the place where distant memories are only around the corner.
“Katie, it’s time to go” I pleaded, gathering my unread book and bag. I had great intentions of reading the worn book but always drifted between the past and present that I haven’t turned a single page in over three years. I shoved it in my bag as I watched Katie waving goodbye to the heavens.
Her youthfulness was hidden by an old damaged soul, something a kiss and bandage would never repair. She grasped my hand tight as she approached. A sign of comfort for both of us. Without her, I had no reason to continue to fight, yet without her, I wouldn’t have a reason to fight.
The drive back home was full of joy and inquisitive chatter. As we pulled into the driveway I felt a sense of entrapment. I was lost for words on how a child could continue as if nothing has changed when the world around her was emotionally at war.
“Mom, why can’t Julie come visit?” the words shattered my being as my heart stopped. Was this the beginning of the end? I stared into her eyes looking for a clue, an answer, but she held strong with a blank stare. I couldn’t formulate an answer to an impossible question.
“She just wants someone to play with,” Katie responded to my silence. “She misses her old room and she tells me she wants a pretty pink dress for her birthday.” I could tell she was prodding for an answer, something to go off of. My mind whirled at what she was saying. How could a dead child miss her old room? Let alone know she misses her room? And this dress, was it because Katie just got a new pink dress that Julie wanted one all of a sudden? Julie’s wants felt like they were Katie’s wants.
“She also told me that her neighbor is this old woman who smells of mothballs and is missing her teeth. She doesn’t like her neighbor, she says she’s scary.” The details of Julie grew, I felt as if my mind was going numb with frustration. Her neighbor was dead, just like Julie was. There was no detail unturned in Katie’s story, Julie was as real as me and Max.
As my silence on Katie’s conversation grew deeper I felt like my need and want to protect her was unwinding quickly. I couldn’t handle anymore wants and needs of this person who no longer existed. I needed to take care of my family, my daughter, my son; those who are important to me. “But Julie says…” Katie continued and before I knew it my hands were grasping at Katie’s shirt shaking her.
“JULIE IS DEAD!” I screamed into her face over and over. Suddenly my world went blank. Everything around was white and sterile. My anger and rage were not red but white mixed with confusion.
I wanted our old lives back. A chance to wipe the slate clean and just start over. My throat hurt, burning from the screams while my head was pounding, but I couldn’t stop shaking Katie hoping that it would sink in that Julie never coming back.
The present became distant as I heard someone screaming “ANNA STOP!” My grip was still tight as my knuckles began to match the color of my rage, snow-white.
I was angry that Julie had to die, that Katie had lost her best friend and that I had lost my life as I knew it all on the same day.
Color started to appear again and the face I was staring back at was not Katie. It was not my precious daughter who I loved unconditionally. Instead, it was Max screaming back at me, “KATIE IS DEAD!”
This couldn’t be true. He was lying. He held me from a distance, as if he was afraid to close the gap between us for fear of me hurting him.
Frantic to disprove him I searched for an answer to this lie he was screaming. But all I found was an empty back seat with no signs of children ever existing. “Katie, Zane, Julie?” I stuttered as I pulled out of his grasp and stumbled out of the car. “You’re lying!” I screamed back at the car towards Max. In a search for some piece of evidence of my precious children and their friend, I stumbled over my own feet as I made my way to the porch of our house. The house that my children were born in, where Katie’s room was the third door on the right and Zane’s was at the end of the hall. But there were no bikes in the yard, the swing set was missing and the height chart by the kitchen door stopped at the age of four. This wasn’t real. We have been here for eight years. There were four years missing. Where were those four other years?
“Where are they?” I barked at Max as he walked in behind me.
He looked at me as if I had three heads, but I wanted to know where my children were. I needed to know they were safe.
“They? Anna, what are you talking about? Who are they?” he answered with confusion. This wasn’t a funny joke and I didn’t appreciate the passive approach. My children are missing and he knew it.
“They! Them! Katie and Zane, our children! Where are they, Max?” I screamed. “Where are their height charts and their toys and their breakfast dishes?” my heart feels as though it was leaping out of my chest as I screamed at him.
“Anna, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He paused to absorb all that I was screaming at him in a plea. I gasped for air as I took in his words of confusion. “Katie died four years ago. There was nothing they could do for her, you know that” he said taking a step closer towards me. I screamed inside, Katie wasn’t dead, I had just spoken to her. His words felt like a million knives of lies into my chest.
“No! She was just with me. In the car. At the cemetery.” I fumbled over my words as I shifted my eyes around the room, moving away from him.
“No Anna she wasn’t with you, I was.”
As he said these words I spotted the picture on the mantel. Framed in silver there stood my smiling precious Katie frozen in time. This was the only piece of her I had within this house, the only piece of evidence I had.
Max watched my every move as I fell desperately silent on my way over to the fireplace. I gently took the picture into my hands and caressed her cheek. She was grinning from ear to ear with her pink princess dress on and suddenly I could smell the scent of lilacs, sugar, and grass wrapping around me.
I looked up to find Max standing in front of me as my face burned from the tears.
“She’s gone babe,” he said placing his hands over mine.
“Julie?” I gasped.
“Who is Julie?”
I stared at him with a blank expression. How could he not know Julie? “Katie’s best friend. The one who died.”
“Anna, there is no Julie” he confirmed.
How could this be true? I was the one who got to hold her child. To tuck her in at night and soothe her tears. Julie is supposed to be gone, not Katie. Not my sweet precious daughter. My heart was too broken to race or beat. I looked up at Max with pleading eyes. Nothing of what he was saying made sense. My children were just with me. I could still hear the ringing of their laughter vibrating off the walls.
As I looked into Max’s eyes I saw the truth. He was strong, but his children were his weakest points. The welling of tears behind his calm demeanor confirmed what I no longer needed to hear. Katie was gone. “Zane?” I pleaded. I had stepped out of one nightmare into one that was even worse than I could imagine. I needed no words for an answer. Max wrapped his arms tightly around me as the memories of the fateful day rushed back. The warmth between my legs, the color red, the pain of having your last hope ripped from your womb all became real.
“I’m so sorry.” He whispered into my hair.
My world crashed down around me as I sobbed into Max’s arms. Julie was a figment of my imagination, Katie was gone and I never got to meet my sweet Zane. I was the one living the nightmare, not some other family. I had lost both of my children. I was a childless parent, the chapter they missed in parenting 101.
Copyright © 2017 Melissa Kane