Three days after Elissa buried her daughter's pet labrador, Corky, she awoke to find the dog on the foot of her bed. Blood-muddy dirt clods matted his fur, and several broken ribs protruded from his skin where the UPS truck's front tire had slammed into his body. Soil was impacted in the broken ends of the bones. Elissa screamed and scrambled out of bed.
The dog jerked awake, woofing in fright. Then he spotted Elissa and jumped off the bed to cower against her knees as he always did when he was scared.
Oh sweet Jesus, did I bury the poor thing alive? she wondered, then reached down tentatively to stroke the dog's head. He nuzzled her hand, licked her fingers. His tongue and gums were a greenish-gray, and his breath stank of dirt and rot.
Elissa's entire body broke out in a rash of chill, and it was all she could do to keep from keeling over in a dead faint.
"C-corky, stay. Stay in here," she stammered, inching toward the door. There were muddy paw prints on her cream-colored carpet. "Stay. That's a good dog."
She slammed the door shut behind her and ran down the hall toward her daughter's bedroom. Elissa's only thought was that they had to get out of the house, fast. She burst into the room only to discover that her daughter Melanie's bed was empty, the teddy bear bedsheets a rumpled ball at the foot of the bed. She realized she could hear her daughter laughing in the kitchen.
Elissa was trying to remember where she'd put her car keys as she pelted down the hall into the kitchen ... and slid to a dead stop.
Her daughter was still in her pink footed pajamas, sitting on a stool at the breakfast table, giggling. The frozen chicken Elissa had been thawing in the fridge was dancing on the Saturday morning paper in front of the little girl. The headless, gutless, clammy-pale chicken was hopping and cavorting on its stumps of legs. The paper was soaked through with water and blood from the thawed bird. It did a clumsy, teetering pirouette, and the little girl clapped her hands with glee.
"Melanie, honey, come over here," Elissa said weakly, her voice shaking so hard she could barely speak. "Get -- get away from that thing and come here."
Melanie looked over at her mother, her smile fading as she saw the terror on her mother's face.
"Mommy, it's okay. This is my new pet. I'm gonna call him Stumpy. After I fixed Corky this morning, I realized Stumpy was looking so sad and cold in the fridge. I wanted to fix him, too. Can I keep him for a pet, Mommy, please?" Melanie wheedled.
"Oh God ... no." Elissa took a few steps backward, dropping the cross, bumping into the fridge. She felt sick and lightheaded and didn't know whether to faint or vomit.
"But he won't eat much. He hasn't got a head," the little girl pointed out.
This had to be a bad dream, Elissa thought, screwing her eyes shut and pinching herself and taking deep breaths. Gotta wake up. She took another deep breath, and realized she could smell blood from the chicken and dirt from the dog. She never smelled things in her dreams.
Shit, this is real. Got to get a grip, Elissa told herself.
"Melanie, honey, what do you mean you 'fixed' Corky?"
The little girl gazed up at her mother, her big blue eyes round and worried. "Well, you were really sad when that man didn't watch where he was going and ran over Corky. I was really sad, and even the man was really sad. And I know Corky was sad to hurt so bad like that. So when I woke up this morning, I thought I could make things better. You've been so sad, Mommy, ever since Daddy went away. I didn't want you to be sad anymore. I know Corky looks kinda ooky right now, but he'll get better. We can give him a bath. And you can put a patch on the spots where he's torn, like you did with my rag doll after Corky chewed her up. Maybe you can use that pink cloth you used before. That way Corky and the doll will match, and everyone will be happy!"
Melanie started chanting "Happy, happy, happy." She grabbed the chicken and started hopping around the room with it.
"Melanie, stop it!" Elissa screamed.
The little girl stopped and dropped the chicken, her mouth a small "O" of worry. The chicken hit the floor with a damp slap and hobbled away on its stumps to hide under the breakfast table.
"These animals are dead, honey," Elissa said, trying to keep her voice steady. "How can you make them move like this?"
"Did I do something wrong, Mommy?"
"How did you do this?" her mother demanded.
"Well, they told us all about souls in Sunday school, and it just sort of made sense. When the body gets hurt too bad, the soul doesn't want to stay. So I figured if I loved Corky enough, as much as I love you, maybe he'd forget about all the hurt and his soul would come back. So I went out and dug him up, and thought about how much I loved him and wanted him to forget the hurt. And he came back. So then I wondered if I could do it again, and I saw Stumpy in the fridge ...."
Melanie trailed off, staring at her mother uncertainly. "Did I do something bad?"
"Yes. Yes, this is very bad, Melanie. You mustn't ever do it again, do you understand?" her mother said.
"But Mommy ... remember what the doctor said about Daddy's heart being bad? He might get a heart 'tack. And then I could go visit him at the cemetery, and love him, and make him forget all about the bad in his heart and forget about wanting to be with that lady he went away with."
She stared down at her feet. "I -- I know it's my fault he went away. I wasn't good enough. If I'd been good, he wouldn't have wanted to go away. But if I love him enough when they've put him in the ground, he'll forget everything but us and come back and we can be happy."
The little girl's eyes were pleading. Despite the abject horror that sat in the pit of her stomach like a cinderblock, Elissa thought her heart was going to break. She took Melanie's chicken-sticky hand, drew her close and gave her a hug.
"Honey, I know you were just trying to help. I know you just wanted to make everyone happy. But this -- this isn't right. It goes against what God tells us. God didn't mean for things to live on after they've died. He meant for their souls to go to Heaven. We all have to try to do what God wants, Melanie."
She gently kissed her daughter's forehead. "Honey, can you put them back like they were?"
"I think so, but --"
"No 'buts', Honey, dead things have to stay dead. It's God's will."
Tears spilled down the little girl's cheeks. "All right, Mommy. I can make everyone remember the hurt. Their souls will go away again."
Melanie closed her eyes.
And Elissa remembered her hurt.
Her mind was suddenly flooded with the memory of her last conversation with her husband. She'd called him right after his lawyer had served her the divorce papers; it would be three more weeks before Corky got run over.
"Why are you doing this to me?" she'd asked him, her tone pleading, accusing.
"The marriage was a mistake, and you know it." Ed's tone was cold, so unlike the voice of the man she loved. The man she'd thought she'd married. "I never wanted a kid. Hell, she doesn't even look like me."
"What are you saying?" Her voice flared bright with anger. "You got a lot of nerve suggesting that, after going off with that little whore of yours. I've always been faithful to you, and Melanie is very much your daughter." She stopped, trying to sound less angry, less accusing. "She's your daughter, and she loves you. She needs you. Don't do this to her."
"I'll send the child support checks. Don't expect anything else. And stop phoning me. If you want to tell me something, talk to my lawyer."
The line went dead. Elissa sat there clutching the phone to her breast, tears stinging in her eyes. Her body ached to feel Ed's caress, to feel his body breathing next to hers, the rise and fall of his chest like the gentle swell of the ocean waves.
But Elissa was just so much unwanted furniture to him, an expense to be paid off and forgotten like a parking ticket. He didn't even want his own daughter. And yet she couldn't stop loving him, couldn't stop wanting him, would crawl naked over broken glass if only he'd just come back and love her, just a little.
She was overcome by a horrible emptiness, a lonely, cancerous ache in her chest and bones. The sorrow boiled out of her in hard, wracking sobs. If she couldn't have him, then she wanted to forget. All she wanted was to forget.
She found her bottle of Valium in the bedside table, and went into the kitchen to unlock the liquor cabinet. Of all the men in her life, Jack Daniels was the only one who'd never let her down....
Elissa came out of the memory to realize that her throat and lungs were on fire and her mouth was filled with the bitter acid taste of vomit and whiskey. She tried to take a breath, but couldn't. Her tortured lungs were filled with the stuff. She fell to her knees on the kitchen floor as her world started to go black.
"You drank too much, Mommy," Melanie said, crying. "I woke up in the morning and found you on your bed. You were all blue and cold. You'd gotten sick in the night and couldn't breathe. I didn't want you to be dead. I hugged you and thought about how much I loved you, and you came back. I'm sorry I kept you from Heaven, Mommy, but I didn't want you to go."
Elissa tried to reply, but couldn't. She fell face-first onto the white linoleum and died for the second time that July.
Elissa woke up three days later, feeling groggy. What was she doing on the kitchen floor? She glanced at her wristwatch. 1 p.m. She realized that her arm looked awfully blue Shouldn't it be pink? She couldn't remember. It probably didn't matter.
Corky came padding up to her and nuzzled her face with his wet nose.
"Ugh, Corky, knock it off," she groaned, her voice rough and hoarse. Her mouth tasted like her tongue had died.
The dog barked at her and chased his tail a few times, wanting to play. She squinted at him. Should his ribs be sticking out like that? She couldn't remember.
"Hi, Mommy." Melanie was standing over her. "I'm sorry, but I missed you too much. After I let you remember, I didn't know what to do. I ran out of cereal and milk and soup, and there was nobody to take me to the pool, and all my clothes were dirty, and I was lonely. I need you, Mommy. I can't let God have you, not yet."
Elissa got to her feet, her head pounding. God, she had a hell of a hangover. How much had she drunk? She needed coffee, ASAP.
Melanie followed her to the counter as she started to fumble with the coffee maker.
"I'm really hungry, Mommy. Can you fix me lunch?"
"Sure," Elissa replied numbly. This coffee-making business was hard; she had to read the can to remember how much she was supposed to put in the filter.
Melanie was staring at her intently. "Would you make me pie for lunch? And can I have ice cream with it?"
"Sure, anything you want, sweetie."
Melanie's gaze didn't waver. "I don't want to go to school. Will you take me to the amusement park?"
The little girl's voice lowered to a whisper, her eyes shining with excitement. "And then can we go to Daddy's house?"
"Sure, sweetie. That sounds like a good idea."