“I don’t care what you do with it, I just want it gone,” Alex said, pointing at the dollhouse.
Beth was on her knees, her arms around Nicole’s favorite plaything. “Oh please, Alex. We gave it to her for her seventh birthday. She loved it more than anything else. Don’t make me throw it away.”
He stood defiantly at the threshold to Nicole’s bedroom. “Then give it away, a children’s hospital, the Goodwill, whatever, but I need it gone. I’m going to work now. When I get home, the dollhouse better not be here.” Then he spun and almost ran down the hall. He seemed so furious but Beth knew he was terrified. She should have been too, but she missed Nicole so much, she’d take her back anyway she came, even as a ghost.
No wonder Alex was upset. Today was the one year anniversary of their daughter’s death. Beth always called Nicole her “miracle baby” because she’d been told since high school that she would never be able to have children. Alex said he didn’t want any so it was a shock to both of them when she became pregnant.
Nicole was Alex’s sunshine and joy. They were inseparable from infancy on. So many other mothers she knew said that their husbands had a hard time adjusting to not being the center of their wives’ attention anymore, and even becoming jealous of their own babies. It was never that way for Alex. Becoming a father completed him in ways he never imagined he needed.
A year ago, three months after Nicole turned seven, she was out front playing with a ball with some of the other neighborhood kids. Alex was driving home from work and just pulled onto their street. He watched in horror as Nicole ran after a bouncing blue ball into the roadway and the teenage boy from two blocks over who always drove too fast slammed on his brakes too late.
The sound of the thud as the car’s front end hit her was sickening and then she was thrown forward and bounced and then skidded, and finally was lying still in her own blood.
The coroner said she died instantly but both Alex and Beth had been dying a little bit at a time every day since.
The first time it happened, Beth thought she was dreaming. She dreamed about Nicole a lot, even months after the accident. She heard Nicole laughing and giggling. It was coming from her bedroom. Then she woke up and she could still hear Nicole. The clock said 2:38 a.m. and Alex wasn’t lying next to her.
Beth got up and walked down the hall. She could see Alex standing just inside the doorway to Nicole’s room.
“Honey, what is…”
“Hush…” He motioned her away with his hand but she kept going forward. Alex was frozen in place and staring down at the dollhouse. Beth looked past him and nearly screamed. It was Nicole.
“But you’re dead,” she whispered.
Nicole acted like her Mommy and Daddy weren’t there and kept playing with her dolls. “Now you’ve got to be nice to Mr. Bun Bun, Ally. Remember, he’s your friend, and so is Baby, Dollie, and Poof.” Then she looked up and smiled in the darkness. “Hi Mommy and Daddy. You can go back to sleep now. I just came back to play for a little bit. I’m sorry I woke you.”
At that, Alex rushed forward and tried to grab Nicole, but his arms met nothing but air and she was gone.
They thought it was some sort of strange hallucination they shared because of their grief, but after that, at least once a week, she came back to play with her dollhouse.
Last night Alex screamed at her, “Nicole, I can’t take it anymore! You’re driving me crazy.” Nicole stood up suddenly and started crying and when she faded away, her tears were the last of her to go.
Beth didn’t want to blame him, but so what if their little girl came back home to play once in a while? She always sounded so happy when she was…She started crying, still on her knees beside the dollhouse. “What am I going to do, Baby? I can’t just throw you out.”
An hour later, she was on the phone with Rachel Garza on the next block. Nicole had been best friends with their daughter Sarah. Rachel said she’d keep the dollhouse for a little while, but only in their shed and locked up so Sarah wouldn’t know about it. What would Rachel have said if she knew the dollhouse was haunted.
“Mommy. Daddy.” Beth woke up. The clock said 2:38 a.m. and Alex was sitting up in bed. She touched his shoulder and he flinched. He was trembling.
“Mommy. Daddy. Can you come into my bedroom, please?” She had always been such a polite child. Always please and thank you. Not like so many of the other kids she went to school with.
“I’ll go, Alex.”
“No, we’ll both go. We’ve got to face her once and for all.”
“Alex, she’s only a child. Please don’t frighten her.”
They were both standing in the middle of their bedroom when he said, “Sweetheart, she’s dead.”
“We’re coming, Nicole.” Alex was holding Beth’s hand as he led her down the dark hallway. They looked inside the bedroom and saw their daughter kneeling just where her dollhouse had been. She was wearing her “Hello Kitty” pink t-shirt and blue jeans. She’d been wearing them the day she died. She always wore them ever since.
“Where’s my dollhouse?”
“Mommy put it someplace safe. Do you want it back?” Beth could feel Alex’s hand tighten on her’s.
“No, Mommy. I don’t need it anymore. I think I’m ready now.”
Alex let go of Beth’s hand and knelt in front of his daughter’s spectre. “Ready for what, Babydoll?”
“I think I’m ready to go forever this time.”
Beth sat down next to her husband. “What do you mean?”
“When it happened, it was all so sudden. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t let go of being home with you and playing with my dollies.”
“Oh sweetheart.” Alex was sobbing now. “We don’t want you to go. I’m so sorry for yelling at you before.”
“I forgive you, Daddy. The Angel says that Mommy’s and Daddy’s have a hard time letting go, too. It’s because we all love each other so much.”
Alex reached forward to hug her.
“I want to hug you too Daddy, but it’s too late.”
He reached out with tentative fingertips but when he tried to stroke her cheek, all he felt was a breeze.
“Is there anything we can do for you, Darling?” Beth’s tears were dripping on the carpet.
“I love you, Mommy. I love you, Daddy. I wish I didn’t have to go, but the Angel takes good care of us.”
“Yes, Daddy. I live in a place with lots of other girls and boys, and we have all kinds to toys and play all the time. But I got lonely for you and for my room and dollhouse, so sometimes I’d sneak away and visit. I’m sorry if I scared you. The Angel explained that part to me, too.”
“What will happen to you now, Nikki?”
“I’ll go back to Heaven with the other children like me, the other ones who never got to grow up.”
Alex and Beth were holding onto each other.
“It’ll be okay. I’ve got lots of friends and we’re all taken care of by the Angel. He says that you can come to Heaven too someday. Wouldn’t you like that?”
“Oh God more than anything.” Alex was sobbing and shaking. “We miss you so much. I’m sorry I made Mommy take your dollhouse away.”
“That’s okay, Daddy. You can give it to Sarah. She always liked it and she won’t be scared to play with it. I promise not to come and play with it anymore. I’m ready to go now.”
Nicole stood up and started to become transparent. “Just remember that I’m okay. Nothing hurts and nobody is sad in Heaven. Good-bye, Mommy and Daddy. I’ll always love you.” With her last word, she was gone. Alex and Beth sat crying in her bedroom for over an hour.
Then little by little with each passing day, they stopped dying a little inside. They would never, ever completely recover from the death of their little girl, but even when they sometimes cried, they remembered there were no more tears in Heaven.
I wrote this for the First Line Friday – February 16th, 2018 writing challenge hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to take the first line posted and use it as the beginning of a short story.
I immediately thought “ghost story” when I read the first line, but as I wrote the story, I had a tough time emotionally thinking about something like that happening to my grandchildren. I was going to make the story scary and have Nicole “react badly” when she discovered her dollhouse missing, but then these are people who love each other and I couldn’t do that to any of them. I thought about having Nicole take revenge for Daddy molesting her, but I couldn’t do that to them either.
So I thought I’d make it about a tearful farewell. Nicole died so suddenly, she needed time to move on, so she’d sometimes come back at first and play with her dollhouse. Fortunately, she was ready to say good-bye by the time Alex had Beth take it away.
As I was ending the story, I thought about Eric Clapton’s beautiful and painful song Tears in Heaven which he wrote with Will Jennings in response to Clapton’s four-year-old son Conor dying after a fall from a 53rd floor window. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must have been for Clapton or any parent.
I don’t believe you can ever completely recover from the death of a child but it’s comforting to know that even though there are tears on Earth, there are no tears in Heaven.