“with me” Dark Fiction by Alan Caldwell

I read someplace, and I can’t remember where, that the loss of a child is a ten on the Richter Scale of human calamities, something to that effect. Whenever Alyssa was undergoing one of her many surgeries, or some particularly horrible treatment, I would Google quotes about pain, loss, death. I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone, that someone else knew what I was feeling, that helplessness, that hopelessness. I guess we always knew it was inevitable. High risk parameningeal Rhabdomyosarcoma … If you break down all the Latin prefixes and suffixes it explains itself.  It emerged in her neck and then followed her lymphatic system everywhere else. The Oncologist said she had a one in five chance of surviving for five years. She lingered twenty-seven months. My wife, Linda, made it about half that. She didn’t die. She wanted to keep on living. I hated her for that and pushed her away from me, literally at times. I wanted to die with Alyssa. I wanted Linda to die with Alyssa too. We went to all the treatments together. We pretended that we were a loving couple for Alyssa’s sake, but when we went to bed, Linda faced one wall and I faced the other. If she tried to touch me, I pulled away.

When we recognized the final futility, we ordered the doctors to remove all the tubes and electrodes. Alyssa fell into a deep coma. About a week later, on a Tuesday morning, she awoke, and mumbled a few, mostly incoherent, syllables. Her gaze seemed to travel from one corner of the room to the other, and then she reached for my hand, looked directly at me for the first time in over a week, and said two words, “with me.”

I squeezed her hand. Her gaze melted away and she went to sleep for the last time, her breathing so shallow that we didn’t even notice the last one.  She passed sometime in the night.

Our family and friends visited all day on Thursday. We didn’t want Alyssa buried in a wig, and I think many mourners were reluctant to look at her wilted face too long.  We lowered Alyssa into the ground Friday afternoon. The attendants covered her coffin with a spray of red and white roses, and I covered the roses with shovels of loam and clay. I buried her myself.

 Linda left immediately after the service and went home with her parents. I told her I would provide her with whatever money she needed, but that I wanted to keep the house. She agreed and offered me a final embrace. I refused. 

I didn’t dream about Alyssa Friday or Saturday night, not that I remember anyway, Trazadone, Bullet Rye and exhaustion. Sunday, I cleaned up a little, took a shower, ate some chicken and rice soup, checked some business E-mails and watched TV.

Sunday night, shortly after falling asleep. I found myself walking in the yard and field behind the little Methodist church we attended before Alyssa got sick. The azaleas were blooming and yellow-green pine pollen covered the cars and rooftops. I could hear the congregation singing through the stained glass windows. “blessed assurance Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine.”

 I was never particularly religious, but I felt some measure of peace. And then I saw her, my Alyssa. She had been obscured by a water oak at the field’s edge. She carried three small grocery bags. I recognized her long flowing dark hair, darker than I remembered it before the Carboplatin took it all away, one strand at a time.

As I approached and saw that her bags were filled with plastic Easter eggs, I realized that I knew this day, this glorious Spring day.  Alyssa had volunteered to hide the candy-filed prizes for the younger children to hunt after the service. I followed her through the dream, much as I had done that living day. She seemed not to know I was there. I caught only brief glances of her face as she ran from hiding spot to hiding spot. I watched as she concealed pastel eggs in clumps of grass, under sticks and stones and in the branches of shrubs for the taller kids to find. As she sprinted towards the sanctuary’s door, the pastels began to fade and I awoke.  I tried to go back to sleep but couldn’t at first, and when I finally did there were no more dreams, at least none that I could remember. 

I didn’t dream of her for two nights. I didn’t dream at all. I feared I might never dream, or hope, again. But on the third night, I found myself walking down our long hallway towards our parlor. The walls on both sides and the floor itself seemed misty, ethereal, and I knew I was dreaming again. I was very happy.  I could hear the once- familiar sound of the metronome clicking away, and the sound of E-minor scales being played skilfully on our piano. As I entered the room I could see her from behind, those long locks, the same color as the Clavionva I bought her for her 12th birthday. In her final year her fingers hurt too much to play.  Her fingers seemed free now, unencumbered by pain. Her posture was perfect. I wanted to touch her, to feel her warmth again, but as I neared her back, I awoke.

This pattern persisted for many months. Every third night I would dream of her and would observe with the same clarity I had once observed with earthly eyes. Sometimes she was a small girl playing with dolls or laughing with her sleepover friends, and sometimes she was older, reading a book on our porch swing, or playing catch with our retriever in the yard. Sometimes I would find her walking in the first green of spring, and sometimes the wintered leaves were withered, crisp, and sere.

But they were not just dreams, or even a troubled mind trying to heal a broken heart. She was there with me. I could feel her presence everywhere. I began to find authentications of my feelings, her hairbrush on my nightstand, indentations on her bedspread as if she had reclined there. I occasionally heard a single piano note being pressed softly again and again. But even though I knew she was there, I could only see her in my sleep. I soon began to hate being awake. I began to take more and more pills so I might slumber longer, or even forever.

Last night, we were again in the Easter churchyard where I had first seen her on that Sunday night almost a year ago. I followed her for a long time. I’m not sure how long. Dream time has no empirical measure. Again, like on that first night, she ran to the field’s edge, but then stopped and looked at me as if seeing me for the first time since we last spoke on Earth. She reached out her hand and said those same two words I hear over and over again,

“… with me.”

I touched her hand but it was cancer cold. And when I looked at it, it was not a hand at all, but more a mass of feelers and tentacles which wrapped around my wrist and all the way up my forearm. I looked for her face and it was gone, replaced by a pale featureless mask, a hairless skull with purple veins rising an inch high under the skin, and she, or it, repeated, again and again, “with me.”

I awoke. The flesh and muscles of my arm and shoulder ached as if they had been torqued with a powerful force.

I don’t know what happened, if my grief opened a portal for a malevolent being, an imposter, searching for a soul or if my sweet Alyssa is now such a being. I intend to find out in a couple of days. 

Alan Caldwell has been teaching in Georgia since 1994 but only began submitting writing in May 2022. He has since been published in over two dozen journals and magazines, including Southern Gothic Creations, The Backwoodsman, You Might Need To Hear This, The Chamber, Heartwood Literary Journal, Rural Fiction Magazine, Longridge Review, Deep Wild Journal and many others.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine

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