“And then, the old woman closed her eyes, a smile on her face,” I say. Tom’s irises are sparkling in the moonlight.
Around us, his toys are scattered on the floor. He’s in bed while I sit on a small chair, near the window. In the shadows, I can see posters of Disney movies, plushies and a doll house.
We’ve been neighbours for two weeks now. In the beginning, he was always saying “I don’t want to play with a girl.” But when I started telling him my stories, he changed. He loves stories as much as I do. Scary ones, nice ones, old and new. I’m happy he changed his mind, he’s my best friend now.
“Did she ever wake up? Tell me, Elisabeth,” he whispers.
We’re having a secret sleepover in his house. Mine is just across his garden and neither my Mum nor his parents know we are together. Mum doesn’t like him. I can’t help it. I wish she could see him as I do. A nice, kind person.
“No. She was at peace, surrounded by everyone she loved,” I answer softly.
“Isn’t it sad she died?”
“Well, she was old. And she got to see them again…”
We hear footsteps. I dive behind Tom’s door as it opens.
“Who are you talking to?” asks a furious adult voice.
His father enters the room. He’s tall and broad. He’s scary when he gets angry like that.
“No one, Dad,” says Tom with a small voice.
Not convincing. He pulls his sheet up to his eyes, not daring to let his face betray our secret.
“I heard voices, don’t lie to me!”
Tom’s dad slams the door shut behind his back. I don’t move, paralysed. If he turns --when he turns-- he’ll see me because I’m so afraid, I can’t do anything.
“Are you using your phone to call your friends?” he asks, walking towards the Cars bed.
“No! I’m just having a sleepover with Elisabeth!”
Tom sits in his bed, pointing at me. His Dad sighs into his black beard:
“How many times did I ask you not to use your pretend friend to…”
And then he turns, facing me. It’s the first time he has seen me, truly. I know what’s going to happen. Mum warned me. His face distorts in disbelief. He goes back and forth between my face, my nightgown and my bare feet. And then, the horror. The adults never understand, Mum says. They don’t try to. His large brown eyes widen as he struggles to walk backwards, grabbing Tom as if to protect him. They both scream, the Dad shouting for the Mum, and Tom scared of his father’s reaction. So I sigh and go away.
Our neighbours usually never stay long in the pretty home with walls of red stone and a roof of grey tiles. The ones that do always end up living with us. They always ask, “What about the shack?” and the sellers always answer the same thing: “It’s always been there. It could be useful if you repaired it.”
I look through the broken window as Tom’s Dad takes him and his startled wife in their car. Tom looks at me through the car window. The last thing I see is his Mum covering his eyes and screaming, looking at me.
“They’ll never accept us,” says a coarse voice. An old woman is standing next to me, her translucent skin almost glowing.
“Tom did!” I say. “He’s my friend!”
“And now he’s gone. Forever. We can’t mingle with humans. They either try to destroy us or go away,” she explains to me kindly. “Children can sometimes see who we really are. But it rarely lasts.”
A cold, dark shadow hides the stars and dims the moon. My mother arrived and that dark aura means she’s furious.
“Mum,” I whisper.
The look of disappointment on her face pierces through my evanescent body.
“I told you not to do it. We almost disappeared once, reduced to exist in this… disgusting thing, leaving our home. And now, they could destroy us forever. Because we have nowhere else to go.”
I know this tale, but I don’t accept the end. It happened so long ago. In the 15th century! My family gathers around me.
Mum’s long low-waisted dress and her cape float in the winter wind. I take her hand, admiring her beautiful face.
“But it won’t happen again, Mum,” I cry. “They don’t believe in us anymore. They’ll think they had a hallucination or—”
“I recognised the look on that man’s face,” she interrupts me. “He thinks he’s protecting his wife and child.”
All around us, the members of my family listen. Some from centuries ago in old clothing. Some from just a few decades ago in jeans and flannel. A few show how they died. Not everyone can get past their stories. Twenty stories I had planned to tell Tom. I only had time for four. As the sun rises, we take each other’s hand, waiting for what’s to come.
“Tom won’t let them hurt us. He’ll help!” I say.
Nobody answers. They don’t believe me. I’m not sure I do either.
The car comes back in the morning. We hide in the sunlight, invisible to the living. Hope burns in my chest. But then, another car parks near Tom’s parents’ car. A man and a woman get out. He’s tall, even taller than most adults. She has red hair and a lot of jewels. They go inside the house and close the door. Tom tried to see me, I know it. But I had to stay hidden. To protect my family.
Suddenly, I hear my name. Someone’s calling for me. A warm, kind voice. It echoes through the air, attracting me. I try to fight it but I can’t help myself. It gets me angry. I‘m in the big house’s living room. The red-headed woman has her eyes closed. Her jewels in her hands, she’s the one calling for me. They’re all seated on the carpet. Only Tom and his Mum are missing.
“Good morning, Elisabeth,” says the tall man. “My name is Jonathan. And this is my wife Lisa. We are here to help you.”
“I don’t need your help,” I answer.
A weird feeling ties me to the woman and I can hear my words coming out of her mouth instead of mine. It’s like shackles that link me to her soul. Chains of lead crushing me. I hate it. I can feel something growing inside of me, along with my anger.
“I just want to live in peace with my family. And play with Tom sometimes.”
“There are more of you?” Jonathan asks.
I almost say a bad word. I shouldn’t have told them that! A glass shatters.
“Just leave us alone. We won’t hurt you! Please! We were just playing!”
Jonathan places a hand on Lisa’s shoulder. She’s covered in cold sweat. That bridge she built between us seems to affect her a lot more than it affects me. Good, I should have the right to talk for myself.
“All we want is to help you and your family join the afterlife. Your place is not among the living anymore, do you understand that?” Jonathan says. Why, it’s not fair! I think but say nothing. Out of nowhere, Tom arrives, his mother running behind him. Tom’s Dad, who was staying silent, looks at me like I am a disgusting monster and screams. But all I can hear is Tom.
“They want to kill you, Elisabeth! Run!”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong! Why…”
And then I see myself. No, not myself. I see how they see me. The living that aren’t Tom. There is a mirror hanging on the wall upon the chimney. I can see how translucent I am. My deep eyes with black marks under them. All the blue and black veins under my skin. My hands and feet look purple and black and my nightgown is stained. Like that night when my first Mum killed me. Before my true Mum took me in. Yes, I do look like a monster. But…
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” I scream.
The power that has been growing surges through me. The anger did something to my essence, turning it into a force I cannot control. It painfully explodes out of my body. The windows and the mirror shatter. I don’t understand why but I feel relieved afterwards. The link between Lisa and me breaks and I turn towards the two men.
“You’re mean, we have the right to be here,” I hear myself growl in my own voice before I flee. The last I see of them is the blood leaking out of their ears.
“I’m sorry, Mum,” I cry. “They pretend we aren’t at peace and they want to help us but…”
“I know, baby girl, I know…”
“They just want to get rid of us! Like in your tale!”
I’m sitting on her lap in our small home. The entire family awaits, as, in the descending sunlight, the man and woman walk towards the shack. We say how much we love each other, and how everyone will be missed. How we hope there is something after so we can see each other again. Outside, the mean adults talk. All I can hear is “purification” and “salt and fire”. They create a circle with salt around our shack and light torches. Jonathan reads from an ancient book. Tom’s Dad throws his torch on our home.
After that, everything is pain. The salt feels like shards of glass under my skin when Lisa throws it on us. The fire devours my soul. It digs its way under my frame and starts eating away every millimetre of my being. Until all there is left is cold, darkness and the faintest trace of light. The chants are so loud, I can’t hear my own screams. But had I been alive, my throat would have bled.
It’s Tom’s voice. I open my eyes with difficulty. I’m in his bedroom. The shack is still smoking. Under the pale moon, I can feel all my family has disappeared. One by one, they have been “purified”. But I’m still here! Why?
“I called for you. I prayed like in church and you came,” says my friend, crying.
His parents are downstairs, looking at the massacre. I sit on the bed and weep. Even though he can’t touch me, I know Tom would hug me right now.
“You can live here,” he says. “In my room. And finish all the tales. And when we get older, we will tell our own. Invent them or even find others, like you found your family’s tales.”
He opens the doll house. Now that I see it up close, I can tell how beautiful it is. It’s ancient, probably from a few centuries ago.
“I found it in the attic. My Mum helped me make it pretty to put it here as decoration. It’s yours now.”
Seventy years have passed by. Tom sleeps in an adult room now but he always kept my home near him. His living family surrounds him as he coughs, lying in his sick bed. Every night, we would tell each other a new tale, true or invented. Scary or nice. Old or new. Often, he wrote them down and he became famous for that somehow.
I wait. Slowly, his eyes turn to me. I smile, and as he draws his last breath, I see him calm and happy.
“We have all the time in the world now.”
“I’m glad you came back looking like when we met,” I say.
“Well, that’s who I truly am. But if the living were to see me, I’m sure I would look like a scary old fart.”
We laugh. That tale will be fun to give to the next child clever enough to appreciate it. Together, we go inside the doll house. Inside our home.