By Steve Laker
Mark smiled to himself at the idyllic family scene that surrounded him, and at a job well done. He was driving his beautiful wife and adorable daughters home from a day-long shopping trip. It had been a chance for them all to spend Mark’s sales bonus and a treat for the girls’ birthday. An average family in an average family car, passing through their commuter-belt town to its outskirts to their average family home in suburbia.
“Did I get the right one?” He asked Jane as she sniffed the neck of a bottle of perfume.
“Hmmm, it’s gorgeous”, Jane sighed. She looked even more radiant than usual, following her makeover at the salon. Despite all the stresses associated with a family day out, and shopping for that matter, the two of them had not had a cross word all day.
“Everything okay back there?” He enquired of the back seat.
“Yes Daddy”, came the reply, in stereo. The girls had been as good as gold all day. No quarrels at all, and now as quiet as mice in the back, save for the occasional giggle. It all seemed almost too good to be true.
He lay staring into the darkness. It was four years ago now, almost to the day, but he was still having the same recurring nightmare. Turning to look in the back seat, there, like two peas in a pod, were Emily and Charlotte, only four years old, but looking much older thanks to the make-up they’d been playing with while their mum was being pampered. They were having a tug of war with the tatty old blanket they took everywhere with them, and Mark noticed that Charlotte wasn’t wearing her seat belt. “Belt up”, he said, an old family joke, and smiled. Charlotte laughed and tugged at the blanket, seizing it from Emily before returning to her side of the seat to put her belt on. She was too late. Returning his attention to the road, Mark was blinded by the oncoming headlights. There was a sickening sound of twisting metal and breaking glass and then silence.
Mark had had to identify Jane but he was not allowed to see Charlotte, who was identified by her dental records. She had been catapulted forward by the impact and her face had gone through the back of her mum’s head. The coroner had made a good job of Jane, and she just looked at peace, but there was nothing he could do with Charlotte. Mark had found it difficult to live with the knowledge that he’d killed both his wife and his daughter. Somehow coming to terms with the loss of Jane had become easier with time. With Charlotte though, he’d robbed a young girl of her future and Emily of her best friend.
The twins had been inseparable, somehow joined by the blanket they’d shared since they slept together in the same cot as babies. The most vivid memory that Mark had of the funeral was the heart-wrenching sight of Jane’s coffin, as six pallbearers carried it down the aisle of the church. Two more pallbearers, carrying a miniature version of it followed. Emily had gripped her father’s hand throughout the service, occasionally looking up at him and squeezing his hand reassuringly whenever she noticed a tear. Mother and daughter were buried in the same plot. Jane had been a perfect mother, always doting on the twins, but forever careful not to spoil them. Mark was an easier victim for the girls when they wanted something, and his weak will was the cause of many light-hearted disagreements between him and Jane.
As they’d stood beside the grave after everyone else had dispersed, Emily tugged at Mark’s hand. He looked down and she’d said “They’re together in a better place Daddy”. He welled up whenever he thought of that. Somehow he and Emily had swapped roles, with her supporting and reassuring him. Emily had always been strong, as though her young age allowed her to come to terms with things easier than him. As recently as the previous evening, Emily had assured Mark that Charlotte and her mum were okay, as if she’d know. It was as though she had a capacity for understanding things differently as a child, in a way Mark had lost long ago. If only he had that innocence, perhaps he’d find it easier to cope. He wished there were some way that he could tell Jane and Charlotte that he was sorry. But it had all been so sudden.
As his eyes became accustomed to the dark, the red numerals in front of him were stark in comparison to their black surroundings: 04.42. Three more hours till he had to get up for work. He needed the bathroom, and thought he’d check on Emily. Reaching her bedroom door, Mark was aware of the creaky floorboards and tried to find a thus far undiscovered route around. He’d never got around to repairing them and they served as a handy alarm whenever Emily sleepwalked. He also left his own bedroom door open and the light in the hallway on. Cringing as the floor creaked beneath him, he gently turned the handle and pushed the door open, the noise it made seeming enhanced by the prevailing silence. As the light from the hall spread across her bed though, all was still and quiet. She looked so sweet and at peace, her blanket pressed to her nose as she suckled on her thumb that he dare not go in. Slowly closing the door, he peered through the ever-narrowing gap into the room as the darkness crept back over her and left her to sleep.
The blanket went everywhere with Emily, just as it had with her and Charlotte. It was like a constant reminder that she wouldn’t let out of her sight. Nor would she allow it anywhere near a washing machine or needle and thread. It had a smell somewhere between dead skin and smelly feet, which Emily said she liked. Where once it was a Daffodil shade of yellow, now it had more of a mustard hue. The edges were frayed, and there were holes to bear witness to the innumerable tugs of war it had been in the middle of.
Creeping back along the hall and pausing as the floorboard creaked again, Mark returned to his bed and to sleep. The dream always started the same, and Mark normally woke up straight after the crash. During the four years that had followed though, he’d learned to become lucid, taking control of his dream as he tried to come to terms with it. When he’d first managed this, he’d got out of bed and went to what used to be the twins’ room, and which was now Emily’s. He knew he was dreaming, as the floorboard outside the room didn’t creak. Emily was asleep, with her thumb in her mouth, and her end of the comfort blanket gripped in her hand and pressed to her nose. There was another figure under the blanket, and Mark was able to lift it up and look underneath. That was when he woke up screaming, for under there was Charlotte, faceless and a horror to behold for the few seconds that he was able to hang on to the dream. Her eyes were pushed deep inside her head, and where once there was a mouth and nose, now there was just a gaping hole. Her blonde hair was stuck to her forehead and tinged red with dried blood. Ever since that first time, perhaps because of his inability to face the truth, he’d woken himself each time just before he lifted the blanket. And so it was this time, four years since the first dream that it happened again. He relived the crash yet again, but managed to continue with the dream.
He got out of bed with Emily’s words from earlier resounding in his head. With a new found determination he walked quickly along the hall. Arriving at Emily’s door, he paused and waited for the creak from the floorboards. It didn’t come. Breathing heavily in anticipation, he turned the handle and opened the door. The light that crept across the bed revealed two figures side by side, as always, one beneath the blanket. He walked slowly toward the girls and reached for the blanket with a shaking hand. The sound of his heart beat loudly in his ears and all of the images from before filled his mind. He couldn’t do it. He had to wake himself. It was getting light outside and the red digits on the clock radio, not so harsh in contrast to the receding darkness, read 06.42.
One more hour to try again. Mark rolled over in bed and thought he heard a noise. Perhaps it was the floorboards. Emily often woke around now. He turned onto his back and lifted his head, looking at the doorway and listening as, sure enough, she approached. Emily appeared at the doorway. She was sleep walking, and had the blanket draped over her head as if she were pretending to be a ghost. Mark got up to shepherd her back to bed, turned her around gently, not wanting to wake her, and guided her along the hall. He winced as the floorboards creaked beneath him and turned her toward the bed, where she was already sitting, smiling at him. Looking first at Emily on the bed, and then the draped figure beneath him, Mark wondered if he was dreaming. He knew that he wasn’t. Shaking, he turned the draped figure to face him and slowly lifted the blanket. It was Emily. She smiled.
“Charlotte wanted you to know that time can heal, Daddy”, said Emily from the bed.
(C) Steve Laker 2003