Original Short Story: The Message
Here's a short story for the yuletide season.
Frankie leaned against the kitchen counter and pressed her hand against her mouth. At times the grief came so suddenly that it caught her by surprise. It was almost like a physical pain—a fist squeezing her heart, a heavy weight that bowed her shoulders.
“Mom?” Evan came into the kitchen. “Are you okay?” Her five-year-old son seemed to know intuitively when she was sad. He ran to her and wrapped his skinny arms around her waist.
She bent down and hugged him. He was soft and warm, smelling like baby shampoo. Her grief melted and became love so fierce she felt her heart would burst. She didn’t want to ever let him go. He was her center, her world. He was now all she had.
He pushed away from her. “Can I have a cookie?”
“It’s late,” she said. “You’ve already brushed your teeth. Why did you get out of bed?”
He looked down and she guessed the reason. “Was it the shadow?” she asked. “Did you see it again?”
He nodded. “Come on,” she said, holding out her hand. “I’m putting you back to bed. We’ve had this conversation before, remember? It’s just shadows from the car headlights outside. They can’t hurt you.”
His eyes met hers for a brief moment before darting away. “It’s not a shadow now,” he mumbled. “She’s a woman.”
She didn’t know how to respond to that. She tucked him under the covers and stayed by his side until he fell back to sleep. A fresh surge of grief overwhelmed her as she gazed upon her little boy’s face. He looked so much like her mother.
Mama died a little more than a month ago, two weeks after she came down with the coronavirus. It had been so quick. Frankie hadn’t even known she was sick.
Not only had Mama died alone in the hospital, she didn’t even have a funeral because of the pandemic. Elaine, Mama’s friend, arranged for her body to be cremated.
Frankie clutched her chest. Her heart ached with loss and guilt. She should have been there. Mama deserved so much better.
Mama had struggled to bring Frankie up by herself. Frankie’s father, whoever he was, had never been in the picture. Mama’s religious parents discovered her pregnancy and kicked her out when she was 16. She went with her head held high, taking nothing with her except the clothes on her back and the old sapphire ring she inherited from Nona, her Greek grandmother.
Perhaps it was Mama’s pugnacious nature that saved her. She was stubborn as hell, and determined as a bulldog. No one could tell her what to do. She found a cheap apartment and worked at various jobs, the most steady of which was cleaning motel rooms. She worked her fingers to the bone to provide for her daughter.
Her mother had been her best friend, until Frankie turned 17. Things went bad after that—not just her relationship with her mother. It seemed her entire life spiraled downward from that day.
Frankie followed too closely in her mother’s footsteps by getting pregnant. The difference was she believed her boyfriend when he said they would have a good life together, all three of them: him, her and the baby. She ignored Mama’s pleas and left her home, school, all that she had known, to follow him to another state where he was starting a new job.
Like her mother predicted, Brad left her for someone else shortly after Evan was born. She wasn’t strong like Mama so she packed up her meager belongings and her infant and went back home to her mother.
Things were strained between them, but Mama still was a great help with the baby. With Mama looking after Evan, Frankie was able to find work as a waitress as well as attend night school to get her GED. Things were looking up when she met Gary. Mama was quick to disapprove.
“Frankie, you never learn,” Mama said. Gary was no good, she said. Gary didn’t respect women and he wouldn’t treat her right, she said. But Frankie didn’t believe a word of it. No, Gary was a changed man and he would be good to her.
This time, Mama told her she couldn’t come back once she left. Mama’s words were harsh, but Frankie remembered the anguish on her mother’s face when she walked out the door with Evan.
If only … Frankie shut her eyes to stop the tears from spilling out. If only she had looked back once, maybe hugged her mother before going. But she had been too angry. She had been too proud.
Her mother was right, of course. The beatings started not long after she and Gary were married at the county clerk’s office. She stayed because she had nowhere else to go. But at least he treated Evan like his own son. He even adopted him so Evan could share his last name. Gary had a temper but he was a churchgoer and a good provider. He worked hard. She told herself that her child now had a secure home.
She couldn’t lie to herself anymore after Gary started on Evan. Evan had always been a sensitive child. He wasn’t the rough and tough boy that Gary wanted. He wasn’t very coordinated. He didn’t run fast enough; he didn’t throw hard enough. It started with criticism.
“That’s not how you tie your laces, Evan. What are you, a retard?”
“You run like a girl.”
“You’re a sissy boy. No one likes a sissy boy.”
The criticism became occasional smacks that gradually progressed to slaps. The slaps themselves advanced from the butt to the arm to the shoulder, finally reaching the face.
When the slapping started, Frankie came up with an escape plan. She knew Gary well enough by then to know she needed one. If she tried to leave him, he would fight her for custody of Evan just to punish her. Mama was out of the question—they hadn’t spoken in years, not since she moved out. Frankie had to rely on herself. She began socking away part of the money she earned as an office manager for a general contracting firm. She deposited the money into a new bank account, one that Gary didn’t know about.
Gary’s disposition took a turn for the worse when he lost his job because of the pandemic. He grew bitter. To ease their financial situation, Frankie found a second job working nights at a local supermarket. The county government had closed the preschools so Evan stayed home with Gary while she worked all the time.
It all came to a head one Sunday morning in October. Gary had drunk too much the night before and still was in bed. She decided to take Evan out to the park so he wouldn’t disturb his stepfather. The boy was sluggish and she tugged on his shoulder to hurry him along. He yelped and jerked away. She peeled back the long sleeve covering his right arm and discovered a big bruise between his elbow and his wrist. He yelped again and cried when she tried to rotate his wrist.
She immediately drove him to the nearest urgent care clinic. While they waited for the X-ray results, she pried it out of Evan that Gary had twisted his arm the night before. Not only that, Gary warned him not to tell her. If he did, Gary said he would hurt him even more. That did it for her.
A doctor confirmed that Evan’s arm was broken. When she asked Frankie what happened, Frankie lied and said he fell out of a tree. She didn’t want to be at the clinic any longer than she had to be. After the arm was put in a cast, Frankie tossed her cell phone into a trashcan and drove Evan and herself to a motel where they spent the night.
Early the next day, they went to the bank and she withdrew all her money. After abandoning her car, she and Evan boarded a bus headed for Oklahoma. She didn’t know anything about the state, but she knew her money would go further there than in New Jersey. Gary would never think of looking for them there.
She and Evan ended up in Tulsa. She could only afford a one-bedroom apartment, but she didn’t mind sharing her bed with Evan for the time being. She got a job at a nearby supermarket picking groceries for customers who ordered online. A kindly elderly neighbor offered to look after Evan while she worked. She repaid the favor by doing Mary’s grocery shopping and cooking her hot meals in the evening.
In early December, she finally mustered up the courage to contact her mother. She couldn’t bear to call so she wrote her a letter. “You were right about Gary after all,” she said in the letter. “I should have listened to you. Please forgive me. I miss you.”
It was two weeks before she received a reply. “I apologize for the delayed response,” Elaine wrote. “Your mother’s mail is being forwarded to me and I only just found your letter. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this. Your mother had covid-19. She had trouble breathing and they put her on a ventilator but she died in mid-November.
“I have your mother’s ashes. You can come collect them at your convenience, or I can ship them to you. You don’t have to decide immediately. I know this must come as a tremendous shock to you.”
Frankie felt as though she had been punched in the heart. She was too late. If she had just called her mother after she arrived in Tulsa. If she had only reached out sooner. All those wasted years when she could have picked up the phone and made things right. If only …
Her grief was immense, but she tried to hide it from her little boy. She didn’t tell him about Mama’s death. Evan probably didn’t remember his grandmother, but Frankie thought he had enough to deal with at the moment. Although his arm was healed—and he didn’t seem to miss Gary—he wasn’t adjusting well to their new life. He was skittish and clingy. He wasn’t sleeping well and there were bags under his eyes.
He eventually told her about the shadow that frightened him. “It creeps around the apartment,” he said. “I see it from the corner of my eye. Sometimes when I’m sleeping, I get cold and when I open my eyes, it’s sitting on our bed.”
She didn’t know what to make of it. She herself was so tired in the evenings that she fell asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow. The only shadows she saw were ones that were supposed to be there.
“When did you start seeing it?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. It just came one day. It was just fuzzy at first. I can see it better now.”
“Is it here now?”
His eyes flitted fearfully around the apartment. “It likes to come at night.” He hesitated a beat before adding, “I think it’s around in the daytime too, only I can’t see it.”
“If you see it only at night, it must be the headlights from the cars outside.” She took out her flashlight, turned it on and waved it around to show him the effect. “See? When the lights shine through our windows, they light up the room like this flashlight and form shadows.”
“No Mom,” he said patiently. “The shadows the cars make aren’t people-shaped. They don’t come and sit on our bed.”
“Do you see the shadow when you’re in Mary’s apartment?”
“No,” he said. “The shadow doesn’t go there.”
She had been troubled enough by what Evan said to ask Mary about it. “When he’s with you, does he talk about shadows?” she asked.
“No. He talks about the things any normal child would. He plays quietly by himself a lot. Why? What’s going on?”
Frankie told her about Evan’s shadow. Mary’s eyes grew big. “Maybe the apartment is haunted,” she said.
“Have you heard about anything weird happening?”
“No.” Mary looked disappointed. “The prior tenant was another woman. I didn’t know her very well. We didn’t talk much.”
“There are no such thing as ghosts,” Frankie said firmly.
This latest revelation, where Evan claimed the shadow had become a woman, was even more alarming. Was it just an overactive imagination, or a sign that her son’s condition—whatever it was—was getting worse? Maybe she should try to distract him with Christmas, which was only a few days away. She resolved after work tomorrow to take him to buy a tree. She could afford a few presents and a small tree. She had been too sad before, but she had to put aside her sorrow for Evan’s sake.
Evan was thrilled when she said they were getting a tree. They donned face masks as a pandemic safeguard and trudged to a lot a few streets away. There, Evan chose—with some guidance from her—a tree, the cheapest on the lot. He was exuberant and sang carols all the way home. She set the tree up in one corner of the apartment, after which she made hot cocoa while he drew stars and other shapes with colored pencils. They cut the decorations out and hung them on the branches with string.
He went to bed happy. Frankie was admiring their funky tree when the grief struck once more. She was, if anything, sadder than ever. Her mother had loved Christmas. She proudly displayed all the ornaments that Frankie made at school. As the years went by, their plastic Christmas tree looked more and more like the one in the Charlie Brown TV special. Mama refused to toss the tree out. She always said it was good for another year.
Frankie wiped away a tear. She wished she’d appreciated their time together more. Then her heart almost leaped out of her chest when Evan screamed. She ran to the bedroom.
“Evan, Evan, what is it?” She folded his trembling body into her arms.
“The shadow lady woke me up,” he sobbed. “She was very scary. She was growling at me and making funny noises.” He pointed behind her. “She’s still here.”
Frankie whirled around. “Evan, I don’t see anything.”
“She’s here,” he whimpered. He pressed his face against her neck. “I can hear her. She didn’t make noises before.”
It took him a long time to fall back to sleep. The next night, his screams were even louder. Frankie was jolted awake from a deep slumber.
“The shadow lady is on the bed. She’s pulling and grabbing at my leg.” He was crying and punching and kicking wildly at the covers. “She’s making those funny noises again. Mom, tell her to go away! Make her stop!”
“Evan, look, there’s no one here but us.”
“She’s here! She’s here! Can’t you see her? Can’t you hear her? It’s so loud!”
He clapped his hands against his ears and pressed his face into his knees. He refused to lay back down no matter what Frankie said. She finally carried him outside to the sofa where he fell asleep leaning against her.
On the evening before Christmas Eve, Frankie contemplated giving Evan something to help him sleep. He was so tired he could hardly lift his head at dinner. She herself was beyond exhausted. She didn’t think she would be able to take another episode of his night terrors, or whatever it was he was going through.
Mercifully, he fell asleep with no problem and stayed asleep, allowing her to get some rest.
On Christmas Eve, Frankie made Evan go to bed early. She lay down beside him until she heard his soft snores. She rose and tiptoed out to the sitting room to wrap his presents. She had got him new pajamas and socks, and a teddy bear that was on sale at the supermarket.
What she was most excited about, however, was that her co-worker had passed her some of her children’s old toys instead of tossing them. There was a set of almost-new Lincoln Logs, albeit missing some pieces, books she could read with and to him, and a plastic fire truck with a cracked side.
|Stock image by Jill Wellington|
It was past midnight by the time she finished her wrapping. She stretched her neck and arm muscles and walked over to the window. It was snowing. The big flakes drifted lazily down, settling in the branches of the tree just outside the window.
She didn’t have to work tomorrow, for which she was thankful. She hoped the snow wouldn’t ruin their day. After Evan unwrapped his presents, she and Mary planned to take him by bus into town to see the decorated shop windows. After that, she would cook a nice big meal for the three of them, made possible by her employee discount. There would be honey ham, a side dish of baked butternut squash, and a green bean casserole. Their dessert was bread pudding, Mary’s favorite.
The grief slammed into her from out of the blue. Tears gushed from her eyes, as if a dam had given way. “It should have been you with us, Mama,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry for the way I treated you. Please forgive me.”
When she was all cried out, she went into the bedroom. Evan looked peaceful. There was even a little smile on his face, as if he was dreaming joyful dreams. She kissed his forehead and got into bed with him. Her sleep was deep and dreamless.
Evan wasn’t beside her when she awoke in the morning. It was early, the sun’s rays a reddish blush against the gray sky. She could hear Evan outside, talking happily to himself. She dragged herself out from under the covers and went outside.
“Merry Christmas, baby.”
He stopped fingering his presents. “Merry Christmas Mom!” he yelled cheerfully.
She made him eat breakfast before he opened presents. While he was chewing, she asked, trying to sound casual, “So, have you seen the shadow again?”
She was surprised when he nodded enthusiastically. “She came last night. She was nice. She said she was sorry for scaring me. She didn’t mean to. She said she was only trying to talk to me. She wanted me to tell you something. It took her a long time to figure out how to do it. It was hard because her throat was stuck. She said it was because she was sick.”
Frankie’s mouth fell open. Evan took it as encouragement to continue.
“She wanted to tell you she loves you and she was sorry for not letting you come home. She would take it back if she could. She doesn’t want you to cry anymore. You shouldn’t be sad.”
He spoke slowly and carefully, as if trying his best to remember everything. “She said she won’t be coming anymore once I give you her message. She’s sorry she won’t see me grow up, but she said you’ll take good care of me. And oh.” He rose to his feet. “She left you a present under the tree.”
Frankie, in a daze, followed her son to the tree. He pushed aside his presents until he found what he was looking for. He picked it up and turned to her. Something glinted on his small, outstretched palm.
It was her mother’s sapphire ring.
If you like this story, please check out Joss Paper, my collection of short horror stories set in the United States and Southeast Asia. It's available on Amazon for $0.99, or free on Kindle Unlimited.