I revel in dread and anticipation at the box lying on my doorstep. I debate whether or not I should open it; images of dead cats carefully placed there by disturbed teenage neighbors flashing through my mind. Or a pristine glass case capturing innocent bugs and beautiful butterflies in their final moments. As I bend down to pick it up, making sure to lift with my legs like my mom always tells me, my attention is drawn toward the edge of my perfectly manicured, trimmed-twice-a-week lawn; where the bushes are moving back in forth despite the lack of breeze. Box safely enveloped in my now shaking arms, I creep forward.

With Halloween just around the corner, everyone in town is on edge, seeing ghosts in the shadows and hearing howls in the night. Up until last year, I was one of the few people who dressed up and went door to door; despite the odd looks I get from candy-bearers expecting someone half my age to be the one ringing their bell. 

Leaving the past where it belongs, I kneel down in the verdant grass, blades tickling me through unintentionally ripped jeans. I reach a hand into the bush, ridding my mind of any trace of masks, knives, pooling blood. My hand brushes through the dry, crackling leaves; finding no foreign objects.

Sighing in relief; I walk back to the box and locate the nearest pair of garden shears that my mother so carelessly left behind; and deftly open it.. My heart sinks and lifts simultaneously as the waning sunlight reveals the box’s contents to be a folded piece of notebook paper; no more harmless than the neighborhood cats who yowl ceaselessly at night. On the one hand, I didn’t discover human remains; but a plain piece of paper with slanted, rushed handwriting isn’t exactly thrilling. 

The contents of the letter reveal much more than the beat-up box, blessedly. If my friends with their pity cookies and patronizing glances can’t pull me out of my funk, maybe an October mystery will. I’ve always had an affinity for sleuths, gasping at all the plot twists in the twisting, twirling roller coaster they spin; goading myself when I fail to anticipate the big reveal in the last chapter or the season finale. 

There are only five words in the letter; easily the shortest in history: “She comes out at night.” As I read it aloud, the wind picks up in the crooked sycamore across the street, and a cold wind caresses the back of my neck. Pulling my coat tighter around me, my insides a tangled mess of confusion and panic, I begin to run back into the house; leaving the box behind.

The wind crushes itself against me; a hug from someone I once knew. I can no longer move it is so intense, and suddenly I am lifted up into the air by an unseen force. I squeeze my eyes shut in fear of opening them to reveal the inside of an alien ship. 

After would could have been two hours or twenty seconds; I slowly but surely open my eyes as my feet touch solid ground.

The first thing I notice is the color of the grass beneath my bare feet: a pulsating jumble of colors and shapes; a childish portrait in green and purple crayon one second and a surreal masterpiece the next. A chill runs up my spine as these two images repeat themselves, nostalgia bringing back memories long buried.

It was a night seven years ago, everyone in the house pacing about in excitement; even our gerbils. We were all crowded in the mic then; my mother, father and I. My mother moved as if to walk to the attic for the third time in as many minutes; but my dad pulled his strong arms around her, stopping her in her tracks.

“Relax sweetheart,” he told my mother in the same tone he used when reading me bedtime stories; only they were not discussing princesses in castles. 

“What if everybody hates it, Marvin?,” my mother asks with a familiar crease in her brow.

She was talking about her new painting and the gallery she was showing it in the next day. My mother was worried, so I did the one thing I knew would make her smile; I drew her a picture. I gathered all the necessary supplies: my trusty box of crayons and a blank sheet of crisp paper. Pressing a maroon crayon to the paper, I drew our family, happy once again. Once I was satisfied that my picture would make my mother proud, I rushed to give it to her.

Approaching the kitchen with a victory flag in my hand waiting to be passed off; I heard my father scream. My dad was the strongest person I knew, as fearless as a knight. Why he would be afraid was a worrying thought indeed.

I eased the door open, finding only one figure standing there. My father was on the ground, his hands painted a dark red like my crayon. 

“It’s not my fault,” he cried. “The knife slipped.”

Confused, I asked my father where my mother had gone, picture grasped firmly in my shaking hands. My mother never gave out gold stars like my teacher, but her smiles were always prize enough. 

“She’s in a better place,” he told me in a voice film of sadness, reaching out to me with his red, red hands.

That day, I ran far away from the only home I had ever known. I didn’t last long on the streets, too proud to beg or return to my father, too scared to accept help from strangers. The police found me eventually, my cowering form curled up on a rusty bench in the park just a short walk away from my house. 

My father has changed since that day, confining himself to the attic where he spends hours staring at the last painting my mother ever created. He was never charged for my mother’s murder, and the suspect is still at large; my mother yet to be found, dead or alive. I have devoted my every waking minute not spent on meaningless school work on solving her murder; determined for our family to be complete once again, just like our red likenesses in the picture tacked on the front of our fridge.

Shaking myself out of this memory; I bring myself to the present. There are shifting colors all around me, not just in the grass. Touching each color sends a rush of emotion through me: anger at my father for red, sadness at our broken family for blue, grey for the confusion I am feeling in this strange world. I lean down to touch the triangles and lines in my mother’s painting, afraid what color will come off on my fingers. As I stare at my unchanged hands; a familiar voice whispers in my ear: “She comes out at night.” 

At the same moment that I realize the most important clue left in the letter; the figure who wrote it appears in front of me.

Her blonde, curly hair is untouched and perfect as always, and she is wearing the same outfit she was wearing when she went missing. 

“Mother?,” I cry, unable to keep the emotion out of my voice.

The hug she gives me is bliss and for the first time in so many years I am truly happy. 

Once our embrace is over, she explains to me how her painting had created a realm that she was taken to when she died; and her death really was an accident, one slip ending it all. 

My mother tells me that I have a choice to stay with her until the end of time or return home to my broken father. With no chance of our family being reunited; I choose the best option available, if the most heartbreaking.

I leave my mother and her surreal life with her shifting colors, certain of her happiness; and I step back into the real world; where I vow to solve mysteries that have torn families apart as mine was, by any means necessary.

January 10, 2020 17:17

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.