“But I wanna keep playing!”
“No, kiddo. In by dark. You know the rules.”
“But it gets dark so early now!”
“Inside, fella. Now.”
Heath pouted and shuffled inside. Leslie tried to put a comforting hand on his son’s shoulder, but the little guy jerked away from him and ran inside.
“How come he can’t stay out?” one little girl asked.
“I just feel safer with him inside.” Leslie made sure the beer bottle stayed hidden behind the door frame.
“But it’s only six,” the little girl said. She wasn’t arguing, just confused and asking questions, the way little kids do. Her head was tilted back so she could see from under the oversize hood of her pink parka.
“I know. Go on home, guys. It’s already gettin’ cold.”
As if for dramatic emphasis, the Tennessee mountain wind blew a small gust. The children hugged themselves against it and ran off. A couple snowflakes blew by and melted as they set down against the brick by the door.
Leslie set the deadbolt against the November chill, and listened to Heath wailing in his room down the hall. Since Anne had died he’d taken to telling Leslie he hated him. He was six; he’d stop eventually.
Leslie would give him some space till supper. He swigged his beer and ran a finger along the mezuzah by the door. They’d hung it inside, to avoid any mishaps from curious little hands. A small fleck of blue paint flecked off on his finger. He touched the little box so often the Hebrew lettering was wearing away. Hanging it inside had actually reduced the case’s lifespan. Maybe he and Heath could touch it up.
Half an hour later he heard scratching at the patio doors to the side of the house. Leslie ignored it long enough to chuck his empty and grab a fresh bottle from the fridge. He loped across the living room, feeling suddenly, overwhelmingly tired. He stared at the closed Venetian blinds for a moment, sipping his beer, then reached out and pulled the drawstring.
Anne was pawing at the glass like a stray cat. Her white gown was brown around her ankles, and her bare feet were blackened with dried mud. When she saw him she opened her mouth in a moaning hiss, leaning in and nearly pressing her blue lips to the glass. Her teeth looked sharp and shiny, worn the way a leather cutter’s knives are after sawing through countless hides.
She patted her empty hand against the glass. In the other, she held a small child’s jacket. A pink parka, the fabric torn – bitten – where the hood joined the neck.
She was pale. She’d always been pale, but not like this. Her face used to go red when she laughed too hard. Her cheeks would flush whenever she stayed out in the snow too long. Her skin would quiver with eager life whenever she climaxed.
When she was alive, her flesh would glow with pink heat. This woman outside his home now was gray and slack.
Her thick curls were tangled and dirty. He used to think of them as chocolate-brown but now the only word that came to mind was muddy. Her brown eyes were unfocused and unblinking.
She slapped the glass again, insistent but not insistent enough to break it. She looked to the side, and Leslie followed her eyes to the mezuzah on the frame. The letters here were painted green. Heath had added a little glitter when they’d made it. Here, too, the letters had been caressed so often they were beginning to fade.
Leslie closed the blinds on his dead wife, and went to make Heath’s supper.
While they ate they touched-up the mezuzah that hung by the front door. While Leslie held it in place Heath dabbed at the letters with a small brush. Drips of blue paint outlined the box against its bed of paper towels. Before the paint could dry, Leslie helped his son dust the letters in glitter.
“You did good work, kid,” he told him, kissing the crown of his head. The little boy smiled. Leslie wondered if the child heard the praise in the voice of his mother. He scooped him up under the arms and hoisted out of the chair, then set him on the carpet and gave him a playful swat on the rump. “Now go brush your teeth and pick out a story. I’ll tuck you in in a second.”
Heath was halfway to the hall when the knocking started at the door.
“Who is it?” Heath called out, excited over the idea of visitors. A throaty rasp called back to him.
“Baby, go brush your teeth.” Leslie grabbed his shoulder to stop him running for the door. He was careful not to squeeze too tight in his fear.
“Who is it, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, but it’s too late for anyone to be knocking on our door, kiddo. Now go brush your teeth. I’ll see who it is.”
Heath tried to hang around, but Leslie turned the boy around and nudged him till he scampered to the bathroom. The knocking had turned to hard slaps against the wood.
Leslie blew on the mezuzah to dry it before hanging it back on its nail by the door. The rasping had turned to a growl.
Leslie was almost relieved she’d died the way she did. Throat cancer. Never smoked in her life. When she died she couldn’t speak through the pain. Maybe pain was moot now, but whatever damage had been done had reduced her speech to garbled hissing. Heath would never recognize it as the voice of his mother.
Leslie had seen her buried. He’d tossed dirt on her coffin. He’d left a stone upon her headstone just the other day. So where did this thing she’d become come from?
“Daddy, I’m ready for my story!”
“Coming, kid!” From outside, Anne growled at the sound of his voice. He left her to the cold, and went to Heath.
With Heath asleep and the dishes washed, Leslie poured a few shots in his beer to guard against the mountain chill. By his second glass, he made his way back to the patio doors and opened the blinds.
She was gone. He turned on the floodlights, and could see small piles of kicked-up leaves leading to the treeline. Scattered on the ground were stones, like those he always left atop her headstone.