Coping Mechanisms

I lost my husband and my daughter last summer. I was a wife and a mother. Now I’m neither. I’m alone in a big house overlooking the lake that stole the loves of my life.

Sometimes, when the house is quiet, Maria, the housekeeper, says she hears them talking and laughing together. I don’t know if she’s telling the truth or just saying it to make me think they’re watching over me with love in their ghostly hearts. It doesn’t particularly matter. I know they’re dead. If anyone’s watching over me, it’s Maria.

My life is a haze of daydreams and inactivity. The payout from Franklin’s life insurance policy means I won’t have to work again if I don’t want to. I probably will at some point. I’m just not ready yet. Every night, I go to bed wearing the same outfit I wore the last time I embraced my husband and daughter. It’s not much comfort, but it’s better than nothing.

About two weeks ago, Maria said she saw footprints in the hallway while she cleaned. Wet ones. It took me an hour to calm her down. I love Maria, but her superstitions can sometimes cause problems. I assured her she couldn’t have seen what she claimed, and I think I sounded pretty convincing. Still, in the back of my mind, I felt a twinge of fear. Not just fear; hope. But no. It was Maria’s superstition rubbing off on me.

Those slick trails Maria called footprints showed up every day since. She didn’t complain and she didn’t panic like the first time; she kept a stiff upper lip and cleaned up the water and mud without a word. I noticed the cross she’d always worn inside her shirt was exposed now, signaling her faith to the world.

Yesterday morning, I woke up to all the floors in the house covered in muddy water. It was Sunday and Maria was off. I was glad; I didn’t want her to have to see it. I wept as I mopped. I listened all day, praying I’d hear the conversation and laughter Maria insisted she’d heard when it was quiet. All I heard were the wet squelches of the mop with my pitiful sobs in the background.

Last night, before I could fall asleep, I heard something moving outside my bedroom door. I knew who it was. Without turning on the light, I sat up and watched as he came into the room, his body sloshing across the floor. His smell turned my stomach, but I didn’t shrink away. I’d been waiting for a whole year to see him again. I refused to be afraid. He whispered in my ear for a while, then he left. I bawled in my empty room until the sun came up.

Maria came at her usual time. She was surprised to see me awake. I’d gotten up at five to clean all the water and mud before she would arrive an hour later. I greeted her with a cup of coffee and asked her to walk with me. She could tell I needed to talk to someone and she’d always been my shoulder to cry on after I’d lost Franklin and Erica. We strolled in silence through the backyard. We reached the lake and sat on the small dock.

“I saw him last night,” I confessed. I didn’t look at her. I felt ashamed and nervous to admit such a thing.

Maria stared at me for a while, fingering the cross on her neck, before replying. “I knew he’d come back to you. Sometimes they just can’t let go.”

I didn’t say anything for a while. The sun was coming over the treetops and burning the mist off the surface of the lake. I thought about the time Erica asked if the mist was the ghosts of dead fish. I thought it was the most adorable thing I’d ever heard.

I stifled my tears brought on by the memory and asked Maria, “do you ever miss them?”

“All the time,” she sighed. “I’ll stand and look at their pictures on the mantle and just daydream when I should be working.”

Maria held the cross tightly in her fingers as she spoke and stared at the ducks in the middle of the lake. I could tell she meant what she said. She turned to me and asked, “when Franklin came last night, was Erica with him?”

I sniffed and tears ran down my cheeks. I couldn’t hold back my emotions anymore. “Can I see your cross for a minute?”

Maria looked puzzled for a second but unclasped the gold chain and handed it to me. It was warm from her hands. Heavier than I’d expected, too. “It wasn’t Franklin,” I whispered.

“What do you mean?,” inquired Maria, clearly confused.

The lake water rippled and the ducks flew away. Maria began to scream. I clutched her cross in my hand, feeling its edges digging into my skin. Silently, he rose from the lake. All of him; not just the part he’d sent to me last night. Before Maria could run, he’d wrapped his tendrils around her legs. His colossal bulk towered over us, all mouths and tentacles and tendrils and hideous, gaping orifices.

A thick, red tentacle with a purple gash in it descended onto the top of Maria’s head. “I’m sorry,” I told her. The loudness of the sucking sounds caused birds to fly from the trees and my hands to cover my ears as I watched. Maria’s body contorted as she was turned inside-out, her femurs erupting from the hole in her head before her hips shattered the skull entirely.

He drank Maria as I clasped the chain from her cross around my neck. He was finished in minutes. A smaller, thinner tendril slithered up the side of my body and wrapped around my ear. “Again. Next year. And I might give one back.”

“I remember the agreement,” I mumbled.

As I spoke, a yonic cavern in the main bulk of his body split open. The head and torso of Erica appeared. Her mouth opened and she vomited grayish-red jelly into the lake. She saw me and choked out, “it hurts, Mom,” before he re-sealed his hole and slipped, noiselessly, back into the water.

I walked back up to the house. Maria’s cross felt cold and heavy around my neck. I sat at the computer and sipped my tepid coffee. I browsed for a few minutes. There was no shortage of available housekeepers for hire. I sent a few messages and one replied immediately. Melissa. She gave me her number and we chatted for a little while. She was nice. I’m interviewing her in person tomorrow morning. On the phone, she sounded excited.

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