From the backseat my daughter says, “Ghosts can’t hurt you, y’know. They can only make you hurt yourself.”
I see the latest sign for the National Cemetery and drop my speed from fifty-five to forty-five; I’d missed the turn last year. A pickup with local plates honks behind me. “How do you figure?”
“Well, they’re not real,” she says, then, immediately: “They are real, obviously, but they can’t touch stuff. They’re not…physical.“
“I meant, why would they make you hurt yourself?” I glance into the rearview mirror, but the backseat’s empty.
“Maybe they’re angry at something,” she says from the passenger seat, brown hair tucked behind her ears, pale skin shining against the hot June sunlight. “Something you did or something you remind them of.”
I glance at her. “That seems a little unfair.”
She watches the fields and clutches of trees roll by; Gettysburg’s smaller than you’d think, the center of town popping up with little warning. “Or maybe it’s punishment.”
I see the rock wall of the cemetery on the right and slow down further, prompting another honk from the pickup.
“We don’t have to go here,” she says as I pull into the small lot across the street. The pickup truck zooms past.
I park, setting the E-brake. “You know I do.”
“I know you think you do,” she says and, for an instant, she sounds older than nine, her voice rougher.
I kill the engine and get out, thinking, This is a stupid idea. I glance through the windshield but Claire’s gone for the moment.
A small clutch of tourists on the walking tour stand to one side of the entrance, conspicuous with their backpacks. I step through the gate, stopping at the intersection of four walking paths. The National Cemetery isn’t that big, pressed cheek-to-jowl with the area’s regular Evergreen Cemetery, as if tacked on, like the burial spot for one of the worst battles of the Civil War was an afterthought.
This is the same thought I had a year ago, and vertigo punches me hard in the temple. My head turns and the horizon twists like a washcloth being rung out. There are a clutch of benches under shade, and I stagger over, barely feeling my legs, dropping onto the second bench in a half-sprawl. The horizon slowly rights itself, leaving me feeling punch-drunk.
An old woman sits on the next bench and she’s watching me. “Are you all right?”
My tongue is a caterpillar. “Fine. Heat got to me for a minute.”
“You have to stay hydrated,” she says in her cookie-cutter grandmother voice, matching her grandmother white curls and grandmother body plumpness. She even has a handbag in her lap. “Heat like this’ll sap you in a minute.”
I sit up. The Rostrum, a brick-and-wood structure where everyone thinks Lincoln spoke, is directly across from us, and I remember Claire jumping around on the brick platform and asking why grass grew on it and me not having any answers. My vision blurs and I blink my eyes clear. “Why are you here?”
“My family is visiting.” She points at a group standing in the grass near the spot where Lincoln really did give his speech. “I didn’t want to walk out into the sun.”
I squint. “That your only child?”
“No—I have two sons.”
The group wanders closer, towards the graves for unidentified soldiers—mom and dad and two tow-headed kids, boy and a girl. They look happier than they deserve.
A pressure builds in my chest. “Which one do you like better?”
I turn to her. “Your favorite. Which son is your favorite?” I point at the potential will-recipients. My hand shakes. “Did your other son give you grandkids like this one?”
“I mean, you can’t help it. You’re human. You don’t mean to like one more, you just do.”
I shoot her a look and the old woman, in the middle of standing, freezes. “Don’t tell me you never did something you regretted to your kids. You’d be a fucking liar.”
She stares at me, gape-mouthed.
I want to scream at her, but grin instead. The pressure piles on in my chest. “We all make mistakes as parents. We all fuck up our kids. Some kids carry that baggage all their lives, and some kids…never get to carry it at all.” My throat momentarily closes and I take a deep breath. “If we’re not shits, we gotta admit it.”
“Hey!” the son yells, rushing over. “The hell you doing?”
I turn to him, fully grown and gone off and accomplished, and the urge to scream returns. “Trying to determine how big of a slice you’ll get when she dies,” I say. “You’re welcome.”
A light pops in front of my eyes as heat rushes up the side of my face. I didn’t even see him swing.
“Son of a bitch!” the man yells.
I blink the light out of my eyes to see the son leading his mother away. I wait until they leave before sitting up. A few of the other tourists glance over, but none come to help. Some things are just beyond help.
But the pressure on my chest is gone.
“Pay to play,” I mutter, and slouch on the bench to dig through my pockets. From one I pull my cigarettes and from the other a wooden token.
reads one side.
C+C FROZEN TREATS
229 East Main Street,
reads the other.
I light a cigarette and study the coin. “Not a token, but a totem.”
I rub its smooth surface with my thumb. This totem came from Claire’s favorite ice cream shop. We stopped there just before driving up to Gettysburg last year, a road trip treat. Claire’s ice cream had stained her shirt and I hadn’t even noticed until she was hopping up and down on The Rostrum.
I trap the coin in my fist. Three totems, I think. Three pieces of a person. There’s an order here.
“I think,” I sigh and walk over to the Rostum, climbing the steps. I hunker in the center and dig a hole with my hands. The sod’s tough. My mouth’s dry. Heat’s making me dizzy. I dig a hand’s length down, then drop the coin into the hole and bury it. The dizziness fades; this feels right.
I turn off the wide, empty farm expanse of 194 North and roll up the driveway of Gettysburg Farms. My heart’s pounding. A nugget of vertigo pulses behind my eyes.
Claire’s in the rearview. “You’re just hurting yourself, Dad.”
My mouth’s on another planet. “No, I’m not.”
Checking in is a blur. The office is crowded with employees. They remember me. They speak with soft, empathetic tones as they pass me the pamphlet and cottage key. I don’t meet anyone’s eyes.
The barn and assorted animal pens are behind the office. Gettysburg Farms is a combination trailer park, camp site, and petting zoo. Bunnies hop freely—a mule chases them when they wander under the fence. Claire sits close to one of the backseat windows, watching the animals. A goat and calf frolic together, scaring turkeys. There’s a pool in the center of the property, but I won’t be going to it. It’s strictly for kids.
I head for the end of the property, passing motorhomes and trailers and intersecting dirt lanes, and I’m blinking rapidly, my eyes hot marbles.
Claire’s sitting beside me again. “Do you think this is really going to help you?”
I reach the last intersection and turn left, ducking my head to avoid looking at the dumpsters and trails beyond, and pull up to Cottage 364.
“I’m here,” I say and my voice is a phlegmy gurgle. My chest feels crushed by rocks. I don’t want to scream now; I just want to make myself as small and unnoticeable as possible, but it’s not possible and the feeling of my skin is loathsome. “I made it.”
It should be we’re here and we made it, because that’s what we said last year, but it isn’t because that was then and this is now and Claire doesn’t say anything.
Claire’s bouncing around in the loft space, palms smacking the low ceiling and calls it the Lollipop Guild Clubhouse. You remind her to get her suitcases, then turn and—
–you’re looking through the screen door of your house in Staunton and see Helen’s sporty red Elantra pull into the driveway. You set the suitcases down and step in front of them as Helen climbs the front stairs and sees you through the screen, sees your red suitcase and Claire’s Sophia the First one, and she’s looking at you with a mixture of confusion and sadness—
Sitting on the cottage’s couch the next morning, I turn the second totem, a palm-sized pewter protractor, this way and that. Claire gave it to me for Christmas two years ago—one of those things kids find in the store elementary schools put up every December. The idea, as vaguely formed as everything else, had been to bury it at Hersheypark, but I think of the mother and son yesterday, the way my head filled with hornets and tornado winds, and I can’t imagine feeling that way at a goddamned amusement park.
“Because it belongs at home, Dad,” Claire says, sitting at the kitchen table. Aside from the bathroom and master bedroom, the cottage is a narrow open space.
“You woke up that morning and asked me not to do any work while we were here,” I say without look up. “You said you knew how I got when I was busy. And I promised not to. No work, I said, then told you to get dressed so we could go to the park. This is the second piece.” Something sharp sticks in my chest at that. Panic’s tickling my thoughts, tightening my throat. The idea of Hersheypark is an abomination to me, now, but if not at there, where?
Something dark’s whispering in my ear—There’s no salvation here. No forgiveness. Just self-deception. Helen’s right. Claire’s right. This—pitying looks and soft tones and Claire blandly staring at me forever—is my life now. How could I think otherwise? Why would I even think that—
Claire says, “You thought it up when you were puking Mom’s old sleeping pills, remember?”
My head snaps up and she’s staring at me the way she always does, with that bland, weary expression too old for a young face.
“I need a minute,” I say in a strangled voice. I slam the sliding-glass door open too hard and fling it closed behind me.
I light a cigarette, close my eyes. Claire doesn’t follow me out here. I did a loop of the complex last night, just to stretch my legs, but Claire stayed at the cottage. It was the first time in a year I’d been alone and the world had never seemed louder. I don’t know why Claire didn’t come. Maybe she can’t. I still don’t understand any of this.
I open my eyes and Claire’s standing on the other side of the sliding-glass door, hands at her sides.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell her and run away. Not literally, but that’s exactly what I’m doing; I’m running away—down the porch steps, to the main lane, still going. A bowling ball of guilt drops heavily into my gut. I’m running away from my—
People tool down the narrow dirt lanes in golfcarts, visiting neighbors. Some glance over. I know who’s a regular, who remembers, by who continues to stare.
I wind up at the barn behind the front office. A few people circle the large alpaca and donkey pen, but the area’s still mostly empty this early. I turn down a side lane, toward the goats.
(i wanna snuggle a goat dad!)
It sounds like she’s talking right next to me and I jerk and look around, but I’m alone. A goat makes a noise and I turn to see an adult and a kid come trotting over. I crouch down outside their fence and yank some tall grass. The adult turns its side towards me to rub.
(they’re friendly, dad!)
My eyes burn. I lower my head, feeling the thin smoothness of the goat’s hide, the tiny pull of the baby taking the grass.
(i’ve never seen friendly goats before! and soft!)
I don’t want to cry here, but my eyelids feel so heavy, my face so hot, my entire body exhausted. I lean my head against the fence post and its dry-roughness is the realest thing I’ve ever experienced, the only thing keeping me grounded at the moment.
The grass is gone and the kid brushes past me, ducking under the wire; kids tend to wander up and down the lane and Claire had laughed when—.
“Lookit the little bastards!” a man yells, hacking a phlegmy laugh. I turn to see a barrel of a man sprawled in a camp chair beneath the canopy of a motorhome across the lane. His two young sons, on either side of Claire’s age, stand at the edge of the canvas. They’re grinning at a handful of kids picking at the plastic garbage left in the firepit of the next camp space.
I walk over to the fire pit. The laughter dies out, and I feel their eyes on me like a physical weight. I get between the kids and the garbage and the goats begin drifting back towards the fence. I scoop up the leftover trash—plastic silverware, Sam’s Choice water bottles—into an oversized Doritos bag.
“Dad,” one of the sons whines. My pulse begins to clock heavily in my temples.
“The fuck you’d do that for?” the man calls. “My boys thought they was cute.”
I focus on rolling the bag closed. “An animal choking on plastic shit is real cute, lemme tell ya.”
My back’s to him because I don’t dare look but I can imagine the sullen expression to match his tone: “They wasn’t choking.”
I start walking up the lane, away from the motorhome, but my legs want to lock up. Fire pumps through my veins instead of blood. I want to walk over to this middle-aged fuck and feed him this shit. “And now they won’t. You’re welcome, asshole.”
“The fuck’d you say?”
I turn, my teeth grinding together. He’s standing at the edge of the canopy. “I said, ‘You’re welcome, asshole.’ You don’t want to be the dipshit dad that lets his children see an animal tortured, do you?” A part of me loves this. It’s the way I’ve always been—when I’m hurting, I lean into it and try to spread it around. The bowling ball takes weight in my gut—guilt that I’d rather be doing this than be with my child, rage that I don’t bother even trying to fix it.
“You looking to get the shit beat outta you?” he asks, cocking his head as if the question actually interests him.
The adrenaline pours through me. “You looking to have a heart attack? Sit down.”
He moves with unexpected speed and a red flare of pain flashes across my face, descends across my other senses, until all I see is red, all I hear are the solid packing sounds of flesh, all I feel are those sizzling flares of pain.
And then hands under my armpits, pulling me away, a man yelling, “Ease up, Mr. Tremblay—ease up!”
I blink the red away and see the asshole, held back by one of the Gettysburg Farms workers—I recognize the jungle-green polo shirt. The dad’s face is a bruised and bloody ruin, one eye swelled shut. My own face feels hot-numb. I can taste blood.
The guy holding me lets go, comes into my field of vision, and it’s the same guy from last year, the guide who—
(we gotta call somebody! we—we gotta—and then he pukes all over his ATV)
All the excess adrenaline drops into my stomach, makes it turn languidly. I might puke on this guy. How poetic, a part of me thinks and my gut clenches.
“Mr. Tremblay,” he says. His eyes are wide and wild, and it’s how he looked last year, but of course it was much worse then, wasn’t it? “What happened?”
“Old fella started it,” a third man says. An old cowboy type, hands on his hips, stands along the side lane. “Mr. Tremblay was cleaning up some garbage, the old fella starts heckling, takes a swing.”
The guide exchanges glances with the other worker, then turns to the asshole. “Mr. Welty, we’ll refund your money, but you need to leave. Gettysburg Farm has a strict no-tolerance policy with violence.” The guide looks over at me. “Mr. Tremblay, please return to your lodge.”
The asshole—Welty—yells, “He called me an asshole!”
The cowboy steps forward. He has a foot and probably a hundred pounds on Welty. “And you acted like one.” The cowboy cuts eyes at me and his gaze lingers a second too long; he remembers me.
I stagger to my feet and my bones are brittle, my balance uncooperative. I want to say something, want to direct my anger at them. I want to make them hurt for reminding me this is my life now. The need makes my muscles shake, makes my teeth vibrate. How dare they not kick me out, too, a part of me thinks, and, oh god, it’s all confusing and agonizing and I want to scream but can’t.
I shuffle away, up to the main intersection. My head, beginning to throb, droops. I root around my pockets for my cigarettes, and something jabs my finger. I stop and pull out the protractor. My eyes start to burn again, and the throbbing in my face intensifies. The vertigo comes hard and fast when I close my hand over the totem, but with it comes a nerve-tingling relief. Not Hersheypark. Here.
I swallow hard, looking around. The barn and pen area is mostly empty.
(i wanna snuggle a goat dad!)
We’d come here, after the park. A wind-down before bed. I remember.
I hunker down and dig a hole beside the gravel lane, drop the totem in, and refill the hole. The vertigo pops as soon as I stand, the throbbing of my face reduced to something aspirin could knock out.
I start walking back to my cottage, wiping my eyes, questions bubbling just beneath the forefront of my mind, none of them close enough to articulate, but that doesn’t matter. They never change.
At the cottage, Claire studies my bruised face. “Why do you do this to yourself, Dad?” she asks. There’s a tension in her voice I’ve never heard before.
“Why are you doing this to yourself?” Helen asks you, shoulders slumped, and she can’t stop glancing at Claire’s suitcase behind your legs—
“They have swimming!” Claire says, showing you the brochure as you sit on the couch, drinking coffee and trying to wake up. It’s the morning after Hersheypark. “And ATVs! Dad! Daddy! We—”
“We need to talk, Dad,” Claire says, and I snap awake. Distantly, thunder rumbles. Closer, the refrigerator hums.
The bedroom’s dark. Claire stands in front of the window, a black outline.
I shake my head. “Claire—what—” I click on the lamp and Claire disappears.
I grab my phone. It’s a little after two in the morning. I drop it and rub my eyes. “Claire, couldn’t this—”
She’s right beside the bed. “This isn’t helpful for you.”
I look up at her. Her face is absolutely still. A traitorous voice in my head whispers, She looks—
—my mind slams that voice out.
Claire hisses. It’s a dry sound, like autumn leaves rumbling together. “Why can’t you let yourself even think it? Isn’t that the whole point of all this? To accept it? To pick up the pieces and move on?” Her eyes go fully black. “You need to stop lying to yourself, Dad.”
“I’m not lying about anything,” I say, sitting up. There’s a smell—a thick, wet, peaty stench, like a marsh—but I can only focus on her still, emotionless face, the twin black bores of her eyes.
“I’m dead” she says, “and you killed me.”
“She’s dead, Dan,” Helen says, her attempts at a calm demeanor crumbling, and you can smell her perfume, light and flowery, but you can only focus on how her face scrunches up, eyes filling with water. “You can’t keep on like this. You can’t. It’s just hurting both of us.”
Vertigo detonates behind my eyes and I fall to my side, but instead of hitting the mattress, my shoulder smacks against the cool metal of the refrigerator door. I recoil, looking around, but it’s pitch out here. I can just see Claire’s silhouette against the front windows and I’m holding something in my hand. I paw for the light switch, although I already have a pretty good idea what I’m holding.
“Why are you trying to hurt yourself?” Claire asks.
I flick the switch and I have a vegetable knife pointed at my stomach. I throw it aside and look at Claire, all white skin and black eyes and still face.
“I can’t go on like this, Claire,” I say. I take a step forward on numb legs and nearly collapse. “I just hurt all the time.”
I blink and Claire’s gone.
“You think you know what pain is?” she asks behind me.
And the lights go out with another throat-clearing rumble of thunder.
“I see her, Helen,” you try to explain and, Jesus, you’re starting to cry, too. “She blames me.”
She’s gone. She—”
Helen peers at you, mid-sob, as something occurs to her. “Do you think I blame you?”
The thought has never occurred to you. Only Claire. Only that still face.
Helen shakes her head vigorously. “God—no, Dan! It was an accident and with you like this, it just feels like it never ends—”
She stumbles away, back down the hill to her car, and you feel Claire behind you—the raised hairs on the back of your neck.
“She’s wrong, Dad,” Claire says. “You know that.”
I turn to where I think the switch is and immediately lose my sense of place. I trip over a kitchen chair and go sprawling. That wet, metallic smell fills my nose.
“You think you can let that pain go?” Claire asks. “Just move on? I’m dead, Dad. Because of you. Forever nine, Dad. Forever stuck.”
I’m shaking my head as I grab the edge of the kitchen table. It’s one with a central support, and it tips over, slamming into my side. I howl and heave the table off.
“This isn’t how it works, Dad,” she says. “Not for you. Not for me. You can’t leave me behind. Not with some stupid trinkets and picking dumb fights. You think hurting yourself in such a stupid way is even kind of how I felt?”
I start crawling anywhere, everywhere, just away. Thunder booms, and then it’s drowned out by the sudden onslaught of rain against the cottage, coming down so furiously it’s like one continuous dumping of water.
I slap my hand down, and the blade of the vegetable knife slices into my palm. I scream.
“You earned this,” Claire says and that marsh smell is everywhere. I can’t catch a breath. I’m crying and my nose is clogged and oh my head won’t stop spinning. “I’m dead because of you. You, Dad. You were supposed to protect me, and what did you do?”
I curl into a ball. My back hurts. My face hurts, more so now that I can’t stop crying. I can feel hot blood on my chest where I press my hand. Lightning flashes outside, blinding me. I can’t breathe around that pond smell, can’t hear around the drum-roar of the storm, can’t speak.
“Can’t remember?” Claire hisses right next to my ear, and I flinch. “Refuse to think it?”
This isn’t my daughter. My daughter would never sound like this. My daughter—
“—is here to make sure you never forget,” she says and what feels like a bucket of mineral rich water hits me in the face—
(the atv bucks and jumps over the hillocks, claire caged between my arms as i drive, her helmet knocking my chin. the guide’s not zooming along, but i’m not used to this machine and it’s a struggle to keep up. the thick, wet plant smell of the marshes fills my nose. i feel claire shaking with adrenaline. my stomach rises and falls with the dips and hills of the trail.)
(the guide brakes suddenly at the bottom of a rise. i overreact, twisting the wheel mid-air and claire’s gone and that plunging feeling expands and i hear the roar of wind and a scream and all i smell is the marsh and i can’t feel anything until the atv comes down on its side and i’m thrown just enough so i scrape my calf, but i hear the crunch and it’s the loudest sound in the world it’s everywhere and oh god that plunging feeling never leaves–)
Soft, cool morning light brings me around. I lift my head gingerly. Every muscle aches. It feels like my brain’s been replaced with attic insulation. Grunting, I peel my wounded hand from the dried blood on my chest and it starts bleeding again.
Claire’s gone. There’s no water anywhere. I probably imagined it.
I get to my feet and shuffle around the upended table and chair and into the back bedroom. I put on yesterday’s clothes and dig through my suitcase for the final totem–a tiny keychain Mjolnir, from the movie version of Thor. Claire asked for it when I took her to see the third film. It was on television that final morning, playing through while Claire excitedly relayed everything Gettysburg Farms had.
I know where this one belongs.
I take my shoes outside. The air’s wet like a damp washcloth, but cool. I sit down on the step. From here, I can see the ATV trail. A fist takes hold of my heart.
I glance into the cottage and Claire’s there, kneeling on the other side of the door so we’re eyeball-to-eyeball. Her face is still blank, but her eyes are regular again.
I place my hand flat against the glass. “Hey, kiddo.”
Claire puts her hand on the other side. Acidic spit fills my mouth and my eyes grow hot.
“I gotta do this before I lose my nerve, hon,” I say to her.
She gives a slight nod. Christ, is this real? Was last night real?
“It was,” I answer, then realize that doesn’t answer the question. It doesn’t matter. “I have to hurt myself before I let each piece of you go, huh?”
I push myself off the steps. The vertigo is back, growing behind my eyes. The air feels hotter even as a cool breeze sweeps down the lane.
I turn left at the intersection, heading past the dumpsters and the sign warning of off-roading vehicles.
My sneakers crunch over old gravel still wet from last night’s storm. That plunging feeling comes into my stomach as I come to the first rise. I don’t know how far I should go. I—
(–find her sprawled beside the overturned ATV)
–shake my head and stumble with dizziness, but keep going.
Between two hillocks, I wipe my eyes with the side of my arm and look around. This could be the spot. It feels right, anyway.
I kneel and pull the little hammer out of my pocket. Claire kept it on her school backpack’s zipper, but I found it on the floor of Claire’s bedroom this past January, the morning after I…whatever. Left out with the coin and the protractor, like a mini treasure. I’m almost positive I didn’t put them there myself. The hammer even smelled like the marsh when I picked it up off the floor.
(her body is a ruin of twisted limbs but her face looks only mildly surprised)
“I’m so sorry, Claire,” I breathe. I’m crying hard now. I start digging the gravel and soon my fingers are hurting and red and dust-covered, but I don’t stop or slow down. My bad hand starts bleeding again and it burns.
(one drop of blood dabbing the corner of her mouth like the cover of a 1980s horror novel and oh god everything in the world is ruined when your child’s face is still and it’s all your fault your fault YOUR GODDAMNED FAULT, DAN)
When I go a hand’s length down, I stare at the hole, then at the hammer.
(and at first, after finding helen’s old pills—really old; she left when claire was seven—it seems like a sensible solution as a january snowstorm howls and the house groans and claire watches from the doorway; the guilt will never leave, so why not pay for it? finally. completely.)
“Dad,” Claire says.
I look up but I can barely see her with my burning wet eyes. She’s a pastel smear.
(but it all winds up in the toilet, anyway—a fistful of half-digested painkillers and the yukon jack used to wash them down—and the only thought before passing out for two days is “anything to finally be able to accept this. anything to be able to let go”)
“I’m sorry, Claire,” I say through snot and tears and this hard, bitter-tasting lump in the back of my throat. “I’m so sorry, honey. Daddy’s sorry.”
I watch her as I put the totem in the hole and rebury it, shifting dirt and rocks by touch. I have to see her until the end, the very end. Her blurry head moves as I push the final rocks into place, pat it down, and, when I blink, she’s gone.
Tyler has been the editor in chief of Signal Horizon since its conception. He is also the Director of Monsters 101 at Truman State University a class that pairs horror movie criticism with survival skills to help middle and high school students learn critical thinking. When he is not watching, teaching or thinking about horror he is the Director of Debate and Forensics at a high school in Kansas City, Missouri.