Home Depot #3620
When she was three, Elise woke me up in the middle of the night covered in mud. She’d let herself out of the house to dig a ditch in the backyard. After I got her cleaned up and back in bed, she said, “If you dig way deep down in the mud, you find God.”
The next morning, I asked Elise who had told her such a thing and she said, “Cindy,” as if it were obvious.
Soon after that, my daughter turned four. She shed many of her three-year-old habits, like napping and wetting her bed and chewing on the edge of her fuzzy blanket. Cindy, though, stuck around, as did all the things my daughter was learning from her.
“Your eyeball is where your soul lives and the rest of your body is just a figment of your eyeball’s imagination,” she told the opthamologist once, during an exam. He raised his eyebrows at her but did not smile. No one, not even an eye doctor, feels comfortable being lectured on alternate realities or the spiritual nature of eyeballs by a human who is just forty inches tall.
At a family reunion, Elise told her great aunt that redheads are harbingers of doom and that she she’d better look away if she didn’t want to see the end of her own life. Another time, she told a family friend visiting for a dinner party that she liked her dress because it felt like the inside of a coffin. Elise had never, to my knowledge, heard the word “harbinger” spoken in our home. She had never attended a funeral.
When disciplined, Elise was unphased. “Where did you hear such a thing?” I would demand. But then, I’d stop myself. “I know,” I would say. “Cindy told you.”
I questioned all of Elise’s preschool teachers and the parents of her toddler friends. No one knew a Cindy. I wanted to be as nonchalant about Cindy’s apparent non-existence as my daughter was about finding God way deep down in the mud, but I didn’t have it in me. Cindy was creepy. She made Elise creepy.
Late in the night, I was sometimes awakened by what sounded like voices in Elise’s room. But when I tiptoed to her door, it was only Elise I could hear, whispering to herself. When I swept the door open, hoping to catch her — at what? — she was always under the covers with her eyes closed, pale eyelids staring, and the whispering would cease.
Sometimes, on the way to school or her grandmother’s house, Elise would get this look on her face — a look halfway between daydreaming and terror, a look that showed me both how strikingly beautiful she would be as an adult and how haunting her appearance was, as a child. In public places, people would stare at her unabashadley. “Her hair,” they would say when I caught them at it. But it was more than the red, unruly hair. In the moments when I watched Elise in the rearview, the reflections of the trees sliding past her face in the passenger side window, her eyes were open but she seemed to be someone else, or, even more strangely, I sometimes got the sense that someone else was her.
I asked Elise about imaginary friends. About ghosts and spirits, fairies and witches and spells. At seven years old she claimed to believe in none of these things. “If they were real, I would know,” she told me.
The one time of year she would openly indulge in the spirit world was Halloween, her favorite holiday. Last October, on the Halloween that fell just before her ninth birthday, we ran into the home improvement store to buy orange-colored light bulbs on the way to my mother’s house, where Elise would be trick-or-treating with her cousins. Elise was dressed as a vampire bride, her tiny figure swallowed by black tulle, mouth dripping at the edges with red face paint. Elise stopped in front of the Halloween decorations, staring fixedly into the face of a witch that laughed maniacally when you pushed a button on her claw-like hand. “Just wait here,” I told her, “I’ll be right back.” When I returned, clutching a six pack of bulbs, Elise had disappeared. For a moment, I couldn’t find her and panicked. Then I saw her crown of red hair peeking out from behind a bin of werewolf masks. She was standing in front of a bank of skeletons, each hanging by its head from a string attached to a metal rack. The skeletons had LED eyes, all of them lit up red. To anyone else, I suppose there was nothing strange about the scene. There were dozens of other kids scurrying through the Halloween display, pushing buttons and trying on masks. But Elise stood so still. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that the skeletons were mesmerized by her, and not the other way around.
When we got back in the car, Elise flipped her red hair over her shoulder and pulled the seatbelt across her lap, clicking it into place before she looked back at me, her blue eyes weirdly green. “I’m ready to go to trick-or-treating,” she said. We stared at each other in the rearview mirror and I asked her what was wrong. “Whatever do you mean, mother?” she asked. Elise had never called me mother before, and though children sometimes do things like this, change the names they call you, or their tone of voice, something about her voice just then made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I turned back around and put the car in drive, but I could feel Elise’s green eyes on the back of my head all the way to my mother’s house.
Elise’s eyes stayed green. There were times, in the years following, that I inexplicably called her by the wrong name. “Cindy,” I would say, “Don’t forget to make your bed.” She never corrected me. And that Halloween drive to my mother’s house was the last time she ever sat in the back seat of our car. After that, I made her sit in the passenger seat, where I could see her.