Mama has been gone for five months and eleven days. Papa tells me and Anna that Mama is with the trees now. I like that because Mama loved the trees a lot when she was here, and if she’s there all the time now then she’s probably real happy. I hope Mama is high up in the branches, because sometimes the sounds that come from the forest after the sun goes away are scary.
I know Papa is sad but he still looks after us. He doesn’t always talk at dinner time like he used to and he doesn’t always thank God for blessing us with food. Sometimes Anna will set a place for Mama at the dinner table with a plate and some silverware even though she isn’t here, and she lights Mama’s favourite candle with the red wax. I don’t know if Papa likes that but he lets her do it.
Papa always tells us after dinner that he loves us and that he will always be here. He smiles at us, but his eyes don’t look happy.
Me and Anna have to go to our rooms at eight o’clock every night after dinner. That’s when the sun goes away and Papa checks the new locks he put on the doors and windows. There are three on the front and back doors and two on each window. When the noises from the woods frighten me, Papa locks the doors real loud so I know I’m safe. Sometimes the noises are owls and loons, but not always. I ask Papa what they are and he always says the same thing.
“They’re just coyotes, sweet pea.”
I don’t think he’s telling the truth because coyotes don’t know my name.
Today is different. Today Papa made us pancakes for breakfast and he had a big smile on his face like the time he bought that big motorbike or won money in the lottery. Anna said it was weird but I like seeing Papa happy. I forgot what his smile looked like. I heard Papa ask Anna not to set a place for Mama at breakfast today. He was being nice when he said it.
Papa says we’re having dinner later today. Usually dinner is at seven o’clock but today he said that it would be eight o’clock, which is strange because the noises always start at quarter past eight. I don’t want to eat dinner when the noises start. They sound like the animals our old neighbour caught in traps, and scared children who have lost their parents.
The front door is open when Papa calls for Anna and me to come get dinner. It’s November so the kitchen is real cold, but Papa doesn’t look like he’s going to close it. Papa has that smile on his face from this morning, but his eyes also look wet like he’s going to start crying. Anna sees that Papa has set a plate and silverware at Mama’s place and asks him what’s going on. She uses a bad word. Papa doesn’t tell her that she should watch her language, which he usually does.
Dinner is Jambalaya. I remember Mama never liked Cajun food, but it smells amazing. I didn’t know Papa could cook like this. Papa tells us that we have a guest, and now I see that he actually is crying. I ask him what’s wrong, and he tells me that nothing’s wrong and that he’s over the moon. Anna doesn’t say anything, but she has a look on her face like the one she made when Papa yelled at her because of her school report card.
Papa nods at the open door, and I can hear the things in the woods start to call. There’s a shape in the doorway now. I think it’s a person but I’m not sure. It’s standing all funny and its head is bent to the side. I really, really wish Papa would close the door because the noises are getting much louder now, but he’s just standing there.
“It’s your Mama. Your Mama’s here.”
But the thing that walks into the light isn’t Mama. Anna makes a sound like the one she made when she broke her arm on the monkey bars five years ago. The thing that was in the doorway sits in Mama’s place at the table. It smells just like how leaves and mud smell when it rains, and it doesn’t have any hair on its head like Mama did. It doesn’t look at me or Anna. I don’t think Anna wants it to look at her.
“I’m so glad you’re here, love.” Papa says.
Papa looks at the thing the way he used to look at Mama. It opens its mouth. It looks like it’s saying words but all I can hear is dying animals and horrible screaming. I put my hands over my ears like Anna is doing but Papa tells us not to be rude. I can feel tears on my cheeks, but Papa just asks me and Anna to join hands so we can say grace. The thing still doesn’t look at me when it grabs my arm. On its right hand are three of Mama’s favourite rings that we kept in a special box when she went away. I’m not hungry now, and I just feel sick. Anna looks straight ahead, like she isn’t even there. The thing has dirty nails and they dig into my skin. Papa starts to say grace. It looks at me and says my name just like the noises in the forest do. It tells me it loves me very much. I think it’s lying.
“Oh Lord, thank you for blessing us with a fresh start.”