It has not been easy.
I have not slept well since it happened.
Since I left.
I see it in my dreams, that horrid building. It waits for me, crouched in the corners of my wandering mind, looming in the creases of my eyelids, so that when I lie down at night and close my eyes, it drops heavily into view. I see it plainly, every inch and every detail. The enormous, rusted lock on the gate. The rows of darkened windows punched into the grimy walls. That odd picture they’d drawn of the dog, candy spraying from its screaming mouth.
Stray Dog gives us sweets.
I took Diana by her shoulders and shook her until her head wobbled and her eyes filled with tears. “What is this “stray dog” nonsense?”
Stray Dog kidnaps kids.
“Answer me, damn you!” She cried out when I struck her, but only once. After that, there was only the sharp sound of my hand on her flesh, and the anger in my voice as I demanded an answer that she would not surrender.
The shame bubbles up in me, every memory is a slap to my own face. It is inescapable, what I have done.
Inescapable, yes. The irony of it. I left in the middle of the night like a coward and a monster, but I am still there. I can never go back, but I can never leave.
I am trapped there as surely as they were.
It has not been easy.
I take uneasy comfort in my Clara.
She came to me some time after I left, not for answers or for vengeance, but simply because she’d had no one else to turn to.
Martha, it seemed, had disappeared shortly after I had taken my own leave. Without any proper adults around to keep them respectable, the children had gone quite mad with their freedom, and Clara, too, had fled.
When I’d seen here there on my doorstep, shivering from the cold, wrapped in a thin coat much too small for even her waifish frame, I’d felt for a moment that perhaps I’d have some kind of redemption after all.
Foolish, naive, craven creature that I was - am - I believed that my sins could be forgiven. That I could save my Clara, and perhaps, if God was even a fraction as kind and forgiving as my sweet Clara, one of us could save me.
I took her in, of course I did, how could I not? She had always been my closest companion within the confines of the orphanage, in spite of the differences in age. At one time I had even flattered myself to think that she had stayed on as a nurse at that damned germ factory just to remain in my company.
I took her in, first as my savior, then as my nurse, then as my wife.
My lovely, forgiving wife.
My kind and dutiful wife.
She flinches away from my fingers, and turns to stone beneath my caresses.
At night, when we have finished with one another, she turns away from me as if though I can’t see the way her quiet sobs make her shoulders tremble.
My soft and fragile wife.
A letter came for her through the post.
I was half-tempted to open it myself, but I thought better of it.
I placed it on the tray beside her tea cup and delivered it to her, unmolested.
"It's from Jennifer," she said, and for the first time since she'd found me, shivering inside of her ill-fitting coat on my front porch, her eyes were hopeful and alive.
I stood in the doorway and watched the light go out as her eyes moved down the letter.
"They're all dead," she whispered.
I did not think to feign surprise. I had already known for some time. It had been all over the papers when it had first happened. An unusually brutal occurrence that I had fought tremendously to shield her from. So much time had already passed, I hadn't thought for even a moment that Jennifer would be writing to her to relive it.
"Why now?" It's all I can manage.
"She's bought the orphanage," she dropped the letter into her lap, suddenly exhausted. "She wants to re-open it."
"Has she gone mad?"
Clara closed her eyes, one hand reaching for the letter, the other resting on the enormous swell of her belly. "Haven't we all?"
I found her in the garden behind the house, kneeling in the dirt in my favorite dress.
“Have you picked out any names yet?”
I repeat myself twice more before she answers.
“No,” she says, and turns back to her roses. Her fingers have gone scarlet where she’s pricked herself on the thorns.
I kiss her gently on the crown of her head, and leave her to it.
An odd thing happened.
A box under the bed on Clara's side.
My curiosity got the best of me, and I opened it, expecting - hoping - to find trinkets for the baby. Knitted socks, perhaps.
Instead, it seems that my strange and delicate wife has taken up an unusual collection.
Crayons. Dozens of them. Some of them fresh and unmarred, others broken, stubby, worn.
A pointless endeavor.
It makes no sense.
Why only the red ones?
The wind is having fits. It hurls itself against the walls and windows of our tiny house. It howls and rages and wails.
Clara sits alone in the kitchen, nibbling gingerbread and staring vacantly through the glass into the darkness of the night.
"Is there anything I can get you, dear?"
"No," she says. A constant refrain.
"Are you certain?"
"Then I think I'll turn in for the night. I'm afraid that I'm not feeling well."
"I'll bring you some medicine," she offers, setting aside her snack, half-eaten.
"That won't be necessary, dear, I can..."
"Don't be silly," she said, already rummaging through the cabinets in search of a remedy. "I'm your nurse."
Even now, with all the years and miles that separate me from that terrible place, it eats at me. The mansion itself was not haunted, see, it is I who is full of ghosts. I am the ruins, the one with demons crawling and clawing beneath the rotten floorboards of my blackened soul.
When Death comes for me, as it soon will, I will close my eyes one final time, see again that orphanage exactly as I left it, and when I awake on the other side of eternity, the now constant chill in my old bones will be thawed by the hottest flames of hell.
I open my mouth to admit the spoon she’s offering me.
My medicine, she calls it.
I smile up at her, my sad and ruined wife, my mouth livid with the taste of bitter almonds.
"Have you picked any names, yet?"
“Rose,” she said, softly, refilling the spoon. “For a girl.”
I swallow hard. “How lovely.”
“Joshua, if it’s a boy.”
I want to ask why, but haven’t the strength.
“Now go to sleep.”