Willa was born to Andrew and Annie Foreman in the winter of ‘93, only months before they’d put a down payment on their first house. She was a spirited thing. Annie always jested their daughter was to be the second coming of Karen Carpenter, for she had a humble, stirring voice and was never short of hitting everything in arm’s reach. Willa was prone to smiling, carrying herself with the firstfruits of a southern belle, and laughing at everything in the childlike freedom that came with not needing to worry about whether it was appropriate.
‘99 was not a good year. Andrew found himself downsized from his position at the laundering press where he’d just begun to think he’d made enough leeway to begin an ascent up the ladder. The couple grimly entertained the idea of foreclosing on their home of six years, when fate made the decision in their stead. Andrew and Annie were on a date when they’d received a call from the baby sitter about a smell of gas. Nothing major, so Andrew dismissed it. She was likely mistaking the smell for electric burn, since the heaters were just turning on for the first time since autumn. He instructed her to close up whichever room was the culprit, and decided he’d take a look when he got home.
An hour later half the house went up. The babysitter was cursed with winding, third-degree burns. They held Willa’s funeral procession four days after the accident.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” well-meaning family would console, “She’s in a better place now.”
It was an exercise in tolerance mostly, for Andrew to refrain from rolling his eyes at their ignorant sentiments. ‘A better place’ was not here. ‘It’s okay’ was not I’m sorry you lost your daughter.
Of course, they would try again for a child, eventually. If not before Andrew and Annie shared some bouts against some new, fledgling demons.
“Hon,” Annie came home from work one day, “Why is there alcohol in the basement fridge?”
“I dunno,” Andrew shrugged, head already half-inebriated from the second bottle of scotch. “Just felt like something worth getting.”
Her expression was equal parts understanding, and kindling fear, though it was hard to tell if something else might be hiding beneath the miserable, grey swathes under her eyes. “You haven’t had a drink since college.”
Andrew shrugged again. That was his response for the first few months, before he started getting violent. To his grace, he’d managed to pull back from the habit before doing any irreparable damage to his world. He almost hit Annie. Almost. The sober part of his pride drew a line in the sand, and he killed the vice where it stood. The following week of cold turkey was an affliction unlike any he’d endured in years, but he made it through on his mind’s recycled fiction where his daughter kept asking him why he hit mommy. That illusion, that salvation, was convicting enough to recover from the brink.
Annie’s demon was a bit more stubborn, as it was fond of being a quiet, personal apocalypse.
In the beginning, Annie wept a lot. Then not at all. Hours of sleep would be sacrificed to restlessness, only to be answered by days of bed-ridden apathy and slumber. Andrew hadn’t thought much of this, as his behaviors were much the same, albeit less extreme. Annie was saddened by the loss of Willa, but of course she would be. It was her daughter. Perfect, perky Willa stolen away in one fiery blast. But ‘saddened,’ Andrew eventually decided, was a pitiful and inadequate term. Annie was not saddened, she was obliterated.
Andrew thought he’d been grieving hard over the loss, but in comparison to his wife, he was merely inconvenienced.
It didn’t really strike home until Annie tried to kill herself.
Andrew returned from a day of job searching to find his wife seizing on the bathroom floor, a bottle of Tramadol empty of its guts in the sink. Through her gasps, convulsions, and implosive spasms, Andrew eventually managed to shove his hand down Annie’s throat, upending the drug in one ugly, caustic purge.
After a trip to the hospital to make sure she would be able to filter out what of the substance her body had already broken down, Annie and Andrew both promptly went to recovery therapy, Annie for her depressive grief, Andrew to figure out how he might better help his wife. It was a slow crawl, but over a year, they saw progress.
Around that same time, Annie became pregnant again.
It had no reason to be a surprise, but the shock met them anyways. Nonetheless, the months traveled by in relative tranquility. As Annie’s belly swelled and grew taut, Andrew finally found a substantial source of income and they were able to trade their one bedroom apartment for a condominium on the far side of town, closer to Andrew’s place of work.
Appointments came and went like the tide. The baby was healthy. The baby was a boy. They named the baby Shae.
Little Willa thought Shae was a wonderful name.
Shae was born to Andrew and Annie Foreman in the summer of ‘01. He was a quiet thing. Andrew would have remarked how his son might have been the second coming of a great athlete, or perhaps something academic, like a surgeon or attorney. But Drew had far too much on his mind to concern himself over something like that.
Nowadays, it was all the couple could do to make sure Willa did not take their son away.
In the delivery room, Annie’s life had nearly gone forfeit. Shae was hard on her body, exacting more than one technical complication during the procedure. It was a hideous eight hours spent in that room, a seemingly timeless miasma of physical and emotional strife for everybody present. You’d think a complicated delivery would be the worst of it.
Minutes after Shae had finally been evacuated and placed in the doctor’s hands for sanitation and all other medical protocol, Annie shrieked in terror, stiff-arming one finger towards the foot of her bed, eyes peeled back in an alertness uncommon to those who’ve just delivered.
Everybody turned, but only Andrew saw. A nine-tailed hook caught his stomach at the sight of his daughter. It struck with such vigor that his subsequent throttle backwards into the wall nearly brought a nurse down with him.
Willa stood idly at the foot of Annie’s bed, watching her mother, seemingly undeterred by the aghast drain of color in her mother’s face.
Their daughter wore the same outfit as the day she died. Black overalls on top of a baby-blue longsleeve shirt, embroidered with stars and whorls of white. The skin beneath was mangled and bloodless, her complexion so ashen you might actually mistake it for the namesake of the word. Burn scars clawed against her face and arms like brambles, skin ripped up and then melted down into a new geometry. One eye had been sealed shut by the skin around it, which had dripped in its molten state and apparently cooled into a mask afterwards. The hair, the beautiful hair Willa got from her mother, was inexplicably perfect in shape, albeit grey as a chimney pyre.
“What’s the matter?” The lead doctor asked Annie, who was still stricken with terror for the undead girl at her feet. He followed her finger again, back and forth, looking for the subject of her attention. It was evident he saw nothing.
Annie began to babble, scream, and cry. She kicked and drew her feet back despite the pain parading through her legs, core, everything.
Andrew, on the other hand, was a little more composed. He simply recycled the same handful of choice words until they’d become something of an obsessive chant.
As could be expected, the doctors didn’t know how to handle this sudden onset of insanity among the new parents. They exchanged glances with one another, fear, confusion, and helplessness thick in the way their brows furrowed and hands trapezed through the open air.
Willa turned to face her father. The marring of her scars pulled down on the lips a little, making a subtle, perpetual frown. Her one good eye was the same lattice of gold and brown she’d always had, which felt more like an insult to her absent mortality than a grace. She cocked her head to the side, burned skin straining against her jaw and neck. Without flourish, she looked up.
A nurse walked into the room, Shae in hand, blood having been swabbed and cleaned from his newborn body. He was a ripe pink, with a peacefulness on his face to betray the journey he’d endured only moments before.
“Brother, my brother.” Willa said through a filtered voice as though her throat was full of sediment and moss.
The panicking continued. The swearing continued. The confusion continued. When they tried to explain the apparition by their bedside, even when it was both parents united under one front, their words fell upon ears of ignorance. To their relief and perplexity, the phantom girl left shortly after, flickering out of existence with just as much haste as she’d come.
If not for their mutual experience of the event, both mother and father might have thought the other mentally unsound.
They left the hospital a couple days later with Shae, and a stark recommendation to wring out their nerves. For a period, Willa did not return.
No, when she did decide to make visits, they were frequent and without pattern. One night, Annie might walk in on Willa standing over Shae’s crib, watching her brother. Possessing over him, you could argue, as one might when they were watching something very intently, observing change. Watching an hourglass. Then she’d depart for days, weeks, months without trace or mark upon the world. That is, other than the deep wounds of confusion she left on her parents’ hearts.
Never in the first four years of Shae’s life were Andrew and Annie able to figure out why their daughter plagued them, let alone how. She was a walking denial of most philosophies and theologies, so seeking advice from therapists and clergymen was as fruitful as the parents could have expected. Time and again they were met with scoffing, gentle skepticism, and invitations to find help (with someone else). A considerate ear, even a humorous ear would have been a great relief, but all were in woefully short supply.
Willa did not speak much. Only a handful of phrases, each sounding as though the girl had just finished drowning only a moment earlier. “Brother, my brother” seemed to be her favorite, but there were others. “I’m here for you,” and “You have such a pretty name, Shae,” and “Shh, shh” whenever he would cry. Once, when Annie was breastfeeding, Willa appeared and asked “why did you never do that for me?”
That was the first time Annie screamed, not because of Willa, but instead, at her. “What do you want from us?” Then, having already found her brave anger, “Leave us alone!”
If this bothered the spirit girl at all, she betrayed nothing. Instead Willa walked forward until face-to-face with her mother.
“I’m lonely here.” Willa said. She looked at Shae, then back to her mother.
Willa did not return for months after that, but she didn’t need to. The unspoken ultimatum lingered behind with Annie, who, being unable to shoulder the burden alone, spilled it onto her husband as well. Their daughter—no, they could no longer think of it as their daughter. This creature, whatever crooked thing it might be, was not Willa. It was a spectral perversion of something beautiful. Their shining, smiling little girl, now cold, lips frozen into a melted frown.
It was not Willa. But it did want to take their son away.
The day Shae turned six, the same age Willa was when she passed, the demon appeared again. It had been so long since they last saw the corruption of their daughter, both Andrew and Annie thought she might have been gone forever. They knew in their bellies that she was not, but they’d hoped. They hoped in vain.
At the park, amongst his friends, Shae was made conscious of a strange girl. He’d never met this girl, but somehow recognized her all the same. She was funny-looking, at didn’t take her eyes off him for a very long time.
Andrew certainly recognized Willa, because he hated the masquerade that she was. As every time before, she was a ghost among the rest, incorporeal and imperceptible to the ignorant passersby.
“Willa!” Andrew yelled, more to distract her than anything. Willa did not acknowledge her father, and Shae seemed so enraptured by the girl with the burns to even notice he’d said anything.
“Brother, my brother,” Willa said, sadly peaceful. “Want to come and play with me?”
She reached out a hand to be taken. It was wrinkled and grey, with singed fingernails, black at the bases.
Shae seemed to regard the hand as something with a mysterious, curious quality. Andrew saw in his son’s eyes the desire to take hold, if only to know what it felt like. Andrew sprinted at them from his place among the other parents, and managed to intervene just as Shae started reaching for the hand. He pulled his son up off the ground and spun him away from Willa. There was a crowd watching, uncomfortable and written with concern, witnessing the father and son’s game of charade.
“Get the hell away from my son!” Andrew snapped at the girl, her one open eye irritated and unimpressed.
Gasps filled the air around them, onlookers aghast. Andrew blinked and Willa was gone, replaced by another little girl, one of Shae’s friends from the party.
It was not a simple task convincing the parents that he was right of mind, and frankly, Andrew did not care if they believed him. No, his concern was that Shae was now aware of Willa’s existence, even if he did not fully understand who she was, or what she was supposed to be.
Andrew and Annie did not even understand what she was supposed to be. But still, they took his questions in stride, mostly to gloss over the mounting curiosity with each successive prompt.
“Who was that, dad?” and “Why did she call me her brother?” and “She looked hurt, why didn’t we help her?” and “Why shouldn’t I touch her?”
“Because she’s a stranger, honey,” Annie would cup Shae’s face, “We don’t talk to strangers, remember?”
“But you know her,” Shae would rebuff, “I’ve heard you and dad talk about her. You said her name is Willa.”
To make things worse, he started to learn. Annie remembered catching her son watching a movie on television, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. In it, he saw dead people, their skin a similar complexion as the ghost girl from the park. They didn’t talk about it, but Annie knew her son was putting pieces together in his mind, threading a large, supernatural tapestry. That girl he saw in the park on his birthday was dead. His dead sister, maybe? That’s why nobody else could see her. That’s why mom and dad were scared of her, because she’s a ghost and ghosts are supposed to be scary. But Willa seemed nice. She only wanted to play. I like to play.
Willa showed up again only a week or two later. Shae was sitting in the back seat of the car on their return trip from the grocery store. In his hands, he fumbled with a toy replica of Sully from Monsters Inc. Willa materialized in the open back seat, hands folded neatly in her lap, regarding her brother.
Annie jolted for a moment when she saw the apparition in the rearview mirror, but managed to compose herself. She reached over to Andrew in the driver’s seat, tapped him on the arm, and gave him a look of deliberate intensity. Her eyes cut to Willa. Andrew followed them. He looked back at his wife and nodded.
“Good afternoon, Willa,” Andrew smiled. “How are you?”
The specter turned its attention on the parents, face placid and wreathed in old wounds.
“I’m lonely,” Willa said. She turned back to Shae. “Would you like to play?”
“Willa,” Annie said, “I’d like to play.”
Again, the Willa spirit faced her mother. Her one eyebrow knotted.
“I would like to play,” Annie’s voice shook, but she managed. They’d practiced. She could do this, she knew. “What do you want to play?”
Willa blinked with her one eye. It was a slow, consuming blink. “I…don’t know.”
Shae watched on with that same morbid curiosity that followed everything involving Willa.
“You always liked to sing,” Annie pressed play on a CD in the car. Journey began to invade the airspace. It was something Andrew and Annie would often play during car rides, and so Willa had grown accustomed to it while she was alive. She enjoyed singing along, especially to the tune “Don’t stop believin’.”
If ever Willa had seemed staggered, it was now. There seemed to be an unsettling conflict within her, a typhoon of the child she had been versus the monster she’d inexplicably become in death. Her mouth opened with a word, she closed it, that word lost to the void.
“Why?” She said after a lull.
Annie looked over at Andrew. The bump of the car as it crossed between roads and the existence of a world outside the vehicle was all but forgotten, sacrificed for the sake of focus.
“Why what, sweetie?” Andrew said.
Willa shook her head and made a low tumble in her chest. “Why would I like to sing?”
Annie smiled, and was surprised by the genuineness of it. “Because,” she said, “you’ve always had a beautiful voice.”
Shae’s means of staring at Willa was so severe it was borderline frightening. But his parents had talked about this, too. They talked to him, told him about his sister. “Hi, Willa,” he said, not smiling, but not frowning, “I want to hear you sing.” He turned to his parents. “Can I hear her sing?”
Andrew nodded. “Only if she wants to, bud.”
Willa’s lips pursed, her one eye darting around the car seat in front of her, as though looking for an instruction on how she should behave. “But,” she garbled, “How?”
“Like this,” Andrew said, picking up the lyrics, lifting the timbre and cadence of his throat. “Just a small town girl, living in a lonely world…”
“She took the midnight train,” Annie rested a hand to her chest, projecting her voice, “Going anywhere.”
They began to sing together. Eventually Shae joined with them. Willa cast suspicious, but hopeful glances among everyone in the car. Then finally, when the chorus arrived, she joined. It was a creaking, skidding ensemble, but she sang. Her throat rattled as though filled with lead bubbles, but she found the enthusiasm. The skin outlining her mouth was taut when she drew it wide to sing, but it did not rip like one might suspect it would by appearance.
“You sing really well,” Shae said, “I think you have a pretty voice.”
Sad admiration, or perhaps longing for appreciation, filled the girl’s dead face. “You think so?”
“Yes,” Shae smiled. It was not a smile on the hinge of bravery, or clambering to satisfy. It was a wide, I want you to believe this because it’s true sort of smile.
Willa did not smile. She looked back to the front, Annie waiting to meet her gaze.
“I’m lonely,” she said.
Annie shook her head. “You can’t take Shae-”
Willa’s attention grew sharp and cold.
“-but you can come and play with him whenever you want. You are still our daughter,” Annie said. “We want to love you again. We want you with us.”
“Can I,” Willa chewed her lip, a film of black around her gums, “Just stay?”
Annie blanked and screwed her eyes onto Andrew. He hesitated, attention fiercely locked on the road, mind a million miles away.
“Of course you can,” Andrew said after a few beats. “If you give us a few days, we’ll put together a room for you. We can have dinner as a family again, all four of us.”
A satisfactory script of trust deployed across Willa’s face, her scars fighting against the upturned curl in her lips. “Okay.” She nodded, a small vein of moisture in one eye.
Then she was gone.
As promised, Andrew and Annie started making up the spare bedroom to be Willa’s. They weren’t sure what they were doing, or how, but they’d figure out a way to make it work. Maybe she wasn’t as she used to be, but it was still their Willa, and they would love her the best they could. They ought to consider themselves fortunate. Not every family gets their daughter back.
Even if she couldn’t eat. Even if she couldn’t sing. Even if sometimes Andrew would wake up to her, standing at his bedside, watching him sleep. Even if she still reached out to Shae sometimes, as though some demon controlled her fingers, demanding that she try to steal him away, her expression estranged and like steel. Shae knew not to take Willa’s hand when she became like this, but the curiosity in his eyes could not be dodged. It was all his parent’s could do to alleviate his interest. Willa was good, they would say, but she was not entirely herself. Something wanted to drag them to a dark place where nobody returned.
Willa and Shae were happy with their parents, Andrew and Annie Foreman, in the winter of ‘07.
Only God knows how long that was going to last.