Updated: Jun 13, 2021
By Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi -
Heart pumping faster than her legs, she feared she might kill her mother, feared her father would catch up to her.
Oh, no! Daddy’s getting closer, she thought. He’s s’posed to be sleeping.
Ignoring her father's pursuit, Cora ran past the quiet houses lining the quiet street on this otherwise quiet night. Past the bungalow, home to Mr. King, who had dressed as Santa Claus one Christmas “'cause he's too busy to do it himself,” Mr. King had explained. Past Ms. Shelley's dark, leafy lawn, where she hosted Easter egg hunts “‘cause the Easter Bunny's too busy to hide the eggs himself, so I help out,” Ms. Shelley had assured. Past Dr. Deaver's home that doubled as his dental office, where he had presented five-year-old Cora with a dollar to commemorate her first lost tooth, because, well... “The Tooth Fairy's too busy.” Past the houses that remained dark, for their inhabitants had yet to be awakened by-
“Cora!” A breath. “Stop!”
Blazing through a dead intersection, Cora spared a thought for the archetypes on whose behalf her neighbours claimed to work during their respective seasons. She wondered where they were: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. Wondered if they saw the X-ray, the way she had. She wondered if they saw the lie. Or-
Her heart stopped.
Her mother died.
Her father caught up to her.
Then a double crash against her small ribcage.
Her heart rediscovered its rhythm.
Her mother was still alive.
Her father—in spite of the closing sounds—had yet to catch up to her.
Cora's heart had forgotten a pair of beats, one per terrible thought:
What if they knew about the lie?
What if they were in on the lie? Them. Mr. King. Ms. Shelley. Dr. Deaver. Daddy. The doctor.
And when she thought she couldn't lose another beat:
What if mommy lied to me?
Though it was looking that way.
Cora didn't want to think of her mother in that light.
All the more reason to run.
He was quick for someone who was not only old, but had been asleep. They had been watching television; he had allowed her to stay up as late as she wanted, a sort of gift—including all the junk food she could pack into her sugar-and-salt-coated belly—to celebrate her recovery.
The X-ray, she thought. The lie.
The plan had formed during her time in the hospital, then solidified in her bedroom (after the doctor deemed it safe enough for her to return home) into something simple, doable. Her footsteps were light, quiet—the coughing fits had faded to wheezes—and her father had taken to marathon sleeping in the wake of the loss of their beloved matriarch. The cemetery was only seconds away, past Mr. King's, Ms. Shelley’s, and Dr. Deaver's.
Of course, Cora had to be careful, for the last time she snuck out of the house she ended up in the hospital, where the lie had waited to be discovered.
Tonight, not seconds but minutes ago, Cora had eased away from her father, uncomfortably sleeping on the other end of the couch. She had tiptoed toward the front door, and after tense moments with the loud lock and creaky hinges, made her escape. The cold air had stabbed her body, trying to get to that special spot into which it had settled three weeks ago, trying to send her back to the hospital. She hadn't intended to run, though she knew she should hurry; there was no guarantee her father would remain asleep.
Down the front steps.
Down the driveway.
To the right, along the sidewalk that had lead her and her father from house to cemetery every day after their first, ceremonial visit.
Daddy's awake! she had thought. He's coming!
Breaking into a sprint, the race for the cemetery had begun.
Now, finally, breathlessly turning into the cemetery, Cora kept an eye and ear out for zombies, though she couldn't be bothered with them at the moment. Or any moment.
Now was her only chance to learn the truth.
She knew her mother's name, but not the letters of which it was comprised. She knew her mother's headstone, but not in the thick darkness. She recognized the tree against which the headstone seemingly rested, and- Yes! Made out its twisted silhouette, shaped by the streetlamp from beyond the cemetery.
The frozen grass ended. The mound of earth began, a heavy blanket over her mother (if she was there), tucked in by the small yellow excavator that had patiently waited for her, her father, and the few mourners to leave before it could discreetly perform its job.
Cora dove to her knees, and began digging her short fingers into the cold dirt, yanking out pitiful handfuls. The small craters her fists made quickly filled in with seemingly more black soil than there had been. Determined, she thrashed at the dirt.
“What're you...” Quick breaths. “...doing...” More quick breaths. “...Cora!?”
She continued the excavation as if her father hadn't finally caught up to her, as if he wasn't witnessing her apparent breakdown, too stunned to take the final steps to seize her, to stop her from spraying his pants with flung dirt. To stop her from disturbing the ground, his wife, her mother.
Cora dug harder, deeper, numbness creeping throughout her hands.
I gotta know! she told herself.
Ignoring her father, who knelt before her.
I gotta know!
Ignoring her father, who took a face full of dirt.
I GOTTA KNOW!
He didn't stop her.
'Cause he knows I know! she thought.
Frozen razors cut hot tracks into her cheeks. She used both anesthetized hands to investigate the conflicting sensation, but succeeded only in lodging clumps of cold, hard dirt into her teary eyes.
She was angry to had shed even one tear in the presence of her father. She continued to dig, furiously, but the dirt stung her eyes. She tried to ignore the annoying pain, but gave in to wiping her eyes, depositing more dirt within them.
Again, she tried to dig…
Again, she wiped her eyes...
Tried to dig...
Wiped her eyes...
With a scream of frustration, loud and fearsome enough to scare nearby zombies back into their graves, exhausted and defeated Cora collapsed onto her side, feeling nothing.
Except her heartbeat.
Many heartbeats—pounding her chest, neck, ears, pulsing throughout her tired legs, her unfeeling hands.
Another heartbeat joined her own. Slower. Calmer.
Too tired to reject him, too cold to admit her body needed his warmth, Cora wondered if her embracing father's own mother or father or someone he loved, someone he trusted, lived in his beating heart. Or if they had lied to him, too.
Perhaps it was the cooing, coupled with the gentle rocking.
Perhaps it was the way her heart began to slow, calm, synchronize with her father's.
Perhaps it was the pathetic progress she—a mere girl, not a professional excavator—had made, and knew she would never learn the truth, see it for herself.