by Jayne Regan
A family is given a gift that seems too good to be true.
|Robin slammed the top of her alarm clock to silence the shrill beeping. She sighed and burrowed down under the covers. It was the anniversary today and she just couldn't cope with it right now. She closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind and get back to sleep. It was no good. Her head was now swimming with memories of Ashley. The two of them as nine and eleven year olds, with matching pink bathing suits running through the sprinklers in front of their house, watching movies with popcorn and cola during the Christmas break, their matching Sunday school outfits and bonnets. Birthdays, thanksgivings, 4th of Julys.
She thought about her sister every day, but anniversaries were tough. This was the second one and despite everyone constantly telling her time was a healer, she still missed Ashley more than ever.
Robin sighed and threw back her covers and stretched. She could hear her Mom and Dad moving around in their room. This wasn't a walk in the park for them either. She groaned and got up to start the coffee and breakfast so her Mom wouldn't have to.
By the time her Mom appeared in the kitchen, the coffee was brewed and Robin was standing staring out the back window at their old swing set in the back yard, sipping her coffee as a tear rolled down her cheek.
“Are you OK baby?”, her Mom asked her, slipping an arm around her and resting her head on her daughters shoulder. Her own eyes were tinged with red and her face was puffy and grey, Robin noticed.
“Just remembering her,” Robin smiled and tilted her own head onto her mothers and the two of them silently looked out at the red swing set until Michael Mathews coughed behind them, They pulled apart and Robin dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve.
“Morning Dad,” she kissed him on the cheek as he poured his coffee and gave her a watery smile. He was always quiet around Ashley's anniversary.
The three sat around the table, quietly eating their toast and drinking their coffee. Robin studied their distracted faces with their far away looks. They had aged a lot since her sister died. She flicked through some old pictures on her phone until she found the one she was looking for. It was the four of them in their back yard having a cake for her birthday. It was the last picture taken of them all together, a week before the crash. Her Mom looked about ten years younger, her fresh tanned face beamed out at her from the phone. It was a far cry from the grey lined face sitting across the table from her this morning. Her Dad had been laughing at something Ashley said, his salt and pepper head thrown back with mirth. Today his thinning hair was entirely grey and she couldn't remember the last time she had heard him really laugh.
She looked at her and Ashley, arms around each other, their blonde heads touching. Robin was eighteen months older but people often thought they were twins. Their matching blue eyes stared out at her her, crinkled in the corners with pure happiness.
She went out of her photos and clicked on to Facebook to check Ashley's page. They had decided to keep it going after she had died, as a place for people to write their condolences and remember her in their own way. There was already a few messages posted today from friends of her sister. Of course there was, she thought with a rueful smile.
Ashley was always more outgoing and popular than her. Many of her friends were classmates of Robin's that never looked at her twice before Ashley died. Everyone had adored her and the whole town had mourned her passing. Their church had set up free counselling sessions and prayer circles to help those struggling with her death and hundreds of people attended the outside prayer vigil the night she died.
Robin skimmed the photos, poems and memories of her sister until it became too much. She tossed her phone on the table. She couldn't go to school today. The whole school thought they had claim to her sister and there would be tributes and tears everywhere she turned. She just couldn't today.
“Mom, I'm not feeling very well today, I think I'm going to stay home,” she said softly, imploring her Mom to understand.
“I know it's tough,” she said, placing her cup down on the table with two hands, “but it's not something we can hide away from Robin.”
“Let her stay home” her Dad said, not looking up from his paper, “she's a senior now, she can make her own decisions.”
Carol stayed silent and stared into her coffee for a few moments, her fingers clutching the small gold crucifix around her neck.
“OK, I'm off to work, I'll talk to you guys later,” her Dad said, rising stiffly from the table.
“I better go too,” her Mom added, “are you sure you're OK on your own here for the day?” she asked, leaning down to kiss her softly on the head.
“Yeah Mom, I just need the day.”
With her parents gone, Robin put some music on her phone and started to clear up the kitchen. She considered texting Toby or Clare to ditch and come over, but decided against it. She really did just need the day for herself.
With her chores done, she stuck in her headphones and went up to her room and flopped on the bed. She picked up a music magazine from the stack beside her bed. The glossy covers of several college brochures lay underneath, untouched. She sighed and rolled over. She knew she would have to go through them sooner or later. Just not today. She lay there until lunch time, letting the music wash over her until her stomach rumbled for attention. With a sigh she pulled out her headphones and headed for the kitchen. Pulling out the bread and PB and J, Robin hummed softly to herself. The sound of the side door opening behind her made her jump.
“Mom, I told you I'M FINE,” she started to shout as she whirled around. Her words caught in her throat and she felt the blood drain from her face as the glass peanut butter jar slipped from her hand and crashed to the floor.
There she stood, as blonde and rosy cheeked as she had ever been, Alison.
Robin couldn't speak, she could feel her legs beginning to buckle as her sister rushed over and caught her by the arm. Robin gasped as Alison held her up, a look of confusion and concern on her pretty face. Robin hesitantly lifted her hand and stroked her little sister's face.
“You're solid,” she gasped amazed, “you're really here.”
“Of course, I'm really here,” Alison laughed, “have you been sampling some recreational drugs, is that why you're ditching?”
“How are you here? Where have you been?” Robin was shaking, how was this even possible? Alison was dead. She had kissed her sister's cold face as she lay in her coffin, had watched her coffin as it was lowered into the ground. It had been two years, but Alison looked exactly the same as the last day she had walked out of the kitchen to Davey's car, to her death.
“Alison, you're dead,” Robin whispered softly, as she looked into the sparkling blue eyes of someone very much alive.
“Oh no,” Alison groaned, “are Mom and Dad going crazy? I swear Robin, all I remember is leaving school with Davey, Scott, Tony and Angela yesterday. I woke up this morning in the woods behind the school. I had to walk the whole way home,” she grumbled, leaning over the counter to grab a spoon to stick into the jelly.
“Anyway, I'm going to have a shower. Try and sober up and pull yourself together before Mom and Dad come home, they're going to be pissed enough as it is.” Alison, practically skipped out of the kitchen, still licking the spoonful of jelly.
Finally Robin let herself sink to the floor. How was this happening? Was she high? Was there a gas leak causing her to hallucinate?
She pulled herself to her feet and with shaky legs made her way outside to the back yard. She lay on the ground looking up at the clear blue sky, taking deep breaths. After several minutes passed, she walked back into the house. She sniffed the air, but couldn't detect anything unusual. The sound of running water filtered down the hallway from the bathroom. Slowly, Robin walked down the hallway until she was outside the door.
“Ali?” she called, then held her breath.
“I'm in the shower,” Alison's voice sounded clearly through the door.
“OK,” Robin called back, then took out her cell phone and dialled her mother's work.
“This is Robin Mathews,” she told her mother's secretary, “could you please tell my mother that there's an emergency at home and I need her to come straight away,” she said calmly, then disconnected and turned off her phone.
Twenty minutes later, Robin heard her mother's car pull into the drive. She sat on the couch twisting her hands in her lap when her mother burst through the door.
“Robin what's wrong?” her mother rushed to her side, her eyes frantically searching the room for possible dangers, “why did you turn off your phone? I was ringing you all the way home. What's the emergency?”
“I need to show you something,” Robin said softly and motioned for her mother to follow her. There was still a possibility that she was crazy. She wanted her mother to see Alison with her own eyes. Besides, how could she even begin to find the words to make her believe.
They stopped outside Alison's room. The sound of pop music drifted into the hall, but Robin couldn't hear Alison moving around any more.
“Honey, what's this about?” Carol asked softly, meeting her eyes, her concerned face pierced at Robin's heart. She hoped she wasn't crazy.
“Ali,” she called through the door, tapping lightly with her knuckles.
Mrs. Mathew's face contorted with pain and confusion and she stepped back from Robin, staring at her accusingly.
At the same time, Robin swung open the door to reveal Alison, sitting cross legged on the bed, her blonde hair hanging in wet ringlets down her back, her cheeks pink and shiny from the hot shower.
As if in slow motion, Robin watched as her mother's eyes left hers and swung to where Alison sat.
“Hi Mom,” she said sheepishly, just as her mother screamed and fell to the ground.
Robin and Alison carried their Mom down to the sitting room and lay her on the couch.
“It's a good thing she's light,” Alison huffed as they heaved her onto the couch, “what the hell was that about? She looked like she'd seen a ghost, are you sure we shouldn't ring an ambulance?”
“No-” Robin shouted as her sister reached for the phone, “No it's OK she just got a shock, she's breathing fine and her pulse is strong. I'll ring Dad to come home, you go get Mom some water.” Alison looked at Robin for a few seconds, trying to read the inscrutable look on her sister's face. Finally, she shrugged and went off to do as she was told.
Robin rang her father's work to let him know her Mom was sick.
“Can you come home? She really wants you to,” she told her sceptical father. It was an unusual move in their family. Since Alison died, they had lost their closeness. It was like their family intimacy had been buried with her and they had become three strangers living under one roof, reuniting for a family appearance at church on Sundays.
“Fine I'll be there in half an hour,” he conceded at last, trying to hide the hint of annoyance in his voice.
Alison came back into the room as their mother began to stir. Robin put her hand up in the to stop Alison from coming any closer. She froze, confused.
“Mom,” she said softly, taking her hand.
“Oh Robin I had the strangest-” Mrs. Mathews froze as Alison walked slowly up to the couch.
“Mom are you OK?” she asked holding out the glass of water.
Robin watched her mother as her pale face seemed to drain of whatever colour was left.
“Mom I'm so sorry,” Alison started to talk quickly, “I don't know what happened, the last thing I remember is getting onto the car with Davey and the guys and then-”
“Alison,” Carol croaked, “it's really you.”
“Of course it's me,” Alison rolled her eyes and thrust the glass towards her, “what is with you guys today? You're all being really weird.”
Carol sat up on the sofa as tears began to roll down her pale cheeks.
“My baby, you're back, you're back,” she sobbed as she reached forward and pulled a startled Alison into her arms.
“Jees Mom, I was gone for one-” Alison stopped when she saw Robin crying too. She sat beside her mother and they sat there clinging to Alison and sobbing uncontrollably.
They were still huddled together on the couch when Michael's car pulled into the drive.
“Jesus,” Carol looked at Robin wide-eyed, “what do we do?”
Silently, Robin got up from the couch and headed towards the door to warn her father before he came in. She slipped out the front door and closed it behind her just as her father came up the path, his grey head hanging down.
“Dad,” she said softly, holding up a hand to stop him before he went inside.
“Robin,” her father's tired eyed eyes took in her pale face and red rimmed eyes, “Honey you look awful, what's going on?” he asked her gently.
“Dad, something has happened, it's hard to explain but I need you to keep calm.”
“Is it Carol?” he asked, his brow furrowing as he grabbed her shoulders.
Silently, Robin turned and opened the front door, Michael followed closely behind her until they reached the living room.
She stopped and took a step back to allow her father to open the door. With a confused glance he swung the door open.
Carol was still on the couch clinging to a confused looking Alison, softly stroking her damp blonde hair. Michael Mathews froze, looking from Carol to Alison and back again. No one said a word for what seemed like an eternity until finally, Michael turned around to Robin.
“What is this?” he whispered to her, his eyes were wide, his face danced from confusion to fear to anger and back again.
“Daddy, I'm sorry about last night if you just let me explain-” Alison stood up from her mother's embrace and stepped towards him. Automatically he stepped back, dropping his briefcase and lifting his hands in front of him to stop her coming any closer.
“Someone better explain who this is and what is going on, right now,” his voice was thick and slow as if the words were sticking in his mouth before he could get them out.
“It's Ali, Dad,” Robin said, placing her hand softly on his shoulder, “It really is her, she came back.”
“Nonsense,” he said sharply, shaking off her hand, “Who are you?” he demanded taking an angry step towards Alison as Carol jumped up and stood in front of her.
“Michael, it's her, it really is Alison,” Carol's voice shook but she stared him straight in eye, trying to communicate with him with more than her words.
“Alison is dead,” he shouted, looking from Carol to Robin as if they were insane, “We identified her body in the morgue, we buried her for Christ sake.”
“Daddy,” Alison peered out at him from behind Carol's shoulder, “Daddy what do you mean I'm dead? I'm right here, you can see me”
“I don't know who you are,” his top lip curled as he spat out his words, “but you are not my daughter.”
He turned and stormed up the stairs.
Robin listened for a moment as he stomped around upstairs slamming drawers and doors.
“What's wrong with Daddy?” Alison asked, her blue eyes large and watery in her pale face, “why does he think I’m dead?”
Robin and Carol exchanged a look until finally Carol sighed and sat down on the sofa once more.
“Sit down Ali,” she said, patting the seat beside her.
Before she could move, Michael appeared once more at the top of the stairs.
“Move away from her Carol,” he said calmly as he walked slowly down the stairs, his hunting rifle pointed towards them.
Alison screamed as Carol threw herself across her daughter.
“Dad, what are you doing?” Robin pleaded, trying to block his descent down the stairs, “look at me Daddy,” she screamed as he pushed her out of the way.
Alison sobbed as her mother scrambled to cover her with her body as her father steadied the gun against his shoulder.
“Michael please,” Carol begged, “please stop for just five minutes and think about what you're doing. It's Alison, it really is I swear to you, I know my own daughter. God has sent her to us, he heard our prayers.”
“And no wonder for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light,”Michael muttered, not hearing or seeing his wife's anguish.
“Move Carol or I'll shoot you too. You invited the devil himself into our home and held him in your arms.”
“She's not the devil,” Robin screamed, trying vain to pull her fathers focus, “she's my sister!”
Robin stood in front of her mother and sister and fell to her knees in front of her father.
“God above, please help my father in his time of distress. Please help him to see that you have blessed us beyond all we deserve by bringing Alison back to us,” she glanced at her father to see were her words breaking through his laser focus but his eyes remained on her mother and sister, down the barrel of the gun, “please forgive him for thinking that the devil had more power than you heavenly father, that he could return something so precious to us when you would not. Please-”
Robin's frantic prayers were silenced as the bullet entered her head. Her mouth opened wide as her head lolled back and she crumpled to the ground. Behind her, Carol and Alison screamed as the contents of her head dripped down their tear-streaked faces.
Michael Mathews didn't take his eyes off them as he pulled the trigger once more. Carol's eyes rolled back in her head as the second deafening bang echoed through their sitting room and she collapsed onto the floor beside Robin, their blood mingled on the cream carpet.
“Daddy!” Alison screamed and covered her face as the third shot was fired through her hands and into her face and she slumped back onto the sofa.
As she fell back her arms flailed out out to the sides.
“Jesus Christ,” Michael whispered as he fell to his knees in front of his slaughtered family, his eyes focused on Alison.
Her eyes were opened as if she was looking at him. The bullet wound on her head dripped into a bloody crown as her head was tipped to the side. Her two hands held out either side of her showed the bullet wounds in each where it had passed through before reaching her skull, the blood dripped from them onto the pool of blood beneath her, shed from her mother and sister.
“The crown of thorns,” Michael whispered as he surveyed what he had done, “the stigmata. She was a gift from my lord, not the devil.”
Sirens sounded outside as blue flashing lights reflected off the mirror behind. Slowly he lifted the barrel of the gun into his mouth.
“Please forgive me lord, I knew not what I did,” he spoke softly, his words distorted by the barrel, his saliva dripping down the barrel as he pulled the trigger and joined his family slouched on the floor.