Jumping at Shadows
"Did you hear that?"
The little girl’s voice was high-pitched, even more so than usual, stretched thin with fright. Her brother rolled his eyes as he looked back at her. Sighing, he gripped her hand; her tiny pink fingers entwining with his own. He could feel her pulse pounding fast through the delicate skin of her wrist and he thought briefly about warning her...but he couldn’t think of why he’d need to. Instead he made his voice as soothing as possible.
“What do you think you heard, Melia?”
His sister looked up at him and frowned, blue eyes more worried than he’d ever seen them. “The screams. Didn’t you hear them?”
Peter groaned, his patience with her dying quickly. “Christ Amelia, it’s Halloween. Of course there are going to be some people screaming. You’re always jumping at shadows.”
Her fingers tightened around his hand and she ducked her head in shame, brown ponytail sliding forward over one shoulder. Almost ideally she turned her head enough so she could catch the tail of it between her teeth and chew. It was a tell-tale sign of nervousness that irritated him.
It was as if she didn’t trust him. And she needed to trust him, he needed her to know that he would always keep her safe, always protect her.
He had to.
Had to- …he felt something then. Something that had his stomach tightening in denial. The dark stain of memory spread through his thoughts like freshly spilled blood and his jaw clenched as he shook the feeling away.
Pushed it away and buried it.
At his side, in her pink tutu and purple Wal-Mart fairy wings, and the faint coating of glitter kissing the freckles splashed across the bridge of her nose, Melia whimpered as his hand tightened painfully around her own. Tugging her hand from his grip she darted away from him and into the night. The streetlamps were bright enough that he caught a flash of brown hair whipping in the wind before rage overtook him and he cried out.
“Stop it! Come back here right now. Don’t you ever pull away from me again!” Fear and a kind of helpless rage made his voice ring out sharply, cracking through the air like a whip and several children along with their parents turned to look at him curiously. He supposed his reaction was a bit severe but something….something…
His brow furrowed in confusion, and Melia, who stood a short distance away, paused in her flight at the sound of his voice and cocked her head to one side as she turned back to him. She waved the star-shaped wand in her hand at him as if bestowing a blessing, while in the distance a child screamed.
Melia grinned and Peter’s heart jumped, damn near stopped in fact. He took a step towards her, hands reaching as if he could catch her, save her.
“It’s okay Pete Pete,” she said, the childhood nickname rolling easily and lovingly from the tip of her tongue only to be snatched away by the cruel autumn wind. “It’s okay. I’m okay. I forgive you.” And with that she turned and ran off, brown hair swinging, her laughter, bubbling and sweet, floating back to caress and comfort.
“Peter? Honey? Come on the kids are tired and ready to head back.”
Peter Montgomery shook his head to clear it as he turned to look back at his wife of nearly thirteen years. He blew a lock of brown hair from his eyes and smiled to ease the worry he saw in her eyes.
“Peter?” She said hesitantly. “Are you remembering Melia again? That was almost twenty years ago, honey.” The little pumpkin she held in her arms began to cry sullenly and his wife’s arms moved automatically as she rocked him back to sleep, body swaying gently in time with her voice.
Bone deep exhaustion had Peter nodding, if only to appease her.
He knew it had been twenty years ago. In his mind he knew.
But in his heart? In his heart he was still clutching a chubby little hand, still holding her tight; keeping her close.
He had to protect her.
Keep her safe.
Maybe, if he kept holding on to her, to the memory of that round smiling face, with the missing two front teeth, and scattering of freckles he’d never have to lose her again, and never again would he have to look up to hear the sound of a child’s scream pierce a cold October night.