Steven Carmichael is missing in action in Afghanistan, and it’s almost Christmas. How can his wife Janie tell their five-year-old daughter Kaitlin that her daddy is presumed dead? Both she and Kaity have been having dreams about Steve for a few weeks, but whose dreams are real? Kaity “dream-visits” her dad in his hospital bed and he promises her he’ll be home Christmas Day, so little Kaity is convinced Steve is alive. Janie’s dreams, however, have convinced her Steve has to be dead, though she can’t admit it even to herself. What will happen Christmas Day when Steve doesn’t keep his promise to Kaitlin?
“I want my daddy!” Kaitlin Carmichael cried. “Mommy, go get him. Now!”
“Kaity, honey, I told you before; I can’t do that. Daddy is far away, and he can’t come home right now,” Kaitlin’s mom Janie explained, brushing the wild auburn tangles of hair back from the eyes of her five-year-old.
Kaity sobbed inconsolably. “I—need—him, Mommy. He promised he’d come back soon, and I need him—now!”
Janie Carmichael held her daughter in her lap and rocked her, while Kaity clung to her with a strength Janie had never realized such a small child could possess. “What’s wrong? Did you have a bad dream? You can tell Mommy about it. Daddy left me in charge, and that means I can chase those scary nightmares away, just like he always does.”
Kaitlin looked at her mother like the woman had suddenly sprouted big green, hairy warts and pulled away from her, scrambling to the floor shaking her head. “It’s not the same. You aren’t the same as Daddy. Only Daddy can chase these monsters away!”
Janie tried to stay calm. She knew in so many ways she wasn’t an adequate substitute for her handsome, muscular husband. Even Kaitlin knew Janie was weak and scared; how could she possibly be brave and strong enough to chase away her daughter’s bad dreams? Worse still, how could she ever hope to tell little Kaity the truth? Steven Carmichael wasn’t coming back. Not now. Not ever. Daddy was missing in action in Afghanistan, and though Janie had tried with everything she had to will it to be otherwise, she had failed miserably. All she hadn’t done was to tell Kaitlin the news, choosing to postpone it until Steve’s death was confirmed.
“Aw, come on. You know Daddy wouldn’t want his best girl to be so unhappy this close to Christmas,” Janie cajoled. “What say we go downstairs and make some cocoa? I’ll read you a story, and then you can bunk with me the rest of the night. Huh? Would you like that?”
Kaitlin rubbed the tears from her eyes and wiped her hands on the sides of her purple flannel nightgown, searching out her slippers. Her chin was still quivering as she looked at her mother with her big, green teary eyes and shrugged. “Daddy would make me pancakes.”
Janie sighed. “Pancakes, huh? Is that what you want? Do you know it’s two in the morning?”
“Daddy says pancakes are the best way to make the monsters go away,” Kaitlin said.
Janie felt her shoulders sag a bit as she rose from the bed and headed for the door. Yeah, sure; Daddy’s pancakes would be the best cure for monsters. Hers? She doubted it. Everything Steve did was better than what she could do. He was a better parent . . . better storyteller, better cook. He even kept house better than she did. She fought back bitter tears as she held her hand out to take Kaitlin’s. “Pancakes it is, Princess! Nothing’s too good for Daddy’s girl.”
Janie woke much earlier than she would have liked, in view of the early morning pancakes and crying session with Kaitlin. She rolled onto her side and watched the little girl, who was sleeping peacefully now. It had taken more than three hours to calm Kaity down, but then she’d finally succumbed to weariness, into a deep, peaceful slumber. Janie wished she could have done the same.
Her own sleep had been fitful and troubled, with dreams of mortar fire and bodies strewn across sand dunes as far as she could see. In them, she wandered endlessly from one body to the next, looking for Steve. Always searching . . . she’d been performing the same futile hunt each night ever since she received word he was MIA. Missing . . . how could he be missing? Steve was the biggest, strongest, smartest man in his company, for heaven’s sake! Surely it was all a bad dream and she would wake up any minute.
The bright rays of sunlight peeping through the thin crack between the thick, dark drapes testified to the cold reality. She was already wide awake. Another day . . . and nothing was different; nothing was all right, and it would never be all right again. Steve was dead; otherwise she’d have surely heard something by now. She was only lying to herself if she thought different, and her logical self knew it; somewhere inside, she knew and even accepted it, but her heart couldn’t abide the thought.
The image from her nightly chase that taunted her most was the one she had tried the hardest to banish from her mind. All the dead soldiers in her dreams were bloody and gruesome, but not one of them was Steve. Except—as she walked through the carnage she found a lone Marine lying face-down in the sand. He was exactly the right build, the right coloring; she held her breath. His body wasn’t all bloody and mangled like the others, which made her heart pound with the unspoken hope that maybe . . .
Every time she found the man, she knelt close beside him and called out softly to him. She dared in that instant to hope beyond reason; surely she’d found him at last, and he was alive. Feeling her entire being tremble in response to the thought, she reached out to touch him, sure he was only knocked out . . . addled from a blow to the head or something minor. This was Steve! It had to be. She’d memorized every inch of that beautiful body. Surely no other man was as perfect as Steven Carmichael. Mustering all her strength, she reached to turn him, only to find he had no face. It had been blown off, and she still didn’t know if it was Steve, or just someone who looked so much like him she had been fooled. Still, something inside her wouldn’t believe she could be so easily deluded by any other man’s body, even if it did resemble Steve so uncannily.
How could she be sure? Would she ever know for certain, if they didn’t find his body? How could she go on living, knowing he was gone? She felt the tears flowing from her eyes. Steve, we both need you. Please come home to us . . . Then she shook herself and sprang out of the wide king-size bed, tearing off to the other end of the house, fearing her heart-wrenching sobs would awaken Kaitlin. Janie needed to be strong for her daughter, but she didn’t know how, and she was almost beyond trying.
Charlotte Holley has an inborn love of all mysteries and the supernatural, and has been reading and writing about the paranormal for more than forty years. A mass communications major, she has written and published newsletters, magazine and newspaper articles, as well as poems and short stories since receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1980. As a beaded jewelry designer, she has also self-published thirty pattern collections on CD and in eBook form and has produced more than 400 individual original patterns.
Charlotte has a degree in Mass Communications/marketing and has been writing since she was thirteen. She is CEO, Art Director and Production Manager at Gypsy Shadow Publishing, and is currently working on the third book in her Actor’s Guild Paranormal Mystery Series, Whispers From the Past: Vendetta (and hopes to have it finished near the end of 2012).
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