Once upon a time, there was a girl, the prettiest who was ever seen. One day her mother asked her to bring some cakes to her grandmother who lived in the woods. On her way, she met a wolf. He was handsome and charming and offered to play a game. Let’s race to see who gets to Granny’s first, he said. The wolf arrived first, of course. He swallowed Granny whole and when the girl knocked on her grandmother’s door, the wolf opened it. I win, he said. Then he swallowed her too.
She didn’t meet the wolf in the woods, but inside of her house. Her bedroom, in fact. He wasn’t charming or handsome or even a stranger. He was Mr. Stephens, her father’s best friend. He visited at night when her father had passed out on the couch, crumpled beer cans dripping on the floor, leaving stains that would never come out. The wolf pressed the girl against the mattress, his knee in between her ribs. Don’t say a word, he warned.
She said a word, many of them in fact, to her parents, but they didn’t believe her. Rick wouldn’t do that, her father said. Are you sure it was him, honey? her mother asked. She avoided her daughter’s eyes, pretended the purple bruises, resembling claw marks, on her daughter’s thighs were invisible.
I never touched her, he said. She’s the same age as my daughter, Elizabeth. I would never hurt a little girl.
It happened more than once, the girl told the police. She had snuck out of school and walked to the precinct without anyone knowing. Certainly not her parents, who would never believe her. I have proof, she said. She pulled out her phone and pressed play. It wasn’t hard to get him to confess on tape, his hunger for her was never satiated, he wanted to relive her devouring again and again.
After, when the wolf knew he was boxed in, when he knew he was no longer the predator in the woods, but prey, he said the girl asked for it, with her red cheerleader costume. He could say what he wanted, the girl thought. He wouldn’t get the chance to hunt girls anymore, where he was. And that was the only ending she cared about.
I talk about it in therapy. Say I’m going to call later that day. Just to check-in on her.
At home, I discard my sneakers with a pull and a flick by the door. My husband sits in his favorite chair, a procedural on the TV, his eyes on his phone. In Josie’s final days, the three of us sat on the couch, our eyes misty as episode after episode aired until the streaming service asked if we were still watching. Her tail thumped softly when we scratched her ears or said her name, a soft echo of our once rambunctious girl. We clicked yes, the TV show humming in the background of our grief.
I say hi to Aaron; he continues to stare at his phone. I wonder if he even realizes the TV is on or if he registers I’m here. Often these days I think we’re just ghosts to one another, our words and our presence white noise.
I walk past him to the kitchen and grab the kettle. I hear my husband speak, the low baritone of his voice, yet I can’t make out the words. I wait to see if he’ll repeat himself. When he does, I squeeze my eyes closed to listen.
How was your session? he asks.
The teakettle whistles. I let that be my answer.
My husband accepts the silence, doesn’t ask if I talked about Josie in therapy. I appreciate this, yet I don’t verbalize it. I know Aaron doesn’t want to pry. We have been cautious around one another since, in a slow, silent waltz around one another’s grief.
Tea in hand, I walk into the living room and station myself before my husband. I bring it up, telling him what I said to my therapist earlier. Just to check-in.
We got the call thirty minutes ago, my husband says. I didn’t want to tell you until you got home. His forehead is deeply lined, ridges of worry and sadness deepening each day. Aaron’s only thirty-five, yet today he appears ancient.
When? I say.
We can go now if you want.
Again, he tiptoes around it. Around me.
How about after our errands? I don’t want her to sit in the car, I say. Josie hated the car.
Aaron agrees. I grasp his hand and squeeze lightly. I hope this tells him what I can’t communicate verbally, that I love him and we’re in this together. That maybe someday soon we won’t be ghosts anymore.
I wait in the car while my husband goes inside. There is no on-street parking so I pull up next to a graffitied fire hydrant and press on the four-ways. I try not to think about him coming back with Josie in a box, her body reduced to ashes. From the brochure, Aaron and I chose a rich mahogany box with a brass nameplate. I’ve seen photos of its glossy redness. Its compactness. But I can’t picture Josie, who used to jump on us, coating our skin in sandpaper kisses, that small and still.
The car beeps when my husband opens the door. He settles into the passenger’s seat, limbs heavy. In his lap, he clutches the box. It looks just like the picture from the brochure except for the nameplate that mocks any attempt at denial. Its engraved brass shouts Josie is dead.
I allow myself one glance at it, and one moment to remember her little body breathing and then not in our arms. Her golden-brown eyes open, staring forward. Her paws slick with my husband and my tears.
How was that only two weeks ago?
I wait for the sound of her tail thumping in the backseat. Or her whine at the car not moving. I turn to my husband; his fingers grip the box so tightly his knuckles are bloodless. He stares forward, at the parked cars ahead. I follow his gaze; watch people get in and out of cars, walk down the street, talk on their cellphones as though it’s just another day. As though today isn’t a funeral.
I shift the car into drive, leaving the flashers, and together again, the three of us drive home.