Melissa had already begun to melt. A pool of water ran from her tiny feet onto the wooden floor. Her five-year-old body stood rigid before the fireplace, hands held to her side like a statue, fingers blue and caked with crystals of ice. She wore the same white dress she’d worn in her coffin.
Michael’s face looked haggard when he spoke, the face of a man hanging onto the edge of a cliff by only his bloodied fingernails, eyes deadened with the resignation of his fate. “You aren’t going to believe this, but I demanded that God give her to me. My faith was nearly gone.”
I watched the water drop from Melissa onto the floor in soft plunks. A muffled ripping sound emitted from her body, a noise like her flesh was tearing apart under the ice. The firelight caused shadows to dance across her shiny face hypnotically.
“She came back to me, Richard,” Michael said, his fingers running lovingly over her icy skin. “I can’t believe it. God gave her back to me.”
“You don’t know that,” I said, feeling repulsed by the dead girl. I noticed her eyes move slightly. “We don’t know what the hell this thing is. God doesn’t give people back.”
It was painful staring into the face of Michael O’Connor after he’d lost his little girl. When I looked into his eyes, I was always overwhelmed. They made me feel like I was staring into a window of a blazing house, watching someone burn to death – only the person was just standing there stoically letting the flames devour his blistering flesh.
“It’s Melissa,” he said. “She is from God, Richard. And don’t call her a thing.”
Looking at Michael by the flickering fire, his dead little girl standing before the flames, I could see the astonishing transformation. Gone were his pudgy chipmunk-like cheeks – replaced by sharp, severe cheekbones. The eyes that at one time had twinkled with a mischievous gleam were dark and gloomy, an edge of menace in the pupils, as if he had just crawled from the battlefield of a particularly brutal war. His frame was wiry and emaciated, nothing like the rotund form of only two years before. His hair, once full and curly, was shaved down to his scalp. Michael held the look of someone on the verge of shrieking in anguish before folding to the floor in a quivering fetal position.
Melissa died in a drowning accident. Only a year before that, his wife, Lisa, had died from an agonizingly slow bout of cancer. Melissa had always been a very special child, so wise for her years that it was frightening. When I first heard she was dead, I broke down and cried right where I stood.
We had gone to the cabin to escape Michael’s grief, to get him away from all that reminded him of his lost little girl. I don’t think he had left the state of Arkansas in his whole life, so I felt a change of scenery in the Pennsylvania mountains would do him good. Though being here had not erased his grief, he seemed more relaxed than I’d seen him in a long while.
We found her in the snow outside the cabin, standing rigidly in the cold wind. The moonlight made her blue skin shimmer like the stars above. Snowflakes swirled around her. I couldn’t even breathe I was so stunned.
Michael wept instantly, starting with an odd, painful sob before exploding from his lips like a storm. He fell to his knees in the snow, shoulders shaking as he whispered his daughter’s name like a mantra.
We carried her heavy body into the cabin, my mind too numb and unable to grasp the possibility of a dead girl coming back to see her Daddy.
“Don’t you realize how strange this is? How impossible?”
As I asked the question, a large piece of ice fell from Melissa’s open mouth to the floor, shattering into tiny slivers. She spoke, water dripping from her glossy teeth, though her lips never formed the words.
“Daddy, I’m sorry I went swimming without your permission,” the child’s voice said, all wet and soggy, almost bubbly, as it boomed from still lips.
My skin prickled. It was too surreal, like demonic possession.
Michael sobbed before he was able to speak. “I know, honey. I know.”
Melissa began to cry. Her eyes slithered slowly to the left until they locked with mine, the sound of ice being dragged against stone as they moved. She had no pupils – just the dead blackness of space. I moved backwards as if struck, her dark gaze piercing into me with quiet violence.
“That’s not Melissa,” I whispered, my breath stopping as her eyes stabbed into me again with frightening rage.
Michael hissed – his fists curling up into tightly clenched balls. “She came back to me. God knew how much I needed her and He gave her back to me.”
I ignored the sound of the ice breaking as she melted free. “Melissa is dead.”
“Don’t you think I know that!” He snapped, grabbed my shoulders and pulled me into him, spraying my face with spittle. “I’ve suffered every fucking day since she died, Richard! Not a day goes by that I don’t hear the sound of her laughter! See her running by in the corner of my eye! I see her every night in my sleep! Not a day goes by that I don’t feel the loss of her!”
“Listen to yourself, Michael. You just said it. Melissa is dead. You’re talking about her in the past tense because you know this. Dead people don’t come back.”
He fell to his knees before the frozen corpse. I watched, repulsed, as Melissa’s eyes crept sluggishly downward.
His voice dropped to a soft whisper. “I prayed every day for her to come back to me…and now she’s here. There is no other way to see this except for an act of God.”
Her blue-pink fingers wiggled back and forth, water dripping from the edge of her nails. Her eyes darted back to me, daring me to speak against her.
“People don’t come back from the dead,” I said. “Whatever the hell this thing is, it’s not Melissa. Any fool can feel that she’s dangerous.”
“Fuck you,” he hissed, wrapping his arms around her icy corpse, his hot tears falling onto glacial arms with a soft hiss. The little girl giggled, her throat undulating softly under her motionless mouth as if there were insects awakening from within her cold flesh.
Michael flinched when she giggled like that, his body tensing. I think some part of him knew that what he was embracing was just plain wrong, but he was desperate. Hell, if I had been in his place, I would have done the same damn thing.
By the next morning, Melissa had completely thawed out. She moved sluggishly, with a clumsy jerking of her limbs – like she didn’t have the ability to walk on her own and someone above was pulling invisible strings in lurching motions. Michael watched her with the guilty gaze of a heroin addict – a man who knew the absolute wickedness of what he was doing, but was unable to stop.
The snow had never really let up, and continued to blanket the world around us. Its usual serene beauty no longer made me feel safe.
She had no memory of anything after she’d died; she remembered only up to the point where she had drowned. At one point, they sang a childhood lullaby; Melissa perched awkwardly on his lap, a line of pinkish drool falling from her slack mouth. Her voice sounded far off, as if she were talking from a long distance away and was using her body as a receptacle. It was one of the most frightening things I have ever witnessed, and to this day, when I see that moment in my mind, I’m gripped by a wave of revulsion unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.
Because it was also the first time I noticed she was decomposing.
Melissa’s skin was turning slightly gray – no longer the pale white color of the snow she seemed born of. Her eyes, at first filled with moisture, had grown hard and black, not unlike the eyes of a doll. They did not focus on anything, only stared into nowhere, and I was certain that if I touched them, they would feel like coal.
“Her skin is rotting,” I said, no longer concerned with treading lightly.
Michael ignored me, picked her up, and took her into the bathroom. A few moments later, I followed and watched from the doorway. I could only shake my head and fight the urge to weep. Michael had a tube of ointment and was rubbing it over her festering wounds; desperately trying to stop what he knew was coming.
Melissa just stared at me, her dark mouth like a third eye. Tear tracks glistened down Michael’s face as he mumbled, his hands frantically massaging the medicine into her sores.
“It hurts, Daddy,” Melissa said, her voice soft and vulnerable – yet more distant than ever.
Michael closed his tear filled eyes. “I know, honey. I’m trying to make it better.”
“I’m sorry, Michael,” I whispered.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Why is God taking her back? She’s dying.”
Though I tried to hold it back, I gasped – the air fleeing my body as if from a punch. He was rubbing the ointment onto her bare back, the strap of her dress hanging limply to the side. Her spine was sticking through the rotted flesh, yet his fingers rubbed lovingly over the knobs of bone.
“She was never alive,” I said, part of me hoping to destroy the abomination before me.
“He’s taking her back,” he said distantly. His fingers stroked her protruding spine obsessively. “He gave her to me to strengthen my faith, but now He’s punishing me for questioning Him.”
“If God gave her to you, He’s a cruel God.”
Michael buried his head into his daughter’s chest. “Leave us alone, please.”
“I love you, Daddy,” Melissa said as I walked away. Her voice was far away and creepy, like a tape player with a low battery.
By the next day, the skin on her cheek had rotted away completely, exposing her cheekbone to the stale cabin air. Maggots could be seen eating the flesh on a wound in her forearm. Melissa could no longer speak, only moan softly in a queer sing-song-like melody. Michael continued to frantically rub her with ointment.
I cried as I watched them, wanting so badly to do something – anything – to stop the pain my friend was feeling, but I was helpless. We both were. By this time I was too far-gone to help, too numb. Melissa’s face had begun to sink, the outline of her skull beginning to take shape under her decaying skin. It was as if her bones were coming through, her flesh melting away like ice.
Later that night, the wind pounding the walls of the cabin, Michael spoke to me for the last time. “I’m going with her, Richard. I can’t bear to lose her again. You’ve been very good to me. I’ll always love you for that.”
We embraced. Sometimes I can still feel his warm arms around me, and to this day I wish I had stopped him.
Michael picked up Melissa, who dangled like a rag doll, arms and legs swinging lifelessly as they moved. He did not look back when he opened the door and walked into the brutal wind.
I watched him carry his little girl into the sea of white, his dark clothing stark against the swirling snow, until he disappeared, the whiteness devouring him languidly.
When they found his body several days later, Melissa was not with him. He was leaned against a tree, his arms circled around nothing in a dead embrace.
Not a day has passed that I don’t think about what happened to us at the cabin. Part of me often wonders if we both didn’t suffer from some bizarre hallucination – or if I had somehow bought into Michael’s fantasy of bringing his girl back to life.
I often think of them.
Even outside of sleep, I can still hear Melissa’s laughter with vivid clarity – see Michael weeping over her decomposing body. My dreams have become infected by my experience that winter. I haven’t had a good sleep in at least a year.
I dread the upcoming winter.
It seems I am never truly warm – no matter how many sweaters I put on. Often, I wake up in the middle of the night shivering beside my wife, my teeth chattering together.
I have my own little girl now, and I can’t help but think of the cabin when I look into her beautiful eyes. Knowing what happened to Melissa has tainted the elegance of my child. She seems so fragile now, her life so fleeting, and it’s not hard to imagine myself in Michael’s place.
I hope my friend and his daughter have found some peace – wherever they are.
I know I haven’t.
About the Author
David Whitman is the author of several books, including Delightful Agony, Deadfellas, Harlan, Body Counting, and two Scary Rednecks and Other Inbred Horrors books (with Bram Stoker winning author Weston Ochse). His short stories have appeared in over 100 publications over last 15 years.