Whispers and scrapes behind neatly pressed shirts, their sleeves swinging, shifting on their hangers. Supernatural sounds ought to alarm me, but in the wee hours, one listless eye simply falls to the closet. I lick my lips and rise to my elbows. Across the room, a silhouette huddles and snickers, playing hide-and-seek.
It was her favorite spot. She experimented with a few others: stretching underneath my bed, slipping into a cupboard and rattling pans, nestling inside the drier, its circular hatch closed, begging me not to turn it on as I bluffed and pondered aloud whether my clothes were dry.
When she was done playing, she’d kneel into the closet for the last round, eyes glinting between the wooden louvers. Sometimes she tricked me by heaping clothes upon herself, offering the same protection as a blanket from the boogieman. I’d cartoonishly stalk the room, stamping each foot and swooping my arms, a fearsome giant sniffing out the blood of an English man.
I blink, bleary-eyed, not caring whether this is just a lingering dream.
“Daddy, can’t you find me?” she asks in quiet desperation. If it’s a mirage, approaching too quickly will frighten and disperse it. My toes touch the carpet, then knees and palms, carefully maneuvering, as though submerged in molasses.
“Sweetie, sit tight. Daddy sees you,” I whisper back.
The last time I found her was 10 years ago.
My eyes adjust to the dark, their only help from feeble starlight, transmitted from enough light-years away to span my daughter’s birth, then passing, back into the cosmos. The last time I saw her in clear daylight was drawing her from the lake, brown hair slick across her face, as I wailed in impotent agony.
I creep along, skin scraping across the carpet, closing enough distance to touch one tiny, pale foot. It withdraws, slipping deeper into the closet, scampering away. I hold my breath and fight not to tear forward and chase after her. Spirits are delicate wisps, and can collapse at the slightest provocation. Composing myself, I crawl head-first into the wall, my forehead passing through it as easily as mist.
Crawl, crawl, elbows and knees, starlight gone, feeling along dusty cavern walls, passageways narrowing so abruptly that standing upright or turning around are unthinkable. They snake and split and drop into pits. Whatever fears I have of losing my way, unable to backtrack to my room, and my life, are secondary to hugging her again, her serene face pressed against my beating heart, safe. Both of us, safe, at last.
“Daddy? Where’d you go?” No longer whispers, but reverberations, so soft I can only approximate their words. I lunge forward, helpless to resist my panic, and smash nose-first into jagged rock. As my daze subsides, I open my eyes to horizontal crevices. Peeking through them, I spy upon myself, lying in my bed. Only, it isn’t me... no more authentic than the bait it has used to ensnare me.
Dressed in my flesh, it smirks at me, triumphant in its cunning plan to escape its prison. A landslide of sand muffles my screams of protest. My fists are paralyzed, submerged in earth, unable to thrash against my prison walls. An avalanche of dirt crashes upon my face, blinding me and crushing my chest, clogging my ears and nostrils.
Earth vanquishes my body, and my mind will soon follow. Before it flickers and snuffs out, one final moment of lucidity prevails, long enough for a vow.
Wherever she’s hidden, I’ll find her.