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I sat on the back step last night, looking out toward the moor where the silhouette of my daughter Emilia paced along the edge of the property. When the crickets quieted down, I could hear her voice calling out softly, “Mama? Mama?”

Emilia’s mother, Madolyn, had passed away from complications of pneumonia the year before. Her parents had wanted her body flown out to Montana, to be laid to rest in a family plot, but I couldn’t bare the thought of her being taken away from Emilia and me. I had her interred in the nearby Maple Grove Cemetery. At night, if I looked out my bedroom window, I could see the stone wall in the distance that marked the edge of the lot, and wish my beloved good night.

It was hard raising Emilia alone. She was only six, far too young to have to experience death for the first time. When she asked where mommy was, I told her that she was laid to rest in the cemetery across the field and wasn’t coming home. Emilia took it to mean that her mother was lost, and begged me to go out to the cemetery and help her come home.

“She can’t come home, honey.” I told her, “She’s gone.”

Emilia cried. She accused me of not loving either of them. “If you won’t help Mommy, I’ll do it myself.”

“No, Emilia,” I hugged her tightly, struggling with the words. “You don’t understand. She can’t come home.”

“I’ll run away. I’ll run away and stay with Mommy.”

We came to a compromise: I allowed Emilia to walk the field in the early evenings and call to her mother. As long as she never passed the property line, and she dressed warmly, she could do that. I didn’t know what else to do, and silently prayed that she would eventually come to understand that her mother wasn’t coming home.

She didn’t.

It was a cold Winter evening, and the ground out on the moor was crusted over with frost and a dash of snow. A biting wind howled outside. For the first time since we laid Madolyn to rest, Emilia did not go out to call to her. I made her a cup of cocoa and read to her by the fire, both of us wrapped in thick blankets for warmth.

At bedtime, I didn’t mention it, but I was thankful she hadn’t gone out. I watched her brush her teeth, then helped her into her nightgown, tucked her into bed, and kissed her goodnight.

“Do you hear that?” She whispered to me.

All I heard was the sound of the wind against the side of the house. “It’s nothing,” I said, turning out the light.

I awoke to banging coming from downstairs. It was past midnight, and the house was eerily still. Sometimes, the screen door to the backyard would get loose, and a strong wind would slam it shut. Pulling on my bathrobe and slippers, I went downstairs to latch the door. I paused a moment, looking out at the back yard and the moor just beyond it, all illuminated in pale moonlight.

Just outside on the step, there was a small set of footprints in the snow… Emilia’s footprints.

Oh no.

She must have gone out to call for her mother, having not done it earlier. Panicked, I ran out into the dark night, following the footprints and calling her name. “Emilia! Emilia, come back inside!”

It was difficult to see, but I knew where she’d be going, and the light from the moon helped somewhat. Cutting across the field in the direction of the cemetery, I could just make out what looked to be her small form near the wall that marked the edge of our property.

As I approached, her little voice just barely broke over the wind. “Mama?”

“Emilia!” I called again, “What are you doing? Get inside!”

There was something else. It was carried on the wind almost as if it was part of it. I thought at first that it was an echo of my own voice.

“Emilia.”

A shadow moved along the stone wall, twisting like smoke, then coalesced, taking human shape. I saw it, but I didn’t believe it. It had to be a trick of the moonlight, a cloud passing overhead that made the shadows dance. But Emilia saw it too, and ran toward the darkness.

“Emilia! No!” I yelled.

“Emilia…” The shadows whispered.

“Mommy!” Emilia cried, and she opened her arms to the black silhouette.

I stopped in my tracks, the harsh chill of the wind seemed to fade away as I stared at what I was seeing. “Madolyn?” I whispered.

“Emilia…” The wind whispered again. Thick, smoky tendrils reached out to my daughter in an embrace, and the thing that called to her paused a moment to turn and look at me. In that moment, I knew it was not my wife. Two pinpricks of orange fire burned in the swirling darkness of its face.

“Emilia!” I shouted, “Get away from that! It’s not your mother!”

Emilia didn’t hear me. She never turned, never took one step away. Whatever it was, this shadowy impersonation of a human being, to Emilia, it was Mommy.

I stumbled toward them. My legs felt sluggish, as if unseen hands were pulling me back with each step. I could not seem to bridge the distance between us. The wind drowned out the sound of me screaming Emilia’s name.

The shadow’s features stretched like taffy, elongating beyond human definition. Its arms wrapped around Emilia’s body a half dozen times, encircling her again and again. The head swelled, then opened and moved with frightening purpose, enveloping my daughter in its smoky haze. It consumed her with a hiss even as I heard her weep with delight and calmly whisper.

“I love you, mama.”

Roaring, I charged forward. The inky blackness scattered on the wind. Emilia stood a moment, eyes closed, her arms out hugging the empty air, and then she keeled forward, falling to her knees. I caught her as she collapsed and pulled her to my chest, feeling how icy cold she was. She didn’t shiver, or struggle, and her eyes never opened. Her body went limp in my arms. I hugged her against me and rocked her back and forth.

“Emilia. Emilia, come back to me.”

My father came outside and sat beside me on the back step.

“You should come in,” he said, “It’s getting cold out here.”

“I’ll be in shortly,” I told him. “I’m watching Emilia.”

Even as I said it, the distant dark shape flitted away like a flock of birds. My father looked out at the field, missing its departure. He patted me on the back with a sigh and then stood and went back inside where my mother was tending the fire.

I wonder what it is, this shadow on the moor. Some nights I see it, and it’s my Madolyn, softly whispering Emilia’s name. Other nights, it’s Emilia, calling out for her mother. It never calls my name. Always it lingers along the stone wall that borders the cemetery, taunting me, daring me to go to it. One day soon, I will.

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