Max Campbell stood staring down at the small burning bones at his feet. The crackle of the fire and the pop of the bones as they cracked and charred sounded loud in the otherwise silent graveyard. The tears that he had been holding back until now fell, sliding down his cheeks until they lingered on his chin. He stared at the gravestone in front of him, leaning on the shovel he had used to dig up the grave.
In Loving Memory
The little red dress she had been buried in was in shreds, and the material burned easily. Max scrubbed his sleeve across his face, wiping away the tears and setting his jaw. He had to burn his daughter's bones; there had been no other option. But it did not stop the guilt from eating at his stomach. He thought back to how this had all started, just yesterday.
It had started out as a normal day. Max had gone to work at the barber's shop and returned home in the evening as usual. But then something strange had happened. When Max read the newspaper, he liked to drink a cold beer. He would sit in his comfy chair and turn the TV on low, catching up on the news as he relaxed. But that night something changed. He reached for his beer and it was not there. It was a little to the side, so his hand had grasped empty air. He frowned slightly, picking it up and taking a swig. He set it back down and returned to his newspaper. When he reached for his beer a second time, however, the same thing happened. It moved.
Max grew frustrated and set his paper down. When he did, he froze in shock. There, standing in front of him, pale and small, was Joana. His daughter. Her long brown hair was wet, dripping. Her eyes held dark circles under them, standing out purple and black. Her red dress was also soaked, bunching in places.
Max sat completely motionless in his seat, staring. It was his daughter, his baby girl. But it could not be her. Joana, his lovely Joana, had died in a car accident caused by a drunk driver five years ago. She could not be standing there in front of him, looking at him with angry eyes. He lifted his drink, looking at it and wondering if he had had too much. Suddenly she was in front of him, slapping the beer bottle away from him viciously. The bottle crashed on the ground, and shards flew everywhere. The beer soaked into the carpet, as Max stared at it in disbelief.
"Joana?" he said hesitantly in a hoarse voice, looking up at the little girl who was now standing back where she had started. He stepped toward her, his hand reaching for her face. He touched only air. She was gone.
He did not know how long he stood there with his arm outstretched, as his eyes stared into nothing. He finally lowered his arm and went upstairs to bed, doing his best to forget about what he had seen, deciding to blame it on the alcohol. He got to his bed and flipped back the covers, lying down in his clothes, just wanting to pass out. He closed his eyes, hoping to get some rest. But he could not shake the feeling that someone was watching him.
He opened his eyes and inhaled sharply, sitting up straight as Joana was there again, staring at him, water dripping from her dress and hair onto the floor. He ran a hand over his stubble and through his messy brown hair, wishing he knew what to do. He was thoroughly freaked out by now.
"What do you want?" he asked as gently as he could, not wanting to frighten the girl.
She just looked at him, not moving; the water making a puddle at her feet. Suddenly she leaped forward and grabbed him by the neck, her mouth opening in a silent scream as her eyes filled with rage. Max was so surprised he did not know what to do at first. He grabbed the girl around the waist and flung her off of him. She flew into the air and landed hard against the opposite wall. He sat up, coughing and grabbing at his neck. She pointed a finger at him and opened her mouth again, her expression one of rage and fury.
"What do you want?" Max demanded, convinced this was the ghost of his daughter come back to haunt him. He did not know why she was so angry, or why she was attacking him. He loved her more than he loved himself. When she had died, he felt like his heart had been ripped from his chest. So he did not understand why she would want to punish him.
Then he remembered. He had been driving the car that day. He had been the one to crash. He had killed her. Tears sprung to his eyes as he looked at his little girl, the ghost of his little girl.
"Baby, please . . . I love you. I never meant to hurt you. You know that, right?" he pleaded.
The ghost just looked at him without saying anything, before disappearing again. Max sat there, completely defeated. He rested his head in his hands and sighed, not sure what to do at all. He went to his computer to research ghosts, wondering if that was what she really was. It did not make any sense to him, but how else could he explain it? In the end he simply went to bed and to sleep, because what else could he do?
The next morning Joana was not in sight. Max was on edge when he went into work, however. He could not concentrate on his work and ended up giving his shift to someone else. While in the back room getting his things together, Joana appeared again. This time wielding one of the barber scissors. She came swiping at him in anger, cutting his arm. He clutched at the shallow wound, as he turned and ran.
He had read online that the only way to get rid of a ghost was to burn their remains. He drove to the graveyard, his hands shaking on the steering wheel and sweat running down his face. Joana was not there, but he could feel her presence, looming over him. It was a terrifying feeling. He jumped out of the car once he had parked at the graveyard, running to the groundskeeper's shack and breaking in, pulling out a shovel. He ran to her gravesite then and started digging.
Her casket was small, as were her remains. He got out his lighter and flipped the flame on, dropping it onto the remains. She appeared suddenly then, looking at him with more anger.
"I'm so sorry, baby," he gasped, the tears burning his eyes as he leaned against the shovel. "I love you."
The bones and dress burned to ash, and Joana disappeared, leaving a broken and guilty man behind.