Just in time for the Day of the Dead and not quite for the prompt that I used as inspiration: “You go to visit your neighbor. When you ring the doorbell, a stranger appears and tells you that your neighbor has been dead for ten years.”
A dull thud rang through the concrete walls and across the short hallway. Isabella froze, knowing precisely what it was. No, not again… She threw her headphones onto the ground without bothering to press pause. The music, unbearable at first, grew fainter and fainter with each step she took outside of the room. Her father lay on the floor, arms twisted at an odd angle that was uncomfortable to look at. Her bare feet stepped over broken shards of glass just in time. She glanced down and saw tiny drops of blood around her father’s head. She opened her mouth to form a silent scream. You will not have much time when it happens, her father used to warn her. The words echoed in the back of her head. You have to use the telephone. Her fingers, trembling, fumbled over the wheel. A voice on the other end of the line told her that she managed to get all three numbers dialed correctly.
Less than a minute later, their conversation was over, and Isabella was on her knees.
“I called the ambulance just like you told me to,” she whispered. She sat next to her father and stared at the clock on the wall. The hand between the other two heaved past four more numbers before hesitant words broke through the haunting silence.
“Isabella, I’ll always be…”
He faltered. Isabella waited. It was just like last time: a croak, possibly another fall, maybe a stream of tears to follow. Her father’s eyes were half-open, and his lips slightly apart. Isabella couldn’t bear to look at him. She did what she was told to do. So now what? What about later? What if the illness overtook him once and for all?
You’ll be… what, Dad?
A grunt broke her train of thoughts. She glanced to her right. To her astonishment, it was her father pushing himself up as if he wasn’t close to being lifeless just ten minutes ago. He stared at his hands, eyes widening, like they were an unexpected sight, as if they weren’t supposed to be there. He let out a short, piercing shriek.
Her father looked up. He seemed as stunned as she was. He waved his hands in the air, blinked once, then vigorously shook his head. “Isabella.” He sounded desperate. His arms were still extended. “You have… you have to turn the ambulance around.”
That was about the last thing Isabella expected to hear from him. “What?”
”Please.” her father groaned as the sirens surrounded the house. “I’m…” he struggled to keep his voice level. “I’m… fine,” he said. Isabella wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince: himself, or his daughter. She started to protest and had a good argument formed, but a knock on the door interrupted them both. She had no time to think. She reluctantly ushered her father back into his room and walked up to the door where she could see silhouettes of men and women behind the window.
She yanked the door open. “I’m so sorry,” she said before anyone could react. “I lied.” Her voice was as casual as it definitely shouldn’t have been. A short silence followed.
”What?” the woman in front finally said, her expression barely hiding her disgust towards the teenager. She turned towards a man also in a neon yellow uniform. “Kids these days, Matt,” she said. “They think this shit is funny. Is this funny?”
The man shrugged.
“I get it,” she said, frustration evident in her voice. Isabella didn’t know who it was towards. “If you’ll excuse me, we’re busy trying to save lives that need saving.”
Isabella resisted the urge to respond with go ahead. Instead, she gave her a blank stare. The woman eventually turned around, the rest following closely behind. The sirens had long been turned off by then. The woman glared at her one last time before she climbed in the ambulance. Isabella flinched. She would’ve felt sorry for the paramedics if it wasn’t for the confusion that built a massive wall in her head.
A sharp bark followed the screech of the ambulance as it disappeared around a corner. Isabella turned her attention to the house across the street, a carbon copy of her own if not for the chihuahua that sat in front. He had no leash, or that was what she could see in the dark. He looked too well cared for to be a stray, though.
He barked once again, this time at an elderly couple making their way up the short path to the house. Are they not his owners? she wondered, puzzled, then realized he was barking because he was excited. He was soon jumping all over the two, furiously wagging his tail. But to the moment when they closed the door behind them, neither cared to take one look at the dog. It wasn’t even like they were trying to ignore him. It was as if he didn’t exist to them. He started to whine.
It didn’t make sense. It was the first time that Isabella saw the dog. He wasn’t a stray, but clearly wasn’t the couple’s, either. The dog whined once more, and she couldn’t help it. She looked to her left before crossing the street. The dog’s eyes lit up with excitement, his body shuddering under the orange street lamp. He couldn’t sit still when he saw that she was walking towards him. How many people had he tried to reach before? How many ignored him when he did, and why? She had to know. So she walked straight up to the door she never tried to reach during all those years, the dog on her heels. She knocked, not expecting much. It was very late, after all. But she heard footsteps, and she took a step back when the same woman held the door open.
“Hi,” Isabella said breathlessly, already out of breath due to being nervous.
The woman didn’t respond but instead looked at her suspiciously.
“I was just…” Isabella’s face grew red as she pointed at the dog, who was by now scratching at the door, trying to get the woman’s attention, who gave him none.
“Listen, why aren’t you taking care of this dog?”
“What dog?” It seemed like a genuine question.
“You… you don’t see him at all?”
Isabella didn’t know what to say anymore. “I had a dog once,” the woman said. “You’re very young, though. I don’t think you could have been here to see him.”
“Was he a chihuahua?” Isabella said, looking down at the dog whose legs were wrapped around hers. “White, with…” she stopped to count. “Four brown spots?”
The woman raised her eyebrows, alarmed. “Yes. Yes. He was the sweetest. When he died…” she looked up. “I couldn’t bring myself to ever raise another one. I just…”
“Wait.” Isabella stopped her. “He died?”
“Ten years ago,” she said. “It has been so long…”
The dog barked once more. “Thank you,” Isabella interrupted. “I just had to ask.”
She hurriedly stepped off the lawn before the woman could ask questions she couldn’t answer. The dog. There was something about the dog, and it freaked her out. Was he a ghost dog? If he was, why could she see him while she couldn’t? The dark didn’t help, nor did the fact that today was Día de los Muertos. She started to run.
Before she knew it, she found herself face to face with her father.
“You shouldn’t be standing,” Isabella hissed.
“Don’t even worry,” he said. “Dinner?”
He was trying to scrape eggs off an ancient pan. Isabella frowned. He shouldn’t be as cheerful as he was now. It just didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense today.
“Sure,” she said, a bit uncertain.
“I saw what you were doing, by the way,” he said over his shoulder.
A single bark pierced through the night. Her father turned around and smiled. He pointed at the door. The dog was scratching at the door. Again. It hurt to imagine how many times he would have done the same thing to his previous owners, only to be ignored every time.
“You can hear him?” she asked, incredulous, but relieved all the same. “Okay…” she muttered, more to herself than her father. Was this a gift, the ability to see ghosts? Did it run in the family? Then again, what kind of a gift was that?
“Why don’t you let him in?” he insisted.
“You know what?” Isabella said as her father tried to push one egg towards the middle of a plate. “I’ll do it. I’ll adopt him.” She walked to the front door and opened it. The chihuahua wiggled his way through. She sighed. As scared as she was of ghosts, she was more than glad that he made his way to her house without being run over by a car.
She picked him up. His tail repeatedly beating against her hand, he started reaching his tiny ghost tongue towards her very real face. As she strained away from him, she glanced at the clock. The longest hand was ten seconds away from joining the other two. Her father looked up from his deformed eggs and smiled at his daughter.
“Isabella, I love you.”
Isabella stared at him, bewildered, as his body started to shimmer. It was now almost transparent against the kitchen cabinets. She understood. What stood before her was not her father, but a different version… and that was okay. As long as that version of him felt better after two long years of battling chronic illnesses. She looked down. The chihuahua felt lighter. He had no idea what was happening to him. And that was okay too, she decided. He finally found someone that loved him. That was all that mattered.
“Remember, I’ll always be watching over you,” her father said.
The clock ticked one last time.
Isabella was now alone in the empty kitchen.
She dragged the other egg onto her plate and started to eat.