Monster Behind The Masks

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Chapter 9

Anna


“I’m so excited Grand-mère! We’re going to France to ski Les Arcs!”

Jared raced into my loft, the skis donated by Caryssa raised overhead like a prized trophy. He wore a child’s smile that reignited our home with a sparkle that hadn’t been present for quite some time.

I loved seeing my grandson happy. “I learned to ski as a kid in the French Alps, so passing the experience onto you, kiddo.”

“But I don’t have to learn, I’m already ripping it up,” Jared boasted.

Pierre hesitated while loading the dishwasher, watching his grandson through curious eyes. “If you’re so good, why don’t you have your own skis?”

“Pierre, don’t start!” Josh can’t afford skis for his son, but I didn’t want to say so in front of Jared. And why undermine the boy’s self-esteem? There was no need for it.

Pierre tossed his hands up. “Calm down ma chérie. Just saying. Hardcore skiers always have their own equipment.”

I wanted to remind my husband our own equipment isn’t the latest and greatest technology on the ski-market either but realized with a sudden jolt why. We haven’t skied since we lost our girls. My stomach knotted, tightening with that realization.

“Well, maybe I’m not hardcore, but I master the mountain all right.” Two teeny frown lines appeared between the boy’s eyes. I wondered why Pierre needed to crush his spirit.

“Where have you skied?” Pierre questioned Jared in a juvenile way, resembling a teenager on the playground as if further testing his skill level. I noticed him look down at his feet self-consciously. Maybe his inner-child was speaking with words of love.

“Boreal.” Jared cast his own eyes down. I had a sudden urge to kick my husband in the balls. What was I mad at? I chased away memories of Pierre’s stages of grief—the deep anger that lasted an age, including him blaming Jared’s dad for his daughter’s suicide. As if it was his fault she became pregnant, and his fault she swallowed those pills.

I asked Pierre, “Why are you being such a hard-ass on your petit-fils? Let our boy shine!” This treatment seemed to have become an annoying habit.

“It’s okay, I’m fine with this Grand-mère.” Jared leveled his eyes with Pierre, standing straight with shoulders back. A warrior stance. He hoisted the top-of-the-line Atomic skis he’d just been handed for free and declared, “I’ll challenge you in a race Grand-père! Come on, we have a mountain to tame! Can’t beat me, old man—”

“There’s my petit-fils! You go tiger!” I high-fived my grandson, inspecting him. Thirteen-years-old, standing at 5’10” with golden hair hung over one side of his face. Something melts inside of me seeing his lop-sided smile. There he stands—pieces of me—pieces of Cassidy. His hauntingly familiar jade-green eyes luminous with excitement.

Pierre flashed matching eyes, meeting the challenge. He raised a finger to make his point, “But, there’s one problem young man. Boreal is no training grounds for the French Alps. I will kick your butt!” He warned with one scrunched eye. Words drenched in arrogance spilled from the corner of his mouth.

At this, the boy lifted his own finger in a dual challenge, eyebrows raised, “But I am thirteen, strong, fearless and agile. You are—”

“Fifty-nine and strong, with over forty years practice skiing the steeps and deeps.” He counteracted. “The pregnant snowball you learned on is no match, you’ll get your ass kicked kid!” He snickered.

I was enjoying the male bonding. But still, I wondered if Pierre wasn’t being too harsh. “Don’t worry Jared, your grandfather hasn’t skied in at least twelve years since you were born. He’s as rusty as an old nail.”

Pierre’s face crumpled, but he didn’t speak. Something was going on with him— something more than the lingering loss of our daughters. Perhaps he too, was reliving memories. Skiing. It was our favorite family activity—and it died with our girls.

Sensing his grandfather’s discomfort, Jared remained silent for a moment. Then, he asked, “Do you still have my Mom’s ski equipment?”

I exchanged swift glances with Pierre and noticed the compassion in his eyes as he spoke to Jared. “We do. Nothing of your Mom’s belongings, or Bianca’s, has been touched.” He assured with a soft voice.

Jared did a little dance in place, what I’ve always called his “happy feet.” But I recognized it for what it was: anxiety.

He stopped tapping his feet, and declared, “I want to see my Mom’s stuff. Her skis, her boots, her …everything.” Jared’s voice quivered as his words tumbled out.

Jared was two months old when Cassidy committed suicide. The only maternal bond he has are in the form of photos. Now he’s a teen, asking a great deal about the girl-woman who brought him into the world. Then left long before he even said his first word.

My palms were moist with sweat. Tears stung my eyes as I stood zombie-like, wondering what to say. I hadn’t been able to step inside the girl’s bedroom since the time I sat on their floor perusing heartbreaking photos. Our housecleaner Lily comes and goes weekly, so at least their belongings aren’t collecting dust with memories I desperately cling onto.

Lily’s words after cleaning yesterday haunted my mind. I quickly brushed them away as they bruised my soul. She had muttered: “habitación fantasma.” Ghost room.

I decided …Now’s as good a time as ever. “Your Mom’s ski equipment is in the walk-in closet she shared with Bianca. I might even use her skis for our trip. Let’s go take a look together!”

Pierre stared at me in shock. I was finally crossing a boundary, as I led Jared to the girl’s room. I was oddly at ease. I would be brave. Here and now and on the slopes, I’ll boldly crash through this final layer of grief. Perhaps crash through some ski-racing gates with Jared.

The moment we crossed over the threshold into the girls’ room, my heart leapt to my throat. I froze, staring off at Jared as he aimlessly wandered around the room.

Maybe it was my imagination, but I smelled my daughters’ being, felt their presence—like lingering perfume. Sweet and earthy. Clean and animal. How could this be, after thirteen years?

The room seemed smaller than I remembered as if the walls were closing in on me, suffocating me—or telling me it’s time for the room to disappear altogether.

My fingers gently touched the girls’ furniture, at once comforting and familiar— as I walked towards the closet to grab the skis. Jared was across the room, on Cassidy’s side. Looking sorrowful and intrigued, he scanned her walls, rubbing his arms as if chilled. He didn’t utter a word. I feared our little adventure into his mom’s room might be traumatizing him.

“Jared?” I called. He didn’t turn, and I was going to suggest we leave the room when words came.

“My Mom liked art?” he asked while looking at the paintings and drawings on the walls.

“Yes, she showed a lot of talent really early, like age two.”

My grandson still hadn’t turned my way. He continued to rub his arms. He was uncomfortable, an awkward expression crinkling his face, as he added, “She had lots of friends?”

Both Cassidy and Bianca had picture-crowded walls; giant colorful cork boards loaded with photos of friends.

“Your mother was popular Jared. She had an amazing personality.” My voice cracked. Hearing it, he stared directly at me. His eyes pooled with tears. I grabbed Cassidy’s skis, and something jammed into the corner of the closet caught my attention. My heart froze when I realized with horror what it was. The clothes she was wearing that fatal moment.

Since I had pushed back against implicating Brandon Garth, law enforcement seemed to realize Bianca was in the wrong for riding a motorized skateboard in the street, so close to available sidewalks. It was no longer considered a criminal case. Sergeant Coral had reluctantly handed me back the bag once considered “evidence” upon my request.

Just as I’ve not been able to ease the pain of change by repurposing the bedroom, I’d clung to this item as if to resurrect my dead child.

My hand trembled as I reached towards the white paper bag holding Bianca’s blood-stained clothes. Emotions swilled around me. My heart felt like a pinball machine.

Images wedged deep in my mind since the day I was told the case was closed, floated to the top of the space around me. I saw my arms stretched out towards Sergeant Coral: Please, Jason…please give me the clothes my daughter was wearing.

Why would you want them, Anna? Won’t it be too painful?”

“No…it’s more painful letting her blood be so disposable,” I had answered. Jason had looked at me with what seemed like pity, and said, “Okay, but this isn’t standard protocol.”

I was nudged from my reverie as Jared scooted from the bedroom without another word. In his wake, the last stage of grief presented itself with a vengeance, as if to say, “It’s time.”

My eyes roamed my daughters’ room. In my mind, it transformed into Jared’s room. Pieces of him—his personality. Cassidy’s artwork changed into a baseball poster, Bianca’s skateboard photos were swapped out for Jared’s ski adventures. The makeup vanity presented itself as a model airplane. The color palette of the world I painted used brushstrokes of blue, shades of black and gray—fading out the pink.

Something unfolded and glimmered within me. I was letting go—Acceptance. The bedroom I kept intact to shelter both my daughters’ souls will be purged. I can do this. I am strong. Where to start?

The bag of blood-stained clothes in my arms weighed down my grief and tore open my heart. I unsealed the bag labeled “clothes” and found a roll of paper containing what Bianca was wearing when she’d taken that fatal skateboard ride. It was labeled, “blood sample.”

My breath caught as I somehow had the nerve to tear it open, revealing Bianca’s favorite jeans and t-shirt. Why was I doing this? Who in their right mind wants to see the bloody clothes their child died in?

But for whatever reason, there they were, in my shaky hands.

My fingertips grazed over the crusty fabric, hardened through the years. The blood was black, darker than the dead of her life. I brought her shirt to my nose and sniffed, unsure what to expect. Nothing. I kissed my daughter’s blood that had haunted my dreams.

My eyes traveled to the edge of a nightstand and found a silver-framed photo of Cassidy and Bianca, grinning profusely. Across their chest was a sign that read; “Good luck in the race.”

After I reached over and picked up the glossy photo, memories flashed through my consciousness: a succession of disconnected scenes at track, cheerleading, art contests, Bianca’s first official skateboarding race, and school plays.

In a flood of tears, I buried my face in my hands, and let the uncontrollable sobs rule me. In a few moments, an inner calm swept over me, like my body was cleansed of a burden. Closing my eyes, I swallowed my sobs.

I dropped the clothes into the bag, sealed it up and placed it in its creepy corner—for now. It will be the first item to go.

I was relieved when laughter echoed from the kitchen. Just what we need, love and laughter. Grabbing Cassidy’s skis, I took one last look. Bringing Jared into the room had served a purpose. It brought this change in me—helped me see I am not betraying my daughters’ souls by letting go of their possessions—rather, I am enabling their precious souls to flow forward and rest in peace.

With skis in one hand, I sat on Cassidy’s bed and smoothed the comforter with a slight tremble. I flashed to when they were ages three and six, laying on this bed while I read stories. I’d read eight books a night to them. They were book fiends.

Finally, I stood, turned off the light and blew a kiss into the room, “Goodbye my sweet girls, Mama loves you.” And to the room, my mind sent out the signal: You will be restored to the land of the living.


“There she is, we thought you’d fallen into the twilight zone. What’ve you been doing?” Pierre smiled as I walked into the kitchen, skis over my shoulder as if I’m ready for the gondola already. If they only knew.

“Oh, just rummaging through Cassidy’s closet for these.” I propped Cassidy’s skis against the wall. We had just given them to her as a Christmas gift in 2007—a month before she died. The year that sealed the fate of our marriage, buried in double grief.

Jared looked at the skis—his mother’s skis—and said, “Wow, they’re still in the wrapper.”

I nodded, still spooked by my revelation in the ghost room.

Pierre lifted the skis, “I remember getting these for Cassidy. They were expensive not knowing if she’d use them so soon after the baby—” his words came to an abrupt halt.

He realized what he was saying. The fateful reason Cassidy never used the skis, hung in the air like the smell of an old wet rag. But unlike a smell, this couldn’t be ventilated out or overpowered by a stronger scent. This would linger in our souls until we each met our maker.

An awkward silence fell upon us. But it was Jared—that baby—who could pull the moment together with the emotional strength to say, “So Grand-mère, are you planning to use my Mom’s skis in France? Look at them, they’re still the kinda like the newer short shaped slalom skis!”

“Heck yes, I’m bringing them to the shop to have my bindings fitted on the way to meet Caryssa. Maybe they’ll bring good luck on the slopes.”

Both my husband and grandson raised their eyebrows. I wondered if the same thought occurred to them. The skis as a bad omen, a death wish to call for an avalanche on demand. As if the skis summoned a suicidal spirit. I swatted the negativity away.

There it was again—that emotionally charged heartbeat in our home. It hung in the air around us. The disturbed pulse hadn’t come from Pierre’s heart, or mine; but it was somehow shared. The empty space between us fed the odd rhythm. The empty pink bedroom down the hall.

“Well, I’ll scoot Jared home so you can get across the bridge to see your friend.” Pierre tapped Jared on the shoulder, “It’ll be good to see your Dad.”

This brightened Jared’s eyes. I was grateful to hear Pierre mention he’d like to see Josh. Within his stage of anger, which lasted more than half a decade, I wasn’t the only one blamed for our daughter’s deaths.

I hoped this was a sign that within the cycle of grief, we’re crossing the finish line heart to heart. Hugging the generations of love standing in my kitchen, I whispered to Pierre, “Don’t worry about me getting over any bridge, Caryssa has offered to meet in Sausalito.”


Caryssa and I stalked the hostess through the airy French bistro. Candles were aglow, dishes clanked aggressively, while chatter and laughter rose to a louder crescendo. “Avez-vous une préférence?”

We came to talk. I was about to answer when Caryssa pointed towards the outdoor dining patio. “Much quieter out there, and check out the view!” she suggested.

We were both dressed in that typical eclectic San Francisco-style casual chic prepared for sudden fog or cool weather. Dark skinny jeans, big scarfs paired with a sweater, big purse or backpacks for layers and a light jacket.

The low sun warmed us as our eyes soaked in the sights. Two huge palm trees cast their pointy, swaying shadows on the patio while a bevy of boats on the bay added to the South of France vibe. We had barely settled on which umbrella to sit under, as the waiter asked, “Voulez-vous boire quelque chose?”

I answered with a smile, “Le menu des vins s’il vous plaît.” To that, menus magically appeared from beneath his arms, as if tugging off his wings and handing them to us.

“Merci beaucoup.” I knew the menu by heart; I was asking for Caryssa’s sake. But the waiter disappeared into the dining room.

When he left, Caryssa shook the menu, “Holy crap, it’s in French, just like the wait staff. Charming, but how can I order? My bad French will show.” She spoke in a hushed tone, eyes dancing around, embarrassed she wasn’t more familiar with the language.

“Just let me do the talking. I’m experienced at the French service game.” I assured her with a wink. “And by the way, this is on me, as a token of my appreciation for the skis.”

“Wow, thanks! Quite a bargain, since Tyler outgrew those skis and they’d just collect dust in the garage.” Caryssa scanned the industrial-chic bistro with less embarrassment and more intrigue. “Speaking of garages—”

“Yup, the restaurant’s a converted garage, hence its name Le Garage. It’s got a rustic feel about it—I love this place, the only one in the area with authentic French cuisine. The service is usually excellent, but not sure about this French dude.” I raised my arm, waving slightly, calling out to the waiter, “S’il vous plait.”

He appeared in an instant. I spoke with perfect pronunciation, “Une carafe de Pinot Noir s’il vous plait.”

The waiter nodded. Caryssa asked if we should also order our food now. Upon hearing Caryssa’s English, the waiter responded with a thick French accent that rolled off his tongue, “Would you like un apéritif, perhaps?”

I rattled off a list of dishes, including Dungeness crab, raviolis dusted with fresh basil, escargot, and a crispy salad with goat cheese. My taste buds could hardly wait.

Our wine came. We toasted to nothing in particular and everything about life itself. “Ready for the French Alps?” Caryssa asked, sipping her wine.

“No, how ’bout you—packed for your ski trip to Utah?” I asked while snapping a picture of a sailboat gliding into a slip, back-propped by the bright pink and tangerine sky after sunset.

“I’m always packed for skiing. The trick is to never unpack—just wash dirty clothes and toss them back into the bag. ”

The words clothes and bag tugged at my core, shooting me warily back to that moment in my girl’s bedroom. I slapped the memory away. “I guess I do have one item ready for the trip, new skis.” I said.

“New skis! How exciting, does this mean you’ll finally go skiing with us?” Caryssa had been trying to get me to ski for years, but I …couldn’t. The mere thought was too painful. Without my girls, who could no longer enjoy their favorite snow sport, it seemed selfish.

I wasn’t intending to bring the topic up—Caryssa and I are forever talking dark thoughts within beautiful backgrounds. Yet, I needed this therapy for my soul. I had to take this final hurdle.

Our tiny dishes came at once. As we sipped while tasting the French delights, I unraveled the haunting moments in my girl’s room, dumping the horror on Caryssa’s lap so as to share the burden. Judging by the look on her face, she was happy to share the load and help ease my pain. Mothers—we stick together.

“The skis aren’t new. They’re over a decade old but still the cool parabolic shorties on the market. They’re Volkls like yours.”

“Oh, nothing wrong with buying used skis, especially since you haven’t skied in at least a decade anyh—”

“No.”

“No, what? You have skied over the past decade, without me? You’re caught, red-handed!” Caryssa laughed, sipping wine. But her humor was stifled with my revelation.

“They’re not used, the skis. They’ve never been removed from the factory packaging. I haven’t skied since—” my sentence was cut off by the waiter’s arrival.

He came by, asking if everything is to our liking. I shooed him away as if he should recognize a private conversation when he saw one. “Caryssa, the skis were Cassidy’s.”

Caryssa’s mouth fell open; she leaned in towards me, “Wow, that’s brave of you!”

“Thanks for recognizing that!” I swirled my wine glass without thinking, allowing the sloshing to settle my woes somewhat, like standing aside a babbling brook and attempting to let it carry away my worries. “I hope her distress doesn’t emanate up from her skis, steering me into oblivion.”

To this, Caryssa went mute. She waited, as if willing me on. And really, what could she say to such a dark premonition? I’d left her in an undesirable position. The thought ran in circles and I watched it go, run into the distance and close in again, rounding the corners of my mind.

As if to make me feel better, she said to me, “I understand, skiing can be such a mind-game. It’s easy to lose our mountain mojo. But try to think of Cassidy’s skis as good luck charms rather than a black cloud.”

To this, I merely nodded, sipping my wine. Cassidy was an expert skier by age ten. Maybe her skiing edge will put the spring back into my rusty performance. I tried to let the thought lighten my load, but I’d stuffed the bad omen thing too far into my subconscious.

We ate in silence for a moment enjoying the fresh bay breeze. There was a chill to the air as the sky darkened with my thoughts. The vibe and view commanded more—something uplifting—positive. But getting through the final stage of grief seemed to only come with facing this.

Caryssa waited, as if she sensed something lurked in my psyche that needed releasing. My lips tightened, and the words spilled out, “I found something in Bianca’s closet.”

“Uh ha, go on.” She replied, measuring expressions before letting them sit on her face. This was a delicate situation, the smallest infraction could cause emotional bedlam; she knew that, hence the steady pace of both her gestures and expressions.

“A baggie, with the blood-stained clothes Bianca wore during the accident.” I dropped a bomb, which exploded onto her face.

“Oh my God.” Caryssa’s fork stopped midway between the plate and her mouth. A tremble running through her arm caused crumbs of food to fall from the fork, as if they wanted no part of this conversation, a jump back into the dish being a preferable fate.

“But know what? I’m okay with this. I mean, not okay with losing my daughters, but learning to live with the heartache that breathes within me.” I took an almighty inhale, a much-needed one. “I see this as the final step—of letting go.”

Caryssa remained silent, having placed her fork back in the dish, confounded in a maze of motherly pain. She sat hunched and fragile. A twinge of guilt hit me for bringing this up. But she was my friend. Who else would I confide in? Of course, I understood her awkwardness. Not only was this topic a difficult one, it reminded her that the very same thing could happen to Tyler. Life was unpredictable. There are no guarantees. Everyone dies, regardless of age, accidents and tragedies can happen. I realized her sensitivity, always afraid something might happen to Tyler. This obviously wasn’t my intention. “I promise I’ll change the subject, but how do I dispose of it?”

“I…I…” she stuttered, words catching on her tongue like cloth catching in a zipper, until a stream of coherent words slipped out. “There are services that help with that—”

“No, I need something more spiritual.” I cut in. Her advice was rational, but I needed something more sentimental, more meaningful. “I mean, I can’t give it to Goodwill or toss it into the trash. My daughter’s blood is not so dispensable.” I explained, biting back a tone of patronizing, not wanting to upset a friend who is merely trying to help. This conversation can’t be easy for her, she was stepping through a minefield, concerned that one wrong word or phrase would offend or hurt me.

Caryssa placed a hand over her mouth. I was about to switch to a less morbid topic, but she surprised me. “I don’t know how you feel about this, but I’ve heard of people burning their loved one’s clothes, and spreading the ashes somewhere they enjoyed.”

That’s perfect! Not only was it getting rid of the soiled clothing, it could be a sort-of ceremony, and even allow me to take that final step of letting go. I held back tears. I restrained a fist bump, as it didn’t seem appropriate. But I was relieved, we’d met with a pleasing resolution. In no time at all, I responded.

I blurted out the first place that popped into my mind: “The skate park.”

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