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Don't Answer

Nebula and Bram Stoker award winning author Nina Kiriki Hoffman has published more than 300 stories. In addition to publishing throughout the science fiction and fantasy world and being shortlisted for every major award in the field, she has appeared in the pixels of Daily Science Fiction eleven times now.

Tonight is the night they come back.
My parents locked me and my younger sister India in our room every year until this one. Now they say I'm old enough to sit in the living room, to hear the knock on the door, the cries and whispers at the windows. My sister is up in our bedroom all alone, with a plywood board nailed over the window for the night. She has her iPad with the Wi-Fi disabled, and a stockpile of snack foods and decaffeinated beverages. She's not allowed to look at news tonight. Dad put the camping toilet in our room, just like last year.
Mom closed all the living room curtains, the gauze ones and the heavy winter curtains. Usually light leaks into the windows from the streetlight outside. Tonight the only light in the room is from the candles Mom lit on ceramic plates around the room. She put six on top of the piano and two on the coffee table. Everything's golden and grim. It's spookier than if she turned on the regular lights.
Dad hands me a mug of hot chocolate. It has marshmallows in it. I sip. It's my favorite fall drink, and usually I only get it when I'm very good. I say, "Wait. I thought I was old enough for tonight. Isn't this a kid drink?"
"Abida, you're a tweener now," says Mom.
"What does that even mean?"
A knock sounds on the door.
"Shh," whispers Dad.
I drink. The chocolate whispers warmth and comfort, spreading sweet and dark across my tongue. I savor it and wait for Dad to get the door.
The knock sounds again, louder this time. I put down my mug and walk toward the door.
"Don't answer," Mom whispers.
"Is it Kevin?" I say that aloud, and then I hear, all along the walls, the whispers and murmurs of many people outside.
"Mom, it's me," says Kevin's voice through the door. Kevin. My twin brother, who died last year. My left side is always cold because he's not there, where he belongs.
"It's not," Mom whispers.
"Abida. It's me. Let me in. I just want to see you again."
"Kevin!" I run to the front door and grab the doorknob.
Dad grasps my arm, but I unlock the deadbolt and turn the knob before he can stop me.
The door eases open an inch, two inches, three, and I see Kevin. He's not solid, more a space outlined in blue light, but his face has the same half smile we turned on each other when we shared a joke without speaking it aloud. My whole body aches from missing him. I reach for the mental touch we used to have all the time, one of the other things I miss constantly.
My mind touches something arctic cold. It hurts. I stick to it as though I licked a frozen flagpole. A tiny spiral of warmth, an orange fingerprint, is melting through the utter ice. The pattern and the color feel familiar, the cheery glow of my life before Kevin died. I reach out--
Dad slams the door and locks it. His arm wraps roughly around my shoulders. He jerks me back toward the living room. "Do you know what you just did?" he whispers.
"Kevin," I whisper.
"It's not Kevin." He sets me in front of him and shakes my shoulders. "Abida. It's not Kevin. Kevin's gone. You know that."
I don't know that. I just saw him. Felt him.
Not him. But a version of him. Better than nothing. Better than the last half-dead year, where I had zombied through my life, alive only in the art of remembering all the ways Kevin wasn't there anymore.
The door rattles. The deadbolt turns. The door eases open a crack. One inch, two, three. Something green and eerie oozes in, spreads across the hardwood floor, rolling toward us on a low, bubbling, cloudy tide.
"Too late," Mom whispers.
She and Dad embrace. They close their eyes as the green touches their shoes and sizzles.
I glance up and think of India, locked in the room upstairs, a blanket along the crack of the door to keep things out. Snacks. Beverages. A toilet. Maybe in the morning she'll be able to make enough noise to get someone to come and let her out.
I kneel and reach toward the green with my hand, toward Kevin with my mind.
I feel him. I'm sure.
I'm not sure.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 13th, 2015

Author Comments

Every year, the Wordos Workshop in Eugene, Oregon, holds two holiday short-short story read-aloud sessions, one before Halloween, and one before Christmas. Everyone in the workshop can write a piece of flash to read aloud to each other. We brainstorm themes ahead of time, and sometimes write stories addressing them. "Don't Ask" was one of this year's Halloween themes.

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman
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