On a father-daughter day out, they decided to go visit the old castle ruins as their last stop. It was off-season now, and the tourists were gone, but still available to the locals to access for another week before it officially closed.
Best of all, he thought, it’s free.
Riva took off like a shot.
Hopefully her last burst of energy, and she’ll sleep on the way home. Did I have that much energy at seven?
He was tired now, and looked forward to dinner, a long hot shower, and being with his wife. It had been a good day, and he was hoping for an even better night.
She was already climbing the old castle’s stone stairs, enjoying the crunch of the autumn leaves beneath her pink Barbie sneakers, by the time her father made the clearing and saw her there.
“Riva, come back, come down. There’s nothing up there, honey. You’ll fall.”
She smiled at him, the one that melted his heart like hot butter. “No I won’t, Daddy. The lady told me to come up. She said she won’t let me fall.”
“What lady?” Then he realized, her imagination had taken hold; this had just become more serious for him. Had the stairs not been as high, worn, and jagged as they were, he might have even laughed, but they were, and he was afraid for his little girl. At the top of the stairs, there was only a precipice, and if she fell, bones would be fractured, if not broken.
The sun was setting, the wind was picking up, and her hair was blowing all about her face like an unraveling bird’s nest.
He made an effort to keep his voice calm, patient, reassuring.
He put his arms out and opened his hands, flexing his fingers in a ‘come here’ gesture. “There’s nothing at the top of the stairs of the stairs, honey, no lady there. It’s good to pretend, but it’s getting late. Riva, you need to come down now.
“Don’t be scared. Daddy’s got you.”
She stared at him a moment, her little face as serious as he’d ever seen it, then she pointed back up the stairs. “I’m not pretending, Daddy. She’s right there.”
She turned and looked back up, then back at him, fear in her eyes.
“You’re making her mad.”
He sighed. There was nothing to do now but go and get her. Kids, man…
“Riva, I’ve had enough. We’re leaving. Now.” He started walking up.
“Daddy, no.” She went up another two steps.
He took bigger strides, skipping steps now. “Don’t worry, honey. Daddy’s coming to get you.”
“Daddy stop! She’s going to hurt you.” Riva began to cry, and turned to run.
He just caught the bottom of her jacket, pulling her back, but something strong, sudden, and fierce grabbed his arm, broke it at the elbow. Crying out, he released his grip, stunned and frozen in place as the pain shot through him.
Then it pushed him down the stairs.
Still dazed and hurting, he tumbled down a few steps and fell off the side, onto his back, hitting his head on a stone. It was bleeding, and he couldn’t move his legs. A cold, creeping numbing took hold of him, cradling him in its arms.
I’m going into shock.
At the top of the stairs, he saw the lady whispering into Riva’s ear. His daughter turned and looked back down at him, wiping her eyes, and waved to him.
The last thing he saw was the lady bending down to pick his daughter up, the bright pink of her sneakers fading to gray, then her jeans, then her jacket… the lady stepped off into the air where nothing was, and vanished.
He closed his eyes, waiting for death, hearing her last words over and over in his head, each time getting softer and further away.