“Tara, time to get up and come take your meds,” the male voice boomed.

Tara squeezed her eyes shut as the light in her room flickered on, waiting to hear the sound of the giant wooden door slamming. When it did, she sat up slowly, remembering where she was. She looked down at the mint scrubs and plastic band around her wrist and felt her eyes threaten to swell up and pour over. Tara swallowed forcefully, attempting to banish the tears. She would be strong. She wouldn’t give anyone any further reason to keep her here.

Tara pulled herself from bed, running a hand through her hair. She thought about showering, but quickly banished the thought, remembering she had none of her toiletries. She debated asking David to bring them, then scoffed.

No. Her husband was the reason she was here in the first place. As Tara walked out of the room and into the main hallway, she thought of her argument with him the night before. David had insisted she was crazy, that she had lost her mind in her grief. “If you don’t come with me, our marriage is over. I will file for divorce in the morning,” he’d threatened, his eyes burning with anger. Though she knew her marriage had already failed, knew it had been some time since he had truly loved her, Tara had agreed, hoping to find clarity in the time away. Maybe she was crazy. After all, how normal was it to talk to a dead person?

She stood in line behind the other patients, waiting to be handed her first round of medications. What were they going to give her? Anti-psychotics? Mood stabilizers? She suppressed a sarcastic chuckle, figuring it depended on what exactly David had told the doctors about her. While not a vindictive man, David Mitchell had a flair for the dramatic. His habit of turning small problems into huge events had always been part of their problem. Everything was always life or death with David. He’d probably made her out to be a raving lunatic, ravaged with grief over the loss of her only daughter. Her baby. Her chest seized up, eyes swelling. Though she tried to fight them back, to bury them back into her mind, the memories still came.

Tara was working on a painting as a present for the new neighbors. Abigail was out of school for the week, off entertaining herself somewhere. In truth, Tara had hardly seen her the past couple days outside of dinner and bedtime. An independent and anti-social child, Abigail wasn’t one to cling to her mother for affection or attention. Tara glanced over as she dashed past, watching her long clumsy legs. “No running!” Tara had shouted after her. She knew she was being ignored, and found she didn’t care enough to repeat her efforts.

It wasn’t long before she heard the shriek, followed by the thuds coming from the stairs, followed by a sickening crunch. Tara tensed up, continuing her work. She knew what that sound had to be, knew what must have happened because of her own poor supervision. Still, she finished the last few brush strokes, hoping if she waited it out long enough it might all turn out to be her imagination. 

As she approached the nurse, the woman smiled, handing her a little plastic cup filled with three pills: two blue, one white. She raised an eyebrow before obediently swallowing them, moving out of the line for the next patient to go. The panic did not set in until reaching the breakfast table. Would these pills cause her to stop seeing her sweet Abigail? If they did, was she truly crazy? She sat down, indifferent to all the chatter happening around her. It was as if her demons were swallowing her whole.

“Abby would have been six tomorrow,” she whispered to no one in particular. Instead, she would never age another year. All because Tara had failed her as a mother. She picked up her banana, idly playing with it for a moment before standing up and leaving the table.


The small voice came to Tara in her sleep that night, barely above a whisper. Tara knew before opening her eyes it was Abby. She rolled over, moving her blanket to the side as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the room. The form of her daughter came into focus.

“Mommy, where are we? Why are we here?” Abigail asked, sitting on the edge of the bed. Tara’s room looked more like a prison cell; the walls were white concrete, the floor a harsh dark carpet. A small writing desk sat next to the bed, a wardrobe across the room. Aside from those few small comforts, the room was barren. There were no posters or pictures on the walls, nothing to make the room appear comfortable.

“Mommy is just staying here for a few days, sweetie. Your daddy was worried that Mommy might need to talk to someone about some things…well, I’ll be out of here soon,” Tara finished, unsure what to say. She watched Abigail pull her long slender legs to her chest, her thumb finding its way into her mouth. Ringlets of long strawberry hair fell into her face.

“Why, Mommy?” she pressed quietly.

“Well, Daddy saw us talking at home and, well, he was worried. He couldn’t see you like I can, honey, so he thought that maybe Mommy wasn’t really seeing you either,” Tara explained gently. She longed to reach out and comfort her daughter, to hold her and assure her things were all right. She refrained, ignoring the sharp pain in her chest when she realized she would only go through her.

“Daddy doesn’t think I’m real?” Abigail asked, her eyes like saucers in her small head.

“He just isn’t sure, baby. We just haven’t shown him yet,” Tara said, faking a smile.

“Do you think I’m not real, Mommy?”

Tara paused for a moment, considering before answering. “No, baby, you know I don’t. Mommy loves you very much,” Tara said, unsure if she was lying. A yawn escaped through her mouth, causing Abigail to smile.

“It’s late, Mommy. We need to sleep,” Abigail said, her tone taking on the authoritative quality she had always wielded. Despite being an only child, Abigail had somehow always found a way to seem bossy. When she was but a baby, Tara and her husband used to kid that they were simply their daughter’s slaves until she could fend for herself. “Can I sleep next to you?”

“Oh honey,” Tara cooed sadly. “You know I would if I could, but…”

“Well we can pretend, Mommy, just like we used to when we played restaurant. I can lie next to you, and we can both pretend we’re snuggling,” the girl replied cheerfully.

“That sounds like a great idea.” Tara smiled as well, scooting closer to the wall to make room. She watched as her daughter climbed next to her in the bed, observing how this new form lacked all of her child’s old clumsiness. She no longer dragged her limbs behind her or staggered and stomped around; instead, her movements were all deliberate and smooth, even graceful.

“Goodnight, Mommy. I love you forever and ever,” Abigail whispered sweetly.

“Goodnight, baby. Mommy loves you, too.”

“Good morning, I’m Dr. Winslow. So, Tara, you’ve been communicating with the ghost of your daughter?” the woman asked, her thick New York accent making Tara cringe. The pair sat in Dr. Winslow’s stuffy box of an office, the intimate proximity making Tara squirm with discomfort.

“No,” Tara said quickly.

“No? But it says here in your file from Dr. Hopper that last night-”

“Yes, I know what it says,” Tara interrupted. “I did tell the doctor last night that I thought I had been talking to Abby, but I know now that I was wrong.”

Dr. Winslow frowned, scribbling into her notepad. “I see. So, then you aren’t getting visits from spirits?” she asked skeptically.

“Oh no, I am. It just isn’t my daughter,” Tara finished confidently.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand-”

“I don’t either, really,” Tara admitted, forcing herself to swallow. “It looks just like my Abby. It even has her voice. But a mother knows her child, and that isn’t my baby girl.”

“Well then, who is it?” She leaned forward with interest, the overwhelming scent of cigarettes and cheap perfume violating Tara’s nostrils.

“I don’t know. I don’t know who would do this or why. Look, I know I sound crazy.”

“We don’t call people crazy here, Tara. It downplays the unique circumstances people go through with mental health issues. Grief takes many shapes and forms. What makes you so certain this entity isn’t your daughter?”

“Abby was very standoffish from birth. Hell, my husband and I had her tested for autism twice,” Tara said, a hollow laugh escaping her lips. “She never wanted to cuddle or spend time together. She didn’t want us to read her stories or play games with her. She just kind of kept to herself. She was smart, the smartest little girl I’d ever met. She could read those little kids’ picture books before she was four. But, she read them to herself in her room. She liked playing games on my phone or watching TV in her bedroom. The only time we really spent with her was forced, eating dinner or doing her homework.”

A wave of guilt washed over Tara, taking the breath from her chest. She had wasted the precious few years she had with her baby girl. She let Abigail play alone, locking herself away in her bedroom. Instead, Tara busied herself with her painting and chores around the house, cooking and hemming clothing and tending to the garden in the warmer months. She let time slip through her fingers, and now her daughter was gone. She should have pushed her harder, should have forced her daughter to spend more time with her family.

“Hmm.” Dr. Winslow mused, her mouth pressed into a tight line. She adjusted her glasses on the bridge of her nose leaning backwards into her old leather chair, pushing her hair behind her ear. “Tara, is it possible what you’ve been seeing is the little girl you wish your daughter had been?”

Tara felt her rage boil over. Her vision began to blur, and she found herself standing before even making a conscious decision to do so.

“Fuck you,” she whispered. When the therapist indicated she had not heard her, she continued, shouting, “I said, fuck you! I loved my daughter!” Tears rolled down her face, the guilt and grief pouring from her eyes. Her voice shook, her fists clenched by her side. “You don’t even know me, and you certainly didn’t know Abigail. She may have been different from some of the other kids, but she was my entire world. She was everything to me!”

With that, Tara kicked the edge of the sofa and stormed from the office, her vision blinded by her tears. She ignored the sound of her pulse in her ears as well as the throbbing in her foot as she raced back to her room, her chest empty with loss.

Abigail was waiting in her room when she returned. She sat perched on the edge of the bed, wearing the same dress she wore to that fatal day. Her silky curls were tied behind her head in a pink ribbon, matching the flowing spring dress that fell below the girl’s knees. She fixed her mother with a coy smile, her legs swinging as they dangled down from the bed.

“How long have you known, Mommy?” the little girl asked, her voice almost a sing-song.

“How long have I known what, baby?” Tara asked, wiping the tears from her face with the sleeve of her shirt. She felt the hair on the back of her arms stand up. She crossed the room towards the bed slowly, skeptically.

“How long have you known I’m not Abigail?” she pressed, rolling her eyes. At the shocked expression on Tara’s face, she let out a giggle. Though the sound used to fill Tara with joy, this time she felt nothing but dread. “I hear everything, you know. Even if you can’t see me, I can see you.”

“What do you want from me?” Tara whispered, stepping backwards towards the door.

“Don’t worry, I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to help,” she beamed. “But first, let me change out of this getup.” The little girl snapped her fingers, and instantly she was gone. Instead, a tall gentleman took her place. He wore a crisp suit, his dark hair slicked back onto his head. His skin was so flawless his complexion resembled that of a doll, his face so beautiful Tara thought for a moment she imagined him. He beamed a smile at Tara, accentuating the dimples in his cheeks and revealing two gold incisors.

“This is much better,” he said, brushing the arm of his sleeve. “I’m actually glad you figured things out so quickly. I am not accustomed to wearing such a tiny meat suit. Allow me to introduce myself, Tara Mitchell. I am Gates.”

“Gates?” she repeated, arching a brow. What kind of a name was that? “What do you want with me, Gates? Where is my daughter?”

“She’s fine, dearie. Don’t you worry about that. See, she passed so unexpectedly that, when the time came to cross over, she just wasn’t ready. She wanted to be able to say goodbye to you and her father, to apologize.” He stood, crossing the room towards Tara. “She loved you. And she wanted you to know it wasn’t your fault, so you could let go of the guilt.”

“Then why are you here? Why isn’t she?”

“Well, crossing into the realm of the living from death is no small matter. It takes a lot more power than little Abby had. I saw her wandering around lost, trying to find a way to reach out to you. My heart broke for her. I told her I’d come here, that I’d talk to you for her. See, helping!” He let out an eerie laugh.

Tara sank into the chair at the desk, her head spinning with thousands of questions and ideas. “Why impersonate her? Why pretend to be her?” she asked, her voice choking.

“Come now, love, would you have talked to me if I’d shown up in your bedroom as myself? Hmm?” He reached out, lifting her chin to meet her eyes. “I mean you no harm.”

“You can touch me,” she gasped, throwing herself backwards in her chair. She began to configure escape routes in her head, wondering how she might get away.

“Well, sure I can,” he beamed, spinning on his heel.

“I’m quite a bit stronger than ghosts or spirits, dearie. I have substantially more pull. But come, do you really want to talk about me?”

“Abby,” she whispered, sitting upright. “How is she? Is she okay? Can I talk to her?”

“One question at a time, Mrs. Mitchell! She’s just fine, just missing you as much as you seem to be missing her. And you can’t talk to her, at least not as she is right now,” he said, his face taking on a pronounced frown. It almost seemed fake, the exaggerated lines of his mouth as he looked down at his feet. Tara felt her heart sink into her stomach, defeat and depression once again overwhelming her.

“Oh.” Before she could stop herself, her bottom lip began to tremble and her sadness once again started to flow from her eyes. She bit her bottom lip forcefully, the taste of iron filling her mouth as she cursed herself for her uncontrollable emotions.

Gates looked at her, tilting his head to the side. He was silent for a moment, crossing the room slowly and sinking into her bed, his eyes still on hers. Finally, he spoke, his voice low. “I’m not supposed to do this-it really is against protocol-but I can’t stand to see you and your baby girl suffer anymore. I might be able to help you.”

Tara perked up, nearly falling from her chair. “Yes, please, help us!”

“Well, as you probably know, I can’t return her to you in the same form. It would get a lot of strange looks, a dead girl walking around and all. But, I can put her soul into a different vessel here on Earth. She’ll be yours to have and to hold again,” he explained slowly.

“Please, I would be so thankful,” Tara explained, her voice choking. “I’d do anything.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that, dearie,” Gates replied with a slight turn of the lips. “See, as much as I wish I could just return her to you out of the goodness of my heart, but it doesn’t really work that way. All magic has a price.”

“What do you want from me?” She sobbed.

“Well, the price is pretty specific. It will cost you your soul.”

“My soul?” Tara repeated, baffled. “What could you possibly need with my soul?”

“Come now, what do the living really do with their souls anyway? What value is it to you right now? Is it worth more than your dear, sweet Abigail?” He cooed, tilting his head to the side and smiling, the light reflecting off of the metallic teeth. “The price is more than fair, a soul for a soul. It’s just the law of the universe.”

Tara hesitated, unsure. She knew the odds of Gates truly being a Good Samaritan were slim. She also knew the value of souls, knew souls were what lived on past the body. Then she remembered the sound of the thumping coming down the stairs, remembered finishing her painting before checking on her daughter.

“You’re right, that seems fair enough,” she replied, voice shaking. She could hear David’s voice in the back of her head, urging her to slow down and consider her decision more carefully. Tara ignored it, digging her nails into her palms as she forced herself to appear calm and composed before Gates.

“Do we have a deal then, dearie? I need to hear you say it,” he grinned, stretching his hand outward. Tara reached forward and grasped it, her eyes avoiding his.

“We have a deal,” she whispered.

No sooner had she uttered the words when her palm began to burn, as if a brand were being held into place. She let out a scream, pulling back. Inside her hand, she found a scar in the shape of a circle, the head of a snake hissing from the core. Seconds later, it sunk into her skin. Gates stood with a cackle, brushing off his suit.

“Wonderful news, girl. Here.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small stuffed deer, tossing it to Tara. She caught it, looking down to find emerald glassy eyes staring back at her. Gates started to make his way for the door, humming a tune as he went.

“What the hell is this? Where are you going? Where is my daughter?” she demanded, reaching out and grabbing his arm. He looked down at her hand, pausing before shaking her off with disgust as if she were a speck of dirt on his favorite suit.

“You’re holding her! A deer for my dearie. Your daughter’s soul is now forever imprisoned in that trinket. Long after you die, she’ll remain here. When the doll is inevitably destroyed, her soul will be too.” Gates cackled madly.

“You said you’d give her back to me. You lied to me,” she cried, falling to her knees. Her tears fell like diamonds to the floor, her chest heaving with every sob.

“I said I would put her soul into another vessel, and I did. I never said it would be a living one,” he snarled. “Do not impugn my honor, you foolish girl. I upheld every bit of what I promised you. Now, get out of my way.” He kicked her aside, walking past her.

“I’ll tell them what you did!” she screamed, slamming her fists into the ground.

“Tell who, Tara? Who is going to believe you? Look around, you’re in the nut house,” he grinned. “You know what they say – never make a deal with the Devil.”

Gates disappeared, leaving Tara holding the stuffed deer alone. She waited for the crushing guilt and agony to come, but it never did. Instead, she just felt empty.