Maria lived in a city filled with the dead—graveyards as plentiful as bakeries—but none of them ever came back, until the day that her daughter, Teli, showed up on her doorstep holding a chocolate doughnut and a cat. There were colorful sprinkles across the dark brown glaze of the doughnut. She had searched her mind, but could not remember ever seeing rainbow sprinkles on a chocolate doughnut and so that was why the first thing that she said to her daughter, after three years of grieving, was “where did you get that doughnut?”
Teli glanced down at the object. “Someone gave it to me.”
And then Maria fainted.
Teli Devros disappeared during a summer when she was meant to be studying languages in South America. Maria had watched her plane fly away and hadn’t had any eerie premonitions. People asked her about this later. Did you know that was the last time you’d see your daughter? Could you sense that something would go wrong? Were there omens? But there was nothing. Only the normal sadness she felt whenever her daughter would not be near her.
When Teli did not send her customary daily e-mail, Maria was not worried. She imagined her daughter couldn’t get a signal or was busy. When two days passed, she tried not to get anxious. On the third day, she made the expensive call to Teli’s advisor on the trip.
The advisor said, “Teli went on a hike. She hasn’t come back.”
The advisor said, “We’re looking for her.”
The advisor said, “Don’t worry, Mrs. Devros.”
And then days became weeks became years. Fifteen months after her daughter chose one of the most difficult hiking paths and never returned upon it, her hoodie—a steel gray one with sleeves worn down to fringes—was found soaked through with her blood. Upon receiving the news, Maria stood up and walked to her hanging calendar. She picked up a pen and drew an X through the day and then she drew the X larger, through the entire page, and then she tore out the page itself and ripped it into tiny pieces.
“Mom,” her daughter said and Maria was brought back into life. Maria opened her eyes and her daughter helped her to her feet.
Maria wanted to ask her daughter where she’d been, she wanted to ask her if she felt alright, wanted to ask her if heaven looked the same as earth, but instead asked, “Whose cat is that?”
Teli looked down at the cat in her arms. It had ginger fur, fluffy and soft. “He’s for you.”
“Oh,” Maria said. She stepped aside and her daughter walked into the house that she had grown up in. The cat leaped from her arms and scampered down the hall.
“Everything looks the same,” Teli said.
“I kept it the same,” Maria responded.
Teli walked in front of her mother, down the hallway, taking bites from her doughnut. She looked at the photos on the wall, pausing in front of one of her early school photos. “Do you remember me when I was that young?”
“I remember everything about you growing up,” Maria said. What she didn’t say was that even remembering everything wasn’t enough.
“I remember that one birthday where you made a cake that looked like a ladybug. It was red velvet, right? I can taste it still sometimes if I think hard enough. Red velvet’s strange, isn’t it? It’s like chocolate cake that wishes it weren’t.” Teli ran her fingers along the wall as she spoke. She’d done it as a child, too. Always had to be touching her surroundings, as if she wasn’t sure they really existed.
Maria studied her daughter. The years and death hadn’t seemed to changer her much. Her hair was cut shorter and her voice had more cracks in it as she spoke. Maria reached out and touched Teli’s arm. It was real: solid and warm. Teli paused in her walking, glancing down at her mother’s hand. Maria squeezed just slightly, testing to make sure that her daughter’s flesh was real.
Teli raised her head and stared at her mother’s face. Their eyes met and Maria saw the tiny wrinkles forming across her daughter’s face, the signs of age creeping in where once there had only been youth. “Mom?”
“Can I have a cup of tea?”
Maria thought of the years that had passed. She thought of the box in the attic, all the things sent back from her daughter’s trip, all of the items that she’d wanted to destroy in anger for not protecting her daughter. “Of course. Lemon?”
Teli nodded and they walked to the kitchen together. The cat was asleep in the window seat, light shining in and bouncing off its fur. Maria went to the stove and put the kettle on. She took the mug that Teli had loved as a child, covered in fireflies that only appeared when hot water was poured in.
Teli sat at the table, resting her head on her arms in front of her. She yawned. “Sorry, I just came so far.”
Maria placed a teabag in the cup. It was the perfect opportunity to ask her daughter where she’d been. “You want honey?”
“Yes, please,” Teli said. Her voice getting softer, like it always did when she was sleepy.
Maria poured the tea, added a spoonful of honey, let the mug warm her hands for a moment before setting it in front of her daughter.
“What was it you always used to say to me when I was falling asleep?” Teli’s voice was so soft, Maria almost couldn’t hear her. It was almost as if she spoke from another room, another place altogether.
“You had such nightmares as a child so I’d say, ‘even in your dreams, I’m always here.’”
Teli nodded, wrapping her hands around the cup. “You were, too, you know. You were always there.”
And they sat together as the room slipped in and out of light.
Chloe N. Clark's work appears in places such as Cosmonauts Avenue, Hobart, and more. Her forthcoming chapbook, The Science of Unvanishing Objects, will be published in 2018. Find her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.