“Compline” by Erica Ruppert

It’s really winter, now. The ground is impenetrable, the air too bitter to breathe. 

We spent Christmas week digging graves. First Cissi died, then the cats, one after the other. Cissi was only three. It would have been safer to burn them all, but I didn’t know what winter would bring. The last few were hard. I didn’t want to waste the wood. I’m sick of being cold. We piled rocks over the graves instead and hoped for an early spring.

It was hard on Ben. He had always loved the holidays. 

The children were all alive the year the power went out for good. Ben drew us a tree on an old bedsheet, and we tacked it to the wall and pinned ornaments to it. In the short days the balls caught the light and sparkled. At night they were dull as stones. We hung the sheet again this year, but there were no gifts to go with it. Not with Cissi gone. I couldn’t bear it. I thought she would be the one who lived. 

I miss my children. They had their father’s joy in celebrating. When Tom and Ben Junior and Dahlia were still small, Ben would let them dance ring around the rosie around a real tree until they were all laughing too hard to go on. I would watch, and clap in time. The dancing was Ben’s.

We burned Tom and Ben Junior and Dahlia, two summers ago, when they came back. No worry about the cold, then.

I want to let go of all the old holidays, but Ben isn’t ready. Not yet. 

In bed tonight, in the quiet darkness, Ben reached up and touched my face. “Shh, Mary, can you hear it?” 

I could, but I lied. I wanted him to have the wonder of it. “Hear what?”

“The church bells.”

No one rings the bells anymore. It’s only the wind. The church has been empty for years. Ben still goes up there sometimes, mostly in the spring. Sometimes he stays up there the whole day, alone with the broken pews. He says it gives him a sense of continuity. 

I wrapped my hand over his.

“Yes,” I said. “There they are.”

He slid his hand down to my belly, trying to stir me. I stopped him. It’s too hard to keep trying if we have to bury them all. 

We lay like that for a while, watching the stars through the unshaded window. I miss my family, my children. So many gone. I couldn’t protect any of them. Everything gets taken away. 

Ben sang carols just under his breath. I felt myself drifting. 

A thin scraping rattled along the front of the house. Ben did not seem to notice it.

“Everything’s locked?” I said across his reverie.

“Yes,” he said.

I got up anyway to check. The moon was bright. The window glass was icy when I pressed against it to look out. I could see the orange cat on the porch with dirt and frost in his fur, scratching to be let in. 

“What is it?” Ben called down, his voice drowning out the faint bells. The cat looked up at me from sunken, cloudy eyes. Poor thing. Habit must have brought it here. I don’t think it could know what it wanted.

“Nothing,” I said. I hope he heard me. I hope he goes to sleep.

I’m going to wait down here awhile. The night is quiet. The cat watches me. It’s past feeling the cold. But habits are strong things.

When Cissi comes home, I’m opening the door.

Erica Ruppert writes weird fiction and poetry from her home in northern New Jersey. Her work has appeared in magazines including UnnervingWeirdbook, and PodCastle, and in multiple anthologies. She is, very slowly, working on an unplanned yet persistent novel.