It took Monique Grant three minutes and thirty-six seconds to stop screaming. By then, her grandmother, Lillian, had made her way into her bedroom and turned on the desk lamp on her nightstand.
The nightmare always had the same effect. Monique was sitting on her bed with her knees pulled up to her chin and her blanket wrapped around her, rocking back and forth with her eyes closed. Lillian sat down next to her, patiently waiting for her granddaughter's fear to subside. Gradually, the rocking slowed, then stopped and with an involuntary shudder, the young girl opened her eyes.
Lillian sat with Monique in silence for another minute before speaking.
"At first," Monique explained, "nothing...or at least...nothing new. We were in the car. Upside down...Dad unbuckled my seatbelt and pushed me out..."
Lillian pulled Monique closer to her as she continued.
"I can hear the other man's footsteps...See his shadow once I stand up...but I can't see his face...And then I...I hear the gunshots..."
Fresh tears flowed from Monique's eyes as she buried her face in her grandmother's shoulder.
"I ran away." She sobbed.
"Because he told you to." Lillian said gently.
"I left him in the car..."
"It was all you could do, love."
Pulling her away so they could face each other, Lillian looked into Monique's eyes and wiped away her tears.
"It wasn't your fault," she explained. "That man chose to shoot your father. That's why he wanted you to run. He wanted you away from them because he knew there was nothing you could do to stop it."
"But now, I can see him." Monique whispered.
A look of confusion crossed Lillian's face.
"The shooter?" She asked.
Monique shook her head.
"Dad...That's what's different now. I used to wake up after I heard the last shot and reached the top of the hill. But this time...after the shot... everything fades away...and then I see him."
"Does he say anything to you?"
Monique shook her head again.
"I think he's haunting me."
"I'm serious, Grandma. Before you came in, I...I saw him in front of my bed...And when I'm awake, I see him everywhere. At school...At church...I never feel like I'm alone."
"Do you want to feel alone?" Lillian asked.
"Yes...I mean no...I don't know..." Monique moaned in despair. Fresh tears welled in her eyes and again, her grandmother reached up and wiped them away.
"I'm losing my mind." Monique said as she laid her head on her grandmother's lap.
"I don't think that's true," Lillian replied. "You're still grieving the loss of a loved one. But you're also forgetting that death separates us from the body, not the spirit. Your father's spirit hasn't passed on, love. That's why you can see and feel him."
As Monique took a long, deep breath, she felt a wave of weariness wash over her. Her eyelids drooped, but she tried to keep them open, afraid to go back to sleep and have the nightmare again.
"You're not the only one, love," Lillian said gently. "After you're grandfather died, I could see him too. As clearly as I can see you right now. In every room of the house. In the backseat of the car when I went grocery shopping. I was scared too at first. I thought I was going crazy...until I realized something."
By now, Monique's eyes had closed. Weariness had overpowered the fear. Grandma was rubbing circles on the small of her back, and she didn't feel cold anymore.
"What was it?" She murmured wearily.
"Whenever I saw Daniel," Lillian replied. "He was always either behind or beside me. He never looked angry either. He wasn't haunting me, he was watching over me. Just like your father wants to watch over you."
"Then why won't he let me sleep?" Monique asked.
"He's not stopping you from sleeping, love. You've been focusing only on that night for the past year, but you can't change anything about it. You need to accept what happened and move forward. If you focus on the good memories you had with him, next year doesn't have to be like this one."
For the next ten minutes, Lillian stayed where she was and hummed an old hymn. When the song finished, her granddaughter was sound asleep. Only then did she turn towards the end of the bed and acknowledge the spirit of her dead son. He was in his work uniform from the auto shop. A dark blue, button down shirt, black jeans, and brown work boots. His muscular arms were down by his sides, and he watched his daughter sleep with a sad smile on his face.
"You need to go slower with her," Lillian told him.
"I'm trying, Momma," David replied. "I've tried talking to her, but she can't hear me like you do."
"She won't want to if this keeps up. You heard her. She needs more time to understand what's going on."
David let out a resigned sigh.
"So what do I do?" He asked.
"Give it a month. Let her get through Christmas. Then, help her remember the good."
David left, and Lillian went back to her room and wrote her granddaughter a letter.
There's so much I want to tell you, but I won't have the time to do it in person. I can only hope that you've kept my words from tonight in mind after all these years.
You're not crazy.
You didn't imagine seeing your father.
Seeing the spirits of our loved ones after they've left this world has been an ability our family members have had for generations, but many of us have chosen to ignore the gift out of fear, pride, or both. I haven't. And because I've chosen to accept and use my gift for good, I'm fortunate enough to be able to see and hear the spirits of our loved ones.
I saw your father tonight too. I've asked him to leave you be for a month so you can try to enjoy Christmas. Meanwhile, I plan to help you focus on the good times you had with him. Another hope I have is that you choose to use your gift instead of ignoring it. That way your father's next appearance won't be so frightening to you.
And neither will mine.
Love you always,