It was dark. The only sound was the cicadas singing and the soft breeze rustling through the leaves. Autumn had come in all his finery, but Maria could find no joy in his pompous displays. Her heart was broken, and all she could remember was the day that her daughter had died. Tears, salty and warm, dripped silently onto the windowsill like rain. Anyone looking at her would have thought she was a ghost, and in a way she was. The bubbly Maria who had been the life and soul of every day was gone. In her place was a stranger who had no sense of time and spoke in a voice as hollow as the deepest caverns of the world.
Maria gazed unseeingly out of the window, down towards the river where Ashley had drowned. She felt no pain. I must believe that her death was painless, she thought, but in her heart she knew that Ashley’s death had not been painless. It had been a terrible death brought about by years of neglect, and the thought of Ashley’s final moments haunted her waking hours and mocked her sleep. She screamed silently, letting the voice in her head go ahead and taunt her. It’s all your fault. You were her mother and you didn’t love her like you should have done. It’s your fault, and you know it.
The tears flowed ever faster, until they felt like a torrent of rain, soaking her face and drenching her soul with remorse. Her bitterness overflowed and spilled from her mouth in a waterfall of curses. She railed against God, against herself, against Ashley, against everything she knew and loved, until finally she could curse no more. Sobbing, she slumped back against the dark leather chair upon which she was perched and buried her head in her hands. A high-pitched keening forced itself from her throat, only to be lost in the closeness of the room.
Maria's slumped back shook with the sobs that racked her body, and with each sob a little more of her strength disappeared. A small voice, timid and shy, whispered, Don't cry, it wasn't your fault. There was nothing you could have done - you didn't know she'd kill herself. Another voice snapped loudly, You made her go, you drove her away with your hate and your anger against her father, and you didn't bother talking about her feelings! You didn't even worry until she failed to come home three nights in a row!
"Shut up, please! Just leave me alone! I know it was my fault, I know I could have been a better mother! Now leave me be!" Maria wailed, her voice akin to that of a child. She got up and stumbled into the living room, where she sat on the sofa and switched on the television. However, she couldn't concentrate. All she could see was Ashley's face, all she could hear was her daughter's voice. She clapped her hands over her ears and closed her eyes, but it didn't work. Image after image of her beautiful daughter flashed across her mind's eye, phrase after phrase of songs or conversations sounded in her ears like death knells.
She leapt up, knocking cushions to the floor, and ran to her daughter's room. Crying, she threw herself onto the soft pink duvet and hugged one of Ashley's teddies to her chest. Her long hair splayed itself out below her head like a dying octopus. Oh, Ashley! she screamed silently. Why did you have to die? Her eyes drifted shut, and she slept. As she slept, she relived her daughter's life, so cruelly cut short. Every smile, every laugh, every tear ... it all replayed itself across her mind like a film.
Maria suddenly bolted awake, still clutching Ashley's teddy. She sat up slowly, and then saw a small piece of paper on the bedside table. She unfolded it, and burst into tears again. It was a letter from Ashley, dated the week before she died.
Mum, it read. It's me, Ashley. I just got back from Dad's house. It's huge - twelve rooms, and four bathrooms. Dad said I could choose everything that goes into it, and that Danny can sleep over sometime. You'd have a fit if I suggested that here, wouldn't you? But you're such a prude anyway, you probably didn't even know I had a boyfriend! Just so you know, we've been together for two years now. Yes, two years. I know - you're probably gonna shout at me. Oh well, I don't much care. I hate you. Why can't you let me live with Dad? At least he loves me! Anyway, I'm going to the river. This time it's going to be different. This time I'm not coming back. You can't control me forever, Mum, and now that I'm sixteen I can take care of myself. You never loved me, and you never will. I'm sorry it has to be this way, but to be honest I'd rather it ended here than I spent the rest of my life under your rule.
Maria sat on the bed, trembling with shock and misery. Her slight frame, emaciated by months of self-starvation, shook with pain as she began to scream, the full story finally hitting her. She shuddered as she remembered the times when she and her former husband Steven had rowed, their words flying like arrows between them. The divorce, which still cut like a knife whenever she thought about it. The rare times when Ashley hugged her, the even rarer times when Ashley told her she loved her.
Suddenly she dashed from the house, her hair whipping her face like a cat o' nine tails. She let her thoughts carry her down to the river, their grim pronouncements like wings to her fleeing feet.
Oh, Ashley, I am so sorry. If I'd tried to love you, maybe I'd understand you better than I did when you were alive. I should have talked more, I should have let you in, but I hid my feelings behind a mask and ultimately drove you and your father away. I should have let you live with your father, but my pride wouldn't let me. Maybe one day you will forgive me. Maybe someday I'll forgive myself. Until then, all I can do is apologise. I am so very sorry, my darling daughter, and I love you so much.
The river was calm and peaceful when Maria arrived beside it. She hugged herself tightly and gazed intently into its murky depths. Her breath came in short gasps and her hands twisted around each other like eels. She took one last look around her, and then jumped into the river. A few bubbles floated to the surface as she sank, but soon disappeared. Within a few minutes, it was though nobody had ever been there.
The water closes over my head like a blanket. It is soothing and gentle, and as the current carries me downstream, I feel myself growing calmer. I am not afraid of my own death - in fact, I welcome it. I open my mouth and swallow water. It tastes like the ice of Alaska, with the softness of silk. My hair floats up from my head like a brown halo, and my hands float to eye level. I see my wedding band with the inscription 'Io te amero' - I love you - as I turn my gaze to the left. My eyes close and my arms drift away from my sides. A soft white light explodes behind my eyelids as I go over the edge of the waterfall, and I am suspended in mid air for a long moment. Then I fall, my arms outspread like wings. My body falls quickly, like a stone, down and down and down, towards the white foaming mass of water at the bottom. The light grows ever stronger as I fall and hit the rocks at the bottom. Ashley appears in front of me, her eyes calm and smiling. She is dressed in light blue, and her blonde hair falls over her shoulders like a cape. Her beauty is so astounding that I barely recognise her. She has grown into a woman, and it makes me weep for joy. "Ashley!" I cry. She smiles gently at me, and in that moment I know that she has forgiven me and my penance is over. She takes my hand, and I am finally released from the cares of the world.