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The call came at three thirty in the morning, a time slot predestined for the arrival of bad news. No one calls to tell you you’ve won the lottery in the middle of the night. Your boyfriend doesn’t call you to propose.
The shrill of my cell phone dug into my dreams and wrenched me from sleep. This is it, I thought. He’s dead. Six months ago, I’d given the morgue at Seattle General my number along with a copy of a twenty-year-old picture of my father. “I don’t care what time it is,” I told the hospital administrator. “If he turns up, I’ll come right away.”
The picture was the last one I had of him. In it, his blue eyes were bright and his smile was wide. My father was a tall man, whip thin but sinewy and strong. He had wavy black hair like mine and wore it parted down the middle and to his shoulders, like Jesus. His expression in the photo gave no clue of the chemical anarchy wreaking havoc in his brain. It was invisible, this enemy that attacked his moods. “This is not an illness,” he said insistently. “This is who I am.” He pounded his chest with his fist in emphasis, in case my mother and I were confused as to whom he referred. The medications changed him, he said. They brought on such terrible mental inertia that every one of his thoughts became an unwieldy, leaden task. He preferred the wild highs and intolerable lows to a life of not giving a damn. At first, as a child, I didn’t blame him. After he disappeared, blaming him was all I did.
I dressed hurriedly in the dark of my tiny bedroom. Jasper lifted his head, wagged his tail two times, then promptly put his head on my pillow and let loose a guttural sigh. He was ten—an old man of a dog. His brindle coat was wisped through with silver; he slept pretty much twenty hours of the day. I happened upon him in the alley of one of my first restaurant jobs, luring him toward me with bits of pancetta. He wiggled his fat little puppy butt in response and I was a goner. I took him home that night.
Before leaving the house, I walked to the kitchen to put food in his bowl, then returned to my room and scratched his head. “Be a good boy, Jasper,” I told him. “Make sure to bite any robbers.” His tail gave one solid thump against my mattress in response to my voice but otherwise, he didn’t move. He wouldn’t venture to the kitchen until after six, our normal waking time. I joked with my friends that Jasper was the best and most predictable man I knew. With him, I’d shared my longest and most successful relationship.
It was early October and the chill in the air had taken on a crisp, palpable bite. I sat in my car for a few minutes with my hands tucked between my thighs, waiting for the engine to warm up. My thoughts seesawed between the hope that the man lying on a slab in the morgue was my father and the prayer that he wasn’t. I was ten years old the last time I saw him, numbly watching from our front porch as the medics took him away. This was not how I wanted our story to end—my father dead before I had a chance to heal the hurt between us. But at least it would be an ending. At least I could finally let him go.
After backing out of the bumpy gravel driveway on the side of my house, I maneuvered through my quiet Green Lake neighborhood and headed south. The streetlights glowed eerily amber in the early morning fog as I drove toward downtown. The Columbia Center tower loomed in the distance, about ten blocks from my destination. I’d spent enough time on the streets of downtown Seattle to have its geography stitched into the grooves of my mind. Off the Union Street exit, the hospital was to the east, a well-known homeless shelter fourteen blocks west, an illegal tent city three blocks from there. I pictured the cobblestones of Pioneer Square and the railroad tracks beneath the viaduct where so many of Seattle’s homeless population dwelled. I wondered where they had found him. I wondered if he had thought of me before he died.
This last question repeated in my mind as I parked in the hospital garage. I quickly found my way to the basement and was escorted into an icy room barely lit by bluish fluorescent bulbs. On my left was a wall that looked like a stainless steel refrigerator with multiple square floor-to-ceiling doors. The air hinted of something black and fungal beneath an intense antiseptic overlay of cleaning products. I imagined that scent was death.
The technician who accompanied me into the room was the antithesis of what I expected a morgue worker to be—all blond hair and surfer-boy good looks instead of brooding, pale-skin goth. He stood next to me, smelling of spearmint gum. I heard the gentle pop in his mouth before he spoke.
“Are you ready, Ms. West?”
“Yes,” I said. I was more than ready.
A dark-haired girl dressed in light blue scrubs stood by the refrigerator wall and opened one of the doors, pulling out a body beneath a white sheet. She stood back with her hands linked behind her in an at-ease stance. The blond technician reached and pulled back the sheet, folding it neatly across the dead man’s chest. I kept my eyes on the substantial rise of the man’s stomach. This is a mistake, I thought. My father isn’t fat. He could have gained weight, sure, but that was another one of the side effects that made him forgo his medications.
The technician stepped back from the gurney and turned his head to look at me. “Is it him?”
I forced my gaze upward to the man’s swollen, puffy face. His skin possessed a dusty pallor, as though someone had pulled gray cotton batting over every inch of his flesh. He had scraggly black eyebrows and a beard; his long hair was wet and brushed back from his face, falling in a spidery fan beneath the back of his skull. His eyes were closed.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “It might be. Maybe. I haven’t seen him for twenty years.” My heart fluttered in my chest as I spoke. I didn’t expect not to know. I thought I’d recognize him right away. Had my mind erased so much of him? “Can I see his wrists?”
“His wrists?” said the technician. The girl didn’t speak.
The technician reached under the sheet and pulled out the man’s limp, beefy arm, hairy side up.
I swallowed hard. “Can you turn it over, please?”
The tech gave me a sidelong look but he did as I asked. I looked at the underside of the man’s wrist, poised and prepared for the sight of angry red and thickly knotted scars. I blinked a few times to make sure I wasn’t just seeing what I wanted to see. But the gray flesh was smooth and bare. If the man was my father, it wouldn’t have been. That much I knew for sure.
Relief collided messily with disappointment in the back of my throat. “No,” I said, releasing a breath it felt like I’d been holding since my cell phone woke me. “It’s not him.” A few errant tears edged their way down my cheeks.
“Are you sure? He fits the description. Except for the extra weight, but we figured maybe he’d gained it and you wouldn’t know.”
“I’m sure,” I said. “It isn’t him. But I can understand why you’d think it was.” I wiped my face with the back of my hand. “How did he die?” I asked, gesturing to the man on the gurney. The man who was not my father. I repeated this phrase silently in my mind to make sure I actually registered it. It wasn’t him. My father wasn’t dead. There was still a chance I could find him.
“Cardiac arrest,” the dark-haired girl said. “The medics brought him in from Pioneer Square. He was dead before they got to the ER.”
“Well, I hope you find out who he is,” I said. He’s somebody’s son. Maybe even another person’s father.
“It’s not likely,” said the technician. He snapped his gum, then looked guilty. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay.” Death was normal to him; he was accustomed to treating it casually. He spent more time with it than life.
“Let me walk you out,” the girl said.
“Oh, I’m fine,” I said.
“I’m due for a smoke break anyway,” she said, walking over to the door leading to the outside hallway and opening it for me. “It can get a little tricky down here with all the weird turns to get to the outside world. I think they make it that way so no one accidentally ends up down here if they don’t really need to come.”
“Okay.” I looked one more time upon the man who was not my father. “Good luck,” I whispered to him, and both of the technicians looked at me strangely. Let them look. The poor man obviously had a rough life; he deserved a few well wishes for wherever he ended up.
Moving along the dimly lit corridor with the girl, I noticed our footsteps quickly fell into the same pattern, her white hospital clogs squeaking along the linoleum. We didn’t speak.
“Can I ask you something?” she finally said when we turned a corner and arrived at the door to the hospital parking garage.
“Sure,” I said, holding the door open for her to step through. We walked a little farther, stopping twenty feet or so from the door. She pulled out a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her scrubs. She shook one out of the pack and held it, regarding it thoughtfully before she spoke.
“So, I’m curious.” Her voice echoed a bit in the almost empty garage. “Why are you trying to find your dad if he’s been out of your life so long? I never knew mine and I couldn’t give a shit where he is. I mean, it’s cool and all that you want to, but don’t you think maybe he likes it better this way? Maybe he doesn’t want to be found.”
“He’s sick,” I said, shrugging as I scanned the garage for where I’d parked my car. “He doesn’t even know he’s lost.”
After I drove home from the hospital and took Jasper for a quiet, predawn stroll around Green Lake, I called my mother. It was our Friday morning ritual and God forbid I forgot or slept in past eight o’clock. Each week she sat at her kitchen table sipping green tea and tapping her fingers next to the phone, waiting for it to ring. She wouldn’t call me; I was the child. It was expected that I call to check in.
Our weekly call had irritated Ryan, my most recent boyfriend, beyond belief. “Can’t we have just one Friday morning where you don’t have to call your mother?” he pled with me. “You’re thirty-one, for Pete’s sake.”
“Did you just use the phrase ‘for Pete’s sake’?” I teased him, trying to lighten the air between us. It had become heavy during the last months of our relationship, bristling with unmet expectations. “What are you, fifty?”
“I’m serious, Eden. You’re tied way too tightly to your mother’s apron strings.”
I snorted. “Oh, so I should be like you, then, and talk to my mother only when I need another withdrawal from her bank account?”
If I remember correctly, that was one of the last arguments we had. Six months later my life returned to normal with Jasper in his rightful spot beside me in bed. It was easier that way.
“Good morning, honey,” my mother chirped when she answered her phone.
“Hey, Mom,” I said. I sat on my couch, a chocolate leather hand-me-down from my mother and stepfather’s last redecorating overhaul project. My mother changed her dÉcor almost as often as some people change their bedsheets. She was a relentless bargain hunter and could completely change the look of a room without spending more than five hundred bucks. When they redid their living room, they gave me the couch, a teak coffee table, and a set of three wrought iron lamps. The only off-the-shelf piece of furniture I owned was the television, and that’s only because the flat-screen they had offered me was too large for the walls of my tiny box of a house.
“How are you this morning?” she asked. “Did you have to work last night?”
“Yep. A corporate event in Bellevue. I’m wiped.” I worked as the head chef for a large catering company while I tried to build up enough capital and connections in the industry to launch my own restaurant. I dreamed of opening a small, classy cafÉ with a lengthy wine list, no more than ten tables, and a seasonal, eclectic menu. Unfortunately, unless I could find a ridiculously rich investor, this dream wouldn’t be realized any time soon.
“How late did you get in?” Mom asked.
“Only eleven, but I got a call from Seattle General around three thirty so I’ve been up since then.”
“Oh no,” said Mom. “What happened?”
I paused. I knew she wasn’t going to like what I was about to share, but I also knew she wouldn’t leave it alone until I told her. I took a deep breath. “They thought they had Dad in their morgue.”
As I suspected she would be, Mom was silent.
I went on. “It wasn’t him, though. It looked like him a little bit. The dark hair and the height were right, but this guy was really heavy and—”
“And what?” she said, interrupting. Her voice was sharp. She didn’t like talking about him. She’d rather have pretended he never existed—to tell herself the story that I’d simply appeared in her womb.
“And he didn’t have the scars Dad would have. On his wrists.”
She sighed. “I don’t get why you’re doing this to yourself.”
“I don’t know how to explain it to you. It’s just something I need to do.”
She didn’t understand. My search wasn’t about her—I knew she was done with him long ago. That last time, the time when the medics came, was the end for her. A week later she served him divorce papers in the state hospital and he signed them without dispute. But me, I wasn’t done. I wanted my father. When he didn’t come to see me, when he didn’t even try to call, I began conjuring him in the face of every man who crossed my path. Each of my breaths became a wish that the next corner I turned would be the one where he’d appear.
It only took a year for me to stop wishing. At eleven years old, I told myself I was done with him, too. Screw him, I thought. He doesn’t want me. I don’t want him, either. By that time my mother had married John and I told myself my new stepfather could fill the empty space in my heart. John was a good man, a fireman with a generous soul. But it didn’t matter how good he was or how hard he tried. He couldn’t fit in a space custom-built for another man.
My father did try to get in touch with me after I graduated high school, but after eight years of no contact from him my hurt had hardened into hatred and I refused to respond. He was staying on his meds, the two letters I received said. He was back in Seattle. He was holding down a job. Back in Seattle? I wondered. Where did he go? Did something happen that kept him from coming to see me? I told myself I didn’t care. Too bad, I thought. Too little, too late. I threw his letters away.
There were, of course, moments when I missed my dad. My black hair was just like his, as was my pale skin, narrow face, and vivid blue eyes. Looking in the mirror was a frequent, painful reminder that he was gone. Once, in my early twenties, I went to a friend’s wedding only to make a quick exit when her father walked her down the aisle. It was too much to stand, knowing my father would never do the same for me. As more time passed, I started to toy with the idea of trying to find him. Then, last fall, I sat by my mother in the hospital, holding her hand and watching poison drip into her veins in an attempt to annihilate the jagged cells that had already stolen her breasts. I suddenly realized how selfish I had been—how little time any of us are given with those we love. I started thinking more and more about my father, wondering where he was and if he was safe. His letters mentioned time he spent living on the streets. I worried that he was driven back to a homeless existence not only by his illness but by my lack of response. I worried I wouldn’t find him in time for him to forgive me.
“You need to find him even after everything he put you through?” My mother’s voice yanked me back to the present.
“He’s been through quite a bit himself, if you think about it,” I said. Jasper whimpered at my feet, where he was taking a much-needed nap after our Green Lake excursion. I rubbed his back with the tips of my toes and he quieted.
“That was his choice. Or have you forgotten?”
“I haven’t forgotten anything.” I sighed. “I don’t want to argue about this with you, okay? Can we just change the subject, please? How’s Bryce? Is his competition this weekend or next?” My twenty-year-old half brother, Bryce, was the reason my mother married John six months after my father disappeared from our lives. A successful high school wrestler, Bryce had opted for a career in personal training and competitive bodybuilding instead of college.
“It’s tomorrow at two. Can you make it?”
“Maybe, but it depends on what time I have to work. I think we have a wedding, but I don’t remember for sure. I’ll check the schedule when I get in today.” I paused. “How’s John?”
“He’s fine. Down at the station on the tail end of a seventy-two-hour shift. He’ll be home tonight.”
“You’re feeling okay? Not overdoing it?”
“Yes, dear. I’m feeling fine. Dr. Freeland says my counts look great. My energy’s up. So you can stop mothering me.”
“I’ll stop if you do,” I teased.
“That’s impossible. When you have a baby you’ll understand.”
“I’d like to have a husband first,” I said, then wished I could pull the words back. I wasn’t up for one of her pep talks around finding a man.
She sighed. “Well, maybe if you went out a little more you’d meet someone.”
I stifled my own sigh. “I work weekends and I’m thirty-two years old with a decent IQ. I have zero interest in the club scene. Most of the men there are only interested in hooking up, anyway. They’re not looking for a wife.”
“What about the Internet? My friend Patty found her husband online. She said it was like shopping for a credenza!”
I laughed. “I don’t think so, Mom. I feel like it’ll happen if it’s supposed to.”
“Oh, fine. I just hope for you, sweetie. You have so much to give.”
We hung up a few minutes later and I continued to sit on the couch, thinking about my romantic past. Working in the restaurant industry, I’d dated plenty of men for one or two months. Even a year at a time. Only two relationships before my more recent one with Ryan turned into anything serious.
First was Wyatt, a fellow culinary student whose dark brown bedroom eyes and wicked smile never failed to make my heart do backflips in my chest. He had this effect on a lot of women and I counted myself lucky to have landed him. After a year of dating, filled with lots of great sex and what I thought was meaningful conversation about sharing our lives and someday opening a restaurant together, I realized that I wasn’t the only item on Wyatt’s daily menu. It turned out he had bigger appetites than that. A dishwasher one night, the hostess and then me the next. He dumped me unceremoniously for a line cook at Denny’s.
Sixteen celibate months later, Stephen appeared in my life, a man whom I swore I would not fall in love with after the torture of what I had gone through with Wyatt. But Stephen was sensible, a financial planner who started his own firm at twenty-five years old. He was a safe choice, a careful choice, and he bored me out of my skull. I learned that no matter how much I wanted it to, a successful romance couldn’t be based on a mutual adoration of organization and Excel spreadsheets. After eighteen months of trying to meld myself into someone he actually could love, I came to my senses and broke up with him.
Not too long after that particular breakup I read somewhere that until a woman resolves the issues she has in her relationship with her father, she isn’t capable of having a lasting, intimate connection with a partner. If there’s something broken in her primary relationship with a male, the odds of success in any other romantic relationship she forms are pretty slim. I thought about Wyatt, who had been like my father in so many ways—irreverent, fun, and unpredictable. I wondered if I was attracted to him because of that. The idea creeped me out. I began to wonder if it wasn’t the men I chose who were dysfunctional, it was me.
Three hours later, after a catnap and another quick trot around the block for Jasper, I drove downtown and entered the enormous hotel-style kitchen where I spent a majority of my days. Emerald City Events was one of the biggest catering companies in Seattle, located in a large brick building overlooking the waterfront. We provided services to any event, from intimate book club get-togethers to the largest wedding receptions imaginable. The company employed about twenty people in the kitchen, not including the waitstaff, and being the head chef was a busy job. That night we had three cocktail parties to prep for, one on-site, and two five o’clock deliveries. With rush hour that would prove to be a good trick—I’d need the drivers to be out the door no later than three thirty, just to be safe.
All three parties had ordered chicken satay with spicy peanut sauce. Everyone loved the dish, but it was a pain in the ass to get timed correctly, especially so it wouldn’t dry out before service. To avoid that particular pitfall, I made sure to soak the cut-up chicken in a flavorful yellow curry marinade for at least eight hours before I cooked it, but if we didn’t get them on the grill soon, they wouldn’t cool down enough in time for transport. I was elbow-deep in the preparation of the dipping sauce that would accompany the chicken—a mixture of peanut butter, coconut milk, red curry paste, fish sauce, and sugared ginger—trying to find the exact balance between spicy and sweet. I wasn’t in a position to get the meat on the grill.
“Can you get those chicken skewers fired, please, Juan?” I hollered from my station in front of the ten-burner Wolf stove. Ten of my other staff members worked diligently at their stations, cutting, slicing, and stirring according to the directions I printed out for them on a spreadsheet at the beginning of their shift. Their tasks were listed next to the exact time they should start and complete each. Cooking was a game of timing, and I loved it. Organization was key.
“Gotcha, boss!” my sous chef, Juan, yelled from across the kitchen. “I’m on it! The grill is hot as a mofo and ready to go.” He spun around in some bastardization of a Michael Jackson move and pointed both his index fingers at me like they were pistol barrels. “What else you need?”
I laughed, shaking my head as I stirred the concoction in the enormous stockpot in front of me. “I need you to stop dancing and put together all the veggie trays while you cook the chicken. Wilson and Maria did all the prep earlier, I think. Everything should be in the walk-in.”
“You got it!” Juan leapt over to the huge, stainless steel walk-in refrigerator and flung open its door. He was the only employee who didn’t need a spreadsheet. I’d worked with him for about five years at that point and I knew I could depend on him to get the job done right. He was the tiniest bit crazy, but it was the fun, kooky variety of crazy, not the scary, I-might-stalk-you type, so while we busted our butts in the kitchen, he always entertained me in the process. At twenty-three, he still lived at home with his parents and five younger brothers and sisters, an arrangement I could never have fathomed for myself. But Juan’s father was disabled after an accident at work and his mother had to care for him, so outside of a meager monthly allotment from the state, Juan was the family’s only source of income. I made sure he took a hefty portion of any servable leftovers home with him at the end of his shifts.
Within minutes the heavenly scent of charred curry wafted through the air, making my empty stomach growl. I was blessed with a ridiculously fast metabolism—a gift from my father, I assumed, since my mother fought against every pound. I, on the other hand, couldn’t go more than a couple of hours without some kind of sustenance, and no matter how much I ate I never seemed to gain any weight. My best friend, Georgia, cast evil curses upon me for this particular trait, while I simultaneously envied her naturally voluptuous hips and great rack. I wasn’t super skinny by any means and my chest wasn’t totally invisible, but my slender frame certainly didn’t invite the wolf whistles Georgia earned just swaying down the street.
I finished the sauce and turned off the burner beneath the pan. On my way to the table in the back of the kitchen that I kept stocked with snacks for the staff, I checked the sausage-stuffed mushroom caps that Natalie, one of my prep cooks, was working on. They were precariously overfull and, once baked, would morph into a greasy, awful mess. “You might want to back down on the amount of filling, Nat,” I advised. “Use the mini cookie scoop instead of a spoon. That way you get them proportioned exactly the same. You’ll need to redo them.”
I heard her sigh quietly. “Is there a problem?” I asked. She was new; I had meant the advice to be helpful, but I knew from experience my sense of efficiency could be interpreted as brusque. Or bitchy. Take your pick.
“No, Chef,” she said. “I’ll redo them.”
“Be quick, please. We’re on a tight schedule.” I hopped over to the snack table and made myself a quick sandwich of thinly sliced grilled flank steak and Swiss cheese on a small ciabatta roll. Juan strolled down the line from his station; his lanky frame and fluid movements suddenly reminded me of my father’s. I’d managed to push Dad out of my mind since the conversation with my mother that morning, but there he was, back again. The image of the dead man on the gurney in the hospital flashed in my mind, and the bite of sandwich I had just swallowed stuck in my throat.
“You okay, boss lady?” Juan inquired as he sidled up next to me and reached for a three-cheese onion roll. He was the only employee I let call me anything other than “Chef.”
I swallowed before speaking. “Yeah, fine. Just tired, I think. I had a late night.”
“More private detective work?” I’d told Juan the basics of my trying to find my father. How I’d started by simply putting the name “David West” into an online search engine, then checking every major city’s online white pages for his name. David West was an incredibly common moniker—over three hundred in the greater Seattle area alone.
“What are you going to say?” Georgia asked me when I informed her of my plan to call each one of the Seattle numbers. “‘Excuse me, but do you happen to be the David West who abandoned his daughter and spent much of his adult life in the nuthouse?’”
“No,” I had laughed. “I’ll just ask to speak with David West. I’ll know his voice.”
“You think?” Georgia appeared doubtful.
I made the calls. None of them were my father, of course. I had an old address—the Seattle return address on the letters he sent ten years ago—but I soon discovered the last officially known record of his whereabouts was the state mental hospital out past Monroe. They hadn’t seen him in three years and wouldn’t give me any more information other than that he had left against medical advice. So after my failed phone calls, the next natural place to look for him was the streets, the only other place I knew for sure he had been.
Juan’s voice brought me back to the kitchen. “Yoo-hoo? Eden?” He waved a hand in front of my face. “You in there?”
I blinked and smiled at him. “Yeah, I’m here. Sorry.”
“So, more detective work?” he asked, prodding.
“Sort of, I guess.” I didn’t feel like describing my trip to the morgue. “I’m going to a new homeless shelter tonight. The one down on Pine?”
Juan picked up a piece of pineapple and popped it in his mouth. “You want company?” I shook my head and took another bite of my sandwich. “Awright,” he said. “But if you ask me, a pretty lady like yourself shouldn’t be wandering the streets at night on her own.”
“I appreciate your concern,” I said, tossing the remainder of my sandwich in the trash. My appetite had left me. Juan meant well, I knew. But I’d made it this far without a man to look out for me. No reason to start needing one now.
© 2012 Amy Hatvany
“Eden West, come on down!” my father shouted from the base of the stairs. We were playing The Price Is Right and he was Bob Barker. It was a cold and clear Sunday morning and my mom was in the kitchen making breakfast. The smoky scent of bacon wafted through the hallway where we played. The sun shot a kaleidoscope of color through the beveled stained glass of our front door onto the floor. I sometimes liked to lie in that spot, pretending the patterned hues decorating my skin were a tattoo. At ten years old I fancied myself a rebel.
I raced down the stairs in my nightgown and bare feet, skipping over the last three steps to land with a decided thump next to my father. The wide wooden planks beneath me creaked in protest and the crystal chandelier above the dining room table tinkled.
“Eden!” my mother yelled from the kitchen. “This house is not your personal jungle gym. Settle down!”
“Sorry, Mother!” my dad yelled back in a girlish, mocking voice. “Won’t happen again!”
I giggled and my father winked at me. My father’s winks were our silent language. It’s you and me, kid, they said. We’re the only ones who get it.
“Now, tell me, Miss West, just how excited are you to be here?” He held a wooden spoon like a microphone and moved it toward my chin.
“Very excited, Bob.” I lowered my voice to what I thought was a very grown-up, womanly tone. In that moment, the love I felt for my father was a vibrant, sparkling heat. It lifted me out of my fears, carried me above any of the pain I might have had. It made me feel like I could do anything, be anyone. It felt like magic.
“Which door would you like to choose?” He gestured toward the front door.
“Hmm,” I said, tapping my index finger against the corner of my mouth. “I think I’ll go with door number one, Bob.”
“Excellent choice, Miss West. Excellent choice.” He made a two-foot jump over to the door and the chandelier tinkled again.
“Eden!” my mother shouted. “Knock! It! Off!”
“Sorry, Mother!” I yelled, and winked at my dad, who laughed.
“That’s my girl,” he said. He placed his hand on the doorknob and wiggled his thick black eyebrows suggestively. “What could it be? What . . . could . . . it . . . be?” He flung the door wide open.
“A brand-new car!” I screamed. Forgetting my mother entirely, I jumped up and down, screaming and clapping my hands, pretending to be excited about an invisible vehicle. My father threw down the spoon and grabbed me. He hugged me tight, lifting me up and twirling me around the room. My legs spun out behind me. He held me so tightly I couldn’t breathe.
“Dad, you’re squishing me!” I gasped. I felt my ribs clicking against one another beneath the pressure of his embrace.
“David, please!” my mother said as she rushed into the hallway to see what the excitement was all about. She wore a nightgown the same sky blue as her eyes and her thick blond hair was braided down the center of her back. “Put her down! You’re going to break something!”
“Never!” said my dad. “She just won a brand-new car, Lydia! We have to celebrate!”
“It’s January,” said my mother. She inched around us to shut the front door, her braid swinging like a rope. “Our heating bill is already atrocious.”
“Then we’ll live in her car!” my dad proclaimed. “Right, Eden?”
“Right!” I gasped again, and he finally set me down. My mother gave me one of her pinched, disapproving looks and I dropped my gaze to the floor, gingerly rubbing my sides and breathing hard. My father sidled up to my mother and grabbed her, spinning her around to kiss her soundly on the lips.
“You know you love me, Lydia West,” he said with his face less than an inch from hers.
I held my breath, waiting to see how my mother would respond. It was up to her, I thought. She held the power over which direction he’d go, whether or not he’d spin out of control. She could talk him down, touch his face and soothe and distract him like I’d seen her do countless times before. “Let’s go to a museum,” she would say. “Let’s go find a park we’ve never been to before and you can sketch the trees for me.” She could help channel the energy I saw whirling behind my father’s eyes. She could push it onto a path where no one would get hurt.
Instead, she stared at him and put her hands on his chest, pushing him away. He stumbled backward, catching himself from falling by throwing his hand against the wall behind him.
“Have you been taking your medication?” she asked. Her voice was flat.
My insides went cold. I hated it when she asked him that question. Especially when I knew the answer was no. I’d watched him flush the entire contents of his prescription down the toilet a week ago.
“Our secret, right, Bug?” he whispered, and I’d nodded. My father’s secrets were a dark and heavy burden in my chest. Sometimes I worried I carried so many of them they might rise up and blossom as a bruise beneath my skin. Then there would be no doubt—I’d be exposed for the liar I was.
“Yes, I’ve been taking my medication, Dr. Lydia,” said my father. His smile melted into a sneer. “Would you like me to take a fucking blood test? Or would you just like to have me locked up again?”
No, I silently pled. No. Please don’t send him away. A jittery panic rose within me. The last time he’d been at the hospital for a month. Our house was quiet as death.
“Don’t swear in front of your daughter,” my mother said quietly. “Breakfast is ready.”
“I’m not hungry,” my father said as he grabbed his coat from the rack by the door. “I need to go. I have places to be, people to see. People who appreciate me.”
“Daddy—” I started to say. But it was too late. He was already gone.
© 2012 Amy Hatvany