She waited outside the door. Instinctively, she knocked how he had taught her. She knew he wouldn’t answer, he couldn’t answer, but she knocked. Taking four short breaths, she opened the door and stepped into the room. It had been years since she’d been inside, but nothing had changed. He still kept his folded pajamas on the nightstand. There were whiskey glass imprints on his dresser. The same tattered plaid quilt was thrown over his sunken side of the bed. His room was ready to welcome him home.
“He’s not coming back, guys,” she whispered. Even at twenty-five she couldn’t bring herself to believe inanimate objects didn’t have feelings. They cared about their owner. They had to.
She walked across the room, feeling the heel of her shoe sink into the carpet a little. Folding up the quilt, she sat down on the edge of the bed and finally let herself breathe. She closed her eyes and felt how sore her eyelids were. This week had been beyond chaotic.
Monday morning was her presentation at work, the big one that decided if she’d get promoted to the hotel’s front desk manager. She ended up dropping her notecards right in the middle of her speech and, in hurried anxiousness, put them in the wrong order. It took her ten minutes to notice she had started her script from the beginning again. There was no way she’d get the position.
Tuesday afternoon she got the call and the promotion.
Tuesday night she and James celebrated their third wedding anniversary at home. She hadn’t been feeling well the past few weeks and didn’t want to ruin a fancy dinner by vomiting.
Wednesday morning she found out she was pregnant. Six weeks along. She waited until James got home, and together they called his parents to tell them the good news. They rushed over to the house and celebrated with apple cider, which she spat out because it tasted like vinegar.
Thursday afternoon her dad died. She told people it was an accident.
Thursday night she drove downtown to identify his body. James offered to come with her, but she didn’t want that. He shouldn’t see what her father had done to himself.
Friday morning she met the funeral home director. Yes, her father wanted a service. Yes, a closed casket. No, not that casket, but one with gold detailing. She had bought a new, unsoiled suit for her father to wear, and she and the director laid out a plan to cover his facial wounds.
Friday afternoon she brought James lunch at his office. She’d gotten time off work for her father’s death, but James wanted to keep on, give her time alone at home. He knew how she could get.
Saturday night she cried, not out of joy for her pregnancy or sadness for her father. She was just exhausted, and crying made her feel better, even if she always did it alone.
Sunday morning she and James went to church, and the condolences began. People she hadn’t seen or talked to in ages appeared and told her how sorry they were to hear about her father. James almost lost it when the lady in the pew ahead told her what bad timing the pregnancy was with all of this. She just kept her mouth shut and felt James’s hand wrap more tightly around hers.
Sunday afternoon James took her to her favorite bakery. She ordered two blueberry muffins, a piece of the cinnamon loaf, four sugar cookies, and a cup of hot tea. Everything was split evenly between her and James, but they both knew she’d eat three cookies instead of the two she’d allotted herself.
Sunday night she laughed for no particular reason. She was standing in the kitchen cooking dinner and something about the way the pasta looked in the colander made her giggle. James came in with his sweats on and kissed her forehead. That made her giggle, too. He hadn’t heard her laugh in days, so he kept doing it, watching her smile grow wider and her laugh fuller.
Monday morning she and James dressed for the funeral. She made them get up hours beforehand. There were things she wanted to do before the service. James wore the black suit they had picked out together for his job interview two years before. She liked the way it looked on him, making his tall body seem powerful and welcoming all at once. It was cold this time of year, so she slipped on her plain black dress with sleeves and pulled up black hose to cover her legs.
James indulged his wife’s love of Christmas music on the radio, even though it was still November, and drove her the thirty minutes to her father’s home. They parked next to the curb, and she took a moment to truly look at the house. It was small and somewhat worn down, but she could see the beauty beneath the bricks. The yard was still kept up, and her childhood wooden swing hung from the tree out front. She was born in that house in the spring of 1940. She learned to skip rope in the driveway and cook her mother’s fried chicken in the kitchen. When she was eight years old, she watched her father drunkenly stumble into the living room and hit her mother. She saw her mom get in a taxi and leave the next morning, never hearing from her again.
And so she sat on the edge of her father’s bed and silently cursed him for making her come back home, come back to him. They hadn’t spoken more than five mundane sentences to each other in seven years; she left home and her father when she was eighteen and never once thought twice. Sure, there would be late night phone calls from him when he needed a ride home from the bar, and she’d answer but would never go. Something in her longed to hear her father’s voice, but dreaded the thought of seeing his face. She used to think time had a way of cauterizing wounds. That somehow despite all the pain and agony and brokenness, she would just be left with a tiny scar, something so inconsequential that she forgot it ever happened. Because that’s what she wanted her father to be to her: inconsequential.
Yet here she was cleaning up his mess again. Just like the time when she was eleven and he was too drunk to function. She locked him in the bathroom for a night and had to scrub the tiles clean with a toothbrush after he finished throwing up. Or the time when she was fifteen and he got in a fist fight at the bar. She walked the mile and a half there to pick him up and apologetically pay for his drinks. Or the time when she was eighteen and he got arrested for public indecency outside the courthouse. She spent the afternoon at the jail trying to reason with the officers and missed her graduation ceremony.
She stood up from the bed and walked over to the dresser where he kept his pictures lined in a neat little row. She picked up a photo and smiled: it was from her third birthday where she had stripped off her dress and instead decided to clothe herself in cake. The next picture was of her dance recital when she was ten; her face was buried in some roses, leaving only a tutu jutting out over tiny legs. She never understood why her father kept it all these years. Her eyes continued going down the row of pictures: one of him with his war buddies on the shores of Hawaii, one of his parents from their wedding day, and one of him with her mother. The last photo made her stop short; she’d never seen it before. She looked at her parents who were probably not much older in the picture than she was now. They were standing in front of their house, her father reaching his arms around her mother from behind. Neither one of them was looking at the camera but rather each other. Her father’s blonde hair was almost white in the fading picture and flopped into her mother’s face. They were laughing with the kind of smile that shows every last tooth.
Before she knew it, she had fallen to the floor, her trembling legs finally giving way to her pent up emotion. She felt trapped in a room where the past and the present collided to block out the future. Everything she ever wanted from her childhood was here within her grasp. She could still taste the chocolate cake she covered herself in and smell the roses she kept long past her recital and hear her mother humming in the kitchen while she made dinner. But that wasn’t her childhood. A past can’t be remembered in snippets of joyous memories: that would be a lie. She could hear and smell and taste all the good things from her childhood, but she could feel the bad. She still sensed the sting of her father’s hand across her cheek and the welts on her arms from her father’s grip and the way his words beat her heart to a pulp.
“I rebuilt myself, Dad. I did it in spite of you,” she said, knowing he couldn’t hear. “I moved on and got better. I got a job as a secretary after I left here. I was promoted last week, too. I’ve tried so hard to get a life as far away from you as possible.” She straightened out her knees and evened her dress underneath them. She hated wrinkles, especially on days when it counted.
“I met a man who showed me I was more than the way you treated me. I married him, Dad. I didn’t invite you to the wedding. I even walked myself down the aisle.” Her eyes began to well up, but she beat back tears with her mascara-coated eyelashes. She didn’t want to ruin her make up.
“James is a good husband, a great husband even. You probably would have liked him, but I didn’t want him to meet you or see where I came from. Yet somehow here I am, crumpled up on your bedroom floor—again. Wishing I wasn’t here—again. How do you always get me to clean up your messes? How do you get me to come back here? I’m pregnant. Have I said that already? I’m pregnant, Dad. You know what my first thought was when I found out? ‘Please don’t let my child be me.’ Pathetic. I’m pathetic. But that’s something you already knew, isn’t it? I guess that’s just how the two of us are though.
“Did you know they made me go downtown to make sure it was you? The left side of your face was so swollen they couldn’t be positive. It was strange to see you so peaceful—even with the two scars on your temples.” A knot formed in her throat as she remembered her father’s broken face. She took the same four short breaths that she needed to enter the bedroom to regain her composure. “Why’d you do it, Dad? It wasn’t worth it, and that’s coming from me. What finally broke you? Sometimes I wish you would’ve talked to me about what was going on in your head. I wanted to know you. I wanted to give you so many second chances when I was younger. But you didn’t even try to stop me when I left. You let me go, Dad. Or was it you who had been gone in the first place? I thought you’d come back to me. I really thought you’d turn it around. I’m sorry you finally got to yourself. I never wanted us to be this way. I hate this, and I hate you—for all the bruises I couldn’t explain, for not running after me years ago—for putting a pistol to your head and pulling the trigger. It shouldn’t have been like this.”
She picked herself up off the carpet and smoothed down her dress. The funeral was in a half hour, and she hated being late. Leaving her father’s bedroom, she closed the door. She stepped down the stairs and out the front door, taking care to lock it before she moved on. Turning around, she saw James’s face staring eagerly at hers, a mix of worried understanding painted across it. He had never gotten out of the car; he knew how she could get.
With one final look at her first home, she said, “I’ll miss you, Dad, but I’m not sure why. You’ve been dead longer than you were alive.”
I don’t like to talk about it. It makes me too sad. I’ve never really talked about it, but no one’s asked me. They all just seem to understand and nod when they look at me. I don’t talk much anyways, so I guess that’s okay. But I think I should finally tell someone because it was bad. It is bad, like a nightmare that your mom can’t shake you out of. I understand now, though, why it happened. I still don’t like it.
* * *
“I’ve never seen you before. Are you new? Oh, did you move into that house down the street? The one where Mrs. Travis used to live before she died? Wait, you wouldn’t know who she was if you just moved here. Is the house blue?”
“Yes to which? That you just moved here or that your house is blue?”
“Both,” I said.
“Oh, okay, right. I was right. My name’s Mallory. What’s yours?” She squatted beside me on the edge of the sandbox. I wanted to go down the slide, but there were a lot of kids there, and I didn’t feel like pushing.
“Cool! Who’d you get your name from? Mine came from my grandmother, who was named Mallory, too, but everyone called her Lory.”
“Umm, I don’t know. My parents gave it to me. I don’t think it’s special.”
“Don’t say that. All names are special! That’s why I name everything—even my toothbrush,” Mallory said.
I looked down and frowned. “Well, what’s its name?”
“His. His name is Tom. I don’t know why I named him Tom. Maybe because I like the way Tom the Toothbrush sounds. They have a name for that, you know. My mom taught me. It’s a, it’s a—”
“A name for what?”
“For when all the words start with the same letter. I know it starts with an A.”
“I don’t know what it is.”
“Afibrilliation! That’s it! Yeah, afibrillation. It’s one of my favorite words. Do you have a favorite word?”
I’d never been asked that. I knew all of my everyday favorites: color (yellow), food (cut up hot dogs in mac and cheese), game (Candy Land), and movie (a tie between Toy Story and Toy Story 3).
“I don’t think I have a favorite word,” I said.
“That’s okay! We’ll find you one. There’s plenty of time.” Mallory stood up and looked around the playground. She wasn’t as tall as I thought she’d be. “What are you doing here? Is your mom here, too?”
“Yeah, she’s over there on the bench.“ I pointed towards Mama, and she waved back at us. She liked taking me to the playground in our neighborhood because it meant she could sit in the sunshine for a few hours while I played. Mama closed her eyes a lot when we went outside. She said the sun helped dry her eyes or something. I didn’t know what that meant.
“Oh, she’s pretty,” Mallory said as she waved at Mama. “She has your hair.”
I pulled at my curls.
“Why are you wearing rain boots? It’s not raining. Do you have other pairs of shoes?”
“Yes. I just like these.”
“Oh, that’s cool. I wish I liked a pair of shoes that much. My mom always buys ones that hurt my feet. Like these.“ Mallory stuck her foot out towards me. “These are cute enough, but the straps dig into my feet, and you can barely see where I painted my toes.”
I nodded. I’d never had that problem.
“Do you want to go on the swing set with me while you wait for the slides?” she asked.
“How did you know—”
“You’re new here, and every new person always wants to go down the slides, which is understandable. They are pretty fun. But it’ll be a second with all those big kids playing on them. The swings are good, too. You can get pretty high if you pump your legs hard enough. My daddy taught me that.”
“Okay. We can swing.”
* * *
Mallory kind of scared me when I first met her. She talked all the time and asked a million questions that I never really knew the answer to. I think I learned more about her that day on the playground than I ever have about someone else. She had lived in the same house all her life but didn’t have any brothers or sisters to share her toys with, she ate pretzel rods as a snack after school because they tasted salty and were good in sword fights, she didn’t really listen to music but could hum all of the popular songs, she never watched more than an hour of television every day because her dad was afraid of her brain becoming mush, and she liked to come to the playground every Saturday with her mom so that she could try to make new friends. It didn’t seem like she had very many though. I don’t know why. Maybe it was all the talking. Maybe it scared other people, too.
It wasn’t that bad. Once you got used to it and everything. I learned a lot every time I talked to Mallory. I don’t know how she knew so much stuff. Her head should’ve exploded with it all! But it never did, so she just kept talking. That was okay by me. I liked having someone to listen to. She’d listen to me, too, whenever I wanted to say something.
* * *
“Okay, it’s called Blast Off, and we have to be astronauts who get sent out on missions in space. The slides will be our rocket ship. We can stand at the top and make sure we’re not invaded by aliens.“ Mallory waggled her arms towards me, and I giggled.
“Got it. But you said we would have to go on missions, too?”
“Yes! We can’t let anyone take over one of the planets. We have to make sure they’re safe from harm.” Mallory swept her arm across the playground and then started to point out each basketball planet. “Okay, okay, wait a second. My very excited mother just served us nine—I forgot Neptune!” She ran over to the ball bin and searched through it, picking out a red kickball. Mallory kicked it over to me, and I put it right before Pluto.
“You know Pluto’s not a planet anymore, right?” I asked.
“Just because it’s not really like the other planets doesn’t mean it’s not a planet at all. It’s just different. Plus, it’s the cutest and smallest planet there ever was. So, we must defend its honor!” Mallory flew to the top of the slides, taking the steps two at a time. I always hated that she could do that. My legs are too short. Kind of like our old dog, Waffles. He was a dachshund.
“Aaron, come on! Before the meteor shower starts!”
I walked over to the slides. I didn’t want to trip on my rain boots and scrape my knee again. There was still a pink patch from last week.
“How are you ever going to be able to defend planets if you can’t even move faster than my grandpa? Aliens are fast, Aaron! One second they’re floating on by, doing their own thing, and then boom! They eat all your pizza and take all your planets.”
“Do you think aliens really like pizza? What if they put humans on them like pepperonis?”
“Eww, that’s gross!” Mallory giggled.
“Well, you never know. It could happen.”
* * *
I got sick two weeks after Mallory and I finished fighting off the aliens, who were really just the big kids, from taking over the universe, which was really just the playground. I thought I just wasn’t sleeping well because I was tired all the time. I’d been having a lot of nightmares and stuff. But Mama was kind of worried. We decided that I’d try to go to bed earlier. 7:45 instead of 8:30. It didn’t really help. I didn’t even want to go to the playground. So Mallory came to my house. We played board games and colored pictures and watched Disney movies. She’d never seen any Disney movies before.
Mama stopped letting Mallory come over when I started puking. It was messy. Mama didn’t want her to get sick either, which I’ve never understood. Why do moms always keep you away from your friends when you’re sick, but moms are around you all the time and never ever get sick? It’s weird. Anyways, Mama set out the buck-buck, which is just the sick bowl, but I don’t like to call it that. I puked in it seven times. Seven! Mama took me to the doctor then. I just felt gross.
* * *
“It’s probably just the flu.”
“Has it been going around? I work at the library, and we’ve seen a drop in people coming through,” Mama said.
“Yes. It’s flu season. I can’t really prescribe anything for Aaron now. Maybe just some nausea meds to help him keep fluids down. Other than that, a lot of rest.”
“Okay, we can definitely do that. Can’t we, Aaron?”
I nodded. I liked the doctor’s office. He usually let me play with his stethoscope. I liked to listen to my tummy gurgle. It definitely wasn’t happy. But I always spent the most time listening to my heart. I liked the beat. Bum, bum. Bum, bum. Bum, bum.
“About how long until he starts feeling better?”
“He should start feeling more himself in a week or so. Children can sometimes get it worse than others. Just keep an eye on him and make sure he’s eating what he can. Lots of fluids, too, of course.”
“That’s great. See, honey, you won’t miss much more school. You’ll be back in no time! Thank you, Dr. Hall.”
* * *
I wasn’t back in no time. I didn’t go back at all. I just got sicker and sicker. I went to Dr. Hall a lot. More than I ever had before. He couldn’t do anything to make me better, so he sent me to the hospital. I’d never been there before. Well, except for the time that everyone is there, but no one really remembers that. The hospital wasn’t that scary.
The walls were blue with big animals painted all over them. Tigers, zebras, giraffes, lions, elephants, hippos, and flamingos. Those are all the ones I remember, at least. They were dressed in people clothes and always had smiles on their faces. I was all alone in my room, so it was nice to have the animals. And Mama. She was there, of course. I don’t think she ever left, even when I fell asleep. But it was hard to fall asleep. There were a bunch of strings coming out of my arm. I couldn’t lay on my tummy like I was used to.
On the weekends, Mallory would come visit me. She told me going to the playground on Saturday wasn’t the same if I wasn’t there. And she said I needed to see people so I wouldn’t go crazy. She was always worried I’d go crazy. I don’t know. She’s a girl.
* * *
“I don’t know when I’ll get to go home.”
“Well, that’s no good. You need to be at home and in school and on the playground. I think you’ll get better much faster if you just get to play a little,” Mallory said. She really wanted me to leave. I think she was getting lonely. She liked talking to someone who would listen. I was her someone.
“I’m trying! I promise. I want to play, too. The nurse brought in Candy Land the other day because I told her it was my favorite. We played three rounds. I won all of them, but I think she was letting me.”
“You have to be nice to sick kids, Aaron. It’s a rule.”
“Is that why you’re nice to me?”
“No, I’m nice to you always! It’s because I like you and hanging out with you, even if we haven’t gotten to very much.” Mallory looked down at her sneakers. She did that when she wanted to say something that she really didn’t want to say. I learned that after I watched her mom and dad ask her about homework. Mallory never did it, but knew she should.
“I’m sorry. I’ll be out soon and we can play. What do you want to play? Blast Off? Pirates? We could play knights and princesses again.”
“Are you sick, Aaron?”
“Yes. I thought that was why you—”
“No, no. I mean really sick. Are you really sick? Mrs. Travis got really sick and had to go to the hospital. She died there, and I never even got to tell her thank you for all the cookies. She always made me cookies to take home when I’d visit her. We’d read together and make cookies. Are you really sick, Aaron? Are you sick like Mrs. Travis?”
“I don’t think so. I’m not that sick. They told me what it was. Something about men. Maybe only boys get it. So I can’t be sick like Mrs. Travis because she wasn’t a boy.”
“Are you sicker than her?”
“How sick was she?”
“Mama wouldn’t let me go visit her in the hospital. So pretty sick, I think.”
“Then, no, I’m not that sick. Your mom let you come here!”
“That’s true!” Mallory perked up. She walked across the room and sat down on the bed next to my feet. “Did I tell you about the new girl who came into my class? She wears purple nail polish, too.”
“What’s her name?”
“Eve. She got her name because she was born on New Year’s Eve. It’s like the whole world celebrates her birthday!”
“Are you forgetting about me?”
“What? How? I can’t forget about you. You’re my best friend!”
“Well, I’ve just been away for a long time. I thought you might find new friends and like to play with them more.”
“No, I like playing with you the best. Even if I like Eve, she’s not you. You’re the only you there is. That’s what my mom says, and she’s a pretty smart lady.”
“Okay. I just wanted to ask.”
“Don’t worry. As soon as you get better and get to come back to school, you can meet Eve. You’ll like her. I know you will.”
“Tell me more about her.”
* * *
The night after Mallory came to visit, I fell asleep for a really long time. I didn’t realize how long it was. Not until I woke up. But sometimes, even now, it doesn’t feel like I’ve woken up. Sometimes I hope I haven’t.
I can’t listen to Mallory anymore, even when I try. I can’t listen to Mama or the nurses or the doctors or the TV or the radio or my aunt and uncle who came to visit when I left the hospital. I can’t listen to anything. Nothing makes any sound anymore. I don’t know why. I know they should be making noise. I watch the people on TV move from one side of the screen to another, but nothing. I watch my Aunt Jane and Uncle John laugh and joke, but nothing. I watch Mama’s lips move and eyes cry, but nothing. I can’t hear anything at all. I don’t really know what’s happening anymore. Mama writes me notes now, to try to explain things.
Don’t be scared. Everything is all right. You’re all right. You just got really sick. I know you can’t hear me. That’s okay. We’re okay. We can write notes and draw pictures. Don’t worry, baby. We’re going to figure things out. I love you. Nod your head if you understand, okay?
I always nod after Mama gives me one of her notes, but I don’t think I really understand. I just want her to stop crying. I think that’s what she’s doing. Her eyes get all squinty, and her nose gets all red. I’m pretty sure she’s crying. I never know when she’s in the room though because I can’t hear her come in. Yesterday, I was coloring a picture to give to Mallory because I haven’t seen her yet, and when I got up to get a drink, Mama was sitting on the couch behind me. I screamed, but I didn’t hear it. That was scary.
I get to see Mallory tomorrow. Mama wrote a note and said that Mallory was going to come over for lunch on Saturday so that we could visit. Her mom is going to come, too. I hope everything goes okay. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t really know what to do.
* * *
I was sitting in my room playing with some of my dinosaurs when Mama came in and tapped me on the shoulder.
Mallory and her mom are here, Aaron. Are you ready to eat?
I held Mama’s hand and we walked down the stairs to the living room. Mallory was sitting on the couch with her mom, kicking her feet off the side. I was nervous. What if she didn’t like me anymore? What if I scared her or hurt her or made her mad because I couldn’t hear? What if we couldn’t be friends?
Mallory saw me, got up, and came over to meet me. She said something to my mom and smiled. Mama smiled back and let go of my hand. Mallory took my hand and put it on her ear. Then, she put her own hand on my ear. Her hands were cold and sweaty like Mama’s. We stood like that for a second. I didn’t know what she was doing. It was weird and definitely not a game we’d played before. She kept talking and looking over her shoulder at our moms. They had their eyebrows all bunched together. Mallory stopped talking and smiled at me. She kept her hand on my ear and turned her head around. She must have said something again because Mama smiled and scribbled something onto her notepad. Mama walked over to me and showed me the note.
Mallory wants to tell you something, all right?
You have to watch her lips very carefully.
I nodded again and looked back at Mallory. She pressed her hand into my ear and I did the same to hers. Then she mouthed the only word I heard all week.