She pauses, her back turned to me. Her shoulders are drooped more than usual, her frame wispy. She’s so light this time it looks as if a large gust of wind would knock her down.
She sighs and then turns around, leaning on the brick outside of the door. Her breathing is labored like she had just run from the house. She had only dropped off our little girl in her bed and used the restroom. She was winded walking from the bathroom to the front door. Now I’m really worried.
“Are you taking your medication?” Her features stay in that mask she wears when she can’t talk about her feelings, smooth, and lifeless. “Yes,” she answers, her tone taking on the same emotionless effect. A few seconds of silence pass before she makes eye contact with me. Her eyebrows raise as if to say, ‘anything else?’
Jenna is every bit as stunning as the day we had promised each other forever. Her smooth, creamy skin hasn’t changed and I’ve never seen her have a bad hair day. Her blonde hair has a slight wave to it and if you catch it in the sun it has bits of red. Strawberry blonde, I think I overheard one of her friends call it once. She’s always had one of those small frames, even after Karis was born. She just bounced back into her pre-maternity clothes no problem. Secretly, I think many ladies envy her for it.
Even now, with her face lacking emotion her beauty can’t be hidden. It’s always been a mystery to me, how she’s stayed looking youthful all these years. She’s pushing 40 and hasn’t aged a day since we met. I don’t mean that in an emotional sort of way that a husband sees a wife as beautiful at every age, I mean I’ve tried to find any sign of it and damned if I haven’t found any. I know that’s a thing men aren’t supposed to notice, or I guess be happy over─ but it’s just always struck me as odd. You know?
Well, I say wife. I’m still not used to this next part. She’s going to leave, head back home to her place near downtown. She got a job working at Baylor. Which was both good and bad. It meant long hours and being on-call at any time of the day. Why she chose to be a trauma surgeon, I’ll never know. The horrors she sees, I can only imagine.
The divorce finalized earlier this year. Ten years gone, I can’t believe it. It’s my worst nightmare.
Karis mostly stays with me. We decided given her mother’s hectic schedule, it would be best that she have a stable environment for home and school. It wasn’t traditional, but it worked. I can’t remember wanting to be anything other than a husband and a father. It is my life goal. I don’t really buy into that ‘ball and chain’ nonsense, never have. I’ve loved every step of the way.
Well, except this part.
Her face draws up into a tired smile, one of those forced ones she gives all of her patients when she has just pulled an eighteen-hour shift. It isn’t that she doesn’t mean them, it’s that her body starts to shut down most of the unnecessary functions. Such as excess of emotions. I’ve seen this woman shut down in mid-cry with razor-sharp focus and attentiveness that would rival any politician. It’s an amazing trait to have, I do envy her that.
Without realizing what I am doing, I place my hand on her shoulder. “Hey, you alright?” I feel her tense slightly, but she doesn’t move from my grip. I’m tempted to hold her, but I do the gentlemanly thing and back away, clearing my throat. Jenna had made it very clear that things were done, no sense in putting myself through all of this a second time. She relaxes and slowly bobs her head up and down. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired,” she pauses and then adds, “you know, with the new place and all. Moving and work has been draining.”
I don’t buy it. Not completely, but I know exhaustion when I see it. “Listen, Jen─ don’t drive. If you need me to get you an uber or drive you, let me. I don’t think you should be driving in that state.” She bristles, her chin raising a degree. A bit of her stubbornness flairs, and I’m reminded of the side of her that really turns me on. I know it’s not an appropriate thought, and I quickly flip the switch in my brain. Whoa, boy, shut it down. This venue is closed up for good, windows boarded.
She must sense my hesitation, or something in the way I look. “Who would watch Karis?” Her words are soft, inviting. It reminds me of simpler times. She’s looking up at me with those big doe eyes. I know she isn’t doing it on purpose, I know when she’s trying to seduce. This is different. Then, as quickly as it comes, she turns away and walks over to her small honda civic. I’ll never understand why she doesn’t buy something better, she’s owned that car forever. She easily makes enough to drive anything she wants. Yet, she sticks with this tiny, white car. My guess is she’s saving for an early retirement. Can’t say I blame her, my parents taught me well. I’d only need to put in another 7 to 10 years at most and I’d have enough to retire on. Even if I live to be 150. After that, well, I guess I’m fucked. But I’ll be old as hell and probably shitting myself, so who cares?
She leans on the door for a moment, her hair picked up by the breeze. “Tom, I just want you to know─” she trails off, her brows press together and she bites her lip. I want to be impatient with her, yell and scream and demand to know what’s going on. Problem is, I can’t anymore. I’m no longer entitled to an answer and it kills me inside. I’ve gone from anger to sorrow in seconds, depressing myself. What I want to say is, Spit it out, god damn it! Instead, I smile and say, “What is it, Hun?” Her eyes dart from the house to my face, no doubt looking back at Karis’s window.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers.
Then she’s gone, driving down the road and turning onto the main street. I stand there for a long time. Long after the dust has settled and my neighbors have turned out their lights. All I wanted was to be a husband, a father. Why is that so hard?
“When do I get to see mommy’s new place?” Karis asks. Her legs are dangling from the stool as she stuffs the waxy chocolate donuts into her mouth. I don’t know why those things taste so good to kids. It’s basically solidified fat and sugar. The film on your teeth is the worst. I don’t let her have them too often but today was the first day back to school and I wanted her to have something comforting.
Karis, much like myself at her age, is showing all the signs I did. She has bad anxiety. Yay genetics.
I can tell she’s already dreading school, her face falling as I usher her along to finish her breakfast. I can’t believe she starts 3rd grade this year. Seems like yesterday I was chasing a bouncing, squealing kiddo running in her diapers. I frown as I check my watch. Jenna was supposed to be here 20 minutes ago. Normally, Jen would have Karis giggling and forgetting about her first day jitters, excitedly telling her how much fun she’s going to have for the year. She was famously a few minutes late, but never this much. If she didn’t get here soon, I’d have to leave without her. This wasn’t like her at all. She always made time for Karis. Especially on the first day of school. It was a tradition for all of us to walk with Karis hand-in-hand to class and wish her a good day.
10 more minutes go by and I can’t wait much longer. I text her one last time, hoping that maybe she had slept in, or that she would respond with an immediate apology, explaining herself. Then a full 5 minutes go by, and then 7. This time, I really can’t wait anymore. For the first time ever, Jenna will miss Kara’s first day at school. I look over to Karis as she downs the last of her milk and smile, “You ready honey bunny?” She grins ear-to-ear at the nickname and nods her head.
I blow Karis a kiss from the hallway as she sits at her desk. She’s already chatting with a girl across from her and laughing. I recognize the girl from Karis’s 1st-grade class a few years back. Glad to see that Karis has already found a friend. Maybe it’s true what they say, kids are simple and they don’t think about things as much as we do. She seems to be adjusting just fine in her new desk, all smiles, and semi-toothless grins. I stare at her from the hall, she really is a spitting image of her mother. Except for her eyes. Her eyes are green like mine and she’s tall and lanky. Jenna and I would always joke about how Karis would be as tall as her in a few years. It wasn’t an exaggeration. Karis was easily going to reach six feet tall in her teens and she would be strong. Real strong. Every sport we’d put her in, she was number one on the team. I don’t mean to brag, but in this case, she actually is a hardworking kiddo.
Now if she would apply herself more to reading, we would be all set. I’ve never seen a kid that could melt to the floor the way she can when she has to sit at a table and focus on letters. $1500 dollars and a reading tutor took care of it this past summer, but damn if the girl wasn’t stubborn about it. Took that from her daddy too.
I’d almost forgotten about Jenna’s odd behavior as I walk out to my car. Then the rage hits me. How the hell does she promise to be here and never show? How could she do that to Karis? No call, not even a text. At this point, I’m not sure if I should be angry or worried. But in the end, the anger fizzles and worry creeps in. My mind switches back to her face last night and her words. I’m sorry. What was she apologizing about? Was it because she knew she wouldn’t be able to make it this morning? If so, why didn’t she just tell me? I pull my phone from my pocket. It vibrates and I get excited. Maybe this was her. I frown at the text message alerting me that my phone bill has gone through─ and nothing else. What the fuck is going on?
I can’t worry about it too much, so I head into work. I’m hopeful that in the next few hours she’ll call, or text before I really start to freak out.
It’s not too bad of a day and nearly 2:30 when I get the call.
“Mr. Holloway?” the woman croaks. It’s one of those smoker’s voices, the stereotypical kind that you hear in cartoons.
“Yes, speaking,” I respond.
“This is Leslie Smith from Hawthorn Elementary. I’m the school nurse calling about Karis.”
The blood drains from my face. “Is she OK?” I ask. I stride across my office and then shut the door. Best that no one hears something else to give the office gossip. She sighs on the other end, and then is silent for a moment. It’s as if she’s carefully weighing her words. “Karis is fine, no cuts or bruises.” More reluctance and then, “It’s more what happened that really concerns me” she says. “Ma’am?” I’m confused for a moment as to why I’m getting a phone call if Karis isn’t hurt. Then my chest tightens. “Did─ she harm someone else?” I silently hope this isn’t true, it’s the last thing I needed after this day. “Heavens no, that girl is as kind as they come. Never seen her get upset even when she ought to,” the nurse chuckles despite her earlier reservations. “Ms. Smith─” “Mrs. Smith,” she interrupts. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Smith─ if my daughter isn’t harmed and she hasn’t harmed anyone, then what is the nature of this call?” I’m beginning to lose my patience. She’s silent on the other end again, but I can hear her shifting the phone. “Look, maybe it isn’t my place, lord knows I’ve had my fair share of problems, but, Karis said some very strange things today. Is everything OK at home?” I tense up. So, she had been paying attention to what happened this morning. “Well, normally her mother and I walk her in on her first day and her mom never showed” I finish. I feel the heat rising in my cheeks as I finish the sentence, it’s awkward having to say it out loud. “Well, now, that’s exactly what I mean” she sounds genuinely confused. “I’m not following” I say, trying to get her to the point. “Mr. Holloway,” she clears her throat and shifts on the other line. There’s that odd crackling that comes with a landline, they must still be using one of the ancient ones with a cord that connects to the base. “Karis was sent to me today because she asked the teacher if she and mama could go to the restroom together.” I’m still confused and even more so now. “You mean Jenna came up there? What’s wrong with that?” Relief floods my system. So she had finally got up there and had sat in with Karis. The relief is quickly replaced with anger. Why hadn’t she made an attempt to text me or call me back? I had been worried sick.
The silence on the other end makes me rethink my assumption. Something is wrong. I don’t know how I know it, something in the shifting, in Mrs. Smith’s sighs and heavy breath on the other end. My mind swims with the possibilities, but in the end I just ask, “What is it?” The nurse finally speaks at my question, “Mrs. Holloway never came in to see Karis today. As a matter of fact, Karis has been very cross with the staff and all of the other children are, frankly, afraid to go near her. During recess she sat on a bench and talked to an invisible person next to her. The teacher, bless her soul, tried to give the girl the benefit of the doubt─ first day jitters, you know that sort of thing. But as the day has gone on, she still insists on it.” I sit quietly, soaking in what she has just told me. I know Karis might have been upset, but I didn’t realize she was this upset. I am going to have to have a chat with her, see what’s really going on. Finally, I say, “Mrs. Smith. I know if this divorce is hard on me, it’s got to be harder on an eight year old.” I slowly start warming to the thought.
This isn’t some abnormal thing, it’s probably fairly common with children of divorcees. I hate thinking of that word, I hate that it applies to me and I hate even more that it includes her. Another broken family, nothing new─ welcome to America. Suddenly my lunch turns sour in my stomach and I’m unsure if it will stay put. I put on my best reassuring voice, the kind I use with my own mother, “Let me have a chat with her tonight and see what’s really going on.” I hear Mrs. Smith shift again and then a sigh, “See that you do, Mr. Holloway. Dr. Norris thinks that transferring her to a different class would be helpful as well. Children can be quite judgmental, as I’m sure you know. It may be good for a fresh start.” I bristle but the anger gives way to weariness. She’s right, as much as I hate to admit it. It would probably help ease her into the school year. I nod before answering, “I think that would be for the best. You have my permission.” She’s smiling as she says the next part, I can hear it in her voice. It’s forced, but I know it’s out of sheer politeness, she wants me to feel at ease. “I think that’s wise of you, Mr. Holloway. We’ll need you to fill out a transfer file, but we can send it via email. Just be sure to sign it before tomorrow.” “Thank you,” I say, quick to be done with this conversation. “Of course,” she says, then adds “and it’s a real shame to hear about all of your struggles. I hope it gets better for the two of you.” I awkwardly mumble a thank you and then hang up.
Karis is all smiles as she rushes up to the car. The crossing guard calls out for her to slow down, but she’s already at the passenger door. I wave and mouth sorry to the portly, scowling woman. She nods curtly, red-faced and then turns back to her duties, guiding the others across. “Daddy!” she gushes as she hops in the front seat. Her bag gets tossed and she reaches for her seat belt. “Let’s go home, I want to play VR!” I laugh at her eagerness. I’m ready to celebrate too, another end to a long work day.
Less than ten minutes later, we’re home dropping our things by the front door. That’s future us’s problem. I adjust the visor and goggles to her small head and then step back, knowing that she’s about to tear up the room on Beat Saber. I shake my head as she starts her latest pop obsession, really getting into the dance. Girl’s got some moves, just like her mama. Then I think about that and frown. I silently send out a warning to any and all potential suitors with a death threat so vile Fidel Castro would cringe at its savagery. I used to feel that way about anyone that looked at Jenna when she rocked Dance Dance Revolution at the mall arcade.
After dinner, I tell Karis to go brush her teeth and change into her jammies. I’ve avoided it all day, but it’s time for the chat. I know it’s probably normal so I make a mental note to not be overly serious, but enough that I get my point across. No one ever tells you about this part of divorce─ the ugly parts where you have to accept and understand how your child processes the inevitable change.
“I’m ready for my story, daddy!” she calls from her room down the hall.
“Karis, stop it.” I snap. Her green eyes are brimming with tears as she shakes her head at me. “No. Mommy was there, in class with me. No one else saw her, but she was there.” I let out a long sigh and squeeze the bridge of my nose, closing my eyes. I thought for sure this would play out way easier in real life─ how naive of me. I really want to be an adult about it, but in the end, my tiredness wins. I try a different approach, a more human one, “honey, I know today was tough and we’re going to have a lot of those, but I need you to be honest with me right now. Was mommy really there today, or did you just pretend like she was there?” Her chin raises and she squares up to me, “I am not a liar-liar pants on fire, daddy.” She crosses her arms in a huff and turns toward the wall, her little jaw trembling but held firm. I have to stifle a laugh by moving my hand over my mouth. The only time she ever gets this worked up is when she believes in what she is saying.
This is her truth, and while I don’t believe that her mom was actually there, I know that Karis believes it. After a few moments, I speak carefully, “Sometimes, when we get upset we see things. Things that aren’t really there.” Her shoulders stiffen and she still won’t look at me, but I sense a hesitance. “Daddy, Mama was there.” Her words are so soft, they almost come out a whisper. “Why won’t you believe me? I saw her.” Little droplets spill down her face as she presses her eyes together. I wince as she starts ugly crying, the kind that sends her whole body into shakes, and snot dripping down her mouth and chin. “Shh, shh,” I say, running my fingers across her back. I stand briefly, grab the box of tissues from her desk and then offer them to her. She grabs a handful and blows noisily into them. “I swear,” she says between sniffles, “I’m not making it up. I don’t know why, but no one could see her but me.” The last sentence seems to calm her and she relaxes, finally able to get it all out.
Poor girl. I continue to massage her back as she lays down under the covers. I draw them up to her chin and then tuck in the sides cocooning her the way she likes it. I massage her back until her breathing comes out heavy. I stroke her hair, then bend down and kiss her forehead, “I love you, bunny.” I whisper. She still smells like she did as a baby, that faint hint of baby powder and lotions and some unknown floral scent that has stuck with her for years. It’s that scent of youth, indescribable yet everyone knows what you mean.
I’m in bed when I hear the sound. The t.v. is up loud, so I tap the mute button and listen. The only sound is the wind outside rustling the grass next to my window. There’s a few creaks and pops, the house bending in the unforgiving September winds. I exhale and press the button. I jump as the movie blares into my room and I quickly turn it down. Apparently, I’ve been listening to it much louder than I thought. The main character is jumping into oncoming traffic, guns and car horns blaring. Finally some action. I’m tensing and balling my hands into fists as the bad guys squeal next to Detective Peterson. You got this, I scream mentally. He makes a quick decision and then he’s down a dark alleyway, the bad guys zoom past, losing him. Yes, I think, pounding my hands on the comforter. The detective gets out of his car and makes a call to the local PD. He’s one of those traditional grizzled types weathered from a career of seeing too much of humanity’s bad side. He lights up, and exhales a large puff of smoke when I hear something again. It’s almost perfectly timed to the scraping noise the detective hears in the dark alley. This is no movie sound, it’s here─ in my home.
It sounds closer this time and I can make out new details. Before it sounded like tapping, or a crinkling bag. Sometimes Karis sneaks out of bed for a cookie or some chips. My room is located right across from the kitchen and living room. So I’ve almost always caught her. The back door is attached to the breakfast area, it’s a design for parents to be able and keep an eye on their children in the backyard while they cook. We haven’t gotten a puppy yet, but there is a dog door installed. Recently Karis has been asking for a dog and admittedly, I would welcome anything to keep me company. Especially tonight. I frown as I hear it again. It’s a wet noise, like dripping onto my tile floors. Annoyed, I pause the movie. The sound stops. I’m probably just tired, I reason. It’s the wind or maybe it’s starting to rain outside. A couple of beats pass and I’m starting to doubt myself again when there is suddenly a few more droplets, and then it’s pouring rain.
It’s nearly three in the morning when my phone goes off. I jump at the invasive jingle. Light spills into the room, bathing everything in a dull, green hue. I know it’s a text, I’ve disabled all of my email alerts and all the other crap alerts that come with apps these days. It was a text, or a voicemail. And since the ringtone never went off, I know it has to be the former. There’s only one person that would be texting me this late. A lump forms in my throat as I reach for the phone. It jingles a few more times and vibrates in my hand. What on earth? I wonder. I stare at the name on my phone, shaking as I swipe at the lock screen. It’s her. I stare up at the repeated message as it continues to fill the message screen, over and over:
“Daddy?” I let out a howl and the phone drops from my hands and onto the floor. It makes a loud clack and then slides to the wall under my window. Karis jumps and screams, scared and confused at my outburst. She pauses as I quiet and then bawls. I sigh in relief. “Karis, honey I’m sorry, you scared Daddy.” She continues to cry but walks toward my bed. “I’m scared,” she moans, “there was a monster in my room.” I pat the bad and wave her over. ” Now, baby, there’s no such thing as monsters.” She cries harder and wails, “There is so, and it was in my room.” she’s almost as hysterical as she was when I yelled. I look at the bright red lights on my alarm clock, 2:45 a.m. Best to just let her sleep in here or neither of us will get a wink. “Alright, alright” I say gruffly, “Come on up then.” She pulls herself onto the bed and dives beneath the covers. Karis’s tears dry up instantly in that annoying ability that all kids tend to have when they get their way. I shake my head as I get out of bed and scoop my phone up from the floor. The jingling has stopped, but the message has not changed─ just a few more of the same thing, I’m sorry.
I’m not sure how to respond. Is she sending this out of guilt? It was the same thing she had said last night before she left. Is she apologizing for missing Karis’s first day? That has to be it. Jenna probably just got off her shift and sent a message in a dead zone. Sometimes it takes a while for a message to send so it stores it until you hit an area with signal. It probably just sent a bunch after an attempt to send it the first time it didn’t go through. My gut reaction is to attack her, ask her what she was thinking, not even bothering to send me a text, or at least call. Even if she had to work overtime, she could have let me know─ something.
I take a few breaths, steadying myself. No, maybe something happened. Jenna isn’t the sort to make up excuses, that is one thing I know for sure. Finally, I send: is everything OK? I expect the response to come later, but one comes immediately: come find me. I stare at the message for a while. Is she standing outside of the house? I sneak out of bed and look down at Karis. She’s fast asleep, her head tilted back and mouth hanging open. I’m not sure what is going on, but I know it has to be serious since Jen is at my house at three in the morning. Not that her being awake at that hour is odd, just that she is here. She normally waits until at least six to call or message. I slip out of my room and turn toward the front door. I grip my sides as I walk across the cool tiles. The rain really dropped the temperature outside.
My teeth are chattering as I pull on the front door. My feet hit the cold porch and I’m tempted to go back inside. It’s absolutely freezing. When did it get this cold? I walk down the covered path and turn to the driveway. Her car isn’t here. I look up and down the street to see if maybe she parked further down. The only thing visible on the street is the streetlight three houses down. The wind picks up and I shiver, running my hands up and down my arms. My body is shaking uncontrollably. I’m not sure if it’s from the cold, or the sudden urge to run back inside and lock the door. My phone goes off again in my pocket, it sounds small and thin in the approaching storm.
Confused, I pull it from my pocket.
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
Come find me
A scream fills the house. The blood drains from my face as I spin on my heels and charge through the front door. It’s Karis, I know that scream anywhere. It’s the same one she does when she falls or hurts herself. I’m nearly to my room when the shadows bend toward the back window in the living room. They jerk, twist upward and tower over me. I stare at the dark swirl in awe. Not shadows, I realize. It’s more of an ooze. A moment of insanity takes hold of me and I reach out, extending my fingers. I should run, I should scream─ but what good would that do? If I am going to die to it, I want to know if it’s tangible. Perhaps this is a dream, I convince myself, some vision my brain has concocted from the film earlier. I frown. No, that can’t be right because there was nothing like it. Only people. This isn’t a person.
I take one step. Then, another. It’s staring at me. I say stare not because it has eyes, but because I can feel it. I know it’s looking at me. It’s crazy, I realize, but it’s the only way I can describe what I’m sensing. I’m five feet from it, maybe less and it’s taller than I realized. It’s nearly to my ceiling. I stop as a streak of white light screams across it and branches in several directions. It almost reminds me of…“Lightning” I murmur out loud. It lurches away from me, diving toward the back door. My voice must have startled it. I hear the dog door crash open and the thing pushes its way through. It makes the same sound that a bathtub does when the last of the water drains out. Almost a suction noise.
I want to move, but I can’t. I’m shaking all over. I want to say that I am completely in control and I have convinced myself that I’m simply tired. That the noises are the rain outside and what I just saw is the result of stress and sleep deprivation. Deep down, I know this is a lie. A smaller scream comes from my room, more of a scared whimper. Karis. My feet finally cooperate and I’m in my room. Karis is pressed against the headboard, the covers drawn all the way up to her chin. Her eyes are bulging, stuck wide open. I flick on the light and scan the room. Whatever that…thing was has left but it’s not going to stop me from searching the entire room. Now gaining some courage, I drop to my belly and scan under the bed.
If there was something here before, it is gone now. I know it to be true. Whatever it was left earlier through the back door. I stand and look down at Karis, my voice comes out heavy, tired, “was that the one?” She blinks at me a few times, her eyebrows pressed together in confusion. “What do you mean, daddy?” she whispers. “Was that the monster in your room?” A heavy silence fills the room and Karis’s lips quiver. Her teeth start to chatter. Suddenly, I don’t want to know the answer. I just want to lie in bed and close my eyes. I want to dream of simpler times when it was Jenna, Karis, and me against the world. I want to forget that any of this has happened. I glance at my phone and check my messages again. I frown at the phone, close my messages and then re-open them. I try it once again, and then a third time before finally closing them for good.
The messages from when I was outside are gone. All of them are except for a single: I’m sorry.
Maybe it’s best if we just call it a night. We were both upset, the storm caused the sounds, I reason. Tricks from the lightning outside had created a shadow. Yes, that must have been it. I reach over and switch on the lamp. Then I walk to the other side of the room and turn off the overhead light. Karis hasn’t answered, but she is watching my every move. I curl up next to her and pull her into my arms. She rests her head between my chest and shoulder. I can tell the exact moment that she falls asleep. Karis’s breathing deepens and her body goes limp.
I stare up at the ceiling hoping, praying that all of this is a nightmare. I’m frightened to sleep, but it finds me anyway. The last of my thoughts drift to Jenna’s warm eyes and kind smile.
Part II coming soon.
This will be posted on royalroad.com