The morning starts like other bad mornings, paranoid and full of dark suspicions.
When I come into the kitchen, he’s got the coffee maker pried wide open and is looking down inside it for a hidden camera or a transmitter or a secret service bug.
Addy’s sitting under the table watching the proceedings with her legs splayed out in front of her, loving on that ratty plastic doll.
“Dad,” I say, taking down a box of cereal. “Could you not?”
He glances at me, brandishing the flathead. “They think they’re so smart, but I’m onto them.”
His voice is triumphant, inviting me to ask who, but if we do this right now, I’ll be late getting to school, and I’m not in the mood.
I look down at disheveled coffee maker, then back at him. “Please, I just want to get a cup of coffee and I can’t do that if the thing’s in pieces.”
My father doesn’t have just one definite mood. There are versions of him, different on different mornings. You never know who you’ll get. My father, embarrassed and contrite, anxious to apologize, or my father ranting.
Today, he smiles, and mercifully hands over the screwdriver. “My little girl likes her coffee and that makes two of us. Two of a kind. Two peas, pigs, birds with one stone—”
The listing could go on forever, once he gets going. It jerks out of him like a stutter, a tic he can’t control.
I nod and pinch the bridge of my nose, opening the refrigerator and muttering, “Or maybe, I just like it because I like it. Ever think of that?”
He whirls on me, and in one awful moment, I’ve ruined the tenuous peace between us, shattered it with backtalk and disagreement.
“Dad, I’m sorry. I mean that I like it because you do. That’s why. That’s what I meant.”
He doesn’t answer, just turns and walks out of the kitchen. I smile reassuringly at Addy, who smiles back and waves the doll at me. When its head flops forward, it looks like it’s nodding.
I barely have time to pour a bowl of cereal, before there’s the clatter of footsteps on the stairs and he’s back, carrying a huge armful of my clothes. He crosses the kitchen and yanks open the back door.
“Hey, hey! What are you doing?”
My sweater hits the ground like a buck-shot bird—flapping through the air for a breathless moment, soaring, then bang. It tumbles out of the sky.
“Get out,” he says. “Get out, get out, get out.”
I keep a phone number taped under my bed, because I know he won’t look there. The contact information is encrypted and I know that even he can’t break it without the key. The number is for a social worker. There are other places I’d need to call, too. But the social worker is the one who will list them all. Who will tell me what to do.
“Dad,” I say, reaching for his arm. I’m used to this, the tantrums and the accusations. I’m used to this, but I can’t say that it doesn’t hurt anyway. My clothes are everywhere and I’ll be a good long time picking them up off the lawn.
“You’re a liar,” he says, tossing away a faded T-shirt. “You don’t fool me. You know the truth, you know! You know it because you’re—just—like—me!”
The pronouncement stuns, wounds, hits me in the chest like a bowling ball, but I close my eyes and bite down on nothing, clenching me teeth so the abject horror won’t get out.
For a second, I think I’ve succeeded, made my expression blank as a dinner plate.
Then he plunges at me, putting his face close to mine. “What did you say? Don’t you mumble at me, missy!”
“I didn’t say anything.”
He rifles through the pile and there goes my plaid Christmas dress. “Don’t you go whispering at me!”
I retreat from the kitchen with Addy scampering after me, and leave him chucking my things out into the yard.
In the living room, my older sister, Meg, is sitting on the couch with her ankles crossed, resolutely ignoring him. She has the TV turned up obstinately loud.
“We need to call,” I say, hearing fear and then resentment come spilling out in my voice.
Meg and Addy just stare at me. Meg’s hands look small, oddly delicate next to the ungainly bulk of her body. Addy sits on the carpet at her feet, petting that mangy doll, over and over. Rubbing its hair right off.
“Well, I’m calling,” I say.
Neither of them move. Their answer is in the fact that they don’t try to stop me.
The social worker is tiny, an olive-skinned woman with a storm of curly black hair.
“I’m glad you made the choice to ask for help,” she says in a low, soothing voice.
We’re sitting out on the porch, drinking tap-water lemonade that I mixed from a packet.
I study my glass. “What’s going to happen to us?”
“Well, I’ll be doing my best to keep you together. I want you to know that, but it is harder with big girls. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try, though.”
“No, I mean, what’s going to happen to us? Are we going to wind up like him?”
“Oh honey, let’s not borrow trouble. You don’t want to talk about this right now.”
But I can’t shake the raw intensity of his voice, his face too close, his eyes looking startlingly like mine. “Yes, I do want to talk about it.”
“Well,” she says, with her gaze drifting off over my head, “statistically speaking, there is a chance that one of you could exhibit . . . symptoms at some point in your life. But this is really something to talk about with a psychologist.”
Addy comes creeping up behind me in that way she has, not touching me, but hovering beside my chair. She slumps forward and leans her chin on my shoulder.
She whispers, “One bright day in the middle of the night, two dead boys got up to fight.” Her voice is sweet and dopey, and even on good days, she doesn’t make an awful lot of sense.
I watch the social worker, whose hands are working at the hem of her blouse, but whose eyes have never left my face. “I’m worried about her.”
“Worried about who?”
I jerk my head to the side and feel traitorous when I whisper it. “Addy.”
“And who’s Addy, honey?”
The weight of Addy’s chin digs into the side of my neck. “Here’s how much I love you,” she whispers, tickling my ear with the busted-up doll.
“I thought your sister’s name was Meg.”
“My other sister. My little one.”
“Oh.” The social worker blinks and shakes her head. “Oh, I’m sorry. Somehow, I thought there were only the two of you. And where is Addy now?”
With her chin on my shoulder and her arms tight around my neck, breathing in my ear.
The social worker is watching me, hands tugging harder at her blouse.
“Don’t,” I say, feeling the panic well up in my lungs. “Don’t mess with me.” Although I know in my darkest heart of hearts that she wouldn’t.
She’s looking at me with wide, nervous eyes. With doubt, and it’s the doubt, more than anything, that makes me go cold.
“You’re a bad girl,” says Addy. “Now say you’re sorry for what you did to Daddy. Say sorry, and I’ll give you a kiss.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, shaking my head at the social worker. “I’m not making much sense. It’s been a long day. I’m sorry.”
Addy’s mouth is warm against my cheek, the sticky, fumbling kiss of something too strong to pull away from. Rooted in my brain, my dark, uncharted blood.
Too close to family.
Photo by zen