Dad still comes into my room at night, even though he’s dead. I don’t know why he bothers, but he does. First time it happened, I thought I imagined him. But I can hear his breathing, can feel the mattress shift when he sits down on my bed next to Winston, who purrs and tucks his paws in neatly beneath his ginger-tabby chest.
“Tell me about your day, Angelica,” he’d say when I was little, and I’d tell him about school and Mom and all the stuff no one else wanted to hear. Sometimes I still do, but not tonight. Tonight, I slip my hand under the pillow, grasping the moulded grip of the gun.
In the other room, mom is screaming in her sleep—wordless with rage or pain or something that is maybe both, impossible to tell apart. I don’t know if Dad is listening. Mom used to call him a loser and a fucking disgrace. Maybe that’s why he left, but it was my fault, too. He worried about me, even when he should have worried about himself.
The day he left, Dad asked me who I’d be if I weren’t scared. I didn’t answer. I was only ten, and what kind of question is that anyway?
* * *
At breakfast, I ask Mom what she dreamt last night.
“Can’t remember,” she answers, but I know it’s a lie.
“You’ll feel better if you talk about it,” I say, trying to be funny, all pop-psych and teenage sass.
“But you won’t,” she says, pouring herself another coffee.
I wish I could tell Mom about Dad, but since she never mentions him, I don’t either. Besides, she hasn’t been drinking lately, and I don’t want to set her off.
* * *
I don’t go to school after breakfast. Instead, I end up at the park with the gun in my backpack. No one’s there except the crows picking through the garbage.
In the daylight, the gun doesn’t even look real. It’s a prop, a toy. But holding it makes me feel like there’s a way out, after all.
Bridges and Emmaline find me later in the grass. They’re holding hands, and Emmaline pretends she’s my friend today. Some days, she pretends she isn’t. Bridges is OK, I guess, with a smile so pure you barely notice the acne scars tugging at his face. He’s almost seventeen, but too stupid to know he shouldn’t hang with me or Emmaline.
Emmaline grabs my backpack, as if she somehow knows I put the gun in there. She pulls it out, teeth and metal glinting.
“It’s your dad’s, right?”
“Did your mom let you have it?” Bridges asks, in a hush.
When I hesitate, Emmaline says, “Of course. Everyone knows Angelica’s mom doesn’t give a shit.”
Emmaline aims at one of the crows, fingering the trigger and safety. There’s a bang, so loud we holler, and the crow turns to blood and feathers, the air sharp with gunpowder and hot metal.
“Angelica, you psycho! It’s loaded!”
We’re still laughing when Emmaline spots him: ginger-tabby, softly-treading paws. Winston.
Emmaline takes aim again, giving me a sidelong glance, eyes challenging me to stop her. I think of Winston purring beneath my hand. I think of punching Emmaline until her nose breaks. Then she laughs and dumps the gun into my backpack, smile sharp like broken glass.
* * *
Mom comes into the bathroom when I’m brushing my teeth that night. At first, I think she’s going to rip into me for not going to school. Then I realize she’s been crying. Drinking, too.
“You all right?” she asks, tousling my hair, awkward, like she’s not quite sure how to do it.
She nods, pretending she believes me.
* * *
“Who would you be if you weren’t scared, Angelica?”
It’s the first time Dad speaks to me since he died.
In the dark, he’s just a silhouette, but I know if I turned on the light, he’d be sitting there with half his head blown off, just like I found him in the shed.
The sound of my heart, of blood through veins, is loud and inescapable, and I wish my heart and the whole damn world would go silent. I think of Emmaline and Bridges holding hands, of gunpowder and feathers, and I sink into the mire of before-before-before. I want to scream at Dad, as loud as Mom, but there are only shadows of unspoken words left on my tongue.
Why’d you do it in the shed, Dad? Didn’t you realize I’d come looking for you? That I’d notice the missing key, the padlock hanging open? That I’d pull open the door?
I close my eyes, and my pain tastes like salt and steel.
Was it like this for you, Dad? Gun barrel scraping teeth, trigger-finger trembling. Was this what you felt when you decided to leave me?
Dad grasps my arm, pulling the gun away from my face. His touch is cold and dry—bone and whispers, silence and absence.
Who would you be if you weren’t scared, Dad?
Would you still be alive?
He lets go of me. I let go of the gun.
When I open my eyes, Dad’s gone, but Mom’s there. First, I think I’m imagining her, but I can hear her laboured breathing, feel the mattress shift when she moves, her body so loaded with booze and pain she can neither cry nor sleep. She exhales my name, and in the silent presence of everything she doesn’t say next, I realize she’s as scared as I am.
I lie very still as Winston curls up between us—keeping me warm, keeping me here, even when nothing else does—and I wait for Mom to leave. She doesn’t.
Maybe she stays because we’re the same, Mom and me: two ghosts, haunting what’s left of this world, this hollow space of grief and anger, of regret and love unspoken. I wonder, who might we be, who might we become, if we’re not scared when we get up tomorrow?
© 2018 Maria Haskins