When his daughter came home with her first hole, Martin plugged it with gauze and said, “School can be cruel sometimes, darling.” After, they shared a pizza and watched Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which had long been her favorite.
The next day Lauren came home with two more holes — one above her collarbone, another in her upper thigh. Martin tended to them with peroxide and slathered them with antibiotic ointment while she vented about the girls at school. When he finished, he stuffed both holes with cotton because he’d run out of gauze and patted her cheek.
“There, all better. Good as new,” he said, standing. He kissed her on the forehead, and she looked at him with her mother’s faded blue eyes.
The next day after school, Lauren vaulted down the bus steps and up the driveway, leaving a trail of blood on the asphalt. Once inside, she slammed her backpack down and lifted her shirt to reveal a half dozen more holes dotting her stomach and chest.
“Let me get my kit,” Martin said.
Lauren stood in the middle of the kitchen, blood pit-pattering on the linoleum, as Martin treated her wounds. While he worked to plug the six new holes, the two-day old wound sprang open. With a sigh, he started to clean that one again when the wounds from the previous day popped too.
“Just let them bleed,” Lauren said.
“No. I can fix them. I promise.”
And so he did. It took half the night before he managed to stem the flow of blood and cover the thrust marks, but when he finished, he slumped back in his chair, exhausted. For dinner he made Lauren her favorite beef stroganoff, and they talked of better days, of days with her mother, of days before middle school.
The day morning, Martin hugged his daughter while she waited for the bus and whispered into the top of her head, “Armor yourself in my love and no one can ever put holes in you again.”
Martin’s love proved to be poor armor though, just paper to the other students’ knives. Lauren returned home more battered than usual, spotted from head to toe in holes that looked like tiny, flickering tongues.
“I told them I only needed your love, and they laughed at me and did this,” Lauren said, turning to reveal a sucking wound in her back, square between her shoulder blades.
The wound looked too wide, too deep, for his menial skills, but still, Martin would try to mend it. “Who made that one?”
“Lacey,” she said.
“But she’s your friend.”
“And that’s why it’s the worst.”
“Let me tend to that one first then, and we’ll deal with the others after,” Martin said, scrambling for his first-aid kit.
When he returned to the kitchen, he found Lauren standing over the sink, dribbling blood into the stainless steel, staring out the back window.
“Here,” Martin said, beckoning with a hand.
“Not tonight, Dad.”
Martin ate his cold supper alone, and the next morning, Lauren went to school covered in brown, crusty scabs. She never said goodbye, just climbed aboard the bus with her head cast toward the ground. Martin called into work sick and pulled the bloodied sheets off her bed. He spent most of the day bleaching them over and over and over until they looked white and new.
Lauren came home with more fresh holes than Martin could count, and all the scabs had peeled away too.
“I bought more gauze,” he said when she came through the door.
Lauren shook her head. “There’s too many now. Don’t bother.”
“No, I can take care of them,” Martin said, reaching for her. He hugged her close and her blood soaked through his shirt.
“When will it stop?” she whispered.
“Soon,” he promised. “And these holes will all turn into scars and be reminders of just how tough you are.”
Lauren smiled faintly and trailed her blood up the stairs, leaving red dots on the white carpet. Martin went to the kitchen and made two cups of cocoa, each with a dollop of whipped cream and some of those mini-marshmallows too, just like Lauren used to beg for after a day of sledding.
He had no free hands to knock on her bedroom door, but he said at the top of the stairs, “I have something for you.”
“I don’t need any more gauze.”
He pushed the door open with his shoulder and stopped so fast the cocoa sloshed and burned his hand. Lauren stood in the middle of the room, bleeding from dozens and dozens of holes, even more than she’d come home with.
“Who gave you those?”
“These?” she said, gesturing over her torso. “These I made myself.”
“What do I do now?” he whispered. He’d have to go back to the pharmacy and buy all its gauze and tape — and even that might not be enough.
“You did everything you could, but no amount of gauze and cocoa will fix this. You just have to be OK with that.”
Martin nodded and backed out the door, watching his daughter bleed on her bed, knowing he could do nothing but love her.
Shane D. Rhinewald was raised and continues to live in Western New York. He’s a public relations professional by day and writes speculative fiction by night (except when there’s hockey on TV, of course). His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Every Day Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Big Pulp, Alt Hist, and several other publications.
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© 2015 Shane Rhinewald