Short story: Daddy’s Girl

I love a good creepy story. I love it even more when I’m the one who wrote it. A couple of months ago, an idea popped into my head and wouldn’t let go. Since I couldn’t ignore it, I sat down and chased it with the cursor, and caught what I could. The resulting story, Daddy’s Girl, turned out pretty well, I think. In some ways, a spooky story is a simple affair. Find that one nerve that jangles in the dead of the night–you know, that one that makes your hair stand on end when you wake up at midnight and wonder if you’ve locked all the doors and windows before you settled in for the night–and jump on it as hard as you can, as long as you can. So here’s the story.

Daddy’s Girl

Short fiction by Bobby Mathews

Mommy isn’t moving anymore.

She’s just lying there on the floor, face turning from blue to an awful purple color. Daddy lunged out of his chair, knocking it backward against the dining room wall. He knelt beside her, calling her name over and over. I’m screaming for her–“Mommy, mommy!”–like I haven’t done since I was a toddler. I haven’t called her “Mommy” in years. Now I can’t think of anything else to call her.

Mommy didn’t say anything when it happened. She just pitched sideways right in the middle of supper, while she was trying to take a bite of mashed potatoes. The fork clattered to the floor beside her. Now Daddy is moving around her, tilting her head back and trying to breathe down her airway the way they taught us in CPR class.

I can’t move—I don’t know what to do. Daddy looks up at me, his eyes wild like an animal. He tosses me his cell phone. I catch it with numb fingers.

“Call 911,” he says, and I do, punching the touchscreen. The operator wants to know what the emergency is, and I tell her that my Mommy is on the floor and can’t breathe. She asks me other questions—I don’t remember what they are. And then she tells me to hold on, an ambulance will be here shortly.

It doesn’t come shortly. The minutes tick by like decades, and by the time the paramedics get here, Daddy is just sitting beside Mommy’s body, his hands covering his face as the tears splash dark salty stains against his chinos. I’m still standing by the table listening to my father sob. It hasn’t hit me yet, but it will soon.

Mommy is dead.

The funeral and all that goes with it passes by like the blink of an eye. I’ll turn fifteen in two weeks, and the little selfish kid part of me is screaming that I probably won’t even get a party this year. I push that selfish little kid voice aside, bury it as deep as I can. Hold Daddy’s hand as tight as I can. He squeezes my hand in return, his knuckles bone white where they interlace with mine. I remember crying—wailing, really—as the cemetery workers lowered Mommy’s coffin into the ground. Daddy held me close and kissed my cheeks.

That night, the dreams begin. I still don’t remember them, not in any conscious way. But I remember feeling like my throat is closing up with clods of red clay, and every time I try to brush the dirt away, another shovelful lands in my face. I wake up screaming.

Daddy comes running down the hallway and bursts into my room.

“Are you all right?”

I sit straight up, my eyes wide open. I’m looking for something, maybe for the man with the shovel, the man who wouldn’t let me breathe. My chest hitches once, and then again, and finally the tears come. I’m not all right. Not at all. Daddy comes to the bed. The mattress sags when he sits down, and I feel his thick arms envelop me until my breathing returns to normal and the tears dry on my cheeks.

Daddy is always there for me. And I want to be there for him, too.

He takes me to his bed that night, and I lie dreamless and peaceful next to him until he shakes me awake for breakfast. When we sit down at the table, something feels different. It’s not just that Mommy isn’t there anymore—even though that’s certainly part of it. Her absence fills the kitchen and creates a gorge between us, a divide we can’t quite conquer. We eat cold cereal with milk, and drink canned orange juice. We don’t talk. We can’t even look one another in the eye. I go to my room and get ready for school. When Daddy calls out, I follow him to the garage. He takes me to school, and then he goes to work.

We never talk about it.

Two or three nights a week, the nightmares come back. When they do, I scream in terror, and Daddy is there almost immediately. He carries me away to his (and Mommy’s) bed like a knight in shining armor bearing a fairy princess away from danger. And there I sleep.

I don’t understand the danger I put us both in. I can’t see how Daddy is hurting. I know he is growing more and more silent, and his face is growing more and more haggard. He goes to the doctor for a prescription to help him sleep. Klonopin, the little bottle says. One at bedtime. I should see. I should know. But he is my rock. He is all I can count on now that Mommy isn’t around anymore.

One night as he undresses for bed, I knock on his door. I pretended to go to sleep earlier. He is sitting on the bed, his back turned toward me. I see his shoulders shake as he cries silent tears. I understand, in my dim child’s way, that he is hurting just as badly as I am. All I want to do is make that hurt go away.

I go to him, my feet padding silently on the thick carpet. Put my hand on his shoulder. He’s startled, swinging his head around. His fingers find mine and interlace for a brief moment. He uses his other arm to try to wipe the tears away from his eyes. I hug him, and he hugs me back so tight I think my ribs will crack. I won’t go back to my bed this night.

Or any night after.

We sleep in the same bed, but we never touch. I don’t remember much about those nights. I sleep in a dreamless haze that seems to go on forever. I feel enveloped within both of my parents. I feel safe. So safe.

Until the thunderstorm.

The clouds start to build early in the afternoon. I see them growing pregnant, dark and heavy with rain. Rumbles like heavy trucks passing make the house shiver. After dinner, the first drops of rain pelt the windows. The spatter pitter-patters against the panes. I finish my homework and change into my pajamas. Daddy is already in bed, the coverlet pulled up nearly to his nose. I get in, sliding between the clean sheets and rolling away from him, burrowing deep under the covers.

I feel his hand on my shoulder. He rolls me over halfway and gives me a kiss on the cheek.

“I love you, kid,” he says. “You’re a good girl.”

A smile—maybe the last real one I’ll ever have—stretches my face. I tel him I love him, too, and say good night. I’m not sure how long it takes to fall asleep, but the rumble of the thunder and the music of the rain lull me into submission pretty quickly. A clap of thunder like the voice of God wakes me.

Lightning hit near the house, close enough for me to still smell the ozone as I come to my senses. The power is out, and the bedroom is fully dark. I can see just a little in the dark, enough to make out the shapes of the furniture. But when the lightning flashes again, I see Daddy’s eyes.

He’s awake. Awake and staring at me like he’s never seen me before. I can see the gleam in his eye—now that I know where to look—even without the pale slash of the lightning. I don’t know if he ever blinks.

I don’t know how long it takes, but I finally find my voice.

“Daddy.” My voice is a whisper. I clear my throat. “Daddy—you’re scaring me.” The words tumble out, and Daddy shakes himself a little. He puts his hand out. The palm rests on my breast. I can feel my nipple tighten into a hard little knot. I know he feels it too, but he never moves his hand.

“Don’t be scared,” he says. His voice is a harsh whisper, as if he’s straining very hard against something I can’t see. “You—you look so much like your mother.” And then he scoots closer to me. His arms go around me, and he holds me close until sunrise. Eventually, he falls asleep. I feel his arms relax around me and hear the burring snore that signals he is well and truly under. I find a way to slip free of his grip, and out of the bed, without him noticing.

I go back to my room. I haven’t slept there in weeks. My teeth chatter, clicking against one another, but I don’t feel cold. I don’t know what I feel. I climb into my bed—my bed—and promptly fall back asleep.

When I wake up, Daddy is sitting on the bed next to me, his hand on my hip. The storm is over. But the real one is about to begin.

I sit up, but he pushes me back down. I lie on my back, tears welling up in my eyes. Goosebumps rise along my arms and legs, and I feel the hairs tingle on the back of my neck.

“We’re going to make some changes,” he says. I start to say something, but he shushes me. I can’t fight him. “When you get home from school, you’re going to wear the clothes I lay out for you. Understand?”

I don’t know what else to do, so I nod. I want to say no. I want to stop him, to tell him how creeped out he’s making me feel. But I don’t know how. I open my mouth to say something, but no words come out.

“I know you don’t know how to cook yet, but we’re going to work on that. I’ll show you some things.” He’s rubbing my leg now, and even though our skin is separated by at least two layers of cloth, I can feel the heat in his hand.

“Things have to change,” he says. “I can’t keep going like this anymore.”

That afternoon when I get home from school, Daddy sends me upstairs. There’s an outfit laid out on my bed: a striped yellow top with a pair of khaki shorts and broken-in leather sandals. I stare. I can’t wear those clothes.

They were Mommy’s.

But eventually I give in, sliding off my own grubby jeans and sweatshirt and sliding into what I think of as “adult” clothes. I look in the mirror. Mommy’s clothes almost fit. I’m a little shorter, and a little thinner, but the shorts look good with my tan legs, and I fill out the top pretty well. I breath in and out slowly. The shoes are a problem. I never wear sandals, so the thong between my toes hurts, and I’m sure it will leave a blister. But I know wearing them will make him happy, so I put them on.

Then I go downstairs to see Daddy.

He smiles the strangest smile at me. And takes me in the biggest bear hug he’s ever given me. He buries his face in my tumble of dirty blonde hair and inhales, like a drowning man finally breaking the surface of the deep water.

“Oh my God,” he says. “Stephanie. Oh my God.” I can feel his tears on my shoulder as he holds me close.

My name isn’t Stephanie. That was Mommy’s name.

We fix dinner together. Daddy seems more upbeat than I’ve seen him since the funeral, but my movements are stiff and mechanical. We pan-sear steaks and make salads so big that we can’t finish them. There’s ice cream for dessert. I don’t eat much, but Daddy finishes his plate and mine. And afterward, Daddy holds my hand and tells me about his day. Then he strokes my hair and kisses me on the cheek.

I don’t do my homework that night. Instead, I go to the upstairs bathroom and lock myself in. Tears pour down my face in a never-ending rain. I take a shower, hot as I dare. The steam boils in the room and the running water hides my sobs. When the hot water runs out, I finally get out of the tub and towel off. I put on a big old fleece robe—until I realize it was Mommy’s, too. I fling the robe away from myself and wrap towels all over my body.

I leave Mommy’s clothes on the floor. I never want to touch them again.

But I have to. Every night from then on, Daddy dresses me up like Mommy. I go through the motions of being his dead wife, even to the point of going to bed with him. He never—well, rarely—touches me inappropriately. One night he lies against me so close that I can feel him hard and ready against my backside.

I slide away to the edge of the bed, and neither one of us ever mentions it.

But I know something is building to the breaking point. I can feel it the same way I could feel the thunderstorm building on that spring evening when everything changed. Now that summer is nearing its peak, Daddy is looking more and more ragged, like a man who’s been pushed beyond his breaking point. He used to only take the sleeping pills occasionally. Now he takes them every night.

I try everything I know to do. I tried to sleep in my room, but if the bad dreams don’t come, Daddy still comes to get me in the middle of the night, and I wake up in his bed again to see him staring at me, equal parts lust and hatred in his eyes. I wear Mommy’s jeans and Mommy’s dresses and Mommy’s heels and Mommy’s flats.

I cook his meals, and I held his hand, and I let him hold me longer than any father should ever hold a daughter. In time it almost becomes natural. A new normal. I don’t know who I could tell or who I could call. Mommy never had any family. Neither did Daddy. “A couple of orphans in the storm,” he used to say to her, and I understood that he and I were now the orphans in the storm.

There’s no one who could help me.

Except Daddy. And he finally does.

I hear him puttering downstairs on Saturday morning. That’s nothing unusual. He gets up and cooks breakfast, or he works on some project or other. One time he left our toaster disassembled on the kitchen table for two weeks while he was trying to fix it, until Mommy got tired of the parts and the tools lying around and threw the whole caboodle in the garbage. I creep from my parents’ bedroom to my own room and slide under the covers.

I still don’t feel safe there, but I have nowhere else to go. I close my eyes for a moment, but there’s a sudden crash from downstairs. I leap up, scattering covers and stuffed animals everywhere. I race down the steps into the kitchen, only to find my Daddy on his back on the floor.

For a second, time doubles back in on itself. He’s lying nearly where Mommy lay in her last moments. I stop. My hands go to my face, and I feel my nails digging skin from my cheeks in long, ragged trails.

“Daddy!” I scream, and fall to my knees beside him.

He looks up at me and tries to smile.

“It’s all right,” he says, his voice a hazy whisper. “It’s going to be all—”

And that’s it. No more words. I can’t bring myself to do CPR. The thought of touching his lips with mine repels me. I beat on his chest, my fists banging against his broad pectoral muscles. It does no good. I feel him shudder, feel all the life go out of him. I scream at him and cry at him and cuss at him and beg him to come back. He’s all I have left.

He kicks one last time, nothing more than an involuntary spasm, and one of his house slippers comes loose. I slide my hand down his forearm to take his hand in mine, and that’s when I find the bottle. Klonopin. He’s overdosed, shoving as many pills as he could manage into his mouth, washing them down with swallows of Jack Daniels.

Mommy and Daddy have left me alone now, and I don’t know what to do. It’s a big house and a big world for a little girl all alone. I look again at the amber medicine bottle I pried from Daddy’s hand.

There are still ten pills left.

I took them all. Good night.

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