By Luke Beling,
We fell out of love in a hurry that night. Suzy flipped over my dirty ashtray and tossed my empty can at me while I lay sprawled on the sofa watching the game. “You can’t just keep feeling sorry for yourself, you know. Bad shit happens. To everybody. All the time.” It’d been five years since the car crash. I came out of it unscathed, but our youngest child, Anthony, got crushed, killed instantly. It wasn’t my fault, and Suzy never blamed me once. But it still didn’t feel that way, no matter what she or the counselor said.
Suzy yanked the remote out of my hand, then turned off the TV. “I’ve had enough, Barry! I can’t keep doing this.” I ignored her, just like a few weeks prior, when I’d hidden a small pile of baby Danny’s used diapers in the cabinet under our sink because we’d run out of trash bags. Some days passed, and Suzy couldn’t figure out the source of the god-awful smell, so she called the fumigator. The twenty-pound overweight man put his sweaty hand on Suzy’s shoulder, saying, “Looks like you just got a pile of shit here, Ma’am. That’s your only problem.”
I’m not proud of anything; I can admit that much. It’s cruel what the silence does.
As I stood up to turn the TV on, I noticed something sad in Suzy’s eyes. She touched my wrist. “I’m going to my mom’s. I’ll be back tomorrow evening to fetch the kids. Make the most of your time ’cause you won’t be seeing them for a while.”
I stubbed my toe into the leg of the living room table, then turned up the volume on the TV, hoping she was bluffing.
The three kids were fast asleep when I pressed my face against our cold living room window, watching Suzy drift away in her beat-up Buick. The first thing I did was grab my carton of Marlboro reds and a close-to-empty lighter. But as I lit the cigarette, Danny let out a cry, a kind of cry that I couldn’t ignore, just hoping that he’d cradle himself back to sleep. I stabbed the cigarette into the kitchen counter, then threw the whole pack into the trash can, promising myself I wouldn’t smoke during my last moments with them. My baby boy had his little foot caught in the railing of his crib.
“It’s okay, Daniel,” I said quietly, careful not to wake the girls, maneuvering his foot back onto his blanket. He rolled over and went right back to sleep. But instead of tip-toeing out of the room, I just lay there next to him with my hand in his, patting his backside with the other.
I was beside Danny’s crib on the floor when the morning light hit my eyes. I rushed to the kitchen while all the kids remained asleep. Half an hour later, Sam, my oldest, walked in for breakfast, observing a pile of chocolate pancakes on her plate. “What’s this?” She said. “Where’s mom?”
“You can have as much whipped cream as you want, my girl!”
Daniel and Katie followed hand in hand.
“Chocolate pancakes! My favorite!” Katie yelled. She grabbed the aerosol can and began molding mountains of white. All three kids looked at me with giant eyes of surprise when little Katie lost control and made a huge mess on the kitchen table. I forced a grin, holding back what felt like a river of tears.
“I’m sorry, Daddy.” my little Katie said with a soft, fearful look.
“It’s okay, baby,” I whispered.
Katie tightened her hand around my finger. “What’s wrong, Daddy?”
“She’s gone. Your mommy. She’s gone.”
“Why?” Sam said, frowning.
“I don’t know. But she’s not coming back.”
At that moment, I decided I wasn’t going to lose them.
I watched Katie’s eyes fill with tears, and then she jumped into my arms, howling, her face buried into my chest.
“I don’t believe you. Something happened between you two, didn’t it?” Sam yelled. Her eyes were the shape of daggers.
“We’re moving.” I raised my voice. “After breakfast. Pack your bags. We’re leaving! Today. Somewhere nice.”
“I’m not going without Mom!”
“Well, then you can stay here by yourself until she comes back! If she comes back!”
I watched Sam, barely ten, strap baby Dan into his car seat. “You sure those straps are tight enough?”
“Yes, Dad. I’ve done this a thousand times.”
I handed Katie my phone so she could watch YouTube videos. I wanted to get out of the state. That’s all I knew. The Indiana border, a couple of hours NorthWest, would be a good start.
“You’re breaking the rule, Dad,” Sam barked as I reversed the station wagon from the driveway.
“Mom doesn’t let us watch YouTube without first telling her one thing we’re grateful for.”
“I don’t remember that?”
“Of course, you don’t.”
“Well, I suppose that’s a good enough rule to keep.”
“Why?” Katie lifted her head, taking a break from the phone to look at me.
The wagon idled as I shifted it into neutral. “Well, I guess it’s important to get into the habit of being thankful. Makes us think about the good instead of the bad.”
“Like, why mom left us?” Katie said in a low, sad voice.
I moved my eyes between all three of them. It felt like I saw my children for the first time, noticing new things. Dan was asleep, mouth open, and his little tongue was trapped to the roof of his mouth as though somebody was holding a finger underneath it.
Did he always sleep like that? Katie had a little brown mole above her left eye and a tuft of blonde hair growing out of it. Why had I never noticed it? And then I observed Sam’s cold blue eyes. She had these green ray-type lines around her pupils, resembling a fiery comet falling into a sea.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Sam said irritably.
“Because I love you.” I put my hand on her knee and squeezed. She jerked her leg from my grip, saying nothing, then pressed her face against the window, pretending to watch a dog gnaw on a bone.
I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach as I left the neighborhood, remembering the first day we’d found the house. At the time, we’d been renting down the street and wanted something bigger. I’d seen a for sale sign on the way home from work. One night after dinner, we went on a family walk. Suzy grabbed my hand as we sprinted up the steps leading to the porch. “Can we?” she said, her eyes bright and full of hope. We put an offer in the next day.
“Glad I’ll never see that place again,” Sam mumbled, interrupting my recollections. She stared at a group of kids playing on the playground as we passed her school.
“I thought you loved school, my girl.”
“Not even a little. I guess that’s something to be thankful for, right?” Her eyes remained jagged.
“Things will be different from now on, I promise.” I smiled, hoping she’d soften.
“Different how? Like maybe you’ll pretend like you give a shit? You’re the reason Mom left! And now we’re the ones suffering for it!” Sam’s eyes narrowed further, and then she looked away, slumping into the window again so I couldn’t see her in the mirror.
I wanted to stop the car and squirt hand sanitizer onto her tongue or hug her. I couldn’t decide. Instead, I kept driving, not saying anything.
I felt a soft touch on my shoulder. “It’s okay, Daddy,” Katie whispered, setting my phone on the middle console. “I love you.”
“I’m going to find a good job, and we’re going to move into a nice new house, and we’re going to get you girls into a school you love. I promise. Okay?”
Katie squeezed my hand. “And maybe we can go to Disney Land?”
“How about we just start with having dinner together?” Sam straightened, leaning back towards the middle so I could see her in the mirror.
“Of course, my girl. Yes. And I’m going to buy you a nice new dress too!”
I kept staring at Sam, hoping to see a smile unravel on her face. But then Daniel began crying hysterically, and we all turned our attention to him.
“What’s wrong?” I pleaded.
“He’s hungry. He always gets like this when he’s hungry. Did you pack any of those baby snacks for him?” Sam said with a matter-of-fact tone.
“What baby snacks?”
“Underneath the sink. The wafers and animal crackers.”
“I didn’t even know we had those.”
Sighing, Sam gave Daniel her finger and let him chew on it. “We need to stop and get him something to eat.”
I turned off the interstate following a sign for a 7-Eleven store.
“Daddy, can we please get some white frosted donuts and a slushy?” Katie curled around my seat, staring at me with soft puppy eyes, blinking rapidly.
“Of course, my girl!” I rubbed her head, and then she quickly retreated.
“Mom would never let us do that.” Sam pulled her finger out of Daniel’s mouth, then replaced it with another.
“Eat donuts?” I said with a surprised tone.
“It’s like you’ve been living on a different planet. Something healthy before something unhealthy, she always says, not the other way around.”
“Well, I guess that’s a good rule too.”
When we pulled into the parking lot, Sam had taken her finger out of Daniel’s mouth, and he was crying again. I jumped out of the driver’s seat and raced around the car to unhook Daniel from his car seat. But Sam had already taken care of it, stepping out of the vehicle, securing Daniel on her hip, and bouncing him.
“He likes that,” I said, touching Sam’s shoulder. She looked like a small crooked tree standing with Daniel; all her weight and his held by her buckling right hip and knee.
“I can take him now,” I said, reaching toward him. Upon seeing me, Daniel immediately turned away, tunneling his little head into Sam’s chest.
“He likes me.” She said. “I got him.”
“Does a frozen waffle count?” Katie gripped my hand, leading me into the store.
“That seems healthy enough, doesn’t it, my little girl?”
“Katie!” Sam yelled.
“Well, Mom isn’t here anymore, is she?”
I watched Katie’s eyes grow heavy with tears as she tried holding them back, her little lip quivering uncontrollably.
I wrapped my arms around her. “It’s okay, my girl. We can get anything you want.”
But she kept crying, unfazed by what I’d said. “It’s okay, my girl. It’s okay.”
She buried her face into my stomach, soaking my shirt with her tears. “I miss Mommy.”
Sam tapped Katie on the arm and said, “Look, they have your favorite kind.” Katie pulled her face out of my stomach, wiping her eyes, resuming her cheery disposition as though she hadn’t shed a tear.
I bent and whispered in Sam’s ear, noticing her faint smile after I’d spoken. “That was sweet of you. Thank you.”
As the shop attendant rang the waffles, donuts, and Daniel’s crackers, I suddenly realized we’d bought nothing for Sam.
“Just a minute. Sorry.” I said to the man behind the register.
“Sam, go get something for yourself.”
“I’m not hungry.” She stood with folded arms, not looking at me in the eye.
“Sam, please. You’ll be hungry later.”
“We’ll all be hungry later at this rate!” She shouted, scanning the items near the til.
“Fine, take your brother to the car!”
When Sam and Daniel exited the shop, I grabbed Katie’s hand, “Go get a snack for your sister. Something she’ll like.”
We got back on the interstate, and I turned down the radio so that the 80s station was barely a murmur, then readjusted the mirror to see them.
“I don’t want you girls to ever worry about money, you hear me?”
“So does that mean we can go to Disney Land?” Katie turned to look at Sam with a wide smile.
“One day, my girl, I promise.”
“You know you can’t get into Disney Land with food stamps, right?” Sam muttered.
“Mommy’s not the only one who’s ever made money for this family, Sam.” I felt my eyes tighten and wondered if she could see my frustration.
“When was the last time you kept a job for over a month? Not ever since Anthony died!”
“Now you listen here…”
“Hey, look!” Katie shouted.
We followed her eyes and pointed finger. Suzy’s favorite park was up ahead.
“It’s mom’s happy place!” Katie said excitedly.
I could see both girls staring at the park with hopeful eyes.
I focused between their faces and the sign for the park, feeling my anger settle. “Want to go play a quick game of tag!?”
“Can we?” Katie poked her head around my seat, rubbing it up and down my elbow.
“What do you say, Sam? Feel like losing to an old man?”
In a hurry, Sam turned her face to the window so I couldn’t see her gaze. But I noticed her lips raised every so slightly and a few small lines running down from her eyes.
“I can see that smile you’re trying to hide, my girl.”
When I turned left into the park, both girls unbuckled their seat belts and shifted to the edge of their seats.
The walking path weaved through a cluster of big white oak trees. To either side of the trail, people had planted little flowers in pots with notes sticking out of the soil. Suzy’s favorite was a violet that always seemed to be struggling, leaves flaking with a touch, petals a yellowish purple. It had a note that read, “If you ain’t making it today, there’s always tomorrow.”
Sam walked up to the flower, observing it for a minute, then turned around, looking at me like she’d forgotten something. She tapped me on the shoulder, then sprinted towards the weed-ridden field. “Tag, you’re it!”
“Here, Katie, look after Daniel.” I hurried little Dan into Katie’s arms, then took off after Sam. “Here I come!” I yelled as my knees crunched and creaked with every strained stride, looking back every so often to be sure Katie and Dan were okay. Sam moved faster than I remembered and cut with the grace of a ballerina, stepping as though her feet were feathers. I cornered her near an old soccer goal with a missing net. “Nowhere to go now, is there?”
She giggled, the kind of sound full of excitement but also a little fear. I stutter-stepped left then right, Sam in sync with every move as though we were tied to each other by a string. I leaped forward and then screamed, clutching the back of my leg.
“Daddy, are you okay?” Sam moved closer to me, extending her hand.
I snatched it, then pulled her quickly into my stomach, “Got you, little girl!”
She squirmed in and out of my tickles, laughing, jamming her bony elbows into my side. I wrapped my arms around her, squeezing tight enough that she couldn’t move. She fought me for a while, then dropped back into my chest like a baby falling asleep. I rubbed her shoulders, not saying anything, satisfied to let the silence speak. Just when I thought Sam might turn her head up at me and smile, she began to sob, burying her nose into my sleeve.
“What’s wrong, my girl?” I tried pulling her from my chest to see her face, but she wouldn’t let me. Her arms closed around me and held me so tightly that I could feel her stick fingers dig into my skin. “Tell me, Sam. Please, my girl. What is it?”
Her muffled screams echoed into my sternum. “Where have you been? All this time, I’ve only ever wanted my daddy. But now it’s too late. You’ve ripped us apart!”
“Look at me, Sam, Please,” I shouted, desperately trying to unclench her. And then, when I couldn’t, I began to cry slowly, tears barely big enough to roll down my cheeks. But then, in an instant, my whole body went limp, and it felt like someone ripped the skin from my stomach, exposing my insides. I squeezed Sam, wailing, dripping my sorrow onto her thick brown matted hair. Between my smudge of tears and closed eyes, I didn’t see her lift her head, but I felt it. And then I sensed her looking at me, but I was too ashamed to look back at her. I wanted to run away; the only thing I’d been doing since the car crash.
“Mom,” Sam whispered.
“Mom.” She said again, louder. “Look, Dad!”
Rubbing my sleeves into my eyes, I turned around, Sam still in my arms. With a violet in her hair, Suzy walked towards us, Danny on her hip, Katie swinging in her hand.
“Maybe it’s not too late, Dad.” Sam jumped out of my arms and raced towards her mother.
South African-born author and singer-songwriter Luke Beling has had several short stories published in journals and magazines, including: Eyelands Flash Fiction (2019), Academy of the Heart and Mind (2021), New Reader Magazine (2021), The Salt Weekly Magazine (2022), Esoterica (2023), Shallow Tales Review (2023), and Pigeon Review (2023). Luke’s debut novel, The Field of Plenty, is set to be published by Vines Leaves Press in October 2024.v