Fiction by Amanda Niebauer
Knocking three times on the solid white door, I let myself into my house. The handle was still sticky from some rushed breakfast, probably the donuts stuffed with fake cherry that my dad liked to eat on his drive to work. He was home now. I could smell the dinner he was cooking for himself, something garlicky and heavy. I wanted to shut the front door loud enough to shake the windowpanes, to make him turn around, to say that I was here. Instead, I pushed it until I heard it breathe a small click. Ignoring the shoe rack he had put next to the door when I moved back in, I walked into my bedroom.
My mother’s face stared at me from every picture frame on the dark green walls. She was never much for smiling, but neither was my dad. Her mouth, something small and lined like two willow leaves, pinned an expression to her face that I had spent the last five months trying to guess. It was like she was trying to understand the person reflected back at her in the lens’s blinking eye.
I took off my shoes and lay back in the dead center of the bed, my arms spread eagle. Divots, shallow and long, pooled on either side of me. The one closer to the edge of the bed was my mom’s. An untouched desert of smooth mattress rose between the two shallows. My dad hadn’t moved a thing in the room since the divorce papers had found their way onto the kitchen table. Everything sat exactly as when she left it, patiently waiting for her. Lying there next to her shadow with her face looking out from at least six picture frames, I could understand why my dad moved into my old room after I had left.
“You home, Tommie?” My dad’s voice came from outside the door.
I rolled my eyes.
His feet shifted back and forth, waiting or deciding. “Find anything?” He was reaching. We both knew it.
“I’ll tell you when I do,” I said.
“Right. Right.” A string pulled taut between us through the door, and I could feel him lean toward me as I moved away. I imagined running a pair of scissors through that line, watching it break away from itself, no fraying. It was quick and clean. But I didn’t move. He took a sharp breath in, as if he were about to speak, then his footsteps made their way back to the kitchen.
I took a breath. The air seemed staler here than I remembered. My parents hardly let me into their room when I was a little girl, but sometimes my dad would usher me in, his voice low and covert. A surprise attack, he called it. He would make secret hand signals I recognized from when we watched baseball movies together. I would giggle, nod, and crouch close behind him as he crawled on the floor to the room. Mom would be sitting on her bed, nail polish bottle perfectly balanced on the quilt, and she would look to me, then to my dad on his knees, then back to me before pursing her lips and patting the bed beside her. Keeping my eyes on the bottle, I would shimmy my way up and watch her paint her nails. Sometimes when she was waiting for them to dry between coats, she would take my small, round fingers between her long, bony ones and drag the brush once over my nails, covering each one in a single stroke before moving onto the next. It was quick and clean.
Reaching over my parents’ nightstand, I grabbed the nail polish she had not thought to take. It was a nude pink, barely touched, but crackling at the edges from drying out. Still, I shook it, heard the ball inside the liquid click back and forth, then began to rake the brush over my short round nails. I tried to smooth out the clumps when they came.
While they dried, I gingerly pulled out my laptop. The bright light fanned out around me, mixing with the last low rays of the day’s sunlight. The tiny fan in my computer whirred over the noise of my dad’s humming down the hall. His voice crackled too, some melancholy and hollow tune. He had never been good at singing.
I jammed my headphones into the computer.
The usual jobsites flicked past me on the screen. A few weeks ago, I had started looking for something with a higher salary, something with on-the-job training to forgo the college degree, but now I bookmarked anywhere that was hiring, restaurants, cleaning services, third shift–anything, even though I felt something thick and sour rise up in me at the thought of working in one of the restaurants in town. I had to get out of here after I made enough money. I couldn’t be picky with a job. Not with my dad asking every day if I had found something. Behind his words, every time he asked, I could almost hear: do you finally have something to do? Somewhere else to go?
After I submitted my resume to a factory and two offices on the outskirts of town, I pushed the screen away and listened to the sounds of the house. I could always tell where he was. The house had its tells if you knew how to listen. He had moved on from cooking to sitting in the living room in front of the TV, his silverware scraping against the ceramic plate. It didn’t matter what was on TV. He would watch anything just so he wouldn’t be alone. I waited, just for a few minutes, watching the dredges of the sun drain out of the sky until it turned a fuzzy deep blue. A sinking feeling in my chest, something bottomless and purple-black, spread through my body. It felt sickly sweet.
I heard him set the plate down, the couch groaning as he settled back into it. I pulled my shoes back on.
The sound of my footsteps rebounded off the walls and bounced into the living room as I made my way to the front door. He didn’t look back at me, just stared out the picture window onto the driveway and at the field and the little subdivision puckered at the top of the hill in the distance. Waiting patiently for what would never come back. Anger rolled in me.
“I’m going for dinner.” My voice, loud and stinging, shot around the room like a wind-up toy.
His head snapped away from the window, looking around in a daze until he found me. I quickly looked away to the window.
“Yeah. With a friend.” I could hear the lie whistling through my teeth, but I knew he wouldn’t question it or press me to stay, not anymore, at least. He had learned that lesson with my mom.
“Right.” He nodded, turning back to the window.
Ducking out of the living room, I walked quickly to the door, headphones already halfway in my ears. From between beats of tinny music, I heard him call out.
“Do you need a ride?”
I could hear the pleading in his voice, asking for me not to leave him. As I opened the front door, I felt the string between us strain.
“I’ve got my bike, remember?”
“Yeah. It’s just dark now is all.” His voice suddenly turned solid, and I watched as he shut down. “You can’t be out late. You need to look for jobs tomorrow.”
I did slam the door this time. Slipping onto my bike, I pedaled fast down the empty country road, trying to warm myself up. I didn’t have friends here, and I didn’t have any money. We both knew it. I hadn’t had any money since I called him from my dorm room eight states over last month and asked him to pick me up at the airport the next day. I’m not sure where he thought I was going. I’m not sure he even cared.
Gravel road after gravel road popped beneath my bike tire until the streets started to become better paved. I found myself in town. I had ridden these wide, lazy roads on the same creaking bicycle for years. As I pedaled through town, I pulled up my hood to fend off the fall chill and the eyes of anyone that might recognize me. Shops clustered themselves neatly, each in their own space. Voices stretched out on the sidewalks, reaching for me like a cast fishing line. I pedaled faster.
Fall teetered on the edge of winter, the nights falling earlier and lifting later. I could feel the harsh undertone in the air and on the tip of my nose. I pushed the wheels down a yawning hill behind some ribbon factory and slowed to a stop next to a creek. It was a woolly kind of quiet. The last of the water in the creek jumped over the rocks in the bed before it froze over. Sometimes when I was done job hunting for the day and didn’t want to go back to the house, I came here. Unseen behind this hill, with only the sounds being the water doing acrobatics, I could almost imagine I was somewhere else, anywhere else.
I used to come here and dream of the New York I had left behind. I dreamt of what my college friends were doing there without me, and what I would be doing there if I hadn’t spent all the money my dad gave me with the intent that I would do something with my life and never come back here. Where he would be if my mom hadn’t left him after I did. I used to dream about my underdog story, how I would rise up from a small town filled with nobodies and nothing, how I would travel, host gallery openings, open my own restaurant, or do something worthwhile. I used to be homesick for a place I had never been, so I went to New York. It worked, for a time. I felt at ease among the strangers and the opportunities, but in between classes and walks around the city, that sickly sweet and hollow feeling crept up behind me, a shadow reminding me that I was missing something, that I was out of place. I began to dream of going home. Now, I came to this creek and tried not to think at all because my dreams always ended with this town swallowing me whole, with that same peering look on my face that my mom had in all her pictures.
Once I had enough money, I would go back to the East Coast, I decided. I would save up for an old car, pack up all my things, and drive until some place felt like home. That’s when I would stop and unload. Make a life for myself.
Staring out at the stars dotting the sky, I slipped my phone out of my pocket. Once she moved to New Jersey, she changed her number. It came with the territory of being a new person, I supposed. I punched in the numbers I had memorized five months ago when the divorce papers were still fresh and watched my slim breath form thin clouds.
The ringing flooded my ear in so much silence. She hadn’t called since she had left for New Jersey. Just a text message once or twice to ask how Dad was doing. I wasn’t sure what I would do when she picked up. I had typed in the numbers countless times but I had never made the call. My voice, I imagined, would be as cool and quiet as the flick of a sharp knife when I berated her for leaving my dad, for leaving me with her job. I imagined her crying into the phone all alone, apologizing and confessing that her new life wasn’t how she thought it would be. I even imagined her coming home.
After the last ring, I heard her voice. It sounded the same to me, maybe lighter, but I could have just imagined that. I hung up before the voicemail told me to leave a message.
When I couldn’t stand the cold anymore and the grass turned to a damp chill underneath me, I plodded back to the house, knocking softly three times before I entered. I pulled open the refrigerator looking for the leftovers my dad made every night. A stale yellow light cut a slice in the linoleum.
I jumped and twisted around. I hadn’t heard my dad come out of his room behind me. He stood at the very edge of the shadows, his eyes half closed to block out the light.
“No, Dad, it’s me,” I said. After a second, I added, “Tommie.”
He kept staring. I didn’t move. The air from the refrigerator made me shiver. Then, his face crumpled into itself, just a bit.
“You look so much like her.” Each word took its turn breaking. They dropped to the floor one by one. “You look so much like her it scares me.”
At the last word he swayed on his feet. He was half-asleep, sleepwalking. I forgot he did that. He always told my mom she made it up because he never remembered it in the morning. Closing the refrigerator door, I walked towards him.
“Me too, Dad.” I grabbed his arm gently. “We should get you to bed.”
“She couldn’t stay.” He didn’t fight as I turned him back to his room. “I couldn’t make you stay.”
I wasn’t sure who he was talking to. Me, my mother, or both.
“Get some sleep,” I mumbled, shutting off the light and closing his bedroom door.
The leftovers had a sticky note on the top of the container. Made too much. Have it if you’re still hungry.
Back in my bedroom, my stomach warm and full, I dove under the covers and tried not to look at those photos before I fell asleep.
I woke up to one missed call and the dissipating smell of sausage and toast. A small, sharp panic zipped through me. I checked the number, cursing myself for calling her last night with no reason at all.
A local number. One I didn’t recognize. I let out a slow breath and pressed the phone into my ear as the voicemail rattled off.
It was an interview, today.
I couldn’t remember what the business did, but I called the number back in thirty seconds.
“Yes, 1:30 today. No, it’s not too soon. Yes, the secretary position. Yes, I was excited to meet them too.”
I hurried to get dressed in the chilly air and hummed while I moved through the house. Blissfully quiet, the house opened itself up to me.
I cut my bike down gravel roads, careful not to go fast enough to get dust on my pants. The wind nipped at my face, my knuckles, but I didn’t mind because at least I felt it. At least I was finally going somewhere.
In town, I stopped inside the library to fix my windblown hair in the bathroom. I smiled at my reflection, my thin lips stretching up my cheeks in a familiar way. It only lasted a second before the door opened behind me. In the mirror stood a girl who might have gone to high school with me. I could not remember her name, and suddenly my lips seemed too thin, too willowy.
“Oh, shit,” the girl said. “Tommie, hey. I didn’t know you were back home.”
“I’m helping my dad.” I lied through a pinpricked smile. My cheeks cracked with the effort.
“Right, I heard about him and your mom’s divorce. So sad.” Her smile stayed fixed on her face.
I stayed quiet.
“It’s so good that you’re there for him. At least he has someone.” I nearly laughed, though nothing was funny. She stepped towards the sinks, a little closer to me. “I thought we’d never see you again after you graduated last spring.”
She looked hungry.
“Yeah, I left the day after graduation.” I spoke past the growing lump in my throat.
Her smile grew, and I saw her incisors peek through. “Well, we all end up back here one way or another. This is home, isn’t it?”
“Right,” I said, trying to get past her.
“I’ll definitely see you around.” She flashed one last smile then brushed past me. Before I ducked out of the bathroom, I caught a flash of my face in the mirror, all wild and willow and too familiar. My head started to fill and my chest hollowed out as I made my way onto the street. I wanted to go home. Gripping the handlebars with pale knuckles, I turned my bike back to the house.
I found I could no longer feel the cold. Some part of me wanted to ride every back road, take every turn and get lost along the way, stay out in the cold until I found a road I didn’t recognize and then keep riding. All too soon I looked up and the empty house was on the horizon, ahead of me, in front of me.
And then I watched myself as I turned into the driveway too sharply, rocks skidding beneath my fat tires. The bike flew out from under me. There was the bike, wheels still turning over and over, and there was me sprawled eagle on the gravel, still except for my chest rising and falling. I supposed the gravel was digging into my skin through my clothes, making pockmarks on my heavy limbs, but I couldn’t feel it. If I focused on one area, like the back of my legs or my elbow, I could bring the pain–the itching, pleasant sort–into focus. It told me I was on solid ground, not drifting away in a story the author forgot to finish.
The purple-black feeling spread ink across my senses. I didn’t feel the cold or the last weak rays of the fall sun. I only thought that it should’ve been me, not her.
In my head she crossed over from New Jersey into New York every night to go out to dimly lit restaurants and dress up in soft makeup she hadn’t worn since she had me. Maybe she opened her own restaurant or art gallery where people would smile and clap for her when they saw her in the spotlight. And in her pictures maybe she looked radiant and perfect, like she belonged there, not at all like me anymore.
I moved my hand into my pocket, dialed the numbers, and listened to it ring and ring and ring. Then she was advising me to leave a message at the beep, which came and went and left me still on the ground with nothing to say. The call hung up. My hand dropped back to the ground.
My eyes roved over the clouds above me. They were spread thin across the sky, like when my dad used to spread butter on my toast as a kid, leaving only the edges dry.
“You need something to hold on to,” he would say.
I wanted to see shapes in them, to reach out and hold on tight as they rolled around the world, but my arm didn’t move. I couldn’t make it move.
The clouds moved on.
I want to go home, I thought from my driveway.
I realized I didn’t know where that was, where the bruised feeling was trying to send me. In those slow-rolling clouds, I saw the meaning of my mom’s constant expression before she left, the one that appeared over my face in the bathroom mirror. It was the feeling of watching your train pull away from the station while you stand on the platform, just a few minutes too late, your face flashing back at you from windows that move too quickly to get a glimpse at what could be inside. It was the feeling of watching your own life push on without you.
The clouds moved on. They turned from white to a stewing yellow to a blazing orange spilling into a rosy pink. I could see my breath form then wander away.
And there, at the edges of my vision, reached a hand, rough and large with round fingers. The world came back to me, just a small slice of it. I heard his truck mumbling behind me, felt the cold pricking my nose, tasted the changing of the seasons in the air. He brought his hand down to mine, squeezed it quick when I wrapped my fingers around his, and lifted me up, back toward our house.