“I don’t understand,” is what he whispers into your ear, his fingers locked into yours. There’s no key for the chest of secrets you’ve created—you know that much already.
He is the man from your nightmares with eyes that are mood rings. They shine like the stars and their court; today they are black and deep. Reminding you of midnight swims in that pool you used to own.
You know he understands. He has to.
Your throat aches and you head into the kitchen. As you pour water and dump an uncountable amount of grounds into the machine, you look at the peeling hummingbird wallpaper that was stuck unevenly over the countertops. It matches your thoughts exactly, you think. But you don’t know why.
The grind and hum of the machine blends into the background. You run your quavering hands over the windowsill, conscious of the dust tickling your fingertips. The sky is dyed orange today. Not the spring-blossom orange that you love, but rather the unsettling, patternless orange from all those nights sipping wine with your feet on the table, eyes glued to the screen of your phone.
Perhaps that’s why you don’t drink anymore.
The machine hums to a stop and silence floods through the kitchen. There’s one last trickle before you take the pot and tip an abundant amount of steaming coffee into a mug.
You don’t recall asking him if he wanted any, so you set the pot down and stumble back into the living room. He’s not there. You call out his name, whatever it is, and wonder if it’s Greek. It sounds Greek, for sure, with the curly letters and the way his friends mispronounce it all the time.
Before you can worry about him leaving too soon, you hear a grunt from the next room. You pat over to the ajar door, peering in cautiously.
He is there, sitting in a rocking chair made of rotting wood, and cradling your baby.
You inhale sharply. Tripping over your own feet, you reach out for the child and try to take her. It doesn’t work because he jerks the baby away, his mouth just a tiny frown made from curiosity and green tea.
“I don’t understand,” he mutters, and you can practically see his breath brushing over your baby’s forehead. “Who is this?”
You blink because you know he understands and you know who the baby is. “Your niece,” you answer, grasping the baby’s wrinkled hand. He twists your forearm until you whine with pain. It feels like skin being stretched in all the wrong places; burning. When he releases you, you support the arm with your other one.
The baby is awake now, moaning and closing its fingers around his jeweled thumbs and clawing at his throat. He smiles, but you know it takes energy when his lips finally dip back down into a line. “I’m an uncle.”
“You’re an uncle,” you confirm, and it tastes like the short-lasting love you used to find at bars. Now you find it in coffee shops at five o’clock in the morning with a newspaper shoved in your face to keep strangers from engaging in conversations with you.
The baby begins to cry, her mouth opening to reveal pink toothless gums. He jumps a little, and for a second you think he’s going to hand her over to you, but he doesn’t.
With eyebrows creased in frustration, he calls out your name. “Emilie, it’s upset. Do something!”
You sigh, the breath hissing through your teeth as you suggest he sing her a lullaby.
His expression is a careful thoughtfulness at first, but it dissolves into thorns the next second. “I can’t sing,” he insists, “but you can.”
You press your lips together until they are white and lifeless. You don’t want to do what he wants, but you also don’t want you or your daughter hurt. Gulping visibly, you cross your legs on the ground and begin.
Your lullaby is of the pain from the fires just outside your town. It feels like a peppermint candle melting against your tongue, hot and sticky and reminding you of pine trees ablaze and skin glowing from dried sweat.
He strokes your baby’s wispy strands of hair with hands formed from clay and marble. They’re cracked from pressure over the years, you observe.
This next verse of your lullaby sings of the beginning. Where the greenhouse gases got caught in the Earth’s atmosphere and suddenly the sun was hotter than before. That’s how the fires started.
You wonder if he’s even listening to the lyrics, or if he’s too wrapped up in your baby. You don’t mention her name in the song like you usually do, but you know she doesn’t mind and likes it anyways.
You fumble with her brightly colored toy blocks as your voice dissolves into the rhythm of her breathing. It’s even and effortless, which tells you that she’s back asleep. What’s also effortless is the way you’ve arranged all the blocks. They spell out your name, Emilie, and his name which must be Greek, and your baby girl’s name which is perfect and raw as it is.
You knock your baby’s name away before he has the chance to read it. As if reading your mind, he asks, “What’s my niece’s name?”
You stand and brush nothingness off your leggings. Lifting the baby out of his arms, you plant a quick kiss on her cheek and set her back down into her crib. Flicking the mobile once, the yellowing paper stars are out to dance. You watch for a second. Mesmerized by something so simple. Too bad she’s already asleep.
You know he knows you ignored him. He’s at the door faster than she could say your daughter’s name. When you walk over to him, knees almost buckling from quivering, he steps aside and you pass into the hallway. He follows you into the kitchen.
Tapping his nails against the coffee pot, he mumbles, “I don’t understand.”
You take out another mug from the cabinet because you realize you’ve left your other one in the baby’s room. This mug is decorated with inspirational quotes that you can’t be bothered to read now.
“What don’t you understand?” you inquire, only allowing half as much coffee to enter the mug as last time.
“I don’t understand,” he repeats, flickering in and out of sight like a shadow.
You continue pouring coffee because it’s the only thing that’s grounding you at the moment. He finally fades into the amber afternoon light.
It’s then you understand. He was going to leave no matter what and he was asking you to join him. You had foolishly decided to stay where you can see the smoke in the air and breathe it in until you can’t anymore. You need to keep your daughter safe, but perhaps it was just you. Perhaps he never actually existed.
You sip coffee and lean against the counter, peeling the hummingbird wallpaper off piece by piece. You still don’t know why it matches your thoughts, but none of that matters now.
Far off in the distance, you could hear your baby girl calling out his name, whatever it was.