“Are you sure about this, June?” Mila asked softly, cupping her hand around the flame of the lighter to help June light her cigarette. It was her third in twenty minutes, and June wasn’t a smoker; she’d taken the pack out of Mila’s purse earlier that day before she'd gone to work at the hospital. Mila stared at the blonde with concerned eyes, one of her hands rubbing circles into June’s back as they sat perched on a chipping, yellow curb stop in the hospital parking lot. The sun was beginning to set on a late-August day. Summer was quickly coming to an end, leaves speckling the black top and passerbys dawning light jackets as the temperature began to drop. A moment of silence passed as a family walked out of the hospital; a father and two little boys. The man said ‘mommy is gonna be home real soon’ and June seemed to come to, out of her distant state. A state she was in far too often.
“Yes,” June replied, not meeting the girl’s eyes, watching as the man and boys disappeared into their van and drove off down the quiet street. She took a long drag from her cigarette, bouncing her knee as she tried to get a hold of herself mentally. Her exhale was shaky, and Mila plucked the cigarette out of her fingers and took a drag herself—June’s nervous energy becoming contagious. Leaves swirled in the wind, the sky painted a heavenly, lilac color as the sun disappeared behind the hills. It was a beautiful evening, but June seemed to look past it all.
“I’m sorry,” June piped up again, the corners of her eyes wrinkling as she felt tears start to form. Mila’s tense expression melted away as she stared at the girl, instinctively pulling her close. Mila could feel the steady, fast beating of June’s heart in her chest as they embraced. She flicked the remainder of the cig onto the asphalt and pecked June’s lips gently, trying as hard as she could to reassure the younger.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Mila whispered back, cupping June’s face with her hands. June relaxed against the girl’s touch and let a single tear fall down her cheek, which Mila wiped with the pad of her thumb, adding: “We should get in there. Visitation ends soon.”
June nodded, standing up and turning toward the large hospital building behind them. It looked much more to her like a haunted house that night, bathed in purple lighting, pouring odd sounds as things and people bustled constantly within. People came in and out, always shuffling through. How many people have you seen walk out of a haunted house? Do they look scared? Are they crying? As they stood, a woman holding a bouqet of flowers pushed open the double doors with eyes rubbed raw, her lip quivering. June had the urge to hug her, but didn’t. Instead, she tucked her hands into the pockets of her jean jacket, sucking in a deep breath. Mila stood beside her, giving her a reassuring look as they both started toward the doors.
June felt the scenery go by in slow motion with each step. Each square, white tile on the floor seemed to take ages to cross. She hadn’t walked across them in years, but it felt to her like centuries. That familiar, dreadful feeling had washed over her every time she had even come close to the building over the last few years, when she would swing by to pick Mila up from work or drop her off. Mila never pushed it, coming out to the car to grab her lunch or her phone when she had left them at their apartment by mistake a number of times. She rarely even talked about her shifts nursing, not wanting to possibly disturb June. She knew that the hospital housed every ache in June’s bones, every shadow of her nightmares. She couldn’t ask the girl to face all of that.
“You’re okay?” Mila said, somewhere between asking and telling. They were suddenly in an elevator. June didn’t even remember stepping inside. As a cold sweat came over the girl she pulled her hands out of her pockets and reached out for one of Mila’s, intertwining their fingers as if to tie herself to the girl. June squeezed her palm, sucking in a deep breath that still felt all too shallow. She was ten again, standing in the same elevator hand in hand with her father.
She had on a yellow sundress and her best dress shoes; her favorite ones, with the white bows on them. He held onto June’s hand with a stiff grip, eyes following the glowing buttons on the wall as they ascended into the hospital. They’d made this kind of a routine on sundays. They would always come and visit mom together, and they would always come straight from church in their sunday’s best. June loved to impress her mother with all of her pretty dresses. She’d bought the shoes she wore that day with her mother about two weeks earlier, before she had gotten sick. She remembered her father being angry about the shoes, and that it seemed every time he got angry mommy got sick again.
“No nonsense, June Bug,” her father had said in his even, brooding voice. She nodded her head immediately.
They walked hand in hand down the hallway, June’s blonde hair tied up in pigtails that bounced with each step. When they got to her mother’s room she broke from her father and ran to the woman. She laid in bed covered in bruises, both of her eyes tender and puffy, dark purple but yellowing around the edges. Her arm was in a cast, her ankle elevated. June remembered thinking she looked like a broken doll, still so beautiful as she was in shambles. She thought it strange that every time they went her father was quiet, standing with his arms crossed over his chest by the door. June would spend fifteen or twenty minutes talking and playing with her mother and then her father would send her out into the hallway before they left so he could talk with mommy alone. One day, when she watched from the hall, he leaned down real close and whispered to her with his jaw clenched so hard the veins in his neck popped out. The look in her mother’s eyes stayed with June for a long time. First fear, and then when she looked out at June in the hall she looked almost … relieved. She never knew what her father said that day.
Two weeks later when her mother came home, she fell down the stairs into their basement and broke her neck. She died immediately, and with that same look of relief on her face. June had found her father holding her in his arms, talking to the police on the phone with a lump in his throat, but no tears in his eyes.
“June,” Mila called again, one step outside of the elevator as June stood with blank eyes inside. The girl blinked, following after Mila a moment later, holding her hand even tighter as they neared his room.
The sound of his voice came to her again: “Do as I tell you, June Bug.”
The warmth of his breath, the feel of his caloused hands. She could smell him still—like rain and beer and sweat. The sound of him walking up the stairs, the thud of his boots being dropped by her bedroom door. The cabinets in her childhood home slamming shut, or the kitchen microwave humming late in the evening. The deafening creak of her bedpost, over and over and over again like a siren. The feeling of silk sheets, the smell of that laundry detergent, had made her ill for years. He was everywhere in her mind, he had taken over every sense she had. And yet he made it so she was stuck with him, unable to leave.
“You know Daddy loves you, right?”
She stopped, frozen in place as her head began to pound, memories she had hidden away knocking agressively against her skull to be let into her mind. June doubled over, choking as she felt her body rejecting every single memory her brain let spill through the cracks. Mila grabbed her by the arm and took her over to a chair off to the side of the hallway, sitting her down as she tucked a lock of June’s blonde hair behind the girl’s ear.
“June,” Mila said urgently, staring at the girl with wide eyes, her hands resting gently on June’s thighs, trying again: “Junie?”
June swallowed a shallow breath and wiped sweat from her brow, putting both of her hands on top of Mila’s as she sat.
“I’m okay,” June said, her words slightly strangled as her throat went completely dry.
“You can go home right now,” Mila whispered, her soft, green eyes reminding June so much of her mother, “I can take you right now. Just say the word.”
June allowed herself a moment to sit and breathe, watching as Mila looked her over, crouching in front of where the girl sat. Everything in her wanted to turn around and go, which only cemented how badly she needed to be there.
“Let’s go. I need to do this,” June said in an exhale, standing up and taking Mila’s hand once again. Mila nodded her head hesitently, and then continued down the hallway with the girl beside her.
It only took another twenty or so steps for them to reach the room where her father was. They stood outside the door, Mila turning to face the girl. She looked deep into June’s eyes, searching for a sign to get her out but there was nothing of the sort. No indecision. She had an air about her that almost felt … confident. Her hands shook as Mila held onto her, but as she looked the girl over she really did feel that June was ready. As ready as she was going to get, at least.
“I’ll be right outside the whole time,” Mila whispered as she pulled June against her chest, hugging her tightly. For whatever reason it felt like a departure … and for good reason. This was the end of an era, Mila knew. June would walk out of that hospital room a much different person than she walked in. Mila just prayed June would feel better and not worse.
“Love you,” June whispered back, kissing Mila on the jaw as she pulled away. Mila smiled at her with glossy eyes, stepping back from the girl as June finally laid her hand on the room’s doorknob. One deep breath later, she opened it and stepped inside.
The first thing she noticed was the smell in the air. That hadn’t changed. In the back of her throat she felt a tug, but squeezed her eyes shut as she closed the door behind her, stifiling a gag.
“June Bug?” A man’s voice came weakly from across the room, accompanied only by the sound of faint beeping and the gentle hum of a television. The room was dim, lit only by a few lamps on either side of the hospital bed and the television’s gentle glow. She was thankful for that as she turned and opened her eyes, his face fuzzy in the low light. His features looked sunken in and darkened—his expression nearly lifeless. As he looked at her and registered it really was his daughter, his chapped lips turned up into a smile. She stared at him from where she stood by the door, trying to keep her legs from shaking.
“It’s me,” June replied simply, clearing her throat as she fought for the words to come out clearly.
He chuckled, that deep, grating chuckle she had heard far too many times in her ear. She could have sworn she felt his breath on her earlobe … traveling down her neck. A shiver ran down her spine.
“You came back to see me,” the man said, his teeth glowing yellow as he began to grin. She couldn’t believe his arrogance even as he laid on his death bed. She began to kick herself mentally for expecting any different—the little girl in her mind always wanting to believe her Daddy was a good man. That image in her mind was just a caricature though, a phony idea of the man that laid before her. It was a falsehood compared to the evil man he actually was. Without thinking she took another step closer, the sound of her shoe echoing as it hit the tile floor.
“Come give me a hug, June Bug,” he sighed, weakly lifting his arms up, coughing on the thin air in the room as he did. As she stared through him, taking small steps across the room, she felt her heart rate even out. She felt calm. She didn’t even notice she was crying as she sat on the side of his bed, her tears surprising her as they fell down onto her thighs.
“You had a white dress just like this when you were younger,” he said, one of his hands finding it’s way onto her thigh. She stared down at his fingers, caloused and wrinkled and all too familair in all the wrong ways. He went on, “you’re as beautiful as ever.”
June wiped at her tears and sniffled, looking back to her father’s eyes. For the first time in what felt like forever, she didn’t feel afraid of him.
“You tore that dress off of me, remember?”
His eyes widened at her words, as if she were lying, shocked that she would say such a thing. He certainly wasn’t used to her speaking up. During most of her years as a young person she had almost quit talking completely, only speaking, especially to him, when absolutely necessary. He hadn’t heard her voice in so long he had forgotten it. She sounded, and looked, so much like her mother. The spitting image.
“You and your fucking mother ... always so overdramatic,” he spat, his hand squeezing the girl’s leg as he sat up in bed to intimidate her. She felt his nails begin to dig into her skin before she pulled away, his eyes wild with anger. She stood beside her father’s bed, just out of his reach.
“Don’t you dare talk about her,” June warned, her lips pressed into a hard line. Tears no longer fell from her eyes, but she could feel her stomach turning over slowly. She had ... butterflies.
“You’re just like that bitch,” the man laughed bitterly, coughing once more, his cheeks reddening as he fought for a full breath.
June smiled then, staring at him as his chest rose and fell in a panic, air filling her lungs with ease as she stepped closer.
“No I’m not,” the girl said darkly, snatching the pillow from behind her father’s head in one quick motion, “you got the better of Mom. But not me.”
Before he could raise his arms or shout in protest, she pushed the hospital pillow over her father’s face. A minute or two passed of him trying, and failing, to struggle against her. He was far too weak. The sound of the heart monitor beeping across the room slowly came to a stop, along with his faint coughing screams, and when she removed the pillow her father lay there completely motionless.
For a long, lingering moment June let the reality of the situation wash over her. To her surprise, she didn’t feel much of anything as she stared down at his blank expression. She wondered if this exact moment would break her—if she would regret it in time. But the way a peaceful warmth settled in her chest, for the first time in years, she knew she had done the right thing for herself. And for her mother.
June stepped out and got Mila, who called for the doctor in a hurry. When they arrived a minute or so later to declare the man was really dead, June had to step out of the room.
Mila found her again an hour later, standing outside in the parking lot staring at the night sky. When she went over to June, she saw the girl was smiling, her eyes glistening as rivers of tears streamed down her face. The blonde looked over at Mila and laughed gleefully, wiping away the wetness on her cheeks. She’d never seen June look so happy, her eyes big and curious like a child’s would be. Even as she spoke, “God, I forgot how beautiful the stars are", Mila could see it …
The old June, muzzled by her father and his devastating havoc, was gone.