The Oregon streets were cold and damp. The buildings were quaint and made of pale stone, with welcome signs advertising coffee or candy or crocheted toys. The storefronts were closing shop and the lights of the town blinked gradually off. Tracy walked up the slope and out of town, into the dispersed flock of pines, turtled in a burgundy sweatshirt, as the bleached sun faded down the grey sky.
The shack was at the edge of the world, on a black cliff that overlooked the sea. It was built from a polite jumble of rock and wood, wisps of smoke coiling from the crooked chimney. The moon was a disk of ice and the sun kissed the ocean’s flank. With the breeze came chill, salty air that was trademark no matter the season.
She daydreamed as she went, didn’t notice him until it was too late. He was slouched on the front porch, tucked into a thin brown coat. The man had patchy sideburns and wore a tattered blue hat. She froze, made to turn, but he scrambled forward, stopping a few feet away.
The man licked his lips. His hair was salt-and-pepper flecked and his eyes were the same husky blue.
“Tracy,” he said. “I’ve missed you so much.”
Her heart twisted and swelled in concurrence. With what? Love? Longing?
“Hey, Dad.” The words weren’t sufficient. Not for three years estranged. She remembered gazing at the weary face through the smudged glass barrier, speaking in short sentences between long pauses through the red telephone receiver.
After a moment’s hesitation, they hugged. He gripped her tight, full of the same love he always spared. He had the same smell, the sharp tang of alcohol bleeding from his pores. Bile rose in her throat and she itched to peel away, but she buried the urge with guilt, and gratitude for the warm embrace. Dad.
When he pulled back, he grinned like a freed man, which, she realized, with mild surprise, he was.
“I’m sober, baby girl,” he said. “I know you won’t believe me but I am.”
Tracy didn’t believe him. She smiled. “That’s amazing, Dad. I’m so happy for you.” Nothing more to say really. “What are you doing here?”
“Gonna make something of myself,” he said, with a firm nod, his jaw set.
“Oh.” She shifted on her feet, pursed her lips. “Well...good luck, Dad. I’m really proud of you." She twiddled her fingers. "Come visit, yeah?” She didn’t mean it. She wished he would disappear again, into the undergrowth, never return with his hackneyed vows, and she hated herself for it.
Tracy stepped around him, up the porch steps.
“Actually, Tracy,” Dad continued, and she shut her eyes, opened them, and turned back with what she hoped was a curious expression. “I’m needing a place to stay—‘till I’m back on my feet. I’ll earn my stay,” he added. “Won’t even know I’m there.
No, she wanted to scream. Why are you doing this? Screw off. Please. Dad.
It was useless. She knew what she would say before the words left her lips.
“Of course, Dad.”
Dad worked vigorously that first month. He found work at Dan’s Bar n’ Grill by the coast on the other side of town, washing dishes and toasting buns for a few pennies above minimum wage, and always got back smelling of grease and cheap dish soap.
But the stench of beer had faded.
On occasion, when she returned late, dinner would be on the table, fish and rice, perhaps, or pizza ordered in. She would ramble, about her job or of the seabirds she fed each morning by the tide pools, and it was nice to talk about nothing in particular. Dad didn’t have many words to offer, so he listened. He had been in a cell the past couple of years, and before that, trying to avoid one. Tracy didn’t want to hear about prison, to be reminded, and he didn’t mention it. She wanted her dad as he was in that moment, across the table, eyes crinkled in a smile. A real one.
Tracy had always lived alone. Something was broken in her. She wanted a friend, but connected to no one; she wanted a lover, but all the wonderful flirts possessed some irredeemable flaw. It was her own fault, her own shortcomings, she knew, and the gap inside her was too frayed for any puzzle piece to fit.
But Dad was alright, Dad was there, and she let the past remain deep in the still-water well of memory.
It was August when the weather turned. The air was frigid and the sky was bleak and dusky. Stars had not shone for a month and clouds furled around one another in nebulous spires.
“Bye, Tracy,” her manager called from behind the counter, concealed by boxes of stacked coffee grounds. “See you Monday.”
“See you, Ms. Reed.”
“Tracy! Just call me Daphnie, won’t you?”
Tracy laughed. “Stay warm.”
Ms. Reed chortled at that and Tracy left, the café door swinging behind her.
Dad wasn’t home. It was dark now, and she left the door unlocked.
Through the fogged window, the sea was a churning violet mass, and she fell asleep to the soprano of the gulls and to the white waves that gyred on the rocks below.
The shack was silent the next morning. Empty. No talk or laughter, and at dinner, alone at the table meant for four, she sobbed. The quiet tears fell and melted into the folds of her skirt.
“I’m sorry,” she said. There was no one.
It was May. Her eighth birthday. The table outside the little red house was set with pink plates and plasticware. She had invited three girls, the only children she knew who she could remotely call friends. It was a simple friendship, forged over a mutual love of cats and Alice in Wonderland. The birthday theme was Chesire Cat, and a little black triangle was painted on her nose, and her cheeks with pink whiskers. Mom had done it with her makeup kit. She was magic like that.
After cake, they splashed in the pink kiddy pool, mouths still lined with frosting, Tracy wearing her purple floaties even though the water only made it up to her waist. They spat water at each other through striped straws and Rachel told them how it was possible to hold their breath for a whole half-hour. None of them could manage it.
It was time for presents. Maggy slipped up, so Tracy knew one of them was a pack of glitter pens. She hoped Mom didn’t get her anything expensive and squirmed at the thought. Mom led them up to the porch. The front door was locked. Mom frowned, then cursed. Pardon my French, Mom said. She banged on the door. Open up, Tom! Lila whispered a question to Tracy—Who’s Tom? Tracy didn’t answer, but she crept behind the hedges and peered into the window of the little red house. Her stomach turned. There was Dad, on the couch, mouth wide, an amber bottle hanging limp in his hand, and the floor was littered with crushed beer cans. There were her presents, too, torn open, their contents peeking out from the whitewashed kitchen. She rapped her knuckle against the window. Dad, she called. Dad, open the door. Why are you doing this, Dad? Don’t you know it’s my birthday today did you forget again? I’m not mad ‘bout the presents. That’s alright it’s all fine but open the door Dad open the door so we can come in it’s getting cold out here and we’re wet so please just open, open the door. Dad!
Why did you break the presents, Dad? Tracy asked that night. She sat beside him on the couch. He was close and she could smell his sweat and sour breath.
You haven’t been acting right, Tracy girl, that’s why, his voice like a broken accordion.
Oh. She knit her fingers together. I’m sorry.
It’s alright, Tracy it’s alright. I forgive you. You know how much I love you, right?
I love you, too, Dad.
Tracy didn’t work Saturday. She lazed around the house, sipping tea, bundled in an old handknit scarf. She sat in the armchair and drew the tree outside her window: it was curled and knotted and bore the shape of the wind. She kept her ears open, for a wheezy voice, for tattered boots trudging up the steps.
Sunday, Tracy found him. Dad was passed out on the forest trail. Clearly, he’d been making his way toward the shack and had crumpled from the effort. He had a bloody nose his eye was bruised yellow. His left sideburn was half-stripped away, the skin red where the hair had been. When she saw him, no emotions surfaced. Only observation. She wiped the liquor from his lips. There was an unopened can of beer in his backpack. She left it beneath a bramble, would come by later to dispose of it. Dad woke up after twenty minutes, mumbled something. He smiled, reached his hand up to cup her cheek. She twisted away. Heaved him up.
“Come on, Dad.”
Tracy let him lean on her shoulder and they shuffled slowly to the shack. She sat him on the porch and returned with a thick blanket and a pillow before going back in. Locked the door. She wished her eyes would swell, but no tears came. She felt nothing at all. With Dad, it was easier to mourn him when he was gone.
Midnight, there was a knock on the door. Tracy stared up at the twisted shadows on the ceiling, unmoving. The knocking grew louder. Then, a rapping on her window. She jumped. A shadowy figure, a black hand, poised behind the frosty glass. She ripped off the covers. Stalked to the door, feet heavy.
She folded her arms over her chest. Over her heart. “You can’t come in,” Tracy said.
“Baby, I’m sorry, really I am. I’ve changed. One slip up doesn’t mean anything. Give me another chance. Let me stay. A little longer.”
Tracy rested her head against the doorframe and closed her eyes.
“Tracy?” The shifting of boots. The hesitant voice of a parent who knows they’ve asked too much. Done too much. “I love you, you know that?”
Tracy looked at the space above his shoulder, standing there in the doorway.
It could have been hours or minutes. With a final, regretful mumble of departure, of empty promise, Dad turned away and stumbled from the shack. Down the trail. Swallowed by the forest.
Tracy watched the spot of leaves where he’d disappeared. A tension she didn’t know was there released from her neck, traveled down her spine, through her whole being.
She didn’t cry. Maybe that would have been the human thing to do.
But the clouds had parted, just a little, and a spattering of stars winked down from a strip of deep blue space. The sky, it never quite turned black, and right then, the night was painted in more color than the whole world had held for a long time.
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