The scraping of the whisk against the sides of the mixing bowl was almost loud enough to mask the thud of a package being dumped at the front door. Not even the apathy of online retail deliveries could shake Brian’s excitement – and relief – when he realized that the sneakers he’d bought for Olivia had arrived in time for her first day of first grade. 

It was one of the very few benefits of his wife Casey being out of town for work: Brian could get away with buying Olivia the shoes she really wanted, the ones with the light-up soles. His wife would never have approved, being that mom who checked product reviews and parenting blogs to find the best shoes for proper gait development. Brian outwardly agreed that such things were important, but he loved seeing unbridled joy in his daughter’s eyes.  He'd deal with the fallout of his frivolous purchase when the time came; until then, he’d enjoy Olivia’s reaction when she saw his now double-surprise: her favorite shoes and her favorite breakfast of Princess Pancakes.

They may have just been regular pancakes with drops of syrup strategically placed on the plate to form a sort-of-face, but she was still young enough to allow her imagination to fill in what his lack of artistic abilities left out. He knew that one day, she’d be too old to find happiness in a couple of splotches of syrup or in red lights flickering with each step.  He dreaded that day.

“O-liiiv-ia,” he shouted, tilting his ear in the direction of her door. “I’ve got a sur-priiiise for you!”

When he didn’t hear anything after a few seconds, he shrugged - she was most likely still asleep - and turned back to a counter already covered in readymade pancake mix and globs of batter from previous batches. Brian had never been the cook of the house; that honor had and would always belong to Casey.  He was more than happy with his usual role of Head Syrup-Squirter and Juice-Pourer. With Casey away, though, he was learning to cook on the fly. 

He’d been mixing the third batch when the shoes arrived, actually following the instructions on the “Just Add Water!” complete pancake mix for once. Since his wife never had to measure, Brian's hubris led him to believe that he too had the ability to feel how much water was necessary. Two bowls full of watery, runny humility later…well, maybe this time the batter would actually be usable. 

As butter melted on the square griddle pan, his mind drifted back to Olivia and her reaction when she learned that Daddy got her new light-up shoes - or as she so adorably referred to them last year, pew-pew shoes. She’d start bouncing, her excitement bursting out in the form of repeated jumps for joy before she'd plop down to put them on. Watch how fast I can make them pew-pew, Daddy, she'd shout as she'd take off across the dining room. Casey would've told her to slow down if she were home, and Brian would've agreed if for no other reason than to put up a united front... but, Casey wasn't here, and Olivia had just one more day before the monotony of school would suck the fun out of life. Might as well let her enjoy one last day of freedom.

The melted butter began to sizzle; time to pour the first pancake from this batch. It dawned on Brian that he wasn’t sure what Olivia would wear with her new pew-pews tomorrow. He knew how big of a deal her First Day of School outfit was - Casey had fretted over it for weeks leading to kindergarten. This year, though, Casey wouldn't make it home before the first day of school; thus, the task of getting Olivia ready in the morning, picking out her outfit, getting her hair done, taking pictures... it all fell on him.  He'd never had to pick out Olivia's outfit before, though; even on occasions when Casey had to travel, she'd planned each day's outfit in advance. She hadn't thought to do that before she left.  He'd be on his own in the morning.

Ok, so what could she wear, he pondered as bubbles rose to the surface of the batter in the pan. Sliding the spatula underneath to flip the pancake, he mostly brushed the question off... she could just wear one of the new outfits that Casey had bought her for school.  He'd dig through the clothes with tags on them after breakfast to figure out what went together...

A flash in his mind interrupted his thoughts, there and gone in the same instant. The thought... no, not a thought. A vision? Memory? He couldn’t tell, it was already long gone.

He shook his head to clear it and...


Had they even gotten Olivia new school clothes? He couldn’t recall doing so. Thinking back over the summer months, he tried to recall if maybe Casey and Olivia had gone shopping without him at some point. The summer flew by so quickly, he could hardly remember anything – especially over the past month since Casey left. He’d been so busy, time just seemed to fly. He hadn’t even thought of going shopping with Olivia; he just assumed his wife would have taken care of it.

He'd have to check with her – which would be an admission that he hadn't done anything about it before now. That he hadn't even remembered before today.

Brian sighed as he slid the spatula under the finished pancake, the bottom a shade darker than the top with a bit of a crust. That’s not how Mommy makes it, Olivia would say. And she’d be right… because Mommy never made Princess Pancakes.  

And also because hers would've come out much better.  

He dropped another small knob of butter in the pan followed by a circle of batter. While he waited for the pancake to bubble, he called Casey’s cell which went straight to voicemail. Instead of the automated operator reciting the phone number and voicemail recording instructions, though, the robotic voice informed him that her voice mailbox was full.  

That’s odd, he thought before hanging up and sending a text instead.

Hey, apparently your voicemails are full? Anywho, call me when you have a minute, I need to ask about Olivia’s school clothes tomorrow.

He almost closed his texts after sending the message, but just before doing so, he noticed something else odd: the only messages between him and his wife were the messages he'd been sending.

I love you, sent yesterday - no response.

Hey, hope your trip's going well, sent two days ago - no response.

He wondered if there was something wrong with her phone...

There! There it was again. A flash, nothing more; this time, though, he retained that whatever the memory was, it happened in the bright, midday sun. But that was all he could hold on to before it vanished again. 

What the hell…?

The smell of smoke jerked him out of his thoughts. He jumped into action, trying to salvage the pancake by hurriedly flipping it, but instead of a dark brown crust that he would’ve been willing to eat, the underside was solid black. He walked to the trash can, pressing the button with his foot to discard yet another pancake onto the pile that had formed on top of the other trash. As a dad, it was his duty to eat any and all burnt pancakes, - but eating charred ones, even that was further than he was willing to go.  

Pouring another attempt, his mind returned to prepping Olivia for her first day. He began going through a mental To Do list, emulating his wife’s neuroticism from last year as best he could. She’d been meticulous in her preparation; the packing of Olivia’s kindergarten backpack in particular was like structured poetry in motion. Pencils, crayons, glue sticks, and notebooks laid in a perfect circle around Casey who sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor with a printout of the kindergarten supply list. Each item was checked off then packed away before everything was double-checked. She had to be certain that her baby girl would have everything she’d need to succeed. Brian would never be able to achieve that level of detail - he simply didn't have the patience - but he'd do his best to ensure Olivia was ready.

Another thought hit him: did they actually do school supply shopping? His heart began beating faster as he mentally backtracked through weeks of Amazon packages. Even with Casey out of town, surely she would’ve ordered the supplies online, getting everything ready weeks in advance. Then, his stomach dropped: had she asked him to do the shopping? He had a long history of agreeing to requests while watching TV only to forget even being asked later when Casey checked to see if he'd followed through.

After setting the pancake on the plate of passables and pouring another, he checked his texts again to see if he'd gotten a response - which he hadn't. Aware that he'd likely not get a response for a while, he nonetheless sent a text asking if Casey had done the school supply shopping. Then, he scrolled up to check all of her previous messages. Maybe she’d asked him over text?

He scrolled through weeks of messages, all from him; none had received a response. Was his phone deleting her messages? Was he somehow deleting them?

He scrolled until he finally found a message from Casey that hadn't been deleted, back the day before she left on her trip a month ago on July 31st: I’m taking Olivia to the park, we’ll be back later. Love you! 

That didn’t help him in his search for answers on school supplies, and with no messages afterwards from Casey, he was no closer to figuring out the school supply situation. He dialed her number again to check: still straight to voicemail, still a full inbox.

He stared at his phone a moment, trying to figure out what could be wrong with hers, when it hit him again - this time like a sharp jolt. A moment, a brief moment, of clarity. Middle of the day, sun shining. Was that… another man? He reached, grasped at the thought - the memory? - but it vanished again, banished again to the distant recesses of his mind. He tried to pull it back out, like struggling to recall a question or comment he'd planned to say when it was just on the tip of his tongue, but couldn't.  

He had a sickening feeling that something might be wrong, that something might’ve happened to Casey, but he didn’t have a way of getting in contact to check on her. Plus, he didn’t know how to contact anyone from her company, and he knew the office would be closed on a Sunday. He took a deep breath and calmed himself with the thought that she was most likely fine and that it was probably just an issue with her phone. If he didn’t hear from her that by that evening, he would call her office in the morning to check in.

For now, though, he needed to finish with the pancakes; the school supplies and Casey’s phone would have to wait.  After scooping up the last pancake and setting it on the pile of passables, he set out two plates. He picked out the darkest and most malformed discs to toss on his plate. For her plate, he took the largest pancake and layered it at the bottom, then layered each successively smaller disc centered on top of the pile. He opened the bottle of table syrup and squeezed the syrup onto specific places on the plate to form the closest approximation to a face that he could muster. Satisfied, he grinned and set the plate in front of Olivia’s seat, wiping away a thin layer of dust that he attributed to not doing a good job of maintaining family dinnertime in Casey’s absence.

He grabbed the pew-pew shoes and bounded to his daughter’s door, knocking in a rhythmic pattern. “O-liiiv-ia! I have a sur-priiiise!” He expected to hear shouts of ‘yay!’ and exclamations glee. He loved those shouts, lived for them and their accompanying giggles.


He knocked again, more forcefully and without rhythm. “Alright honey, time to get up. It’s almost 10 o’clock.”

Silence. It was highly unlike Olivia to not respond at all. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand.

He turned the copper knob and pushed the door open. He expected to find Olivia either on her bed sleeping or on the floor, playing with her dolls and lost in her own world – her room messy as only the absence of a parent who enforced cleanliness rules would allow.

But his daughter was nowhere to be seen.

Her twin bed, complete with its Elsa and Anna bedset, was made as if Casey had done it herself. No toys littered the floor; instead, there were a variety of papers scattered about, some printed documents, others newspaper clippings.  

But no Olivia.

Again, his mind jolted, the sensation akin to an electric shock directly to his brain. Images flashed in the forefront of his consciousness, but this time he paid no mind to the uniformed man in the sun. He shoved the thought out of his mind, focusing the totality of his mental acuity on the whereabouts of his baby girl. 

Olivia!? Baby! Where are you!?”  

He dropped the shoes and sprinted to the closet, hoping she was playing a trick on him. Tearing the door open, he prayed to find her giggling in the back corner - but the closet contained nothing save for her neatly hung clothes. He whipped his head around, frantically checking every possible place a 6-year-old could hide. He’d been up since 7:00 AM and knew she hadn’t come out of her room yet.

He dropped to his knees next to the bed, checking to see if she’d somehow squeezed into the tight space underneath. Again, he saw nothing except a few of the papers that littered the floor. His focus on finding his daughter, he wouldn’t have paid the papers any mind - except for the pictures on the front of a trifolded piece of paper that caught his attention.  

Casey and Olivia, both smiling on the front.  

The words “In Loving Memory” across the top. 

He stopped and picked up the pamphlet, his eyes seeing the words but his brain not comprehending - or accepting - what his eyes told him. It made no sense; he’d just spoken to Casey, right? He’d been taking care of Olivia since Casey left on her…

…on her…

On her what? He tried to reach back for a memory that he couldn’t quite grasp. Where did she say she was going? When did she say…

Did she even leave? He didn’t know anymore. And what about Olivia? He’d been caring for her, right? Sure, she’d been standoffish with her mother gone, but who was he buying pew-pew shoes for if Olivia wasn’t here? Who was he cooking Princess Pancakes for?

This time, the feeling wasn’t a jolt - it was a bludgeon, as if the weight of the world itself slammed into his mind. The memory was no longer fleeting; it no longer scurried to the dark recesses of his subconscious. It remained steadfast at the forefront of his attention, unmoving and refusing to yield. 

Another man, yes. An officer, badge reflecting the blue and red lights of emergency response vehicles.  

A crumpled white Honda Accord.

Park swings swaying in the breeze behind paramedics who wheeled a covered gurney to the back of an ambulance. Their faces solemn; their actions devoid of any sense of urgency.

He looked around in a daze, vision blurred by the tears welling in his eyes. His eyes went to the various papers on the ground, the newspaper clippings with headlines about a crash and stapled papers with CAR ACCIDENT REPORT printed across the top. He reached for the report as if he were reaching for hope itself, scouring the text in desperation that it didn’t say what he knew it would.

He was still trying to reach back for memories he couldn’t quite grasp, memories of Casey telling him she was heading on a trip - ones that he slowly began to understand never existed. As he grasped at fleeting, phantom memories lost in the fog of his shattered mind, he was able to locate ones grounded in reality. Ones buried by a devastated mind to preserve what little sanity it had left. 

Bits and pieces of the past month flooded his conscious awareness. In a single moment, the pieces coalesced, confronting him with a reality he’d been denying for weeks.  

A teenager running a red light while texting.  

Body identification.

Funeral arrangements.

Arriving home after the funeral and flinging paperwork into Olivia’s room.  

And then, nothing. He couldn't recall anything after shutting her door a month back, as if time had simply skipped from the moment he'd closed Olivia’s door that day to now. Even the grief felt as fresh as that day, sharper still because of its abrupt reappearance.

Brian collapsed to the floor of his daughter’s room and curled into a ball, his head lying next to the pew-pew shoes he realized Olivia would never get to wear. 

September 09, 2023 01:15

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in Reedsy Studio. 100% free.