“And how are we going to feel today?” the girl’s mother asks at the unsettled, disarrayed time of quarter past six in the morning, when a day might go left, or a day might go right.
“Happy,” the girl replies.
The mother intends the question as a gentle suggestion. A nudge. But also a rain dance one might enact for crops badly in need. There’s a lot more choice in this life than people usually think, she’s become accustomed to trying to tell herself, before finishing with the observation—a kind of head-shot to hope—that in matters where choice is most desired, choice typically seems not to have a presence at all.
She’s developed a knack for remembering and replaying the words “No taxation without representation!” from a school day long ago, when it seemed that all of the bells were broken, that’s how long the day was taking, only she had no idea about long days then, and thinks about the days that have passed quite often now.
The mother pulls up a single shade in the girl’s room, and for the first time for each of them they’re presented with an early form of the new day and what it looks like on the outside. It is always the same shade that is selected for the opening, like the constant in a science experiment, on the side of the house where the sun is potentially the brightest, owing to where it rises. The girl’s mother pivots, turning to the bed, pulls down the blankets, which the girl sleeps under, no matter the temperature, and who has waited for her mother to remove them. She doesn’t get hot and she doesn’t get cold, fancies herself perfectly regulated when it comes to her body, which makes her feel guilty and spoiled. She sleeps only on her back, so that her eyes are ready, but ready for what, she’s not sure. Just in case she needs them fast.
The first thing she does in the morning when she sees the rest of herself—her long legs that her dad used to say went up past her hips, must have connected to her shoulders—is to do an accounting of her toes. Her father claimed toes were mischievous. Much more than fingers. Fingers merely wiggled and pointed. Gripped a pencil so that you might sign your name or draw a star that could be effaced, but would never truly be said to fall. They could hitch a ride, but you shouldn’t do that, her father had cautioned. Toes ran away in the night and raced back to their right places just in time for when you pulled down the covers. He was adamant about his whimsy. Adamant whimsy isn’t very easily doubted, as the girl understood it. Toes had places to be and things to do. They couldn’t help the packed-in, pace of their schedules. They just had that traveling gene built in them, were born to go places, even when you couldn’t take them there yourself, or vice versa.
The girl had a deep desire to catch her toes in action. She believed bottomlessly—that was her term—in trying to look out hard for miracles and make grand efforts to spot them, so that they wouldn’t be missed. To see that last straggler—probably the pinky toe on her left foot, which was curved more than the one on her right, and might not have been as fast as the others once separated—as it popped back into place, like a child who gets its eyes closed just in time when it’s pretending to be asleep.
But the talk of the toes had been from when her father could himself speak and he wasn’t in a chair and he didn’t have tubes that looked like funnels for his guts but they were clear, minus some drops of water that you could only see if you got up really close. And now she just kind of kept it going a little bit each morning in her bed, the toe business, before her mother asked what sort of day she figured she’d have or try to have was more like it, and the bottom looked a lot closer to the top than she would have once thought possible.
She had asked her mother if the tubes meant that her father could breathe underwater. She wanted him to have something special. Powers that other people didn’t have. Super underwater breathing powers. And powers to get people to change how they felt about what they remembered so that they didn’t have to hate it.
Those would be Superman powers, which was what the doctors said her dad was because he should have been dead and that he wasn’t was a tribute to how much he wanted to live. A nice lady doctor had bent down to the girl and said, “Your father must love you very much. A person is lucky to have someone who loves them like your daddy loves you.”
She wanted to hug the woman and also hit her in the face and she had never felt both ways at the same time before and figured no one else ever had in the whole history of the world, which went back a few thousand years. And maybe one of her father’s super powers could be that he made people change differently than they had before, or how they would have before, as if there were a way to make the new way even better than the old way whereas once you would have just said, “I wish I could die,” which is what the girl thought sometimes when her mother opened her shade and they had their quick talk with the nudges and the aims.
For instance, there could be all of these hidden advantages to the change that weren’t seen initially, but upon their discovery, you’d feel like the luckiest dog going. That’s a term her father used to say. “Well, aren’t you a lucky dog,” he’d tell her on her birthday and she’d gotten more presents than she was expecting, or her mom let her invite a friend over for a sleepover two weekends in a row. But the way she heard it was differently. Like he knew, and he knew she knew, and she did really know at that, that those words meant something different to them than any other two people, and it would never change, it would always be amazing, so long as they were both there to say it and hear it.
She would have loved to change how she remembered how they used to read. She loved reading. The idea of reading, anyway. And definitely being read to. Her dad had been the best reader when he could talk. He even did all of the voices and it was hard to believe he had not been in show business. He could do all of the characters in a story so differently. The boys and the girls. He never used the same girl voice either from story to story and book to book. It was uncanny. Incredible.
When she was super little she thought it was magic, but then she got older and realized that was silly and it wasn’t magic at all, it was just her dad, but there wasn’t any just about him, other than it was just like him. He could do all of the animals, too, and plants, like this talking fern that was in one book. He was so good at doing the fern that she believed that’s really how one would sound. Or did sound. It was like he’d gotten it from somewhere. Firsthand experience.
Later they’d gone in the woods for one of their walks, and there was a whole field of ferns. She said “shhhh” as they crunched in the leaves so that they could listen, but the ferns didn’t make any sound. They didn’t even rustle in the wind like the leaves in the trees, as if the ferns had something different written into their contract with nature. Her dad got up close with her, and they bent down, as he turned over a leaf. There were red spots on the bottom clashing with the green, and the girl thought the fern was hurt.
“Is it bleeding?” she asked.
“No,” he answered. “It’s a spore. That’s how ferns make other ferns.”
But still something seemed off.
“Can we help it?”
“We can help it by not hurting it.”
Then he said something startling as they started to walk again, what he called the last leg of their journey, and then she did, too, her favorite phrase of shared heroism that only travel partners know, because they’d go a little deeper into the woods—deeper than most people would, she’d decided—before they turned back. Startling because it seemed like they were done talking about ferns, but also startlingly apropos and well done because the girl knew that they were building off their discussion about ferns and they had moved on to something else but it was also connected.
“We can help most things, and most people, simply by not hurting them,” her father said. His words hung in the fall air like a ladder up to a tree fort that she could climb, only her dad was too big, and she didn’t want to leave him behind for a single second of their journeying walks.
The idea had seemed so easy. So fucking easy. She’d learned that word when her mother taught it to her without trying to teach it to her. The guest room was next to the girl’s room, and her mother would sleep there, with no one in the bedroom that had been her parents’ bedroom. The girl’s father slept downstairs now, because there was no way he couldn’t. It wasn’t like he could fly to his old room. And he didn’t sleep in beds anymore anyway. Her mom cried in the room that wasn’t hers but also wasn’t anybody else’s either—a perplexing room—talking on the phone to someone. Probably her sister.
The girl only had one aunt, but her father had three brothers, so she had a bunch of uncles, but they didn’t visit that much these days and it was just her aunt who came a lot. It was better, the girl thought, when she heard people talking about her instead of her dad, because that way she could protect him. Protect his feelings, in case she couldn’t help herself and let it all spill out and said that if he wanted to die he could die and she wouldn’t think he chose to leave her because they could never be what they were before. He might do it with her blessing. So she had to lock those words up, and make sure she never slipped, because then he might really, really go. All of the people she spoke to—had to speak to, because it was good for her, she’d been told—instructed her to talk to her dad the way she did before. He was still there. He was still the same man. His love had never gone away. There was more of it, in fact, and always would be, because that is how it works and she should feel no different that way, and to let him know. As best she could.
That put one idea in her head, which she would never ever dare say to anyone. Not any of the therapists, the doctor she had wanted to both hug and spit on, not even her mom. But what that might do to him. She shuddered. And what it might do to him to learn that his daughter was the meanest person there had ever been. And how could she talk like that to him. And he wouldn’t even be able to make a single sound come out that said a soft, fluttering form of “Why?” that really meant “How could you say that to me?” with the “you” and the “me” parts like passing comets in the final night of a dying sky that wouldn’t exist by the same time tomorrow.