The English had a saying that Dave used to like. “Restored to home and hearth.” An ironic iteration of the phrase was on his mind one evening, during Tess’s birthday week, when he returned to the apartment building. He loved his daughter too much to face her with the regularity stipulated in the divorce agreement. He did unpleasant mathematical sums in his head. “She is ten-years-old, I am forty-eight, this man is twelve years my junior; my existence is protracted, I have decisions to make, her time will be far longer with him than it was with me, it’s best not to impede or confuse the natural progression for her.”
She wanted to see her father every day for her birthday week, it was her one big wish. Birthdays lasted a whole week for Tess, save for her dad’s, which she extended to ten days. “We will do something special each day, you and me,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a big special thing—I know you are a busy man. But at least a cupcake, or a coffee.”
“And a good talk?” her father added.
“Of course. That goes without saying. But we can still say it.”
Gasper himself was partial to saying, when dealing with a problem, that the devil was in the details. A pet phrase. A pet phrase with hooves and horns. Pain was not a single item of anguish; it was a multifaceted morass.
That’s why it was so hard to talk about. Quite beyond the hurt. So many strands were inside the ribbon. Dave generally hued to the Gasper line in times past, but he wondered now, when he came home from these daily birthday days, over the course of the annual week, if there was one strand with which Gasper had no acquaintance, the hardest—as in most difficult—strand of all. The hardest strand to snap. Strands were better when you could break them into little pieces. Eventually they’d be fragments, then they’d be dust, they’d go away. Skitter, scatter, scooted. That’s what people meant by “problem solving.” But the trickiest strand was the happy strand surrounded by the other strands. For Dave, that was how he looked at his child, felt himself look at her, when she qualified remarks. “But we can still say it.”
He’d imagine how, years in the future, maybe decades, putting her brain to use, with that acuity greater than his own, she’d look back, realize what he had done for her and how hard it had been. Dave himself was adopted. When his biological mother gave him up, she sent him into the world with a Winnie the Pooh doll. Immediately after birth. “Later that day,” as title cards say, in old Superman serials.
His actual mother would cite the Pooh doll as proof of how much Dave’s birth mother had loved him, and he accepted this—the Pooh was downright talismanic. He accepted it until he didn’t. It was just a fucking doll. Still, he was amazed how long he had gone without ever once gainsaying its value, even questioning it as totemic symbol of unconditional love.
His own daughter probably would have known better with him. That’s why he thought she might glimpse and grasp, eventually, when what she understood of the world, by experience, pooled with the acuity she already had, which had previously been poured into her.
Dave was more susceptible to the booms when he thought along these lines. There had been a lot of blood in his ears of late, red dust on his pillow in the morning. He’d shake his head over the sink as if he expected a cuckoo to fly out, a bird he typically thought of as red-feathered, though he did not know for sure, but it was only the dust, the garnet flakes shed to make room for the wet blood later. The knocks at the door that had come in the night had fried his nerves. All of the times past when he had flung the door open, there had been nobody there, but these knocks felt different. Prelude to a difficult conversation. Encounter. Cyclonic parcels of information with which he was not ready to be hit. Walking down the hallway to his door felt like he was in a war, in an above-ground, third floor trench, bombs detonating. He looked for his guts on the linoleum panels in front of him, scanned the plaster wall that seemed oddly like adobe.
A shadow came across his face. He felt it like a descending cloth, reached to brush it aside; it didn’t feel like a bug but a bat, furred, though not in a creepy way, not in a pestilential way, a plague way.
“A little help here?” came the voice from the lower portion of the plaster wall, across from the door of his apartment.
It was the shadow child.
Its feet were not dangling this time, but rather its arms and head. Once more it was moored in place, half in, half out. The hair was short, like Tess’s hair, and even from this side Dave was unsure if it was a boy or a girl. Maybe Gasper had been correct. Maybe “andro” was the term, but probably not.
The booms had ceased. The hall was quiet. Not scary quiet. Dave knew scary quiet. When silence seemed to exist solely for the purpose of something horrific leaping out of it. Peaceful quiet. The same quiet he knew when looked at Tess when she was not looking at him, but examining the shapes in the top of her latte, denoting, as he knew, the slight variations she observed, from the time before; or on her café chair, turning in the direction of a four-year-old child who has wandered slightly away from her parent, “exploring exploring,” as Tess would say, looking back to her father, smiling again but differently.
“Tug this time instead of push.”
“No, I got that,” Dave said, crouching.
“Take my hands.”
The shadow child squirted from the wall as easily as it had squirted through it before. It dusted itself off. Shook a leg. Dave wasn’t sure if they were going to talk. The shadow child merely stood and eyed him, post-dusting, as if it should take its cue from him.
Shadows had been an issue of late, along with the booms, and the knocks at the door. Dave felt shadows on his face, his neck, the tops of his shoulders; not burying him, exactly, but they did make it harder to move, cut into his pace, which had not been brisk for some time.
Nobody went up on the roof and Dave kept whisky up there in a cooler. It seemed pretty obvious that the shadow child would be with him for a bit, now that it was just standing there. Maybe it had a curfew for when it had to pass once once more through the wall. Dave didn’t want it seeing the inside of his apartment. It’d likely flit with ease, being made of shadows. And when one flits with ease, one has an uncanny knack for making discoveries. He didn’t want the shadow child finding his gun. And it was still in the brown paper bag normally used for a child’s lunch, and the shadow child being a child, and possibly being hungry—well, that could be bad for all. So Dave just said, “Roof,” commenced walking up the stairs, past his own door, the shadow child, still soundless, following at his heel.