Paul was Katie’s rock for thirteen years, but then she watched him die.
By day, she is left with her daughter Ella’s questions about where Daddy went, and at night she’s consumed with nightmares of the moment he died. It isn’t long before Katie’s mother hints that her volatile lifestyle and developing drinking habits are no way to raise a little girl.
Through it all, her and Paul’s best friend, Liam is there. Grieving the death of both husband and friend, the time they spend together seems more intimate these days, and Katie soon stumbles into taboo territory: Liam might be in love with her.
Torn between Liam’s feelings and losing Ella, one night Katie runs.
Air. Space. Thinking time. That’s what she thinks she’s getting when she stumbles upon that party. In the morning, in a strange bed, she can’t remember the night before.
Ella’s school-dress buttons and collar change color. They’re business-shirt blue and only three buttons are done up because Paul was lifeless, gone, by the time I got to him but Paul’s not really here and maybe Ella is. Maybe I’m not here, either.
I dig my nails into the laminate until I want to scream from the pressure of my bending nails. Okay, so I’m still here.
“What did I do?” Ella’s voice breaks, and it sounds as if she chokes on her last word.
Ella deserves a mother who will pull her into her chest at times like this and cry about how sad they both are. I haven’t cried since before Paul’s death.
At twenty-nine, I shouldn’t be waking up every day to this. I’d once thought widows only existed when people were old. Sure, I still have the brown hair with some type of wave to it, but I’m a shell with rotting insides.
Paul’s bloody body, dotted with partially digested chunks of his breakfast is suddenly in front of me. Then his dead body multiplies, replicating behind me, to my left, right. He is a cage. I am the prisoner. His blood stains the floor red, causing my breath to stagger. My head spins seeing the sickening chunks and lifeless body of the man I would have given my life for.
My daughter’s sobs fade, as if I’m being sucked away into a tunnel. The gray walls churn as if I’m in a kaleidoscope. Fire truck red and kryptonite green color blurs together to a spot in the distance. The end of the house is gone, replaced with a tunnel sucking me out of the kitchen. The choking, sobbing sound across the counter fades further.
Suddenly, the kitchen fades to an image of my closet. Last night, I found Ella there, her fingers skimming along the circle she made of Paul’s ties. For minutes, I stood behind her in the doorway of my closet. It had been the first time in my master bedroom in months.
Ella bopped on her knees, her feet tucked away under her bum. She’d laid out all of her favorite colors. One with Disney’s Tasmanian Devil printed on it, another in Cadbury purple. Ten or more lay around the circle. Her favorite tie had a pink and blue swirl twisting down its length, right in front of her knees.
She stroked each tie once, her voice a steady hum. When she brushed the swirly tie, her hum reached a staccato and stopped. She picked it up in the same manner as she would her favorite doll and stroked it against her chest.
Outside, the Melbourne rain had climaxed from gentle taps on the windows to angry thumps, making me jump.
“Oh, Daddy,” Ella mumbled. “Can I really have it?”
A flash of me from months ago rushed to her side, knowing to fold her legs and prop her in my lap as we sat together. That version of me plucked all her fingers, and Ella chuckled and snorted simultaneously.
Instead? I said, “No. Ella. Out.”
Ella spun around at the same time as a clap of lighting shook the carpet under our feet. She squealed and clamped her arms by her side, her back ramrod straight. “I want the swirly one. M—my doll needs it.”
I held myself up on the doorjamb of the closet, my arm against the wall easily blocking out the bed and the far side of the room where no one had scrubbed out the stain. “No more. You’re not allowed in here. No one is.” My lip shook almost too much to choke out words. “How could you . . . do this? You know how naughty . . . it is to . . . to come here.”
Even I couldn’t go in the master bedroom. Haven’t since what happened until now.
The crumpled sheets can’t be moved. I leave the stains. Everything must remain the same. I don’t straighten my hair anymore, or sleep with a pile of pillows, or wear my comfortable jeans. No one can be in here so nothing will change.
What if Ella found the box under the bed? If she went through it?
Not yet. Maybe not ever. I promised myself that I wouldn’t look under the bed. There’s too much finality in looking through that box.
Shaking my mind back to present-time I think, I know too much.
I hate Paul for leaving me to fend against Mom when he knows I can’t do it by myself.
I hate him for being selfish and thinking that I can live without him.
Most of all, I hate me for hating him, since it’s my fault he isn’t here now.
Ella? She wants to know. Something. Will he come back? Does he love her?
My mom used to say things like, “It’s your fault, Katie. You hear me, Katie? You ruined my tummy, Katie.” Then she would come close enough to smell the fear coating my skin. Always, I’d gasp and try to run away. She’d grab me and yank me back by my flimsy wrist. Her voice was low and steady. Low so I wouldn’t get lost in her hysteria; steady so my mind would store this information forever.
“You killed your brothers and sisters. They didn’t make it out of my belly because you jinxed me. You know that, right?”
Now, in this kitchen, Ella smells a lot like that fear.