“Do you need me to check under your bed for monsters?”
I rolled my eyes as Dad knocked on the door of the tiny camper bathroom. I couldn’t help but smile as I brushed my teeth. Dad had been trying to be more fatherly, probably wanting to make up for lost time. He stocked the fridge with root beers, my favorite soda. He sent me text messages every night as if he were psychic and knew when I’d be going to sleep. They always said Sleep well Kass, love Dad. He got us a gym membership since we didn’t have a television and invite me to watch his favorite cooking shows in the lobby. This morning, he had left a single daffodil in a clear vase on the bathroom mirror with a note that said Knock ’em dead on your first day, kiddo. I had been touched by the gesture.
My first night of work had been hectic. Audrey tried to train me in between balancing trays of hot food, serving up brews, and accommodating a large party of frat boys from the local university entertaining prospective students on the terrace. My other co-worker, DJ, took the time to fill in the gaps… when she wasn’t distracted by some hot guy’s posterior. I smirked and spit the remaining toothpaste from my mouth. At least, they tipped well. I made three hundred Simos my first night.
When things died down, Romon sent me home. After working from three to eleven, my feet were killing me, even though I was wearing flats. Audrey suggested I invest in a good pair of insoles. Dad was home from work this evening, but since he was used to working overnights prepping food, he was still awake.
“I ordered pizza, kiddo, if you want some,” he called through the door in passing again.
“Just brushed my teeth, Dad,” I called back, wishing he had warned me three minutes sooner.
“Did you have enough hot water?” he inquired as I stepped out of the four-by-four bathroom.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Nice hot shower… for once… felt good.”
“Good, I’m glad,” Dad replied. “I’ll be outside if you want to join me.”
“Sure,” I shrugged. “I’ll be right there. Just going to put my hairbrush on my shelf.”
When I found my father outside a minute later, he was holding a slice in mid-air, but his eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving the food toward his mouth. He had an odd smile on his face. I settled into a chair across from him, fiddling with the little candle holder. I tried to avoid staring as I was pretty sure he was praying. I still didn’t get the point of offering up thanks before food. Did it actually help the food taste better or was it just a way of appeasing an unseen god or spirit or something? I wondered if God or the spirits cared that my father, in his prime, was losing his hair and wearing wrapped bandages around his abdomen area to help alleviate the pain from the EXCES treatments.
We found a nurse practitioner, Lina Lancaster, who had been using heated oil treatments and herbal therapies to help my father manage his pain. The woman was an advocate for EXCES research since her own father had been diagnosed with the disease and then dropped a toaster in the bathtub and electrocuted himself. After doing loads of research, I discovered doctors who believed the alien-Sim disease was a threat were few and far between, even fewer medical professionals actually treated the symptoms, and only one or two people in the Nation were actually actively researching for a cure. Part of the problem, Lina had told me during Dad’s last therapy session, was that the symptoms were so widely varied among those who did report, and often the disease laid dormant for years, even decades. Lina’s own doctor’s office refused to treat the illness, and she had been practicing out of her home during off-hours and accepting goods for service instead of payment. She didn’t want to have to explain the mysterious deposits in her bank account or risk losing her license.
I took a trip to Goody’s Groceries to pick up diapers and baby powder and lotion for Lina since the older woman was pregnant. Her fiance had abandoned her upon learning about her ‘extracurricular activities.’ She needed to squirrel away as much baby stuff as she could. Lina had moved in with a much-older patient of hers, Eli Vokoban, who was also in early stage EXCES. Eli had proven to be a willing ear for Dad, and the two had bonded over their mutual disease and their love of key lime pie.
During my visit to Goody’s, I happened to run into Ethan Tanner, my new boss’s son. I had flubbed an attempt to explain why I was purchasing baby supplies. I told him it was for a friend, but I don’t think he believed me. Ethan grinned and said my secret was safe with him before leaving to pay for his candy bars and magazines. I hurriedly left after making my purchase, hoping no one else saw me. That would be fun to explain.
“Oh you’re here,” Dad opened his eyes and took a bite of his pizza slice. “I thought maybe you went to bed.”
Finally! What a freaking long prayer.
“You invited me out here,” I rolled my shoulders.
“No pizza?” he asked, his eyes twinkling.
“Brushed my teeth, remember?” I pointed to my mouth.
“You could brush them again,” he remarked.
“Yeah,” I sighed, and laid my hands in my lap. “How was your night off?”
“Good, I got laundry done for us at the laundromat, watched an hour of Sliced and Diced at the gym after my workout, and finished that Admiral Landgrabb biography before you got home,” he explained. “By the way, your clothes are laying on your bed. I even ironed your blouses.”
“Thanks,” I smiled. “I appreciate it.”
Mamma never ironed anything, and when I was living at Nonna’s, the housekeeper did.
“Dad, can I ask you a question?”
“What really happened between you and Mamma?”
Dad stopped eating, his slice and hand frozen in mid-air.
“I mean… I know you fell in love with…” I swallowed hard. “…Kate and all… but how does a person fall out of love? What went wrong?”
Dad set his pizza on the table. “That’s a bit of a heavy discussion for twelve-thirty in the morning…” he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You really want to know?”
“I really want to know,” I nodded.
“Wow…” he exhaled sharply. “First of all, I loved your mamma. I still love Amy, in my own way. You don’t ever really stop loving your first love.”
My cheek twitched.
“Why are you asking? Is this about that Davis guy?” he inquired, leaning across the table.
“Uh… no…” I shook my head vigorously, and sighed as I slouched in my chair. “I… don’t think I really… loved him… not really… I mean, I cared… but I didn’t really give the guy a chance, and I totally blew up at him so… no… I don’t think I loved him.”
I didn’t add that I didn’t know what love really was. Dad finished the remainder of his crust before continuing.
“It’s cool if you don’t want to talk about it. You’ve told me enough and I don’t want to pressure you,” Dad said. “You’re my oldest daughter and I want you to be happy, but if you’re dying with curiosity about your mom, I guess, you’re old enough to know some things now.”
“Your Mamma was a hard woman to live with at times. Don’t get me wrong. I loved her… and still do like I said, but she was difficult when she got in one of her moods. This isn’t an excuse at all for my shoddy behavior. We were both too young when we got married and I think we knew it. Amy wanted to finish grad school and I was bumming around from job to job. It didn’t help that she came from all that money. Money complicates things. Makes us do and say things we shouldn’t and makes us believe things that aren’t true. I thought I had to provide everything ever for her or she would leave me. She nearly did too… twice…”
“Once when she was pregnant with you… and once when you would’ve been about seven. She went to live with your great-grandmother Celestia both times in Bay City. I didn’t even know she was pregnant with you until she came home and showed me you.”
Emotions swelled in my throat, and my brain felt fuzzy. Dad didn’t know about me until after I was born? Why would Mamma keep that a secret?
“For a year after your birth, we were happy. Your mother stayed home from work, and I left the catering company I was with and started my own since my boss decided to pack up and leave the planet. She was smiling and singing and talking about attending graduate school, but then she found out she was pregnant with Carina.”
“Your sister, Cari, was a difficult pregnancy. Amy was on bed rest from the second trimester onward, and she was depressed and anxious all the time. She would throw things and scream at me for no reason. She felt so isolated from her friends and family, and she felt like the whole world was going on without her. We barely had time to process Carina’s birth before we discovered she was pregnant again, this time with Andi.”
“Your mother was a wreck. She was so angry she couldn’t go back to school like she planned. I kept trying to tell her that we would make it work once you kids were old enough, but she didn’t believe me.”
“When you were about seven, she approached me and asked about graduate school. At the time, the company I started was a sinking money pit and I knew we couldn’t afford school, let alone some of our bills. I was up to my ears in debt, and soon I thought we’d be drowning if we didn’t do something. I asked her if she’d be willing to work for a time, just to get us on our feet.”
“Instead she went to her parents and asked for a loan to go back to university. I didn’t know it until a month later that Marino and Adelaide had paid off the mortgage on our home, and now held the deed. Amy refused to work, and instead entered graduate school, again without telling me. I was furious. I at least wanted her to discuss things with me before, and to not go running to her parents.”
“I sat down to have a face to face with your grandfather to tell him how I felt, and he spelled things out for me very clearly. I needed to get a better job and support my wife and children, or Amy would be requesting a divorce and moving back home with you three.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I never, in my wildest imaginings, would’ve thought this is what was happening behind the scenes of my parent’s failing marriage.
“Well, you know most of the rest of the story from here. Stubborn as I was, I knew I had to do something to provide for you four. I tried to keep my company afloat by merging with another one thanks to the financial assistance of Money Farm Financial Agency. Amy dropped out of university because she couldn’t handle the class load with her swinging depression and anxiety. We grew further and further apart, keeping each other at arm’s length.”
“You see, Kass,” Dad leaned across the table. “It takes two to make a marriage work, and neither one of us was truly in it. I did some awful things. Your mother did some awful things. What’s past is past. I don’t blame her. I don’t blame you girls for being angry at me for years. I don’t hold anything against her. I own my mistakes and I know what I did. And if there’s something I want you to take away from this, it’s that I love you very very much, and your sisters too. I never stopped, even if I had a sucky way of showing it. I was hurt and confused and messed up and that’s not an excuse. I was a selfish, selfish man. I should’ve been a better husband and father and I know that now.”
“Oh Dad,” I stood up, tears rushing down my cheeks as I heard the words I had waited to hear.
I rushed over to his chair, putting my arms around him and whispered, “I don’t hold anything against you either. I love you too.”