It’s eight o’clock in the morning. I am face to face with the family dog. Peaches, we named her, had her mouth poised to lick my face. Narrowly avoiding a slobbery smooch, I lightly pushed her back before she could make contact.
“Not today, Girl,” I said.
An older dog, Peaches glared at me through filmy cataracts and unwavering eye contact. She barked loudly to benefit, in part, her partial deafness, which I interpreted as “get out of bed.” I wasn’t willing to experience the ensuing headache that would follow another round of her barks, so I got up.
My bangs, previously matted to my forehead with the assistance of my oily skin, fell over my eyes as I arose from my slumber and stretched my long, pale arms to shake off the remaining shrouds of sleep.
A chill crawled up my spine. It was freezing. I immediately wrapped myself in my covers, noticing the air vent, positioned conveniently over my bed, was pumping a steady flow of wintry air directly on to my bare shoulders. If it was any colder in my room, I would be able to see my breath. Mom was overcompensating for the Kansas summer, again.
I stepped out of bed, pressing my feet to the wooden floor, and scrunched up my eyes to guard them from the sunlight bleeding in through the window blinds. Stumbling over the piles of laundry I had left on the floor, wearing my covers as a cloak, I looked out the window.
It was a pretty day in our neighborhood in Ashton, Kansas in spite of the weakened branches on the ash tree that occupied our front yard. The tree had been a staple of my childhood for many climbs. Now, it was dying, having fallen victim to the emerald ash borer, some pesky insect, or so I heard my father say the night before. He had been going on and on about it, so I just went to bed.
Father had an irritating habit of obsessing over the smallest details. If it wasn’t the ash borer, he would be complaining that the tree was affected by an overwhelming squirrel to nut ratio. The answer was never allowed to be “the tree is just dying.” Something else had to be at play. Last night the reason became the ash borer due to a report on the nightly news. Today, it was probably going to be my fault.
The door to my room creaked open behind me. I craned my neck to accost the intruder, but no one was there. Keeping my back turned, I said, “Hello?”
I threw down the covers and snatched an old t-shirt out of the closest pile of laundry and pulled it on. Gently grabbing Peaches by the collar, I walked her out into the hallway on the way to the kitchen. Eight o’clock was typical breakfast time during the summer, so I breathed in, hoping for the sweet, savory scent of fried maple bacon to grace my nostrils. I drew in nothing but the sour sleep smell ascending from my upper lip. It dawned on me that I might be home alone.
“Mom? Dad?” I called out.
Peaches trotted over to her food bowl, which sat on the patch of linoleum floor next to the kitchen sink. On the counter space, next to the sink, there was a picture frame holding a photograph of me. In it, I was reading a book, but my eyes were scrunched up together. I picked the frame up.
Looking back, I remembered the day fondly. I was four. Mom was on the couch, holding on to my father as he watched me from afar. Peaches, a puppy at the time, was nibbling at the ankles of my Aunt Margaret, who was standing on one of her toys. Aunt Margaret held the camera.
I had tried hard to remain focused on the book, but the goofy face Margaret was making didn’t make it easy. Luckily, she snapped a picture before Peaches tripped her up, bringing her down to the ground. Hearing Margaret’s yelp, Peaches apologized by kissing her on the mouth, causing my aunt to giggle. Her giggles shortly evolved into laughter, which broke everyone else in the room.
Around that time, the camera in her hand, a Polaroid, printed out the finished product. The picture turned out crooked and a little blurry, but you could see me wince, holding back tears from laughter. In the background, you could see my parents red in the face from their own amusement.
I recalled we didn’t stop laughing or making jokes about Aunt Margaret’s tumble with Peaches until a few hours later when it was time for dinner. Even that was a challenge.
“Today will be remembered forever,” Mom had declared at the dinner table. She was holding the picture in her hand.
Aunt Margaret chuckled, “I’ll deny it in court. Besides, I am not in the picture.”
Mom’s golden locks bounced down past her eyes as she smiled. She said, “Nothing to do with you,” as she glanced at me and winked.
Mom held her statement true by placing the picture and its frame out in the open by our sink. She told me she put it there to remember her “sweet little boy”. It was always her secret weapon when we argued. She would hold the picture up as a token to remind me I was disappointing her. Good times.
Startling me, the front door of the house opened up and slammed closed. Peaches shot up from her food bowl with a flash of concern, ignoring the crumbs of food falling from her open mouth.
I said, “Hello?”
My father responded, “One of these days, I am just going to have to chop the tree down. If I can’t enjoy the things and people I love, no one will. Maybe, they can take me down next.” It didn’t feel like he was speaking to me.
“Nice to see you too,” I said. “Where’s Mom?”
Father walked up the small set of stairs that led from the front door to the living room. When he made it to the top, he threw his briefcase to the other side of the living room, sending the papers inside flying. He said, “Oh, that is just fantastic,” as he scrambled to pick up the mess he had created.
“Where is Mom?” I said, impatiently.
Once he gathered all of the papers back inside the case, he gently placed it down on the fireplace. Moving past Peaches, who had moved swiftly to greet him, he strolled into the kitchen, planting his feet in front of mine.
“Good Morning, Andrew,” he said through gritted teeth. “Want the truth or do you want the lie? Your mother is going to be fine. I’d appreciate if you would just not ask again today.”
“What was that for? Who was Andrew?” I thought to myself.
Father stomped towards the kitchen table. With his back turned, he began patting around for something frantically.
“Well, can you make breakfast?” I begged.
Father responded, “I’m not sure, Andrew. Can I? Oh, here it is,” and held up a letter opener. The light from the kitchen fixture shined down on the blade of the letter opener as Father grinned. He looked like the Grinch. “This will have to do,” he said.
He began to approach me, the letter opener gripped tightly in his hand. “I wish I didn’t have to do this, Andrew. I really do, but rules are rules,” he said. The letter opener was pulled back, primed to strike.
“Dad? DAD?” I yelped.
Father stopped and held the blade by his side, “Can you hand me the envelope behind you? I need to open it.”
I gaped at him. Why had I thought he was going to stab me?
“Shocking, I know,” he continued, “I left the house without opening all of yesterday’s mail. I’m having a hard time keeping up with things after these last few days, Son.”
Speechless, I grabbed the envelope next to the stove and handed it to him. I felt equal parts frightened and silly for being so frightened. Father would never deliberately try to hurt me, I didn’t think.
Father grabbed the envelope, opened it up, quickly peered inside, and relaxed his tense shoulders. After a sigh of relief, he said, “That’s better. I’ll just take this with me on the way back to the hospital.” He peered down at me, a gentle look on his face, “I’ll be back to get you tonight. You’ll see her again, I promise,” and walked back into the living room to grab his briefcase.
He scratched Peaches on the back of the ear, saying, “Good girl,” before walking back out the front door, closing it behind him.
Reliving the moment in real-time, I started to reach up to wipe away the drool from my mouth, but my arms were still held down by the rock hard constraints of the red dirt.
And, I couldn’t remember, for the life of me, why he was going to the hospital.
Thomas William Shaw is an author and stage actor from Birmingham, AL. He lives with his wife, Lauren, their children, and their cats in a quiet place. Occasionally he will post about it.