I lie on the piano room sofa and let the evening shadows creep over me like half-alive blankets. The house is silent. I am alone in the room, staring up at the painting of the Colorado Rockies which hangs on the wall beside me, waiting for my parents to return.
Something bad has happened.
I pick at the roses and chrysanthemums stitched into the cushion beneath my head. I am nervous, but mostly bored; certainly not scared. Something bad has happened, but it isn’t my fault and I’m not in trouble, which is the important thing. Mom hadn’t looked mad when she took me out of the kitchen and into the stifling, small room, where I never played because there were too many figurines and brick-a-back that I might break with my awkward toddler’s body.
“Sweetie, wait in here for a little while, okay?” Mom didn’t smile at me. She sat me down on the couch, squeezing my shoulder too tightly. Her face was drawn and pale, like the time I had that fever that wouldn’t break and she stayed up with me all night.
“Okay. Is Daddy mad at me?”
Her voice was shaking. “No, he’s not. Everything’s fine. I just need you to wait in here until I come back and get you.”
That was forever ago; almost a half hour. I turn my head away from the painting and into the cushion. I breathe in the sweet, musty smell of dust, dog, and my mother’s perfume. I am getting hungry. And lonely. And cold. I need my clown blanket, and mashed potatoes, and my mom’s lap to sit in.
I roll off of the couch and onto the floor. I pretend that the hole I was digging in the backyard really worked, and right now I am crawling towards the center of the Earth, where I’ll stop to play with the dinosaurs for a while before digging another hole up to China.
It’s when I reach the door that my whole world changes forever. It’s when I push my body against the thin, cold wood and listen for the sound of my parents’ footsteps coming to release me that I begin to understand the one, universal human fear.
I listen and my whole body begins to quiver. I bite my lip. I whimper. My father, the merciless hunter of closet monsters, the large arms that hold my face to his chest when the book get’s too scary, the protector of my sister and my mother and me is crying. I have never heard him cry. It never occurred to me that I would.
As wet, hot tears roll down my cheeks, I feel deeply afraid for the first time in my life. I had heard what Dad whispered to Mom before I was whisked away. Grandma had died. And while I did not yet fully understand what that meant, what it was, death was making my father, the bravest person in the universe, cry. If it could do that, it could do anything.
I retreat to the couch and curl myself into the corner, crying quietly in case Death is listening. Something that could do that, that could make my father cry, well…it could swallow me whole. And Dad wouldn’t be able to save me.
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