Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Night Light


He looked down at the soft head on the pillow and noticed her shut eyes like half moons of lashes, her sweet sticky mouth just barely parted to let in and out her gentle breathing, the stuffed rabbit doll she loved so dearly tucked tight in her little arms.  Her father smiled and kissed her on the head, smelling Johnson’s Baby Shampoo as he did so.  He put the book of nursery rhymes on her nightstand before slowly moving off her princess bed with Cinderella sheets.  She stirred a little but didn’t open her eyes.

As he turned out her light in the doorway, and the brilliant glow from the star-shaped night light looked all the more wondrous, a sleepy voice spoke out from the starry semi-darkness.

“Daddy… why did Jack fall?”

He hadn’t thought she was still awake for the reading of “Jack and Jill” in that big book of nursery rhymes.  He thought he had lost her somewhere between “Little Miss Muffet” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”  But before he attempted an answer she had turned drowsily away from him and the poor rabbit, who had slipped out of her arm in this maneuver, balanced precariously at the bed’s edge.  The little girl was indeed asleep.

Her father tiptoed quietly down the hall to his own bedroom.  The rectangle of hallway light washed over the figure of his sleeping wife as he entered.  She was at the edge of the bed, on her side with her back towards him.  He shut the door and stumbled his way through the dark to the master bathroom, wincing his eyes as he was accosted with the bright glow of the harsh lighting.

He reached for his toothbrush and imagined what sort of answer he might have given Annie had she not fallen asleep in her princess bed.
           
* * *

As he turned out her light, brilliant stars glowed from her night light.  He heard her sleepy voice speak out from the semi-darkness.

“Daddy… why did Jack fall?”

Millions of rosy-hued stars danced upon her bright-eyed face and on the walls and ceiling as she sat up in bed, eager for her father’s answer.  In two grown-up strides he was kneeling beside her.  He took her little hands in his and said, “Sweetie, the story doesn’t say exactly.  Why do you think he fell?”

“I dunno…” she whispered.

“Think about it.  What makes people fall sometimes?”

She scrunched up her eyes real tight as she concentrated for a moment.  Then her eyes were flung open with excitement and her happy voice said, “Maybe he tripped on his shoelaces!”  She laughed and kept repeating “shoelaces.”

“There you go, that’s a good answer.  That’s why you fell, isn’t it?”  Peeking out from under a blanket was her little foot, encased in a neon pink cast up to her knee.  All the kids in her preschool classroom had signed it.  “Now go to sleep, princess.”

He moved toward the doorway, but a sleepy voice spoke out once more from the starry semi-darkness.

“Did Jill trip on her shoelaces too?”

“Yes, sweetie, they both did.  Such silly clutzes!  Goodnight.”

* * *

He spit out the toothpaste into the sink and dried his dripping mouth and chin with the hanging handtowel.  He stared at himself in the mirror for a moment, with a look of disappointment.  When did he become this man in his late thirties?  This tired, lonely, spineless man?  A man who’s afraid of his own wife?  He shifted his gaze away from his own reflection and looked at the mirrored image of his wife in the distant bed.  That’s how she always looked.  Distant.  Out of reach.  Not even Annie had access to her.  His wife was just sleeping through life.

* * *

As he turned out the light, he looked back and admired the rosy glow of the night light, casting dancing stars across the form of his sleeping babe.  But she was not yet asleep.  Her tiny voice mumbled a question from the semi-darkness.

“Daddy… why did Jack fall?”

In just two grown-up steps he had made the length of her room and was by her side, gently caressing her sweet face.  “I didn’t think you heard that one.  You had fallen asleep somewhere after ‘Little Miss Muffet’ I thought…”

She wrinkled up her face.  “Is that the one with the spiders?  I hate spiders.”

He laughed.  “Yes, it’s the one with the spiders!”  He tickled her all over as if his fingers were ten little spiders crawling on her pajama-clad body.  The girl giggled.  “Daddy, stop!”

“Mommy doesn’t like spiders either,” he told his daughter.

Annie stopped laughing.  “Mommy doesn’t like me either.”

His face darkened with concern.  He took her little hands into his and looked her in the eyes.  “Why do you say that?”

She shrugged and wriggled away from him, reaching out to touch the night light in the outlet near her bed.

“Honey,” he repeated.  “Why do you say mommy doesn’t like you?”

She turned quickly to face him again and said, “I think he was pushed!”

It took him a while to follow her train of thought.  He had almost forgotten her original question, being troubled with other things now.  His daughter thought her mother hated her.

“You think somebody pushed Jack?  Why would somebody do that?”

“I dunno…”  She turned her attention back to the night light, kicking off her blankets as she did so.  He looked down at her leg in its pink, autographed cast.  Stars fluttered over it like butterflies.  Her teacher had jokingly called her a clutz in blue marker, right next to what could only be a child’s drawing of a dinosaur.  Or a giraffe.

The stuffed rabbit fell to the floor.

“Annie, honey,” the father said quietly.  “Was it Jill?  Did Jill push Jack?”

* * *

He looked at that stranger lying in his bed.  Her silk slip clung to her thin shoulders with summer sweat.  It clung to her more tightly than she had ever clung to him.  Even in that bed.  Had she always been so aloof?  He tried to remember how things were in the beginning.  Before the depression came.  Before the twinkling stars faded from her eyes.  Before he had to explain to his little girl that mommy had to go away for a while, to get better.  Sometimes he wished she were still gone.  Slipping silently into his side of the bed, plenty of mattress space between them, it often felt that she was still gone.

Tentatively he reached a quivering hand out.  His wedding ring glinted in the moonlight.  He touched her hair, softly at first, and then her shoulder, her arm, the small of her back.  His breathing quickened and he tried to quiet it.  He was so nervous he’d wake her.  Every rustle of the bed sheets seemed magnified, threatening to crush them with sound.  Sound to break the silence.  But she lay there cold as ever, completely unmoved by his efforts to connect.

He slowly returned his arm to rest on his stomach and closed his tired eyes.

* * *

The light went out, allowing the starry nightlight to dazzle the young girl into Dreamland, but her innocent voice called out to her father from the semi-darkness.

“Daddy… why did Jack fall?”

“I don’t know, princess.  Daddy wasn’t there when it happened.”

He stepped across the room in just two paces and pulled a chair to her bedside.  He sat down and looked with pitying eyes at the young girl facing him, sitting in bed with her broken leg propped up on a pillow.

“Can you tell me the story?” he asked.

“Jack and Jill went up a hill to fetch a pail of water,” she said.

“So Jack wasn’t alone when he fell?”

She paused for a moment, thinking.  “No.  He went up with Jill.”

“Why did they go up the hill?”

“Jack was thirsty.  He wanted a glass of water, so he could go to sleep.”

The father glanced briefly at the cup of water on the nightstand, next to the book of nursery rhymes and the Hello Kitty alarm clock.  He had brought it to her when he tucked her in.

“Okay,” he said.  “Then what happened?”

“I don’t remember.”

A droplet of condensation slid down the side of her cup.  It was going to leave a ring in the wood.

“Why did Jack fall?”

“Jill pushed him,” she said quietly.

He picked up the glass, wiped the watery ring away with his hand, and set the glass down on the carpeted floor.

“Daddy!  I can’t reach it down there!”

“Here then,” he said, handing her the cup.  “Drink the rest now.”

She held the cup in her hands but didn’t drink.

“Honey, are you sure Jill pushed Jack?  Why would she do that?”

“Jill doesn’t like Jack.  Not anymore.”

“Why not?”

“Because.  Because Jack makes too much noise when Jill is trying to nap.  Or Jack doesn’t always want to take a bath when Jill wants him too.  Sometimes Jack wants to eat cookies and not broccoli.  Jill hates Jack.”

Her father nodded.  He put his face in his hands as he cried.  He didn’t want Annie to see.  Annie wasn’t watching him anyway; she was drinking her water.  After her last sip she put the cup back on the nightstand and whispered, “Daddy.”

He didn’t say anything, but his shoulders continued to shake and he kept his hands over his face.

“Daddy.  Mommy doesn’t bring me water.  Even when I ask for it.  She just tells me to go to bed.  And I knew I was supposed to be in bed, but I was thirsty, daddy.  I was just going to the hall bathroom to fill my cup with water in the sink.  Mommy was in there.”

He rubbed his eyes and then took her little hands into his.  “What did mommy do?” he asked, trying to keep out the hurt that was rising inside him.

“She was doing something to her arm.  She got mad at me.  I climbed onto my stool… to reach the sink… and…um…”

“Yes…?”

Her eyes looked away, towards the gentle glow of her starry night light, as if momentarily entranced by its magic.  He looked at it too.  Watched as it transformed her pink room into something beautiful.  Something wondrous to behold.  Something far greater than what either of them had.  But it was only an illusion.  A trick of man.  Nothing more than electricity and colored plastic.

“I just fell,” she said at last.

He held her close in his arms, smelling the sweet scent of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, and kissed her on the forehead.

“Daddy’s here.  We’ll never fall again.”

* * *

His wife did not wake up when he did.  It wasn’t until the morning light illuminated the room that he noticed the needles on the nightstand and the marks in her arm.  When he shook her violently he realized she was dead.  The coroner declared it an overdose.  Funeral arrangements were made.  The tears didn’t come right away, but there was darkness over him.  Like a storm cloud.

The little girl’s pink cast made a stark contrast against the black sea of mourners.  Her grieving father held her hand tightly, never wanting to let go.  There was a light, misty drizzle that morning and he watched the condensation dripping slowly down the side of the casket as the minister spoke.  As the funeral procession carried her body down the hill, the sun broke through the clouds and kissed them all with a rosy hue.

3 comments:

Rocio Lewis said...

Sad story, good but sad! I almost cried, and I'm not the crying kind. You're such a good writer!

Joaquin the Chihuahua said...

Thanks, Rocio! :)

Renee Perry said...

beautiful writing <3

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