I sit very still in the center of the bed, trying to not make creases in the hotel bedspread. Daddy is pacing and mad and I don’t want him to see me so I stay very still. My shoulder and my ribs hurt because he picked me up by my elbow and I hit the side of the door, I think by accident, on the way in here. I was under a blanket when he brought me in. It was supposed to be a secret. Nobody was supposed to see me. But I guess somebody did. He’s just finished yelling out a crack in the door at the cops, telling them that he was in here and I was in here and he had a gun in here and if they tried to mess with him at all, he’d kill me first. Then he slammed the door and locked it and started pacing.
I am not even blinking, hardly even breathing. But I’m glad to he said this because at least we’re telling the truth to each other. He’s telling the truth. He’s not telling me that everything is fine out of the side of his face and smiling at me with blank eyes. He’s not buying me popcorn and Mickey Mouse ears and making me wonder where he’s hidden the whiskey or how long until he buys more. He’s not making me check under the bed for hiding places for when the whiskey does show up and he gets all red-faced and shouty and sweaty. In this moment, threatening to shoot me, my dad might be the most honest he’s ever been.
He pauses in his pacing to look at me, and I look at him. I hope he sees that I am being good. That I am being quiet. That I don’t need to be shot today.
He puts the gun down on top of the TV and sits next to me. He pulls me on his lap and I go, even though it doesn’t feel right, even though the muscles in my legs are so stiff that they hurt, even though I don’t fit on his lap like I used to.
He pats the side of my head with a big, soft palm. “Don’t be scared, baby. We’ll get out of this. It’s okay.” He wraps his arms around me and all I can see is his grey cotton shirt and all I can breathe is the smell of his sweat and his cigarettes.
“Daddy?” I ask, my voice muffled against his chest.
I sit up on his lap so I can look at his face. “If you shoot me, will I see Mommy?”
His fists tighten, one around my arm, the other around my leg. I squirm and try to curl up so he can’t hit me in the face but he shakes me and forces my body flat, off his lap, flat on the bed, his whole body over mine, one of his big hands moving so it’s over my chest and pinning me. He doesn’t care if he’s pinching or pressing or hurting. I can feel his breath in my face and I look in his eyes that my mom says look so much like mine and I know that however much he loves me, there are other things that he wants more. That he’d trade me for.
“No. You won’t see your mom. You won’t see her because she’s in hell. She’s in hell but if I kill you you’ll go to Heaven with Jesus, you’ll go to God and wait for me, right?”
I nod a little, as much as I can. “Right.”
“Don’t ever mention your mom again.”
I nod again. “I won’t. I’m sorry.”
He stands up and I roll on my side, the air coming between us, back into my lungs, and I realize I’m about to pee my pants. I roll off the edge of the bed and land on my feet and head for the bathroom.
“Leave the door open,” he calls to me, and even though he’s a boy and I’m a girl I do what he says. He’s holding the gun again. Standing next to the window and trying to move the curtains aside just the tiniest little bit to see what the police are doing.
My mom is dead. My mom’s dead and that’s why we’re here. My dad picked me up from school on Monday and said she’d been in a car accident, so the court case was over, and what did I think about going to Disneyland? I said okay even though it wasn’t, and we drove through Utah and Nevada, and we had to stop at a Wal-Mart to get me things because Daddy hadn’t brought any clothes for me and he said we couldn’t go by the house, and when I started to cry about my guinea pig and about Mommy he hit me on the side of the head and said not to cry, because we were together again and were going to Disneyland and we were going to have fun and be together forever, that nobody could take me away from him. He said he’d call the neighbors about the guinea pig, so I took a deep breath and stopped crying, and tried to not think about Mommy.
I’d always wanted to visit Disneyland and my dad knew it. But the castle wasn’t a real castle and the pirates on the Carribbean ride were just robots and Winnie the Pooh was just a guy in a suit. But whenever Daddy saw me looking sad, he’d ask what I had to complain about, this was Disneyland and I had to have fun. So when he handed me hot dogs and popcorn and soda I ate them, even though I don’t like soda and I couldn’t taste the popcorn.
The rides were fun though, especially the fast ones like the Matterhorn and the teacups where I went so fast it spun my thoughts out behind me and left them behind for a little while. Being with my dad always made me feel like I was trying to hold a bubble in my hands, but now it was worse, now I had nowhere else to go, with my mom gone.
I finish peeing and flush and wash my hands. The hotel room phone starts ringing. Daddy paces in front of the television, gun in his hand. I perch carefully on the edge of the bed and resume my posture of not being a bother, of not being there at all. Of hoping that, if I get invisible enough, when the policemen pop the bubble I won’t be the one on the receiving end of the results. I can see the tension building. I can see that something’s going to happen, even if the cops can’t. He doesn’t have any whiskey. He doesn’t have any whiskey and his hands are shaking. The phone keeps ringing, long past the eight rings I’m used to hearing. I count. I can’t help it. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen.
Daddy picks up the phone. “Yeah, here I am.” His eyes light briefly on mine, looking flat and green, like the ocean he took me to. “I’m fine, she’s fine. We just want to get out of here.” Pause. “You can call me Abraham.”
When he says this, I know that I’m dead. My dad’s name is Russell. I don’t know where Abraham has come from, but I know all the things that my dad does when he’s mad or drunk, and they’re bad enough. Abraham might do new things or different things that I can’t stop. My father is still talking and I vaguely understand that it’s about me and my mother and how much everyone’s trying to hurt my dad but my ears have cottoned up so I don’t really hear what he’s saying. Knowing that I’m going to die is drowning everything else out.
My dad hangs up the phone. And paces. I can see his lips moving and I hope that he’s praying. He rests his elbows on the television, his back to me, and bows his head.
I see the muscles in his arms bunch up and I try to bolt, but my legs aren’t under me and he’s faster. Faster than me. Always has been. I fall on my side as he lands on top of me on the bed and pins my hips between his legs. His left hand is over my mouth and my nose and I try to scream but all that comes out of my mouth is a snuffling noise. I grab his wrist with both my hands and the tendons in his arm are stiff like wooden dowels and his hand doesn’t move. His other hand still has the gun and he presses it to my temple and I freeze, the cold steel of the gun hurting my head, then it gets warm, the metal turning the same temperature of my skin.
I can’t move. I can’t breathe. His hand over my face is so large that I can feel one thumb on my ear, his four fingers lost in my hairline. I can’t even blink, my eyes are wide and fozen. I stare at his face which is in a grimace like an angry chimpanzee, all his teeth showing and his eyes almost shut. All I can see is a glimmer of green around his pupils. My vision starts to go black around the edges until all I can see are his empty, empty eyes.
His tears drip onto my face and the gun clicks as he pulls the hammer back with his thumb. He can’t see me anymore. I try to pull his fingers off my mouth, to turn onto my back, to do something to change this situation. The noise that comes out of my mouth is a high whimper. I can’t look away from his eyes, so finally I squeeze mine shut. I wait for either my breath to run out of the gun to go off. I feel like time has paused around us, like we’ve been here forever. There’s no cops outside, no hot California sun, no memories of Disneyland or road trips, no 5th grade back in Longmont. Only his legs pinning my torso and the warm muzzle of the gun at my temple.
The gun fires and the world gets dark and heavy, a weight on my chest and my shoulders and my head. I think I’m dead and that death is dark and smothering. I wait for something to change. For Jesus to come find me or my mom or something.
Then I realize I’m breathing. I realize I can hear my heartbeat against my ribs.
I squirm to one side and sit up. My father slides partly off the bed. His eyes are open and empty, a sea gone quiet. I can see the whites of his eyes now. His cheeks and next to his nose are still wet with tears. I scoot away when I see the blood on both sides of his head. I follow the blood with my eyes to the wall. There’s more colors than I expect. Red and dark red and grey and white. I slide off the edge of the bed.
My dad has locked the deadbolt and the bar lock. I have to stretch to reach it. I pull on the doorknob with both hands and heave backward with my whole body weight before the heavy door groans open. I blink in the bright California sun, and step over the threshold. When my eyes adjust I realize that big heavy guns and full-body shields and robot helmets with dark visors are all staring at me. I can’t count them. If they’re saying anything I don’t hear it. I stand still and stare at them.
From behind the wall of armor steps a robot. Then he swings his gun behind him and lifts his visor and I see that he’s a man. He half-hunkers down to get closer to my level and smiles gently. “Hi, honey,” he says. “Are you hurt?”
I look down at myself, then back at him. The sight of my shirt makes my stomach and my liver try to trade places.
He holds out a gloved hand. “Come here, baby.” I step towards him and he scoops me up, so fast my whole body stiffens and I want to bolt. Then I’m distracted by the other robots—I know they’re police but I keep thinking of them as robots until they take off their helmets—charging into our hotel room and shouting with their guns out. It’s like TV. But the policeman who’s holding me is walking briskly away, arms protectively around me, holding me close to his torso. His vest is stiff and implacable, the pockets chunky against my knees. His belly feels like cardboard, or like the soft-not-soft stuff they use to carpet the school playground. Nothing like the fleshy softness of my father’s. He talks into his radio as he carries me past police cruisers and more police cruisers and more police cruisers. I hear the harsh squawk of radios talking police language that I don’t understand. Everyone seems tense, standing behind car doors, hands on hips or on guns, but the further away we get from the hotel room the more I see clusters of men just standing around talking.
The policeman adjusts me so that I’m sitting on his hip. “I’m Sergeant Hassan,” he says, smiling at me. “Can you tell me your name, hon?”
I look at his face, at his black black eyes, at the small tracks of sweat lining the inside edges of his helmet. It feels like I haven’t said anything for years. I tried to say things to my dad but that didn’t count somehow. “Shea,” I manage to say from the back of my throat.
When he smiles, the corners of his eyes crinkle. “Hello, Shea,” he says. “It’s good to be able to meet you.”
We arrive at an ambulance that has its back doors open and two people in blue shirts waiting and a stretcher inside. Sergeant Hassan tries to hand me to the woman in blue, but my fists have wrapped around the edges of his vest and won’t let go, so he clambers awkwardly up and sits on the stretcher and coaxes me into sitting beside him. He has straps around his thighs and I slip my hand through one. Now that he’s here and he’s nice and I’m safe, I don’t want him to go anywhere.
“I don’t think any of the blood is hers,” he says to the woman in blue. I sit tensely while her hands in dry rubber gloves move swiftly to take my blood pressure and put the cold stethoscope under my shirt on my back. She tries asking me questions, I think, but my ears have cottoned up again so I don’t say anything. She shines a light in each of my eyes and gently fingers at the tender places on my cheeks where my dad’s hand was, then massages my scalp. Then she climbs out of the ambulance to talk to another policeman who’s taken off his helmet. It’s just me and Sergeant Hassan on the stretcher. I don’t want to talk anymore. Maybe never again. My dad’s dead and my mom’s dead so I assume I’ll stay with Sergeant Hassan forever. And be safe.
After my mom and me left my dad, at first it was good. It got better. I got to sleep in my own bed all night. I never got woken up. My mom, who had moved to Longmont to be with my dad and so that he could be near his family, started talking about moving back to Wisconsin to be near her family. Started talking about going back to school. She smiled sometimes. Started talking about next summer, next year. It was like she could see the future. I couldn’t see it myself, but I thought it was nice that she could. It made me feel like maybe I could think about going to the water park in the summer.
And then my dad came and picked me up from school, and everything sucked in close again. I tried to imagine tomorrow and couldn’t get there. There was only ever the next hour, the next meal, the next night. I couldn’t see into the future like my mom could. When I blink, I see my father’s eyes, stamped on the insides of my eyelids.
I want to sit here with Sergeant Hassan forever. But I don’t think they’ll let me do that. Grown-ups always want to take you somewhere. And maybe my sergeant doesn’t want to stay here on this gurney. Maybe he wants to leave. I tighten my grip on the strap on his leg and he looks down at me. I look up at him. “Now what?” I ask.
He looks down at me, and his eyes look sad and old. He thinks for a long time, until I think maybe he didn’t hear me after all. “It’s going to be hard, Shea,” he says, “But I want you to learn to laugh again.” My confusion must show on my face, because he pulls me into a hug. “One day, it’ll be okay,” he says. “I promise.”