Since He Came Back
by Lindsay King-Miller
Edited by Aigner Loren Wilson
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
2933 words — Reading time: around 14 minutes
This story contains descriptions of child endangerment and child abuse, including attempted murder.
Things have been weird since our dad came back from the dead. He’s quieter, for one thing. It’s not that he talks a lot less — he never talked much — but he pauses more during conversation, spends more time choosing his words. And he speaks in a lower tone of voice, like he’s trying not to disturb the air.
When he’s not talking or doing chores around the house, he mostly sits and stares out the window. Other times, he watches us with a look on his face like he’s sad about something but can’t remember what. He used to be busy all the time, fixing something or writing something or drawing something or making up games for us to play. He hummed or whistled a lot. Now, he can sit still for hours at a time, just resting his hands in his lap.
He also has a scar now, but that wasn’t a surprise. Mom told us to expect the scar. It goes from one side of his neck, under his chin, and down into his shirt collar. When it’s warm out and he walks around in just shorts, you can see that it crosses his chest and ends under his left nipple. It feels cool and rough when he hugs us. But that’s just a change in his looks, like when we were little and he grew a beard. The scar isn’t the reason he’s different.
Since our dad came back, Mom has been working hard to fill in all the silences where he would normally be moving around or laughing or humming. She talks more than she used to, and she laughs a lot but never really sounds happy. She cleans things that don’t look that dirty. She’ll pick up a book and turn a few pages, woodpecker-tapping on its spine with her fingernails, and then sigh and drop it and look for something to sweep or scrub.
She scolds now, too, much more than before, though she never scolds Dad. She looks at him out of the corner of her eyes, and then says, “Edith! Nora! What have I told you about running in the house?” even if we were just barely walking fast.
We’re worn out from stepping lightly and trying not to bother her, especially since she’s home so much more than she used to be. She didn’t take any time off work when Dad died. In fact, she poured in more and more hours, staying out until way past our bedtime. Now that he’s back, she’s spending her bereavement time with him. When she told us that and explained what “bereavement” was, we giggled because it was backwards, but she looked so upset that we swallowed our laughter.
Pictures of our dad are slowly disappearing from around the house. Not all at once, but little by little. One day, Mom found him sitting in the kitchen holding a snapshot of himself, looking down at it in that still, silent way he has now, as though it were an unfamiliar thing he was trying to memorize. The next day, that picture, which used to be stuck to the freezer door with a magnet shaped like an apple, had disappeared. We couldn’t find it in any of the trash cans. A few days after that, the framed photo of the two of them in Oahu, before we were born, disappeared from the mantel. Then the wedding picture in the hallway.
He remembers things from before he died but in a funny way, like it’s a story someone else told him, not something he was there for. Sometimes we check to make sure he knows things he should know. (“Dad, remember my school play in second grade?” He says, “Of course I remember. You played a fox that could sing. I made your costume,” but doesn’t add, “and it was the best dang costume on that stage,” the way he would have before.)
We’re not afraid of him. Our mom explained what she did, that she’s the only person who has ever done it, that it was very hard and scary, and that some people might think our dad is scary because of it because they don’t understand. She told us there are horror movies about people — things — that come back the way our dad did, but he’s not a monster. We knew that before she said it.
He’s not the one who scares us.
One Saturday morning, we wake up and can’t find anyone. It’s been a long time since Saturday mornings meant scrambled eggs and bacon and Dad singing Beatles songs in the kitchen — that stopped after the car crash and never started again. But usually Mom gets up and makes coffee before we’re awake, and the smell fills the house and nudges us out of our beds. This morning, though, we wake up on our own, look at each other across the space between our beds, and know without saying: Something is wrong.
We walk downstairs and there’s no one in the kitchen, no one in the living room, no one in our parents’ bedroom. Their bed is made up neatly, like no one ever slept in it.
Without talking, we pour ourselves some cereal, only making a little bit of a mess. The kitchen seems too big and quiet, and we can hear every bite of cereal sloshing around in the bowls, crunching in our mouths, sliding down our throats. We picture the insides of our bodies where the cereal is going, pink and slippery and shiny. In such a huge silence, with nothing to pay attention to except our eating and chewing, swallowing starts to seem gross in a way we never noticed before, the way our mouths are connected to dark and slippery things inside us.
We put our still mostly full bowls of cereal in the sink. While we’re doing that, standing on our tiptoes side-by-side, we look up at the same time and out the kitchen window. Our mom is on the back porch, staring at something we can’t see, smoking a cigarette and crying.
We go outside. Our mom used to smoke when we were little, long before the car accident, and breathing in the thick gray smell reminds us of feeling small and safe and loved. Just for a second.
Our dad stands at the end of the driveway, looking straight at us without moving or speaking. That’s what our mom was staring at, blue circles under her eyes like she hasn’t slept in forever.
“What’s Daddy doing?” Edith asks, and our mom flinches and drops her cigarette onto the porch.
“I told him to get out of the house and not to come back until he was ready to talk to me,” she mutters, putting her hands to the sides of her throat like she’s trying to choke herself. Her voice sounds like choking, too. “I’m tired of lying in bed next to a goddamn corpse.”
“Mom, the cigarette,” I say.
The old wood of the porch smolders where the lit cigarette fell, and as the three of us look down, a tiny flame springs from the spot. Our mom stands there staring, her hands tightening around her neck, her eyes getting bigger and bigger.
Then our dad is standing there, without us hearing him run across the yard and up the stairs. He puts his bare foot down on top of the flame and stands there while we all hear — or maybe just imagine — a sizzling sound like cooking meat.
Finally, he leans over, touches each of us gently on the tops of our heads, and says, “Everyone’s okay.”
Our mom stands there swaying slightly back and forth. “I thought you were supposed to be afraid of fire,” she says in a mean voice.
Our dad looks at her and doesn’t say anything until she finally goes inside.
After that, our dad stops sleeping with our mom, or at least we stop seeing him do it. Now when we go to bed, he’s sitting up on the couch or at the dining room table, sometimes holding a book in front of him like he’s reading it. We never see or hear him turn the page. Every so often, when he sits on the couch, he stretches his feet out in front of him on the ottoman, and we see the burn mark on the bottom of his foot, like an ugly blackish-red comma, never scabbing over, never healing.
Our mom sleeps more and more. She was supposed to go back to work, but she didn’t. Her boss at the laboratory, a white-haired woman who used to come over for dinner sometimes, calls our house every few days. We take turns picking up the phone, because our dad isn’t allowed to — no one is supposed to know he’s back yet.
“I’ll figure out how to tell people when the time is right,” our mom said when he first came back, but we don’t know when the right time might be, and she never talks about it anymore.
“She’s feeling sick,” we tell our mom’s boss when she calls. “She’ll be in tomorrow.”
We don’t know if she’ll actually be in tomorrow, but we can tell she’s sick because she doesn’t eat and she stays in bed all day. When she does get up, she wanders around the house in her robe, drinking coffee and not talking to anyone. She’s stopped trying to fill the silence that hangs in the air around our dad. Now, she just sits in it, carrying it around with her, like a blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
She keeps smoking. The smell has stopped reminding us of being little and surrounded by talk and laughter. Now it smells like a too-small house and two silent parents who never go outside.
One afternoon, our mother locks herself in the bathroom and cries. We can hear it as clearly as if she was crying in our ears.
“Is Mom okay?” I ask our dad, who’s making us dinner like nothing is wrong.
“She’s okay,” he says. “She’s just sad. She misses me.”
“But you’re back,” Edith says.
How can she miss him if he’s right here, if she could just walk down the hall and put her arms around him?
“Yes, I’m back,” he says in a voice that sounds like he means something different.
Another night, we lie awake listening to her shouting at him downstairs. We can’t make out what she’s saying exactly, but we can tell that she’s more than a normal amount of angry — not like when somebody breaks a plate or leaves the milk out on the counter. There are pauses in between the shouting that mean our dad is answering her in his new quiet voice.
Mom’s voice gets even louder. “You can! I know you can! I made you so you can!” The pause that follows is short, cut off by her saying_no_, hard and sharp. Then she says, “No, I just want my husband back.” She’s quiet after that, but it takes us a long time to go back to sleep.
One evening, we have mac and cheese for dinner. Dad makes it but doesn’t eat it, we eat it but don’t taste it, and Mom doesn’t even come to the table. As we’re stacking our dishes in the sink, our mom says, “It’s time for your bath, girls.”
She hasn’t given us a bath in months. We’ve been washing ourselves when we think of it, sometimes using too much bubble bath, sometimes just splashing around in the water. Maybe she’s feeling better, enough to do something normal, like when she used to twist our hair into unicorn horns or pretend not to recognize us with bubble mustaches. Maybe she’s starting to be okay again.
Upstairs in the bathroom, we wait for her to fill up the tub, but she doesn’t. She just sits down on the lid of the toilet and looks at us with blank, tired eyes. We glance at each other nervously, then start the water and add bubbles ourselves. It feels weird to get undressed with our mom sitting there saying nothing.
We climb into the tub, trying not to splash too much, and sit with our knees up to our chests, facing each other. In unison, we lather up handfuls of suds and squish them through our hair.
It’s so quiet in the bathroom that we can hear our dad downstairs washing the dishes. Our mom turns her head as though she’s listening, too. Her face sort of softens — no, it sags, like it might fall off her.
Then she turns back to us. “Let me rinse your hair,” she says.
Her voice is too loud, echoing off the tile and trembling the surface of the water, but at least it’s a normal mom thing to say. We slide down until we’re lying parallel to each other, one head at each end of the tub, the sound of our heartbeats sloshing in our ears.
Our mom leans over and runs her fingers through Edith’s hair, massaging the bubbles out in gentle strokes. Then, without any change in her facial expression, she puts a hand on Edith’s forehead and pushes her head down under the water.
It takes a moment to realize this isn’t a game we’re playing. Then both of us are panicking, struggling, spilling water out of the tub and all over our mom and the bathroom. I grab my mom and try to pull her off Edith, holding my breath like I’m the one underwater. My fingernails dig into her arms until blood swirls pink in the bathwater, but she doesn’t let go. It is so, so quiet. All I hear is the movement of water and my own heartbeat, or maybe it’s Edith’s heartbeat. Tidal pulse, outside and in.
Then our dad has his arms around our mom and is pulling her back. She goes limp against him, and Edith surfaces, sputtering and coughing. Our dad isn’t even breathing hard.
Now that it’s over, now that our mom is placid as a rag doll in our dad’s arms, I burst into tears. Edith sees me crying and does the same, bath water and snot coming out of her nose. Neither of our parents reach to comfort us.
“I wanted to see if you’d come,” our mom tells our dad very quietly.
“I did,” he says.
He picks her up and carries her out of the room. A minute later, he’s back. We’re still sniffling and weeping, but he doesn’t say anything about that as he helps us out of the tub and wraps us in towels. Edith sleeps in my bed, clinging to me like the shampoo bubbles still clinging to our drying hair.
Our mom doesn’t get out of bed the next morning. Dad fixes us breakfast, and then we sit at the table with our coloring books. Neither of us feels much like coloring. We don’t understand what happened in the bathroom, but we know it’s bad. It’s the kind of thing where we should probably have gone to the hospital. But who needs to see a doctor? Edith or Mom?
A few nights later, we wake up to a loud, horrible sound.
The fire alarm is going off.
We can’t remember what we’re supposed to do if there’s a fire. There’s a routine we’re supposed to follow that will keep us safe, but we’re too scared to think of what it is. We start crying, from fear and from the smoke in our eyes. We run out of our bedroom and down the hall.
The smoke is coming from our parents’ bedroom. We see flames, bright yellow light, and shifting shadows. We should run out of the house, but we go toward their door instead.
Our parents’ bed is on fire. Their curtains are on fire. The desk and the carpet are on fire. Our mother is in there, standing very straight and still in the middle of the room, her face the color of smoke.
We hear our dad’s footsteps coming up the stairs, fast but not in a hurry. He wasn’t asleep, we remember. He doesn’t really sleep anymore. He must have heard the fire starting, but he stayed downstairs until we came out of our room. He didn’t come until we were afraid.
Our mom stays where she is, surrounded by fire but not yet burning. If it is still possible to leave that bedroom alive, it won’t be much longer. Our dad stands between us, one hand on each of our shoulders, looking at her. She might be crying, or it might just be the way the heat makes the air shimmer.
Flames begin to crawl up the doorframe, and underneath the smoke, there’s a bitter chemical smell. Then our dad turns around. He takes us each by one hand and pulls us toward the stairs. He still doesn’t look like he’s running, but our feet scrabble and slip on the floor trying to keep up with him.
“Call 911,” I finally think to say. “Call the fire department, Daddy.”
“It’s not safe to stay here,” he says without stopping. “We’ll go across the street and call from there.”
We look back over our shoulders, but we can’t see our mom anywhere. She doesn’t cry out for us to stop. She doesn’t call our names. By the time she makes any sound at all, we’re far enough away to pretend we don’t hear it.