Rain splattered through the screen on her window, and though I pled with her to shut it, she would not budge. “I am disinclined to acquiesce,” she said, smiling, quoting the film she’d been watching on her tablet in bed.
“I’ll take that away,” I told her.
“But I brushed my teeth,” she said, showing them to me, the whole crooked lot. “And I’m in my pajamas,” she said, pinching the fabric between her thumb and forefinger and pulling it away from her chest.
“It might get wet,” I said, pointing at the window.
With a frown, she jammed a finger against the screen to pause the movie, then handed it over. A skeletal monkey grimaced at me from the frozen frame before I clicked the tablet off. I wondered suddenly if my daughter might choose a capuchin for her familiar. Or would it be the chicken she swiped across the road on her tablet because dice and tabletops made no sense to her?
“Now,” I said, “will you please let me close the — ”
“But what if they come?” she said, waving a hand at the rain. “I can already hear the footsteps.”
She had given up on the jolly old demigods and cotton-tailed minor deities I’d told her (much to the chagrin of her mother) were nothing more than the servants of God Money, but the sprites and faeries of her storybooks — those she still believed in.
“All I hear is the downpour,” I said, clutching the window, ready to close it.
“The downpour means they’re close,” she said. “They’re almost here.”
I looked at her then, at the brown eyes her mother had bequeathed her, at the sadness there, the longing for something I couldn’t take away, and it hurt me to think of all I had robbed her of. I shifted focus, stared at an earring instead, the tiny amethyst stud her mother had bought her on the day she’d gotten her ears pierced, jewelry I’d refused to let her wear for a month out of frustration.
I sighed and stood. Then I pulled on the chain of her bedside lamp.
“What about my kiss?” she said.
I leaned down and pecked her temple with my lips, feeling a smile wrinkle her face.
“No souvenirs this time,” is what I said as I left the room.
The first time it happened, she toddled into my bedroom on a Sunday morning clutching a teddy bear to her chest, one that I’d never seen before. And after I asked her mother at drop-off that afternoon if she’d been splurging again, earning me the kind of dressing down I hadn’t faced since The Dissolution, I decided it was a gift from my mother. But the truth was that I’d never asked and made sure, and now I was too afraid of what the answer might be.
The second time was a few years later. I was sitting in bed, three chapters into a freshly cracked mystery, when I realized she hadn’t yet climbed into my bed with a brown bag of comics plucked from one of my long boxes. I swept into her room in a panic, nearly tripping on the long snake of the belt I never bothered to tie round my robe. But, as sure as I was in that moment that I’d lost her, there she was: in her bed, crumbs everywhere, a thick slab of gingerbread in her hands. There was icing tucked between her fingers, smeared all across her face, and caked into her blonde hair. And though I asked and asked where she got it as I stood outside the shower, all I got in the way of an answer was a sheepish grin as she poked her head out from behind the curtain to ask me for an extra towel.
Would tonight be the third time, I wondered. And what gift would she bring back if it was?
I stood outside her door and listened to her breathe, waiting for the rhythm to change. But it was hard to hear her over the cacophony of the rain, so I closed my eyes to focus. Soon, though, I couldn’t hear her at all, and I rounded the corner with haste.
But she was still there. She shivered, tugged at her blankets, and rolled so that her back was to the window.
I sat on the floor, leaned into the wall, and stood watch. And when her breathing grew shallow enough that I could no longer see her chest rising and falling, I held a hand to her belly until her body pushed me away.
I drifted off to sleep.
And then I was awake, my head aching from where I’d slumped against her dresser. I rubbed a hand across my face, then looked to my daughter’s bed to see if she was awake, to see if I’d have to apologize for being a creep.
She was gone.
The bed was empty, the covers pushed aside, and all that was left of her was a smear of blood on the sheets. I could only look for a second before seeking solace from the open window. But there was no absolution to be found there. The rain had stopped. There would be no gift this time.
Or so I thought until the toilet flushed just beyond the wall.
I rushed to the bathroom door, listened to the rattle of pills in a bottle, the running of a faucet and its cessation. Then I heard a groan. A groan and the patter of bare feet across cold linoleum. I stepped back as the door opened.
“Dad?” she said, holding a hand to the place where I supposed it ached.
Though I knew I shouldn’t have, I gathered her into my arms and held her to me.
“Sorry about the sheets,” she mumbled into my shoulder.
“Do I need to run to the store?” I said, letting her go.
She shook her head. “Mom’s had me packing stuff for six months, just in case.”
I nodded, gave her a smile, and watched her trudge back toward her room. I couldn’t help thinking, as I listened to her strip the bed down, as I listened to the bundle of sheets hit the wall and her body hit the mattress, if I had lost her after all.
An hour later, she knocked at my door with a brown paper bag clutched against her chest.
“What you got?” I asked.
She pulled the first issue from the bag. On the cover, a capuchin sat atop the shoulder of a man in a straight jacket. “I know it’s for mature readers,” she said. “But…”
I smiled at the hand I’d been dealt, at the card she was playing, and I said, “Okay.”
She smiled now, too. “Can I sit with you?” she asked.
“That’s not weird?” I said.
She rolled her eyes and climbed up onto my bed, sitting down beside me. “It’s only weird if you make it weird, Dad.”
I bent to kiss her forehead, hoping that I hadn’t, knowing that someday that I would.
“Read,” she said, pointing at my book.
And so, we did.