by Jessilyn Rich
I had heard the door creak open down stairs before my aching skull had even emerged from the covers. I wasn’t in any hurry to go down and greet my unwanted guest. I had fallen asleep in my chair the night before and awoken just before dawn to find a knot in my neck. I was tired and grumpy, and he could very well wait. He hadn’t called or written in years, but I knew as soon as he caught the smell in the wind, he would be back. He feared this place, but he feared the secret even more, and he would do anything to keep it, even come back here. I was tired of the secrets, and even more tired of being their keeper. Now he had returned unwelcome, as if I will have some powerful ability to do anything about this mess.
I could hear his fingers tapping in a smooth frantic rhythm before I even walked into the kitchen. He looked up at me as I entered, time had not been kind to him. Each time I saw him the creases in his face seemed to get deeper, the hair on his head grayer and the weight in his eyes heavier. Leaning against the door frame, he looked so small sitting at the table. My 6’1 father looked small to me for the first time. I could see the tears licking the edges of his eyelids, before his eyes flicked to the window outside. I knew the view of the docks wouldn’t help him, they always brought that night back, as fresh as if it had just happened. I could still picture his hand grabbing hold of mine and pulling me hard, back onto the dock. I could see his fingers as they lost grip on Anna’s and his face when he realized there was nothing he could do. He had made it to the docks just in time to grab my hand, his lungs heaving heavy gulps of air.
I knew something had to break the silence, I cleared my throat, but he didn’t move, he stayed staring down at the docks. I wondered if he was playing the old movie of that night, over in his head, like I did sometimes. I had been so small, but I could remember everything about that night, like it was a film I had watched a thousand times, that I had never wanted to see. I could still see the way my mothers curls blew in the wind as the boat motored away and the way my sister laughed as our mother pulled her on to her lap. Anna had no idea that they weren’t coming back, she was just excited to ride on a boat. I remember the look my mother had given my father, as her hand separated from mine as he pulled me off the boat and on to the dock. I remembered the way my father’s voice had echoed on the harbor as he frantically screamed my sisters name. I remembered the deafening silence when my mother hadn’t screamed mine. I remembered the way he had clung to me that night as we watched the boat become nothing more than a speck of light. I had fallen asleep on his shoulder, comforted by the sounds of the waves, until the horns shattered the night. The flames had erupted almost instantly and the smoke suffocated the shore. My father screamed my sisters name one last time, the terror in his voice seemed to grab hold of the trees along the shore and rattle the branches. The screams of the rescue boat taking off into the darkness, had sliced through the night with such accuracy that I believe my heart stopped beating all together. No bodies were ever found that night, just the broken pieces of a boat that had torn a family apart.
“Dad, why did you come?” My words seemed to startle us both from our memories. It’s hard standing across the room from someone who used to be your hero, but now seemed like a perfect stranger. He didn’t answer me, just walked to the stove, retrieved my kettle and began to fill it in the sink. His eyes charted a course around the room, careful to avoid my face, as he placed the kettle on the stove and tried to light the burner. The burner had become stubborn with age, and instinctively I walked over to help him. I reached for the stove, my shoulder brushed his as I did and he ripped away from me as if my touch had burned him. He moved back towards the table, and left me to deal with the kettle. I realized he wasn’t just tired, weathered, he was so fragile too. Part of me felt sorry for him, but how do you comfort someone who had a hand in the breaking of their own heart? Even worse, how do you comfort someone who had a hand in the breaking of yours?
I busied myself with the making of the tea, and tried to ignore the silence. I placed the cups on the table and watched as his once big strong hands wrapped around the edges of the chipped cup. The hands that had once saved me. He stared into the murky looking water of his cup.
“How many does this make?” He didn’t look at me as he spoke, just kept staring into the cup as if it would have the answers he needed. His voice was stiff and raspy, but I could hear the pain that echoed in his throat. He still blamed himself. I didn’t respond instead turning my attention to the world outside. I knew how many, I knew exactly how many and exactly what he was talking about, but I knew if the words came out of my mouth, neither of us could get them back. He looked at me, really looked at me for the first time since I had come into the room.
“Ellie, why is it happening again?”