by R. Grimm
She could hear her house keys jangle but still couldn’t find them in her purse, which at this witching hour, after that sixth shitty Paloma, was a void reeking of loose Altoids and one ancient joint. Why couldn’t she see anything? Ah. She had meant to replace the porchlight. Wait. She did. Last week, while Dad blared the History Channel so loud it sounded like he was hosting his own Nuremberg rally. And she paid the electric bill days in advance, like The Sensible Girl™ she couldn’t help being. Exactly the kind of girl that bored Jake into sleeping with tat-happy Tania.
She trundled off the porch to the chalk-white glow of the streetlamp, where the bottom folds of her bag finally coughed up the keys. Relieved, she was left to recall how little she wanted to get back inside her childhood home, a decrepit Dutch colonial that still suffocated her, even if it could swallow her entire Bushwick apartment with enough room left over for a family of four.
Her dread gave her the chance to notice two upstairs windows were cracked now, with near matching spider-webbed cracks. Didn’t they say Dad might get violent as his condition deteriorates? She shook that off. They’d been warning about that since she moved back six months ago. Or was it eight? She didn’t like how time moved now, glacially paced days that in a blink, were next month or a new year.
Memories had begun to blur, so all those soul crushing jobs, and that parade of Jakes and dullards became background noise to her dashed literary ambitions that she was supposedly pursuing now that she’s back home caring for her father. Usually this late, this drunk, she’d be able to lie to herself about writing every day, starting tomorrow, and the reviews, signings, and sales that would make all these indignities just the price she paid. But tonight, even this late, it all felt like so much magical thinking.
Once inside, she dumped her purse and wrestled off her shoes, only to be hit by the pungent whiff of bleach from cleaning Dad’s last accident in the kitchen. Sure, it stamped out the stench of “the browns” as Dad called them, but it also keenly reminded her of what she scrubbed away. She flipped the hall switch only to find that light out as well.
Then she tried grandma’s cast iron floor lamp in the living room. Did they blow a fuse? By moonlight, she found her way to the kitchen, the darkness a presence now. She fiddled with the switches by the stove and back door, but none of that fussing made the power anything but out.
She’d begun to taste her hangover, so she reached into the unlit fridge, feeling around for the Brita, unnerved, as if something inside might bite. Sensible Girls know there isn’t anything there but old takeout and dozens of bottles of Ensure. That’s when it struck her: Dad was missing from his bed in the living room.
She still had the Brita in hand when she checked his bathroom—vacant, save for the pill bottles crowding the sink and toilet paper clumps that missed the trash. She’d begun crafting a rant about his sneaking upstairs to his office. This is why I can’t fucking go out, Dad.
At least his oxygen tank was missing too, so he had enough sense to drag it with him, the squeak of its wheels now announcing his approach like a herald. When she first moved back, Dad could go hours without it, waiting until he was short of breath to wrap that thin tube around his neck and insert the two nubs in his nostrils.
That was until she found him on the floor wheezing in the upstairs hallway when, at her request, the male EMT ordered him to keep oxygen tubing around his neck all the time. He’d never listen to a woman, let alone her, who he’d wave away as another “Worry Wanda” like her mother. “Bet you enjoy being the warden,” he’d sneer, as if she wasn’t an inmate too.
She went room by room, careful not to wake him if he’d dozed off in a chair or on the wrong bed. Her nerves egged her on, even as her feet ached from a night in those anything but sensible candy apple heels. Nothing seemed disturbed until she reached his office, where a sickly weight bloomed in her gut, sobering her right up. The hefty steel desk was toppled over; books, papers and tchotchkes seemed blown from the shelves; and both those cracked windows stared back in almost a smirk.
On reflex, she began cleaning up after him. Gathering things from the floor, grabbing all those gift shop grade relics: arrowheads, “ancient” wood tribal masks, seashells, and pebbles. She hated how tacky the space was, a museum courtesy of late-night infomercials, curated by a low-rent Indiana Jones. Wasn’t the ever-present stack of National Geographics already a cliché by the time he started collecting them?
Back when she was a shitty seventh grader, she mocked his interest in distant lands, since he’d never even left the country. She recalled that moment so vividly, because he didn’t snap back or ground her. Instead he nodded and shuffled off to his office, where he closed the door, and she could hear him sob. That haunted her but not enough to go easy on him. One of the very few upsides to moving back was her chance to lecture him about how all his revered explorers were bigots who should have stayed home. She knew he fancied himself too much a liberal to disregard this, but he grumbled under his breath, like a teenager who still wanted to smoke.
Dad was always sensible to a fault, but she thought that was just a lack of imagination. Mom was the one just living up to expectations, ignoring her secret wishes and untapped potential with good humor, even at the end cracking that chemo was simply heroin without the high and cancer was like Miss Dolacki, who never knew when to leave and demanded everyone try her revolting guacamole, made with Miracle Whip.
She’d soon cleared enough of the floor to find a strange set of markings written in chalk and something that might be blood. But that’s ridiculous. She couldn’t make out the strange hieroglyphics, which felt like a forgotten language or some off-brand Satanic altar. That made little sense. She grew up on his rants about faiths of any kind, from Catholicism to horoscopes. Did someone else scribble this? Kids breaking into a creepy house to play with the occult? The Morrisons’ Victorian two blocks up was actually abandoned. Why not go there?
She had to face the facts. He wasn’t there, wasn’t home, and certainly wasn’t safe. Her dread was laced with a small-bore rage. This wasn’t her fault, but she’d be blamed for whatever happened. Should she dial 911? That sounded sensible, but he wasn’t losing his faculties. What if he showed up just as the cops arrived, back from a nighttime stroll? Proving again that she was, in fact, being “dramatic.” No, as a The Sensible Girl™, she had to be certain he wasn’t home first, so she kept looking.
By the time she descended the stairs to the basement to check this one last place, she wasn’t bothered by the lights that suddenly worked. There were more pressing questions in her mind, such as why does this space feel so… off? The dunes of dirty laundry, the Tetris stacks of boxes, the kayak frosted with dust. Nothing didn’t belong, but all of it was seemingly altered, pawed by a stranger’s fingers.
In the dingy glow of the basement lights, she noticed something odd. A metal seam running across the concrete floor, one that ended with a silver zipper, big as a toddler’s fist. The sight struck her as some other family’s craft project, utterly foreign. When she stepped towards it, the floor changed under her feet, the concrete now with the give of a gymnast’s mat. She backed away, toppling a stack of boxes. A low rumble broke the quiet. It was his oxygen tank rolling, unaccompanied, on what was still “classic” concrete. The longest Dad could live without it was twenty minutes, tops. Right? She had been searching for at least ten minutes now. No, no, no. Longer. Her math argued that she was already too late.
But the zipper also felt like a dare, a trick, one of those cheap pranks Dad used to be play when she was six or seven, back when he still sought to amuse her. The most likely of scenarios was that Dad was still home, somewhere, and the basement wasn’t the last place to look, this was. She was too tired to pretend she could ignore this without the curiosity, the potential for regret keeping her awake. Sensible or not, she knew what she had to do. So she grabbed hold of the oversized slider and pulled it open. In the chasm was a greyish, sparkling ooze, thick as hair gel from the eighties, hypnotic in its undulating. Before she could wrap her mind around the sight, a voice could be heard, a voice she recognized.
It was saying her name in her father’s voice. He was somewhere down in that muck, without his oxygen, for who knows how long. On reflex, she grabbed the tank, and mask, and with her other hand reached into the gash for him. Would A Sensible Girl™ do that? For once, she didn’t give a shit. But after she dug around, she couldn’t withdraw her hand. The substance tugged at her, pulling her down, the tank still in hand, a gulp of air in her lungs. The spangly ick relented its pull so she no longer traveled downward, and yet it was impossible to swim upwards. She drifted in place.
Beneath her floated a young man, in her father’s vomit-crusted sweats. Neither dead nor drowning, he was in a serene trance, his cheeks and palms marred with gill slits. She noticed her gradual sinking, towards this father-ish figure. She could hear his mind as clear as her own, this substance apparently able to carry thoughts as water carries electricity. These thoughts were not merely words, but words imbued with their full verve and ache.
“Aw, Sally Bean. I should have known you’d end up here.”
“What is this?” She thought-said.
“Don’t have much time, no, no, not at all. It’s my fault, maybe. I never wanted you chasing my approval, no Miss, I did not. So I held it back, thinking you’d give up trying to please me, when that left you chasing after it all the more. How could any daughter not? It’s why you’ve done so little with your life.”
His words stabbed at her most tender spaces.
“Maybe you get it together, maybe you’re too used to squandering your time. I don’t know.”
She was shaking her head, wanting to swim away from this biting honesty.
“What do you think would happen? All you ever taught me was what a mediocre little girl I’d was,” and she found herself unable to hold that back, soften her blows as she always had, so that she’d never, ever, disappoint or alienate anyone, knowing full well she still did that all the time. She tried not to consider her sins or addictions to keep them out of her father’s eye in this field of total disclosure. But here and now, he saw the full breadth of her mistakes and would know for certain that his low expectations were justified.
Although what came drifting back through her mind wasn’t scolding or dismissals, but a strange acceptance, like when a dog shits on the rug. And then his voice appeared in her mind, clear and unfettered by any other mental static:
“We made you; we didn’t finish you.”
It was such a naked moment of grace. She glowed.
Just then her screaming lungs interrupted the conversation, and she considered lifting the oxygen mask to her own mouth. Dad didn’t seem to even need air down here. Instead, she opened her hands, letting the mask and tank drift away, sensing the delectable oblivion her father enjoyed, scrubbed of want or disappointment.
Here, her whole life was merely a banal dream to be forgotten, rather than a verdict on her worth. There was nothing for her above but more heartbreak, all without even her father now, as she sensed he was never leaving this place. Why not open her mouth, and let this starry ether drown all that nonsense for good?
“This is my surrender, not yours,” he thought-said, and here, their thoughts mingled, into something pre-verbal, with his memories of finding the substance in some cave he’d been swimming through, stowing it in a secret steel box, that giving away to a flickering parade of images from his youth, with his boot nearly falling off an icy ledge into a dark void, his machete ripping through vines dusted with spider web thick as cotton, the delirious swelter of a red sand desert as he dragged a black steed up a dune. All memories building to when he met her mother in that jazz festival in St. Louis and gave up his pursuit of one transcendence for another, trying desperately to bury his wanderlust in domestic comforts—and failing.
It was then she sensed the pinprick of unease nestled in her father’s Shangri La. He envied her chance to still taste the rich tang of desire. The thrilling beauty of chasing, of raw exertion, was now a tangible feeling, one she couldn’t tell was hers or her father’s, but was nonetheless present as a rhubarb pie, its scarlet bubbled through that cracked sugar crust, cooling on a ceramic counter… a reality for all the senses.
But his thought-speak grew faint, as he pressed her upward, like he once pushed her on that swing, up, up, up again, into a boundless blue. She felt the last of his strength leave him now, and when she finally broke the surface, she gulped this world back down, and emerged from that void… unfinished.
Rob Grimm is a writer and filmmaker, whose dark fiction has appeared on numerous online sites and his short story, Tessa Told Me, was adapted by PseudoPod. As a filmmaker, his horror shorts have won awards in festivals around the world and can be seen on multiple streaming sites. As a screenwriter, his work has been produced by Lifetime and in development at TNT, ABC, and others, while being recognized by the Nicholl Awards, The Austin Film Festival, and the Samuel Goldwyn Awards. He has BFA in Film/TV from NYU, an MFA from UCLA in Screenwriting, and a graduate degree in trouble from his time as a journalist in Mideast and Asia.