Kati wrote this short story based on the day we found out about our stepdad. She wrote it for her fiction writing class over the summer, and I think it was very therapeutic for her. There's no way one story can capture all of the complicated emotions we've had throughout this experience, but this is the first thing either one of us wrote about it and was a really important step towards beginning to heal.
The picture hangs in the living room. I’ve memorized every detail, not because I’ve studied it or because it’s miraculous in any way, but because I’ve passed the spot where it hangs countless times over the last twelve years. It’s the first thing you see when you walk into the house. In it, a woman in a delicately crocheted, white dress looks up at a man in a crisp, black suit. Her brown hair is pinned back away from her face with tiny flowers, but the picture has been blown up so large that you can see a few wisps grazing her eyebrows. His eyes seem glued to those wisps as he smiles down at her, the corners of his mouth pointing up ever-so slightly under her thumb which strokes his face. One of his hands holds hers, his squared fingers wrapped tight around her slender ones. The other is perched lightly on her back as if he’s trying not to squeeze too hard and break her. The two of them are the only things in focus, the rest of the picture swirling into a blur around them.
My old, rusted bicycle is propped up against the brick wall where the picture hangs. It has pink streamers spurting from each handle and the seat is peeling up where it once rubbed incessantly against my infinite pairs of spandex shorts. I remember learning to ride it; those squared fingers holding my hips straight as I tentatively pushed down on one pedal, then the other. I remember how foreign my scream sounded as the bike tilted and almost fell, caught at the last moment by those rough, square hands. I had lifted my hand off the handlebar to swat at my bangs which were sticking uncomfortably into my eyes beneath the bulky, glittery helmet strapped to my head.
“Whoa there,” he had said as he grabbed at my waist and steadied me over the rubber seat. I was eight and wearing a yellow shirt with rhinestones arranged into a heart on my pre-pubescent chest.
Next to the bike is a chubby, green arm chair he used to occupy at all hours of the night; the screen of his giant, red laptop obscuring all but his lined forehead. When I was smaller, I would climb onto the arm rest of that chair and perch there until he would inevitably scold me.
“You’re gonna break my chair one of these days,” he’d say.
I never did, but I always wondered what would happen if I had. I didn’t think he’d really mind.
There’s a trophy on the coffee table. It’s plastic with gold coating and sits atop a green base bearing the engraving “Number 1 Dad.” My sister and I purchased it for Father’s Day a few years back as a sign of the kind of solidarity that goes deeper than blood - emphasis on the removal of the word “step” in his title. A fat tear rolled down his right cheek when we handed it to him with sheepish grins. He pushed himself up off his arm chair and wrapped us in a hug, his curly arm hair tickling my nose.
“I always tell people you’re my real daughters,” he whispered into our shoulders.
By the door rests a pair of tan, lace up boots. Hanging above them is a light green and tan camouflaged jacket with “Sgt. Parrish” sewn into the pocket. I cried every day he was away, praying to a god I didn’t believe existed that he would somehow come home safe. He would write us emails about the endless sand and the unbearable heat and we would try and decide by his syntax if he had been shot at that week. When he finally came home, we drove to the base with balloons and posters in the back of his pick-up truck and waited for hours in a cold room with stale cookies. He stepped off the bus and we all rushed towards him at the same time. My little brother, Kyle, got there first and I felt his ear squishing into my stomach as I pressed into the hug and felt my mother’s tears in my hair.
I press my hands against my eyes and blink against the pressure. I’m sitting in a cold, dark room filled with plastic chairs and the smell of stale smoke, despite the blaring red “No Smoking” signs above every door. I see him walking out, clad in a shocking orange jumpsuit which burns my eyes. I don’t understand what’s happening. A man in a black suit, similar to the one Bucky wears in the picture, walks out next to him. My step-father hangs his head and looks everywhere but at me.
The man in the suit shuffles my mom, my sister and me into the hall. He’s saying things that I’ve heard before, but only on T.V. Things like, “this is a very serious offense,” and “five years to life.” My mom is crying, shaking, clutching my hand and I can’t feel my skin beneath the force of her grip. The suited man is talking about pictures.
“The pictures they found included children as young as ten,” he says, his voice as low as possible without becoming a whisper. “And I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but there are several images which seem to have been taken from outside your daughter’s window while she was in various stages of undress.”
I think, which daughter until I realize everyone’s looking at me and my mom is crying so hard I’m not even sure she’s breathing other than when she emits these weird, gulp-like hiccups. I don’t cry and I don’t understand.
Once my mom posts bail, Bucky changes into his street clothes and comes out to meet us. His face looks the same and for some reason, that is the strangest thing of all. I know every detail of this face, every whisker, every wrinkle. I shut my eyes but his blue gaze still looms against the blackness. Nothing is different except now it hurts to look at him. It hurts like when I was afraid he was dead, but now I almost wish he was. Almost. I wish I could wish he was dead. That sounds better than this. Anything sounds better than this.
When I walk through the front door of our home later that night, I slip off my shoes at the entrance out of habit. I put them back on. The tile feels colder than it ever has before; the grout between each square is rougher. I think about all the times I’ve padded across this floor in nothing but my underwear and I feel nauseous. I see his black camera case on the floor and I’m sure I’m about to puke.
I remember straining my eyes against his flash and saying, “cheese” as I stand back to back with my sister, each of us holding our hands up to our faces like bullet-less, flesh guns; our lanky, twelve year old arms jutting out almost as sharply as our cocked hips. I wonder how many pictures of myself I haven’t seen. I walk into my bedroom and close the door. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always hated having my door closed at night. I used to crave the slivers of light that would snake in as Bucky sat up late in the living room, refilling his cup of iced tea every couple of hours – the sound of the ice machine, my favorite lullaby.
My old cheerleading uniform is tacked to my bulletin board. I run my fingers across the polyester fibers and cringe at the familiar scratchiness on my skin. I always hated putting that thing on. He would tease me when I complained, saying something like,
“Don’t all girls want to be cheerleaders? What’s wrong with you?”
I would shrug and ask if he would be at the game later.
“Of course,” he’d say. “Do I ever miss your cheerleading events?”
He never did.
The picture hangs above my headboard. In it, I stand right in front of my step-father and his hand is on my shoulder. My smile shows no teeth, but looks serene. I’m resting my cheek against his hand and leaning into his chest. Next to me, my sister looks up at him, her left hand placed on her hip, her face scrunched in laughter. My mom stands behind her, her slender fingers entwined in her husband’s squared ones. My little brother sits atop his shoulders, the spitting image of his father.
I reach for the frame and remove it from the wall. I hold it up to my face and bits of light from my reading lamp glint off the glass, obscuring our faces with my reflection. Now the tears start to come. They plop onto the picture in hot droplets. For a moment, I watch them travel down the pane as if I were still eight years old watching the rain drops race down the car window as I sit, mesmerized in the back seat. Then, with all the strength I can muster, I chuck it to the ground and continue to cry. On the floor before me, the shards of glass mingle with my tears in a shattered, shiny mess. I try to pick up the pieces, but before long my fingers are littered with cuts and the mess seems only to have grown. I close my eyes and let the tears fall.