The S Word

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Haunted

The only thing keeping me in place the whole ride is the feeling of Alexander’s warm hand on my leg. That’s the only thing that makes me at peace as he drives in my old neighborhood. Houses I haven’t seen in over a decade fall on the scenery out of the car. The same trees I used to climb when I was a kid; all of them remained as I remember.

Nothing has changed, except me.

I can’t be happy or excited about it because memories I push away come to haunt me as we pass by the park my mom used to take me to after school. By the bookstore where she would pick a book for me every month. By the restaurant that had her favorite pasta.

The warmth of my boyfriend’s hand leaves me, and when I glance, his finger is already wiping away, the tear that escaped from the corner of my eye. He then pulls me towards him, as I try to be as comfortable as I can, leaning towards his seat and letting my head rest on his shoulder.

“I’m proud of you for doing this,” he whispers into my ear, and I can’t help the small grin on my face.

Sometimes I think about what God was thinking when he smiled down at me and sent Alexander my way.

“It’s there,” I say, pointing at the house with the grey windows by the end of the street.

Alexander slows down the car, putting it in park, and we stay inside, staring at the house that haunts my dreams. The place where I was once so happy until the pain of my mom’s absence and my father’s addiction forced me to leave.

Funny how bad memories are always stronger than the good ones.

The house still resembles my memories, but it’s older now. The grass doesn’t seem to be trimmed for ages; it’s not even utterly green as the sunset rays hit her, and I spot brown shades all over. The tree is dry, and even the paint on the walls is slightly falling apart; I can see the marks of the years degrading it. It almost seems abandoned.

“Are you sure he is still here?” I ask my boyfriend, not taking my eyes of the house.

“I’m sure, gorgeous.”

My hand touches the door, opening it as I sigh before stepping out. Alexander is fast following me; his hand entwines with mine as we approach the house’s porch. The old chair is still here, where my mom would drink her morning tea on the weekends. The one where I never sat after she died.

My father did nothing to change the house; he didn’t take anything away after her death. I’m not sure how to feel about that, because he also didn’t treat the things he should. The chair is falling apart, there are parts of the wood missing already, and I’m pretty sure if I touch it, the thing will break. If he didn’t want to get rid of the memories, why didn’t he care for them?

I look away from it and stare at the door instead, ready to face the one person that can make my heart nervous, scared, and angry as if I was a small girl. When I press my fingertip on the doorbell, it doesn’t ring, so I knock on the door disappointed.

Is he that hurt he just stopped taking care of things?

Small slow steps come to the door; I listen to a voice cursing. A voice I haven’t heard for years and still makes me feel like the angry teenager I was.

“Who are you?”

His eyes are on Alexander, who stands tall behind me. I don’t blink, assimilating the man in front of me; the man who is opening the door is the same man who hurt me all those years ago.

My father seems smaller, as if he lost height, but it’s probably because he walks slightly curved. His eyes dark just as on that day; they travel from Alexander to me. I see everything, the way he is unsure if it’s me, the way he tilts his head, and finally realizing that the person in front of him is the same one who left.

His skin gets paler, and I can’t say I am not enjoying seeing the effect I have on him.

“Hi,” my voice comes out cold as the night that starts to rise.

The door is fully open, and my father steps outside. His hands hover the sides of my face, but the older man doesn’t dare to touch me. He is shaking, unsure of what to do or what to say, just trying to make sure if it’s, in fact, me, his daughter.

“Nicky,” he stutters, and I see as his eyes glimmer against the sunlight.

It’s the same man, physically, at least. But he doesn’t smell like I remember. My dad used to come to the house, smelling like alcohol and cigars, spending his nights wondering, and whenever he walked inside, I would know where he was—the bar.

He steps aside, and I nervously take a stride forward, walking inside the old house that is filled with so many memories. Everything is as I remember, except for the dust. My father seems to be against cleaning.

The house is a mess; I notice the clothing pilled up behind the bathroom door on my right, walking towards the living room. I have a glimpse of the dirty kitchen. It doesn’t smell like my childhood where fresh baked cookies would be waiting for me after school; instead, the scent of mold lingers. It breaks my heart to see the house my mom was so proud of like this. She always had everything clean and in place because she was always scared about someone making an unannounced visit.

“Here,” the old man says, taking some of his clothes out of the sofa and motioning Alexander and me to sit. “Do you want anything? Water, soda?”

“No beer?”

I can’t help it, the words fall from my lips filled with hate, and I see as his expression changes to sorrow.

“I don’t have alcohol in the house anymore.”

His voice breaks as he speaks and the sting of regret hits me. I gulp, staring ahead and not at the man that’s waiting for an answer.

“Water is fine,” Alexander says, and I see as my father leaves the living room.

My boyfriend’s hand rests with mine before his lips slightly press against the back of my hand, and my heart jumps.

“I don’t think I can do this, Alex.”

“You can,” he assures, locking his eyes on mine. “You are the strongest woman I know. You said you want to do this, and I know you’ll hate yourself if we leave now.”

He is right; I know he is. If I walk out of that door, I will only blame myself for not knowing more about my dad, for not trying. The sound of his footsteps halts us as I turn around and catch him, putting two bottles of water on the small coffee table. Alexander takes one, drinking, and I shift my attention to the nervous man who sits on the armchair at my left.

“I wasn’t expecting you to come,” he admits shyly. “I would have cleaned the house if I knew.”

“It’s fine.”

My eyes let go of him and travel across the room, seeing right away the pictures over the fireplace. He kept them, the photographs of me when I was little. All of the painful memories of my smiles to the woman who was on the other side of the camera.

This wasn’t a good idea.

Alexander’s hand squeezes mine, and I gain some strength to face my dad. When I look at him, however, some of my anger eases a little. He stares at me, his eyes glisten, covered by tears that he doesn’t allow to fall. His lips trembling at the same rhythm as his hands.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbles, and my eyebrows shoot up. “I-”

The man fights with forming words, his shoulder’s slump, and a tear falls from his eyes, descending to his cheeks, traveling until it falls on the side of his face. It’s now I realize the pain I’ve felt is probably similar to his.

“I haven’t been drinking for years,” my father says, avoiding to meet my eyes. “After you left, I went on a spiral, blaming everyone but me for the life I was stuck in.”

He sniffles, staring at his hands, and I see as the tears keep falling from his face. Tears that mirror the ones I can’t hold any longer.

“When you left, Nicky, I was angry at everything. Your mom, you, it got to the point where I lost my job, no one would talk to me, I was the town drunk. The days were long, and an empty bottle seemed to be my companion. One day I woke up sweating; it was a hot day, yet I was cold because I didn’t drink for hours. I couldn’t drink. I had no money left. I was starving, I was starting to get sick, and I was lonely. So it hit me there, and although late, I started to recover. I went to meetings, I got a job, a small thing, but it pays the bills. I’m a changed man.”

I want to believe him, I want to believe in the speech so bad, but something is off for me. The house doesn’t smell like alcohol; I look around to see if I catch any remains of empty glasses or even cigars but nothing. Besides being dirty, it’s an ordinary house.

So why is it so hard for me to believe in what he is saying?

“I’m sober for three years now; I had a step back but then went back on track with the help of my sponsor.”

“So, you’re doing the steps?” I ask him, seeing as he nods. “The part about apologizing to the ones you hurt?”

“I didn’t know where you were Nicky, your name is still on that list, but I didn’t know where you live if you still got the same name. I didn’t even know if you are married, which I’m guessing this young man right here is your...”

“Boyfriend,” I interrupt him, not even blinking. “This is Alexander; he’s my boyfriend.”

Alexander nods at my father but doesn’t move from his place. He sits straight while his chin slightly rises proudly, maybe even a little protective towards me. I know he can feel how tense my body is, how nervous I am with this whole thing. Because deep down in my gut, I don’t believe it, and my gut rarely fails me.

“So how are you?” My father asks, and I freeze. “You’ve seemed to have grown up well.”

“I got a doctor’s degree in psychology,” I say, staring straight at him.

His eyes glisten as I speak, but my heart seems uneasy. Maybe I’m just overthinking about this; perhaps he changed and wants us to keep in touch. I don’t mean to have a normal relationship because that will take time but, just a phone call once in a while.

“I’m so proud of you,” he lets out, smiling at me.

The room falls silent for a few seconds before my dad walks up to one of the shelves and takes a photo album from there. One I recognize by the thick cover. It has photos that my mom took from me when I was little.

He hands it to me, and I take it with shaky hands. Alexander is the one who grabs it beneath my fingers as I almost drop the thing. I haven’t seen this album since my mom died.

“I thought maybe you want to see it; it’s been a while since you saw pictures of her, am I right?”

I nod and let a smile crawl on my lips before shifting my eyes towards the photos. Alexander opens the album; he chuckles at the first baby photo of me. Pointing and giggling whenever he sees one he likes. He especially loves one where I’m covered in bubble bath or the one where I’m playing outside in the rain. I don’t know how long it’s been since we started seeing the photos, but the room’s mood changed. Maybe my father changed as well.

He stays silent, his eyes observing the interactions between Alexander and me, how we hold hands, how my boyfriend whispers in my ear. My heart let’s hope in, beating faster as I see my mom smiling back at the camera, holding me in her arms. Looking at my mom’s photos and letting the happy memories, even if laced with pain, come at me. When I glance at my dad, he always smiles back, with soft eyes.

He changed.

After a while, his phone rings, and my dad walks out of the room to pick up the call; when he returns, he seems worried, but I’m so into the moment that I don’t even fully notice how he fidgets with his hands. How he glances worried at me. I don’t even pay attention to who he is talking with.

It’s when we are seeing a picture of me playing on the grass that my dad’s voice lifts the hairs on my arms.

“So, Nicky, I assume you make a good living for yourself.”

My hand stops midway of changing a page, and I listen as Alexander takes a deep breath and clenches his jaw.

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