George thought he heard howling in the distance, so he went to the kitchen window; he could see no movement outside, nothing waiting to pounce if he investigated. His driveway looked empty in the dusk, but he was convinced he had sensed something, and he scanned the tree line until mostly satisfied there was no imminent threat. A few moments of careful observation still revealed nothing -- no mountain lions, no rabid wolverines, no packs of hyenas newly transported from the African savannah to the New Hampshire woods directly outside his house. He was being ridiculous. Sometimes, George knew, he worried too much. Sometimes his imagination got away from him, particularly at night, and especially when it came to possibilities that were absurd and seemingly impossible, and therefore, to him, all the more frightening.
He tried to force himself to relax. Even if he could sight some shadowy predator lurking in the woods, his ability to safeguard his home was doubtful at best; it would more likely be the house that protected him. But that made him feel better, too -- the idea of taking refuge behind windows and walls, where he was confident that if he could only get a look at whatever it was he had heard, he'd be able to shoo it away. There were animals out there that could do a number on you, sure, black bears or angry moose, for example, but George believed that if you could see something clearly you could basically take its measure.
"Try it, I dare you," he said to the window in a gruff whisper, trying on a voice that sounded nowhere near as close to Clint Eastwood as he hoped. He was no Dirty Harry, but still George wished momentarily for the cool weight of a gun in his hands, if for no other reason than the feeling of confidence he was certain such a thing would provide. What sort of weapon did Clint Eastwood carry? George could not remember. He knew it was big, anyway, and he pictured himself with a pistol so large he could barely hold it up to aim.
Not that it would come to that. Any pests (and the rational part of his mind insisted a pest or a rodent was all he could have possibly heard in the first place) slinking around outside were doubtlessly attracted by the prospect of a free meal from unattended, unsecured garbage. George's heavy-duty plastic barrels, however, had their lids strapped down by two crisscrossing bungee cords, leaving the trash virtually impenetrable to anything short of a herd of elephants. He smiled at the idea of a coyote trotting miserably back into the forest, tail between its legs, pale tongue hanging.
He exhaled, and walked to the dining room window. He saw nothing outside there but the empty yard, the grass browning around the flower beds that had lain abandoned since Leah left. His reflection was there in the window, too, and George grimaced at the bags under his eyes and the stubble he had neglected to shave. He ran his hands over his cheeks, then turned his gaze to the living room, where Amanda sat on the couch, her knees gathered to her chest, arms wrapped around her shins. Her hair was freshly pulled back in a bun, still damp from her evening shower.
His daughter was fifteen but appeared at least four years older. George occasionally felt a stinging awareness of her approaching womanhood, a feeling confusingly located somewhere between a need to protect her and a quiet pride at both the person she was, and all the things she might become. He felt stranded in these moments, lost between happiness and despair at the reality of passing time; stranded somewhere on a woodland path he could walk only one way, could only follow into mounting darkness and deeper quiet. Whenever these feelings encroached, though, there was a part of him that ardently insisted Amanda was still his little girl, that there was still time, and he would wordlessly drift off, sitting at the kitchen table, looking at the newspaper but seeing her first teeth, her tottering initial steps, or the way that she threw up in the truck on the way to her first day of kindergarten.
He smiled at these memories and turned back to the window, wondering if he had heard anything at all. A moment ago he had been certain there were high, keening noises outside, but now he was not so sure. It had been a weak sound, he thought, some plaintive cry, and suggestive not of lonesomeness or mystery, but of something on its way out of the world. He imagined a coyote again, yelping helplessly as it plummeted off a cliff.
"Animals out there," George said. He said it dismissively, as if scoffing at their willingness even to exist. The sound of his own voice immediately made him feel safer. Amanda turned to him, seeming to freshly remember his presence, and then looked back to the television.
"Yeah?" she said.
"Yup," George said. "I oughta go out there with the old twelve-gauge, show 'em what's what."
"Dad, shut up. You don't have any guns."
"Use my bare hands," he growled. He held his hands out, miming the strangulation of some rabid grizzly bear, the foam from its muzzle coursing down his forearms. Amanda glanced at him and then shook her head slowly.
"You are so dumb."
George grinned. Their time together was all good-natured bickering, and pleasantly dominated by routine. For Amanda he knew the weekly visits were mere habit, and his house simply where she was told to spend her Thursdays, but George had come to depend on the comfort her arrival supplied. Often the rest of the week seemed distant and insignificant, stars he could not and did not care to name, and George struggled to dampen his enthusiasm so as not to annoy his daughter too terribly or squeeze her too hard when he picked her up from school.
From school they went home, to the house George had lived in alone for the eight years since Leah had packed her things, then packed Amanda's things, and drove away; he had not been wounded by the sight of her tail lights shrinking in the distance, so much as he had grieved over her decision to leave some of his daughter's clothes and toys with him. Leah had moved just four miles away, a house near a general store where George bought milk and frozen dinners and trash bags, and when he went shopping for small things he thought about Leah and whomever she was rumored around town to be dating now (it was always someone younger then George, someone freakishly muscular or athletic; an Olympian or a steroid addict), and he felt like the hopeless caretaker of an abandoned hotel, a stupidly devoted employee doomed to wait for two people he knew would not return.
He self-consciously tried to clean each week before she arrived, but knew even his best efforts would not keep Amanda's eye from a dish in the sink, or a discarded pair of socks hiding three-fourths of the way beneath the reclining chair, or a single hair clinging precariously to the bathroom mirror. Amanda was not unkind or unpleasant, nor quick to draw attention to such things, but George could feel his daughter casting the same critical gaze, possessed of the same unrelenting eye for detail as her mother, and this made him more than a little sad. It was clear to George that her personality otherwise mirrored his own, other than little bits here or there that occasionally surfaced like bubbles in a pond.
He would fetch a stray plate from beside his recliner in the living room, trying to keep Amanda from seeing it, and think of her not as a teenager that had inherited aspects of her mother's personality, but as a vulnerable girl corrupted by the least appealing aspects of a longtime captor. Time spent with her mother had stricken Amanda with Stockholm Syndrome, essentially, and George wondered what things might have been like if Amanda had grown up with him instead of largely without. While he valued everything about his child, he could not shake the idea that she had been unfairly diverted from the person she was supposed to be, and the aspects of her personality that, if only they had been allowed to blossom, might have been more like him.
After all, they seemed to have much in common -- particularly a comfortable affinity for silence. Unlike her mother, Amanda made no complaints about being in George's house, and seemed pleased when their social plans involved little more than splitting a mushroom and sausage pizza from the place by the traffic light. He made occasional attempts at conversation ("So, how's Kyla?" "I'm not friends with her -- she's a bitch."), but was mostly content merely to feel her warmth as part of the living room, as if she were a newly acquired piece of furniture that tied the room together spectacularly. Mostly, George was appreciative of her quiet nature, as to him it suggested satisfaction; this was, at least, the way that he was, and so he reasoned that even if he was not getting details about her after-school sports or revolving door of friendships, it was enough to know that she was here, and enough to suspect maybe -- just maybe -- his home was her reprieve from the rest of the world, the place she recharged her batteries. George was roused from his thoughts by the sharp ring of the telephone on the wall by the front door. He picked up the receiver.
"Hey. Just making sure you got her."
"Yes, Leah. I remembered my damn daughter, thanks."
Leah laughed, though it was not a sound that suggested she found anything funny. It was instead a signal of condescension, and if there was anything George hated about his ex-wife, it was her tendency to talk down to him, to regard him as unable to imagine what he truly sounded like when he spoke.
"Okay, George. I'll stop by in the morning to take her to school," Leah said.
He wanted to make sure that he got her with something; some verbal jab that would sting, that would make Leah feel the same pain once that he experienced every time he heard her voice, but the first thing that sprung to his mind came out awkward and vulgar, and before he even finished speaking he felt regret flood his stomach.
"Well I hope picking her up here that early doesn't interfere with your busy schedule of slutting around all over the place," George said, fully aware that he was not doing a very good job of hurting her as he had hoped. There was silence in response, though, only her measured breathing on the other end of the line, and that was something he hoped was an indication he had gotten to her, even a little.
"George," she said quietly, and that was all for a moment. "Goodnight."
George's first instinct was to shout into the phone, to tell Leah exactly what she could do with her attitude and her haughtiness, where she could shove all that shit, but before any words could come out he realized she had hung up on him.
"Of course," George muttered.
Leah was inconsiderate that way; unlike George, she had a profound talent for making others feel small. George looked at the phone and ran his other hand up his forehead and over the wispy hairs that covered less and less of the center of his skull. He began to laugh before he knew what he was doing; sound came out of him with a physical feeling of ejection, as if he were coughing up something trapped in his throat, constricting his breathing. Before long he was producing a chorus of rueful, barking laughter. He put the phone down.
"That Mom?" Amanda called.
"Sure. Sure was," he said. He walked back into the living room; there was a sitcom on television that he did not know, so he faced Amanda on the couch. Her eyes darted briefly to him, but then back to the screen, as if George were not present. He smiled, coughed, expecting a laugh but getting only something from deep in his chest that sounded congested, as if he had been fighting off a cold for months. "What's on?"
"Nothing," she said.
He suddenly wished she would look at him, acknowledge him. There was something in her voice that made him feel shorter, somehow, or perhaps simply unnecessary. There was something else, too -- a darkness to her complexion that persisted despite the standing lamp pouring light over her slender shoulders. George could not explain it, and he found himself picturing his darkened driveway, metal cans clattering to the ground, things hidden just out of view.
George wondered if Leah had said something to their daughter recently, something tactless, mean-spirited, and untrue -- something about the divorce. Maybe Amanda had taken whatever her mother had said to heart, carried it with her like a weight, and perhaps that was why she acted the way she did now, why she seemed so closed to him.
Yet he still could not bring himself immediately to anger, despite a rising chorus within that told George that he was right, he was justified. His ex-wife was poisoning his own flesh and blood against him for no good reason, ruining the best part of him, corrupting a young person who he felt more and more represented himself and the way he too was once trapped by Leah. He knew exactly what his daughter was experiencing, the shape of her troubles, even if she would not intentionally reveal them to him, and so he looked at her tan face and the pink zippered sweatshirt that she wore and he laughed.
"What?" she said. "Why are you laughing?"
"Hey," George said. "How's that homework? Getting after it?" He said this with an exaggerated musical tone, as if referencing something they had joked about together for years. She did not react, and so George leaned over and jabbed her playfully in the ribs.
She frowned and recoiled, and this made George annoyed; it was as if he had made a joke and she had not bothered to pay attention to the punch line he had so carefully built up. He did it again, this time curving his fingers inward, tickling her sides as he had when she was much younger. He could not remember how much younger she had been when this sort of thing happened often, as it was hard for George to remember specific times when they played or roughhoused together, but he was certain there had been times, even if they were indistinct to him.
"Dad, stop it," she said, letting her annoyance shine through. Now she flashed him a glare that told him she was not interested in playing, but George felt he had lost his footing somehow. There was ice beneath his feet, and his hands were clammy. He tickled his daughter, and when she slapped his hand away (hard, the blow stinging the skin on his wrist), he ruffled the damp, tight hair on the top of her head.
"Dad!" she shouted, and though there was a part of George that recognized the high note of panic in her voice, like the shrill knife of the telephone ringing out moments before, he could not stop himself. Something was propelling him, something that sunk heavy in his gut, hot and unavoidable -- not quite laughter and not quite fury, either. He pawed at her as she rolled backward on the couch cushions, away from him, kicking her legs and gaining a few feet of distance. He took a step toward her, wanting now to apologize, and then Amanda landed a hard fist across his lower jaw and George's head snapped backward.
He stumbled a few steps and heard her vault over the living room furniture, and registered the hot wind of her breath as she passed him quickly. He could tell she was beyond thinking now, that the situation had become irrevocable. George felt a measure of pride at her physicality as he turned around and felt the throbbing pain blossoming in his face, but it faded when he saw her thin back and powerful legs running down the hallway, through the kitchen and toward the front door. Her hair had come undone and now hung loosely down to her shoulders. George watched her depart as if in slow motion and saw a grown woman that was hard to place in relation to the little girl he knew. He trotted woozily behind her.
"Amanda! Honey, I'm so sorry," he called behind her. She had run out of the house, leaving the door open behind her. George looked down the pavement of his driveway and the path it cut between dark banks of pine trees, and wondered if his daughter had stayed on the road or cut into the woods. It was a short distance to the neighbor's house, where he imagined she would run, and a longer distance to Leah's apartment in town.
He called her name again, alarmed both at the quiet of his mind in recognizing the finality of the situation and the silence of the night around him. George could feel fall approaching in the air, the smell of something on the way, the winter not yet hinted at but doubtless eventually to arrive. "Amanda?" he said.
George reached the door and flicked a light switch that controlled a flood light that illuminated his front steps. The light hit the driveway and his pickup, but Amanda was gone. George wondered if she was hiding somewhere, behind his truck or in the trees. He heard the television blaring behind him in the house, and knew that soon enough that noise would be joined by the noise of the telephone ringing again. It was only a matter of time.
George flipped the light switch down and the driveway fell back into formless gloom. He stood on the porch and listened, hoping to hear something. Perhaps the sound of his daughter's breath, returning to a slow, even, peaceful pace, or maybe her voice calling to him cautiously, to try and bridge the gap that had opened between them. He tried to imagine what Amanda might say, but her voice in his reckoning sounded less like his daughter and more like Leah, and this confused him so profoundly that he felt unable to move. George could only stand, listening to the night, a lone owl hooting, the breeze rustling through trees whose branches he could not make out. He squinted at the indistinct world, thinking of his daughter, thinking of calling to her but no longer knowing how. A car passed somewhere close, its headlights briefly illuminating the world around him, and George found himself thinking of eyes lit in the darkness, of things slinking back and forth, watching and waiting for the right time to surprise him with a strike he could never have seen coming.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Kenneth Gagnon. All rights reserved.