Fine

Emily Densten

Emily Densten

She was not my little girl anymore, and she hadn’t been for a while.  She hadn’t slept under our roof in over four years, but her old bed looked emptier than ever, and I didn’t know where she was.  Karen wanted to report her as missing after a day, but she wasn’t missing, not really.  She was just gone. We couldn’t report a kidnapping when the kidnapper and the kidnapped were the same person.

Jane disappeared a month before she was supposed to marry William Dover, a generally nice man with too much money and not enough personality.  At the time, her mother and I couldn’t figure out what happened.  Right then, in the haze of all those cake tastings and dress fittings and seat arrangements, we really thought she was in love with Will, or at least that she loved him. Now I know how ridiculous that notion was, that Jane could ever love someone so bland.

Two days after we realized she was gone, I found Karen sleeping in Janie’s old bed.  She’d pretended she had been cleaning and lain down to rest her eyes, but I knew.  We had hired a housekeeper to come once a week years ago specifically so Karen wouldn’t have to tidy up.  She was not cleaning. She was trying to hold on to her only daughter, her only child.

*

Janie had never been the type of child to let her nightmares get the best of her.  When she was in elementary school, she would tell us about the monsters that chased her through the night over cold cereal and orange juice.

“You know, Janie,” Karen said once.  “If you ever get scared, you can always come and sleep with Daddy and me.”

“That’s okay,” she replied, and continued eating.

I watched Karen’s fingers tighten around her coffee mug.  “Are you sure, sweetie?  It’s okay to be scared.”

Jane took a gulp of juice and said, “I’m not scared, Mommy.  Once I wake up I know they’re just dreams.”  Then she turned to me and said, “Ready for school, Daddy?”

*

She called once, about a week after she left, but she wouldn’t tell me where she had gone.  I was sitting in my office reading and drinking a cup of black tea.  My desk phone began singing, but I didn’t answer.  I figured Karen would answer like she usually did.  I had forgotten, or pretended not to notice, that after Jane left Karen stopped doing most of the things she usually did.  I finally put down my book and answered.

“Hi, Daddy.”  She sounded so far away.  Like she wasn’t in this state, or this country, or this world.  I almost thought she wasn’t Jane at all.

“Janie,” I said.  “Where are you?  Can we come see you?”  I couldn’t help myself.

“Not yet,” she replied from wherever she was.  “I just wanted to tell you I’m okay.  I need to be alone for a little while longer.”

I wanted to tell her I knew she would be okay.  She would always be okay.  Instead, I said, “Let me get Mom.”

“I can’t talk to Mom.  I just wanted to tell you I’m okay and I love you.  Both of you.”  And then she hung up.  I wouldn’t hear from her again for another two months.

*

We were never the sort to plan fun activities together, to go on family adventures.  But one summer, when Jane was about seven, we rented a beach house for a week.  Even then, we were pretending to be like other families, or what we thought other families were like.

Every day we would sit on the shore looking out at the vast ocean.  Sometimes Karen would read and I would sleep; other times I would read and she would sleep.  Jane built sandcastle after sandcastle adorned with broken shells and dried seaweed she found nearby.  Karen made sure Janie only went in the ocean if she was with her.  They never went in very far, because Karen didn’t like the salt on her skin.  She made Jane hold her hand the whole time.

One day, toward the end of the trip, Karen and I both slept.  We were exhausted from days of sunlight and a young daughter.  I woke up squinting against the low-hanging sun.  My face felt flushed.

“Karen.”  I nudged her.  “Where’s Jane?”

“What?”  She woke to full consciousness instantly.  “Weren’t you watching her?”

“I guess I fell asleep,” I said, standing.  Her reaction made me nervous.  I started to wonder if Jane was hurt.

“You fell asleep?”

“I’m sure she’s fine,” I said, reassuring myself as much as Karen.

“Janie!” Karen shrieked, taking off back toward our house.  I started scanning the beach, starting all the way to my left and moving slowly to my right.  I used my hands as a visor.  Most of the afternoon beachgoers had gone home for dinner, but I still could not see my little girl.

I was ready to start combing every square inch of the beach when I heard shuffling below eyelevel.  “Hi, Daddy!”

“Jane!”  I scooped her up in my arms, holding her tight.  “We were so worried about you.  Mommy—”

“Look what I found.”  She held out her tiny palm to show three unbroken shells.  There was nothing special about them except that they were hers.

I kissed the top of her head, trying not to show how scared I had been.  “You found those?”

She nodded, proud.

*

In those months between calls, Karen and I mostly didn’t speak, and occasionally we argued.  I came to realize we had only stayed together for Jane’s sake.  Except, Jane didn’t need us to do that.

“Why couldn’t she just marry him?” Karen whispered one morning.  I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me, or herself, or no one.

“She didn’t love him,” I responded, always my daughter’s defender.

Karen stared at me over her cup of cold coffee.  I had thought there was a time when I could almost read her mind, but I realized that morning, staring back at her, trying to read her face, trying to figure out what she was going to say next, if anything at all, that I never knew her thoughts.  I never knew anything about her at all.

“That didn’t stop us,” she said, leaving the room, the coffee, and me behind.

After that, we stopped pretending all together.  We still lived under the same roof, but we did not live together.  We were still married, but we were not husband and wife.  Karen slept in Jane’s old bed some nights, then most nights, then all nights.  I wanted to ask her why she didn’t just leave, but then I wondered why I didn’t just leave.  It was just as much my house as hers.  Really, it was our house.  Which meant it was no one’s house.  “Our” didn’t exist anymore.  “We” was a ghost.

*

Janie moved out of the house she grew up in four years before she didn’t marry Will, after she graduated from college.  I was sad to see her go, as much as I tried to hide it, but glad her new apartment was only ten minutes away.  Karen was similarly trying to repress her true feelings, but, on the day of Jane’s move, she could keep them bottled up no longer.

“Mom, I’ve been living on my own most of the last four years anyway.  I was home from school less than half of the year.”  Jane stood in front of her mother who sat in the center of a large couch in the living room.  I sat in an armchair on the other side of Jane, trying not to intervene.

“Yes,” Karen said.  “And your father and I gave you money the entire time.  How are you going to feed yourself?”

“I don’t need you to do that anymore.  I have a job.”  She exhaled slowly.  “And I’ve thanked you for helping me out through school a million times.”

Karen said nothing and Jane said nothing else.  I glanced at the clock to my left and realized the movers would be halfway to Jane’s new apartment.  “Janie,” I said, gesturing to the clock perched on the mantle.

“Shit,” she said under her breath, so that only I could hear.  And then, “Mom, can we just fight about this later?  Please.”  Her mother did not answer, so she left the room and the house to catch up with her belongings.

I started after her, and then realized Karen hadn’t budged.  “Are you coming, Karen?”

“If she doesn’t need me for anything else, then she doesn’t need my help moving.”

*

Jane’s second phone call came late one night, and I knew it was just for me.  Before I even answered, I knew it was her.  I didn’t even bother to think of Karen.  My mind knew before I did that the woman I lived near would be fast asleep already.

“I knew you’d be awake still,” my daughter said, forgoing a greeting.

“You get your sleep cycle from me,” I replied, trying to pretend we were having a normal conversation, trying to pretend I hadn’t waited for this call every day since the last one.  I leaned forward over the desk, rounding my shoulders.

“I actually just got done work.”

“Where do you work that you get off at two in the morning?”

She said, “I’m happy,” skipping right over my next three questions.

“I miss you,” I said, caring about her feelings, but caring about my own more.

“I can’t come home.”

I knew she needed to be away from Karen and me, and everyone she ever knew.  I knew she needed to finally be treated like an adult, and be completely on her own for once.  But I also knew I needed to see her, and hug her, and help her.  I needed to make everything okay for her.

“Where are you?”

“Dad,” I heard her breathing, trying to think of what to say.  “I’m okay,” and that was all.  She was fine and she always would be, whether she lived in my house, or on the other side of town, or on the other side of the country.  There was nothing else I could do, but tell her I loved her and make her promise to call again.

We said goodbye, I placed the phone back in the cradle and eased back into my desk chair.  Karen stood, arms crossed, leaning against the doorframe.  She had likely been there for most of our conversation.

“That was Janie,” I said, forcing the new witch’s brew of emotion back down my throat.

She stared back in response, maybe waiting for more, maybe shocked into silence.

“She has a job,” I said, trying to tell her how capable her daughter was without saying much of anything.

Karen stayed silent and continued to look right at me, or maybe even through me; maybe she hadn’t heard me at all.  Then she turned around and walked back up the stairs.  I followed, watching her enter her daughter’s old bedroom, hearing the lock click into place.  I made no effort to argue or discover what her silence meant.  Walking straight by where Karen slept, I went to the end of the hall to our old bedroom, now my bedroom.  Without undressing, I got into the bed, far too big for two people, let alone one.

3 Comments

  1. Hauntingly beautiful. So pure, simple and true.

  2. This story was one that I came back to and gave about five-read throughs–it wasn’t that the story isn’t powerful–clearly, it is–this is one of those pieces of writing that doesn’t tip its hand to you immediately, and I appreciate that, especially here. I found myself, throughout the reading period, thinking about this story–which made me come back to re-read, re-visit it, and consider it fully–the writing is deceptively simple–and I think that sometimes, like a shy person, that trait can be misinterpreted. make no mistake, this piece is elegantly constructed, and straight-forward and honest in its intentions. But it doesn’t yell, doesn’t raise its voice; it simply tells its truth and trusts that the reader will take pause and really listen. “Fine” is like a pot of water on low heat. You may not notice as the temperature rises, but make no mistake, it will boil. The true test of a story’s power, to me, is how it attaches itself to the truth of the reader’s life. This story has–and will–be one that I remember often, frequently, fondly.

  3. Firstly, Allie, what an extraordinary, keen commentary on this piece. Secondly, this stands as one of my favorite recent short-story reads. I can’t express it better than Allie, but just know that I posted it on my wall, that I’m a writer in awe of another writer, and that I love this story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *