The room tilted, and Kimberly had to clutch the wall to keep from falling. Something like an electrical jolt shot up her spine, causing a cool sweat to form on her back and under her armpits. Her mouth turned to sand and, knees buckling, she slid down the wall until her bottom hit the linoleum floor with a gentle thud.
She was only vaguely aware of the voice on the other line.
“Kim? Are you still there?”
Kimberly opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came. A sudden wave of nausea gripped her as she struggled to find her voice.
“Uh…” It was all she managed to choke out.
“Kim?” George asked again, and then he muttered, “God, I’m sorry.”
George. Her father. The man she’d tried so hard to forget was on the phone with her right now.
The last time she’d heard from him he had called out of the blue to tell her he’d had gallbladder surgery and that it had gone well.
She still recalled her exact words to him, “I’m glad. The next time you call me, it better be from your deathbed.”
Then, she’d hung up on him.
That had been five years ago. She’d been angrier then. Harder. She’d just lost her husband and at that point in her life, had buried the pain of her abuse so deeply she’d nearly forgotten it happened.
Kimberly hated herself for the reaction she was having now. In the span of one minute this man’s voice had transformed her from grown woman to terrified teenager again.
“Kim,” George spoke again, “I know you’re there. Before you hang up on me, please just listen.”
Kimberly made another unintelligible sound that George must have taken for assent because the man spoke rapidly, his story bursting from him.
“Alright, I know the last time I called you, you told me not to call again unless I was dying. Well, I’m not dying, but…”
To Kimberly surprise, she heard a choked sob on the other end of the line.
A lump formed in Kimberly’s throat and tears came unbidden into her eyes.
She never seen or heard her father cry.
“It’s your mother,” George gasped, “God, Kim, it’s your mother. I’m so sorry to tell you this over the phone but she’s, Kim, she’s … she’s dying.”
Kimberly had to cover her mouth to prevent the scream rising within her from bursting forth and reaching Lynn’s ears. “W-what?” Kimberly’s voice came out in a choked whisper. Her body trembled all over. “Oh, God, what?”
She couldn’t let Lynn see her like this.
“W-Wait,” Kimberly managed to stammer.
Kimberly grabbed the wall, pulled herself into a standing position and staggered to the bathroom, closing and locking the door behind her.
Slumping down onto the beige carpet by the door, she sobbed.
“Had … had to get into the bathroom,” Kimberly stammered. “Didn’t want Lynn to see…”
George made no attempt to hide his emotion. “Everything … I … Oh, God …” George cried as he sobbed openly.
“What … when?” Kimberly asked, trying to get her breathing under control.
The line went silent.
“Dad?” Kimberly said. The word tasted foreign in her mouth. She cleared her throat. “George … Jesus Christ!”
“No,” George replied soberly, “that I am definitely not.”
Kimberly felt a strange urge to chuckle. Father and daughter had their defense mechanisms in common, that was for sure.
“Tell me what’s wrong, please,” Kimberly said, reaching behind her to grab a fistful of toilet paper. She dabbed at her eyes and tried to blow her nose one-handed.
“Your mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer,” George said, clearing his throat several times. He took a deep breath and continued. “We found out a month ago, and she wanted to keep it quiet. We figured she’d get treatment and she’d be fine. But, the doctors have told us that even with chemo and radiation, the cancer is spreading so rapidly that there is nothing more they can do. It’s in her bones now. It’s spreading so fast.”
“How … how long does she … have?”
“A few months, maybe.”
“I can … I can come there.” Kimberly's voice extended the offer before her brain had a chance to protest.
“Can you … would you tell Paul? I don’t have his number. You could give it to me. I’ll call if—”
“I’ll do it,” Kimberly insisted, regaining some of her composure.
Now that she had at least this one small task to do, she could get a better grip on her emotions.
“Are you sure?” George asked.
“Yes,” Kimberly replied, wiping her eyes once more.
Grabbing the edge of the sink, she pulled herself to her feet.
She stared at her reflection in the mirror as her father continued to speak. She caught the important words, but most of his side of the conversation slipped by as she stared at her own swollen blue eyes and pale face.
“...If you’re sure it’s alright,” George was saying. “It’s just I haven’t spoken to Paul in almost ten years, and—”
“I’ll do it,” Kimberly said, turning from the mirror. “Where is Mom now?”
“She’s at Saint Joseph’s. She’s having a procedure done in the morning.”
“I’ll be up in a few days. I’ll talk to Paul.”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, and then George hung up.
Kimberly took a deep breath and rested the cordless phone on the sink as she turned on the tap. She splashed several handfuls of cold water onto her face and patted it dry. Taking a small brush from the medicine cabinet, she ran it through her hair a few times and then fluffed it with her hands.
She pinched her cheeks to get some of the color back into them.
The effect was minimal. She still didn’t look at all presentable, and even a blind child would know something was wrong.
She hugged herself and deflated against the bathroom door.
How am I supposed to tell Paul?
The knock at the bathroom door startled her.
“Kimberly?” Gary said. “Are you alright?”
“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Kimberly asked again.
“Honey,” Gary said, putting his hands on her shoulders and giving her a quick kiss on the lips, “You and Cheryl go out. Get out of the house and spend some time. Lynn and I will be fine.”
It had been five hours since the call from her father.
When she’d seen Gary at the bathroom door, she’d thrown her arms around him and sobbed all over again. He’d taken her upstairs and listened while she told him the story. Then he’d made dinner while Kimberly rested alone.
“Why don’t we go over to Ruby’s?” Cheryl suggested when Kimberly got into the car. “We can have a cup of coffee and just talk.”
Kimberly stared out the window as they passed houses and trees. In the front yard, a man was swinging his young daughter around while her mother sat on the front steps with her giggling son.
“I think I’m going to have to take a leave of absence from work,” Kimberly said as they headed out onto the highway.
Cheryl looked over at her. “That’s not a bad idea. Considering everything you’ve been going through with Lynn and now this, you really need some time for yourself.”
“Gary is being very supportive of you. He’s trying.”
Kimberly turned to look at Cheryl. “You know what, though? Something doesn’t feel right to me anymore.”
Cheryl’s eyebrows lifted. “Really?”
“Well, between what’s going on with Lynn and dealing with your own past trauma, how could anything feel right?”
“I’m changing,” Kimberly replied, turning to glance out the window once more.
“You said that once before. What do you mean?”
Gary grabbed the DVD and popped into the player. He shook the bag of microwave popcorn in his hand and turned around to face Lynn, who was sitting on the far edge of the couch.
“What do you want to drink, sweetie?”
Lynn didn’t respond.
Gary moved closer and waved his free hand in front of the child's face.
As the DVD showed previews of coming attractions, Lynn continued to stare at the screen unblinking.
The colors from the TV playing out over Lynn’s slack-jawed face had an eerie effect that made Gary stifle a shudder.
He bent low and waved his hand in front of Lynn's face.
“Lynn?” Gary said with a nervous chuckle. “Yoohoo, anybody home?”
Lynn blinked. When she leveled her gaze on Gary, the look in her eyes made his blood run cold.
“Where is my mommy?” Lynn asked, her tone flat and emotionless.
“She went out with Aunt Cheryl, honey,” Gary replied, backing up a step and setting the popcorn down on the coffee table next to the beer he'd opened for himself.
Several popped kernels spilled out onto the carpet and, as Gary took several more steps away from Lynn, they crunched under his feet, but he didn't dare take his eyes off of the young girl. “She’ll probably be back by the time the movie is over.”
Lynn continued to stare at him, her wide, unblinking gaze unnerving.
“You hurt her, didn’t you?” Lynn accused, her voice like gravel.
As Lynn stared up at him, her features twisted into a look of pure rage.
“I know what you did to her!” Lynn screamed.
“Lynn…” Gary faltered, raising his hands in defense.
“I know what you did to her!” Lynn shrieked again, her gravelly voice now echoing off the walls.
Gary didn’t know how to respond.
Is she having another one of her episodes?
Lynn stood so suddenly, so violently, that Gary felt his throat tighten with dread. He didn't feel like he was in the room with a seven-year-old girl anymore. He felt as if he'd been cornered by a wild animal.
A long-buried memory from 30 years ago chose that exact moment to surface while he stood rooted to the spot, his eyes locked onto Lynn's, his heart hammering in his chest.
He was 15-years-old, home in North Carolina, hunting with his grandfather. It was an area he'd never been to before. They were looking for deer, and, for the first time on a hunting trip, they'd separated.
When young Gary heard movement in the brush behind him, he turned slowly, lifted his rifle, held his breath ... and nearly shit himself on the spot.
The animal making its way through the woods was not the first deer Gary was hoping to bag on his own to make his granddad proud. Nope, it was a 400-pound black bear, and it looked mean.
Teenage Gary felt as though his body had been turned to stone. While he stared at the behemoth and it stared back, an image of the Greek goddess, Medusa, chose that exact moment to come into his mind.
After all, the creature had turned him to stone, hadn't it?
So, there he was, 15, holding a rifle, trembling, tears streaming down his face, as a strange, high-pitched laugh squeaked out from behind his clenched jaw.
The encounter lasted less than a minute. Granddad realized what happened, shot in the air, scared the bear off, and Gary dropped to his knees in the dirt. He couldn't speak or stop shaking for an hour or more.
His dad gave him a hard time, but his grandfather understood.
“Hunting is one thing,” Granddad had said, “but when you're the one being hunted, there's nothing else like it. You feel it in your bones, and you never forget it. Ever.”
It was true. Gary never had completely forgotten it, but age and comfort had mellowed the memory, weaving it into an interesting and even funnier tale he could whip out whenever there was a lull in the conversation.
“Does a bear shit in the woods?”
“Damn, straight, and I about near did myself when I saw one!”
Lots of laughs. But there was nothing funny about this. Here, in a suburban house in Massachusetts, surrounded by all the conveniences of modern living, Gary was 15 again, and that bear was ready to eat him alive.
Lynn took another step toward him, and it was then that Gary noticed something odd about her leg. Her left foot was on the ground, but her right remained on the couch, as though tethered there by invisible string.
“When are you going to let me go?” Lynn questioned, her voice now meek and frightened.
“Let you go?” Gary asked. His eyes still fixed on her right leg. It was twisted at a very odd angle. What was she doing?
“LET ME GO!” Lynn shrieked, her entire body thrusting forward, hands tight, fists at her sides.
Gary felt a sudden rush of air, and he toppled over into the TV, barely managing to catch himself before his face smashed into the LED screen.
A moment later, his shoulder hit the corner of the entertainment center with a hard crack. Wincing in pain, but with enough presence of mind to keep himself from further damage, he rolled to the side, guiding the 70 inch TV onto the carpet as gently as possible. As it fell over onto its back, the screen went black, but, by some miracle, it remained intact.
When Gary turned to face Lynn's direction, he saw, to his horror, that she was now apparently free from her imaginary bondage and was now advancing on him, her lips pulled back into a savage snarl.
“So, you don’t think you have feelings for Gary anymore, is that what you’re saying?” Cheryl asked.
“No,” Kimberly replied with a sigh, settling back in the red leather booth.
The diner was empty save an elderly couple on the other side of the room.
“Well, what is it, then?” Cheryl asked, taking a sip of her coffee. “You haven’t really explained these ‘changes’.”
“That's hard to do. I don’t think it dawned on me until tonight how much what Lynn is going through is affecting me.”
“I can’t imagine the stress you’re under,” Cheryl said, her brown eyes warm and sympathetic. “Not only do you have Lynn and the problems she’s facing to deal with, but now your mother’s illness. It can’t be easy.”
Kimberly shook her head and stared out the window. “It’s that ... and something more.”
Cheryl waited for Kimberly to continue.
“I mean, I never dealt with anything from my childhood. I didn’t allow myself to. After I got out of the hospital, I ran away with Roger and, as you know, he was even worse than my father. After that, I at least managed to get myself back on track by going to school and getting a degree.
The thing is, in all of that, I disowned my parents. I just let them fade away. Eventually they got the hint and stopped calling and writing.
I was naive enough to get married, settle down, adopt a child and think that somehow my past would never catch up with me.”
“Ahh…” Cheryl said. “I think I see where you’re headed.”
Kimberly turned and leaned her elbows on the table resting her chin atop her closed fists.
“You’ve never dealt with your own inner child,” Cheryl said. “And now, Lynn is experiencing all of the symptoms of somebody abused…”
“And…” Cheryl continued, ignoring the interruption, “you have to handle these things now. You start therapy, you start sharing, and boom, your father calls you out of the blue.”
Kimberly nodded. “Exactly.”
Cheryl blew out a long breath. A bemused smile formed at the corners of her mouth. “I don’t blame you for feeling as though you’re changing. You are.”
Kimberly gaped. “So, is this a good thing, then?”
Cheryl shrugged and sank back into her seat.
“If you look at it from the point of view of an optimist, yes, it is. You’re growing out of your old self by dealing with the demons of your past. It’s kind of like when a snake sheds its skin or a crab gets too big for its shell. You’re no longer hiding.”
Kimberly made a face. “No, apparently I’m molting.”
Cheryl laughed. “OK, you’re emerging, like a butterfly. Is that better?”
Kimberly smiled. “Much.”
“So, how did Paul take the news?”
“He took it better than I thought he would. He can’t go up right away, he needs to find somebody to cover his cases first, but he plans to go.”
“So, do you know in what way your feelings for Gary have changed?”
“I think I’m outgrowing him.”
The elderly woman laughed just then, sending a merry little tinkle echoing through the diner. Both women turned to look as the elderly woman’s husband covered her hand with his. They couldn’t have been younger than 80, but the light of love shone in their eyes as though they were still a young couple on their honeymoon.
Kimberly shook her head, cleared her throat and chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” Cheryl asked.
“This is all your fault.”
Cheryl frowned. “What is?”
“Well, I never would have met him if you hadn’t bought me that dental floss you called a bikini last year!”
Both woman burst out laughing, and they couldn't stop. Soon, tears were streaming down their faces, and they were struggling to catch their breath.
The elderly couple had turned to look at them. Even the cook popped his head out prepared to scold a group of teenagers.
When he saw the women, he shook his head and smiled, the remonstration dying on his lips.
Kimberly’s pocket vibrated, and she laughed harder. “Oh, jeez,” Kimberly gasped. “Hold on, my butt is ringing.”
Cheryl almost toppled out of the seat. “OK, we have to stop!” Cheryl cried, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Wait, your what is ringing?”
Kimberly pulled the cell phone out of her back pocket and stopped short when she saw it was Gary calling from the house. “Oh, no.”
She put the phone to her ear. “Hello?”
“Kimberly, you need to come home,” Gary said by way of greeting.
All traces of laughter were immediately wiped clean by the edge in his voice.
“Lynn is OK,” Gary answered, making an audible effort to soften his tone, “but she just scared the shit out of me. She’s in her room now. She won’t talk to me. She wants you.”
“She scared you?”
Cheryl’s face showed no sign of her earlier merriment as her eyes widened with concern.
“She sort of, well, zoned out again, I guess,” Gary explained. “We were going to watch a DVD, and all of a sudden, she started saying things that didn’t make sense. She got up so fast, I fell into the TV and nearly broke it.”
“Oh, God,” Kimberly moaned, gripping the phone. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine.” Gary’s response was gruff.
“What did she say?”
“Kim, I have no clue what she said,” Gary said. “My shoulder is killing me. I got up from the floor, and she was just staring at me and then, well, you’re not going to believe this because I never would have if I hadn’t seen it…”
Kimberly heard Gary sigh on the other end of the line.
“She threw a beer bottle at me.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Gary cut in, “she didn’t pick it up, Kimberly, she threw it without touching it.”