Emily was alone in the apartment when she found the photograph. Her mom, Carla, had gone to the corner for cigarettes, at least that's what she said, and her fifteen-year-old sister, Lacey, was on a date.
Earlier, she watched Carla snatch the keys off the kitchen counter. "I'll be back in a few minutes," she said, locking the door of their apartment as she left.
You should say a few hours instead of a few minutes, Emily thought, feeling quite a bit smarter since she had started second grade and learned to tell time. She knew Carla wouldn't be back until it was very dark and very late.
She went into the bedroom she shared with Lacey and stood in front of the dresser mirror. She picked up some lipstick, took off the cap and twisted the bottom, smiling as the thick, bright color appeared. She tried to slide it across her lips the same way Lacey did. Then she pursed her mouth and said, "Oh, baby, kiss me." She put on some eye shadow and blush, each time making a face in the mirror and giggling.
Tired of the game, she went down the hall to Carla's bedroom where she opened a drawer and peered inside. Nothing good here, she thought, digging through the mess. Then she saw the photograph. Someone had taken a pair of scissors and cut out the person standing next to Carla. Emily's breath came in short, excited gasps, and her hands trembled when she picked it up. Was it a picture of her dad? She could tell the missing person was a man, because she could still see his shoes. Dismembered hands and arms floated on either side of the cut edges -- smooth, muscular arms and big hands.
Her eyes began to burn and tingle. She rubbed them hard and shook her head, willing herself not to cry. Why did you have to go and wreck the picture, she thought? You can't make him disappear. He might not be here right now, but he didn't go away forever. He's coming back. Coming back to get me.
Emily stared at the picture. Carla looked so pretty with her head tilted back and her long hair curling around her shoulders. There was a big grin on her face, as though she had been laughing when the photo was taken.
Emily tried to remember if she'd ever seen her mom laugh like that -- during the day, anyway. Last night Carla brought a friend home, and then Emily heard laughter. Too much laughter. Even buried beneath her covers with the door closed, the noise crowded into her bedroom.
It would be nice to be in that picture with a mom who wasn't mad all the time, or yelling, but it would be even better to have a dad. The day Tony Peter's dad came to class and talked about his job, Emily couldn't stand it anymore. "Where's my dad?" she asked when she got home from school.
Carla's eyes narrowed, and she stared at Emily for a long time. Her cold, hard look made Emily's stomach hurt. "You don't have one," Carla said.
Emily had seen dads on TV, and lots of the kids at school had a father or a stepfather. She whispered in protest. "But I have to have a dad."
She felt the sting of the slap on her cheek. "Watch your mouth, little girl," Carla said and grabbed her keys. That time she didn't get home until almost morning.
Emily's face had been sore all night and part of the next day. She never asked again, but she knew Carla was wrong. Everyone had a dad. Even Jeremy, who lived next door, had a father, a small, nasty man who moved out last month.
Unlike Emily, Jeremy did not miss having a dad. "All I ever got from my dad was bruises and headaches from him beatin' on me and screamin' in my face," he said. "My mom and me decided he can stay gone." Emily remembered the awful sounds coming from Jeremy's apartment while his father lived there, and she couldn't help but agree with her friend. She didn't want to hurt his feelings by telling him her dad would be different. Now, after seeing the photograph, she knew for sure he was special. He had made Carla happy.
Emily liked Jeremy, but all they did was walk to school together. The girls at school talked about sleep-overs and the other fun stuff they did, but Emily didn't waste any time trying to join in. She couldn't imagine bringing someone home to spend the night in a bed with sheets that never got changed, or to watch television in a living room littered with ashtrays, dirty glasses, and garbage.
I'm going to keep this picture, she decided. For a moment, she worried about her mom finding out it was gone. She glanced around the room. With all this junk, Carla would never notice. She ran down the hall to her room and grabbed her special kitty pillow off the bed. She zipped it open, dropped the picture inside, and closed it back up again. Smiling, she clutched the pillow to her chest. Mine, she thought. All mine.
Darkness crept into her bedroom and shadows appeared on the wall. She scurried around the apartment and turned on all the lights. Then she looked in the refrigerator for something to eat. Both the fridge and the breadbox beside it were empty. She found a box of crackers, went into the living room, and turned on the TV. At first, all she could find were stupid cartoons, so she kept turning the channel.
Sometimes when she watched TV, she pretended to be part of the family in the show. She wanted to be the cute little sister, the one everyone fussed over and who always got lots of hugs. Or she could be the smart and funny girl who found the mother's missing diamond earring, or the neighbor's lost puppy. Tonight, though, she couldn't imagine anything. Not with someone hollering and banging on a door down the hall. Not with that terrible smell coming from a big stain on the carpet in front of the couch. It's all made up, she thought and turned off the TV. Nobody really lives like that.
Her eyelids grew heavy and she stifled a yawn. She shuffled down the hall to her room, and, leaving the light on, she crawled into bed, still wearing her clothes. Less laundry to do, Carla always said. Emily pulled the covers high up over her head. Her eyes clenched shut, she chanted in a fierce whisper. "I wish for a dad. I want to be in a family." She had done this every night before she went to sleep since she was four and a half.
This time the words sounded silly. The wishes would never come true, she thought, but tomorrow morning the big garbage trucks will wake me up, and I can go to school. She grew warm and sleepy thinking about school. Her teacher, Mrs. Matthews, had a smile that felt just like a hug, and she never said things like, "For God's sake, shut up. You're making my head hurt." As she fell asleep, Emily hoped Mrs. Matthews would let her collect the milk money tomorrow.
She woke up during the night and heard Carla laughing. Then the sound of a strange man's voice drifted into her room. She unzipped her pillow, reached inside and touched the photograph. Then she went back to sleep.
About the author:
Susan B. Townsend is a writer and stay at home mother. Transplanted from the west coast of Canada five years ago, she now makes her home on a 300 acre farm in southeastern Virginia with her husband, five children, and a zoo full of animals. Her work has appeared in Skirt!, Flashquake, Sidewalk's End, Moondance, Pierian Springs, Poor Mojo's Alamanc(k), SaucyVox, The Dead Mule and Megaera.