“Richard, this is my daughter, Elizabeth. Everyone we know calls her Liz, though.”
Richard eyed me up and down in a way that made me feel less like a person. He studied me as if I was a porcelain doll he wanted to watch shatter. I tried not to show my discomfort, but it seeped through as my eyes shifted to the ground. “How do you do, Liz?”
“Elizabeth,” I corrected, my voice hitting the concrete I’d been staring down at. “Only people I know call me Liz.”
“Liz, that is no way to speak to him!” Mama scolded, her slight wrinkles deepening in her forehead. She would’ve had a fit if she’d known her wrinkles were showing. I hated how whenever a new man came around, she was quick to back them up instead of standing up for me.
“It’s all right, Hannah. Besides, she’s right. It takes time to get to know somebody. Nicknames need to be earned, not given out freely.” There was something so slimy about the way Richard stared at me and puffed on his cigar. I was wearing a pair of loose jeans and a plain, oversized T-shirt, but his eyes made me feel exposed. “We were about to go grab a bite to eat in town, if you want to join us,” he offered.
I declined. “Emma’s still sleeping.” My eyes glanced back at the house where my baby girl was lying on the pullout sofa she and I’d been sharing for one too many nights since we’d moved back in with Mama.
Mama wasn’t the only one who’d lost the love of her life.
Hopefully I wouldn’t end up like her.
Hopefully I’d just stay in the sad phase.
It’d been a year since Steven passed away, and still each breath was hard to swallow. Emma’s and my true home was back in Meadows Creek, Wisconsin. It was a fixer-upper place where Steven, Emma, and I had taken a house and created a home. We fell deeper in love, into fights, and back in love, over and over again.
It became a place of warmth just by us being within its walls, and after Steven passed away, a drift of coldness filled the space.
The last time he and I were together, his hand was around my waist in the foyer and we were creating memories we’d thought would last forever.
Forever was much shorter than anyone would ever like to believe.
For the longest time, life flowed in its accustomed stream, and one day it all came to a shocking stop.
I’d felt the suffocation of the memories, of the sadness, so I’d run off to stay with Mama.
Going back to the house would ultimately be me facing the truth that he was really gone. For over a year, I’d been living in make-believe, pretending he’d gone out for milk and would be walking through the door any time now. Each evening when I lay down to sleep, I stayed on the left side and closed my eyes, pretending Steven was against the right.
But now, my Emma needed more. My poor Emma needed freedom from pullout couches, strange men, and gossiping neighbors who said words that should never fill a five-year-old’s ears. She needed me too. I’d been walking through the darkness, only being half the mother she deserved, so maybe facing the memories of our house would help bring me more peace.
I headed back inside the house and looked down at my sleeping angel, her chest rising and falling in a perfect pattern. She and I had much in common, from our dimpled cheeks to the blonde tone of our hair. We shared the same kind of laugh that was quiet, yet grew loud in the company of the ones we loved. She smiled out of the right corner of her mouth and frowned out of the left, the same way my lips did.
But there was one big difference.
She had his blue eyes.
I lay beside Emma, placing a gentle kiss against her nose before I reached into the heart-shaped tin box and read another love letter. It was one I’d read before, yet it still tugged at my spirit.
Sometimes I pretended the letters were from Steven.
I always cried a little.
“Are we really going home?” asked sleepy Emma when morning came through the living room window, spilling light against her sweet face. I picked her up from the bed and placed her and Bubba—her teddy bear and all-time favorite companion—on the closest chair. Bubba wasn’t simply a teddy bear, he was a mummified teddy bear. See, my little girl was a little weird, and after she saw the movie Hotel Transylvania—which involved zombies, vampires, and mummies—she decided that maybe a little scary and maybe a little weird was perfect.
“We are.” I smiled toward her as I folded up the pullout. The night before I hadn’t slept a wink and I stayed up packing all of our belongings.
Emma had a goofy grin on her face that matched her father’s. She screamed, “YAY!” and told Bubba we were really going home.
That word stung a little in the back of my heart, but I kept smiling. I’d learned to always smile in front of Emma because she had a way of growing sad whenever she thought I was sad. Even though she gave me the best Eskimo kisses when I was feeling down, she didn’t need that kind of responsibility.
“We should make it back in time to see the fireworks on our rooftop. Remember how we used to watch the fireworks on the roof with Daddy? Do you remember that, babe?” I asked her.
She narrowed her eyes as if going deep into her mind, searching. If only our minds were like file cabinets and we could simply retrieve our favorite memories from a neatly organized system whenever we chose. “I don’t remember,” she said, hugging Bubba.
That breaks my heart.
I smiled anyway.
“Well, how about we stop at the store on the way and pick up some Bomb-Pops to eat on the roof?”
“And some Cheeto Puffs for Bubba!”