Howard sat alone in front of the television set with his legs propped on the coffee table. He blinked a few times to convince himself he was still awake, but the majority of details still seemed hazy, dreamlike, dispossessing him from the space. So he tried for a moment to focus on where he was.
Scanning his living room, he struggled to remember where furniture was supposed to be, what objects were supposed to hang from the walls. He recalled there being a watercolor, something Donna might have picked up at a rummage sale at some point. It had been hung somewhere in the room – a black swan cutting through the softness of a pond, its dark eyes almost invisible, always watching him from the same vantage point, perhaps from above the mantle.
He looked there and flinched. Not the mantle. That’s where Katelin’s pictures went, and her stocking around Christmas time. He remembered a picture with snow, Katelin in a hot pink parka barely able to stand above the three-foot pile she was playing in.
She’d played in the snow most days that winter. More of it was always falling, so it never got old. One afternoon he had been watching her from the porch when the home phone rang, taking him into the kitchen for a moment.
“Howard.” Donna’s voice seemed to drag a little over the line.
“How’s the convention going?”
“Our honey skin lotion is getting a lot of buzz.” She laughed, a single tone that scraped a bit as it was delivered.
“Katelin misses you….”
“You know that green serving dish your great aunt left me.”
Howard didn’t reply.
“Could you take it down for me?”
He sighed. “What’s the occasion?”
“Your sister kept eying it last Christmas,” she said. “And it’s just…well. I was uncomfortable.”
Howard leaned over the counter, pushing all of his weight into his elbows. “You really gave it to Martha.”
“She’s coming tomorrow to pick it up.”
His fingers had gone numb. “How does this always happen?”
“Just take it down, Howard.” Her words ground together a bit. “Maybe rinse it out if it’s dusty.”
Howard looked at the sink. “I haven’t checked the faucet yet.”
“The water’s still running dirty?”
“There may be a break in the line,” he said, trying to keep his words from catching. “In which case I won’t be able to fix it until spring.”
He turned away from the sink. “I’ve got to go check on Katelin.”
“But, Howard, the faucet….”
“She’ll want to speak with you,” he said. “She’s been asking for you.” He set the phone on the counter.
Howard continued searching the room. Maybe the watercolor had gone above the television set. He remembered back to football Sundays, after Katelin had watched her morning cartoons, when he’d stare for hours at a field on a fuzzy screen and avian eyes would stare back, somewhere in his periphery.
Howard looked to the television set for confirmation. There were a few movie posters taped to the wall, framing the appliance. They were all from movies that starred Jack Nicholson. “That’s not right,” he said. He rose in a series of motions that first put weight on his heels, then shifted to his toes as he teetered forward a little, then compensated for the buckling of his knees, then the swinging of his arms. Then Howard managed to get over to one of them for a closer look. It was a simple poster, yellow background and black print. And a face he wasn’t sure was human. It was lurking in the bold letters of the first word. A blurry, not so human face. He peered into its dark eyes trying to decide if these were avian enough.
Something shattered in the kitchen, and there came this pitter-pattering like raindrops as little granules of glass spilled across the floor. He stumbled into the kitchen, following shards that led him around the island to a great green pile. He recognized it immediately and felt quite satisfied. The remains of his great aunt’s serving dish.
“Katelin,” Howard called. It must have been her.
He moved into the hallway. Katelin was hiding from him. She knew she’d done something wrong. “Get down here, young lady.”
No sound came from upstairs. She was pretending to be asleep. He went over to the hallway closet and pulled out a hand broom and a dustpan. It would be easier if he just took care of this.
When he reentered the kitchen the room felt bigger, like it had succumbed to the same expansion that had driven the whole universe apart. Rounding the island, Howard found no trace of the debris from the serving dish. He dropped to his knees and let the broom and dustpan fall with him. There was something beneath the lip of the cabinet, a single green glint. He lay on his stomach and extended his hand, catching the delicate particle between the pads of his thumb and index finger.
“One.” He breathed and watched the particle tumble away.
Rising, he decided he should drink some water and try to sober up. He went to the cupboard in search of a glass and found it to be empty. He moved on to the next. There was only a single lowball glass inside.
“Where’d you all go?” He laughed.
Then he took the glass over to the sink and rinsed it out. The water that came streaming from the faucet had a golden radiance like whiskey. “Need to fix that,” he said and moved over to the cabinet above the refrigerator, where they stored their adult beverages far out of Katelin’s reach.
Howard poured himself a double shot of bourbon then placed it back up where it could do no harm. By the time he made it back to the living room, the couch had become a grey futon in his absence and the coffee table had sustained a few blows to its surface. He set down his bourbon. As he sat it became difficult to see through the glass, as if it filled itself for every inch he slouched. At the moment when it seemed about to overflow, he reached out to grab it, but then noticed that somebody was standing there in front of him.
The somebody was about five feet tall and yellow, with a not so human face and a television set surgically grafted to its middle. It stared at him, unblinking. He stared back. “You’re that guy, right.” he said. “The one from Katelin’s show. Laa-Laa or something.” The somebody didn’t reply. Howard shrugged and downed the last of the bourbon. “I think my daughter would like to meet you. She’s upstairs.” He yawned and started to close his eyes.
A jolt of static shot through the room causing him to sit bolt upright. Laa-Laa’s television set was on the fritz, cycling through white and grey with a high crackle. Its yellow hands went to its tummy and started rubbing in slow circles. It moved its head around on its neck as if searching for a signal. “Haven’t you converted to digital?” Howard laughed.
The static dropped off and the room experienced a sudden influx of light from Laa-Laa’s gut. Its hands fell to its sides, revealing a screen that was solid white. The picture seemed to be frozen. The white was absolute. But then something appeared in the corner of the screen, a speck trudging through the white, and a figure began to resolve itself. She wore a hot pink parka and barely rose above the snow. Howard couldn’t see her face yet. She was still too far away.
The figure stopped. The camera tilted up, revealing the tree line a few hundred yards behind her. They were birch trees. Silver and black. They had no leaves. The figure started moving again, towards the camera, until she was about twenty yards away. Then she plopped down in the snow and stayed where she was.
“Come here, Katelin.” Howard said. “Come to Daddy.”
“Where’s Mommy?” The girl called.
“She’s gone, remember?” he said. “She’ll be back soon.”
“I want Mommy.” She threw herself on her back to start a snow angel.
“Do you want to come inside and wait for her?”
“No. I want to play.” Her arms and legs beat the snow aside.
“All right,” he said. “But just for a little while longer.”
Somewhere a phone started ringing.
Howard woke up to find a late night infomercial playing on the television screen. The spokesperson was a man with a slight lisp who promised his sealant would allow Howard to make a raft out of Swiss cheese. It then showed the man taking his Swiss cheese raft to a local pond and rowing across it without taking on any water. A miracle!
It was still many hours before Howard would have to take Katelin to kindergarten. So he flipped through the channels until he found a program that wasn’t trying to sell him something. He finally landed on local news. It seemed kind of late to be reporting, but journalists were always going after the latest story.
The female news anchor was shot so full of Botox that there was hardly any room for her co-anchor’s face on the screen. She wore a red jacket with a blouse that let a lot of her cleavage show. Her smile was wide and white and she looked very tired.
“Any news?” he asked her.
“Not yet, Howard.”
“Will there ever be?”
She picked up her pile of papers and started straightening them out. “I don’t know.”
Howard moved closer to the television screen. “What do I have to do?”
“Something else.” She clicked the edge of her papers against the desk and it made her breasts swell against her blouse.
“Tell me.” He pressed his ear against the screen. “Whatever you need to say.”
“You don’t want that, Howard.”
“You never know,” her co-anchor said. “This could just be a game of hide and seek.”
The two of them started to laugh as Howard drew back from the screen. It was a low, uncomfortable laugh.
When he was far enough away to again focus on the screen, the woman’s face appeared void of emotion. She looked straight at the camera and flashed her beautiful teeth. “Up next. Judge not lest ye be the next judge. One local woman trying to make a difference in city hall has organized a letter-writing campaign to get Jesus Christ elected into office. That story coming up, right after this.”
Howard hit a button on the remote and the screen went blank. The face on the Jack Nicholson poster looked at him with reproach. “Bedtime,” he told it.
He went upstairs to brush his teeth and found himself staring into the mirror, toothbrush stuck between his lips and toothpaste building at the corner of his mouth. The man in his reflection looked as tired as the female anchor but not half as good. His eyes were buried between creases. They peered out like gophers from a hole, cautious and worried. He had a beard growing that Howard didn’t even remember starting. It would have to be shaved off. Howard had work tomorrow. Katelin had school. Donna had another day at her convention.
The bottle of shaving cream was almost empty, but he got enough out to coat his face. Then he brought out the razor and started from the sideburns. With each stroke, there was a slight tug that told him the razor was getting dull. But the hair came off, leaving bare, slightly red skin. He worked slowly when he got to the area below his chin. It was the place where he always seemed to get cut. The blade scraped up. At some point the skin in the wake of the blade went from pink to maroon, and he paused to watch the blood trickle down his reflection.
Something moved in the hallway. In the mirror he saw its shadow cross the light of the open bathroom door. “Katelin?” He wiped off his face and moved into the hallway. The floor felt slick under his slippers, like somebody had tracked in mud. It smelled wet, a cold kind of wet. He threw on the hallway lights. The floor was clean, aside from a little dust.
He moved over to Katelin’s door and set his ear against the wood. All quiet inside. Not a sound. He creaked open the door wide enough to see inside.
The bed was empty. She was gone.
Howard went for the nearest phone. It was out in the hallway. Picking up the receiver he didn’t know whether to call Donna or the police, but he couldn’t think about it, so he punched in a number. Somebody picked up on the third ring.
“What is this, Howard?”
“She’s gone, Donna.” He couldn’t breathe. “Katelin’s gone.”
“Have you been drinking?”
Donna sighed on the other end. “Look, I’m going to make this easy for both of us. I’ll come home the minute you see somebody about this.”
“She’s gone, Donna.”
“That’s enough, Howard.”
“No,” she said. “You’re just trying to make me hurt.” She started to cry. “But where were you when it mattered?”
The line went dead.
Howard ran down the stairs and out the front door. His slippers slid on the icy stoop. He couldn’t risk the stairs so he leaped out into the snow. It was over a foot deep and took his slippers within a few steps from the house. After that, he waded through the snow in his bare feet, each step burning away some of their sensation.
A figure was moving towards the tree line. He followed as best as he could, but his body began to slow as numbness seeped up from his exposed toes into his core. The burning in his feet subsided, his nerves becoming entangled in a wet sort of warmth. Fifty yards from the tree line he collapsed. He lay on his stomach and watched the figure go, traces of pink flitting between the trees. Even against the snow it did not stand out much in the dark.
Soon she was gone.
Howard woke up in his bed. The alarm clock display read 5:00 a.m., but there was no returning to sleep now.
The faucet was still broken, so he took his toolbox into the kitchen and disconnected the supply line from below the sink with a few twists of a wrench. One end of it looked corroded. He stuck his pinky a little way in and found rust when he withdrew it.
When the new supply line was in place, Howard stood and turned the handle to full blast. For a moment it seemed like nothing would happen, but then a torrent erupted from the mouth of the faucet, filling the basin with a pool of clear water.
It had been such a simple fix; there was still so much time. So afterwards he made pancakes. Nothing passed the time like flipping pancakes. It distracted the mind too. There was a procedure to it. Pour four tablespoons of batter. Wait for air bubbles to form. Flip and cook at your discretion. Think only of pancakes. Repeat. When Katelin woke there was a stack waiting for her that could’ve fed her for three breakfasts.
Then he brewed coffee and sat in the living room with a mug in his hand. It smelled wet. Warm and wet. He kept his eyes focused on the mug. The watercolor watched him from above the television set.
Katelin ate her breakfast in the kitchen. As he rose to join her at the table the doorbell rang. Martha waited on the porch, scarf wrapped all the way to her cheekbones, gloved hands rubbing furiously together. “Howard.”
“Oh right. The dish.”
“How have you been?” Her speech was brisk, as if she believed any one of her words might freeze in the air.
“Sorry, Martha. The dish broke.”
“I don’t care about that, Howard,” she edged towards the door. “I want to know about you.”
He leaned against the doorframe, barring her entrance. “This isn’t the best time.” Katelin was finishing up in the kitchen. He heard her put down her knife and fork and take her plate over to the sink. He and Donna had just bought her a stool so she could reach. She turned on the faucet and washed her dishes, pausing to apply soap like he had shown her, giving them a final rinse.
“I’ve got to go, Martha.”
“What’s that cut on your chin?” She tried to duck past him. “It looks pretty deep.”
“I’m fine,” he said.
Martha got one foot over the threshold before Howard pushed her back. She slid on the icy porch, her legs coming out from under her. It was a hard fall. A solid fall with a solid sound. “Howard.” She lay on her back, a gloved hand extending out to him.
He looked down at the porch then lifted his eyes to scan the yard from the steps to the road, the driveway to the birch trees. Everything was white. All of it inseparable. “I’ve really got to go.”
“Two steps, Howard.” She waved her hand around. “Just two.”
Martha rolled onto her side and pushed herself into a sitting position. “It’s cold out here, Howard.” She stood and moved towards the steps. “I don’t blame you for staying inside.”
Howard watched her trudge down the snow-covered walk and waited until she was in her car before he turned away.
Katelin was there behind him. “Daddy, is it time to go to school?”
“Are you ready?”
“Yeah.” She threw up her hands.
“Vamanos,” he said. It was the catchphrase of the character from her favorite cartoon.
“Let’s go!” She ran towards the door, wearing a backpack that looked just like the one from the show.
“Don’t forget your coat,” he said, but she was already out the door.
Aaron Bagnell is the son of a librarian and a native of San Diego, CA. Having recently completed his studies in Earth Science and Creative Writing at University of California, Berkeley, he now plans to attend a graduate program in Marine Science at University of California, Santa Barbara. His work can also be found in Inlandia: A Literary Journey.