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Echoes Between Us

Katie McGarry

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  In my early morning stupor, I stumble down the stairs and into the kitchen. I smile at the sight of my mother sitting at the window seat of the circular turret at the far side of the room.

  Mom’s in her favorite white sundress, the one that has spaghetti straps and lace around the hem. The sunlight hits her straight, long blond hair in a way that makes her glow and she has this soft presence about her that warms my heart. It’s my mom, my best friend, and I know everything will be okay as long she’s in the world.

  “Good morning,” I say.

  At the sound of my voice, she turns her head in my direction and gives me one of her patented glorious smiles. Maybe she’s smiling because my hair is one big rat’s nest or because it’s August and I’m in winter Minnie Mouse pajamas, rocking them like I’m six instead of seventeen. Regardless, she’s happy to see me and that makes me elated.

  “Morning.” My truck-driver father is elbow-deep in waffle batter and is completely unashamed that his black T-shirt and worn blue jeans have been bombed by flour.

  No matter what Dad makes in the kitchen, he’ll be covered in it from head to toe. How he manages this, I’ll never know. But it’s an art form he excels at and I applaud him for the effort.

  “How did you sleep?” he asks.

  “Good.” I shuffle across the room and take a seat next to Mom. Still cuddly, I lean my head against her shoulder and the pillow behind her, and she laces her fingers with mine.

  We reside on the second and third floors of this humongous three-story Victorian house my mother purchased with her minimal inheritance years ago. The first floor we rent out for additional income because living there would be creepy. Years ago, people died mysteriously on the first floor, and what eleven-year-old wants to sleep in a room where people died? But the great news is that dead people in houses make them cheap and this place was practically a steal.

  With my enthusiastic but non-helpful help, Dad renovated our floors. He turned the third floor into two bedrooms and a bath, and the second floor into our living space and kitchen. Besides the half bath, closets and pantry, the second floor is wide open. Because Mom loved the color of a sky on a cloudless day, the walls are a sunshine blue with white trim.

  Dad sings along with an eighties song that’s playing from the speakers mounted to the ceiling in the kitchen. His voice is gruff, rough and edgy, sort of like his appearance. Internally, I giggle with how dorky he is as he mock headbangs and acts as if he still has long black locks instead of a bald head. Dad’s not a great singer, and he’s definitely not a good dancer, but he is a good dad.

  “How did you fall for him?” I whisper to Mom, even though I know the answer. There’s something comforting in having the same conversations with someone you love.

  “The better question is how did your father fall for me?”

  My parents are exact opposites. She’s delicate sunshine, and he’s a thunderstorm with his broad shoulders, bouncer-for-a-bar physique and black goatee. Mom’s poetry, art galleries, quiet days and poppy-seed muffins. Dad’s football on Sunday afternoons, poker on Mondays, and a few beers on his tab with friends on Fridays.

  “He loves you,” I say. No one has ever loved anyone as much as Dad loves Mom. Even though he’s not particularly happy with her at the moment, the love is still there.

  “He loves us,” she corrects.

  I couldn’t agree with her more.

  Dad remains focused on the waffles and allows me time to ease into my day before jumping into conversation. I’m not a diva, it’s just that most mornings I wake with a pounding headache. Moderate pain days equate to a massive migraine that makes me feel as if a 747 is continuously landing on my brain. On terrible days, the pain is so bad, I can’t make it out of bed.

  But I didn’t wake up with a raging headache, and I really did sleep well, so I’m quick to let Dad know it’s a good day. “How did you sleep?”

  Engaging with him this early is a gift, and the smile Dad flashes in my direction lets me know I couldn’t have given him anything better. “I slept great. Are you ready for today, peanut?”

  “Yep.” Not really. I’d rather rip out my eyeballs than go to school orientation, but Dad’s pretty adamant on this whole education thing. I don’t want him going on the road worrying about me so it’s easier to lie. “Are you ready for your trip?”

  Dad leaves this afternoon for a five-day drive. “I think so, but you know me.”

  Mom and I giggle as Dad is notorious for forgetting things when he has long hauls. He’ll forget toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, shoes …

  “He didn’t sleep well,” Mom whispers to me. “He tossed and turned all night.”

  “Why?” I ask, glancing at Dad to make sure he can’t hear us over his singing and the accompanying air-drum solo.

  Mom combs her fingers through my corkscrew short blond hair. Worry consumes her expression and the pain in her eyes hurts me. “He’s concerned about you.”

  And she is, too.

  Unable to stand either of their worries, I look away from Mom and notice the strawberries, blueberries and whipped cream—all of my favorite toppings—on the table. Dad loves doing things for me and with me. My throat tightens because I’m lucky to have a father like him.

  Dad forks steaming waffles out of the iron, and his eyes fall on the fifty colorful, construction-paper turkeys I stayed up to make last night then taped to the wall. “Does this mean we’re celebrating Thanksgiving again?”


  “When do I need to be home?” Dad doesn’t balk at my strange fascination with creatively celebrating holidays at a time other than the designated day. It’s one of the many things I inherited from my mother.

  A lot of people at school call me weird. People called my mom weird when she was in high school, too, so I do my best to view any taunts as a compliment. “I need to talk to Leo, Nazareth, Jesse and Scarlett and see what works for them. We should buy a huge turkey this time. I want lots of leftovers.”

  “Can you give me two weeks’ notice on Christmas? I’d like time to buy you a gift that isn’t from a gas station.”

  “Join the present day, Dad. Internet shopping. Two-day shipping. It’s a thing.”

  “Won’t Leo be leaving for college soon?”

  The reminder makes me frown, and I change the conversation. “Are the new people still moving in downstairs today?”

  “Yes, and they’ve been instructed to never knock if they need anything. They’re to call me. If they break the rules, tell me and I’ll evict them. I don’t want them bothering you.”

  “Sounds good.” Dad is gone several days at a time driving lo
ng distances, then home two to three days driving locally. It’s a rotation that works well for us. Sometimes our renters will try to talk to me when they’re impatient with waiting for Dad to return their calls and that pisses Dad off. “Who’s moving in?”

  “Someone from within town. It’s a short-term lease. Rich people waiting for their house to be built in The Springs.”

  The fancy-schmancy neighborhood being built on the east side of town. If Dad and I saved every penny we made in the last ten years, we still couldn’t afford a down payment for one of those overpriced, mammoth mansions.

  “Their first month and deposit check is on the counter. Do you mind depositing it?”

  “Sure.” Because Dad travels, I handle our finances. Trucking is a small business, at least owning your own rig is, and there’s a ton of accounting associated with it. Dad’s been teaching me how to balance budgets since I was fourteen. He double-checks everything I do, but as I’ve gotten older he doesn’t look over my work nearly as much.

  “Did you tell them the house is haunted?” I ask.

  “The house isn’t haunted.”

  Oh, yes, it is. Dad’s feeling left out because he hasn’t seen the shadow people, but I have. “Then why did the Realtor tell you it was haunted?”

  “Because people like to tell stories.”

  “You should tell him what you’ve seen,” Mom whispers to me, and the guilt tastes like bile. “He’d want to know.”

  If I tell Dad, he’ll overreact and go insane, and I’m not ready for what telling him will entail. “I’ll tell him. Just not now,” I say softly back.

  “That may be too late,” Mom continues in her hushed tone. “He’d want to know now.”

  I’m not ready to share my secret with Dad, even though it’s an incredible burden to carry on my own. “You said you were fine with how I chose to deal with this.”

  “I did, but I’m not sure I agree with keeping things from your father. He loves you.”

  “He’ll freak out,” I whisper-shout. “He’ll quit his job and he’ll never let me out of his sight.” That’s not the life I want for me, and it’s not the life I want for him.

  “V, I don’t think—” she starts, but I cut her off.

  “Are you happy with how things went after you told Dad?”

  Mom is crushed by my words, grief-stricken over what happened between her and Dad when she told him her secret. Even though she’s pressuring me now, Mom told Dad that how I decide to handle the fallout of my diagnosis is my choice, and I’m guessing that’s why Dad doesn’t talk to Mom anymore—at least not in front of me.

  Late at night, though, after he’s checked on me to make sure I’m asleep, his anguish carries from his side of the house to mine. I can’t hear what he says, but the sorrowful, mournful melody of his tone reaches my ears and breaks my heart.

  I nibble my bottom lip and hope she understands. “There are things I need to do before I tell him. After I do those things, I’ll tell him. I promise.”

  “Regret is a bitter thing,” Mom says. “Be careful with how you play this hand. There are some decisions you can’t take back.”

  Which is why I can’t tell Dad what’s happening with me, not now. Maybe not ever—despite my promise. I know Dad loves Mom and that Mom loves Dad, but there’s this wall between them. Before I tell Dad my secret, I need to find a way to make things right between them, to give him comfort in the midst of my decisions, and to do it in a way that won’t destroy my plans for this year and Dad’s life.

  “Are you ready to eat?” Dad asks, beaming.

  “Definitely.” I stand, and so does Mom, but instead of going to the table with me, Mom crosses the room and disappears up the stairs. Like always, Dad acts as if he doesn’t notice her. While that cuts open my soul, I force a smile on my face and do my best to enjoy this moment with my dad.


  Top five things I need to tell my mom, but I’d rather cut off my leg with a dull butter knife than say aloud:

  1. She loves that I’m a swimmer more than I do. In fact, she loves most of my life more than I do. But she should, as she’s orchestrated most of it.

  2. I didn’t break my arm by slipping on the deck of the pool at the YMCA like I told her, but instead by doing something stupid.

  3. Even though I know what I do is the definition of insanity, I can’t stop.

  4. No, I’m not happy my cast comes off tomorrow as that cast is the only thing that’s kept me from being stupid again.

  5. My dad’s current girlfriend is pregnant with their first child, and that’s the reason I haven’t talked to or visited my father since the beginning of summer. He can hardly handle playing “dad” to us, so why have another?

  Did I write any of that in my senior journal? Hell no. Our English teacher must live under a delusions-of-grandeur rock to think there’s a single one of us who would share our deepest and most intimate thoughts in our Daily Top Five Forced (my addition) summer assignment.

  I’m forty entries behind, and I have until six this evening to finish before turning the journal of doom in to my teacher at orientation. I’m aware it’s not a good way to start the year.

  In the driver’s-side mirror of the U-Haul, I watch as my little sister runs in circles around my mother. Lucy’s shrieking at the top of her lungs because she saw a bee. Her mess of black curls trails behind her like a billowing cape and her high-pitched scream mingles with my mother’s frustrated pleas. Not sure how holding her coffee with two hands above her head helps a six-year-old in full panic mode, but Mom has an obsession with her morning coffee that wins over Lucy’s fears.

  Mom finally sets the cup on the porch then tries to contain my sister. For every half-hearted slip of my mother’s arm around Lucy’s waist, my sister zags. It’s like catching air. From the way Mom moves as if stuck in wet cement, I can tell she’s exhausted. Not sure if it’s a didn’t-sleep-well exhausted or I’m-a-single-mom-in-my-late-forties-with-a-demanding-full-time-job exhausted or just tired that it’s nine in the morning and being responsible sucks.

  Six years ago, my parents filed for divorce the day after Lucy’s birth, and Mom and Dad gave me the choice of who I wanted to live with. My father had taken me out for dinner, put his hand on my shoulder and said, Your mom needs you. She doesn’t like to be alone, plus she’s going to be overwhelmed with Lucy. Your mom will need an extra pair of hands and your little sister will need a permanent, loving big brother. I need you to be the man of the house now. I need you to take care of them.

  Decision made. Plus, considering Dad spent a total of ten minutes a night at home with me when they were married because he preferred work over us, choosing Mom didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice.

  A car honks and I try not to be annoyed by the sound. I’m blocking the end of the street lined by one-hundred-year-old towering oaks that bend as if the weather is too hot even for them. As far as I’m concerned, whoever it is can keep honking because I’m not moving until Lucy’s safe. Besides, the house is the end of the road, the last of the neighborhood. Whoever it is can back it up since there is no more forward.

  I roll down the window, and the August heat hits me like a jackhammer. I lean my head out and call, “Lucy.”

  My sister freezes in place and her big dark eyes blink as she slowly swivels her head in my direction.

  “Hop in and I’ll give you a ride.”

  Lucy squeals again, but this time in delight. In her favorite fluffy pink skirt and sequined unicorn shirt Mom bought her on their latest shopping spree, my sister races up the driveway toward me. I open the door, hop out and offer the car waiting on me an I’m sorry lift of my hand. The older man in the four-door Cadillac that’s as big as a boat shakes his head as if pissed and decides to back into a driveway and head in the opposite direction.

  With complete abandon, my little sister jumps into my waiting arms, and I place her into the truck. Lucy scrambles to the other side of the bench seat, and I close the door behind me. Even thoug
h we’re only going a couple feet backward, I click her seat belt into place then put my hands on the wheel.

  “Sawyer, you need your seat belt.” Her innocent expression forces me to put it on.

  Lucy can be Jiminy Cricket on crack, and most days, I need the additional conscience. I place the U-Haul into reverse, and the motor rumbles as I gently tap the gas. Seventeen isn’t old enough to drive a U-Haul, but being a pharmaceutical representative, Mom has a way of talking until people listen.

  My son is a doll. She dropped her million-dollar grin and fluttered her hand in the air when the guy at the U-Haul counter protested the idea of me driving. Perfect to a T. He’s going to win Olympic gold someday. You should see how good of a swimmer he is.

  Mom waves me back, in theory guiding me, but I don’t watch her. I trust the mirrors instead. There’s not a ton in the truck. Most of our possessions are in storage as we wait for our newest house to be built. It should have been done by now, but the contractor is late, the house we had been living in has been sold and now we’re in short-lease-apartment purgatory.

  Bright-eyed and grinning like I took her to the gates of Disney World, Lucy opens her door the moment I place the truck into park and jumps out. She senses adventure while I sense a train wreck. Mom has that grin that suggests she has something bad to tell me, but is intent to sell me the impending trauma as something good.

  While you were at summer camp, I accidently forgot to feed your hamster, but wouldn’t you prefer a turtle?

  I dropped the leftover spaghetti dishes on your eighth-grade graduation suit you had laid out near the table, but wouldn’t you rather skip the ceremony and spend the evening with me?

  Lucy has the stomach flu and I have a huge meeting with clients, and if you stay home with her you don’t have to take that reading test.

  I’m slow leaving the truck and slower still as I cross the high grass of the front yard to join Mom on the crumbling front walk.

  “You know, most people consider it a privilege to live on Cedar Avenue,” Mom says. “The houses have been in families for generations. Aren’t they gorgeous?”