Sweet Voice

Beate Boeker

August in Seattle – 20 years ago

It was hot the day her life burst into pieces. All day long, the heat lay like a panting animal in the streets. Bridget pushed back her moist fringe and jumped from the school bus with a sigh. Phew. Just two more minutes to reach home. She kept in the shadow of the Douglas firs at the side of the road until she reached the slim white house with the old roof. The door rattled when she banged it shut behind her.

“Dad, Mom! I’m home!”

She flung her backpack onto its hook on the wall, pulled off her running shoes and jammed them into the right space in the wardrobe before whirling around. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a pair of shoes standing in the wrong space. Bridget hesitated and frowned. Then she grabbed them and pushed them into the right slot. Better if Mom didn’t see them; otherwise, she would rant at Dad all day.

With a sigh of relief, she ran through the spotless hall to the living room. “Dad! Where are you?”

Usually, he sat in his favorite armchair, his feet up on a stool. Today, the armchair was empty.

“Dad?”

She whipped around and ran to the kitchen. He might relax with crossed ankles at the table while Mom made dinner. But the kitchen was empty. It smelled of detergent.

Why wasn’t Mom cooking?

Bridget frowned and listened.

Not a single board creaked. The house was silent, as if it waited with pent-up breath for something bad to happen.

Of course, Dana wasn’t home yet. Wherever Dana was, there was music, laughter, and many things Bridget didn’t always understand, though Dana was only three years older. Somehow, Dana seemed to live on a different planet, but Bridget didn’t mind. She could always ask Dad, and he would explain everything to her.

“Dad?” Her voice took on a high note. It was creepy to be all alone in the house. He’d never been away when she came home from school, not since he’d stopped working when she was eight. She could still remember that time as if it was yesterday, even though it was more than two years ago.

He had come home one day and said he didn’t have to go to work anymore because of his illness. At first, Bridget was worried and couldn’t understand why Mom seemed more angry than concerned. But when the months went by and Bridget couldn’t see any change in Dad, she was relieved. Of course, Mom complained that they didn’t have enough money. But then, Mom always complained.

As for Bridget, she thought nothing better had ever happened. Dad had all the time in the world for her. Together, they painted her room a bright orange and went on bicycle tours and played board games. Today, he had promised to finish her new shelf. It was a super shelf, made of plywood they had first painted white and then every board in a different color. Yellow at the bottom and red next, then green and blue. Bridget loved it already. They only needed to mount it now, then it would be finished. Dad had promised to do it today in spite of the heat. “Dad?” Her voice echoed through the house.

She swallowed. Where was everybody?

Bridget ran upstairs to her room. Her feet pounded on the wooden boards of the staircase. Maybe he had already started on the shelf. But when she rushed into her room, it was empty. Everything lay right as she had left it earlier.
Bridget gulped. She was all alone in the house!

She ran to her parents bedroom, threw open the door and rushed inside, then stopped dead.

Her mother lay stretched out on the bed, her head burrowed between her arms. The cream-colored bed linen was exactly the same shade as Mom’s suit. Bridget caught her breath. It looked as if her mother wasn’t really there, just a dent in the bedspread.
Something cold crept up her back, and a weight held onto her feet, so she couldn’t move. Mom wasn’t . . . she couldn’t be . . .?

“Mom?” Bridget’s voice shook.

Her mother lifted her head.

Bridget recoiled.

Black marks, blurred and streaky, disfigured her mother’s face. She looked like a monster.

Then, with a sigh of relief, Bridget saw that the black stripes came from mascara running on her cheeks. Dana used it too, and she had looked like that when she had banged her elbow and cried.

Bridget had never seen her mother cry. She’d never even seen her with a smudge. Mom was always perfect.

“Mom? What happened?” Bridget dared a step forward.

Her mother balled her fists.

Bridget’s eyes widened. Was she angry? Had she cried because she, Bridget, had done something wrong?

With a crumpled tissue, her mother wiped her face. A furious stroke distributed mascara across her nose. It looked gross. When she spoke, her voice sounded hollow and tinny. “Your precious Daddy has left us.”

Bridget put out a hand until she felt the edge of the bed. She sank onto it and stared at her mother. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out.

“Your father has found another family, another woman to charm.”

Mom suddenly looked old, like Grandmother, with cheeks that hung down.

“No.” Bridget shook her head. Mom was wrong. She often got things wrong until Dad or Bridget explained them to her.

“Don’t try to correct me all the time, Bridget.” Her mother’s voice rose. “He’s gone. I tell you so. Believe me.”

Bridget felt sick. “But . . . but Mom, I . . . I don’t understand . . .” It couldn’t be true.

Her mother sat up and stared at her with red-rimmed eyes. “He has left us, don’t you hear? His damn charm. I wish I’d never believed him.”

Bridget shook her head. Her ears seemed to be filled with water. “Believed what?” Her voice sounded faint.

Her mother balled her fists again. “Believed him that he would stay true. That he would be reliable and help build the family.” Her voice rose until it sounded high and shrill. “That he would withstand the everyday pressure. That he wouldn’t get bored and run away. He wasn’t the steady type. I knew it. But I wanted to believe him because he was such a charmer.”

Bridget stared at her. “He will come back.” She put a hand onto her mother’s arm to comfort her. “He hasn’t finished my shelf yet.”

Her mother snorted, a sound she’d never made before. She pushed away Bridget’s hand and jumped up. “You can wait until doomsday for him to come back.” She spat out the words and ran from the room.

Bridget stared after her and chewed her fingernails with nervous bites. She would wait. Dad would never leave her. He might leave Dana and Mom but not her.

Never.