"Stay within the lines,
Patricia Davidson whispered
to her daughter, who swept the burgundy crayon over the page.
She'd chosen dark colors for her abstract design. Her tongue
curled and probed the air around her gaping mouth as she strained
to confine her work to the outlined images of puffy clouds.
Her coloring book was swallowed in the colors of her efforts.
Balancing her smoldering cigarette
between two fingers, Patricia folded her arms over her chest
and smiled at her daughter. Nikala and her toys. She
stared at the frost collecting in the crevasses of the living
room window panes. She desperately wanted to be here when
her daughter blossomed into a young mature woman. She knew
Nikala's fixation with coloring books, Barbie dolls, and untalented
young pop stars was a passing phase. She wanted to be around
for what came next.
It felt like only yesterday
she'd experienced the monstrous pains of childbirth, the doctor
instructing her to breathe and push harder. She recalled the
nurse's cold, clammy hands against her forehead. Patricia
had been terrified of having a stillborn. She'd stared at
the fluorescent lights on the ceiling as she prayed, rivulets
of sweat dripping from her brow, soaking the pillow. She'd
She blocked out the voices
of the nurses who'd told her the baby was coming. The baby
couldn't come now. He promised he'd be there.
But he never showed.
Instead, it was the nurse
who cut the umbilical cord, and the sticky baby was placed
upon Patricia's chest, instead of into his arms. The baby
shrieked as salty rivers coursed down Patricia's cheeks. The
medical staff welcomed Patricia's crying as happiness.
"Stay within the lines,
honey." Patricia now leaned over her daughter's head
and deeply inhaled, trying to remember the sweet smell of
her baby-fine hair. She turned again toward the window, wishing
the headlights of his Buick would pierce the room as he pulled
into the driveway, his back seat littered with Christmas gifts
for their daughter.
The clock over the mantle
read 11:58 when the sun's rays finally broke through the turbid
clouds. Tiny snowflakes glittered in the air outside. Patricia
stirred dust motes with her heavy sigh, relieved to see a
car approaching their home.
Yet, instead of pulling into
the driveway, it passed by and disappeared around the bend
He'd missed Nikala's first
steps and first words. He'd missed her first day of Head Start,
her first homework assignment, and her first certificate of
superb attendance. Each of those moments broke Patricia in
half and resurrected her deep depression.
She felt Nikala's soft touch
on her thigh, and she turned to see her daughter's beaming
face as she held up the page she'd torn from her coloring
book. Patricia stole another quick glance out the window,
and forced herself to smile She didn't want Nikala to sense
her mounting distress. Patricia nodded acceptance and knelt
alongside her little girl.
"Make sure you show your
grandmother," Patricia prompted. Nikala's curls bobbed
as she nodded, and she skipped toward the kitchen.
Another car drove down the
street. Its compact size told Patricia it wasn't his car.
Patricia pressed her hand on the glass and watched the car
disappear down the street.
"He'll be here, honey.
Don't worry." Patricia's mother startled her from her
Patricia lowered her hand
from the glass, leaving the imprint of her palm in the frost.
I didn't know I could do that! She glanced over her
shoulder to see if anyone noticed, but they'd retreated to
Clattering dishes echoed,
and Patricia's nose picked up the scent of fresh-baked corn
bread, spicy chicken wings, and smoked beans. I can smell
again! She realized she had a lot of things to re-learn.
Patricia watched her mother
carry a tray of sliced glazed ham into the dining area of
the living room, Nikala on her heels, waving her colored masterpiece
in the air.
"He'll be here, baby.
Don't worry." Mrs. Davidson placed the tray on the dining
table. "He's probably running late."
Don't lie to her, Mom.
Patricia had heard her mother's hollow speech a thousand
times. With years of lying to Nikala, Patricia was able to
pick out the most innocent of lies. Even if he never appeared
at the door bearing gifts, the same heartbreaking phrase would
come from Mrs. Robinson's mouth.
"Mommy's here, Grandma,"
said Nikala, her voice reminding Patricia of champagne bubbles.
"It's for the best that
you don't think of such things," Mrs. Robinson said sternly.
She wiped her hands on her apron and marched to the kitchen.
That night, Patricia saw the
headlights, first, and as the truck drew closer, they blinded
her. She only closed her eyes for a second. "Hyacinth
House" by The Doors blasted from the radio, yet still
she heard the soft cries of Nikala's toy doll from the back
seat and the continuous ring from an incoming call on his
"Stay within the lines,
honey," she squealed, reaching for his arm. He jerked
the wheel, but the car didn't react. The morning rain had
created a thin white layer of ice on the asphalt. The truck's
horn blared, followed by the gruesome sound of twisting metal
and splintering glass. Patricia felt her body yank forward,
the seatbelt digging into her chest. Nikala's screams filled
the car, yet couldn't drown the deafening sound of metal meeting
metal. Someone lifted her from the seat. Sharp sensations
pierced her face and chest, and she heard shards of glass
fall and pepper the pavement as they moved her. The reek of
gasoline filled her nose and took her breath. She felt a searing
pain in her neck and heard the audible snap as they lay her
on the stretcher.
Then blissful silence.
Until Nikala cried.
Patricia opened her eyes.
Now the sound of crunching
snow filled her ears as a Lincoln Town Car slowly eased into
the driveway. The door opened and, seconds later, he stepped
out, gripping a bag full of presents near his chest.
He looked different than the
last time Patricia saw him. He seemed taller and his smooth,
hairless face now sported a prominent black beard. The thick
winter jacket he wore covered his medium frame.
Nikala ran past her mother
to the front door. She jumped up and down in excitement, her
curly ponytails bouncing about her slender shoulders. Mrs.
Davidson appeared from the kitchen, drying her hands on her
Christmas apron. Nikala stood on tiptoes to reach the top
lock on the door.
Nikala's face glowed as she smiled at her mother.
I know, sweetie. Patricia
couldn't help but smile with her.
Nikala glanced back at her
"It's okay. Open the
door," said Mrs. Davidson.
Nikala nodded vigorously and
turned the door knob. She jumped into the arms of her father,
and he stumbled back, struggling to juggle the presents. He
laughed and grinned at Mrs. Davidson, who shooed him inside
and closed the door behind him.
Nikala's joyous cries of happiness
did little to calm Patricia's instability. He's going to
disappoint her again. I know it! Patricia watched him
examine the living room. His stared at a portrait of Patricia
hanging above the fireplace. He carried his daughter over
to take a closer look.
"It's the last picture
I took of her," Mrs. Davidson said.
He nodded and turned around.
"I remember when it was taken."
It stunned Patricia to see
his eyes mist over as he shifted his gaze to their daughter.
He hugged Nikala tight, and giggled with glee.
He titled back his head and
sniffed the air.
"Yum!" He leaned
over to let his daughter stand. "Let's go see what's
Nikala took her father's hand
and led him toward the kitchen. Then she stopped and motioned
for him to bend close so that she could whisper in his ear.
Nikala pointed toward the window.
He followed her gaze, then
dropped his head. He cupped Nikala's cherubic face in his
hands. "No, darling," he whispered. "I've told
you before. Mommy's not coming."