The Girl in the Street

“I’m really sorry, Lars,” Alicia said. I could see she meant it—she looked everywhere but at me and she nodded as she spoke, like she was trying to convince herself she was doing the right thing. “We just can’t go on like this forever.”

“I understand,” I said. And I did, really. I was costing the bank money, client money because, well, because I wasn’t sleeping and I was drinking and coming in late, and, to sum up, I wasn’t doing my job. They were bound to fire me sooner or later and that’s exactly what happened two months ago today.

I didn’t really care at the time. Alicia, the head of my department, tried to be friendly and told me to take care of myself but the words washed over me without really making contact. You know how sometimes, when you’re swimming underwater, you have this vague sense the water above you is moving differently from the water around but just barely? That’s how I felt while Alicia was firing me. Then I left the office for the last time.

Now, I was leaving Dansk Finanzbar, my neighborhood bar-slash-bank where I went for a beer almost every night. I was freelancing as financial advisor now and I’d found I needed some sort of a routine to stick to, to have a sense of order, which I’d quickly found was difficult when you don’t have a nine-to-five job and a boss to micromanage you as a way of dealing with her own insecurities.

One beer was the rule. Right after the bank had let me go I’d drunk a lot more than is good for anyone, to try and make sure I’d sleep with no dreams when I could no longer avoid sleeping. It worked for a while until one day I passed out on the street on my way to a job interview. That moment changed everything.

I was deep in my memories of how I met Madeleine when somebody bumped into me, somebody small and soft. My reaction times had improved a lot from what I now unoriginally called my drinking days, so it took me a second to turn and catch that somebody. It was a girl. She looked about twenty and very scared. Her eyes were open so wide I thought the skin around them must hurt, and they darted every which way. He mouth was gaping and twitching.

“I’m sorry,” she said and gripped my coat. “I… I can’t see.”

The “It’s okay” I’d prepared to utter shattered into pieces.

“Do you need to go to the hospital? I can take you, it won’t be a problem,” I said. I was still holding her by the shoulders but now I let my right hand fall in case a passerby thought I was attacking her. There were #notme militias everywhere, they were well trained, and they did not ask questions before acting on their suspicions of an attack. A co-worker from the bank had once got beaten up for touching his girlfriend’s ass on the street.

“It will pass,” the girl said and, with her lips still trembling, she smiled. It was a touching smile, a forced smile, as if she was only smiling to make me feel better. “It usually passes in a few seconds.”

“Oh.” What kind of blindness passed in a few seconds? “Okay,” I said and I let go of her shoulder. She clung to my coat for one more second. “I’ll wait with you.”

“You don’t have to,” the girl said. These darting eyes, very dark but not so wide now, unnerved me but I was sure I had to stay. I couldn’t explain why. I just knew it and Madeleine had told me to listen to my instincts so I did. Madeleine was the woman who saved me that day, when I passed out.

“Please, let me stay,” I said and pulled her gently to the left of the door as a couple approached. She was standing in their way. “You’re standing right in front of the door to a bar.”

“Oh. Thanks.” She extended one arm and I stepped aside otherwise she’d hit my stomach. She made one hesitant step forward, then another. I resisted reaching out and leading her away from the door.

“That should be fine,” I said. “So, how long do these blind spells usually last?”

“A couple of minutes,” she said, shrugging. “It has never happened on the street before.”

“And is it a condition or something?” I expected her to tell me to go to hell or tell me to stop asking questions, prying into her life and so on but I couldn’t stop. I had this warm feeling in my belly, which said she was important.

“It’s a brain tumor,” she said. She spit out the words like they were rotten food she wanted to get rid of as fast as possible. “Inoperable.”

The warmth in my belly turned to heat.

“I’m—”

“Yes, I know, you’re sorry. It’s fine, I’ve made my peace with the world. But it sucks I won’t be able to finish my work.” While she spoke the last remains of fear drained out of her face. She stood taller now, somehow, bigger. And her eyes no longer darted in every direction. She was staring right at me although she wasn’t seeing me and this was making me uncomfortable. I shifted away from her stare and now it was directed at the brick wall of the bar, which turned out to be just as uncomfortable, like I’d played a cruel joke on her. I moved back.

“What do you do?”

‘Nuclear fusion,” she said. “I’m a physicist. A nuclear physicist. We’re about two or three years from a working reactor and the doctors have given me six months.” She patted the pockets of her thin navy blue coat and took out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from the right one. “It’s so annoying.”

I watched her light up—she felt along the length of the cigarette and slowly aligned the opening of the lighter with that end before clicking it—and blow a cloud of smoke in my direction. She had all but forgotten she couldn’t see, she was so angry. Her eyes sparkled with that anger, which because of her position seemed directed at me. I glanced around in case a militiawoman happened to be around but the street was empty. I forced my brain to remember something about nuclear fusion beyond the vague memory it was too good to be true and gave up in a few seconds.

“So it’s not too good to be true, then?”

“What?”

“Nuclear fusion.” I looked at my watch. I had left DF at about seven and now it was seven fifteen. That was a bit more than a couple of minutes.

“No, it’s just good enough to be true if I live long enough to help the engineers finish the reactor.” She blew out another cloud of smoke like she held a personal grudge towards the cigarette she was holding. “What’s the time?”

“It’s seven fifteen.”

For a moment she froze with the cigarette halfway to her mouth, terror rippling her face but then she took the reins.

“Well, fuck,” she said and she extended a shaking hand in my general direction. “I need to sit down.”

I took her hand carefully like she was breakable, which she wasn’t—she grabbed my hand and held on to it tightly.

“We could go in, if you like.”

“No, just here’s fine, as long I’m not sitting in the middle of the street.”

I guided her to the wall, which she touched with her other outstretched hand.

“It’s a wall,” I said.

“Yes. Good.” The girl sat on the ground, her knees pulled to her chest.

I squatted next to her.

“Do you want me to call someone or do anything else?”

She shook her head before she turned it and not-looked at me.

“Why are you helping me? Who are you?”

“My name’s Lars. I’m a financial advisor.” She frowned at that. “I don’t know why I’m helping you. Wouldn’t anyone?”

“No.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”

“My name’s Antonia,” she said and offered me her hand. I shook it. It was cold.

“And you’re a nuclear physicist.”

“Yeah.” She grinned.

A drizzle that had been sending down delicate hints of its presence now started for real and she looked up.

“How are your eyes?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I should ask but it was now almost seven thirty and her look was as unfocused as it had been when she’d bumped into me.

“Blind,” she said quietly.

“Okay,” I said and I tried to sound as determined as I should have felt but didn’t. “I’ll take you home.”

She burst into laughter, which startled me. It wasn’t cheerful laughter.

“What’s the joke?”

“You taking me home.”

“Why?”

“Because home is where I ran away from. I can’t go home.”

I squatted back next to her, ignoring the rain.

“Okay, then I’ll take you to my place and you can tell me the story on the way.”

“Your place?” Antonia said. Her voice added more meaning than I wanted to hear. Cynicism did not really sit well with the terror she was so busy trying to hide but I could imagine her combining this tone of voice with an ironic look that would have crushed my ego.

“I’m safe,” I said dryly. “I live with my… mother. Come on.” I took her left hand and tugged on it. I’d stopped caring about militias. The rain was heavier now and I had no intention of staying here and getting soaked. Antonia straightened up.

“Why did you pause?”

I pulled my coat collar up as, hand in hand, we rounded the corner to my new place. After I’d lost my corporate job I’d stayed in the area because it was quiet and I liked it but had changed the street. Madeleine had insisted. New life, new house, she’d said.

“Sorry?” I was sure I was doing the right thing but it would be the first time I took anyone home so I couldn’t know what Madeleine would say, which made me a little nervous.

“You hesitated before you said ‘mother’.”

“Oh. Well, wouldn’t you be embarrassed if you were thirty-five and still living with your mother?”

“I’m thirty-two and my mother and my husband ganged up on me to have an aggressive treatment for the tumor,” Antonia said. “You gasped,” she added after a beat.

I had. She looked barely twenty and innocent and clueless about life, and now she told me she was quite a lot older than that and there were a mother and a husband whom she had run away from.

“You don’t look thirty and married.”

“Well, you don’t look like someone living with his mother but you know how it is. Appearances can be deceiving and all that.”

“Did you even see me before you, um, went blind?” This was a surprise. But then, if she’d seen me, she would have probably refused to go anywhere with me. I was still a few kilos short of the “thin but not scary skinny” category.

“I saw you’re tall.”

I laughed.

“Yeah, that I am.”

I was also still losing my hair from the malnutrition and, according to Madeleine, I had a haunted look in my eyes. I didn’t think that was going anywhere. Just four months ago I’d made all the children in the city disappear and had then brought them back. Both I’d done accidentally, while dreaming. An accident of such magnitude had consequences.

We turned another corner and the building I now lived in stretched out to the street at its other end. It was an old brick building with twenty entrances. Across a grass patch there was an identical building with another twenty entrances. Ours had the odd numbers and the one opposite had the even numbers. I took out my keys.

“So, what else are you?” Antonia asked.

“I’m going bald, for one thing,” I said. “I had a small nutrition problem.”

“I’m sorry.” Antonia held my hand with an ease suggesting she’d been doing it for years, that she trusted me. She probably didn’t but it felt nice to tell myself she did.

“I’m handling it. Maddy—that’s how I call my mother—she says I need another few months. That’s why she came to live with me, actually.” I had to write this down, it was a stroke of rare genius. Such a simple and natural explanation of Maddy’s presence in my life.

“I see.”

“We’re here” I unlocked the door and pushed it open with my foot. I didn’t want to let go of Antonia’s hand. It was now warm and it was so small and soft, and I enjoyed the trust it suggested even if it was at least partly imaginary. “Through here,” I said and tugged gently on her hand again. She stepped in and I followed without letting go of that little hand.

“Which floor?” she asked.

“Third.”

Antonia squeezed my hand more tightly. I went in front of her and led her up the stairs, which were too narrow for two people to climb side by side. Our ascent was a bit awkward but I never let go of her.

“That’s us,” I said when we reached the last flight of stairs. “Door on the right.”

She turned to the right and waited while I put my key in the lock and turned it. The door clicked open and I tugged on Antonia’s hand for the last time.

“Straight ahead,” I said. She turned her head towards me tilting it slightly back, her unseeing eyes searching, and smiled. I didn’t return the smile. This searching gaze was so sad my stomach clenched. A sudden certainty seized me—the certainty I would help her, whatever I had to do. I never wanted to see this gaze again. It burned like acid.

“Maddy, I’m home and I’ve got a guest with me,” I called from the hall.

“Coming!” She was in the kitchen, cooking again. She spent a lot of her time cooking and I was beginning to suspect it wasn’t just because she was determined to get me back into shape quickly—and keep me alive—but because she simply enjoyed cooking. And she was good at it. When we met, I’d lost about fifteen percent of my body mass in less than two months. I looked like a scarecrow and I felt like an empty wrapper. Now I’d restored all but five percent of that. Maddy was the one calculating it all, at first every day, then once a week. All I knew was I felt a lot better and a lot fewer people now tended to jump out of my way, frightened at the sight of me. According to Maddy, I’d been on the brink of death by malnourishment because of that accident with the children. She’d pulled me back.

Antonia’s fingers tightened around my palm.

“Don’t worry,” I said with a smile I hoped was encouraging but nobody would see anyway. “Maddy is great, you’ll see.” And she will know how to help, I hoped. I really hoped.

As I led my accidental guest into the living room, the woman who posed as my mother appeared under the arc that separated it from the kitchen, wiping her hands in a towel. I grinned. The towel was a nice touch in the mother picture, on red and white stripes. Pity Antonia couldn’t see it. It would have made her feel right at home.

“Hi, Maddy. This is Antonia,” I said, letting go of her hand and placing mine on her shoulder. “We met on the street outside DF. Funny story.”

Antonia smiled, her eyes fixed on a spot a foot to the left from Maddy.

“I’m afraid I can’t… I can’t see you.”

Maddy’s answering smile was the usual warm expression she wore most of the time unless she was worried I wasn’t eating enough. I used to think she had an obsession with food and feeding people but when she told me how much energy altering reality took—she yelled it at me, actually—I changed my mind and I ate all four eggs she’d served me, sunny side up. I used to hate them. Now I enjoy the occasional liquid yolk. Maddy calls it pure energy and she’s probably right.

“Well,” she said now, tossing the towel on her shoulder, “I’m short and stout, like that kettle from the nursery rhyme. You can touch my face if you like.”

“Oh, I,” Antonia blushed “I’m not permanently blind. I mean, I only lost my sight half an hour ago and it’s not…”

I squeezed her shoulder gently.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Maddy said and rushed to the girl. She took Antonia’s hands in hers gently, without squeezing. “Wrong first impression, what do you know. Okay, let’s sit you down. Dinner’s ready. Spaghetti Bolognese. Would you like some?”

“Yes, please,” Antonia said as Maddy led her to the kitchen table. That’s where I preferred to eat, in the kitchen, opposite the stove. The table was small, it had just two chairs but it was just the two of us here, so the space sufficed just fine. And it was a lot cozier than the dining table in the living room.

“Good,” Maddy said. She’d hardly looked at me yet. Now she did, arching one eyebrow. Her eyes, the color of hazelnut cream, gleamed with curiosity. Over the last two months since she’d found me and decided to take me under her wing—her words not mine—we had talked about what the human mind could do, what I could do but I hadn’t had a chance to demonstrate it. Not that I wanted to. I suspected I’d never be able to alter reality after that horror with the children. The memory still made all my hairs stand on end. Maddy thought differently. She thought a chance would present itself when the time was right and when I was ready because that’s how the universe worked. “Even if you hide under a rock,” were her precise words.

“So, do you want to talk about anything?” I asked Antonia after I hung my coat on the back of my chair to dry and diligently swept the thought her presence here could be this chance Maddy had talked about under the rug of my untidy mind. “If you want, you could take your coat off. It’s a bit wet.”

“Oh. Right.” Antonia unbuttoned her thin coat—more than a little wet—and set it on the back of her chair. She moved with ease, like she was home or at least in a familiar place. That struck me as odd but I didn’t mind it. It was better than the alternative of suspicion and fear.

“So,” I prompted. Maddy’s eyes bore into my back like a twin drill bit and I shuddered. The first time this had happened I’d freaked out. Now I was getting used to it but it still startled me. “Whenever you’re ready, no rush.”

The girl sighed. Maddy set a bowl of steaming spaghetti with a generous cap of Bolognese sauce in front of her, along with a fork. Without a word, she gently placed Antonia’s right hand on the fork. She sniffed the food.

“Oh, this smell delicious, thank you.” She picked up the fork. Her left hand crawled up the table and took hold of the cup. The hand with the fork rose. She dipped the fork into the food and pulled it out again.

“Do you want me help you with that?”

“Yes, please.”

“No problem,” I said. I took my own fork and mixed the contents of her bowl until the sauce looked more or less evenly distributed.

“Bon appetite, darlings,” Maddy said. “I’ll leave you two to it.”

“She sounds very nice,” Antonia said. She’d taken a cautious, slow bite of the spaghetti and judging by her face she’d liked the taste.

“She is,” I said. “Great cook, too.”

“So is my mom,” the girl said after another bite. Her hand moved carefully, she seemed worried she might spill food, but she ate with appetite. “But she is too stubborn. She and Michael, my husband, said they’d force me into the treatment because they obviously wanted me to live more than I did.” Her lips curled into a crooked, bitter smile. She’d said ‘obviously’ with so much venom. “As if the treatment guarantees life.”

“Nothing guarantees life,” I said.

“Exactly!” she exclaimed, dropping her fork to raise her hand and slice through the air with it. “That’s what I told them. I told them I wanted to live what remained of my life as fully as I could instead of, you know, shrinking and rotting slowly from all the drugs they’d pump into me in an attempt—don’t forget it’s just an attempt—to shrink the tumor. What’s the point?”

She’d come alight while she spoke, her unseeing eyes sparkling, cheeks flushed, lips somehow fuller. Anger suited this girl.

“So you ran away,” I said and delivered another mouthful of Maddy’s excellent cooking to my still staring organism.

“Yes.” The light in her eyes dimmed. “I took the first plane out of London. And here I am.” She made a nervous noise, probably laughter but it sounded more like a snort. “I’d heard Copenhague was beautiful but I couldn’t see much of it.” She shook her head and dipped her fork into the bowl again, scooping up some spaghetti and leaning over the bowl to avoid spilling any before they reached her mouth.

“Maybe you will, some day.” I said. How could I help her? Dream the tumor out? What were the chances I could do it? Keeping a dream journal was one thing, it was easy enough—and it didn’t have many entries as I was back to mostly dreamless nights and wasn’t complaining—but I hadn’t even reached the stage where I could have a truly lucid dream. I kept trying and I kept failing. So, these chances were not exactly great. But I’d had an urge to help her. She was important.

“…help me,” I heard her say.

“Sorry?” I was contemplating my strong belief she was important—for the world? For me?—and when I did that I tuned out the surrounding world. Not very polite, I know but I wasn’t used to visitors even if they were the visitors I was thinking about while ignoring their presence.

“I said I have a feeling you can help me.”

I set my fork on my plate, my hunger gone in an instant.

“Really? Why is that?”

The girl shrugged with nonchalance that creeped me out.

“I don’t know. Probably your voice. It’s very comforting. Warm. Reliable. This sort of thing. It’s a very strong feeling,” she added. “Actually, it’s funny but I dreamt about this place, Dansk Finanzbar, on the plane here. I checked the map on my phone and imagine how I felt when I saw it was a real place. So, when I bumped into you I was coming to this bar. I guess I was looking for you.”

I stared at her. A comforting voice and a dream was all it took for her to trust me? I had trouble breathing in. My chest had tightened and so had my throat. Just because this girl found my voice comforting I now felt an obligation to help her. I didn’t know how but I had to. It was annoying, this weight she’d saddled me with. I wasn’t ready yet and the fact she had no way of knowing about my past… experiences did not mean I couldn’t be annoyed about her trust in me.

“I’m not sure I can help you,” I said, trying to keep the anger out of my voice and I swallowed back “Since when do nuclear physicists believe their dreams?” To mask my annoyance, I picked up my fork again and dug into my spaghetti. They were getting cold and I wanted to finish them quickly.  I was no longer hungry but I’d promised Maddy. Besides, she would check. She checked if I’d eaten my food like I was a five-year-old. More annoyance.

“I understand,” she said quietly.

The resignation in her words put out this annoyance in a blink. Now I was embarrassed I’d even bee annoyed in the first place.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I will try to help but I don’t know if it will work. It’s not… it’s not a science, this thing I have, this… talent or whatever it’s called.” I paused, aware I was on the verge of telling her everything about that accident with the children. I wanted to tell her.

“It’s called a gift,” Maddy’s voice came from behind my back. We both started and Antonia dropped her fork in the bowl. “It’s called a gift and yes, it can help.”

“But there’s no guarantee,” I said with a pleading voice that appalled me.

Antonia stretched out her hand across the table, palm up. I hesitated for a second but I took it.

“There are never guarantees for anything,” she said. “Please, just try. I don’t want to be dramatic but maybe I could help make the world a better place. Along with a lot of other people, that is, not just me single-handedly,” she added in a rush.

Maddy laughed. She had a nice laughter, sweet and hearty, and infectious. I joined her briefly while Antonia grinned.

 

“Tell me about the tumor,” I said. We’d moved to the living room, all three of us, and Antonia was sipping from a huge cup of hot chocolate. I had one in my hand, too, of course I had. Hot chocolate with whipped cream. More fattening food.

“It’s near the brain stem, that’s why they’re afraid to operate. Most of them. Astrocytoma is the official name, if you’re interested.”

“I’m interested in everything you can tell me about your condition.” I had an acute sense of unreality, as if I was an actor playing a role on a stage. I was sitting here, in my living room, with a stranger who believed I could cure her brain tumor, and I was acting my role, asking questions about it. How would that help?

“One doctor said it could be the result of a trauma.”

I was all ears.

“A trauma?”

Antonia took another sip from her hot chocolate and rested the cup on her lap.

“I fell and hit my head when I was about five or six. I went to figure-skating lessons and one day I guess I just got too bold. I ended up in ER with a mild concussion. But one doctor said there may be a causal link between a head injury and a brain tumor. Not that it’s ever been proved, not for this type of tumor I have.”

“Excuse me for a second.” I needed to see how these astrocytomas look. I had never seen a brain tumor before in my life so I had to know what the thing looked like. That, I thought, should help me dream more realistically. I took the laptop from my bedroom where I kept it after the end of the work day, when the living room was my office. I liked to watch a film in bed occasionally.

“Right,” I said when I sat back on my old and much loved corner couch that could double as a bed and that would double as a bed for Antonia tonight. She was huddled up in the shorter end of the couch, her legs folded under her. I still had trouble believing this girl was thirty-two but she had no reason to lie about her age, I guessed. And she certainly did not lie about the blindness.

“Okay, go on.” I opened a browser and typed astrocytoma in the search box. They did look like lumps, almost exactly as I’d imagined them.

“That’s pretty much it. They can’t start chemotherapy or radiotherapy before they remove some of the tumor and they are afraid to touch it. It’s basically a dead end but this one surgeon persuaded my mother and Michael that he could operate it and my chances of survival were better than the others said.”

“And that’s when you ran away?” Maddy asked. She’d kept silent until now, so still I’d forgotten she was with us. This happened often and it was unnerving. I hoped I’d get used to it sooner rather than later. It was ridiculous to jump every time my “mother” opened her mouth after a prolonged silence. Not that Antonia could see me but it was embarrassing.

The girl nodded.

“Can I be completely honest?”

“Of course,” I said and nodded, redundantly.

“I ran away because I wanted to be alone. My family, they’ve been very supportive and loving but I’d had enough of the drama. Do you understand? All this grief on their faces, all this suffering before I’m even dead, the sighs and the groans, and my mom’s tears. It was too much. You know, three months after my diagnosis I wanted to die already so I wouldn’t have to see them and hear them.”

“You lived together?” Maddy asked.

“No, my mother came to stay with us after they diagnosed me. I asked her to leave but she wouldn’t. More drama.” Antonia sighed. Her eyes were fixed on a point somewhere on the seat of the couch, between her and me. She smiled like she was watching a movie she was enjoying.

“I understand,” Maddy said. She moved and sat on the spot where Antonia’s eyes were fixed. She took the girl’s hand in hers. I continued browsing astrocytoma images. “Nobody needs more drama than they are already getting from their diagnosis.”

“Are you a doctor?”

“I was a pediatric nurse.”

I gaped. This was news to me.

“I’m retired now but I have seen more than my fair share of unnecessary drama. So you’re not going to get any here, okay?” she said with a smile and smoothed Antonia’s short hair back. The girl smiled back.

“Thank you.”

“And Lars will help you. You can trust me on that.”

She did have an excellent bedside manner, I had to admit. A nurse, huh. And I wasn’t even sure she was human to begin with.

“I’ll do everything in my… I’ll do everything I can,” I promised. In my powers, that’s what I’d almost said, like I was some superhero out of a comic book.

“How do you do it?” Antonia asked, raising her head, looking past me. This misdirected look made me wince. She thought she was looking at me and she probably suspected she might not be. Her face was bitter.

“I… I don’t…”

“He can alter reality, honey. He can make a new one for you.”

This was too much. I wasn’t sure I should tell Antonia details and here Maddy was, talking about altering reality. And what if it didn’t work? It had only happened twice so far and both times it had been an accident. It was crazy to think it would work just because Madeleine said it would, however convincing she was.

“Really?” Antonia’s voice was now completely different. There was no trace of fear or confusion in it, only curiosity and fascination.

“I don’t know,” I finally said. What did I have to lose? This girl’s hope, that’s what. But Madeleine had already let the cat out of the bag. I might as well elaborate. “I dream about things and ridiculous as it sounds sometimes they do happen. Twice, to be exact.”

“Three times,” Maddy corrected.

“Fine, three times. But two of these were accidents.”

“Okay” Antonia said. “What do I have to do?”

“You just go to bed, darling. And try not to worry about anything.”

“Yeah, it’s been a long day,” I said. “I’ve got some more work to do. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Okay.”

I took my laptop and left them to make her bed. I had a dream to plan and though I knew where to start I didn’t know how to end it. Dreaming of her tumor-free made the most sense. Just a nice dream of meeting a girl without an astrocytoma. How hard could that be? Very, that’s how.

In fact, that night I didn’t dream at all. I woke up at ten past two from a dreamless blackness. I heard a strange noise from the living room, a muffled, strangled noise and I went to see what was making it. Antonia was crying with her face buried in the blanket Maddy had supplied her with. I didn’t say a word, I simply sat on the bed and hugged her and held her until the sobs stopped. For the first time in months I didn’t care she would probably be appalled by my wire-rack touch. And for the first time in a lot longer I didn’t have ulterior motives in hugging a woman. Probably because hugging her felt like hugging a child, a vulnerable, suffering child. When she stopped crying, Antonia settled back into bed and I pulled the blanket up to her chin. I left her like that, still breathing fast, the occasional hitch interrupting the rhythm, curled up under the blanket.

When I got back into my own bed I suddenly felt very sad. I had no idea why. My life was quite nice at the moment if I didn’t count Antonia’s problem but Maddy’s confidence I could help her had infected me. I believed I could help her. I just didn’t know how to force the right dream. Still, I was sad, so sad as if I’d just lost a parent—which happened with both my parents a long time ago, so that was an old wound—or the love of my life had left me, which had never happened because Martina and I had never been together. I didn’t even know if she was the one, I just had feelings for her she did not return and that was for the best as she was married to my best friend. I drifted off thinking about Martina.

 

I had a family. It was early morning, the sun was raining light on the bedroom I shared with my wife who was nowhere to be seen right now, and I was stretching under the sheets. I rubbed my belly full of satisfaction with my life and had a fleeting thought I should start exercising before it became a real pot belly.

“Daddy!” a child’s shrill voice called and I sank into a warm haze. “Daddy! Daddy!” the voice kept calling and I grinned as I slipped the sheets over my head. Feet pattered into the room and approached me.

“Daddy?” The voice was less certain now. The child had stopped by my side of the bed. I held my breath. A hand started patting the sheet.

“There you are!” the child shouted in triumph and pulled the sheet off.

 

I started and blinked against the gray morning light.

“What?” I managed, forcing my eyes to remain open against their will.

“It’s morning, Daddy, time to wake up!” the chubby dark-haired girl standing by my bed said. “Time for work!”

I went from lying on my back to standing on my feet, on the other side of the bed, in under a second. I stared at the girl, so horrified I couldn’t form a coherent thought.

“What’s wrong, daddy?” she asked in her sing-song voice.

“Madeleine!” I hollered. “Maddy!”

My brain restarted but the first thought it formed was so ridiculous, so scary I had to sit down and I did, still staring at the child.

“Granny!” the girl hollered as well. “Are you okay, Daddy?”

“Yeah,” I whispered. “Yeah, I’m… I’m fine.”

“Good morning, Mr. Sleepy,” Maddy said as if this was the most normal morning in the world, as if there wasn’t a strange child in my bedroom who had called me Daddy several times already. She took one look at me and turned to the girl “Breakfast time, Tony, you’re already running late.”

The girl grinned at me again and pattered out.

I sat in my bed and hid my face in my hands.

“Come now, I told you everything will be all right,” Maddy said, settling at the edge of the bed.

“No,” I mumbled from behind my palms. “You said I could help her. There is a difference.” I pulled my hands down. “What are we going to do now? Do I have to find a family for her?”

Maddy raised an eyebrow. She does it often but strangely it’s not annoying.

“She already has a family. She has a father. Alas, her mother’s gone.”

I gaped.

“Gone?”

“She passed away when Tony was eighteen months old,” Maddy said with such a sad expression I instantly believed she’d been there. Which was impossible. Or maybe not. It was hard to know for sure with her.

“So, what you’re saying is I have a daughter.” The words tasted strange in my mouth, sweet and a little sour with a tinge of bitterness. That had to be horror, the bitterness.

“Yes, she turned five a month ago, on May 27th, and we had a party. She goes to day care and we need to leave in twenty minutes to get there on time. Her teacher is very strict about punctuality,” she said as she glanced at her vintage gold-faced watch with a worn maroon leather strap. “You look like you could use a minute to process things.”

“How do you know all this?” I asked with some effort. My ears were buzzing and I was a little nauseous. I wanted to lie down and sleep again, make this go away but at the same time I felt like celebrating. I’d just woken up and I was already tired, turned into a pathetic battleground of emotions.

“I exist in all realities, darling. I’ll tell you about it later. Now I have to go make sure Antonia has eaten her breakfast,” she said and then she winked at me. “It’s her favorite, muesli and plain yoghurt.”

I fell back into my bed and gripped my skull as tightly as I could, burying my nails into my scalp. Not that it would help but the pain cleared up some of the haze reigning inside. I had a five-year-old I had to get to know, take care of, and make sure she survived to adulthood. That’s what parents did, right? They made sure their children grew up. And I had to make sure she didn’t hit her head. I shot up and ran to the kitchen.

“Maddy!”

“Yes?” She was washing a bowl. Antonia wasn’t there but I heard running water in the bathroom.

“Does she go to figure-skating lessons?” I asked in a loud whisper.

“No, she goes to drawing lessons,” my so-called mother said. “Don’t worry, Lars. You did it. You helped her.”

And now I had to raise her.

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