Annabel wakes to the sound of the life guard’s whistle: three shrill bursts that tug her from sleep. She opens her eyes and sits up from her beach towel. The wind whips hot. A flock of sea gulls dives toward the water and then lurches back into the sky, its cries trailing behind it like dust. The two young children sitting a few feet from her towel have disappeared. In their place is a caving-in castle of sand and the imprint of their knees, now nearly erased by the wind. Annabel’s mother’s flip-flops, the empty prints of her heels and toes embedded in white rubber, lie on their sides, abandoned.
Annabel stands and walks to the water. A crowd has gathered in front of the waves. An elderly woman in a one-piece blue bathing suit covers her mouth with her hand. A young woman dressed in gray running shorts and a sports bra stands beside her. “What happened?” she says. A line of sweat trails from her hairline down her cheek to her neck.
The elderly woman drops her hand to her side. She shakes her head and lets out her breath. “A riptide,” she says. She raises her hand to her temple. “Did you see? That woman was swimming and then she was just, gone.”
The runner stares out into the ocean, adjusts her weight in the sand.
Annabel moves away. She begins to search for her mother’s face in the crowd. Before she fell asleep, her mother was standing in the water, the low waves lapping at her ankles, her right hand shielding her eyes from the sun. “Annabel!” she called back. “Are you sure you don’t want to come in? The water is warm!”
Perhaps, Annabel thinks, her mother took a walk along the beach. Perhaps she is swimming someplace further down the shore.
The lifeguard turns, blows his whistle again. He raises a bullhorn to his lips. Everyone, he announces, must clear the beach.
* * * * *
That morning, Annabel and her mother and father ate scrambled eggs and whole wheat toast spread with butter and jam beside the pool at the Hilton Hotel. A breeze rustled the tablecloths and rippled the water. The air smelled of chlorine and sun screen and sand. They were in Florida for their annual spring break. For the past five years, since Annabel was nine, they had been packing their bags and leaving Minnesota for a one-week respite from winter in March. This year, Annabel brought her first real bikini.
“Eighth grade is too young for a bikini,” her mother said, frowning, when Annabel held it up on its white plastic hanger at Macy’s. But in the end she agreed to the purchase. When they checked in to the hotel, Annabel saw from the room’s window, on the other side of five blocks of low, gravel-covered rooftops, the white-capped waves of the ocean. “Tomorrow,” she said, turning back to her parents, “can we go to the beach?”
Her mother was standing over her suitcase, unpacking her swimsuit into a drawer beside the bed. She looked up, smiled vaguely. Annabel’s father was already lying on one of the beds, his eyes closed and his shoes pushed off onto the floor. Tomorrow, Annabel knew, her father would spend the day beside the pool. The pool was surrounded by rows of reclining sun chairs and colorful umbrellas that shed large, deep circles of shade. At the far end was a bar which served cold drinks from ten in the morning until midnight.
Annabel crossed the room to the bathroom and closed the door behind her. On the counter beside the sink was a basket full of expensive samples of shampoo and conditioner. The shower had a large, round showerhead that, when she turned it on, shot out soft pellets of water that could be adjusted to the perfect temperature, halfway between hot and cold. In Minnesota the temperatures were still polar, the streets and sidewalks still frozen. Tomorrow she would lie on the beach until she was hot.
* * * * *
The next morning after breakfast Annabel and her mother changed into their swimsuits and packed a yellow canvas bag full of things for the beach: turkey sandwiches, plastic bottles of water, paperback books, a new tube of sun block. When they reached the coast they crossed the sand to an empty place a few feet from two young children on their knees, their backs bent over a slowly emerging sand castle. They spread out two towels and anchored them with the contents of the canvas bag, a paperback at one corner, her mother’s flip flops at the other. Her mother shed her shorts and tank top. She opened the tube of sun block and smeared it across her nose and cheeks, closing her eyes against the sun.
“Annabel,” she said, “do you want to come swimming?” She dropped the sun block onto the towel and pulled her short, brown hair back with a thin band of elastic she slid off her wrist.
Annabel shook her head no. It would take her at least an hour before she felt warm enough to go in.
Annabel’s mother crossed the sand to the water. When she reached it she turned and called back, the low waves lapping at her ankles, her right hand shading her eyes from the sun, “Annabel! Are you sure you don’t want to come in? The water is warm!”
Annabel waved at her mother. She lay back on the towel and closed her eyes.
When Annabel and her father leave the beach that day, Annabel clutches her mother’s clothes to her chest. Her father carries the canvas bag. Although the sun is still beating down, she shivers violently in her swimsuit.
* * * * *
For five mornings they go out on the water to search. Annabel and her father rise in the hotel room before dawn and dress in the dark. They drive through still-empty streets to the beach and cross cool, deserted sand in silence. A jogger passes by; an old man kneels beside his dog. They climb aboard the coast guard’s boat and move slowly out over the waves. Her father leans over the edge, his bare knees tattooed by the boat’s coarse carpeting, his thick graying hair lifted and then pushed by the wind. Annabel’s T-shirt and shorts cling to her skin. She shivers and watches the shore.
They search for two hours, then three. The coast guard, a tall, thin man with a crew cut and the name “Theo” sewn into his shirt stands silent behind the wheel. His clothes ripple against his body. His eyes follow the waves. Every now and then he looks back at them. Annabel can feel him taking in her father kneeling motionless, staring over the edge; Annabel huddled into her seat. He returns them sea sick and burnt by the wind. They cross the slowly filling sand—there are children now, families, life guards on duty. In the hotel room they pull the curtains and shades and lie silent in the dark, their insides still moving with the wake.
* * * * *
On the sixth day her father says it is time to go home.
They are seated at a beach-front restaurant in the late afternoon. The sky is cloudless, the sun hot enough that sweat gathers in the lines of Annabel’s father’s forehead and trails its way down his face. Still, Annabel shivers. They order popcorn shrimp, french fries, tall glasses of Coke. The waitress wears a tank top that stops beneath her ribcage and shorts that cut into her thighs. She places the food in front of them: red plastic baskets lined with wax paper, stained with grease. “Anything else?” she says. She smiles and moves to the table behind them: three college girls in bikinis lean forward sipping daiquiris through straws.
Annabel’s father stares down into his food, looks out at the ocean. “There is nothing,” he says, “left to do.”
In Minneapolis he works for Finley Engineering. He designs roadways, bridges, highway ramps. On the weekends he roams the house fixing what is broken—a squeaking door, a protruding nail, the faulty leg of a chair. When Annabel’s mother lost her contact in the rug, he searched for forty-five minutes on his hands and knees. There is nothing that can’t be found, he likes to say. Nothing that can’t be fixed.
Annabel lifts a shrimp to her mouth, forces herself to chew and swallow. When the waitress returns, the check in hand, Annabel’s father pulls out a twenty. The waitress leans over the table, collects the half-eaten food. “Anything else?” she says. The ocean parades in her sunglasses.
* * * * *
In Minneapolis the curbs are flattened by dark, wet snow and the sky and streets are the same color gray. The temperature hangs in the thirties. Annabel and her father arrive home in a taxi and climb the front steps to a house full of dark. Annabel’s father moves slowly through the rooms. He turns on lights and opens up shades, waters plants which droop in their pots. Annabel remains in the foyer. Her mother’s winter boots sit beside each other on the entryway rug, their laces neatly tied, the brown leather stained with dried wet. “Someday you’ll inherit all of my shoes!” her mother laughed, when Annabel’s feet grew two sizes in one year.
Annabel picks up her suitcase, pulls it wobbling down the hall.
For dinner they sit at the square kitchen table, the large picture window opening up into the darkened back yard. Her father defrosts a cheese pizza, dumps a wilted pre-washed salad into a bowl. They eat off paper plates and listen to the slow reawakening of the house: the click and hum of the refrigerator, the settling in of the floor boards. Annabel asks for the salad dressing, picks at her lettuce with her fork. Her father stands from the table. He walks to the refrigerator and opens a beer. He takes a swig from it, looks down into the foam, lets the refrigerator door close and sets the bottle in the sink. During dinner he says only, “I didn’t think it would still be so cold.” The radiators in the living room let out a slow hiss, then a short, surprising knock.
* * * * *
The funeral happens three days later, on a blustery Saturday at the end of March. Annabel’s aunt Lucy flies in the evening before from Colorado. She goes to the grocery store and fills the cupboards with cans of soup and packages of instant rice. She prepares a chicken casserole and freezes a pan of lasagna. When they go to the church there is no coffin, only flowers, enough that Annabel feels sick from the smell. She wears a black dress her mother bought her the year before. The sleeves stop an inch above her wrists and the fabric pulls at her shoulders. Her father wears a charcoal-colored suit, the color bleeds into his cheeks. At home he adjusted it carefully—when Annabel passed his bedroom door she saw him reflected in the mirror pulling the jacket over his shoulders, brushing the worn fabric with his palms—but now it looks lopsided, as though grief has knocked his shoulders out of alignment, changed the length of his arms and legs.
The church slowly fills. Annabel recognizes the face of their next-door neighbor, Mrs. Caldwater; the principal at the school where her mother taught 2nd grade; a woman her mother volunteered with at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings. Everyone sits slumped and silent, like buoys battered by the wind. The pastor reads three verses from the Bible and then closes the book and looks up at the congregation: each person is here for a reason, he says. Each person who loves God will be saved. Annabel’s father shifts in his seat, clears his throat into his fist. After the pastor finishes speaking the congregation rises and prays and then sits, the pews emitting a collective low moan. At the close of the service the organist loses a sheet of her music: it floats and then sinks, floats and then sinks, escaping her outstretched hand. Annabel thinks of the ocean’s low waves, her mother calling back to her in the sun.
* * * * *
She stays home from school for one week, then two. Each morning she expects her father to appear at her door, cross the room to her bed. She waits for him to say she must get up, must shower and dress, pack her books in her bag and leave the house in time for the bus.
He says nothing. In the mornings he rises as he always has, in the darkness at a quarter to six. Annabel lies in bed and listens to the water running in the bathroom sink, the flush of the toilet, the stream of the shower’s hot water hitting the tiles and swirling down into the drain. She hears the faucet in the kitchen, smells coffee and toast. When he comes down the hall to her bedroom he pushes open her door and stands watching her, his fingers holding on to the knob. He does not cross the room, does not say her name, does not lay his hand on her cheek. He pulls the door shut gently behind him, makes his way silently back down the hall.
The house, when he is gone, is full of large hollows, a submarine submerged at the bottom of the sea. For three hours Annabel falls into sleep and then out of it, into sleep and then out of it. At ten-thirty she pushes back her covers and makes her way down the hall in blue leggings, a gray sweatshirt, an oversized pink T-shirt beneath. She finds a note from her father on the counter: Dear Annabel, it says, the handwriting neat and precise,
I will be home at four. There is food in the refrigerator.
I will call you at lunch to see how you are.
His cup sits abandoned in the sink, half drunk, the coffee the color of dirt-splashed snow.
Annabel opens the refrigerator. Inside the shelves sag with the things the neighbors have brought: pasta salad, spaghetti with meatballs, trays of sliced vegetables, a tuna fish casserole. She takes a carton of strawberry yogurt and a spoon from the drawer and walks with it to the living room.
The rest of the day she spends watching TV: talk shows about drug abuse and teen violence; soap operas with shocking deaths and last-minute marriages; commercials for eyeliner and panty hose and shampoo. When her father comes home he finds her lying on her side on the sofa, a blanket pushed down to her feet, the empty carton of yogurt turned over on its side with the spoon still inside of it.
“How was your day?” he says.
A green frog dances across the TV singing the alphabet in Spanish.
“I thought,” he says, “we could have spaghetti with meatballs for dinner.”
“Eme!” the green puppet sings. “Ene!”
He stands in the doorway, his face a crease of tributaries.
* * * * *
During dinner her father says it is not as cold today as it has been: the paper listed the temperature as 43. Annabel looks out the window at a mound of snow still clinging to the grass. A bird alights, tiptoes across it, disappears in a flurry over the hedge. The phone rings once, then twice before the answering machine picks up. A recording of Annabel’s mother’s voice fills the room. You’ve reached the Martins, she says. Her words smile out at them from the machine. Leave a message at the beep.
The lines on Annabel’s father’s face deepen, they solidify like rock. He rises from his chair and crosses the kitchen. He reaches down to the outlet, yanks the plug from its socket.
* * * * *
On a Sunday in early April, her father says it is time to return to school. It has been two weeks since she has been home, and she must keep up with her schoolwork. He has gone to talk with her teachers, brought home worksheets, essay assignments, tests. Now it is time she goes back.
He delivers all of this carefully, as though he has rehearsed what he will say. They are seated at the kitchen table eating fish sticks and peas. Each time Annabel tries to stab a pea with her fork, it escapes and rolls to the edge of her plate. On the other side of the window, the snow on the lawn has shrunk to small pieces, tiny sea shells of ice. The grass beneath it is brown, nearly gray.
“It won’t be so bad,” her father says. “It will be good to see your friends.” He says this without looking at her, his eyes cast down into his plate.
Annabel takes a bite of fish; she chews and then swallows. At home she has begun to feel sea sick, half green. The reminders of her mother—a set of keys, an earmarked paperback book, a pair of reading glasses, a blue woolen glove—drift in and out of rooms like debris. Perhaps at school she will be able to stand. “OK,” she says. “I’ll go.”
* * * * *
On her first day back, Annabel’s father drives her to school. The car’s vents spill out heat and Annabel watches the city slowly awaken: a woman stands in her jacket at the bus stop, clutching a steaming paper cup; a bearded man in an apron emerges out of the doors of a small grocery and leans over to sweep the mat. When they reach the school her father pulls up behind a row of yellow busses and Annabel watches as students file out and cross the lawn.
“Well,” her father says. “Here we are.”
He reaches into the back seat to retrieve her bag. When she came into the kitchen that morning, showered and dressed, there were two pieces of toast and a glass of orange juice sitting out for her on the table. While she ate, her father stood at the kitchen counter and packed her a lunch.
He places the backpack lightly on her lap. “Good luck,” he says. He touches her knee with his hand, looks past her to the streaming line of students.
She tells him goodbye and climbs out of the car. She walks to the doors of the school. The night before, she called her best friend, Zoë, to tell her she was coming back. During the two weeks Annabel stayed home, Zoë called almost every night. Most nights, Annabel didn’t answer the phone or, when she did, she said she couldn’t talk. Every time she got off the phone she felt guilty, but she did not want to talk to Zoë about school or boys. She did not want to imagine Zoë at home eating dinner with her mother and father, Zoë’s mother reminding her to do her homework or go to bed on time. Annabel half expected Zoë to stop calling, but most days, she did. When Annabel told her she was coming back, Zoë was ecstatic. “I can’t wait to see you!” she said. She told Annabel she would meet her at the front doors of the school. Annabel was not sure she wanted to see her, was not sure she wanted to see anyone, but now, as she walks toward the large double doors, she is glad not to have to walk into the school alone.
She hears Zoë call her name before she sees her. She is standing inside the doors, her backpack slung over one shoulder. “Annabel!” she calls. She waves over the heads of two students. Zoë’s long blond hair is pulled back into a pony tail and Annabel can see she still has a tan from the trip she took with her family to San Diego. When she gives her a hug, Annabel can smell the apple shampoo Zoë started using before break, the lime green bottle they picked out together at the store.
“Hi!” Zoë says. When she hugs Annabel, she squeezes. Several students push by and Annabel and Zoë move further into the building. “I’ll walk you to your locker.”
The hallways smell like floor wax and the burnt aroma of food coming up from the cafeteria in the basement. Annabel has been a student here for nearly two years—she has memorized the location of all of the drinking fountains and bathrooms, she knows which doors stay open after school lets out and which ones are locked—but now, in the rush of students slamming locker doors and hurrying to class, she feels completely lost. If it were not for Zoë standing beside her, she would turn and walk out of the building.
“OK,” Zoë says, when they reach Annabel’s locker. “I have to run to class. I’ll see you at lunch?”
Since half way through seventh grade, Annabel and Zoë have eaten lunch together nearly every day. After school they walked to Zoë’s house where they lay on her bed and listened to music or read magazines with articles about boys and dating and sections where the reader could send in stories about the most embarrassing things that had ever happened to them. If she didn’t have too much homework, Annabel sometimes stayed over at Zoë’s for dinner. Annabel wonders who Zoë has been hanging out with since Annabel has been gone, who she has been eating lunch with and walking home with from school.
She nods her head. “Sure,” she says. Zoë gives her another hug and disappears down the hallway.
Annabel turns to her locker. She tries to remember the combination. 16, she thinks, 24 . . . 3. When she opens the door her earth science textbook slides to the floor. On the door of her locker she has taped pictures of warm weather—a giant palm tree in the sun, a chlorinated pool in the shape of a flower, an advertisement for sun screen showing a row of women in bikinis lying on sun chairs—along with a countdown until spring break. Annabel leans over to pick up the science book and shoves it back into the locker, hard enough that it makes a dull thud against the metal. She tears the pictures off and crumples them in her hand. On her way to French class she tosses the pictures into a trash can where they bounce off a milk carton and disappear beneath a piece of tin foil.
* * * * *
In first period French, Madame Beque explains the verbs “savoir” and “connaître.” She writes them on the board along with their conjugations and then turns to the class. “Both verbs mean ’to know’,” she says. “You use ’savoir’ when you want to say you know a fact or how to do something. You use ’connaître’ when you want to say you know a person.”
She passes out a worksheet. “Choose the best form of ’to know’,” she says.
Annabel reads the sentences.
Madame Young’s students know French.
Helen knows her neighbor.
We know the earth is round.
You don’t know John.
She fills in the answers as she goes. When she gets to the last sentence, she stops: I know my mother loves me. Annabel sets her pencil down on the desk. She raises her hand and asks to go to the bathroom.
* * * * *
In second period geography there is a substitute teacher who tells them to call him Hank. Hank has hair the color of dust-covered coal and eyebrows like two strokes of paint. When he crosses the classroom he stuffs his fingers inside his pockets and drops his heels down first. He shows them a video about the Amazon River. Explorers lean over the sides of a boat taking pictures of shore line and sky. A narrator tells viewers a slew of facts about the river: how long it is, how deep, the kinds of species that live there. The last image in the film is a close-up of a man who has lived along the Amazon for nearly sixty-three years. His lips disappear into a soot-colored beard; his eyes glisten from his face like tiny black stones. “The water,” he says, “is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” He looks out onto the river and then down into his hands as though his palms, calloused and worn, have seen something the rest of him has not. “It is also,” he says, “the most deadly.”
The video cuts away, the credits roll quickly up the screen.
* * * * *
In third period history Annabel sits in the back and tries hard to swallow and breathe. The students are doing presentations on the mysteries of history and the only assignment is to take notes. She listens to reports on the Bermuda Triangle, Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa. When the bell rings, she is grateful to find Zoë waiting for her in the hall.
“I’m starving,” Zoë says. She loops her arm through Annabel’s and they walk to the cafeteria. It was only, Annabel thinks, a bad morning.
When they get to the lunchroom it is already crowded with students waiting in line to buy pizza and burritos and cartons of milk. Zoë steers Annabel to a small table in the corner with room only for two. Usually they sat at long tables with space for ten or twelve. Today, Annabel is grateful to sit with just Zoë.
“So,” Zoë says. “How was your morning?”
Annabel tells her about the reports in history and the substitute teacher in geography named Hank.
“I had that guy,” Zoë says. “He shows the same three videos every time he subs.” She rolls her eyes and unpacks a carton of yogurt, an apple, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Zoë’s mom made Zoë and her younger brother, Ian, their lunch in the mornings and wrote their names in cursive letters on the front of brown paper bags. Annabel looks down at her own lunch. She unfolds the top.
“You’ll never guess,” Zoë says, “who is dating Mary Keaton.”
Annabel thinks of Mary Keaton: a tall, thin girl who runs cross-country and track. She always did well in her classes but in the hallways she never smiled, and Annabel never saw her hanging out with anyone else from school.
Zoë looks as though she is going to burst with the news. “Peter Kulka!” she says. Peter Kulka is one of the most popular boys at school. He has dark hair and dark eyes and is smart without being a nerd. At school dances, he is the one all the girls want to dance with.
“Really?” Annabel says. She takes out a turkey sandwich, a granola bar, an orange. Her mother always cut her sandwiches in half and spread them with brown spicy mustard. It doesn’t matter, she thinks. She is too old to care about things like that. She takes a bite of the turkey sandwich, reaches for the orange and begins to peel it.
“I know!” Zoë says. “It’s completely crazy. Everyone says Mary’s so weird because she doesn’t have a mom. Her dad—”
Annabel’s sandwich turns to paste in her throat. The hand peeling her orange freezes, her thumb stuck beneath the skin.
Zoë looks at Annabel. Color rises from her throat into her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she says. She stares down into her sandwich and then back up at Annabel. “I’m really sorry.”
Even though the cafeteria is heated and she is wearing a sweater, Annabel’s body shakes with cold.
* * * * *
For the rest of the day she forces herself to go to her classes. In English, Mr. Guin diagrams sentences; he talks about subjects and verbs and predicates. Annabel sits in the back of the room and finishes her worksheet early, puts her head down on the desk until he comes and asks if she is alright. In algebra there is a quiz at the end of the week and Mr. Hone stands in front of the class working out problems and answering questions until the bell rings.
Her last class of the day is earth science. When she walks into the room there are black-and-white diagrams of amphibians—a frog, a toad and a salamander—at each student’s place. She takes a seat in the second row from the back. When class begins Mrs. Curtis writes on the board all of the characteristics of an amphibian. When she finishes she stands back and reads what she has written: “Amphibians,” she says, “have three-chambered hearts. Their skin lacks scales, hair and feathers. They are cold-blooded, have backbones, and can live in both the water and on land. Wouldn’t it be nice,” she says, turning to face the class, “if humans could breathe underwater?”
Annabel sinks in her chair.
* * * * *
That night, Annabel’s father stands in her doorway, a broken flashlight hanging limp from his hand. “Annabel,” he says, “are you sick?”
After class she did not wait for Zoë at her locker, did not even return to drop off her things. She shoved her science book and worksheets into her backpack and walked out of the school. She kept walking the ten blocks home.
“No,” she says. She is not sick. But she cannot go back to school. When she came into the house she dropped her bag on the kitchen floor and went straight to her bed. She pulled her covers up to her chin and squeezed her eyes closed to shut out savoir and connaître, to forget about girls who do not have a mother. She wished for the world to stop rocking, for everything, finally, to stand still.
Her father stands in the doorway, his eyes like two faded headlights. He presses the broken flashlight on and then off, on and then off. But still: no light.
* * * * *
Annabel’s father goes again to talk to her teachers. He brings home worksheets, word problems, assigned pages of reading. Zoë calls and leaves messages with Annabel’s father; he writes her name on small slips of paper and leaves them beside Annabel’s bed. A tutor comes in the afternoons, Meghan, the daughter of a man her father knows from work. Meghan is a senior in high school. She has long, camel-colored hair and calls Annabel “sweetie” even though she is only a few years older. She helps Annabel with math and history, with science and French. She says “good” even when Annabel answers the questions incorrectly. Annabel’s father cooks hamburgers and spaghetti, defrosts vegetables and butters slices of bread. After dinner he hovers over the refrigerator’s high-pitched hum, the low rattle of the garbage disposal. He looks at Annabel as though she is a broken appliance impossible to fix, as though he wishes he had directions, a detailed guide with instructions on how to re-align all of her parts. “Annabel,” he says, hovering in her doorway, “are you hungry? Is there anything you need?”
“I’m fine,” she says, although she feels as though she is breaking apart, as though her fingers and toes, her eyelashes and ears are each being carried off by a current too strong and too fast to resist.
* * * * *
In the first week of May, Annabel wakes in the middle of the night. She lies in her bed, listening. She was dreaming the same dream—her mother standing ankle-deep in the ocean, her mother calling back that the water was warm. It is early on a Wednesday morning. The clock at her bedside glows 4:30 in red.
She pushes the sheets back from her body, swings her feet from the mattress. From somewhere far off, she hears a faint knocking. She moves slowly down the hallway, her hand cutting a wake in the wall. The door to her father’s bedroom is open. Inside, the room is dark, the bed is empty. She rounds the corner and shuffles past the living room, then into the kitchen.
Her heart, by now, is beating too fast. Her breath catches in her throat. Spread out on the floor, illuminated by a narrow passageway of light from the small bulb above the kitchen sink, is everything usually stored beneath the faucet—Windex, Pine Sol, dish soap, dishwasher fluid, sponges, paper towel. In the middle of all of it, her father sits on his knees. She can see only the back of him, his legs folded beneath him in his pajama pants, his back rounded over in his nightshirt. His head and shoulders disappear beneath the sink.
Annabel stands in the doorway, silent. She has the feeling that if she speaks, she will break something, the moment balanced like a precious piece of glass at the edge of a table. Her father moves on his heels; his hand reaches out to steady himself on the floor.
“ . . . Dad?” she says. Her voice is low enough that she can barely hear herself. She says it again, this time louder. “Dad?”
He lifts his head suddenly, looks over his shoulder. When he sees her he moves backwards and straightens his spine. He turns himself awkwardly. “Annabel,” he says. He gestures back at the sink. “I was just—” He stops, begins again. “There was a leak in the pipe.” On the floor in front of the sink a small puddle glows in the darkness. He shifts again, pushes one leg out to give himself leverage to stand. His foot hits the bottle of Windex, sends it spinning on its side across the floor.
His face makes her step towards him without thinking. She puts out her palm as though to hold him in place. “Dad?” she says. The force of her voice surprises her. For all of these weeks, her father has looked at her as though there is something in her that pains him, as though Annabel, just Annabel, causes something inside him to break loose. Now, she sees something else. He looks guilty, embarrassed, as though she has walked into the room to find him half-naked. She wants to say something to repair things between them, to loosen the silence, to break it.
He looks up at her and waits, halfway between getting up and remaining on the floor. In the light from the ceiling’s single bulb she sees the stubble of beard which covers his face. Every winter he grew it out, his hair coming in black with flecks of red and, more recently, gray. Every spring he shaved it off the week before they left for Florida. On vacation his face was clean-shaven, ready for the sun. He looks, now, as though they are entering winter again, as though they are already there.
Annabel drops her hand to her side. The heat is still lowered for the night and she folds her arms across her chest and shivers. Now that he is looking at her, she loses whatever it was she wanted to say. In the same moment she realizes: it doesn’t matter. Her father will stand and tell her it is still early. He will say she should go back to bed. He will put all of the things on the floor back into the kitchen cabinet and brush the dust from his pants. He will close the cabinet door and turn off the light.
But her father does none of these things. When she drops her hand, he sinks slowly back to the floor. He leans against the wooden frame of the dishwasher and pushes his legs out in front of him. He lifts his arm so that, beside him, there is suddenly space for Annabel.
At first she is too surprised to move. When she does she drops to her knees and turns her body in one motion. She pushes herself back until the dishwasher presses into her spine. Her father’s arm comes down around her shoulder and she feels him pull her in close. She listens to the tick of the clock on the mantel in the living room, the slow drip of the leaking faucet, the sound of her father breathing. When, after several minutes, he asks whether or not she is cold, Annabel says truthfully, finally, no.