Fair-Haired Child

Another class assignment. I wrote it literally 30 minutes before it was due, but I kind of like it anyway.

It was the hottest day of the year when my wife got the call. The thermometer on the porch stood just above 90 degrees at noon. By two o clock the mercury was hovering just below 99 degrees and any hope of salvaging the day had gone. I was content to lie on the sofa, feeling the electric fan in my face and listening to Meg typing away at the desk. Even Pete, our normally hyperactive chocolate lab was taking it easy, his large head resting on his paws as he looked up at me with an accusatory expression. This is all your fault, that look said.

I managed to give him a friendly pat. “Sorry Pete. AC won’t get fixed until Tuesday. Everyone’s backed up.”

“It’s this damn heat,” said Meg. “It just won’t let up. Tammy said their unit just blew last night. Everyone’s losing their ac. If it keeps up like this, no one will have any cool air.”

“If it keeps up like this, you and I are going to check into a hotel.” I teased, wriggling my eyebrows.

Meg laughed.” You’d like that, wouldn’t you. What about Pete?”

Pete’s tail flopped half-heartedly at the mention of his name.

“What about Pete? He’s a dog, he’ll be fine.”

“You’re the dog.” Meg said, smiling. She brushed her auburn bangs back from her high forehead. “Normally I’d take you up on it. I’d love to get into some cool air, but I have a deadline and you know how I feel about working in strange places.”

“I know, I know.” I conceded. “Luckily the man said they’d be out to fix it next week, or I might just have to leave you and Pete to your fate.”

Meg opened her mouth to reply and was cut off by the familiar notes of Fur Elise coming from the back of the house.

“I do believe you have a phone call.” I said, smirking slightly.

Meg sighed. “Dammit, I must’ve left it on the nightstand. Be nice and answer that for me, would you?”

I groaned in protest. “Oh come on. You’re closer.”

“I’m working,” she said. “If I answer it, then I’ll have to stop working and talk to whoever it is. If you answer it, you can just take a message.”

“Let it go to voicemail then.” I offered. “Besides, it’s probably not important anyway. See, it’s already stopped.”

Sure enough the melody had stopped. Then it was immediately replaced by the shrill and considerably less pleasant sound of the kitchen phone.

Meg shot me a look. No one ever called us at home. No one outside of our family even knew the number. Without waiting to be asked I stood up and walked into the kitchen. The old fashioned handset was buzzing in its cradle. I picked it up, the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. “Hello?”

“Is that you, Samuel?”

“Yes, Gertrude. It’s me.” Meg’s mother was the only one who insisted upon calling me by my full name. She usually said it with such a pronounced distaste that I was immediately unsettled by the quiet civility in her tone.

“Put my daughter on the phone, please.”

Now she was really scaring me. ‘Please’ was not in Gertrude’s vocabulary. Wordlessly, I set the phone onto the counter and went back into the den. Meg looked up at me expectantly. “Well?”

“It’s your mother,” I said, the words like stones in my mouth. “She wants to talk to you.”

Meg stood up from the blue swivel chair and padded silently into the kitchen. I hesitated by the desk, unsure whether to eavesdrop from there or follow her. I heard her voice saying hello and then there was a long silence.

 

The funeral was brisk, almost clinical, and entirely unfitting. Meg’s sister had been a lively woman, living freely and with enthusiasm. Andrea would’ve been horrified to know that she’d eventually be buried in a drab black box complete with Catholic rites. As Meg viewed the body, I stood by her side, marveling at the soft, almost pleasant expression on Andrea’s face. Her blonde curls, the subject of rivalry between the sisters since their teenage years, had been brushed to a shining perfection and fanned out demurely behind her head.

“She looks like an angel,” Meg whispered, and gave my hand a single squeeze.

“Yes, she does.” I said. I tried not to think about how much work it must’ve taken to make her look this good. She’d gone through the windshield. We weren’t even expecting the possibility of an open casket.

Meg sniffled. “Julie is her spitting image. It’s going to be so hard having her around. I don’t know if I can handle it, Sam.” I followed her eyes.

Andrea’s daughter Julie was sitting beside Gertrude in the first pew. Her face was a sober porcelain mask, a beautiful replica of her dead mother. Identical blonde curls fell to her shoulders, shining defiantly against her simple black dress.

“It’s going to be like looking at a ghost, having her live with us,” Meg said. “I don’t know if I can do it.”

Julie looked up as though knowing we had been talking about her. I quickly dropped my eyes to the mass of calla lilies that framed the casket. Their fragrance was cloying and I wanted nothing more than to be back at home, heat wave or not. Instead I squeezed Meg’s hand.

“Everything will be fine. We’ll get through it together.”

Andrea hadn’t even told anyone she was pregnant until after the baby was born. No one knew who the father was because Andrea never stayed with one man for long. She didn’t care to know. She joked about being a twenty first century courtesan, who received gifts from lovers. “But of all the things I have received, Julie is my greatest gift,” she used to say.

Maybe that is why Meg stepped forward to take her in. Gertrude would’ve been glad to have the company since her second husband died. If push came to shove, even Meg’s bachelor brother Anthony would’ve taken the girl in.

“He travels too much,” Meg said. “He’s never at home, and Julie would be all alone in his apartment all the time. What if some maniac broke in while he was away and killed her? I’d never forgive myself.”

I didn’t argue. Meg and I had never had children of our own. Granted Julie was 16 and could hardly be considered a child, but she was an addition to the family nonetheless. Gertrude protested, but eventually relented on the condition that Julie would be sent to her for holidays.

If Julie felt any animosity about being bartered over like a sack of grain, she never mentioned it. She went along with the flow as easily as her mother had always done before her.

 

Being away from home had made us forget all about the heat. But our return was a swift and ungracious reminder that the summer was still only just getting started. Stepping out of the plane at Reagan National we were met by a wave of such stinging humidity that I was only half surprised when I heard the string of profanity that issued from Julie’s mouth.

“Jesus fucking Christ! What asshole set the thermostat to hell?” Julie said, her face clearly indicating how she felt about the weather conditions of her new residency.

Meg’s eyes widened. “Julie!”

“Sorry Aunt Meg,” Julie said. “I’m just not used to this heat. It’s a lot cooler in Aspen.”

“That’s no reason to talk like a sailor,” said Meg.

“Alright,” I interrupted. “Let’s not get overexcited, ladies. It’s hot, we’re all cranky, and it’s been a long flight. Let’s just go home and get some rest.”

“And hopefully get into some ac,” agreed Julie.

“It’s not working,” said Meg, in an uncharacteristically snide tone.

That was when I knew taking Julie in had been a mistake. Meg and Andrea had lived thousands of miles apart for good reason.

I pretended not to notice the way Julie moved through the airport. The confident lift of her delicate chin, the slight sway of her hips, and her leisurely stride were a testament to how unimportant all of this was to her. Just passing through, her eyes said. Couple that couldn’t-care-less attitude with an almost ephemeral beauty and you had a combination that had half the men in the terminal swiveling their necks in our direction so fast you’d have sworn they got whiplash. It was this more than anything that upset Meg. She’d never been the one who turned the heads.

“It’s like high school all over again,” Meg muttered under her breath.

After picking Pete up from the neighbors, we gave Julie the spare bedroom that we’d always kept ready for guests. She spent the afternoon unpacking while Meg and I sat on the patio trying to catch a sliver of a breeze in the air.

“Maybe I should’ve let mom keep her, after all.” Meg said. She hadn’t stopped frowning since the airport, and I knew that she was thinking of the men. “She might get into trouble out here.”

“A teenager getting into trouble? Shocking!” I said, hoping to get a smile.

The stubborn frown remained. “I mean, you had to see the way those men were looking at her. Do you have any idea how many boys are in this area? What if she gets knocked up or something?”

The screen door banged open and shut behind my head. I jumped about a mile before I could compose myself. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a pair of slender legs go by. Involuntarily I traced them to their origin, barely there denim shorts cradling an undoubtedly perky ass, before turning quickly away, the blood rising in my cheeks. Jesus fucking Christ indeed.

“Won’t get knocked up,” said Julie, bounding down the steps, her hair bouncing against her bare back. “I’m on the pill.”

“Julie Ann McCormack, where on earth do you think you’re going dressed like that?!” Meg said, a shrill edge to her voice that I had never heard before.

Julie turned and looked over one shoulder. “I’m gonna be living here, right? I wanna see what’s good.”

“I’ll tell you what’s good, young lady,” said Meg. “You’ll get your buns back inside and put on some clothes before you go anywhere. That’s what’s good.”

Julie turned completely around, hands on her hips. “These are clothes.”

“A bathing suit top and short shorts are not clothes,” replied Meg.

Julie threw her hands up in frustration. “C’mon Aunt Meg, it’s hot as fuck out here!”

When I heard Meg’s sharp intake of breath I knew that the proverbial shit was getting ready to hit the fan. I abandoned my post and decided the den would be an ideal place for a retreat. Pete looked up as I entered. I sank down into the couch and sighed. “Be glad you’re just a dog, Pete. Your life is so simple, sometimes I envy you.”

The screen door banged open and shut with such force it sounded like an entire pack of firecrackers had gone off in unison. Even Pete jumped this time. Through the archway I saw Julie running up the stairs, and heard her sobs.

“Shit,” I muttered. Pete settled back down onto the wood floor and looked up at me, waiting to see what would happen next. I waited too, hoping Meg would come inside and go to her niece. Long minutes dragged by and there was no further sound from outside or above. I wasn’t surprised, but I was angry just the same. Meg had never been the comforting type, that was my job, but this was her niece. With another sigh I rose to my feet. “Women are strange creatures. Be glad you’re neutered, my friend.”

I made my way up the stairs, the familiar creak accompanying my steps like music. I was surprised to see the door to her room was open. In those rare instances where Meg had let her emotions get the best of her, she’d always kept the door tightly closed never wanting anyone to see her disarmed. Julie was laying on her new bed, her face wet with tears.

I knocked on her door frame even though she saw me. “Hey.”

“Hey yourself,” she said, sitting up. She wiped her face with the back of one hand, her lime green nails catching the light.

“Can I come in?” I hoped that she would say no.

“Whatever. It’s your house,” she said. She tucked a strand of hair back behind one ear.

I stepped into the room, looking around. In the space of a few hours she had already taken down all of our Waterhouse paintings and replaced them with music posters and pop art prints. It looked like an entirely different room, but in a good way. “Like what you’ve done with the place.”

“Thanks,” she smiled. “It’s a lot bigger than my old room. But I still miss it.” Her eyes clouded over for moment and then cleared. “When is the ac gonna be working?”

“The guy’s coming tomorrow,” I said. “Then we’ll have sweet, sweet air and shall burn no more.”

“Fucking A,” Julie said. She smirked. “It don’t bother you when I curse?”

“Nope,” I replied. “They’re just words. Besides, you aren’t my kid.” I teased.

Julie flopped down onto her back. “I wish Aunt Meg could see it that way.” She looked at me. “You don’t have to stand, you know. You can sit. I don’t mind.”

“Thank you, but I’m fine.” Niece or not, I wished that she had followed Meg’s advice and put on a change of clothes. “And now that I see you’re fine, I’ll be going back downstairs.”

“I’m not fine.” Julie said. “My mother’s in the ground, and I’m in Virginia, and everyone I know is back in Canada, and I’m so fucking far from fine!” Her tirade deteriorated into a series of loud sobs.

“Aw hell,” I said. I sat down on the bed and gathered her to me. “It’s going to be alright,” I said.

“You’ll see. Things have a way of working themselves out.”

“What’s going on?” asked Meg.

I couldn’t help it. I instinctively felt guilty and I knew she saw it on my face. Without waiting for a response, she stepped into the room and gently pried Julie’s arms from around my neck. “She’s crying,” I offered, knowing that she could’ve deduced that much from the damp spots on my shirt.

Meg ignored me. “There, there.” she cooed, sitting between Julie and myself. “Everything’s alright. I’m here now Julie.” Over Julie’s shoulder Meg shot me a look of such malice that I immediately rose from the bed. She followed me to the door and for one mad instant I was sure she was going to slap me. Then I backed out into the hallway and she shut the door in my face.

 

We never talked about it after that. But I knew that something had changed between us. She’d seen in me whatever it was that she’d seen in all the guys who’d ever preferred her sister over her. All I’d been doing was comforting a grieving girl, but to Meg it was just another rejection, another example of being passed over for the fair-haired child. Weeks passed and Meg finally started warming up to me again. The air conditioning probably had something to do with it. With the house at a comfortable 72 degrees Julie showed considerably less skin and we were all able to breathe a little easier. I started to think that things just might work out with our blended little family.

I was in the office drafting when my secretary buzzed me over the intercom. “Mr. Anderson, your niece is on line one. She says it’s an emergency.”

“Thank you, Ruby.” I reached for the phone, my heart beating faster than normal.

My colleague Jack looked up from his palm pilot. “I didn’t know you had a niece.”

I raised a finger to silence him and picked up the receiver. “Julie?”

“Sam?” her voice was shaking. “Can you come and get me?”

Paternal instincts I never even knew I possessed flared into life. “What’s wrong? What happened? Are you hurt? Where are you?”

“I’m okay. I’m at Springfield Mall,” she answered. “I got in a fight with some guy.”

“Jesus…” I breathed. “I’ll be right there.” I hung up the phone.

Jack didn’t miss a beat. “You never told me you had a niece.”

“You never asked.” I said and began to shut down my computer.

“What’s she look like?” asked Jack.

“She’s sixteen for fuck’s sake!” I snapped. “Sixteen.”I gathered my notes into the top drawer of my desk and replaced my pencils in the cup.

“No need to get all defensive. What re you, in love with her?” Jack said.

“Only in your sick little world do things like that happen,” I replied. “I’m not defensive. I just don’t appreciate you wheedling me for information on my teenaged niece. It’s creepy.”

“Alright.” Jack shook his head. “Still, I don’t envy you.”

I froze. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Having a sixteen year old girl living under your roof. You know how they are at that age.”

“She’s my niece, Jack.” I said, picking up my blazer jacket.

“Niece, not daughter,” agreed Jack. “Even then, that never stopped some guys.”

“You need help,” I said and left.

I circled the mall three times before I spotted Julie standing in front of the food court. She recognized the car and headed towards me, moving the same way she had in the airport. Her chin was defiantly tilted upward, her stride casual. Her right eye was a brilliant fuchsia that I knew would deepen into a medley of blues and purples before the week was out. When she opened the passenger door of my Prius and climbed inside I couldn’t stop staring.

“It’s alright,” she said, reading my horrified expression. “You should see the other guy.”

“I’d like to see him. Where is the son of a bitch that did this?” I’d been pissed off before but never truly enraged. I could’ve killed the bastard.

“He took off.” She sighed. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

At home in the kitchen, she hissed like a wildcat when I put the ice bag on her eye. “Shit stings like a bitch,” she said.

“If we ever find the asshole that did this to you, I’ll sting him like a bitch.” I said.

Julie looked at me and then we both started laughing. “Sam, you’re a funny guy.”

“Better funny, than funny looking,” I joked, which set us off on another bout of childish laughter.

“No,” Julie said. “Not funny looking at all.”

My laughter died, killed by the hint of an unspoken compliment nestled with her line. “What happened, anyway?”

For the first time since I’d met her, she actually looked embarrassed. “I broke up with my boyfriend. We argued, I hit him, and he hit me back. Then he hauled ass.”

“Didn’t know you had a boyfriend,” I said, uncomfortable jealousy rising in my throat like bile. I applied pressure to the ice.

“Hey, ease up Sam! That’s my eye under there.” I relented and she shrugged. “He’s just some guy. No one important. I don’t even know his last name.”

“Listen Julie,” I started.” You can’t live that way. I know you’re young, and I know you want to have fun. That’s alright. But you have to be careful. There are a lot of guys out there who look at a girl like you, and they only see one thing. Opportunity to take what they can get from you, willingly or by force.”

Julie reached up and pulled the ice bag down. She stared back at me. “And what do you see?”

Never in my life had I been asked such a loaded question. “The daughter I never had,” I lied.

She leaned forward and kissed me for a brief moment. “What a coincidence. I never had a father,” she said quietly.

I heard an outcry of anguish and knew without looking around that Meg was home. I’d never even heard her pull up. I never knew how long she’d been standing there watching us from the window. I never knew that she’d been waiting all this time, telling herself that I’d cave. Cave like all the rest. Cave and pick the superior sister. The beautiful one.

I couldn’t move. Not even when Meg burst though the kitchen door, her eyes spitting green fire that would burn us both alive. I couldn’t move when she grabbed a handful of golden hair and dragged Julie out of her seat. I couldn’t move as they fought their way up the stairs, a maelstrom of feminine rage and violence. I couldn’t move because I knew that if I’d had to raise a hand to defend one of them, it wouldn’t have been Meg.

Julie went to live with Gertrude after that, but it didn’t last long. The old woman was too set in her ways. She had no idea how to handle a girl like Julie. After only two months Julie was sent to live with Anthony in New York. He was never home. He returned from Miami one Monday to find that Julie was gone. Meg barely showed any emotion when she told me the news. She scrutinized my face, hoping to see some sign of my betrayal. There was none. I was innocent, but it didn’t matter. We divorced after another year.

 

It was a cold rainy day in April when I got the call. I’d been in the guest room drafting, and Pete was at my feet when the phone rang. Irritated, I went downstairs and plucked the receiver from the cradle. “Hello?”

“Sam… It’s good to hear your voice.”

I could tell that she’d been crying. And then somehow I just knew. “Oh God, Meg. What happened?”

“Some maniac….” she started. “She was beaten. Oh, she was beaten so badly… The funeral was this morning! I’m sorry I didn’t invite you. I was so angry, so angry… Until I saw her lying there.”

I swallowed hard, my vision starting to dim as Meg’s words sank in. “How did she look?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Like an angel,” Meg lied.

I sank down onto the kitchen floor, the hum of the refrigerator the only sound in the room. I listened to Meg as she cried into the phone. I listened as she cried for her sister, as she cried for her niece, as she cried for us. I began to cry too.

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