He didn’t know when he dozed off but the next thing he remembered was somebody shaking his arm, at first tentatively, then with increasing urgency. He batted it away and pulled his arm to his chest. The shaking stopped and then started on his other arm.
He let out something between a groan and a snarl and finally looked up, squinting open one eye. Two stared back at him solemnly. He didn’t recognize her at first. Or rather, he mistook her for—
“Serena?” The shaking stopped. The name jolted him awake and he sat up abruptly. Pens clinked brightly as they fell to the floor. Then, acrid disappointment.
“Oh.” It’s just you.
Three months. It has been three months since Serena—
He buried his face in his hands. Lines seared his forehead when he finally looked up. “What time is it?” His eyes shifted to the clock on the wall. 10:24.
“Shit.” Serena stepped back, startled, as he jumped out of his chair. The wrinkles in his shirt shifted and then settled back contentedly. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” Anger gave his question an edge that made Serena fold into herself. “Get dressed, we need to get you to preschool, and then I need to go to the lab—“
“Calm down, Peter, I already took her.”
He froze and spun around. Sophia stepped into the kitchen and swept a cursory glance over the breakfast table obscured by papers, coffee stains, and fast food wrappers. The corners of her mouth turned down. “She wasn’t feeling well, so I brought her back.” A pause and then a narrow-eyed glance his way. “You should take the day off and spend it with her.”
He barely glanced at Serena as he shrugged on his jacket. “I can’t. I need to get into the lab today for some prelim results and set up a couple more experiments. I’m already late. You take her for the day. I don’t know when I’ll be back, so if you could drop her off at preschool in the morning tomorrow, that’d be great.”
“Are you done?”
“Well, that really depends on how the results turn out t-“
“God, Peter, shut up.” Pink spots of anger were starting to appear on Sophia’s cheeks. “Look at this!” She waved her arms around her. “Have you done the dishes in three months? Have you washed Serena’s clothes? Have you taken out the trash? Opened the blinds? Paid the bills? Slept in a bed?”
He blinked at her dumbly.
“I know it’s hard, but you need to begin to pull yourself together. If only for your little girl.” She pulled Serena to her.
“It’s only been three months,” he stated.
“And if you were alone in this world, you can take however God damn long you pleased. But three months is a long time for a child to be parentless.” Serena tugged on Sophia’s skirt as if asking her to stop.
“I’m not ready t-“
“Grow the fuck up, Peter.” The frigidity of her words slapped him with ice encrusted fingers. A cold, heavy liquid settled at the pit of his stomach. “I’ll take Serena for the day, but mark my words, Peter. If you don’t start caring for her as you should, I’ll make sure you lose her, too.”
She then turned to Serena completely and said, “Honey, we’re going to sleep over at Aunt Sophia’s house tonight, okay? You can come play with Jasper and Janie.”
As she ushered Serena out of the apartment, Sophia turned back and held his gaze for the space of several long seconds. Don’t forget what I said.
“Don’t forget the things I say next.” The intensity of her gaze seared. “Promise me, Peter.”
The intensity gave way to something that resembled sorrow. “I’m going to die, Peter.” She ignored his wordless protests and pressed his hand to her cheek. It shook and she pressed harder. “Trust Sophia. She cares deeply about you, me, and Serena. Please take care of Serena. She’s a very, very good kid. Raise her to be a good person. A strong and smart and confident person. Love her as much as you love me. Tell her about me…” she paused. He felt something wet on his hands. “But don’t let her miss me. Make sure she knows that I loved—that I love—her very, very, very much. ”
She drew in a long, shuddering breath and let it go slowly. Her gaze turned away from him, towards the lavender gray rainscape outside the hospital window. She didn’t speak for a long time, so long that he began to wonder if she had fallen asleep.
“And I love you, Peter. I love you, but don’t let my love hold you captive.”
Serena said all of those things to him the day before she passed. But all he remembers now is And I love you, Peter. I love you…
For the first couple of weeks after Serena’s death, people admired him. They nodded approvingly upon hearing he was still going to work, were touched to hear that he was working harder than ever, searching desperately for a cure to his late wife’s disease. They brought him casseroles and macaroni and pies and fought to take care of little Serena.
He barely noticed the passing of those few weeks. Nobody mattered to him but Serena and he thought that if he could just discover the key to her illness quickly enough, all of this could be reversed. He was so close. She was so close.
On Day 24, one of his students contaminated his samples. The ones he had been working on for months, since Serena was still alive. The experiment was a wash. He had to start over. He wanted to consume the world and then let his anger and despair consume him. His student thought he was going to eat her alive. She fought hard to switch labs and, after 6 tense days, succeeded.
For the next few weeks after Serena’s death, people were afraid of him. The Peter they had known who had been so gentle and genteel actually had a monster living inside of him. Conversations died when he walked by. People moved out of his way. All the cruelty Serena had kept contained in some nether region of his heart burst forth in shards. He was an embodiment of hatred and the only term to describe him was disgusting.
This was around the time when formerly gregarious little Serena stopped talking. It was very gradual; in fact, he wasn’t sure when exactly it happened. It was not overnight, as if under the moonlight, a wall had been erected by her five-year-old will and that wall kept all of her words at bay. No, it was a slow dying away, a slow winding down, a slow going out of business sale of words. She had simply ran out of things to say.
He noticed this on Day 59.
“Do you want milk?” To this day, he can’t bear to call her by her name. Sophia had gently joked about changing Serena’s name; he had thought about it seriously.
“Regular or chocolate?” He barely glanced up, his attention focused on the research papers in front of him and the lack of statistical significance of his recent results. What was he missing? Why are the mice still dying at a rate of one per week? Why were his papers getting wet—
With a startled cry, he jumped up and pulled as many papers off the table as possible. Serena looked up at him guiltily, chocolate milk dripping from the hand she used to pour.
“What-why-why did you do this?” He had to make sure not to scream. He jaggedly tore a few paper towels and blotted his papers before dropping a few more on the table. “Wipe your hands.” When he looked up from examining the light brown stains on his papers, Serena was crying.
He sighed. “Stop crying. Here.” He handed her a tissue. She added it to the mess of fingers wiping her face. He sighed again and finally put down the papers in his hands. “You’re doing it wrong. Here.” He knelt in front of her and wiped her face clean. Before he could get up to clean up the rest of the mess on the table, she had already wrapped her arms around his neck in a tight hug. He could feel her chest shuddering with a new wave of tears. He gingerly patted her on the back. “It’s over now. There’s no use crying over it.” The shuddering subsided to trembling subsided to stillness. He pulled her away and wiped her face again. “Next time just say sorry and we can move on, okay?”
Serena nodded. He smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Well?”
She averted her eyes.
But no words came.
He slowly became used to her silent presence.
Nowadays, other than Sophia, people have mostly forgotten about him. Heightened senses of sorrow, joy, fear, or anger can only last so long. Only indifference is eternal.
Sophia had a life and a family to take care of, so his only constant companion was Serena. At first he would put her to bed exactly at 9:00 and then return to the kitchen to work. And then she would come back out to sit with him. And he would put her back to bed. And she would come back out. And so on so forth until he eventually fell asleep over his work. In the morning she was always there next to him, sometimes on the bay window, sometimes on the rug, sometimes uncomfortably scrunched in a chair.
After several weeks of this, he gave up making her sleep in her bed. Now she sits up with him, sometimes drawing, sometimes playing idly with her stuffed animals, sometimes just watching him with the unadulterated adoration of a child. He mostly ignored her, but at times he would catch her fighting hard not to fall asleep and insist that she lie down in the makeshift bed they constructed from cushions and pillows on the bay window. And then for just a couple of minutes after she falls asleep, he would allow himself to linger over her, tracing her sleeping features with his eyes. Marveling painfully at how much she looked like her mother.
“Oh, no, Serena, again?” At Serena’s solemn nod, Sophia sighed and turned on her monitor. “This is the last time today, okay?” Serena nodded again, equally solemnly. Sophia hoisted her onto her lap so that she could see the screen.
“There she is. You see how much you look like her? Her name was also Serena.” She smiled down at her. The images on the screen were reflected in Serena’s eyes. “I know you’re scared you’ll forget her, but you won’t. She’s in every part of you.”
Serena tugged on her sleeve and Sophia sighed, knowing what that meant. “Your mother and your father met a long, long time ago…”
Since he was old enough to understand marriage, Peter had known he would one day marry Serena.
“Your mother had enchanted him in every way. She was the odd one in our family. Always dreaming, writing poetry, going out in the rain to recite it.” Sophia made a tsktsk sound. “She was always sick. We all thought one day she would just disappear…because somebody breathed too hard on her or something.
“Your father grew up next door and they would often play together. Nobody understood what they were playing. There were always these vast, intricate, imaginary constructs.”
“What are you doing?”
He started and almost fell into a seated position from his squat. She peered at his work.
“The roof isn’t straight, Peter. Your name is Peter, right?” He masked his bewilderment with a scowl and put down the stick he had been using to scratch the image into the dirt.
“You do it, then.”
“No, that’s boring. Let’s pretend instead we’re building a house. Oh! And this house is going to be able to fly … and travel through time! And we’ll take it first into the future and have to outrun these alien invaders…” She rambled on but all he noticed was that somewhere in the middle of creating this world, she had grabbed his hand, pulled him up, and started leading him to the playground, where the other kids were.
“You can’t just draw stuff in the dirt, you know. Some things need to be 3D … maybe the slide can be how we travel through time … and the swings can be how we fly.”
He noticed her friends giving her disapproving looks for incorporating him but she blithely ignored them. With the confidence of somebody who could construct entire universes in her head.
“They grew up hand in hand. Nobody else befriended your father. He was too prickly, too hurt by a family torn apart by bad decisions and social rejection.
“Your grandmother, my mother, eventually decided your mother had the perfect disposition and figure for ballet. Your mother loved it. And your father loved it when your mother danced. He said it was the purest form of self-expression for her and because he thought the self was stunning, the expression was equally stunning.
“But, ironically, if there was anything your father hated more about your mother, it was that she did ballet. It was the only real competition for him. It took her away from him. Increasingly. He was afraid that the more she fell in love with it, the less love she would have for him.
“He proposed to her when she got recruited by the Royal Ballet. As if once and for all proving to ballet that he had the upper hand.”
“No, Peter, I can’t do it.”
He gaped at her. Nowhere in his plans had he imagined she would say no. Sure, the butterflies in his stomach sometimes teased him with whispers of that possibility and he would sometimes play along, but he had never earnestly believed them.
“I can’t do it, Peter. I just got recruited by the Royal Ballet. The Royal Ballet! Let me just do this for a few years. And then I’ll return to you.”
Something heavy settled on his chest. If he moved too much, he was afraid it would crush him. So he held very still.
“I will definitely return to you.” She held his gaze as she pulled him up to standing, closed the box, and guided it back into the inner pocket of his jacket, right next to his heart. “Please keep this safe for me,” she whispered. He wasn’t sure if she meant the ring or his heart.
“So he waited. For one year, then two, then three, then four, then five. And then she returned to him. Not too long after, they married and had you.” This was always where she stopped the story. Silence settled over them and the objects in the room like a thin layer of dust. “You’ve always wanted to try ballet like your mother. How about we give it a shot today? You’re a big girl now.” If the brightness in her voice didn’t shock the dust away, Serena’s wide-eyed enthusiasm did. Sophia smiled and stood. “Come, we have some of Janie’s old leotards—oh…Peter.” She froze. Serena ran over to hug his leg.
“How long have you been here?”
He ignored her question. “I’ve never heard you tell that story before.”
Sophia thinned her lips. “She asks for it all the time.”
“Is that so?” The question was directed to Serena, who nodded shyly. “You should hear it from me, you know. I was there.” For a second it looked like he regretted making the offer but the cloud passed and his expression cleared. “I have all of today – what would you like to do?” She looked back at Sophia who looked surprised and pleased.
“We were going to have her try on some of Janie’s leotards. Five is a good age. We can start enrolling her in some pre-ballet classes like what Janie did.”
Peter stood up. “Okay, let’s see it then.”
Fifteen minutes later, the two of them emerged from the bedroom. Serena, beaming, curtsied, almost fell over, righted herself, and then jumped around a bit more in endearingly awkward, clumsy movements.
“She’ll get better after lessons,” Sophia laughed.
“Yes, I’m afraid she will.” He sighed and glanced at Sophia. “Ballet will take her away from me just like it did her mother.”
“But she’ll come back.” Peter didn’t reply. She studied him silently. The mist of a dream clouded the clear-cut irises of his eyes. And for a second, it looked as if he was living in his head, re-experiencing the violent extremes of joy and tragedy. He blinked and seemed to return to the present, his heart heavier and more solemn.
“I have always wanted to ask…what exactly was your relationship with little Serena like when her mother was still alive? I’d heard things from Serena, of course…” Sophia trailed off, hesitant to probe more.
Peter swallowed. The movement in his neck was deliberate, exaggerated, and briefly shifted the ecru shadows across his skin. He looked away from her, out the window, at the laburnums and their frantic, uncontained beauty. He seemed to hesitate, but the poppies nodded gaily at him in the breeze and he took that as encouragement.
“I was jealous of her.” Sophia didn’t know how to respond. There was a latent darkness in his statement, a hint of swirls of black and gray and red, a faint rolling of thunder. Minutes ticked by. When Peter spoke again, his entire expression and tone had changed, as if in the silence he had communicated with a greater being and found solace in his words. “But now all I have is her.”
He carried Serena home that night, her head nodding gently upon his shoulder, her frame heart wrenchingly angular and self contained. The rise and fall of her breaths mingled with and muddied the rise and fall of his footsteps.
He tucked her into her bed and paused for a moment. In the darkness, he only saw what he wanted to see.
There was a time … and maybe that time encompasses now, when he would have happily traded Serena for Serena. He had implored whatever god would listen for this. Please, I’ll do anything. I will happily give up my child, all my future children, for a chance to have her live again—
The memory was painful. The memory is painful. The present is painful. Yes, the present is still painful. He might not be offering up that prayer anymore, but he wasn’t sure what his response would be if the option were presented to him.
His heart was too narrow, narrow and deep. There is a known quantity of love in it. He had loved Serena so much that there was none left for anything else, not even himself. He smiled to himself ruefully, almost cruelly. A sort of contained cruelty.
“When two people meet, Peter, in any semblance of significance, neither can go away untouched. Souls are too flimsy to survive even the briefest flirtations without losing or gaining something.”
She had said that one night during some of her last days. “Mine had touched yours, probably too violently, and left it shuddering in wonder or ecstasy or pain – I can’t tell. I’ve learned to be more careful, but it’s too late. Too late to realize that souls are wounded as much by pleasure as by agony.”
Mouth dry, he replied, uninspiredly, “Wounded isn’t the right word.”
When she spoke again, he thought she had changed the subject. “Please, please take care of Serena.” She turned to look at him imploringly, her eyes glassy. “I don’t know if it’s too late, but please love her double. Take all of your love for me and for everything else in this world and give it to her.”
He didn’t bother to tell her that all of his love for her was all the love he had.
He closed the door quietly after him, walked back to the kitchen, and fell back into his chair with a long sigh. He held still for a moment, savoring the sensation of empty lungs before drawing in another breath. The sweetness of it surprised him. His body still clung hopefully to life.
He leaned forward and tried to rub the tiredness and grief off his face before looking at the next paper in his stack. Hopeless. Or at least a long journey. A very long journey to a solution, a cure. Many, many years too late. His eyes flicked up as Serena climbed into the chair opposite him, clutching her Crayola set to her chest.
“Look what I’ve done to you.” If she heard him, she didn’t respond. A dark blue crayon skated jerkily across construction paper. “Your mother would kill me if she knew.” He swallowed a sigh and watched her draw. A house emerged, then a lawn, flowers, three figures – two and an angel.
“The roof isn’t straight.” He suppressed a smile and relived a memory.
“The roof isn’t straight, Peter. Your name is Peter, right?”
“The roof isn’t straight, Serena.” And then he reached over the research papers in front of him to help her fix it.