"Mommy, help me draw a picture," Samantha said.
"What do you want to draw?" I asked.
"Our house," she said.
So I did. I showed her how there are four walls made of solid lines, how there is a roof that comes to a sharp point at the top, how there is a big red door in the front with a window and a doorknob. From there she knew the rest.
Outside the house: me, signified by relative height and two dashes of hay-yellow hair, little Lily like a tiny reflection of me, Sam herself towering over her sister and crowned by a mass of brown hair that marked her as different. More than two years gone since Lily was born and Sam still seemed threatened. But maybe that wasn't it at all. Next to the picture of Sammy came her dad. Tall, taller than me, topped with a ragged black stain of hair. My stomach hurt a little when she picked up the red marker and put it to his forehead and I moved to correct her, but I pushed the table instead and the scar slipped across his face and into the front yard, cutting across two walls of the house.
"Mommy!" she accused.
"Honey, I’m so sorry. Here, I can fix it with white-out…" but she’d already cast the paper aside and run from the room, markers flying through the air behind her. A better mother would have followed her, I guess. I picked up the markers and taped her picture to the refrigerator.
From upstairs her voice filtered down, long in the vowels with complaint and damaged feelings, followed by the low rumble of her father’s answer. I stood in the doorway to the kitchen and listened. I couldn’t make out any words. It was a very long answer he gave, falling into near-inaudibility from crescendos of jarring loudness, tapering off into an even longer, unsettling silence. Finally there was a line of small footsteps and Lily’s door clicked shut. If I listened hard enough I thought I could hear David panting for breath from all the way up the stairs and through our open bedroom door. He’d been out of breath for eight months.
Lily was probably awake. I could take her for a walk, go to the park two blocks down and nod at the other mothers, tell them how well we’ve been doing, take in their sympathy and encouragement and let Lily make more friends. She’s been so good at that. She’s a very sweet-tempered girl, good with people and rarely greedy. She lets Sam steal her toys without complaint. I could take her down to the park and she’d like that, but to get her I’d have to walk past our room.
I could see what he looked like without having to check. The same way I’d found him almost every day, sitting on the floor at the foot of the bed, back straight against the bed frame, head dropped to his chest, a photograph clenched in his hands. One of the framed pictures from the top of the dresser, the ones of births and birthdays and of our wedding; one from a picnic just a year ago. More than half a beard on his jaw, hair long enough to curl over the tops of his ears, and his face pushing the boundaries of frowning concentration. White knuckles, but no picture frame ever broken.
The first time scared me, he looked so furious. I took the girls out of the house that day, kept them away for hours before coming home to face him. By the time we got back he had moved downstairs to the sliding window-door that looked out over the backyard. His hand was on the glass, delicate and gentle as anything. He greeted the girls with a whiplash-instant smile.
One time I’d had to talk to him while he was in one of those moods. His doctor called to speak with him, and I’d suggested that she check in on him in the first place, so I had no choice. I spoke loudly enough to be sure that he heard me the first time.
"David," I’d said, "Doctor Winter is on the phone. You should talk to her." He didn’t move for a long moment.
In his hands was our wedding photo, taken in the tiny gazebo on the long green lawn outside my parents’ house in Maryland. In the picture he had his secret half-smile, the sparkle in his eyes. One hand was in my hair, the other on my hip. I was smiling wide enough to hurt.
He looked up from the picture, finally, not as if he’d heard me, but instead to search my face, then check back down at the photo, like trying to connect me to the woman there. ‘I’m not where the disconnect is,’ I wanted to say. But I put the phone on the bed next to him instead.
"Talk to her, David." I left and closed the door. I stopped asking about his therapy after the first time I’d heard a doctor use the word "irreversible".
After the drawing was on the fridge, after his talk with Lily, after her door closed, I stayed in the kitchen, I washed the dishes, I wiped down the counter, I made a list of things to pick up at the store. I put out the ingredients for dinner, but it was too early to start cooking. After a little while it got dark outside and David came downstairs and sat at the kitchen island. I didn’t have anything left to do, so I sat with him. Eventually it was time to make dinner.
As soon as the pot was on the stove, Lily started to cry for attention upstairs.
"Watch this for me," I told him.
"No, no, I’ll get her," he said.
"I can get her," and he left. A moment later there was singing from far away, and quieter tears. And then louder snuffling and he came back down, red-eyed, and stood in the doorway not looking at me, but imploring the floorboards for answers.
He said "She’s scared of me."
"Watch the stove," I told him, and went up to see Lily. Samantha was with her. They were fine. She’d stopped crying. Sam looked up at me from the darkness next to Lily’s bed. She hadn’t turned the lights on.
"Dinner, Mommy?" she asked, her grudge disappeared.
"Yeah, Sweetheart. Let’s take your sister downstairs."
He'd barely touched me since he came back. I don't think he'd touched the girls. Like the three-day rule, but forever. Now he was the dead thing. He slept in the guest bedroom. One night I heard him through the door.
"Time is linear," he was saying. "You try and go backwards and you have to fight the crush of everyone going the other way. Up the down elevator. Down the up…escalator. Swimming upstream. Down…stream. Fighting. They all know where they're going, how do they know? They all where they're going. They all know what they're doing. How do they know. What do they know. I don' know. No idea. 've no idea."
I went to bed.
I came upstairs and the bathroom door was gaping open. Inside, David slouched over the sink, even his hair hanging down toward the drain, one arm palm-up on the ledge, one hand clutching a straight razor. There was no stoicism to his expression anymore, no grimacing concentration. He didn’t make a sound, but it looked like he was screaming. I choked on something. This was the third time.
Then I heard that he was making sound. A noise like a refrigerator that you can only hear at night, or like a dog keening from abuse, a high-pitched whine broken by his gasps for air. I took the blade away from him. It was easy; he was holding it loosely. I kept my voice low.
“Your daughters are downstairs, David. They’re right there. What are you doing? Do you know what you’re doing to them?”
A loud gasp came before his jaw snapped shut. Then he started to talk, fast and messy like he wasn’t thinking about it at all, or like it was everything he’d been thinking since he woke up months ago.
“No. No, I don’t, I mean I can see them. I see you and them but there’s this thing in the way now.” He touched a hand to the line on his forehead. “This long, dark corridor open here and I don’t know where it goes, where it’s going, but I have to... And I can see their shapes, I can see you in the light at the doorway, but I can’t, the details are,” his hand shook like the start of a seizure, “fuzzy.”
“No! No, it’s not okay I can’t calm down it won’t go away I can’t see them do you understand that? Can you understand? They’re not my children anymore, you’re not my wife, you-, but I’m not him, I’m not, I can’t.” He stopped short and got caught up in the mirror.
The guests cried at our wedding when he read the vows he'd written. Mine were just as sincere, but I couldn’t approach him in poetry or power. He was a born orator, slumped over the bathroom sink, trying to die and ranting in circles and gibberish. He looked just like he always had, a few minutes after waking up in the morning. Still dreaming and uncharacteristically confused. Behind him the curtain flapped out the open window.
I said "You can't."
I said "You can't stay here anymore," and he looked at me like we were in love again and what I said mattered the most. "We'll find somewhere where they can help you. But you can't stay here anymore."
The television was on downstairs. Sam was teaching Lily how to sing along. Their voices reached us faintly.
"…youuuu seem happy to seeeeee meeeee!"
"Can I come back?"
I wanted to say of course you can. He was looking in the mirror, searching his own eyes. I remembered that, when it happened, and they told me he'd been shot in the head, I'd assumed he'd been killed. Before they amended that to tell me he was in surgery, I imagined an entire world without him in it, a life and a home where he was dead. I still felt stuck there now; this man in my house a decreasingly accurate ghost of his face, haunting me.
I said "Of course you can, David."