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The six a.m. alarm jolts me from my sleep, as if the cacophony of birds outside wasn’t enough. A grunt escapes me as I get up. A sharp pain pinches my locked limbs. It takes time to get them moving once they are convinced of their purpose.
I plant my feet on the ground at 6:05, blinking at the golden hues through the billowing curtains. I take hold of the slim fabric and yank it back. The light floods my eyes as it begs to illuminate the vibrant suburban life.
Shuffling past picture frames, I make my way to the kitchen. Its walls match the oozing yolk that would normally be cooking. I try to refrain from the memory. My wife stands in pink slippers at the counter, but I soon feel the shock of yesterday’s blues; strangling myself with a shiny black tie. Standing numb in a suit coat, watching the rain muddy the cemetery. Blinking awake, I sprinkle coffee grounds into a pot and wait for it to dissolve into bitter black liquid.
Easing into a chair, I wrap my hands around my blue mug. The rattle of the screen door turns my head. My oldest daughter, Claire, smiles from behind the seams of the tightly knit screen. She waves and lets herself in.
“Morning Dad!” she beams, her tone competing with the warmth of the sun. I muscle my lips through a smile, but when her expression doesn’t change I’m not sure I made myself convincible enough.
I eye her arms stacked with a large brown bag. ? “Morning,” I grunt. “What’s this?”
“Oh,” she jumps as if she forgot about the produce she’s already stocking my fridge with. “I stopped by the store on my way up here. Thought you’d be a little empty,” she notes as her chocolate brown eyes graze the barren fridge.
“I’m fine, really…” I assure her, but my argument is weak. When she finishes filling the fridge, she immediately fishes through the cabinets. Nabbing a frying pan, she splits two eggs and watches as they spill out onto the sizzling metal.
“So how have you been? How’s Lizzy?” I ask, eyeing the portrait of my 7 year old granddaughter on the fridge.
“Summer’s flown by. Swim lessons ended with July, so now I have to sneak off to the store so she doesn’t cry for school supplies a month in advance.” She rolls her eyes as she flips the eggs. I laugh at the thought of Lizzy grabbing at crayons in the supermarket.
“Why didn’t you bring her now? Lord knows there’s no husband to look after her,” I begin to grumble.
“Dad.” Claire snaps, but behind it is exhaustion. “I’ve got plenty of friends. Lizzy is perfectly fine. Besides, she has you.”
The sizzling cuts off and she slides the eggs over to me. I shower them with pepper. When I look up, Claire rests her elbows against the counter, her face drawn as she holds back tears.
I bite my tongue, knowing I struck a nerve. “Claire, I’m sorry. You’re doing a great job. Better than me.” She muscles through a small smile but it fumbles with the glistening tears that line her eyes. She slides into the chair across from me, inhaling her composure.
“I’m glad I came,” she notes, changing the subject as she glances around the quaint space. She eyes my empty plate suspiciously.
“Have you eaten since-” she cuts off, this time striking my nerve. I swallow hard, the last morsel almost clogging my airway.
“Just haven’t had eggs in a while…” my voice trails off, but stays level.
Claire pushes her sleeves up and leans into the table. “You guys always cooked together. It wasn’t a meal, it was art.” Her eyes dance at the memory.
I pull away from her gaze, repressing the memory. “You know Mom cooked more than me. I did most of the eating.”
She laughs at that, leaning back in her chair. For a second I marvel at the spirit in her smile. The pure happiness her and Elizabeth shared in one expression.
“You’re just like her,” my voice eludes me. Five days since Elizabeth left. It feels like years. All I remember of the funeral is getting numb under my suit coat. Crying with the rain as it muddied her grave. Claire was there, but I avoided her. Claire was always there.
She grabs my hands, radiating them with warmth. “I’m sorry we haven’t been able to come up as often. Another broken promise,” she sighs.
I wave my hand. “Can’t promise anything, sweetheart. Life takes you in every direction. Can’t determine which way the wind blows.”
She shrugs. “Yes. But you can adjust your sails.” She sits back again. Deep in thought.
“Why don’t you come back with me? You’ll see Lizzy. Won’t take you long to pack a few things. It’ll get you out of the house.”
I shrug, somehow scared of leaving. As if the house and the memories I have of Elizabeth here will disappear with my absence.
“I’ll be fine, darling. You don’t need to worry about me. Just come up when you can. Thanks for stopping by.”
She frowns at my abrupt farewell. “Dad, let me take you out. Please.”
“You should get going before traffic hits. Lizzy will be up soon.”
Her eyes flick to the clock above the table. Noticing the time, she wordlessly kisses my forehead and I watch the screen door slam behind her.
I nearly collapse back into the chair. Tears filter through the wall of my eyes and I remember her. Two silhouettes dancing through the kitchen, our cooking: evenings filled with parsley, peppers, and gravy. Her name etched into the stone. I remember every memory and don’t let it go. But with all the memories of Elizabeth come Claire. I picture her hand tight in mine at the funeral.
My eyes graze the screen door wearily. I hear her truck rev up against the gravel road. I start for the door.