There was a chance she wouldn’t even open the door. But Roy hadn’t seen Jenny or her boy, Thomas, in five years. She couldn’t not answer the door. He knew his daughter.
He went over what he should say while walking the small dirt road until the house loomed out from the hillside, a tilting collection of rough wood peeled bare of paint. He thought he heard high laughter from a window at the side of the house, the giggle of a young boy that rose then faded like a shuddering of wings.
On the front porch, he knocked and waited. The muffled sound of movement came from inside, working through the house, followed by the faint whisper of a female voice. Roy thought of Thomas somewhere in the house and what he might be doing. When Jenny opened the door, he resisted patting his hair down into place. He wondered if Jenny noticed he was sick. She seemed to look through him at a spot in the sky.
Her eyes were less blue than before, two agate marbles chipped away at over time and motionless beneath a hard brow. But her old beauty was there in places. Warm light from inside the house cast a shine on her hair, an auburn tangle of ribbons as bright as her mom’s in summer. He saw her ring finger was bare.
“Go on in,” she said, and stepped aside.
Every element making up the sound of those three words was as flat and disconnected as any sound had ever been and a pain came on him then, in the gut, but he kept straight, held his breath, and stepped into the living room. It was furnished with a loveseat and a small television on a night stand. In the far corner, Thomas sat in the middle of numerous toys and nearly as many blankets. He had a red towel safety pinned around his neck and took very little notice of either of them.
Roy beamed his friendliest smile outward and into the house as jovially as he could manage, turned and beamed it directly at Jenny. There was no expression returned of any kind. His daughter’s features were that of the newly dead, retaining a measure of color but slack and not at all present.
“Well, it’s been a long time,” he said.
The loose skin beneath Jenny’s eyes and lips were swelled as if she had just awakened from a deep sleep. Instead of answering, she glanced stoically at Thomas and sat down on the loveseat. She put her hands in her lap and searched Roy’s eyes for a long ten seconds or so. She again turned her head dismissively to Thomas, who was now busy coloring. When Thomas realized they were watching him, he walked carefully past the television and stood beside Roy. He was shirtless and his ribs pushed to the surface of his skin like sheets of baleen. He gazed up at Roy without speaking, his eyebrows drawn down toward the bridge of his nose, then held his arms straight out and made a whooshing sound as he jogged out of the living room, the red towel flapping against the back of his legs as he went.
“He loves Superman.” Her voice had the same shapeless tone as before.
“Ahhhhh,” Roy said knowingly and nodded his head longer than necessary. “Now that is a fact. Seems to be doing pretty good. How you been?”
Jenny grinned and shook her head. It seemed she might not respond at all, just leave the rhetorical question hanging in the air like everything else. But then she sat up straighter, stuck out her chin.
“I’m off everything now. I went to a treatment center and they weaned me off with methadone,” she said. “They were good to me, set me up on my medical card so I was able to pay. Still, nothing they could do about him.” She pointed in the direction Thomas had disappeared.
“Well that’s a good good thing,” he finally said. “Everybody has one or two people in the family that has that problem. Not a thing to beat yourself up about, that’s for sure.”
“I don’t beat myself up.”
Roy thought of sitting down, but the loveseat was the only option. “Well, good. That’s a good thing.”
Jenny lit a cigarette and blew a thick tunnel of smoke into the room. “So. Why are you here?”
“Can’t a man just want to see his daughter?” He paused, then continued. “His grandson?”
“Yeah, your grandson,” Jenny scoffed. “No, not a man like you. What do you want?”
Another pain bloomed like a mushroom cloud through his stomach and Roy kneaded his torso with his knuckles. He was going to have to sit down. He would have to show his hand sooner than he’d hoped.
“Are you getting food stamps now?” he asked, his eyes dropping to a spot somewhere on the floor.
Jenny’s eyes changed. The faded blue agate marbles flashed to life, surged into the true blue of total fury. “You want to do me a favor, I guess,” she said. “Take my stamps and trade out for cash with some guy you know so I can pay a couple bills? Yeah. Only thing is I never see the money ‘cause you cut.”
The stomach pain was too much. He could feel sweat making a path across his neck, along the middle of his back. He took the few steps to the loveseat and sat in a collapse of dead weight. His breathing had just evened out when Thomas stalked back into the living room. Roy didn’t notice until Jenny let out a quick, short scream and covered her mouth with her hands.
Thomas stood in the kitchen doorway, his feet set apart in a firing stance. With both hands, he clutched a pistol out in front of him like a smoldering wedge of seared wood. His face was expressionless, blank. Here was a little boy standing shirtless with a towel pinned around his neck who had instantly found himself in total control. And the center of his control was pointed directly at Roy.
“Thomas!” Roy yelled. He shot up quickly from the loveseat and took Jenny by the shoulders. Between the two of them existed a field of static as old and unwavering as the earliest flinted spark across the cosmos and she pulled herself away from him, threw herself toward the gun. Thomas didn’t resist when she pulled his arms to the ceiling and clawed the pistol from his hands. He only gave her a confused look.
It seemed to Roy the entire episode happened somewhere else, in another time removed from his present. He watched Jenny take the shells from the pistol and drop them on the floor. She tossed the pistol across the room and buried her face in her hands. There was nothing left to say, nothing left to do. Jenny went to her knees and hugged Thomas to her chest, but only for a couple seconds. Then she stood and took Roy by the elbow, pulled him to his feet, and motioned to the front door.
“Okay, okay, okay,” he said. “Okay. Okay.”
He made it to the front door and stood with his hand on the knob, resisting the need to turn and see the two of them one last time. He left then, down the flimsy set of steps, through the side of the yard to the driveway, and as fast as he could walk down the length of dirt road. When he was a good distance away, he turned again to the house. Jenny stood on the porch with Thomas in her arms. Even from so far away Roy could see how tightly she held onto the boy, as if a violent wind had just passed over the two of them. As if that wind carried with it all the hard living left to do.