By Samantha Ryce Curreli
I fidget in the plastic chair waiting for him to arrive. Some of the other inmates are here already. I try to keep my eyes low, but I steal a glance at the other families as a baby squeals and clench my jaw to keep the joy and nausea at bay, a hand resting on my stomach.
I hear footsteps echo down the hall and I look up in time to catch his eyes. They’re dark and hollow. Prison is killing him, and I swallow the bitter joy. I stand, and he walks to me. His beer belly is gone, and I hug a bag of bones wrapped in orange cloth.
Fitting. That’s how they found my mom after a month of searches. They didn’t catch her killer, but they caught his dealer.
I pull away, and his hands slip from my shoulders and fall to his side.
“It’s good to see you,” he says. His voice trembles.
“I almost didn’t come.”
“You’ve been on my list for years. Why now?”
I sit at our small table and stare at his empty seat. He hesitates before plopping down and reaches for my hands. I slide them from the scratched surface and push a chunk of teal-blonde hair behind my ear.
“You got so big,” he says. I expect to see tears in his eyes—something. But they’re dryer than a mouth during a hangover. “How old are you?”
“You don’t even know?”
“Ah, Scarlett—I was so messed up,” he begins, but I lift a hand.
“Right. You were shooting up when I was born—or were you just making your rounds on the street?” I glare at him. I pound a fist on the table but flex my hand when a CO starts for us. I lift my hand and offer a soft, apologetic smile. She relaxes.
“Damn,” he says, leaning back in his chair. His chapped hand rubs his chin, and I tilt my head. He looks smaller than he had when the cops led him from our apartment ten years ago. He was a bear. “I missed so much.”
“I graduated college last week.”
“You went to college?”
“I graduated cum laude. I’m heading to grad school in August.”
“What did you study?” he asks.
“Art therapy. I went to Caldwell.”
“That’s a good school, right?”
“Yeah.” I fold my arms across my stomach, fighting the nerves and sickness rising.
“Well, you said you’re going to graduate school? Hell—how did I get so lucky to have such a great kid?”
“You don’t have a great kid,” I spit. “You did nothing for me. You weren’t sober a day in my life. Your drugs got Mom killed. Fuck you.”
“I’ve kept this in for a decade.”
“Scarlett,” he says. His eyes droop in guilt.
“You don’t get to be sad.” I notice the tears spilling down my cheeks, and I swipe at them. The rest of my words catch in my throat, and I struggle for a deep breath. He leans over and uses his thumb to brush away a tear, but I pull back, turning my face to the barred windows. The sun leaks through the spotted glass, and the family beside the wall shifts.
“Look,” Bill says. “I’ve had ten years to think about my choices. Every day, I worked to get to be a better person. I can’t make what happened go away, you know? But I got better. I’m sober now.”
“You didn’t have a choice.”
He flinches. “I know.”
“Where? I have to update the visitor card.”
“No.” I rub my palms over my eyes struggling to find the words. “I’m moving to Florida. I’m going for my masters at one of the universities down there. I’m leaving for the airport after this visit. I almost didn’t come. But for some reason—I guess I’m a sadist or something—I felt I had to tell you.”
“Why do you have to move? There are tons of schools up here. Fancy schools for your fancy degree.”
“Because it’s time. I have to divorce myself from this messed up life. I have to start over and I can’t do that in New Jersey.”
“Is this for a guy?”
“No—God. You don’t get it. I just can’t stay here.”
“You never visited me.”
“That’s not the point.” I stand, my fists trembling. Tears crash to the table like bodies leaping from cliffs. I look down, grateful for my baggy plaid shirt. I open my mouth, but the real news is buried with: “I have to go.”
“Scarlett,” Bill says. His eyes take me back to when I was four. It was the first night I saw him use—or remember how he used. He didn’t hear me come into the kitchen. The footsie pajamas muted my footsteps. I gasped and he looked up, needle stuck in his arm. An old tie between his teeth, wrapped tightly around his arm. Fear and guilt. Mom whisked me away.
I study him for a moment, placing my hand on my stomach. I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. I shake my head, burying the news.
“I’m sorry,” I say, leaving him at the table, his arm in the same position as that night.
I stand at baggage claim number two. The humidity came early to Tampa and I slip off my plaid shirt. I glance down at my sneakers and notice my stomach more. The red light blinks on and the luggage tumbles onto the belt. Mine is first.
As I roll my small suitcase to the curb, I spot the sleek black taxi with my surname in the window. Inside, I watch the palm trees wiz by, one hand supporting my buzzing head, the other resting on the baby bump.