By Melanie Walker
In all those years, I had never approached the door. Sixteen years, exactly. It was the same door—three stories above the parking lot, beside the river. Sometimes, there were seagulls or other white sea birds. Often, there were mosquitoes, almost always. I looked up at that door with my windows closed to keep away from them. When the wind blew the mosquitoes away, I opened the car windows, and petals from crepe myrtles flew in instead. The staircase was painted brown and the railings white. In all that time, they must have seen only three coats of paint. Sometimes, they rotted.
Oftentimes, they seemed unsafe. I watched my daughter climb them, and not once did I help her.
I could have; there was nothing stopping me.
What would have happened if we had seen each other? What did he think would happen?
At first, when she climbed those flights to the door, she was young, carrying a suitcase that was as big as she was. She walked up them with a false assuredness, a certain clomping, because she always wore her prettiest heels for visits. The stairs were too big for her legs. She looked back at me, wondering why I was not joining her. This was our home, and we had walked up this staircase countless times.
In sixteen years, I had not so much as stepped near that door, and yet I knew the interior of the apartment intimately. I understood how each room was laid, how the kitchen looked, the color of the cabinets, how the toilet flushed. Things like this, in an apartment in the South, did not change. Bad plumbing was always bad plumbing. Windows with broken seals always had broken seals. They never became mysteriously clear. Cracks in the ceiling never worsened or improved; tears in the screens were similarly stalled in their decay. The mold in the grout stained and never came out—nothing would be touched in that apartment until he was gone, and he would never touch anything because it was an apartment. He had no ownership of it, and he feared making calls for repairs. He always believed that someone would make him pay for it. He had panic attacks on the phone.
When she grew, it was not as if she was growing, but that the suitcase was shrinking. It fit less and less; she needed more and more. She didn’t look back anymore, and she lunged up them, throwing her weight. They were treacherous stairs. She became athletic, suddenly and without warning, and soon ran up them three at a time, carrying that tiny, insignificant suitcase under her arm. Then it was replaced with a purple bag. She didn’t carry any suitcases anymore—her pile of things, stuffed animals, journals, Barbies, books, became only a wallet with her debit card that I had gotten her, a pack of gum, a phone, a book I had forced her to take. Everything she needed was there—a basketball, the clothes she wore there that I would never see, the loved toys from childhood I didn’t know she would keep well into her twenties for comfort.
Our lives were perfectly severed. He did not even send me notes through her, no tell your mother this, tell your mother that. Because I never heard from him, never saw him; when I sent her up that staircase, I did not know who she visited. It may have been that a creature lived there that had replaced him, and my daughter was trapped with it; it was a creature with antlers, claws, long, terrible arms; a slick, reptilian body. When the door opened, and I watched from below, I saw only darkness behind it; I saw only a little girl look up suddenly and disappear.
awwww – I loved this story so much!!!
A sad story of loss and separation, and helplessness. I like the way you don’t explain why the mother had lost custody of her child, why she didn’t, or couldn’t make contact. That might have weakened the story. The last paragraph may hint at mental illness (?) but you leave it to the reader to fill in the backstory! I love the paragraph beginning ‘When she grew, it was not as if she was growing, but that the suitcase was shrinking’. Lovely use of imagery and language to show the changing girl.
Really, the standard of writing in this Magazine is extremely high!