They Come In Through the Walls

by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

‎‏Claire’s papa doesn’t know her anymore.‭ ‬She‭’‬s been his daughter all her life,‭ ‬but when they sit down for dinner,‭ ‬he pushes his bowl of chili onto the floor.‭ ‬The bowl is plastic‭; ‬after the first four times,‭ ‬she learned her lesson,‭ ‬but it‭ ‬still‭ ‬cracks as it hits the tile.‭ ‬The beans spread in a puddle beneath his feet.‭

“I won’t eat your poison,‎” ‏he says.‭

“It’s not poison,‎ ‏Papa.‭ ‬See.‭” ‬She eats a spoonful from her own bowl.‭ “‬Aren’t you hungry‭?”

“Not hungry enough.‎”

Papa crosses his arms,‎ ‏surveys the rest of the table.‭ ‬It’s‭ ‬a long table with twelve chairs,‭ ‬and before each chair a place is set.‭ ‬The‭ ‬phantoms will arrive soon,‭ ‬and when they do‭ – ‬Claire hopes‭ – ‬her father will eat.‭ ‬He always eats with the‭ ‬phantoms around.‭

In the kitchen the fluorescent light flickers.‎ ‏In the dining room,‭ ‬the flicker registers as a flash in the corner of Claire’s eye,‭ ‬a minor thing,‭ ‬but enough to drive you mad night after night.‭ ‬She needs to fix the light.‭ ‬There’s little time for household chores.‭ ‬Too much else to do:‭ ‬clean and cook and try to convince Papa to take his pills,‭ ‬which he does only half of the time.‭

Claire goes into the kitchen to fill the bowls for the‎ ‏phantoms.‭ ‬With the chessboard floor tiles below and the flashing light above,‭ ‬she feels like she’s in a‭ ‬game,‭ ‬one of those video games maybe,‭ ‬the‭ ‬kind with the warning:‭ ‬may cause seizures.‭ ‬She hurries,‭ ‬takes a bowl out for each place at the table and sets‭ ‬it atop the placemat.‭ ‬She fills the water glasses with wine and the wine glasses with water.‭ ‬The basket of bread she pulls from the oven and covers with a cloth,‭ ‬places it in the middle of the table.‭ ‬The‭ ‬phantoms won’t eat the bread,‭ ‬but they’ll devour the butter,‭ ‬leaving greasy stains all over her mother’s white tablecloth.‭ ‬Claire places another bowl of chili before Papa.‭ ‬He doesn’t touch it.‭

The‎ ‏phantoms come in through the walls,‭ ‬passing through the plaster and pink puffs of insulation as Claire imagines ghosts would.‭ ‬They look like silhouettes of people Claire may have met before,‭ ‬vaguely familiar in the outlines of their bodies.‭ ‬They take their places at the table.‭ ‬As they pull the chairs out,‭ ‬wood scrapes wood.‭ ‬Already there are rivulets dug in the floor where they‭’‬ve done this night after night.‭ ‬Claire will have to replace the floor if she ever wants to sell the house,‭ ‬after Papa goes.‭ ‬And the lights.‭ ‬Of course she’ll have to fix those lights.‭

The‎ ‏phantoms eat with their mouths open,‭ ‬grey light pouring from behind their teeth,‭ ‬surprisingly white in their shadow faces.‭ ‬If Claire were to touch the light she imagines it would burn the skin.‭ ‬She never touches the‭ ‬phantoms.‭

They speak in deep voices,‎ ‏shaky as old men,‭ ‬and they speak often.‭ ‬Every night the same‭ ‬conversations.‭

“I was only twelve,‎ ‏and the man came to bring us our milk.‭ ‬He had a‭ ‬streak of black in his blonde hair,‭ ‬and I asked him what was the matter with his hair.‭ ‬He leered at me,‭ ‬always leering at me.‭ ‬I always thought he was the devil,‭” ‬says one.‭

“Was he the devil‎?” ‏asks another.‭

“Of course he wasn’t.‎ ‏What are you,‭ ‬crazy‭?”

It’s hard for Claire to place the voices to the mouths,‎ ‏for they talk even when their mouths are full of food.‭ ‬Chili drips down their chins.‭ ‬Outside the dogs bark at‭ ‬the door.‭ ‬The‭ ‬phantoms don’t like dogs,‭ ‬and they make that clear.‭

“What are those blasted noises‎?” ‏Papa asks.‭ “‬Can’t a man eat his dinner in peace‭?”

Claire fixes another bowl and places it outside for them.‎ ‏They’re Claire’s dogs.‭ ‬They were her girlfriend’s,‭ ‬before she left them and everything but her books behind,‭ ‬along with a brief note,‭ ‬another relic.‭ ‬Papa liked Claire’s girlfriend more than he liked Claire,‭ ‬used to call her Madeline,‭ ‬though her name was Anne.‭ ‬He liked her,‭ ‬he said,‭ ‬because she was funny.‭ ‬Claire has never been funny,‭ ‬and she suspects her father sees too much of him in her,‭ ‬that it confuses him.‭ ‬Anne was a blank slate,‭ ‬but too blank,‭ ‬it turned‭ ‬out‭; ‬she absorbed too much.‭ ‬She‭ ‬couldn’t take it,‭ ‬watching someone go like Papa,‭ ‬and Claire never really thought she should have to.‭

Now Claire lives with her father,‎ ‏and each night they dine with‭ ‬phantoms.‭ ‬Claire never asked them to be her guests.‭ ‬She isn’t quite sure why they’re there,‭ ‬in fact.‭ ‬She wants them‭ ‬to leave.‭ ‬Cooking for so many is expensive‭; ‬it’s hard enough‭ ‬when half of what her father eats ends up on the‭ ‬floor.‭

The truth is that the‎ ‏phantoms comfort him.‭ ‬When they’re there,‭ ‬he seems less confused,‭ ‬less angry.‭ ‬He eats his dinner down to the last bite.‭ ‬He laughs and tells stories.‭ ‬Makes it seem‭ ‬like the rest of the day was just a nightmare.‭ ‬Claire wants them to leave,‭ ‬but she wants them to take her father with them.‭

It’s a horrible thought she has more and more these days.‎

#

The first time the‭ ‬phantoms came for dinner there were fewer of them.‭ ‬It was four months ago,‭ ‬right before Anne left.‭ ‬That night the fridge had nearly been empty,‭ ‬and Claire too tired after working her shift at the cemetery‭ – ‬she did ground maintenance there,‭ ‬in that silent paradise‭ – ‬to go to the store.‭ ‬She cooked what she could.‭ ‬Vermicelli spring rolls with peanut sauce,‭ ‬spaghetti with canned Alfredo,‭ ‬onion rolls two days past the expiration date.‭ ‬She cooked a lot of food without thinking‭; ‬once she was into the hang of it,‭ ‬she didn’t want to stop cooking.‭ ‬When she stopped,‭ ‬she would have to serve it.‭ ‬She would have to explain again to Papa that this was his home now,‭ ‬this was dinner.‭ ‬She cooked too much.‭ ‬So the‭ ‬phantoms came to eat it.‭

Walking into the dining room with Papa’s plate in her hand,‎ ‏she saw the first one.‭ ‬It was only a vague shape then,‭ ‬a shapeless body and head made of black mist like car exhaust.‭ ‬But the elbows which seemed to rest on the tabletop were of a thicker consistency,‭ ‬nearly solid.‭ ‬Claire could make out an indistinct hum,‭ ‬like the low static of a television left on.‭ ‬Then she noticed there were more of them,‭ ‬three seats full,‭ ‬and her father seemed to be listening to something they were saying that only he could hear.‭ ‬She did what she could‭; ‬she brought them plates.‭

After a couple of nights,‎ ‏their bodies began to turn as solid as their elbows,‭ ‬and Claire‭ ‬could hear their words like whispers.‭ ‬Unintelligible but full of inflection,‭ ‬hidden meanings she was sure.‭ ‬She tried harder.‭ ‬Every now and again she could pick out a word:‭ ‬house,‭ ‬third,‭ ‬remember.‭ ‬Papa,‭ ‬it seemed,‭ ‬could hear them as if they were part of him.‭ ‬Even when Claire heard nothing,‭ ‬he responded,‭ ‬and the‭ ‬phantoms bowed their heads and moved the holes that Claire came to call their mouths.‭

They were rude guests.‎ ‏They slurped their soup.‭ ‬Bits of food flew from their forks across the table.‭ ‬Claire would clean up‭ ‬later,‭ ‬when they left.‭ ‬The‭ ‬phantoms always left through the walls as well,‭ ‬but they never went through the kitchen.‭

“It’s the lights,‎” ‏Papa said.‭ “‬You got to fix those damn lights.‭”

#

‎‏Anne had always fixed the broken things.‭ ‬When the lights in Papa’s room went out,‭ ‬Anne carried in the ladder from the garage and changed the bulbs.‭ ‬She changed the oil in Claire’s car,‭ ‬bought a new hose for the washer.‭ ‬She knew how to do things like that.‭ ‬Claire had never been taught.‭ ‬She’d never been motivated to teach herself.‭

“I can’t,‎” ‏Anne said the‭ ‬night before she left.‭ “‬If we can’t fix us,‭ ‬who will‭?”

They were in bed together,‎ ‏their clothes bunched at their feet,‭ ‬the blankets fallen to the floor.‭ ‬Their breath had steadied,‭ ‬and when it steadied they were left with a stale‭ ‬air in the room.‭ ‬It had been there,‭ ‬nameless,‭ ‬for weeks.‭ ‬It was overdue that Anne would mention it.‭

“I know what you’ll say when I go.‎ ‏That I couldn’t handle this whole situation,‭ ‬with your dad and all.‭ ‬But that’s not it,‭ ‬Claire,‭ ‬and I think you know that.‭”

“Right,‎” ‏Claire said,‭ ‬turning away.‭ “‬Sure I do.‭”

“If you won’t talk to me,‎ ‏if you won’t try.‭ ‬How can I help you if you won’t talk to me about it‭?”

Anne tried to touch her,‎ ‏but she shrugged Anne off.‭ ‬It was this way no matter what.‭ ‬Claire wanted so badly to talk,‭ ‬but she swallowed it.‭ ‬It had to wait,‭ ‬until later,‭ ‬until later again,‭ ‬until later became months and the words she’d swallowed hardened like lead in her belly.‭ ‬There would no bringing them up again.‭ ‬If she talked about her papa,‭ ‬it would make the nightmare real.‭

In the morning Anne packed the few things she kept there and left while Claire pretended to sleep.‎ ‏Once she heard the click of the front door,‭ ‬she‭ ‬wrapped her arms around her knees and let‭ ‬the walls lull her.‭

The anger came later,‎ ‏though it was brief,‭ ‬and soon replaced by the acquiescence of the caregiver,‭ ‬taking in events as they came.‭ ‬Swallowing them.‭ ‬Keeping them down with soda water and starch crackers,‭ ‬just like the sick do.‭ ‬

#

‎‏When Papa first met Anne,‭ ‬he was full of anger.‭

“Who in the hell is this‎?” ‏he asked.‭ “‬What in the hell does she want‭?”

“This is Anne,‎ ‏Papa.‭ ‬She’s my girlfriend,‭” ‬Claire said.‭

Anne shook‎ ‏his hand,‭ ‬which was limp.‭ ‬He had always been of the opinion that women should not shake hands.‭

“She looks like a man,‎” ‏Papa said.‭

Anne didn’t look like a man.‎ ‏She had short hair,‭ ‬that was all,‭ ‬cut to her ears,‭ ‬black.‭ ‬Her skin was dark,‭ ‬her‭ ‬eyes brown.‭ ‬She wore black pants and a button-up purple blouse with a collar,‭ ‬a grey pea coat.‭ ‬Claire always thought she looked like she stepped out from a painting faded with age.‭ ‬It fit,‭ ‬because Anne was an artist of the digital era.‭ ‬She designed websites.‭ ‬But she never would have claimed an eye for pleasing color combinations,‭ ‬for design.‭ ‬She saw herself a businesswoman,‭ ‬simply.‭

“It sure is nice to meet you,‎ ‏Mr.‭ ‬Pierce.‭” ‬Anne took her hand back but didn’t look away from Papa.‭ ‬He was forced to smile.‭

“Are you here to bring me my lunch,‎ ‏Ms.‭ ‬Madeline‭?” ‬he asked.‭ “‬I’ll take a tuna sandwich on rye.‭”

In the kitchen Claire apologized.‎ ‏Her father wasn’t always mean,‭ ‬she said,‭ ‬it was the disease.‭ ‬It brought something out that Claire had never seen before,‭ ‬only heard in a rumor from her mother,‭ ‬of her papa’s temperament before she‭ ‬was born.‭ ‬A temperament that supposedly evaporated when‭ ‬he became a father.‭ ‬Claire’s mother,‭ ‬before her death,‭ ‬always‭ ‬spoke of his transformation like it came from God.‭ ‬Claire didn’t believe in God.‭ ‬Anne did.‭ ‬That was another reason Papa came to love her.‭

What he didn’t tell Claire about Anne was that she reminded him of his own wife,‎ ‏three years deceased.‭ ‬She had the same laugh,‭ ‬the same way of moving through the room as if she’d been there all along.‭ ‬He knew this about her when they first met,‭ ‬but as time dragged on,‭ ‬he lost the chance to say it.‭ ‬He lost the memory as he’d lost his wife.‭

When she’d first gone,‎ ‏his wife,‭ ‬Claire’s mother,‭ ‬Papa had not cried.‭ ‬Rather he felt a strange constriction in his chest,‭ ‬a tightness that kept him from holding Claire close.‭ ‬So he stayed in his chair,‭ ‬looking out the window,‭ ‬a book in his hand so he could claim he was busy if anyone tried‭ ‬to talk.‭ ‬Visitors.‭ ‬They came in droves,‭ ‬left casseroles on the kitchen counter,‭ ‬if Claire was there to let them in.‭ ‬If not,‭ ‬they left the steaming dishes on the front steps for Claire to bring in the next time she came to visit.‭

That was when the house had been his.‎ ‏Now it was in no way his.‭ ‬He didn’t know the pictures hung on the wall‭; ‬he couldn’t place the little striped bag in the bathroom or the light blue towel on the rack.‭ ‬The food in the fridge was foreign,‭ ‬exotic.‭ ‬All he wanted was a basket of fried chicken,‭ ‬but the woman in his house‭ – ‬so familiar,‭ ‬she seemed so familiar‭ – ‬refused.‭

“Bad for your health,‎” ‏she said.‭ “‬Here,‭ ‬Papa,‭ ‬eat this.‭”

She called him that,‎ ‏and perhaps he was that to her,‭ ‬but she was not his daughter.‭ ‬He couldn’t place her,‭ ‬but he knew this woman,‭ ‬so much older than the bits of Claire he could recall,‭ ‬did not belong to him.
‎‏
It came and went.‭ ‬Then it went and never came back.‭

#

‎‏One night a‭ ‬phantom apologizes.‭

“I’m sorry.‎ ‏I should have been there better for you.‭ ‬I did wrong by you.‭”

Claire has served a new kind of soup,‎ ‏French Onion,‭ ‬which she hopes Papa will appreciate more than chili.‭ ‬She doesn’t look up at the‭ ‬phantom‭; ‬he’s sitting at the far end of the table and is easy to ignore.‭ ‬But his words confuse her.‭ ‬Sometimes they do that,‭ ‬confuse her.‭ ‬They speak like her papa.‭ ‬They relay pieces of him he seems to have lost.‭

When she first noticed that they knew so much of the inside of his mind,‎ ‏she wished that they would give it all back.‭ ‬She’s given up on hopes like that.‭ ‬Now the only‭ ‬wish is the one she’s afraid and ashamed to admit.‭ ‬Take him,‭ ‬take him please.‭ ‬Take him with you.‭

“I should have told you it was going to be okay.‎ ‏All those words you probably needed to hear,‭ ‬I didn’t give them to you,‭” ‬the‭ ‬phantom says.‭

Claire looks up at Papa.‎ ‏His expression is blank as he spoons French Onion soup into his mouth.‭ ‬He doesn’t look at her,‭ ‬though she sees him see her from the corner of his eye.‭

“Should’ve let you know I still loved you,‎ ‏even though you looked so much like her.‭ ‬Reminded me of her.‭”

Finally Claire stands from the table,‎ ‏and without a word she walks to her bedroom.‭ ‬She needs a moment to breathe.‭ ‬It would have been a welcome apology from her father’s throat.‭ ‬From a ghost of a memory,‭ ‬she never wanted to hear anything so personal.‭ ‬The words creep through her skin.‭ ‬She shivers.‭ ‬On the edge of her bed,‭ ‬she tries not to start shaking,‭ ‬but she has to grab hold of‭ ‬the nightstand to steady her hands.‭

There,‎ ‏on the stand,‭ ‬is‭ ‬one of the books Claire can never read again.‭ ‬Anne used to read it to her before bed.‭ ‬It’s a book about the history of the movies,‭ ‬but it may as well have been a book of lullabies because of how Anne’s voice smoothed‭ ‬the words.‭ ‬Claire can’t look at it.‭ ‬She ought to get rid of it,‭ ‬but she can’t bear to touch it.‭ ‬In the DVD player,‭ ‬there’s‭ ‬a movie Claire can’t make herself remove.‭ ‬

Alone in the bedroom,‎ ‏Claire can hear the voices from the dining room as clear as if they were there with her.‭ ‬They could be coming through the vents,‭ ‬but she doubts that’s the case.‭ ‬She‭ ‬lies across the‭ ‬bed and unbuttons her shirt,‭ ‬wriggles out of her jeans.‭ ‬The cotton sheets against her skin is soothing,‭ ‬the air from the fan‭ ‬blows down on her,‭ ‬though never will either feel as soothing as Anne’s hands,‭ ‬or her mother’s.‭

Eventually Claire‎ ‏will have to get up from the bed.‭ ‬She will have to go back into the dining room and clean up the mess.‭ ‬For now she will let the room take care of him.‭ ‬She will let the‭ ‬phantoms comfort him.‭ ‬She closes her eyes and thinks about her mother,‭ ‬the way she flipped her hair back to clear it from her face.‭ ‬Her white white teeth,‭ ‬the rare smile,‭ ‬less rare when she and Claire were alone.‭

Anne was something like her mother,‎ ‏but her smile was for everybody.‭ ‬It was what Claire liked most.‭

‎‏

Claire rolls over face‎ ‏down on the pillows.‭ ‬They smell like fresh laundry,‭ ‬and Claire feels her breath catch.‭ ‬They will never smell like Anne again.‭ ‬She’s washed it away.‭ ‬It’s a step she hadn’t thought she’d taken,‭ ‬and the pressure building in her chest tells her it’s a step she wasn’t ready for.‭ ‬How could she have done that without noticing‭? ‬She curls against the pillows and makes herself cry,‭ ‬for Anne,‭ ‬for her mother,‭ ‬her papa,‭ ‬her everyone.‭

#

Things Claire cannot touch for fear of losing them:

1. The CD she made for Anne but never gave her.‭

2. The books,‭ ‬mostly on the bottom shelf,‭ ‬all gifts.‭

3. Her mother’s old silver-plated mirror and comb.‭

4. The pillowcases she won’t wash again.

5. The recipes in the recipe box,‭ ‬written in her mother’s hand,‭ ‬one in Anne’s.‭ ‬Her father’s scratchy instructions for a‭ “‬secret tortilla soup.‭” ‬Food she can no longer eat.

6. The dirty pair of underwear Anne forgot beneath the bed.

7. The bandages Anne bought to bind the burn on Claire’s hand,‭ ‬which she got from cooking.

8. Her father’s Christmas trinkets,‭ ‬still up from December.‭ ‬It’s June.‭

9. Her father’s photo album,‭ ‬full of blank spaces.

10. Her father’s hand.

#

Papa never was one for apologies,‭ ‬for feelings.‭ ‬None of them were.
‎‏
Here is Claire,‭ ‬the past:‭ ‬an open letter in her hand.‭ ‬She bounds into‭ ‬the kitchen,‭ ‬where her mother stands at the stove.‭ ‬The smell of‭ ‬chicken frying,‭ ‬the greasy scent of hot oil,‭ ‬catches Claire at the threshold.‭ ‬She pauses only a moment before she waves the letter through the air.‭

“I got in‎!” ‏she yells.‭

Her mother turns,‎ ‏smiles,‭ ‬turns back to the stove.‭ “‬That’s great,‭ ‬dear.‭”

As if‎ ‏her excitement were a balloon suddenly popped,‭ ‬the air wheezes away.‭ ‬Claire stands with a letter in her‭ ‬hand,‭ ‬unsure.‭ ‬Tosses the letter on the table.‭

Despite her initial excitement,‎ ‏after a semester Claire drops out.‭

Instead she holds as many odd jobs as she can until she happens‎ ‏on the cemetery position.‭ ‬    Claire‭’‬s been there‭ ‬now‭ ‬for fifteen years.‭ ‬Without a home to call her own,‭ ‬the cemetery grounds become the place she most likes to be.‭ ‬There she can fix things.‭ ‬When the grass gets too long,‭ ‬she cuts it.‭ ‬When the flowers die,‭ ‬she replaces them.‭ ‬When she happens upon someone crying,‭ ‬she in no way‭ ‬feels‭ ‬obligated to comfort them.‭ ‬Her place‭ ‬is in the background of their lives,‭ ‬safe.‭

Being the center of Anne’s life made her uncomfortable.‎ ‏Always she felt on edge,‭ ‬her limbs rigid,‭ ‬her back tight.‭ ‬Anne tried to massage the knots away,‭ ‬but it didn’t work,‭ ‬because when Anne’s hands left her skin,‭ ‬the knots returned.‭ ‬She didn’t know how to explain this,‭ ‬to tell Anne it wasn’t her fault.‭

Claire can’t remember‎ ‏ever‭ ‬seeing her parents kiss.‭ ‬She can’t remember them kissing her.‭ ‬Now,‭ ‬in her bedroom,‭ ‬she does not remember Anne’s lips.‭

#

‎‏It wasn’t a surprise when the doctor called Claire and told her she would have to find care for her father.‭ ‬Her father had been forgetting‭; ‬it started when her mother was sick and worsened after the funeral.‭ ‬Little things.‭ ‬When Claire would call,‭ ‬he would tell her the same story in the course of thirty minutes.‭ ‬He forgot where he put his wallet.‭ ‬Claire became the‭ ‬caretaker of his credit cards,‭ ‬as he could no longer keep track of the payments.‭ ‬He wrote bad checks.‭

Then he forgot where he was.‎ ‏He asked for his mother,‭ ‬long passed.‭ ‬The first people he forgot were insignificant:‭ ‬actors,‭ ‬politicians,‭ ‬cousins who never visited.‭ ‬Then it was‭ ‬the post man,‭ ‬his nephew.‭ ‬Finally‭ ‬it was Claire,‭ ‬as the doctors had warned.‭

“Where’s my little girl‎?” ‏he would ask,‭ ‬and she would explain.‭ ‬She would explain again.‭ ‬At first it was temporary‭; ‬it would,‭ ‬eventually,‭ ‬come back to him.‭ ‬“Claire,‭” ‬he’d say,‭ ‬squeezing her hand.‭ “‬You’re back.‭ ‬I sure do like it when you visit.‭”

“Of course,‎ ‏Papa,‭” ‬Claire would say.‭ “‬Don’t worry,‭ ‬I won’t stop visiting you.‭”

The memory of her mother,‎ ‏on the other hand,‭ ‬was harder for him to lose.‭ ‬It seemed as if,‭ ‬though it too came and went,‭ ‬it was there more often.‭ ‬He remembered her,‭ ‬but her absence was something he couldn’t explain to himself.‭ ‬He asked‭ ‬about her all the time back then,‭ ‬before it all went.‭

These days he doesn’t ask about her at all.‎ ‏Claire envies him his ignorance.‭

Claire didn’t move in right away.‎ ‏At first she hired caregivers to stay with him‭ ‬24/7.‭ ‬Then the money ran out,‭ ‬the savings‭ ‬dried up,‭ ‬the cards maxed out.‭ ‬Social security and Medicaid paid for‭ ‬only‭ ‬half the care,‭ ‬and Claire didn’t make enough to pay the rest.‭ ‬So she broke the lease on her apartment and moved back in.‭

Anne came along later,‎ ‏at Claire’s yard sale.‭ ‬She’d cleaned out‭ ‬Papa’s old things,‭ ‬antiques he let rot in the garage,‭ ‬a bicycle missing its tire,‭ ‬the clothes he no longer wore‭ – ‬these days he mostly donned his favorite blue robe and plaid pajamas.‭ ‬Anne wasn’t really interested in the merchandise,‭ ‬but she bought the bike so she could talk to Claire.‭ ‬She arranged to pick it up later,‭ ‬when she wasn’t on her way to the store.‭ ‬She lived in the neighborhood,‭ ‬she explained.‭ ‬Claire thought she talked too much.‭ ‬It was a trait she would learn to love.‭

Now she misses the voice.‎ ‏Silence fills the empty air.‭ ‬Except when the‭ ‬phantoms come and take it,‭ ‬and there is no comfort in what they say,‭ ‬for they stole it from Papa.‭

#

‎‏The stories the‭ ‬phantoms tell are familiar to Claire.‭ ‬Every night at dinner she feels nostalgic with each mouthful of chili,‭ ‬and it isn‭’‬t the food,‭ ‬though that too comes from a memory,‭ ‬a safe memory,‭ ‬a memory of limbo years with a crockpot and three cans of beans.‭ ‬She likes the nostalgia of taste buds.‭ ‬What falls from the‭ ‬phantoms’ mouths,‭ ‬she likes much less.‭

Papa told her some of the stories the‎ ‏phantoms have adopted,‭ ‬and her mother told her‭ ‬others.‭ ‬The rest are new to her,‭ ‬but they ring with her father’s voice,‭ ‬his way of telling stories in that ambling way in which every character is suspect and likely crazy.‭ ‬She hates hearing her father’s words from so many grey mouths.‭ ‬She hates not being able to look at him when she responds.‭ ‬He finds the‭ ‬phantoms entertaining‭; ‬the stories are new to him.‭

The evening of the apology,‎ ‏once Claire returns to the dining room,‭ ‬she finds her father still there,‭ ‬his guests gone.‭

“It’s time to go,‎” ‏he says.‭

“Okay,‎” ‏says Claire.‭ ‬She moves to help him,‭ ‬wraps her arm around his arm.‭ “‬Let’s go to bed now,‭ ‬Papa.‭”

“No.‎” ‏He jerks his arm away.‭ ‬She thinks she knows what’s coming next‭; ‬he will throw a fit,‭ ‬tell her to leave him alone,‭ ‬tell her to take him where he belongs.‭

But he doesn‎’‏t.‭ ‬Instead he looks at the wall,‭ ‬the spot from which the‭ ‬phantoms leave.‭ ‬Claire‭ ‬looks there as well.‭ ‬One of the‭ ‬phantoms is still on this side of the wall.‭ ‬It extends a grey arm.‭ “‬Time to go.‭”

Her papa pats the table.‎ “‏Be right back,‭” ‬he says.‭ ‬Suddenly Claire knows it’s a lie.‭ ‬She can’t explain how she knows it,‭ ‬but it’s there,‭ ‬the knowledge.‭ ‬Her father will go,‭ ‬and he won’t come back.‭

She leads her father to the hand.‎ ‏The shadow consumes him,‭ ‬his arm,‭ ‬his shoulder.‭ ‬It pulls his body forward,‭ ‬and together he and the phantom walk through the wall.‭ ‬Through the plaster Claire can hear her father’s voice.‭ “‬Those damn lights.‭ ‬Hope she remembers.‭”

Once he’s gone,‎ ‏Claire can’t quite move.‭ ‬She stares at the spot where he was.‭ ‬It was sudden,‭ ‬she thinks,‭ ‬more so than she thought it would be.‭ ‬She’s not quite sure,‭ ‬she has to consider what has happened,‭ ‬if she’s had time to build herself up to‭ ‬this.‭ ‬If she’ll‭ ‬be able to get through this without anyone anymore to call hers.‭ ‬She wraps her arms around her chest.‭ ‬The‭ ‬room is cold.‭ ‬The dogs outside howl,‭ ‬and she lets them in.‭ ‬There is some vague kind of comfort in their fur.‭ ‬They lick the smell of onion from her hand,‭ ‬and she lets them.‭

Once they’ve settled down,‎ ‏she goes into the kitchen,‭ ‬pours the soup into a plastic container,‭ ‬slides the container into the fridge.‭ ‬She rinses the dishes and loads the washer.‭ ‬Stands on the cabinet and tries to pull down the light cover.‭ ‬The side cracks in her hands,‭ ‬and a shard of glass crashes to the‭ ‬chessboard‭ ‬floor.‭ ‬Like a pawn,‭ ‬she thinks,‭ ‬too small to be significant.‭ ‬Back on the floor she moves the glass from square to square.‭ ‬Crumbs dig into the palms of her hands.‭ ‬One square at a time,‭ ‬she slides the glass to the edge of the kitchen,‭ ‬then over,‭ ‬into the dining room.‭ ‬She considers picking it up,‭ ‬throwing it away,‭ ‬but she doesn’t.‭ ‬She crosses her legs where she is and waits to see if the light will stop flickering,‭ ‬if her father will after all come back.‭

#

‎‏As for Anne,‭ ‬there’s a phone and a number.‭ ‬Claire still remembers,‭ ‬after all.‭

“The first order of business,‎” ‏Anne says once Claire lets her in,‭ “‬is that light.‭”

Claire has already thrown away the glass on the floor.‎ ‏She’s already cooked a pan of tomatillo enchiladas for them to eat for dinner.‭ ‬The table she has set for two.‭

“Okay,‎” ‏Claire replies.‭

It’s really all that need be said.

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