"Yes, Leah? I'm in the kitchen," Marie called out, distracted. Leah walked into the kitchen and Marie looked over her shoulder at her daughter. The bangs she insisted on growing out were tangled and hung like red weeds in front of her forest eyes.
"Mom, I want to know about my father."
Marie turned from the soapy dishes and regarded her daughter. Her baby of 13 years with a soul far older. Marie knew Leah wasn't asking about the man she called Dad, but rather her biological father, whom they rarely spoke of. "Let's go sit down," Marie said. She wiped her soapy hands on her jeans and sat on the couch in the neat living room. Leah sat next to her and blew the bangs out of her eyes.
"How come you've never asked?" Marie queried.
"I never cared. I love Dad." Leah said with the surety of youth.
"Has anything changed?"
"No. I just want to know now."
Marie took a deep breath and gathered her courage. She wondered what her this little girl, whose opinion mattered so much, would think of her mother after the telling was done. She feared it.
Marie and Phil never married, instead they lived together in a cheap apartment in the dangerous part of the city. Marie told herself that she was satisfied with the arrangement but she lied. She lied about a lot, back then. Phil worked construction, mostly under the table, but sadly, he was satisfied. They fought often, and occasionally, when Phil drank, violently. At first Marie stayed with him because she remembered the charming and caring man from her youth. Later, she stayed because she was broken, a once delicate flower that got handled too roughly and was only a bruised shadow of its former beauty.
When Marie found out she was pregnant, she was excited but afraid, for the first time. She was really afraid that Phil wouldn't be the kind of father that her baby needed. When she told him the news he was excited, but he wasn't excited because he was having a baby, he was more callous and childish than that. When he told her how proud he was, she grinned, and, for a second, hoped. But he dashed those hopes away with the shallow words, "my boys can swim."
Soon the reality of a having a child and caring for it sank into Phil's lamentably thick skull. He started punishing her with snide comments about birth control, and money. How was he going to feed another mouth? The fighting grew worse, and for the first time, Marie considered leaving him. She would return home and start waiting tables again. Her parents would understand, or so she told herself. Phil was gone most nights. She didn't know where he was, and when she finally asked him he told her in a quiet, menacing voice, "I'm making some extra money so we can pay for this baby."
That night, there was blood on the moon. Marie remembered the tales her Grandmother told her about what happens to people who go out on that kind of night. She closed all the curtains, climbed into bed, and willed herself to sleep. Her hands cradled her belly, just now beginning to show the first signs of life. She woke with a start and looked around the dark room, wondering what woke her. A knock sounded on the thin door to the apartment so she pulled on a robe and walked cautiously to the door. She noticed the clock read one am. The witching hour. She opened the door to see a police officer standing in the dingy hallway. He was there to tell her that Phil was dead. She knew it in her heart, and as she let him inside the apartment, a small part of her breathed a sigh of relief.
"How did he die, Momma?" Leah asked. The whole time Marie was speaking she'd sat quietly, her face calm and understanding.
"Well, he had been trying to make some extra money. Unfortunately, he decided do so by gambling. He was an adequate card player, but he never could pass up an inside straight. It turns out that he cheated the wrong man, and the man shot him." Marie said. She waited for Leah to say something, watched apprehensively as her little girl thought about what she just learned.
Leah cocked her head to the side, "So, the police officer that came to the door. Was that Daddy?"
A large, cocoa colored hand came down to rest on Leah's shoulder from behind the couch, "It was, Leah. That was the first night I met your Mom." Leah looked back at the man that she called dad and smiled. Milton was tall, trim and the gentlest man she knew. In many ways, she took after him more than her mother. Her mom could easily be described as "busy" whereas Leah and Milton were tranquil, calm as a mountain spring in the morning sunshine.
"Why did you stay with him?" Leah's eyes locked with Marie's pale green eyes. Without looking away Marie said,
"It's complicated. Love can be, at times. And I did love him. It wasn't a healthy love, but it was love nonetheless. And I was loyal and stubborn-
"Daddy always says you're too stubborn," Leah grinned. The mood eased slightly.
"Yes," Marie smiled and lifted her copper curls from her neck, "I am stubborn. I didn't want to admit that I failed at my relationship with Phil. And I was afraid. Do you understand, Leah?"
Leah nodded, "I think I do Mom." she reached over and wrapped her arms around her mom and sank into the embrace. Her mom always smelled like tea and honey and the familiar scent reassured her. Just as, when Milton joined their embrace, the light scent of sweat, cinnamon and shoe polish made her smile.
"I'm glad he cheated." Leah said.