It wasn’t until Carlos had been working the evening shift for about a week that Aaron started to ask where his daddy was. But Abella noticed immediately.
On Monday, I explained, “He’s working after school now, Abella.”
And repeated on Tuesday, “It’s after school, daddy works.”
Wednesday: “Abella, you know daddy’s at work.”
By the fourth day, she went to see Carlos in the morning before he was out of bed. “Daddy do you work today?”
She managed to squirm under the blankets before I snatched her out. Time for breakfast, not going back to bed, I said. But I let her talk to Carlos.
“What if I need help with my homework?”
“Your mother can help you, sweet pea.” Carlos’s voice was rough and quiet, still coming out of sleep.
“But what if I need your help.”
Carlos let her crawl into his lap and put her arm around his neck. She rubbed the stubble on his jaw with her whole hand while he opened his eyes.
“Write me a note. Put the question on a piece of paper and I’ll read it when I get home and you’re in bed. I’ll help you in the morning.”
“Breakfast is soggy now,” I said to my daughter. She rolled off the bed, landed on her feet, and ran back to her cereal.
“Why is she worrying about homework in grade two?” Carlos asked me before I turned my attention back to Aaron.
Once Carlos started the evening shift, four to midnight, I was able to spend my mornings with both Carlos and Aaron. Afternoons I took Aaron to four-year-old playschool, volunteered at the women’s shelter, went back to the playschool for Aaron, then fetched Abella from school. I didn’t know what Carlos did with his afternoons while I was gone. He left for work before we got home.
On the day Abella went to see him in the morning, she asked me what her father did at work. I said he stops planes from crashing into each other and falling out of the sky. It’s an important job. Her round brown eyes opened wide. Her father’s eyes.
After Aaron and Abella were fed, washed and put to bed, I saw a note on Carlos’s pillow. The paper was pink against his white pillowcase—the Beauty and the Beast stationery she got for her seventh birthday. I lifted it off the pillow and read Abella’s young writing.
Miss Blanchel said Ryan was being mischeesyus in class today. Ryan said the devile made him be that way. Miss Blanchel said you are not suppose to listen to the devile on your shoulder. Can the devile really make you do something?
I love you
Her writing appeared in thick grey pencil strokes. Every lowercase “e” was slightly larger than the surrounding letters to compensate for the difficulty of its shape. I ran my index finger over the deep indentations of the pencilled letters. Deep indentations that reminded me of Abella. Her dark brows, lashes and pupils were like charcoal marks on her small face, which was always forming intense, questioning expressions. I placed the note back on Carlos’s pillowcase and pulled out my notebook to do my own writing.
Carlos was restless that night. I felt him turning around. He would start on his back, then his left side, his stomach, his right side, then his back again. The whole cycle took 30 to 40 minutes. I wasn’t sleeping either, but I left Carlos alone. Alone as one could be with his thoughts making him turn and his wife lying still beside him.
The next morning, I watched Abella run from the kitchen to our bedroom and I heard the mattress springs as she jumped up. “Seven-year-olds don’t jump up on beds,” I called out to her. As I spoke, I forgave myself the lie. Seven-year-olds often jump on beds. But my seven years as a mother made it easy to tell little untruths to my children. I rationalized it was a minor sacrifice in the pursuit of good behaviour. A thought to write down later in my journal.
The light wheat puffs in Abella’s breakfast bowl grew sodden with milk while she cuddled next to her father in our room. The microwave clock glowed 8:25. Five minutes before we had to leave for school. I sliced an apple for Abella to eat in the car and called for her. She emerged from the bedroom and made eye contact with me before running to grab her backpack. Her dark eyes were as steady as balanced weights, but I sensed she was not quite as lighthearted as she was earlier on that morning, when we were choosing her outfit together. I hoped Carlos remembered to answer Abella’s question.
That night there was another note on Carlos’s pillow.
Jill says she’s in love with a boy. She’s loved him since Monday and Jill wrote about it in her journal. Miss Blanchel wrote in red pen that she is too little to know what love is. Jill is as little as me so does that mean also I am too little to know what love is?
Tough question, I thought. But Carlos could handle it. Carlos has always been the advice man among our friends. His eyes could pull the confidence out of you, make you doubt, make you wonder how he would act in your situation, because that would be the best way. Most of the men in the neighbourhood stopped by our place to share tools and ask about how to fix anything from their car to their relationship with their wives. When we had friends over and the discussion turned to philosophy in the late hours, and everyone thought it was Sartre who said I think, therefore I am, Carlos would say said no, that was Descartes. It didn’t matter what gender, male or female, they all felt his strength in knowing the answer. Perhaps it was what made him an air traffic controller, a man who knew where people were going and what route would get them there safely. It was no different with people than with planes. They took his suggestions. They needed somebody to direct them.
I was proud to watch him direct.
Yet I was glad to see Carlos struggling with Abella’s questions. That afternoon, the day after his second night of restless turning, I skipped my hours at the women’s shelter and went for coffee with him.
“Read anything interesting lately?” I asked as soon as we had our drinks and a table.
Carlos looked up from his plain coffee. He just looked at me for a while, his face tired. He looked sad when he was tired.
“You’ve been reading her notes, eh?”
The next silence was more silent than usual, both of us waiting for the other to start. This was one game I would win.
“What are our children learning in school?” he finally asked. “I thought she wanted help with calculus or organic chemistry—something easy,” he joked.
“What have you been telling her?” I asked through a smile. And that’s when I saw his bold, steady eyes quiver.
“Did she ask you if the devil could force you into something?” he challenged.
“No. She must have wanted an answer from her father.”
“Well, what if I don’t have an answer?” The words slowed down as they came out, Carlos trying to stop them as they steamed from his mouth with his fresh coffee breath.
“Why don’t you just tell her you don’t know.”
Carlos’s face looked haunted as he considered it, then he looked alarmed.
“Because I do know,” he said. His calm returned.
I picked Aaron and Abella up from their schools, and when we got home Carlos had left for work. I watched Abella run to her room, run back out with her stationery set and climb onto her chair at the kitchen table. As she pulled out a clean pink sheet with her fingertips, I left Aaron with his wooden blocks on the floor and settled in the chair beside her.
“Are you writing another question for daddy?”
She bobbed her head once, not at all distracted from her task.
“Did daddy answer your other questions yet?”
Abella looked up at me, a miniature spokeswoman for Carlos, and said with the air of a rehearsed professional, “He knows the answers and he’s talking about them with answer specialists from all over the world. Just to make sure.”
Of course, the answer specialists. That was the sentence I wrote in my journal while I sat on the porch to watch Abella and Aaron play in the yard after supper. My pen was poised to begin a cathartic stream of words dedicated to Carlos’s need of always being right, when I realized I had only one page left in my notebook. I abandoned my thoughts to admire the reams of text I had written over the years. There was something attractive about seeing a book filled with handcrafted words—my words. Pausing at an unusually sloppy entry, I read a paragraph I didn’t remember writing.
It’s starting to get embarrassing that I can’t make a decision without Carlos’s advice or approval. Of course he’d let me, but somehow I feel the need to ask him first. Shelly told me at the shelter today that I should stop worrying what my husband thinks about every detail. And I had nothing to say to that. I guess I just like knowing where he stands. Better to ask than to guess.
After reading my long-past written words, I looked up and saw Abella laying her skipping ropes down on the grass so they formed a series of circles. Aaron was concentrating on jumping from one to another. I couldn’t blame Abella for going to her father with her pressing questions. She was like me—just wanting to know.
I had a lot of laundry to do that night, so I didn’t get a chance to read Abella’s latest note before Carlos took it. Definitely a tough question, judging by the turning he did while I lay beside him through the night. He got up for water around 2:00 a.m. and I watched him as he slipped back under the covers. He turned again, and I was facing him, my eyes open.
“What if, in the future, we discover I was wrong about something,” he whispered.
“I would forgive you,” I said.
“Would Abella forgive me?”
I rested my hand in the spot under his earlobe and assured him, “Abella will believe anything you tell her.”
Another day passed and the answer specialists were on vacation. I hoped Carlos would start sleeping better, or those planes would not be so safe.
The next day I discovered what Carlos did with his afternoons. My dusting cloth traveled over some surprisingly intellectual books in Aaron’s bookshelf. They were library books. Books and essays on theology, philosophy and psychology, shelved alphabetically along with Farmyard Animals and I Know My Alphabet. I pulled out a heavy book on traits of the male psyche. A familiar pink leaf of paper was marking a page. I opened the book and read the note.
Jill told me a secret today. She said that her daddy left her and her mom and he’s not coming back. I asked why and Jill said that her mom said sometimes daddys do that. I said my daddy wouldn’t do that but Jill said she thought the same thing and so did her mom. Would you ever leave and not come back?
The book got heavier. Why didn’t Carlos answer her right away? Didn’t he know? Maybe I missed out on some signal. I thought he had control on everything. What would it take to make him hesitate? The book got heavier. All those planes, flying around, listening to my husband.
Abella and Aaron were sleeping when Carlos got home, but I wasn’t. The back door made its clicking and creaking followed by the final rush of air as it closed. Instead of meeting him in the hall, I went into our bedroom. The lights were off and I didn’t turn them on. A small sound came from a form on the bed, which added to my panic. A shallow breath, and I switched the light on. There was Abella, curled asleep on Carlos’s pillow, her feet tucked into her pink nightgown. Her chest rose and fell in a sweet rhythm that made me exhale and close my eyes. I walked to the bed and sat on the mattress slowly, careful not to let my weight disturb her. I heard Carlos coming down the hall.
As he entered the bedroom, I didn’t look at him. I gently reached for Abella to pick her up and bring her back to her own bed.
“Leave her,” he said. There was both exhaustion and adoration in his voice.
“Are you sure? If we let her stay, she’ll come back every night and she won’t want to sleep by herself,” I whispered back, so hopeful.
“There’s nothing wrong with a little dependence,” he decided.
My face became uncomfortably warm as my heart sped up. I decoded his words, chose my question thoughtfully.
“And how does it feel to be the one depended upon?” I spoke softly, slowly, aware of my sleeping daughter.
“It’s what everyone wants, really,” Carlos said and looked at me, his deep eyes getting lighter. “To be needed.”
I told him I understood. He had more to say.
“But I hate not knowing.” Carlos half-grinned and eased himself onto the bed beside me and Abella. He pulled a folded note out of his pocket and handed it to me.
The paper was plain white, pulled out of the computer printer. I unfolded it and read the cramped, inky writing I knew belonged to Carlos.
Dearest lovely Abella,
1. The devil cannot make you do anything. What you do is entirely your choice. What can the devil do to you then? I don’t know. You will have to discover this for yourself.
2. You are not too little to know what love is because I can see you love your mom, your daddy and your little brother Aaron. Do you understand love? If you do, then you may be the only one. I know I don’t understand it.
3. I will never leave you, your mom or your brother on purpose. Will something happen beyond my control to stop me from being here with you? I don’t know. In the meantime, don’t be scared. I will do everything I can to keep you safe.
Abella, I am sorry it took me so long to answer your questions, and I am sorry I don’t have better answers. Will you forgive me? With all my love,
“What do you think?” Carlos leaned his head on my shoulder. “Will she be upset to learn her father doesn’t have all the answers?”
“Possibly.” I said, folding the paper back up. “But I think she’ll understand.”
That night Carlos slept restfully, despite having to surrender most of his pillow to Abella. I stayed awake, listening to sounds amplified by the night. The thunder of a jet engine echoed through the sky, permeating the roof and into the room. I imagined the relief, no matter how fleeting, passengers and pilots must feel once their plane lands safely. Those deep, relaxed breaths after a successful trip. The last thing I remembered before falling asleep was telling myself to buy a new notebook, so I could write that thought into my journal.
Jessica McIntosh is a longtime Edmontonian who now lives in Fort McMurray. This is her first published work of fiction.