It all started three nights ago. Mom was running late, stuck in traffic, she complained through the crackling cell phone.
“Nik,” she said wearily, the tension and aggravation so apparent in her voice I knew whatever she was going to ask I wouldn’t have the will to say no.
“Yeah Mom?” I replied as I scanned the room for my daughter. She was sitting on the edge of the couch, her toddler sized legs to short to reach the floor, a purple giraffe clutched in her sticky palms.
“Can you start dinner? The spaghetti’s in the cabinet next to the stove, and the sauce should be on the shelf below it. I don’t know what time I’ll be home.” She sighed and cursed at someone, presumably the car in front of her.
I opened the cabinet and skimmed over the skimpy contents. I found the jar of sauce stuffed behind a can of mushrooms and a dusty can of mixed vegetables. The noodles, however, eluded me. “I see elbow macaroni and bow ties, but no spaghetti. Is it okay if I use one of those instead?”
Again, she sighed. “Yeah that’s fine. Start dinner and tell Amie that she needs to get ready. Her dance recital is at seven thirty and we’ll be lucky if we make it. I’ll be home…well, when these idiots learn how to drive. Thanks again Niki.”
The line went dead before I could reply. I glanced into the living room again. It was quiet, too quiet. That meant one of two things, either Beth had fallen asleep or she was up to some serious mischief. I hurriedly reached for the box of macaroni and dropped them on the counter as I rushed off in search of Beth.
I expected to find her, knee deep in her typical monkey business, she was, though, asleep with the purple giraffe clutched against her chest. I smiled and turned back toward the kitchen. Sitting on the counter in front of the box of noodles was a gold tennis bracelet my father had given my mother half a lifetime ago.
I stopped, gasping, my heart hammering away in my chest. I looked around thinking my sister or one of my brothers had put it there as some kind of cruel joke. “Matt? Tommy?” I called, peeking into the dining and family rooms, thinking they might have hidden there.
“Come on guys this isn’t funny,” I called as I scooped the bracelet up and rushed it back to my parent’s room. I pushed the door open to their room and crossed the threshold. It smelled the same as it always did, sandalwood and something flowery – a perfect blend of mom and dad.
Dad, though, had been well…gone for some time now. And I don’t mean gone in the sense that he was dead, but gone in the sense that no one knew what happened to him. He had gone to work one morning five years ago and never came home. His car, his credit cards, social security number –everything, just wiped off the map. He just seemed to vanish into thin air leaving my mother all alone to raise four kids on her own. Well three kids and me. I was twenty one when he vanished and got sucked in to moving back home to help my mom with my siblings.
The bracelet was the start. Two days after that there was a snow globe, one that they had picked up from a vacation in southern California. I always hid the things that showed up so my mother wouldn’t see and have her world shattered.
After the snow globe I started looking for my father. If I went out I scanned the grocery store or the mall or the towel aisle at Wal-Mart, constantly searching, looking for a logical explanation, because obviously there had to be a logical explanation.
And then there was.
It started as another phone call; this time from my sister. I answered with an exasperated, “hello?”
“Niki?” she squeaked.
“Can you come pick me and Leaha and Tasha up?”
Sighing I glanced at my watch, checking the time. Beth had to have a nap soon or she would be crankier than an 80 year old man. Satisfied I had some time I said, “Sure, where are you?”
“We’re at the mall, well the movie theater in the mall. Can you pick us up?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there in five minutes. As soon as the movie’s over come out. Don’t pull the “oh I had to go look at one thing” card. Beth needs a nap.”
“Okay. We’ll meet you out front.” And with that she was gone. I hung up and grabbed Beth. “Come on Bethy cakes. Your aunt needs a ride.”
I scooped the giggling toddler up and whisked her out the door. The trip to the mall took no time and the day was nice so I unstrapped Beth from her car seat and carried her toward the entrance of the movie theater.
We were sitting on a bench, Beth was oohing over a butterfly, when I noticed him; a man in his late forties, dark curly hair and that distinct laugh that was oh so my father.
I stood up and absentmindedly started walking toward the man; toward my father. “Beth come with mommy,” I called distractedly.
She giggled and I felt her take my hand in hers and together we walked toward my father. “Dad!” I called out, my voice drifting away from him on the wind.
My steps faltered when a woman a few years younger than him, a teenage boy and two little girls, their brown curls tied up in pig tails on either side of their heads, joined his side. He leaned down and kissed the woman passionately then turned to the boy and said something that made the boy laugh. I heard him call him dad, the two little girls echoing the sentiment.
Disbelief turned to disgust, and I blindly walked toward them. “Dad!” I hollered. He cautiously glanced over his shoulder, his eyes going wide. My father turned to the woman and said something to her. They quickened their steps, hurrying toward the car.
I stopped, leaning down to pick up Beth and ran after them hollering, “Dad!”
With a whimpering toddler clinging to my side, I ran like a maniac through the parking lot. The family stopped at a pristine, white mini-van and the kids got inside. “Dad!” I called again and again he ignored me.
“Answer me damnit,” I yelled. “I know you hear me. Answer me.” I reached the driver’s side of the van and grabbed his arm, tugging violently.
My father turned and stared at me defiantly. “What do you want?” he sneered.
“Dad its Niki,” I said. “What’s going on? Where have you been? Who are these people? Why haven’t you come home?”
Confusion was settling in. Had he been here this whole time, living right up the block with this woman and these kids? Why had he left us and not ever come back? Why did he abandon us?
A million unanswered questions flitted to the surface of my mind and somehow, based on the hard glint in this stranger’s eye, I knew I’d never get the answers. At least not from him.
“I don’t owe you anything,” he hissed. “Now get away from me before I call the cops.”
“But dad,” I whined. I wanted to ask if he was the one coming into the house, the one leaving all those things out and if he was why was he doing it? Especially since he was acting like he didn’t even know me.
The man who looked and sounded like, but obviously wasn’t my father got into his minivan and locked the doors. The engine roared to life and he back out of the parking lot, savagely throwing the van into drive and speeding off.
I walked back to the theater in a daze and collected my sister and her friends. That night I anxiously sat in the kitchen waiting for my mother’s arrival from work. When she walked in the door and eight thirty looking exhausted and wearily I wondered if I was doing the right thing. In the end though, I decided she needed to know.
“Um, mom there’s something I need to talk to you about,” I said softly as I twirled the salt and pepper shakers in my hand.
“Hmm?” she said softly.
“I saw dad today.”
The silence was so thick you could have cut it with a steak knife. To my startling announcement my mother only said, “Oh?”
“Mom, didn’t you hear what I said?” I asked exasperatedly.
“I heard you,” she replied. “You saw your father.”
“But…I thought you didn’t know what happened to him?” I asked. Today’s confusion was nothing compared to what I was feeling now.
“I don’t,” she said. “The man you saw today looked like your father, but he most certainly wasn’t. At least not anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your father was a very sick man. He had something called Multiple Personality Disorder. When we were married he lived a completely separate life that I knew nothing about. Only it wasn’t his life, it was Roger’s life. Your father had a psychotic break five years ago. Roger “took over” and your father faded away.” She rolled her eyes as she made air parenthesis. “So I divorced him and sent him to a mental illness hospital.”
“Do you think dad’s still there?” I asked.
“I have no idea, why?”
I relayed the story about the bracelet and the snow globe. “Maybe dad’s trying to break back through,” I said hopefully.
“Don’t count on it Niki,” my mother replied wearily. “I don’t.”