“Sonnenblume, that one. Keeps an eye on him wherever he goes.”
It wasn’t a choice she could ever remember making, sitting in the corner of her cousin’s living room and twisting her shoulders so that she could keep track of Norg—beaming and booming and present—while he mingled with her extended family. Until her aunt had said something, she hadn’t noticed she’d been doing it, following the trajectory of his giant frame around the room like it was her job to center herself around him, to make sure he stayed.
She’d never admit that he mattered because that’s how people end up hurting you most. You hold out hope that this time you’ll be able to keep your candle lit and close to your chest so that you can light up the world around you despite the encroaching darkness. Instead, you burn your fingers one too many times cupping them over a flame that might flicker out of existence, and suddenly you’re scarred, scared of fire for the rest of your life.
Her father had always told her she mattered to him, that he loved her, that she was worth every star in the sky. Crouched in front of her so she wouldn’t feel so small, he’d reach out and hold both of her hands in his. She’d feel the warmth of those rough palms like the shoreline she’d moor herself to when the water became too choppy, and she worried she’d drift away with the receding tide.
Her father married her mom when she was pregnant because it was the right thing to do. “But, the night you were born,” he whispered into her hair each time she woke in a panic from a nightmare and could only be comforted by his heavy weight at the edge of her bed, “it was like the world lit up, like you were what I’d been searching for forever.” He’d tuck the top of her head under his chin and hold her close until her racing heart calmed and she was sure nothing could ever hurt her again.
Backlit in her doorway, he’d tell the darkness of her room, “Ich liebe dich, Spatzi. I’ll see you in the morning.”
And she believed him up until the day she was eleven, waiting in an obnoxiously yellow rain slicker for him to walk her to the bus stop for twenty-four minutes (the passage of time tracked in nervous glances up at the clock on the kitchen wall). Her mom came downstairs with hollow eyes and told her that she’d drive her to school because of the sudden inclement weather. When the car stopped and her mom looked at her for a quiet moment, she felt the universe tilt itself onto some new axis—water levels rising with nowhere to lay anchor as rain pounded against the windshield.
“Your father’s taking some time for himself,” her mom said in a calculated and neutral voice that echoed in her ears. “He might not be back for a long while.”
She knew he’d never be back in the same way she knew never to trust anyone who could light up her whole world again because they could disappear just as easily as they could stay.
It didn’t matter that Norg proof-read all of her essays for school or that he helped her secretly pay the only speeding ticket she’d ever gotten (for going 87 miles per hour down a 65 stretch of highway after her father informed her via a short and shouted phone call from some place ‘down south’ that he couldn’t make it back up for her high school graduation) because she’d been afraid to tell her mom. It didn’t matter that Norg’s hand constantly rested at the small of her mom’s back or that he proudly wore their wedding band like it was some badge of honor and not one of the easiest promises that could be broken.
She kept one eye on him and one eye on the door because one sun abandoning her world had been enough.
—A born and raised Oregonian, Kate Piluso is a senior Creative Writing major at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. She publishes a weekly Opinions column in The Willamette Collegian centered around her social media endeavors titled “#YouSoPiluso”. Currently, Kate is planning on pursuing a post-graduation career as a live-in nanny before returning to school in order to obtain her Master’s in the Fine Arts. Her back-up career plans include being an unemployed writer of epics and haiku or becoming the next Great American Taxidermist.