If tonight I stop working early enough to cook dinner, and I pull out the placemats and fill my glass with sparkling water instead of opening another bottle of chardonnay, and we sit together and pray, thanking God for all we have and don’t have, even if it’s hard to thank God for anything since your daddy died, and if tonight we spin noodles around our forks and talk, really talk, maybe I’ll ask about your day and maybe you’ll tell me about that boy Liam you’ve been hanging around with and how he goes through his mother’s drawers and shows you how to flick a lighter and strike a match, how he gave you one of his cousin’s pocket knives and made you swear never to tell your mom about the BB gun he sometimes sneaks from the basement and aims at squirrels, how once he even aimed it at you and said it wouldn’t hurt and you’d be a wuss if it did, how he led you into the garage toward a tall, locked safe and bragged that one day he’d know the combination.
And if tonight you told me about the safe, maybe I wouldn’t scream that I never want to see a knife in your hand—a lighter, a match—because those things lead to worse things and boys your age shouldn’t touch anything that can slice/scorch/combust. Maybe I’d look at you, really look at you, and see your daddy in those eyes, in that smirk, in every alarming impulse I’ve failed to suppress, and maybe I wouldn’t turn away in fear/shame/grief, and instead I could tell you everything I know about friendship and loss, even if most of what I know is loss—even if it would be easier on you, better, if your daddy were here to guide you through boyhood instead of me.
And if tonight I tuck you in, whisper a bedtime story, even after you shrug me away, even after you say you’re too old, and if I linger until you fall asleep, and say more prayers, even if I don’t know what to pray for anymore, even if all my pleading can’t bring your daddy back or make it so he never turned down that icy road after a too-long day, after a too-long stop at the bar, and if tonight I don’t pour a third glass of wine or fall asleep on the couch, if tonight I don’t leave you to brush your teeth and find your way into bed alone because even your clammy hand on my cheek won’t wake me, and if tonight, I tell you that I love you and I love you and I love you no matter what…
Then tomorrow will you walk straight home after school instead of following Liam up his driveway and into his garage toward the tall safe, the one that this time will unlock, even if his father swears, really swears, he’s the only one that can open it? Or tomorrow will I listen to Liam’s father say that someone else must have opened it, that the lock must be defective, that there must be somebody he can sue? Will I listen and listen and listen until it’s no one’s fault, and I’m the only one left to blame?
Abbie Barker lives with her husband and two kids in New Hampshire. Her flash fiction has appeared in Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Atticus Review, Gone Lawn, Cease, Cows, and others. She teaches creative writing and is a reader for Fractured Lit. You can find her on Twitter @AbbieMBarker.