At least, I thought it was Heidi. It was hard to say for sure, as she looked nothing like the last time I’d seen her. Her hair was pulled up into a messy, lopsided ponytail, with some strands stuck to her face, and she had on a ratty pair of sweatpants and an oversize U T-shirt, which had some kind of damp stain on one shoulder. Her eyes were closed, her head tipped back slightly. In fact, I thought she was asleep until, without even moving her lips, she hissed, ‘If you wake her up, I will kill you.’
I froze, alarmed, then took a careful step backward. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I just –’
Her eyes snapped open, and she whipped her head around, her eyes narrowing into little slits. When she spotted me, though, her expression changed to surprise. And then, just like that, she was crying.
‘Oh, God, Auden,’ she said, her voice tight, ‘I am so, so sorry. I forgot you were… and then I thought… but it’s no excuse…’ She trailed off, her shoulders heaving as, in her arms, the baby – who was tiny, so small she looked too delicate to even exist – slept on, completely unaware.
I took a panicked look around the room, wondering where my dad was. Only then did I realize that the incredibly loud ocean sound I was hearing was not coming from outside but instead from a small white noise-machine sitting on the coffee table. Who listens to a fake ocean when the real one is in earshot? It was one of many things that, at that moment, made absolutely no sense.
‘Um,’ I said as Heidi continued to cry, her sobs punctuated by an occasional loud sniffle, as well as the fake pounding waves, ‘can I… do you need some help, or something?’
She drew in a shaky breath, then looked up at me. Her eyes were rimmed with dark circles: there was a pimply red rash on her chin. ‘No,’ she said as fresh tears filled her eyes. ‘I’m okay. It’s just… I’m fine.’
This seemed highly unlikely, even to my untrained eye. Not that I had time to dispute it, as right then my dad walked in, carrying a tray of coffees and a small brown paper bag. He was in his typical outfit of rumpled khakis and an untucked button-down shirt, his glasses sort of askew on his face. When he taught, he usually added a tie and tweedy sport jacket. His sneakers, though, were a constant, no matter what else he was wearing.
‘There she is!’ he said when he spotted me, then headed over to give me a hug. As he pulled me close, I looked over his shoulder at Heidi, who was biting her lip, staring out the window at the ocean. ‘How was the trip?’
‘Good,’ I said slowly as he pulled back and took a coffee out of the carrier, offering it to me. I took it, then watched as he helped himself to one before sticking the last on the table in front of Heidi, who just stared at it like she didn’t know what it was.
‘Did you meet your sister?’
‘Uh, no,’ I said. ‘Not yet.’
‘Oh, well!’ He put down the paper bag, then reached over Heidi – who stiffened, not that he seemed to notice – taking the baby from her arms. ‘Here she is. This is Thisbe.’
I looked down at the baby’s face, which was so small and delicate it didn’t even seem real. Her eyes were shut, and she had tiny, spiky eyelashes. One of her hands was sticking out of her blanket, and the fingers were so little, curled slightly around one another. ‘She’s beautiful,’ I said, because that is what you say.
‘Isn’t she?’ My dad grinned, bouncing her slightly in his arms, and her eyes slid open. She looked up at us, blinked, and then, just like her mom, suddenly began to cry. ‘Whoops,’ he said, jiggling her a bit. Thisbe cried a little louder. ‘Honey?’ my dad said, turning back to Heidi, who was still sitting in the exact same place and position, her arms now limp at her sides. ‘I think she’s hungry.’
Heidi swallowed, then turned to him wordlessly. When my father handed Thisbe over, she swiveled back to the windows, almost robotlike as the crying grew louder, then louder still.
‘Let’s step outside,’ my dad suggested, grabbing the paper bag off the end table and gesturing for me to follow him as he walked to a pair of sliding glass doors, opening one and leading me outside to the deck. Normally, the view would have left me momentarily speechless – the house was right on the beach, a walkway leading directly to the sand – but instead I found myself looking back at Heidi, only to realize she’d disappeared, leaving her coffee untouched on the table.
‘Is she all right?’ I asked.
He opened the paper bag, pulling out a muffin, then offering it to me. I shook my head. ‘She’s tired,’ he said, taking a bite, a few crumbs falling onto his shirt. He brushed them off with one hand, then kept eating. ‘The baby’s up a lot at night, you know, and I’m not much help because I have this sleep condition and have to get my nine hours, or else. I keep trying to convince her to get in some help, but she won’t do it.’
‘Oh, you know Heidi,’ he said as if I did. ‘She’s got to do everything herself, and do it perfectly. But don’t worry, she’ll be fine. The first couple of months are just hard. I remember with Hollis, your mom was just about to go out of her mind. Of course, he was incredibly colicky. We used to walk him all night long, and he’d still scream. And his appetite! Good Lord. He’d suck your mom dry and still be ravenous…’
He kept talking, but I’d heard this song before, knew all the words, so I just sipped my coffee. Looking left, I could see a few more houses, then what appeared to be some sort of boardwalk lined with businesses, as well as a public beach, already crowded with umbrellas and sunbathers.
‘Anyway,’ my father was saying now as he crumpled up his muffin wrapper, tossing it back in the bag, ‘I’ve got to get back to work, so let me show you your room. We can catch up over dinner, later. That sound good?’
‘Sure,’ I said as we headed back inside, where the sound machine was still blasting. My dad shook his head, then reached down, turning it off with a click: the sudden silence was jarring. ‘So you’re writing?’
‘Oh, yeah. I’m on a real roll, definitely going to finish the book soon,’ he replied. ‘It’s just a matter of organizing, really, getting the last little bits down on the page.’ We went back to the foyer, then up the staircase. As we walked down the hallway, we passed an open door, through which I could see a pink wall with a brown polka-dot border. Inside, it was silent, no crying, at least that I could hear.