The world was crashing around her in the shape of tulip petals, pastel ribbons and snowflakes that tumbled and danced into her tender skin like tiny razors leaving it puffy and pink to match her eyes. This was wrong. Every milky bone in her fragile and broken form quivered and screamed that this went against nature. She took a deep breath. It burned through her and caught fire in her chest. She was surprised the amount of tears couldn’t extinguish it.
Ade didn’t remember falling to her knees, but the coarse ground had already left lasting imprints through her stockings. She reached to the oak box for strength. The box was polished and shiny, glimmering in the audacious sunlight. Sweat coated her trembling fingers, and her hand slid down the box, causing a screech that would echo through her for years. She looked to heaven and blinked the water from her swollen eyes. Again, Ade’s hand reached for the box and this time clung to it. She pulled herself from the ground, the small box shaking under the pressure, threating to tip over and reveal its contents. For a moment, she wasn’t sure her hand would ever separate from the box. Timeless and motionless she stood there, biting her lip until a tear-shaped drop of blood began to free itself. She took one last smoldering breath and let the fire consume her. Then Ade turned her back on her only child and walked away.
The room was cool and sterile. Men chattered around her, their voices bouncing off the walls and falling into other conversations. Papers were shuffled, and the legs of chairs grated the linoleum floor, echoing throughout the building. Ade pulled her sweater around her tighter and shifted in the rigid plastic chair. The grey walls and floors blended together, suffocating her, but there was nowhere else to go.
“Go home, Mrs. Triste.” The detective entered his office. He was surprised to see her there the day after the funeral, before breakfast, but his voice concealed it. Detective Bixby sat at his desk and began rummaging through drawers. He could feel her eyes on him, weighted by grief and desperation. He shut a drawer and faced her. His wrists rested on his desk, his fingers locking together to stress his intent. “Mrs. Triste, go home. I will call you when I know something.” He hated the way she looked at him. As long as he’d known her, her eyes had held the same expression. He stared into the deep brown chasms and could feel himself falling into them. He was their only hope. The detective looked down at his knotted fingers of strength, knowing he was defeated. His chair was just as relentless as the others against the cool floor when he stood from his desk. He left his office without a word and returned with two cups of coffee.
She held the coffee with both hands, as if to keep warm. Detective Bixby always got coffee for Ade. He hoped she considered it a courtesy, but actually it was the only way he knew to keep her fingers from shaking. Without something to cling to, her long bony fingers and jagged nails sent quakes through the air with their constant tremors. He had tried to look away, tried to busy himself, but he could feel their force through the air like giant salty waves. “I don’t know anything new.”
Ade looked from her coffee back up to him. Her eyes spoke for her.
Detective Bixby pulled some cream and sugar from a desk drawer and began to lighten his coffee. Just because she took it straight and bitter, didn’t mean he had to suffer with her. “I have my men at your house, running labs, making phone calls. It takes time. I will call you.”
She looked back down at the coffee before taking a long slow sip. The steam escaped the cup, veiling her face, accentuating each new line. Creases ran through her forehead, cut deeply around her mouth but had abandoned the milky skin around her eyes. He wondered if she’d slept. He was certain if she were to open her mouth, her teeth would be stained from endless coffee over the past few days.
“Really.” He spoke softer now that she was veiled. “I can’t tell you anything until the investigation is over. Legally, I can’t.” Her brown eyes lifted and sliced through the steam. “I will call you. You’re still at the hotel? Room 429?”
She stood, holding the coffee close to her chest, keeping the veil between them. The heat accentuated the pulsing of her heart, pumping fire through her limbs, just below the surface of her pale skin. Her lips tried to curve into a grateful smile, but her eyes remained truthfully the same.
Room 429 was the modest suite they’d called home since their daughter’s disappearance. It didn’t have a tulip garden over the kitchen sink nor pink ribbons to hold back the heavy drapes. Instead, it held everything needed. The bland magnet-less refrigerator concealed fresh ice trays, never contaminated with grape juice. The smooth carpet flowed seamlessly from one room to the next, with each piece of furniture and each knick-knack flawlessly in place, while the bathroom bellowed the harsh scent of bleach and lemons. The serenity of room 429 reflected the hollowness that filled the marrow of Ade’s bones, which if tapped would shatter into tiny heart-shaped shards of glass. Ade stood next to the coffee maker. She had poured herself a cup of coffee, only to stand next to it lifeless, immersed in the heat of its steam, aching for it to fill her.
“You okay?” Chris reached behind her to slide a frozen pizza in the microwave. The chill of his pungent scent spread through the air and up her spine, rung by rung until it hit the base of her neck, sending ice to her fingers and toes, frosting her nails. The freezer door had opened with a resounding pop and artic gust and shut with a rippling shutter, shaking the crumbless floor. The staleness of him embraced her, sending razors thrashing against each nerve, fraying them and leaving them broken and raw. The buttons on the microwave screeched with the pressure of his clumsy fingers. “Ade?”
The kitchette in room 429 was much too small. Ade carried her coffee gingerly to the solid couch. As she floated from one room to the next, the carpet grazed the bottom of her feet, attempting to wear through her skin in search of her soul. The blue cushions were familiar with sorrow and molded when she slightly sat. They longed to conform to her, to hold and comfort her, but she sat on the edge, her sharp elbows crushing into her thighs.
Ade and Chris had been estranged for some time, but the final ribbon tying them had now been cut. He had snipped it easily and carelessly. Children had to be watched, especially children like their daughter. There wasn’t a moment she could be without a watchful eye. It was a knowledge they both lived with, that now haunted them and grew between them. A weed that crowded out pastel petals, scented the air with bitterness and bore silent thorns that cut deeply, leaving scars they could never forgive. It had been four days. It had been a lifetime.
The shower water had been warm and comforting that day. It tumbled through the faucet, falling from the sky, dancing across her hair and skin and eyes, as smooth as petals. It was her daily solitude, the only time of the day when she rested her watchful eye. Each evening when Chris came home, he took over, and she took twenty minutes in the thick steam and water and washed the day away. Ade’s days with her daughter sometimes lasted through the night and were always full of tutors, therapists, and watching. Tutors spoke through their hands and with enunciated lips, while Ade and her daughter learned. For seven years Ade watched, and for seven years Ade learned. For seven years, Ade hadn’t slept. At each noise, each creek, she was up and checking on her child. Her daughter’s breath was warm at night. It had a sweet smell all it’s own, yet carried so much heat Ade marveled that the soft feathers beneath her head didn’t catch fire.
Their daughter inherited Ade’s dark eyes and used them as efficiently. They were dark pools of fudge, hidden in her milky face, full of sweetness for the world. Sweetness that became contagious, infecting not only tutors and doctors but busboys and cashiers and even the postman. Each day, when the sun beamed its brightest, causing the world to shimmer with heat, their daughter would run to the front porch to silently greet her favourite person. As the small bland jeep would pull up to their little box, their daughter would jump up and down. Her skirt, whether pink or purple or laced with tulips, would twirl out from her screaming the greeting she couldn’t. Both arms waved over her head, almost high enough to be burnt by the sun. Glitter sprang forth from her deep eyes, and her pastel lips would gape open into a large smile making her shiny teeth look too large for her mouth. In that moment, the burden of bills and a dead-end job melted, and the postman waved back. His lips would spread just as wide, his hand and fingers flailing their greeting. It was the moment he waited for each morning and the moment he carried with him the rest of the day. On the day her box was swallowed by the earth, the mail was not delivered. The postman hid in a black suit, undisquinshable when removed from his solid blue uniform, and stood by the oak tree. His eyes were hazy and lain with liquor, the hidden brandy his wife didn’t know about. His heart sank that day, buried in the coarse ground with the shining box that now held the fudge-like sweetness.
On the day Ade’s heart stopped, the sun blistered the air, and the birds’ songs were loud and shrill, echoing through the silent breeze. The soft cool breeze flowed and tumbled through fence posts and danced across the short green grass. It twirled between the smooth metal chains that promised soaring and giddiness, leaving ribbons flowing behind, tempting young girls better left inside. While the warm water beat down on Ade’s skin, massaging each pale inch, the steam grew heavy and weighted, blinding the mirror and coating the tired walls. It forced it’s way into her lungs, like stones filled with sorrow. Ade turned off the water and grasped at a towel. Water dripped from her fingers, as they hesitated before opening the bathroom door. The air was still on the other side. Ade ran down the stairs, the towel loosely covering her, flapping desperately, a trail of water staining the carpet from the life she’d left behind in the shower. Chris sat in the kitchen, his back to the window, on the phone. His conversation continued as he pointed outside, answering her frantic eyes. Ade ran into the backyard, but everything around her was calm. The soft grass clung to her wet feet, coating them in shoes of green strands, which she tracked back into the house and into each room. Every room was still. The house was motionless, lifeless. She found herself standing outside of time, in front of Chris, gasping for air, the stones in her lungs turning into tumors, creeping into her throat, crushing her chest on the way.
Chris hung up the phone. “She’s in the yard.” His voice was calm and patronizing. Ade’s head shook, vibrating the air, sending waves of fear that filled the kitchen and tumbled into the rest of the house. Chris went outside and called her name. He meandered around the corner of the house, and as he left the back gate, Ade realized it wasn’t stones, but tulips lodged in her throat. She could feel their velvet petals forcing their way on her tongue, where she tasted their bitterness.
“I just stepped inside for a second,” Chris justified to Detective Bixby that smoldering afternoon. His voice was stale and tight. Guilt and fear weighted it down, making it near impossible for the words to squeeze through his quivering lips. “It was a work call. Just for a second.” By that time Ade had wrapped herself in a light robe and tied the pink belt around her waist. When Detective Bixby first saw Ade, she had made a fresh pot of coffee and sat on the edge of the sofa, veiled in coffee steam, her brown eyes already lost, her milky fingers clinging to the mug for stability, her elbows imprinting in her thighs.
Chris had sat down across from her, the single serving pizza resting on the coffee table between them, half of it already eaten. “How long are you going to do this, Ade?” Her brown eyes looked at him, unblinking. “It isn’t my fault.” Cheese stretched between his lips with each word, some affixing to his gums while the rest fought for its release, until his tongue swiped through the creamy melted strands, swallowing them in a brief and final moment before he took another bite. Life continued so easily, bite after bite, until there was nothing left between them. The plate echoed harshly in the sink. “I can’t do this anymore, Ade. I just can’t,” and he walked out the door of room 429, away from the life he’d lost years before, in search of an identical home on a different floor, leaving behind a dirty dish, an empty pizza box and a silence that stretched from the bland refrigerator to the lemon-bleached bathroom to the solid blue couch. The thud of the door resonated through her, knocking against her bones, yet nothing changed inside of her. Ade sighed and sipped her coffee that had already turned cold.
Darkness had fallen, when the phone’s cry broke the stillness. “Mrs. Triste.” Detective Bixby’s voice was deeper than usual, making the receiver heavy in her frail hand. “I’m downstairs.”
Detective Bixby could feel Ade, when she entered the hotel bar. Shadows of sorrow enveloped her in a thick haze. Veiled, she floated through the other patrons. A simmering radiation flowed from the frayed edges of the shadows, causing men to gulp their beers and women to uncross and re-cross their legs. Even the bartender wiped his forehead with the bar rag when Ade passed by, leaving a smoldering trail behind her. The shadows melted when she sat under the light at the small table, although Detective Bixby could still feel their radiation pulsing in the air.
Ade showed no surprise when the detective waved to the waitress ordering them both her preferred drink. He waited until the waitress had sat down the double bourbons before he started. “Ade.” Her eyes filled with panic when he addressed her familiar. They clung to him like a child who’s been lost too many times will latch onto her mother’s hem, and he couldn’t seem to free himself. Since the disappearance, he too had been tortured. He watched with envy as sweat from the tumbler slid between the flesh of her long fingers, under the ridges of their tips and the crevices under each knuckle, refreshing the most neglected parts of her body. Detective Bixby swallowed his bourbon in one burning gulp and waved for another round.
“You’re neighbor’s boy came down to the station today. He said some friends of his . . . She wasn’t suppose to . . .” Her brown eyes held burning embers, and the detective was forced to look away. He took the tumblers from the waitress and set them on the table. He wanted to take Ade’s hand. He wanted to engulf her hands in his and feel her brittle nails within his coarse capable fingers. He longed to stroke her dark hair and wake up in the morning to her fudge-like eyes. She smelled of coffee and grief. He couldn’t help wonder what she smelled like before and if he could help her smell like that again. He ached to breathe her hair and taste her faded lips, but most of all, Detective Bixby wanted to bury her in comfort and watch her sleep. He could almost feel the ugly dirt beneath his fingers until they bled, mud permanently staining his cuticles, and still he would continue to dig. Then he would open the oaken box and cry stars until he could will her daughter back to her.
“It’s just that her body couldn’t handle three teenage boys.” His words sounded distant, like they were speaking through tin cans attached by a faded pink ribbon.
When he finally looked back to her, her brown eyes still pleaded for more. He could see her breaths rising and falling, desperation tied to her chest with chains of stones and lost hope. Each breath burned, melting the air it was cast upon, then vanishing in a heated smoke. He swallowed the next bourbon. The faint vanilla seemed too sweet for the occasion, and a shutter ripped through him leaving a gruffness in his voice. “They’re all in custody.” It was all he had to offer her. “I have them.”
Ade could see her daughter in front of her, pink lips gaping open trying to scream, silent screams that fluttered through the slight breeze, shaking leaves and terrifying birds and bunnies. She could hear the cry of fragile glass breaking when her pelvic bone shattered from the forcing, pulsing, throbbing. There was soft summer grass tangled in her locks of sunshine, and water like bleeding hearts fell from her eyes. Then her daughter smiled at her. It was the smile of a toddler with glittering bright brown eyes full of excitement and anticipation as she looked at her swing-set for the first time, never knowing it would bring her death.
Ade’s eyes focused on Detective Bixby, who sat silently across from her, looking at his large hands that hid his empty tumbler, which could never hold enough bourbon, despite how much he ordered. It would burn his throat and chest, but in the end, the fire would always fade leaving him with nothing more than cinders. Her fingers reached across the table and landed on his wrist. She could feel his heart quicken, pulsing and racing under her flesh. It took longer for him to tear his gaze away from the emptiness before him and look at her. Ade’s lips curved in an appreciative smile. This time the tender skin around her eyes creased.
She walked into the brisk night air and took a deep breath, noticing it didn’t burn. The sky opened up and mourned the oaken box with tears that smelled of spring. The future fell before her, mixing with the rain, like puzzle pieces fashioned from broken hearts and fudge, dancing down from the sky and gingerly fitting together before her. Tulips and ribbons laid at her feet. The stones in her lungs crumbled to ashes, easily coughed up and discarded on a fresh clean handkerchief. Earthquakes stopped fluttering through her, and her skin breathed in the sky and let the stars radiate through it. A gentle breeze descended and washed over her, baptizing her, tossing her damp hair behind her, flowing with each new step. Her cotton shirt clung to her, forcing the darkness that had embraced her to pour over her delicate skin, desperately clinging to her legs until it was only shallow pools that collected behind her, leaving Ade abandoned to the silver moonlight.