You've had stuff before. You know how it is.
Time seemed to stop completely for Tanissa. She and her father both looked across the apartment toward the front door, and suddenly it occurred to her: what if it wasn’t Brekkyn at all? What if she had brainwashed some stranger into coming here with a gun or a knife? What if she’d gotten a policeman or the building’s handyman to come here, thinking her father was a criminal (or a target?), and Daddy opened the door for him?
Worse, what if she commanded her mother to come here, filled with murderous directives? No matter what she said, with his current romantic state of mind, there was no way Tanissa could stop him from letting the woman in.
The doorbell rang again. And again. Oh, it was Brekkyn alright.
“Daddy, don’t--” she began, but he was already moving in that direction. She couldn’t force him to put the tissue in his ears, even if she tried. What else was there? She grabbed the spaghetti strainer from beside the stove, and brandished it like a club. “Dad, don’t answer the door!”
He turned to her, his lips pursed just like Grandpa, and Tanissa swung the strainer as hard as she could at his right ear. It whapped with an almost-comic clang, and he threw his hand to his ear, his eyes wide with pain and surprise.
“TANISSA!” he roared, as upset as she’d ever heard him. He actually sprayed spittle toward her.
She’d been hit on the ear before, and though it really hurt, would it be enough to withstand Brekkyn’s spell? She couldn’t know. What if Brekkyn told him to strange his daughter, or burn her with the stove or . . .
Tanissa ran back to the kitchen. “Don’t answer the door, Daddy!” she shouted, grabbing the roll of wet toilet paper, and putting it right on the stove where the noodles were boiling. He saw her do it, his eyes huge and watering.
“There’s gonna be a fire,” she half-taunted, half-warned. He immediately moved to get the paper off the hot burner, and Tanissa ran to the table, scooped up her iPod, and headed toward the door.
Brekkyn rang the bell twice more, kicking the door another three or four times. Tanissa pulled the headphones out of the machine and tossed them behind her, unlocked the door, and made sure the tissue was jammed into both ears. Brekkyn stood there, hyperventilating with anger. As soon as she saw her new ex-friend, she began to sing. Tanissa could just barely hear it through her two blocked ears, and but she said, “Nuh uh,” and pushed PLAY on her iPod, holding it out toward the other girl.
Brekkyn stopped singing as she heard herself on the recording, wailing the siren song Tanissa had taped while on the rooftop. Tanissa could only barely hear it, but she remembered how nasty and hateful it had sounded, how it had made her feel bad and worthless when the mer-girl had been singing it.
She looked over to see her father standing just outside the kitchen, one hand over his injured ear, an expression of puzzlement eclipsing his anger. She turned back to Brekkyn, and found a blank expression there. She looked like a volunteer at a hypnotism show, which, she supposed, wasn’t too far off the mark.
The song on the recording stopped, and Brekkyn saying, “I hate you,” could barely be heard. The recording ended. Now what?
Brekkyn swallowed slowly—with difficulty—then slowly turned and walked away, without a word. Tanissa looked back at her father. He had tears in his eyes and was shaking his head, slowly.
“Daddy?” she asked.
“Come here,” he whispered, emotion in his voice.
“I need you to.”
She closed the door, locked it, and went to him. She steeled herself for a slap (or worse), but his big arms wrapped around her, and he held her tight, the tears really coming now. She held him back.
Lived there with her mother.
Skinny, sickly-looking woman.
She didn’t seem to react to the news, just stared numbly. Must be in shock.
No, can’t say I remember liking the girl--don’t even recall her name.
Brooke or something. Kind of a sour-faced, spoiled little thing.
Still, it’s a shame.
Tanissa knew what had happened, of course. She’d heard the last song, even if it had been dampened by the toilet paper. You’re worthless. No one will ever like you. Go to the edge of the roof and throw yourself off. Do it now.
She was a little bit shocked by it, though only because she understood that the song had been intended for her. Dad took it worse than she did (especially since he was still depressed from before), babbling about how sweet that lil white girl was and that she was like a daughter to him and . . . well, that wore off by the next morning.
In fact, her father seemed to remember little of the previous afternoon and evening, and asked Tanissa if she and her friend had started a fire in the kitchen or if that had been a dream. He seemed to recall that Tanissa’s friend had killed herself, and that he shouldn’t ask about it, but couldn’t say why.
That afternoon, as they were coming back from the bowling alley, Mrs. Conlee met them in the hall. Dad was uncomfortable around her, though he couldn’t say why, but the woman was anything but heartbroken at the loss of her daughter. Step-daughter, even? Captor?
She threw her arms around Tanissa and said, quietly, “Was it you? Did you say something to her? To . . . ?”
“No,” Tanissa said, which wasn’t quite a lie.
The woman broke the embrace. “Alright. All that matters is she’s gone.” She didn’t seem heart-broken, or desperate, or troubled anymore. There was a light in her eyes that hadn’t been the before. She had had an enormous weight removed from her shoulders.
“Is there . . .” began Dad, before shifting uncomfortably, averting his eyes from the thin woman’s gaze. “Do you need anything, Mrs. Mannion?”
“It’s Conlee, actually,” she corrected. “Muriel Eliza Conlee. And I think I’ll be alright.”
He nodded, but said, “If you need to come over to eat or--”
“No, I’ll be fine. I just need to start again.” She gave each of them a nod, lingering on Tanissa for a moment, then walked away.
“Poor woman,” Dad said to himself, unconsciously putting a hand on his sore ear.
“Yeah,” his daughter said, but she wondered. She had been a poor woman, until now.
It turned out there was no funeral. Ms. Conlee was having the body cremated, and planned to scatter the ashes in the ocean, which surprised everyone but Tanissa.
“Would you, uh, like to go?” Dad asked when they heard of the arrangement, via a telephone call from downstairs. Tanissa did not expect to say yes, even when she said it. But once it was out of her mouth . . . it was out.
“Okay,” Dad said, then surprised her by asking if she wanted to dress up or just wear regular clothes.
“I don’t have any church clothes here,” Tanissa said, and that solved that. She would wear the nicest outfit she had brought, and he would dress to match.
It was only an hour drive to the coast, but Dad was preoccupied and overly talkative. Did she remember Great Auntie Gretchin? Could she remember that funeral? He kept asking if Tanissa was okay, and trying to broach the subject of death and loss and hopelessness. He had had a friend in high school who had killed himself after his Senior year, even though he’d gotten a nearly full-ride basketball scholarship to state college and had knocked up his own cousin. Dad’s story was backfiring, and he was getting increasingly ill at ease, but endearingly so.
Finally, she spared him, her hand on his big shoulder. “Dad, that’s enough. You know what happened, and you know why.”
He shook his head, taking his hands off the steering wheel and rubbing them on his dress pants. “I don’t think any of us can know why.”
She looked at him, squinting, trying to read his expression. “Do you really not remember? Remember her song? Remember her trying to take you away from me?”
“I . . .” Now he was looking really hard at the road. “I don’t know what you mean.”
It was a lie, and one he must have struggled with telling, but before she could call him on it, he added, “Nothing could take me away from you, baby. I’ll always be your daddy, and always be there for you.”
“Me too,” Tanissa said, and decided to let it go. They drove to the Pacific, and watched from several yards away as Muriel Eliza Conlee poured the grey sand-looking dust into the shallow waves. Some of the ashes blew back on her and she wiped her face, then dropped the urn into the water. The tide took it, and everybody watched it go.
She turned and made eye contact with the three others who’d come to the funeral, then at the Gunns. She had tears in her eyes and absently wiped at them, but those did not seem to Tanissa to be tears of sorrow. It was an awkward subject to bring up with her father, but already the woman looked better, the circles under her eyes all but fade, the hunched, beaten posture straightening, the mouth no longer tightly drawn out of stress or fear.
Dad seemed to pick up on it too, because he kept talking about how nice a morning it was, how cool the breeze felt, how pretty the ocean is, and it was a shame it was such a solemn occasion that brought them there.
“Uh huh, but maybe we could get some popcicles and just walk alone the shore,” she said. “Take our shoes off maybe?”
He seemed relieved. “Yeah, good idea.”
As they approached the water, Tanissa thought she could hear something out there, a song coming from the distance, a song not unlike Brekkyn’s, except prettier, more skilled. Her breath caught in her throat, and though she scanned the horizon for something--a figure, a swimmer, a face--there was nothing. The song came again to her ears, carried by the wind, maybe by the waves.
“Do you hear that?” she asked, suddenly afraid.
Dad cocked his big head. He heard it too. “Probably just a boat,” he said, not entirely convincingly.
“Yeah,” Tanissa said. “Probably.”