Jim took the gun out of his waistband and put it in my hand.
Turning its weight over carefully, I thought the pistol looked like the kind James Bond favored when he was busy plugging Russians. The fluorescent lights of the hospital made the barrel seem greyer, its scratches more prominent. I handed the gun back to Jim, my fingertips now oily.
“Yep, you could shoot that fucking thing. Right in the head,” Jim said.
“Yeah. I don’t know.”
“Or I could,” Jim offered.
“Put it away,” I said, glancing over my shoulder. An IV machine in the next room started beeping like an alarm. An old woman muttered “Goddamnit” and the machine went silent.
“Just something to think about.” Jim tucked the weapon back into his waistband.
I was starting to feel radiant; the five Percocet I’d recently swallowed were kicking in, and I could feel their slow, warm crawl up and through my chest, my head, and even my hair. It was almost possible to believe that my four-year-old daughter Sophie was not lying behind me asleep and bandaged, her face and neck badly damaged.
“Did you bring those Valium,” I asked, and Jim furrowed his brow, his hand at last slipping into his coat front pocket.
We couldn’t have ordered better weather for the picnic: it was late afternoon, the August sun starting its slow descent and blessing everything it touched with a buttery gold. We were in the Berkshires, my wife Lisa and I having just taken jobs as teachers at a small boarding school. The campus included acres and acres of deep, rolling hills and swaying fields. Green found ways to reproduce itself everywhere. Classes were still a few weeks off and we had nothing but time. A couple of teachers, new like us, invited my wife, my daughters, and me to a picnic across the street. How could we say no?
I packed a store-bought roast chicken, a bottle of icy Spanish white wine. Lisa made broccoli salad. When we stepped outside our two daughters instinctively ran as if on a prison break; our oldest, Grace, tried to perfect back hand springs in front of us, and Sophie did her best to mimic her. Lisa slipped her hand into mine as we smiled and continued on, offering words of encouragement to both girls. I liked how Lisa’s arm felt against mine as we walked. Before we left, I took a few Percocet on an empty stomach. I had bought twenty-five pills from Jim the night before and felt relieved that I now had enough to get me through the week.
We stopped in the middle of a mown field where the others had already gathered. Jack, the new theatre director and music teacher, spread a baby blue blanket out across the grass. His soon-to-be ex-wife smiled radiantly beside him, sipping lemonade from a tall glass filled with raspberries. Pete, a recent PhD recipient in organic chemistry, was talking about his latest trip to Turkey and how it felt so strange and invigorating to hear the call to prayer when he was dozing in his fleabag hotel: “It’s the first time I felt truly alien,” he said, smiling at us through his reddish beard. Nearby, a giant maple cast an impressive visage, and it even had a long rope swing hanging from one of its branches; the girls immediately attached themselves to its loose rocking.
We bantered; we laughed and ate until all we could do was pick crumbs from the blanket. The chicken sank into its pile of bones. A yellow bobolink skirted the top of high grass, its voice like a soft, bubbling cauldron.
Then Victor arrived with his wife and his dog.
Victor taught ancient history. He was the kind of sad educator who believed in the tidy evisceration of creative thought via endless lecture and the Gestapo-like memorization of date upon tiresome date. If a student nodded off in class, Victor resorted to chucking dry erase markers at head level.
There was a slight chill in the air. The pills had worn off and I was feeling tired and clumsy. Lisa was trying to wrangle the girls, saying we had to get going. We repacked all our plastics into a canvas bag; the empty wine bottle sat naked on the grass.
Sophie loved animals. All her favorite books were about horses, cats, and dogs. We would sometimes go to Petsmart and ask to see the cats. Sophie would look down at them and speak softly as she gently stroked their backs and their tails. We would then watch the brightly colored birds flicker from wooden peg to wooden peg within their wire cages, and search out the hamsters tucked away in their little plastic igloos, sleeping.
I watched Sophie approach Victor’s dog, a rescue from Albany.
“Can I hug your dog?” Sophie asked. Lisa and I had taught her well: Always ask the owner first. It’s not your dog and you don’t know how it will act. Sophie understood. She never wanted to disappoint us.
“You sure can,” said Victor. He was holding the dog firmly around the collar. It looked like a Shepherd mix. Sophie was eye level with the dog. I saw her smile. I saw her lean in and hug the dog gently, putting her shoulder under the dog’s muzzle. When she pulled back, the dog was soundless, as if studying her. And then, just like that, its mouth was attached to her face. Victor yanked back on the dog and Sophie stumbled backward. Our entire group was strangely silent, like a picture of all of us considering something important. Sophie’s cheek fell open like a trap door. I could see her teeth behind, gleaming and white. Blood dropped from an opening in her neck and splashed across her chest and legs. She collapsed backward into the beautiful grass. That’s when Lisa screamed. She was standing to my left and she screamed “Oh my god!” Her voice was terrible and wet and overwhelming and the only sound in the world. I took off my shirt. I stumbled forward and grabbed Sophie off the ground and pushed my shirt against her face. I then picked her up and held her. I pulled her small body against mine and turned back helpless toward the others.
Five millimeters. That’s half a centimeter. It’s the thickness of five credit cards stacked one on top of each other. It was also the distance between the dog bite in Sophie’s neck and her carotid artery. Five millimeters more to the right and she would have bled out in my arms in less than three minutes. Also, the fact that her cheek had not fully torn off was something of a miracle.
“Your daughter is very lucky,” the doctor said to Lisa and me. He had kind eyes and spoke to us in a warm, reassuring tone. The doctor had been in surgery with Sophie for over four hours, stitching Sophie’s right cheek back in place and sewing closed the gash under her chin and in her neck. He explained the procedure slowly and clearly.
“How is she doing? Is she still asleep?” Lisa asked. Her throat was raw, her voice husky.
“Is she in her room yet?” I needed to know.
“She is still in recovery,” the doctor said. “Yes, she is asleep and comfortable.”
Before he went into surgery with our daughter, after the EMTs had us fill out forms and Victor stood next to me outside the waiting room sobbing and apologizing, I had asked the doctor how bad the bite was, how bad Sophie was hurt. What I really wanted to know was if she would ever be able to recover from this—if we, as a family, would ever be able to recover.
The doctor was a plastic surgeon and had performed hundreds of reconstructive surgeries in the past. “On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst, I’d say she is a six,” he said.
Six bothered me. Six was worse than five, and five seemed like it was on the very edge of what was manageable. Six, I believed, would not be manageable.
They let us sleep at the hospital that night. Gracie stayed at home with her grandparents, Lisa’s folks having made the three-hour trip over from New Hampshire earlier that evening.
Lisa and I shared the small bed next to Sophie’s and took turns waking up and crying. There was nothing else to be done, and I think we both knew that we were so deeply submerged in our own pain that comfort from each other could not resolve a thing. It was one of the most grueling nights of my life.
When I’d wake up, I’d forget for a minute where I was, but then I’d look over at Sophie quiet and buried under so many wires and tubes and I’d just slump back down on the little bed and squeeze my eyes with my fingers, grimace, and let out a couple of helpless sobs. Once, I woke up and saw Lisa standing next to Sophie, looking down at her in the half darkness. Though she was quiet, I knew Lisa was crying because her shoulders were rocking in this grievous, violent way, as if she were trying to control her entire body from exploding, or worse.
I didn’t dream much that night, except once, right before dawn. In the dream, I was holding Sophie’s bike by the seat, running alongside and trying to encourage her to peddle. We were in Miami. The sun was glorious and the walkway we raced down glowed bone-white.
“Come on, Sophie. You got it? You got it? I’m going to let go!” My heart was pounding out of my chest and I thought we both might lift off and fly.
Sophie was humming, and would not respond.
“You got this,” I asked again, but less sure.
I kept running but the bike became unruly; I could hear the gears catching and could sense the wheels spinning in these faintly bent orbits. Then the gears were the only thing I could hear, their grinding and crunching endless. So I ran harder, now almost pushing the bike. I focused on the white path. I was terrified to look anywhere else. If I looked at the bike—at Sophie—I didn’t know what I would see, so I kept running.
Jim had been a close friend for about ten years by the time my family and I moved up to the Berkshires. We originally met at a school dedicated to helping teenagers rebuild their lives. I taught there because it was the first real job I was offered after earning my Master’s degree; Jim taught there because it was close to his house and he’d already obliterated all his other teaching options.
Twenty years my senior, Jim exuded the type of acumen and fortitude I hoped to possess someday. Kurt Vonnegut’s doppelganger, Jim could recite whole chunks of Paradise Lost by heart and even sections of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. He lived alone in the same farmhouse he grew up in and was always generous, kind, and quick to laugh. He also liked to get rip-stomping drunk, snort cocaine, and blow shit up.
Jim was my kind of guy.
Jim taught English Literature at Emerson College when he was only twenty-one. But after years of heavy drinking, and a particularly gruesome second divorce, Jim found it harder and harder to maintain steady employment until the choice teaching gigs at elite universities simply dried up. By the time we met, Jim had been teaching a couple of night classes at a community college in nearby Holyoke to sustain himself.
But none of that mattered when we got together at his house. Sometimes Lisa would join us and we’d bring along the girls. Jim loved Sophie and Grace, and doted like a fussy uncle. We’d all sit outside near one of his herb gardens and sip gin and tonics, grilled chicken turning the air smoky and sweet. A stony river perfect for trout fishing rushed nearby and if it was warm enough we’d take the girls down for a swim, watch them grimace when they stuck a bare foot into the frigid water.
On nights that I dropped by alone it was a different story: we’d sit in his kitchen downing tumblers of Armagnac while debating whose proclivity for bad behavior was more forgivable, Robert Frost or Robert Lowell. We’d divide up the pills he scored from his friend in Northampton: twenty Xanax for you, fifteen Vicodin for me. Sometimes he’d save a gram or two of coke from his friend in New Bedford—an esteemed English professor at a big university—and we’d do it all and then go outside to shoot off his guns. Once, Jim plugged his old projection wide screen television into an extension cord and we wheeled the whole thing out onto his lawn. The Verdict with Paul Newman was playing loudly on a VHS tape. Jim thankfully did not have any neighbors.
“Give it to him, Paul!” Jim shouted and then unloaded his shotgun into the screen. I jumped back in exalted terror, absolutely thrilled.
When we arrived in the Berkshires for the new jobs, we planned to meet at Jim’s house for dinner, a kind of “welcome back” thing, so I phoned the night before to say hi and to see if he had a few Percocet. It felt so natural.
“Yeah, yeah. No problem,” he said.
I thought he might inquire why I wanted back on Percs, but the question never came.
“Great. Same price?”
“Plan on five bucks a pill. You know, the usual.” Jim ended his sentence in a long, exaggerated lisp; it was something he did when in a good mood.
“Cool. Oh, anything I should bring to dinner? You all set?”
“I got it covered. Just don’t forget to bring your three beautiful ladies,” he said.
Three days after the attack, the police contacted us to let us now that they finally had possession of the dog and that it was scheduled to be euthanized. Jim’s offer of the handgun was thankfully no longer an option. Strangely, Victor’s wife had brought the dog to her mother’s house the day after the attack and I couldn’t help but think that it was like she was harboring a fugitive, like hiding a criminal at a safe house. Lisa and I grew incensed when we had heard what the wife did and asked the school for help with getting the dog. The school promised they would do everything they could.
On the fourth day, Sophie was allowed to leave the hospital. It was a quiet affair. When we arrived home, she put her many new stuffed animals on her bed. Sophie lined them up neatly in a row against the wall. She then cried and talked about how everything was different, and that her animals knew this and were all very sad. We listened and acknowledged how hard everything had been, but emphasized that change was only temporary and that Sophie had a family that loved her very much and would never abandon her. Then we hugged her, but carefully and tenderly. Afterward, Lisa went in the bathroom and cried, not wanting to show Sophie how terrified and helpless she actually felt.
During the first couple of days, we all tried to act normal. But Sophie’s face was blighted in surgical tape and under the tape stitches ran a deep, puffy C around her cheek. We’d smile and talk and ask what she wanted for dinner or if she wanted to watch one of her favorite shows, but we all felt this great pall that we could neither shake nor name.
Victor called me and asked if he and his wife could come over and see Sophie, bring a present and apologize for what happened. I didn’t want to see either of them, but Lisa and I figured it might be important to Sophie, so we relented.
They brought Sophie a life-sized stuffed pony that was gold and floppy and placed it in front of her in the living room; Sophie reached out and drew her fingers down the soft mane indifferently. Victor and his wife then stumbled through an awkward speech about how sorry they were and that it wasn’t her fault that the dog bit her, etc. At this point, Victor’s wife started to tear up.
“You know Sophie,” she said. “I understand how precious life is, how it can change in an instant.” I couldn’t tell where she was going. She grimaced and put her hand to her mouth: “Because I had cancer once. And when you get cancer everything stops, everything changes.”
Victor rubbed his wife’s shoulder softly. “She did,” he said.
I wanted to stand up and scream in their faces but Lisa and I sat there, stunned into silence.
Afterward, we shook hands at the door and they both left. Outside of classroom responsibility, we never interacted with them again.
By the end of the week, something spooky started to happen with Sophie.
During meals, the four of us trying to get down whatever it was on our plates, Sophie would stop what she was doing and go into a trance, just kind of stare off into space. Then she’d turn to us and say, “What’s your name?”
The first time this happened we all looked over at Sophie, a bit confused and wondering if she was playing a game. And this questioning would continue at mealtime, on and off, for about ten days.
“Name? What do you mean, Sophie,” Lisa asked, wiping her mouth with a napkin.
I put my fork down and looked at Sophie.
“What’s your name,” she repeated.
“What do you mean, sweetie,” I asked.
“What’s your name?”
Then she turned back to her plate and picked up her fork and pushed the peas around a little bit and stabbed a chunk of chicken, placing it in her mouth and chewing like nothing had happened.
After a few episodes like this, Lisa and I spoke about our options.
“The doctor said weird stuff like this might happen, but I don’t know, Chris.”
“Do you think we should call someone?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I just… I don’t know.” Lisa’s eyes welled and I understood exactly how she felt. We were all free-falling, and there was no one, nothing, to catch us.
The next morning, still in my boxers, I looked at the few remaining pills I had hidden in my sock drawer and felt disgusted, like I was a complete fucking fraud—because I was. I couldn’t believe I had let go of myself so completely again. The only thing Sophie needed right now was a father and to feel safe and I chose instead to run directly into the flames. I felt like I was going to throw up.
Lisa came in the room and I looked over at her, closed the drawer abruptly.
“What’s wrong,” she asked.
“Nothing. I’m just… I’m just overwhelmed.”
“You look freaked out.”
“It’s because I am a freak.” I smiled weakly, stepped away from the drawer and moved closer to her.
Lisa stared at me one beat too long. “When we went over to Jim’s last week, before all this bullshit happened, did he give you pills?” she asked.
“What? Of course not. No. Why would you ask that?”
“Because if that is something you’ve chosen to do I don’t think I could handle it, Chris. I don’t think I could have you around here with us.” Her voice had risen dramatically.
“Lisa, you just need to relax and calm down, okay?”
“I swear to God, Chris, I won’t deal with all that crap again. I won’t!”
“You know what, back off! What’s wrong with you?”
“Yeah, I’ll back off, you fucking asshole!”
Lisa turned and stormed out. I blinked and stood momentarily, considering my options. Stupidly, I decided to follow her.
By the time I rounded the long hallway and made my way into the dining room, I could hear Sophie and Grace arguing in the kitchen.
“No,” said Sophie. “Give it.”
“That’s mine, Sophie,” Grace said. “You already had one.”
“Girls, stop it,” Lisa said.
I stopped next to the dining room table and listened, unable to see what was happening.
“No,” Sophie yelled.
“I said it’s mine,” Grace countered.
“Girls, girls… OH MY GOD!”
I bolted into the kitchen, wild and scared to death. It was Lisa. She had just screamed Oh my god exactly the same way she had right after Sophie was attacked.
“WHAT? WHAT IS IT?!” I bellowed, looking wildly about the room.
All three looked up at me, startled.
“Chris, Jesus, what’s wrong?” Lisa was frightened.
“Why would you do that?” I demanded. Sophie flinched.
“Do what?” Lisa asked.
“I thought Grace was hurting Sophie! I thought… I thought she was ripping out her stitches! What the hell is going on? Why are you screaming ‘Oh my God’?”
Lisa looked me in the eyes.
“Chris,” she said. “I didn’t scream anything. No one said anything at all.”
PTSD is a bitch. As my first and only experience with it, what I find incredible is how real Lisa’s voice sounded—I would have bet my left arm that her voice came from the kitchen and that she was truly screaming.
When I spoke to my friend Ken on the phone about it that night—he worked with an agency that helped foreign victims of torture adjust to life in the US—he said he heard stories like mine all the time. Even worse.
“Sometimes those recovering from trauma will even act out the traumatic experience again, exactly how they remembered it,” he said. “They’ll then sort of wake up, not aware they went into a trance at all.”
Partly I didn’t want to accept that this had happened to me, that I had succumbed to a kind of psychological blood-letting, or even more troubling, that I was damaged worse than I thought.
“But it was so real,” I said, still trying to bargain my way out.
Ken understood. “It’s because it was real,” he said.
When I got up the next morning, Lisa had taken the girls and gone to a check-up for Sophie; I had completely forgotten about the appointment and overslept. I found a note from Lisa in the kitchen:
We need to talk tonight. I love you!
After reading the note several times, I threw it away. Not because I didn’t agree we needed to talk, but because I was worried that if Gracie found the note and read it, she’d understand that I’d let everyone down somehow.
I poured a bowl of Lucky Charms and decided to call Jim on his cell. He said he was on his way back from Albany and could stop by. I told him to meet me at the bagel shop in town. I figured I might be meeting up with him to buy another handful of pills. I also thought I might be meeting to say I could no longer see him anymore if it involved drugs. Both scenarios scared me.
Jim sat idling in the parking lot his silver GMC pickup. I parked across from him, nodded through the windshield, and got out.
When I sat in the front cab with him, I could smell his woodstove and spilled motor oil. We chatted a bit about Sophie, the school, etc., and then the conversation turned.
“So, what’s happening?”
“Nothing. Just trying to cope, you know,” I said.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Lisa totally freaked out on me yesterday.”
“She’s so… I don’t know.” I breathed sharply out of my nose. “I’ve got to lay low on the pills. Lay off, I guess.”
“Well, that’s a good thing. Sure.”
“No, you’re right, it is. But I just can’t stand everything right now, you know? It’s all so fucking bleak and final. Everything. I mean, for fuck’s sake, Jim, we just moved here! I haven’t even started teaching yet. I wanted to make such a good impression. I don’t know how to restart this thing. And Sophie, well…”
Jim was nodding and looking down at the steering wheel, just trying to stay out of my way.
“What would you do,” I asked.
I smiled. “I don’t know,” I said. I didn’t know any other way out in that moment. “Never mind. I just gotta get my head on right. You know me.”
“Jim, it was good seeing you, my man. Really.” I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed. I thought I was about to cry. “But Lisa should be home soon. I’ll call you tonight. Thanks for stopping. Sorry I’m being so dramatic or whatever. Talk to you soon.”
But I didn’t call him that night. Or again for a long while after. I got out of his truck for the last time that day. And though we still saw each other sporadically after that, it wasn’t quite the same. It couldn’t be.
It was my turn to read Sophie a story that night and put her to bed. I first got her teeth brushed, a game where I played the dentist Dr. Pop and she my willing patient. I slowly brushed her teeth next to the sink and asked how she had been since our last visit. She said she’d been well but that her cheek hurt lately. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Will everything be okay,” I asked in my Dr. Pop voice.
“I think so,” Sophie said through the foam.
I took extra precautions and brushed gently on that side of her mouth, smiling while looking her in the eyes.
I suddenly flashed to when Sophie was admitted to the hospital, her little body piled on top of the gurney and about to be wheeled into surgery. Lisa and I knew it would be the last time we’d see her before they took her away. We stood gripping the edge of the gurney, helpless. I looked down at her and told her I was sorry, that I was so sorry for what had happened.
Sophie looked up at me and swallowed, and when she swallowed, a little stream of blood flowed out of the opening in her neck and onto the crinkly white paper underneath her and she continued looking up at me and then lifted her hand to my face and said, “It’s okay, Papa.” At the very moment I couldn’t believe her strength and was overwhelmed by her bravery in the face of my human panic and what I saw as my basic smallness.
I blinked the image away, adjusted myself, and then asked “So, young lady, are we ready to rinse?”
In her room, Sophie had one pile of books that her mom read from, and a smattering of others that I could pick from without repercussions. I flipped through a couple but none was particularly jumping out.
“Mind if I tell you a story tonight, Soph, instead of reading one?”
“That’d be nice, Papa.”
I turned all the lights off except her star nightlight and we lay down across her bed. The dark soothed me and I felt my breath come in steady, even waves. Sophie’s breathing slowed down, thickened.
“Have I told you the one about the Night Faerie?”
Sophie, like most little girls, loved fairies. She had copious books about them, detailing the different types that existed throughout the world, what they ate, where they lived, which flowers or trees they were associated with, if they were good or, on the rare occasion, bad.
When Sophie and I took walks through the woods, we’d sometimes exclusively look for fairy houses. We would eventually end up at some opening at the base of a tree and investigate if it was a suitable habitat for a fairy or even a whole family of them. If the space looked particularly promising, we’d place some sticks and leaves at the opening, a soft piece of moss or just-picked trillium, maybe an overturned acorn cap as makeshift water basin. Sometimes, I would return alone to the spot and leave Sophie a handwritten note from the fairies on the back of a little scrap of birch bark, thanking her, saying that they loved her and were always watching over her.
The next day, I’d find a reason to tromp with her back to the tree, and watch her fill with joy as she made her discovery. In those moments, I felt like one of the dads I’d read about in parenting books and saw in Disney-fied movies: the kind that didn’t know how to disappoint and only knew how to make good decisions.
“Where’s the Night Faerie,” Sophie asked, curling the pillow under her head.
“Well, the Night Faerie lived alone on top of Mt. Washington. He didn’t understand why the other fairies got all the attention just because they lived amongst the daylight and the blackberry bushes. Night Faerie had an important job too: he needed to make sure all the stars spun correctly over our heads, and that the moon lit our paths between the shadows so we wouldn’t stumble or get lost.”
“That’s an important job,” Sophie reasoned.
“It is! And so Night Faerie kept doing what he was doing, working…”
“Wait. Did he live alone?”
“He just… he was different. And he knew he was different. But he knew he had love to give, that, that, his love was thorny and maybe a little rusty, but that it was there nonetheless.”
Sophie thought a good while about this.
“Pop,” she finally asked.
“Why was his love ‘thorny’?”
I smiled up into the darkness and then turned toward my daughter.
“Because sometimes it was hidden from him. But he wants to practice at not hiding. He wants to practice… better.”
“That’s good,” said Sophie.
I reached and placed my open palm against Sophie’s face, but softly, and with her little hand she held my wrist, then let go. And as I lie there, I could imagine a pack of Night Faeries digging out from underneath their rocks, their small piles of sticks and wood, brushing at their shorn garments and capes, if that’s what they wore, and turning their attention to the sky, their job at keeping it aloft, keeping it from pummeling our bodies and our heads. The image kind of scared me and I was surprised how frightened I was.
I could not come that close to losing Sophie again because my love for her was greater than the sum of me. And I also understood those things in my life that were not love must begin their terrible unhooking: “Goodbye,” they would say. “Goodbye.” I could not heed their cries.
I breathed deep. I would not bargain or plead; Lisa was waiting in the living room and would need to know the truth. I shifted uneasily as all around me the house took up with the wind and went about its business of settling and leaning, pressing its wooden frame, like a small ache, into the dark.
Rumpus original art by Megan Goh.