"Why didn’t you tell me that he’d gone and turned himself into a kid?" The builder growled. He was speaking to Wallace on the phone as the man rested in his hotel room in Chicago.
"I didn’t know the man before." The astronaut explained. "He could have always looked that way as far as I was concerned."
"But Jesus!" Markoff spat. "Didn’t you wonder why a 16 year old would be married to a dumpy old woman like Clara?"
"How is she?"
"Myrah says that she’ll be able to walk out of the hospital tomorrow." The builder answered. "She apparently only hit her head. They just want to make sure that she doesn’t have a concussion or nothing."
There was a silence. Markoff could picture Wallace nodding thoughtfully on the other end of the line. He could have also been drinking.
"What?" The astronaut asked.
"I don’t know them."
"Dan asked Clara if it was the work of them."
"Oh them!" Wallace said suddenly realizing who the builder was talking about. "They’re the people that I can’t say."
"Because of them." He replied. "Dan and Clara."
"They don’t want us to know."
It was late. The builder was sitting in his study after a long day of dealing with a house full of angry and bawling women. He was drinking one of his beers and looking up at his prize deer head. There had been no word from Thom.
Jill had been set up in one of their spare bedrooms. She was still upset and Myrah was still comforting her with alcohol. Occasionally he’d see his wife in the kitchen just beyond the doorway grabbing another bottle of wine before retreating upstairs to sit with her again.
The cards that he’d gotten for his family that afternoon had all been found. Jose had been delighted with his monkey. Justine had found hers and immediately started wailing again. Myrah had opened the one that he’d gotten for her without much of a reaction. He wondered if Thom had read his yet.
"Look, I need to go." Markoff said to the astronaut. "I’ve got two crying women in my house and a wife who’s at the end of her rope. I should probably go up and say a few words."
"Tell them to love everything!" The astronaut said.
Hanging up, the builder got out of his chair and began to walk through the house. He intended to go upstairs and check on everyone but first he needed to waste some time and gird himself for the experience. He threw away the tissues, put the Mexican leftovers in the refrigerator, and grabbed another beer.
On his way to the stairs, Markoff stopped by the front room and looked across the street in the direction of Thom Grey’s house. Most of the lights were off. The builder wondered if he was being targeted from one of the second story windows.
A backhoe cruised past breaking the spell that paranoia held over him. In all likelihood Grey wasn’t even home yet. His father was probably too focused on watching the diggers or dreaming up crazy ideas to have noticed that Jill was gone. This was not a problem that Markoff had to deal with yet. His immediate concern was with his family.
He climbed the steps and walked down the hallway to peak into his daughter’s room. Inside Justine was spread out on her bed with her face buried in her pillow. Her hair was ratty and frayed. From the way that her body jerked he could tell that she was still weeping.
"Hey kid." He said entering the room and easing himself down onto the mattress. "Want to talk about this?" He patted her gently on the back.
She grunted and kicked.
"You know, your mom probably doesn’t even know how she sounded in that letter." He continued. "She probably meant something completely different."
This was a lie. He’d read the note when they’d all gotten home from the Mexican restaurant. His daughter herself had showed it to him swollen eyed and red faced.
"She hates me!" The girl said, her voice muffled by the folds of the pillow
There was no doubting this. What else could her mother have possibly meant with the words that she’d written out? She was definitely cutting her ties with the child. Her and that shrimp boat cock sucker that she was married to were looking to pursue some kind of life of leisure and excess out on the Yucatan Peninsula. She’d made it abundantly clear that she didn’t want to take along any excess baggage.
"She doesn’t hate you." Markoff cooed.
"She doesn’t want to see me ever again." The girl sobbed into her pillow.
The builder shook his head. Seeing this little girl as she was now, it was hard to picture her as the domineering jock that she’d become on the school’s soccer field. Here, she was miles away from scoring a goal or pumping her fist in the other team’s faces. With her body cocooned in a pink blanket with strawberries printed along the edges she looked extremely vulnerable and small. Justine needed something beyond new shin guards.
"Shake it off." He said.
Sometimes Markoff thought that his daughter still looked like the timid little kid that he’d been left alone with all those years ago. Back then, he hadn’t really known how to be a dad. He was just barely learning how to be a builder but still, he’d done the best that he could.
They’d go to the park and he’d dumbly try to use her to flirt with other women. He’d take her and try to buy her dresses but they were always too big or too small. He’d do her hair and failed miserably.
Eventually Markoff just ended up kicking a ball around with the child most nights after work. He’d drink a beer while she had milk. Sometimes Justine would help him change the oil on his truck. Together they’d watch football on the small TV in the living room. They ate frozen diners on the couch and went to sports bars on the weekends.
Finally they’d met Myrah and her boy. The marriage had probably saved him and it had definitely brought some sense of normalcy back into the girl’s life. Myrah could find dresses that fit and pink blankets that had strawberries on them. She could show his daughter girl things and teach her how to giggle instead of guffaw. She knew how to braid hair.
Still, Justine’s personality had already started to take form by that point and much of the damage that was done by Markoff’s own good intentions could not be undone. She was loud. She was fearless. She was belligerent. The girl just couldn’t be comfortable unless she was engaged in some kind of fierce competition.
Sometimes the builder wished that he would have raised her to be more contemplative than she was now. True, he loved his daughter just the way that she was but it would have been nice to have been able to take her to a father-daughter dance instead of always having to watch her proudly from the stands. During tender moments like these, he almost held out hope for that happening again.
"You shouldn’t put too much stock in what your mother says." He said giving her another pat on the back. "I’m sure that she loves you very much."
"Screw her!" His daughter cried burying her face deeper into the pillow. "I hate her."
"Don’t." He said without pause. "Love everything."