Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD (08/03/17)
TITLE: Almost Happy
By Jan Ackerson
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I do not love roller coasters, but an errant bundle of nerves in Jack’s inner ear makes it impossible for him to ride them with her. I agree to bring her here for the weekend, while Jack repaints her bedroom. Too late, I realize that the last time Keely was here, it was with her mother. My best friend, who stepped too suddenly into eternity a year ago, when Keely was only seven.
I have to admire her. Her determination to be unhappy is a mastery of commitment. We board one of the little carts on a ride that looks suspiciously rickety to me, and I grip the lap bar, white-knuckled. Wanting to look brave for my little stepdaughter, though, I raise my hands in the air and whoop. She rolls her eyes. “It hasn’t even started moving yet, Stephanie.”
There are a few times during the day when a smile almost emerges. The ridiculous puns of the river boat guide … the sight of a toddler wearing a veiled princess hat … the fireworks display capping off a long day. But when she catches herself being almost happy, she closes her face and turns her back to me.
It’s a long weekend.
Back home, Jack and I acknowledge defeat and try another tactic. We sign up for a cooking class, one where adults and children participate together. Keely loves to watch cooking shows, so this just might work. She comes along, passively, when she hears that the focus will be on desserts.
We don matching aprons and take seats as the perky chef tells us we’ll be making a lemon meringue pie. I cringe, remembering that was Keely’s mother’s favorite, but Keely seems not to mind. She listens solemnly as Chef Becky defines curd and demonstrates the use of a zester, and even grins when she’s chosen to help roll out Becky’s pie dough. This just might work—and there will be pie, too, a happy bonus.
Then Becky says, “Now, the moms will cut the lemons because we haven’t learned knife skills yet. Okay, moms? But when it’s time to crack the eggs, I want you to let your daughters do that.”
At moms and daughters, Keely flinches as if struck. She tucks her chin into her chest and mumbles, “This is stupid. Can we go? Please?” She heads for the door without hearing my answer, and I tug off my apron, shrugging at Chef Becky and mouthing sorry.
Back to the drawing board. Jack and I spoon in bed, while he whispers suggestions to the back of my head. Teach her to play the flute, he says, remembering that I played the flute ages ago, when we were all in high school. Or maybe we should get her a puppy. Wait, ice cream at every meal. Bribes? Her own apartment?
I snort, and fall asleep with Jack’s breath warm on my neck and Keely’s solemn eyes occupying a corner of my brain.
Later, I’m awakened by the sound of her crying. Jack hears her, too, and he gropes for his jeans, but I grasp his arm and climb out of bed.
I lie down beside Keely and just wait while she cries silently into her pillow. After a while, I say, “Remember how she made peanut butter sandwiches by spreading the jelly right on the peanut butter? That always made me laugh. And all the different colors she tried out for her hair? I liked it when she went pink, but I think she liked the dark red best. And her singing! She had a song for everything, didn’t she?”
Keely isn’t crying any more.
“I miss her too, sweetheart.” I want to touch her, but I keep still. I just breathe—twelve breaths, thirteen, fourteen, and I feel her hand creep out from under the sheets and rest on my hair.
“I liked the pink, too,” she says. “Maybe you’d look good with pink hair.” She turns away from me then, but her back isn’t radiating animosity like it did in the amusement park—just the heat of a sleeping child.
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