The Finishing Touch
by Neesha Niaz
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“She was pregnant and had our baby a few months ago. I haven’t met my daughter yet. She’s kind of mad at me. I got drunk, passed out at a bar, and missed the birth of my own child. Still not clear about the chain of events that led me there, but I woke up in jail when I should’ve been at her side. Got out, and again, went to the bar instead of her. Not sure why, ” said Leo.
June was baffled as to why this strange man was talking so personally to a kid. She found herself frozen around him. She wanted to yell for help but couldn’t. Over her shoulder she glanced through the window and saw Lisa preparing bowls of popcorn. Please bring me some. Please!
“She can’t seem to forgive me. Can’t say I blame her. You see, about a month before, I had told her I wasn’t quite ready to be a father. I was broke. She totally lost it. I apologized. I didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to be there, just that... I was scared. Felt unprepared. But can a person really ever be fully prepared for such an endeavor? I love them both so much,” said Leo, rambling on.
I don’t need your life story, crazy person! June felt trapped.
“I’ve tried everything,” said Leo. “Apparently, she’s taken my baby girl and gone. I hope with all my heart she comes home. I’m ready to be a dad.”
June decided it was time to do her reading back inside, safe from lunatics. This situation was getting too strange. She stood up to head back inside until the coast was clear to go home.
“Well, I hope you find her, and I hope everything works out,” said June, slowly getting up. Leo didn’t respond. His eyes remained locked in one direction looking confused as usual. For a moment, she was concerned he might be mentally ill and lost, maybe homeless.
June enjoyed popcorn and a movie with her friends before walking back home. She felt scared, but did not want to wake Lisa who had dozed off on the recliner. It was just down the street, so she headed home. As she approached the sidewalk in front of her house, she heard Leo’s voice behind her.
“You should stay out of the street. Those buses don’t have good brakes.”
“Why are you following me!” said June. Leo seemed to appear out of nowhere. “Please, leave me alone.”
“Whoa. Calm down. No offense. I was just offering some words of wisdom,” said Leo. He was standing in front of her, blocking her from getting to the porch steps. “You mentioned your father is a cop. Perhaps he can reiterate the importance of traffic safety.”
“What are you talking about? Get out of my way! Please. He’s waiting for me inside.”
“I’m headed home, too. Have a good one, young lady,” said Leo. Then he turned to walk up the steps toward her house. At the same moment, her mom opened the front door.
“Hey! Where are you going?” said June, even more frightened.
“Juniper? Who are you talking to? The window was open, and I heard you shouting,” said Martella.
Leo stopped and turned toward her, her mother in the doorway just a few feet behind him.
“Honey? Is everything OK?” said Martella. No mention of the man standing right in front of her.
“June? Are you all right? What is it?” said Leo. Both of them stood on the porch staring at her, one apparently unaware of the other. June was looking from Leo to her mother, unsure what was going on or who to answer first, not to mention the fact that they hadn’t acknowledged each other. Martella was a paranoid soul, and she didn’t even like Girl Scouts approaching her front door to sell cookies, much less the likes of this wacko.
“I’m OK, Mom. I was just scaring away a stray cat... I’ll be there in a minute. Just wanted to read a little more and enjoy the cool breeze,” said June.
“All right, but don’t be too long. Birthday lunch is almost ready,” said Martella, walking back inside.
“Did you say ‘Mom’?” Leo looked around. June felt shaky all over. She clutched the book like it was life support, afraid to admit to herself what was quite obvious.
“Leo, you’re standing on my porch. You didn’t see my mom right there beside you just now?” June spoke in a soft voice so her mother wouldn’t hear her again.
“There’s nobody here, June. I guess we’re both waiting for someone.” Leo always seemed confused.
For a moment, June reverted back to that day on the playground when she was five, picking flowers for her mom. She’d felt a tickle on her leg. A big furry spider had crawled up her shin, and she screeched until her throat hurt. At this moment, it felt like the spider was back... with his whole family... only this time on her spine. Why is this happening?
Martella had gone back inside, leaving the door open for June. Leo walked inside. Oh, no! June was so astonished she could hardly make her feet move. In the kitchen, her mom clamored dishes, setting the table, talking about her day at work.
Leo stood by a window peering out, one hand resting on the wall, the other on his hip. Martella came right next to him and placed some fresh flowers in a vase on a side table by the same window.
“Aren’t those beautiful. I got them on sale at the grocery store,” said Martella. “You can open your gifts after dinner, birthday girl.” Martella, kissed June on the forehead on her way back to the kitchen. “Sorry we had to celebrate a day late. Work has been hell, and I could not get off yesterday. Take a look at me, honey, and make sure you go to college and make something of yourself so you don’t have to work dead-end jobs. Retail is a killer. Did you finish reading your book?”
“June, you look troubled,” said Leo.
“Juniper, why are you just standing there silent? You seem awfully distracted today. Come give me a hand. I made your favorites,” said Martella.
“June,” said Leo.
“June?” said Martella, both in perfect chorus, still unaware of each other’s presence.
All June could do was stand, looking from one to the other. The smell of her mom’s barbecue meatloaf engulfed the entire house, making June’s stomach growl in response. A mountain of garlic mashed potatoes filled a pretty glass bowl, and another bowl almost overflowed with steaming garden pasta that glistened with her mom’s special garlic butter sauce.
Hunger, as strong as it was just then, couldn’t dominate the hysteria that was playing in June’s head. There’s a ghost in my living room. I have to do something, but what? He obviously doesn’t know what he is. I can’t tell Mom. She’ll freak out, or worse, think I’m insane. June imagined Leo must belong to that place with the swirling stars. Maybe he got lost along the way and is stuck in a middle world. Why me? Dammit, Grampa, are you pranking me from the Great Beyond? Not funny. So not funny!
“I don’t know what I’ll do if Marty doesn’t forgive me. If she doesn’t come home, I’ll go crazy,” said Leo.
“Marty,” June whispered. She looked at her mom then back at Leo. There must be a reason he thinks this is his house. Leo’s blue eyes did have a familiar sparkle and were unnervingly similar to her own squinty eyes. His hair was a reddish brown. June had a vague recollection from her childhood of her grandfather holding her sobbing mom, telling her, “Leonard left us long before today, princess. Now his song is over.” June had never understood what that meant until now.
While June’s mom went to the bathroom, she took a chance to question Leo.
“So, I’m curious, Leo. What is Marty’s real name?”
“Martella Marianne Louise Stephanie Wilson. Quite a mouthful, right. She’s as beautiful as her name.”
As she heard her mother’s name from the mouth of a specter, June felt like her throat was closing. She looked at his hands, noticing the long skinny fingers with distinctly shaped nails, smaller than average. She looked at her own. Like the eyes, they matched. An avalanche of curiosity, terror, madness, and perhaps a speck of joy fell upon her. Do healthy teenagers have heart attacks? Could this be my father? All I know of him is that he’s dead. And if he thinks he’s home, why isn’t he wondering why I am here, too? Oh, Grampa, what have you done?
“Juniper, honestly, why are you just standing there in the living room? You’re acting so strangely today. Do you want to talk about anything? Did you and Kelsie have another spat?”
Oh, if you only knew. “Just thinking, Mom. Actually, there is something. Do you know someone named Leo?” said June, ignoring Leo’s confused stare.
“You’re a strange one, June,” said Leo, pointing to himself. “Leo.”
Martella dropped a bowl full of salad, which clanged and spilled all over the floor. “What did you say, honey?”
“I said, do you know anyone named Leo?”
Martella began scooping up handfuls of salad, avoiding eye contact with June. “Why are you asking me this, Juniper? Out of the blue. I don’t know anyone by that name.”
“Miss June, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand you. Talking to walls is a little crazy. I must say, if you’re joking, you have an odd sense of humor.” Leo made a circular motion with his forefinger next to his temple. “Let me show you a better use for walls.” Leo sat on the couch and pulled out the rubber ball from his pocket. He tossed it against the wall and caught it when it bounced back. “Stress relief,” he said, winking at June. “Works like a charm.” He continued to bounce the ball off the wall.
“Ugh, that damned thumping sound again. I’ve let that issue slide far too long. I need to call someone to get that looked at, seriously. I guess we’re not having salad. What a mess I’ve made. I’m sorry for being such a klutz. I could run to the store and get more if you like. It’s your birthday. You get to order me around for a change. Just say the word.”
June could tell her mom was yammering out of nervousness and avoidance. So that explains the thumping sound. But how is Mom hearing it if it’s not... real? Did I get this curse from her and not Grampa after all? Stop it, brain! Stop with the questions. I’ve got to do something, and fast.
As the story began to unfold before her eyes, June decided to take a bold chance and stretch the truth just enough to break through her mom’s tough shell. Lying to save my skin and, possibly, hers. She could tell the spoken name made Martella nervous, and she needed to know the truth.
“Mom, are you sure you don’t know anyone by that name?” said June.
“That stupid noise is so annoying! How have I not gone crazy yet? I wonder if Lisa knows a good handyman. Us single moms have to have support each other. I should call and ask her.”
It’s your long-lost boyfriend, my father. And considering where he’s at right now, I’m your handyman.
“I... had a dream last night,” June lied. “It was about something Grampa mentioned one time. I was about four or five, so it was a long time ago, but I remember him telling me something about a Leo being my dad. It’s been on my mind... ever since the dream. It’s been bugging me, so I figured I would ask you. Is it true, Mom? Was that his name? Please, just tell me. Tell me something. I can handle it. I’m old enough to hear it. I’m tired of not knowing. I want to know about him.”
Martella looked at her daughter as if she was a ghost. “Dad told you that? Why would he... Why is this on your mind today?”
“I told you... I... had a dream about when Grampa told me. Is my dad’s name Leo? Mom?”
“Oh... Yes, Juniper. That’s his name. Was... his name. But if you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about the man who ripped my heart out and deserted us and preferred to get himself killed rather than be a husband and father. Excuse me. I’m sorry. I cannot... Go ahead and get started with dinner... I’ll be back.” Martella walked into her bedroom and closed the door.
“Your policeman father’s name is Leo? What a coincidence. Why didn’t you tell me this before?” said Leo. “That’s pretty cool.”
June looked at Leo with a different spectrum of feelings now that she knew. She wanted to hug him. To ask him why he’d appeared to her now, of all times. Was this indeed Grampa’s handiwork? Would he even know the answer, considering he didn’t seem to know he was dead, or that things around him made no sense? She wanted to tell him the love of his life was right in the other room. That she was his baby girl. But it was too much to bring forth. She felt weak. Then she remembered one thing. As frightened as she felt, she proceeded. “Leo, come here. Give me your hand.”
“June, what’s the matter? Are you OK?” He stood up to face her.
“Just give me your hand, please. Trust me.”
Leo extended his hand. June wasn’t even sure she could feel him, but she figured it was worth a try. He wasn’t a corpse in a coffin, but he was still part of that club. She extended her hand and placed it into his.
The room changed, and she was suddenly seeing through Leo’s eyes. She stumbled from a bar onto a busy sidewalk, disoriented, trying to hail a cab. She put a phone to her ears and felt her lips mumble, “Marty, pick up. Come on, baby, pick up, pick up.”
She stopped to look at the phone screen, noticing no number had been dialed. Her lips moved with the vision’s dialogue, “Aww, shit. I didn’t even hit the button.” A horn blared, and bright headlights blinded her. Someone screamed. Excruciating pain. Lying on the ground unable to move anything but her eyes, she saw a street sign, Higgins Rd., and faces hovering over her. All the air seemed to have escaped her lungs.
Copyright © 2021 by Neesha Niaz