GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS SHORT STORY PRIZE 2018/19

MARTHA WHATLEY
‘Good girl’

WHEN I’M IN BED I scroll through Doctor John’s Instagram feed and take screenshots that I get myself off to later. When I was still getting wasted every night, I would type out Daddy underneath his pictures in the comments, but I’d never hit send. Now, even though I’m four days sober, I find myself erasing the letters that make up the word one by one below a new photo of him tiling the wall in his kitchen. I delete the a and then the first d, and then I just look at the image some more. I’ll bet Alice took it, I think. She’s so basic. She wears a jumper around her neck like it’s an accessory.

I zoom in on the picture and notice how strong his arm looks clutching the grout spreader. I’ve never seen him in such a casual outfit before, but he looks even better than I thought he would.

I imagine myself sitting on his kitchen counter, wearing his t-shirt and swinging my bare legs as I watch him work. For some reason in this fantasy I have a grazed knee and it’s all bloody – probably from all the tiling I helped him to do – and when he finishes the section he’s focusing on I stretch out my arms and say, I want you. He walks over and grips my thighs tightly. I arch my back into him. His arms have the same tension they do in the photograph, but then he looks down and notices I’ve got a booboo and he looks sad, and is all like, Oh, poor baby. Let me fix that up for you. I’ll make it all better.

I reach into my bedside cabinet and pull out a box of Band-Aids. With my eyes closed, I stick seven of them across my left kneecap so I can pretend it’s him that is putting them on for me. I’m really getting into it. I go to stretch my leg back out so that I can get back to touching myself and when I do, the adhesive parts tug at my skin and it kind of tickles. I do this repeatedly like I’m operating a pedal, bending and straightening my leg, so that I can keep feeling it and all the time I imagine he’s touching me. I come twice.

There’s some weird summer storm in the morning and I stay in bed until one because I have nowhere to be until seven. The day drags. I put on make-up, get dressed, smoke an entire carton of cigarettes and send some photos of my feet to a man I met on Twitter, but it’s still only four. I flip through page after page of women in a magazine with these blunt, long bob hairstyles that are always honey-colored and kind of curled so they look like they just got out of bed. Alice also has hair like this.

When I look in the mirror at my own, it just hangs there past the tops of my arms like it has given up. I’ve had the same hair for years and wonder if this shorter style would look good on me, so I snap a picture of myself square on to the camera and jab some scissors through the face and neck of some actress in the magazine to make way for my own. When I lay my phone under the hole in the page to try on the hairstyle, I am transformed. I once read that a woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life and I just feel like this is it.

It takes me half an hour to find the right tutorial for how to cut my hair like in the magazine and the one I settle on is led by a girl with caramel highlights and the kind of face that people turn in the street to look at. When I skip to the end, she does a split-screen before and after thing. It looks amazing. When she shakes her head, the hair bounces and falls back into place. I choose the video like I’m choosing who I want to be after. It’s definitely her.

My scissors are bigger than hairdressing scissors and my hands are moving faster than my brain because I’m pushed for time now and before I know it I am holding out sections and cutting them clean across. Two, maybe three-inch chunks fall to the floor. When I’m done with the left side of my head I get on my hands and knees and blow the hair deep under the bed, into the shadows. It glides so smoothly across the wooden floor, as if it was ready to be cut and it’s finally escaping me. As I get back up, I notice two of the Band-Aids have fallen off so I kick those under the bed as well.

I feel weird when I check out my reflection because I’ve looked the same for such a long time and such a small change has made a big difference, so I take a quick break to let the new me sink in before I start on the rest of my hair. I look at Doctor John’s pictures some more. I scroll so far back that I end up seventy-nine weeks deep and lose track of time. There are a few really good ones that I haven’t seen before, which I save, but most of them are of his dumb kids and DIY projects. When I glance at the clock it’s a few minutes after six. I am running late.

I yell down the stairs to my mom to ask if I can borrow her car. She asks why and I pull a face because she got me this job so she knows why, but I tell her anyway because it’s just easier that way. I have to go babysit Doctor John’s kids at seven and I’m running late, I say. I say it with an attitude like, Ugh, what a drag, his kids are the worst, and she buys it. She thinks that because I think it’s a drag and I’m doing it anyway, it must mean that I am getting my act together. Good girl, she tells me as I leave the house. She’s proud of me. I’m getting better. Be a good girl for Doctor John, she adds. She has no idea. That’s literally all I want.

As I run out of the front door, I hear her follow me to our front porch and her voice trails behind me asking what happened to my hair. I almost turn around because I feel something blowing on my neck and think maybe she is close enough to be breathing on me, but then I realize it’s just from where my hair is shorter on the left and there’s a breeze outside.

When I get to Doctor John’s street it’s six thirty so I park up the road and just watch his house for a while. All the houses look the same. They’re wooden clad in various colors and his is pale yellow. Mailboxes that stand in the space where the grass meets the sidewalk line the long front yards. It’s a quiet area and nothing much happens so I flip down the mirror and look at myself. My hair is so uneven that I can’t disguise it easily so I just tie it up in a loose bun. My neck instantly looks longer and I make a note to start wearing it like this more often. To kill time, I listen to an audiobook I find in the glove compartment on understanding impulse control and repeat some of the affirmations out loud. I am the master of my habits, I say. I am in charge and my word is law.

I shut off the tape at six fifty-two because one of John’s kids, Noah, comes outside and runs in circles on the lawn, like an animal that’s been hit in the head. He’s seven, but he’s still not all the ticket. Considering that John’s a doctor, his kids are pretty stupid. It must be Alice’s genes that dumbed them down. I don’t remember what she does, but it’s something like admin or secretarial work. She was really batting above her weight when she met him.

Noah stops suddenly and just stares off up into the air. I lean forward in my seat to see if there’s a plane or something in the sky, but nothing’s there. After a minute, he runs to the tree in their front yard and pretends to shoot at it with an imaginary gun although it looks more like a golf club the way he’s holding it. At six fifty-nine, after he has gone back in, I apply a new coat of lip-gloss and get out of the car. It’s warm, but the air makes my dress swish and I walk towards the house like I’m in a music video. I watch my shadow on the pavement as I move. It’s long and thin and my legs look fantastic, and I wonder what kind of exercise I could do to get them to look like that in real life.

When I look down at my actual leg, the remaining clump of Band-Aids have come loose. They flap from my knee with every step so I lean down and brush them off, letting them fall to the ground. A man walking a dog comes towards me and smiles as he passes, and when I get to Doctor John’s mailbox I turn around to see if he’s going to look back at me. He does turn back, but only because his dog has eaten my Band-Aids and he’s trying to pry them out of its mouth.

 The sun is starting to set behind me and it’s at eye-level. When John answers the door, I see the scene unfold outside of myself in slow motion. It’s cinematic. The light catches the strands of hair that have fallen out of my topknot and I literally glow. He puts his hand up to his eyes because it’s so bright or maybe because I’m a vision or something, and he’s wearing a suit without a tie. When he invites me in, I don’t wait for him to step backwards so that I can walk through the door easily. Instead I squeeze past him, maintaining eye contact the whole time and brushing my body against his. He smells so good, like hand sanitizer and something else that I can’t pinpoint, but it reminds me of being in a classroom.

I follow him through into the kitchen and I look at the tiles on the wall. They’re the ones from the picture. I love these tiles, I tell him, running my fingers over them. They’re cold and smooth. He makes a joke about laying them himself and I’m not sure if he means laid like an egg or laid like sex, but I laugh with him anyway and hope he means the latter.

The kids are upstairs, he tells me. They’re taking their baths – they’ve been coloring.

That’s it, I think. The classroom smell – it’s crayons. I’ve met his kids twice before. The first time was about a month ago when I went to drop my mom’s car off at her work. She’s a pharmacist at Doctor John’s surgery. His kids, for some unknown reason, seemed to like me right away. He said he’d pay fifty bucks for four hours of babysitting and I offered to watch them because I had nothing else going on that night. It was a sweet deal, really. Last week I asked mom what she had told him about me and she said, Oh, you know, just that you recently finished college and you’re back for a while. Nothing else.

Doctor John’s phone beeps and he frowns at the screen.

Can I get you anything, John? I ask him, wondering what the text says and who it’s from.

No, I’m good, thanks, he says. He sounds disappointed or maybe irritated.

You sure? Water? Coffee? I ask again, wanting to be useful and to do something for him. Anything. I’d eat his shoes.

Actually, do you know what? I will take a coffee if you’re making one, he says. He looks around like he’s expecting to be caught on camera and then he points to the cupboard over the sink and tells me the good coffee is in there, right at the back behind the cereal boxes. He says, I’ve got some time. Alice’s stuck in traffic outside her office and we’re taking one car so I can’t go anywhere until she gets back. She said it’s gridlocked down there.

Oh no, I say. Oh yes, I think. I don’t ask where they’re going because I don’t want to know. I hope the traffic stays. That Alice runs over some glass and gets a flat, or that a sinkhole appears and her car falls into it.

Doctor John says he’s going to go check on the kids upstairs for a minute because they’re unusually quiet so I get to work on the coffee like I live here and this is my house and this is our life. I go to get two cups from the dish rack but none of them match. I want us to experience the same things at the same time so I quietly open cupboards until I find an identical pair. Then I arrange them on the counter with the handles pointing towards each other. I drop a couple of scoops of coffee into the French press, which I position just behind the cups, and I snap a picture on my phone for later.

Do you take sugar, John? I yell, walking to the kitchen door so that he can hear me. Or milk?

No, thanks, he shouts back. Black is good.

I hate black coffee, but today I make an exception. I pour water onto the coffee grounds and while I wait for it to brew I lay my hand flat on the white tiles again. When I press down on the plunger and fill our cups with coffee I take a sip of his. It’s hot as hell and it burns my mouth, but I just want him to put his lips where mine were and ingest me somehow. It’s not enough and I want to be inside of him in whatever way so I lean over and I spit into his coffee. I wipe my mouth and call out to him, Coffee’s up!

We sit across from one another and I kick off my shoes. I stick out my right leg to try and find him under the table, but make sure it could pass for an accident if I do brush my foot against his shin. I step my foot around a bit, but don’t feel him anywhere and when I crane my neck to see how he is sitting, I notice that his knees are too far apart for me to reach from here. I give up and instead I pretend that I’ve just got in from work as well and we have no children and we’re catching up with each other about how our days have been. Then he’ll run me a bath and undress me and wash my hair. 

How’s the coffee? I ask, watching him take a mouthful.

He makes a noise like, Mmm. I watch his Adam’s apple move as he swallows. That’s a good cup of coffee, he says. We don’t drink much coffee around here anymore.

He kind of bulges his eyes at me after he says this, which makes me think that Alice has probably been going on about how caffeine is terrible and he just agreed to cut down because it was easier than challenging her on it. That’s a shame, I say. It’s good to have a vice. He tugs at his collar and I notice how tiny the cup looks in his strong hands. I wonder if he has ever saved a life and if he would save mine, but I think he deals in less dramatic things being a doctor, like people with colds or persistent back pain. It’s not like he’s an EMT or a surgeon, but he probably could be.

He finishes his coffee quickly, gulping it down like he’s desperate to hide the evidence, and then gets up from the table and just stands there touching the buttons on his shirt like he’s not sure what to do with his hands. I start to ask him about his job when Noah shouts, Daddy, Daddy, from upstairs. He tells me, Sorry, I’ll be back. I pick up his cup from the table and whisper, Okay, Daddy, into it. His kitchen is pretty minimalistic and I don’t see him in any of it apart from the tiles, and I’ll bet he didn’t choose them in white. I can’t even find anything lying around the room to accidentally cut my knee on to see if he would take care of me.

When he comes back into the kitchen, he stands behind his chair and rests his hands on its back and we look at each other as keys jangle in the front door. Alice clip-clops in and doesn’t even acknowledge that I’m here. She goes straight upstairs shouting, I’ll be two minutes, into the air. I stand up and grab the cups, turning away and looking back over my shoulder at him with a naughty smile. I’m part of this secret. This is ours. Don’t worry, I’ll hide these, I tell him. When I say the word these I raise one eyebrow suggestively. He flashes a grin and heads upstairs after Alice. 

I wait for a while and then I get up and stand behind Doctor John’s chair, gripping it in the exact same way he had. I want to touch everything he touches. Noah sticks his head around the kitchen door. BOO! he shouts, disappearing as quickly as he appeared. I feign shock and fright and excitement, and say, Oh my goodness, what was that! and he jumps back into the room. It was just me, he says. I know, little man, I tell him. I know it was. I like talking to Noah because I can call Doctor John Daddy out loud without it sounding weird. The other kid, Jackson, is four. It’s harder to hold a proper conversation with that one.

Once I’m alone with the kids, I ask them what they want to do. Jackson just stares at me and blinks hard a few times, then looks at the fridge and moves his arms up and down. Noah says that he wants to make something for Doctor John. I get the construction paper out from the cupboard in the living room and find the crayons they were coloring with before I got here, and throw in some stickers I find in my purse. The stickers are a little above the kids’ level of understanding, with things like Yeah, and? and Whatever written on them, but they don’t contain any swears so I figure they’re okay. We all sit on the floor and I supervise as they color and stick stickers and make up songs about a man with no arms and a cat’s head.

Can you make something, too? Noah asks. For Daddy?

I look down at his sheet of paper. He has drawn a car and something that looks like a snake coming out of the windscreen. He has also drawn a blonde woman with angry eyebrows, probably his mom Alice, standing to the side of the snake with her arms up like she’s shrugging dramatically and he has stuck a speech bubble sticker above her head that has the words, Come at me, bro, written on it. I laugh because even though he has no context for the quote he has somehow used it perfectly.

It turns out that there’s not enough time for me to make something for Daddy as the boys have to be in bed by eight and it’s already ten after. I make them warm milk and once they’re in bed they ask me to tell them a story. I offer to read from several books, but they tell me to make up a story instead. I can’t really think of anything being put on the spot like that so I just tell them about the time when I totaled my car because I was buzzed, but change car to spaceship and liquor to space dust and throw in a few planets and aliens, and it ties together pretty nicely. They clap and laugh and make BANG! CRASH! and Argh-grr-ughhh groaning sound effects that aren’t far off what actually happened.

Once the boys settle down, I go back downstairs and sit in a big leather chair that’s positioned in front of the television. The last time I babysat them, Noah told me that it was Doctor John’s chair and I wasn’t allowed to sit in it. He also told me I wasn’t allowed to touch the cushion sitting on it because that belonged to him too and only Daddy could touch it. He and Jackson weren’t even allowed. The chair reclines and there’s a grey-checkered footstool a little way out in front of it, which I drag towards me with the backs of my heels. When I stretch my legs out and rest my feet on it, I imagine Doctor John sitting like this, loosening his tie after a long day, and I press my body back into the material trying to find any semblance of his imprint to fit into.

The footstool is worn and doesn’t match the chair. I think it’s maybe the only thing in this whole house that came from his life before this one. I bet Alice wants him to throw it out and replace it with something beige. I’d volunteer to be its replacement. I want to be on all fours underneath his feet. I’d stay so still as he crossed his legs over on my back. He could keep me there for hours. I think about him changing the channel on the remote then making me hold it between my teeth until he needs it again and ordering me not to move and not to look at him, and I get so turned on that I grip the arms of the chair and start breathing deeper.

I’m touching myself in the recliner with Doctor John’s cushion pressed down over my face when my phone rings and I leave it to go to voicemail. When I’m done, I see that the missed call is from a number I don’t have saved and the area code is different from mine. I listen to the voicemail and it’s Doctor John. I didn’t even know he had my number. Alice’s contact information is written in swirly white chalk on the noticeboard in the hall, but she told me it was for emergencies only, and I always imagined that if either of them got a hold of me on the phone it would be her. But it’s Doctor John. He wants me to call him. I listen to the voicemail three times before calling him back and each time I cut it off while he’s halfway through the sentence, I want you to call me back when you get this, so it sounds like he’s saying, I want you. I want you. I want you. I save his number to my contacts before calling him back and put him down under the name Daddy.

He answers on the second ring. It’s exciting to think he was sitting there waiting for my call. Hello, John, I say. My voice is quiet and low and satisfied. It’s an after-sex voice and I sound way older than twenty-three although maybe he likes that I usually sound girlish. I’m not sure so I try to keep it neutral. I ask him how his night’s going as I walk to the bathroom and I close the door behind me, but he doesn’t answer and just tells me he’s at a restaurant with Alice and he can’t find his wallet, and asks if I can go check upstairs to see if it’s in their room. I watch myself in the mirror as we talk about where it might be and pull the hairband from my hair. I’ve forgotten that I cut it earlier and when I shake it out the unevenness completely throws me off. I grab at it frantically for a second and almost drop the phone into the sink, but then it’s okay and I calm down. When I move closer to the mirror I decide that I definitely like the shorter side more. Doctor John asks if I’m still there and I tell him that I am. I’ll text you to confirm either way, I promise and Doctor John says, Okay, great. You’re a lifesaver, and he hangs up.

When I open the doors to their walk-in closet, I put down my phone and bypass all of Alice’s clothes even though they take up most of the space. She has designer polo shirts in every color suspended stiffly from hangers, a stack of pastel chinos, and six pairs of boat shoes in different shades of blue. Doctor John’s suit jackets hang from the top rail and I reach up and embrace them like each one still holds some remnant of him inside of it. I put my fingers inside the sleeve of a black jacket he owns and stroke the silk lining. Then I push my arm further up into it until it disappears up to my elbow. When I look up, I imagine I’m a child holding his hand and he is towering above me. I feel small and safe and protected, and I pull the suit jacket down and drape it over my shoulders like he might if we were out somewhere together and I told him I was cold.

There’s no sight of his wallet anywhere and I check every pocket twice. I do find a scrunched up tissue in one of them, which I tuck into my bra. I also uncover a receipt from last Monday night in a pair of his trousers for two beers and a glass of bourbon. The time stamp on it says 7.27pm. I take this, too. I put my arms between two pairs of trousers on the rails below and push them apart to create a space, which I crawl into. I slide down the back wall and when I hit the floor I pull his jacket around me. The rail of trousers closes back in and everything goes dark.

After a minute or so, my phone beeps with a message. I uncross my legs and slide it across the floor towards me with my foot. It’s him. The screen says, Daddy (2). His first message says, Any luck? The second message – sent three minutes after – says, Don’t look anymore, found wallet in bottom of Alice’s purse! Be back before eleven. My fingers hover above the letters and I’m not sure how to reply. Alice must be awful at her job if she can’t even remember putting someone else’s wallet in her purse, I think. I find a reaction GIF of a man from a popular TV show rolling his eyes and putting his head in his hands and send that in response, and add, Well, at least it’s not lost! Doctor John shoots back, Ha ha! I love that show.

I stand up with my back against the wall so that my face is buried in his jackets again. It’s ten thirty. They’ve probably already left the restaurant by now so I don’t have long left. I want to check his Instagram to see if he has taken a picture of them together, but then I think of his text message to me. Don’t look anymore. I turn to face the wall – doing what he says – and shut off my phone, dropping it deep into the inside pocket of his jacket that I’m still wearing. Then I close my eyes and put both of my arms up into the sleeves of other jackets until the material bunches and I can’t get them any higher. I think I hear one of the kids start to cry, but I can’t tell which one and it sounds so far away like it’s not even coming from this house, and after a while I’m not even sure if it is one of the kids. I keep my eyes closed and press my forehead into the cold wall, and hold Daddy’s hands while I wait for him to come home.

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