He Left the Door Unlocked Once

He always kept me inside. He had long, red hair that always fell in his face, and he hated the sun. We never went outside during the daylight hours. I never got to do much on my own, and I was alone in my room anytime I was without him. He gave me blankets and pillows even though he kept the room dark, to offer me some semblance of comfort. He gave me a stuffed animal once, though he commented on me getting far too old for such things.

He kept shackles on my wrists and ankles constantly at first, then finally took them off only when I was locked in my room. I remember the feeling of wearing them with him at the kitchen table while we ate our meals together. I always felt tense at the table while he ceaselessly watched me. The tension was thick enough to cut with a knife, with the way he waited on-edge for me to say something. I never did. He usually fed me some kind of grain porridge, and sometimes gave me some raw meat if I was good. I never knew what kind of meat it was.

One day when he left me unchained in the basement, he forgot to lock the door. It would have been my first time outside without the metal weighing upon my limbs. After years of wishing for freedom, it would have been my first shot at actually escaping.

Thinking that this was the only chance to reach the outside world that I’d ever have, I finally made a break for it. But when I ran up the stairs, my focus trained upon the door, I noticed him sitting at the table. Silently, he rested in the chair that I usually sat in. Inexplicably, he made no move to stop me. His posture was heavy and limp as he leaned on the table like he had no energy left. He didn’t even seem to care if I escaped or not.

The strangeness about him made me stop. Upon cautiously edging closer I saw several bottles of the medications he normally abused now and then, piled next to a tall glass of water. I realized with a chilling drop in my guts that he was about to kill himself. Not knowing how else to approach the situation, I just stepped weakly towards him and asked:

“Why?”

I think I was referring to everything — what he was about to do, the way he’d treated me, and the way he’d suddenly dropped all arms and been willing to let me run off . . . Every question I had in my mind inarticulately packed itself into that single word. He answered me simply, in a voice more tired than time itself:

“I’m so lonely.”

“But why? You’ve always had me with you . . . Why do you hate me so much?”

“I’m not lonely because I hate you. I don’t. I’m lonely because you hate me.” He finally met my gaze, and his normally cold eyes were very warm and wet. His arms looked impossibly heavy and his hands rested in his lap, completely limp. He looked too tired to even reach for the pills that he’d thought to find his final release in. It was then that I realized it. It was then, when I met his tortured stare, that I felt a stirring in my chest. He was my father, after all.

“I don’t hate you.”

His light eyes widened in disbelief for a brief moment, and then their lids drooped once more. He didn’t believe me.

With tears flooding over, spilling hot and fast down my cheeks, I did something I thought I’d never do — I stepped forward and hugged him. He let out a shuddering gasp, and I’d clearly startled him . . . but he hugged me back. His ragged breaths lulled me like the softest nursery song. The bones of his back and shoulders felt more frail than I’d imagined they would. Together, our voices overlapping, we spoke in unison:

I thought you hated me,” I said, and he rasped back:

“I was so scared you’d leave.”

When we sat together in an embrace that felt as gentle and calming as the final kiss of death, I knew that I’d never leave him. I didn’t want to anymore.

He left the chains off, after that. We still didn’t talk much, but the quiet was far less harrowing. Many afternoons consisted of us sitting on the couch and watching cartoons together. One day a strange, chemical smell wafted through the air. I felt nauseated and drowsy, but not uneasy. When I asked him what it was, he simply said

“Don’t worry over it. These are the best days of our lives.” Contenting myself with that answer, I laid my head on his shoulder. His red hair brushed against my face, the last sensation I ever felt before drifting off into cold, unending sleep.