After I’ve signed the papers and the thing is finished, Tess makes coffee and asks me to leave.
“I want to see Aimee,” I say, partially because I do and partially because, like someone falling, I feel compelled to clutch at whatever’s closest instead of simply giving in to gravity.
“She’s sleeping,” Tess says, filling the bottom third of a mug with creamer, the way she always has.
The coffee machine I bought her two, or possibly three, Christmases ago emits first a muffled sputter and then, from its back, two plumes of steam.
“Don’t do that,” I say. “Don’t use her to get to me.”
“Because everything is about you, isn’t it?” she says, delivering two heaping spoons of sugar into the mug.
“Why do this?” I say. “Why now? You won. What’s left to prove?”
“Nobody won,” Tess says. “And this isn’t about proving a point. Aimee’s on a schedule. Waking her up will throw her off for the rest of the day.”
“You’re disgusting, you know that?” I say, getting up to leave.
This, too, is a form of clutching.
“Whatever,” Tess says, slamming the mug on the counter. “Just do whatever you want.”
I try hard to enter Aimee’s room without making noise, but as soon as I crack the door, I see she is awake. She is standing up in her crib, tiny arms outstretched in the spaces between the bars. There is a window beside her crib and her hands are cupped together beneath it, as if the bars of sunlight slanting in is water she intends to collect.
“Hi baby,” I say and close the door behind me.
“Daddy,” she says, not looking up but remaining intensely focused on her hands, afraid of missing the imaginary falling substance.
I approach the crib and lay down on my stomach beside it. It’s then I notice what she is catching. Thousands of dust particles have been illuminated by the sun’s pale light in their slow, graceful descent.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Come here,” she says.
I do, getting onto my knees so that I am face to face with her. She places her hands against mine and releases.
“For you,” she says, patting my palms to secure her gift.
“Thank you,” I say. “What is it?”
“Seeds,” she says.
“I love them,” I say. “What kind of seeds are these?”
Aimee laughs and shakes her head. She calls me “Silly Daddy” and I have to ask her two more times before she finally tells me.
“Sunshine seeds,” she says.
“Well thank you so much,” I say and pretend to stuff them into my pocket. “What should I do with them?”
“Grow,” she says and points to the herb garden outside her window. “Daddy grow.”
“It’s time, Wayne,” comes Tess’s voice.
I turn and find her standing in the doorway, a look of offence on her face. I wonder how long she has been there.
“Okay,” I say. “Give Daddy a kiss, baby.”
Aimee obeys, pressing her face into the space between the bars and allowing me, only briefly, to touch my lips against hers.
“Say bye-bye to Daddy,” Tess says, the lilting, faux-tender tone enough to make me sick.
“Bye-bye Daddy,” Aimee says, waving her little hand in my direction.
“Bye-bye sweetheart,” I say and get up off the floor.
“Go on ahead,” Tess says. “I have to put her back down.”
I walk down the hall, but instead of turning left towards the front door, I turn right towards the kitchen. I pause in the living room, although so empty and unadorned, I hardly recognize it. The house smells of cardboard, its baseboards all line with labeled boxes. The movers don’t come until Tuesday, but, judging from the rooms, Tess is ready to go.
I enter the kitchen. The papers are gone from the table. The coffee is brewed, a blinking green light signifying its readiness. Tess’s mug is set beside it.
“You know Mommy loves you, right?” her voice crackles through a baby monitor plugged in on the counter. “You know no one loves you more than Mommy, right?”
I listen to Aimee say “I know.”
I grab the coffee pot and pour its steaming contents into the sink. Then I do the same with Tess’s mug, watching the white, granulated liquid cling to and eventually slide down the drain. When I leave the house, I shut the door behind me hard enough for both of them to hear.
I start my truck and light a cigarette. I shift into drive but keep my foot on the brake. The lawn, the porch, the house—everything’s rendered clear and almost glowing, which I guess is how things get when you see them for the last time.
Pulling away proves harder than I imagined. Several times I ease off the brake, only to slam it back down to turn and take another look. Eventually, though, I force myself to look away. My hands are shaking and without thinking about it I form a fist and bring it down on the dashboard. I slam it again and again and again, hard enough to hurt my hand, hard enough for me to see a thousand ancient dust particles swirling anew in the sunlight, long after I’ve left what used to be my street.