Now her tiny hands tugged at his shirt and her nails scratched his skin. He didn't answer. He knew it wouldn't matter.
"Jimmy the spices are out of order and the mirror wasn't wiped right so there are streaks."
"Go back to bed, Claire."
He'd been alone with his step-daughter for just over three years. Claire had been two years old when he'd become her dad, four when her mom had died, and seven when the behavior had started.
Jimmy could hear Claire walk away. When the sound of her steps ended, he knew she was standing in front of the spice rack reciting the alphabet quietly and placing caraway before cinnamon.
Jimmy had met Claire's mom through his work as a firefighter / EMT. Stacy had been a nurse in the emergency room at General. Jimmy had been waiting in line in the hospital cafeteria and gazing out the window when the reflection of a red-headed blur moved across his line of vision.
Stacy had never strolled, never meandered. She had a speedy walk that forced her hips to rapidly salsa from side to side and caused her ID badges to click like maracas. Jimmy had never been so attracted to scrubs in his life. She was pale and hazel-eyed. Her hair was cut in a slanted bob, her neck was graceful, her jaw defined. And she had the physical shape of an infinity symbol placed upright.
At first they'd tip-toed around their new love, holding it like a glass egg, not wanting to smudge the surface with the residue of old mistakes and battle scars. But then she had introduced him to Claire and he'd found himself in love again, this time with a two-and-a-half foot tall blond monster. Two months later he and Stacy were married. They gave Claire a ring too. Hers was pink.
He woke up again. This time, Claire was lying next to him. She fit into the dent between his shoulder blades. Stacy had called her daughter a string bean because she was long and narrow.
"Jimmy, I'm sorry I woke you up. Also, I'm sorry I sorted your sock drawer."
Jimmy wasn't sorry. Of all the regrets he had, marrying Stacy was not one of them. The hardest part of being a widower, though, was not the loneliness, not the absence of physical love, not the gaping hole where companionship had once been. It was that he missed hearing his name come from the mouth of a woman who loved him. There was something special about the intonation that he craved. He searched for that softness in conversations with friends, but the closest thing was Claire. She had it, not in the same way as Stacy, but it was there and it fit into his life like the missing piece.
Jimmy moved his arm behind him and wrapped his hand around Claire's calf. "Don't worry, sweetheart," he said. "We'll put everything back as it should be."
Claire remembered the Scary Day. It was three years after her mom died. The teacher had said to stay under their desks. Claire had crouched under hers and counted the screws in the wood. There were four on each of the longer sides and two on each of the shorter sides. That made her desk a rectangle. Each screw had a washer underneath it, except for one. Claire had touched the bare screw with her right index finger, then her left index finger, then the right middle finger, then the left, and so on. The boy next to Claire had cried quietly. She had seen his nose run; green goop dripped onto his Cars T-shirt and hit the red car on the eyes. Gross.
When they had heard the shots being fired near the big kids' classroom, the teacher had shoved all their desks into the corner and told them to get underneath. Claire had liked Ms. Best because she reminded her of Prairie Dawn from Sesame Street. Ms. Best had also gone under a desk. She had held a boy named Timmy in her arms and rocked him. Claire had put eight of her fingers on the screws on the long ends of her desk and circled the washers. It had bothered her that one screw didn't have a washer. Now she'd have to put that finger somewhere else to balance it all out.
Someone far away had screamed.
A man wearing a glass mask had come into the room and stepped on the blue and green stripes of the rainbow rug. Claire usually sat on the yellow.
Ms. Best had looked at him and he had motioned to her. She stood up. Claire had hoped the man in the mask and Ms. Best wouldn't get married. She had wanted Jimmy to marry her teacher. Claire thought they would ask her to be the flower girl. She would wear a yellow dress. She would keep her pink ring.
When Ms. Best signaled for the class to stand, it had been the same gesture as during the sit-stand-jump game they played during PE. Claire had wondered if they would jump now.
Jimmy had been at the station house when the call came in. He had recognized the name of the school but not why it sounded so familiar until he turned and saw the station chief looking at him with a somber face. "Just go."
Claire. Jimmy had sped towards the school trying to convince himself it had been a field trip day. The campus had been roped off but a police officer let Jimmy in. When Claire had seen Jimmy, she had broken away from the class and run past her teacher, a plain young girl who was wiping a boy's t-shirt with a tissue. Claire had hugged Jimmy tightly, leaned into his shoulder, and sobbed something about someone getting married.
Claire lay in Jimmy's bed and waited until the clock had all even numbers. It had once been her mom and Jimmy's bed but after her mom died from cancer Jimmy had hauled their mattress out to the sidewalk and left it there with a sign marked, "Free." The mattress had been gone the next morning and Claire had seen Jimmy looking out the window at where it had been. The wrinkle between his brows had been there. Claire had thought she could put a penny in it and it would stick.
She got up when the time was 6:48 a.m. Jimmy was in the kitchen, sitting in his chair and sipping coffee. Claire climbed into his lap, rested her head on his upper body, and held fistfuls of his chest hair between her fingers.
She had a way of saying his name as an introduction to a dramatic reading.
"Jimmy, do you think Mommy was thinking of me when she died?"
"And, Jimmy. What do you think happened to her thoughts?"
"Where do thoughts go when people die?"
Moments like these always confused Jimmy. He'd developed a good response, though.
"What do you think, Claire? Where do thoughts go?"
"I think they float."
That afternoon they were supposed to visit Dr. Zimmer. It had taken two months to get the appointment. Jimmy had always been strong when it came to emergencies, short-term problems, or acute issues. If the person had a laceration, he put a bandage on it. If the building was on fire, he took the people out. But things like "behavioral therapy" and "medication management" were new. Recently, he had begun to wonder about the people who he had saved. Were they suffering post-trauma? Had his role been nothing more than a mechanical conveyor belt, removing bodies from harm's way, thinking they could take it from there? Stacy had once mentioned wanting to visit all of her former patients to see where they were and how they were doing. Now Jimmy understood the desire.
"Claire," he said.
"I think your mom's thoughts are spread around you like an invisible cloak."
"Like Harry Potter's?"
"Yes, sort of, but they help me see you better."
"Like a highlighter, Claire, or like the light from my fire truck when I need to see someone in a building." Jimmy paused for a moment. "I think your mom's thoughts about you make you brighter and easier to see. To really see."
Claire was silent. She pictured herself painted over with a dazzling yellow stripe.
"Do you know what I see?" Jimmy continued. "I see a bright and shiny Claire who is made up of a million strong pieces."
"Strong like your helmet?" she asked.
"Like a million of my helmets melted into one girl. I can't believe I didn't see it before."
In Claire's mind, she stood under a bright spotlight surrounded by a fort of helmets.
"Can you see yourself?" Jimmy asked. He wrapped his arms around her more tightly and rocked back and forth. "My strong girl."
Claire nodded. She looked at the spice rack. Ginger was placed before garlic. She didn't move.
This story contains 1520 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.