It was a single, innocuous word. Perfectly reasonable. A text message to let me know that Kelly had made it safely back to her apartment after her trip abroad.
Except my daughter didn’t say, “Home”.
Her word was, “Ring”.
It was one of those small things that only made sense to us. She’d picked it up from her mom, who used to call her own parents, let the phone ring once so they’d know she’d gotten home safely, and then hang up. We’d updated the process, but the message was still the same: One ring to say I’m home, I’m safe.
It could just have been jet lag, I tried to convince myself. She was tired after a ten hour flight from Dublin and just shot me a quick message before collapsing in bed. No time for in-jokes, Dad, too tired. But as I stared down at that one word, a creeping sensation wrapped itself around my stomach. It wasn’t fear, not yet; just a heavy disquiet that made putting my phone down again difficult.
I texted back my customary response, Ring.
Usually a pair of red heart emojis would have followed, ending our conversation for the night, but the notification that she’d responded never came.
“She’s probably showering,” Carol said after I mentioned Kelly hadn’t replied. “You know how gross you feel even after short flights.”
I nodded absently at my wife’s reasonable assumption. She was probably right. But it didn’t make me feel any better. I sent s other message to our daughter, inviting her over for dinner the next night so she could tell us all about her trip. A half hour later, she agreed with a smiley face.
The hours leading up to Kelly’s arrival were long ones. My thoughts kept turning back to that word, home, and I couldn’t stop opening our text conversation and staring at it all over again. I scrolled back through the seemingly endless string of messages. We were close, rarely did a day go by without at least a short back-and-forth. But no matter how I looked, I couldn’t find another instance of her saying “home”.
It was “ring”. It was always “ring”.
Her car pulled into our driveway at 6. She got out. It was Kelly. She had her mother’s hair: red-gold curls that she had been growing out for years, but that still only brushed the tops of her shoulder blades. My big, blue eyes and the shared small gap between her two front teeth. The splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose. She walked the same, smiled with the same ease and good humor. Hugged us with the same enthusiasm. It was Kelly.
Carol had made a roast chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans, Kelly’s favorite. As I started carving up the chicken, Kelly flipped through photos on her phone. Her in a Dublin pub with her boyfriend, Asher. The two of them standing on the Cliffs of Moher. Another in front of what she said was a fairy mound. She was glowing while she recounted their two week excursion across the Emerald Isle.
“You’ve got to send that one to us,” Carol crooned over one of the photos.
“You and Tana both asked for that one,” Kelly laughed.
Her mother laughed, too. But I didn’t. The knife went still in my hand, mid-slice through the breast, and my jaw tightened. It was rare that Kelly referred to her sister by her real name. Not since they were kids and Kelly had taken to calling her Rin, after some cartoon character they both liked. Carol hadn’t caught it. It was such a minor thing. Surely Kelly had to call her sister by her given name some of the time. I just couldn’t remember the last time she’d done it.
“You ok, Dad?” Kelly’s smile had faded slightly with concern.
I nodded. “Just wanted a look at that picture.”
Her expression brightened again and she held out her phone for me to see. After I agreed it was a nice one, she resumed going through them with her mom.
I finished carving and balanced a slice of dark meat on the end of the serving fork to slide on to Kelly’s plate.
“Oh, no thanks,” she said. “I’ll take some white meat.”
I paused again, the fork and its contents poised halfway between us.
“Since when do you turn down the good stuff, kiddo?” I asked. I kept my time conversational, teasingly light.
Kelly rolled her eyes in the time-honored tradition of a daughter dealing with another one of her dad’s silly questions.
“I’m on a diet, Dad,” she said as if it was something she’d told me a dozen times already. “White meat is healthier and has less calories.”
“Ah, of course. But you know your mom’s cooking doesn’t have any calories.”
Carol snorted, amused, and turned the conversation back to the trip. While Kelly detailed their stay in Donegal, I let the chicken fall back on the serving platter. My stomach fell, too.
Kelly hated white meat.
She complained that it was dry and lacked flavor. No matter how Carol dressed it up in sauces or wrapped it in bacon, Kelly had only ever picked begrudgingly at it. As I slide a piece of the breast onto her plate, I just kept seeing my little girl’s scrunched, unhappy face at the prospect of having to eat it.
This time, she dug in without hesitation, and even commented on how much she was enjoying it.
Carol beamed. I couldn’t hold back the deepening furrow in my brow.
The meal continued with easy conversation between my wife and Kelly. The more I listened, however, the less convinced I was. It was little things. Tiny things. Things that you’d really have to be listening for to catch.
She referred to her pets as “the dogs” instead of “the kids”.
When describing a frustrating situation involving a missed train and lost luggage, Kelly had jokingly blamed Asher for it.
“I shouted at him,” she said with a giggle. “I’m sure everyone thought I was some crazy American because I was standing there, yelling, ‘Damnit, Asher, you’re ruining my life!’”
Kelly did like to tease people and over-exaggerate minor inconveniences, claiming they were ruining her life. But when she did it to her boyfriend of seven years, she called him by a nickname she’d picked out early in their relationship. “Asher” wasn’t satisfying enough to say in a heated moment, she’d told us with a mischievous grin. He’d needed a longer name, something she could really belt out. “Ashfield Reginald” had been her name of choice, and she enjoyed using it whenever she could.
Even in her storytelling.
If Carol has noticed any of these minor, but mounting inconsistencies, she was doing a good job of hiding it.
Once we’d finished our meal, Kelly excused herself to the restroom while her mother and I cleared the table.
“Don’t you notice anything off?” I asked quietly.
“About what?” Carol glanced at me.
She pursed her lips a moment and then shook her head. “Not really. She just seems excited after her trip.”
“She called her sister Tana.”
“That’s her name,” Carol said dismissively.
“When was the last time she used it?”
“It slips out every now and again. What’s going on? You’ve been on edge since she got back.”
“She said home, Carol. And she ate white meat and she didn’t use her nickname for Asher.”
“She’s probably exhausted and isn’t back to her usual self just yet. And she’s been trying to eat healthier for months, you know that. You’re reading way too much into her not keeping up with your little in-jokes. Come on, she just spent two weeks away. Give her a few days to readjust and rest. She’ll be back to normal in no time.”
I conceded that she was probably right. She gave me a pat on the arm and disappeared into the kitchen with a handful of dirty dishes. I drummed my fingers on the tabletop for a moment before abandoning my table-clearing duties and walking down the hall toward the bathroom. The door was opened a crack and a thin sliver of light was shining out into the hallway.
As I got closer, I heard a deep, threatening hiss from within.
“Be a good kitty,” Kelly’s soft voice followed.
With my heart beat quickening, I inched toward the door and peeked inside. Cocoa, our tabby who enjoyed nothing more than dozing on people’s laps, was standing against the tub, all the hairs along her back raised. Her ears were pinned back against her skull and she was baring her fangs at Kelly, who was standing over her in a slightly hunched position. Kelly’s hands were upraised and her fingers curled into hooks.
Cocoa growled in warning, a guttural sound I didn’t think she was capable of, and swiped at Kelly with all of her claws extended.
I rapped my knuckles quickly on the door.
“Hey, Kel,” I said. “Is Cocoa in there with you? I thought I heard her.”
The door opened immediately and Kelly smiled up at me.
“Yeah. She fell in the sink when I was washing my hands and I was trying to dry her off, but she’s getting so grumpy in her old age!”
I forced the corners of my mouth upwards and said I’d take care of it. As we spoke, Cocoa darted out between our feet and scrambled down the hall to our bedroom. It would have been comical to see her feet slipping and sliding across the hardwood as she made her escape, but the sheer panic I’d seen in her amber eyes made it impossible.
“I should get going,” I heard Kelly say.
She was already halfway down the hall and speaking over her shoulder.
“Oh, already?” Carol called, disappointed, from the kitchen. “But I made brownies for dessert.”
“Diet, Mom,” Kelly reminded her.
She made a face back at me, one that I usually would have mimicked in a shared moment of, “Oh, Mom”, but I just stared blankly after her. After she’d turned the corner, I followed mechanically.
“Do you want to bring any home?” Carol fussed.
A cabinet door opened. Tupperware shuffled together. Kelly was leaning against the arched doorway leading into the kitchen.
“Sure,” she relented with a dramatic sigh.
“Good! I know how much Ash loves brownies.”
I stood at the end of the darkened hallway, watching them. It felt surreal. Movie-like. Carol bustled back and forth in the kitchen, packing up leftovers and baked goods for our daughter to bring home to her boyfriend. Kelly kept saying she didn’t need that much, that they’d never eat it all.
I wanted to shout, “But that’s not our daughter!”.
Instead, I just drifted forward when Carol waved me forward to see Kelly off at the front door. They hugged and Kelly thanked Carol for making such a lovely dinner. Carol gasped, suddenly remembering the extra giblets she’d saved for Kelly’s dogs, and she scurried back to the kitchen while yelling for Kelly to wait.
The two of stood in the entryway, a few feet separating us. Kelly stepped forward for a hug, but my arms remained at my sides. She stopped short and I watched the warmth drain, just a little, from her features.
“Something wrong, Dad?” She asked.
It sounded so innocent. It sounded just like my Kelly.
“You’re not my daughter,” I finally managed to say in a hoarse whisper.
A brief silence settled between us, broken only by the rustle of a plastic bag that Carol was putting the giblet container in, and then her approaching footsteps.
Kelly’s smile returned in full.
“I am now,” she said, and her hushed tone was wickedly sweet.
She accepted the bag from Carol and gave her another hug. At her car, she paused to wave before climbing in and leaving. Carol sighed, happy, and went back inside. I stayed out on the porch, unable to take my eyes off the last spot where she’d been parked even when Carol asked what I was doing. An icy, dark numbness had settled over me, and I was unable to move or answer. I was still there twenty minutes later, when my phone’s text notification went off from my pocket. I pulled it out with stiff fingers and the lock screen glowed against the surrounding night.
There was only a single word in the notification banner beneath Kelly’s name.
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