It’s almost midnight when I arrive home. I stand on our porch and grope the inner lining of my purse for my keys. Behind the living room curtains, I see the faint flicker of coloured lights from the television.Dad’s waiting up for me.
I slip inside the house and tip-toe towards my room. I haven’t broken curfew, but I am guilty of consuming a few underage drinks. Not many tonight—only two. Enough to make me socially acceptable to my friends without fear of being a colossal disappointment to my father should he catch me.I glance inside the living room as I walk past it, hoping to avoid his comments about the length of my skirt or the colour of my lipstick. For a moment, I think he’s already asleep, but he isn’t. He’s slouched in the corner of the couch, staring ahead at the television screen.
“Hey, Dad.” He doesn’t respond. He doesn’t even grunt to indicate his disapproval of my late night socializing.
Had I not been drinking, perhaps I would have realized it in four steps. Or three. But instead, I take five full steps towards my bedroom before I stop and turn. Something is wrong. I back up to the living room entrance and peer inside. My father is motionless. His eyes are half open and unfocused. He looks much paler than usual.
I run to his side and put my hand on his shoulder. His left arm is twisted and tightly clenched. My stomach tightens.
I shake him. Nothing.
I slap him. Hard. His head droops forward like a broken puppet. Nothing.
“Daddy!” A heavy sob escapes my mouth like a volcano erupting from the back of my throat. My fingers frantically probe the sides of his throat for a pulse. I have no more words to plead with, only mangled sounds squeezing past the tightness in my throat. But I don’t let myself cry. I have a job to do. I have one chance at this.
My one Save.
In elementary school, they made us practice Saves on a dummy. I remember the boys in my class laughing when they were instructed to spread their hands over a dummy with a blossomed chest. The following year, the school switched to gender neutral dolls. Mary-Ann Tenner, my classmate, sat in the corner of the room and did math problems while we practiced. She had accidentally Saved her cat when she was four years old. Apparently she had found it under her bed, lifeless, and cuddled with it until it suddenly sprang to life in her arms. She said her mother scolded her for wasting her Save and wouldn’t let her play outside for three days. Of course, Mary-Ann didn’t even know what a Save was until she started school.
You can only Save once, the teachers used to tell us. Make sure it’s for the right reason. The more conservative teachers warned us that Saved people never come back quite as they originally were. They said everyone loses a part of themselves when they die—a part that can never be replaced. The religious nuts even told us that all children were granted Saves as a test from God, and that using our Save meant we failed, or conformed, or some other bullshit.
His body feels stiff. His hands are clutched into fists, and his twisted arm is unnaturally rigid as I struggle to move him into a more accessible position on the couch. At school, we were taught that these are common signs of a heart attack. His half-open eyes distract me, and I run my fingers softly over his eyelids to close them. I think of my mother. I always assumed my Save would be used on her. She is alone, in a hospital bed only a few blocks away. The doctors say she’s comfortable, that it could be days, or weeks, or months before she goes. Suddenly, I feel more torn than I ever thought possible.
We’ve never talked about who I would use my Save on. I’ve tried to bring it up with my parents a few times, discreetly, but they refuse to discuss it. My parents, the perfect law abiding citizens. I always found it interesting that only teachers are allowed to talk to us minors about Saves. Punishment is strict for anyone, especially our own parents, who bring up the subject with us prior to our Save being used. When we were six, Leanne Wilson’s father went to jail for forcing her to Save her sister after a car accident. In History class we learn about the days when children were sold, or kidnapped, for their Saves. Some parents even forced their children to Save before their third birthday, just to protect them from grieving maniacs who would do anything to get their loved ones back. At the time, I could understand the need for the strictness of the Save Bill. I even wrote an essay on it.
But, right now, I think it’s the stupidest goddamn law ever written.
Mom knows she’s going to die. She’s prepared, but was Dad? The other side of my brain plays Devil’s Advocate. Your mom gave birth to you. She cooked and cleaned and taught you how to read. Your dad smoked and ate like shit. She deserves a second chance more than he does. Then, the nagging bitch in the very centre of my brain—the same one who makes me second guess myself during exams—slams me with one final question. It’s very simple, Janice. Who do you love more?
I need a few minutes to think. I know I have some time, but not much. I aced the test on Save Time Limits back in grade school: we have a maximum of ten hours to Save heart attack casualties. I kneel beside the couch and stare down at my father. The tears come. I let them flow. They land on his chest, forming wet blotches on his shaggy blue housecoat. I search his eyes for any sign of direction. Did he want to be Saved? His face looks peaceful. Was his death quick? Did he know it was coming? I take a few deep breaths and notice the cordless phone on the floor in front of the couch. He was trying to call for help! He didn’t want to die! I stand and place the phone in its cradle on the coffee table, beside the remote controls and Dollar Store notepad. I see the note I had left for him that afternoon: Dad, I’ve gone to visit Mom and then out with some friends. Home by midnight. Love ya.
Love ya. It’s as simple as that. But above all, I need him.
I open his robe, place my hands over his chest. The positioning is easy after rehearsing it so many times in school. My thumbs each rest on either side of his breastbone. The tips of my fingers spread above each of his nipples, as if I’m cradling his lungs and heart. I close my eyes and feel a warmth in my fingertips.
“Come back,” I say. It’s that simple.
Before I even open my eyes, I feel his chest rise as he takes a deep breath. I look at him. His eyes aren’t open yet, but his colouring has returned to normal. There’s even a red mark on his cheek where I slapped him. I remove my hands and sit on the floor. I watch, and I wait.
One breath. Two breaths. On his third breath his eyes open. He blinks a few times before he notices me.
“Janice.” His voice is soft and hoarse.
“It’s okay, Dad. I Saved you.”
“I was having a heart attack, I think. But…” he looks around the room. At the TV, at the floor, at the side table, at his left arm, and then at me. I smile. The tears flow down my face. My lower lip quivers and my cheeks feel flushed. I lean forward, wrap my arms around him, and sob with my head on his chest for what feels like hours. He strokes my hair with his right hand.
“I love you so much, Dad.”
“I love you too, Kiddo.”
I back away as he lifts himself into a seated position. His eyes are distant, like he’s focusing on the dust particles somewhere in the space between me and the television.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Kiddo. But, apparently being Saved takes a lot out of a person. I’m exhausted.”
“Maybe I should sleep in the same room as you? Just to make sure you’re okay.” We both know he will sleep in the living room. He hasn’t slept in his bed since my mother was admitted to the hospital. “I’ll just grab my sleeping bag and stay right here.” I point to the floor.
“Sure. If it will make you feel better.”
I start to walk away, but he calls my name. I turn and look at him from the hallway. He takes a breath before continuing.
As I rummage through my closet for my sleeping bag, I hear my father enter the kitchen and run the sink. He opens and shuts cupboards, grabs something from the fridge, and then walks towards the bathroom. He seems to be acting normal, and for that I am grateful. I’ve heard horror stories of Saved people who came back angry, or worse, with no memory of the person who Saved them.
I return to the living room, unroll my sleeping bag on the floor and turn off the television and lights. My father settles himself back onto the couch and wishes me goodnight.
“Janice?” he says, his voice a sleepy whisper in the darkness.
“You’re a good daughter.” Within seconds, he’s snoring.
I close my eyes but my brain isn’t letting me sleep. My mind is racing. I wonder about my mother, about how I’ll feel when she dies and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s an even bigger decision than sex, some of the teachers used to tell us. True, it was a big decision, but I don’t regret it. I hear my father snoring peacefully beside me. My mind flashes to the image of him dead on the couch. His body slouched in an unnatural position. His lifeless eyes, his twisted arm, his clenched fist…
My eyes pop open. That nagging bitch inside my head compels me to stand and walk to the kitchen. I had heard my father opening cupboards a few minutes ago. The cupboard under the sink, where the garbage bin is located, always makes a distinctive creak when it’s opened quickly. I pause, make sure he’s still snoring, and pull the garbage bin out of the cupboard. I don’t have to search long. The crumpled piece of paper is still in a ball on top of the used paper towels and empty milk cartons.
My hands shake as they unfold the paper. I know exactly where it came from. I realize now, after Saving him, that I never saw him un-clench his left fist. I instantly recognize the Dollar Store note paper from our coffee table. It has only one word written on it. The message I was supposed to find.