The new house was tan and small. Nothing about it was particularly remarkable. Her new room was near the front of the house this time instead of the back and it's sole window sat higher up than the other windows in the house, but it was a rectangular, small room the same as the last one. Inside the house, every room was painted tan. The wooden floor was only slightly darker, a light brown color, giving the entire house a disorienting feeling. Her grandfather's death and selling their old, bigger home paid for the new one. Rather than being two hours from the hospital, they were now a ten minute walk. Her parents moved here to make it easier for her father to receive treatment. Within a week, he was back in the hospital and not coming home any time soon. Once again, she was alone with her mother. It was June now. In fall, she would be attending the high school down the road. She didn't bother getting to know any of the other teenagers in the neighborhood. Sometimes, she watched them from the window, but Aimee didn't care much about what other people were doing. Her mother went to work during the day to her office job an hour away, then came home to talk on the phone with her boyfriend from their old town or to go on dates around town on the weekends. She was sure her father probably knew, but he said nothing of it. As he said nothing, Aimee said nothing as well. Their home had always been quiet. When her mother was at work, she fixed up her room. Her bed was perfectly made and her floor spotless. There was no knowing when her mother might check it. In elementary school, she worked hard on hiding her diary from her mother. By sixth grade, she stopped keeping one. Her thoughts stayed in her head and in the air, silent and invisible. She cooked dinner later in the day. With the hospital so close by, she was able to walk there now and see her father more. Before, unless her mother wanted to go to the hospital, she never got to see him whenever he stayed there for a long time. He always looked cheery when he saw her. If the doctors didn't tell her so, she wouldn't believe he was sick. He'd always been sick, as far back as she could remember, though the doctors gave him different diagnoses along the way before settling on one. Every now and then, he stayed at the hospital for varying periods of time. When she started third grade, he stopped working full time. Being so young then, she was happy about it at the time. She got to play with him more then, even though he spent a lot of time resting in bed. Sometimes, his face turned red. He would playfully tell her a fairy painted a butterfly on his face. She believed him for a while, and then pretended to believe him when she got older. In fifth grade, a nurse started coming to the house regularly. She avoided the nurse when he came over. He was a young man, younger than her father by a few years. The nurse scared her. He seemed cold and cruel when she was young. Somewhere along the way, she realized he scared her more because he was a representation of something she didn't want to admit was real. Her father wasn't getting any better. She overheard the doctor mention her father's condition had no cure. The best they could do was manage it. Sometimes, he went to work for most of a year, then had to quit. It was always up and down. The nurse helped him when he was homebound while her mother went to work. She grew bitter the longer he stayed home or in the hospital. When Aimee was little, her mother was a housewife. Then, she worked part-time here and there whenever her father had to stay home or go to the hospital. Eventually, she was working full-time. Tension between her parents was apparent in the air, but no one said anything most of the time. Every now and then, the dam broke and they argued. She covered her ears to block out the sound. When she was twelve, she did her best to pretend she didn't see the papers on the kitchen table about a divorce. It didn't end up happening. Her paternal grandfather was in the hospital then too. They put it off, planning to go through with it once he got better. Her grandfather died in the same hospital her father was staying in, a couple of rooms over on the same hall. That was six months ago. Her father's health had declined since then, and her mother's behavior changed. She was more open about her affairs. The cruel words left unspoken before came tumbling out to the surface. Aimee didn't know how to react to that. She did what she always did before. She stayed silent, unable to say a single word. Aimee kept her distance from her mother. She spent most of her time alone in her room. She was always a shy girl and didn't have any close friends growing up. A good portion of her childhood was spent in the hospital at her father's bedside or at home in the same place. Whenever her mother was out, she sometimes roamed around their fenced yard. The fence was tall and wooden, making her feel more safe to go out than at their previous house. The backyard was mostly bamboo and pine, while the front was lined with hibiscus in front of the porch and a willow near the front gate. Along the side of the house facing the direction of the hospital, a large hydrangea bush bloomed. The flowers on the bush were mostly pink and white, with a few a more purple and blue colored. She collected the flowers up for her father and brought them to him at the hospital. She waited for staff to leave before going in. Her father waved at her. "Hey, princess." "Hey." Aimee held the flowers out to him. "I brought you some more flowers." He smiled at her. "Thank you. Could you put them in the vase for me?" She threw out the withered flowers from her last visit and replaced them with the new ones. "Are there a lot of flowers now at the house?" He asked. Aimee averted her eyes when she noticed how rough his skin looked and the drawn back curtains. "Yes, everything around the house is blooming." "I hope I get to come back home soon. I want to see the flowers." He sat up in bed, breathing heavily. "Are you excited about going to a new school?" Aimee faked a smile. "It might be fun." "Are you getting along well with your mother?" He asked. Aimee's shoulders flinched. "She's been really busy with work. We haven't talked much." "Oh, I see." He glanced away. "I'm trying to get out of here as fast as I can. I might have to plan my escape. They won't let me go much of anywhere." "It's okay. You need to stay here until you feel better." She said, sitting down beside his bed. "Your birthday's coming up. I'm going to try to be out by then." He patted her on the head. "Fifteen. When did you get so big? In a few years, you'll be an adult." "Yeah." She said. Aimee rarely thought about the future. Her mind refused to let her thoughts linger there for long, for fear of what might be missing. She spent a couple of hours with her father before walking home. When she got back, Aimee noticed small specks of blood at the front of the half-opened gate. She followed the blood around to the side of the house. Underneath the hydrangea bush, a calico cat lay breathing heavily. Aimee's eyes watered at the sight. She got a towel and carefully carried the injured cat into the house. She couldn't pay for the vet visit, so she did her best to clean up the cat at home. The cat's injuries were mostly scratched. Fully cleaned up, the cat seemed to come back to life more. Aimee got the cat some chicken and water from the kitchen. She put them in small dishes on the floor. She placed the cat on an old pillow. The calico cat ate a little, then went to sleep. Aimee watched over it until it was time for dinner. Her mother, hearing a faint meow, checked Aimee's bedroom. She was furious. "What's this cat doing in the house? You know I don't like cats." Her mother said. "I didn't get a cat. It was hurt in the yard. I'm only taking care of it until it gets better." Aimee said. She got between her mom and the cat. "Can't you keep it outside?" She asked. "I don't know...maybe if I set her up a little box on the porch, she might be okay..." Aimee said, quickly trying to find a way to calm her mother. "Then put her out there. We can't have a cat." Her mom went to her room and started talking to someone on the phone. Aimee looked for a box big enough to fit the pillow and the cat. She cut a part out for the cat to get in and out of, then took it outside. Aimee brought the dishes and the cat with the pillow out after that. The calico looked up at her with its big, green eyes. The cat got up to eat out of the dish, then went back to the pillow. She noticed the cat walked with a slight limp. Aimee hoped the cat would be alright alone overnight. She stayed on the porch with it until around ten when she went to bed. In the morning, she rushed out to see the cat in her pajamas. The cat was up, playing with a hibiscus flower that fell on the porch. The cat was still limping a little, but seemed to be doing better. Aimee refilled the cat's food and water before heading out to the hospital. Her mom had already left for work. She took some willow and hibiscus with her. At the hospital, her father was talking with the nurse who always came to their house, Chrys. Chrys left shortly after she arrived. "Hey, Princess. How have you been?" He asked. "I've been fine. I found a hurt cat last night. I'm taking care of it until it gets better." Aimee sat beside his bed. "Oh, really? I hope it gets better." He said. The room went quiet for a moment. There was something obvious to say, but no one said it. Her father picked up one of the willow leaves. "What are these for?" "I brought them for us, since you can't come home yet. I thought we could make flower necklaces and crowns like we used to do before you started going to the hospital so much." Aimee said. The words almost got caught in her throat. He smiled. "That sounds like fun. I think I remember how to do this..." After a few attempts, they both made crowns for each other. Her father placed the crown on her head. "For my little princess." Aimee put the one she made on him. "And for the king." Before she could finish a necklace, Chrys returned. He tapped Aimee on the shoulder. "Aimee, can you step outside for a while? The doctor needs to run some tests." Aimee exchanged looks with her father. She went over to her father and hugged him. "I'll go ahead and go for now. I'll come back tomorrow." "Alright. Be careful walking home." Her dad said. "I will. Bye." "Bye!" Aimee rushed out the door. She moved as fast as she could without running. She couldn't stand to be there whenever a doctor was around for anything. Outside the hospital, she caught her breath before running home. People gave her strange stares. Their looks stung. Aimee hated getting any kind of attention from strangers. She wanted to disappear, but she couldn't stop. Her fear of what was in that building was greater than her embarrassment. When she was younger, she used to rush out to the parking deck and wait in the car to go home. Her mom would run after her, angry, to come back in. When she wouldn't budge, her mom locked her in the car. She was happy to be in there, as lonely as it was. Anywhere but there with him and those people in white coats and colorful smocks was good enough. She learned to be content with her loneliness. In her childish mindset, she thought if she ran away and didn't see anything bad happen, it wouldn't. She could outrun her fears, she thought. Now that she was older, she knew that wasn't true, but she couldn't stop herself from running. Back at home, the calico cat met her at the front door. A dead bird sat at its feet. The cat meowed at her triumphantly. The sight of the bird upset her, but she didn't hold it against the cat. Aimee picked up the cat and brought it back to the box she set up. She cleaned the cat's wounds again. The calico had managed to get a lot of dirt on the scratch across its nose. Once the cat was cleaned up, she gave it more food. Aimee sat with the cat on the front porch, hidden behind the hibiscus flowers. She watched the cat play with the flowers. Aimee took the flower crown her father made her and placed it in her lap. It would wither away in time. She walked out to the hydrangea bush and hid it underneath. Aimee let the cat come into the house for a while. Her mother wouldn't be home for several hours. The cat made itself at home on her bed. Aimee got an old shoelace and dangled it in front of the cat. "You need a name." Aimee said. The cat leapt up at the lace. Aimee thought it over. The colors of the cat's fur reminded her of a children's book series her father used to read to her at night about a little girl. She tried to remember what the girl's name was. She knew it was something simple. Aimee couldn't remember what happened in those books beyond that her father would read them with her on the hammock they used to have in the backyard at her old house. A name popped in her head. "It was...Mimi, I think. How about Mimi?" The cat meowed at her. "Mimi it is." Aimee let the lace drop. Mimi rolled around with it. "I wish I could keep you. Mom's never let us have any pets." At times like this, Aimee wished she had a friend to vent her frustrations to, but she spent so much time at the hospital or at home with her father whenever she wasn't at school that she never made any friends. Talking to other children was awkward. They worried about finishing their homework. She worried about doctor visits. Once, she managed to tell some other kids about her father. One boy told her in first grade that she should be happy if her father didn't come home. That meant, in his words, she was free to do more of whatever she wanted. She didn't tell other kids about her father after that. She wanted a friend who would understand, but she wouldn't dare risk opening up again. Her teachers were aware of the situation. Her mom would explain it to them at the start of the year, but they didn't really care. There were too many kids in class to worry over her, and she was too "good" of a child to "need" any help. So long as she was quiet and kept her grades up, the rest didn't matter. When she was really lonely, she imagined a friend for herself. The friend was always more confident than her and able to say whatever she wanted. A friend who understood her perfectly, didn't hurt her, and knew how to protect her. She wanted all of that. Aimee caught her reflection in the small mirror on her desk. She was certain even her own reflection could offer her none of that. Aimee put Mimi back outside around the time her mom got home from work. Her mom rushed in, changed clothes, and rushed back out. It was the weekend. Her mom usually went out drinking on the weekends now. She didn't drink very much when Aimee was little. Her mom would likely come back with a man tonight. Aimee kept the cat in her room after she left and locked herself in. She made a litter box for Mimi out of shredded paper and another empty box. Around two in the morning, her mother stumbled in with some man. The noise they made coming in woke her up. Aimee sunk down under her blanket. Mimi was sleeping on her pillow beside her. She carefully pulled Mimi down under the covers with her. Mimi woke up and made a growling noise. "Shh..." Aimee held the cat close to her. Her mother and the man talked loudly in the hall. Outside, thunder rolled in. It started to rain. The rain came down so heavily Aimee couldn't hear them anymore. Mimi went back to sleep, and Aimee soon did too. In the morning, Aimee made sure to get up before her mom. She snuck the cat back outside. As soon as she came back in, her mother yelled at her. She was sitting in the living room by the phone. "What are you doing out in your pajamas?" Her mom asked. Aimee froze. "I wanted to check on the cat." "We're not keeping it." She said. "I know." Aimee went down the hall to the bathroom. She wanted to shower to forget about the encounter. She heard the shower in her mother's bathroom running. Aimee locked herself in her bedroom. She hoped her mother would go somewhere else today. The man left first. He didn't stay long after the shower. Aimee went into the hall once she knew he was gone. She hadn't eaten anything yet. Aimee got to the edge of the hall before she stopped. Her mother was still there. She was on the phone. Aimee stayed still and listened. "I know. He won't be around much longer anyway. I've been here this long. I might as well get the money. I'll get way more waiting him out than divorcing him." Her mother said. Aimee stepped backward and turned around. She tip-toed back to her room and quietly shut the door. She waited until her mother left at noon before coming back out again. Aimee visited her father for most of the day. She headed back when he fell asleep. Her mother came home with her boyfriend from their old neighborhood late in the evening, several hours after Aimee returned home. Like the previous night, Aimee locked herself in with Mimi. She could tell by her mother's voice when she returned that she went out for more drinks somewhere along the way. The next morning, she rushed to get dressed and get the cat outside before her mother got up. She saw a car pull into the driveway when she walked out onto the porch. It was Chrys's car. Aimee left the porch to go around to the back of the yard. Chrys stopped her before she could disappear. "Aimee, is your mom inside?" He asked. "Yeah." Aimee nodded her head. She hurried to the backyard. Mimi followed behind her. Chrys didn't call out to her again. Aimee played with Mimi for a while with one of the ribbons she wore in her hair. Mimi snatched it out of her hand and ran into the thick bamboo at the edge of the property. Aimee followed the cat into the bamboo. "Mimi? Where did you go?" Aimee asked. The cat meowed at her feet. Aimee leaned down to get the ribbon from the cat. Shouting came from the house. She recognized both her mother and Chrys's voices. They were yelling at each other about her father. Aimee stood up. Her body shook. She didn't want to hear them yelling. She didn't want to hear anything awful about her father. Mimi sat at Aimee's feet, silent, eyes focused on the house. A strong wind blew through the tiny bamboo forest. Aimee couldn't hear anything but the wind and the bamboo leaves rattling around her. For a moment, she felt like she was transported somewhere else. The wind seemed to go on forever. It couldn't have been long, but Aimee quickly lost track of time. She watched the bamboo sway back and forth while the leaves dancing in the gale all around her. When the wind stopped, Mimi left the bamboo forest and ran to the front of the house. Aimee followed after the cat. She saw Chrys walking out to his car. "You fucking bitch!" He shouted at her mom before getting in his car and slamming the door. Inside the house, she heard her mother had yelled something back, but she couldn't make out what it was. Shaken by all of it, Aimee waited until Chrys left to take a walk around the neighborhood. Mimi followed her on her walk. She ended up walking over to the convenience store. Aimee stopped at the door. She noticed Chrys's car in the parking lot. Inside, she saw Chrys at the counter buying a carton of cigarettes. Before she could turn around, Chrys looked over at her. He quickly looked away. Aimee unconsciously went towards the hospital. She stopped before getting there. If Chrys bothered coming to the house when her father wasn't even home, she thought, it couldn't mean anything good. Aimee didn't want to go there if something happened. She didn't want to go home either, and she had no friends to run to. Mimi meowed at her and walked off the sidewalk into the grass beside her. Aimee looked over at her. A row of hydrangea bushes lined the side of the road, with thick woods on the other side. Mimi scurried underneath one of the bushes. "Wait!" Aimee called out to the cat. She slipped past one of the bushes. She followed Mimi through the woods to a stream. Aimee had never seen this stream before. The trees around her were young and tightly packed together. She couldn't see anything other than the stream and the trees around her. It was as if the whole town disappeared there. She sat at the stream with Mimi, watching the sunlight dance on the water. Now that she was alone and away, she let her thoughts roam. This wasn't the first time she heard her mother and Chrys argue. It happened more often when her father was home. Chrys rarely stopped by otherwise. Insults were exchanged alongside accusations. Aimee always ran away and covered her ears. When she was little, she thought, if she couldn't hear it, it wasn't real. She knew that was nonsense now, of course, but it didn't stop her from covering her ears at home. Mimi sat in her lap, purring. The sunlight left, replaced with gray. Aimee stood up and carried Mimi out of the forest. The wind picked up as she walked home. When she arrived, her mother's car was gone. The rain came down as soon as she touched the front door. Aimee let Mimi in the house while she made herself something to eat. She took her food outside to eat on the front porch. Mimi ate from a tiny bowl beside her. Aimee petted the cat. "Where do you think she went? Do you think Mom went to the hospital?" Mimi didn't respond. She buried her face in her food. "Or did she go somewhere else?" Aimee asked to the rain clouds above. With her right hand, she traced over a scar on her left arm. It was barely visible in spite of its length. She had gotten so pale lately. Aimee sometimes wondered if she was sick too, but her father was too ill to keep up with such things and her mother too busy in her own world. Aimee wondered if all her scars would become invisible if she kept losing her color. Petals of the hibiscus flowers in front of the porch blew over onto her and Mimi. They stood out strongly against her body, like the droplets of blood on her father's hospital gown she always noticed when she visited. He always reassured her they were from tests and treatment, nothing to worry over. She knew he was right about the first half of that, but Aimee wasn't sure how much she believed the latter part. Aimee pulled her knees in and listened to the rain. Her mother didn't come home that night. Aimee saw her in the morning, sitting in the living room by the corded phone. Her mother had the TV on a talk show. She didn't know who she was talking to, but from what she could hear, the voice sounded feminine. "They're gonna send him home soon. Hopefully, it won't last long. That stupid nurse is coming too. I need a vacation." Her mother said to the other person. "This hell is almost over with. The doctor says there's no way he'll make it to the end of the year." Aimee's body went cold. She stayed in the hallway, out of her mother's sight. "I can't wait to get this over with. I won't have to deal with playing wife and mommy after that." Her mom said. "Oh, didn't I tell you? Yeah, I'm giving up custody once he goes. Keeping the kid was always his idea. Of course it was. He didn't do a goddamn thing." Aimee backed up quietly. She returned to her room and curled up in her bed. Something in her wanted to scream so loud she'd make herself go deaf, but her tears came out behind muffled whimpers. An hour later, she heard her mother's car back out of the driveway. Aimee worked herself up to go to the hospital. Mimi followed behind her the whole walk there. At the front entrance, Aimee picked up the cat and put Mimi in her purse. "Stay quiet in there, okay?" Aimee told the cat. The cat curled up in the bag. Aimee went to the room her father was in. He was paler than when she last saw him, except for the red on his face. His eyes were full of sadness, but he smiled for her. "Hey Princess. You came to see me again." He said. "Hey Dad." She leaned down and hugged him. Mimi hopped out of her bag when she did. He looked over at that cat. "Oh, who's this?" "Oh...this is Mimi. This is the cat I told you about." Aimee said. "She followed me here. I didn't know what else to do with her." Mimi rubbed against her dad's hand. The cat flopped on its side and rolled around, purring loudly. He laughed. "What a friendly little cat. A calico. I had a calico cat once when I was a kid. Her name was Marie. She followed me everywhere too." "What happened to her?" Aimee asked. "She disappeared one day. We were moving house. I never found her before we left." He said. He petted the cat. "I always hoped someone else took her in, but she was old. She may have left us to find a quiet place." "Dad, can I keep Mimi?" Aimee asked, her voice trembling. He looked up at her and smiled. "Of course you can." "Mom said I can't." Aimee confessed. "Well, I can talk to her. It should be fine if you keep the cat in the yard." He said. Chrys came into the room. He addressed Aimee first. "Hey kiddo, I'm gonna need to talk to your dad for a little while. Can you go out for a few minutes? I...why is there a cat in here?" Mimi meowed loudly. Aimee's dad held the cat and laughed. "Surprise." "Will, was this your idea?" Chrys asked her father, his face somewhere between amused and annoyed. "It was my fault. The cat followed me here. I didn't know what to do with her." Aimee apologized. Chrys shook his head. "Just make sure no one sees the cat when you leave. Aimee, can you go ahead and go out for a sec. You can leave the cat in here for now." "Oh, I can leave if..." Aimee started to say. "You always leave when I come in. I'm really not going to be in here that long. Then, you can have him all to yourself again." Chrys said. "Alright..." Aimee said. Chrys wasn't usually pushy about her staying. She didn't want to think about why he wanted her to stay. Her stomach turned. Aimee sat outside for ten minutes before Chrys came to get her. "Aimee, you can go back now." He said. Chrys walked her back. "Are you staying? I thought you were leaving." Aimee said. "I will, but there's some stuff we gotta talk about first." Chrys said. Aimee wanted to run. Her feet were heavy and the air around her felt thick. Chrys walked with her back into the room her father was staying in. He was playing with Mimi. Chrys shut the door behind Aimee. "Um, is something going on?" Aimee asked. Chrys sighed and took a seat. Her father's smile disappeared. "Princess, come sit over here with me. We have to talk about something important." Aimee sat down beside his bed. "I'll be coming home soon. I won't be coming back to the hospital anymore." He said. "How come?" Aimee asked. "I'm sorry, Aimee, but there's nothing we can do anymore. So, I'm going home." He said, unable to look her in the eyes. "What does that mean? Why can't they help?" Aimee's eyes watered. "My body is giving out on me. I don't have much longer to live." He put his hand on her face. His eyes were wet. "I'm sorry, but I'm going to be home now. I'll be with you every day from now on until it's time." Aimee couldn't hold back the tears. She strangled her own voice, locking it away in her throat. She bit hard on her lip until she tasted blood. Her father wiped off the tears and held her close. "I'm sorry, little one. My body's just not as strong as other people's." He kissed her forehead. Chrys cleared his throat. Her father looked over at him, then back to Aimee. "But you won't be alone. From now on, Chrys is going to live with us and when the time comes, he'll be your guardian." Aimee's eyes widened. She couldn't hold her words back. "But what about Mom?" Her father's eyes revealed fear. He stumbled to speak. "I...um..." Chrys stood up. He pulled his chair up beside Aimee's. "Your mom's giving up custody. She doesn't think she can handle being a single mom. Raising you mostly by herself has been very difficult, not because of you, but raising a kid is really hard work, you know? You're fifteen. You'll be eighteen soon enough." Aimee blurted out. "Then why is she leaving me now?!" Her father went quiet. Chrys answered her. "Your father was here before, even if he wasn't always at home. It'll be hard at first, but we'll manage. I'm going to be living with you soon anyway. We'll both get used to it before it's time." Chrys's answer wasn't what Aimee wanted to hear. It wasn't a good enough reason, Aimee thought. It wasn't any reason at all. The tears flowed out. She clung to her father until the tears stopped. Chrys left for a while to get them drinks. He handed her and her father one when he returned. Aimee's face was as red as her father's. She quietly drank it. Chrys put his hand to her forehead and compared her temperature to his own. "Are you feeling well? Physically, I mean." Chrys asked her. Aimee slouched down in the chair. "I guess." "If you need me to, I can give you a ride home." Chrys offered. He sat beside her. "You should rest as soon as you get home." Mimi hopped into Chrys's lap. The cat licked his hand. Chrys unconsciously smiled. "Oh, Chrys, I told Aimee she could have this cat. This is Mimi." Her father said. "Mimi, huh?" Chrys picked up the cat. "Hello, Mimi." "When are you coming home?" Aimee asked. Her dad looked over at her. "I'll be home in two days. There's a few more things we need to sort out before I leave here. Do you want Chrys to take you home?" Aimee shook her head. "I'll be fine on my own." Her father hugged her. "I'm sorry. I don't know how much time we have left, but let's make the most of it, okay?" Aimee hugged him back. She went home not long after that, Mimi tucked away in her purse. Another storm was coming through. She hurried through the streets. At the house, she saw her mother's car was back and another car sat parked beside it. A man walked out of the door and got in the other car. Aimee waited for the man to leave before coming into the yard. She let Mimi out on the front porch. Her mother was in the kitchen, pouring herself a drink. "You've been gone a long time." Her mother said. Aimee froze, halfway in the living room and the hallway. "I went to the hospital." "So, then you know, right?" Her mother said. "Know what?" Aimee played dumb. "He's dying. They're sending him home for us to deal with." Her mom downed the alcohol. "And that nurse is moving in. Of course he's coming." "Where is Chrys going to stay at?" Aimee asked. Her mother's words didn't affect her now. She had cried all the tears in her at the hospital. What remained when her eyes dried was a feeling she wasn't used to. "The extra room, where my in-home gym will go once he leaves." Her mom drank more. "As soon as he's gone, that man is going to be out the door. He better not think I'll let him freeload here." Aimee had many questions for her mother. She almost asked them, but she left them burning inside herself. Aimee went to her room and put her bag down. She wanted to play with Mimi for a while inside, but her mother wouldn't allow it. The feeling building up inside her let new thoughts come to the forefront of her mind. If she had to let go of her father, and she had to live with Chrys, at least Chrys would let her keep the cat in the house. Aimee lay back on the bed. Why did her mother consider her such a burden? Aimee cooked her own food, and often cooked dinner for everyone since she was young. She didn't get in trouble at school. She wasn't the best student, but she wasn't a failing student either. Aimee always kept to herself, away from everyone and as quiet as the dust on the windowpane. She only watched the world from afar, staying in her own little world the same as her mother kept herself in another. She didn't understand why her mother didn't care about her father either. Being ill all the time wasn't something he brought upon himself. Her father always followed his doctors' suggestions. Chrys always came to the house and helped him when he needed it, and her father never hesitated to call for help. He worked every hour he could manage, the same as Aimee did everything she could around the house. Her mother seemed to resent him more every year. Then, her hate was laid on Chrys. What was she so angry about with him, Aimee wondered. 'Were you mad he was stopping Dad from dying faster?' Aimee thought. She got up from the bed and went back to the kitchen. Her mother was on the phone in the living room now. Aimee made a small amount of chicken and cut it up into small pieces. She grabbed her umbrella and took the chicken outside to look for Mimi. Mimi wasn't on the front porch. Aimee walked around the house looking for the cat. "Mimi!" Aimee called out. "Mimi?!" Aimee saw a tail behind the hydrangea bush. She went over to it. Mimi came out from under the bush and meowed at her. "There you are. What are you doing out in the rain?" Aimee asked the cat. She put the small bowl of chicken on the ground at her feet as she knelt down. Aimee kept her umbrella positioned so both her and the bowl wouldn't get wet. Mimi sniffed the meat, then nibbled on one of the chunks. Aimee heard the front door open. She assumed her mom was going out again. She didn't bother to look at her. Her mother's footsteps grew louder, then stopped. "What are you doing?" Aimee heard her mother's angry voice behind her. Aimee stood up and turned around. Her mother was standing right behind her. Aimee answered. "I was feeding the cat." "I told you we're not keeping a cat. The cat's not sick anymore. Take it to the pound." Her mother yelled. "It's only a little chicken." Aimee said back. "Only a little? Do you have any idea how much chicken costs? You're not the one who pays for that food. You're so wasteful." Her mother said. Aimee snapped back. "But I am the one who cooks everything. We have plenty of food." "Excuse me? You cook because you live with me and that's what you're supposed to do. You don't pay the bills. You..." Aimee yelled back. "Dad said I could keep the cat if I keep it outside." "Oh, did he? Well, guess what? He won't be here for another couple of days. I'm taking that cat to the pound tomorrow morning, and that's the end of that!" Her mother yelled louder. "Why do you get to decide? You won't even be around me after he's gone!" Aimee raised her voice to match her mother's. "Don't talk back to me!" Her mother raised her hand. Aimee flinched and closed her eyes. All the anger in her flew away. She was left with the familiar motions she often did in silence when her mother's voice was raised as high as her hand. The burning pain on her cheek matched with her mother's touch against her wrists afterwards. Meekly, she struggled to pull away from her mother's grip, but her mother's hands were always stronger than hers. She pulled Aimee closer. Long nails dug deep into pale skin, staining wherever they met in vibrant red. Her mother's face was too close now. Aimee leaned her body back unconsciously. This pose reminded her of the old vampire movies she used to run out of the room from when she was young. Whenever her mother grabbed hold of her like this, she felt like she was lost under a spell like those women in those black and white films. Her body was useless. If she was lucky, her mother would be too tired by the time she dragged her inside to leave any more red across her skin. From the way her cheek stung, she already knew she had half of the butterfly mask her father often wore. The ground itself resisted as Aimee's mother yanked her away from the hydrangea bush, the soles of her shoes sinking into the mud. Both of their umbrellas were caught in the wind, drifting closer to the far end of the driveway. Mimi growled and hissed at her mother. "Stupid cat! Go away!" Her mother kicked the cat. Aimee's voice returned to her for a moment. "Stop! Don't hurt the cat!" Her mother released one of Aimee's wrists so that she could raise her hand again. Aimee braced herself a second time. The sting didn't come, but her face was covered in red. This time, both sides were the same shade, as was all of her. When Aimee opened her eyes, Mimi was taller than her. Her mother's body hung in the cat's teeth, gushing out a waterfall of the same color that covered Aimee's skin. The cat let the body fall to the ground, then shifted back to a small size. The cat then bit into the body and dragged it underneath the hydrangea bush. Shocked, Aimee collapsed to the ground. Little by little, all of her mother's body disappeared underneath the bush. Rain washed away the blood. Her dress was somehow stainless again. Aimee worked up the courage to look underneath the bush. She expected to see her mother's lifeless face staring back at her or a limb twisted at a strange angle. There was nothing underneath the hydrangea bush, except for Mimi, who meowed happily at her. Scared, Aimee ran inside and locked the door. She then hid herself away in her room. Aimee didn't know what to do. Should she call the police? What would she tell them? Aimee heard a door open in the house. It sounded like it was her mother's door. She wanted to peek, but she was too scared to. She heard dragging noises in the hallway. When the noise was near the end of the hall, Aimee forced herself to look. She cracked the door open just enough to see down the hall. Mimi was there biting down on her mother's favorite purse. The cat dropped the purse and meowed again, then picked it back up and walked out of the hallway. Aimee locked the door back. She kept hearing the dragging noises for a long time. Aimee thought about calling her father, but didn't want to worry him either. She decided against calling the police for now. The only person she had left to call was Chrys. Aimee checked the hallway. Mimi was in her mother's room getting something. Aimee ran to the living room and unplugged the phone, then ran back to her room. She passed Mimi in the hallway. Aimee wasn't sure where Mimi was going or how the cat got in the house. The front and back door were both locked. She locked her bedroom door and plugged in the phone. Aimee called Chrys's phone number. He answered in an angry tone. "What do you want, Roseline?" "Um, it's Aimee." She said. "Oh, Aimee. I'm sorry. Um, is everything okay? You don't usually call me." He apologized and spoke more nicely. "Mom's not here." She said. That was as best she could say it. "She's gone off somewhere again, huh? Do you know where she went?" He asked. "No, I don't know." Aimee's voice trembled. "Do you need me to come over there? Are you okay?" "I don't want to be here." Aimee's voice was barely above a whisper. Chrys went quiet for a moment. "I'll come pick you up. Do you want to stay at the hospital tonight or stay with me? I don't have an extra room, but the couch folds out." "I don't want to go to the hospital." "Okay. Pack your stuff for the night. I'll be over there in a few minutes." Chrys said. He arrived at the house ten minutes later. Aimee ran outside to meet him. Her mother's car was missing from the driveway. Aimee didn't question it. She rushed straight to Chrys's car and got in. Chrys looked over at her. He touched her right cheek, then pulled his hand away. "Are you bringing your cat?" "The cat's fine outside." Aimee said. Chrys noticed the cat at the front door. He took the meat off his sandwich and got out of the car. Chrys put the meat down for the cat. "I'll bring her back tomorrow. Don't worry." He petted the cat, then got back in the car. Chrys backed out of the driveway. Aimee saw Mimi was carrying one of her mother's bracelets over to the hydrangea bush. Chrys got the extra bed ready for Aimee after they got to his apartment. Aimee had never been here before, though she had his phone number since she was little for emergencies. The apartment was sparse and the sofa bed wasn't very comfortable, but the blankets were warm. The scent of the pillow and blankets reminded her of her father. She wondered if over time what she thought of as her father's scent had changed to include some of Chrys's scent mixed in with it. Chrys sat at the edge of the bed with a first aid kit. "Let me see your face. You have some cuts." Aimee pulled her hair back. Chrys cleaned off the small wounds. "Did she hit you again?" Aimee bit her lip. She had never told anyone about that. "Why do you think that?" "Aimee, it's okay. You don't have to hide it from me." Chrys put a bandage on her face. "You don't have to tell me about it right now. Get some rest." Aimee curled up in the big blankets. She thought about what she saw, but said nothing to Chrys about it. He offered her something to eat, but she declined. Aimee fell asleep around ten. In her dream, she was small again and napping beside her father in their old house. Her favorite picture book was laying beside her on the blankets. Flower crowns of golden mums decorated the two of them. The window was half opened, letting in the warm summer breeze. A noble leafwing butterfly landed on both their faces. The one that landed on her father was much bigger than the tiny one resting on her nose. The mums created a yellow glow around her father from above. He held up a dandelion as gold as the buds resting on his head underneath his chin and rubbed it. When he pulled the flower away, the yellow remained. He laughed and put the dandelion in his flower crown. She woke late in the morning. Chrys was already awake. He brought her breakfast. After eating, Chrys took her back home. Her mother's car was still missing. Chrys got out of the car with Aimee. He brought her into the house. Aimee saw in her mother's room that most of her things were gone. Chrys noticed too. He let out a heavy sigh. "She's gone and ditched early, huh? Fine. We don't need her." Aimee felt something against her leg. She looked down. Mimi meowed at her and jumped up against her leg. Aimee picked up the cat. "What should we do?" Chrys scratched the back of his head. "If she's not coming back, then she's not coming back. I'll report her missing in a few days. Guess I'm moving in early then." "You don't have to. I'll only be alone for a day." Aimee said. "Besides, Mom was gone a lot of nights anyway." "Really?" Chrys shook his head. "It's fine. I'm already packed up. I'll swing by the apartment and be back here soon. Do you need any money to get stuff while I'm busy?" "I have a couple of dollars in my wallet." Aimee said. Chrys took his wallet out. He handed her a twenty. "Here. If you need to get some more food, go ahead. I'll be back as soon as I can, then I'll be going to the hospital later." Aimee took the money. She walked to the grocery store and got a few items, including a bag of cat food, a proper litter box, and cat litter. Mimi followed her the whole way, hiding in her purse when she was inside the grocery store. Aimee didn't know how to feel about Mimi now. Her mother was gone. She knew she should feel sad and afraid, but when she woke that morning, she only felt relief. Chrys moved in that day, and her father came home the next day. Her mother was reported missing that same day, but the police weren't particularly concerned with her case. Her father spent a lot of time in bed with Chrys by his side. With Chrys staying with them, Aimee noticed things she didn't before. If she left them alone, they could talk for hours. Aimee never considered Chrys to provide anything for her father outside of healthcare, but she could hear them talking through the walls of her bedroom. The words were hard for her to hear, but their voices carried through. When he had the strength, her father would sit with her on the front porch or go on brief walks with her. One morning, he went out early with Chrys. When they came back, they had several shopping bags. Aimee helped them with the bags. "Hey Princess. I got you some things from the mall." Her father said. He opened up one of the bags and pulled out a blue dress. The dress was knee length and covered in hydrangeas along the top. He took out a box from another bag and presented her with a pair of blue flats to go with the dress. His last present was an umbrella, mostly translucent, with hydrangea flowers lining the edges. "Thank you." Aimee picked up the dress and looked it over. "Why the flowers?" "They reminded me of you, when you were really little." He said. "When it would rain and you didn't want to go inside, you used to hide in our hydrangea bush. I'd go looking for you, then you'd pop out and scare me. Do you remember?" Aimee shook her head. She recalled they had a hydrangea bush at the old house, but not where it was or playing around it. "Oh, you were really little then. Two or three, I think." He said. Aimee remembered something. "Hey, what about dandelions? Did we do anything with dandelions?" "Dandelions?" He asked. "Oh, like blowing them in the wind to make a wish?" "No, not that. Something else...when they were yellow. At the face..." Aimee struggled to recall what happened in her dream. "Oh, that." He laughed. "That's to see if you're in love with someone." Chrys sat down on the couch. He unwrapped a mostly eaten sub sandwich. "What?" "It's a game kids play. You put the dandelion under your chin and rub it, and if the pollen sticks to you, it means you're in love with someone." He explained. "Of course, it typically comes off, so...Haha, it's a pretty silly game. When Aimee was little, I used to do that to her to tease her that she must like someone, and then she'd throw a fit that she didn't before running off." "I don't remember that at all!" Aimee blushed. "Haha, you were really little then. You were a lot louder back then." Her father said. "Will, I'm gonna take a shower. Do you need anything?" Chrys asked, finishing his sandwich. "No, I'm good. I was going to go to the ice cream shop up the block. I can take Aimee with me." He said. Her father looked over at her. "If that's okay with you." Aimee nodded her head. "I don't mind. I haven't had ice cream in a long time." "Actually, I was going to get an ice cream cake." "Even better." Aimee smiled at him. They walked together to the ice cream shop underneath Aimee's new umbrella. It rained lightly during the trip there and back. On the way back, Aimee opened up more. "Dad, I don't think Mom's coming back." Aimee said. "I know." He said. "Are you sad?" Aimee stared at the ground. "I don't really feel that sad. I'm sorry." "You don't have to be." He said. "Dad, is there really nothing they can do for you?" Aimee asked. "More than one of my organs is giving out on me. My body's failing all over. They might be able to get me one organ, but my odds still won't be good after that. Someone with better odds should get that kind of help." He said. "But if there's a chance, shouldn't we do that anyway?" She asked. "I've already weighed those odds, and I don't want to risk dying at the hospital, or going through all that and dying not long afterwards anyway. You may not understand this yet, but when you're in my position, it's not about the number of days I can increase it, but the quality of them." Her father said. He continued. "When your grandfather got really sick, they did everything to prolong his life, but he stayed in pain and in that hospital bed until the end. None of us were there with him when he died. I don't want to die like that. I want to die in my home after spending my last days doing all the things I want to do." Aimee held back the tears. "It's not fair. I didn't want you to come home like this." "I know. I didn't either." "Why is it like this? Other people don't get as bad as you did. I heard the doctor say it." Aimee said. "Bad luck, that's all it is. Someone always ends up being that unlucky number on the far end of the statistics. That happened to be me this time." He lowered his voice. "I almost made it to your eighteenth birthday. I was really hoping I'd make it that far, but this is pretty close. There was a point around when I was first diagnosed that they didn't think I'd make it past that year from how weak I got, but I made it this long. When you think about it like that, I did pretty good, huh?" The tears fell against her wishes. Aimee couldn't speak. "I'm sorry, Princess." He said. "They sent me home with some medicine to make it easier at the end. It won't be so bad, okay?" "I don't want you to leave me." Aimee forced the words out. "I don't want to be alone." "You won't be. Chrys will be here with you." "Why Chrys? He's just your nurse." Aimee asked. "You know him. He's been with us for a very long time. I don't really have any other relatives I can leave you with, and I don't want you in foster care either. He's a good man. I know I can trust him. He took care of me this long." Her father reassured her. "But I'm not sick. I don't need a nurse." "He's doing this as a last request of mine." He said. "I've already arranged everything for you. He'll manage your inheritance and everything else until you turn eighteen. I've made sure there will be a lot for you to live off of until you're settled on your own, and the house will be yours." "I don't want any of that stuff!" Aimee turned to him and hugged him. She buried her face in his chest. "I want you." "It's going to be alright. We were always going to part ways some day. I'm your dad. I'm supposed to go first. I'm just leaving a little earlier than most dads." He put one arm around her. "But you'll be with me again one day. We won't be apart forever." Aimee hugged him tightly. She tried to enjoy the ice cream cake with him back at home, but it left a bitter aftertaste in her mouth. Her father grew weaker each day, but he always smiled at her every morning. She spent a lot of time with him in his room. Aimee didn't want to think about waking up and knowing he wasn't there anymore, but she knew the day was unavoidable. Near the end of summer, her father called her into his room to talk. He sat rested against a few propped pillows on his bed. "Hey Princess. I wanted to talk to you about some stuff. Do you mind?" He asked. Aimee pulled up a chair. "What did you want to talk about?" "Well, I wanted to only fill these days with happiness, but we need to talk about some things. I promise I'll keep this to just today." He said. Aimee braced herself, not knowing what he was going to say to her. "I was thinking of doing a traditional funeral, but it's not really me who has to go through with all that, so I wanted to ask you. How do you want to go about it? What do you want to do?" He asked her. Aimee wasn't prepared to answer such a question. "What do you mean? What else is there?" "I don't know if you want to see my body or not. You can ask for the casket to be closed if it's too much for you, or open if you want. There's also the option of cremation. I considered that too, but I wanted your opinion. What would be the easiest for you?" He asked. "I don't know..." Aimee sunk down in her chair. "Why did you consider cremation over a normal funeral?" "Well...I was thinking the idea of being dropped in a cemetery felt sad to me. It reminds me of the cubicles I used to work in. A lot of people do nice ceremonies with the ashes after a cremation. Some people are left in the sea, some have their ashes kept to be mixed with their spouse...It sounded more beautiful to me that way, but I won't be around then. That's why I wanted to ask your opinion." "If we did do that, what would you want to be done? Was there a place you wanted to be?" Aimee asked. She didn't want to really let him go, but Aimee wanted him to not worry. As much as it pained her, if discussing this eased his pain in any way, she had to force back her sadness and speak. "Hmmm...well, I think I'd like to be with some flowers. If it's alright with you, could you plant flowers over me?" He asked. "I suppose that could be done...do I have to do it? Would it be okay if Chrys did it?" Aimee asked. She couldn't tell him she didn't want to see the ashes at all. "That's fine. I would be happy with that." Her father looked over at the window. "Then you are alright with it?" Aimee nodded. "If that's what would make you happy, then I think we should. I don't really like funerals anyway. Was there a specific plant you wanted for that?" He smiled at her. "Anything you pick will make me happy." Aimee wanted to smile back at him to keep him happy, but she couldn't. Her voice trembled. "I'll do my best to pick a nice one." Her father put his hand on hers. "There is something else we need to talk about. About your mother...Don't hold it against her too much. She didn't really want any of this." Aimee looked up at him. "What do you mean?" "I've been...hiding some things from you. Your mother and I didn't really want to get married to each other. I'm sorry." "But why did you? I don't understand." Aimee said. He looked over at the window again. "Well, we were dating a long time ago. The relationship wasn't working out, but your mom happened to get pregnant around the time we were about to break up. She wanted to give you up for adoption, but I wanted to keep you. Our parents both pressured us to 'make things right', as they said, and get married. So, we did. I tried my best to make it work, but...I suppose you can't fake love. Then, I got sick and burdened her even more. I should've done the right thing and not married her at all, but it's too late now." "Why didn't she want me?" Aimee asked. "Back then, she told me she wasn't sure she wanted to be a mom at all. We were really young then. We had to wait for your mom to turn eighteen to get married, and I had only been eighteen for three months when we got married." He said, then sighed. "She got more bitter with me as time went on. I think she saw me as keeping her captive in a way. She wanted to divorce me many times, but I didn't want to put you through that and I was afraid of how we'd manage. I kept getting sicker and she didn't want to be the one taking you after the divorce. I'm so sorry...I put you both through a lot." "I know you always did your best. You used to work so much more than the doctor said you should. I don't...I don't understand Mom, but I'll try and remember that." Aimee hugged her father. She wanted to say something else to her father, but she couldn't get the words out. The scratches from her mother's long nails had faded away under the bandages Chrys gave her. No scar remained on the surface. She wondered what her father knew, and how deep he could see. Aimee felt the wound still there, stinging underneath the skin, spreading out through her veins. Her father put his hand to her face. His cold fingers chilled her. "You've always been a good girl." She put her hand over his, hoping her warmth would thaw away the cold. He stayed frigid in her grasp before he pulled his hand away. Aimee felt the coldness dissipate quickly. "Did you need anything?" "No, not right now." He smiled. "Tomorrow, I was thinking of taking a trip down to the beach. Would you like to come with me?" "Is that a good idea?" "Chrys is coming with me." He said. "It'll be alright. The beach is only twenty minutes from here." "Okay. What time are we leaving?" Aimee asked. He said. "I was planning on leaving around nine tomorrow and staying out for a few hours. Do you think you could make us some food to take with us for tomorrow?" Aimee nodded. She stayed with him, talking about trivial things for a long time, before heading to the kitchen to prepare tomorrow's food. Mimi darted between her legs as she cooked in the kitchen. The cat begged for scraps until Aimee dropped the cat a piece of chicken. That night, she dreamt of the flower garden her father kept when she was young. She played hide-and-seek with him. Underneath the pink hydrangea, she watched him walk in circles. For every time he called her name, she laughed a little louder until he caught her. Then, he went to hide. Aimee counted to ten. When she opened her eyes, he was gone. She ran around the garden. Underneath every bush and behind every tree, she found nothing. Aimee noticed one bush looked different. The ground looked recently disturbed. Aimee made her way over to the gardenia bush and dug into the dirt underneath it. The white flowers fell around her as she dug. Deeper and deeper, she went until she found more white. Slender bones reached up to greet the drifting petals. Aimee woke in a sweat. Her heart pounded in her head. Tears drenched her face. Mimi was curled up on her chest. Pink hibiscus petals surrounded her on the bed and on the cat. Aimee assumed the cat must have brought them in. She got out of bed and went to the bathroom to wash her face off. On her way back, she saw Chrys coming out of her father's room. "Is everything okay?" She asked. "Yeah, he's alright. He wasn't feeling that great last night, so I stayed with him." Chrys said. "Will he be okay to go to the beach in the morning?" Aimee asked. "Yeah, he should be able to." Chrys said. Aimee's eyes had adjusted to the darkness. She pointed to the buttons on Chrys's shirt. "Your buttons are wrong. You missed one." Chrys looked down at his pajama shirt. He sighed and fixed them. "It's been a long night. What're you doing up?" "I got hot, so I washed my face off." She said. Chrys put his hand to her head. "Hmm. Are you feeling okay?" "Yeah, I'm fine. It's probably from Mimi sleeping on me. That's all." She lied. Aimee walked over to her bedroom door. "Goodnight." "See ya in the morning, kiddo." He said on his way to the bathroom. Aimee couldn't get back to sleep after that. She worried over what she might dream. Mimi kept her company on the bed until dawn. At nine, the three of them went to the beach. Aimee left Mimi at home, worried about losing the cat there. They went in Chrys's car. It was an overcast day. The weatherman predicted a thunderstorm for later in the day. Most of the beach was empty. Aimee wore the dress her father bought her. She brought the umbrella in her beach tote. They set up a large towel on the ground. Aimee hadn't been to the beach with her father since she was seven, even though their old home was only an hour from the beach. Chrys applied sunscreen to her father while Aimee did the same to herself. Her father laughed when Chrys put it on his face. "This smell, it reminds me of being a kid...my parents loved going to the beach." "My family did more camping than going to the beach. I think I've only been three times." Chrys said. "Really? You know, I never went camping. Not really interested in the whole surviving outdoors idea. I'd rather go back home or to a nice hotel after spending time outside for a while." Her father said. "Yeah, that sounds like you." Chrys rubbed the sunscreen in. "Don't overdo it today, Will." Her father laughed again. A little color returned to his face. "I won't." Aimee watched the waves as they talked. The scents around her brought her back to that last trip here. The sunscreen and the salt air lingered there. It was cloudy that day too, she remembered. Her mother didn't go with them because she thought it would rain and didn't want to deal with it. Aimee and her father built a sand castle together. They worked on it for a long time, until a big wave came and destroyed it. Aimee moved a little farther down the beach. She started working on a castle. Her father noticed. He came over to her to help build it. "How big should we make it?" He asked her. "As big as we can." Aimee said. They worked on it together. Chrys took a nap on the beach towel. "Are you feeling better today?" Aimee asked. Her father looked up at her. He titled his head. "What do you mean?" "Last night, Chrys said you weren't feeling well for a while." Aimee said. "When was this?" "Late in the night. I passed him in the hall, and that's what he told me." Aimee said. Her father laughed awkwardly. "Oh, I see. It was nothing to worry about." "I'm glad. I thought we might not get to go out today." Aimee patted the sand down on the castle. A large wave crashed into them. Aimee covered her face. Her father didn't react in time. They were both drenched. The salty water made her gag. She spit it out. Her father coughed. "Oh no..." He said. Aimee looked over. The castle was gone. "Oh..." "Ah well...should we start again?" He asked. Aimee rung her hair out. "I dunno..." "Hmm..how about a walk to dry off some?" He stood up. Aimee got up. She knocked off as much sand as she could. "It's everywhere." "Yeah...I'm going to need a good shower after this." He said. Aimee walked with him along the shore. The wind caught in her hair and dress. Her father stopped at a large rock by a tidal pool. "Aimee...it's not very likely, but you know, if you get sick like me...Don't you let any doctor give you the runaround. I know you're a sweet girl, but sometimes sweetness doesn't keep you safe." "Dad?" "I kept quiet about my symptoms for a long time, and when I said anything, I was told it wasn't a big deal by doctors. And I kept staying quiet until I was really sick. Please, Princess, promise me you won't stay quiet." He said. Her father reached down into the tidal pool. He picked up a small shell with a hole near the top. "I don't think I have anything wrong with me." She said. "You may not, right now. But someday, it'll happen. It could be anything. Whatever it is, when that time comes, don't stay quiet and let anyone tell you you're not in as much pain as you are." He handed her the little shell. "What's this for?" She asked. "Keep it. To remind you of what I said." Her father hopped over the pool to her. "I know it's hard. I was always a quiet person too. Please, will you promise me?" Aimee pressed her thumb against the shell. "I promise." They walked back to their beach towel. Chrys had woken from his nap. "Where did you two go off to?" Chrys asked. He yawned and stretched his arms. "Just on a little walk. Did you want to go on one with me?" Her father asked. "Are you sure you can handle it?" He asked. "I'm fine." He offered Chrys his hand. Aimee noticed something on her father's hand. A silver ring with a butterfly on it. She hadn't seen it before. Aimee asked. "When did you get that ring?" Her father looked at his hand and felt over the ring. "Oh, it was a gift." Aimee saw guilt in her father's eyes. She wanted to ask him something, but she couldn't. Chrys interrupted her thoughts. "Mind if I borrow your dad for a while?" Aimee shook her head. She sat down on the towel, letting her mind wander over things she never considered. Her father walked with Chrys for a ways, out of sight. Aimee lay back and watched the clouds. Who gave him that ring? Was it someone she even knew? Did she have any right to know? Aimee's thoughts turned to her mother. Her father did tell her that there was no love between them. She always knew about her mother's affairs. But she couldn't picture her father doing anything like that. Thinking about that hurt her, even if it made sense. If there was no love between them, why should he stay lonely? Aimee struggled to accept that as a possible reality. Chrys and her father came running toward her, the rain on their backs. Aimee got up and packed up as quickly as she could. She wasn't fast enough. The storm soaked everything. Her umbrella ended up being of no use. They rode back in the car. Aimee took a quick shower when she got home. Mimi was overjoyed at her return. Aimee played with her while she cooked in the kitchen. Her father took a nap until dinner. Chrys smoked on the front porch. Aimee sat down with him once she put the salmon in the oven. "Hey, Aimee. Something up?" He asked. Aimee picked up Mimi. "No, I like sitting out here when it rains." Chrys lit up another cigarette. "Something's on your mind. I can tell." "No. It's nothing." Aimee said. She petted the cat. Chrys exhaled the smoke. "It's the ring. You want to know who gave it to him, don't you?" "Why would you think that?" Chrys laughed under his breath. "I gave it to him." "What? What for?" Aimee asked, surprised. Chrys pulled a necklace out of his shirt. At the end of it was a silver ring with a flower on it. "It was for the promises we made to each other. These rings will lock into each other if put together. My half of the promise is that I'll take care of you when he's gone." Aimee looked at the ring more closely. The flower was a mum. "What did he promise you?" Chrys smirked. "It's personal." "What? What was it really?" Aimee asked. Chrys laughed louder. "It's nothing big, but it's also none of your business." Aimee narrowed her eyes at him. "Is any of that real or are you making all this up?" "It's real." Chrys said. He played with the ring at the end of the chain. Aimee gave up on getting anything else out of Chrys. He clearly wasn't going to let her know. The three of them ate dinner together, with Mimi eating on the floor beside them. She didn't attend school when it started back up. Aimee asked her father to be homeschooled so she could maximize how much time she could spend with him. The months went on, and her father grew weaker. Eventually, he stayed only in bed and was barely awake. One morning, Chrys knocked on her door. She answered. "Aimee, um, it's..it's gonna be today. Do you want to see him for a while?" Chrys asked. Aimee's heart hurt. She nodded. "Before you see him, um, let me ask you...do you want to be there when he dies? You don't have to stay. I'll stay by his side then regardless." Chrys said. "Seeing that is too much for some people. If you don't think you can handle it, it's okay." "I want to try to stay." Aimee said. "Okay." Chrys walked with her down the hall. "But if you need to leave, if it's too much, you can go whenever you want." Aimee's hand shook as she opened the door. To her shock, her father was sitting up and looked energetic. "Hey Princess." He beamed. "Good morning." Aimee looked at Chrys in confusion. Chrys nudged her forward. Aimee sat by his bed. Mimi refused to enter the room. "Hey dad." Aimee said. "I'm leaving today." He said, his eyes full of light. "Leaving? Where are you going?" She asked. "I don't know yet." He said. He looked over at the window. "Hey, could you pick some flowers for me real quick? Let's make some flower crowns." Aimee looked over at Chrys for reassurance. He nodded. Aimee went outside and picked a bunch of flowers. She brought them back in and dumped them on the bed. They worked on making the crowns together. "For my little princess." Her father put one on her head. Aimee presented him with the one she made. "For the king." Her father waved Chrys over. "And for you, my knight in shining armor." "I am honored." Chrys bowed to him while her father placed the flowers on his head. Her father smiled, then lay back on the bed. His energy faded quickly. "I'm so sleepy today." "Get some rest." Chrys held his hand. Her father looked over at her. "My princess, don't forget the promise you made me." Aimee held back tears. "I won't." "That's a good girl." He closed his eyes. His breathing slowed. Chrys held tightly to his hand. "If you don't want to see, you should leave now." "But he looked so well earlier. Are you sure?" Aimee asked. Chrys lowered his head. "I've seen this enough times to know. It won't be long. Decide, please, how you want to say goodbye." Aimee looked down at her father sleeping. She didn't want to see when his breathing stopped, but a part of her told her should would be awful for leaving. Aimee looked up at Chrys. "Is it really okay if I leave?" "I will stay. You can go. He won't be waking up anymore at this point." Chrys said. Aimee looked at her father again. She leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. "Goodbye. I love you." She left the room and went to sit out on the front porch. Aimee cried into her knees. Mimi curled up beside her, eyes watching the sky. A gust of wind rushed through, scattering leaves and petals into the air. Aimee couldn't hear anything but the wind around her. She lost track of time. When it stopped, Chrys opened the door. His face was wet. "Aimee...He's gone now." Chrys said. "Some people will be coming soon to take him to be cremated. If you don't want to see that, please go to your room. I'll let you know when they're gone." Aimee wiped her face off. She walked into the house. Her heart raced. The space inside seemed different. She stopped in the hallway. Her feet wouldn't budge. Chrys stood behind her. He put his hand on her shoulder. "Why don't you go in the backyard for now then? That might be easier." She nodded and went outside. Within half an hour, her father was gone from the house. She cried herself to sleep that night, and the nights following for the next two weeks. She couldn't handle looking at the box his ashes came in. It was too small and foreign to be her father. Fulfilling his last wishes would have to wait. She couldn't think of that. Aimee locked herself away in her room and cried. Chrys struggled with his new role as her caretaker. He was kind, but distant. Aimee became resentful at him as time went on. He was a reminder of her father, and that her father was gone. The old feelings she had towards Chrys when she was a child and he first started coming to their house resurfaced. She wanted to see anyone else but him. Aimee continued to refuse returning to public school. She did her lessons at home and rarely ventured outside of her room except to cook. Chrys saw new patients. When he was home, he spent much of his time on the front porch chainsmoking. Aimee hated that. That was always her space, she thought. One morning, when the pain and anger were more than she could bear, she went out to the front porch and sat down beside him. She wanted to reclaim her space. "Hey Aimee. How are you doing today?" He asked her. "The same as every day." She snapped at him. Mimi sat between them, meowing at Chrys. "Is something wrong?" He asked. "Yes." She buried her face in her knees. "You're here." "Why is that a problem?" He asked. "I don't want you here." Aimee said. "I don't need anyone. I'm nearly an adult anyway. I can take care of myself." "Where's all this coming from?" Chrys asked. "I don't want anyone here pretending to be him." Aimee said. She wanted to act tough, but her tears escaped her. "I don't want anyone here to be my replacement dad." "I'm not here to replace your dad. I'm here to take care of you." Chrys said. He put out his cigarette. "I don't want anyone to take care of me. I want my dad." Aimee's tears were hot on her cheeks. "I want him back." "I want him back too." Chrys said. Aimee yelled at him. Her feelings poured out from her. "What good were you? You were here all this time and he still died!" "I was never here to cure him. No doctor in existence could cure him. We did the best we could." Chrys defended himself. "If I could have, I would have. Why the hell would I let him die?!" Aimee cried more. Mimi nuzzled against her. Chrys lowered his voice. "I'm sorry for yelling at you. I know you're not really mad at me. You're upset because he's gone. I am too." "No, you're not! You're just a nurse. He wasn't your family!" Aimee cried out. "I took care of him for five years. Of course I cared about him." Chrys refuted her words. "You were paid to take care of him." She snapped back at him. "I'm not heartless, you know. I'm not working just for money. I'm not here right now because of money." Chrys said. "I'm here because I made a promise to your father. I don't care if you like me, but for the next three years, you're going to have to learn to put up with me. When you're grown, you can take this house or sell it, do whatever. That's on you. It's my job to make sure you get to that point." "I'm old enough." "You're not even halfway through high school. You're a kid. When you're my age, you'll understand that." Chrys said to her. "I hate you!" Aimee stood up and yelled at him, tears streaming down her face. "Every time you came here, he got worse. Maybe you did make him worse!" "Girl, are you blind?!" Chrys raised his voice again. "Do I have to spell it out for you?" "Spell what out?!" She yelled back. "Your father was as much a cheater as your mother." He said. Aimee's eyes widened. She screamed at Chrys. "My dad would never!" Chrys pulled out the necklace with the silver ring from underneath his shirt and held it up to her. "He did. He did for the last three years." "You're lying!" Aimee turned away from him. "Aimee, look at me. Why do you think I'm really here?" Chrys said to her. "Shut up!" Aimee stormed off and locked herself in her room. She was more angry and confused than before. Why would Chrys say something like that to her, she thought. It couldn't possibly be true. Mimi hopped onto the bed in spite of the door having locked the cat out. The cat licked Aimee's tears. Chrys knocked on her door a few minutes later. "Aimee, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you." He said through the door. "I don't want to talk to you." Aimee said back. "I know, but please, listen to me." Chrys's words were softer now. "I'm not here to be your enemy. I know I said some things that were...upsetting about your father. You have to understand this from my perspective. I'm just as hurt as you are that he's gone." "He wouldn't do what you said." Aimee wiped her face off. "Aimee, I know this is hard to hear, but I'm sure you already know your parents weren't happy together. Their marriage was dead a long time ago. They stayed together for you." Chrys said. "Please, let me in. Let's talk. We don't need to fight with each other." Aimee looked at Mimi. The cat headbutted her and purred. She felt a little calmer. Aimee opened the door and let Chrys in her room. "Thank you. I'm sorry. I know you're hurting a lot already. I don't want to make that any worse." Chrys apologized again. Aimee sat down at the foot of her bed. "I don't understand. Why would he be with you?" "Around then, we weren't sure, but...we already knew his odds weren't looking good. He hadn't given up hope entirely, but he told me he didn't want to die without letting free that part of himself, even if it was only in secret." Chrys said. He sat down beside her. "Your father was dating your mother, and other girls when he was younger, doing his best to keep that part of himself invisible and silent. Your mother found out at some point, and it was downhill since then." "Why didn't he tell me?" Aimee asked. "He was too ashamed to. How could he disappoint you by revealing his secret affair? He couldn't tell you that." Chrys explained. "He never said he wanted me to, but I got the feeling he wanted me to break it to you later, once he was gone." "You shouldn't have been doing that with a patient." Aimee said. "I know." Chrys held the ring in his hand. "What I did was unethical, but I don't feel wrong about it. You can be disgusted if you wish. I made my decision." "Did he even love me if he didn't want to be with her?" Aimee let another tear slip out. "What was I born for? So he could hide?" "He loved you more than anyone." Chrys said. "Whenever he was at a low point, he always thought about you to bring himself back up. Just because the circumstances around your birth weren't the happiest, that doesn't mean he didn't love you. Everything he did at the end was done for you." "What will you do if Mom comes back? How quickly will you disappear?" Aimee looked up at him. "I mean no offense to you, but if that bitch comes back, I'm not returning you." Chrys said coldly. He spoke softer after that. "Sorry, I don't have anything nice to say about your mother." "Do you hate her because she was his wife?" "No, and if she were a different person, I would've felt a lot more guilt about seeing your father. But I know what she was like. I'm surprised she ran off though. She didn't hide that she was only staying around this long hoping to cash out once he died." Chrys said. "I'm sorry, you probably don't want to hear that." "What makes you say that?" Aimee asked. "She knew everything...and I do mean everything. She didn't care about him anymore. If your grandfather hadn't died when he did, they would've divorced, but once she realized he'd probably die soon, she decided to stick around. Her intentions were obvious, whether she said them or not. I'm sorry. She wasn't a very nice person." Chrys said. Aimee felt over her cheek and remembered what Chrys asked her the night she stayed at his apartment. "What do you know?" "What do you mean?" "You say everything so easily. That night, you said...Do you know she..." "I know she'd hit you. I know she did that day you stayed over, and I know that wasn't the first time." Chrys put his hand on hers. "I know. You don't have to say it." Aimee asked him the question she couldn't bring herself to ask her father. "Did Dad know?" "No, he didn't." Chrys said. "How did you know? You never saw. I never said it." Aimee said. "Because my parents used to beat me. I know from the way you talk to her and the way you move around her. I know how you flinch when you're afraid of any confrontation. And I know why you don't talk to many people. I used to be just like you." Chrys said. "How did you make it stop?" "It was gradual, and it didn't happen until I made it happen. I can help you some, but you'll have to do a lot of this yourself. I think it would be best if you went back to school at some point. It doesn't have to be right now, but you should try going back." Chrys said. "Why didn't you tell my dad about what my mom did?" Aimee asked. "I almost did a thousand times, but I was afraid." Chrys's shoulders sunk down. "By the time I realized what was going on, he was already so weak. After your grandfather died, I worried anything might kill him. I'm sorry. I betrayed you by doing that." Aimee went quiet for a moment. "No, I...I wouldn't have wanted you to do anything that might have made his time any shorter. I...I never said a lot of things because of that." "I know. We were all too quiet." Chrys said. He patted her on the head. "But there's no reason to be quiet anymore. I know I'm not your father, but you can talk to me. I'll be here for at least three more years." "And what happens once those three years are over?" "If you want, we can make it official. I can adopt you." Chrys said. "But I'll be an adult then. What's the point of adopting an adult?" "Do you stop being family when you turn eighteen?" Chrys smiled at her. She could see the pain in his eyes. "I can't replace your father. The space he left between us can never be filled, but in a way, doesn't it bind us together too? We're gravitating around the emptiness that remains." "That seems a sad way to make a family." "All families, inevitably, become filled with that emptiness. People are always passing through, and when they're gone, they remain in between until none remember them. His space here, unfilled between us, will stay until the day you and I are gone." Chrys said. "I'm sorry, about earlier." Aimee apologized. "I said a lot of mean things to you. I don't hate you." "I know." He said. "We're both going to be hurting for a while. Let's do our best to not hurt each other too." "I think...maybe next school year...I could go back. I don't want to come back in the middle of it." Aimee said. "Alright. We can make that a goal to work towards. Next school year, you'll be back in public school." "What if I fail? What if I can't do it?" Chrys reassured her. "You can try again at a different time. But let's not think about failure. Tonight, why don't we do something fun together? What kind of foods do you like? We could order something." "Could we have a cake?" Aimee asked. "Dad used to get me ice cream cake whenever he'd come back from the hospital for a while when I was little." "Okay. We can do that." Chrys said. They went out to the store to pick up an ice cream cake. Aimee picked a strawberry flavored one. While at the grocery store, Aimee felt good enough to stop by the garden section. She couldn't stop looking at the gardenia flowers. "Did you want that to plant in the yard?" Chrys asked, noticing her interest. "I think it might be nice next to the willow." Aimee said. "Okay. Pick out the one you want. We'll plant it tomorrow morning." Chrys said. "You should pick one too." Aimee said. "A flower...hmmm..." Chrys looked around at the flowers. He walked over to the yellow mums. "Maybe this one." "Chrysanthemum?" "That is my name." Chry said. "I didn't know that was your name. I thought it was just Chrys." Aimee said. She picked out the gardenia she wanted. "It's not something I usually tell people unless I have to. They were my mother's favorite flowers. No one could convince her of any other name when I was born." He said. "I've gone by Chrys my whole life." "I can see why. That's a lot to write out." Aimee laughed. "Yeah." Chrys laughed with her. "Hey, um...I think I'm ready." Aimee said. "Do you think he'd like these flowers?" "Yeah, I think he would. They're beautiful." Chrys said. "We should use both." Aimee said. "I think he'd like the mums too." "Oh? Are you okay with that?" Chrys asked. Aimee nodded. "It feels right." "Do you want to do it tomorrow?" He asked. "Yeah. At sunrise. He always liked the early morning." Aimee said. They went home and shared a cake together. Before bed, Aimee strung a cord through the seashell her father gave her. The next morning, at dawn's first light, they took the gardenia and the chrysanthemum outside to plant on each side of the willow tree. Aimee wore the necklace just as Chrys wore his own. Mimi stayed with Aimee as she dug into the ground. When they had each dug a hole deep enough, Chrys opened the box. He poured the ashes into two yellow bowls and handed one to Aimee. She was not afraid to look upon the ashes. Soon, what remained, would be indistinguishable from the soil beneath her feet and embedded into the roots of the flowers growing above. They poured the ashes down into the holes in unison. Chrys took a ring out of his pocket. It was her father's silver ring. Chrys placed it in the middle of the hole. Aimee and Chrys planted and watered the flowers. The willow tree seemed to brighten at the presence of the new plants. Aimee caught a glimpse of the hydrangea bush at the side of the house. It too seemed to have become happier, as it was now twice the size it was when she moved in. Aimee sat with Chrys on the front porch, eating some of the leftover cake from the previous night. Chrys smoked in a chair beside her. "Why do you smoke? You're a nurse. You should know better." Aimee said. "You'd be surprised how many nurses and doctors smoke." Chrys said. He lit up another one. "It's not exactly a low stress job." "Shouldn't you not smoke around me? What if you make me sick?" Aimee said to him, shoveling a big chunk of cake into her mouth. He smirked at her and put it back out. "You're getting bossier." She laughed at him. "Do you wanna get Chinese tonight?" Chrys asked. "You eat out a lot." Aimee said. "I'm not exactly great at cooking." "Why not?" "When I was younger, it was because I spent a lot of time at school, working, and studying. Now that I'm working full time, it's mostly...I don't have any energy after work." Chrys shrugged. "Who are you seeing now?" Aimee asked. "I'm working with several people at the moment. I was when your father was around too, but he took priority." Chrys said. He fidgeted with his lighter. "Isn't that unfair?" "You're so cruel to me today." Chrys said. "I'm not mad about it." Aimee said. "I know." Chrys stretched. "Do you wanna cook tonight?" "I think you should." Aimee said back. Truthfully, she didn't actually like cooking that much. "If I'm cooking, we're ordering Chinese because I'm not." Chrys answered. "I like chicken fried rice and wonton soup." Aimee gave him her order. "Two spring rolls and a sweet tea." Chrys smiled widely. "What about some fried dumplings?" "No, steamed." "Haha, steamed it is." "Hey Chrys...can I ask you something?" Aimee asked. "Yeah?" "Why do you think my mom hit me? I know things weren't good between my dad and her, but..." Aimee pulled her legs in against her chest. "Some people don't know how to manage their emotions and stress. They take it out on others. And some people, well, they're just bad people regardless." Chrys leaned back in the chair. "My honest opinion is your mom was a bit of both. I know that's not nice to say, but...you know, some people aren't good. My mom used to take things out on me as a kid because of my dad, but my dad...he enjoyed hurting people." "Why are some people like that?" Aimee asked. "I don't know, but that's how it is. If someone tries to hurt you again like that, let me know. I'll protect you." Chrys said. Aimee played with the shell on her necklace. A tiny bit of sand stuck to her fingers. "Thanks." They ate Chinese food for dinner that night, and talked more on the front porch later in the evening. Chrys lit some candles around the porch to give them some light. The front porch light hadn't worked once since Aimee moved in. He told her he would have it fixed as soon as he could. Aimee didn't mind. The candle lights kept her happy enough. Around nine, Chrys went inside to take a shower. Aimee stayed outside and enjoyed the view of the full moon. She petted the cat. All around her, Aimee noticed the emptiness she felt before had lightened. She missed her father still, but thinking about him didn't hurt her as much anymore. Aimee could look at photos of him now without crying. The white gardenia flowers looked as if they were glowing in the night, brighter than the mums that stole her attention in the day. She was certain that both flowers would make him happy. She didn't know if she should miss her mother the way she missed her father. Her mother hurt her a lot for no reason, but she didn't know how she should feel about her death. Aimee decided it was best not to think about her at all. Chrys was very busy now. She knew she would be alone in the house a lot again. Aimee petted Mimi. "Mimi, I wish you could be my friend. You're always here with me." The candles blew out all at once as Mimi leapt off of Aimee's lap. Aimee reached around for the lighter. She turned all the candles back on. When she looked up, a girl was standing on the other side of the hibiscus flowers. Aimee cowered down. She looked more closely at the girl before her. Her hair was reddish-orange, hanging just about her shoulders. She wore a white dress with an orange-brown sash and a black buckle around her waist. Her eyes were greener than the leaves between them. "Who are you?" Aimee asked. The girl tilted her head. "Isn't this what you wanted?" Light from the candles flickered on the strange girl's face, revealing a scar across her nose. She was grinning from ear to ear. Aimee stood up. She extended her hand over the hibiscus flowers. "Then, come to me." She blew out the candles, one by one, and went inside with her friend.