She’d insisted her father meet her outside in the car park, because he’d make a big deal of it, and she didn’t want the others to see. She knew, before it happened, how it would go.
He’d be stood up. He’d have arrived too early. He’d be waiting, in the same make of tan suede loafers he’d worn every weekend since she could remember, arms outstretched, pinning a wobbling smile to his face. He’d sob into her hair. He’d take big, heaving breaths of relief and there would be surging emotion that he himself probably wouldn’t understand. His cheeks would be wet and, because it was a Sunday, he wouldn’t have shaved, so his beard would scrape against her face. She dreaded the performance of it, and felt ashamed to dread such love.
As it turned out, because she was still a hair’s breadth off eighteen, they wouldn’t release her without the presence of a nominated guardian, so he met her in the reception. He needed to sign for her, like a package – a fragile one he’d strap into the front seat of the Volvo, and hold fast as he turned sharp corners.
He insisted on carrying everything, as they walked back to the car, despite the fact that it was too much for one person. He had to go back. She’d waited, her fingertips on the warm surface of the car’s roof, watching him jog the last few metres, with a duffel bag under his arm, rushing in every conceivable way that she wasn’t.
She’d already been told, over the phone that morning, that her mother wouldn’t be coming this time. She’d be sorting a welcome home dinner for them, and needed to keep an eye on the oven. This fact in itself hadn’t exactly bothered her, given how often her parents had come back and forth to visit her already, though she’d suspected the real reason was that there had been needling between them, in the build up to her return, and they hadn’t wanted to fight on the way to pick her up. She could smell it through the receiver as her mother babbled about needing to nip to the shop for a few bits.
Once they were in the car, she saw that he had brought her zip up case: the one with all her CDs in it. He gestured, fiddling with the heating dials and testing the accelerator.
‘Put whatever you want on, pet.’
She had been taken aback by the choice.
For the past nine weeks, everything had been decided for her. Every increment of her daily schedule had been set out in one enormous itinerary. It had even been laminated and stuck to the back of her bedroom door. Lights on, lights off. Medication. Meal times. Snack times. Vitals. Visitation. Rec. Reflection. Meditation. Seeing her day mapped out like that every morning had reminded her of a grand, silver table setting, each utensil serving a very specific purpose: the order never to be diverged from. As she looked closer, she had eventually noticed the corners of the lamination had been rounded off with scissors.
She unzipped the case and stared at the rows of discs. There was something too embarrassing about playing her own music for him, and she worried about the interpretation of her song choices. Every shift into a minor key, every woeful metaphor, might prompt anxiety about her wellbeing: a fear so palpable that it would release like a toxic gas inside the car. After flipping through a few sleeves, she chose something safe: a gentle, inoffensive compilation of classic rock, familiar to them both.
‘That’s my girl,’ he grinned, patting her arm and giving it a squeeze, recognising the decision as an indication of his latent influence on her musical tastes. It wasn’t long before he was tapping the steering wheel and whistling guitar licks.
Half way back, he had stopped to fill up the car, taking the keys with him, as he went inside to pay. She was left to sit in the silence, and breathe, curling her little finger into the coat hook of the front passenger door. She smiled to herself. It had been a while since she had seen anything vaguely hooked, never mind touched one. Everything in the unit had been smoothed off and sloped down. Even the taps for the sink had been built into the wall and were operated by button. When she’d enquired about hooks and hangers, the matter had been firmly and quietly dealt with.
‘We just don’t want any distractions for you,’ they had said. That was true enough: they didn’t.
At the third chorus of Brown Sugar, she had closed her eyes for only a few seconds before she heard her father’s neck shift against his collar a few times.
‘You tired, pet?’ His shoulders had lifted.
‘Yeah. I was up late.’ And then, to fortify the response: ‘Packing.’
‘Ah, yes.’ He cracked a nonsensical joke, relieved by the explanation, and began whistling once again. She was both touched and exhausted by his awkwardness – his earnest desire for her to be happy, and his clear satisfaction with merely the appearance of it.
As they rounded the first familiar turn, she watched the road bend into reality before her. Her recognition of their whereabouts had hit her with force, and the imminent conclusion of the journey snapped like an elastic stretched too far. Calculating the remaining moments of silence in her head, she looped her little finger back into the coat hook above. She felt like an animal brought home from a pet shop in a cardboard box packed with cotton. Before long, the box would be opened.
She longed to stay inside it, to fester and bite, but knew she would not be able to reject the unspoken invitation to behave herself, to be smiled and clapped at, to be loved victoriously.
It was up to her to emerge, and after how long. But whichever moment she elected, it could not be avoided. Not now that she was fixed.