Read My Soul to Keep Online

Authors: Tananarive Due

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Horror

My Soul to Keep (5 page)

BOOK: My Soul to Keep
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At first, Jessica had considered the added features to their seventy-year-old house only a novelty, but now she treated the ground with reverence. Was she superstitious? Whenever she drank outside, whether beer or Diet Coke or mineral water, she poured the first sip on the ground as a libation. Jessica had decided the ghost in the trees was a woman and named her Night Song. She heard her gentle call tonight. Night Song was their neighbor.

Jessica expected to hear Princess’s barking next. Then she remembered, and the sadness was fresh. Her spirits ebbed as she walked down the path to the door.

“See? Look what I did,” Kira said after Jessica lifted her up for a hug and kiss. While Jessica balanced Kira on one arm, heavy as she was, Kira handed her a dried watercolor painting of a house, clouds, and a black blob with wings soaring above. “It’s Princess, Mommy, see?”

Then, she did see. Princess was in Heaven. Even their house looked obvious now in the painting. She should have known right away. Jessica kissed Kira’s nose again. “You paint like Daddy.”

Kira wriggled to be lowered back to the floor, and she danced from one socked foot to the other, smiling widely. She was wearing the Disney nightshirt they’d just bought her. Was it only the day before? “Daddy’s going to paint Princess on my wall next. He said he’ll do it tomorrow. It’ll look just like this. He said so.”

Jessica glanced at David then, who was sitting across the room at his computer. The pallet he’d made for Princess was cleared away. His face was drawn and weary, but he smiled faintly too. Undoubtedly, he’d had a long day with Kira, bringing this giddy smile of anticipation from the choking tears Jessica had heard as she left for work. Having Kira paint Princess had been a brilliant idea. Now, the grief she was feeling had a form, something she could touch and own herself.

David said he’d never spent much time around young children before Kira, but he was somehow a born father, just like he was a born teacher. Probably, she decided sadly, he gave so much precise attention to Kira—and maybe to her—to make up for all the things missing from his own childhood. Whatever the reason, she was just glad Kira had him. She was glad he was here, for Kira’s sake as well as her own.

Jessica walked over to touch David’s shoulders and roll her face in the honey-sweet scent of his hair. “You okay?” she whispered.

He nodded, clasping her hand. “It’s past somebody’s bedtime,” he said, speaking more to Kira than to her.

“I tried so hard to get here sooner. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” David kissed her wrist. “But Kira needs to get up for school tomorrow. You can tuck her in.”

It was a Miami-style winter, the temperature outside a cool seventy degrees, and all of the windows in the house were open. Built in the 1920s with high ceilings and plenty of windows, the house was designed for ventilation without air-conditioning, so they had never bought one. It was originally the neighborhood’s pump-house, but its line of owners since—including David—had added walls and other features to make its layout more conducive to a home. Before he met her, David had knocked out a wall to make more space for a proper living room.

Jessica flipped off the ceiling fan in Kira’s room, afraid she would get too cold overnight. Kira’s tiny denim jeans and T-shirt were laid out for school at the foot of her bed. David had already pulled her whitewashed pinewood desk away from the wall so he could begin painting his new mural.

“You won’t be sad to see the genie go?”

Kira shook her head matter-of-factly. “That’s old now.” She climbed beneath her blankets, still grasping her painting.

“Why don’t you give me that so it won’t get wrinkled?”

Kira hesitated, then complied. Her smile was gone, replaced by a grown-up reflectiveness as she gazed at Jessica. “Is Princess in Heaven? Daddy said he didn’t know.”

“Daddy doesn’t believe in Heaven, that’s why,” Jessica said, sitting by Kira’s side after sliding the painting between two picture books standing on Kira’s desk. David had never made his atheism a secret to their daughter. “But we do, right?”

Kira nodded, certain. “Right.”

“Sunday, you can pray to Princess at church with me and Grandma and Uncle Billy.”

Kira’s eyelid winced, and she quickly wiped a tear away. She was probably thinking of what a poor substitute that would be for riding on the dog’s back, or wrapping her arms around the dog’s massive neck. The whole house still smelled like Princess. Jessica spotted some of the dog’s straight black hairs on Kira’s white bedspread and instinctively tried to brush them off.

“Mommy, why did Princess go away?”

So Peter had been right after all. She was having her moment, at last, to be a parent when Kira needed her. She gently rubbed Kira’s forehead. “Princess died. That’s how God calls you home, honey. You have to die to go to Heaven.”

“Daddy won’t go to Heaven?” Kira asked, alarmed.

Ouch. Did Kira understand already what Jessica, as a Christian, feared: That unless David accepted Christ, he would not be saved? That was a tough one to explain. Now was not the time.

“Of course he will. We all will.”

“But you said he has to die. He won’t die.”

Jessica bit her lip, silent. She wasn’t handling this right somehow, and she’d ventured into territory that frightened her. How could it be healthy for her to sit and insist that David was going to die, when Kira already felt insecure about losing Princess? “Every living thing God made,” she said, still stroking Kira, “has to die someday. Heaven is the next place we go.”

Kira scowled. “But Daddy’s not going to die, Mommy. Not ever. He said so.”

Jessica’s stroking stopped. She cocked her head to the side. “When did Daddy say that?” Irritation had slipped into her voice.

Kira didn’t answer, apparently sensing she’d said something wrong, that maybe she’d gotten her father in trouble. Jessica recognized the overwhelming loyalty Kira felt for David, the allegiance that hurt her sometimes because she felt shut out.

Jessica tried to sound more encouraging. “He said that today?”

Uncertain, Kira nodded. Then, as she was talented at doing, Kira recalled their conversation: “I said, ‘Are you going to die too, Daddy?’ and he said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Not ever?’ And he said, ‘Not ever. I promise.’”

Kira’s recitation helped Jessica understand a little better. It was only natural that David wouldn’t want to scare her needlessly. Death was a big concept to teach a kindergartner. It had been a big concept at eight, when her own father died.

Her father. Damn it. Jessica felt her throat tighten as she saw her daughter’s calm security in believing that David would always be here. Jessica had believed that too, those nights when she still wore pajamas and her parents tucked her in. The whole thing had baffled her. Her father drove away in the blue station wagon to buy them dinner from Burger King, and he didn’t come back. Neither did the car. White policemen came instead.

Twenty years later, it baffled her anew.

“No, Kira,” she whispered, “Daddy’s not going to die.”

 

 

“You see too much good in people,” Dr. Wolde said, “even when there’s no good to see.”

The subject was Michael Corleone; a lofty conversation for the noisy ‘Canes Keg, where they’d both ordered apple pie a la mode and coffee after an on-campus dollar showing of The Godfather. Jessica had never seen it, and hadn’t planned to go, but the poster was tacked on the wall outside of Dr. Wolde’s office when she stopped by to tell him how much she’d enjoyed his classes. As soon as he heard she was a Godfather virgin, his face lit up and he insisted on going with her. That way, he explained, he could experience it for the first time all over again. He’d discovered it for himself not so long ago, he said.

Jessica had had coffee with him once before, when she saw him sitting alone at the student union and, to her surprise, he invited her to join him. Usually, she didn’t bond well with professors because authority figures made her tense. But Dr. Wolde had been pleasant, even laughing at some lame joke she made. She’d never have pegged him for a movie buff, which apparently he was.

“I think he’s still a good person,” Jessica said, defending Corleone. She pictured the young, clean-cut Al Pacino just home from World War II, not the solemn man whose ring was being kissed by the end of the film. And weren’t they the same person?

Dr. Wolde snorted, sounding more like the professor she’d known in class. “In the first place, he’s a murderer. Never mind the other crimes—all law is so subjective, I won’t even count them against him. But he kills.”

“Only to protect his family’s interests,” she said.

“Of course there’s always a reason. All killers rationalize, or they couldn’t kill. You saw how easily it came to him. Don’t his acts make him soulless?”

“I don’t think it’s always that cut-and-dried, Dr. Wolde. What about self-defense? What about battered wives?” It occurred to her that she was on a strange side of this argument for a church-going Baptist girl. Part of the reason she was so eager to defend Michael Corleone was because Dr. Wolde had been so quick to condemn him. She’d grown to fiercely love Michael’s character during the three-hour movie, no matter what he was.

“I really admire the film, Jessica, but he’s idealized,” Dr. Wolde said. “You’re not seeing that, I think, because you’re an innocent.”

“An innocent?” Jessica said, repeating the archaic word with raised eyebrows.

“It’s a wonderful quality. It’s refreshing, like staring into a glass of clear water.” He met her eyes, and she was unable to blink while he spoke. “The Godfather is about the death of a soul. You’ll see what I mean. Next week, I’ll rent you Godfather II. They’re companion pieces. Then tell me what you think of your Michael Corleone.” His tone was derisive. “In any case, you have to stop calling me Dr. Wolde,” he said, “if we’re going to continue to date.”

“This is a date?” she asked, startled.

“Why not? Just because you wouldn’t let me pay for your movie—”

“A whole dollar. Ooh.”

“Well, that doesn’t mean it’s not a date. And I’ve already alluded to renting a movie for you to watch—and, given that you’re not likely to own your own VCR, we would have to watch it in my living room. I’ll invite you during the day, so you won’t find me overly presumptuous. If it’s not too late for that already.”

Jessica felt distrustful of his glibness, imagining a guest sign-in book at his little bachelor love den. “Do you date a lot of former students?”

“I’ve never dated a former student,” he said. “I don’t date much at all.”

“Why not?”

Dr. Wolde didn’t answer. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then he changed his mind and ate another forkful of pie. “Say what you will about the ‘Canes Keg,” he said, “but they have good desserts.”

“Is that your way of changing the subject?”

“That’s my way of taking a lesson from you, trying to see the good in everything. Next time we eat out, I’m going to take you to a very fine restaurant. I promise.”

“That’s two dates you’re planning for us now,” she said.

He smiled. She saw, for the first time since his opening class, the utter perfection of his face and teeth. Seeing it made her stomach jump.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty. As of January.”

“I’m twenty-six.”

“That’s a lie,” she said.

He pulled out his wallet, opened it, and found his Florida driver’s license to show her his birthdate, a mere six years before hers. He was a Capricorn, like her. That meant he’d been only twenty-five when they met. Unbelievable. She noticed his address, somewhere in northeast Miami, and felt a charge at the idea of visiting his house. Dr. Wolde’s house. But it was crazy.

“You seem … older …” she said. “Not that you look it, at least not much. But you act—”

“Like an old fogy?”

“You said it, not me.”

“That comes from being a misanthrope,” he said.

“Are you?”

“In general, yes. But not tonight.”

Something in his gaze, an unchecked softness, frightened Jessica. It was almost as though her professor, inexplicably, had decided here at the campus bar and grill that he was in love with her. As though he couldn’t see that he was brilliant, some kind of prodigy, and that she was a puny kid with common sense and a knack for throwing sentences together but who would never use a word like misanthrope in casual conversation. Hell, she’d be afraid of pronouncing it wrong. Whatever he believed he was seeing in her, he was bound to be disappointed. She’d be a fool to allow a remarkable man like David Wolde to work his way under her skin when she knew he would just get tired of her.

“Dr. Wolde,” she said, “I don’t think I can date one of my professors. It would feel weird.”

“Call me David.”

“David, I can’t date one of my professors.”

“Former professors,” he corrected.

“Former professors,” she repeated, her voice firm.

Dr. Wolde sighed, glancing down from her face to the scratched mock-wood Formica tabletop. He looked genuinely wounded, but also angry at himself. “I think I’ve overstepped some protocol here. I’m no good at this. I thought since you’re no longer my student, we could—” He sighed again, laughing nervously. “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable. I didn’t mean to. I just enjoy this, being with you, and I thought…” He raised his palm to cover his eyelids, as though shielding his face from a sudden flash of light. “I’m embarrassed.
Ay
Dios mio. I’m sorry, Jessica.”

In that instant, he’d transformed. She couldn’t see a trace of the hard-edged man she’d known from the classroom, the man she’d very nearly feared. This was someone else entirely. Much later, when Jessica would try to pinpoint the moment David began to creep into her heart, this was the one she remembered, at the ‘Canes Keg, his eyes covered with genuine shame.

She stammered reassurances and joked that she wouldn’t file a sexual harassment suit, blurting, “I’d still like to see Godfather II. Even though it doesn’t sound like it has a happy ending.”

David smiled at her again, but his voice was sad. “There’s no such thing as happy endings,” he said.

BOOK: My Soul to Keep
4.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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