Wood smoke floated through the open window Marissa forgot to close. She kneaded dough at the kitchen counter in an effort to treat herself to homemade pizza. “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” drifted from the Pandora station she had downloaded onto her iPhone. Faintly, above the music, she thought she heard a knock on the door. Through the side windows next to the door—which she could see from the kitchen—stood a thin, stately, elderly gentleman who appeared to be shielding himself from the bitter, late fall wind. She somehow felt drawn to him, though she typically never opened the door to strangers. Without stopping to wash the thick flour from her hands, she answered the door.
“Hello,” she said. “I’d shake your hand, but I’m afraid I’m a bit messy at the moment,” she laughed.
The man stared back at her.
“Can I help you?” she continued.
Haltingly, the man began to speak:
“I am…I was a dentist. My name is Anthony.”
“Great name! Both my dad and my brother are named Anthony,” Marissa replied. As she watched the man nervously shift back and forth on the porch, she wondered if he was trying to sell her something. She didn’t want to buy anything, so she tried to tactfully get rid of him.
“Well,” she began. “I think I’d better get back to making dinner.”
Just as she was about to shut the door, the man stopped her. “Wait!” he yelled. ” I have something very important to tell you.”
Marissa felt uneasy. What if he didn’t know where he was? Maybe he was just wandering through neighborhoods.
“Anthony, are you okay? Do you need help?” Marissa asked.
“No, no, no. I’m fine. It’s just that…I know…I knew your father—a long time ago. You see, I’m a dentist.”
“Yes…You’ve told me that. How do you know my dad?”
“It’s a long story, but please tell him I’m proud of him. I’m proud of what he’s become.”
Marissa had no idea what he was talking about and was pretty sure he had no idea either, so she told him to wait there. She ran to get her phone. Surely, he was lost. However, when she returned, he was gone. How could he have walked down the front steps so quickly? It couldn’t have taken her but just a few seconds to grab that phone. After a while, she took a deep breath, washed her hands, and decided a cold beer and a night of mindless television would calm her nerves.
As her head sunk back into the pillows on the couch, the TV became a dull murmur—and then nothing. Only the sharp ring of the phone at 4:30 a.m. jolted her awake. The caller ID told her it was her mother.
“Mom?” Marissa answered.
And then, Marissa heard silence and sniffling. She realized her mom was fighting through tears to speak.
“Your father,” Marissa’s mom continued, “There was an accident.”
“What do you mean an accident? Is he in the hospital? Do I need to come see you?”
“He’s dead. There was an explosion at the lab. He and his friends were working on an experiment…I don’t know. Your father was rushed to the hospital. They tried to save him. He fought a little bit, but then he just…”
“Mom—I don’t know what to say.”
Marissa’s voice trailed off as she dissolved into tears, sobbing bitterly.
“I know, honey. I know,” her mother whispered.
In the light of the unnatural glow of the television, Marissa thought about her father. He loved his work. More than anything, he loved to show her his projects when she visited his lab as a child. She never fully understood how his experiments worked, but his face would light up when he talked about them. His own father had died when he was very young. He would have been proud of him, Marissa thought. She remembered he was a dentist . . .
Her thoughts lingered on that word, “dentist.,” as a chill ran its icy course through her veins. Who exactly was that man who knocked on her door earlier? Her father’s father’s name was also Anthony. Unable to shake the chill, Marissa grabbed a blanket from her bed and wrapped it around her shoulders as she ran to the hallway closet to find a photo album her parents had given her when they moved to Hawaii. She tore it from the shelf and ripped through the yellowed pages and photos. When she flipped to the next page, she saw him: Anthony senior: Tall, elegant, wearing a brown suit and hat. There he was in another picture: Proudly posing in his white, dentist’s lab coat. As she studied his face, his hair, his eyes, and his hands, she saw even more clearly the stranger who had shown up at her door.
Marissa still felt hollow inside long after her father’s funeral, but sadness pushed its way beneath the every day things that the living did in order to keep on living. For Marissa, returning to work was the only way to keep the sadness from taking over. Just when she thought it would creep into her efforts to teach literature, she would enter the classroom and realize the students were there to forget their problems too. Back in her office though, alone among the blank walls, sadness edged its way back in. With each minute, each hour in that office, she found it hard to swallow. A strange, acidic taste bubbled in her mouth. It was rumored that the English professors’ offices were housed in an older part of the building, which was fashioned with questionable construction materials. Lots of people became sick. At the doctor’s office, Marissa was diagnosed with cancer.
“Will there be chemo?” she asked.
“Yes, most definitely,” the doctor replied.
“And my hair will fall out?”
“Yes,” he said.
In the mirror at home, Marissa studied her thick, messy locks of curls. She’d hated her hair when she was younger, but her father showed her what a strand of it looked like under a microscope. Each strand was thick and strong. Then, he put a strand of his own hair on a lens to view under the scope. His hair was straight. Hers was curly, but under the microscope, the basic common features were identical: thick and sturdy and strong. She was amazed by how something so seemingly small, could be that significant—larger than life—under the microscope lens. Losing her hair would, on a molecular level, be like losing her father once more.
“Well, Dad,” Marissa said into the mirror. “Looks like we’ll part ways again.”
The lump in her throat grew tighter and stronger, just as there was a knock on the door. Swallowing the pain, she approached the door and opened it. Someone on the other side greeted her by name. When he told her he was proud of her, she crossed the threshold and took his hand.
Cecilia Kennedy earned a PhD in Spanish literature from The Ohio State University. Her speculative fiction pieces have appeared in Theme of Absence(“Hello”) and Gathering Storm Literary Magazine (“Haunted Water Aerobics”). She lives in the Greater Seattle area with her family and chronicles her “scary” attempts at DIY projects in her blog, “Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks.” https://