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Act How You Want To Feel by Jennifer Dickinson | Word Riot
Short Stories

November 15, 2011      

Act How You Want To Feel by Jennifer Dickinson

The orange fish darted in and out of the castle. Callie watched them and counted back from one hundred, a technique that had gotten her through the start of a migraine before. But the migraine wasn’t just starting and she knew it. The pain had run down the back of her neck and stayed there, hovering at the top of her spine, like a cat about to pounce. The fat woman was blurry when she patted Callie on the shoulder and said to follow her into his office. Mr. Callie was in another meeting and it would be a few minutes before he came in. She handed Callie the glass of water she’d asked for and left the room.
     Callie stood up, shook her head from side to side, and closed her eyes. When she opened them, the room didn’t look fuzzy anymore. It was as if the bookcases and desk and degrees on the wall had been dipped in oil. Callie picked up the framed photo from his desk. Bill and the blonde woman Callie had seen get out of the car stood knee deep in clear water. Bill held a fat baby. The woman held a starfish the size of one of her giant breasts—breasts that were barely hidden behind a white bikini top. Beside her were a boy and girl. The girl was taller than the boy. Her smile showed braces. The boy’s smile was like Callie’s. I have a family. She heard footsteps and put the photo down.
     When Bill Callie opened the door, he smiled. Callie didn’t. She was lost in the way he moved across the room, laughing about how honored he was that a student wanted to interview him. His laugh sounded like hers. The brown patches that poked through his grey hair were the same shade as hers. My father is here. He is shaking my hand and telling me to have a seat.
     Callie sat down and pulled the folded up list from the pocket of her jeans. She’d spent her lunch periods practicing the questions out loud. She’d doodled a circle of stars at the top of the page and seeing them made her remember why she was there. She cleared her throat.
     “Mr. Callie, I’m Callie Steele, your daughter.”
     He cleared his throat. His face was the color of a strawberry and he’d stopped smiling.
     “Is this a joke?” It was the question people asked in movies when they wanted to pretend something real wasn’t happening.
     Callie smiled and pointed to the space between her teeth. She bent her arm so he could see the birthmark below her elbow. Her mother said he had the same one. The strawberry color of his cheeks was replaced by yellow. He picked up the phone and said the interview was going to take longer than expected and to hold his calls. His voice was chirpy, the way hers sounded when she was called on in class and didn’t know the answer. He hung up and brought his hands to his nose and sighed.
     “Jesus,” he groaned. He closed his eyes. “I thought Shannon moved away.”
     “We live up on the mountain.”
     Bill Callie opened his eyes. “Don’t tell me she still works at that diner.”
     Callie looked down at her lap.
     “Why are you here?”
     “I-I wanted to ask you some things.” The pain that had hovered at the top of her spine began to pulsate. Callie reached back and touched her neck. Her father stood up and turned around. He stared out the window. Callie could see a park in the distance. Children on a swing set—their laughter penetrated the windows of the office. Callie started to tell him about her grandmother, how she’d said that Bill was never coming back and how Callie’s mother wouldn’t listen.
     “She believes in you.” And I do, too.
     Bill Callie turned around. His face was white and he spoke slowly. “You can ask me whatever you want. But my kids don’t know about you. And I don’t want them to.” He looked up at the ceiling. When he looked back down at Callie, his eyes were red.
     Once the pain hit a certain point, Callie couldn’t cry. She had to breathe slowly, try not to throw up. This is what she did, embarrassed by how silly her questions sounded, her voice tinny, the way Bill Callie’s had sounded when he told his secretary to hold his calls.
     Where are you from? How many brothers and sisters did you have? What did you want to be when you grew up? What are your hobbies? He answered in a flat voice, still standing by the window, not meeting Callie’s eyes. Callie reached the last question and wondered if there was a point, but it was the real reason she was there.
     “What did you think when you found out my mother was pregnant?” She’d almost said “mom” but stopped herself. The word was too warm for the air between them.
     “What do you want me to say? That I was overjoyed to find out I was going to be a father at seventeen? The truth is I thought you were a mistake. Your mother didn’t. I’m sorry.”
     If Callie had been at home, she would’ve been pacing her bedroom, waiting for the moment when she needed to run to the bathroom and vomit. Callie was afraid she might pass out from the pain. On her father’s desk was a book: “Act How You Want To Feel.” She made herself focus on those words, made herself breathe. Her father said he had a big meeting and started for the door. Callie closed her eyes. “Do you ever have headaches?” she asked.
     Bill Callie wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve. “No. Do you want Pam to bring you more water?”
     She said yes. Before he left, he patted her on the shoulder. He told her she was a pretty girl. Pam came in the room with another paper cup. “Did you have a good time with Bill? He loves kids—has three of his own. Most well behaved children you’ll ever meet.” Callie drank the water and asked for another.
     She would write a letter to the son with the smile like hers. She’d tell him he had a sister and she’d give him her address. Maybe he would find her and they could be friends. The world was fuzzy again. Callie felt like fire, like smoke should’ve been puffing out of her ears. She had to get out of the office, but she was scared to try. The last thing she wanted was to pass out. Callie remembered the time she found a piece of chandelier at Mamaw’s house. She’d walked through the rooms, the glass held up to her eyes; she loved how it created a rainbow around the old wool rug. The colors made the ordinary beautiful.
     The room started to rock. Callie felt like one of the fish in the tank, trapped forever. She asked God to take her to heaven. She told God to take her to heaven. She stood up and walked through the waiting room. She pushed open the glass door to the street.
     Her mother was there, chewing gum, beads of sweat on her forehead, tears in her eyes. She reached for Callie, and Callie clung to her.
     All she could think of was her mother waiting for the phone to ring and when it did, the rush to the closet to pick out the right dress. Only to be disappointed again and again. All of this because of the scar Bill Callie left on her heart. The darkness around Callie’s eyes was fading. She looked up at her mother, whispered Home.

Jennifer Dickinson

About the author:

Jennifer Dickinson received her BA from Hollins University. Her work has appeared in Blackbird and Other Voices, and she is the recipient of a Hedgebrook residency and a grant from the Money For Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. She lives in Los Angeles where she works as a casting director for reality television.

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