Look Don't Touch

By: Tess Oliver

I rode up the long stretch of cement to the circular driveway in front of the pale, ivory house. The hedges had been neatly trimmed into straight lines. While every other house on the private road had lush, colorful landscaping that could rival the finest botanical gardens in the world, Archer Manor or Hell House as I had secretly called it, had only the smallest amount of greenery and not one splash of color. If some rogue flower seed had blown over from a neighboring house and had dared to bloom in our yard, my dad would have walked right out and stepped on it. Dad thought trees and flowers were a messy nuisance. The neighbors, of course, avoided talking and even making eye contact with my dad. He preferred it that way.

I parked my motorcycle at the top of the driveway and climbed off. I glanced up just as the corner of a curtain lifted in the window above the balcony. Dad's bedroom. I was sure he was working up a scowl and grunt of dissatisfaction about the noise my motorcycle caused in the neighborhood.

The front door opened as I pulled out my key. Mr. Pruitt was Dad's sixth full-time nurse. The others had all walked off the job within two weeks of starting, but Pruitt, who'd spent a good chunk of his adult life in the marines, had powered through four months. And he was still around. He was even wearing a smile as I walked up, and it wasn't easy to produce a smile after spending any extended amount of time with my dad. Even in his very weak state, Dad was nothing short of miserable.

"You're still here," I mentioned as I placed my helmet on the entryway table. "I guess marines really are made of stronger stuff."

Pruitt had one of those deep laughs that rolled out and drummed the walls. "I have to admit, your dad is about as challenging as boot camp. He had a rough day yesterday, but today he's sitting in his room doing paperwork. I think he heard you ride up."

"I'm sure of it. Thanks, I'll head up right now."

I climbed the double wide staircase and stopped at the three paintings at the top of the stairs. They were three austere, tight-lipped portraits painted centuries ago. They were the type of creepy paintings that looked as if the eyes were following you as you turned at the landing. My dad had not bought them for decorative or cultural purposes but for investment reasons. He never would have bought something as frivolous as art unless it was going to grow greatly in value.

I walked along the polished wood hallway to his bedroom door. It was slightly ajar. I stood there for a second before entering.

"Don't linger in the hallway, Nash. Come inside."

It seemed even in failing health, he had preternatural senses. I walked into the room. His once masculine and cold bedroom had been transformed into a well-appointed hospital room with beeping monitors and an IV stand. His mahogany dresser, an antique he'd purchased on a trip to Germany, was covered with bottles and tubes of medicine. When I was a kid, he rarely let me into his room, but it had always smelled of his pen ink and furniture polish. He was always a clean freak. The housekeepers, who lasted about as long as the nurses, had to wipe down his entire room every morning and once in the evening before bed. Now that smell of extreme clean had been replaced by the scent of rubbing alcohol and medicinal creams.

Dad was sitting at his work table in front of the window. The heavy curtains were closed and the ceiling lights made his sallow skin look dry and thin like tissue. His once broad shoulders had shrunk down to look like the arms of a coat hanger. He was nearly swimming in his robe.

He was just shy of sixty, but the cancer had withered him into a much older man. He didn't look up from his account ledger as he pointed at the chair across from him with a long shaky finger.

I walked over and sat down. I was no longer a kid, yet I sat there fidgeting with the zipper on my jacket, quietly waiting for him to finish his task. My eyes drifted across the table to an old shoe box that was completely out of place amongst the leather-bound ledgers spread out over the table.

I reached for it.

"Those are just some ridiculous old pictures. Pruitt found the box when he was bringing the ledgers up to my room. I told him I didn't want them." He adjusted his glasses, but he still had to lean closer to the books to see them.

I opened the shoe box. "I can't imagine you ever saving pictures in a shoe box. I can't imagine you saving pictures period. I don't even know what I looked like as a kid."

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