Nothing warms a father’s heart more than listening to the melody of his child’s laughter. I am no exception to the rule. Vanessa’s gullible, sweet-little smile is the most valued possession in my otherwise miserable life. Her happiness is like a drug to my ever-craving soul- she could go on giggling at one of my stupid dad-jokes for hours uninterrupted. She could be laughing like crazy to one of those “pull my finger” jokes she would see on a TV show. She could be secretly smirking at her mother’s funny pronunciation of the word “potahto” while her mother dejectedly sighed, “yes, real funny, Ness. Now be done with your dinner quick!”. She could be smiling endlessly- but I can never have enough of her happiness.
I cannot afford for my daughter to not be happy-never! Not just because I love her more than any father can ever love his child. Because I know the kinds of things she can unwittingly do when she’s sad. I am aware of the terrible things that can happen if my Ness starts crying. I do not look forward to hearing the sound of my daughter bawl- and I especially don’t look forward to hearing her pause midway between her tears, when she’d meet my gaze and coldly deliver the painful blow right to my paper-thin heart.
“I’m sorry, father.”
I certainly did not look forward to her saying that.
Like every other time it had happened in the past, I had no idea what had caused her eyes to well. For all I knew, she should’ve done anything but cried! I had just shown her the Coraline movie she had kept bugging me about for weeks. We had had dinner at her favorite fast-food place- burgers and French fries, if that qualifies for dinner in your book. And at the end of our father-girl night out, I had allowed her two scoops of her favorite honey-berry ice-cream instead of the usual one. “Gee, thanks, Daddy!” she had proudly beamed at me. God, how much did I cherish that strawberry smile of hers?
Everything was all hugs and smiles until I tucked her in bed. She had no reason to cry- we even read a chapter of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid book she so enjoyed! But then right when I shut the door of her room and started to head off towards mine, I heard her crying. Or wailing, if we’re going for the more technical term.
My heart froze. No, no, no- this shouldn’t be happening, I thought to myself. But it did happen, and the least I could do was take some of the grim-reaper responsibility that the situation demanded from me. Sighing, I opened the door.
And there she was- my darling Vanessa in her “wailing-state”, for the lack of a better word. No, wait, there is one- what was it called again? - ah, right. Banshee. My dear Vanessa, her form completely overwhelmed by the terrible curse that surrounded her. The jet-black hat of her short-cropped-hair now replaced by long-reaching, platinum-blonde locks. She had discarded her PJs, and was wearing a dull-white robe now. But the detail that credits the most attention was what my Banshee child was doing.
She was wailing. Sitting at the edge of her bed, her face away from mine, hands cupped over her face as she poured her teary-eyed pain into her cupped palms. The sounds of her wails loud enough to repel any stray animal that lived nearby.
“It’s okay, baby. I’m here. Who is it this time?”
My daughter paused. She turned around her head slowly as her now-bloodshot eyes faced mine.
Who will it be this time, I thought to myself? Paul, the cat Irene had bought her a few months back? Maternal-uncle Sam, who’s down to the final stretch of his year-and-a-half-long battle against leukemia? Her great Gramma Maureen? Full respect to the iron lady- but at 93-years of age, she had to have had it coming sooner rather than later, right?
“I’m sorry, father.”
My heart dropped.
“Father? That’s me, sweety! Are you sure, Vanessa?”
“Sure about what, Daddy?”
And just like that, she was gone. Banshee Ness’ job was done; I could only assume she was back in whatever spirit-realm she had come from. Staring at me now, was my black-haired, blue-eyed, sans-wailing baby-girl, Vanessa, sitting at her bed in her pajamas.
“Why am I awake, Daddy? I thought you had sung me off to sleep.”
“Huh?” Oh, right, the poor child had no recollection whatsoever of everything that had happened. “Ah, it was nothing, sweety. You just had a bad dream.” I intended to keep her unaware.
“Really? Huh. I don’t remember having any dreams. Hmm…hey, maybe I’m lucid dreaming?” she shrugged her shoulders at me.
“Maybe, sweetheart.” I smiled. “If you are having a lucid dream, you don’t want it to end so fast, right?”
“Right. Well, sweet dreams, other Daddy!” She was influenced by every film she watched, and remained in that character’s phase at least until a week. I shouldn’t have shown her that movie.
Then again, I didn’t have much time left to take annoyance to her new-found phase.
“Right, dear. Sweet dreams, honey” I shut the door as I braced myself for the real-life nightmare that awaited me.
Morgan Fletcher. 1982-2020. Died aged 42. Ghostwriter. Part-time English Teacher at the Tracington High. Loving Father. Douchebag ex-Husband, I’m sure Irene, my ex-wife would love to add to that description. Rests in Peace here.
Just the very thought of my obituary sent a wave of bile up my throat.
My head went back to the first encounter I had had with her- my daughter’s ‘wailing-form’. One fine weekend, we had been watching Tom and Jerry on our couch when I first heard her let out that ear-piercing cry. “I’m sorry, Gramps,” she had said back then. Of course, at the time, I was more worried about the physical-appearance side of things than trying to decipher the true meaning behind my daughter’s weird apology. And when she had recovered, she had no recollection whatsoever of anything that had happened. I had tried to pry her, but that only seemed to make her more upset, so I gave it a rest.
Irene had called me two days later to inform that Liam, her perfectly-healthy, 77-year-old father, had succumbed to a heart attack on the previous night. I wasn’t sure what to make of the eerie coincidence, but I knew that breaking out Vanessa’s wailing story to her would only complicate matters with my already-complicated ex-wife. I did my own research. That’s how I came across the term- Banshee, a running curse in Irish-origin families, where a certain-condition-satisfying-born first-girl-child is gifted with the divine powers of being a harbinger to a family member’s imminent demise.
So, yeah. Apparently, my darling-girl was just suffering from some grim-reaper-esque family curse. Nothing to be particularly worried about, right? I mean, it’s not like she’s the one causing the deaths herself.
Of course, it’s an entirely different story when you’re on the other side of it. I hadn’t realized that until now.
Prior to this, I had had five encounters with Banshee Vanessa. The spirit had never been hostile or otherworldly-savage towards me- she simply performed the job that her curse obligated to do, and once that was done, I’d have my daughter back. A job that, unfortunately, she was rather good at- up until this point, her strike-rate was a perfect five-on-five. Four of her five wailings had been for people from Irene’s side of the family- there was her father Liam, one of her aunts (diabetes), a distant cousin (ATV-accident), and the most recent and the most tragic instance of a nine-year-old niece (the poor child had drowned in a river). As surprising as it might sound, but this was actually the first time she had wailed for someone from my side of her family. Not too surprising- my folks had both died before Vanessa was born- and they were pretty much the only family I had. Except Ness, obviously.
Another family that I soon was going to lose. At least within the next twenty-four hours, if the past-records meant anything. That’s another observation I’d come up with- each of the people whose name Vanessa wailed in, had met their fate within approximately the time-span of the next day.
Technically, I could be an exception. I was, after all, the first paternal family-member she had wailed for. Maybe, just maybe- things could be different for me. I didn’t get my hopes too high, though. Her fifth successful wailing had been for Chester, our dear old Dalmatian. The greedy, old son of a bitch had poisoned himself in an unfortunate attempt at rummaging through a box full of dark chocolates. I still remember how depressed Vanessa was in his wake.
If only she knew…
Her predictions had worked for an entity even beyond the literal blood-relations. What were my odds?
Stupid as it might sound; but I spent the first half-hour of the rest of my life trying to actually figure out those said odds. Post those mathematical failures (obviously), another hour went wasted as I drank myself off to Lana del Rey’s Born to Die vinyl backgrounds. Midway through the title track’s bridge, I started weeping. My miserable, 42-year-old life flashed right before my eyes. So many plans, so many unfinished businesses I had.
No, I couldn’t just let it end like this. So I compiled a bucket list for the last, 24-ish-hours of my life. I’d end my existence on my own terms. At least as much as I could.
Crossing the first item of the list was, somehow, the easiest, and yet the most difficult task. The next morning, I drove over to Irene’s to drop Vanessa.
I know, Geez, Morgan, what was all that loving father rant in the beginning about if you’re not gonna spend the dying moments of your life with your darling daughter?
Believe me- it really was a tough call to make, but think about it; do any of you really want your child to be around when you know you’re about to die? I’m not talking death from some terminal illness, no- but the kind of death, that, just, strikes you randomly and ends your life even before you have a clue as to what just happened? You want your 10-year-old daughter to go through that kind of trauma?
I sound awfully insensitive. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to come off as this ignorant jerk who’s oblivious to the sufferings of others around him- because I am not that kind of a person. It’s just that, talking about all those painful emotions… I think it unearths a really unfeeling side of my character.
I gave Ness a long-timed hug before letting her go. She cast a confused glance in my direction. “Gee, Daddy, you know that I’ll be here just for this one weekend, right? You look really emotional!”.
My darling girl. She did not deserve to suffer. And I wouldn’t let her suffer, not financially, at least. Back in our house, I had already pinned a copy of my realtered will that granted Ness all of my wealth. Wasn’t all that much, but I wanted to ensure that she had some minimum financial-support to achieve her life goals.
“You know Morgan, it wouldn’t kill you to make a call in advance if you’ve got these unexpected visits planned.” Even in my-near death-state, it was foolish of me to expect any sort of empathy from Irene.
I sighed. No, Morgan. Don’t be a spiteful prick in the final moments of life. I pulled in Irene for an awkward hug- decidedly more awkward for her than it was for me. “Take good care of our Vanessa, Irene. Be the best mother to her.”
“Get off your Ganja smokes, Morgan. Honestly, what have you- yeah, honey? Don’t worry, it’s my ex-husband. I’ll be right back.” She had a guest. A male one, if I had to guess. Why didn’t that surprise me?
“Gotta go.” She slammed the door plumb on my face. I’m way too good at goodbyes, I sang to myself.
Item number one on the list. Check.
Item number two went much more smoothly. A first-ever, roller-coaster ride. Judge me all that you want, but that’s how uninteresting my life had been. Up until this ride, at least; a ride where I pissed off just about every co-passenger with my shrill and reckless screaming. And as a cherry on this already embarrassing sundae- the moment my joyride reached its end, I threw up all-over my crisp, white shirt.
I couldn’t help but grin at the grossed-out looks on my co-passenger’s faces. I don’t care if it’s disgusting, people! I thought to myself. Guess what? I’m dying, it doesn’t bother me if my throw-up makes you retch. I’m just thankful that my hernia didn’t act up on this wacky ride. YOLO!
The whole thing with the throw-up was a godsend, because it just made the third item on my list more fun- getting a makeover! I walked into the mall wearing just a cut-sleeved sweater over my upper body. More gawks and murmurings from the people. Oh, how much I enjoyed every bit of the attention!
I left the store dressed in a tacky, pinstriped, double-breasted, hideous lime-green suit which had set me back by a thousand dollars. My five-year-old beard and mustache were discarded; leaving my chiseled jawline exposed to the cold, November air. I had swapped my glasses, too- gone, were those broad-rimmed matte-black frames that made me look like a dork. These cat-eyed, cherry-red rimmed ones looked so much better.
Daddy? I could hear Ness squeak as she tried to hide her laughter. You look like Willy Wonka, minus the top hat!
Gay Willy Wonka, that is, Irene added. Seek help, Morgan.
I could only smile at their imaginary, innocuous taunts. Morgan Fletcher was already dead to me. This man here, living the final moments of his life- he was Tonto.
“Tonto Gonzales. But my friends call me Bubba.” I introduced myself on the karaoke stage. And then my pathetic, baritone, obviously not-meant-for-singing-voice totally butchered Wham!’s Careless Whisper. It felt kinda bad to make a mess of such an amazing song- I felt somewhat guilty when a gay couple flicked a couple of particularly nasty stares in my direction. I’m sorry, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. RIP.
Then again, I’d soon be joining them. It’s only fair that I got the chance to cross the last item off my list.
I’d have liked to breathe my final-breath back in the confines of my cozy home, but I was too hammered to drive. Even if I could, I had just given away my Prius and its keys to some hobo (What can I say? In my drunken stupor, I had totally bought into all those phonies, charity-before-you-meet-Jesus propagandas), so I didn’t have the means to head back there.
Take an Uber, I hear you say? Well… I knew that I was gonna die. It wouldn’t look good on my conscience to wittingly get some innocent, harmless cabby involved with the cops, post-mortem, insurance, yada yada yada. So no, pass.
Instead, like some estranged, inebriated fool, I kept exhausting the final-reserves of my finances on booze. Anytime the barkeep would try to stop, I’d tip him with a big, 100$ bill. The other customers kept shooting pitiful glances in my direction. But I was already past the point of humility. Because I had just added a new point to my list- Die on my own terms.
And so I would do, literally. How?
Simple. I would kill myself off alcohol poisoning.
My vision had already started to blur when he took the seat next to me on the counter. And the moment he did, I knew my end was near. Up until this point, I had tried to pass up his apparent omnipresence as mere co-incidence. Back in Irene’s driveway when I was reversing my Prius. Back in the roller-coaster, sitting right behind me. Back at the hairdresser’s, hidden behind a copy of Entertainment Weekly as his black eyes peered straight into my soul.
And here he was now. His black-leather-gloved hands busily tapping on the wooden-counter. His enticing, jet-black eyes meeting those of the barkeep.
Fate had finally found me.
And his voice was all I heard.
“I think I’ll have a glass of water. H2O,” he added, nonchalantly. He turned in my direction. Lips curled in a handsome smile. “How about you, pal?”
That I’d get what I deserve.
“Umm…ah, what the hell, why not? I’ll have H2O, too.”
The barkeep instantly hit me with a half-filled glass of the transparent fluid. I chugged it down in one gulp.
And then everything went dark.
Oh, I believe, in yesterday…
The static-sound of Paul McCartney’s vocals stirred me. I was riding shotgun in a car. He, was driving.
“Just in time, mate. You don’t wanna miss the talk.”
Out of all the fucked-up things that had been happening until now, this was the one that irked me the most- why was Death talking in an Australian dialect?
Not that I’d mention that to him, of course. Not unless I wished to be reincarnated as some insignificant, microorganism-esque being.
“Come now. It’s gonna be one helluva ride if Macca’s the only one that keeps talking. So, any regrets?”
There’s a shadow hanging over me…
“Umm. Yes. I do have a few regrets. I couldn’t finish reading Gone Girl.”
“Hmm. Yeah, that’s a bummer. Lucky for you, we’ve got a whole library full of books lined-up here. You can read all the books that you want to.”
“Oh, yes, we’ve got that. While we’re at it, why don’t I also look at getting your old high-school job back? “
Now I long for yesterday…
“You’re screwing with me.”
“The least I can do after you screwed with me. I spent two whole hours waiting at that dingy library, you know. So much for Read. Don’t die a fool. You can’t just cross out items like that, mate.”
Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be…
It had happened right after I disembarked off the coaster. Come on, Morgan. Don’t pass on your final moments being some nerd, book-reader, I had convinced myself. Go have some fun!
And fun I had had, at the expense of another item on my list. Read. Don’t die a fool.
“I wimped out. In those dying moments of life, I wanted to shed off my true identity. I was tired of living the nerdy, good, well-read, intellectual man life. I wanted to breathe my last breath as this- “, I gestured to my comical attire. “This whacky, crazy, life-of-the-party kind of guy.”
“Life of the party”, Death scoffed. “Sure, why not, if your party is one infested with Oompa Loompas?”.
I chuckled. It was good to have some closure before I passed on to whatever other realm awaited me.
“It’s all good, though. Long as you had fun. No regrets. Right?”
Ping! I could feel my head buzz as it began loading the images from my day. A scornful-stare from an old, hag of a woman as I got off that roller-coaster in my vomit-covered state. Some ill-mannered brat about my Vanessa’s age; a look of amusement plastered on his face as he gawked at my stupid, lime-green jacket. The gay-couple from the bar, their eyes rolling as I walked off the stage after my careless demolition. The barkeep, a sly grin on her face as I slipped her an umpteenth hundred-dollar bill.
Pity. Disgust. Ridicule. That’s how Morgan/ Tonto would go down.
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay…
“I wish I could say that. But in the process of reinventing myself, I ended up doing something I didn’t want to. I made a complete fool of myself! I’m an idiot. That’s it- all my life, I’ve tried to overcompensate, trying to be this big, ruminative philosopher. In reality, I’m just a big, fat, phony who has no idea about what he should actually be doing!”
That H2O2- thing I’d drank at the bar must have been causing me to loosen up. I had never been this open about my flaws and shortcomings. Until now.
Or maybe that’s just the kind of aura Death has. I didn’t find out.
“Hmm. Well, you hold on to that thought. Anything else you’d like to add?”
Now I need a place to hide away…
“Vanessa. I have been damn irresponsible to my baby. I deprived her of the truth. At a time when I should’ve been the best father to my child, I avoided her.”
“You had your reasons.”
“Maybe. But she deserves the truth. Not from her mother, or some friend she calls for a random sleepover- but from her father, the man who loves her the most. I had a big responsibility, breaking such an important secret out to her. And I just… abandoned her. Dear Lord- what have I done to my baby, Death?”
“Ah well. Fretting won’t do any good now. You’ll just kill yourself that way.”
That one called for a duh stare. I obliged.
“Oh…right. Sorry about that. Well, we’re almost home. Let’s try for one more, shall we?”
“You find this amusing.”
“Depends on how the player’s playing. Don’t flatter yourself, Morgan, you’re doing just average.”
Why she, had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say…
“That’s what she said.”
Death gave me a nasty glance. “What?”
“Irene. The reason we aren’t together anymore. Just left me a voice-mail the morning she left, claiming that she was frustrated with my passiveness. She said she could do better. I always felt like she blamed Vanessa for our…you know, our intimacy issues. I mean, I think that’s unfair- we were having bedtime issues long before she was born. But that’s basically how we had separated- she just told me she wasn’t happy, and we divorced.”
“Hmm. And you don’t feel good about it?”
“I’ll admit that I was a much better single-dad to Vanessa than I was when me and Irene were together. She needs a certain amount of TLC and attention, and I’m not sure if me and Irene could’ve done that if we were married. It’s just that…the thing with Irene, it just happened and I never tried to reconcile, connect, or resolve any of those issues. I don’t know why, but- I can’t help but feel that if I’d had some closure with her, maybe we could’ve dealt with this better, you know. Vanessa, and her…”
“Oh, yeah, I know. But you know what they say, Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve.”
I stayed silent. H2O2 had lost its effect.
“Alright, now. Hold tight. This one’s a particularly lean stretch.” Death slowed down. I could feel his eyes on my face. I turned to face him. He smiled.
I smiled back. And then he cracked into a hysterical cackle.
“What?” I had to ask.
“You’re right, Morgan. You are a fool. A clueless idiot, and a big one at that.”
“Gee. Thanks for the reassurance.”
“Oh, we'll soon see if you’ll be thanking me, trust me. Now giddy up, mate”.
I knew something was amiss here- something really important. But as Death hit the race on his car, the only thing I could process was those final, beautiful verses in Paul McCartney’s reminiscing voice.
Oh, yesterday, came suddenly…
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I’d open my eyes. And I wasn’t excited when I saw her. Or rather, heard her.
“Daddy. You’re up.”
My vision started to clear. Heaven, hell- or whatever this god-forsaken realm was called, seemed awfully familiar. As did the face of my child standing right next to me. A cup of straw-ed milkshake in her hands.
“Vanessa? How come you’re here?”
“Mom drove me. She’s here too, but she doesn’t want to meet you while you’re buzzed.”
“Irene’s here? Wait, where am I? This- this is heaven, right?”
Vanessa let out a small giggle. “What’s funny?” I asked.
“You said heaven, like help-when, minus the ‘lp’ sound. But it’s called haven. Like, hay-when. You sound like mom when she says potato.” Another giggle. “Po-taat-to. How does she say that?”
Potato? Heaven? Haven? What was going on?
Even before I could start comprehending any of those things, a searing pain shot up in my head. For a couple of seconds, I thought they were burning the good-memories off my head. But as time went on, and my milkshake-sipping daughter didn’t just disappear right before my eyes, a realization hit me. I knew this pain- wasn’t something I experienced often, but one that I’d had the misfortune of enduring several times in my life.
A pain, that just about every self-loathing mortal my age is somewhat familiar with. The pain, of waking up with a head-splitting hangover.
Vanessa flicked her meek, little eyes in my direction. “Want milk?”
“No, I’m good, sweety. So, this place- we’re home? Like, our home?”
“Yup. Where’s your car, we didn’t see it in the driveway?”
“Hold up, hold up. So, you, and mommy downstairs- you’re real, right?”
“Umm. Yeah. Huh, I think I know why mom didn’t want to- “
“Sweety, what time is it? Like, what date and what time?”
“It’s 7 in the morning, dad. And the date’s- “
My throbbing-head struggled for a solid-minute doing the math. And then it figured.
Exactly two-days since I’d heard Vanessa wail for me.
I had lived. I hadn’t died. Death had spared me.
“Holy fucking mother of God!”
I tried jumping off the bed, only to succumb to the chastising grasp of my headache. I slipped on the floor, just about certainly cracking one of my teeth. Vanessa almost yelped at the sight of my bloodied smile, but I stopped her right in time.
“No, no, Ness, don’t scream! Oh no, you poor bastard- you have any idea how much trouble Daddy has had to go through because of your stupid screams? Come now, help your old-man get off the floor!”
She dragged me against the wall of the bed as I sat with my back arched-straight on the hardwood floor. Once set, I smothered her in a bear-hug.
“Gee Daddy, you seem really happy for a man who doesn’t know where his car is.”
“Shh, shh, Ness, no more talking about the fucking car, or the crap-load of money daddy busted his hump on last night. From now on, you’re just going to listen. Daddy has a lot of things to tell you, honey.
For starters, Daddy wants to say sorry for trying to leave you with that bitch mother of yours. Daddy promises that it’ll never happen again; no matter how bad things look, Daddy’s always gonna be there to solve help you with your problems. And secondly- and listen carefully, this is important- Daddy has a secret to tell you. It’s about a curse you’ve got- don’t worry, baby, I swear to Jesus that it’s not gonna kill you- but it’s time that you know that- “
“Great. Just great parenting, Morgan.” Irene’s condescending voice cut-off our father-daughter moment. “A forty-something drunk dad swearing right into the ears of your 10-year-old daughter. Where exactly do you get off calling me the bad parent?”
Crap. Just when I was about to make things right.
“Go wait downstairs, Ness. I’ll be there soon.” One command from her mother, and she was gone. Irene shut the door.
“Are you out of your fucking mind, Morgan? You have any idea the kind of example you’re setting with your behavior? Drunken stupors, late-night gambling, misplacing your car, cussing right in front of her- do you have any sense at all? And what’s all this I’m hearing about this strange curse and killing? Tell me at once- what the hell’s going on with you, Morgan Gerald Fletcher?”
I sighed. “Give it a rest, Irene, please. It’s nothing- the curse is a father-girl code we have when you visit. And I didn’t gamble last night. Or even misplace my car, for that matter- I gave it away to some homeless guy.”
“You did what?”
“I told you, I- look, let’s not play this the Simon Says way, Irene. My head’s literally exploding. I’ve wasted a ton of money on things that I’m now starting to regret- listen, I’ve had a really tough day, alright? Let’s talk when I’m feeling a bit better.”
My half-foot shorter wife walked right upto my nose, her angry breaths almost leaving a burn on my skin. It’s funny that even after two years of separation, I found her riled-up avatar so adorable. Maybe because it reminds me of my dear Ness. The sky-blue eyes, the jet-black mane of hair, her Lois Griffin-like nose, her cherry-lips- all features that she had inherited from her mother.
Come to think of it- she had just about none of my physical attributes. Her complexion had no iota of color to it, even though I, her father, had a natural tannish complexion. In fact, for a girl her age, Ness was quite short; considering how tall I and Irene (relatively) were.
A burning realization started to pore its way into my heart.
You’re right, Morgan. You are a fool. A clueless idiot, and a big one at that.
No, no- this couldn’t be. Please, don’t be.
Irene stifled back a sob, before she delivered the mind-numbing blow. “You think you’ve had a tough day? YOU THINK YOU HAVE HAD A TOUGH DAY, MORGAN?” she screamed, bringing my heart to a stop. “Then you better listen what happened to me. Toni, my milkman, just dropped dead at my front porch this morning. Just like that, right in front of my eyes!"
The last thing I heard before passing out was that sickening-cackle from Death.