There was no calming down Alice on the day of the autumn equinox. She brimmed with excitement, clinging to her grandmother’s legs, squealing, “Papa-Papa-Papa-Papa!” She could not wait to see her father again after six months of silence.
Her grandmother Ilsa said, “Yes, you will see your papa soon. Now will you please let go of my legs?”
With a high chirp, Alice released her and spun across the kitchen. She was six, old enough to be fluent in sound effects and young enough not to feel self-conscious in making them. Her grandmother’s eyes were pinned to her movements, a string following a kite.
Alice didn’t get to spin very far. The room had been small before the house was divided in half and it was much smaller now. Her pirouetting little body thumped against the concrete wall. She threw her head back and squinted up at the window framed with quivering curtains. It currently looked across a chasm filled with morning mist. But Alice knew that when the sun hit the chasm in exactly the right place, her papa would appear in that window. It had happened six months ago and six months before that. She could barely remember before then, when her father had been a physical being in the same room. She remembered a peppermint smell and the comfort of heavy blue corduroy. She did not remember — Ilsa hoped she did not remember — the day the chasm ripped through their neighborhood, carrying half their house, her father, and her uncle across the divide.
“Alice,” Ilsa said, “have you eaten?” She fingered the bent corner of a letter in her pocket.
Alice mumbled a meandering reply. Disjointed phrases from the letter hung like contrails in the kitchen air. Alice couldn’t see them, but her grandmother could.
Light flickered across the curtains. A watery figure swam behind the panes. Ilsa held her breath. Wear the blue coat, she had written to her son youngest Eli, but there hadn’t been time for a reply. Letters from the other side were sporadic and infrequent, and they often got lost, and sometimes they arrived with pages missing.
The figure solidified, but not too much. It was still blurred, its face like a shallow bowl. This was exactly what Alice’s grandmother had been hoping for.
“Hallo, kid,” a voice said.
“Papa!” Alice shrieked. Her grandmother found it impossible to breathe. She gripped the table, feeling a stone in her chest. There was the proof, that voice — not the one, after all, that she had imagined hearing in this moment. Perhaps, she had thought, there was a misunderstanding. Perhaps the letter with its lingering contrails had gotten it wrong.
Ilsa gulped dry air and said, “Hello, Warren.”
“Mama.” His voice thick. For a moment, there was struggling to say anything else at all. Alice saved them, bouncing beneath the window, her words tripping over each other. “Guess what? Papa, guess what? I found a catopillo! And I got a star in school. And I dwared a picture with blue cwayon . . .”
“Did you?” said the person behind the window.
“And we went to the pawk and saw some pigeons . . .”
Eli was wearing Warren’s blue coat, Ilsa saw. She recognized the gold buttons. But there was no escaping the telltale signs, the differences between him and Warren. A higher-pitched voice. A sharper jut to the chin. Eyes that darted and searched rather than staying steady. These differences between her two sons had always been there, ever since they were Alice’s age themselves. For twenty-five years, she had been deeply attuned to each tiny thing that made them individual. She couldn’t unsee that now.
“And I learned how to whistle, see — ” Alice demonstrated with puffing cheeks and a sound like wind trying to escape from a teapot.
“That’s great, kid.” Eli said. Ilsa could tell he was trying to keep his voice lower, steadier, like his older brother would have. “That’s really great.”
Normally at this point, Ilsa would squeeze Alice in playful admonition. “Enough, child, now stop hogging your father. Warren, how are you keeping yourself over there?” And Warren would say, “Oh, fine, fine, no complaints,” even though Ilsa knew there were many. Life across the chasm wasn’t easy even if you hadn’t left a little girl behind. In retrospect, she should have known that Warren would try to cross. Eli had written few details, but that didn’t stop Ilsa from imagining the scene: A makeshift plane, a dark haze across the chasm, a rush of movement across a dew-soaked field of grey grass, an alarm light flashing, a swiveling anti-aircraft gun . . .
Don’t try to cross, she had written to Eli, right underneath Wear the blue coat. But she knew she would get no promises from him either. Everyone knew the chasm was there to be crossed. Even the occupiers knew, with their artillery and barbed wire and boot-tromping patrols just outside the walls of the house.
“When are you flying?” Alice asked Eli.
“Hush now, Alice,” Ilsa said.
“You told me. You said you’d fly to see me.”
Ilsa’s stomach dropped. In her mind’s eye, the plane spun into the chasm, again, again.
“Soon, my girl.”
“When? How soon? Tomorrow?”
“Stop it!” Ilsa gripped Alice’s shoulder and shook her. “He can’t come.”
Alice whimpered, a new sound effect.
“He is over there and you are here. You understand? He can’t come.”
Alice turned toward the window, confusion glassy in her eyes. Her breathing came in loud spurts.
The image blurred as the sun shifted. Light scattered across the curtains. Eli was gone. Warren was gone.
Ilsa folded against her grief, clinging to Alice in silent apology. Alice stood numbly, choking on sobs. She didn’t really understand, Ilsa knew. But she could see the contrails now. They surrounded them, the fatherless girl and the woman who still had a son.
Kaely Horton received her MFA from the University of New Hampshire. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Stonecoast Review, Isthmus, Fourth River: Tributaries, Flash Fiction Online, and others. She divides her time between the mountains of Salt Lake and the fog of the Oregon Coast.