The soft shuffle of her feet on the hall carpet surprises him. He barely gets the door to the master bath closed before she peeks around the corner. “Mom?”
“What is it, sweetie?” he asks, hurrying across the bedroom to meet her.
Katlyn stands there in her lavender pajamas, little pink-hued hands and feet blooming out like petals. In two months she’ll be nine, but everything about her—the cement scowl, arms knotted over her chest—always aches with a sour, adolescent defiance.
There’s something else in her expression tonight, though. It’s as if she’s burdened with a nightmare she hasn’t totally blinked away yet. “I want Mom.”
“She’s busy right now—”
“Where is she? I want her.”
“What’re you doing up?” he asks. “Is something wrong?”
“Just let me talk to her, Ryan.”
His smile fades. They’ve been living as a family for nearly two years, but Katlyn still says his name like it’s a filthy word.
“Is it really that hard to call me Dad?”
She sighs. “Okay, Dad. Can I talk to Mom now?”
“Mom and I are busy, honey. What’s wrong?”
Her eyes fall. “Never mind.”
“Come on, tell me.”
“Nothing. It just…scared me.”
“What did?”
She shrugs. “That noise.”
“We didn’t hear anything.”
“It was like a boom.”
He backs up a step and kneels. “What, you mean like thunder?”
She nods, her eyes still averted.
He reaches out to touch her shoulder, half-expecting her usual inward flinch, but for once it doesn’t come.
Leah was always so quick to defend her daughter, to spin every argument and misbehavior into something trivial. But maybe she was right. Maybe Katlyn was finally taking to him in her own way, at her own pace. “It was supposed to rain this afternoon,” he says. “Clouds probably got stuck in traffic. What do you think?”
One corner of her mouth curls like a smile drying up. “Are you joking?”
“Yeah, I’m trying to make you laugh. You don’t smile enough for such a pretty girl, you know. You should flash it around. Make everybody fall in love with you.”
She ducks away from his hand. “Whatever you say, Ryan.”
Just like that, he thinks. Just like always.
“Well, I’m sure it was nothing to worry about.” He stands and glides over to his dresser. It only takes him a second to find it again, but by then Katlyn’s already heading back down the hall. “Come on, Kitty. Mom’s in there.”
She turns and plants an empowered fist on her hip. “Don’t call me that!”
“Stop shouting, okay. I forgot.” He steps over to the bathroom door. “Come on.”
“You said she was busy.”
“She is, but you’re up now. No point putting it off.”
She marches into the bedroom. “Mom?”
“Hey, I said stop shouting. Just go on in.”
Katlyn sighs, steps up and grips the doorknob. She turns it slowly, like somebody working the dial of a safe.
He watches her close, listening for the latch to click before moving up behind her.
She reaches in and flips the light switch. Most of the bathroom décor is taupe, but the stark vanity bulbs tint everything gray. Katlyn sets one foot over the threshold before she sees, pausing. Then there’s a sharp intake of breath.
Of course she’s easier than Leah. This girl who never loved him, never let him forget that he didn’t belong in their lives. He draws the warm revolver from his pant waist and, without really expecting to, says, “Kitty.”

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Mike Gray

About Mike Gray

Mike Gray received his MFA from Florida Atlantic University in 2012 and currently serves as an English Instructor at Hazard Community and Technical College in Kentucky. His fiction has appeared in The Baltimore Review, Carte Blanche, The Rockford Review, Foliate Oak, Riverwind, and others.

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