As Gun-nao sipped black tea in the kitchen, his daughter and wife played a game of chess at the fold-out table on the back porch. Alexa’s brown hair had lately become dry, no longer smooth like his own, and Florida’s July made each strand separate from the pack. The hairs rubbed her throat when she talked.
“Mom, are you even paying attention?”
Nora glanced up at the girl’s kite-string arms that lay on the table and sighed.
“I think you have me beat.”
Gun-nao let the kitchen curtain fall and walked back to the island counter where he had started making dinner: flour, butter, milk. Nora hadn’t cooked a real meal in months. At dinner, Alexa pretended to eat her biscuit by crumbling it into her napkin. Nora appeared distracted and slipped her tapping fingers under the table cloth, making the printed vegetables jump. She stained her second biscuit with preserves. Gun-nao could not tell if Nora didn’t or couldn’t see what their daughter was doing.
“How is school going?” He watched Alexa’s biscuit continue to disappear into the napkin.
“Good.” She finished. All gone.
He was scared to talk with Nora about it that night, as she slipped her freckled arms out of her button-up. She had gained a little weight since she’d taken the new supervisor position, and her stomach had swelled like a spring tulip bud. It was soft on top with a layer of firmness beneath. If she grew while Alexa shrank, did it all balance out? Tracing her belly button’s circle, he quickly kissed her on the cheek and turned on his side to face away from her. Her hand, which had been moving up his thigh, stopped and withdrew.
Every morning, Gun-nao woke with the sun to stretch and go for a jog. That morning he woke earlier, to the sound of retching. It was faint, but he knew what it was. Pulling on his socks, he hurried down the white hall to hover outside Alexa’s bedroom. The splattering made him jumpy, and the flush swept him away and down the stairs. As he stepped outside, he heard Nora starting the water for her shower. In eighteen years of marriage, she had never asked to join him on his jogs. This early, the humidity hung lightly like an unbroken egg yolk. He ran through it, the scraping thuds of his feet making his worry rhythmic. His head was filled with moments that his hands did not know what to do with. Did Nora really not notice? Why hadn’t she stepped in? Four miles out, he suddenly turned on his heel and accelerated from a jog to a run, back toward home. Passing the eucalyptuses that shaded their soft brown yard, he burst through the front door. Nora’s car was gone. He scrambled to ascend the stairs as fast as his heart raced.
“Alexa!” He rapped on her door. “Alexa, come out here. You don’t have to go to school today.” He let himself smile a little as he imagined how excited she would be to spend some time together. Maybe she would talk to him. He needed to call in sick from work.
“Alexa!” He heard nothing on the other side of the door, only the gentle sound of wind chimes kissing on the front porch. His throat itched as he stepped in. The sharp light of the cracked bathroom door pressed a slanted triangle into the grey morning that seeped through her bedroom blinds. Inside her bathroom Alexa lay curled, awkwardly poured into the tiny square space. Her knees, elbow and chin were sprouted, trying to escape her skin. Her hair mixed with the grime on the tiles. Gun-nao’s hands fluttered by his sides as if trying to fly him away, away from his daughter on the bathroom floor. But just like they had failed him in preventing this, they failed him in escaping. Breathing heavily, he knelt and scooped her up, out of her room and down the stairs.
The emergency responders assured him they would be there within five minutes. He dreaded their arrival, their charts, their confirmation. Alexa’s lips sat on her face like two slices of dried persimmon, and they did not respond to the water glass he pressed against them. Inside the ambulance, loosely holding her dead leaf hands, he wanted to crush them. Or throw himself out of the ambulance. In the lobby of TIGA Army Medical Center, Dr. Reinhardt raised her eyebrows. “Chaplain Kai?” His face burned. Dr. Reinhardt dropped her eyes to her clipboard and didn’t say anything else. Her assistant told him that Alexa had passed out due to extremely low blood pressure and blood sugar levels. His fingers twitched, resisting the urge to fly.
“Alright. Thank you. I am going to go home, now, and tell my wife. Please call me when you have an update.” The suffocatingly hot air outside the icebox hospital made him call a taxi home, even though he could have jogged back in forty minutes. Blurred palm trees leered into the taxi’s tinted windows, but they drove fast enough to escape them. Nora sat on the front porch holding her cell phone, tense. Before he could speak, she did.
“Honey, my dad is in the hospital. We need to check Alexa out of school and start driving to Savannah now. If we leave within an hour, we can be there before visiting hours end.” Her voice split open. “His condition suddenly dropped; this may be the last time we see him.” As sweat trembled at her hairline, relief flooded him. She did not have to know what had happened.
“We can’t take Alexa out. I forgot, but she had an all-day field trip today. The science museum in St. Augustine, or something like that. She won’t be back until around eight.” As he spoke, Nora bit her lip and leaked a few long-fermented tears, running her hands up and down her sides. He hooked his arm around her neck, pulled her to his chest: “It’s okay, honey. I’ll stay here and watch her tonight. You go ahead. This way you can have a little alone time with him, anyway. And we’ll drive up first thing tomorrow.” It felt so good to reassure her. He felt his own strength as he lightly squeezed the extra skin that hung from her arms.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” His heart bloated. Kissing her cheek, he made himself go slow and let his lips be soft. He felt her reaction. “Do you think she’s doing okay?”
He held her tighter.
“Yes, she’s fine. I think she’s just been stressed with school. You better get going, honey. I don’t want you to miss the visiting hours.” He ran his finger through the furrow that permanently bedded in her pretty forehead. Every time he did, he wondered if he deepened it. She packed and left quickly. It was only eight in the morning; he could still make it to work on time. But he dreaded walking those halls, when Alexa’s bird bones lay somewhere in them. An idea shot into his mouth and he tasted it, liked it. His fluttering hands flew him back to the hospital; he would fix them both at the same time.
In her hospital room, Alexa lay with eyes closed, but he could tell by her face that she was awake. Green blinds glowed with the sun they suppressed, casting her white face with fluorescent green. He took her hand, rubbing her thin veins with his index finger.
“Alexa. You don’t have to worry. Mom doesn’t know.”
Dried puss rustled in the corners of her eyes as she cracked them open.
“She had to go out of town.” It will be our secret. But,” he moved closer to her, “you have to promise me you’ll start eating more. Otherwise I’ll tell Mom what you’ve been doing.” His words tasted good. This way would be best for everyone.
“You think Mom doesn’t know? She just doesn’t care. She’ll probably be pissed that you even brought me to the hospital.” She shrugged, and he imagined the sound of her shoulder bones pressing too closely. “She won’t want to pay the bill.”
“Honey.” He had no idea what to do.
“You don’t have to fix everything.” Alexa tugged a little at the IV that grew from her wrist. Gun-nao resisted to urge to grab her hand to stop it, and let himself pat her hair.
“I want you to know I love you.”
“Why do you sound like you’re pulling your own teeth out when you say that?” She had closed her eyes again. “Because you’re so ashamed to have a messed up kid? Because you’re afraid to tell Haraboji and Halmony that their granddaughter is not the sweet little girl they met five years ago?” Gun-nao rubbed his face to hide what her eyes weren’t open to see.
“No. I have never thought of that.” His heart pounded to be free of his chest, but his words got out first. “I can’t take care of you the way I should be able to. I let this happen. After the miscarriage, I don’t think your mom ever fully started trusting me again. And now you’re sick. It’s my duty. It’s.” His limp words gelled in the hospital air.
“Well, the thing is, it’s not. Don’t try and take this from me, too.”
“My disease, Dad! My disease. You know, my eating disorder? Just in case we haven’t clearly established that, I have one. And it’s not because of you. It’s not because of Mom. It’s me. It’s mine. You couldn’t have done anything even if you’d acknowledged its existence.” She sounded bitter but looked removed. Her words stamped into his vision, again and again. Eating disorder. She was right, he hadn’t clearly established it. Give anything a name and it’s more real.
His hand that rested on her rough head tightened a little. The eating disorder was hers, but she and Nora were his.