When Veronica’s father finally got home from work they ate dinner on the couch, the buzz of the television filling the familiar silence that now swaddled every interaction since their mother died. Veronica cleaned the kitchen before putting Isa to bed, tracing her fingers along her back until she fell asleep, her hand lingering against her soft hair line longer than usual.
She finally got up and dressed for bed, leaving her jeans on underneath her nightclothes before helping her father strip the couch cushions and unfold the thin spring mattress. She watched him, moving slow in the dark, back bent, bones weary. He pulled off his boots and kicked them by the door, the lips landing upright, ready for him to slip back into them in the morning.
Veronica thought about the amount of seconds it took for her and Tomas to make a drop, how each night they earned more than her father did in an entire week. Money they could use to fix the plumbing, to turn on the heat. Money she could use to leave. But there would be more, she told herself, a mantra she hummed when her fingers grew numb, when Isa grew out of her shoes and needed a new pair. These were the things that made her want to run—not in search of an escape but of a remedy.
Her father finally flicked off the light and Veronica watched as the shadows curled around him until she could no longer see the way her mother’s ghost had carved her absence into his face, the way it left the skin there hollow and grey. She slipped under the blankets next to Isa, her father’s dark contours still shifting in the corner of her eye and then in the still, dark, quiet he spoke.
“Goodnight Nica,” he breathed.
“Goodnight,” she answered.
She rolled over, waiting for him to fall asleep. But then he drew in a breath.
“I love you,” he said.
She felt the words warm on her skin, trying to remember the last time she’d heard them. Something hot slid down her cheek and she wanted to look at him, to say she loved him too, to say anything. But she was afraid.
He finally stopped waiting, his breathing lapsing into sleep, the hard desperate kind she was hoping for. But as she slipped out of the window, stealing one last glance at her sister’s shadow curled up in the middle of the bed, it was those three syllables that chased her through the night, helping her maneuver the shadows to where Tomas was waiting, and hammering in her veins until she saw him beneath that streetlight, their bags slumped over his shoulder.