“Mommy’s not gonna leave him, is she?”
“No,” I said.
Lina frowned, shifting the perfect geometry of her face.
Mark wasn’t even our stepfather. One word described what he was. He was acrid.
You don’t notice at first; she seems so cozy and quicksilvery, like a lovely little pet you want to squeeze.
I hated whenever Lina wasn’t happy. Mom never seemed to notice.
Mom used to smell like honey, but Mark’s nastiness seeped into her bit by bit. Like if the neighbor’s dog keeps pooping on your little patch of lawn. It’s ruined for you now.
Lina and I both knew Mom would never get us away from here.
Everyone starts with a real dad somewhere.
“He’s not in the picture,” Mom said, if anybody asked; “Mark treats my girls like his own.”
We lived in Mark’s house. It was really his parents’ house but they were dead. He sat in the den most of the day, fooling around on his laptop. He called himself a writer.
Mom thought he was brilliant.
He was, in a way. He used to be a teacher, but now he stayed home and did nothing and the government sent him money.
Mom acted like she’d done great for us. It was a big house with a nice yard, and we didn’t have to be on our own after school because Mark was there.
In the beginning he didn’t bother us much. We never had to go on family outings, or sit together for long, or tell him about our day.
Then Lina’s teacher called Mom in, to talk about Lina’s attitude.
Lina really didn’t care for the times table.
“They’ve got calculators for that,” said Lina.
“What if you don’t have one handy?” asked her teacher.
Lina said, “You think I’ll have arithmetic emergencies?”
The grownups decided kind generous Mark would give some of his valuable creative time to help Lina with her math.
You could see he’d been waiting for a moment like this, to make us miserable and Mom grateful for it.
Maybe he’d never need anything else after that private little enjoyment of keeping Lina stuck in her chair until he said she could go. But guys like that will always want more.
“Want to color with me?”
“I’m putting Daddy back in the picture,” said Lina, “and taking Mark out.”
She kept making copies of the same drawing — the house and yard and all of us standing in front, sketched in pencil.
“You can color in everything else, but leave Mom and Mark to me.”
She started on another piece of paper.
“Why seven of them?”
“Seven’s a magic number,” said Lina. “One times seven is seven. The times table, just like they wanted.”
She was a good artist.
“What are the woods for?” I asked. She’d made it look like we lived near a forest.
“Camouflage for Daddy while he travels,” she said.
A dimly-penciled figure with gleaming yellow eyes stared out from between the trees.
“Why are his eyes like that?” They looked like headlights.
“So he can find us in the dark,” said Lina.
“He looks like a bear,” I said.
“Maybe Daddy is a bear,” said Lina. “A were-bear. And he misses his lost were-children.”
A shiver slid icily up my legs.
“What’s Daddy’s name?” I whispered.
“Bear Were-Daughtersfather,” said Lina.
“Growl growl,” I said.
“Snap!” said Lina.
“It’s go-time,” Lina said. “Hocus pocus presto change-o.” She erased Mark’s feet, rubbing slowly and carefully.
While I did my homework, Lina colored another drawing. Daddy was out of the woods now and at the edge of the yard, looking towards the house. His whole head was colored in, brown and shaggy.
“When will he get here?” I asked.
“In double-time,” said Lina.
Mark was gone all the way up to his waist. Daddy was starting to cross the yard. His shoulders and arms were all colored in.
“He’s waving to us now,” said Lina.
The real Mark didn’t look very well. Neither did Mom. She’d been throwing up.
Lina finished drawing number five. Daddy was halfway to the house. His mouth was open.
“He’s roaring for us,” said Lina, “to bake him a nice big cake.”
She erased the top of Mark’s head. His face was still there, and his neck and shoulders and arms. The rest of him was gone.
“I can’t write with all that noise!” Mark shouted from the den. Lina and I started laughing and he slammed his door and Mom shouted at us to go to our room. She tried to say something to Mark and he yelled at her, and we couldn’t stop ourselves from giggling as we went upstairs, thump thump thump.
“Double time divided by no time,” said Lina.
Mom came into our room. She looked like everything was falling apart around her and she didn’t know why.
“You rotten kids,” she said, her voice low and shaking.
“Error in the calculation,” said Lina. All the color went out of Mom’s face and she ran to the bathroom, and we heard her throwing up again.
Lina had finished picture number six.
Mark’s eyes were gone. His hands were scrabbling in his empty head. His mouth was a perfect circle.
“Zero times zero,” I said, “will always be zero.”
Our two little crayoned figures were jumping up and down. Daddy’s hands were colored in. One more giant step and he’d reach us.
“Want to do this together?” asked Lina. She was working on picture number seven.
“Sure,” I said.
Daddy’s foot had touched the ground. It just needed to be colored in.
Mark was gone. Mom’s outline was still just pencil.
Lina tapped it.
“Crayon or eraser?”
“Eraser, please,” I said.
She handed it to me and took a crayon for herself.
“Show-time,” she said.
Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — have appeared on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)