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Fiction

The Historiography of Loss

I didn’t expect the trailer to feel so small and that some of the blood would still be wet. But I must have expected some blood because I cuffed my jeans before going in.

And I didn’t expect the cats would have come back—a window was open, its screen clawed loose. I didn’t expect how they pawed through the blood. Dotting the counters with their small footprints.

I didn’t expect the trailer to feel so densely packed—a family had lived here, a mother, a father, a twelve-year-old son, and all of their stuff. The parents’ bedroom—I didn’t expect how violently tight it would be, their lives drawn in, coiled, the nowhere-to-go of it. Especially in winter. Especially muffled in snow.

I didn’t expect to see the holster, but there it was, on the carpet. I didn’t expect the intimacy. I didn’t expect how the list of things-to-get would shake in my hand like a love note.

I didn’t expect a neighbor to show up at the door and shout if I needed help. “Little lady! You okay in there?”

I didn’t expect to throw things to him—like from a sinking boat to a dock—while he said how nice they’d all seemed, quiet, respectful.

And the dog. That was my main purpose. Get the dog. I didn’t expect the dog to be so small. Its ribs so rodent-dainty. I didn’t expect for it to shake and keep shaking and how that made me stop shaking. As I picked it up from the bed, I didn’t expect to whisper, “Come here, little fucker. Let’s get out of here together,” and how, after I said it, I choked up. It was so tender.

I didn’t expect to turn around and see the twelve-year-old boy. “Do you get it now?” he said. “This is why I’m the way I am. This.”

I didn’t expect to love the boy, but that’s how it is. I loved the boy because he was my father.

The one who gave me up.

• • • •

How did I get in the trailer in the first place?

I started out with the free promotional thing—upload an old photo and watch it come to life! The company was pretty well-known at the time, called TechoNostalgia. I chose to upload a photo of my father because I’d never met him. I’d only heard the story. He was young when I was born, just twenty. And my mother was even younger, just seventeen, an addict who left when I was a few weeks old. This was in Grand Forks and it was winter. I imagine her in a thin coat and jeans and sneakers, heading out onto the salted sidewalks, banked by two feet of snow.

My father had to take over alone. He wasn’t perfectly sober himself. He knew he couldn’t raise a kid—or he could but it would go badly. When I was six months old or so, his best friend Kenny had moved in with this girl named Biv who’d been raised on a commune and was chill and sweet and patient. One night my father was over and a little strung out, and Kenny was sick with a fever and chills. My father watched Biv take care of Kenny and decided that she could probably handle a baby. A few nights later, my father was there again. It was late. Biv and Kenny had fallen asleep on their futon, and I was just this little baby, asleep in a car seat sitting on the floor.

My father scribbled a note, tucked it into the padding of the car seat, and walked out.

But I wasn’t raised by Biv and Kenny. They weren’t ready either. I was adopted by an ophthalmologist and a software engineer who moved to Pasadena—Walinda and Tim Merchant, my parents. (They’re wonderful and I love them, but this story isn’t about them.) A short oral report of my early months of life, provided by Biv and Kenny, was in my medical file.

When I was in my teens, I looked up my biological parents. My mother was gone by her early twenties. My father made it to thirty-eight. He’d cleaned himself up but died in a work-related accident on a construction site in Muncie. He’d gotten married and divorced and remarried and had two more kids by then, twin daughters.

There was no reason to love my father. But there was no reason not to love him either. And so I did.

But let me be completely honest, I also hated the man. I hated that he gave up a six-month-old baby. And sometimes, when I could get to the anger—really feel it—I hated him because that baby was me. A lot of the time it was a story. But, when my defenses were down, it was personal. I’m a professor now, a historiographer, and so I study how histories are told, not history itself. I like being just slightly removed.

One night, I’d gotten home from a faculty potluck and couldn’t sleep. I was sitting up in bed, rain ticking on the windows. I’d heard about Nostalgia apps from my colleague, Ginny. We were hired five years ago, her in Digital Anthropology. “I had this old photo of my great grandmother at a muddy outdoor concert,” she told me. “I uploaded it and she started dancing. It was magical.”

I should note that I’d been thinking of getting pregnant. I’d frozen my eggs when I was twenty-eight. Now, ten years later, I was thinking about babies a lot. They suddenly seemed like they were everywhere—in restaurants and grocery stores, staring at me from backpacks. I wasn’t waiting for the right person to marry. I like people well enough. But never enough to think about spending my life with one of them. It struck me as a very strange supposition—the foreverness.

If I was interested in becoming a mother, why didn’t I track down my mother? That would have made more sense. But I saw her, at seventeen, as a kid herself, going through the fear and trauma of being pregnant and then labor. Maybe she was dealing with post-partum depression.

My father, on the other hand, had been twenty. And he’d known sadness as a kid—his mother died when he was pretty young; I’d found her obituary. She was just thirty-three. Did I think that made him a little sturdier? Did that explain why he fell recklessly in love with my mother? (Had they been in love at all?)

Mainly, I couldn’t get over this alternate reality in my head in which he didn’t leave that note, didn’t walk out that door. What would my life have been like then? Over those six months, did he bond with me at all? If so, how’d he write that note and simply walk out that door?

I realize now, of course, hindsight and all, that I had unfinished business.

I had a scanned photo of my father from his high-school yearbook. He was a senior. I uploaded it and waited while the algorithms did their work. And then my father—that still image of him—blinked and looked around. At this point, he was still trapped on my computer screen, but it was amazing to see him come to life, surprised to find himself here, awake and alive. He smiled.

But what hooked me wasn’t my young father brought back to life in this intangible way. It wasn’t even that I looked like him a little at that age—especially in our mouth, our lips, the pitch of our noses. No. It was the moment when his eyes met mine, directly.

It wasn’t seeing my father alive that was addictive but being seen by him.

• • • •

I ordered the Life-Size Nostalgia Kit, choosing my father at the age he would be if he’d lived, fifty-five. A technician came to my house one afternoon. They had a stiff waxy haircut and wore a nametag—Skye—with the company address on it, like if they got lost, this was where someone should return them. It felt very proprietary.

“Your father, huh?” Skye seemed skeptical. “Fathers are tricky.”

“You mean, technically more difficult to render?”

“I mean, fathers, in general. Have you ever been to a support group of any kind? Fathers, fathers, fathers. Sometimes mothers, sure. They took most of blame historically, but only because men were in charge of psychology. Really? Blame fathers.” Skye raised their shoulders, lifted their hands. “But, you know, sometimes fathers are great.”

“I didn’t know mine.”

“You’re going in blind?” Skye asked.

“Is that bad?”

“I’ve heard mixed results.”

“Is he going to be the way he was in life, personality-wise?” I wanted to make sure I was meeting the right person.

“Yeah, the tech has gotten pretty good at nailing that down.” They pulled out a waiver. “But, look, shit can get weird with these things, and he’ll really take a while to charge—lots of sleeping the first few days.”

There was way too much fine print. “What do you mean—shit can get weird?”

“If I were to summarize this waiver, that’s how I’d put it. You’re either up for that or not.”

I was already in deep. “Fine, yes. I guess.” I signed.

Skye installed the whole thing—a network that extended to the edges of my property, a program uploaded to my computer, and, soon enough, a 3D body appeared in my living room. It was, at first, a rough estimate, the vague size and shape of my father, but without detail.

“You ready?” Skye asked.

“I think so.”

Skye started the rendering process. And, just like that, my father’s hands took shape. He was opening and closing his fists. Buttons on his shirt, a jawline, a fine bristle of hair on his head.

Then his nostrils flared and his eyes opened—a wild angry flutter. His lips appeared and suddenly he gasped like someone coming to the surface of a lake.

“Good luck,” Skye said and they left.

I was transfixed by my father, barely able to move. It was just my father and me, together for the first time since I was a baby in a car seat. “Hi,” I said.

“What the hell?” he said. “Who the fuck are you?”

“I’m your daughter, Emi.”

He wasn’t completely surprised by this, but he was a little suspicious. “And this is . . .”

“My house,” I said. “I’m hoping we can get to know each other because, you know, we didn’t . . .”

“When I was alive.”

“So you know you’re dead?”

“I know . . . a good bit. It’s coming to me now. Why I’m here, what customers sometimes expect . . . I think . . .” I could see different realizations washing over him. He looked at his hands and then plucked at his shirt. “I’m real and not real. I exist and I don’t. And I might not last.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sometimes we don’t . . . last.” He started walking around the living room. He leaned into some abstract art on the wall—close enough to see brushstrokes. Then backed away and frowned at it. “I’m really fucking tired. You mind if I crash?”

“Not at all.”

I showed him to the guest room which doubled as my exercise room—an elliptical, yoga mats, kettle bell . . .

He sat on the edge of the bed.

“Does this seem comfortable?” I asked.

He bounced on the bed a little. “It’s all good. Thanks.”

As I’d been warned, he slept for hours and hours, charging. I would pause at the door, listening to him thrash and murmur in his sleep.

• • • •

The TechNostalgia version of my father was always hungry, but he couldn’t eat. He wasn’t embodied in that way. So the hunger seemed to be burning him. He took it personally.

He took a lot of things personally—the news, the weather, my way of looking at him. “What?” he said. “What do you want from me?”

I wanted a lot from him but they were all unnameable things.

He liked to sit in the back yard in a lawn chair and stare up at the sky.

I’d set up a chair next to him and ask questions. The answers were always short.

“What were your parents like?”

“Messy. Strange.” He paused. “Violent.”

“Did you have friends?”

“We had an eight-pound rat terrier that I loved a lot.”

“Did you like school?”

“I hated it. I couldn’t read very well.”

“What was your house like?”

“Canopy Trailer Park. Last one on the left,” he said, as if giving me directions.

“How did you meet my mother?”

“Ice rink after hockey practice.”

“You played ice hockey?”

“Kicked off the team. For weed.”

I didn’t expect this blunt honesty. I didn’t really know that I’d had any expectations. In his picture, he was smiling—and silent, of course. Is that what I’d extrapolated, creating an idea of his entire personality as happy and quiet—from a photo? “What was my mother like?” I asked.

“Shy. Pretty.” His face didn’t soften as I’d expect it might.

After a quick back-and-forth like this, he’d stop answering questions. He’d lift his face to the sun and close his eyes. Done.

• • • •

He could change clothes, I noticed. The button-down was gone. He wore black t-shirts with rock bands that I didn’t recognize and tour dates from when he was young. He drank from a mug that had NO HABLA BULLSHIT written on it—one I’d never seen before. And, shortly after that, he learned how to create hologram meals through the program. They appeared on the dining-room table—roasts and pork chops and potato salad and pies. He would devour them in greedy silence and yet still seemed hungry.

He spent more and more time outside, rarely coming in.

I had a desk set up in the corner of my bedroom. I was teaching only two courses that semester and was working on a book. I’d write notes and pore over documents and then move to the window where I had a view of my father. He liked the birds at the feeder. He watched them intently.

Then, one night, I saw him walking in a rectangle, pacing it out like he was measuring something. He’d look up at the night sky as if for navigation. He put four sticks in the ground and in the far corner of the staked-out rectangle, he lied down, curled to his side, and went to sleep.

As a historiographer, I write a lot about historians. What would one say about the people who brought back those they loved—or hated or needed something from or wanted to destroy or apologize to or be granted forgiveness from . . . ? Would the historians see people like me as a complex narrative? Would they see us as weak?

I saw myself as weak. When I stood in the same room with my father, I felt needy and lost.

We don’t last . . .

What did that mean? Was my father going to abandon me again?

If he did, would I be injured by it—or relieved?

• • • •

One night, we had a fight.

It was dusk. I’d asked as many questions as I could and then he shut down on me. But this time he didn’t close his eyes. We were sitting in our lawn chairs. The four sticks were in the ground. The grass in the place where he slept was worn down. He looked at me. “Just ask it.”

“Ask what?”

“You brought me back so you could blame me.” He was agitated.

“I don’t think that’s true.”

“It is.”

“How do you know?”

He stood up and walked over to one of the sticks. “You’re not the only one who chose me for this program, you know.”

“What?”

“Tina,” he said. “And Lizzy. And one of the twins.”

“What are you saying? Who are Tina and Lizzy and the twins?” But I remembered the names. They were his wives. Tina had the twins. It was strange—like getting a refurbished second-hand computer and finding someone else’s old files on it. I suddenly wondered what happened between all of them.

“You think you’re the only damage done?” He looked at me squarely.

“Damage?” I said. “I’m not damage.”

“Then what are you?”

Was this a rhetorical question?

“What are you?” he said again, louder.

“Fuck you,” I said.

“You can’t even ask me the question,” he said.

I got up and walked to the house. The sliding door was heavy and a little off its track so I had to pull hard.

“If you aren’t damage, then what are you?”

I slammed the sliding door shut.

Later that night, I woke up. It was around two a.m. I couldn’t fall back to sleep. Was I the damage he’d done? Was I damage? What did Tina and Lizzy and one of the twins do with him?

What was the question I should be asking? He knew it but I didn’t. Was it—how did you write the note, tuck it in my car seat, and walk out that door?

Maybe it was.

I walked to the window. Instead of four stakes in the ground, there was a partial, see-through rendering of a trailer. It existed faintly, like an etching. I could see my father in the corner, but his tall, bulky body was lying on a bed in a very small bedroom, clothes piled around him and on the floor, drawers open.

The grass around the trailer was dead.

What the hell?

I couldn’t find my bathrobe but there was a chill in the air so I put on a puffy coat over my pajamas. Barefoot. The grass was wet with dew.

“Dad?”

He didn’t stir.

But there was this growling noise and then a high-pitched yap. And through the hazy rendering of the trailer, I saw the little rat terrier emerge from the covers and glare at me from the edge of the bed. It was wire-haired, black with a some white splotches. “Okay, okay,” I said. “I’m not going to bother you.”

I walked back in through the sliding door and watched the trailer become more dense. It took on details—wood steps, worn siding, rust and dents. It felt so real. Like the truest and saddest thing I’d ever seen.

• • • •

I didn’t see my father for days.

After a week, I knocked on the thin trailer door. It rattled against the frame. “Are you okay in there?”

The dog barked.

“Do you hear me? Can I come in? Do you need help?”
It was quiet. Then the dog made sad whimpering sounds.

“Not yet,” my father said. “No, no. Not yet.”

• • • •

A few days after that, I found the note. It sat on the dining-room table.

It was a list written in a messy scrawl, written by someone on edge.

Meds in bathroom

Clothes, shoes

Trailer insurance info—in the kitchen drawer

wallet

lock box—near fishing gear

The dog—the dog!!!

It was a list of things . . . to pick up? But not at a store, of course. I knew where the dog was—in the trailer. Was this a list of things to get out of the trailer? Had my father left, again, and was he telling me things that needed to be . . . saved? Meds, whose meds? His wallet?

It didn’t matter. I was going in for the dog. If he left, someone needed to take care of the rat terrier.

I walked out to the back yard. The trailer sat diagonally—under some constellation, I presumed. I walked to the door again and knocked hard. “Are you in there?” I knocked again. “I’m coming in!”

But I didn’t. I backed away from the trailer. I looked at the bare dirt that used to be lush grass. And snow appeared, as if an afterthought. Crusty snow, mottled with dirt. Snow capping the roof of the trailer.

What were your parents like?

Messy. Strange.

Violent.

The snow spread. It covered what had been the dirt patch around the trailer.

Blood in it. A dense clump. And a pink trail.

One of the windows was open. The screen ripped and flapping in the breeze.

Someone on edge—my father or not my father at all—wrote the note. Wallet. A man? A man couldn’t come into this trailer to get the wallet himself.

Messy. Strange. Violent.

My father’s mother died young. Thirty-three.

I cuffed my jeans.

• • • •

The small trailer. The wet blood. The cats’ bloody pawprints on the counter.

All of their stuff. Coiled, the nowhere-to-go of it.

Especially muffled in snow.

The holster on the carpet.

My father wasn’t there. The list of things-to-get was shaking in my hand.

Where was the dog? The dog.

“Little lady! You okay in there?”

Where did the neighbor come from? Who rendered him?

I put the note in my pocket. I picked up a bag and collected clothes—for a twelve year old boy.

My father. Where was he?

I looked for the things on the list. I threw the bag of clothes to the neighbor, a pair of boots.

And the dog, hiding in the corner of the bed where my father would sleep. “Come here, little fucker. Let’s get out of here together.” My cinched-up throat, a blur of tears.

“Do you get it now?”

I was holding the dog. I was looking at my father, a boy.

“This is why I’m the way I am. This.”

I loved him.

I pulled the note out of my pocket. “Did someone give this to you? Were you the one sent back into the trailer after . . .”

He nodded.

“They shouldn’t have asked that of you.”

“I know.”

“You shouldn’t be here,” I said.

“It’s where I have to be,” he said.

“You should come with me. I’ll take care of you. I’ll help you. Let’s go. We have to go.”

“Ask the question.”

“What?” The dog was so small, the size of a newborn.

“Ask the question.”

“I don’t know the question!”

“Yes you do. Ask it!” His eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. He’d been crying.

“Is it . . . is it . . . how you did it? How’d you write that note and leave?”

“No,” he said. “That’s not it.”

“That’s right. It’s not about that moment, that night. That one decision.”

“It never was.”

“It’s how you did it every day after that.”

“You’re getting closer.”

I was crying now. I held the dog against my chest. “It’s how you could keep not coming back.”

“This,” he said. “This here. This taught me that if you feel too much love . . .” His voice cut out. He was crying.

“You’ll have it taken from you?”

Chin to chest, he nodded.

“Your mother,” I said.

His eyes darted around the trailer like he saw her everywhere. “I loved her so much.”

“And you loved me.”

“Of course.”

“How much?” This was the real question. I could tell by the way his eyes brightened—a sudden flare.

This was his answer, the one he’d been wanting to give. “Too much.”

He reached out for the dog and I gave it to him. The dog licked his chin, salty from crying.

“Do you want to stay?” I said.

“I need to stay,” he said. “For a while.”

And he did.

• • • •

It’s been like this for many years. He did last. He continues to. My father will live inside the house for a while, with me and my daughter, who’s now four years old and full of why-why-why? (This is my attempt to figure it out myself—why, why, why?) He’s a good grandfather when he can be one. What he has to do is keep making the decision to come back to us, and I have to keep making the decision to let him in.

He still gets restless, drawn away from us again. He’ll start sleeping in the yard. The sticks go in—four corners of the rectangle. And soon enough, the trailer is back. I hear the dog yapping. There’s snow.

He doesn’t need me to go after him anymore.

The snow—with its splotches of blood—eventually melts.

Julianna Baggott

Julianna Baggott. A middle-aged white woman with dark hair and eyes is slightly turned looking at the camera without smiling.

Julianna Baggott is the author of over a dozen novels, including Pure and The Seventh Book of Wonders, both New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Her work is in development for film/TV with options at Warner Brothers, Disney+, and Lionsgate. She has a forthcoming story collection, I’d Really Prefer Not to be Here with You, and a novella, The Wick. She teaches screenwriting at the Florida State University Film School.