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Surface Tension

Dr. Job Ridley stood in his stone-tiled kitchen and stared at brand-new wallpaper towering over him like barbed wire sparking electricity. His wife, Caren, had fallen in love with the “electric blue” pattern on some home fashion website several weeks ago. He remembered suggesting it’d be cheaper if they allowed their daughter, Hope, to scribble over the cream-coated walls with her Crayola crayons, but that didn’t stop Caren from hiring a whole team of interior designers. Job moved over to the marble counter and poured himself a glass of Maker’s Mark before stepping outside to the patio.

It was a rare, mid-autumn day in the Southeast when the drowning season of summer bursts from the surface, gasping for another breath. To his right, Hope had her arms wrapped around Lex’s hind legs as the dog paddled her around the pool. Job couldn’t decide if Lex was struggling to tear out of his daughter’s grasp, or if the animal’s survival instincts triggered and he was swimming to prevent himself from sinking underwater.

Job took a sip of whiskey and glared down the driveway. He felt as if the barren tree branches lining down the cobblestone path were pointing at him from their deathbeds.

“Drinking already?” Caren emerged from the pool house, holding a glass of iced tea. His wife’s hazelnut hair flowed down the contours of her back, tan skin contrasting with her teal, two-piece bathing suit.

“I’ll spend my afternoon the way I want to.”

“Not with your daughter?” Caren replied. Before Job could answer she continued, “You promised you’d spend more quality time with her.”

“I’ll read her a bedtime story tonight.”

“Christ, Job, she’s not 3 years old anymore.”

Job sipped his drink. “What do you want me to do, play Barbie dolls with her?”

“She doesn’t play Barbie anymore.”

“Of course not.” Job kept at it, “Why don’t we all dress up and throw a sparkling beauty pageant then? The dog can judge the winner.”

“Can’t you at least pretend to have fun with your daughter?” Caren stared at him, daring him to take another sip. “Just once?”

She turned away and shouted at the pool, “Come on, Hope. Out of the pool. Almost dinner time.”

Hope swung open the pool gate and ran across the driveway, her wet feet trickling traces of water into the cobblestone cracks. The child’s skin was brown from tanning with her mother by the pool all summer. Job noticed Caren had dressed their daughter in a teal bikini identical to the one she was wearing. Hope’s natural hair color was dirty blonde like his—several months ago she begged and begged to have it dyed hazelnut. Job had argued for weeks that she was too young, but on Hope’s 10th birthday Caren surprised their daughter by taking her to the salon while he was at work. He remembered how Hope couldn’t stop brushing, curling, and modeling her new hair in front of his wife’s handheld mirror. That evening, Caren asked him over and over “Doesn’t she look so pretty, Job?”

The girl lunged between them and thrust her arms around her mother’s waist, out of breath.

“Mom, look how wrinkled my fingers are.” Hope backed away from her parents and shoved out her palms.

“That’s from swimming for too long, honey,” Caren responded.

“Then I’m never getting in that pool again.”

Hope glanced up at Job. She turned to face him slowly, almost robotically. At that moment Job imagined the girl as some miraculous feat of engineering—white eyes powered on and beaming with electricity. He felt as if she were scanning his body from head to toe, memorizing each wrinkle of his forehead, the sharp edges of his jawline, the shadows sinking into his cheekbones. His daughter was a machine hardwired to learn who he was, but every time Hope addressed him she transmitted a frequency he struggled to adjust to.

“Will you watch American Idol with us tonight, Daddy?”

“Not tonight. I think I’ll read in the study.”

“With the Kindle Mommy and I bought for you?”

“No, paperback. I prefer writing line notes.” Caren glared at Job.

“Daddy’s no fun, darling,” Caren said. “Let’s go inside, we’ll make brownies for dessert tonight.” She grabbed Hope’s wrist and led her into the house, closing the door behind them.

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