Home > The Unknown Beloved

The Unknown Beloved
Author: Amy Harmon



January 1923

Her mother was sleeping now. A soft snore bubbled from her lips, and Dani patted her cheek. Mother and Daddy had fought all night. That’s why Mother was tired. They’d fought, and then they’d hugged and kissed and slapped at each other, and then they fought some more. Daddy had been gone too long the last time, and Mother worried and paced and chewed on the sides of her fingers until they bled, though she never chewed her nails. They were pretty and painted for Daddy. Just like Mother’s lips. Mother liked Daddy. Daddy liked Mother. They liked each other too much, Aunt Zuzana said. Aunt Zuzana didn’t like Daddy. “He’s a fool,” she said.

None of Mother’s aunts liked him. Aunt Lenka said he was too handsome, and Aunt Vera said he was too much trouble. “You should bring Daniela and come back to Cleveland, Aneta,” they told Dani’s mother. Mother had been raised by them so she was used to their opinions. But Mother just shook her head when the aunts said things like that.

“I chose George Flanagan, Tety. He’s what I want. And I won’t have you talk badly of him. I am George’s wife. Daniela is George’s daughter.” Mother never called her Daniela except when she was talking to the aunts.

The aunts said she should be named after her great-grandfather, Daniel, the first Kos in Cleveland, and for some reason Mother and Daddy had agreed to it.

“Daniela Flanagan is a perfect name,” Daddy always said.

“I’m not perfect,” Daniela had informed him.

“Of course you are. Just like your mother. She has the perfect name too.”

“Aneta means merciful,” Dani had parroted, knowingly. The aunts had made sure she knew such things.

“It does. Such a smart girl you are. Your mother took mercy on me . . . and married me.”

“Even though the aunts don’t like you?”

“Yes. Even though the aunts don’t like me.”

“I like you, Daddy.”

“I like you too, Dani Flanagan.”

She liked the way the house rocked a little when Daddy was home. His heavy boots on the floor, his laugh, his smell, his inability to be quiet. Daddy was never quiet. He was yelling or laughing or stomping or snoring.

Mother snored now, but she snored softly. Mother was tired.

Dani slipped from her arms and gathered the books they’d purchased at O’Brien’s. Mother had tried to stay busy all day even though she’d been weary. They’d gone to Holy Name Cathedral and lit a candle for Daddy. Then they’d visited Schofield’s Flower Shop across the street just to smell the roses, bought a hot dog from a vendor, and finished their outing at O’Brien’s Books, their favorite. Mother liked books, but she liked most when Dani told her what the books were about without even opening the covers.

The big blue book with the frayed cloth edges had once belonged to a boy with long, slim hands and a sickly cough. The story wasn’t about him. But he had loved it . . . once. He had muttered to himself as he read, and his voice sounded like Mr. O’Brien’s. Mother said Mr. O’Brien was from Ireland like Daddy . . . so maybe the boy who’d owned the book was from Ireland too. Maybe Mr. O’Brien had brought it across the sea, all the way to Chicago to sell in his bookstore.

The other books Mother bought hadn’t been read by anyone else in so long. One brought a pair of squirming buttocks to mind—Dani giggled at that. She guessed that the book had been used to boost a small body at the dinner table. The last book, a new one, filled Dani’s mind with gray. Nothing there. The book had not been opened or loved or even hated or held. At least not long enough for someone’s story to sink into the threads or the paper.

Dani always told Mother what she saw, and Mother said she was good at telling stories. But Dani wasn’t good at stories. She couldn’t think of any stories by herself. She couldn’t even think of anything to draw most of the time. But she’d drawn a picture of the kitten she wanted. Charlie. Mr. O’Brien had a box of kittens behind his store that were ready for homes. Dani wanted one. She wanted one badly. She’d drawn a dozen pictures of Charlie, and she’d put them all over the house.

Mother didn’t really want her to have one. But Daddy said he would talk to Mother about the kittens. He said Dani would just have to wait until he got home again, and they would go get Charlie together.

Maybe she could go visit Charlie while Mother was napping. She wouldn’t know.

Dani carried her shoes and her coat from the room. Mother would hear her rustling if she put them on beside the bed. Mother had good ears. But she didn’t even stir when Dani eased the door closed. She was sound asleep.

Dani shoved her feet into her boots. They were getting too small. Daddy said she grew every time he was gone. Mother told him he better stop leaving then. Dani’s coat fit fine, though. Her hat too, and she pulled the edges down over her ears so she wouldn’t get cold on her walk. It was growing dark already. She would have to hurry so she could get a good look. Then she would come right back.

But Charlie was so sweet. And Dani stayed too long.

The clanging of police bells greeted her when she rounded the corner for her street. She began to run, certain that Mother would be awake. She would be angry and scared. Maybe the police were looking for Dani.

Two police cars were in front of her house, parked in haphazard fashion, their lights on and their doors open. As she watched, another car pulled up and three more officers tumbled out to join the two already standing in the yard. Daddy’s car was there too.

The front door of Dani’s house was open. Mrs. Thurston from next door was talking to the officers, hunched against the cold but gesticulating wildly.

“Oh no,” Dani cried. They were looking for her. Mother would never let her have a kitty now.

Nobody had seen her. Not yet. Dani raced across the neighbor’s yard and slipped quietly through the back door of her own house, the one that led into the kitchen, hoping she could find Mother first. Then mother could tell them all to leave because Dani had returned.

But the police were already inside. One man stood in the door between the kitchen and the sitting room. He wore a jaunty cap on his big head, and his long overcoat hung open, revealing two rows of brass buttons that marched down his big belly. A gold star peeked out from behind the lapel.

Someone had turned on the lamps in the house. All the lamps. The house blazed with light. Mother wouldn’t like all the lights on and the doors open. The heat from the stove would be whisked out into the January evening.

The policeman was looking down at the floor, and his cap shielded the upper part of his face. He didn’t look up when she entered the kitchen. The clanging from the front yard was enough to deafen the entire neighborhood.

Where was Mother?

Dani took another step and craned her neck, trying to see beyond the table between her and the policeman, to the sitting room and the front door.

Then she saw them.

Mother wasn’t in her bed anymore, but she was still asleep. She and Daddy both were—lying in a tangle of limbs on the kitchen floor.

Mother would be so glad Daddy was home. She’d said he wouldn’t be back for days.

Mother wasn’t wearing any shoes, and Daddy still wore his overcoat and his hat, like he’d run in from outside and picked Mother up and spun her around, kissing her and swinging her until they both fell down. Maybe Daddy had left the front door open.

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