Vigilance by David Kesmodel

It’s my turn next to venture down the stairs. Set an alarm on your phone, Sheri advises, then go down and make sure they’re not too hot and heavy.

I dread the moment. When it arrives, I exaggerate each step with the balls of my feet. Yet when I peek around the corner, I find lips locked and faces flushed. My daughter’s sandy blonde curls envelop the boy’s shock of black hair. The television plays a Pixar movie too childish for high school sophomores.

What are you guys watching?

Their bodies separate like taffy. Silence.

Um, hello, Mr. Grissom, the boy says finally.

You two really should do something outside. It’s seventy degrees. Didn’t you both see this film a long time ago?

Yeah, yeah, we will, Emma says. We have, like, all day, you know.

It goes on this way, week after week. Eavesdropping, Sheri learns our house is the sanctuary. Seems Ashil’s parents set up a nanny cam and failed to cover their tracks.

Why don’t we try that?

Sheri hushes me. We have to let her grow up. How’s she supposed to learn who she is, what she wants?

I pace the halls. I take up baking and periodically indulge the young couple with treats. I make red velvet cupcakes, macaroons and chocolate croissants. I sign up for a water coloring class on Zoom so I can wash the brushes in the laundry room next to the den.

What if he gets her pregnant? I ask.

Oh, she’d never go all the way when she knows we’re in the house. Second base, maybe.

Are you kidding me? Which of us was a teenage boy, trying every trick under the sun? Think I don’t know how this goes?

You have to trust her. We’ve had many talks. Of course, we have to stay vigilant. Every twenty minutes, check, check, check.

One night, after much cajoling, the teenagers agree to join us for dinner on the patio. They eat heartily and Ashil tells us of his love for chess, and how one of his great grandfather’s was India’s national champion. After dinner, he beats me soundly. I tip my king and shake his hand as his mother blares her horn in the driveway.

The next weekend, the love birds are nowhere to be found. Did they go for a walk? I ask. Decide to breathe fresh air instead of each other?

Sheri scowls. But she reaches for her phone when she notices the Toyota’s gone.

Calls and texts go unanswered. We dial Ashil’s parents, who insist he went to a friend’s house for the day. I put a chicken in the oven, slice carrots and peel potatoes. I help Sheri scrub the counters and wash the windows.

Suddenly the door swings open and Emma dashes past me. Her flip flops spank the hardwood stairs. She shuts her door and I hear the piercing cry of a critically wounded animal.

You’ll need to stay out of this, Sheri says. She needs her mother right now.

I eat dinner alone at the kitchen island, slowly chipping at the label on my IPA. I strain to hear bits and pieces as mother and daughter discuss love and loss and the terrible cruelty of it all.

Later I pour a glass of bourbon, straight, and work up the courage to ascend the stairs. I knock softly, bracing for rejection. Yet not only am I allowed into the room, I’m offered a chair and asked to play the role of Ashil. Sobbing, Emma interrogates me like a frazzled prosecutor. I cast about, struggling for plausible answers, pained by her wet, hollow eyes. And for a moment I am a sixteen-year-old boy all over again, gangly and unsure of myself, stumbling over my words, desperate to fix the unfixable.

DAVID KESMODEL — David is a writer in suburban Chicago. He is a former financial journalist and works as an analyst for a Chicago investment firm. He is the author of the nonfiction book The Domain Game.

Art by DREW DIONNE — Drew is an illustrator and digital artist based out of Maine. He makes art for his enjoyment on his Instagram page @sketching_randomly.