She was his sweet child, fair and spring-like and blowing in the wind. A vat of English cream; a sugared wine; thick honey in one’s tea. At night, before he slept, he saw her golden face quirked in that everlasting smile, the expression always still, the wind mussing the strands of her hair. It seemed to him like a picture, or perhaps an infinite scene in a movie, in which she remained forever-young.
They met at church. Her family only came a few times every year, mostly on Easter or Christmas, occasionally on the rare Sunday, if the children accepted it, and the mother felt particularly devout. He had been there on one of those rare Sunday mornings, sitting in the pew, mopping his brow – humid, July – listening to the sermons. Then the choir was introduced, and there, bathed in the morning light, stood the newest member of the congregation, a short and delicate girl of twelve-or-so, dressed in her robe, licking her lips until they were moist. Her voice came to him tender and unripened, tart upon the mouth like a fresh wine. Her very face allowed the hymns to pass through her like a shuddering wave of pleasure. It was then that he knew she ought to be his child, a little one to nurse and advise and walk among the church with, whispering secrets and sworn to the other through unbloodied ties.
After the sermon he had introduced himself and complimented the girl’s singing. He’d asked for her name.
“Winnifred,” her mother said, “but she prefers Winnie.”
From then on he held her name close to his heart. He found himself shivering at the very sound of it, shivering all the more if he said it aloud. One morning, walking to church, he saw her like a ghost skipping beside him, hair gold and fine, radiating strong smells of shampoo warmed by the sun. She stayed beside him throughout the service, and he imagined she was fidgeting with something beside him, head locked into concentration, her nose bunched into a gentle scowl.
In the evening, as he made dinner, she would dance across the floor, sweeping her skinny legs to fast-paced music, and at night she would ask him, “Tie my shoes, won’t you?” and run off into the yard, laughing devilishly. Sometimes when he was driving, he would look into the rear mirror and imagine her sitting there, imagine how her body would glisten with excitement, how, in the heat of the summer, he would watch sweat weep down her face. He would buy her candy from the gas station near his work; he would pick her up in his arms; her laugh would fill the empty house.
One Saturday he saw her walking home from school, hair like fine strands of gold in the afternoon light. It settled upon her shoulders in waves. He decided he was going to talk to her. He’d built up the nerve. He had his words lined up in front of him.
“You’re Winnifred,” he said, pulling up beside her. “Am I right?”
“It’s Winnie.” With delight, he watched her pick at the hem of her dress, knobby knees poking out under her skin.
“Sure,” he said. “I like your dress.”
“Are you walking home from school?”
He paused to look at her. “Need a ride home?”
He opened the car door. She sat down beside him. “Thanks,” she said.
“Sure. Mind if I make a quick stop before your house?”
“I need something. It won’t take long.”
He drove off.
They reached his house not long after. He looked over at her. She was sitting with her knees pressed against the door so hard they were turning pink.
“It’s too hot in here for you to stay,” he said. “You should come inside.”
He opened the door and reluctantly she slid out. “What do you have to get?”
But he didn’t answer. He unlocked the door and showed her inside. “Stay right here,” he said, “I have something to show you.”
She stayed still, standing evenly between her two legs, hips rigid and arms holding onto one another. He ran to the top floor of the house. At the top of the landing there was a room painted pink, mostly empty save for a couple of magazines and a stack of women’s clothes. There was a box, too, a white cardboard box with a red ribbon.
She was still standing there when he got down, legs and feet sewn tightly together. “Is this what you had to get?” She stared at the box, eyes drawn to the bright red ribbon.
“It’s for you.” He gave it to her, but she didn’t open it.
“Thanks,” she said, “but I really have to get going now. I can just walk home the rest of the way.”
“Wait,” he stepped towards her. “I want you to tell me what you think of it.”
She looked down at the box. Her hands couldn’t hold it steady. “Okay.” She set it down and loosened the ribbon. Inside, there was a white silky dress, spaghetti-strapped and trimmed in a cheap lace; the fabric pooled into all corners of the box.
“Do you like it?”
She picked it up. It dripped from her arms. “Thank you very much. I love it.” But her face was cold as stone.
“You have to tell me the truth,” he said, reaching forwards for her arm, “you have to.”
“Stop it!” she said, backing away as the fabric rolled with her. She trembled; a sweat was brewing on her forehead.
“I need to know,” he said, “just tell me what you think of it.” But she kept walking away from him. He was scaring her. So he stayed still as he watched her fiddle with the door, then as she opened it,— and fled outside.
The dress remained on the floor. She’d dropped it. Weeping, he placed it back into the box and carried it upstairs, put it next to the other clothes in the pink room. He cried – for the emptiness of the room, for the beauty of the light coming in through the window, for a beauty he had no one to share with.
For how long, he wondered, could he live in a house so cold? He watched the dress as it simmered beneath the sunlight. He put the top of the box back on. How long, he wondered. How long before he peeled away?
Isabelle Kang is a seventeen-year-old Korean-American writer. She attends Denver School of the Arts for Creative Writing, and has been published in the school’s literary magazine, Calliope, for four consecutive years. She enjoys incorporating her writing into other interests, such as music, painting, and psychology.