My name is Penny Bomb and I’m an orphan. Not like that’s special, nearly everyone my age is an orphan in one way or another but I’m the kind of orphan who has dead parents. I didn’t lose both my parents at the same time. I lost them at different times. First I lost my father in a fire. I was seven and he built a giant fire in the back yard in the middle of the night. He fed it furniture from our house, furniture he’d made in his wood shop. He fed it scraps from his shop. He fed it bottles of beer and cigarette butts and he stood watching it blaze upward. I watched the fire too, from my bedroom window. I was supposed to be asleep but something woke me and I was glad about it because I could watch the golden flames bouncing and waving and my Dad’s shadowed body against the orange light. I would watch my father who was watching the fire. My father was everything to me. I could watch him forever.
At some point my mother went outside too. She was angry and yelling at her. I could hear her voice, the shrill tone of anger piercing the dead of night. She pointed her thin finger at my father and yelled right at him. She was shorter than him but looked stronger because she was so big with the baby. Dad was tall and lean, like a leaf. He stood next to the fire looking at her while she yelled at him with her long finger. I’d been on the other end of that finger too. I knew what it felt like. He watched her and I watched them. Then she threw up her hands and came back inside. She slammed the door so hard downstairs my window shook. I was afraid she was going to come upstairs and yell at me too. I lay back in bed and looked at the thin yellow line under my door frame to see if my mother’s feet would appear. They didn’t. She was in her bedroom.
I sat up and looked back out the window and my Dad was gone. The fire was starting to die down. I knew then that he was gone. I would never see him again. He died in that fire.
Later there was a big court case between my parents. I had to meet with psychologists and counselors and teachers and lawyers and my mother’s family and I had to tell them stories. They told me to tell them the truth but when I did they didn’t like it so I started to tell them stories and that made them happy. So I told them all kinds of stories. I told them everything but the truth.
No one wants to hear the truth. Not even you. You don’t even want to hear that you don’t want to hear the truth. You want to hear lies. You want to hear stories. You want to be part of a good story, to feel better than other people, to root for someone, to watch someone fall and to be comforted.
By the time all the court cases and meetings and therapies were over, I was nine years old and hadn’t seen my dad in almost two years. My mother and her lawyer, Mr. Williams walked me into a room with metal and plastic chairs, a fake potted plant and a brown coffee table with magazines on it. I sat in the chair and they looked at me like I was supposed to do something, turn into a butterfly or explode. I looked back at them.
Then the door opened and in walked my not dead father. No one told me he was alive. No one told me he was dead either but he disappeared the night of the fire and I knew fire was dangerous because my father told me it was. He’s the only person I’ve ever known to tell me the truth about anything.
He was thinner and looked older and his eyes looked darker but his smile was the same. I ran up to him and hugged him and he held on to me. I burst into tears crying about all the bad stories I told about him. I didn’t know he was alive. I didn’t know he would hear about them. I didn’t know anything mattered.
He said he was saying goodbye and he loved me and not to worry about anything. I begged him to let me go too but he said I couldn’t.
My mother and her lawyer watched us and I felt like I was on fire, my tears were hot, my body was shaking, everything inside me was burning in fear and anger and confusion and all I wanted was to go away from everything and be with my dad.
Mr. Williams had to pull me off of my dad who was crying too. I lost my grip and my dad took a step backward. “I love you Penny,” he said. Then he turned around and through the door and died again. Or maybe I died. We both died and I never saw him again.
The third time he died I was fifteen and I was fighting with my mother in the kitchen. I wanted to go to a friend’s house for the night and then to a concert but my mother wouldn’t drive me over.
“I’m going to find my Dad then. I’m going to go live with him!” This used to work but somewhere around age thirteen it stopped getting a rise out of my mother but I used it anyway. “You can’t stop me!” I said.
“You’ll never find him, Penny,” she said. “He’s dead.”
I knew he was dead but I didn’t know he was dead.
“When?” “How?” She’d never told me this before.
“Couple years back,” she said. “I don’t know, a car crash or something. Something came in the mail.”
“What came in the mail?” I was frantic. His body? His clothes? Money? What comes in the mail when someone dies?
“A letter,” she said. “A bill. A hospital bill.”
“What? He was in the hospital?”
“Apparently. It was a bad wreck Penny. People don’t die from fender benders.”
I hated her.
“Where is it?”
“I threw it away.”
“I hate you,” I said.
She rolled her eyes at me. “Of course you do. Now leave me alone. I’ve got shit to do.”
My mother didn’t die suddenly or traumatically like my father did when he burned to death in the fire or when he died of anguish after court or in a fatal car crash.
My mother died slowly, painlessly, right in front of me. The became a walking corpse, an empty body without a heart or a soul. She fed off the attention and energy of husbands and boyfriends, work achievements and social media and became a mirage of a woman, a mirage of a mother.
I wished she’d died tragically, suddenly, horrifically, but life is full of disappointments.
And now I’m an orphan.