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A Hero Calls

By J.H. Jones

            Aileen sat at the kitchen table alone, picturing sparkling unicorns and colorful balloons trimming the counter and cabinets. Her daughter, Nina, was turning four, and she wanted everything to be special.

            Excited by her own vision, she jumped to her feet and blinked into the semi-darkness beyond the pool of light from overhead. Not now, she groaned, not today. Rubbing her forehead, she wondered when and sagged back into her chair to pick up the family calendar that lay on the table.

            The house resumed its silence, except for a subtle swish as she turned the pages.

            Outside, the suburban street was quiet, too, apart from a barred owl that had taken up residence in the old oak in front. The owl uttered throaty hoots, and after a pause, Aileen heard a little trill in response.

            Child and mother, just like Nina and me, she thought and leaned forward to catch more of the back and forth. But the wind blew the sounds away as it rustled and scratched through the winter-bare branches.

            She pulled her thick cardigan closer around her flannel pajamas. More snow, she sighed, and reached for the wineglass standing at attention at her elbow. After a deep drink, she forgot about snowstorms and owls, and her gaze landed again on the calendar—her anchor, securing all the family variables that floated in and out of their daily lives. Day care, dentist appointments, holidays, neighborhood events, and invitations from friends. And birthdays.

            Nina’s birthdate was always so slippery in her mind. If she could find the date on the calendar, then she could plan the unicorns.

            Priding herself on her logic, she started with a glossy photo of snow-capped mountains and frost-kissed pine trees. Boxes swam underneath, and she had to concentrate to confirm they were empty. She moved on, turning one page after the other.

            A robin. Something about the bird struck her as familiar, and she stopped to study the picture. With its head cocked to one side, the bird’s expression seemed to tease her with the question, when is Nina’s birthday?

            She squeezed her eyes shut, longing for a date to present itself. Instead, numbers ebbed and flowed, forming and reforming in strange combinations, none of which seemed right.

            “Aileen? Are you okay?”

            Her husband’s voice. She snapped her eyes open.

            Ben stood inside the kitchen doorway. Fresh from sleep, his hair poked up in unruly tufts, and his Captain America t-shirt and pajama pants hung rumpled from his lank frame. With his fingers blocking the light, he squinted and gave her a lopsided grin. “You okay? What are you doing?”

            How to answer? When she had gotten up, the birthday party idea seemed inspired, and she’d started with a drink to oil her powers of party invention. But a couple of wines later, she couldn’t remember Nina’s birthdate. If he found out, he’d be angry and start in on their nightly argument. She angled herself to hide the glass. “Don’t I get a minute alone? I’m busy planning Nina’s birthday.”

            “Nina’s what?” He shook his head. “Lemme guess. You’re at it again?”

            Aileen jutted her chin out. “You don’t understand—”

            He held up his hand, and she stopped talking. “Do you know when Nina’s birthday is?”

            Afraid to admit defeat, she looked down at the calendar robin for a clue. The bird’s beady eyes mocked her. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes, and she dropped her head in shame. Every night, she went through the same cycle. Why did she have to drink?

            “Well.” Her husband folded his arms across Captain America.


            “That’s your birthday.” He jabbed a finger at her. “I’m warning you. Nina is too important for me to let this happen to her. I’m her father and I’ll protect her. Do you hear me? Sober up or you can …” He left his sentence unfinished and stomped up the hallway back to the bedroom.

            Funny, she thought. She should feel angry, but she felt proud. He was her daughter’s hero.

            Hero. The word resonated with safety and solace.

            Envy gnawed at her as she realized Nina would enjoy what had eluded her. Her father never wore Captain America pajamas or stood up to her mother about her drinking. He crawled into his own bottle and abandoned her to fend for herself and her addiction. No wonder she ended up like this—unable to sleep or remember her daughter’s birthday and reaching for another drink night after night.

            Slumping across the calendar, she closed her eyes.



            A shrill, insistent bell wrenched Aileen from sleep.

            She shoved aside a jumble of dreamy balloons and unicorns to orient herself. Kitchen and ringing phone. The noise would surely wake Ben and Nina.

            She pushed back from the table and staggered to the counter, where the cell phones recharged. Stretching out her fingers, she poked at the buttons. No change. Both screens were blank.

            Another ring. This time she tracked the source, which led her to a shadowy corner of the counter where the old landline squatted. When had it moved to the corner? Yet, here it was, thrumming against the laminated surface. The landline?

            The beige plastic phone was another example of Ben’s brand of heroism, Aileen thought. After they a power outage, he had hooked it up to ensure their safety in case of emergency.

            It rang again.

            Who could be calling, she wondered. She snatched the handset. “Uh, hello?”

            “Sorry to wake you, but I had to call.”

            She stopped, pressing the handset hard against her head—so hard her ear hurt. “What? Who is this?”

            “You’ll laugh, Leenee, because this turned out to be the best way.”

            She hadn’t heard her pet name in a long time. With her heart thumping against her chest, she managed, “Dad? Is that you? How … how … did you get this number?”

            “It’s an emergency, and this phone is for emergencies. Am I right?”

            Something didn’t add up, yet she was sleepy and hung over and couldn’t put her finger on what was wrong. Not wrong exactly, but something didn’t fit. She drew her tongue over lips, wanting a drink to clear her head. “Gimme a minute, then I’ll listen—”

            “No time. Don’t put the phone down. I’ve got something to say. Maybe I wasn’t there for you when you were a kid—”

            “Wait.” She knew what didn’t fit. Her father drank himself to death years ago. Yet, someone who sounded like him was on the phone. She’d heard about AI-generated fake voices, but her father’s? “Who is this?”

            “Leenee, it’s Dad.”

            His tone was unmistakable, and despite her misgivings, Aileen felt warmth flooding her body. Beyond anything she understood, he was talking with her. “Dad, is it really you? Where are you? Can I see you? How—”

            “Stop interrupting. Still a chatterbox. I gotta tell you a couple of things. First, I love you. Very much. Forever.”

            “Where are you?”

            “Not important. Point is, I couldn’t fight it. You know what I’m talking about, right? But you’re different from me. You can do it and I’m gonna be there to help you.”


            “You’re in a pickle, Leenee. Just like the old days. But this time, I’m gonna be there for you. You gotta believe.”

            His sound grew more distant as he talked. “Wait! I love you, daddy.”

            “That’s my girl. Love you back. Remember, I’m here for you.”


            She wanted to shout his name down into the phone, but it was a useless impulse. He was gone, and her cry froze in her throat. Slowly replacing the handset, she wondered if she had really heard him and how he had dialed their number? Did they have phones where he was? And where was he?

            Whirling around to look out the window over the sink, she scanned for some clue that might reveal his whereabouts. All she saw were the first rays of sun cutting through the clouds, exposing patches of bright blue. Morning.

            As if on cue, her husband’s familiar shuffle echoed down the hall. Ben tossed her a hostile grunt and pushed the button on the coffee machine then waited for his cup.

            Controlling her impulse to blurt out everything, Aileen gestured at the window. “What do you know? Nice day. No snow, after all.” The aroma of coffee drew her closer to him. “Mmmm. Smells good.”

            He glanced at her.

            An opening, she reasoned. He was ready to talk, and she asked, “Did you hear that ringing? Did it wake you?”

            “Ringing? Yours or mine?” Avoiding contact, he cut around her and retrieved his cell, then started scrolling.

            “The, um, landline.”

            “What do you mean?” He shot her a dark look.

            “It rang. Here’s the weird thing, my—”

            “Weird? You bet. Because you’re out of your effing mind. You better do something about your problem today. Get me? I don’t give a flying—”

            “No, listen, when I picked it up—”

            Ben shoved past her and yanked hard at the curled wire, pulling the phone out of the corner so that it thudded across the counter. “You’re hallucinating because it’s disconnected. As in, not working. It couldn’t ring, get it? I took it out a couple of days ago. With the new cell phones, we’ve got backup and don’t need this anymore. I was going to tell you yesterday afternoon, but you were already so far gone.” His lip curled in disgust.

            “What? Disconnected? Believe me, this gets weirder because my—”

            “I’m only going to say this once.” Interrupting her, he threw back his shoulders and took a deep breath that filled his Captain America logo. “You address your problem starting today or get out—like pack your bags. I won’t have another night like last night and all the other nights before. I won’t do it anymore. This is about Nina, and I’m gonna be there for her. That means you gotta make up your mind.”

            Aileen swallowed hard, wanting to describe what had happened. But what had happened? With a sinking feeling, she darted her eyes toward the phone, sprawled on the countertop. Given that she had been half asleep and still drunk, had she really heard it ring? Had her father’s voice come through as clear and bell-like as she thought? Wanting it to be real, she felt herself clawing back his words before they faded away from her memory. Leenee. Emergency. Love.

            What stood out the most in her mind was his promise to help her. He’d sounded just like Ben and his pledge to protect Nina.

            My own hero. Her father might not have safeguarded her in the past, but he was there for her now, helping her on a journey that she suddenly felt ready to start.

            She moved to the sink and pulled out the liter bottle stashed underneath.

            “Geez. This early? You’re not at it already?” Ben growled.

            Upending the bottle, she watched the liquid drain away. To her surprise, instead of loss, she felt relief and a lightness. She wanted to giggle but was afraid her husband wouldn’t understand.

            “I might be home late this evening. There’s something I need to do, a meeting I need to go to.”

            Cautious, Ben narrowed his eyes. “What’s got into you?”

            “I dunno.” She flashed him a shy smile. “Maybe, a kinda Captain America? It’s complicated.” She furrowed her brow. “June first.”


            “Nina’s birthday. I remember.”

J.H. Jones (she/her) is an author of stories and poems, working on her debut mystery novel. Her passion for creative writing comes after a career of crafting business messages for various companies. When she’s not writing, she enjoys brainstorming story ideas with her millennial daughter and working with her husband on their backyard re-wilding project.

Wine glass and calendar diary

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