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Carolina lay belly down on the piled and faded carpet, a coloring book spread out on the floor in front of her. She gripped a fat red crayon in her small hand, carefully coloring the lines of the picture. Carolina liked having everything in to be in order, especially since Daddy left. But he was coming back today, that’s what he told her, last week on the phone.
“The Saturday after next, Carolina, That’s when I’m coming to get you,” he had said, his warm voice sounding like it always did, like he was telling a secret meant only for her.
So Carolina was coloring him a picture from the book he gave her when she turned six earlier this year in May. She felt little bad about leaving Momma, but not too much. Momma hadn’t really paid that much attention to Carolina since he left. And Momma would never admit it, but the dusty bottle of whiskey that Carolina was never supposed to touch was almost empty, and it definitely wasn’t dusty anymore. Carolina noticed things like that. She was very observant. Her teacher taught her that word a few days ago in class. “Carolina, you’re very observant, did you know that?” she said after Carolina noticed her teacher’s new diamond ring.
Momma never had a sparkling ring like that.
She picked up a new crayon to fill in the sky, a pretty blue. Her silky black pigtails bobbed as she turned her head this way and that, trying to get better look at the paper. She really didn’t feel that bad about leaving, since she was mad at Momma anyways. Early this morning, while she was packing her red and yellow canvas suitcase, she realized Momma was standing in the doorway.
“Where are you going?” she had asked, and tried to keep her tone level, but Carolina could hear something else behind it.
“Daddy’s coming to get me,” Carolina replied, without looking up from her haphazardly folded clothing. “He said so, last Thursday.”
Momma had let out a quiet little groan and run a hand blearily through her dull brown hair. “Carolina—” she began, but Carolina didn’t let her finish.
“He said so,” she repeated and closed the lid of her suitcase as hard as she could. Momma just raised her hands in surrender, finally leaving her alone. She hated it when Momma talked to her like that, like she didn’t understand anything. Daddy never did that. He never spoke to Carolina like she was only six years old, even though she was.
Carolina secretly hoped that Daddy would bring her a present when he came, maybe a piece of candy, or a little toy. Daddy was always giving her gifts, sometimes when it wasn’t even her birthday or Christmas. “Don’t tell your Momma, okay?” he would always say, giving Carolina a sly wink. “But who needs causation for celebration?” She didn’t really understand what the last part meant, but she liked the sound of it anyways.
The sudden shrill sound of the landline startled Carolina. She scrambled up to catch it on the second ring, snapping several of her crayons beneath her feet in her haste. “Hello?” she said sweetly into the phone, just in case it was Daddy. She wasn’t disappointed.
“Hey, sweet pea,” her father’s voice filled the old plastic phone. Carolina giggled.
“So, Daddy—“ But she didn’t finish. Her father cut her off, very much in the way Carolina had cut off Momma.
“Big girl, I’m, well, I’m really sorry,” he started to say. Carolina didn’t say a word even as she clutched the receiver closer to her ear; she could already feel a knot growing in her belly. “But, mmm, I can’t come today.”
Carolina swallowed hard, trying not to sound like she was about to cry. “When are you going to get me? Tomorrow? Or…or the next day?” she added when her father said nothing.
“Carolina, the thing is, I don’t think I can come, at least for a while. There’s just a lot going on right now, and I can’t really take care of you.”
She bit her lower lip. “Okay,” she said in a very small voice. She could hear voices in the background; someone else was there with him, wherever he was.
“Carolina,” said Daddy. “I know you probably don’t understand, but sometimes things just don’t work out.” Tears began to prick her eyes. She wasn’t just something, she was her Daddy’s big girl, and she was supposed to go with him!
“I love you, sweet pea. I’ll call you soon, okay?”
“Okay,” she said again. “Bye, Da—” but the line had already gone dead.
“Carolina?” Momma asked. Carolina looked up; she hadn’t heard her mother come into the room. Momma eased onto the sofa, one of the only things in the apartment that didn’t look like it was way past second-hand. “Was that Daddy on the phone?”
Carolina only nodded, she was afraid if she said anything at all, she wouldn’t be able to hold back the flood that threatened to burst from her chest. The meticulously colored-in picture lay on the floor, forgotten.
Momma patted her knees twice. Carolina dropped the phone back onto the cradle and climbed into her mother’s lap, wrapping her arms around the older woman’s cool neck. She had been ready to leave her, just a few minutes ago, but Daddy didn’t want her anymore, he probably never wanted her, he just said so.
Carolina buried her head into Momma’s shoulder. “He’s not coming,” she sobbed, finally letting the tears flow in rivulets down her cheeks. She gasped for breath in a high-pitched wheeze, her face growing rosy with distress. She didn’t understand. How could Daddy just not want her? Plus, he promised. He promised her, and he lied. Grown-ups weren’t allowed to lie, those were the rules, and he broke them. She clung tighter to her mother’s cotton t-shirt, now damp with tears, like it was the sole life preserver in an endless ocean.
“I know, baby,” Momma soothed, stroking Carolina’s hair. “I know.”