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“Daddy! Daddy!” I screeched, dashing across the yard from my perch at the base of a tree. My pigtails bounced against my back, and my new butterfly dress twisted around my legs. The grass was long, tickling my feet with its lovely untrimmed blades.
With only a few feet left to spare, I jumped into your arms, making sure my fingers were clenched tightly around my prize. You seemed momentarily stunned, but then you looked at me fondly and I held up my fist. “Look, I found a laddy-bug!”
“Ladybug,” you corrected, kneeling before me. “Well, I can’t see it if you don’t open your hand, Amy!”
I giggled. “You’re silly, Daddy!” I said. “If I open my hand, he’ll fly away!”
You leaned back onto your feet. “That must mean that you really didn’t find one.”
The idea horrified me. I wasn’t lying! “No! I really caught one!” I protested. You shrugged skeptically. “All right,” I said. “I’ll show you, but you need to promise that you won’t let it get away.”
You promised, and I counted down to the event. “One. Two. Three. Four.” I opened my fist further with each number. I could count to ten then, and I knew you were proud of me. When I reached that last number and spread my fingers wide, though, you didn’t look delighted.
“Oh, Amy, you crushed it,” you mourned, watching the bug’s wing twitch.
“No, no, Daddy!” I cried, lifting my hand to look closer for a sign of life. “No! He’s just sleeping.” The blood-red wings were misshapen, not neatly folded as they should have been to give the bug its dome-like shield of protection. I pushed the wings down, so that the deformation wasn’t as noticeable, but the ladybug didn’t move. I dropped it, half hoping it would take flight mid-fall, but it didn’t.
You dared me to find more of them, and we rushed around the yard looking for the small red beetles.
One night several years after that, I woke up coughing. My room was darker than usual, the edges of my old toys blurred. My throat screamed, and I coughed to ease the itch. I heard you calling, “Amy! Amy!” from the hallway, but for some reason you couldn’t take those few extra steps to open my door. It was hot. I sweated through my pajamas as I stumbled out of bed. “Daddy?” I said, but it came out as a whisper. “Daddy!” I heard a shrill siren through the window, but I moved to the door, toward you. Each step was heavy, and my chest hurt. I opened the door and felt a blast of heat attack my face.
That day was a long time ago, Daddy. But I know you still have nightmares about it.
I watch you take the bus home from work every day. You stop to pay the driver, always in exact change. She watches you in her mirror, her beautiful large earrings glittering in the glow of the street lights. More perceptive now that I’m dead, I notice the malicious curiosity her stare holds. I want to protect you from it, as you tried to protect me, but I can’t.
I know that you have bad days at work. I see your resigned look as you greet your customers, as they flinch and look away. I know that your leg hurts worse at the end of the day than at the beginning. You use your cane to limp through the day without falling over. I use your cane to guide you away from our tragedy. You don’t see me when I come. I don’t expect it anymore.
A toy clangs to the floor and slides down the aisle to collide with your foot. I look at the engraving on its red frame: Etch-a-Sketch. I used to have one of those, before the fire. I want to play with it, and I sit cross-legged next to you, looking back and forth between you and my invisible drawing. You observe the toy, perhaps absorbing the silly doodles which have already been etched onto the screen. You make no move to return it to its owner. You just turn and watch your reflection in the window.
This window is smaller than others, because you like to sit next to the emergency exit. It gives you a more restricted view of your face, your wonderful, amazing, beautiful face. I think you compare yourself to the people on the street. You’re nothing like them. You’re Daddy, which means you would never slink into the liquor store, skip among the cars to sell newspapers, or engage in the muggings, shootings, and robberies in the streets at night. You are the good man who tried to save me so long ago.
I remember the night of the fire, how the flames just outside my door caught me in a consuming halo of pain. I remember jumping back, but the fire had already snagged on my pajamas. A burst of smoke flowed into the room, into my face. I couldn’t see anything, could only hear the roar and ripple of the blaze, could only feel my pajamas scalding me and my hands beating against the murderous cotton. You had covered your mouth with a wet cloth, and you bravely fought through the flames to reach me. You enveloped me in a coat, which rather than making the fire hotter, gave me the feeling of having my own ladybug shield. I remember how I cried into your shoulder as you urged me to drop out of the window. I remember how, when asking in a choked whisper where Mommy was, you were just as ignorant of her death as I was. I remember how ambulances and fire trucks arrived, parked at both the neighbors’ and our houses, more than fifteen firefighters working to save the two homes. I remember the trickling tears that made the burns scream. I remember the heavy blanket of sedation that sheltered me from the pain. I remember the night that I slipped away from my blistering pain and joined you in your recovery.
The wrinkles on your face deepen more every day, Daddy. You have kept your head shaved since the fire, though I see the razor catching on your scars. I wonder why you offer yourself this vanity when it seems to cause you so much pain. But you’re Daddy, and you have your own reasons.
The sign at the front of the bus flashes with the name of your stop: Transit Center. I watch you stand up, and I rise too. I move away from the Etch-a-Sketch and, when the bus stops, the toy bounces against your foot. You bend over to retrieve it, and I watch proudly as you return it to the young boy four rows back.
Your walk home from this stop is several blocks long, and we walk in silence, absorbing each other’s presence. When you reach your apartment, you pause, looking back at me. I wonder if you actually see me, because you slowly pocket your key and turn away from the door. I smile widely and offer a hug.
Of course, you don’t notice this, but I cannot abandon the impression that for that instance you felt my presence. You set off down the street, and I wonder if, this time, you want me to follow or wait in the apartment. I think Mommy gives me the extra push I need to pursue you, although your journey seems haphazard. The sun is quickly being concealed by the buildings, and we both know the city is dangerous at night.
You lead me to the library, though by the time we arrive the building is closed and your leg pains you more than ever. I don’t know how you do it, but you manage to pass the night in pain but without trouble on the bench next to the door. When the librarian arrives in the morning, she seems shocked.
You quickly explain your mission, but I don’t understand what you want with an old newspaper. The librarian leads you inside, and you both wait for the computer to start.
“March seventeenth,” you remind her, “nineteen-eighty-two.”
“What newspaper?” the woman asks, glancing over her wire-framed bifocals. Her nails are perfectly round and her dress is flowery. She seems to be your age, and she wears a single ring on her left hand. Her name plaque identifies her as Tracy.
You ask her if she has a newspaper from Cincinnati, where we grew up.
“Cincinnati?” Tracy says. “We only carry newspapers from the tri-state area, sir.”
“You don’t have anything?” you appeal, gripping the edge of her desk. I haven’t seen you apply so much force to anything since those tormented months after the fire. It scares me.
Tracy seems awkward. “I can try to get in touch with a library there, see if they have it, if you need it so badly,” she offers.
You don’t look at her. You stare just to the right of my shoulder, and grit your teeth. “How long would that take?”
She tells you that it would most likely take several weeks. You don’t like that idea, and I sense your anger flaring. I back away.
“Never mind,” you grunt. “Forget it.” You storm out the door, but this time I don’t follow you. I feel that you need to be alone.
I turn back to the librarian. She is twisting her ring around her finger, staring after you thoughtfully. I sit in a chair in the corner, because suddenly I’m exhausted and I want to rest.
Your anger was terrible after the fire. The policemen suggested that you attend a therapy program, and that just angered you more. I watched you in that dark time, feeling every blow your rage inflicted upon the memory. I didn’t hide from you, because I wondered why I myself didn’t feel that same fury. But each outburst, each denial of external help, every time you moved further away from our scorched home, I felt the burning itch of the fire in my lungs.
Mommy tried to soothe the influence of your pain on me. We walked through the forest and the park, trying to appreciate the life bounding around us. But eventually the path would lead us back to the ruins of our burned home. And under her perfect heart, Mommy’s burns throbbed with your anger, too.
Before I leave the library, I touch Tracy on the shoulder, pleading with all my will that she mend your sorrow. A spark passes from my fingers to her skin. A shiver runs down her spine, I think, because she trembles and goes searching for a drink of water.
Your nightmares are worse over the next month. You murmur to me in your sleep. Sometimes you shout out, and I wonder what it would be like to dream your dreams. Eventually you grow so accustomed to the inferno of your mind, that you simply lie awake through the early hours of the morning. Your exhaustion seeps through to your job. The customers no longer notice you, because you don’t offer the greeting which defines your occupation. You come home earlier now, and sometimes you don’t go to work at all. I’ve noticed that you no longer eat your favorite strawberry yogurt, or watch television, or rouse yourself in the morning with coffee. You’ve stopped shaving your head, and a thin gray fuzz grows over your scalp where it’s not scarred. Your hands shake when you try to hold a pencil, and I see you deteriorating as you did once before, after you accepted our family’s fate.
On the last day of the month, though, I witness a miracle. The librarian, Tracy, appears next to you on the bus one afternoon. She clutches a rather large bag in her manicured fingers.
“I have something for you,” she says, though you recoil from her touch. She pulls an old newspaper from her bag, and puts it in your hands. You run your fingers over the fragile paper, tracing the date – March 17th, 1982. You unfold the paper and there, in the corner, is what you wanted. “Seven Die in Fire; Only One Survives.”
I know you avoided the reports on our fire after it happened. You forced yourself to live with the emptiness ignorance provided. Now, you stare at the article and tears cloud your eyes. “Amy,” you breathe, and I think you feel me now, again. This time, I think you’ve accepted my presence. You drink me in, both the image of me next to the article and the feeling of my presence near you.
I hope your acceptance will lead you to full healing. For now, I feel you don’t need me anymore. And so, when the bus slows down at the Transit Center, I disembark without you.