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The sun was beating down on my back, small beads of sweat raced between my shoulder blades teasing me. If I had known that the car was going to break down I would have worn something more summer appropriate. I was very aware that I was wearing a worn out, black tee shirt that was several sizes too big for me. But I liked the fact that it hid me from my father, I felt like it was big enough that it could swallow me up in the darkness. My thick denim jeans seemed determined to make my life as miserable as humanly possible by clinging to the surface of my body.
I let my gaze wander towards my dad who was hunched over the car taking a look at the engine. He shook his head in frustration and ran his hands through his raven black hair.
“What’s the diagnosis, Doc?” I smirked, looking up from the dirt road. I let my face wear a mask of fake pity, making it painfully obvious that I despised him.
Another nasty shake of the head. “I really don’t know, Char.” He found the soft patch of grass next to me and sat down, his long legs stretched in front of him like a small fortress.
I still couldn’t believe that I was sitting next to him or rather, that he was sitting next to me. It was so strange, I mean, I hadn’t seen this man in little over two years and now he was acting like nothing had happened. It was almost like, to him, no time had passed and he was just picking up his fifteen-year-old daughter who was now nearing her eighteenth birthday. He never acknowledged that he had left and he had never spoken to me directly why. He was sweeping it under the rug again and I found myself resenting that.
I hadn’t talked to him since the day I had come home to a broken family. My mother had tears puckering in her eyes and my brother was twisting his hands in his lap while he sat on the couch, his painfully long brown hair hanging in his eyes. And without me even acknowledging the fact I knew that my father had had an affair. My mother grabbed my arms and gently guided me to the seat next to my brother and she muttered some lame excuse about her tears, “I don’t know why I’m crying” I think she said.
And then my world came crashing down around me. She sputtered around in front of my brother and me and the whole time I just sat there. My anger boiled around under my skin begging to burst but I clenched my hands into tight fists and pretended that I wasn’t hearing any of this. That my father was coming home late from work, but I knew it wasn’t true. I saw his bags waiting for him in the doorway, leaning against the doorframe slightly lopsided. He must be upstairs, I remembered thinking. And everything seemed so unfair.
But none of that mattered anymore as I sat with him on the side of the road. It wasn’t like I could go back and beg him to stay and cling to his shirt with tears running down my own face. I had already tried that, and I had been rewarded with a sorrowful nod and a guilty look. I still didn’t understand how he could have left us like that.
But here we were sitting on the side of the road looking everywhere but each other. It was the road to nowhere, I remembered declaring. I didn’t know what to say to him that hadn’t already been said; I was angry and rightfully so. The afternoon continued into awkward silence until I would rather listen to his pathetic excuses.
“So, what’s your plan? To just sit here?” I didn’t even try to keep the disgust out of my voice. I wanted to let him know how I felt.
“I’ve called Miranda and she’s coming to pick us up.” He glanced over and smiled a bitter smile. “Look,” he continued. “I know you don’t want to be here with me.”
A fire rose in my chest. I clenched my hands into tight fists and played with the idea of beating his head in. He had a way of undermining everything. Especially when it came to me.
“Correction. I don’t want to drive with you to your new house and meet your new family.” I picked myself up, crossed the dirt road, and plopped myself down on a pile of road rubble. The discomfort was preferred considering the man sitting on the opposite side of the road.
He let his head sink into his hands. He sighed in defeat; he knew that this was coming and he had been hoping that I would have been complacent enough to drop everything between us. I saw his lips twitch with the promise of an excuse.
“Don’t even try to explain.” I shut him down so fast; my fury was hotter than his. I let it roar in my chest and move my lips. I let it consume me for just a few moments, just enough time for me to say, “You are pathetic.”
His head whipped up so fast I found myself scrambling to get up as he stormed over to me. He grasped my arm so tightly, burning bruises on my skin, and snarled, “You don’t know anything!” And in his anger he shoved me. A hard shove in the middle of my chest and I fell.
My back hit the ground knocking the wind out of my lungs and I gasped. I could feel the tears welling up behind my eyes and I could feel when they started coursing down my cheeks. Just like that my anger was gone, extinguished by the rage of my father. Sobs erupted from my chest; a terrible wail escaped my throat, tearing through the sky.
“You didn’t have to come!” He screamed.
“I hate you!” I whimpered, tears streaming down my cheeks. I stayed there, lying on my back letting the earth claim me. By the time I had opened my eyes again, the sun had gone down bathing our tragic scene in twilight. I didn’t dare look to see if the car was still there, I couldn’t bring myself to find my father either. So I did the only thing I could do, lie there until the wolves descended down the mountain to find their next meal. It would be easy, I wouldn’t fight. I didn’t care anymore.
I watched as more and more stars appeared in the night sky and I found myself counting them. It didn’t seem fair that they were so free while I was trapped, earthbound. But it was the way that things were meant to be. Everything had a time and a place. And it was time to see what had happened with my father.
I pushed myself onto my elbows and let my eyes adjust. The car was still sitting in the middle of the road, the hood still up in a sign of emergency. I couldn’t bring myself to look to the other side of the road because if he wasn’t there then I would be forced to accept his abandonment.
For two years I had been avoiding his disappearance. I acted like it was supposed to happen this way, that this was the way my life was supposed to be. Never once had I blamed for what he had done. He had been seduced and, like any man, had fallen for her. For two years I had been protecting him like he should have been protecting me.
I closed my eyes and counted slowly to three. I made a promise, when I made it to three I would open my eyes and look over. One, two...three. I flung my eyes open and let my eyes wander over to the other side of the road.
He was lying down, the grass tickling his arms as the wind carried a sweet breeze. His eyes appeared to be shut, like he was in a deep sleep letting his dreams carry him where he really wanted to be. I found myself walking over to him and sitting next to his fallen figure. His dark hair was swept messily into his face, fluttering over his closed lids. He seemed so peaceful, so sweet and innocent. My heart yearned to be healed by his.
What happened to take us here, I thought silently.
Before I could say anything to him about what had just transpired two headlights appeared with an arm extended out the window in a friendly wave. I pushed myself to my feet and approached the car. I knew who it was instantly. It was Miranda, my father’s adorable wife. Her round face was framed by her short blonde hair as she fell from the truck to the earth ground. Her belly was swollen with a second pregnancy and I found myself cringing. Why did she have to seem so friendly and why did she have to be my savior. It would be a lot easier to hate her if she was the witch I had been painting her to be for the last two years.
“Sorry it took so long. I had to get Mason all ready and you guys broke down in the middle of the drive.” She shook her head like it was something to laugh about. I walked over to my father’s car and popped the trunk open and retrieved my bags. I swore that if I made it through the two weeks I had planned to stay I would punish my mother. The whole thing was my mother’s idea; she thought I had given my father the silent treatment long enough. She also threatened to take me to a psychologist so I didn’t really see any way around it.
“You must be Charlotte,” she said to me putting out her hand. “I’m so pleased to finally meet you.” She gave me this really sweet smile, one that reached both sides of her face and I left my hand limp by my side.
“That’s me.” I muttered as I climbed into the backseat of the car. I watched the two of them outside the windshield. My father was waving his hands around and his seemed to be apologizing for what could only be my unruly behavior. I crossed my arms, still feeling the ache in my chest from where my father had shoved me and closed my eyes. My father would wake me when we got to his house.
It was the longest day of my life, the next day. I meandered around the house helping Miranda out with Mason, my half brother, and cleaning up messes. It was strange to be out in the middle of nowhere with practically no people around. Apparently my father had always had this crazy dream of running a small farm out in Grace, Idaho and that dream was slowly becoming a reality. I looked out the window and saw my father working with some of his horses. They nickered and followed him around the edge of the corral braying occasionally when he carried the hay too far from their stretching necks.
There was one horse that didn’t follow and stood by itself at the edge, avoiding all contact with its herd. It was a brilliant mare; her held reared high and mighty. She was instantly my favorite as I continued to watch her indifferent attitude wave over her head like a defiant banner. She was a beautiful speckled gray and white starting on her nose and spreading down her back. She stood there and twisted her head to watch the others as they selfishly gobbled down the grass, and then she turned away, uninterested.
My father came into the house kicking his old dusty cowboy boots off at the door. His face was covered in a mask of dirt from his long day at work but underneath all the wilderness I could sense a smile creeping along, tugging at the edge of his lips.
“What’s her name?” I asked pointing my finger towards the mare.
It took him a second to realize that I was in fact talking to him but he recovered quickly and answered, “Mali. It’s Choctaw for blow. When she kicks, it hurts.” He gave a nervous chuckle, like he wasn’t sure he could share something so sacred with me and maybe he was right.
I turned away from him and continued looking out the window. I could hear his retreating steps as he found his way up the stairs. Just because I was interested in his horse didn’t change anything. He still cheated on my mother and I still hated him. This little visit wouldn’t change anything, but even as I tried to harden my resolve I could feel it crumbling underneath my feet like brittle sand.
I must have been staring out the window watching all the different interactions between the plethora of horses for a few hours, just watching the way their bodies would twist and turn. When I finally realized that it had started to get dark I felt embarrassed. I had never stood this still in my entire life but I was transfixed on the majestic beasts outside. The truth was I had never really seen a horse in my life. This was my first exposure and I was hooked.
Miranda walked into the kitchen with a soft smile hanging on her face as she greeted me. “Charlotte, do you want to help me with something?”
I almost spit out my usual response, which was no, but I held my tongue and nodded my head. I was shocked by my own response and the look on her face probably mirrored my own. We both weren’t expecting what had just happened.
“As you know, your father’s birthday is coming up and I wanted to do something special for him.” She cradled her swollen belly as she walked up the stairs and led me into their spare bedroom. “I remember your father mentioning that you’re a very talented painter…I thought that maybe you could paint a scene of the horses outside.” She spun around to face me as she displayed all the paints she had went out and bought along with the different sized canvases.
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really have enough time.” I felt the excuse pummel through my lips before I could stop it. The truth was, I hadn’t painted since my father had left the house. I hadn’t even lifted a brush in two years, my skills wouldn’t be anywhere near what they should be to complete the project she imagined.
“Oh, right. I should have thought of that.” She gave me a weak smile and continued, “I’m sorry.”
Guilt coursed through my body and I felt like I was letting her down. But why should I feel bad? She was the woman who had destroyed my life. Mason was the only reason that they got caught otherwise the affair would have continued right underneath our noses.
“I haven’t painted since you took my father away.” I said looking straight into her eyes for the first time. “The day you took him I gathered up all my art supplies and broke them all across our backyard.” I could feel tears forming in my pale green eyes and I tried to shake them away. “All the brushes and all the spare canvases were littered through out the neighborhood as the wind kicked up.” Her face started to crumple underneath my honesty. I felt powerful in that moment, letting her feel just a fraction of the pain that she had caused me. “My mom got so angry, but I didn’t care. While I was breaking the brushes in half, I liked to imagine I was really breaking my father’s neck.” I gave a wicked laugh and continued, “But I should have been imagining yours.”
Several days had passed since Miranda had talked to me and I was enjoying the silence and the solitude. I often found myself watching Mali race around the pasture, her legs pumping, pushing her further and further down the yard. Her main twisted behind on her neck in a tangle of hair and I found myself smiling. She seemed so free and in charge of her life, why couldn’t things be so simple for me? Why did I feel the need to continue carrying the burden of my father’s absence? Why couldn’t I just be happy that I was here with him now? I shook my head and shoved the thoughts further from my mind. It did no good to worry about things concerning my father. I only had eight days left to be here, only eight days left.
“Char, you want to come over here for a second?” It was my father’s voice emanating out of the barn.
When I rounded the corner I saw that he was actually fitting shoes on one of his horses. It’s eyes were a deep black and it gave me this pleading look asking for help but I just shrugged my shoulders and stood beside my father.
“What’s up?” I said, trying to act as casual as I could. At the same time I didn’t want to miscommunicate to him. I was still angry with him, but I just couldn’t find it in me to stay so angry with him while being with him. So for the rest of the stay we would be chummy father and daughter and when I got back home I would continue hating him.
“Miranda’s parents are coming over for dinner tonight and I was hoping that you would be alright with it?” He looked up at me and gave me a timid smile while continuing to fit the shoe.
I couldn’t figure out why he cared about what I thought, I had made my opinion very clear. I didn’t want to be a part of the family and the other day I had almost told my father that I was only here because my mother made me. A part of me realized that if my mother was over the whole thing maybe I should be too. But I just couldn’t let it go. I wanted to hold on so badly to the hate that I had been harboring towards my father.
“Sure. I’m just confused as to why you’re asking me?” I held it out there like it was some kind of question for him to answer.
His hands stopped working and he stood up stretching his back. He gave me a strange look and for a second I thought that he might have apologized to me, for everything that he had done. But the moment passed when Miranda walked in, her belly showing before anything else.
“You guys ready? My parents are here.”
Anger welled up inside of me; it was just a courtesy, the question. They were already on their way; there was no time for me to make a difference. He had made a decision without me, again, and no matter how long I stayed at this house nothing was ever going to change that.
I pushed my way past the two of them and raced into the house, up the stairs and into my room. I was trying to choke back the tears; I really didn’t understand why it bothered me so much to be left out once again. I looked around and saw my suitcase sitting by the door, still left packed because I didn’t want to get comfortable here. I would be leaving soon anyways.
I walked into the bathroom adjacent to my bedroom and started cleaning up; brushing through my long auburn hair and wiping off my alabaster skin. I tried smiling but it seemed to come out more like a grimace so I decided it would be safer to play indifferent during the dinner. Later my father called me downstairs and I found myself being greeted by an elderly couple with gentle features. It wasn’t hard to figure out where Miranda got her stunning looks from.
We all settled down at the dinner table, my nose being assaulted by all the tasty treats Miranda had spent the day slaving away on. My father was busily talking about the running of the farm with Miranda’s father, Mike, and Miranda was chatting eagerly with her mother, Molly, about the gender of the second child. I sat there, at the edge of the table, playing with my food feeling very much like an outsider.
“I can’t believe you would welcome that girl into your home.” Molly whispered all too loudly to Miranda, giving a violent shake of her head.
That girl? I couldn’t believe that my father hadn’t heard her, or perhaps he had and he was pretending he hadn’t. That girl, huh? I put my fork down and looked over at Molly, her gray hair coming down her face in wisps. She would have passed for an ancient saint except for the fact that she was the type of person whose mouth must have frequently run away with her.
“Yeah, I can’t believe it either.” I said loudly. My father’s head turned towards me, his eyes pleading me to shut my mouth. He, unlike everyone else in the room, recognized my tone, the tone that suggested I was going to say things how they were.
Molly blushed a violent shade of red and cast her eyes downward. Miranda gave me a sorry look, one that pulled the corners of her mouth downward. I continued, “Isn’t it weird how you’re critiquing who I am? I mean, I wasn’t the one who had an affair with a married man long enough to get pregnant.”
I paused and my father interrupted, “Charlotte, that’s enough.” It was a simple warning, but a warning nonetheless.
Press forward, I coaxed myself. This was what everything boiled down to. If my father refused to be at my side I would no longer be at his.
“No, I mean it. I wasn’t the one who destroyed a family and claimed a man as the prize. Unlike your lovely daughter,” I pointed a harsh finger towards Miranda, “I didn’t do any of that.”
“Char, stop.” My father looked at me, his eyes wild with anger, and stood up pushing his chair back so far that it clattered to the floor. “You need to hold your tongue, young lady.”
I found myself climbing to my feet too. Anger flushed through my body, coursing through my veins fueling my rage. He had no right to stop me. It was finally my turn to tell him how I really felt about his abandonment, whether he liked it or not.
“No, I don’t. You left us!” My voice echoed through the large house, hurt words bouncing from wall to wall. “You left me. You decided that she was worth more than your family. You ruined everything. You told me everything would be alright but you lied. You had a baby with her but that didn’t mean you had to have a family with her too.”
“Char, enough!” His scream met mine on the walls. His body was shaking with rage, his hands clenched at his side. He reached and grasped my arm, and for the second time since he left he gave me bruises. “You are grounded.” He grunted as he tried to haul me from the dining room.
“Why won’t you say you’re sorry?” I was fighting back now, struggling against the pull of his arms.
He looked straight into my eyes, his deep blue overwhelming my own. “Charlotte, I have nothing to apologize for. You are the only one who is holding onto the hate.”
I ripped free, my adrenaline pushing through my system. He wasn’t sorry? He had nothing to say to me, after all the pain he had put me through? “What? I hate you! You are nothing to me. You are dead to me!”
And while I was trying to catch my breath, my chest heaving from the force of my words, he reached up and slapped me. My head whirled as I fell into the wall, and for a second I thought I was going to pass out. My eyes started to blur and I couldn’t make out the shape of my father any longer. And that was the last I saw of him, his dark figure fading into nothing, almost like he had never existed.
I ran. I don’t remember racing to my room and snatching my bag but it pounded against my back as I fled the farm. The moon was pouring its light onto the road and I was guided by the shadows. I knew this was the road that we had previously driven on before everything had been ruined. Maybe if I was lucky enough some person, who would have to be driving out late, would take pity on me and give me a ride to a main road where I could find a way home. But I didn’t count on it so I let my feet carry me where they may.
Tears were streaking down my cheeks disappearing into my hairline as I raced down the road, dirt kicking up behind me. My cheek stung where I had been slapped. I reached a hesitant hand up to touch it but it burned with just a slight graze of my fingers. I still couldn’t believe that he had struck me, that he was holding in that much anger towards me.
I managed to stumble upon the car that my father and I had broken down in. It was a pale blue, dust coating along the sides and creeping up the windshield. It looked like a dump, like someone should just come along and take it out of its misery. I yanked on the door handle, sweat making my hands slippery. Of course, the door was locked. I clambered onto the hood of the car and kicked my foot through. The glass stuck into my boots and some shards found their way into my leg. I winced a little before I heaved myself into the car and bawled. I hadn’t cried this hard since he had left, tears creating rivers down my face. And the sob that broke through my chest echoed through the night sky. I was shocked that a wail could sound so inhuman. I wondered if anyone had heard it.
I glanced down at the phone clutched tightly in my hands and gave a soft shake of my head. Surely my father would answer and surely he would apologize for what he had done. My fingers felt like lead as I dialed his number and each ring was another testament to me that he wouldn’t answer.
“This is Todd Stead, I’m sorry I missed your call. If you leave a name and number I’ll give you a call back. Thanks.”
He didn’t care, my face told me that much. He didn’t answer because he didn’t care what had happened to me. I had left him just as bad as he had left me. And for some strange reason, his absence didn’t create the end of the world. The crickets outside were still chirping and the moon hung in its original position in the night sky. Nothing had changed, well, except for me. If I really meant what I had said back at the dinner, that my father was dead, why couldn’t I move past that? The answer was simple, I didn’t want too. The whole time I was at his house I was determined to hate him for what he had done. And now, I didn’t care.
I looked at my phone and gave my father a few minutes to call me back but he never did. The minutes felt like hours as I watched the blank screen continue that way. I picked up my phone and dialed a different number.
“Mom, can you come pick me up?” My voice cracked and I knew I sounded broken.
“Is everything alright, Honey?” Concern coated her voice and I felt bad. I didn’t want her to know anything. I didn’t want to let her know that she had married a terrible man in every sense of the word. So I choked back the tears and said, “I just need you to pick me up.”
And just like that everything was going to be fine.