“It’s been a long night,” she said as she handed me a cup of coffee brewed in my own home. “We just need to ask a few questions.”
She was gritty and butch, but kind given the situation. Her hair was pulled back tightly and she looked as though she hadn’t smiled in nearly a year. She attempted one for me, and it fell deafly on my hung expression. It was early in the morning, say 2, and the place had quieted drastically. I sipped through clenched lips, and continued my examination of the floor below.
“Tell us, truthfully, exactly what happened. We are on your side; we just want to know how this all came to be.”
I was asleep. Or, so I thought I was. Dreaming again, nightmares. It was the one where I’d gone to bed, it was the Fourth of July, and it was warm – the kind of warm that genuinely makes you angry. I brushed my teeth as I always had and stripped away enough clothing to make any form of blanket bearable. It was quiet and I was able to fall asleep quickly.
I recounted the day, how we’d woken up early and gone to the beach. How the sand was warm and how we built sand castles, just her and I. How we forgot the sandwiches, and the fruit, and the Gatorades in the cooler at home, so we went to the local burger shack for something cheap and cardiovascular-ly destructive. Her mom never lets her eat like that. Then we played volleyball, just her and I, you can imagine just how much we had to move. We’d watched the sunset, how it twisted and twined with hues of orange and pink and God himself. The drive home was special, other people’s fireworks, the ones that looked good, but not as good as yours.
“It’s like shooting stars daddy.”
It was the closest thing I’d known to a world on fire, and the closest thing she’d known to religion.
We pulled in the drive and I had one of those moments. The kind that appear in Broadway plays and country songs, and movies made by Christian companies. A moment of actual, genuine reflection, actually review without revising the day, and a feeling of gratitude, and simplicity, and I wished for nothing more.
We ran around the side of the house and jumped in the pool. She was brave and jumped in without the light on. She was always brave like that. Eventually she asked me to turn it on.
We played sharks and minnows, we played Marco/Polo, we played “daddy throw me in the deep end.” I told her to hold her nose when I throw her, so the rush of the water would not disorient her. She did, and I threw – I threw her far, because I knew that she could handle it. She held her nose every time and anxiously swam back, a mix between a daring smile and a look of concern on her face from the obscure fear that all kids (and most adults) get from the deep-end in the dark – vagabond morphing sharks, the ones that swim in through our filters.
She hadn’t held her nose this time, and the blast perplexed her, she struggled over to the wall – I knew she could handle it. I could see that her eyes were closed and that she was afraid.
“Daddy!” She yelled. “Please help me.”
“You’re okay baby girl!” I shouted back. “Just open your eyes, it will sting for a moment but then you will be able to see.”
“Daddy please I need help!”
“Open your eyes baby girl.”
“Daddy.” Her voiced faded, to a near-hopeless timbre. “I’m alone out here!”
And this was too cute to ignore. I swam over to her and gathered her in my arms.
“I’m right here.” I said calmly. “I got ya.”
She buried her head into my chest for a moment, experiencing pure protection for the first time in what must have seemed to her like hours.
I took her to the deck and we sat in wicker chairs and drank the Gatorades we’d forgotten to bring to the beach.
“Alright.” I said. “Are you ready for fireworks.”
“Yes!” She said.
She extended her arm in a thumbs up, her big toothy smile fully deployed, stealing every ounce of delinquency I’d had left over from my youth. I unboxed the fireworks that I’d purchased from a sketchy looking man in a parking lot. The box’s instructions were in another language but I figured wicks lit regardless of lexicon. The first few were loud but without much height. She watched anyways, in amazement that something could be so beautiful. It must have given her hope, I remember thinking, that one day everything could be so beautiful.
“Daddy. Can I light one?” She asked.
Against my better judgment, first as a parent, and then as a man beholden to the mother of my child, I decided that if she was old enough to struggle in the deep end, she was old enough to light a firework with guidance. I taught her how to ignite the lighter, downward from the side and how to tilt it so to not burn her finger. She lit the wick and we ran and she laughed as the explosion rang out behind her like an anthem. She was so happy to have made it all so beautiful.
We finished the box and discarded it on the side of the house by the garbage. We went inside and she showered and changed into her pjs. We watched the fireworks shows in New York and Chicago on TV, and she told me that ours were better. We smiled about this and an inside joke was created for the future.
“Daddy?” She asked. “Can I stay up and watch the fireworks?”
“No baby, I’m tired from today. It’s time for us to go to bed.”
“Please Daddy? I love them.” And with “please” she lowered her bottom lip in a cliché, but conventionally successful form of childhood rhetoric. And she won.
“Okay, but listen. Do not…” and with this, I kicked it into dad-strict, “go past the chairs, do you understand me?”
She nodded her head yes.
“Now give me a hug.”
“Love you daddy.”
“Love you baby girl.”
She went on the deck and I to my room. I figured if she was old enough to light a firework, she was old enough to be in the yard on her own. Besides, I had the window overlooking the pool to supervise from. I’d leave on the TV to keep me half-lucid, so that I could check on her every now and again.
I brushed my teeth as I always had and stripped away enough clothing to make any form of blanket bearable. It was quiet and I was able to fall asleep quickly though I didn’t mean to. The sultry voice of some late-night, local-channel news anchor put me away post hence.
I’d thought I heard her yell but it was faint and unalarming. It was one of those things where you hear but don’t really see anything. Then again, a bit louder this time, she was yelling for me. I could tell. It was the kind of thing that brought your heartrate to a fever pitch, hitting a dear on the road, or almost stepping on a snake. It was clear that she was yelling for me.
“What is it, baby girl?” I yelled. Or at least tried to, but nothing, at least I don’t believe anything came out.
She yelled again for me and I tried to move but I could not. I screamed harder than I knew I could, I scratched and clawed at the abyss, I cried, and I woke up. In a full sweat, and with eyes red and ashy, I took a breath, the first breath I’d taken since the terror began.
Someone was knocking, and the doorbell had woken me up. I figured it was the neighbor bringing back our swim-training wings – she didn’t need them anymore, and the girl next door was younger. It was not the neighbor, it was the police, and behind them an ambulance drove away.
Hospital waiting rooms allow for those times, the ones of reflection, but generally, they are all but forced. I thought about her watching the bursts of beauty above, and how they all must have seemed like something from Heaven, and how happy, and undeserving, and satisfied I felt. I thought about the hug she’d given me, and the chuckles we’d shared, and the deals we’d made to not tell Mommy. She was such a brave little girl. But I was wrong, she was not old enough, or strong enough, or tough enough to handle it. She was a kid, watching shooting stars, and she was all alone.