My Little Girl
My little girl has all the potential. All of it. I see it so clearly, the way the razor-straight strands of her auburn hair hang on the wind as she runs with resolve, chasing her younger brother, Lucas, beneath the slides. The shine in her green eyes as she narrows in on a potential trap, pinning him to a corner of the sandbox butted up against a pair of cinder block walls, leaving the boy zero chance of escape. Even when she grabs ahold of him and tickles him until he’s reduced to tearful pleas, there’s a dark edge to her laugh.
“Honey, we need to go,” I say.
I wish it weren’t true. The sky here is so beautiful. So blue and pure with occasional cotton-like strands of clouds floating listlessly by. As I sit on an uncomfortable wooden park bench, an old elm reaches over me like a shield whose only job is to protect me from a sunburn.
My little girl screams in frustration as she turns to me, giving Lucas the chance to sneak past her. He hops onto my lap and wraps his arms around my neck, leaving grains of sand on my pants and drops of drool on my collar. He’s breathing heavily in my ear and smells of kid-sweat.
“Dad!” she yells.
If feeling my little boy’s flesh pressed against mine once again is not a miracle, it’s damn close to miraculous.
“Honey,” I say. “Time’s up.”
She groans as she ambles toward the pink-and-baby blue backpack sitting beside me. With a long fin descending from the bottom, it’s designed to make its wearer look like a mermaid. Sliding her arms through its straps, she refuses to look at me.
I wish we could stay here forever. I wish I didn’t have to go through with it.
Killing my little girl is going to be the hardest thing I’ll ever have to do in my life.
While idling beneath an overhanging stoplight at the main intersection in our town’s tiny downtown, I tilt my eyes up toward the rearview mirror. She’s strapped into her car seat, hands held together lightly in her lap. The dirty pink soles of her tennis shoes swing in and out view as she kicks her legs up and down. She watches an elderly couple walk hand-in-hand along the cracked sidewalk just outside her window. They stroll past a white brick liquor store with posters advertising twelve-packs of malt liquor for $7.99. Like every other surrounding building, the establishment will be flattened in half a century’s time.
I’d seen the movies a long time ago. The ones where someone comes back to save a child from some time-traveling assassin because the kid will be the one to save the world.
Why couldn’t that be my movie? Why did my child have to destroy the world? Why did I have to be the assassin?
In reality, these weren’t hard questions. They all had answers that made sense. When the Resistance came to me, they told me it was their only option. They didn’t have time to perfect the science and there would be no second chances. They could generate enough power to send a single person’s consciousness back to his or her own body, but any more attempts would clearly signal their capabilities through the power grid and invite a fatal, nuclear-weapon-induced setback. Some brainiac determined I was the perfect choice and as voracious as my opposition was, it didn’t hold up because I knew they were right and it was my only opportunity to make amends.
Always, in the back of my mind, I wondered if I had played a role in what she became–what she would become. Was it something specific that I said? Something she saw me do? Maybe a whole bunch of tiny things that came together to form the singular monstrosity growing up in the backseat of my car?
“Can we get ice cream?” she asks.
Lucas is strapped in next to her, rubbing his thumbs along the tiny glass eyes of his favorite stuffed tiger.
“We’ll see,” I say.
The digital clock on the dashboard reminds me that I only have about an hour. They said my consciousness was ‘magnetized,’ and would slowly be pulled back to its proper time. I would feel like I was growing tired and then suddenly lose all faculties. I had to do the job before that happened.
The light turns green and I press the pedal down. The accelerator kicks in after a brief lag.
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s get some ice cream.”
The water shimmers in the sunlight as we sit on the lakeside shore. Tiny whitecaps form in the breeze and break on the wave crests, disappearing before they have the chance to become something more. We’re the only ones out here on this weekday just after the lunch hour. During the summer months, this used to be a favorite spot of ours. The kids loved to swim. Now–later–it’s a wasteland.
My little girl stands beside me, pushing herself up and down on her toes, licking around the strawberry ice cream dripping down the sides of her wafer cone. “When mommy comes home from her work trip, can we play Candyland?”
I’m angry now. I’m sure the scientists chose this window so that I wouldn’t be able to at least see the love of my life once again. The woman that my daughter eventually took–takes–away. I suppose it makes sense, but for her to come home in this time and learn what I’ve done? I can’t imagine.
Lucas is down by the water, digging smooth gray stones out of the wet sand, trying to throw them as far into the deep as he can. What do I do with him? How will his life turn out knowing that his father murdered his sister? By eliminating one problem, would I be creating another? What if, in his grief, he winds up taking his sister’s path?
These fucking scientists think they have all the answers.
“Daddy, are you sad?”
I wipe a runaway tear from my cheek. She leans her head into me and put her arms around my shoulders. Cold, sticky ice cream rubs against the back of my neck and I smell apple-scented shampoo as strands of her hair tickle my nose.
“I don’t want you to be sad, Daddy.” She starts to pretend-cry, making little whimpering sounds.
What happened–happens–to this beautiful young girl?
I pull her away from me and peer into her eyes, gripping her arms too tightly. “I’m okay.”
“Yay!” she says wiggling her arms out from my hands so she can continue licking her ice cream.
“Honey,” I ask, “do you think you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up?”
“Yeeeaah,” she says in an almost questioning way.
“What do you want to be?” I ask.
Please, give me hope. Give me a reason.
“Ummm…” She squints into the sky and puts a finger to her chin, tapping lightly. “I don’t know,” she says with a giggle. “I want to be a grown-up!”
“Just a grown-up?”
“Yeah, so I can be the boss and no one can tell me what to do,” she says with a twisted smile.
“Lucas, can you do a big boy thing for daddy?”
His eyes grow wide and he nods his head quickly, smiling with all six teeth. We’re standing beside our sedan on the dirt parking lot sitting thirty feet above the south side of the lake. If I was going to do this, I was going to be a part of it. No way could I do it and be outside of the event. No way. But I couldn’t make Lucas a part of this.
“Daddy left his wallet down where we were at. Do you remember where that was?”
He nods again.
“Okay, go be a big boy and get it for Daddy.”
I had strapped my girl into her seat first. As soon as Lucas is halfway to the trail leading to the shore area, I get in the car and start the engine.
I don’t want to give myself the luxury of thinking, so I jerk the transmission into reverse. The front tires spin and kick up gravel, but we eventually zoom to the back of the parking lot where I hit the brakes.
My girl is giggling. “Again, Daddy! Again!”
I look in the rearview mirror. A big mistake. Her smile sends a sharp twinge shooting across my chest. I’m having trouble breathing.
What am I doing?
What am I doing?
I click the automatic door lock and slam the shifter into drive. We kick up more gravel and then we’re zooming.
Then we’re flying.
Then we’re slamming our heads and shoulders forward on impact. Blood runs down my forehead as a sharp edge of the freshly blown steering wheel scratches my face.
I’m a little disoriented and my jaw stings from the airbag’s impact, but it feels like we’re floating a little bit. I look outside of the car window and see the hood and half the windshield submerged beneath the dark waters. My body is leaning into my seatbelt.
“Daddy!!!” I try to turn my head but a neck muscle cramps up. I focus on the mirror. The look on my girl’s face is one of sheer terror. She’s puffing and sniffling like a wild bull, looking at me. Her limbs flail wildly as she tries to climb out from her car seat straps. She finally starts crying. Her face is beet red.
I feel water getting into my shoes and soaking my ankles, so I reach down to unclip my seatbelt.
“I’m coming, honey!”
She’s trying to say something, but her crying gasps are choking off the words. Despite the dull pain seeming to radiate out of nearly every inch of my body, a rush of adrenaline kicks in and helps me focus.
“Daddy!” I think she’s saying.
She’s nearly facing straight down now in her seat and I’m crouched with my feet pressed against the back of the driver’s seat. My hands shake as they struggle to unclip her own harness, but I succeed and pull her into me. Her tiny hands clasp my head. She’s choking on her words again, coughing sweet little coughs.
I hold her so tightly, I feel like I’m going to break her tiny bones.
“I love you, Honey,” I say. “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
I force her face into my shoulder, muting the sounds of her cries, feeling every vibration of her trembling body.
I feel exhausted. The water is up to our shoulders and I’m starting to get dizzy. Am I being pulled back or am I dying? Is there any difference now?
The water rushes up around my ears and my little girl’s grasp loosens too quickly. With all of the breath I have left, I scream into the water that I’m sorry and that we will be together again soon.