Billy shoveled the last of the dirt on to the small cardboard box, and stood up looking forward to being out of the hot Florida sun. The little blond-haired, brown-eyed boy unclasped his little folded hands, his sister wiped away a tear and a stray red hair. “Thank you, daddy.” Said the boy, his four year old hand gripped Billy’s.
“She was a good hamster, I think she deserved a proper burial, Jay.”
“Daddy?” The girl asked.
“Will you bury me when I die? I don’t think I want anyone else to do it.”
The question gripped Billy’s heart. In her five years of life Julie Katherine Lewis had made him think about death more times than anyone. She seemed to have a knack for asking the toughest questions at the most tender times.
“Of course, honey.” It was all he could muster.
That was 6 years ago, but he could still remember the conversation clearly. He held the delicate hand of his daughter, lost in memories.
“You’re hurting my hand.”
“Oh, sorry. I’m just nervous.”
“Daddy, it’s only an audition. It’s not like I’m moving to New York. Yet.”
“Hey now, let’s keep it slow.” He chuckled.
“Julie Lewis!” Came the call from the door.
“Break a leg, honey! You’ll do great!”
“Thanks, daddy, I know I will.”
And she was gone. He ran through every possible scenario he could while she was auditioning, attempting to prepare himself. The minutes dragged on. Finally, the door opened to his smiling daughter, and she ran to him.
“What happened, Juls?”
“They liked me!”
“Does that mean you have the part?”
“Not yet, but I think I have a chance!”
“Well, that’s fantastic, honey! Whaddya say we hit the ice cream place on the way home?”
“But, daddy, I didn’t get the part yet.”
“I’ll take you out wherever you want if you get the part. Okay?”
Fifteen minutes later, they sat at a bright blue picnic table working on their cones. They watched as men worked on the power lines across the street, a group of teens played basketball in the park beside the ice cream stand, which had a steady stream of customers. Billy looked at his daughter. Her hair was naturally a deep auburn, her green eyes were bright and clear. She was going to be tall, taking after her father’s side of the family, but with her mother’s delicate features. She hadn’t done anything yet, but he was already proud of her. He knew that with her determination, combined with her sweet nature, she could go far in whatever she put her mind to.
“Daddy,” she said, snapping him to reality, “do you think Jay has a chance at school?”
“What do you mean? He’s doing fine!”
“It’s just that I think school has gotten a lot harder, and I don’t know he’ll make it as far as I have.”
“Honey, you just finished 6th grade, you have another 6 years to get through, you have plenty to get through. And I think Jay will be okay, he’s smart.”
“Daddy, I know he is, but I worry for him sometimes.”
“Well, it’s good that you care about your brother, but I think you have enough to worry about.”
“Yeah, no kidding. I’m don’t think I’ll make through high school.”
“Girlie, you’ll be fine. Now let’s get home before your mother starts worrying her mouth off, we all know how that can get.”
“Yeah, no kidding!”
Billy woke up suddenly. His alarm clock read 4:15 a.m.. He closed his eyes, but was wide awake. He got up carefully, even though his wife was at a women’s retreat that weekend. Easing his feet into the fuzzy red slippers Jay had given him at Christmas before heading off to basic training, he started going toward the kitchen, thinking that hunger might have woken him. On his way down the darkened hall, he noticed that Julie’s door was open a crack. Since graduating last year she had stayed home, gaining and promptly losing jobs. She said that she was trying to save up for college, but Billy knew that there was no job that kept her out that late and didn’t pay anything. He never caught her outright, and couldn’t convince her to confess, but he knew she wasn’t the angel she claimed to be. Pushing the door open he peeked inside. The light from the streetlamp fell across an empty messy bed through the open window. Clothes were strewn about, and a half-burnt candle leaned precariously over the edge of her dresser. A breeze blew though the window and he caught a whiff of something. Something familiar. He sniffed again. The smell sent his mind back to his high school days. He knew that smell from late night, clandestine parties. It was either Bud or Miller, possibly Guinness. His precious Julie was wasting her time, just as he had. The reality threw a jarring blow to his to his heart. He had seen the signs. He explained them away too quickly. He denied their existence for too long.
He sat at the kitchen table, swirling tortilla chip after tortilla chip in the con queso dip, mentally slamming his forehead in to the table. A chip broke in the dip, and in that half second of distraction, it came to him. It was pointless to beat himself up about it, he needed to form a plan to make her stop. He didn’t want her to stop for the same reason he did, watching a friend die in a drunken stupor. He had to do something. Something to show that he knew what it was like, and that he loved her. He really wanted to say that. He just wanted to tell her that he loved her.
I never got that chance. Her body was pulled from a tangled mass of metal, plastic, and fiberglass that had been a sports car. She and the three others in the car never stood a chance against a tractor trailer hauling a giant bulldozer. It was reported that two empty cases of beer and another half full case had been found in the wreckage. The driver had apparently been weaving across all three lanes on the highway before losing control, sliding through the median and emerging into oncoming traffic. The truck driver had no time to react. And like that, my precious daughter was taken. I look back on those conversations now, wondering what would’ve happened if I had handled them differently. I think about the possible chances I had to warn her. The times I could’ve shown love, but I showed frustration, anger, or even apathy instead. I sit here, trying to write a eulogy, trying to acknowledge that she is in fact dead. That her body lies in a gleaming white casket. That I’ll never see that dimple that accented her smile. I’ll never hear that laugh that consistently brightened the room. She’s gone, and I don’t know where she is. Dear God…
The room held the sound of Billy’s sobs. Its walls looked on in silent indifference at the man slumped in his chair, tears streaming freely. The minute hand on the retro clock shifted forward, disregarding the racking of the man’s body, the anguish of his heart manifesting itself. The world spun on; his heart, his mind, his soul stopped by overwhelming grief. The ballpoint pen slipped from his hand, rolled across the desk and fell to the floor. He didn’t move.