“Faith gives us hope. Without faith, there is no hope”
Claire. Claire was everything to me. She is the one thing that gives my life meaning. After her mother died, I thought I would surely die. But she was what kept me living. She was perhaps stronger than me, in dealing with the loss of her mother, even though she was only eight years old. She puts up with whatever life throws at her, and she truly amazes me. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her, too. I wouldn’t let that happen. I would protect her from anything or anyone, and never let her come to harm. She’s my baby, my little girl, and I’d die for her.
She was asleep next to me on the couch, not having made it through the last movie we were watching. I looked over at her, sleeping so soundly, body rising and falling with her breathing. Her chestnut color hair was cascaded over her face, and I brushed a strand of it out of her eyes.
I decided to put her to bed. I shut off the TV and plunged us into the complete darkness of the house. I picked her up and carried her up the stairs and into her bedroom. She woke up to the sound of my muffled footfalls on the stairway.
“Oh, no, daddy, can’t we watch more?” she pleaded in her soft, silken voice.
“You look so tired, sweetheart, you need to go to bed,” I told her as I rounded the corner and pushed open her bedroom door.
I felt the cold air rush in from the drafty room, and I felt her snuggle her head into my chest.
“I promise I’ll to bed after we finish the movie,” she persisted.
I smiled, she was just as stubborn as her mother, “No, angel, you need to go to bed now. I promise we can watch it for breakfast tomorrow,” I compromised as I set her down the bed.
“And can we play hide-and-seek at the park tomorrow?” she asked, suddenly springing up, wide-awake.
“Yes, yes we can. But only if you get some sleep tonight,” I told her.
She nodded, and fell back down onto the bed, facing the window. I pulled the covers up to her neck.
“I love you, God bless you, and may your angel watch over you. And when you wake up, you can play, play, play,” I said, inspiring a giggle from her.
I walked over to the picture frame on her wall. In the dark I couldn’t see the details very well, but I knew that picture by heart. It was a photograph I took of Claire and her mother. We were out at our lake house, and Claire had never been happier. She was so innocent back then, having never had to deal with death. I touched the cold frame and mouthed the words, “May your angel watch over you.”
“Daddy,” her call broke my concentration.
“Yes, dear?” I turned.
She was sitting up in bed, looking intently out the window.
“What is that man doing?” she asked curiously.
I frowned, and strode over to the window. I leaned against the chipping, icy sill and peered out at the quiet suburban street. There, standing under the dim glow of a street lamp across the road, was a lone and unmoving man. He was dressed in a body-length trench coat, dress-pants, and a boonie hat. He was standing with his legs slightly apart and his arms swung behind his body… staring right up at our window.
My curiosity and sense of safety piqued, I decided to investigate. I told Claire to stay here and not to leave her room. I made my way down the stairs hurriedly, and threw on my jacket that was hung by the door. I opened the house door and stepped out onto the porch. Now, I wasn’t going to come at the guy with a shotgun screaming “Get off my lawn!” or anything like that, but I still wanted to know what his business was staring at my daughter’s bedroom.
“Hey, pal,” I called to him. He stood unmoving.
“Can I help you with something?” I asked, trying to sound civil.
He only stared at me from under the brim of his hat, not making a sound. If a tumbleweed were to roll between us on the quiet street, it would seem fitting. I tilted my head, trying to make out any features this man had.
Before I could say anything else, the man turned on his heels and walked in the other direction, between two houses and out of sight. My brow furrowed in puzzlement, but the man didn’t appear hostile. I decided to let it go, but I was extra sure to lock the door when I went back inside.
I put Claire back to bed, telling her the man was just going for a walk. She was satisfied, and I could get some rest. I walked down the stairs and flopped onto the couch. I set the TV on mute, and watched sleepy-eyed as I tried to fall asleep. I hadn’t slept in my actual bed since the death of my wife, I simply fall asleep in front of the TV instead. Although it hinders old memories from flooding my mind, no amount of bathing in the dim glow of the screen can stop the dreams.
I dreamt of her. Her long brown hair, her crystal blue eyes. Claire got her looks from her mother. I couldn’t get that image out of my mind, I’ve been haunted by her death ever since the day. The day the three of us were driving on the freeway, coming home from a birthday party Claire was invited to. It was quite a long drive back home to the suburbs, so to entertain our daughter we played the radio. Claire found great amusement in her parents singing the songs from their childhood that were playing. I was too busy enjoying myself and my family, the two most important women in my life, to notice the semi-truck skidding on the slick pavement.
The crash itself was a blur…
I only remember parts of spinning out of control and running off the freeway. I hit my head on the steering wheel, and slowly began to lose consciousness. I heard the sirens, and the next thing I knew, I was being pulled out of a car wreck by two paramedics.
As they pulled me out through the torn-off door, I remember glancing around in a dizzy haze, trying to find Claire. The paramedics had to do CPR on me, while I was lying on the street.
After the haze cleared and my vision returned, I was with Claire, in the back of an ambulance, sharing a blanket with her. The medics and police told me what happened, and then explained to me in private how my wife was not as fortunate as us.
I still recall the exact words they used to explain her death. How could I forget the words that would change my life forever? After a brief stay in the hospital, they let the two of us go home. I was trying to hide that I was crying, but Claire noticed anyway. I had to tell her. I had to tell her she would never see her mother again.
I opened my eyes and let out a shaky breath. I was lying on the couch, facing up at the ceiling. I sighed and shut my eyes tight as I tried to shake away the thought, the memory. When I opened them again, what I saw forced all previous emotions away, and replaced them with shock. I glanced over at the window by the kitchen, and saw that man standing in the window.
He was right up against the glass, with his palm pressed against it. His dark gaze was upon me, and I scrambled to my feet in a fright. I quickly got dressed and flew through the front door. I ran the bend around to the side of the house to find nothing. As I tried to catch my breath, my eyes darted around in the darkness. There was no sign of whoever it was, except for the handprint on the window.
I watched as the cold remain of the print faded off the glass.
The next day I had the police over at my house. I was talking to them in the kitchen, at the same time listening to Claire playing upstairs. There were three officers here, two male one female, asking me about who it was that I saw. I told them what limited information I had, as I had not actually gotten a good look at him.
“So, a man in a black coat and a boonie hat?” one officer asked, “Can you give me any other details, facial features, the likes?”
“Um… no. No, not really,” I said with heavy breath.
The officers looked at each other, dissatisfied, “Well, there aren’t any criminals or predators in town, part of the reason why this neighborhood is such a good one,” one said.
“I know that! My wife chose to live here because of that,” I said, perhaps louder than I should have.
“What did you say your name was, sir?”
“Mr. Jeffery, there is no reason for you to be worried. We’ll keep an eye out for this ‘trench coat man’ and let you know if anything turns up,” one explained, trying to calm me.
I realized by this point that they either didn’t believe me or refused to help me. Before I could protest anymore, I paused. I couldn’t hear Claire.
I bolted out of the room before the officers could protest, and took the stairs three at a time. I rounded the corner and pushed open the bedroom door, praying that I would see Claire on the other side, still playing undisturbed. What I saw was quite different.
Claire was in her room, sitting on her bed. Beside her was a man in a suit and, sure enough, a black boonie hat. He was in the middle of saying something to her, and he had one of her hands in his. Claire looked up at him intently, with a sad look on her face.
When the door swung open, and I burst inside, Claire jumped from fright, her eyes darting over to me. I saw that she was crying, and her eyes were tinted red. The man put his hands together,
“Ah, hello sir. Might I say you have a very amusing daughter,” he said, as I felt my blood boil into a rage.
I had enough. I lunged forward to grab him, to grab his neck and throw him out the window, when suddenly a pair of very strong hands grabbed me from behind. It was the officers. They pulled me back and pressed my back against the doorframe.
I looked back and saw that the man was gone, leaving only my bloodshot-eyed, distressed daughter and I in the room.
“Oh… God no,” I mouthed, seeing what this looked like, “The man was in the house!” I exclaimed, “He was in my daughter’s bedroom.”
The female officer glanced at my daughter, “Is this so?”
Claire shook her head, looking even sadder than before.
“What? Claire, honey, tell them,” I said as the cops restrained me.
But Claire wouldn’t speak, she just kept looking at me with horrified eyes. I didn’t understand. I tried to resist, but the officers succeeded in handcuffing me and dragging me out of the house. I made a scene in public, shouting obscenities at the officers as they begrudgingly shoved me into a squad car. I valiantly attempted to force the door open, longing to be free. One of the officers stayed at my house with my daughter, and the other two took me away.
“Where are you taking me? I need to be with my daughter,” I pleaded through the metal grated wall.
“Just bringing you in for a night at the station, until we can assess your stability levels.”
“Stability levels?” I repeated, “There was a man in my house!”
The female officer looked over her shoulder at me, “Sure there was.”
I stared wide-eyed at the two of them as they resumed taking me to jail. They didn’t believe me. They actually thought I wanted to hurt my daughter. Why on Earth would I ever do anything if it weren’t to protect her?
They took me in, and I did what I was told. Without event, they took me into a holding cell, where I had only a bed and a very public bathroom to accompany me. They took off the handcuffs, and slid the metal bars across the open gap to freedom. I heard the distinctive slam of the door and click of the lock, and the footsteps leading away.
I flopped back onto the bed, feeling the rough, thin mattress that was more merciless then the couch at home. I cradled my head into my hands, hoping this would all end by morning.
“You know, your daughter is very fortunate to have a parent like you,” I heard a soft voice say.
My head snapped up, and my blurry vision darted around. Finally I focused on the source of the voice. In the cell across from mine, I saw another man of the dark getup sitting on a stool, slouched over. He was twiddling his thumbs as he spoke, “One that wants only to protect her.”
I got up and grasped the bars, willing to tear them apart to get at him, “Who are you?” I snarled.
“An agent,” he told me.
“From what? The Federal Bureau of Child Molesters?” I spat, “What do you want with my daughter?”
“The same thing you want, to protect her. We of the agency have… 'protected’ many children in the past,” the way he said ‘protected’ made me think he didn’t actually mean ‘protect.’
“That’s it,” I said, banging on the bars, trying to attract attention, “Over here! Intruder!”
Suddenly the man was right in front of the bars, and he grabbed my throat through them, pulling me against the cell door.
“Don’t make this worse for yourself,” he said as I clawed at his rough, icy hands, trying to get free.
“Go to hell!” I gasped, and he let me go. I reeled back and hit my head on the bedframe.
He stared at me contemptly, before turning and walking right out of the cell-hall. I squeezed my eyes shut from the pain, and touched the back of my head, feeling a warm stream of blood pour down from the gash. I let out the tired breath I’d been holding, and finally fatigue took over me.
I had awful nightmares, in which I was running. I was pursuing the dark-clothed man as they carried away Claire. I remember hearing her screams and cries so vividly. I remember the desperateness, the helplessness, the soul-crushing pain that was being unable to save her. I grew tired of running and fell to my knees as her and her cries vanished into the darkness. The darkness then came for me, surrounding me and enveloping me. I felt suffocated, like I couldn’t breathe. I was paralyzed, being held in place by shadow itself. Finally, just before the life was choked out of me, salvation came in the form of bringing me back into the grim light of reality.
The officers let me go back to my house, and I wasted no time in getting there. I signed everything I needed to, and then walked out of the station, having proved I wasn’t a lunatic. They asked me about the cut on the back of my head, having seen it past my short hair. I told them it was from falling off of their tiny bed. They didn’t care, and I was allowed to leave.
I quickly went back to my house, and unlocked the door. The officer that stayed with my daughter had told me he brought her back here, and that she was upstairs. He left just as I walked in, and I was glad to have him out.
The first thing I did was go into my own bedroom. I looked at the bed, and looked over at the safe. I kneeled down by the old safe and tried to remember the combination. After several attempts, I got it open, and retrieved a revolver from the safe. I reached in and felt around for something else I wanted. I pulled out a thin, faded photograph. It was my wedding picture. I saw the woman I married, looking so young and sweet. I made a silent vow to protect what was left of my family.
I set the photo back in, and shut the safe. I made the trek out of my room, and up the stairs to see Claire. I hid the revolver in my back pocket, and pushed the door open.
Thankfully, she was all alone, and looked in better condition than the last time I saw her. She was reading in her bed, and when she saw me, those blue eyes turned to the sad ones I had seen earlier. That was the way they looked when I told her about her mother.
“Daddy?” she asked.
“Yes, sweetheart, I’m home,” I said, feeling relieved to finally say that.
“Daddy, there’s something I need to tell you,” she said, climbing out of her bed. I got down on my knees to see her at eye-level, “What is it, Claire?”
Before she could tell me, she glanced up above my head. I suddenly felt the handgun’s absence from my back pocket, just before I felt the barrel press to the back of my head. I didn’t move, I was still on my knees, with my daughter’s hands in mine. I knew how this was going to end. If I could have one final request, it would be that Claire didn’t have to watch another parent die.
“Listen to your daughter, Jeffery,” the familiar voice of the agent said from behind me.
“They told me something, daddy,” Claire told me in a voice so soft it was almost a whisper, “Something about you…Something about mommy.”
I felt a single tear stream down my cheek, “What is it, sweetheart? What did they tell you?”
It seemed like eternity that I stared into her eyes before she finally told me, “You’re dead.”
My blood ran cold. “W-what?”
“You died with mommy, don’t you remember, daddy?” she asked.
I felt something, a prodding memory, trying to force its way into my thoughts. I denied it at first, but when I saw the sincerity in my daughter’s eyes, I allowed the thought to play. I closed my eyes, and suddenly I was back in the car on that fateful day.
I was driving when suddenly the semi-truck ran me off the road. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t stop it. I mentally willed the car not to crash, trying to prevent it from happening. But alas, there was nothing I could do but watch. So I watched, I spectated the death of my wife. I saw the car spin out and run off the road. My wife suffered fatal head trauma, killing her instantly. I watched as my own head slammed forward. I witnessed the paramedics tearing off the door and then dragging me out. Claire had already been pulled from the smoking wreckage and set in the ambulance.
I was looking down at myself, as they gave me CPR. I stared in awe at my dying body as they tried to restart my heart. I didn’t remember much after this point, so what I saw next was all new to me. I watched…myself… looking up at the sky, as I mouthed the same words I say to my daughter each night.
“I love you… May your angel watch over you…”
Then something happened. I couldn’t explain it. I swear I heard the paramedics say that they lost me. But the next thing I knew, I was sitting in the back of an ambulance, sharing a blanket with Claire, feeling her snuggle up to me for warmth. I was talking to the paramedics like nothing had happened to me!
I never even felt different. No one even knew I had…no one could have known. But since I was still out-of-body, I was able to see something I never saw that day. The man, dressed in the black coat, eyes shaded by the brim of his hat, was the only witness to my death. He was standing there in the street, and everyone was oblivious to his presence.
The wind blew past him, making his coat blow on his body in the breeze. He stood there and watched. Perhaps some sort of wish had been granted…perhaps I was given a second chance to protect my daughter. And now, it seemed, that the second chance was up.
This was beyond anything I could ever hope to understand…yet it was all so clear. This was the last time I’d get to see my daughter.
“What are you going to do with her when I’m gone?” I asked the man behind me.
“We’ll keep her safe,” was all he told me.
“My second chance is up?” I asked, “I failed to protect her?”
“Yes, you are no longer allowed to live on,” the man told me, as I heard the sound of the hammer clicking back on the gun.
“Daddy…” Claire whispered, tears streaming down her face.
“I need you to be strong for daddy, okay, angel?” I asked, touching her cheek and letting the tear run onto my hand.
She nodded, and hugged me one last time. I savored the last hug I’d ever get from her, because it was just that.
Another agent appeared behind Claire out of nowhere. He touched her shoulder, and she turned to him.
“It’s time to go, sweetheart,” he said softly, “You need to let daddy go.”
She shook her head and ran back into my arms, clutching at me, not letting go.
“I don’t want to leave you,” she whispered.
“Claire… I can’t protect you. You have to go with them, they will take care of you,” I said, even as it happened so fast around me.
“I love you,” she told me.
“I’ll love you always,” I said, letting go of her.
She let go, stepped back, and took the agent’s hand. The agent looked at me before he left the room, this expression of “I’ll keep her safe” in his eyes. That was the first time I could see any of their eyes. They weren’t monsters. Were they angels?
With that, the agent with the gun to my head brought me to my feet.
“Can I please…see her go,” I whispered, my voice fleeing me.
The man nodded, and we walked over to the window. I leaned against the chipping, icy sill and looked down at the quiet suburban street. I saw Claire get into an old, dark car, the kind that is too strong to crash. The man helped her in, and then circled around to the driver side. Claire quickly got into the back and turned around, pressing her hand against the rear window. I put my hand against her bedroom window. The car drove out of sight without a single sound. After a lifetime, I took my hand off the window, watching as the cold print faded off the glass.
At last, I turned to the man. He was still at the ready with the gun. I gently brought the barrel down,
“That won’t be necessary,” I told him, “I know when it’s my time.”
The man obliged, and crossed his arms behind his back. He watched as I leaned against the window. I took in a deep breath and smiled, no longer afraid of the inevitable.
“Do I have a place in heaven?” I asked.
"Yes, and you are bloody late."
Written by Tyber Zann