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It had started again. The voice. Five hours earlier in Wal-Mart. He'd been doing his usual stalking up and down the aisles, this time for laundry detergent. Why was it every month they moved at least one item to a new location? Over the years, since Jacqueline left, he felt he'd become quite the veteran shopper---reading labels, clipping coupons, even watching as the cashier rang up each purchase on the register. But this moving of products, especially to the least likely places, always frustrated him. He was reaching the peak of just such a frustration when he heard the child crying one row over.
'Daddy! Daddy, where are you?'
The fear in her voice brought him to a stop. It was the same panic, the same desperation that had haunted him for weeks.
'Daddy, come get me!'
The tone was so similar to another's that David forgot the laundry detergent. He hesitated, then pushed his cart to the end of the aisle. He slowed as he rounded the corner and peered up the next row. A little blonde, about kindergarten age, sat alone in a cart. She was bundled in a bright red coat, pink tights, and shiny black shoes. Tears streamed down her face as she cried.
'Daddy, please don't leave me!'
He scowled, glancing around. There was no one near. What parent would leave a child like this? Had the father no sense of responsibility? He pushed his cart up the aisle toward her. 'Sweetie, are you all right?'
She turned, eyeing him, then took a brave, trembling breath.
He continued to approach. 'It'll be okay, darling. I'm sure your---'
Suddenly her face brightened as she looked past him. 'Daddy!'
He turned to see a concerned young man in a green fleece jacket and worn jeans stride up the aisle toward them. In his hands he held a new push broom, grasped tightly enough to assure David he would not hesitate to use it if necessary. David forced a reassuring grin. The young man sized him up and said nothing as he brushed by and joined his daughter.
'Oh, Daddy.' The little girl sobbed as she stretched out her arms.
'I was just around the corner.' Laughing, he scooped her out of the cart. 'Did you think I forgot you?' She nodded and he hugged her. Then, pushing aside her damp hair, he kissed her cheek. 'You know I wouldn't do that.' Again, she nodded, but continued to whimper---an obvious attempt to make him pay penance.
David thought of stopping and turning his cart around, but that would be clumsy and awkward, only adding fuel to the parent's suspicion. So he continued up the aisle. As he passed, he felt he should say something to the young father, something instructive, something to remind him what a precious responsibility he held in his arms. He said nothing.
But the voice remained. A whisper in the back of his mind. It remained through the wooden conversation between Grams, Luke, and himself over dinner. It remained through the forced laughter as Grams recounted some scene from one of her daytime soaps. It even remained as David rode his son about the poor progress report they'd received in the mail from school.
And now, several hours later, as David Kauffman stood alone in the dark, silent living room, the whisper grew louder, becoming a more familiar voice. The one that always filled his head and swelled his heart to breaking.
'Daddy, I'll be good! I promise . . . please . . . please!'
He approached the overstuffed chair from behind, reaching out to its back to steady himself. He had not bothered to turn on a light. Across the room on the mantel, he heard the clock ticking. Outside, a faint stirring of wind chimes. He caught the shadowy movement of the cat---her cat---scurrying past and up the stairs to safety. David hated this room. Tried his best to avoid it. The memories were too painful--- as bad as the upstairs bathroom, its lock still broken from when he'd busted through it to find her opening her veins . . .
The first time.
'Daddy . . .'
David closed his eyes against the memories, but he could still hear feet scuffing carpet, attendants' muffled grunts as they grabbed her flailing arms, pinning them to her side. And, of course, her pleas.
'I'll do better, I promise! Please, don't make me go!'
Images flashed in his head. Flying hair, twisting body, kicking feet, the appearance of a pearl-white syringe . . . Emily's eyes widening in panic.
'To help you relax,' the attendant had said.
'Don't let them take me . . .' She no longer sounded sixteen. She was four, five. So helpless. 'Daddy . . .'
He leaned against the chair, his throat tightening.
'Daddy . . .'
That was the deepest cut. The word. Daddy. Protector. Defender. Daddy. The one who always made things right. That was the word that had gripped him in Wal-Mart. The word that sucked breath out of him every time he heard it, that drew tears to his eyes before he could stop them. Even in front of Luke.
He tried his best not to cry when he was with his son. The boy had been through so much already. What he needed now was stability, and David was the only one who could provide it. If his twelve-year-old saw tears it would spell weakness, and weakness meant things were still out of control. No. Now, more than ever, Luke needed to know things were returning to normal, that there was someone he could depend on.
But David was by himself now. Alone. Luke was upstairs sleeping (or more likely working on the Internet) while Grams snored quietly just down the hall.
Emily's voice returned, softer, thicker. The drug taking effect. 'Daddy . . .'
'Just a few weeks, honey,' he had promised. 'You'll get better and then you can come home.'
He remembered her eyes. Those startling, violet blue eyes. Eyes so vivid that people assumed she wore colored contacts. Eyes glassing over from the drug. Eyes once so full of anger and confusion and accusation and---this is what always did him in---eyes that, at that moment, had been so full of trust.
He had held her look. Then slowly, with the intimacy of a father to his daughter, he gave a little nod, his silent assurance.
And she believed him.
She still sobbed, tears still ran down her cheeks, but she no longer fought. In that single act, that quiet nod, her daddy told her everything would be all right. And she trusted him. She trusted him!
David leaned forward onto the back of the chair, tears falling. He remembered the front door opening---bright sunlight pouring in, flaunting its cheeriness.
'I'll be right behind you,' he had promised. 'Grams and I will be in the car right behind you.'
She could no longer wipe her nose. She could only nod and mumble. 'Okay.'
The last word she ever spoke in the house. Okay, I believe you. Okay, I'm depending on you. Okay . . . I trust you.