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Found by Ray Printer Friendly

I'm quick to make up traditions, and one that I've taken a shining to is Kim's birthday story. Each year, she picks out three words, and I write a story, incorporating them. This year's story is late (sorry, Kim) and it's also shorter than the past stories have been (sorry again, Kim).

But I think it worked out okay, in the end. Anyway, Happy Birthday, Kim! Hope it is was a good one!


She hears the sounds first, she always does. The wind, as it rushes through the trees. Leaves rustling, trees creaking. And the approaching footsteps, crunching through the snow. Too wide to be deer, not wide enough to be a bear.

The sound of another human being, the first she's seen in days, the sound of salvation. She thinks for a moment that she might be hallucinating, that perhaps there is no sound at all. Perhaps she has finally died.

But no--the pain is still there, of hunger, of frostbite, of terror.

She summons her strength enough to open her eyes, and is rewarded with hazy brightness, out of focus. She doesn't know how long her eyes have been closed; the light stings, but she forces herself to keep them open.

How long? Seconds, minutes, she doesn't understand about time anymore, doesn't care. The snow crunches louder and louder until she sees motion. Yellow. They make fun of him for the color of his mukluks, down at the kennel. They prefer color in their footwear, dye that mutes it, browns it, that makes it more masculine.

He wears his yellow with pride. He says it reminds him of the sunshine, and brightens his day. He's the only one in the village with the bright yellow, and that is what she sees.

She assumes he sees her, then, because he cries out, not words, just a noise, and the footsteps speed up, and then he is there, falling to the ground beside her, saying her name over and over, telling her to be okay, telling her that she will be okay. Telling her that he loves her. Words of comfort and prayer as he rolls her over, inspects her.

She wants to tell him that she's okay, that she's still alive. But she isn't sure if either of those statements are the truth, and even if she was, she doesn't have the strength to speak. But he's here, and just that fact gives her enough for one word: "Daddy?"

His tears warm her face as he looks down at her. He's still speaking, but she can't understand his words--they are just noises, like the wind and the trees. She wants to tell him that she's sorry, that she's so sorry, but she can't.

Her eyes close.

It was stupid, so stupid. She's just a little girl, of course she's going to throw fits. It's his job to be the adult. He's the dad, he's the adult. When your child throws a fit, you keep control, you do what you need to do.

But he didn't. He lashed out, as if he was her age, just another angry child. He didn't mean to, but her words had hurt him so bad, cut him so deep. He didn't have time to think, emotion flooded his system too quickly, and the words escaped before he knew they existed.

This is what he thinks about as he searches for his child. Every word that he said, every word that he should have said instead. He thinks about the way her giggle makes his day better, he thinks about the way her little forehead feels under his lips when he kisses her goodnight. He thinks about how she's smart, just so smart, and everything she does is adorable and wonderful and the way she lights up the world.

And he thinks about how she might be dead right now. How she is probably dead right now. Because of him and his stupid feelings. His lack of control.

It was a sleep-over. She wanted to go to a sleep-over. Not a big deal, she'd been to them before. But this was with a friend he hadn't met. Relatively new family to town. The girl was popular, and it was a grade-school honor to be invited to her birthday slumber party.

She had started out calm and debate-like, explaining to him how it was no big deal, less than a mile away, and she'd call if there was any problem. The parents were real nice, the girl was real nice, there weren't going to be any boys.

Logically, he knew he should let her go. But his heart balked at the idea, and in the end, he decided she could go to the birthday party, but couldn't spend the night.

She abandoned logic then, and opted for begging, for crying. Hannah was the most popular girl in school, didn't he understand? You don't turn that down!

He tried to explain to her that it didn't matter, that twelve years isn't nearly enough time to understand the world. That she wouldn't even remember this party down the road, when she was a famous...well, a famous whatever--doctor, lawyer, racecar driver (he supported her no matter what, but hoped she would always try to max out her potential).

And then she yelled at him, hateful words, calculated to hurt, knowing she had lost the battle. "No wonder Mom left, I can't stand living with you, either!"

Not her personality at all, nothing like she'd normally say, but emotions were running high by then, on both sides. And when he replied, it was also with angry, stupid words that shouldn't have ever been spoken:

"Yeah? Last time I checked, she left us both, so maybe it wasn't all me!"

A heartbeat passed, and his apologies began. "Oh, sweetheart, I'm sorry, I didn't mean that, I'm so so sorry."

Too late. She was already down the hall, into the bathroom--the only room in the house with a lock. He heard the click of the bolt as he stood numb in the kitchen. Still whispering apologies, "Oh sweetie, I didn't mean it, I'm sorry."

He waited for her, he sat in the hallway by the door, calling into her every so often, asking if she needed anything. If she replied at all, it was only to tell him to leave her alone. He dozed, eventually, and his snores alerted her to the fact. She inched the door open, crept down the hall, and packed a bag.

Her plan at first was to go to the party, but she knew if he woke up and found her missing, that would be the first place he'd check. He'd arrive, angry and loud, and embarrass her in front of all of her friends. So instead of heading down the street to Hannah's house, she turned the other way, towards the woods.

They were dangerous, even if you knew them, especially at night. She didn't care--she'd ventured in before, on dares from her friends, and she had always been safe. She would hide out for the night, and then contemplate tomorrow the intelligence of her decision.

It was a decision; it had been decided: she was running away. She knew the words had slipped from his mouth just as her words had slipped from hers, but it didn't matter. If he thought she was so hard to live with, he could try living without her. He could try living with himself, knowing his words had chased his daughter away.

She went to the usual spot in the woods, the place they would go to feel dangerous, even though it was so familiar, it had lost any real feel of danger. But he would find her friends, and they would confess. He would find her. So instead of stopping, she continued on into the darkness, the narrow beam of her flashlight leading her deeper into woods.

Later, she wouldn't remember. When she woke up at the bottom of the ravine, she had no recollection of how she had gotten there. She only knew the pain--throbbing in her arm, screaming in her leg. There was only darkness around her, and for a moment, she thought she had been blinded. But then she saw the beam of her flashlight further down the ravine. She wanted to walk over and pick it up, but her leg hurt too bad, and she couldn't see the ground well enough to make her way to it.

She tried to crawl, but her arm wouldn't move. Broken. She began to cry. Not the wails of a child in pain, but rather the soft sobs of defeat. She was hurt and confused and alone, and there was nothing she could do about it but try to wash away the nightmare with tears.

Eventually, she slept.

The wind, as it rushes through the trees. Leaves rustling, trees creaking. And the footsteps, crunching through the snow. It's the perfect consistency for snowballs, that's her first thought. Just the sound of it, you can tell that it's wet enough to stick just right.

The pain is back, and although pain is never a pleasant thing, she's glad it's back. For a while, she didn't feel it, didn't feel anything, and realized it was probably because she was dying. It's back now, barely, but there. Each step he takes, as careful as he is being, it jostles her a little, her leg, her arm.

The leg is probably infected by now. She opens her eyes. At first, all she can see is blurred color. His coat: she's looking at his shoulder. He's holding her cradled, the way he used to when she was super-little. Her face tucked into the nook of his neck.

She can see beyond him, though, a stretched-out vista of covered ground, footprints tracking back over the horizon, into the woods. He has carried her beyond the trees, but she doesn't know where she is.

She tries to speak, but nothing happens. He pats her, just a little, as if he knows she wants to communicate, as if he knows how difficult it is.

"I love you, sweetie," he murmurs, and she feels his voice vibrate where her forehead is touching his neck. "I love you. It's going to be okay."

When she awoke, she remembered. She remembered the fight, the angry, hurtful words. So stupid. They seemed trivial, now. She remembered why she spoke them--a birthday party. He was scared for her safety, that's all. She had known it at the time, and she knew it as she lay crumpled at the bottom of the ravine, arm broken, branch piercing her leg.

Blood everywhere, staining the light snow that has managed to drop beneath the canopy of the evergreen trees. She had meant to hurt him. As much as she would like to claim ignorance, she can't; she had wanted to hurt him, and she had pulled out the big guns. She hadn't expected retaliation, however, hadn't expected to have her heart cracked in return.

Hadn't expected so much blood, not from such a petty argument.

She picked herself up, careful not to use the broken arm. Back, had to get back. They'd be looking for her. And there was snow, there would be tracks. She was surprised they hadn't already found her, until she realized that she couldn't see her own tracks. The snow was bloody and wet, used-looking all around her. But there had been fresh snow during the night, which would cover her tracks. As the cold moisture soaked into her cheek, she realized it was still snowing.

She began walking.

Shivering, hurting everything. This wasn't supposed to happen. She was just a little girl, and little girls weren't supposed to end up in the woods all alone, broken and bleeding.

The warmth fades, her eyes shoot open, afraid it was a dream, afraid she is alone once more. But he is still there, settling her gently into the dogsled, tucking blankets around her, kissing her forehead, telling her he loves her, telling her it is okay, everything is going to be okay.

"Daddy?" The word hurts in her throat, in her chest. Everything hurts, and she is so tired. The wind whips her voice away, and she knows he didn't hear. But he bends down close and tells her no, it's okay, don't try to talk right now. "Daddy, I'm lost."

Another warm splash, she is growing familiar with the feel of his tears even though she has never seen them before today. "No, baby, not anymore. You're not lost. I'm with you, and I always will be. I promise."

He kisses her again, and tucks her secure. She hears his footsteps crunch away, and for a moment, she thinks he is leaving her, that he will vanish back into the world of hallucinations. But then she hears a bark, and realizes that he is preparing the dogs.

Does she doze? Perhaps. Or perhaps she never fully regains consciousness. She swims to the surface of coherence long enough to understand that they're moving, the team pulling them gracefully across frozen prairie, the sky white and uniform until it melts into the snow-covered horizon, all of it looking the same.

And then she is under again, no white, only black, no pain, only warmth.

She is no longer lost.

It's the sound of a horn that pulls her from sleep. For a moment, she doesn't understand, can't understand. There are no cars, not in the wilderness, not in the village. Then she remembers.

She climbs out of bed, ready to wince at the pain in her leg, but it is not there. The leg healed years ago. The arm never settle correctly, so it hurts when the weather changes, but that's the good thing about living in the desert--the weather doesn't change much. Today, the arm hurts, but not from the childhood break.

She opens the window, and looks out over the vast expanse of flatland. Not snow-covered, but in the pre-dawn dark, she can almost imagine that it is. She feels a trail of warm as the tear slides from her eye.

"I love you, Daddy," she says. "Thank you."

She walks down the hallway, carefully avoiding glances to the mirrors that would show her the bruised cheek, the swollen lip. She also avoids looking down at her arms--they, too, hold their share of bruises.

She focuses on getting to the kitchen and doing what she needs to do, what she has to do. The papers are still on the table, right where Carol left them last night, after the police left. Another benefit to having a lawyer for a best friend--she can draw up divorce papers in the middle of the night.

How long has she been asleep? Months? Years? Too long, it has gone on for too long. But no more.

She signs on the line, and wipes away a left-over tear.

She is no longer lost.


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