This story is by Lisa A Van Ahn and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Alyssa’s soft, blonde curls fell gently in front of her wide, hazel eyes and long, thick lashes. They were a shadow of her mother’s, and she had a similar habit of first blowing at unruly hairs, twirling them around her index finger, then tucking them behind her ear. The way she walked, the way she pursed her lips and squinted while she was brewing up some new adventure, the way her giggles started slowly at first, then built infectiously until everyone around her rushed with laughter, all of it reminded him of Tracy.
When his wife, Tracy, passed away from breast cancer, David mourned quietly and retreated from his relationship with his daughter. He knew the best choice would have been to open his heart to her so they could grieve the profound loss of mother and wife together, but every time he looked at his 15-year-old daughter, it broke his heart.
David desperately wanted to reconnect with his daughter and end his suffering. He joined a grief group and started therapy. He’d made some great strides in the last few months, and his therapist suggested a father-daughter hiking trip.
When he mentioned it to Alyssa, he saw a recognizable gleam and sparkle light up her eyes. At first, he felt a familiar prick in his center, but he’d learned to use these small echoes of Tracy to invite the memory of love into his life. Alyssa was becoming a beautiful reminder of his relationship with his wife, and it was keeping her alive for him.
“Next weekend. It’s a date.”
“Great, Daddy, I can’t wait.”
April wasn’t the best time for hiking, and the weather had been a little icy with some snow on the trails. Perhaps the trip needed to be postponed.
David checked the park report early while sipping his coffee, but everything seemed in order. As long as they stuck to the trail, he knew they’d be fine. If anything, it would be extra special, not many people would be out hiking, and they’d have time to connect privately.
When they stepped out on the trail, David could taste the frost in the morning air. He blew out a breath, and a small white cloud filtered out in front of him, then returned with his next exhale. Alyssa walked in front of him in silence. He watched her move effortlessly, hinting at memories of hiking together as a family just a few years earlier, but instead of feeling the anticipated sting, relief washed over him.
Every few steps, she would turn and look back with a half-smile, throwing curls over her shoulder. After they’d been walking without words for a couple of hours, David cleared his throat, and she stopped.
“How you doin’, dad?”
“I’m happy, Lyssa. I just love being here with you.”
“Me too, Daddy. I’ve missed you”, she hesitated; “it’s so good to have you back.”
David’s heart swelled with love.
“Hey Daddy, remember that game we used to play?”
Her face brightened when he yelled, “The floor is lava! Oh no, the floor is lava!”
She laughed out loud and, in an instant, was off the trail leaping in the air. By the time David looked left and saw iced moss on the rock in front of her, it was too late.
Time bent into slow motion. Alyssa’s feet slid off, twisting in the air, and she fell over the side of the trail out of sight. He dove towards the rock in a panic. Alyssa was lying twenty feet below with a stick shooting out of her thigh. She screamed and tried to move before realizing she was locked in place with the branch through her leg.
“Be still, Lyssa. Stay still. Don’t move. I’m coming down,” he cried with desperation.
He hurriedly slid down the rocks so he could examine the injury. There was no way without proper tools to break it off. He knew if he pulled out the slivered rod of wood, she’d bleed to death.
All accessible blood rushed to his head for a solution. He checked his cell phone. No bars. They hadn’t seen anyone on the trail at all. He knew there was a ranger station a 30-minute walk away.
His heart cracked with love, while fear shattered any hope of her survival. He knew she wouldn’t last long.
“Lyssa, I have to go get help.”
“Daddy, no, please don’t leave me here.”
“I can’t stay here. We don’t know the next time someone will come this way. I can’t pull it out and carry you. That’s too dangerous. There’s a ranger station nearby. I need to go get help.”
“Please don’t leave, Daddy,” it was a tiny, pleading voice.
His brain battled the decision, and his conscience ripped in two as he stood up; leaving her now meant he wouldn’t have to watch her die.
He looked into her hazel eyes, kissed her forehead, and said one more time, “It’s going to be okay, honey. I’ll be back before you know it.”
The weight of his lie was heavier than the mass they couldn’t remove from Tracy, and as he scrambled up the side to the trail, he could still hear Alyssa sobbing.
What could he do? Time stopped, and the past pulsed in his skull. In his sleepless nights over the last year, he’d memorized every moment of the day Tracy died, and now it weighed on his crown like sovereignty over chronic suffering.
His wife’s breathing labored in her final hours. Despite the pain medication, she was in agony. He held her hand, telling her, “Let me go get help. I’ll be right back.”
She feebly squeezed his tense fingers and whispered, “Please don’t go. Please stay here with me.”
“It’s going to be okay, my love. I’ll be back before you know it”, he knew he was betraying her when he said it. He also knew he couldn’t watch her die. He’d never come back from that.
He locked eyes with her, then looked away quickly, kissed her on the forehead, and walked out of the room.
David was knocked out of his daze by his daughter’s trembling voice, “Please don’t go. Please stay here with me, Daddy.”
He turned and rushed back down to her. Picking up her hand, he kissed the inside of her palm, his face wet with tears.
“I’m here, Lyssa. I love you. I’m here. I love you.”
Knowing he would never recover from what was coming, he gingerly lifted her precious body to his lap and cradled her face with his hands, gazing into her mother’s eyes until they closed.