This story is by James Hardesty and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Derek knelt before his daughter, Mia. After hearing his trembling words, the five-year-old had tears on her round, pink cheeks. They were tears of sudden loss and heartbreak, falling onto her favorite shirt, the yellow one he had given her for her birthday. They were tears for her daddy who stood and, without turning around, began his slow retreat down the walk. He was leaving, he had said. It wasn’t her fault, he had said. He loved her, he had said. He had always been there for her, but he left without looking back just the same.
He knew that she was looking at his back as he walked away. He had seen her eyes well up when he told her that he had to leave, but he also saw her strength magnified through her tears. He yearned to run, desperate and ashamed. His cheeks matched those of his little girl, his life. He did not rub the tears away. He dared not meet her gaze one more time.
His marriage to Victoria had crushed him; was crushing him. He felt small in it. Worse yet, Derek felt small within himself. He’d tried to express himself and his creativity through other ventures, and none of them had been successful. It was hard enough to believe in himself when Vic supported him. To hear her give up on him was too much to bear. He wasn’t even sure that she was wrong, which was what angered him the most.
Her pragmatism was a wet rag on his excitement. She’d laughed and called him a fool and a dreamer; venomous, yet her voice was calm. Derek had felt heat spread under his skin, felt his muscles tense in his disappointment. An eerie calmness had washed over him and with deliberate slowness, he stood and left in a fog of indignation, a familiar dull rage deep within ushering him blurry-eyed toward the door.
His daughter was enough. He knew that as clearly as he knew that he wasn’t. How could he raise a child to reach her fullest potential if his own potential was left untapped? But how could his be more important than hers; than Vic’s? Would Mia forgive him?
Such were his thoughts as he pulled open the heavy oak door of The Melting Pot.
How could he show Mia how to love and be loved if he was unable to put her mother first? Did his dreams really matter? Doubt and confusion mixed with his resolve as he slid onto a battered red Naugahyde stool, worn thin by countless dirty jeans, each grey crack in the fabric evidence of the depression of beaten men. He drank there with a sense of irony. This was not the place of laughter and friends. This was where dreams were dispatched; where regrets reigned supreme.
The deep musky stink of light beer soaked into the ancient carpet crept into his bones as he addressed the rocks glass in front of him. “Mia will be fine,” he thought, as he listened to the distinctive crack and ping of ice in bourbon. He tried not to think about how old the ice might be, how filthy the machine. As he tipped the cold, time-worn glass to his dry lips he thought of what it meant to leave a child, alone and crying on a rotting stoop, the wood as neglected as she must feel. He swallowed hard.
Mia had run to her mother after watching his car fade in the distance to a place she didn’t know or comprehend. She only understood that it was “away.” Mia found Victoria in the kitchen, red-faced and staring out the window. Her small arms wrapped around the heat of her mother’s legs. It felt like her mother was always mad at her daddy. She wished that her mother would hug her and love her as her daddy would. She wished that she could go “away.”
The bourbon burned Derek’s tongue as he swished it in his mouth, relishing the warmth as he swallowed. He set his glass back on the tattered cardboard coaster, closed his eyes, and sighed deeply, his rash exit haunting him.
Solitude was what The Melting Pot offered. Derek had never uttered a word except to place his order, and even that was accomplished by a lazily raised hand. He was left alone with his thoughts and he appreciated the bartender greatly for allowing him to be so. He was ignored with grace and dignity that belied his clumsy descent into drunkenness. No one cared what he did in here. No one even noticed him.
Victoria couldn’t believe it when he had said he wanted to focus on writing or that he thought he had enough to say to make a living at it. Was he good? Yes, she supposed that he was, but he was 35 years old and they had a mortgage to think about. A daughter. It was always something with Derek. A new interest, a new dream, a new squirrel to chase. Not one had ever panned out and his failure left him depressed and moody. She wasn’t going to go along with it again. Did he think he was the only one with dreams? He’d never asked once what her dream was. She loved her daughter, but having a child isn’t the same as having a life. Damn him for telling Mia that he was leaving. How was she supposed to deal with that? How would Mia? Was he serious or venting? She shouldn’t have laughed at him and already regretted it. It was his cavalier audacity that made her laugh, not the idea itself. It wasn’t even his worst. She stood taller, shoulders back, her hand stroking the soft hair of their daughter, and thought “enough is enough.” She wasn’t entirely sure to whom it was addressed.
Mia loved it when Victoria stroked her head, her fingers sliding through her hair lovingly, gently. Her mother was not naturally physically affectionate, but she loved in her own way. The times when touch was incorporated into her love felt like heaven. It was daddy who hugged her and read her stories. They sang together and played outside. They wrestled inside until Mother lost her patience with the racket. Daddy said that a person can accomplish anything they set their minds to it. He said that anyone can be happy if they try. She wondered why her parents didn’t seem to try very hard.
The bartender set the fourth round in front of him, studying his face as he did so. The man was no stranger to the barroom, but he’d never talked to anyone, never offered his name. He was the strangest regular that he had. There was something off with him today, that much was obvious. He’d been slinging drinks for long enough to know when someone was hurting. He took the ten-dollar bill offered and met the man’s nod with a nod of his own. Enough said, he supposed.
Derek’s phone was vibrating in his pocket. He dug it out and looked at the screen. It was Vic. He denied the call and picked up his glass. It rang again. He thought of throwing it away. He could get a new one with a new number, but he needed to be able to contact his daughter. He couldn’t cut ties altogether. And it might be Mia. Reluctantly, he slid his finger to the right and placed the phone to one ear, a finger plugging the other, and braced for whatever voice was on the other end.
Sitting on the sofa, Mia asleep at her side, Vic knew that she did not want Derek to leave. They had built so much here and they had loved each other so deeply. Didn’t they still? The foundation was there. Sure, it was cracked and crumbling, but was it unrepairable? Was it so bad that he was a dreamer? “He’s a good man, Victoria,” she thought. She reached for her phone.
At first, he wasn’t sure what she was saying, but then he recognized the words. Vic was reading Mia’s bedtime story that he read to her nightly. He knew it by heart. She read serenely, her voice soft and beautiful. He could feel his resolve dissolving; his cold anger warming. It was always this way if they could just talk to each other; hear each other’s voices. The story was sweet and empowering. There was a prince; a princess. Mia loved the story and he listened as the brutal weight of the day washed over him. The glass in his hand felt cumbersome.
Vic hadn’t said hello. She hadn’t said goodbye. She just finished the last line and let the words linger in the space between them. “And they lived happily ever after…” She listened breathlessly until he hung up without a word.
The red stool sat empty, the whisky abandoned on the dirty ice, the old oak door banging shut behind him.
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