This story is by Rachel Culp and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Despite his requests otherwise, Jacob’s parents and sister had flown in to be with him today – the one-year anniversary of his daughter’s death. They wait in the other room, not knowing he holds his revolver, wondering if he can make it through another day. It had been a year since the rafting trip. His pain had not diminished in the least. His mind wouldn’t allow it. As he handles the cold medal, his memory brings a clear picture of Penny, his adventurous four-year-old daughter, giggling and prancing around the growing pile of equipment he is preparing for their trip. The trip that would cause him to lose everything he held dear. The beautiful sight of his happy, cheerful daughter starts the memory loop. It will replay for the millionth time. He knows the story. It is etched on his very soul. He also knows he can’t slow, stop or pause the thoughts as they come into his head and tear at his heart.
He relives his fatal decision that day. He decided… It was him. Chloe, his sweet wife, had asked him to wait. He didn’t listen. He bought Penny a new bright pink life jacket with white daisies. Why didn’t he listen to Chloe?
As regret has squeezed his heart, Penny’s laugh fills the room and brings with it a happiness he had forgotten. Joy is quickly replaced with remorse. She laughed just like that when she bounced out of the raft. He can see her happily waving her hands in the air as she laughs. Chloe caught Penny’s hand briefly, but the small delicate fingers slip free. Then Penny disappears from sight. If only he’d kept going, he could have found her. He felt his heart being torn apart inside his chest. It was his decision, his choice. It was his fault his sweet angel was missing and alone.
If he could stop the replay, he could try to move on. He can’t stop the memories. Jacob closes his eyes and tries to remember his daughter anytime prior to that day. But his memory won’t allow the progression to stop. He is forced to remember and relive the search. Despite the best efforts, they never found Penny. It was day two when the ranger brought the life preserver to him to identify. The brilliant pink vest with white daisies looked brand new in his hands. There were no rips or tears. The straps were secure. The only reasonable explanation had to be it just slipped off.
If the tragedy ended with Penny’s disappearance, he wouldn’t be holding the revolver right now. Yet memory won’t let him forget. He decided… It was him. Hoping for much needed closure, he planned a trip back to the scene. He and Chloe discussed the benefit of saying goodbye and moving on. They understood. If they found anything, it would be Penny’s body. They knew. They discussed it. After three months, there was no way Penny would still be alive. He and Chloe planned to walk along the river bank telling each other their most favorite Penny moments.
It happened while Chloe was sharing a funny memory. She spotted a patch of daisies. Lying in the daisies was an old ragged doll. Chloe ran to the doll and cradled it like a child. “It’s a miracle.” She repeated over and over. He desperately tried to convince Chloe it was only a doll. It was not their daughter. It wasn’t his precious Penny. But the joy of finding their daughter alive and well just wouldn’t let her hear him. Their day of closure had proved tragic. Why did his wife, his healthy, coping wife, have to break at that moment?
As his memory continued without mercy, it forces him to recall all the startled and confused looks people gave them at the park or in the store. The tears flow down his cheeks remembering the sight of Chloe kneeling over the doll promising to never let go. Watching Chloe fall asleep in their daughter’s room holding a raggedy doll’s hand promising to never let go ripped at his soul. He knew she had gone crazy. If anyone found out, they would take her away too.
Four months, four long months. His wife cared for the doll like it was their child. The doll caused them to drift apart, far apart. Chloe was planning Penny’s next birthday party, and the start of kindergarten. It fueled his anguish to listen about the life his daughter would never have. When the hope that a therapist could help had finally surpassed his fear of Chloe being committed, he scheduled the counseling appointment. Just a few days before the appointment, they took a walk through the park. Chloe was holding the doll’s hand as they strolled. In a flash, a stray dog grabbed the doll. Chloe held tight to the doll’s hand while she yelled and kicked at the dog. The already worn doll ripped in two. The dog ran away with the bottom half while Jacob tried to console his wife. She went into hysterics, pleading for someone to save her little girl. Her hands struggled to collect fluff as the wind scattered the pieces. Jacob grabbed his wife and carried her from the scene. She pounded his back, repeating the same words from that terrible day. “You can’t just leave her.”
Those words rang in his ears now. Chloe had blamed him for leaving the search too soon. He didn’t want to leave. He wanted to stay and search every nook and cranny for his precious little girl. He knew she had to be scared and alone. He woke each night hearing his daughter’s cry for help. But she just wasn’t to be found. After a week, the mere hope he could hold on to was that she drowned. The suspicion that someone had taken her gnawed at his core every day. The thought of his little girl in someone else home made chills run along his spine and sicken his stomach.
Although he implores his mind to forget, to skip the coming scenes, his memory replays the rest of the day. Once home from the park, he gave Penny a pill to sedate her. He remains by her side until her crying weakens and stops. Sleep was near. He leaves the room to weep. Didn’t he have the right? He had lost a child and a wife. The situation had forced him to keep it together day after day. If he didn’t take just a few moments, he would go crazy. If only he had waited. Chloe would have gone to sleep and woken rested in the morning. Instead, he left too early. He made another poor decision. In the morning, he discovered she had swallowed the entire bottle. If only he had stayed? If only he had checked on her? It had been his responsibility. It was all his fault. As he remembers his wife’s stiff hand, the memory stops. The cold in his hand brings him back to the present.
A few months ago, to his delight, he came home to find his beautiful Chloe sitting on the couch. She was watching their magical Penny build a block tower. He tried to tell himself they weren’t real. Yet each evening, they returned. Although they never included him in conversation or task, their presence brought a calming effect to the end of his day.
He turns the gun over in his palm. If he pulled the trigger, could he be with them again? For the first time since her return, Chloe meets his tearful gaze. She smiles and tells Penny. “Daddy will be here soon.”
“Daddy’s coming.” Little Penny’s eyes light up. “Is he really coming? I miss him.”
Jacob knows they are in his mind. He knows beyond a doubt. But they look so real. They act so real. A knock at his door makes him push the gun under the blankets. His sister leans in. “Almost ready?”
“Just another minute.” He says. His one dreadful year could end in one brief minute. All year he had made poor decisions. His bad choices led to the death of his family. Could he honestly say his last goodbyes and move on with a life without them? It was his entire fault from buying the new life vest to taking the return trip to letting his wife fantasize with a pretend child. He was to blame. He should have gotten her counseling sooner. He shouldn’t have left the pills out. Could he move on, knowing he was to blame? Or should he give up the grief and join his family playing just a few feet away?
“Jacob?” His sister calls from the hallway.
“Daddy?” His sweet Penny calls to him. Her laughter fills the room.
“Just a moment.”