This story is by Jacqueline Bahas and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jim lurched forward on the bench, gasping for air. He gripped the seat trying to get his bearings. Clear water shined at the edge of a dirt path. Across the river, Jim could see a wrought iron fence as high as the trees. It’s decadent gate curled towards the sky. Blossoms speckled the garden inside. The sight of it made him feel whole. After years of poking holes in his skin, it was nice to feel whole again.
Jim couldn’t place the river in his mind. Landing somewhere unknown was normal by now. He’d spent over a year drifting around the city.
“You look lost,” said a small, grey haired man.
He wore a plain white t-shirt and linen pants. Jim stared at his sandals. The man wiggled his toes.
“I used to think men shouldn’t wear sandals either,” his smile took up most of his face. “But they’re so comfortable!”
The man sat next to Jim.
“Need some help?” The man asked.
“I don’t think so,” said Jim. His gaze moved from his feet to his arms, red and raked. He felt relieved he wasn’t itching to get a fix. It had become difficult to find a vein.
“Tell you what,” said the man, “I’ll give you a ride. Where can I take you?”
“I’m fine here. No one needs me around,” Jim said.
“I don’t believe that. Someone’s got to be missing you.”
Jim grimaced and wiped his hands across his face. “Just go away.”
The man’s warmth faded. He stood to leave. “Do you really want to waste away in a pick-up truck?”
Jim felt cold and began to see glints of red light behind the man.
“Truck?” Jim asked.
“Life is worth so much more,” the man said. “And maybe it’s not your life, but what about her’s?” He asked.
Across the river, Jim saw a little girl, no more then eight, playing.
“Annie?” Jim called.
The girl looked towards his voice, but didn’t see him. She turned and ran towards a woman standing further down the bank.
Jim began to yell. “How do you know about my little girl? Who are you? Why did you bring me here?”
The man sat back down and tapped his hands on his legs. “I don’t know your little girl. But every man has a girl he loves. Old or young, there’s always a girl. I was just taking a chance. Do you know her?” The man waved towards the girl.
“Maybe it wasn’t Annie.” Jim frowned again. For the first time, he looked the man in the eyes. “Annie’s my daughter. I haven’t seen her in,” he paused, “too long. I don’t exactly know when last. She was smaller, maybe six. No,” he shook his head. “No, she would have been seven. It was Christmas and her mother let me back. It didn’t last.”
“Well let’s go talk to her,” said the man.
“That wasn’t Annie. And if it was, she doesn’t want to see me.”
“Why’s that? Every child wants to see their father,” the man smiled again. “What if I told you you could live in that park over there forever— you’d never be hungry or thirsty or want anything.”
Jim looked through fence.
“That’s not possible.” Jim asked.
“What if it was,” said the man. “Would you sit here and fade away, go through that gate, or—”
Jim looked at the girl, fading in the distance.
“—follow that little girl,” the man said.
“She doesn’t deserve a father like me,” Jim broke down. “She deserves the man I was before.”
“What happened?” The man asked.
“I was a good husband. I could have been a good father. I see that now.” Jim shook his head. “You’re raised to think you have to make all this money. You have to be a big man. But I’m not a boss. I’m not someone who likes confrontation. I don’t like being in charge. And it wore on me. I just wanted to do right by her.”
“No, her mom. I took the job and worked the long nights. But everything got so heavy, I needed something to relax. So when I blew out my knee and those pills, those stupid pills, they made it better. I was happier. I was more relaxed. I kept taking them, and then, then it was this—”
Jim thrust his arms forward, pointing to the scars of faded track marks.
The man sighed, “We are weakened by bruises, sores, and raw wounds, but a joyful heart is good medicine.”
“You can want something, but that won’t make it happen. I’m a junkie. I ruined it all. It’s gone. She’s gone. And she’s never coming back.”
“I don’t think that’s true. You’re already looking better.” The man said and stood to leave. “Are you sure you don’t want a ride somewhere?”
“Could you drop me at Whittier Commons on the east side of town?”
“The east side?”
Jim frowned again.
“You don’t need that stuff, Jim,” The man said.
Jim collapsed on the bench and began to cry. “It’s coming. I know it’s coming. And I can’t take the chills.” He felt cold again. “It hurts every time.”
“Is that pain worse then missing your daughter’s dance recital? Her graduation from high school?” The man touched Jim’s shoulder. “Her wedding day? You can do this. You can.”
“What’s it matter to you?”
“Every now and then we’re given the chance to help someone and actually make a different. Give a second chance. It’s not often I get to help, and I’d like to. You’re a good man who’s made bad decisions. Don’t let those be your legacy.”
Jim looked for the girl, his eyes red with tears. She was gone. Not a speck remained of her along the river. He closed his eyes and saw his daughter’s face. Her five-year-old self grinning and laughing as he chased her around their family room. He watched as she shuffled to bed and could feel his hand close the door and hastily gather his stash. He felt his wife yelling at him as he woke, the needle and lighter on the floor around him.
“I’m weak,” Jim whispered.
“I’ll ask you one more time,” the man reach out his hand, “where do you want to go?”
Jim looked up and reached out to the man. “Home.”
The sirens and lights swirled around Jim. His body shivered from the cold. A medic cut the band from his arm and began sitting him up. His fingers had turned blue.
“Where am I?” Jim asked.
“Whittier Commons. Sir, are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” he slurred. “I’m fine.”
“He’s up,” the medic called to his crew.
They wheeled a gurney over and began to slide Jim off the seat.
“Wait,” Jim said. He reached for a small stuffed bunny sitting on the dashboard and pulled it to his chest.
On the way to the hospital, Jim only thought about Annie. She’d lost her first tooth a few days before he left. It was tucked in the bunny’s pouch. He rubbed his thumb over the tiny bump.
When he arrived, the doctors induced vomiting and attached an IV. The bunny watched from a side table. Jim stared at the saline drip, a thousand other emergencies happening around him.
A nurse walked through the opening in Jim’s curtain.
“Hi Jim,” she said. “How are you feeling?”
“Better, thank you.”
“Good. It should only be another half an hour or so, and then I think we can discharge you. Is there anything I can get for you?”
Jim looked at the bunny and took a deep breath.
“Do you have anything for rehabs?” He asked.
The nurse smiled and pulled some pamphlets from the bottom of her clip board.
“Here are a few local programs.”
“Thank you,” Jim said.
The nurse turned to leave.
“Wait- could I use your phone?”
“Hello?” Jim’s ex-wife answered.
“I’m so sorry Mary. I want-” he started to crave a hit.
“What do you want Jim?”
Jim felt like ripping the IV from his arm and running to the Commons. He could scrape enough money together. He could stop the sweats and cramps. He could feel a little piece of euphoria now. But it wouldn’t last. He took a deep breath and pictured Annie’s toothless grin.
“I want to come home. I want to get clean. I want to see Annie,” he said.
In the background, he could hear a little voice chirping. “Is that Daddy? Mommy, I want to talk to Daddy!”
“Annie,” Mary pleaded.
“I want to talk to Daddy!” Annie said.
The line went silent. Jim gripped the bunny.
“Daddy?” she asked.
“Hi honey,” Jim’s eyes welled. “Daddy’s going to get better and see you real soon.”
Jim looked down at the pamphlets on his lap.
“In a month, Annie. I’ll be home in a month.”