Tired to the point of exhaustion and with an expression not only vacant, but distant, Tom finally found the key and inserted it into the lock. He slowly turned the key and shouldered open the door, pushing aside the morning mail. Once in the hallway, he closed the door with his foot and dropped the keys onto a small telephone stand at the foot of the staircase.
Shrugging out of his coat, he draped it over the banister and looked up. With one finger, he loosened his necktie as he made his way up the stairs. On the landing, he almost passed a door that stood slightly ajar but stopped instead, glanced at his wristwatch, and then slowly opened the door and entered the room.
He snapped on the light, closed the door behind him and looked around the room, his eyes finally settling on a small nightstand upon which lay a large white book. He walked over and picked it up, gently brushing the palm of his hand across the cover a few times, and then lay down on the bed to read.
Moments later, a slight movement caused him to roll over.
The transformation was instantaneous! His face immediately lit up at the sight of five-year old, Tara, her eyes bright, her cheeks fresh and rosy, and swirls of golden locks that tumbled down to frame her face. She was wearing her favourite “Tinkerbell’ nightgown and pink slippers. She beamed at her father.
“Hi, Daddy! I missed you!’ she squealed, clambering across the bed and wrapping her arms tightly around Tom’s neck. Tom hugged Tara’s tiny body and closed his eyes with delight.
“Hi sweetie!’ he said. “I missed you, too. Is Mommy home yet?”
Tara looked at the door and shook her head. Then she turned to Tom and smiled.
“Nuh-huh. Not yet,” she whispered. “But she’ll be home soon.”
Tom looked at his watch again and nodded. “Yes, she will.”
He paused for a moment to look at her and then added, “Well, Sweetie, would you like for me to read you a story before she gets here?”
Tara’s smile broadened and she clapped her hands with excitement.
“Oh! Yes please, Daddy! Goldilocks! I love that one.”
As they snuggled together on the bed, Tom began to read.
“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away . . .”
The front door opened and Jackie entered the hallway. She closed the door and leaned against it for a few moments to catch her breath. She pushed away and placed her keys on the telephone stand before removing her coat to hang on a wall hook. She looked up and slowly made her way towards the stairs.
She almost walked past, but paused at a door, tilting her head as if trying to hear a feint sound. She pressed her ear to the woodwork. She could just discern the voice coming from within.
“. . . but the third bed was just right and Goldilocks was soon fast asleep.”
She gave a soft knock, waited a moment, and then slowly opened the door. From the doorway, she gave a wan smile as she noticed the book lying open on the bed.
“Tom?” she said, sounding a little surprised. “I thought I heard your voice. What are you doing?”
Tom looked up at her and smiled.
“Hi, Honey. I was just telling Tara her favourite story.”
“Yes,” said Tom flatly.
His smile faded when Jackie’s eyes pooled with tears. He walked over and held her in his arms for a while, then lifted up her chin and searched her features, wiping away her tears with his thumb. Jackie closed her eyes at his touch.
“Come on, Honey,” he said. “She’s asleep now. Let her rest in peace.”
Sara looked up at him and nodded. They paused in the doorway for a last look into the empty room.
“Tom?” said Jackie, barely above a whisper.
“Do you think she hears us?”
They stepped into the hallway and began to pull the door closed. Light from the hallway cast a silver beam across the book lying on the bed. The gold title, gleaming in the stark contrast declared, “Our Daughter.”
The door closed and the darkness returned once more.
“I’m sure she does, Honey,” said Tom. “In her own way.”
* * *