Fictional short story
Sun rays peeked through the flaps of our green tent forcing my eyes to open. Birds chirping. Wings flapping. Motorboats gliding and splashing through the water. Little claws and paws scurrying on the trees. Lynette moaned and rolled over into my large chest. A year ago, we were here on our honeymoon. I softly patted and stroked my wife's beautiful auburn hair but she was not ready to wake up. So I laid still for a while, thinking and regretting the night before.
Three years had flown by so quickly, and my little girls weren't so little anymore. Especially Kat, she was fourteen now and not so eager to spend time with daddy anymore. All I wanted to do was make up for lost time, to show them a great time this summer. I needed them to know that despite the divorce and our time apart, there wasn't a day that I did not think about them. And last night, last night, I came down too hard on Kat. I said things that I shouldn't have said. She's just a kid, and my kid for Christ's sake.
"Miles," Lynette whispered without opening her wonderful brown eyes. "Start breakfast, talk to her, everything's going to be all right." Lynnette pushed away from me and buried herself in her sleeping bag.
I nodded and took the advice of my perfect match. Even though we had only known each other for fifteen months, been married just under a year, she knew me so well. So I carefully unzipped my sleeping bag and crawled out of the tent. After I was out, I retightened the knots so Lynette could be alone with her dreams.
After brushing the dirt and leaves from my plaid bottom pants, I put on my boots and khaki jacket. Day number two at Jack's Creek was looking pretty green, fresh, and sunny. In a little while, it would be warm enough for a family hike.
But, first, we had to smooth things over and eat. So, I started the campfire and set a pot to boil for coffee. Through the reflection, I saw the gray hairs on my beard peeking out. But, I would have to take care of that at home. Nothing I could do about it now anyway. So I pulled out all the stuff that Lynette bought for the girls. Sugary cereal, pop tarts, chocolate donuts, juice, and cans of soda. After it was neatly sorted on the table, my eyes wandered to the light blue tent under the sycamore.
When they were small, I would wake each of them with a kiss and a tickle. But, my tweens were too big for that now. Even still I wanted to see them, just to make sure that they were all right. So I tiptoed over to their tent, despite the leaves crunching under my feet, with the intention of untying the top two knots. However, as I got closer, I could see the flaps of their tent touching the ground. When I looked inside, I saw two empty sleeping bags.
"Kat," I turned and called out in the morning's air. "Kat, Meg, girls. Where are you?"
Meg's school books were stacked beside her sleeping bag. Kat's brushes, hair clips, and mirrors were spread out on the floor. No coats. No boots. Meg's glasses gone. Kat's cell phone nowhere in sight. Foot trails all around them, everywhere. Stay calm. They probably went to the restroom. Meg's time with Nature Kids was certainly worth the money I paid. After breakfast, I'd speak with them about not wandering off.
The water in the pot began to sizzle and steam. I fixed Lynette a fresh cup, and I think the smell woke her up.
"Sweetheart," I heard her voice call out behind me.
I turned to see Lynette coming towards me with a big smile. She pressed her hands on my round belly and kissed my lips. After taking the cup from my hands she asked, "Are the girls still sleeping?"
"No," I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.
"Where are they?"
"Probably the bathrooms or the shower. Where else could they go?"
After a gulp, Lynette spoke softly. "She's probably still upset about last night."
"Yeah, I know."
"You should go," she almost demanded. "Go and meet them on their way back."
"And say what?"
"Tell them that you're sorry and you love them." Lynette nudged my shoulder. "Go. I'll make pancakes and eggs."
I gave my wife a peck on her slender cheek and whispered, "Thank you."
Lynette punched my arm and told me to get moving.
It took me about twenty minutes, twenty minutes of trudging through the woods in my pajamas, boots, and khaki coat, to make it to the stalls. I was hoping that I would find them on their way back, but it didn't happen. All the while, I told myself not to get angry again. When I caught up to them I would be a patient and understanding father. The kind of understanding parent who could gently scold them for sneaking off, and then ends things with a hug. Not like their mother, who lets them do whatever they want, she was the real one to blame for their behavior.
When I made it up to the women's room door, I didn't hear the showers running. I knocked; no one answered. So I cracked open the thick wooden door and called out their names, "Katherine. Meghan." No reply. "Girls," a said again with a deep stern voice. "If you're in here, I need to know. I need to know where you are."
"I'm coming in," I warned and repeated. Since no voice called back, I slowly opened the door all the way. I stepped inside and saw three bathroom stalls open. After opening the last of the four empty shower stall, I finally heard a faint voice at my back. "Excuse me."
I turned to see a small freckled girl with silver glasses looking up at me. "No boys allowed."
"I'm sorry," Avoiding the urge to laugh, I put my hand to my chest. It was like I was playing dress up with my girls again. "I do apologize."
"Well, I have to tinkle." The little girl marched into an empty toilet stall and slammed the door.
"Get Outta Here!" I turned to see a woman in a purple robe pointing to the door.
When I passed her, she smelled funny like burnt fish or even dirt. I murmured an apology. "I'm just looking for my girls."
"There's a bunch of kids on the playground."
With my hand on the door, I replied back. "Thank you."
"And if you come in here, I'm calling the cops."
I marched towards the red slide without another word or looking back. On the concrete path, the sounds of children filled the air. The chalk marking on the pavement reminded me when my girls were small, Kat was about six and Meg five, when they covered my kitchen walls in purple and green crayon. I came home and was so angry. I took away their pudding cups for a solid week. They cried, but they never did it again. That's what they needed back then and right now, consequences and accountability. After I speak with them about not wandering off, there'd be some consequences like doing the dishes after dinner or washing the car. I was so out of practice.
When I made it to the slide and the swings, I looked around. Kids in the sandbox. Kids walking their dogs. Families playing ball. But, none of them were my girls. Stay calm. You're making yourself dizzy. You'll find them. Kat and Meg were a little too big to be playing in the park anyway. But, they would go to the car. Air conditioning. Radio. Cell phone chargers. Everything Kat needed to survive. She probably convinced Meg to take her there, thinking they'd be back before we got up. Yeah, that's where they went. For sure.
I walked back down the concrete path, past the bathroom stall, past the grills, past the closed cantina and wooden cabins. Yesterday we left the van in the back of the parking lot under a tree for shade. I must have walked past ten or twelve rows of cars to get there. My legs felt heavy. Deep breaths from all that walking. The girls must have been hungry and tired too. You know none of this has really been about them or their fault, it's the way they've been growing up. They grew up with a single mom and a dad who wasn't there for birthdays and holidays.
No wonder they trust each other and not me. I wasn't there to hold and protect them. They went to the car to feel safe, to be closer to home. What was I thinking? I took them against their will and away from everything they have ever known. This was all my fault. I was a bad father, and I still am.
When I got close enough to the care, I expected to see Kat's long blonde hair and Meg's brown eyes staring back at me. But, no one was there. No one was sitting in or around the car. Just me and a hundred others cars all alone, baking and waiting for our loved ones to return.
My stomach growled. Lynette's pancakes and egg were probably ready. Kat and Meg must have made their way back to camp without me noticing. Yes, that's where they were. Everything was fine. Everything was going to be fine. Besides, it's good that the three of them spend time together. Before they go home and back to school, we'll have to tell them about the baby. Lynette wanted to wait a while, but the right moment may come sooner. Imagine me making bottles, changing diapers, holding tiny hands while they take their first steps again, I never thought it would happen for a third time.
Kat took her first steps when she was eight months. Meg was eleven months. So the new baby would probably walk early too. One of the best days of my life was when Kat said her first word, "Dada." Her first birthday had unicorns and fairies. My goodness, I was popping those pink balloons two days after the party. When this new baby comes, the girls will have to visit more often. Yes, I'll pay for swimming and karate lessons, no maybe music lessons. Then, I'll be a good dad.
When I looked up, I was almost back at camp. Lynette was the table sipping on a bottle of water. Plates of food were covered in white paper napkins. Kat and Meg were nowhere in sight. My past quickened. There were pains in my side. Where were they? What happened? Something must have happened to them while we were sleeping.
Lynette rose up from the table. "Did you find them?"
"No," I shook my head and placed one hand on the table. "I've been everywhere, all over."
"Did you check by the car or on the playground?"
"Yes," I murmured while nodding my head.
"We went to bed about nine. We haven't seen them in twelve hours."
"We need help." Throbbing pains in my chest, my arms and fingers went numb. I had no choice but to sit down.
"It's okay," Lynette rubbed my back. "I'll go and get someone. You stay here, just in case they come back."
"No," I tried to stand up but the trees were spinning. "The baby. My babies, they need me."
"I'll go." Lynette put her hands on my shoulders. "You stay right here and wait."
I didn't want to try and turn around. She'd argue that we were a team anyway. So I simply nodded.
Lynette promised to be back in a flash. I heard her swiftly sprint through the leaves.
Birds chirping. Wings flapping. Frogs and ants. Sun, breeze, and me sitting at a brown picnic table alone. Alone and scared. If I could take back what happened then I would. I only wanted to give them what I never had, what they never had.
Kat, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for everything. I should have been there. I should have listened. You didn't want to go on this trip. You didn't want to learn to catch fish or pitch a tent. You didn't want to eat food that still had eyes and a face on it. I pushed you away. I kept you at arm's length for a long time. And now, you're gone.
Meg, I hope you've run away because if something else happened...if you're hurt or someone grabbed you...if you're lost and scared...then I'm lost too. Please come back to me. I know I messed things up, but please give your old dad just one more chance.
I love you both so much, too much. It hurts.
As I hung my head low, my eyes welled up with tears. My body hunched over, and I was about to fall into a deep sleep when a voice called out, "Dad".
Footsteps running towards me again. "Daddy."
Kat and Meg were running back to me. Kat stopped about five feet away.
Meg sat beside me on the bench. She placed one hand on my shaky arm. "Are you okay?"
I wrapped Meg up in the arms and kissed the top of her bushy brown hair. Her glasses fell off of her face. "Better now. So much better."
"Are you mad?" Kat asked with a tremble in her voice.
To hold back the tears, I shook my head no. Then, I opened up one of my arms and invited her to come in.
"We borrowed a phone from some guy in the parking lot. We called Carlos."
"Carlos got us an uber. We went for waffles."
"I'm so glad." I let go of Meg and slowly walked over to Kat. "I'm so glad that your Stepdad loves you that much. You can talk to him anytime you want."
"Yeah," she shrugged. "So, you're not mad?"
I couldn't help it. I cradled Kat in my arms and gently rocked her. "I have you back."
Reluctantly she wrapped her long slender arms around my waist.
I looked down at her and then over at Meg. "We can go home today. Would you girls like that?"