How Being a Terrible Father Saved My Life
What really happened at the park that day.
I bet they’d tell you I’m a terrible father. Perhaps it was inevitable given what my father did to me. The corrupt family genes of terrible parenting are passed on through generations. What a legacy.
The sun smacks me straight across my face as the humidity swarms me. It’s too hot to be outside but my girls love it. I’m trying to enjoy this time with them, but all I want is a slice of Hawaiian pizza in a nice air-conditioned restaurant.
My glands are sweating waterfalls in this heat. I can’t help thinking why on earth someone would put this bench here. The black pavement breathes hot steam up towards my body. There are several beautifully shady trees, with ample space for seating much more suited for a bench but no, some brilliant mind thought harnessing the sun was the way to go.
Mia is running up a hill with her stubby pre-schooler legs, completely oblivious to the temperature, and her older sister is chasing her like humidity is nothing more than a warm breeze. I’m invisible to them and as much as I love my girls, I’m enjoying this break. I slink back melting into the wood planks of the bench, like a beached whale hoping the steam engulfs me and they forget I exist. Is that the bad father genes talking?
Of course, I want to be there for my girls. It’s been difficult since their mother passed. I’m trying to fill the holes that her absence has left in their hearts but it’s like swimming backward, the weight of an entire lifetime that could have been, pressing every last reason to live from my lungs.
“Daddy! Watch this.”
Mia’s tiny hands reach down to touch the muck sweat grass in front of her as she kicks her feet barely six inches off the ground.
“I did a cartwheel daddy did you see?”
I smile at her adorable attempt. She barely even jumped, but what can you expect from a five-year-old?
“Yeah, that was great, honey,” I say back in encouragement.
Mia gleams and turns to her big sister.
“Did you see Sophie? I told you I could.”
Sophie rolls her eyes and folds her arms.
“That wasn’t a cartwheel. This is a cartwheel.” She says with her sassiest tone.
Her arms shoot into the air, head held high with a flare of unearned confidence. She twirls her body, kicks her half-bent legs up, and lands a mediocre cartwheel. At least you could tell she was attempting one, unlike her sister. I guess that’s what four more years of development will get you.
“Great job Sophie,” I say, trying again to be encouraging. That’s what good fathers do, right? They encourage their daughters to keep practicing and trust me, they need the practice.
“Daddy, it's your turn.” Says Mia, hesitantly as if she knows the answer will be no. It’s usually no.
“I can’t do a cartwheel, sweetie,” I say finitely. Can’t or won’t; it’s all the same in my mind and there is no way I am attempting a cartwheel in dress pants and a button-up. I’m already regretting not bringing a change of clothes to switch into when I drop off the girls at my mother’s house and head to work. Sweat stains on a big guy like me already seduce cruel and judging eyes. I don’t need to add a torn seam to the mix.
“You gotta try daddy, you’ll never know what you can do if you don’t try,” Sophie says with mocking timbre. She gleams with triumph as she declares check in our never-ending game of chess and it mixes my emotions. I’m proudly annoyed by my daughter’s clever tactic.
I glance at my watch. It’s close enough to the time we should be leaving. They won’t know the difference if we leave now and I’d rather get out of this hammering sun.
“Would you look at that? Ok girls, time to go. Daddy’s got to get back to work.” I call her manipulation and raise by one distraction. Checkmate, Sophie. At least until she uses that against me next time.
Her smug look washes into panicked defeat.
“Already? Daddy, we just got here.” Sophie says with a look of pure dramatic outrage.
“Nice try Sophie. We’ve been at the park for two hours.”
“Ten more minutes?" Little Mia chimes in.
“Yeah, please. We never get to play with you anymore. Just ten more minutes?”
Normally I would say no. I would get angry and tell them my work is important. I can’t play games at the park all day. I put food on the table and a roof over their heads. There would be tears as I dragged them to the car. As I said, I’m a terrible father.
There is time to spare and I know it as I glance again at my watch. Just a habit I guess or maybe I’m stalling. The hope is buzzing from their tiny bodies with anticipation that for the first time I might say yes.
I look down at their desperate little faces and something inside urges me to stay. It wouldn’t be the end of the world to spend some more time with my little girls. Heat aside, I adore them.
“Alright.” I chuckle. “You win. Ten minutes, but I want no complaining when we have to leave. Promise?”
The squeals of excitement are deafening. I laugh.
“We promise!” They say in unison, both jumping with animation.
“We’re going to play hide and seek. I’ll count to ten.” I say as the girls cheer. A simple game, no running, no sweating, and I can close my eyes and sit here for a minute longer.
Mia giggles as I begin to count. They turn and run in different directions.
“One, two, three, four, five, six…”
Bang! A loud sound erupts from behind me.
A cold sensation fills my ears as the sound around me fades. Was that a scream? My eyes search for my girls, my stomach lurching in fear. I can’t see them. Are they hiding? Did they hear the bang? I taste vibrations on my tongue as the tang of metal liquid fills my mouth. My eyes are too heavy to keep open. The world looks fuzzy and green. Murky grass laces between my fingers and musty dirt fills my nostrils. I feel as if I’m getting ready to crawl away, but how did I get down here on the ground?
I see them. Sophie is beside the swing set, screaming as a skinny dark-haired man grabs her arm and pulls her away. I try to reach her, but the world moves in slow motion. My eyes blink again and I see Mia crying out my name as a man with a grey beard and black jacket picks her up and starts running. I try to run after them but my body doesn't listen. Every nerve under my skin buzzes in despair. I can't lose my girls. I can't let this happen again.
There’s only silence where my screams of desperation should be. I feel my face slowly press against the warm wet grass below me as the world spins and the edges of my vision go black. I lose consciousness as the darkness consumes me.
It’s the vibrations I feel first. The humming of an engine and jittering metal wheels on a rusted track. My eyes flitter open. Harsh lights disorient me as they buzz and flicker with fluorescents. I peel my sweaty face from what I thought was warm grass but instead is a crusty green velvet headrest. There’s a glare reflecting off the window beside me, behind it is vast darkness empty of anything. If I didn’t recognize these green velvet seats, the metal pole shelving above them, and the old sliding doors as the inside of a train cabin, I would think this window was a blank television screen waiting to be turned on.
I imagine turning it on to watch another episode of Sophie’s favourite horse show. A feeling of dread swallows my heart whole.
My girls. The memory of the men taking them; their screams slapping me in the face with horror. My hand reaches into the seat beside me hoping to find them sleeping there, but I am alone.
The cabin shakes as I stand, my legs buckling like a newborn fawn. I grab onto the metal bar of the empty luggage shelf above me to steady myself. The weight of my body is too much as it snaps, the squealing sound of metal against metal echoing through the cabin. The bar swings back dangling against the wall, my body following its motion hitting the window beside it.
I’m so confused. How did I get on a train and why did those men take my daughters?
I swing my body away from the window using the velocity to wrench open the sliding door as if the force of it will spill the answers into my lap. What I find is underwhelming. The hallway is barely lit as if an emergency generator has been activated and it's exerting just enough power to guide me to the exits. A clear contrast from the brightness inside. To my right is a dead end. I must be at the end of the train car, or is this the front? With the black sky outside, it’s hard to tell in which direction we are traveling.
Ten golden squares are shining on the hallway floor ahead of me like glowing stepping stones. Each square light is cast by a window into another mirrored cabin just like mine. Something about this, makes me feel uneasy, but I continue. What if my girls are close by?
I hear the flutter of paper from the fourth cabin. A brawny, yet quite dapper man looks up at me from a newspaper as I slide open the creaky door. A boy about Mia’s age sits beside him. Their similarly squared jaws and the way the boy seems to regard this man tells me he’s his father. On the opposite seat sits a toddler coddled under her mother’s arm, both staring at me with the same piercing grey eyes.
“I’m looking for my daughters. Have you seen them?” I ask softly “My eldest is wearing a rainbow T-shirt?”
They’re all looking at me but no one responds.
“My youngest she’s about this tall…” I gesture to the top of my thigh where Mia’s head reaches, remembering her green eyes looking up at me as she grabs onto my leg.
The father seems to understand the gesture and shakes his head, turning back to his newspaper. The front cover shows a gruesome scene that seems vaguely familiar. I struggle to read the headline. It’s in Swahili; I recognize it as my grandmother’s native tongue though I never learned enough to be fluent. I can make out the date. June 19, 2022. That’s yesterday, seven people were killed in a hate crime. The image of police tape and blocked-off streets brings me back to the night I lost the love of my life. Her cold body thrown from the vehicle next to mine, unable to move, unable to reach her. The night when the light in my heart went out and I lost her.
The faces of my little girls will be on the front page of tomorrow's paper I fear if I don’t find them soon. The thought sends an urgent panic through my veins. Not again. I won’t lose them too. I’m not getting anywhere with these people so I move on and try my luck in the next occupied car.
It’s an older man with skin like caramelized leather. The grease on his face shines under the harsh lights. Even though he doesn’t seem old, his laugh lines are so deep I wonder how much dirt must be caked in between. An image of melted peanut butter squeezed between two pieces of bread sparks to mind. It makes me nauseous as the smell of cigars and oil swims into my lungs.
“Move along.” He barks before I reach for the door handle.
“But I’m looking for my daughters,” I say loud through the glass not wanting to open the door any more than he does.
“Have’n seen ‘em.” He flails his boney fingers at me to keep moving. Given his poor hygiene and arrogant demeanor, something in me doubts he would help me even if he could.
The next cabin feels different, softer somehow as a white light invites me in with the smell of buttered cookies.
“Even when it seems we have the time to plan these trips, it’s never enough.” An elderly woman with tender almond-shaped eyes looks up to meet mine. “We always forget something don’t we?” She says as I notice a floral canvas bag sitting open on her lap that she riffles through. I fight the urge to sit and visit with her, knowing I am running out of time.
“My daughters were taken,” I tell her.
“Taken? Oh dear,” she says with concern. “I wonder if that man with the beard…” A piercing whistle startles us both as she stops abruptly. Her demeanor changes as she quickly goes back to riffling through her bag, pulling out a blue metallic ticket.
“Ah, here it is. They’ll be coming soon. Do you have your ticket ready?” she asks holding up the metallic stub. My mind goes back to her last words. ‘The man with the beard.’ The image of the man with a grey beard picking up Mia comes back to me. Could it be the same person?
“Wait, you were about to say something about a man with a beard. Was it a grey beard? Did you see him on this train?”
She ignores my interrogation. A look of concern sweeps over her face as she looks towards my empty hands.
“Where’s your ticket dear?” She rests her hand on my arm. I reach into my pockets instinctively but I’m more concerned with her answering my questions.
“Did you see the bearded man with a little curly-haired girl?” I continue begging her to give me more information. I pull my hands out of my pockets, empty.
“Oh my, you better get back to your seat and find that ticket of yours before they come around.”
“But ma’am I need to find my girls. That man, was he wearing a black jacket?”
She stands and starts pushing me out the door.
“Go. Quickly now. Quickly.”
“Please, I need to know…” I say pleading with her but she slams the cabin door behind me and returns to her seat.
A woman and a man in blue metallic uniforms, matching the old woman’s ticket are heading towards me in the hallway. They stop at a cabin with a young curly black haired girl. She reminds me of Mia and for a moment I think it’s her, but she’s too tall to be my daughter.
Something tells me she’ll know where my girls are, but the uniformed officers are in the way. I won’t be able to help my girls if I’ve been kicked off this train. I reluctantly heed the old woman’s warning and head back to my cabin in search of my ticket. The sooner I find my ticket, the sooner I find my girls.
It doesn’t feel right calling this cabin mine since there is nothing of me here. No luggage on the metal barred shelves, no jackets thrown over the seats. Nothing.
I try to think of where I may have left my ticket. The yellow carpet disappears under the seats so I bend down onto my knees and press each cheek against the ground to check. All I discover is the smell of spoiled milk. I notice the edges of the carpet are white which means the yellow touching my face isn’t supposed to be yellow. Disgusted, I quickly get off the ground, wiping my face with my shirt. As I do, I notice a paper bracelet on my wrist. A hospital band.
‘Patient: Abara, James. D.O.B 02-26-82; D.O.S 06-19-22 Sex M. TBI’
Was I in the hospital? The green velvet seats trigger the musty smell memory of dirt in my nostrils after my girls were taken. Something happened to me.
The dark glass window reveals my subtle reflection. Short black hair in tight curls, dark circles under my eyes, and deep creases between my eyebrows. I don’t feel forty but I guess no one does. The face looking back at me has lines of exhaustion and stress highlighting an angry man who looks much older.
My hand caresses a protruding scar that hugs my left cheek. The only gift my father ever gave to me and it fills me with turmoil. I’m not like my father, I’d never hurt my girls. I think back to the park and how badly I didn’t want to be there. So badly, I hid from them hoping they forgot I existed. Maybe that’s my way of protecting them? If I stay away, I will never get close enough to hurt them. But, if I never see them again they truly will forget I exist.
I think of all the moments I’ve wasted. All the times I said no. The games I didn’t play. I hear the ghostly sounds of my daughters begging for my attention.
“Daddy, ten more minutes.”
“Please don’t go, daddy.”
I hid from my girls so much that I hurt them with my absence and now they're gone.
A panicked scream shatters my thoughts. It’s Mia. The sound was so close it must be coming from just outside the cabin. I jump towards the door but it's already opening on its own. Before I can stop myself I crash into the blue-uniformed woman on the other side.
“My daughter. Did you hear her scream?” I look around frantically.
“There was no scream, sir.” The woman says rather confused, trying to reassure me. A uniformed man next to her looks at me like I’ve just declared I’m an octopus with ten arms. I stand and offer my hand to the woman I knocked over.
“Ticket sir,” The man says. A demand, not a question.
“I, uh..” I have no idea where it could be and I’m out of time.
“Ticket, sir.” He repeats impatiently.
I turn back quickly scanning the room, checking behind the curtains as if my ticket might be taped to the wall.
“Clearly you need a moment. Issue him a red slip. We’ll be back in ten minutes to collect your ticket. This is your only warning.” He says abruptly.
The young woman types something into a small handheld device. It whirls and vomits a red metallic slip into my hand as the woman regards me sympathetically. Then they turn to walk away.
“Wait,” I whisper desperately reaching out to grab her shoulder. She pauses but doesn’t look at me.
“My daughters. You’ve been through this entire train. If anyone has seen anything it would be you.”
She turns towards me, her eyes glancing at my hand on her shoulder. I self-consciously pull it back, embarrassed that I touched her that way. She quickly grabs the hospital band on my wrist and reads it. Her eyes lock on mine as if she recognizes me.
“You’re him.” She says, her sympathy changing into something else. Urgency perhaps? She looks over her shoulder to make sure the man she was with is gone.
“You’re the man from the park. It wasn’t supposed to happen the way that it did, you know?”
“What do you mean? Were you there?”
“You were hit in the head. Perhaps it affected your memory.” She says. My hand touches the back of my head, remembering the cold sensation amid the heat. The wet grass on my hands. Was that my blood?
“What happened to my girls?”
“Don’t worry. You won’t find them here and trust me, my boss is not happy about that.”
She smiles as if I should be comforted by that fact but I’m not. I’m just confused. She points to the window behind me, and I look back, but all I see is my reflection.
“What am I looking at?” I ask as I turn to her but she’s already gone. What in the world is going on? Was that just a distraction to get away?
I’m getting frustrated with all these riddles and I’m running out of time. The uniformed man said I had ten minutes. I remember the girl in cabin seven. She’s my only lead right now and I know she knows something. Maybe she will have the information I need and then I can get off this terrorizing train, find my girls and make things right.
With a new sense of determination, I head into the hallway and towards cabin seven. Before I can reach my destination another cabin door squeals open and I’m pulled in, tripping on the ledge. I crash to the ground at the feet of a man with a grey beard. It’s him.
Before I can think, my body is already lunging toward him and grabbing him by the collar of his black jacket.
“Where are my daughters?!” I scream as he cowers, trying to cover his face.
“I told ya, I have’n seen ‘em.” I realize his beard is more white than grey, his wrinkles are deep and the smell of cigars and oil. It’s the old man from cabin five.
“I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.” I say as I release him. He straightens his shirt but does not seem concerned by my anger.
“I heard ya don’t have a ticket.” He whispers.
I shrug, not wanting to admit it.
“You need one. Those with blue go forward; those with red go, well…” He pauses. “you know.” I notice the red metallic ticket sticking outside his front pocket like the one the woman printed for me.
“Your ticket is red?”
“Yeah.” He scoffs. “But we ain’t talkin ‘bout me.”
“What does the red ticket mean?” I ask but the look on his face answers before he can and I know it’s not good. His face quickly changes with a sense of urgency.
“I heard there’s another way.”
“Another way for what?” I ask. He looks over his shoulder instinctively.
“We have to get off the train.” He whispers. “Follow me.”
Without another word, he turns to leave and I follow him unsure what to make of what he’s said. We don’t get far. Ten metallic red uniformed officers holding black metal batons are walking down the hall towards us. There isn’t much I understand about this train, but this I most certainly do. Their red uniforms match perfectly the red slips we both share. They are coming for us.
The old man freezes and I can tell he wasn’t expecting this. I grab him by the wrist and drag him down the hall and into my cabin, locking the flimsy door behind us. I can see the fear dripping down his face. For the first time, I genuinely see this man. His skin isn't covered in shiny grease and bad hygiene. They were tears he’s been hiding. I understand more than ever how much we are the same.
The thundering hooves of the ten men are coming for us and we both know this frail door won’t hold for long. We press our backs against it using all our weight to keep it closed and prolong the inevitable. I fear it’s the end and I will never see my girls again, but then I see it.
The metal bar I broke from the luggage shelf, swings rhythmically against the wall. I reach over and yank it loose as I remember the uniformed woman pointing at the window. She wasn’t distracting me, she was showing me the way out. I take the bar and start hitting the window as hard as I can, the glass cracking into tiny strands like the web of a spider with each hit until it shatters.
“Come on,” I yell to the man behind me but he shakes his head, and somehow I know we both won’t make it.
“Find your girls.” He says in a calm voice as he finally accepts his fate. I climb through the window, one leg on the other side and one still in the cabin as I glance back at the man I never thought would help me. He’s holding the door closed with every muscle in his body. Just as I’m about to jump and leave this all behind, a glint of colour catches my eye from a torn corner of the yellowed carpet under the seat.
It’s my blue metallic ticket. I jump back into the cabin and pull it from under the rug.
“What are you doing!” The old man yells with a strained grunt. He can’t hold the door much longer. I replace the red ticket in his shirt pocket with the blue one. His eyes widen as he realizes what this means.
I take a leap of faith and dive head first through the window as the red uniformed men break through and flood into the room.
“Quickly, get him before he gets away.” An officer yells but it’s too late. I’m falling back into the black void.
The impact against the ground sends a jolt of pain throughout my body. I watch as the red officers stand by the broken window in disbelief. They leave the old man alone in my cabin as he holds up his now blue ticket to them in triumph and I smile until the train is swallowed whole by nothingness.
I’m alone in absolute darkness with no plan and no idea what I’m going to do next, but then the ground beneath me starts to rumble. No. It can’t be.
I swing my head around just in time to be blinded by the light of another train coming straight towards me. I raise my arms to protect my face as if that would help and close my eyes tight, bracing for impact.
“Oh my, his eyes are opening.” A soft familiar voice engulfs me. Is that… my mother? A bright light pierces through my eyes as I try to open them. She leans over me with weary skin and hair much whiter than I remember.
“I’ll go get the girls!” She whispers. My girls? They are here? Where is here?
A jarring bitter smell cuts through my nose; antiseptic and synthetic fragrances fill my lungs. The blinding fluorescent lights remind me of the train, but something is different. An incessant beeping, the blue waffle-textured hospital blankets, and bleached white walls bring me comfort because this means I've escaped.
“Dad!” Is that Sophie? Her voice is familiar but it’s not the high-pitched tone of my nine-year-old. There is something more mature about it.
Two women walk into the room, but my girls aren’t with them.
“Where are my daughters?" I ask wondering why they haven’t brought them to see me. The two women look at each other with pain in their expressions and I worry that something terrible has happened. The adrenaline pulses through my veins as I sit up.
“We are your daughters, daddy.” A grown-up Mia responds. I take a minute, but I can see it now. The realization hits me like the impact of hitting the ground from jumping off that train.
“What happened?” I ask trying to mask the grief in my voice.
“There was a terrible accident at the park that day. You were shot in the back of the head. No one knows how you survived it, but you’ve been in a coma for ten years.” Sophie tells me, tears drawing lines down the makeup on her face. Does my sweet girl wear makeup now? The thought only adds to the pain. Nothing I say could ever make things right.
“I’m so sorry. I’m such a terrible father.” The regret consumes me as I feel the weight of another lifetime stolen from them. I was absent after their mother passed, now another ten years gone. Tears drip down my face as I remember the uniformed woman from the train. ‘It wasn't supposed to happen the way that it did.’ I think of how I should have been running around with my girls. If we had, maybe I would have been there for them all these years.
Mia stands on the left side of the hospital bed grabbing my hand in both of hers while Sophie stands on the right holding tight to my other.
“Dad? There’s more to what happened that day.” She continues. “It was a mass shooting in the park. Seven people died, but we ran away to play hide and seek. We were already hiding when it happened.”
I think of the seven passengers on the train. Were they in the park that day? But something still doesn't make sense.
“What about the man with the grey beard and the skinny man with dark hair?”
“You mean Paul and Marcus? What about them?” Mia asks.
“I saw them try to kidnap you,” I say but for some reason, they smile.
“We saw you on the ground. We wanted to run to you but Paul grabbed Mia and ran the other way to protect her. Marcus grabbed my arm and pulled me with him to hide until help came. They were protecting us.” Sophie smiles.
“Dad, if you hadn’t decided to play hide and seek with us, we would have been walking to the car or running around when the shooter came. We could have been the first ones he saw, but we weren't. You saved our lives.” Mia says tears streaming down her face. “You’re the greatest father in the world.”
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About the author
Hi I’m Melissa and I’m an avid reader. I write as a hobby and love to share my thoughts through stories. I think it’s the best way to better understand each other. I’m a photographer, videographer, singer and artist who adores the outdoors.
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